The private spaceflight company SpaceX is preparing to launch an unmanned capsule to the International Space Station this week on a demonstration flight that could mark a turning point for the commercial spaceflight industry.
SpaceX's robotic Dragon capsule is slated to blast off atop the company's Falcon 9 rocket Tuesday (May 22) at 3:44 a.m. EDT (0744 GMT) from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It will be the second launch attempt after an initial try was aborted at the last second due to a rocket engine glitch.
The mission is designed to test Dragon's ability to haul cargo to and from the International Space Station. If the flight goes well, the Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX will make history by becoming the first company to dock a privately built spacecraft to the orbiting outpost. The test flight is part of a NASA program to foster the development of a new fleet of private spaceships to ferry hardware and supplies to the space station. [Quiz: How Well Do You Know SpaceX's Dragon?]
With final preparations for the landmark flight underway, here are five fun facts about SpaceX:
1) What's in a name?
SpaceX's billionaire CEO Elon Musk has said that he named his spacecraft "Dragon" after the fictional "Puff the Magic Dragon," from the hit song by music group Peter, Paul and Mary. Musk said he used the name because many critics considered his goals impossible when he founded SpaceX in 2002.
This year, the company is celebrating its 10th anniversary and has a $1.6 billion deal with NASA to provide 12 unmanned cargo flights to the International Space Station. Another company, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp., is also under contract with the agency to provide supply flights to the orbiting lab.
2) Say cheese!
On the Dragon capsule's first test flight in December 2010, it carried a wheel of cheese into orbit. Prior to the successful liftoff, SpaceX officials hinted that Dragon was carrying special cargo into space, but the company did not reveal the secret payload until after the spacecraft had returned from orbit and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.
The wheel of cheese was launched in honor of a classic skit from actor John Cleese in the British comedy show Monty Python's Flying Circus.
"It's kind of funny," Musk told reporters after the successful launch in 2010. "If you like Monty Python, you'll love the secret."
The cheese rode inside the Dragon capsule for the entire flight, from the launch in Florida to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, 500 miles (804 kilometers) west of Mexico.
After the mission, SpaceX released photos of the cheese wheel, showing it inside a metal cylinder with a cover secured by bolts.
3) Rise of the Falcon
SpaceX's fleet of Falcon rockets — the Falcon 9 boosters and smaller Falcon 1 rockets — are named after the fictional Millenium Falcon spaceship from creator George Lucas' "Star Wars" movies. In the sci-fi classics, the iconic Millenium Falcon spacecraft is commanded by the character Han Solo.
4) The Real Iron Man in Charge
Part of the live-action superhero movie "Iron Man 2" was shot in SpaceX's factory in Hawthorne, Calif., and CEO Elon Musk even graced the silver screen with a cameo as himself. In a profile of the commercial spaceflight pioneer written for TIME magazine, "Iron Man 2" director Jon Favreau said Musk inspired actor Robert Downey, Jr.'s portrayal of the character Tony Stark, the genius billionaire behind the famed Marvel Comics superhero.
Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002, is also the CEO of Tesla Motors and made his initial fortune by co-founding the online payment system PayPal. The entrepreneur has also developed a larger-than-life persona, with admirers calling him the real-life Tony Stark.
"That is pretty surreal," Musk told SPACE.com recently. "I guess we are making giant rockets — that's kind of cool. I don't have a suit of armor, though. I don't fly around in a suit of armor."
5) The New Space Race
In 2010, SpaceX became the first company to launch a privately built spacecraft into orbit and return it safely to Earth. The company is now aiming to become the first to dock a commercial space capsule to the International Space Station. Still, Musk has even loftier goals: to be the first entrepreneur to put an astronaut in orbit.
The company intends to use a version of the robotic Dragon capsule to one day carry astronauts to the orbiting outpost and other destinations in low-Earth orbit.
Musk has also been outspoken about the need for humans to become a multi-planet species to survive. Eventually, he plans to modify the Dragon spacecraft to one day land on the surface of Mars.