Friday, March 24, 2006

A commercial rocket designed to be partly reusable and developed by PayPal’s founder failed one minute into its flight yesterday, a major setback for startup aerospace firm Space Exploration Technology.

Intended to be the first of a family of rockets, the Falcon 1 launch vehicle is a 70-feet-long, two-stage rocket powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene. The first stage is intended to parachute into the ocean to be recovered and used again.

It was designed to be the first privately developed liquid-fuel rocket launched into orbit, and was also envisioned as a low-cost, highly reliable launch vehicle that would reduce the cost of launching satellites. It sells for $6.4 million, about one-quarter the cost of its closest competitor.

Yesterday’s mission was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and was intended to deploy the FalconSat-2 satellite about 31 miles above the International Space Station.

The satellite was to be used to study the effects of plasma, or electrically charged gases in space, on the Global Positioning System and other space communications systems. The $750,000 device, barely larger than a cubic foot, was designed by cadets at the Air Force Academy.

Takeoff was broadcast live on the Internet, and the broadcast picture failed seconds after the launch.

“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,” said company founder Elon Musk, who has reportedly invested more than $100 million of his own money in the company. There was about a minute of flight, but details on the failure were not immediately available.

The Falcon 1 rocket was launched from the U.S. Army’s Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Four previous attempts over several months were scrubbed because of technical problems.

Mr. Musk, a native of South Africa, is the Internet guru who founded PayPal, a secure system for making credit card purchases online. In 2002 he sold the firm to EBay for $1.5 billion. Earlier, he had founded Web software company Zip2, which was sold to Compaq Computer Corp. in 1999.

Before the launch, Mr. Musk said the Falcon launch vehicles would be reliable based on their simple designs.

However, aerospace observers noted that just because a rocket is reliable on paper does not mean it will work. “On paper the Delta III, Ariane 5, and Lockheed Launch Vehicle should have all been extremely reliable launch vehicles, but each one also failed on its maiden flight,” said retired engineer Robert Stevens.

Unlike many other aerospace companies, SpaceX has two key advantages — adequate funding and actual contracts. The contracts include the Air Force, Malaysia and some small aerospace companies. The company has announced eight contracts with a value of $200 million, and Mr. Musk said he has classified contracts that he cannot discuss.

The Falcon rocket’s design has been called a “big, dumb booster.” Unlike most rockets, which are finely tuned machines operating at the limits of technology, the “big, dumb booster” concept calls for rockets that are less efficient, lower performance, and larger, but far less expensive to manufacture and operate.

The Falcon can loft relatively small satellites into orbit, but SpaceX also is developing much larger boosters, ones that will compete directly with the aerospace giants. The El Segundo, Calif., company hopes to have reusable rockets large enough and reliable enough to put people into space, either providing rockets to NASA or for private space-tourism companies.

“If SpaceX does succeed in developing a reliable rocket and reducing costs, it could open up access to space to many companies and universities who can’t currently afford the high cost of rocket launches,” said industry analyst Mark Jones.

Had the first launch succeeded, SpaceX planned another launch this summer, and a third flight in February 2007.

“Clearly this is a setback, but we’re in this for the long haul. We will proceed with follow-up information as we learn it,” said Gwynne Shotwell, a SpaceX vice president.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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