Image: Flames on SpaceX rocket
Thom Rogers  /  SpaceX
A high-resolution view shows the ascent of SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket on Friday, with flames licking around the bottom of the first stage. SpaceX's founder says a preliminary review indicates that the flames were apparently the result of a fuel leak — and led to the loss of the rocket seconds later.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 3/27/2006 8:55:06 PM ET 2006-03-28T01:55:06

After four years of work, three launch delays and $100 million in dot-com cash, SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket rose from its Pacific launch pad on Friday — but was lost moments later, apparently due to a fuel leak.

Space enthusiasts around the world had looked forward to what SpaceX, also known as Space Exploration Technologies, billed as the world's first all-new orbital launch vehicle in more than a decade.

The two-stage, partially reusable rocket ascended from a launch complex on Omelek Island in Kwajalein Atoll, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, as thousands watched via a Webcast. But moments after its fiery rise from the pad, the Webcast signal was lost. Then, SpaceX reported that the rocket and its satellite were destroyed during the ascent.

"We did lose the vehicle," Gwynne Shotwell, the company's vice president for business development, told reporters from SpaceX's headquarters in El Segundo, Calif. "Clearly this is a setback, but we're in this for the long haul."

On Saturday, SpaceX's founder and chief executive officer, Elon Musk, said the rocket was apparently felled by a "fuel leak of currently unknown origin" that was spotted in video imagery just seconds after liftoff. The leak caused a fire that cut into the first stage's pneumatic system and shut down the rocket engine less than a minute into flight, according to the preliminary review.

Musk reported on SpaceX's Web site that the company as well as the Defense Department, its customer for this first test launch, would pursue a formal investigation of the failure.

Course never ran smooth
SpaceX's course never did run smooth: Three times before, preparations had to be aborted because of assorted glitches.

The first countdown , last November, was called off with just minutes to go due to a computer problem and a stuck liquid-oxygen valve. The second attempt went awry in December when a fuel tank was dented due to a faulty depressurization valve. The third time , computer glitches encountered during a test countdown forced a delay.

On Friday, a ship tasked with recovering the Falcon 1's lower stage from the ocean was positioned in a restricted zone, forcing a 90-minute delay in the launch.

Falcon 1 was to have sent the U.S. Air Force Academy's FalconSat 2 satellite into space on a test mission, to study plasma phenomena that may affect the Global Positioning System and other satellite communication networks. The $6.7 million cost of the launch was covered by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the program cost for the 12.5-inch-wide (32-centimeter-wide) satellite was $750,000.

Air Force Academy cadets were watching the Webcast all the way through the countdown and had a "twofold" reaction, said spokesman John Van Winkle. "We were elated to see the liftoff," he told MSNBC.com, but that elation turned to disappointment when the Webcast was cut off and the cadets learned that the rocket was destroyed.

Despite the setback, Van Winkle was philosophical about the turn of events. "Space is not easy," he said. "If going to space is as easy as it appears on TV or film, everybody would do it."

He also had high praise for the SpaceX team. "We'd love the opportunity to work with them again," Van Winkle said.

Musk and his team also received a note of sympathy from the National Space Society, which hailed SpaceX's vision of reducing the cost of spaceflight and opening the way for humans to settle other worlds.

"Elon is putting his money toward a grand vision — and if his bet pays off, all of humanity will win," the society's executive director, George Whitesides, said in a written statement. "It is a most worthy goal, and we are sure that the SpaceX team will learn from today and push forward."

Bigger plans
It will probably take months for SpaceX to figure out exactly what went wrong this time and prepare for its next launch.

The second Falcon 1 launch already has been designated to carry the Pentagon's TacSat 1 communications satellite into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. There would also be a more unusual secondary payload, arranged through Texas-based Space Services Inc.: memorial capsules containing the cremated remains of 187 people, including Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper and "Star Trek" actor James Doohan.

Looking even farther ahead, SpaceX has announced plans to develop more powerful versions of its Falcon rocket, as well as a capsule that could be used to deliver cargo or crew members to the international space station. The California-based company is among more than 20 firms that have put in proposals for servicing the orbital station .

Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, as a way to further his vision of establishing a permanent human presence in space. The 34-year-old South African native made his fortune in the dot-com world by co-founding the PayPal electronic payment system, then selling it to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002.

Musk says he has invested about $100 million of his own money in SpaceX. The company says it already has a "strong manifest" with nine launch contracts through 2010, representing nearly $200 million in revenue. Musk has been quoted as saying he was willing to weather three launch failures before reassessing his investment.

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