The scene is set at Cape Canaveral: Atop the two-stage Falcon 9 rocket sits a dummy of the Dragon Spacecraft capsule that could one day taxi cargo and astronauts to and from the International Space Station. This will be the first launch of the the rocket, built by the privately-owned company SpaceX and funded in part by a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. The Falcon 9 should take off between 11 this morning and 3 in the afternoon (eastern daylight time), though the company has reserved a second launch window for tomorrow. Currently, a live feed of the launch pad shows the rocket primed to go, but announces a launch delay of unknown duration. SpaceX's ultimate goals for this test, as described on the company's website: "launch and separate from Falcon 9, orbit Earth, transmit telemetry, receive commands, demonstrate orbital maneuvering and thermal control, re-enter atmosphere, and recover Dragon spacecraft." This is a pretty big wish list, since many first launches have failed, including several of SpaceX's own early attempts with the Falcon 9's predecessor, the smaller Falcon 1 rocket. So SpaceX company founder Elon Musk hedged his bets when asked what he expected from the Falcon 9's debut launch.
Historically, the maiden flights of rockets have a notoriously high failure rate. Some two-thirds of the rockets introduced in the past 20 years have had an unsuccessful first outing. "A 100% success would be reaching orbit," Mr Musk told reporters on the eve of the launch, "but I think given this is a test flight, even if we prove out just that the first stage works correctly - that will have been a good day. And it will be a great day if both stages work correctly." [BBC]
The Dragon's voyage to orbit will last about 10 minutes. If successful, the capsule, capable of carrying 13,000 pounds, will later provide supplies to the ISS and also carry satellites into orbit. SpaceX has kept human spaceflight in mind as they designed the capsule, but fitting it for humans (the company says seven passengers could fit inside) would require an estimated three years and a contract with the International Space Station. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, the company has developed this system at a fraction of the cost that big name competitors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin needed to design the current generation of rockets, and the indefatigable company hasn't given in to early criticism from the likes of the U.S. Air Force.
"There are a lot of critics out there we wouldn't convince under any circumstances," Mr. Musk said in an interview earlier this year. "There is zero chance of [NASA] affording another Apollo program" and funding it with tax dollars, he said. "If we want to do great things on that scale again, it's going to be for a much smaller budget." One that relies on commercial entities providing and operating spacecraft at discounted prices. "The best thing that NASA can do is define the goal, but not define the path." [Wall Street Journal]
Others at SpaceX echo Musk's definition of success, noting that even if the ship fails to meet today's goals that is could provide information to make later launch attempts.
"If the vehicle lifts off the pad, no matter what the outcome is, we're going to learn something that's going to make the second flight more likely and the third flight and the fourth flight," added Ken Bowersox, a SpaceX vice president and former NASA astronaut.[Reuters]
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