JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, HOUSTONN May 18, 2012 -- SpaceX. The next frontier?
Perhaps, but not quite yet. This relatively old-school rocket with a capsule reminiscent of NASA's early manned flights is historically significant because it marks the first time a private company is launching to the International Space Station. While the SpaceX Falcon booster looks much like your grandfather's '60s rocket on the outside, the technology on the inside is very different.
SpaceX is the brainchild of the visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk. His Falcon rockets are built in America, and so are the Dragon capsules they launch into space. Musk founded PayPal in the 1990s and has since turned his energy to spacecraft and Tesla electric cars.
"It's more like the dawn of a new era in space exploration and it's one which is driven by commercial companies," said Musk. To him, this is the future -- private business taking over for government. "There are some similarities to the commercial awakening of the Internet around 1994, when the Internet went from being almost an entirely government and academic institution to getting commercialized and accessible to the general public."
Today Dragon counted down to a scheduled launch on Saturday morning at 4:55 a.m. from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It sits on a launch pad NASA and the Air Force have used since the 1960s. If the launch does not happen precisely on time, it will wait for a launch window on another day.
Musk is just one of a group of multimillionaires who are bored with earthly pursuits and have their eyes on the stars;
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is designing a reusable capsule to carry astronauts to and from orbit. His firm is called Blue Origin, and it's been testing its rockets in west Texas.
Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is going for the well-heeled tourist market -- people willing to spend $200,000 for a low-Earth-orbit flight to spend a few minutes in zero gravity.
Microsoft's co-founder Paul Allen has teamed up with veteran space designers for Stratolaunch, a custom-built carrier aircraft that looks like two Boeing 747s joined at the wing. They would launch a new SpaceX rocket from high altitude, saving thousands of gallons of fuel.
Extended-stay hotel magnate Robert Bigelow envisions inflatable space stations on orbit. His vision makes sense to Boeing, which has signed on to support his design.
SpaceX is furthest along the development path -- and if it succeeds, it could be a game-changer in space exploration.
Elon Musk's mantra is "faster, cheaper, better," a slogan NASA briefly used in the 1990s, but one which Musk says works for SpaceX because it isn't burdened with NASA's bureaucracy.
It does require NASA funding, though. The space agency has spent just under $300 million to fund SpaceX under a program called COTS, the Commercial Orbital Transportation System.
SpaceX picked up the early development costs for its Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule, hoping eventually to score a $1.6 billion dollar contract for regular cargo runs to the space station, and one day, perhaps carrying astronauts.
Sounds like a bargain when you consider NASA spent $8 billion to design and build the first space shuttles back in the '70s.
The International Space Station is the first destination for SpaceX -- but the shiny object in the distance that beckons explorers like Musk is Mars. The space station, Musk says, it only a way station: "It's not going to affect the course of human history in a really important way as would the establishment of a self-sustaining civilization on Mars."
What's NASA doing while all these billionaires race to get their concepts from the drawing board to space?
Administrator Charles Bolden says NASA is happy to turn over the low-Earth-orbit cargo business to private entrepreneurs -- once they prove themselves. He has his sights set higher.
"This it will let NASA do what we do best -- go explore the universe," he said in an interview with ABC News. "We want to land on an asteroid, we want to eventually go to Mars. To have the resources to do that we need to hand over the cargo runs to the space station to private business. "
SpaceX Launch to International Space Station
If SpaceX safely launches its Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon capsule Saturday morning, its two-week test will just be starting. When it gets close to the International Space Station on its third day in orbit, it will practice approaching, then backing off.
If it passes that test, astronauts on the space station will use their robotic arm to grab the Dragon capsule and pull it in to dock. The capsule is carrying 1,014 pounds of food and supplies for the crew.
When Falcon returns, after about two weeks in space, it will splash down in the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles off the coast of California near San Diego.
Elon Musk will monitor the launch and mission from the SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California. He says he won't breathe a sigh of relief until Dragon splashes down.
"If there is any divine being that can influence the outcome of this event," he said, "I will ask for favor from that divine being."