Falcon 1 suffers another setback
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: August 3, 2008
SpaceX, a private company seeking to revolutionize the space business, suffered their third launch failure in three tries during a Saturday blastoff of the Falcon 1 rocket.
The problem struck about two-and-a-half minutes after a seemingly picture-perfect blastoff at 11:34 p.m. EDT Saturday (0334 GMT Sunday) from the company's launch site on Omelek Island at Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean.
SpaceX provided a live webcast of the launch, but the company abruptly cut a video feed from a downward-facing on-board rocket camera. The booster was approaching the point of a switch to inertial guidance and separation between the first and second stages. See our launch timeline here.
"We are hearing from the launch control center that there has been an anomaly on the vehicle," said Max Vozoff, a SpaceX mission manager providing expert commentary on the webcast.
"We don't have any information about what that anomaly is at this time," Vozoff said. "We will, of course, be doing an assessment of the situation and providing information as soon as it becomes available."
The black-and-white booster pierced the speed of sound and endured the most crushing period of aerodynamic pressure about a minute after liftoff. Cheers erupted from a crowd of employees gathered to watch the launch at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.
The first stage is powered by a newly-upgraded Merlin 1C main engine, which is fed by kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants. The engine appeared to work normally in the first two minutes of the flight, but the first stage began oscillating a few moments before SpaceX ended the webcast.
The launch was delayed more than four-and-a-half hours due to a catalog of technical issues. A countdown attempt earlier Saturday evening ended a split-second before blastoff due to a single parameter that was slightly out of limits.
SpaceX gave little advance notice of the mission, announcing the launch time less than six hours before opening of the launch window.
Saturday's botched launch marks the third failure in three tries for the short-lived company.
The Falcon 1's maiden flight in 2006 succumbed to a fuel leak and engine fire a few seconds after liftoff.
The second mission reached space in March 2007, but the rocket's second stage spun out of control due to propellant sloshing the liquid oxygen tank.
Saturday's flight was a critical test for SpaceX already holds contracts for up to 11 more launches of the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets, including payloads for NASA, the U.S. military and commercial customers.
SpaceX's backlog includes demonstration flights for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. The COTS program selected SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to develop new spacecraft to deliver cargo to the international space station after the space shuttle's retirement in 2010.
The Falcon 9 rocket, currently under development by SpaceX engineers, will match the lift capacity of the most powerful Delta and Atlas rockets in the U.S. fleet.
It was scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral early next year, but the impact of Saturday's failure on SpaceX's future manifest was unclear.
SpaceX was also lining up for two more Falcon 1 launches from Kwajalein later this year. The status of those missions was also unknown Saturday night.
Lost aboard the Falcon was the U.S. military's Trailblazer satellite, two small NASA payloads and a cache of cremated human remains, including the ashes of astronaut Gordon Cooper and Star Trek actor James Doohan.
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