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New SpaceX rocket gets a workout

The first of a new breed of commercial rockets built by the firm Space Exploration Technologies is getting a workout at its Florida launch pad.
Image: SpaceX Falcon 9
SpaceX's first Falcon 9 rocket is backlit by a Florida sunset during its first vertical perch atop a Cape Canaveral Air Force Station launch pad.SpaceX
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The first of a new breed of commercial rockets built by the firm Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is getting a workout at its Florida launch pad.

The Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX raised its first Falcon 9 rocket into a vertical launch position on Saturday at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to begin tests that the firm hopes will set the stage for an inaugural liftoff later this year. The Falcon 9 was hauled back down on Monday as SpaceX pushes through launch preparation paces.

"The rocket was lowered today, but we will be going vertical again later in the week to demonstrate operational responsiveness and to collect additional data from vehicle instrumentation," SpaceX spokesperson Emily Shanklin told Monday.

The new Falcon 9 rocket is the launch vehicle of choice for SpaceX's planned Dragon spacecraft, which the firm is building to haul NASA cargo to and from the International Space Station. But SpaceX is also building the Falcon 9 to launch payloads spaceward for other customers.

Engineers finished assembling the rocket at the launch site on Dec. 30, then built its launch support structure to raise the booster last week, hitting each milestone a day or two early.

"This entire process has helped us validate key interfaces and operations prior to executing our launch campaign with the vehicle in its final flight configuration," said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in a statement. "We encountered no show-stoppers or significant delays. I am highly confident that we will achieve our goal of being able to go from hangar to liftoff in under 60 minutes, which would be a big leap forward in capability compared with the days to weeks required of other launch vehicles."

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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is a booster designed to launch the Dragon spacecraft and other medium-sized payloads from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The two-stage booster stands 180 feet (54.9 meters) tall and is 17 feet (5.2 meters) wide at its widest point. It took SpaceX workers about 30 minutes to haul the Falcon 9 booster into launch position on Saturday.

"Any engineered system has requirements that can only be recognized through actual assembly of real hardware," said Brian Mosdell, SpaceX's director of Florida launch operations. "This rapid integration and stand-up provided our engineers and technicians with invaluable insights that will greatly streamline our efforts towards the first Falcon 9 launch in 2009."

The first Falcon 9 rocket could make its launch debut by spring, SpaceX officials have said. The firm successfully test-fired the booster's first-stage rocket engines last year to check their performance for their full flight duration. SpaceX also celebrated the first successful launch of its smaller Falcon 1 rocket in September 2008 after three failed attempts.

SpaceX has five Falcon 9 launches slated for 2009. Those missions include a debut launch sponsored by a U.S. government customer which the firm is not naming, as well as two demonstration flights for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.

NASA awarded SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract last month to launch 12 cargo missions to the International Space Station through 2016. SpaceX is one of two firms that nabbed the cargo contract. Orbital Sciences Corp., of Dulles, Va., was the other firm and pledged to launch eight cargo flights for $1.9 billion.

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