A multimillionaire's newest rocket is poised to blast off Friday on its maiden voyage, a trial run of what the pioneering company hopes to do for NASA once the shuttles stop flying.
Space Exploration Technologies' Falcon 9 rocket will attempt to carry a mock-up of its Dragon capsule into orbit Friday.
NASA wants to use the combo to haul cargo to the International Space Station next year. Elon Musk, chief executive officer for SpaceX, said astronauts could follow within three years of his company getting a contract.
It's all part of President Barack Obama's grand exploration plan: relieving NASA of the mundane chore of ferrying goods and people to the space station, so it can focus on developing what's needed to get astronauts to asteroids and Mars in the coming decades.
Obama visited the SpaceX launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in April and saw the 180-foot rocket up close, before a speech at Kennedy Space Center. The 8-year-old company is one of several vying for NASA's business.
"I hope people don't put too much emphasis on our success," Musk said, "because it's simply not correct to have the fate of commercial launch depend on what happens in the next few days. But it certainly does add to the pressure."
An earlier version, Falcon 1, already has flown into orbit, in 2008 and again in 2009. It took four tries to get it right.
Musk — a co-founder of PayPal — estimates this maiden voyage stands a 70 percent to 80 percent of success. That's better than the historic 50-50 average for a first launch, but less likely than the odds of Russian roulette, he told reporters Thursday.
"Remember that scene from 'The Deer Hunter?' " Musk asked with a chuckle during a telephone news conference. "That's tomorrow, but not quite as likely at success."
The four-hour launch window opens at 11 a.m.
The entire flight should last eight to 10 minutes. The goal is to place the Dragon mock-up in a 155-mile-high orbit, where it will remain for a year before re-entering the atmosphere and burning up.
Musk estimates his Hawthorne, Calif.-based company has spent as much as $400 million on developing the two rocket lines. An improved version of the Falcon 9 is already under development.
NASA's Mike Moses, a shuttle launch manager, acknowledged last week following Atlantis' final voyage that the test flight is important. But there's much to be learned even if things go wrong, he said.
"A test fight, by definition, doesn't have to go to orbit to be successful," Moses said.
The pilot of Atlantis' last flight, Dominic "Tony" Antonelli, said he'd gladly climb aboard a Falcon 9 if and when the time comes.
"Yes, absolutely. But I'm not that picky. I think I'd probably climb on just about anything," he said last month, calling it "an impressive machine."
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