Sun, May 20, 2012 - Page 7 News List

SpaceX scrubs launch over problem with rocket engine

TAKE TWO:The launch of the firm’s reusable capsule to the space station has been rescheduled for as early as Tuesday, in the race to send private taxis into space


SpaceX’s Falcon 9 spacecraft, with its Dragon reusable capsule, sits on the launch pad on Friday in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Photo: AFP

The California-based company SpaceX yesterday scrubbed the highly anticipated launch of its Dragon capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) due to a rocket engine problem.

The last-second abort came when one of the Falcon 9’s engines exceeded a technical limit that forced a shutdown of the launch attempt, which might be rescheduled for as early as Tuesday.

“Launch aborted: slightly high combustion chamber pressure on engine 5. Will adjust limits for countdown in a few days,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk wrote on the microblogging site Twitter.

A SpaceX spokesman said engineers would look into the causes, but that the issue was not believed to be something entirely new.

“We detected something was wrong with one of the limits” on one of the rocket’s nine engines, the spokesman said on SpaceX’s live broadcast of the event.

The next opportunity for launch is at 3:44am on Tuesday, according to NASA. A press briefing to detail the causes of the delay was set for 6:30am.

The launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the unmanned Dragon and more than half a tonne of cargo toward the orbiting lab, will mark the first attempt to send a privately built spacecraft to the research outpost, where it plans to do a fly--under, followed by a berthing.

SpaceX is the first of several US competitors to try sending its own cargo-bearing spacecraft to the ISS with the goal of restoring US access to space for human travelers by 2015.

The company made history with its Dragon launch in December 2010, becoming the first commercial outfit to send a spacecraft into orbit and back.

Until now, only the space agencies of Russia, Japan and Europe have been able to send supply ships to the ISS.

The US had that capacity too, with its iconic space shuttle that long served as part astronaut bus, part delivery truck for the lab. However, the 30-year shuttle program ended for good last year, leaving Russia as the sole taxi for astronauts to the ISS until private industry comes up with a replacement.

SpaceX has benefited from NASA dollars in its quest, but has also poured its own money into the endeavor.

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation both have billion--dollar contracts with NASA to supply cargo to the ISS in the coming years, and they get NASA funds in exchange for meeting key milestones in their projects.

NASA has given SpaceX about US$390 million so far of the total US$680 million SpaceX has spent on cargo development, Shotwell said.

SpaceX also gets funding from NASA on a separate effort to develop a commercial crew vehicle for carrying astronauts to space, along with competitors Blue Origin, Boeing and Sierra Nevada.

In a few years’ time, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said she hoped SpaceX would be able to undercut the hefty price NASA pays Russia for US astronauts to get a seat aboard the Soyuz space capsule — about US$63 million a ticket.

With seven seats aboard the Dragon capsule, she said SpaceX could someday offer that to NASA for US$140 million per mission — about US$20 million per seat.

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