We’re less than a week away from the scheduled launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, and today the company will fire the engines at the Kennedy Space Center with the rocket firmly anchored to the ground. The static test is somewhat unusual for a rocket seven days before launch, but the test is part of a full dress rehearsal for the SpaceX team. Last week marked the final full simulation between NASA and SpaceX for the part of the mission that will take place in orbit as the company prepares to become the first private spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station.
The launch of the Falcon 9 and Dragon has been delayed a few times since its initial planned flight in February. The last scheduled time was for today. But SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk told us last week there were some final adjustments needed to the software responsible for controlling the Dragon during its maneuvers near the ISS. “It’s been too sensitive to issues and has aborted when it shouldn’t have aborted,” he said from his desk at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. “Essentially Dragon got scared and ran away, when it shouldn’t have.”
According to the release, today’s launch rehearsal will include “all countdown processes as though it were launch day” and “The exercise will end with all nine engines firing at full power for two seconds.” SpaceX will broadcast today’s static test live beginning at 2:30 p.m. ET with the firing of the nine Merlin engines expected at 3:00 p.m. ET.
Following the test, SpaceX engineers will make sure that everything performed as expected and that the rocket is ready for next Monday’s launch. Three days after the launch, the Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to begin the demonstration maneuvers that will eventually lead to the docking with the ISS.
Only the United States, Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency have sent spacecraft to the ISS. If successful, the SpaceX mission next week will fulfill several requirements from NASA to become a regular cargo transportation vehicle for the ISS. But SpaceX and Musk continue to emphasize that success is only one of the possible outcomes. “This is a new rocket and spacecraft,” he told us in our interview last week, “the docking system is being tested for the first time.”
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft on its launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo: NASA
Musk emphasized the complexity and risk involved in spaceflight last week. But he had the upbeat optimism of an industry veteran when describing the approach to success, dismissing the possibility of failure as just another step. “If something does go wrong we’ll fix it and we’ll be back on it on a subsequent mission.”
SpaceX is one of two companies, along with Orbital Sciences, competing for contracts to deliver cargo to low Earth orbit for NASA under the Commercial Orbital Transportation System program. If it successfully delivers the cargo, SpaceX will have an edge on the competition for flying astronauts to orbit. The company’s Dragon spacecraft (pictured at top preparing for next week’s launch), has been developed to be capable of flying humans into space as well as cargo and is competing with three other companies for flying astronauts to low Earth orbit. Earlier this year SpaceX tested new rocket engines that will be used on the Dragon as part of its emergency abort system for launches, as well as for precision landings upon returning to Earth.
Of course Musk reminded us last week that all of this work is just one of the steps towards his eventual goal of multi-planetary life. His reason for developing all of this space technology is for making trips to Mars, something he thinks could cost just $500,000.
Wired will continue its ongoing coverage of the new commercial space race and broadcast next week’s launch live at our new Open Space blog.