Privately owned Space Exploration Technologies launched a test run to the International Space Station early Tuesday, but visiting the orbital outpost is just the beginning of the company's grand plan to give humanity a toehold on Mars.
"Our goal is to revolutionize space transport, so we'll be doing every kind of space transport, except for suborbital. We'll launch satellites of all shapes and sizes, service the space station with cargo and crew, and then the long-term objective is to develop a space transport system that will enable humanity to become a multi-planet species," company founder and chief executive officer Elon Musk said in an interview with SpaceflightNow.com.
Musk, a co-founder of internet financial services PayPal and Zip2, figures the United States can fly people to Mars in about 15 years -- well ahead of the U.S. government's human space exploration plan.
The Obama administration wants NASA to launch a human mission to an asteroid around 2025, and follow up with a Mars flight about 10 years after that. The agency is spending about $3 billion a year to develop a heavy-lift rocket and multi-purpose deep-space capsule for human missions beyond the space station, which flies about 240 miles above Earth.
With the retirement of the space shuttles last year, NASA is dependent on partner countries to reach the space station, but it hopes to change that by buying rides for cargo, and eventually for its astronauts, on commercially owned and operated spaceships.
A key milestone is expected this week when SpaceX becomes the first private company to attempt to reach the station.
"I believe that this transition is very important for continuing the push outward into the solar system," NASA's Phil McAlister, who oversees the agency's commercial spaceflight programs, said at a pre-launch press conference.
"Once we get private enterprise and economic interests out to low-Earth orbit there will be no turning back. It no longer will be subject to prevailing political winds," he said.
Liftoff of the company's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida was called off at the last second Saturday due to a faulty engine valve. The rocket was repaired and made a successful launch early Tuesday. The Dragon capsule is scheduled to reach the space station on Friday.
Though the mission will be closely watched, it is a test flight, and an ambitious one at that. SpaceX petitioned NASA to combine two demonstration missions into one and NASA agreed, assuming the company's Dragon capsule can perform as planned once it reaches orbit.
A Dragon capsule first flew in December 2010, but that version pales in comparison to the spacecraft scheduled for launch on Tuesday.
The latest Dragon is outfitted with solar panels, sophisticated communication and navigation systems and a berthing port so it can be attached to the space station.
"We know this has been touted as a huge mission," said SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell. "We keep trying to say it's a test. Nonetheless, it's a big job. Success is not going to mean success of the commercial space industry, and failure is not going to mean failure of the commercial space industry. Certainly, it will be easier if we're able to berth with the space station."
"There should be no doubt about our resolve," echoed Musk, during a conference call with reporters. "We will get to the space station, whether it's on this mission or on a future one."
If successful, SpaceX will begin working off its 12-flight, $1.6 billion contract to fly cargo to the station for NASA later this year. It also is in the running to develop a commercial space taxi for NASA as well.