SpaceX Scrubs Falcon 1 Launch Debut for Third Time
A bird's eye view of SpaceX's first Falcon 1 rocket poised for launch atop its pad at the firm's Kwajalein Atoll launch site.
Credit: SpaceX/Thom Rogers.

A private launch firm has scrubbed its third attempt to make the inaugural launch of its Falcon 1 rocket after problems cropped up during a planned engine test, the company said late Thursday.

The El Segundo, California-based firm Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) hoped to debut its first Falcon 1 rocket in a Feb. 10 space shot from its equatorial launch site at Kwajalein Atoll on the Pacific Ocean. But after a day of system and vehicle tests, the firm stood down.

"It looks like we are scrubbed for two weeks," SpaceX founder Elon Musk told late Thursday in an e-mail message. "However, we are going to try and static fire tomorrow, since we still have that day available from the range."

SpaceX officials planned to test fire their rocket's Merlin 1 engine and test other systems associated with launch Thursday, but those checks were apparently not satisfactory for a Friday launch. Over the next few weeks, SpaceX engineers will lower the Falcon 1 rocket from its launch stand give it a thorough systems check, Musk said in an update posted to the SpaceX website.

Thursday's announcement marked the third launch scrub for SpaceX's Falcon 1 debut.

Flight controllers scrubbed two previous launch attempts in late 2005 due first to computer and vent valve issues, then later to a pressurization valve glitch that allowed a portion of the rocket's first stage to buckle. This week, the launch date was pushed back two days to allow additional time for checks and the engine firing test, SpaceX officials said.

Musk said such hiccups were to be expected with the debut of any new launch system.

"I don't think the research and development really stops until you've had a few launches or at least a few countdowns so you can refine the process," he said in an earlier telephone interview, adding that each launch attempt brings valuable experience to the SpaceX flight team. "There is a lot of development and improvement that goes on with the process of the launch operation itself."

The Falcon 1 rocket is the first of a family of launch vehicles planned by SpaceX officials to deliver satellites and other payloads into Earth orbit. Standing 68 feet (21 meters) in height, the booster is designed to generate 77,000 pounds of thrust and launch payloads of up to 1,256 pounds (570 kilograms) into low-Earth orbit. The rocket's first stage is designed to parachute back to Earth to be recovered and reused in future launch. SpaceX officials said each flight carries a cost of about $6.7 million.

The rocket's payload is the $800,000 FalconSat-2, a cube-shaped satellite that measures about 12.5 inches (32 centimeters) per side. Built by U.S. Air Force Academy cadets, the 43-pound (19.5-kilogram) spacecraft is designed to measure space plasma and is part of a program sponsored by the USAF and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The inaugural Falcon 1 launch is expected to be the first of up to three planned SpaceX missions this year, Musk said. A second Falcon 1 rocket is slated to launch from the firm's Vandenberg Air Force Base launch site in California, while a third is scheduled to launch from the firm's Omelek Island pad on the Kwajalein Atoll, he added.