President Obama's new plan for NASA has it chartering commercial rockets for access to the International Space Station instead of building and flying its own, thus freeing money for work on advanced propulsion and other tech for interplanetary flight. For an idea of the savings potential, contrast the $250 million NASA gave SpaceX to help it develop the Falcon 9 with the $9 billion NASA has spent so far on Constellation, the program to replace the shuttle (which is nowhere near flight-ready).
But those savings only materialize if the new rocket works as advertised. And Obama's NASA plan has to be approved by Congress, where it faces stiff opposition from politicians who are skeptical of SpaceX's slim track record—and who don't want to see Constellation money and jobs leave their states. A failure by SpaceX now would give them just the ammunition they need to keep Obama's plan from lifting off.
"A launch failure is something that in the long run can be overcome from a technical standpoint," says Jeff Foust, a space analyst for the consulting firm Futron Corp. "It's a risk that can be mitigated from a programmatic standpoint. The question is, will that matter when the next set of hearings take place on Capitol Hill and people say, 'Look, the future of this [commercial initiative] is SpaceX and their rocket blew up on the pad.'"
SpaceX's Friday launch will not carry the Dragon capsule, which is meant to dock with the ISS—instead it will carry a dummy payload. This is a sign of the variables shared by many first flights, and should not be seen as a lack of confidence in SpaceX's hardware. Some gremlins don't show themselves in static fire tests on the ground. That's what flight test is for, and that's why the Falcon 9 won't carry the Dragon capsule. "If you look at the history of a new launch vehicle, very often the first launch of a new rocket is not completely successful because you really can't test everything as an integrated unit," Foust says. "It's not like testing an airplane where you can gradually expand the envelope."
Last week has pushed back the Falcon 9's first full flight demo, with a Dragon attached, by four months; it is now scheduled to occur in June 2011.
SpaceX is not the only hope for the new plan: The private space plan includes the use of Orbital Sciences' Taurus II. Not only does Orbital have a much longer track record than SpaceX; its launch vehicle utilizes a proven rocket, the Taurus I, but with a new first stage that uses liquid fuel. That rocket's first flight is expected in early 2011.
SpaceX's high-profile launch—and its association with the media-friendly Elon Musk and President Obama's public relations push to sell his new plan—brings intense public scrutiny to the work of the engineers who are caught inside the increasingly fierce debate over NASA's future. Indeed, this is no ordinary test flight.