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Why did South Korea's rocket launch fail?

South Korean officials said they did not know where to pin blame, but noted the explosion occurred in the Russian-made first-stage of the rocket rather than in the Korean-made second stage. The failure of the South Korea rocket launch was an embarrassing setback.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / June 11, 2010

The South Korea Space Launch Vehicle takes off from the launch pad at the Naro Space Center in Goheung, South Korea, Thursday, June 10, 2010. South Korea launched the rocket carrying a satellite meant to study climate change Thursday, but the rocket exploded just minutes into the flight.

AP Photo/ Korea Pool


Seoul, South Korea

South Korean and Russian scientists sought explanations Friday for the explosion of a rocket that sent a Korean satellite into the sea within less than 2-1/2 minutes in an embarrassing failure for South Korea’s costly space program.

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Officially, South Korean officials said they did not know where to pin the blame, but noted that the explosion occurred in the Russian-made first-stage of the rocket rather than in the Korean-made second stage. Korea’s highly ballyhooed first attempt at launching a satellite from Korean soil has been a joint project in which Russia's Khrunichev Space Center built the liquid-fueled first stage while the Korea Aerospace Research Institute built the solid-fuel second stage.

The explosion occurred “before the first and second stage,” said a member of the Korean team at the Naro Space Center from which the rocket was launched Thursday. “That’s in the timeline.” The launch came after a one-day delay caused by a glitch in a fire-control system not related to either the rocket or the satellite.

Korean national pride over the idea of firing a satellite into space is obvious from the name Koreans gave it: KSLV-1, or Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1. While the name no doubt will endure in another attempt, the sense of sadness over the failure is tangible among all those involved in the project.

The failure of the rocket was particularly painful for Korean officials beleaguered by public criticism for focusing on costly projects and favoring large business interests while ignoring the needs of ordinary people. The conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak suffered a setback in local elections on June 2 in which opposition candidates won a majority of the races for governor and mayor.

“They rushed too much,” says an office manager, Kim Myung-sun. “They were under too much pressure. It was because of the money.”

$1 billion program

Such suspicions are widespread in view of the cost of a program that has cost nearly $1 billion all told as a result of years of research culminating first in the failure of the launch of a similar satellite last August and then the one on Thursday. Now Korean officials are saying the Russians will have to pay for a third attempt even though the Khrunichev Space Center is not expected to want to take full responsibility.

South Korean Minister of Education, Science andTechnology Ahn Byong-man cited wording in the agreement with the Russians for the third launch if the first two launches did not put the 100-kilogram satellite into orbit. The satellite, from a relatively low height of 600 kilometers above the earth, was equipped to analyze and forecast weather patterns.

A South Korean official described the mood at the Naro Space Center as “very sad” after a failure that was even worse than the one last August. Russian and South Korean teams of more than 100 scientists and engineers from each country got the word, said Mr. Ahn, after “an inboard camera detected a bright flash of light at 137 seconds into the flight.” The light flash, he said, “coincides exactly with the loss of communication with the two-stage rocket.”