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SpaceX hits a snag

Elon Musk - the millionaire founder of Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX - often says there's a reason why rocket science is a stereotypically hard thing to do. Further proof of that came today, when Musk announced that the long-anticipated second launch of his Falcon 1 rocket would have to be delayed until next month due to a problem with the craft's control system.

This Falcon 1 mission is purely a demonstration launch, to show the Pentagon that SpaceX's rockets are ready to put military communication satellites into orbit under the terms of a $100 million contract. If Musk is successful, the Falcon system could open the way toward increased competition in the launch industry and help bring down the cost of access to space.

SpaceX had hoped to conduct a static-fire engine test today on the rocket's launch pad at Kwajalein Atoll (a.k.a. Kwaj), which is more often used for the Pentagon's missile defense tests. The static-fire test is usually part of the final buildup toward launch. But Musk is being extra-careful about this launch - particularly because the Falcon 1's maiden mission failed in November 2005 due to a fuel leak caused by an overlooked corroded nut.

It's taken more than a year to work toward this second launch, and now it will take a little while longer. Here's what Musk had to say on SpaceX's Web site:

"During our final check-outs prior to static fire, we uncovered an anomaly with the thrust vector control (TVC) pitch actuator on the second stage that will result in launch being pushed to February. Since this is not used during the static fire, we have decided to push forward with that test in order to acquire valuable data on engine ignition, pad acoustics, and the overall system response. The static fire is now planned to occur between Saturday and Tuesday. This test will proceed very slowly and then only burns for about four seconds, so will not be webcast to avoid boring people silly. We will post a video afterwards.

"Upon completion of the static fire, we will take the rocket back into the hangar to thoroughly investigate the TVC issue.  With the range available to us only until January 23 (Kwaj needs to reconfigure for an incoming Minuteman mission), this means launch is now planned for mid-February.  As I've mentioned previously, don't hold your breath for this launch. Given the large number of robustness improvements and the fact that our vehicle/pad health verification system has increased from about 30 checks to almost 1,000, shifts in the launch date are to be expected. Overall, the SpaceX team is quite happy with the smooth progress so far."

Private space consultant Charles Lurio said in an e-mail that the delay to mid-February was no surprise:

"While I hope the static firing goes well, my reaction to the 'launch delay' is that it really isn't one. The most likely scenario was always that the earliest launch attempt would come later. Yawn."

To find out how the static-fire test turns out, keep checking the SpaceX update page over the weekend - and look in on the "Kwajalein Atoll and Rockets" Weblog, a totally unofficial site maintained by Kimbal Musk, Elon's brother.

Update for 9:20 p.m. ET Jan. 24: SpaceX says the static-fire test was not conducted after all. More information should become available on Jan. 25. Stay tuned...