Image: SpaceX's first Falcon 9 rocket
SPACE.com/Clara Moskowitz
SpaceX's first Falcon 9 rocket to launch an unmanned Dragon capsule to the International Space Station stands atop its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., one day before its May 19, 2012 launch.
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updated 5/18/2012 5:10:33 PM ET 2012-05-18T21:10:33

Nerves are frayed here on Florida's space coast as commercial company SpaceX prepares to launch its Dragon capsule on the first-ever flight of a private vehicle to the International Space Station.

The milestone mission is being viewed as a test not only of Dragon but of private spaceflight in general. It will be the first commercial spaceship test flight for NASA's new plan to outsource transportation of cargo — and eventually crew — to the space station to the private sector now that the agency's space shuttle fleet is retired.

SpaceX's Dragon space capsule is due to lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station here at 4:55 a.m. EDT (0855 GMT) on top of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. The first 75 hours of the flight are critical to get the vehicle in the correct orbit to catch up with the space station on Monday and dock on Tuesday.

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"I think we're going to be biting off our fingers between now and hour 75," SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell told SPACE.com during a press briefing today (May 18). "I don't think there's going to be a lot of sleep in the next 70 or 75 hours for the folks at SpaceX."

Weather forecasters predict a 70 percent chance of good conditions for launch on Saturday, with just a small risk of clouds preventing a liftoff. The booster is scheduled to begin fueling at 1:05 a.m. EDT (0505 GMT). [ Photos: SpaceX Poised for Historic Launch ]

Dragon fire into space
The gumdrop-shaped Dragon has flown only once before, a successful test flight in December 2010 that sent it to orbit and back. However, that flight lifted off after a first attempt was called off because of a minor technical glitch.

Shotwell herself admitted that the rocket has never successfully gotten to T-Zero (launch time) in a launch countdown on the first try.

"We have not hit a T-Zero yet," she said. "However, our team learns more everyday about this vehicle. I'm going to give myself a better than 50-50 shot of lifting off tomorrow, and if we lift off I believe we'll make orbit."

SpaceX Dragon spacecraft
Reuters
SpaceX Dragon spacecraft

Both SpaceX and NASA have been very upfront that failure is an option for this flight. SpaceX experienced several failures during the first launches of its smaller Falcon 1 rocket, and even NASA stumbled through rocket failures during the early days of the Space Race. SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets, however, have launched on two flights, each of them reaching orbit.

"This is a test flight," said Phil McAlister, NASA's director of Commercial Spaceflight Development. "NASA views test flights primarily as learning opportunities. They don't fit very neatly into characterizations of success or failure."

If SpaceX is unable to launch the Dragon capsule Saturday, the company will have to wait until Tuesday, May 22, to try again. That's when the next window to launch the Falcon 9 rocekt to the space station opens, SpaceX officials have said.

Space taxi business boom
NASA has awarded SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract to develop Dragon and fly 12 cargo-delivery missions to the space station. If tomorrow's flight goes smoothly, the first of these should launch in early fall.

Overall, NASA is planning eight Falcon 9 flights in 2013, including two supply runs to the space station and six missions for commercial and government partners, such as communications satellite launches.

SpaceX is one of two private spaceflight companies NASA has hired to ferry cargo to the station — the other is Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. This outsourcing plan is intended to allow NASA to focus on pursing travel beyond low-Earth orbit, including manned missions to asteroids, the moon and Mars.

"The upcoming SpaceX launch is a thoroughly exciting moment in the history of space flight, but is just the beginning of a new way of doing business for NASA," John Holdren, White House science and technology advisor, said in a statement. "This new way of partnering with U.S. industry is a cornerstone of President Obama's plan for space exploration, and supporting it adequately is essential to maintaining America's leadership in space."

You can follow SPACE.com assistant managing editor Clara Moskowitz onTwitter@ClaraMoskowitz.Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Video: Restocking the International Space Station

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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