Updated 11:50 am ET, Sunday, May 20
A mission intended to complete the first-ever orbital docking of a privately-owned, unmanned spacecraft to the International Space Station was aborted at the last half-second before launch early Saturday, due to engine problems.
The company behind the launch, SpaceX, of Hawthorne, California, was seeking to make history by launching its own Falcon 9 rocket carrying its unmanned Dragon cargo capsule, loaded with 1,200 lbs. of supplies, to the International Space Station, where the Dragon would have linked up with the space station and delivered the non-critical supplies to astronauts currently on board.
Instead, the mission was “scrubbed” at the last-half second before takeoff at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, due to above-normal pressure readings in one of the Falcon 9 rocket’s nine engine chambers.
“We had a nominal ignition for all nine (engines),” said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX. “Engine 5 started fine and (its chamber pressure) started trending high.”
SpaceX also released the following statement to reporters.
Today, SpaceX aborted the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft. Due to the instantaneous launch window, we are not able to recycle and re-attempt the launch today. Early data indicates that the flight computer detected slightly high combustion chamber pressure on engine 5, which prompted the computer to abort the countdown. We are reviewing the data.
The news is undoubtedly a setback for SpaceX’s ambitions to become the de-facto mode of cargo and eventually crew transport into low-earth orbit for NASA, which has been relying exclusively on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get into orbit since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in July 2011. SpaceX twice delayed the launch from earlier dates to conduct further testing.
The company successfully completed the first-ever flight and return-to-earth of a commercial spacecraft, also the Dragon capsule, in December 2010.
But the attempted docking mission is a far trickier undertaking, as SpaceX’s founder and CEO Elon Musk, also the billionaire co-founder of PayPal and electric vehicle company Tesla Motors, had earlier cautioned.
“There’s a lot that could go wrong with a mission like this,” Musk said at a press briefing in late April, “There’s a pretty good chance [of success], but I want to emphasize that this is a test flight.”
NASA and SpaceX said the mission could be re-attempted as early as Tuesday, May 22.
NASA previously awarded SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract for a minimum 12 flights to the International Space Station. NASA’s budget for commercial crew contracts is being targeted for cuts by House Republicans, although President Obama has threatened to veto their budget if it makes it on his desk.
Late update: SpaceX and NASA have confirmed a relaunch target date for Tuesday, May 22 at 3:44 am ET. SpaceX tweeted that it had identified the issue behind Saturday’s scrubbed launch, “a faulty check valve” on the Falcon 9’s fifth engine, which SpaceX said it was replacing Saturday night.