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Monday, August 4, 2008

Launch of Private Rocket Fails; Three Satellites Were Onboard

By JOHN SCHWARTZ

A privately funded rocket was lost on its way to space Saturday night, bringing a third failure in a row to an Internet multimillionaire’s effort to create a market for low-cost space-delivery business.

The failure occurred a little more than two minutes after launch, about the time of first stage separation, and the vehicle appeared to be oscillating before the signal was lost.

“We are hearing from the launch control center that there has been an anomaly on that vehicle,” said Max Vozoff, a launch commentator for the company, on a Webcast of the event soon after the live video feed from the rocket went dead.

The two-stage Falcon 1 rocket was manufactured by Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, based in Hawthorne, Calif.

Elon Musk, an Internet entrepreneur, founded the company, known as SpaceX, in 2002 after selling his online payment company, PayPal, to eBay for $1.5 billion. The company, which has been hailed as one of the most promising examples of an entrepreneurial “new space” movement, now has 525 employees.

The rocket was launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific shortly after 11:30 p.m. Eastern time, after several hours of delays and one aborted launch attempt.

The first Falcon 1 launch, in March 2006, failed about a minute into its ascent because of a fuel line leak. A second rocket, launched in March 2007, made it to space but was lost about five minutes after launching because it began rolling uncontrollably.

On this flight, the Falcon carried three small satellites for the Department of Defense and NASA.

The company is also developing a larger rocket, the Falcon 9, with nine engines in the first stage. That vehicle is intended to provide cargo services to the International Space Station under a contract for NASA after the shuttle program winds down in 2010.

SpaceX performed a successful test firing of that rocket at its facilities in McGregor, Tex., last week. The company has further Falcon 1 launches in the works.

Charles Lurio, an independent space consultant, said that it should not be surprising to lose single-use rocket vehicles in the early stages of development, because their design does not allow test flights.

“It’s all or nothing once it leaves the pad,” he said. “But I hope SpaceX keeps trying. They’re very competent people.”

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