Falcon 1 rocket fails during third launch attempt

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Sunday, August 3, 2008

An engine test being conducted on a Falcon 1 in 2005
Image: Mark Mackley.

A SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket has failed during its third attempt to reach orbit. Over four years behind schedule, the rocket lifted off from Omelek Island, part of Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, at 03:34 GMT this morning, carrying three technology development satellites, and the ashes of 208 people, including astronaut Gordon Cooper, and Star Trek actor James Doohan. According to a statement issued by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, the first and second stages of the rocket failed to separate, making this the third consecutive unsuccessful launch for the Falcon 1, which is yet to conduct a successful mission. Musk described the failure as a "big disappointment".

The primary payload for this flight was the Trailblazer satellite, which was to have been operated by the United States Air Force, and MDA. Two CubeSats, Pharmasat Risk Evaluation Satellite (PREsat) and Nanosail-D, were also to have been deployed. The CubeSats would have been operated by NASA and Santa Clara University. The space burial capsules, named Explorers and operated by Celestis, were to have intentionally remained bolted to the second stage of the rocket. The remains of several famous individuals were flown, most notably Project Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper and actor James Doohan, best known for his role as Montgomery Scott in the science fiction television series Star Trek. Director John Meredyth Lucas, who also worked on Star Trek, had some of his ashes on the flight as well, as did Mareta West an astrogeologist who was responsible for choosing the landing sites for the Apollo missions to the Moon. This is the second consecutive failure of a major orbital space burial mission, following a failed Taurus launch in September 2001. The last successful major orbital space burial was conducted in December 1999, although a single burial capsule was launched aboard the New Horizons spacecraft in 2006.

This launch was originally planned to occur in early 2004, with the TacSat-1 satellite and the Explorers payload. It would have been the maiden flight of the Falcon 1. A number of procurement delays pushed it to 2005, and subsequent issues with the availability of Space Launch Complex 3 at Vandenberg AFB, from where it was originally scheduled to launch, led to the first attempts to launch being made in late 2005. During the second attempted countdown, a faulty valve caused the first stage fuel tank to be deformed, leading to a delay.

In March 2006, a flight which was originally scheduled to be conducted after this one, with the FalconSat-2 spacecraft, was launched as the maiden flight, and ended in failure less than a minute after lift-off due to a fuel leak. This caused delays for all other Falcon launches, and a test flight without a functional payload was added to the schedule in order to ensure that the problems with the rocket had been resolved. This was launched in March 2007, and also failed - this time due to a sequence of events started by human error in setting the fuel ratio for the first stage. Despite the failure to reach orbit, most critical systems were tested, so the third flight was cleared to launch an operational payload.

In the meantime, the satellite that was to replace TacSat-1, TacSat-2, was launched, and TacSat-1 was subsequently cancelled as obsolete. During early 2008, the US Air Force announced that they would replace it with a satellite for a programme called Jumpstart, which would be selected a few weeks before launch. Trailblazer was chosen in late May, over two other options, PnPSat, or a pair of CubeSats. The launch was at that time scheduled for late June, but it was subsequently delayed due to small cracks in one of the rocket's engines.

Today's launch followed an eventful countdown, lasting almost to the end of the five hour launch window, with the loading of helium onto the rocket taking longer than expected, and requiring several long holds. Following this, an attempt to launch was made at 03:00 GMT, which resulted in a last-second abort at T-0, just after ignition of the main engine, due to a marginal performance issue with the turbopump. The launch was recycled, and the rocket lifted off 34 minutes later.

This was the first flight of an uprated version of the Merlin engine, which powers the first stage. The new version, named Merlin-1C, features regenerative cooling as opposed to ablative cooling used on the earlier launches. It is believed that the failure of the launch was unrelated to the presence of the new engine, the performance of which was described as "picture-perfect" by Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX.

The next Falcon 1 launch was scheduled to have been launched in September with the Razaksat spacecraft for ATSB of Malaysia, and up to three CubeSats. This will almost certainly be delayed whilst the failure is investigated. It is unclear whether this failure will affect the maiden flight of the larger Falcon 9, currently scheduled for 2009, on a demonstration mission for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services programme. Today's launch is the 38th orbital launch of 2008, and following the resale and recovery of the AMC-14 satellite, the first outright failure of the year.

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