Space Company Hopes To Cut Cost Of Launches

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A private company called SpaceX has failed three times to reach orbit with one of its rockets. But the company says it's learning from its failures and still hopes to radically decrease the cost of putting objects in space.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Leaving the Earth is not easy. Last weekend, SpaceX, a low-budget but ambitious rocket company, gave it a try - a third try, actually, and didn't quite make it. The company now says it understands what went wrong, and it may try again as soon as next month. A lot is riding on this little company. It's one of only two startups that NASA is hoping to use to transport supplies to the International Space Station after the shuttle retires. NPR's David Kestenbaum has our story.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: On Saturday night, the Falcon 1 rocket sat on a small island in the Pacific with three satellites on board. There was the countdown, then cheers.

Unidentified Woman: We have liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 1 launch vehicle. Falcon has cleared the tower.

KESTENBAUM: For two minutes, the rocket roared upwards. A camera on board showed the view looking down. And then, the video feed went blank.

Unidentified Man: We are hearing from the launch control center that there has been an anomaly on the vehicle.

KESTENBAUM: The rocket company was founded by Elon Musk, who made a fortune with a couple dot com startups. PayPal was one of them. He's since put $100 million of his own money into SpaceX, and the company is now zero for three tries. At one point, Elon Musk had said three tries would be the limit. Now he says they're ready to go again. He spoke at a press conference yesterday.

Mr. ELON MUSK (Founder, SpaceX): I don't even know why I said that three launch thing. I think I was being pushed by people to give a number, and that's just not like me. I mean, I've never given up. I've never lost. I don't intend to start now.

KESTENBAUM: Musk said his concern had been that the company wouldn't be able to attract customers.

Mr. MUSK: Well, in actual fact, what's happened is that after every flight, we've gained customers, to the point where, today, we have 12 launches on contract.

KESTENBAUM: And maybe more to come. Musk says his team has figured out the problem with the last launch. Once the rocket reached a certain altitude, the first stage was supposed to detach and fall away. But it couldn't detach. The first stage was still pushing, using up some unburned fuel. Musk says this problem didn't show up in ground tests, only in the vacuum of space. Musk says he won't give up. He's also said that the rocket business is turning out to be much harder and more stressful than he'd imagined. David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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