California-based SpaceX has laid out a Friday timetable for the first test launch of its Falcon 9 rocket — and the first big test of President Barack Obama's plan for human spaceflight.
The company said Friday's launch window will run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Liftoff has been put on hold for weeks while Air Force officials checked out SpaceX's flight termination system, or FTS. The system is designed to let range officials destroy the rocket in the event it goes out of control.
"We are now looking good for final approval of the FTS by this Friday ... just in time for our first launch attempt," SpaceX said Tuesday in a statement.
NASA is giving SpaceX $278 million to develop and test the Falcon 9 and its Dragon capsule for use in transporting cargo to the International Space Station. If SpaceX is successful, it could benefit from $1.6 billion in supply contracts through 2016.
SpaceX was founded by Internet millionaire Elon Musk eight years ago to offer low-cost launch alternatives. Each Falcon 9 launch is projected to cost about $50 million, compared with an estimated $138 million or more for an Atlas 5 launch provided by United Launch Alliance.
Obama's commercial options
Obama's space plan calls for commercial providers such as SpaceX, as well as United Launch Alliance and Orbital Science Corp., to send crew as well as cargo to the space station once safety requirements are satisfied.
Such commercial options would take the place of NASA's Ares 1 rocket development effort, which would be canceled if Congress signs off on the president's plan. That cancellation is controversial in part because it would likely lead to thousands of layoffs among the space agency's traditional contractors.
Apollo moonwalkers Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan were sharply critical of NASA's current direction during House and Senate hearings last month. They doubted that commercial launch providers would be able to deliver on their promises, and they said the plan was likely to push America out of first place among spacefaring nations.
Apollo 17's Cernan, who was the last man to walk on the moon in 1972, complained that companies such as SpaceX "don't even know what they don't know."
In such an environment, the success or failure of the Falcon 9's maiden launch could have a crucial influence on the debate in Congress as well as the White House's future course. SpaceX is paying the bill for this development flight, conducted in advance of the tests required by NASA.
Possible delays ... or a 'bad day'
Friday is the earliest opportunity for launch, but Space X stressed that the flight could be delayed further. A second launch window already has been reserved for Saturday.
"As always, weather will play a significant role in our overall launch schedule," the company said in Tuesday's statement. "The weather experts at the Cape are giving us a 40 percent chance of 'no go' conditions for both days of our window, citing the potential for cumulus clouds and anvil clouds from thunderstorms."
The company said its primary goal during this flight would be to gather data for the flights to come. "It would be a great day if we reach orbital velocity, but still a good day if the first stage functions correctly, even if the second stage malfunctions," SpaceX said. "It would be a bad day if something happens on the launch pad itself and we're not able to gain any flight data."
But SpaceX said it would continue with Falcon 9 development even if this first rocket fails on the pad.
"If we have a bad day, it will be disappointing, but one launch does not make or break SpaceX as a company, nor commercial spaceflight as an industry," the statement read. "The Atlas rocket only succeeded on its 13th flight, and today it is the most reliable vehicle in the American fleet, with a record better than shuttle."
This report includes information from msnbc.com's Alan Boyle and NBC News' Jay Barbree.