We Have Liftoff -- But Itís Not High Enough!

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Is American rocketry up to it? Earlier this week, and for the third time in a month, a U.S. rocket failed to lift its satellite payload into the proper orbit. On Tuesday, the second-stage boosters failed on a Boeing-made Delta III; in April, two Lockheed Martin Titan IVs fell short of their target orbits. The mission cost of the latest Delta failure, an Orion communication satellite that wound up in a lopsided orbit, was $230 million. That is the kind of money satellite companies donít generally like to see blast off into nothing.

"These kinds of glitches seem to be cyclical," says TIME science senior writer Jeffrey Kluger. "They tend to happen in clusters for no apparent reason." The pedigree of both rockets suggests that company engineers should be able to work out the kinks of these latest models reasonably quickly. "Both the Delta III and the Titan IV come from an extraordinary family of rockets," says Kluger. "Earlier versions of the Titan were used to lift up the Gemini astronauts, and the earlier Deltas had one of the most superlative launch records."

Quickly, however, is the operative word. "The rocket launch market is one in which there are a number of options," says Kluger. "The heat is on both companies to find the root of the problem." Otherwise, each could see customers drift off to competitors such as the European Ariane rocket.