SpaceX's Inaugural Falcon 1 Rocket Lost Just After Launch
SpaceX's first Falcon 1 rocket on its Kwajalein Atoll launch pad before it was lost during ascent on March 24, 2006.
Credit: SpaceX.

This story was updated at 7:22 p.m. EST.

After years of development and no less than three scrubbed attempts, a solitary Falcon 1 rocket roared toward space Friday only to be lost just after liftoff, its builders said.

The private launch firm Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) launched the two-stage Falcon 1 rocket at 5:30 p.m. EST (2230 GMT) in a space shot staged from the U.S. military's Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site at the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean's Marshall Islands.

But moments after ignition, webcast video from the rocket appeared to show a rolling motion before the feed was lost. Details surrounding possible causes for the rocket's failure were not immediately available.

"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," SpaceX chief Elon Musk said in an update posted to his El Segundo, California-based firm's website. "More information will be posted once we have had time to analyze the problem."

The ill-fated launch marked SpaceX's fourth attempt to loft its inaugural Falcon 1 vehicle after glitches prevented three earlier efforts. SpaceX employees and launch controllers could be heard via an audio link shouting "Go!" just after launch, only to fall silent once the failure was evident.

"I did have word that we did lose the vehicle," Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX vice president of business development, told reporters. "Clearly this is a setback, but we're in this for the long haul."

The rocket was expected to deploy its cargo, the small, cube-shaped FalconSat-2 satellite built by U.S. Air Force Academy, about 10 minutes after launch. The $800,000 satellite was designed to measure the effects of space plasma on communication and global positioning satellites. The mission carried a $6.7 million price tag covered by the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

"We were of course very disappointed," U.S. Air Force Academy spokesperson John van Winkle told SPACE.com, adding that cadets packed the FalconSat-2 flight control room to capacity to watch the attempted launch. "We were so excited to see it finally lift off."

Earlier attempts to launch Falcon 1 and its FalconSat-2 payload were thwarted by liquid oxygen leaks, computer and structural glitches, as well as unsatisfactory pad tests, SpaceX officials said, adding that at one point 4,500 people were watching today's launch webcast.

Musk, who co-founded the Internet-based payment service PayPal, founded SpaceX in 2002.

Falcon 1 rundown

The 68-foot (21-meter) Falcon 1 rocket is the first in a family of boosters planned by SpaceX to offer a more affordable option to launch satellites, cargo and possibly people into space. All Falcon 1 launches are cost capped at $6.7 million, Musk has said.

Fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen, the booster features a homegrown Merlin engine and a reusable first stage, SpaceX officials hoped would parachute back to the ocean for later recovery for use on future flight.

SpaceX built the Falcon 1 vehicle to carry payloads of up to 1,256 pounds (570 kilograms) into low Earth orbit (LEO) - FalconSat-2 was aimed at an orbit that ranged between 279-310 miles (450-500 kilometers) - from launch pads at the Kwajalein Atoll and California's Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Before today's launch failure, Shotwell said SpaceX hoped to launch its second Falcon 1 rocket - to orbit the TacSat-1 built by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory - in about five months, with a Malaysian payload and several secondary microsatellites to follow from the atoll in February 2007.

Those missions will likely be delayed until SpaceX officials complete their investigation and analysis of today's lost Falcon 1 booster.

Potential SpaceX customers were looking forward today's launch, especially since the U.S. Air Force has awarded SpaceX contract worth up to $100 million to launch satellites under its DARPA/FALCON program.

"If he is successful, and we certainly hope he is, we are going to be a big customer of his," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Daniel Griffith, the director of the Defense Department's Space Test Program, before today's launch. "We are rooting him on like crazy."

Encouragement for SpaceX was still strong amid spaceflight supporters after the Falcon 1 loss.

"Just last month, Musk stated that the ultimate goal is to make life multi-planetary," said National Space Society president George Whitesides in a statement. "Elon is putting his money towards a grand vision - and if his bet pays off, all of humanity will win. It is a most worthy goal, and we are sure that the SpaceX team will learn from today and push forward."

Earlier engine tests preferred

Prior to today's launch attempt, Musk told SPACE.com that some of his Falcon 1 rocket's growing pains could have been avoided by conducting pre-launch engine test.

"The single biggest lesson is that we should have planned to do a static fire, which is analogous to the engine run up done by aircraft, before the first launch attempt," he said in an e-mail interview. "That would have highlighted some of the issues we saw early on and might have allowed us to launch sooner."

SpaceX engineers conducted several engine static fire checks leading up today's launch attempt and all seemed go for launch.

Each of the scrubbed launch attempts could provide a wealth of data that allowed SpaceX launch controllers and engineers to hone their skills, Musk said earlier, adding that even if Falcon 1 didn't perform as planned, knowledge would be gained.

"I really believe that constant improvement is the path to revolutionizing space exploration," Musk said before today's launch. 

While Falcon 1 is designed to launch smaller payloads into LEO, plans for the firm's larger Falcon 9 booster are slated to allow payloads of up to 21,000 pounds (9,500 kilograms) in a medium configuration and 55,000 pounds (25,000 kilograms) cargo to LEO in its heavy configuration.

It is the Falcon 9 that SpaceX hopes to use for its Dragon space capsule, a reusable craft it is developing to compete for NASA flights to supply and crew the International Space Station (ISS). Musk has said that human spaceflight has always been his target for SpaceX.

"We need a Moore's Law of space, similar to that of the semiconductor arena, where the cost per pound cost of access to space is constantly improving," Musk told SPACE.com earlier. "Only if that happens, will we become a true spacefaring civilization where ordinary people have the opportunity to travel in space," Musk said.

Space News writer Brian Berger contributed to this report from Washington D.C.