Nascent space services company SpaceX will attempt the maiden launch its Falcon 9 two-stage liquid fuelled rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida during a four-hour launch window that starts 1100 EDT on Friday.

The proving flight is a precursor for two to three upcoming demonstrations that will attempt to prove that the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule can deliver and return cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), part of a $1.6 billion contract the Hawthorne, California company won to provide 12 ISS resupply missions in NASA's commercial orbital transportation system (COTS) program.

Competitor Orbital Sciences Corporation has also been funded to demonstrate ISS resupply under the COTS contact. Orbital is planning first launch of its Taurus II booster and Cygnus capsule from a new launch site in Virginia starting in mid-2011.

SpaceX is planning to inject the Dragon capsule into a 250km circular orbit at 36.5 degree inclination, transmitting data back to ground stations for several hours before batteries in the otherwise empty test version of the Dragon are exhausted.

 SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket test firing
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket motor test firing

Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO, says the capsule will de-orbit in approximately one year's time, burning up in the atmosphere. Musk says SpaceX will attempt to recover the vehicle's first stage from the Atlantic Ocean east of the launch site, marking a first for liquid-fuelled first stages. Musk insists that future programs must be fully reusable, including the Falcon and Dragon. "It can have a dramatic impact on the cost of space flight, dropping it by a factor of 100 perhaps," says Musk.

The company has achieved two successful launches to date of its smaller Falcon 1 rocket, in September 2008 and July 2009. Those followed the failure of the first three versions of the two-stage rocket.

Assuming a successful Falcon 9 maiden flight, SpaceX plans to launch its first COTS demonstration flight this summer, followed by a second demonstration early next year that would either travel to the vicinity of the ISS or dock with the orbiting structure before returning to Earth. Musk says the third demonstration flight will not be needed if the second is successful, assuming NASA approves the company's request for the docking plan. Musk says SpaceX can be ready to supply a manned version of the Dragon capsule for ISS crew change outs three years after given the go-ahead, an option NASA is mulling.

Musk puts his likely success of the first attempt of Falcon 9 at 70% - 80%.

Source: Flight International