A new private rocket developed by an Internet millionaire is poised to make its launch debut from Florida on Friday, the first test flight in a bid to eventually send cargo, and possibly astronauts, into space for NASA.
The new Falcon 9 rocket, developed by Paypal co-founder Elon Musk, has cleared its final hurdle – a review of its emergency destruct system – and is on track to blast off from a seaside pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Friday around 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT).
The rocket was built by Musk's private spaceflight company Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and will carry a mockup of a Dragon spacecraft designed for cargo trips to the International Space Station. This SPACE.com graphic shows how the Falcon 9 rocket compares with NASA's shuttles and other spacecraft.
"Yeah, we're all systems green right now," Musk told reporters today during a teleconference. "Weather is looking pretty good, although you never know where it will be tomorrow."
Some scattered rain showers and thunderstorms are expected, but SpaceX has a four-hour window in which to launch the new rocket. If the Falcon 9 does not lift off by 3 p.m. EDT (1900 GMT), SpaceX can try again on Saturday, he said.
And there's no guarantee of success. Musk said the chance of the first Falcon 9 rocket launch succeeding is somewhere between 70 and 80 percent. That's better than the 50-50 chances that accompany most rocket debuts, but still poses a challenge.
"This is very much a test flight of Falcon 9," Musk said. "It's analogous to some beta testing of new technology.
The Falcon 9 rocket is a two-stage liquid fuel booster that stands 178 feet (54 meters) tall and about 12 feet (3.6 meters) wide. It should take between eight and 10 minutes to reach a target orbit about 155 miles (250 km) above Earth, Musk said.
With NASA's space shuttle fleet retiring this year after just two more missions, the space agency has tapped SpaceX and another rocket builder to provide unmanned cargo shipments to the International Space Station.
SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the International Space Station over 12 Dragon flights through 2016. Musk has said the Dragon vehicle could be ready to launch astronauts into space within three years of getting approval from NASA to do so.
NASA has also contracted another company, the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, to provide eight cargo deliveries using the Taurus 2 rockets and their unmanned Cygnus spacecraft under a $1.9 billion agreement.
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama directed NASA to cancel its program building new rockets and spaceships to replace the aging shuttle fleet and directed the space agency to embrace commercial rockets and vehicles like those provided by SpaceX.
That plan has received much criticism – some aimed at SpaceX in particular – from lawmakers and veteran astronauts like Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. But others, such as Buzz Aldrin (Armstrong's Apollo 11 crewmate), are in favor of the plan. Obama visited SpaceX's Florida launch site and saw the Falcon 9 rocket during an April 15 trip to visit NASA's nearby Kennedy Space Center.
Musk said the debate around private spaceflight has added some pressure to SpaceX's Falcon 9 work, but it should not make Friday's test flight the fulcrum upon which the future of commercial spaceflight rests.
"I feel sort of like a political punching bag or whipping boy in that regard," Musk said. "Tomorrow's launch, or the next day's launch, should not be the verdict on the viability of commercial spaceflight."
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is the second booster to be developed by the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company. The first rocket, the smaller Falcon 1, made its first successful launch into orbit in 2008 after three failed attempts. The most recent Falcon 1 rocket launched in the summer of 2009 carrying a satellite for Malaysia – SpaceX's first paying customer.