It would be a bad start for most companies: After logging six years of work and tens of millions of dollars in costs, all there is to show is scorched and twisted aluminum.

But for Space Exploration Technologies Corp., a Hawthorne-based company bankrolled by a billionaire who wants to revolutionize the rocket industry, that's just the entry to the road toward stratospheric success.

The company may show promise, but its efforts have so far been littered with shrapnel. Known as SpaceX, the startup founded in 2002 has tried three times to send its satellite-launching Falcon 1 rocket into orbit. Each attempt has failed, most recently in early August when two stages of the rocket collided in midflight.

The company is approaching a potentially crucial juncture. It's scheduled to launch its fourth Falcon 1 within the next few weeks. At the same time, it's preparing the larger Falcon 9 rocket for its maiden voyage next year.

Much rides on the Falcon 9, which could someday carry cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX is relying on the heavy rocket to compete for a multimillion-dollar NASA contract to resupply the space station by 2010.

SpaceX's competitor for that contract is Orbital Sciences Corp. of Virginia, an established firm with decades of experience and a track record of successful launches in other words, the opposite of SpaceX.

None of this has deterred the sky-high ambitions of company founder and Chief Executive Elon Musk. Though he has no past experience with rockets, Musk, who made his fortune when he sold PayPal to eBay Inc., is SpaceX's chief engineer and is lead designer on the Falcon rockets.

Musk has also talked about sending a man into space in a capsule called Dragon by 2011. If successful, that could effectively make SpaceX NASA's de facto outsourcing launch contractor when NASA retires the space shuttle in 2010.

Since he founded SpaceX, Musk's public musings have led to a perception among some in the aerospace industry that he is at best na & #271;ve, at worst arrogant.

"He's been trying to claim success by saying we did 80 percent or 90 percent or 95 percent of the flight plan" on the previous Falcon 1 flights, said Frank Sietzen, an author and space industry consultant in Virginia who worked as one of SpaceX's first lobbyists in Washington, D.C. "Well, that's like saying you're taking a jet from L.A. to New York City and having the jet crash before it gets there and you say the flight was 99 percent successful."

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