New Commercial Rocket Still Aims for May Launch Debut
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

A brand-new commercial Falcon 9 rocket designed to haul cargo to the International Space Station is still set to make its debut launch this month, despite delays in receiving final approval of its emergency destruct system in case it strays off course, the booster's makers said.

Falcon 9 rocket-builder Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., said it continues to aim for the first flight test of its Falcon 9 rocket from the company's dedicated launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Fla., by the end of May. The firm already has a contract with NASA to use the Falcon 9 rocket to launch its unmanned Dragon capsule on cargo runs to the space station.

Officials at Florida's Patrick Air Force Base, which controls the range at the Cape Canaveral Air Station, told SPACE.com that the current target date for the Falcon 9's first launch is now May 23. An earlier target of May 8 did not materialize.

SpaceX officials, however, have repeatedly said they have been aiming for a wide window between March through May, and haven't yet pinned down a specific launch date.

"The test flights of Falcon 9 are very different from the future operational flights in their predictability, plus this is the first time we are launching from the Cape and the launch site itself is new," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told SPACE.com.

Thus, the firm isn't setting its sights too high for this first attempt to lift off the 178-foot (54-meter) tall Falcon 9 rocket, which will carry a mockup of the gumdrop-shaped Dragon capsule.

"Falcon 9 will do a flight countdown attempt as soon as possible," Musk said in an e-mail. "Please note that I do not say 'launch,' as there is a good chance of seeing an anomaly (vehicle or ground side) on the first flight countdown that we have to investigate."

SpaceX says range availability and certification of its flight termination system are the two main factors driving the schedule at this point.

Before SpaceX can launch the Falcon 9, the company must complete testing of the Falcon 9's termination system, which is a safeguard designed to destroy the rocket in an emergency by splitting the vehicle's fuel and liquid oxygen tanks.

"If I knew exactly when that would end, I could tell you when we would attempt a flight countdown," Musk said.

The first Falcon 9 must also wait its turn between the planned May 14 launch of the space shuttle Atlantis from the nearby Kennedy Space Center, and a mid-May unmanned Delta 4 rocket flight from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

If all goes well with the first launch, SpaceX plans to begin carrying out its cargo-delivery contact with NASA on the Falcon 9's second launch. The company hopes to eventually certify Dragon to loft astronauts and paying customers to orbit as well.

In March, SpaceX test fired a cluster of nine engines that make up Falcon 9's first stage. The so-called "static-fire" test went smoothly on the second try, after a first attempt was aborted because of a technical glitch.

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SPACE.com Managing Editor Tariq Malik contributed to this report.