(Sen) - The first historic commercial launch of a Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station was aborted at the last nail-biting moment today.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket had already begun firing when a computer sensor reported high pressure on one of the nine Merlin engines causing a scrub at the final second.
NASA TV's commentator had actually announced lift-off, but the stack was immediately shut down safely. Initial checks showed the Falcon 9 appeared to be in good order and another launch attempt is set to be made on Tuesday from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
When Dragon does launch, its payload will be 15 experiments designed by students. The experiments were dreamt up by American students who took part in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Programme (SSEP) run by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education.
The national competition, SSEP Mission One, was open to students aged between 10-19 years and attracted entries from 3,490 students in 779 teams.
The Spaceflight Experiments Programme began in June 2010 and gave students the chance to design and propose real experiments to be performed in low-Earth orbit onboard the International Space Station (ISS).
The winners from the first two rounds were carried to the orbital laboratory in 2011 by the Space Shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis as part of their final mission – making them a little part of space flight history.
The experiments aboard Dragon – dubbed “Aquarius” – were due to travel into space onboard a Soyuz flight but thanks to a critical pressurisation failure on the Russian craft, have been re-manifested to travel onboard Dragon’s maiden mission. As the experiments will represent the first commercial cargo ever delivered to the ISS, this batch will also be making history.
The experiments range from testing the effects of microgravity on bacteria, the growth of fish and spiders, the speed of wine making and the use of cacti to purify water.
They will be stored in a special microgravity experiment area run by another private company, NanoRacks. The experiments will remain in space for just under six weeks before returning to Earth onboard a Soyuz flight that is also returning three ISS crew members to Earth.
Like many other historic space projects, the students' payload also contains many of their own specially-designed mission emblems – although, ironically, none of the two dozen patches depict the Dragon craft they will be travelling in.
The launch of the Aquarius package on Dragon will not spell the end of student-designed experiments bound for the ISS. Student teams across America are now in the process of designing experiments for SSEP Mission 2 and there will be a third round (Mission 3) following on its heals.
Aquarius isn't the first cargo carried into space by a Dragon. Credit: SpaceX
The Aquarius experiments may be the only science payload carried onboard this flight, but it is not the first cargo carried into space by a Dragon space craft.
Dragon’s completed its maiden flight in 2010 and, as well as paving the way for future missions, the craft was carrying a top secret cargo. Was it highly-sensitive military hardware, or some kind of scientific experiment? The cargo was sealed in a container marked “Shhh! TOP SECRET”. With the flight completed Elon Musk made the reveal – it was a wheel of cheese, a homage to a fromage-related Monty Python sketch.
There are rumours that the upcoming Dragon launch will also be carrying a "top secret" cargo of Spam.