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Third time unlucky for Elon Musk's Falcon rocket

Volcano lair rather than space station for now

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SpaceX, the commercial space launch company run by PayPal multimillionaire and tech visionary Elon Musk, has suffered another technical hitch. The third test flight of the Falcon 1 rocket has been unsuccessful, after the upper stage failed to separate properly from the lower.

"It was obviously a big disappointment not to reach orbit on this flight," said Musk in an online statement at the weekend.

"On the plus side, the flight of our first stage, with the new Merlin 1C engine that will be used in Falcon 9, was picture perfect. Unfortunately, a problem occurred with stage separation, causing the stages to be held together. This is under investigation and I will send out a note as soon as we understand exactly what happened."

The two previous launches of Falcon 1 both failed as well. The most recent suffered separation issues like those seen at the weekend, and the first caught fire and crashed.

SpaceX also plans a larger and more powerful system, the Falcon 9, intended to fly next year. This rocket could one day be man-rated, and carry astronauts into orbit in SpaceX's Dragon capsule.

"The primary design driver," of the Falcon rockets, according to SpaceX, "is and will remain reliability."

Musk is also now the undisputed chief at well-known electric vehicle firm Tesla Motors, following boardroom battles last year. He owns the first Tesla Roadster battery supercar, and is apparently to personally sculpt the bodywork of its more affordable, more mass-market successor. (This follows an acrimonious dispute with car designer Henrik Fisker, who Musk says deliberately palmed off Tesla with an inferior design before leaving to start his own electrocar firm. The argument is now in the Californian courts.)

Answering speculation as to the effect of the latest Falcon 1 failure on SpaceX's future Musk remains upbeat, saying that he has recently accepted a large financial contribution from an unnamed investor and that the firm's ambitious launch schedule will proceed unaffected.

"I will never give up and I mean never," he writes. ®

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