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Elon Musk delays SpaceX launch until 2009

'Off the shelf' rocket suffering technical hiccups

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Visionary PayPal multi-millionaire Elon Musk has revealed setbacks in his plans to develop cheaper access to space. It now appears that the inaugural flight of Musk's SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher and Dragon capsule will be put back from early Q4 this year to late Q1 2009.

Speaking to Flight International, Musk blamed the delay on sheer volume of work, as well as regulatory burdens resulting from a shift of launch site by SpaceX.

"It is the enormous amount of work to get done," he said. "I can't honestly point to any one thing. It is an array of things. Structural qualification, software and hardware testing, we have to complete it all for Dragon and for the Falcon 9, and prove it to the NASA folks."

Falcon 9 will operate from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It was originally planned to fly from Kwajalein atoll in the Pacific, like SpaceX's Falcon 1. "The primary design driver," of the Falcon rockets, according to SpaceX, "is and will remain reliability."

Such reliability has not yet been achieved, however, with two demonstration flights by Falcon 1 suffering serious technical failures. The first caught fire and crashed, and the second failed to achieve orbit due to problems during stage separation. A third Falcon 1 launch is planned for April.

The Dragon capsule is designed to carry 2.5 tonnes of cargo or six astronauts into low orbit.

Despite the initial test snags - by no means uncommon with new rockets - SpaceX has done well in landing contracts, perhaps because it aims to seriously reduce the price of space launch as well as improve reliability. Falcon 1 is described as "the world's lowest cost flight to orbit" at $7m for 570kg of stuff carried.

The firm also has funding from NASA, which wants to be able to draw on "commercial off the shelf" (COTS) lift capacity - among other things, in order to service the International Space Station once the shuttle fleet retires.

SpaceX says it is in "an extremely strong financial position", and that its business model "will re-ignite humanity's efforts to explore and develop Space", in accordance with Musk's vision.

It is the COTS launches for NASA which have now been delayed. Provided that the trial flight of Falcon 9 early next year is successful, payload-carrying COTS missions are expected to follow in quick succession.

Mr Musk is also involved in other new-tech ventures, most notably the Tesla Motors electric car effort. He owns the first ever Tesla Roadster battery supercar, though like other early Roadster drivers he will need to have some components of his car - such as the transmission - replaced by improved versions once certain snags have been ironed out.

The Flight report is here. The SpaceX website is here. ®

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