SpaceX finally sent its low-cost Falcon 1 rocket into space from a Pacific island launch pad on Tuesday — after last year's unsuccessful launch and two aborted attempts.
One of those attempts was aborted earlier in the day, just as the engine was being fired up for liftoff. The rocket was quickly recycled for a second try a little more than an hour later.
The two-stage, semi-reusable rocket made it into space — but the second stage went into an unstable roll and did not reach its intended orbit, said the company's millionaire founder, Elon Musk.
"It's been a pretty nerve-wracking day," he told reporters.
Although his voice was strained with fatigue, Musk said he wasn't disappointed with the launch.
"It was a very good day for SpaceX," he said. "We successfully reached space and really retired almost all the risks associated with the rocket. ... I feel very good about having successful satellite launches later this year."
The $7 million mission, funded by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, was aimed at demonstrating Falcon 1’s suitability for orbital launches to come. The rocket carried a 100-pound (50-kilogram) experimental payload with monitoring equipment developed by NASA.
Musk, a 35-year-old entrepreneur who made his fortune as a co-founder of the PayPal online payment system, created California-based SpaceX five years ago to develop a low-cost alternative to the launch vehicles fielded by aerospace giants such as the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin. He has said he's put about $100 million into the venture.
The company already has about $400 million in future orders booked — including a $278 million NASA contract for demonstrating a next-generation spaceship by 2010. But Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's vice president for business development, told reporters before the launch that “there are many customers who need to see a successful orbital insertion.”
“We have to demonstrate success at some point,” she said. “There’s no question.”
SpaceX’s first launch, conducted from the same Omelek Island launch pad at Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific, went up in flames shortly after liftoff — and the kerosene-fueled rocket plus its experimental satellite payload fell back into the sea. A months-long investigation determined that a corroded aluminum nut caused a fuel leak and led to a premature engine cutoff.
Since then, the company has beefed up its system for monitoring the rocket and aborting the launch if something goes awry.
Two abortive attempts
The ground launch control system detected one glitch on Monday, during this week's first scheduled launch attempt. With just a little more than a minute remaining before T-minus-zero, the software stopped the countdown because of a communication glitch, Musk said.
He explained that there was a gap of "a few hundred milliseconds" in the flow of range data during a switchover from land-based communications to radio communications — and during that brief instant, the software detected a break in the data and aborted the launch.
Shotwell said the software was updated and tested overnight, setting the stage for Tuesday's launch attempts.
During Tuesday's first try, the countdown went all the way to zero, and the first-stage engine was ignited. But the pressure in the engine chamber was 0.2 percent below allowable limits, forcing another launch abort, Shotwell said. She said the pressure was down because the Falcon 1's fuel was just a couple of degrees cooler than it should have been. The tanks were quickly recycled and refilled for the day's second attempt.
This time, the launch went off without a hitch.
Getting data for the Pentagon
The primary aim of the mission was to gather flight data for the Defense Department, which has positioned itself as a major customer for SpaceX’s future launches. The launch was designed to put the experimental payload into a circular 425-mile-high (685-kilometer-high) orbit.
The payload included two pieces of NASA-developed hardware called the Autonomous Flight Safety System and the Low Cost Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System Transmitter.
SpaceX said the hardware would not actually be deployed during this mission — but eventually, the systems would be used to monitor launches autonomously and terminate flights that went off course.
The rocket's second stage was supposed to reach orbit about 10 minutes after launch, but Musk said the stage encountered a "roll control anomaly" — leading to a premature engine cutoff. On SpaceX's rocket-cam Webcast, the second stage could be seen wobbling just before contact was lost.
Musk said the rocket reached the 187-mile (300-kilometer) altitude mark, but likely fell short of reaching orbit. Although he cautioned reporters that he didn't yet have definitive information, the most likely scenario was that the second stage re-entered the atmosphere after half an orbit, he said.
Late Tuesday night, Musk posted an update to SpaceX's Web site assessing the flight:
"Falcon flew far beyond the 'edge' of space, typically thought of as around 60 miles. Our altitude was approximately 200 miles, which is just 50 miles below the International Space Station. The second stage didn't achieve full orbital velocity, due to a roll excitation late in the burn, but that should be a comparatively easy fix once we examine the flight data. Since it is impossible to ground test the second stage under the same conditions it would see in spaceflight, this anomaly was also something that would have been very hard to determine without a test launch. ..."
Data from the mission will be further analyzed over the days and weeks to come.
Even though the Falcon 1 may not have reached its orbital goal, Shotwell hailed the launch and said the champagne was flowing at SpaceX's Washington office. "The Falcon clearly got to space with a successful liftoff, stage separation, second-stage ignition and fairing separation," she told reporters.
Musk signaled that SpaceX would likely proceed with the Falcon 1's first operational mission later this year. "Unless something very negative shows up, which I think is very unlikely ... I really doubt that there's any need for a third test flight," he told reporters.
The rocket would carry the TacSat-1 military communications satellite as a primary payload, plus a secondary payload of cremated remains provided through Houston-based Space Services Inc. Among those scheduled to be represented on that "memorial spaceflight" are Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper and "Star Trek" actor James ("Scotty") Doohan.
‘Good to go’
Shotwell said the customers for SpaceX's next three launches — including U.S. government officials as well as the backers of Malaysia's RazakSat telecommunications satellite — called to voice their support just after Tuesday's liftoff.
Space Services' chief executive officer, Charles Chafer, told MSNBC.com that his company was "good to go" for SpaceX's next launch.
"I was incredibly impressed by the robustness that the Falcon 1 showed," he said. "I saw today the enormous strides that the team has made."
Chafer said he was confident that SpaceX would resolve the roll problem in time for the next launch — and energize the aerospace industry in the process. "I think some of the existing launch world is saying, 'Oh my God, they're getting close,'" Chafer said.
Space consultant Charles Lurio echoed that sentiment in his own e-mailed reaction: "SpaceX is just this far away from having demonstrated an operational satellite delivery system."