The private launch firm UP Aerospace has postponed the planned launch of its second rocket this month as it roots out the source of an in-flight glitch that doomed a September space shot.
UP Aerospace officials initially hoped to launch their second unmanned suborbital SpaceLoft XL rocket - dubbed SL-2 - on Oct. 21, but opted to allow more time to completely investigate the failure of the booster's flight debut last month.
"The investigation is going very well," UP Aerospace president Jerry Larson told SPACE.com, adding that the precise cause of the crash is close at hand. "We're homing in on what I believe is the cause...we want to make sure that we finish the investigation properly and don't leave any stone unturned."
Larson said UP Aerospace is now preparing to launch its next rocket by the end of the year. Like its predecessor, the next SpaceLoft XL rocket will lift off from New Mexico's state-funded Spaceport America, near Upham - about 45 miles (72 kilometers) north of Las Cruces - in a remote area known for its low population density.
"To successfully fly in 2006 is our goal," Larson said. "We're all extremely excited that we got the first launch off and it did well, but obviously we would have liked to make space. That was our ultimate goal."
UP Aerospace's 20-foot (six-meter) SpaceLoft XL rocket debuted on Sept. 25, when the booster shot from its rail launch pad only to wobble seconds after liftoff and come crashing back to Earth.
The rocket - designed to carry 110-pound (50-kilogram) payloads to suborbital altitudes of up to 140 miles (225 kilometers) - reached a maximum height of about 40,000 feet (12,192 meters) before returning to Earth, according to past reports.
The Sept. 25 launch marked the first-ever flight staged from Spaceport America.
"There was no structural damage to the vehicle during the flight at all, nothing broke," Larson said, adding that initial concerns that the rocket's fins were damaged in flight proved unfounded once the wreckage was recovered. "The vehicle is strong enough to withstand a Mach 4 corkscrew."
It took UP Aerospace officials about one week to retrieve the SpaceLoft XL wreckage with the help of radar data from monitoring stations at New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range.
"If we did not have that radar data, it would have taken us much longer, if not made it almost impossible," Larson said of the recovery effort and subsequent investigation. "They could see the oscillations of the motion and what was physically going on with the body during flight."
In addition to UP Aerospace's investigation, Spaceport America officials have also formed an Anomaly Investigation Board to review the SpaceLoft XL's crash.
"We've got to get the Spaceport's approval, and White Sands' and the Federal Aviation Authorities," Larson said, stressing that fixing the anomaly safely is vital for future SpaceLoft XL flights. "So there are a lot of players."
A good start
Despite the Sept. 25 crash, Larson's said UP Aerospace gained valuable suborbital launch experience that went far beyond that attained during dress rehearsals.
"The launch crew performed flawlessly," Larson said, adding that half of the flight's ground personnel were Spaceport America officials, with the other half staffed by UP Aerospace. "It gives me hope that we'll be able to launch multiple times in a day because it was so slick."
UP Aerospace is not alone in its rocky debut of a new launch vehicle.
Earlier this year, El Segundo, California-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) launched its first privately-developed Falcon 1 rocket from a South Pacific atoll which failed just after liftoff.
The first U.S attempt to orbit a satellite - the Navy's Vanguard TV3 - failed two seconds after ignition on Dec. 6, 1957.
"You can't get into this business expecting things to be perfect," Larson said. "For some of these launch vehicles and rockets, it's all or nothing."
As the SpaceLoft XL crash investigation continues, Larson and other UP Aerospace officials plan to attend next week's Wirefly X Prize Cup spaceflight exhibition in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where they will display video of their first flight and discuss their plans for commercial suborbital spaceflight.
"The X Prize Cup is certainly on that cutting edge," Larson said. "I think that's why it's exciting to everybody. It's not the status quo."