SpaceX Set for Historic Launch of Private Spacecraft on Wednesday

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket can be seen at Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 6. A rocket engine nozzle concern has delayed the maiden test launch of a new private space capsule to later this week, NASA and the spacecraft's builder said.
(Image: © Robert Z. Pearlman/ collectSPACE.com)

Editor'sNote: SpaceXabortedthe first launch attempt for the Dragon spacecraft less than three minutesbefore liftoff. Another launch attempt is possible today around 10:38 EST (1538GMT). SpaceXMission Updates.

CAPECANAVERAL, Fla. ? The private spaceflight company SpaceX is poised to launchits rocket and new commercial space capsule on its inaugural test flighttomorrow (Dec. 8), following a 24-hour delay due to cracks on one of the rocketengine's nozzles, NASA officials confirmed.

Thecompany's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragonspace capsule are set to lift off from the Cape Canaveral Air ForceStation's Launch Complex 40 here in Florida tomorrow morning. The launch windowwill open at 9 a.m. EST (1400 GMT) and close at 12:22 p.m. EST (1722 GMT).

The testflight of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft was originally planned for Dec. 7, but thelaunchwas delayed after two cracks were found in the aft end of the second-stageengine nozzle extension of the Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceXengineers worked overnight to fix the nozzle, and the decision to launchWednesday was announced Tuesday evening. [INFOGRAPHIC:Inside Look at SpaceX's Dragon Capsule]

Historictest flight ahead

TheHawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX, short for Space Exploration Technologies, was foundedby millionaire Elon Musk, co-founder of the PayPal online payment systemand CEO of the Tesla electric car company.

Fortomorrow's demonstration flight, the Falcon 9 rocket will carry the Dragonspace capsule into low-Earth orbit. The capsule will then separate from therocket's second stage and between two and three orbits of the Earth,demonstrating its operational communications, navigation and maneuveringabilities.

Thespaceship will then re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and land in the PacificOcean to be recovered by a ship. The target splashdown area is about 500 miles(nearly 805 km) west of Mexico, SpaceX officials said. The full duration of thetest flight is expected to last approximately 3 1/2 hours, they added.

"WhenDragon returns, whether on this mission or a future one, it will herald thedawn of an incredibly exciting new era in space travel," Musk said in astatement. "This will be the first new American human-capable spacecraftto travel to orbit and back since the Space Shuttle took flight three decadesago."

SpaceX hasreportedly spent about $600 million to date on its Dragon and Falcon rocketprograms since Musk founded the company in 2002.

Thatinvestment has netted SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to use itsDragon spacecraft for cargo flights to the International Space Stationfollowing the retirement of the agency's space shuttle fleet next year. SpaceX plansto fly at least 12 unmanned Dragon missions through 2016 to deliver supplies tothe space station.

The Dragonspace capsules are named after Puff the Magic Dragon, since many criticsconsidered it to be impossible, SpaceX officials have said. SpaceX's Falcon 9and smaller Falcon 1 rockets are named after the Millennium Falcon, thefictional "Star Wars" spaceship of choice for the character Han Solo.

SpaceX'sFalcon 9 rockets stand about 180 feet (nearly 55 meters) tall and are 12 feet(3.6 meters) wide, according to SpaceX descriptions. The Dragon capsule and itsunpressurized trunk are just over 20 feet (6 meters) long and have an interiorcabin that is just over 10 feet (3 meters) wide at its widest point.  

Commercialspace taking flight

If successful,SpaceX will be the first commercial company to launch and re-enter a spacecraftfrom low-Earth orbit. The mission is also SpaceX's second launch of itstwo-stage Falcon rocket. The first Falcon 9 rocket launched on a successfultest flight in mid-June.

"Thisis an extremely exciting milestone for both NASA and SpaceX," said PhilMcAlister, acting director of commercial space flight development at NASAHeadquarters in Washington, D.C. "We've got an extremely challenging yearahead with the remaining milestones, but getting this far this fast has been aremarkable achievement."

The testflight will also be the first by any company under NASA's Commercial OrbitalTransportation Services (COTS) program, which is designed to stimulate thedevelopment of privatespace vehicles capable of carrying cargo and crew to the InternationalSpace Station.

"[NASAhas] been a fantastic customer for us," said Gwynne Shotwell, president ofSpaceX, in a prelaunch news briefing Monday. "The relationship has beenextraordinary, and both teams have learned a lot."

SpaceX's$1.6 billion space station cargo contract with NASA is separate from its COTSdeal, which offers $278 million for successful demonstration tests of hardwarecapable of space station deliveries.  

NASA hasalso awarded another cargo contract to the Virginia-based company OrbitalSciences to provide robotic delivery ships for the space station. That dealpromises Orbital Sciences $1.9 billion for eight cargo flights using its newunmanned Cygnus spacecraft and Taurus 2 rockets.

SpaceX alsohopes to win a contract to one day ferry astronauts to the station ? though theDragon capsule is not yet certified to carry human passengers into space.

You canfollow SPACE.com Staff Writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Visit SPACE.com for complete coverage ofSpaceX's debut Dragon spacecraft launch.

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