A privately held rocket company on Wednesday blamed a design error for its latest failure to reach orbit, which caused the loss of three government satellites and human ashes, including the remains of astronaut Gordon Cooper and Star Trek actor James Doohan.
The two-stage Falcon 1 rocket, which blasted off from a Central Pacific atoll Saturday night, separated as planned on its way to space, but leftover thrust after engine cutoff caused the first stage to collide with the second stage, according to SpaceX, which is based in Hawthorne, Calif.
The rocket, containing the remains of 208 people, dropped in the Pacific and was not recovered.
The family of Doohan, who played Scotty on Star Trek, could not be reached Wednesday night.
A message left with Cooper's widow Suzan Cooper was not immediately returned. Cooper was one of the original Mercury astronauts who set a space endurance record by travelling 3.3 million miles aboard Gemini V in 1965.
The rocket also carried three small satellites for NASA and the U.S. Defence Department. It was not immediately known how much the satellites cost. NASA lost a nanosatellite and an experimental solar sail.
"Although we were not able to test these payloads in space, NASA … achieved success in these two low-cost missions by rapidly pulling together expertise," the space agency said on its web site.
Third miss for SpaceX
Saturday's foiled launch was the third miss for SpaceX, which hopes to break into the low-cost space launch business. Its 2006 maiden launch failed due to a fuel line leak. The rocket reached about 300 km above Earth on its second try last year, but its second stage shut off prematurely.
The latest attempt used a different engine. SpaceX said the new engine performed flawlessly, but the failure occurred because there was a short time gap — 1.5 seconds — between engine shutdown and stage separation.
Neither stage exploded, but they "got a little bit cooked," said internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002.
Musk said the problem could be easily fixed by increasing the timing between the two steps. Engineers did not detect the problem during testing because it was done at sea level, Musk said.
SpaceX plans to launch another Falcon 1 as early as next month.
Besides the Falcon 1, SpaceX is developing a larger launch vehicle for NASA, Falcon 9, capable of flying to the International Space Station when the current space shuttle fleet retires in 2010.