The private company Space X is set to launch its Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon space capsule to the International Space Station on Saturday, May 19, with a backup launch date of May 22. The launch is set for 04:55 a.m. Eastern time, which is 09:55 08:55 UTC -- there'll be a live webcast at Space X's site and no doubt NASA TV will carry it as well. They have what's called an "instantaneous launch window", which means if they don't launch right on time they can't just wait a few minutes and try again; they'll have to go to their backup date. The reason for this is the vagaries of orbital dynamics. The space station is circling the Earth, the planet is rotating underneath it, and the rocket itself has a certain amount of thrust to get Dragon into orbit so it can catch up to ISS. All this adds up to a single Go/No Go decision at the appointed time.
If all goes well, it'll launch on Saturday, and then the Dragon will take a day to match orbits with ISS. It will undergo a series of tests, including a pass only 2 or so kilometers from the station, to make sure all the controls are OK. If it checks out, it'll approach close enough for the astronauts on ISS to grab it with the robotic arm, and they'll pull it in for docking. The Dragon has some cargo for them (supplies and scientific experiments) which they'll offload, and then the capsule will remain docked for a week and a half, during which time it will be loaded with cargo to bring back to Earth. After that, it undocks, pulls away, does a de-orbit burn, and then comes back to Earth in the Pacific, where it will be retrieved. This launch will be the second demonstration flight for Space X, proving to NASA they can do this. NASA has money for private venture to do various task -- in the case of Space X, there's about $400M waiting for them if the flight's successful. And as I've said before, whether it's Space X or a different company, I love the idea that re-supply flights and such are done by commercial ventures. NASA should be in the business of innovating, and let private companies deal with the more routine stuff. As far as Space X's statements about all this go, I have to say, I rather liked this part of the press kit:
Pushing the Envelope, Success is Not Guaranteed Demonstration launches are conducted to determine potential issues so that they might be addressed and – by their very nature – carry a significant risk. All spaceflight is incredibly complicated, and this flight introduces a series of new challenges – it is only the third flight of the Falcon 9 rocket, the second of the Dragon capsule, and the first for a number of all-new components necessary to berth with the International Space Station. If any aspect of the mission is not successful, SpaceX will learn from the experience and try again.
I think this statement is pretty forthright -- imagine NASA saying that before a Shuttle launch! -- so I give them credit for that. I imagine it could also be interpreted as trying to make an excuse for a problem before the launch... which honestly, it is. But I think it's a good idea to get this out in the open now, before the launch. I hear a lot of grumbling about delays; this flight has been postponed many times. But remember, the Shuttle launches suffered constant delays, and this is the first time Space X is trying to do such a complicated mission. I figure, let them take their time. Better to do it right. Pushing schedules too hard blows up rockets.