SpaceX delayed a historic rocket launch just seconds before liftoff due to a familiar glitch

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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon cargo capsule on top await launch from Pad 39A, the same Cape Canaveral, Fla. launch pad that the moon missions lifted off from.
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SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was poised for a debut flight on Saturday from a historic NASA launchpad – one used by Apollo astronauts and has idled since the end of the space shuttle program nearly 6 years ago.

However, issues with a device that has caused SpaceX headaches and delays both in 2015 and 2014, called a thrust vector control (TVC), spurred mission managers to delay just seconds before liftoff. The device helps maintain the rocket’s speed and direction.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, who owns and operates SpaceX, took to Twitter to comment on the problem in a series of tweets.

“If this is the only issue, flight would be fine, but need to make sure that it isn’t symptomatic of a more significant upstream root cause,” Musk said in another tweet.

And in a third tweet he added: “Btw, 99% likely to be fine (closed loop TVC wd overcome error), but that 1% chance isn’t worth rolling the dice. Better to wait a day.”

The rocket was originally scheduled for launch at 10:01 a.m. ET from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, pending good weather. But the company was aware of a minor problem with the TVC, which is located in the motor of the second stage, or upper half of the rocket.

SpaceX has not flown from Florida in six months.

Flights were suspended after a rocket exploded as it was being fueled for a routine, prelaunch test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The accident destroyed the rocket and its cargo and heavily damaged the launchpad.

SpaceX resumed flying last month from a second launch site in California while it hustled to finish work on the shuttle’s old launchpad. Originally built for the 1960s-era Apollo moon program, the Florida pad was refurbished for the space shuttles, which flew from 1981 to 2011.

SpaceX signed a 20-year lease for the pad in 2014.

“My heart is pounding to come out here today. Not because you guys make me nervous, but because I’ve got a vehicle on this extraordinary pad behind me,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told reporters at the launchpad on Friday, about a day before the delay.

Enter the Dragon

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REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Perched on top of the rocket is a Dragon capsule loaded with about 5,500 pounds (2,500 kg) of supplies and science experiments for the International Space Station (ISS), a $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

The Dragon spacecraft includes an experiment that contains a lethal strain of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to study how it evolves in microgravity, and possibly use those lessons to fight it on the ground.

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A scanning electron micrograph of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA (purple).
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National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)/Flickr

NASA hired privately owned SpaceX and Orbital ATK to resupply the station after the shuttles were retired. The US space agency last year added a third company, privately owned Sierra Nevada Corp, for station cargo runs beginning in 2019.

By then, SpaceX intends to also be launching NASA astronauts, breaking Russia’s monopoly on flying crew to the space station.

Shotwell on Friday dismissed a Government Accountability Office report this week that said SpaceX and Boeing, which also is developing a space taxi for NASA (and a brand-new spacesuit), have too many technical hurdles ahead to make their 2018 deadlines for station crew ferry flights.

“The response to that report … is, ‘The hell we won’t fly before 2019!'” Shotwell said.

A backup opportunity for Saturday’s launch is for 9:38 a.m. ET on Sunday.

SpaceX has to wait until then because the ISS has to pass right overhead for the Dragon to catch up and dock with it, a company representative said during a live newscast on YouTube.