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The Mission




Rocket: Falcon 1
Payload: FalconSat 2
Date: March 24, 2006
Window: 2100-0300 GMT (4-10 p.m. EST)
Site: Omelek Island in the Kwajalein Atoll

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BY JUSTIN RAY

Follow the launch of the first SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket. Reload this page for the very latest on the mission.

SATURDAY, MARCH 25, 2006
1600 GMT (11:00 a.m. EST)


Early insights from investigators examining Friday's failed launch of the first SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket suggest a fuel leak triggered a fire that ultimately brought down the booster, the company's founder said today. Read our full story.

FRIDAY, MARCH 24, 2006

The maiden flight for a new breed of low-cost rockets designed to revolutionize the space launch industry met a disastrous fate Friday, tumbling out of control and slamming into the Pacific Ocean moments after liftoff.

More than three years of development took the Falcon 1 rocket from the drawing board to the launch pad thanks to the backing of Elon Musk. The South African spent part of the fortune he made as co-founder of PayPal, the online payment system, and the earlier Zip2 software company to create Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

He formed SpaceX with the goal of vastly reducing the cost of rockets and dreams of human voyages to the planets.

The company's first space booster blasted off at 2230 GMT (5:30 p.m. EST) from the seven-acre Omelek Island in the Kwajalein Atoll. The mission had been delayed months by technical setbacks.

The 70-foot tall Falcon 1 rocket, named after the Star Wars Millennium Falcon, was carrying a tiny science spacecraft built by cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The two-stage booster was supposed to deploy the probe into a 250 by 310 mile orbit around Earth.

Priced at $6.7 million per launch, the Falcon 1 small-satellite launcher seems like a bargain in the U.S. market, since NASA currently spends almost three times that much on existing rockets of similar lifting power.

What's more, the Falcon 1's design will evolve into larger rockets -- the Falcon 5 and Falcon 9 -- to haul much heavier payloads into orbit while promising to keep the cost lower than Atlas or Delta vehicles.

But Friday's launch turned into a brutal failure.

Liftoff was delayed 90 minutes because the retrieval ship for the reusable first stage was errantly inside the restricted zone downrange and had to be moved into safer waters.

After the unplanned hold, countdown clocks entered the final 75 minutes and the rocket was loaded with a highly-refined kerosene propellant and supercold liquid oxygen to feed the engines on both stages.

To keep the liquid oxygen from warming up and naturally boiling away while the rocket sat on its tropical launch pad before liftoff, a "thermal coat" had been wrapped around the first stage. Problems running out of liquid oxygen on the remote island have bedeviled SpaceX over the past few months.

"A glaring deficiency that we had in the November and December attempts was the fact that we were basically boiling LOX at an unacceptably high rate. It is hard to get LOX on the island. So what we did was put a blanket scheme together to cover the first stage LOX tank," Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX vice president of business development, told reporters during Friday's countdown.

"It is held to the rocket by Velcro and we've got lanyards that hold it down to the ground. So basically the lanyards will pull a zipper as the vehicle lifts up, a Velcro zipper, and that LOX tank insulation will stay on the ground as the vehicle flies through it."

Countdown clocks hit T-zero and the Merlin main engine fired to life. The powerplant, expected to generate about 77,000 pounds of thrust, was developed in-house by SpaceX.

The Falcon 1 had set sail on its maiden voyage, and a video camera mounted on the rocket beamed back live footage of the booster ascending skyward. However, the launch video did not show any signs of the liquid oxygen blanket unzipping and being yanked free from the rocket by ground tethers as planned.

As the vehicle climbed higher, a white blanket presumably the cover Shotwell had mentioned could be seen flapping wildly in the onboard video. Large pieces appeared to rip away at T+plus 20 seconds due to the rocket's increasing speed.

The vehicle had a noticeable rolling motion, rocking back and forth a bit, and then at T+plus 26 seconds rapidly pitched over when its fiery engine plume became greatly distorted.

"This is the RCO, we have an active track with the radar," the Range Safety officer announced.

Just moments later the rocket impacted the ocean, apparently on its side, at about T+plus 41 seconds.

Did the blanket play a role? Was the engine damaged? Did the nozzle fail? Investigators are beginning to sift through the data collected during the brief flight to construct a full picture of the launch.

"We did lose the vehicle," Shotwell said in announcing the failure. "Clearly this is a setback. But we are in this for the long haul. We will proceed with follow-up information as we learn it."

In a pre-launch press briefing last November before the first attempt to fly the Falcon 1, Musk acknowledged the difficulty in rocketry. Successfully launching a rocket requires everything to go right, and history is littered with failed inaugural flights. Musk compared the maiden flight with trying to develop perfect software.

