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Tue, Sep 26, 2006

Inaugural Flight From Spaceport America Ends Prematurely

What Went UP Comes Falling Back Down

Rats... the first-ever rocket flight from New Mexico's Spaceport America ended sooner than planned Monday, crashing in the desert far short of its planned 70-mile apogee in suborbital space.

Things looked good when the 20-foot SpaceLoft XL rocket lifted off at 2:14 pm MDT Monday afternoon, and began a mission that was due to end 13 minutes later at White Sands Missile Range. Alas, that didn't last for long.

"It seemed to be going perfectly," said Rick Homans, NM economic development cabinet secretary, to the Las Cruces Sun-Times. "But about 10 seconds into its flight it was clear there was a problem."

Spectators watching the event from three miles away told the Sun-Times the rocket appeared to wobble as it lifted off, before entering an apparent corkscrew motion.

Officials with UP Aerospace, the Connecticut-based company that funded the launch, said the rocket reached about 40,000 feet before falling back to earth. It was not immediately known where the rocket landed, or what condition it was in.

The SpaceLoft XL carried 50 experiments and other payloads. Launch logistics coordinator Tracey Larson said it's possible at least some of those containers survived the premature landing... and added the mere fact the rocket launched at all was something of a victory.

"We will launch again in three weeks. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. We still feel it was a success," she said.

That sentiment was echoed by Homans, as well.

"It was a day full of ups and downs. There were all kinds of technical challenges to overcome," he said. "It was a disappointment the rocket didn't go into space, but there was a lot learned and gained. The launch process, the goal of a safe launch, went flawlessly. There was a problem with the mission, but those are issues that the UP Aerospace team can analyze and fix. Spirits are dampened for the moment, but we also realized what was accomplished."

Next up is the planned October 21 launch of another SpaceLoft XL... this one carrying more experiments, as well as the ashes of several celebrities including James Doohan -- Star Trek's "Scotty" -- and Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper.



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