Privately owned rocket ready for maiden voyage
The Falcon 9 rocket, built by Space Exploration Technologies, could make its first test as soon as May 28. It could be modified to carry people into orbit, company officials said.
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The Falcon 9 rocket, built by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., already has a contract with NASA to haul cargo to the International Space Station. Eventually, it could be modified to launch humans as well, company officials said.
"We've been thinking about crew from the very beginning," said Ken Bowersox, SpaceX vice president of astronaut safety and mission assurance.
But for now, the Falcon 9 rocket's upcoming unmanned flight test is the next step. The launch debut from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station had been tentatively slated for May 23, but will likely be pushed back a bit until safety managers can approve the rocket's emergency destruct system.
"I think we're getting really close," Bowersox told SPACE.com. Bowersox is a former NASA astronaut who flew four space shuttle missions and one long-duration flight to the International Space Station.
The main hurdle for SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch debut is the pending final approval of the rocket's flight termination system, an explosive charge designed to destroy the rocket if something goes wrong and it flies off course.
"That's typically one of the last things that gets worked out on a new vehicle," Bowersox said.
Aside from that, the 178-foot (54-meter) tall Falcon 9 rocket is all set to launch from the company's dedicated launch pad in Cape Canaveral. It is the second rocket to join SpaceX's booster fleet. The company's smaller Falcon 1 rocket is currently used to launch satellites into orbit from Kwajalein Atoll on the Pacific Ocean.
The first Falcon 9 rocket will carry a mock version of SpaceX's gumdrop-shaped Dragon capsule, which is designed to carry cargo, and potentially, humans. It is the Dragon capsule which SpaceX will use to supply unmanned cargo shipments to the space station for NASA and return items to Earth.