"It is like...if you had a very complex piece of software that you test pieces of but you can't test the whole thing together until you ran it for the first time, nor could you test it on the exact computer that it had to run for the first time. But when it does run for the first time it can have no bugs. When was the last time you saw a piece of software that met that criteria?"

SpaceX had planned to launch its second Falcon 1 rocket with an experimental communications satellite for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in three to six months from the company's pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. How Friday's failure will change those plans is not clear.

0015 GMT (7:15 p.m. EST Fri.)

The Falcon 1 rocket apparently impacted the Pacific about 40 seconds after liftoff. The vehicle went out of control and fell back to Earth.

2326 GMT (6:26 p.m. EST)

Here is the official statement from Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX:

"We had a successful liftoff and Falcon made it well clear of the launch pad, but unfortunately the vehicle was lost later in the first stage burn.  More information will be posted once we have had time to analyze the problem."

2318 GMT (6:18 p.m. EST)

A further look at the imagery seen from the onboard camera mounted to the Falcon 1 shows a noticeable change in the color and shape of the flame coming from the Merlin first stage main engine as the vehicle seemed to roll. It was at that point the webcast provided to reporters covering the launch immediately stopped. Repeated efforts to reconnect to the feed were unsuccessful.

2250 GMT (5:50 p.m. EST)

Here is one of the last moments of launch as seen from the onboard camera webcasted to the media by SpaceX. The video seemed to show the vehicle rolling, then the video abruptly stopped.

Exactly when failure struck is not clear. We do not know if the loss of video was caused by the vehicle tumbling or a problem with the feed from Kwajalein to the U.S.

2240 GMT (5:40 p.m. EST)

"We did lose the vehicle," says Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX vice president of business development. "I don't have any information right now. We did have successful liftoff and a minute or so of powered flight...We do know the vehicle did not succeed after that."

"Clearly this is a setback. But we are in this for the long haul. We will proceed with follow-up information as we learn it."

2239 GMT (5:39 p.m. EST)

FAILURE. The maiden flight of the SpaceX Falcon 1 has ended in disaster moments after blasting off from Omelek Island in the Central Pacific today. No further details are available at this point.

2238 GMT (5:38 p.m. EST)

"We did lose the vehicle," says Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX vice president of business development.

2236 GMT (5:36 p.m. EST)

We have no further information to pass along at this point.

2234 GMT (5:34 p.m. EST)

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX vice president of business development, at the company headquarters near Los Angeles says liftoff occurred but nothing is known beyond that.

2230 GMT (5:30 p.m. EST)

The onboard video camera showed the vehicle beginning a distinct rolling motion. The video signal was lost immediately. All has gone silent.

2230 GMT (5:30 p.m. EST)

T+plus 15 seconds. The 70-foot tall rocket is climbing away from Earth on the power of its kerosene-fueled first stage main engine.

2230 GMT (5:30 p.m. EST)

LIFTOFF! Liftoff of the maiden flight of Falcon 1!

2229 GMT (5:29 p.m. EST)

T-minus 30 seconds. Launch pad water system has activated.

2229 GMT (5:29 p.m. EST)

T-minus 45 seconds.

2229 GMT (5:29 p.m. EST)

T-minus 60 seconds. Auto sequence start!

2228 GMT (5:28 p.m. EST)

T-minus 90 seconds. The vehicle is switching to internal power.

2228 GMT (5:28 p.m. EST)

T-minus 2 minutes. Liquid oxygen system is being configured for launch.

2227 GMT (5:27 p.m. EST)

T-minus 3 minutes. Antenna heaters are being turned off.

2226 GMT (5:26 p.m. EST)

T-minus 4 minutes and counting.

2225 GMT (5:25 p.m. EST)

T-minus 5 minutes.

2223 GMT (5:23 p.m. EST)

Launch pad water deluge system has been prepped.

2223 GMT (5:23 p.m. EST)

T-minus 7 minutes. The flight termination system has been confirmed ready.

2222 GMT (5:22 p.m. EST)

T-minus 8 minutes. Telemetry systems have been set.

2221 GMT (5:21 p.m. EST)

Countdown has entered the final 10 minutes to launch.

2220 GMT (5:20 p.m. EST)

A poll of the launch team has been completed by the SpaceX launch conductor. Everyone reported a "ready" status!

2218 GMT (5:18 p.m. EST)

T-minus 12 minutes.

