By Jonathan Amos
The Falcon 9 has been developed privately by SpaceX of California with a large subsidy from Nasa.
The 47m-tall vehicle, which carries an unmanned dummy cargo capsule, is due to lift off from Cape Canaveral at 11am local time (1500 GMT).
US President Barack Obama inspected the rocket on its pad in April during a visit to the Space Coast.
He wants the business of taxiing astronauts to and from the orbiting platform handed to the commercial sector; and many commentators believe the Falcon is in a prime position to win that business.
“We’re on track to go to T-Zero at 11am eastern time (1500 GMT). We’re all systems green,” said Elon Musk, the CEO and chief designer at SpaceX.
Before the rocket can be allowed to launch humans, it has to first demonstrate performance and reliability in the role of lofting robotic spacecraft.
The Falcon 9 in its simplest form is a “single stick” vehicle with a two-stage configuration. A cluster of nine SpaceX-developed Merlin-1C engines will power the rocket off the pad.
A single Merlin on the second stage will complete the task of pushing the payload into orbit.
For its maiden flight, the Falcon 9 will launch a cut-down version of its Dragon freighter – a blunt-nosed, 3.6m-wide capsule that will collect engineering performance data during the ascent.
On future flights, Dragon will be filled with supplies for the International Space Station.
Friday’s mission profile should take the Falcon just north of due east of the Cape. The intention is for the rocket to put the dummy capsule in a 250km-high, circular orbit within about 10 minutes.
Historically, the maiden flights of rockets have a notoriously high failure rate. Some two-thirds of the rockets introduced in the past 20 years have had an unsuccessful first outing.
“A 100% success would be reaching orbit,” Mr Musk told reporters on the eve of the launch, “but I think given this is a test flight, even if we prove out just that the first stage works correctly – that will have been a good day. And it will be a great day if both stages work correctly.”
Elon Musk set up SpaceX in 2002 and has already flown a much smaller rocket called the Falcon 1.
To keep costs as low as possible, the Falcon 9 uses many of the same components and systems, including its kerosene/liquid-oxygen-burning Merlin engines.
SpaceX was awarded a $1.6bn contract by Nasa in 2008 for up to 12 Falcon/Dragon missions to the ISS.
The Dragon freighter, once operational, is expected to be capable of hauling six tonnes of food, water, air and equipment to the platform.
The company says it has designed Dragon in such a way that it can be converted relatively easily into a crew ship, if Nasa so desires it.
The company claims that it would be ready to launch astronauts on the Falcon within three years of being given an ISS taxiing contract.
Its vice president of astronaut safety and mission assurance is Ken Bowersox, a former space station commander.
“I have to confess as I was driving over this morning I looked up and saw the mock-up capsule sitting atop the Falcon 9, I kinda imagined what it would be like to be driving up there and putting people on top of it; and I was starting to get some goose-bumps from that,” he said.
However, other space companies and their rockets will almost certainly be in competition for such work, including some of the established industry names like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
SpaceX hopes the Falcon 9 can also take a sizeable share of the commercial satellite launch market.
It is quoting prices to put large telecommunications spacecraft in geostationary orbit that dramatically undercut current sector leaders, such as Europe’s Ariane 5 and Russia’s Proton vehicles.
But Rachel Villain from the respected space analysts Euroconsult said many in the satellite business were being cautious about SpaceX’s future prospects.
“This is not new in the industry,” she told BBC News.
“When we had the maiden flight of Ariane 4, when we had the maiden flight of Atlas 3, the maiden flight of Delta 4 – all these vehicles promoted a good price for the company taking the risk of being on an early launch. I, like many in the industry, am watching to see if SpaceX can sustain these prices.”