One day after problems with its launch system forced a postponement of Space Exploration Technologies' maiden rocket launch, the company put the Falcon 1 engine through a successful test on Friday.
Video released by the company, known as SpaceX, showed a brief blaze of flames blasting out from the rocket while it was held fast to its launch pad in the Marshall Islands' Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. A similar launch-pad test was unsuccessful on Thursday.
Unfortunately for SpaceX, Thursday's failure ruled out going ahead with the launch for at least another week or two, due to range restrictions and logistical requirements. However, the successful test boosted confidence that the rocket will eventually be able to launch FalconSat 2, a plasma-monitoring satellite built by the U.S. Air Force Academy, after repeated postponements.
"We were very happy to be able to execute a flight countdown all the way to lighting the engine," SpaceX's founder and chief executive officer, Elon Musk, said in a statement released Friday by the company's headquarters in El Segundo, Calif. "Although there wasn't a launch this time, we made a lot of progress refining the rocket and launch pad — all work that needed to be done anyway."
Musk promised to provide more information next week, "after we have enough time to finish forensics of recent events and formulate next steps." In the wake of Thursday's setback, Musk estimated that it would take two to four weeks to prepare for another launch attempt.
SpaceX spokeswoman Dianne Molina told MSNBC.com that the rocket's launch system went through its countdown auto-sequence twice on Thursday without lighting the engine, but neither she nor Musk provided further details on the problem.
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.
Despite the delays, there was no 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.