Arrow-right Camera

Nation/World

Historic launch balks at last moment

Sun., May 20, 2012, midnight

This NASA-TV image shows the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., early Saturday. (Associated Press)
This NASA-TV image shows the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., early Saturday. (Associated Press)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A new private supply ship for the International Space Station remained stuck on the ground Saturday after rocket engine trouble led to a last-second abort of the historic flight.

All nine engines for the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket roared to life Saturday morning. But with a mere half-second remaining before liftoff, the onboard computers automatically shut everything down. So instead of blasting off on a delivery mission to the space station, the rocket stayed on its launch pad amid a plume of engine exhaust.

Even NASA’s most seasoned launch commentator was taken off-guard.

“Three, two, one, zero and liftoff,” announced commentator George Diller, his voice trailing as the rocket failed to budge. “We’ve had a cutoff. Liftoff did not occur.”

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said high combustion chamber pressure in engine No. 5 was to blame. During an inspection later in the day, engineers discovered a faulty valve and worked into the evening to replace it.

Tuesday is the earliest that SpaceX can try again to send its cargo-laden Dragon capsule to the space station. The California-based company – formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. – is targeting every few days for a launch attempt to save fuel in case of rendezvous problems at the space station. Wednesday also could be a launch option.

This was the first launch attempt by the several private U.S. companies hoping to take over the job of delivering cargo and eventually astronauts to the space station for NASA. Only governments have accomplished that to date: the United States, Russia, Europe and Japan.

An estimated 1,000 SpaceX and NASA guests poured into the launching area in the wee hours of Saturday, hoping to see firsthand the start of this new commercial era. They left disappointed.

Shotwell was asked by a reporter whether she considered Saturday’s abort a failure.

“This is not a failure,” she said. “We aborted with purpose. It would be a failure if we were to have lifted off with an engine trending in this direction.”

She added: “The software did what it was supposed to do” with the engine shutdown.


 

Click here to comment on this story »