SpaceX launch delayed by technical snags

Editor's note...
  • Posted at 07:10 PM EST, 11/25/13: SpaceX satellite launching scrubbed
  • Updated at 08:25 PM EST, 11/25/13: Adding company statement
CBS News

Launch of an upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a commercial communications satellite was delayed Monday by unexplained technical snags late in the countdown. Company officials said the next launch opportunity is Thursday, assuming engineers can resolve the problem and the Thanksgiving day weather cooperates.

SpaceX has high hopes for its Falcon 9 booster, which was redesigned and extensively modified to enable launches of heavy communications satellites in a bid to capture a share of the lucrative commercial launch market.

Launch of the company's first communications satellite payload was targeted for 5:37 p.m. EST (GMT-5) Monday from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but the countdown was interrupted by a series of technical snags that were not immediately explained.

At T-minus 13 minutes, the countown was halted because of apparent problems with a first stage valve. There was subsequent talk on the countdown network about a telemetry issue with a power supply.

The countdown then was reset for a 6:30 p.m. launch try, but another unexplained problem cropped up inside of four minutes to liftoff.

A company commentator at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., mentioned a possible problem with the first stage liquid oxygen pressurization system, but that could not be immediately confirmed.

"Unfortunately, given the length of the window today, we won't be able to recycle and attempt another launch (try) today," he said. "So that's going to bring an end to our activities."

Later, the company released an update saying "we observed unexpected readings with the first stage liquid oxygen system so we decided to investigate. The launch vehicle and satellite are in great shape and we are looking forward to the next launch opportunity on Thursday at 5:38 p.m. Eastern time."

Rocket companies typically get at least two days in a row for launch attempts but in this case, company officials said the Federal Aviation Administration did not want to shut down commercial air traffic along the Florida "space coast" during two of the heaviest travel days of the year.

The goal of the mission is to boost a communications satellite into orbit for SES World Skies, a Luxembourg-based company that operates a fleet of 54 relay stations in a globe-spanning network.

The SES-8 satellite aboard the Falcon 9 is a state-of-the-art communications station that will join another SES comsat already in orbit to provide direct-to-home television, broadband internet and other services to India and southeast Asia.

The launching is seen as a major milestone for both SpaceX and SES, an attempt to shake up the status quo in the commercial launch sector with low-cost assembly-line rockets built with state-of-the-art technology and non-traditional management.

"I think it's going to have a pretty significant impact on the world launch market and on the launch industry because our prices are the most competitive of any in the world," SpaceX founder Elon Musk told reporters Sunday.

But Stephane Israel, chief executive of the European consortium Arianespace, the leading commercial launch provider, downplayed SpaceX's impact in an interview published Monday in the French newspaper Les Echos.

"No, it's not an upheaval," he said. "SpaceX's ambitious objectives have been known for the last decade. ... If today's launch is successful, that will just confirm that we have another competitor."

Along with its commercial space aspirations, SpaceX already holds $1.6 billion in NASA contracts to launch unmanned cargo ships to the International Space Station. The company hopes to use the Falcon 9 for eventual manned space flights to the station using an upgraded version of its Dragon cargo ship.