Failure To Launch: SpaceX Delays Mission

With NASA's help, SpaceX is trying to send the first commercial spaceship to the International Space Station. The launch was aborted Saturday morning, but there will be another opportunity on Tuesday. Host Scott Simon speaks with NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. A tall white rocket is still standing on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The rocket belongs to a company called SpaceX, and it was supposed to blast-off this morning, send an unmanned capsule on a mission to the International Space Station - the first time a personal spacecraft will try to visit the station. But the launch attempt fizzled out this morning in the last seconds of the countdown.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Five, four, three, two, one, zero and lift-off. We've had a cutoff. Lift-off did not occur.

SIMON: NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has been following this mission. Nell, thanks for being with us.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Thank you.

SIMON: They know what happened?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, yes and no. SpaceX says there was, quote, "slightly high combustion chamber pressure on Engine 5." So, basically that means the computer sensed that something wasn't quite right and shut the whole thing down with just a half of second to go in the countdown. So, it was dramatic because here you had this white rocket standing in the predawn darkness, and then fire appeared beneath and we were all ready. And then - nothing. There was just this cloud of smoke and the rocket was still standing there. So, SpaceX says it's looking at the data and will send technicians out to the launch pad to inspect the engine. They could swap out that engine if it was necessary, and they have additional launch opportunities on Tuesday and Wednesday.

SIMON: To past couple of generations who've grown up on NASA launches - the space shuttle and before that - it always seemed that they had wiggle room, that if a mission had to be scrubbed, there were still a few minutes or a few hours in which certain repairs, they might get it off anyway or try the next day. Why this kind of delay?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, for this launch, they had what was called a near instantaneous launch window. So, that means they basically had one instant when they could take off and if they missed it then they were out of luck for today. And the reason for that is that they have to go when things are lining up with the space station so that they can take a very direct route to the station, and that's to save fuel. Because on this particular mission, they're going to need a lot of fuel. The idea is that this unmanned capsule is going to carry food and other supplies. It's loaded with all sorts of stuff for the space station. But before it can actually deliver this stuff, it has to fly around a lot in space and do a bunch of maneuvers and execute them all perfectly so that NASA can be assured that everything's working and that it's safe that this spacecraft to get close to the station. You know, you don't just fly up casually to the International Space Station. It's $100 billion asset, plus there's people living onboard. So, NASA wants to make sure there is no chance of any collision.

SIMON: Nell, if they're able to get this off the ground and to dock it aboard the International Space Station, help us understand the significance that would represent.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It would be historic. So far, only government space agencies from the U.S., Japan, Russia and Europe have ever sent vehicles to the station. So, if they could do this, it would be a huge milestone for commercial space flight. And it would be a big part of NASA's push to get private space taxis going back and forth to the station so that NASA can focus on deep space exploration now that the space shuttles are going to museums.

SIMON: There's only cargo in this mission, but could this craft be modified to carry people?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's the idea. That's what SpaceX wants to do. In fact, this capsule was designed from the beginning with people in mind. And the founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk, has said that if someone snuck onboard with an oxygen tank, they'd be OK. Basically, they need to modify it. And the main thing is building in a launch abort system, so if there was any problem during the launch with the rocket, the crew in the capsule could get away. And SpaceX says that they want to start carrying people in just a few years, starting in 2015.

SIMON: NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce. Thanks very much.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.

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