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A rocket launch at Cape Canaveral could ignite Florida's commercial space industry

SpaceX aims to revolutionize the space business by launching a Falcon 9 rocket to send a Dragon capsule to the space station.

Courtesy of Mike Altenhofen

SpaceX aims to revolutionize the space business by launching a Falcon 9 rocket to send a Dragon capsule to the space station.

If a sleek new rocket launches Saturday from Cape Canaveral, it will count as a milestone — the first privately built capsule to journey to the International Space Station.

The flight of the unmanned Dragon spacecraft is so challenging that the manufacturer's own news release warns, "success is not guaranteed."

But nearly a year after space shuttles stopped flying, this launch could symbolize the future for Florida's space business. Industry leaders say these are some of the reasons why.

1. It's a new path to the final frontier. The company — SpaceX — hopes to launch the Falcon 9 rocket it developed and send its Dragon capsule to the space station a couple of hundred miles above Earth. The Dragon will attempt to dock at the station, delivering food, water and clothing, and stay a couple of weeks. Eventually, astronauts on board the station will send the capsule back toward Earth, for a Pacific Ocean splashdown.

So far, only government-led agencies — American, European, Japanese and Russian — have managed to send spacecraft to the station. SpaceX, which is based in California and operates a launch facility at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, hopes to be the first private company to do so. It's already the only company that has launched a capsule into orbit and retrieved it.

2. Space business could blast off. The man behind SpaceX is Elon Musk, who helped create and sell PayPal, earning millions in the process. He has poured some of those millions into developing high-tech products such as Tesla, an electric sports car. At SpaceX, engineers have designed and built their own rocket engines, rockets and the Dragon capsule, at a fraction of NASA's typical development costs. "His success is unmatched in the space marketplace," said Dale Ketcham, director of the Spaceport Research and Technology Institute at the University of Central Florida. "Not to say he's there yet."

This is part of what excites state business leaders. They hope low-cost space launches will bring more commercial satellite business to the United States, and create a new Florida attraction — namely, space tourism.

3. More rocketeers already are firing up. Although SpaceX secured a NASA contract of over $1 billion to resupply the space station with equipment and provisions — the same kind of cargo runs that space shuttles used to handle — so did another firm, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. NASA's space shuttles have been put out to pasture, but the agency hopes to nurture these new space entrepreneurs.

4. Astronauts come next. SpaceX hopes eventually to launch astronauts inside Dragon capsules, and it's not alone there either. NASA financed other private companies that hope to develop their own working spacecraft. Aerospace giant Boeing is developing the CST-100 spacecraft for astronauts, and the Colorado company Sierra Nevada is developing a winged spacecraft it says would fly astronauts from Cape Canaveral.

Other companies are developing spacecraft, some aimed at space tourism. If you wonder exactly where a space tourist would go, SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace say they have an answer. They formed a partnership to take paying customers to space hotels, which would be inflatable, orbiting structures with great views of the home planet.

5. NASA could be bolder. Remember NASA? Other than flying decommissioned space shuttles to museums, the nation's space agency hasn't made much news lately, at least for human space flight. In theory, farming out trips to the space station will let NASA focus on harder stuff — such as sending astronauts to asteroids, or even Mars.

6. Florida could benefit. These companies represent a big economic opportunity, says Frank DiBello, president and CEO of Space Florida. The state has an able work force in the wake of the shuttle program, a prime location for launches, companies that can prepare payloads for space journeys and a supply chain of aerospace companies that will benefit from increased space travel, he said.

Florida is not the only state that believes in the economic opportunities of space. DiBello said many other states are building or applying to build space ports, and so are many other nations.

7. And now, a warning signal: Saturday's launch could fizzle. Bad weather or technical problems could ground the Falcon 9. Predictions for Florida's space sector could prove overly optimistic — remember, the government once estimated space shuttles would fly 500 times in a decade.

This may be why SpaceX and others are down-playing expectations, saying the company would make progress even if Musk's Dragon capsule doesn't actually dock with the station.

"Even if he had a bad day," Ketcham predicted, "he'll come back."

About the launch

Time: 4:55 a.m. Saturday

Location: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida

Spacecraft: A Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule

Manufacturer: California-based SpaceX

Mission: Privately developed spacecraft will attempt to fly supplies to the International Space station

A rocket launch at Cape Canaveral could ignite Florida's commercial space industry 05/17/12 [Last modified: Friday, May 18, 2012 3:00pm]

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