Obama's space plans ride on Falcon 9 rocket launch

President Obama wants commercial carriers to ship cargo and crew to the space station. The Falcon 9 rocket, set for a Friday launch, could show how far private industry has progressed.

Alex Brandon/AP
President Obama walks to the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle with Elon Musk, of SpaceX, April 15 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Alex Brandon/AP
President Barack Obama looks at the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle with Elon Musk, of SpaceX at Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

The Falcon 9, a new commercial rocket developed by Space Explorations Technology (SpaceX), is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Friday morning. Riding with the rocket will be the space lift plans of both its builder and the Obama administration.

That’s because the White House wants commercial providers such as SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and Orbital Science Corp. to ship cargo and even crew up to the International Space Station in years to come.

Friday’s launch of the Falcon 9 and its Dragon capsule could show how far private rocket makers have progressed toward such a capability.

IN PICTURES: 'In orbit'

“This is very much a test flight of Falcon 9,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in a conference call with reporters on Thursday. “It’s analogous to beta testing of a new technology.”

The launch date has already been postponed once due to schedule crunches at Cape Canaveral in Florida. As of now, things look good for Friday, said Mr. Musk, who in an earlier life made a fortune as cofounder of online payment giant PayPal.

On Thursday the US Air Force approved Falcon 9’s flight termination system, which is designed to blow up the rocket in case something goes wrong. That had been another last-minute hurdle SpaceX still needed to overcome.

The plan is for Falcon 9 to reach a circular low-earth orbit about 250 kilometers high. Getting there will require a three-minute burn of the rocket’s first stage, and another six minutes or so of a second-stage burn.

“It’ll be considered a good day if even the first stage functions correctly. It’ll be a great day if both stages function correctly,” said Musk.

Playing down expectations may be a good strategy – rocket development is a notoriously difficult process often marked by explosive failures. And the perceived success or failure of Friday’s launch could affect the debate in Congress about America’s future in space.

Shifting the burden of space launch to private contractors, as the Obama administration proposes, means NASA would get out of the business of developing rockets. It would result in the cancellation of NASA’s current Ares 1 rocket development effort, with a resultant loss of jobs across the country.

In recent weeks some former astronauts, including famed Apollo moonwalker Neil Armstrong, have criticized White House plans for NASA. Their basic point is that reaching orbit via rockets remains so technically difficult and expensive that only government-level efforts can work.

Mr. Armstrong appeared with Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on May 12. Mr. Cernan called the Obama budget for NASA “a blueprint for a mission to nowhere.”

Companies such as SpaceX “don’t even know what they don’t know,” said Cernan.

SpaceX CEO Musk, in reply, says his firm has become a political punching bag that ignores both its successes and the successes of its commercial competitors.

Big plans in space require big budgets, and in today’s fiscal environment NASA will not be getting that kind of money, Musk said.

Commercial development of space lift is not just one way forward, it’s the only way forward, he said.

In that sense, Musk said, Friday’s launch is irrelevant. “Friday’s launch should not be a verdict on the viability of commercial space.”

IN PICTURES: 'In orbit'


New privately-owned rocket, the Falcon 9, poised for first launch

Neil Armstrong blasts Obama's plan for NASA

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