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.
updated 7/19/2006 8:34:56 AM ET 2006-07-19T12:34:56

The maiden launch of a private rocket bankrolled by a millionaire entrepreneur was doomed by leaking fuel that caught fire seconds after liftoff, a government review board said Tuesday.

The Falcon 1 rocket, built by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, launched March 24 from the Pacific island of Kwajalein Atoll. But the fire caused the rocket to fail 34 seconds after liftoff, investigators found.

The review determined that "the only plausible cause" of the fire was a corroded aluminum nut that allowed fuel to leak onto the main engine. The fire then caused a loss of pressure that shut down the engine.

"It was a picture-perfect flight except there was this seal leak that caused the fire," SpaceX founder Elon Musk said Tuesday.

The investigative panel comprised government and SpaceX officials, and was headed by the Pentagon's research arm, known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

Musk, who co-founded the PayPal Inc. electronic payment system now owned by eBay, said aluminum nuts have now been replaced with ones made of stainless steel.

The company plans another Falcon 1 launch in November.

The rocket that failed carried FalconSat 2, part of an Air Force Academy satellite program intended to measure space plasma phenomena that can interfere with communications through space.

Falcon 1 is a 70-foot-long (21-meter-long), two-stage rocket powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene. Its first stage is designed to parachute into the ocean to be recovered and used again.

Falcon 1 is intended to be the first in a family of low-cost rockets. The rocket is designed to carry up to 1,254 pounds (570 kilograms) to low orbit for $6.7 million.

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