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SpaceX aborts first private launch to space station

Computers sense an engine anomaly at the last second and shut down the Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

May 19, 2012|By W.J. Hennigan
  • An image from NASA-TV shows the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket seconds after its launch was aborted because of technical problems.
An image from NASA-TV shows the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket seconds after its… (NASA )

The first mission by a private company to the International Space Station was aborted before dawn Saturday at Cape Canaveral, Fla., when computers detected an anomaly in one of the rocket's engines and automatically shut down the launch sequence.

The countdown forSpace Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, was flawless until about 4:55 a.m. EDT when, at the last second, the rocket engines briefly lit up and then went dark.

"Three, two, one, zero and liftoff," announced NASA commentator George Diller before he realized what had happened. "We've had a cutoff. Liftoff did not occur."

In a news conference shortly afterward, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said that company computers detected high combustion chamber pressure on one of the Falcon 9 rocket's nine engines, which caused the shutdown.

"We need all nine to lift off, which is why we aborted," she said. "This is not a failure. We aborted on purpose."

Shotwell said SpaceX engineers and technicians would work to address the issue in the coming days. The next window for the company to launch to the space station is Tuesday at 3:44 a.m. SpaceX also has an opening Wednesday at 3:22 a.m.

The company, based in Hawthorne, Calif., is launching the rocket carrying its Dragon space capsule in a demonstration for NASA. The unmanned docking mission to the space station is intended to prove that SpaceX's rocket and capsule are ready to take on the task of hauling cargo for the space agency now that the space shuttle fleet has been retired.

NASA has begun hiring privately funded start-up companies for spacecraft development and is moving toward eventually outsourcing NASA space missions.

SpaceX has a $1.6-billion contract to haul cargo in 12 flights to the space station for NASA.

Even though the upcoming mission is a test flight, the Dragon capsule is carrying about half a ton of food and other supplies for the crew aboard the station.

The capsule is supposed to dock with the space station three days after launch. If the mission is successful, it will mark the first time that a privately built craft has docked with the $100-billion orbiting outpost.

SpaceX makes its Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket at a sprawling facility in Hawthorne that once was used to assemble fuselage sections for Boeing 747s. The hardware is put on a big rig and trucked to Cape Canaveral for launches.

In December 2010, SpaceX became the first private company to send a spacecraft into orbit and return it intact. The company employs about 1,800 people.

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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