SpaceX Scrubs Launch Debut of Falcon 1 Rocket Due to Structural Glitch
SpaceX's first Falcon 1 rocket to fly sits atop its launch pad at the U.S. Army's Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll as a C-17 aircraft flies in the distance.
Credit: SpaceX.

It was a structural issue, not high winds, which scrubbed the private launch firm SpaceX's second attempt to send its first Falcon 1 rocket into orbit Monday.

SpaceX officials found the problem with the rocket's first stage almost three hours into the rocket's eight-hour launch window. Prior to the discovery, winds in excess of 24 knots at its island launch site looked set to delay liftoff. The rocket's spaceflight debut has been pushed into early 2006.

"The launch is scrubbed for the year," said SpaceX chief Elon Musk in an e-mail update to the firm's El Segundo, California headquarters. "We noticed a structural issue with the first stage fuel tank that will require repair."

Further details on the structural glitch will be provided a soon as they are available, SpaceX officials said, adding that the rocket must be made safe for ground crews before engineers can track the problem at the launch pad.

"I expect that the earliest that launch would occur is late January," Musk said. "Third time's the charm."

Second scrub

Monday's launch attempt marked the second scrub for SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket and its U.S. Air Force (USAF) cadet-built satellite payload FalconSat-2.

SpaceX officials called off a Nov. 26 launch attempt after exhausting a four-hour launch window, during which the Falcon 1 rocket experienced a computer reboot and loss of liquid oxygen supply.

Monday's scrub announcement came at about 2:30 p.m. EST (1930 GMT), half an hour after the window opened for the Falcon 1 space shot at its Omelek Island launch pad at the U.S. Army's Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site. The test site sits on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean's Marshall Islands chain near the equator.

"We're going to get back on the pad as soon as we possibly can," Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX vice president of business development, during a teleconference with reporters. "Structural repairs can be done on the ground and we can test them, so I'm comfortable with this."

Shotwell said the Kwajalein facility was available during the third week of January, but whether SpaceX will choose to target that time for a new launch attempt is still undetermined.

The Falcon 1 rocket is the first of a three-booster family planned by SpaceX to offer commercial launch services to consumers, governments and the military.

The two-stage rocket stands about 68 feet (21 meters) and is designed to launch payloads of up to 1,256 pounds (570 kilograms) into low-Earth orbit. Its first stage is also designed to parachute to the ocean and be reused on subsequent flights.

Each Falcon 1 launch is slated to carry a $6.7 million price tag, SpaceX officials have said.

A longer wait

Monday's scrub does mean that cadets at the USAF Academy in Colorado will have to wait a bit longer to see their space plasma measuring satellite fly.

Cadets designed and built the $800,000 FalconSat-2 spacecraft by January 2003 under a program to provide students practical experience developing spacecraft. The launch is supported by the USAF and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

"You want everything to be absolutely perfect on a launch like this," academy spokesperson John van Winkle told SPACE.com, adding that there was some disappointment - as expected - at the academy following the scrubbed launch attempt.

But many of the cadets who helped design and build FalconSat-2 were unable to watch Monday's launch attempt due to final exams, van Winkle said. A delay until January would give them another chance.

Also, the academy's ground control station did not plan to take initial telemetry data until the start of the Spring semester in January anyway, van Winkle said.

"This has very little impact on us over the long term, and may actually end up better for us," he added.