SpaceX aborts launch of Falcon 9 on landmark rocket test

MIAMI, United States (UPDATED) — A last-minute rocket glitch forced SpaceX to abort a landmark bid on Tuesday, January 6, to transform rocket science into a recyclable industry by landing the first stage of the Falcon 9 on an ocean platform.

The problem that led to the delay involved the rocket's second stage, which is the portion that carries the cargo vessel to orbit after the first stage falls back to Earth.

"A thrust vector control actuator for the Falcon 9's second stage failed to perform as expected, resulting in a launch abort," said a NASA statement.

The California-based company headed by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk said it is aiming for another attempt on Friday at 5:09 am (1009 GMT) to launch the rocket and its Dragon cargo ship on a routine mission to supply the International Space Station.

Minutes after blast off, when the cargo ship is on its way to orbit, the experiment will begin. Instead of plummeting into the ocean, the rocket's first stage engines should refire three times, guiding the 14-story tall portion of the Falcon 9 to land upright on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean, some 322 kilometres off the coast of northern Florida.

Will it work? 

"I have no idea," Musk admitted on Reddit late Monday, after initially giving the experiment a 50-50 chance of success.  

Transform rocket science  

As of now, rocket launches cost hundreds of millions of dollars or more, largely because the rockets are allowed to fall in pieces into the ocean after liftoff, becoming trash.

Musk, who made his name and fortune as cofounder of PayPal and also runs Tesla Motors, wants to transform the industry by honing technology that would allow rockets to return to Earth intact for use again and again, much like the airline industry does with passenger planes.

The company has made two attempts at controlled ocean landings already, and this launch would mark the first bid to land the rocket on a platform in the ocean. 

Eventually, the company hopes to make rockets that can return to a landing spot on solid ground.

"A fully and rapidly reusable rocket -- which has never been done before -- is the pivotal breakthrough needed to substantially reduce the cost of space access," said a SpaceX statement.

Mission: cargo 

While the bid to recycle a rocket has garnered plenty of attention, SpaceX says the mission's primary goal is to bring a load of supplies and food to the six astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

The rocket launch will propel the Dragon cargo ship on its fifth official trip as part of a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to replenish equipment and gear at the orbiting outpost.

The launch was initially supposed to take place last month. But SpaceX postponed it on December 18 after a launchpad static test fire was a "tad short" and the team decided to exercise caution and postpone until the New Year, said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president for Mission Assurance at SpaceX.

The stakes are particularly high because Orbital Sciences, the only other US company capable of sending cargo to low-Earth orbit, suffered a catastrophic rocket failure in October, forcing an end to its supply missions until further notice.

After mission operators detected a problem with the Antares rocket engine moments after launch, the rocket was purposefully exploded, causing extensive damage to the Virginia launchpad and costing the company more than $200 million in lost equipment.

Orbital has said it will still be able to complete its contract with NASA by 2016, but no launches are scheduled for its Cygnus cargo carrier until the rocket problem can be fixed.

Orbital Sciences has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to supply the space station.

In the absence of Orbital's cargo ship, the Dragon supply ship is carrying its heaviest load yet -- 1.8 pressurized metric tons of "much-needed cargo," said ISS program manager Mike Suffredini.

"The SpaceX folks have used quite a bit of ingenuity to help us put items in all the little cracks and crevices as we kind of lean on the Dragon vehicle to supply ISS here for the next little while until the Orbital folks are flying again," he told reporters on Monday. –