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Rocket Fails in SpaceX's First Launch

March 25, 2006|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

A new rocket developed by an Internet entrepreneur's fledgling El Segundo company failed during its long-awaited maiden launch from a remote western Pacific island Friday.

The Falcon I rocket, which was designed to sharply cut the cost of sending satellites into orbit, cleared the launch pad on Omelek Island and flew normally for about a minute but did not reach orbit, said a spokeswoman for the rocket developer, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. The company did not say whether the rocket exploded or plunged into the sea.

"We had a successful liftoff, and Falcon made it well clear of the launch pad, but unfortunately the vehicle was lost later in the first-stage burn," company founder Elon Musk said in an e-mail from the Marshall Islands.

The 70-foot-long, two-stage rocket was carrying a 43-pound experimental satellite built by students at the Air Force Academy.

It was not immediately clear what caused the rocket to go off course or when the next attempt would be, but Musk had previously said he was willing to make at least three launch attempts before giving up on his bid to field a low-cost rocket.

Aerospace analysts have said that Musk would need to successfully launch several rockets to make a mark in the industry, which is difficult to enter and is littered with failed efforts.

Musk co-founded Internet payment company PayPal Inc. and made $150 million from its sale to EBay Inc. in 2002 before starting the rocket company, also known as SpaceX, that year. Musk has spent about $100 million of his own money and has hired top engineers to develop the rocket.

But the rocket's development has been plagued by delays and technical difficulties. The launch, which was originally slated for Nov. 26, had to be delayed several times because of various glitches and mishaps.

"Clearly this is a setback, but we're in this for the long haul," said Gwynn Shotwell, vice president of business development for SpaceX.

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