SpaceX's New Rocket At Launch Pad for Final Tests
SpaceX's debut Falcon 9 rocket stands atop its launch pad at Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in late Feb. 2010 for final tests ahead of its maiden test flight.
Credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX

A new rocket built by a California-based company to launch commercial spacecraft on cargo trips to the International Space Station for NASA is poised atop its Florida launch pad for some final tests.

The two-stage Falcon 9 rocket built by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) was hoisted into vertical launch position at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Saturday in preparation for its maiden test flight later this year. The company is one of two firms contracted by NASA to provide unmanned cargo shipments to the space station on commercially built spaceships.

The medium-lift Falcon 9 rocket is the second booster developed by the Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX, which was founded by PayPal co-founder and entrepreneur Elon Musk.

The company?s smaller Falcon 1 rocket completed its second successful launch into orbit last year. It was the fifth launch of a Falcon 1, which suffered three failures before hitting success on try number four. A Malaysian satellite rode the fifth Falcon 1 rocket to orbit in last summer?s flawless launch.

Liftoff of the first Falcon 9 rocket is expected to come sometime in the next few months, possibly by May, SpaceX officials have said. But the final launch date hinges on successful systems and engine checks.

Fueling rehearsals, called a wet dress, and a short, 3.5-second static test firing of the Falcon 9?s first stage engines are the next major milestones.

?SpaceX has not set specific dates for wet dress or  static fire as [the] schedule will be driven by the satisfactory completion of all test objectives and a thorough review of the data,? SpaceX officials said in a Sunday update.

This is not the first time SpaceX has hauled its 180-foot (55-meter) Falcon 9 rocket vertical atop its launch pad. The company assembled and moved its first Falcon 9 to pad in January 2009 as part of integration tests.

But this year SpaceX aims to launch its first Falcon 9 missions. The rocket is designed to haul SpaceX?s unmanned Dragon spacecraft, which the company plans to use to fly 12 cargo missions to the space station under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA.

Another company, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, is building its own Cygnus spacecraft and the Taurus 2 rocket to launch eight unmanned cargo flights to the space station under a separate $1.9-billion contract.

Both companies have expressed an interested in modifying their vehicles to carry astronauts. NASA is banking on commercial spacecraft arising to ferry astronauts to orbit since its Constellation program in charge of replacing the shuttle fleet with new rockets and vehicles was cancelled earlier this month.