SpaceX's Second Falcon 1 Rocket Fails to Reach Orbit
This view from the second stage engine of SpaceX's second Falcon 1 rocket shows the booster's first stage falling away towards Earth after its March 20, 2007 launch.
Credit: SpaceX/collectSPACE.com.

The second test flight of the privately-built Falcon 1 rocket failed to reach its intended orbit late Tuesday, nearly one year to the day of the booster's ill-fated spaceflight debut.

The two-stage Falcon 1 rocket shot spaceward [image] from its Pacific island launch site at 9:10 p.m. EDT (0110 March 21 GMT), but suffered a roll control malfunction 186 miles (300 kilometers) above Earth before completing its flight plan, its Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) builders said. The rocket was intended to end its mission about 10 minutes after liftoff at an altitude of about 425 miles (685 kilometers).

  • VIDEO: SpaceX's Homegrown Falcon 1 Rocket's Second Flight

"We did encounter, late in the second burn, a roll control anomaly," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told reporters, after the more than five-minute spaceflight. "But that's something that's pretty straightforward to address."

The roll control glitch affected how the Falcon 1 booster's second stage controlled itself in flight, sending the vehicle on a path that likely reentered the Earth's atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean without completing a full orbit, Musk said. The malfunction could have been due to a range of issues, such as helium leak or a roll control jet glitch, but only a subsequent analysis will root out the cause, he added.

The off-nominal spaceflight capped a drama-filled countdown that included payload communications glitches and one pad abort a half-second after the Falcon 1 rocket's engine ignited. Each of those issues was eventually resolved, and the rocket -- initially targeted for a 7:00 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT) liftoff after a Monday scrub -- was again readied for launch within its four-hour flight window.

"This was a pretty nerve-wracking day," Musk said. "The rocket business is definitely not a low-stress business, that's for sure, but I don't think I'm disappointed. In fact, I'm pretty happy."

The fact that the Falcon 1 rocket lifted off from its Kwajalein Atoll launch site in the Pacific Ocean, experienced successful first-stage and payload fairing separations [image] -- as well as the ignition of its second stage -- proved that hundreds of booster improvements incorporated into the vehicle since its first March 2006 failure were a success, the SpaceX chief said.

"We successfully reached space, and really retired almost all of the risk associated with the rocket," Musk added.

A successful demonstration

SpaceX launched the Falcon 1 rocket primarily as a demonstration for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to prove the booster's capabilities, though the rocket also carried a 110-pound (50-kilogram) set of experiments, including an automated flight safety system, low-cost satellite communications transceiver, and mechanical payload adapter ring.

"We, in the Washington D.C. office are celebrating with champagne," Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX vice president of business development, told reporters after the launch. "Falcon 1 clearly got to space."

Tuesday's launch marked SpaceX's second Falcon 1 test flight after a fuel leak and fire led to the failure of its inaugural space shot last year [image]. Initially attributed to human error, the failed launch was ultimately found to be the result of a corroded aluminum nut, prompting the El Segundo, California-based firm to institute a host of rocket and ground facility improvements.

"It didn't take us one year to build the new rocket," Musk told SPACE.com before Tuesday's space shot. "The delay of one year was used to allow us to develop the Falcon 1, version two."

Standing about 68 feet (21 meters) tall, SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket is a two-stage booster designed to carry satellite payloads of up to 1,256 pounds (570 kilograms) into low-Earth orbit for a flat price of about $7 million per space shot.

The rocket's first stage is designed to be reusable, and carries parachutes to slow its descent and make a splashdown landing in the Pacific Ocean for later retrieval and refurbishment.

"The first stage should be currently floating around the Pacific Ocean, with our recovery boat in hot pursuit," Musk said after Tuesday's launch.

Flights should resume

Musk said has said repeatedly that he firmly believed that any serious glitch to afflict the second Falcon 1 test would not prompt another one-year delay in flights.

SpaceX plans to launch at least two more Falcon 1 rockets this year, including a summer space shot to orbit the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory's TacSat-1 satellite and a third mission to launch Malaysia's Razaksat Earth-observation satellite. Both customers have pledged to stand by SpaceX, with the Razaksat team offering a hearty congratulations following Tuesday's liftoff, SpaceX officials said.

"We feel like there's really no need for an extra test flight," Musk told reporters.

SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket is not only aimed at providing low-cost satellite launches. It also serves as a precursor to the launch firm's planned Falcon 9 rocket, a heavy-lift booster currently under development to loft the firm's manned Dragon spacecraft.

  • VIDEO: SpaceX Simulates Dragon's Flight to ISS

Slated to make its first test flight in 2009, SpaceX's Dragon vehicle is the launch firm's entry in NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS), a program aimed at finding private crew and cargo services to support the International Space Station (ISS). But those future Falcon 9 flights are linked to the success of Falcon 1, Musk has told SPACE.com.

Patti Grace Smith, the Federal Aviation Administration's associate administrator COTS, wished SpaceX and their Falcon 1 rocket luck during Tuesday, as did NASA administrator Mike Griffin.

"I've got all fingers and toes crossed hoping that it works," Griffin told Space News, a sister publication to SPACE.com, following his address at the 45th Robert H. Goddard Memorial Space Symposium in Adelphi, Md.

Musk said that despite the early end to today's spaceflight, he considers the test a success and looks forward to the upcoming Falcon 1 missions.

"I think it's fair to characterize this as a success and a good day," Musk said. "Not a perfect day, but a good day."

Space News Staff Writer Brian Berger contributed to this report from Adelphi, Maryland.