In a refurbished Air Force hangar at Cape Canaveral, engineers from NASA and commercial space company SpaceX this week pored over data from a launch pad test of a gleaming white rocket poised to be the next step in U.S. space strategy.
The review is among the final hurdles before a much-delayed and highly anticipated launch — the first attempt to send a privately designed and built unmanned spacecraft to the International Space Station.
What SpaceX and NASA hope to do is part of a plan begun under President George W. Bush and enhanced by President Barack Obama to turn travel to and from the space station into a largely private and less costly venture, freeing up NASA to plan for deep-space journeys to asteroids, the moon and ultimately Mars.
“It's proving to be harder and more complicated and more expensive than (SpaceX founder) Elon Musk anticipated,” said Dale Ketcham of the Spaceport Research and Policy Institute at Central Florida University. “But it's still more efficient than NASA.”
The company and the space agency had been “targeting” Monday for the launch. But SpaceX officials said Wednesday that the launch would be delayed due to software issues on the company's Dragon spacecraft. The launch already is three months behind its initial schedule.
“We're working with NASA to complete the software verification process and we hope to announce a new launch date soon,” said SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Brost Grantham.
If all goes well, the flight will deliver 1,100 pounds of food, water and other cargo to the 16-nation outpost, a capability the United States gave up when it retired the space shuttle last year. Even more crucially, a successful docking would mark a milestone for commercial space companies.
NASA and SpaceX officials are emphasizing the excitement of the mission while tamping down expectations, noting just how difficult it will be to dock a new spacecraft to the space station. Many systems on the unmanned Dragon capsule, including its solar panels and the hardware and software needed to dock with the station, are being flown for the first time.
“This is a really tough flight,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA's top official for human spaceflight, said during a recent news briefing. “What we're asking them to do is amazing.”
‘A lot can go wrong'
The launch was originally designed as a fly-by of the station in which the Dragon would demonstrate it could approach, navigate with precision, “free-drift,” hold nearby and abort if necessary.
But last year SpaceX and Musk asked NASA for permission to try an actual docking. NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program manager, Alan Lindenmoyer, said that after a safety review, the agency decided to allow an attempted docking if the other maneuvers succeed.
The docking, if it occurs, will be on the third day of the flight, and the Dragon capsule will stay attached to the station for up to 18 days.
Although the craft will carry cargo, Musk said the effort remains “explicitly a test flight. Indeed, we may not succeed in getting all the way to the space station.” Later he said, “A lot can go wrong with a mission like this.”
SpaceX employees will control the capsule through docking, Musk said, although astronauts on the station also have an emergency abort switch. NASA Mission Control in Houston will also make a number of “go” or “no go” decisions as the spacecraft nears the station.
If the capsule is allowed to attempt a docking, astronauts on the station will grab it with a 57-foot robotic arm that will pull the capsule to the docking port.
The launch has been delayed several times. SpaceX engineers have struggled to ensure that electronics in the Dragon capsule do not interfere with the space station's systems. In late April, the company pushed the launch back another week to run more computer simulations of the docking.
If the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket cannot launch from Cape Canaveral by May 10, the company will have to wait at least until late the following week to try. A Russian Soyuz spacecraft is slated to launch from Kazakhstan on May 15 with three new station crew members, and it will need to be safely docked at the space station before the Falcon can attempt to approach.
A space race for private companies
Still, SpaceX is ahead of other private space companies. It has already successfully launched one Dragon capsule that orbited Earth and landed safely on target, in the Pacific Ocean, in December 2010. A NASA analysis published last year found that SpaceX developed its Falcon rocket for about a third of what NASA would have spent.
Orbital Sciences is the other U.S. company with a NASA contract to deliver cargo to the station. That company has scheduled the first launch of its Antares rocket and cargo carrier from Wallops Island, Va., late this summer.
Private contractors have built rockets for NASA in the past, of course, but the new companies have been given much freer rein to design and operate their vehicles under fixed-price contracts.
The SpaceX venture is especially significant because its capsule — unlike any other cargo carriers under production or available from other nations — was designed to return to Earth rather than break up in the atmosphere. That would allow scientists to have their experiments returned, another capability the United States gave up when it retired the shuttle.
A successful flight would also aid SpaceX in its race to become the first commercial company chosen by NASA to carry astronauts to and from the station. SpaceX is competing with space stalwart Boeing and two newer companies, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin, for NASA contracts to carry crew.
Space experts are watching the launch carefully for indications of how far commercial space has come, but they do not necessarily expect the capsule to dock.
“If Dragon fails at launch, that's a bad thing that will get people concerned,” said John Logsdon, professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
“But if it gets close but can't dock, I would say that's a setback but not a tragedy,” he added. “If they're able to get close or even dock, then it would do quite a bit for commercial space — a real validation for those in NASA who set this in motion.”
While that view is common among officials involved in the effort, it is not necessarily the view of the SpaceX employees trying to make it work.
SpaceX, which is based in Hawthorne, Calif., and employs 1,700 people, is eyeing a second unused Air Force hangar at Cape Canaveral so it can ready two rockets simultaneously. It also may rent one of NASA's two now-unused space shuttle launchpads and is discussing plans for a launch facility in Texas.
In recent years, both Russia and China have launched more rockets with satellites or capsules than the United States, and American space prowess has been questioned — especially in Congress. Musk said recently that one of his goals is to help make the United States the top nation for space launches again, although with a twist.
“It would be historically significant if Dragon were to become the first commercial spacecraft to conduct a docking,” he said in an e-mail. “By commercial, I mean a design that was conceived of and brought into being primarily by a private company, rather than a nation.”