By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - An unmanned SpaceX rocket was poised for launch from Florida on Monday to send a cargo ship to the International Space Station, then turn around and attempt to land on a platform in the ocean, company officials said.
Liftoff of the 208-foot (63-meter) tall Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a Dragon capsule, was scheduled for 4:33 p.m. EDT/2033 GMT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Once the capsule is released, beginning a two-day journey to the station, the rocket’s first stage will flip around, fire engines to steer its descent and deploy landing legs to touch down on a customized barge stationed about 200 miles (322 km) off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida.
At a prelaunch press conference on Sunday, SpaceX Vice President Hans Koenigsmann put the odds of a successful landing at 75 or 80 percent.
During a previous landing attempt in January, the rocket ran out of hydraulic fluid for its steering fins, causing it to crash into the platform.
A second attempt in February was called off because of high seas, but the rocket successfully ran through its pre-programmed landing sequence and hovered vertically above the waves before splashing down and breaking apart.
“It looks right now like weather is significantly better. We did also upgrade the drone ship so it can keep position better,” Koenigsmann said.
After demonstrating a successful ocean landing, SpaceX intends to bring its rockets back to a landing pad at the launch site so the boosters can be refurbished and reflown, slashing launch costs.
“It’s a long-term goal,” Koenigsmann said. The primary purpose of Monday’s flight is to deliver more than 4,300 pounds (1,950 kg) of food, clothing, equipment and science experiments to the station, a $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 260 miles (418 km) above Earth.
SpaceX is one of two companies hired by NASA to fly cargo to the station following the retirement of the space shuttles. In addition to a recently extended 15-flight, $2 billion contract with NASA, SpaceX is working on a passenger version of the Dragon capsule and has dozens of contracts to deliver commercial communications satellites into orbit.
The company also is working on a heavy-lift version of the Falcon rocket, which uses 27 engines, compared to the nine currently flying. The Falcon Heavy is expected to make its first test flight late this year.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)