2216 GMT (5:16 p.m. EST)

The strong-back structure that has been against the side of the Falcon 1 rocket is now slowly lowering away from the vehicle.

2215 GMT (5:15 p.m. EST)

T-minus 15 minutes. Ground winds at the launch pad remain breezy but within allowable limits for liftoff.

2212 GMT (5:12 p.m. EST)

The loading of propellant into the Falcon rocket has been finished, SpaceX reports.

2210 GMT (5:10 p.m. EST)

The Range remains "go" for launch.

2205 GMT (5:05 p.m. EST)

T-minus 25 minutes and counting.

2200 GMT (5:00 p.m. EST)

First stage fuel filling has been completed.

2159 GMT (4:59 p.m. EST)

Fueling is proceeding well, weather looks good and the first stage recovery ship has reached a safe position for launch, Elon Musk says.

2155 GMT (4:55 p.m. EST)

T-minus 35 minutes and counting. Fueling continues.

2148 GMT (4:48 p.m. EST)

The Range has just completed evaluations of the C-band system, which will be used to the track the Falcon 1 rocket as it flies downrange today.

2148 GMT (4:48 p.m. EST)

The launch team is active loading liquid oxygen and RP-1 kerosene fuel into both stages of the Falcon 1 rocket and the countdown ticks toward a planned liftoff time of 2230 GMT.

2145 GMT (4:45 p.m. EST)

T-minus 45 minutes. Vapors are venting from ports on the first and second stages of the Falcon 1 rocket as super-cold liquid oxygen is pumped into the vehicle from ground storage tanks at the launch pad.

2142 GMT (4:42 p.m. EST)

The pad crew has arrived on the fallback island of Meck.

2140 GMT (4:40 p.m. EST)

Equipment is now being prepared for loading the RP-1 kerosene propellant into the vehicle.

2135 GMT (4:35 p.m. EST)

The liquid oxygen chilldown thermal conditioning and loading operations are proceeding. There are no problems being worked by the launch team, SpaceX founder Elon Musk reports.

2131 GMT (4:31 p.m. EST)

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX vice president of business development, says it was miscommunication that led to the commercial ship for first stage recovery being in the wrong place. But the vessel has been moved out of the restricted waters and positioned at a safer distance from the first stage impact zone. An Army ship had been used for earlier launch attempts, but that craft is under a maintenance period now.

2125 GMT (4:25 p.m. EST)

T-minus 65 minutes and counting.

2123 GMT (4:23 p.m. EST)

"Go" for liquid oxygen filling.

2123 GMT (4:23 p.m. EST)

The Falcon rocket being being prepared for liquid oxygen loading.

2122 GMT (4:22 p.m. EST)

The "go" has been given to the launch team for fueling.

2121 GMT (4:21 p.m. EST)

The ground-level and the high-altitude winds are acceptable.

2117 GMT (4:17 p.m. EST)

The launch pad workers and the crew aboard the transfer boat have been counted to confirm all personnel are ready to depart Omelek. Once the island has been cleared, the loading of propellant into the two-stage vehicle can commence.

2115 GMT (4:15 p.m. EST)

T-minus 75 minutes and counting. The countdown has resumed for the launch of the SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket at 2230 GMT today.

2112 GMT (4:12 p.m. EST)

Liquid oxygen system plumbing and valves have been configured by the technicians working at the launch pad. The workers are now evacuating from the island to a fallback area in advance of the hazardous fueling operations.

2108 GMT (4:08 p.m. EST)

The launch pad liquid oxygen tank isolation valves are being opened by the ground team on Omelek Island. Crews are making final preparations for fueling the Falcon 1 rocket.

2107 GMT (4:07 p.m. EST)

The countdown will resume in 8 minutes.

2103 GMT (4:03 p.m. EST)

The recovery ship was expected to be clear in time for launch a little sooner than 2230 GMT, according to Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX vice president of business development. But there is a Collision Avoidance, or COLA, blackout period from 2215 to 2228 GMT to ensure the rocket isn't launch on a course that would take it too close to the International Space Station. So SpaceX set 2230 GMT as the official new launch time.

2058 GMT (3:58 p.m. EST)

New launch time! The countdown will resume from the T-minus 75 minute mark at 2115 GMT for liftoff of the Falcon 1 rocket 2230 GMT.

2045 GMT (3:45 p.m. EST)

The retrieval vessel is still moving.

2035 GMT (3:35 p.m. EST)

Shifting the recovery ship out of the hazard area continues, the launch conductor just said.

2027 GMT (3:27 p.m. EST)

The launch conductor says once the vessel has moved, the countdown operations will resume.

