Citing technical problem, SpaceX scrubs Falcon 9 launch

A much-anticipated launch of a commercial satellite by SpaceX was scrubbed Monday at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and pushed back three days after a technical problem halted the countdown less than four minutes before ignition.

The precise nature of the problem was not immediately clear. The next attempt will be at 5:38 p.m. Thursday, SpaceX said.

The 224-foot-tall, two-stage Falcon 9 rocket has flown only once before in the configuration that SpaceX calls “version 1.1.” Elon Musk, the SpaceX chief executive and founder, called this the company’s “toughest mission to date” on Twitter.

Less than two months ago, a Falcon 9 with the same configuration launched successfully from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but the second stage didn’t relight the way engineers hoped it would. For this launch, Musk said, the company needed that second stage to fire properly a second time to get the satellite into the proper orbit.

The mission is supposed to send a nearly 7,000-pound SES-8 communications satellite into an elliptical, high Earth orbit, called a geostationary transfer orbit. The satellite is owned by Luxembourg-based SES and will provide services for South Asia and the western Pacific.

SpaceX has designs on the lucrative military and national security launch business. That part of the industry has been dominated by United Launch Alliance, a 50-50 partnership of Boeing and Lockheed.

“Battling gigantic defense contractors is obviously not going to be an easy thing to do,” Musk said in a recent interview with The Washington Post.

SpaceX can potentially offer customers, including the government, a cheaper way to launch satellites, but the company must demonstrate that the new version of the Falcon 9 is reliable.

Musk said the launch business is nerve-racking: “There are a thousand ways for it to go wrong, and one way for it to go right.”

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."

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