SpaceX calls off rocket launch at last minute

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX scrubbed its attempt Tuesday morning to land a Falcon 9 rocket booster on an ocean platform with just one minute remaining to launch.

The unmanned Falcon rocket was supposed to blast off with supplies for the International Space Station before sunrise Tuesday.

The next launch attempt would no earlier than Friday at 5:09 a.m.

Officials said the problem was due to an issue with the system that steers the upper stage engine. If controllers had not aborted the launch, computers would have done so closer to flight time, NASA launch commentator George Diller said.

The latest weather forecast showed an 80 percent chance of favorable weather for Friday’s instantaneous launch window.

SpaceX and the Air Force are negotiating a deal for SpaceX to use Launch Complex 13, a former Atlas launch pad near where John Glenn blasted off, as a future landing site for returning boosters.

« We expect to have a final decision on such agreement no later than Jan. 31, » said Chris Calkins, a spokesman for the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing.

SpaceX envisions flying rockets back to shore, quickly refurbishing them and readying them for additional flights, a capability the company is confident would dramatically lower launch costs and revolutionize the industry.

Now, liquid-fueled orbital rockets are called « expendable, » and are discarded after one use.

But before a 14-story Falcon 9 booster gets close to land on the way down, SpaceX Tuesday was to take its first shot at landing one on a 300-foot-long platform it has dubbed the « autonomous spaceport drone ship. »

Traveling above the atmosphere and at hypersonic speed, the booster was to begin an automated series of three engine firings aiming for the platform a couple hundred miles offshore.

New on Tuesday’s flight is a set of « X-wing » fins designed to improve the booster’s control during descent, which would culminate in touchdown on four landing legs just nine minutes after liftoff, if all goes right.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave 50-50 odds of success.

« There’s a certain likelihood that this will not work outright, that something will go wrong, » said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president for mission assurance, during a news conference Monday at Kennedy Space Center. « Nobody has ever tried that, to our knowledge. »

SpaceX twice has landed boosters softly in the Atlantic Ocean, where they tipped over and broke apart in the waves.

The « drone ship » has thrusters — it’s not a barge — and systems to hold it steady such that Koenigsmann said anticipated waves should not pose a problem. No one will be aboard the ship during the rocket’s flight.

When the second attempt occurs, the biggest challenge will be pinpointing a landing from so far away.

« It’s very difficult to hit a platform of that size, basically, » said Koenigsmann. « If you look at it from almost 150 or so miles up in sub-orbit, then it looks like a very, very small place to land on. »

The landing, he said, « has to be perfect » for the stage to hit the target — marked by a giant « X » — and stand upright.

If that happens, a recovery team stationed a safe distance away would move in to secure the booster for its return to shore.

SpaceX repeatedly stressed that its primary mission and focus is to deliver roughly 5,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS.

The mission is NASA’s first commercial launch of cargo to the ISS since an Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket failed in October shortly after liftoff from Virginia, leaving SpaceX as the only U.S. resupply option for most of this year.

Mike Suffredini, NASA’s ISS program manager, said the cargo was « much needed, » but that the agency also was excited about steps SpaceX was taking « to further spaceflight in general, and reduce the cost of spaceflight. »

But if the Dragon is placed in orbit properly and the experimental landing succeeds, Koenigsmann acknowledged a huge celebration would ensue.

On the other hand, he warned anyone interested in the landing’s exact location to « stay away » for safety reasons.

It has not been determined how many ocean platform landings might be attempted before trying to return a booster to the Cape.

Located on « Missile Row, » Launch Complex 13 first supported a test of an Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile in 1958, and later launches of unmanned planetary probes for NASA and classified Air Force missions. It was deactivated in 1978 after more than 50 launches and designated part of a National Historic Landmark, according to Air Force records.

But first for SpaceX, an autonomous drone ship awaits.

« It’s a good test before we get back to land, » said Koenigsmann.

About the mission

•Mission: SpaceX’s fifth ISS resupply mission for NASA

•Rocket: SpaceX Falcon 9

•Spacecraft: SpaceX Dragon

•Launch Complex: 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station

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