After months of delays, SpaceX hopes to launch its Dragon capsule atop its Falcon 9 rocket on a test flight to the space station that might include delivery of supplies.
The mission calls for the Dragon, SpaceX and its president, Elon Musk, to go where no private company has gone before. It's also a critical test of the Obama administration's decision to rely on commercial spacecraft to supply the space station.
"It's a huge step. And it's a huge step toward trying to reduce the cost of spaceflight," said space-policy expert Howard McCurdy, professor of public affairs in the public-administration and policy department at American University in Washington.
Musk is a 40-year-old, South African-born entrepreneur who made his fortune from co-founding the Internet service PayPal. In 2002, he founded Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, and pushed it to the forefront of what he hopes will be a new era of commercial spaceflight.
Launch is set for 4:55 a.m. from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The next available time is 3:40 a.m. Tuesday.
There are two objectives.
First, Dragon is to fly to within 1.5 miles of the space station Monday to test its maneuverability. If that goes well, SpaceX on Tuesday may attempt the second objective -- getting close enough so that the station's robotic arm can grab Dragon and attach it to the station -- so astronauts can unload 1,014 pounds of supplies that the capsule is carrying. They then would load 1,376 pounds of trash into Dragon to return to Earth.
None of the supplies -- mostly food, clothing, laptop batteries and such -- is critical, NASA officials said, just in case the launch -- only the third for the Falcon 9 -- doesn't go well.
If everything works, Dragon would parachute into the Pacific Ocean on May 31.
"That would be a very good day," Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA's commercial orbital transportation services, said in a recent media briefing.
The previous launch of the nine-engine, liquid-fueled rocket Dec. 8 successfully lifted a Dragon capsule into two orbits around Earth before it splashed down safely in the Pacific -- the first time a private company had put an object into space and brought it back.
If this flight succeeds, SpaceX will become the first private company to ferry materials to and from the space station and will trigger a $1.6 billion contract with NASA for 12 cargo-delivery flights. Right now, that's being done by Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft, working under a $1.5 billion, five-year contract to deliver both cargo and crew to the station.
Ferrying astronauts aboard U.S. rockets may be three to five years away. Dragon is designed to do that. So are other spacecraft being developed by Boeing, Sierra Nevada and others -- many of which plan to use existing commercial rockets such as the Atlas V. Another company, Orbital Sciences, is focused on cargo and has planned the maiden flight of its Antares rocket for later this year.
McCurdy envisions a future like what's shown in an opening scene of the Arthur C. Clarke-Stanley Kubrick 1968 movie classic, "2001: A Space Odyssey," when a space shuttle approaches a space station and docks to deliver passengers. The shuttle has a Pan Am logo on its side.
That, McCurdy said, is the role that SpaceX and the other commercial rocket companies seek. It's also key to the Obama administration's plans for the future of America's manned space program.
"The idea was that NASA and assorted other agencies like the Russian space agency would move on for deeper space activities, and that lower Earth orbit would be the province of the commercial sector," he said. "There is no reason to think it can't happen."
SpaceX also announced last week it plans to send people -- tourists and scientists -- into space in Dragon capsules to visit a privately launched and operated space station planned by Bigelow Aerospace of Nevada. Bigelow already has put two prototypes in orbit.
Alan Stern, director of the Florida Space Institute and a former associate administrator at NASA, said that vision still might be a decade or more away. But he sees it as inevitable.
"We are really seeing a breakout of human spaceflight within the private sector," he said.
A successful program, he said, could be a boon not just to space business and NASA, but to science.
"I have nothing but admiration for what Musk is doing," he said. "He's really smart. And he's really dedicated. He may be a historic figure in the history of spaceflight."
It has been nearly a decade since U.S.-built Delta IV and Atlas V rockets have experienced any problems. But two Russian Soyuz rockets failed to reach orbit last year; North Korea, South Korea and Orbital Sciences also have had recent failures. Musk's first three attempts with his first rocket, the Falcon 1, all failed, in 2006, '07 and '08.
"I think we've got a pretty good shot," Musk said. "But I want to emphasize there is a lot that can go wrong."
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