2025 GMT (3:25 p.m. EST)

SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell says the retrieval ship is making its way toward a better position. But launch officials are awaiting approval from Range Safety before pressing ahead with the countdown.

2020 GMT (3:20 p.m. EST)

A new launch time has not been announced. The countdown continues holding.

2017 GMT (3:17 p.m. EST)

Aside from the recovery ship being out of position, Shotwell says there are no other problems being worked in today's countdown.

2014 GMT (3:14 p.m. EST)

The problem holding up the countdown is the first stage retrieval ship being inside the launch hazard area, according to Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX vice president of business development. The first stage is equipped with parachutes to splash down in the Pacific for recovery and later reuse. Shotwell said it was unclear why the ship was within the restricted impact limit lines, but officials are trying to get the vessel moved out of the zone and into a safer position.

2005 GMT (3:05 p.m. EST)

This unplanned hold should push back the target launch time.

2003 GMT (3:03 p.m. EST)

Details of the problem haven't been announced yet. But impact limit lines are the boundaries drawn by the Range around the launch pad and a rocket's flight path. The area is kept clear to ensure safety during launch.

2002 GMT (3:02 p.m. EST)

The countdown has stopped at T-minus 64 minutes. The team is planning to recycle the clock to T-minus 75 minutes and holding while an "impact limit line" problem is worked, the launch conductor says.

2001 GMT (3:01 p.m. EST)

The launch conductor says the countdown is going into a hold.

1950 GMT (2:50 p.m. EST)

T-minus 75 minutes.

1948 GMT (2:48 p.m. EST)

Once approval is given from the launch director, the pad team will finish configuring the liquid oxygen system plumbing in preparation for fueling the Falcon 1 rocket today.

1947 GMT (2:47 p.m. EST)

Ground crews at the launch pad are closing the manual vent valves on the liquid oxygen storage tanks.

1946 GMT (2:46 p.m. EST)

Range has completed a liftoff detection signal test.

1943 GMT (2:43 p.m. EST)

A self-alignment of the navigation system is beginning.

1943 GMT (2:43 p.m. EST)

The first stage battery voltage has been verified as normal.

1941 GMT (2:41 p.m. EST)

The Falcon 1 rocket's second stage avionics are now switching from ground-fed power to internal power. This is being done to verify the C-band system and telemetry signals are working normally when running on internal battery power.

1935 GMT (2:35 p.m. EST)

T-minus 90 minutes.

1928 GMT (2:28 p.m. EST)

The Range is now ready to begin testing the C-band transponder on the Falcon 1 rocket. This is the system that will be used to track the vehicle during launch.

1926 GMT (2:26 p.m. EST)

Checks of the flight termination system have been completed by the Range.

1920 GMT (2:20 p.m. EST)

T-minus 1 hour, 45 minutes and counting. The flight termination system testing is continuing.

1914 GMT (2:14 p.m. EST)

The U.S. military-run Range in Kwajalein reports a good lock on the telemetry from the Falcon 1 rocket. Safety officials will be conducting some inhibited checks of the flight termination system, which would disable the rocket if it experienced a major problem during launch today.

1910 GMT (2:10 p.m. EST)

Ground winds have been deemed acceptable. The Range is now proceeding with flight termination system checks. Meanwhile, the launch team is going through the early steps of the countdown checklist, such as confirming battery chargers and heaters are working and the rocket's onboard cameras are on.

1902 GMT (2:02 p.m. EST)

Members of the launch team have been polled to ensure everyone is on station and ready to proceed with the countdown. No problems were voiced.

1900 GMT (2:00 p.m. EST)

There are several Collision Avoidance, or COLA, blackout periods during today's launch opportunity. The cutouts prevent the Falcon 1 from launching during on a trajectory that would take the rocket too close to objects already in space.

  • 2058 to 2101 GMT
  • 2215 to 2228 GMT
  • 2245 to 2248 GMT
  • 2257 to 2300 GMT
  • 2352 to 0005 GMT
  • 0129 to 0143 GMT
  • 0308 to 0321 GMT
  • 0322 to 0325 GMT
  • 0355 to 0358 GMT
  • 0448 to 0503 GMT

1858 GMT (1:58 p.m. EST)

The SpaceX launch conductor says there are no technical problems being addressed at this time. He also indicates the target launch time is 2105 GMT (4:05 p.m. EST), which is five minutes later than the company has been advertising.

1845 GMT (1:45 p.m. EST)

The sun is rising on Omelek Island in the Central Pacific where the 70-foot tall Falcon 1 rocket stands on its spartan launch pad. The countdown is running on a breezy morning. Time to launch is now two hours and 15 minutes.

