While a retired Space Shuttle is about to crawl across Los Angeles, a rocket made just a few miles away is about to be launched as the first private enterprise booster to resupply the International Space Station under a NASA contract.
"We're a launch company, and any time we have a launch, I am excited," said SpaceX president Gwen Shotwell at a news conference Saturday evening at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
SpaceX, owned by Paypal co-founder Elon Musk, has a rocket go for liftoff from Launch Complex 40 at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, FL at 5:34 p.m. California time Sunday. Its "Dragon" satellite will loft half a ton of scientific gear and other stuff to the science center in Earth orbit.
Because empty freezers for scientific research are being lifted to the ISS crew, NASA officials were looking into stocking the Dragon with ice cream for the astronauts in space, a NASA manager said today. The launch is to be telecast by NASA-TV.
In about three weeks, the Falcon will splash down off the Southern California coast with almost 2,000 pounds of used shuttle gear and finished experiments on board.
Weather conditions in Florida tonight indicated a 60 percent chance that the spacecraft can be launched Sunday. If there is a "no go" Sunday, back- up launch windows are on Monday evening or midday Tuesday, Florida time.
The rocket was designed and built by the Hawthorne-based firm, which has a $1.6 billion NASA contract to launch 12 cargo missions to the ISS.
"We are not an assembler, we designed and built the vast majority of our rocket and our orbiter at our plant in Hawthorne, California," Shotwell said today. "It would probably be easier for me to tell you what components were not built in Southern California."
A test launch worked flawlessly earlier this year, and NASA officials are watching SpaceX's Falcon 9 launcher and Dragon spacecraft closely. A competing firm, Orbital Sciences Corp. of Virginia. has a test launch in the works and is bidding for NASA contracts as well.
NASA and the Air Force are overseeing the takeoff, which is to start with the loading of the fuel -- kerosene and liquid oxygen -- at about 10 a.m. Pacific Sunday. Mission control for the rocket is at SpaceX headquarters on Rocket Road in Hawthorne.
Dragon is carrying 734 pounds of scientific materials that will be used by the ISS's 33rd crew of scientists, who were launched into space from the Russian launch center in Asia. Another 1,100 pounds of space station hardware will be carried by Dragon Sunday.
On Wednesday, Dragon will approach the ISS. NASA Cmdr. Sunita Williams and Aki Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency will use the Canadian- built grappler arm to move the California-built ship up to the ISS, the first time an American supply vessel other than a Space Shuttle has docked there.
Once unloaded, Dragon will be guided to a splashdown off the Southern California coast in late October.
SpaceX plans to build a rocket launch facility at some point, either on the eastern shoreline of Texas, Georgia or possibly Puerto Rico.
"We did design Dragon to be capable of human transportation," Shotwell said today. The firm is still designing spacesuits, and emergency escape devices, for private launches of space passengers -- government or tourist.
"We think well be ready to fly crew in about three years," she said.