(Florida Today) - SpaceX is preparing a muscled-up Falcon 9 rocket for a debut launch from California whose odds of success are considered a coin toss - and that's not counting an ambitious attempt to recover the rocket's first stage.
Targeting a liftoff this week from a refurbished pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, the upgraded rocket features more powerful engines, longer stages, updated software and - for the first time - a satellite as the primary payload, shrouded in a new protective fairing.
If that isn't challenging enough, SpaceX will attempt to guide the rocket's first stage to a soft landing in the Pacific Ocean as an early test of reusable booster systems.
"Upcoming Falcon 9 demo has a lot of new technology, so the probability of failure is significant," CEO Elon Musk said in a Twitter message last week.
At stake is SpaceX's ability to serve a long list of commercial satellite customers, resume flying NASA cargo and begin earning eligibility to launch national security payloads.
Many of those missions would launch from Cape Canaveral.
"SpaceX has been the surprise success story of the industry over the past three years, and they have undoubtedly stolen $1 billion of revenue from the legacy launch providers," said Chris Quilty, senior vice president for equity research at Raymond James & Assoc. in St. Petersburg. "That said, and despite notable early success, the company has not yet demonstrated a rigorous, dependable launch capability."
The Falcon 9 last flew over six months ago, and SpaceX has yet to launch more than twice in a year. The rocket changes have delayed the upcoming flight for months, and Musk this summer congratulated teams for "overcoming many tough issues."
Air Force safety analysts have calculated a nearly 50-50 chance of failure for the first two launches of what SpaceX calls "version 1.1" of the Falcon 9, reflecting the historically high failure rates for new rockets. SpaceX was waiting to confirm a launch date after experiencing some glitches during an engine test-firing on the pad last week.
The Air Force says the rocket is "significantly different" than the original Falcon 9 that flew five times, all from Cape Canaveral, including three launches to the International Space Station for NASA.
If the planned launch of the small, Canadian-built Cassiope space weather satellite and several secondary payloads goes smoothly, the Falcon 9 could be ready to launch a commercial satellite from the Cape as soon as next month.
SES, one of the world's largest operators of telecommunications satellites, won't fly the mission until the new rocket has proven itself.
"SES will certainly be watching the maiden launch closely, as its outcome will have direct implications for the launch date of SES-8," said Yves Feltes, vice president of corporate communications for the Luxembourg-based company.
SpaceX's manifest lists nine more non-U.S. government missions through 2014.
"If SpaceX is going to maintain a viable business model, it needs to tap the over $100 billion commercial satellite market,"said Richard David, CEO of NewSpace Global, which ranks SpaceX first on an index of 100 privately held industry firms it tracks. "It needs to send a message loud and clear that they have a reliable vehicle to send those payloads into the correct orbit."
Chief among the rocket's upgrades are more powerful Merlin 1D engines, nine of which will be configured in a different pattern below the first stage.
Together the kerosene-fueled engines will produce 1.3 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, a more than 50 percent increase over the earlier generation Merlin 1C engines. The more powerful engines require bigger propellant tanks that lengthen the rocket.
The new Falcon 9 will stand 224 feet tall, nearly 70 feet higher than the version used previously to launch Dragon cargo spacecraft. The height includes a 43-foot tall, 17-foot diameter payload fairing built in-house.
It's not typical for rocket companies to make significant design changes just as a vehicle starts proving its reliability.
"They're taking chances," said David.
SpaceX says the upgrades will improve performance and reliability and speed up manufacturing - important since the company aims to crank out as many as 40 boosters a year.
Even more than the new rocket, the mission, which will not be televised or webcast, may be most eagerly watched for its experiment with technology SpaceX and supporters believe will revolutionize the industry.
While saying it expects to fail, SpaceX for the first time will try to recover the rocket's first stage, usually throwaway hardware for "expendable" rockets.
After separating from the upper stage, the first stage will fire three engines to slow its fall through the atmosphere, then a single engine just before hitting the water to soften the splashdown.
The long-term goal of flying a booster back to its launch site and landing on legs may be years away, but holds the potential to dramatically reduce launch costs by making it possible to reuse an expensive piece of the vehicle.
"If they can pull it off, it is absolutely a game-changer," said Quilty. "And what's notable is that they're the only ones attempting it."