Debut Launch of New Commercial Rocket Slips to May
The commercial spaceflight company SpaceX successfully test fires the nine-engine first stage of its first Falcon 9 rocket on March 13, 2010 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX

WASHINGTON ? The debut flight of the new Falcon 9 commercial rocket has slipped nearly a month to no earlier than May 8 to allow more time to test parts of an emergency system designed to destroy the booster if it strays off-course.

Rocket-builder Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., had previously reserved April 12 for the upcoming launch attempt. SpaceX officials have said repeatedly that they planned to launch the first Falcon 9 rocket, a booster designed to launch the company?s Dragon spacecraft, sometime between March and May.

"SpaceX is working closely with Ensign Bickford Aerospace & Defense Co., supplier of key components of the Flight Termination System (FTS) that will be used on Falcon 9, to complete testing of the FTS hardware and provide final data to SpaceX and Air Force Range safety officials for review and acceptance," SpaceX said in a Friday statement. "Certification of the Falcon 9 FTS and subsequent range availability will put the first Falcon 9 test launch towards the latter half of the anticipated March-May window, with the first attempt no earlier than May 8, 2010."

Ensign Bickford Aerospace & Defense is an explosives specialist based in Simsbury, Conn.

SpaceX's medium-lift Falcon 9 rocket is a two-stage booster. It stands 180 feet (55 meters) tall and is about 12 feet (3.6 meters) wide, with a first stage powered by nine of SpaceX's own Merlin rocket engines fueled by liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene [how the Falcon 9 rocket works].

Earlier this month, SpaceX performed a successful first-stage engine test of the Falcon 9 at the rocket?s launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida. The company was founded by PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk and has already launched satellites into orbit on its smaller, unmanned Falcon 1 rockets.

The Falcon 9's payload for the upcoming launch, which will take place from is a prototype of the Dragon capsule the company has designed to carry cargo and eventually crew to the International Space Station.

NASA plans to retire its three space shuttles later this year and rely on Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules, and other commercial spacecraft, to make unmanned cargo deliveries to the space station.

SpaceX currently has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to provide 12 Dragon flights to resupply the space station. The Virginia-based company Orbital Sciences also has a contract worth $1.9 billion to use its new Taurus 2 rocket and Cygnus spacecraft to fly eight cargo missions to the station.

The space agency also plans to support the development of new commercial spaceships capable of launching astronauts into orbit on trips to the space station after the shuttles are retired.

  • The Best Manned Spaceships of All Time
  • Images: Spotting Spaceships From Earth
  • Video - SpaceX's Vision for Manned Dragon Spaceship

SPACE.com Managing Editor Tariq Malik contributed to this report from Cape Canaveral, Fla.