STEVE INSKEEP, host:
A white rocket that is as a tall as an 18-story building is set up at Cape Canaveral in Florida. It is poised to blast off on its maiden voyage. There's a lot riding on it, at least symbolically.
It was not built by NASA, this rocket, but by a private company that hopes someday to carry astronauts into space. The launch is coming just as the Obama administration tries to convince Congress that NASA should switch to using commercial space taxis. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: The first launch of the Falcon 9 is expected any day now and probably no one is more nervous than Elon Musk.
Mr. ELON MUSK (Founder, SpaceX): There's nothing more fear and anxiety-inducing than a rocket launch.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Musk made a fortune building up and selling the Internet company PayPal. In 2002, he created SpaceX, a company that wants to lower the cost of space transportation. He says if all goes well, the Falcon 9's unmanned test capsule should reach orbit in just about 10 minutes after launch.
Mr. MUSK: Those 10 minutes seem like 10 days when you're actually there. Each second ticks over very slowly.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Musk has felt anxious seconds tick by before. During the launch of his company's first rocket, the Falcon 1, everything looked good at first.
(Soundbite of explosion)
Unidentified Man: Two, one, zero, plus one, plus two, plus three.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then seconds later...
Mr. MUSK: The engine shut off and it sort of came back and landed in the sea.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The next attempt was also a failure. And the third. Not until the fourth try did the Falcon 1 deliver its payload to the right orbit.
Now the much bigger Falcon 9 is ready for its first liftoff, and the stakes are higher. SpaceX has a contract with NASA to use this rocket and its capsule to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station, starting next year. And SpaceX has designed its spacecraft so it could potentially take up astronauts.
President Barack Obama has been pushing the idea of this kind of space taxi for hire. In April he visited the Falcon 9 rocket before giving a speech on space policy.
President BARACK OBAMA: We will work with a growing array of private companies competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He wants private companies to take over getting astronauts to the nearby space station so that NASA can focus on deep space after retiring the space shuttles. And as part of this shift in strategy, he wants Congress to kill a rocket program that NASA has been working on to replace its shuttles.
But some lawmakers say that would leave NASA with no fallback plan if private companies aren't up to carrying astronauts.
Senator Richard Shelby is a Republican from Alabama.
Senator RICHARD SHELBY (Republican, Alabama): Today, the commercial providers that NASA has contracted with cannot even carry the trash back from the space station, much less carry humans to or from space safely.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: At a recent congressional hearing, the senator pointed to the Falcon 1's three launch failures and said Falcon 9 is behind schedule.
Elon Musk doesn't think it's fair that his company gets singled out by critics of the president's plan.
Mr. MUSK: They sort of focus everything on us and try to create a situation where our first launch of Falcon 9 is somehow a verdict on the president's policy, which is not right.
He says more established aerospace companies could also compete to sell astronaut transportation and notes that one other company already has a contract with NASA to take cargo to the station in the near future.
Scott Pace is director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. He agrees that the current debate over commercial services shouldn't be affected by Falcon 9's first try at blasting off.
Mr. SCOTT PACE (George Washington University): I think certainly people will try to spin it one way or the other, depending on what happens. But I think any attempts to spin it one way or the other based upon the outcome of that flight test would be wrong.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says decisions about national policy shouldn't depend on just one company and one flight test.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.