Possible Rocket Engine Problem Triggered SpaceX Launch Abort

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A potential rocket engine problem may be to blame for the unexpected abort of a private SpaceX rocket launch before dawn on Saturday (May 19), officials said.

SpaceX was slated to blast off its unmanned Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket at 4:55 a.m. EDT (0855 GMT) from here at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Just after igniting its main engines, the computer onboard the booster initiated an automatic abort due to a high pressure reading in one of the rocket's nine main engines.

Dragon was due to fly to the International Space Station to become the first non-governmental vehicle to berth there. The spacecraft's next chance to launch is Tuesday (May 22) at 3:44 a.m. EDT (0744 GMT), followed by a potential opportunity Wednesday (May 23) at 3:22 a.m. EDT (0722 GMT).

Before SpaceX will officially target a new launch date, however, the company will search for the root cause of today's glitch.

"We should have some technicians up into that engine at about noon today," SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said during a news briefing following the abort. "We'll be up looking for whatever we can find."

Initial indications suggest that the high pressure reading wasn't a sensor error, but did in fact indicate an abnormally high pressure inside the chamber of the Falcon 9's engine five, Shotwell said.

"Now we're just going to have to go in and spend a little bit more time looking at the data," she added.

If the engine looks to be unusable, SpaceX has another Falcon 9 here from which an engine could be swapped out, Shotwell said.

The flight is a trial run for SpaceX's plan to deliver cargo, and eventually crew, to the space station. The mission is partially funded by NASA's COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program, and the firm has a NASA contract to fly 12 delivery missions to the outpost once test flights are completed.

"We're ready to support when SpaceX is ready to go," Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA's commercial crew and cargo program, said during the briefing.

Officials from both NASA and SpaceX have emphasized the uncertain nature of test flights, and said that the main goal was to gather more data about the vehicle.

"This is not a failure," Shotwell said. "We aborted with purpose. It would have been a failure if we had lifted off with an engine trending in this direction."