Rocket launch may give boost to privatized spaceflight

The Falcon 9 is scheduled for launch Friday. The company that built it envisions offering rockets and spacecraft for commercial use.
The Falcon 9 is scheduled for launch Friday. The company that built it envisions offering rockets and spacecraft for commercial use. (Space Exploration Technologies Corp Via Bloomberg)
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By Marc Kaufman
Friday, June 4, 2010

HAWTHORNE, CALIF. -- If all goes well, a rocket built by an Internet entrepreneur in a former Boeing 747 fuselage factory will launch into space Friday -- from one of the storied pads at Cape Canaveral.

And up into the lofty heights with the Falcon 9, the first of a new generation of more-powerful commercial rockets, will go the ambition embraced by the Obama administration and NASA: to privatize spaceflight.

The countdown to Friday's launch is palpable at the SpaceX headquarters. This huge factory, across from a Lowe's home supplies store in a small suburb of Los Angeles, is setting its sights on becoming an essential hub in the burgeoning U.S. commercial space industry.

Started eight years ago by Elon Musk of PayPal fame, the factory is not quite an assembly line. But it does have the resources and ambition to build as many as 12 rockets and four capsules a year.

There's a tense focus on the upcoming launch among the almost 900 men and women who work at the plant. Their tasks include molding engine parts in the buzzing metal shop, assembling the space capsule in a glass-sided clean room and selling SpaceX rocket services to governments and companies around the world.

They know that if the Falcon rocket lifts off successfully and puts its unmanned Dragon capsule into orbit, Musk's Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, will become an essential player in the burgeoning commercial space industry. A success will also provide a much-needed boost to President Obama's controversial plans to privatize cargo -- and later, astronaut crew transport -- to and from the international space station.

But the company and administration are aware that rockets rarely perform flawlessly on a maiden voyage.

"Launching a rocket and sending a capsule into orbit is very, very hard," said Musk, who spends almost every waking hour e-mailing his launch team and going over all the things that could go wrong and need to be checked. The pressure, he said with something of a grimace, is enormous.

"If I was in it for the money, then I would be crazy," he said. "You have to want to help send people into space."

Musk's ambition is startling: He envisions commercial companies such as SpaceX someday building a fleet of cheap rockets and spacecraft that would fly to a Mars transformed and made habitable through the even more visionary process of "terraforming."

Musk, 39, still has some of his boyish appearance and boyish enthusiasm. Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, he operates out of a modest office in the open workplace that SpaceX has created.

But shouting distance away, across the 500,000-square-foot manufacturing floor, workers are literally building rockets from the ground up. In one section, men attach pipes, filters and computer boards to the oxygen and kerosene-fueled engines; enormous metal cylinders wait on the plant floor to be welded together for the fuel tanks.

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