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SpaceX cargo rocket set for high-profile maiden flight

SpaceX, one of the companies NASA is counting on to keep the space station supplied after the shuttle is retired, is preparing for a maiden flight Friday.

Downplaying expectations, the founder of SpaceX, one of the companies NASA is counting on to help resupply the International Space Station after the shuttle's retirement, said Thursday he believes the maiden flight of the new Falcon 9 rocket Friday has a 70 percent to 80 percent chance of succeeding.

"However, I should point out that is less than the probability of success in Russian roulette," Elon Musk, the co-founder of Paypal, told reporters. "Remember that scene from 'The Deer Hunter'? That's tomorrow. But not quite as likely."

The two-stage Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a dummy Dragon cargo module, is scheduled for its maiden launch from complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station during a four-hour launch window opening at 11 a.m. EDT. Forecasters are calling for a 60 percent chance of good weather, improving to 70 percent favorable on Saturday.

"There is a lot of anticipation by all the people here at SpaceX," said Ken Bowersox, a former shuttle commander who now works for Musk as vice president for astronaut safety and mission assurance. "It's a really big launch for the company. We're trying not to let that excitement and anticipation bias our judgment."

The Falcon 9 rocket during fit checks at launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station late last year. SpaceX

SpaceX, short for Space Exploration Technologies Corp., has not released any details about the countdown, ascent milestones, or performance objectives, other than to say the dummy Dragon simulator is bound for a 155.3-mile-high circular orbit tilted 34.5 degrees to the equator.

The launch will be carried live in a company webcast anchored from SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., but television coverage is not being provided. NASA is honoring a request by the company not to release any video from its own cameras and tracking systems at the nearby Kennedy Space Center.

"We will report events as they happen, but are not providing a score sheet that our numerous enemies can use against us to nitpick what will hopefully be a great flight," Musk told Spaceflight Now earlier. "This is the first flight of a new vehicle, so there will necessarily be differences between predictions and reality."

The heavily instrumented 12-foot-wide Falcon 9 rocket stands 154 feet tall and weighs about 735,000 pounds. It's nine first-stage Merlin engines, burning RP-1 kerosene rocket fuel with liquid oxygen, will generate more than 1 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, firing for about three minutes. The second stage is powered by a single Merlin engine that will fire about six minutes.

As with all rockets launched from the Air Force Eastern Range, the Falcon 9 is equipped with a self-destruct system in case things go wrong. Getting the flight termination system certified took longer than planned, but Musk said he expected final approval Thursday.

"This is very much a test flight of the Falcon 9," he told reporters Thursday. "It's analogous to sort of the beta testing of some new technology. The payload in this case is the structural test article of our Dragon spacecraft. It'll give us good aero data, environments data, vibration, shock, G loading, that kind of thing. But really, it's about testing the launch vehicle."

He said 100 percent success would mean reaching the planned orbit.

"But I think, given this is a test flight, whatever percentage of getting to orbit we achieve would still be considered a good day," Musk added. "I think even if we prove out just that the first stage functions correctly, that's a good day for a test. That's a great day if both stages work correctly."

SpaceX is building the Falcon 9 rocket and unmanned Dragon cargo modules to deliver supplies to the International Space Station and to bring equipment and experiment samples back to Earth. The initial test flight Friday is being funded by SpaceX, but the company plans three subsequent test flights under a Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, contract with NASA.

Musk said Thursday a second Falcon 9 rocket carrying an operational Dragon spacecraft will be launched later this summer on the first NASA-sponsored flight, known as COTS-1. A second flight, originally planned for later this year, will be delayed until the second quarter of 2011, Musk said.

But in a major change, SpaceX has proposed launching the COTS-2 spacecraft on an actual resupply mission to the space station. The company originally planned to make the first rendezvous on the third COTS mission but Musk said it made more sense to move ahead with an actual rendezvous and to use the third flight as an operational backup.

After the three demonstration flights, SpaceX hopes to begin space station resupply missions under a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Service contract covering 12 fights.

Orbital Sciences Corp. also is developing an unmanned cargo craft under NASA's COTS/CRS program that is expected to fly next year. But SpaceX has generated most of the commercial space publicity in the wake of the Obama administration's proposed shift to commercial rockets for station resupply and, eventually, crew transport to low-Earth orbit.

During the teleconference Thursday, Musk repeated his belief that SpaceX could deliver a manned version of the Dragon spacecraft within three years of receiving a contract from NASA.