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.
SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to provide 12 Dragon flights for unmanned cargo deliveries to the space station. NASA has also signed the Virginia-based company Orbital Sciences to a $1.9 billion contract to use its new Taurus 2 rocket and Cygnus spacecraft to fly eight cargo missions to the station.
The Dragon capsule is also the centerpiece for SpaceX's manned spaceflight efforts. [Graphic: SpaceX's Falcon 9 and Dragon.]
Another issue affecting Falcon 9's launch date is the crowded range at Cape Canaveral. SpaceX will likely have to squeeze its launch between the landing of the space shuttle Atlantis, planned for May 26, and the May 21 launch of the unmanned Delta 4 rocket.
"We need at least a day and half to turn the range around," said Eric Brian, spokesman for the 45th Space Wing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. He said SpaceX has requested May 28 and May 29 as possible launch dates, though final approval by the Air Force is still pending.
When the test flight does take place, the launch team isn't sure what to expect, since this will be the first countdown of an untried rocket.
"There is a good chance of seeing an anomaly (vehicle or ground side) on the first flight countdown that we have to investigate," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told SPACE.com.
If all does go well, though, the second Falcon 9 launch could be the first SpaceX flight to carry real cargo and begin delivering supplies to the space station.
Whatever happens, anticipation is mounting within the relatively small, upstart company.
"Folks are getting very excited," Bowersox said. "It will be the culmination of years of work on our big rocket."
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