Starting Friday morning at 11:00 AM Eastern Time, a plucky startup company founded by Elon Musk, the cofounder of Tesla Motors and PayPal, will begin the first attempt to launch what is possibly the most important new rocket since the Space Shuttle.
The company is SpaceX, and the rocket is the Falcon 9. It is designed by SpaceX to be the successor to the Space Shuttle, eventually carrying seven astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) for a fraction of the current cost, and with higher reliability than any previous rocket. However, before the Falcon 9 can accomplish these lofty goals it must first surmount a number of technical challenges and an even more treacherous obstacle – politics. And with an intense debate under way in the halls of Congress over the future of American human spaceflight, the success or failure of this first test flight could have repercussions far beyond the reach of the test program – it could sway the debate over NASA’s new plan to ferry astronauts and cargo to the ISS using fixed-cost commercial providers such as SpaceX instead of continuing development of the much maligned Ares I and Orion crew launch system. Not since the first Space Shuttle launch have the stakes been higher.