CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - An Obama administration plan to cut the cost of space flights faces a key test on Saturday when a privately owned rocket lifts off for a practice run aimed at the first private docking at the International Space Station.
Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule are scheduled for launch at 4:55 a.m. EDT (0855 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Meteorologists expect good conditions for a launch, but if weather or technical problems force a delay, Falcon 9’s next opportunity to fly would be on Tuesday.
If all goes as planned, the company, also known as SpaceX, would become the first private company to reach the $100 billion outpost, which orbits about 240 miles above the Earth.
“It is, by all accounts, an important step, bordering on a giant leap, for commercial space,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut and space station commander who now heads the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a Washington-based industry association.
If Saturday’s launch is successful, the Dragon capsule would reach the space station on Tuesday, following a day of orbital maneuvers and equipment checks to make sure the craft can be controlled.
“This is a test flight. NASA views test flights primarily as learning opportunities,” said Phil McAlister, director of the agency’s commercial spaceflight program.
Since the space shuttles were retired last year, NASA has been dependent on partners Europe, Japan and especially Russia to fly to the station.
Instead of building a shuttle replacement, the U.S. space agency is spending about $3 billion a year on a new rocket and capsule to send astronauts to the moon, the asteroid belt and eventually to Mars.
To reach the station, NASA is investing in five U.S. firms - SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp for cargo transport; and SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp, and Blue Origin, a startup owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, for the delivery of passengers.
All the companies are contributing their own funds as well, a break from traditional U.S. government procurement practices. Rather than getting their costs reimbursed, NASA’s commercial partners are paid when they achieve predetermined milestones.
“This is American entrepreneurship at its best,” said NASA program manager Alan Lindenmoyer.
SpaceX, for example, successfully launched, orbited and returned a test Dragon capsule in December 2010. It has received $381 million from NASA so far for work on its space station cargo hauler.
For the upcoming second flight of Dragon, SpaceX will attempt to combine two test flights into one and berth the spacecraft at the space station.
If successful, SpaceX can collect another $15 million from NASA and start working off a separate $1.6 billion contract to haul cargo to and from the station.
“This is a big leap in terms of complexity from the last flight,” said Lawrence Williams, a former SpaceX vice president who now runs a business consulting firm. “If we’re able to have a successful launch and dock with the space station, it’s hard to overemphasize the significance of it.”
A successful flight would not only validate SpaceX’s technology, but also NASA’s lower cost, milestone-based alternative contracting arrangements, Lopez-Alegria said.
SpaceX was founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal and leader of Tesla Motors. He said last year the company was considering an initial public offering at some future date but for now it is privately owned.
The Obama administration is pushing Congress to embrace the partnering arrangements for commercial space taxis as well.
Congress last year halved Obama’s request for the so-called Commercial Crew program to $406 million. Proposed spending bills for the fiscal year beginning on October 1 cut the White House’s $830 million request to no more than $525 million.
The House of Representatives version also directs NASA to change its competitive strategy and work with one industry partner, a prospect that industry experts say will doom the program.
“Historically, any time that people try to save money by saying ‘Well, we can only afford to have one,’ you quickly find out that if you think you can’t afford to buy two providers, wait ‘til (you see) what happens when you have monopoly prices from one,” said Jeff Greason, founder and chief executive of privately held XCOR Aerospace.
“It’s way too early to put your money on one horse or another,” Lopez-Alegria said.
Editing by Jane Sutton and Todd Eastham