SpaceX Aborts Private Space Capsule's First Launch Attempt

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This story has been updated at 9:05 a.m. EST on Dec. 8.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. The private spaceflight company SpaceX has aborted its first attempt to launch the Dragon commercial space capsule on its inaugural test flight this morning.

The abort occurred just under three minutes before the scheduled launch at 9:06 a.m. EST (1406 GMT). The next attempt could take place at 10:38 a.m. EST (1538 GMT), SpaceX officials said.

"We did have an abort in the terminal countdown sequence," said SpaceX's John Insprucker, Falcon 9 rocket product director, during commentary. "We're evaluating what the abort condition was."

The company's Falcon 9 rocket and  Dragon space capsule  are set to lift off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 40 here in Florida.

SpaceX has two remaining opportunities to launch the Dragon spacecraft today. The first window opens at 10:38 a.m. EST (1538 GMT) and lasts five minutes. The second is a four-minute window that opens at 12:16 p.m. EST (1716 GMT), Insprucker said.

The test flight of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft was originally planned for Dec. 7, but the launch was delayed  after two cracks were found in the aft end of the second-stage engine nozzle extension of the Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX engineers worked overnight to fix the nozzle, and the decision to launch Wednesday was announced Tuesday evening. [ INFOGRAPHIC: Inside Look at SpaceX's Dragon Capsule ]

Historic test flight ahead

The Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX, short for Space Exploration Technologies, was  founded by millionaire Elon Musk, co-founder of the PayPal online payment system and CEO of the Tesla electric car company.

For tomorrow's demonstration flight, the Falcon 9 rocket will carry the  Dragon space capsule  into low-Earth orbit. The capsule will then separate from the rocket's second stage and between two and three orbits of the Earth, demonstrating its operational communications, navigation and maneuvering abilities.

The spaceship will then re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and land in the Pacific Ocean to be recovered by a ship. The target splashdown area is about 500 miles (nearly 805 km) west of Mexico, SpaceX officials said. The full duration of the test flight is expected to last approximately 3 1/2 hours, they added.

"When Dragon returns, whether on this mission or a future one, it will herald the dawn of an incredibly exciting new era in space travel," Musk said in a statement. "This will be the first new American human-capable spacecraft to travel to orbit and back since the Space Shuttle took flight three decades ago."

SpaceX has reportedly spent about $600 million to date on its Dragon and Falcon rocket programs since Musk founded the company in 2002.

That investment has netted SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to use its Dragon spacecraft for cargo flights to the International Space Station following the retirement of the agency's space shuttle fleet next year. SpaceX plans to fly at least 12 unmanned Dragon missions through 2016 to deliver supplies to the space station.

The Dragon space capsules are named after Puff the Magic Dragon, since many critics considered it to be impossible, SpaceX officials have said. SpaceX's Falcon 9 and smaller Falcon 1 rockets are named after the Millennium Falcon, the fictional "Star Wars" spaceship of choice for the character Han Solo.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets stand about 180 feet (nearly 55 meters) tall and are 12 feet (3.6 meters) wide, according to SpaceX descriptions. The Dragon capsule and its unpressurized trunk are just over 20 feet (6 meters) long and have an interior cabin that is just over 10 feet (3 meters) wide at its widest point.  

Commercial space taking flight

If successful, SpaceX will be the first commercial company to launch and re-enter a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit. The mission is also SpaceX's second launch of its two-stage Falcon rocket. The first Falcon 9 rocket launched on a successful test flight in mid-June.

"This is an extremely exciting milestone for both NASA and SpaceX," said Phil McAlister, acting director of commercial space flight development at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. "We've got an extremely challenging year ahead with the remaining milestones, but getting this far this fast has been a remarkable achievement."

The test flight will also be the first by any company under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which is designed to stimulate the development of  private space vehicles  capable of carrying cargo and crew to the International Space Station.

"[NASA has] been a fantastic customer for us," said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, in a prelaunch news briefing Monday. "The relationship has been extraordinary, and both teams have learned a lot."

SpaceX's $1.6 billion space station cargo contract with NASA is separate from its COTS deal, which offers $278 million for successful demonstration tests of hardware capable of space station deliveries.  

NASA has also awarded another cargo contract to the Virginia-based company Orbital Sciences to provide robotic delivery ships for the space station. That deal promises Orbital Sciences $1.9 billion for eight cargo flights using its new unmanned Cygnus spacecraft and Taurus 2 rockets.

SpaceX also hopes to win a contract to one day ferry astronauts to the station though the Dragon capsule is not yet certified to carry human passengers into space.

You can follow Staff Writer Denise Chow on Twitter  for complete coverage of SpaceX's debut Dragon spacecraft launch.