Image: Falcon 1
SpaceX
The SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket sits on its launch pad on Omelek Island in the Pacific Ocean.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 2/9/2006 10:15:52 PM ET 2006-02-10T03:15:52

System problems encountered during a launch-pad test on Thursday led Space Exploration Technologies to postpone the maiden flight of its low-cost Falcon 1 rocket for the third time in three months, the company's millionaire founder announced.

The company, known as SpaceX, scheduled the test just this week as a final runthrough to prepare for a Friday launch of FalconSat 2, a plasma-monitoring satellite built by the U.S. Air Force Academy, from a Pacific island launch site in the Marshall Islands' Kwajalein Atoll.

SpaceX had hoped to check the launch software and even fire the Falcon 1's engine briefly, but company founder and chief executive officer Elon Musk indicated that the results of the test were unsatisfactory, requiring a postponement of at least two weeks.

"After analyzing data from the static fire countdown, we decided to postpone the launch," Musk said in a written statement released from SpaceX's headquarters in El Segundo, Calif. "The vehicle is being lowered for further investigation.  Once we have thoroughly checked out all systems, I will post an update on what was found and when the next countdown attempt will occur. Based on range availability and logistics constraints, a rough guess would be two to four weeks."

Company spokeswoman Dianne Molina told MSNBC.com that other activities at the launch site, which SpaceX shares with the U.S. military, would tie up the Pacific rocket range for at least the next week. She declined to discuss the specific concerns that forced Thursday's postponement.

Space entrepreneurs have been closely watching the preparations for the Falcon 1 launch because if SpaceX is successful, it could herald a lower-cost path to orbit. The estimated price tag for a Falcon 1 launch is about $6.7 million, compared with the tens of millions of dollars usually charged for orbital launches by more established aerospace companies.

This first launch is being funded by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. SpaceX already has won a military contract worth up to $100 million for small-scale launches through 2010, and it is developing fully reusable, beefed-up versions of the Falcon rocket capable of lofting payloads and people to the international space station and beyond.

But so far, SpaceX has been having trouble getting that first rocket off the ground. Its initial launch countdown was called off in November with just minutes to go due to a computer anomaly and a liquid oxygen leak. The second try was canceled in December , due to high winds and a depressurization glitch that dented the rocket's first-stage fuel tank. It took weeks to ship out a new tank for this week's attempt.

There was no indication that damage was done to the rocket this time around, nor was there any sign that Musk's commitment to his space vision was wavering. Musk — who made his fortune by founding, then selling, the PayPal online payment company — told reporters in November that he has put nearly $100 million of his own money into SpaceX over the past three years.

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