At 5 p.m. on Thursday, less than 24 hours before launch, Musk is gearing up his team for a long night of last-minute tweaks and scrambles before Friday’s Falcon launch to the International Space Station.
Musk has already made two of 12 slated cargo deliveries to the ISS as part of his $1.6 billion contract with NASA, and that is this launch’s primary goal. But Musk has been working behind the curtain to test out the reusability of this rocket. If things go as planned on Friday, he will attempt something he’s never tried before.
When the Dragon capsule is safely in orbit and well on its way to the space station, the first stage will separate and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. As the helium-filled rocket slows, it will extend four 25-foot-long landing legs and use its thrusters to briefly hover over the Atlantic Ocean before plopping down ever so gently onto the surface.
"If we bring back the boost stage, I think it's the most significant thing SpaceX has done, for sure, " Musk says.
The chance of success is only around 30% to 40%. But the risk is worth it for Musk because he has bigger plans for this rocket. His team will pluck it from its landing spot in the ocean, refurbish it and fly it again.
Musk hopes that, by the end of the year, he can send it back to space and return it to Earth one more time — but he'll skip the ocean, and land this four-legged spacecraft on land instead. It will be the extra jumpstart Musk needs to press on with his goal of making reusable rockets feasible, drastically cutting the cost of spaceflight.
But first, he has to get through Friday.
“Ah, just please let it work, ” Musk said, putting both hands on his head and leaning back in his chair at his corner cube at SpaceX's headquarters.
It’s common to see Musk on the launch pad in Cape Canaveral, underneath the rocket, checking every last detail. But this week, Musk stayed in Hawthorne, Calif., where he will watch the whole thing play out on a floor-to-ceiling screen in the mission control room.
A SpaceX Dragon capsule hangs from the ceiling of the headquarters. To the left of the capsule is the factory. To its right is mission control, where Musk will watch Friday's launch.
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