CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. —Neil Hicks left his job as an engineer working on NASA's next-generation moon rocket nearly four years ago to design a launch pad for SpaceX, the startup company that today will attempt to launch its flagship rocket for the first time.
His friends thought he was crazy.
But Hicks, 53, who began his aerospace career at the Cape nearly 30 years ago as a shuttle technician, was frustrated by the tangled bureaucracy of the national space program.
So he bought into the dream of SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who's using the millions he made from selling the PayPal Internet application to pursue a goal of making spaceflight more affordable. "The opportunity to do something for all mankind so more people can go to space is why I came here," Hicks says.
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The 8-year-old company has attracted hundreds of former employees from NASA or its aerospace contractors to facilities in California, Texas and Florida. Like Hicks, they traded in their government ID badges for a chance to help Musk change the way America carries cargo — and people — into space.
Today their work will undergo an important test. Sometime between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Central time, the Falcon 9 — a gleaming white 18-story unmanned rocket powered by the first new U.S.-made rocket engines in nearly a decade — is scheduled to make its maiden launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Backed by roughly $400 million from Musk and other investors — by comparison, NASA spends $300 million a month on its Constellation moon-rocket program — the Falcon 9 has become the bellwether of commercial spaceflight. President Obama's proposed space policy would use private rockets to transport cargo and crew to the International Space Station after the space shuttle's retirement; SpaceX has a $1.6 billion NASA cargo-hauling contract that's riding on Falcon 9.
SpaceX's critics, who believe that private companies don't yet have the "right stuff" to take over launching rockets from NASA, are expecting failure.
The odds are not good. With rare exceptions, the more than 20 American rockets developed over the last 50 years have failed, or fallen short of complete success, in their early flights.