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SpaceX set for rocket roulette

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket stands on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, ready for its scheduled maiden flight on Friday.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket stands on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, ready for its scheduled maiden flight on Friday.Chris Thompson / SpaceX

As SpaceX prepares for Friday’s maiden launch of its Falcon 9 rocket, the company’s founder says he feels as if he’s about to play Russian roulette in a scene from the movie “The Deer Hunter” … but with a slightly smaller chance of success. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told reporters today that he gauges the chances of a successful launch at 70 to 80 percent. That assessment is more optimistic than the 50-50 chances for the typical brand-new rocket, but worse than the 83 percent chance of surviving a Russian-roulette trigger pull. "So if anybody remembers that scene from 'The Deer Hunter,' that's tomorrow," he said. This launch isn’t a life-or-death matter, but it could be a game-changer for NASA’s future course. Even though the two-stage Falcon 9 is due to carry merely a dummy payload into orbit this time around, the test is seen a major step in the planned pathway toward commercial resupply of the International Space Station, and eventually toward putting NASA astronauts into orbit aboard private-sector spaceships. NASA wants such transport ships to take on most of the resupply duties that are currently handled by its space shuttle fleet - which is due for retirement in late 2010 or early 2011. Russian, European and Japanese space transports will also fill the gap. NASA's long-term vision is to focus on trips beyond Earth orbit, while leaving the job of space station resupply to the commercial providers. First chance for first flightFalcon 9's first opportunity for liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida comes on Friday between 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET. For weeks, SpaceX has been biding its time while the rocket's self-destruct system went through a series of checks and signoffs from the Air Force, which controls the range for the test flight. Ken Bowersox, a former NASA space station commander who is now SpaceX's vice president for astronaut safety and mission assurance, said the Air Force gave its go-ahead today. Musk said "the latest I've heard is that we're 100 percent good to go." The biggest factor standing in the way of launch is the weather forecast: There's currently a 40 percent chance that anvil clouds will force a postponement. Even if the weather looks good, SpaceX could stop the countdown at any time for technical reasons, and potentially restart it later during Friday's launch window, or on another day. That has happened during SpaceX's previous launches of the Falcon 1 rocket, a less powerful precursor to the Falcon 9. If the Falcon 9 launch is successful, the rocket would head due east and reach orbit in eight to 10 minutes, settllng into a 156-mile-high (250-kilometer-high) circular path, Musk said. The rocket and its structural test capsule would send back data about the spacecraft's performance throughout the flight. "Very quickly after launch, we'll know if it reached orbit or not," Musk said. Failure is an optionIt took four launches for the company to get the Falcon 1 to orbit, and Musk's reference to "The Deer Hunter" highlighted the fact that this Falcon 9 maiden outing could go awry as well. But he emphasized that the survival of SpaceX or commercial spaceflight would not depend on this launch’s outcome. Even if Friday's launch fails, the company plans to continue with a series of test launches. "We're going to learn something that's going to make the second flight more likely, and the third flight, and the fourth flight," Bowersox said. Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, using an estimated $100 million of the fortune he earned in the dot-com industry. Since then, other investors have entered the picture, and SpaceX says its financial picture is healthy despite recent reports about Musk's personal troubles (including a messy divorce). Musk said development of the Falcon 1 as well as the Falcon 9 has cost in the range of $350 million to $400 million. "That's pretty cost-effective relative to any other developments one could point to, certainly in big rocketry," he said. During today's teleconference, Musk acknowledged that he was feeling extra pressure for a successful launch. "Since I'm the chief designer of the rocket, every time I think about the rocket, I just sort of cycle through all the places where there are things that could go wrong," he said. Stage separation and the startup of the second stage were on the top of his list. Some in Congress and the space community have expressed grave doubts about the ability of SpaceX and other commercial launch providers to meet NASA's requirements for future spaceflight, but Musk said it would be wrong to judge the wisdom of a commercial approach to spaceflight based on a single launch or a single company. He pointed out that the potential players include the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin, which have been doing launches for NASA and the U.S. military for decades. "I hope people don't put too much emphasis on our success, because it's simply not correct to have the fate of commercial launch depend on what happens in the next few days," he said. "But it certainly does add to the pressure, and there's more weight on our shoulders because of that. I wish there weren't." Musk said that if spaceflight continued to rely on "super-expensive" government programs, "we will never do anything interesting in space." In the long run, he said, commercial space travel is not just “a path forward – it’s the only path forward.” Shortcut to the space stationTo accelerate progress on the path, Musk said SpaceX and NASA were working out a potential shortcut in the testing timeline for the Falcon 9. The next flight, currently set for this summer, is aimed at testing SpaceX's Dragon cargo capsule as well as the Falcon 9 in orbit. During the third test, scheduled to take place by the middle of next year, a Dragon capsule was supposed to approach the space station while holding off from docking. However, Musk said SpaceX now hoped to go all the way to the station during that test flight and perhaps deliver inexpensive cargo such as food or water. The fourth Falcon 9 flight, which originally was meant to be the first one to achieve docking, would instead be considered a second chance in case SpaceX is not successful with the third flight. And if the entire system works during the third test flight, the fourth flight would be taken out of test mode and be considered the first formal resupply mission under a $1.6 billion NASA contract. If Congress and the White House give the go-ahead, Musk said SpaceX could conceivably use the Falcon 9 to launch astronauts as well by the end of 2013. Bowersox said thinking about that possibility gave him “goosebumps” - not out of dread, but out of excitement. SpaceX plans to webcast Friday's countdown and launch, and company spokeswoman Emily Shanklin said she expected "a few folks" to turn out and watch liftoff from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 40 in person. But the crowd won't come anywhere near the 40,000 or more who watched the shuttle Atlantis' final scheduled launch last month. As time goes on, Bowersox said, a rocket launch might not draw a crowd at all. "I hope someday it's so routine that nobody comes to [watch a] launch," he said. 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