New Commercial Rocket Reaches Launch Site for Assembly
Flight hardware for the inaugural launch of Falcon 9 rocket undergoing final integration in the hangar at SpaceX's Cape Canaveral launch site in Florida. Components include: Dragon spacecraft qualification unit (left), second stage with Merlin Vacuum engine (center), first stage with nine Merlin 1C engines (right).
Credit: SpaceX

The pieces are coming together for a new commercial rocket envisioned to send unmanned cargo ships to the International Space Station from a launch site in Florida.

Built by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., the new Falcon 9 rocket is a two-stage booster designed to launch the company's Dragon spacecraft to orbit. It is the lynchpin rocket behind SpaceX's plan to launch cargo ships to the space station under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA.

The rocket is being assembled in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and SpaceX plans to launch the Falcon 9 on its maiden flight later this year from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The final delivery of Falcon 9 parts included the rocket's second stage, which successfully completed a full-duration test firing at the company's proving grounds in Texas in January. The test was the last hurdle for the upcoming demonstration launch.

 "We expect to launch in one to three months after completing full vehicle integration," said Brian Mosdell, Director of Florida Launch Operations for SpaceX, in a Thursday update. "Our primary objective is a successful first launch and we are taking whatever time necessary to work through the data to our satisfaction before moving forward."

SpaceX is one of two companies contracted by NASA to provide commercial cargo shipments to the International Space Station.

Orbital Sciences, Corp., of Virginia, is building its own Cygnus vehicles and Taurus 2 rockets under a separate contract. Both companies had received seed money from NASA under its Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) program aimed at spurring development of privately developed spacecraft.

Under the NASA?s new space plan, which nixed the Constellation program building its next generation spaceships to send astronauts back to the moon, commercial spacecraft will receive more attention as the best option for future human spaceflight. The agency?s 2011 budget request includes setting aside $6 billion over the next five years to spur commercial spacecraft development.

Earlier this month, NASA also doled out a total $50 million in awards to support the commercial spaceflight efforts of five other American companies, not including SpaceX and Orbital Sciences.

Following full vehicle integration, SpaceX will conduct a static firing to demonstrate flight readiness and confirm operation of ground control systems in preparation for actual launch.

The Falcon 9 rocket stands 180 feet (55 meters) tall and is the launch vehicle developed by SpaceX. The first, the smaller Falcon 1, made its first successful launch in 2008 and delivered its first commercial payload ? a Malaysian communication satellite ? into orbit last year.