Officials Thursday blamed a computer software problem for the postponement of South Korea’s first space rocket launch just minutes before the eagerly-awaited blast-off.
They defended the Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1 programme amid public frustration at the latest in a series of delays in the project.
Seoul has invested 502.5 billion won (419 million dollars) and much national pride in the 33-metre (108-foot) rocket and satellite, which it hopes will give it a head start in Asia’s space race.
But mission controllers suspended the launch at 4:52 pm (0752 GMT) Wednesday, just eight minutes before the scheduled blast-off.
It was the seventh time since 2002 that the project, operated in partnership with Russia, has been delayed.
Kim Jung-Hyun, deputy science and technology minister, said a 40-member team including Russian and South Korean experts had investigated the problem.
“A glitch in the software used for gauging the pressure of high-pressure tanks has been found,” Kim told journalists.
The tanks which operate fuel valves appeared to be losing pressure and automatically sparked a halt in the countdown.
“Currently there is no hardware problem,” Kim stressed, adding it will take up to three days to fix the software glitch.
The rocket is still upright on the launch pad but the highly corrosive liquid fuel must be removed and the tanks dried.
Kim said South Korea would make utmost efforts for a launch before August 26, the closing date for the launch period as notified to the international community.
A collective sigh of disappointment came from some 10,000 spectators who had gathered on the beach next to the launch site on the south coast and began chanting the countdown.
“I’m disappointed as I really wanted to see it. I don’t think I can come again next time as my school reopens (after summer vacation),” Kim Han-Sol, a 12-year-old schoolgirl, told Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
The paper said the postponement also disappointed the TV audience and embarrassed experts. “This must serve as a reminder for us where our space technology stands,” it said.
The paper noted that South Korea had to buy the first stage of the rocket from Russia almost off the shelf, and depended on Russians for all technical decisions about the launch.
Officials and experts said such a delay was not unusual even in countries with more space experience.
“The launch of the US space shuttle Endeavour was put off six times before it was finally launched last month,” Lee Sang-Mok, a senior official at the science ministry, told journalists.
Jang Yong-Keun, professor at Korea Aerospace University, said the sudden suspension of a rocket launch was “not an unusual thing.”
“Other advanced countries do the same,” he told the JoongAng Daily.
A successful launch would have made South Korea the tenth country to put a satellite into orbit using its own rocket.
South Korea constructed the second stage of the rocket. It also built the 100-kilogram (220-pound) scientific research satellite atop the rocket at the Naro Space Centre at Goheung.
The nation has previously sent 10 satellites into space using launch vehicles from other countries.
In November 2007 it announced a plan to launch a lunar orbiter by 2020 and to send a probe to the moon five years after that.
South Korea unveiled the project one month after China launched its first lunar orbiter and two months after Japan did the same.
In April last year Seoul sent its first astronaut into space aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.