There have been hundreds of launches from Cape Canaveral's rocket launch site, but none quite like this. This time, NASA will be taking a back seat as SpaceX, a California-based company owned by an eccentric billionaire, tries to become the first private company to fly a spacecraft to the International Space Station.
At 4:55 a.m. Saturday, the company's Falcon 9 rocket will propel its Dragon spacecraft on a resupply mission to the space station, which currently has six astronauts and cosmonauts onboard. NASA officials have worked closely with the company to prepare for the launch.
If successful, it wouldn't be the first time Elon Musk, a South African billionaire, has broken new ground. Musk cofounded internet payment pioneer PayPal and created one of the first commercially available electric cars, the Tesla Roadster. Since 2002, he's turned his effort toward the stars. In December 2010, SpaceX's Dragon became the first private spacecraft to orbit and safely return to earth.
The launch has been pushed back several times—it was originally scheduled for May 7, but officials from the company say it was pushed back as the company and NASA wanted to spend more time working on the craft's software. If weather delays the launch, they'll try again on May 22. The spacecraft is expected to approach the space station Tuesday, when NASA experts will decide if Dragon will be allowed to dock, a maneuver that "requires extreme precision."
Officials at the company are optimistic everything will go off as planned but note that "success is not guaranteed."
According to a mission briefing, "Demonstration launches are conducted to determine potential issues so that they might be addressed and—by their very nature—carry a carry a significant risk."
That's not news to the six humans aboard the space station—if Dragon's approach is too fast, the International Space Station could be destroyed.
If successful, the company could be well on its way to launching a manned mission to space. Earlier this month, the company announced plans to fly international space tourists aboard Dragon to so-called "Bigelow habitats"—small hotel room-like inflatable modules in space. SpaceX says Dragon can fly as many as seven humans at a time.
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org