Fuel Leak and Fire Led to Falcon 1 Rocket Failure, SpaceX Says
SpaceX's first Falcon 1 rocket launches on its ill-fated first flight on March 24, 2006.
Credit: Thom Rogers/SpaceX.

A fuel leak and subsequent fire led to the destruction of Space Exploration Technologies' (SpaceX) first Falcon 1 rocket seconds after liftoff, the private launch services firm said Saturday.

A preliminary SpaceX analysis into the failed Falcon 1 launch - which lifted off at 5:30 p.m. EST (2230 GMT) on March 24 - found that the fuel leak and flames led to an engine shut down just after the rocket launched skyward from the equatorial set Kwajalein Atoll on the central Pacific Ocean. The incident marred the debut of SpaceX's Falcon 1, a low-cost rocket intended to allow more affordable access to space for satellite payloads.

"A fuel leak of currently unknown origin caused a fire around the top of the main engine," SpaceX chief Elon Musk said in a written update. "On high-resolution imagery, the fire is clearly visible within seconds after liftoff."

Musk said the fire began about 25 seconds after liftoff and cut into the Falcon 1 rocket's first stage helium pneumatic system used to pressurize the booster's fuel tanks. Once that pressure dropped, the Falcon 1 rocket's Merlin engine shut down about 29 seconds after liftoff, he added.

A formal launch incident inquiry led by a U.S. government team in partnership with SpaceX will also be conducted, the El Segundo, California-based launch firm said.

"I cannot predict exactly when the next flight will take place, as that depends on the findings of this investigation and ensuring that our next customer is comfortable that all reasonable steps have been taken to ensure reliability," Musk said. "However, I would hope that the next launch occurs in less than six months...SpaceX is in this for the long haul and, come hell or high water, we are going to make this work." 

Musk also said he was grateful for the support of his launch customers, who called in their messages after the incident.

"We will stand by them as they have stood by us," he said.

SpaceX's $6.7 million Falcon 1 rocket, a two-stage liquid oxygen and kerosene powered booster, is designed to launch payloads of up to 1,256 pounds (570 kilograms) into low Earth orbit (LEO). It features a reusable first stage, which is designed to parachute into the ocean for later pickup, servicing and reuse.

The inaugural rocket was expected to launch the FalconSat-2 satellite, an $800,000 cube-shaped spacecraft designed and built by cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. The mission was supported by the U.S. Air Force and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Prior to the March 24 anomaly, SpaceX officials hoped to launch their second Falcon 1 rocket and its TacSat-1 satellite payload from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California later this year. A Malaysian satellite and several smaller payloads were also set to launch from the atoll staging site in February 2007, the firm said.

"Our plan at this point is to analyze data and debris to be certain that the...preliminary analysis is correct and then isolate and address all possible causes for the fuel leak," Musk said.  "In addition, we will do another ground up systems review of the entire vehicle to flush out any other potential issues."

Aside from the fatal fuel leak and fire, Falcon 1's other systems appear to have performed as expected during its inaugural flight, SpaceX said.

Musk said the vehicle's main engine, thruster vector controls, avionics, software and other systems functioned as planned. It does not appear that the rocket's first stage insulation, which wraps around the booster to insulate its supercold liquid fuel and was a source of some speculation early after the failed launch, played a negative role in the Falcon 1 rocket's loss, Musk added.

The SpaceX chief said he and his firm are committed to rooting out the source of the first Falcon 1 rocket's failure, and they he believes in "maximum exposure" to release information on the investigation as it is learned. Musk added that SpaceX is not the first launch service firm to experience difficulties in its early space shot attempts.

"Having experienced firsthand how hard it is to reach orbit, I have a lot of respect for those that persevered to produce the vehicles that are mainstays of space launch today," Musk said.