The Federal Aviation Administration said it has awarded Space Exploration Technologies Corp. the first-ever license for a commercially developed spacecraft to re-enter Earth's atmosphere from orbit. It’s a significant milestone for the privately financed space program.

The FAA license, which was issued Monday, was a requirement for the Hawthorne commercial rocket developer’s launch of its Dragon space capsule, which Space X hopes will become the first commercial cargo delivery vehicle for the International Space Station.

The SpaceX Dragon is scheduled to launch atop its Falcon 9 rocket on Dec. 7 and return to Earth. While initially unmanned, NASA hopes the Dragon will eventually be able to make commercial trips to the International Space Station with cargo and crew.

The development comes as NASA prepares to retire its quarter century-old fleet of manned space shuttles. The shuttle Discovery is scheduled to make its last lift-off on Nov. 30, although some NASA officials are lobbying for an additional flight next year since alternatives such as the SpaceX program are not yet ready for service.

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