SpaceX delays first liftoff of private orbital space capsule

Image: Test fire of Falcon 9 rocket
The private spaceflight company SpaceX test-fires the nine engines of its second Falcon 9 rocket Saturday at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. SpaceX
/ Source:

A rocket engine nozzle concern has delayed the maiden test launch of a new private space capsule to later this week, NASA and the spacecraft's builder said.

The California-based private spaceflight company Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, planned to launch a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company's first Dragon space capsule on Tuesday.

But the company now says it may need until at least Thursday to make the attempt, with NASA officials stating that a new launch try could occur as early as Wednesday. [In a Twitter update, SpaceX said a decision on the timing of the launch was not expected until Tuesday.]

SpaceX currently has until the weekend to try to launch the Dragon capsule on its first flight.

"As it turns out, in the final review of closeout photos, we found some indications on a second stage nozzle that we're spending some time investigating," SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell during a Monday press conference. The teams are now "doing test and root cause analysis."

If the engine nozzle needs to be replaced, SpaceX would aim for a Friday or Saturday liftoff.

Technicians brought the Falcon 9 rocket down to a horizontal configuration Monday morning for a further inspection of the nozzle area. Specific details about the issue remain unknown, but Shotwell stated that preliminary photos revealed "porosity, potential cracking in a weld joint" on the booster's second-stage engine nozzle.

For its maiden test flight, SpaceX's Dragon capsule will blast off from the seaside Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This is the second launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. The company launched the first Falcon 9 booster during a successful June test flight. [Photos of first Falcon 9 launch]

The Dragon spacecraft is intended to carry cargo – and eventually people – on round trips to low Earth orbit. SpaceX already has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to use the system to resupply the International Space Station after the agency's space shuttles are retired next year. Ultimately the company hopes to use Dragon to carry astronauts and tourists to space.

SpaceX's upcoming test flight will also be the first under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, which aims to foster the development of the private spaceflight industry.

The Dragon capsule is expected to make as many as four orbits around Earth, demonstrating its ability to transmit telemetry data, receive commands and maneuver, SpaceX officials have said. [INFOGRAPHIC: Inside Look at SpaceX's Dragon Capsule]

The Dragon capsule will then re-enter Earth's atmosphere and splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern California, where it will be recovered by SpaceX personnel.

Despite the technical glitches, officials at SpaceX and NASA remain confident in the eventual success of the program.

"This is a test flight," said Phil McAlister, acting director of commercial space flight development at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "It is not in any way an indictment for or against the program if you have anomalies."

Furthermore, McAlister turned to history to demonstrate that test programs inevitably have their ups and downs.

"If history is any guide, you're not going to have a completely successful test flight program," McAlister said. "No matter how this test flight goes, NASA and SpaceX both are committed to the success of this program. We're committed to this partnership. If there are any anomalies, we are going to learn from them, move forward and continue to demonstrate these systems."

In the meantime, SpaceX will proceed cautiously in its analysis, and will let the data drive the decision to launch.

"Dragon is a very complicated spacecraft," Shotwell said. "It would be foolish for us to launch the spacecraft sooner than it's ready to go. So, we're taking our time on this, and we're willing to take the hits."