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New era in space flight? SpaceX to test launch rocket Friday

By Rich Phillips, CNN
  • Space Exploration Technologies scheduled to launch its Falcon 9 rocket Friday
  • With shuttle program about to end, NASA looking to private companies to fill gap
  • U.S. will rely on Russians to get to and from the international space station for now
  • Founder hopes SpaceX will be ready to begin flying cargo to space station next year

Cape Canaveral, Florida (CNN) -- Paid for by the money and dreams of a millionaire, a newly developed rocket stands ready to blast off from Cape Canaveral on its first test flight. It serves as a symbol of the future and could carry astronauts and cargo to the international space station.

This commercial venture by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, is scheduled to launch its Falcon 9 rocket on Friday. On top will be a mock-up of its space capsule, called Dragon.

Pay Pal co-founder Elon Musk is the CEO of the company. NASA hopes companies such as SpaceX can take over transportation to the international space station.

"It's time for NASA to hand that over to commercial industry who can then optimize the technology and make it more reliable, make it much lower cost and make it much more routine," said Musk in an interview with CNN last month.

Musk says he believes the U.S. is at the beginning of a profound, fundamental renaissance in space exploration, perhaps greater than when President Kennedy declared the U.S. was going to the moon during the infancy of the space program.

"If the country executes and the administration and Congress execute in that direction, the impact of these changes will be on par, perhaps even greater, than ... the task that Kennedy put us on to," he said.

This push toward the privatization of space is part of President Obama's blueprint to allow NASA to do bigger and better things with its budget, such as a mission to Mars.

NASA has been flying shuttles in low Earth orbit and going to and from the space station for 30 years now. The administration would like to see whether private companies can do it cheaper and more efficiently, as the shuttle program is about to fly into retirement.

NASA selected SpaceX and another company, Orbital Sciences, to each develop an orbital vehicle because the U.S. will not have its own way to get to the space station. The U.S. will be renting space from the Russians aboard their Soyuz spacecraft.

"They're standing on NASA's shoulders, so they're designing rockets based on the experience we've had for 50 years or more, going into space," said George Musser, editor of the Scientific American.

"And any enterprise that learns from past experience will hopefully do better," he said.

But the competition is rabid. SpaceX is the first company to reach the launchpad. So far, its spent almost $400 million to get there.

"They probably hate each other's guts, but the competition is really good for space and for all of us," said Musser.

"Ultimately, what do we want from this? We want to get into space cheaply, so our kids and grandkids someday can go into space and explore the planets," he said.

But SpaceX acknowledges there will be failures, as there have been since the the beginning of aviation.

Musk thinks they have a 70 to 80 percent chance on Friday for the 180-foot, two-stage vehicle to get off the ground successfully.

"There's a very good chance there will be some issues in the early launches," said Musk.

"This is an all-new rocket. There's a lot that can go wrong, and during the test phase -- that's why you have a test phase, because things may go wrong," he said.

On a conference call with reporters Thursday, Musk referred to a scene from the movie "The Deer Hunter," and while laughing said their chance of success was not quite as good as the game of Russian roulette.

Ken Bowersox is a vice president for SpaceX. In his previous life, he flew five space shuttle missions as a commander and pilot. He also lived on the space station for more than five months as its commander.

"Either way, we're going to learn something," he said. "If we have a problem, we can move forward accepting a higher level of risk. That's how we can be more cost-effective.

But NASA Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach says this is a very complicated business. "It's a lot harder to fly rockets then anybody thinks it is," he said.

Leinbach says that every aerospace company and organization has had problems with new rockets, including the shuttle program.

"You run into problems in developing and testing and flying these things you just don't anticipate. I expect that same thing will happen with the commercial providers," said Leinbach.

Friday's test flight will last about eight to 10 minutes and is scheduled to deploy the mock Dragon capsule into a 155-mile orbit. It would orbit for about a year and eventually burn up in the atmosphere.

If all goes as planned after a series of test flights, Musk says SpaceX will be ready to begin flying cargo to the space station next year. If NASA awards SpaceX a contract, Musk says they can begin ferrying astronauts to the space station within three years. He says his company is profitable, but his motivations go beyond dollars.

"We want to see a future where we are exploring the stars, where we're going to other planets, where we're doing the great things that we read about in science fiction and in the movies," Musk said.