Technical Problems Delay Falcon 1 Launch

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WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has scrubbed its third attempt to make the inaugural launch of its Falcon 1 rocket after problems cropped up during a planned engine test. The El Segundo, Calif-based company expects to try again perhaps before the end of February.

SpaceX hoped to debut its first Falcon 1 rocket in a Feb. 10 space shot from its equatorial launch site at Kwajalein Atoll on the Pacific Ocean. But after a day of system and vehicle tests, the firm stood down.

“After analyzing data from the static fire countdown, we decided to postpone the launch,” SpaceX President Elon Musk said Feb. 9 in an e-mail. “The vehicle is being lowered for further investigation. Once we have thoroughly checked out all systems, I will post an update on what was found and when the next countdown attempt will occur. Based on range availability and logistics constraints, a rough guess would be two to four weeks.”

Flight controllers scrubbed two previous launch attempts in late 2005 due first to computer and vent valve issues, then later to a pressurization valve glitch that allowed a portion of the rocket’s first stage to buckle. The launch date for the most recent attempt was pushed back by two days the week of the launch to allow additional time for checks and the engine firing test.

Musk said such hiccups were to be expected with the debut of any new launch system.

“I don’t think the research and development really stops until you’ve had a few launches or at least a few countdowns so you can refine the process,” he said in a telephone interview a few days before the latest scrub.

The Falcon 1 rocket is the first of a family of launch vehicles planned by SpaceX officials to deliver 570 kilograms of satellite or other payload into low Earth orbit. The rocket’s first stage is designed to parachute back to Earth to be recovered and reused in future launches. SpaceX officials said each flight carries a cost of about $6.7 million.

The rocket’s payload is the $800,000 FalconSat-2 satellite built by U.S. Air Force Academy cadets to measure space plasma and is part of a program sponsored by the USAF and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The inaugural Falcon 1 launch is expected to be the first of up to three planned SpaceX missions this year, Musk said. A second Falcon 1 rocket is slated to launch from the firm’s Vandenberg Air Force Base launch site in California, while a third is scheduled to launch from the firm’s Omelek Island pad on the Kwajalein Atoll, he added.