SpaceX poised to make history. If all goes well.

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Published on: May 13, 2012

If all goes well, early this coming Saturday morning, well before sunrise, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon spacecraft on top will launch from complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on what could be an historic cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station.

If all goes well with an extensive slate of flight test maneuvers conducted early during the mission, NASA will allow the unmanned Dragon capsule to approach very close to the space station and park less than 60 feet from the outpost.

If all goes well, crewmembers inside then will use the station’s robot arm to slowly reach out and grab hold of Dragon, carefully berth it to an Earth-facing port located on the Harmony node, check to make sure everything is airtight, and then open up the hatches to enjoy whatever surprises are waiting inside for the astronauts and cosmonauts.

If all goes well, those events will mark the first time in history that a privately-developed rocket and spacecraft will have pulled off such a feat, which only large government-run programs in the U.S., Russia, Europe and Japan have been able to do before.

If all goes well.

This has been part of the plan for our nation’s space program for some time now. Our elected leaders have directed that NASA shut down its space shuttle program, continue to utilize the space station as best it can, develop a new rocket and spacecraft to take humans toward the asteroids and Mars, and leave the business of launching cargo and people to and from low Earth orbit to, well, business.

If all goes well, the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft will represent the next milestone in the move to rely on a new segment of the commercial space industry for this kind of delivery service, and a lot of eyes are watching this mission very closely.

No one that I’ve seen is actively or openly campaigning for this mission to fail, but there are some folks out there, including members of Congress, who in the event of failure are ready to immediately pounce on the notion that commercial space can do as well or even better than what only the government has been able to do before.

Congress already has expressed its distrust and impatience with the new commercial space effort.

Just this past Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved NASA’s funding for 2013, and in doing so chopped some $330 million from NASA’s budget to assist industry in developing a commercial option for ferrying astronauts to and from the space station.

Instead of continuing the healthy competition between companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada and others that ultimately would drive down costs and speed development, the House bill calls for NASA to select a single company as quickly as possible.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden warned that such a move could double the cost of developing a privately built human spaceflight system and leave the nation in the same situation it is now in, which is having only one option for getting astronauts to the space station.

The Senate version of the NASA spending bill already has passed and did not include the same provisions as the House. And President Obama has threatened to veto the measure specifically because of the House action regarding the commercial crew program.

All of this sets the stage for the Falcon 9 launch next weekend, and with so much more riding on this mission than an unmanned cargo ship, it must be stressed over and over that this is a test flight. The Falcon 9 has only flown twice before. The Dragon capsule only once, and never in the configuration that it is now for this flight.

History warns us the chance of a launch or mission failure within the first few tries of any new system is extremely high. The general public, Congress, the White House and the news media must be ready to accept that failure is a real possibility. And if the worst does happen, the company must be given the chance to determine what went wrong, correct the trouble and try again.

This is not about lowering expectations. This is about raising awareness that spaceflight remains a most difficult and unforgiving enterprise, whether you’re NASA, United Launch Alliance, the Russian Space Agency, Arianespace, or even SpaceX.

So we will watch events unfold with patience and anticipation, and hope and pray that all will go well.

I believe it will. I have a great deal of confidence in the team that Elon Musk has assembled at SpaceX. The people I know who work there are people I have come to admire and respect. They have an attitude and drive to succeed that is on par with some of the best steely-eyed missile men from throughout our space program’s history that I have had the honor and privilege of getting to know.

With every interview and public appearance, I become more of a fan of Elon Musk. His vision for what exploring and utilizing space can mean for all of us on Earth rings true to me. And I like his style.

Our paths have only crossed a couple of times. Once, many years ago, we sat together on a bus riding through Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. At the time, there was talk, rumors really, that SpaceX might be interested in launching from Florida.

As we drove by the then-recently shut down Launch Complex 36, I pointed it out to him and said, “Someday you could be launching from right there.” He replied with a polite, noncommittal “I hope so.” But in his eyes you could see a spark of expectation for dreams of what might be.

This upcoming launch and mission – from complex 40, as it turns out – is the next step for SpaceX toward realizing the dreams of its founder and his entire team. It will move our nation’s space program in a direction that opens up low Earth orbit to a new kind of commercial development, and will allow NASA to better focus its attention on sending humans farther out into space than ever before.

If all goes well.

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