If all goes as planned, a rocket launch on Sunday night will inaugurate a new era for NASA, one in which private companies ferry people and supplies to the International Space Station.
For this first launch, only supplies will be going. The company sending off the rocket is Space Exploration Technologies of Hawthorne, Calif. -- SpaceX, for short -- which aims to get its Falcon 9 rocket off the ground at 8:35 p.m. Eastern time from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The rocket will lift a cargo-only capsule called Dragon that contains about 1,000 pounds of food, clothing, equipment and science experiments, including 23 designed and built by students. The goods would arrive on Wednesday, and the capsule would stay docked at the space station for a few weeks. "It actually marks the beginning of true commercial spaceflight to take cargo to the International Space Station for us," Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr., the NASA administrator, said during a video chat on Google Plus on Friday.
Weather will determine whether the launching takes place on time. Forecasts on Saturday gave a 60 percent chance of clear skies on Sunday, with conditions improving on Monday and Tuesday.
SpaceX did successfully launch a capsule to the space station in a test flight in May, but Sunday's launching will be the first of a dozen flights under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. The cargo will include a freezer that can store laboratory samples at temperatures as low as minus-300 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as clothing and food for the crew.
The student projects come through a program run by NanoRacks, a company that arranges for experiments to fly to the space station, and the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. Among the projects that will make the trip on Sunday is one from middle school students in Santa Monica, Calif., who want to know whether Silly Putty -- a non-Newtonian dilatant fluid, in scientific terms -- will have different properties in the weightlessness of space than it has on Earth.
Under the plans, the SpaceX spacecraft will return to Earth near the end of October and splash down in the Pacific Ocean about 250 miles off the coast of Southern California. A successful mission will restore some of NASA's ability to bring back items from the space station, which it lost with the termination of the space shuttle program last year.
NASA decided in 2006 to turn to the commercial sector for supply flights. A second company, Orbital Sciences Corporation of Vienna, Va., is readying its rocket for a test flight this year from Wallops Island, Va., and aims to begin its cargo runs to the space station next year.
NASA has since expanded its commercial approach to include future astronaut transportation, and SpaceX is one of three companies that the agency selected in August. Within three to four years, SpaceX plans to upgrade its Falcon 9 and Dragon designs to accommodate people. Currently, NASA relies on Russian rockets to get its astronauts to and from orbit, at a cost of more than $50 million a seat.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.