Obama with SpaceX managers Neil G. Hicks, Florence Li, Brian Mosdell, Leslie Woods Jr., and CEO Elon Musk. Credit: Getty Images

The Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Falcon 9 is almost ready for launch. The team at Cape Canaveral is waiting on final testing of the flight termination system. The FTS is required by the Air Force so that the rocket can be destroyed mid-flight if it veers off course. Standard equipment for all rockets that launch out of the Cape, even manned ones.

Best guess for Falcon 9’s inaugural launch has it taking off no earlier than May 23, though the FTS tests aren’t following a fixed schedule, according to the email I’ve just received from SpaceX. And countdowns can be aborted any time before reaching zero. With this, its highest-profile flight yet, SpaceX managers want to be extra sure to get it right. The much smaller Falcon 1 made it orbit on its fourth try.
I spoke to a manager at NASA HQ recently who feels the success of President Obama’s new direction for NASA depends on two things happening this year: Congressional support, and the success of the Falcon 9.
The new direction has the agency relying on charter flights by private companies such as SpaceX for the future of its human space flight program. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk downplays the importance of SpaceX in this effort, for instance in this interview with MSNBC’s Alan Boyle. The fact is, however, SpaceX is number one on the runway. The stakes have never been higher for the rocket startup.

Naysayers point to Falcon 9’s supposedly untested status (never mind the successful flights of Falcon 1, which uses the same engine design, and many ground tests) as the fatal flaw in the new NASA plan. Successful Falcon 9 flights will go a long way toward putting those arguments to rest.