WASHINGTON — The California-based company SpaceX is set to launch the first of a dozen missions to deliver critical supplies to the International Space Station for the U.S. space agency.
But, on the eve of the mission, the launch weather forecaster said there is a 40-percent chance that poor weather could delay the launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida Sunday night [Monday, October 8th at 0035 UTC].
The SpaceX unmanned Dragon capsule is set to launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket toward the International Space Station for the second time ever.
The company made history in May when its space capsule became the first private vehicle to dock with the ISS.
SpaceX proved worthy in demo
SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell told reporters at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida Saturday evening that the rocket and capsule in this first operational mission are largely the same as the ones used in the successful demonstration flight.
"I'm not sure any [members] of the engineering team, frankly, or myself feels like this [mission] is substantially different than the last one with the exception that we got there once," said Shotwell. "We demonstrated we could do it. So there might be a teeny, teeny bit of relaxation. Uhm, not a lot though."
NASA has awarded SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract to provide 12 supply flights to the ISS.
Space station partners Russia, Europe and Japan have the ability to deliver cargo to the ISS, but their cargo vessels burn up in the atmosphere during reentry. The United States has not been able to send supplies to the ISS since NASA retired its space shuttle fleet last year.
U.S. launch capability is not just a matter of national pride.
"When you have a launch vehicle that is in your country, it just makes it a lot easier because literally shipping and customs can kill you when you're trying to get overseas, and this really makes the process faster and allows us to react to anomalies in real time," explained NASA's space station program manager Mike Suffredini.
Scientific & re-supply mission
The Dragon will be filled with about 450 kilograms of supplies, including materials critical to scientific research.
The capsule will also carry a freezer for experiments - prompting talk that NASA might send ice cream as a sweet surprise to the astronauts.
At the end of the month, the capsule will return to Earth carrying space station hardware as well as scientific materials, including research samples.
Julie Robinson, a program scientist at NASA, called the first commercial cargo launch "a momentous milestone for research."
"The SpaceX Dragon is a really important vehicle for us because it supports the laboratory use of ISS both in bringing cargo up to the space station and in bringing research samples home, and it has a great return capability," said Robinson. "It essentially replaces that capacity that we lost when the shuttle retired."
NASA looking beyond Earth orbit
The U.S. space agency is focusing on developing a new generation of space vehicle that can travel to an asteroid or Mars, and it is investing in private companies to handle low-Earth orbit transportation, such as trips to the space station.
Howard McCurdy, a professor of public affairs at American University in Washington, says this strategy is a gamble.
"It's a big bet, because what the United States is betting is that the commercial sector can do what NASA seemed incapable of doing in the last days of the shuttle flights, and that is developing a low-cost, high-reliability launch vehicle that can take people and cargo from the surface of the Earth to low-Earth orbit and bring the people back occasionally," says McCurdy.
SpaceX says it expects to be ready to carry people into space within three years.
If this first resupply mission goes as planned, astronauts will use the space station's robotic arm to grab and dock the Dragon capsule three days after launch. Dragon will return to Earth at the end of October.