SpaceX CEO and chief designer Elon Musk could be forgiven if he feels a little under-appreciated on the eve of his Falcon 9 rocket's first launch (liftoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. tomorrow from Cape Canaveral).
The guy has been trying his damnedest for several years to bring down the cost of reaching Earth orbit, long considered the sine qua non for stepping up the pace of space exploration. But lately, instead of applauding him, some in the space business seem to be rooting against him. Opponents of NASA's plan to outsource launch services to the private sector have made Musk "a political punching bag," he told reporters today in a telephone press conference.
He seems more puzzled than angry. And doubters aside, Musk puts the Falcon's odds of success tomorrow at around 75 percent. Because this is an engineering test, SpaceX safety director and former space shuttle commander Ken Bowersox says that "either way, we're going to learn something."
Anyone tempted to attach too much importance to this first launch might consider the history of two recently developed rockets. Orbital Sciences' air-launched Pegasus did fine on its first outing in 1990, undershot its intended orbit on the second launch, then completely failed three times in its first 14 tries. Europe's Ariane 5 blew up in spectacular fashion on its first launch in 1996, and suffered three more partial or total failures in its first 14 flights. Both vehicles have been 100 percent successful ever since, and are now considered tried and true launch systems.
If there's some magic in the number 14 (probably not), that also happens to be about the number of Falcon 9 flights SpaceX hopes to have under its belt by 2013, when it comes time to start launching astronauts to the space station. Let's hope the pattern holds, and that the critics will hold their fire if tomorrow's launch turns out to be one of Bowersox's learning experiences rather than a cause for celebration.
June 4 update: The Falcon 9 reached orbit a little before 3:00 p.m. Eastern time today, in a near perfect first flight. Watch the video replay here.