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When PayPal co-founder Elon Musk started Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in mid-2002 with the goal of fielding a $6 million-a-flight small rocket in just 18 months, hard-bitten industry veterans said it couldn’t be done. And they were proved right: It took SpaceX seven years and five tries with its Falcon 1 rocket to put its first satellite in orbit.

Now, with the White House seeking to revamp NASA’s human spaceflight program, SpaceX has emerged as the highest-profile and most audacious representative of the fledgling commercial spaceflight sector. As Musk put it in a 2003 interview — three years before he attempted his first launch — SpaceX’s “holy grail” is to build rockets that will carry astronauts to the Mars and beyond. “I don’t want to sound as though we have absurd aspirations, but we would love to build Saturn 6,” Musk said. “If it ever comes to the point where we want to go beyond Earth orbit, we will need a heavy-lift vehicle like the old Saturn rockets and we would like to build it at a cost that the American taxpayer would find palatable.”

SpaceX’s medium-lift Falcon 9 rocket is a far cry from a Saturn-class vehicle, but it is on the pad at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and poised to make a launch debut in the coming months that Musk gives a “70 to 80 percent likelihood of success.” The rocket will be carrying a prototype of the Dragon cargo capsule SpaceX developed with some $250 million in NASA assistance, but there’s a lot more riding on the mission. With the space shuttle due to retire this year, NASA is counting on SpaceX to haul 20 tons of vital supplies to the international space station over the next five years. Before SpaceX can begin flying the 10 cargo flights NASA ordered in 2008 for $160 million apiece, the company must prove the flight-worthiness of the Falcon 9. Following the maiden flight, being conducted on behalf of an unnamed U.S. government agency, SpaceX is on the NASA hook for three demonstration flights of the Falcon 9-Dragon combo that were supposed to have been completed by now.

In the meantime, SpaceX continues to push NASA for a cash incentive to outfit Dragon to fly astronauts to the space station — a far more demanding mission than hauling cargo. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told Congress this month that to make it happen, the company needs three years and a small fraction of the $6 billion budgeted by the White House over the next five years for a commercial crew taxi service to the space station. However, the White House’s commercial strategy has encountered stiff resistance from some of the very same lawmakers who must approve NASA’s annual budget and how it gets spent.