1835 GMT (1:35 p.m. EST)

Falcon 1 remains scheduled for launch today at 2100 GMT (4 p.m. EST), according to SpaceX press release just issued.

1700 GMT (12 p.m. EST)

SpaceX could be four hours away from its maiden rocket launch. However, everyone is awaiting an update on the launch preparations. We'll be posting information on this page as details are confirmed.

THURSDAY, MARCH 23, 2006

DELAY. SpaceX has decided to delay launch 24 hours.

"No major issues were discovered following the static fire, but as a cautionary measure, we are going to take one more day to review data and verify system functionality," Elon Musk said in a statement.

Launch is now scheduled for 4 p.m. EST (2100 GMT) on Friday.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 22, 2006

The privately-made Falcon 1 rocket appears ready to make another attempt at its inaugural launch. Liftoff is targeted for 4 p.m. EST (2100 GMT) Thursday from a seven-acre isle in the Central Pacific Ocean.

A countdown dress rehearsal held Tuesday culminated with a brief firing of the rocket's main engine on the launch pad.

SpaceX has built its pad on Omelek, part of the Marshall Island chain in the Kwajalein Atoll. The site permits flying rockets on trajectories to reach either polar or equatorial orbits -- an advantage not practical from the U.S. mainland.

The first payload for the Falcon 1 rocket is the Air Force Academy's cadet-built FalconSat 2 space plasma probe. It will be delivered into a 250 by 310 mile orbit inclined 39 degrees to the equator during the launch.

The long-delayed mission will begin with ignition of the Merlin first stage main engine. The kerosene/liquid oxygen engine roars to full throttle as the countdown passes the T-0 point, while undergoing a computer-controlled check of vital signs to ensure all systems are working properly before the 70-foot vehicle is unleashed to fly.

Generating about 77,000 pounds of thrust, the rocket should clear its pad umbilical pole in about 7.5 seconds as it climbs away on a trail of fire.

"Some rockets turn faster than others, depending upon the trajectory. In this case it is going to go almost straight up until it is out of sight," SpaceX founder Elon Musk said, predicting how the launch will appear.

Falcon reaches the region of maximum aerodynamic forces, or MaxQ, at T+plus 76 seconds.

Merlin consumes its supply of fuel and shuts down at T+plus 2 minutes, 49 seconds. A second later, the separation system jettisons the parachute-equipped first stage to fall into the Pacific for retrieval.

The Kestrel second stage engine, operated by tank pressure and not a turbopump, is lit by redundant torch igniters at T+plus 2 minutes, 54 seconds. This firing will accelerate the rocket and payload into the targeted orbit around Earth.

The two halves of the five-foot diameter nose cone separate at T+plus 3 minutes, 14 seconds, after the rocket has climbed high enough to escape the atmosphere. The FalconSat 2 spacecraft will be exposed once the shroud falls away.

The second stage burns for more than seven minutes, with Kestrel producing about 7,000 pounds of thrust in vacuum, until finally shutting down at T+plus 9 minutes, 12 seconds.

Deployment of FalconSat 2 occurs at T+plus 9 minutes, 30 seconds, completing the main objective of the launch.

SpaceX mission designers have planned for the second stage to perform a collision avoidance maneuver to back the rocket motor away from FalconSat starting about 10 seconds after separation. Later, the stage will re-ignite the Kestrel engine to demonstrate its re-start capability, something that would be required when launching heavier payloads or flying into other types of orbits than the one FalconSat 2 will use.

Back in the Pacific, a recovery ship stationed about 600 miles downrange from the launch site will retrieve the first stage, which SpaceX has built to be reusable. The stage carries Global Positioning System equipment, a radio direction finder and two sonar beacons -- one forward and one aft. Ballistic predictions and radar will be used to project the impact point and the rocket's devices will steer the recovery forces to the right spot.

"We have a lot of ways of finding the stage, and we really want to bring it back no matter what shape it's in," Musk said.

After being cast free from the second stage, the plummeting first stage releases a high-speed drogue chute to slow the fall, then the main chute pulls out. The splashdown speed is expected to be about 25 feet per second, Musk said.

The retrieval ship will tow the stage to an atoll where waters are calm. It will be loaded aboard the vessel and brought back to the harbor in Kwajalein.

The Falcon 1 rocket has been several years in the making. Initial launch attempts in November and December were foiled by technical problems. Musk hopes all of the bugs have been worked out now.

Copyright 2005 SpaceflightNow.com, all rights reserved.


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