Image: Falcon 1 launch
SpaceX
SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket fires its engines for launch on Saturday from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific, as shown in an image from the company's Webcam feed. The satellite-launching mission failed a little more than two minutes after liftoff, due to a problem with stage separation.
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updated 8/3/2008 3:06:51 AM ET 2008-08-03T07:06:51

A Falcon 1 rocket failed to reach orbit late Saturday, marking the third unsuccessful attempt for private spaceflight firm SpaceX.

Two rocket stages failed to separate about two minutes and 20 seconds into launch from the U.S. Army's Reagan Test Site on Omelek Island in the Kwajalein Atoll, about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii in the central Pacific Ocean.

"It was obviously a big disappointment not to reach orbit on this Flight 3 of the Falcon 1," said Elon Musk, SpaceX chairman and CEO, in a short statement read to reporters by Diane Murphy, SpaceX vice president of marketing and communications. The problem is still under investigation by SpaceX.

The rocket lifted off at 11:34 p.m. ET after an earlier aborted attempt, and seemed to make headway until the video transmission abruptly terminated.

The Falcon 1 was carrying a small satellite called Trailblazer for the Pentagon's Operationally Responsive Space Office. The microsatellite represented a rush order for Poway, Calif.-based SpaceDev.

Two small NASA satellites were also part of the lost payload, including an ultra-thin solar sail called NanoSail-D and a micro laboratory called PRESat.

SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket stands about 68 feet (21 meters) tall and carries a reusable first stage to launch payloads of up to 1,256 pounds (570 kilograms) into low-Earth orbit. The two-stage booster weighs 60,000 pounds (27,200 kilograms) at liftoff. Its Merlin 1 rocket generates 77,000 pounds of thrust.

The incident comes on the heels of two previous Falcon 1 launches that faltered short of reaching orbit. The first attempt in March 2006 ended with a fuel line leak and fire due to a corroded nut. The second attempt in March 2007 saw the Falcon 1 get almost 180 miles (289 km) above Earth and near orbital velocity, before the rocket's second stage engine shut down because of fuel slosh and roll control issues.

The third attempt was originally slated as a late June liftoff from the U.S. Army's Reagan Test Site in the central Pacific Ocean. However, a tiny weld defect in an engine nozzle led SpaceX to delay the launch attempt until today.

Despite the setbacks, Musk vowed in his statement — which he also read to SpaceX employees — that SpaceX would press forward with plans for Falcon 1's fourth flight. He added that SpaceX recently received a major investment to continue developing heavy-lifter Falcon 9 and the Dragon spacecraft that might one day ferry cargo or crews to the International Space Station.

"For my part, I will never give up and I mean never," Musk said

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