SpaceX CEO Elon Musk: Inaugural Commercial Re-Supply Contract Flight a Challenge

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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk sounded a note of caution Friday as the launching of the Hawthorne, Calif.,-based company's first Falcon 9/Dragon mission to the International Space Station under its $1.6 billion NASA Commercial Resupply Services contract approached.

The lift off of the re-supply capsule from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., is set for Sunday at 8:35 p.m., EDT.

Artist's illustration of SpaceX Dragon. Image Credit: SpaceX

The passage of a fall cool front through Central Florida will bring stormy weather over the weekend, with clearing likely before the scheduled lift off. There is a 60 percent chance of favorable weather conditions, according to U.S. Air Force meteorologists.

But it wasn't weather that prompted Musk's cautionary note during a Google+ Hangout with NASA chief Charles Bolden on Friday.

"Although I'm hopeful it goes really smoothly, I would like to remind people this is only the second time we are trying to go to the space station," Musk noted. "So, there is certainly a possibility the mission could abort, or something could go wrong. Although we have done everything we can to try to minimize that, it should still be viewed as an early mission."

The company's successful NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems Demonstration 2/3 mission in May set the stage for the first of the 12 CRS missions SpaceX is under contract to fly to the space station through 2015.

The second is set for December, and Musk told the Google audience, SpaceX would like to launch four to six missions in 2013 and at least eight to 12 the year after.

"Right now, the thing Elon and I both are focused on is getting us successfully to Low Earth Orbit repeatedly," agreed Bolden. "The more we demonstrate the capability to do that, then the more competent we become."

Commercial competency in LEO will allow NASA to pursue its deep space human exploration goals, Bolden added.

Since the May flight, SpaceX has made software improvements to the Dragon's LIDAR and thermal imaging proximity sensors, the equipment the Dragon capsule relies on for its ISS rendezvous operations. Musk said.

If the SpaceX CRS-1 mission launches successfully late Sunday, the spacecraft would rendezvous with the space station early Wednesday. ISS commander Sunita Williams, of NASA, and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide will be posted in the station's Cupola observation deck ready to track and capture Dragon with the Canadian robot arm. The 58-foot robot arm will guide Dragon to a berthing port on the station's U.S. segment.

Ultimately, SpaceX as well as NASA would like to cut the transit period for Dragon missions to less than a day to hasten the delivery of perishable biotechnology research supplies, the two men told the Google audience.

Russia accomplished as much on Aug. 1, when it launched and docked a Progress freighter with the space station within six hours.

On this mission, Dragon carries about 1,000 pounds of equipment and research gear. Dragon is scheduled to depart the station on Oct. 28 with 1,200 pounds of research materials and station hardware awaiting refurbishment.

Dragon would aim for a splashdown under parachute the same day off the southern California coast, close to recovery teams.

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