Private space company SpaceX will attempt to launch its first space capsule into orbit and back on Thursday, a potential milestone for the privatization and commercialization of space flight as NASA nears the end of its shuttle program.
Quoting SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell at a press conference:
Inspectors determined early Monday that "indications in the weld joint were such that we wanted to take additional steps to look at it," said Shotwell, saying the issues involved "porosity and potentially cracking in a weld joint."
If the nozzle needs to be replaced, the launch could be set back to Friday, she said.
The Dragon spacecraft, which is designed with seats for seven astronauts plus cargo, will launch unmanned. The plan is for a short flight, perhaps four or five hours in length, with an eventual landing in the Pacific Ocean.
With luck, the Dragon could be among the first private space capsules to carry supplies to the International Space Station.
To date, no non-government spacecraft has successfully launched, orbited Earth and returned safely.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued its first license for re-entry to SpaceX in November. (To compare, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne made its space journey manned but did not enter orbit.)
With a successful launch comes clearance to begin missions to the ISS, which could begin as early as 2011.