First SpaceX rocket launch ends in failure
BY JUSTIN RAY
Posted: March 24, 2006
The maiden flight for a new breed of low-cost rockets designed to revolutionize the space launch industry met a disastrous fate Friday, tumbling out of control and slamming into the Pacific Ocean moments after liftoff.
More than three years of development took the Falcon 1 rocket from the drawing board to the launch pad thanks to the backing of Elon Musk. The South African spent part of the fortune he made as co-founder of PayPal, the online payment system, and the earlier Zip2 software company to create Space Exploration Technologies Corp.
He formed SpaceX with the goal of vastly reducing the cost of rockets and dreams of human voyages to the planets.
The company's first space booster blasted off at 2230 GMT (5:30 p.m. EST) from the seven-acre Omelek Island in the Kwajalein Atoll. The mission had been delayed months by technical setbacks.
The 70-foot tall Falcon 1 rocket, named after the Star Wars Millennium Falcon, was carrying a tiny science spacecraft built by cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The two-stage booster was supposed to deploy the probe into a 250 by 310 mile orbit around Earth.
Priced at $6.7 million per launch, the Falcon 1 small-satellite launcher seems like a bargain in the U.S. market, since NASA currently spends almost three times that much on existing rockets of similar lifting power.
What's more, the Falcon 1's design will evolve into larger rockets -- the Falcon 5 and Falcon 9 -- to haul much heavier payloads into orbit while promising to keep the cost lower than Atlas or Delta vehicles.
But Friday's launch turned into a brutal failure.
Liftoff was delayed 90 minutes because the retrieval ship for the reusable first stage was errantly inside the restricted zone downrange and had to be moved into safer waters.
After the unplanned hold, countdown clocks entered the final 75 minutes and the rocket was loaded with a highly-refined kerosene propellant and supercold liquid oxygen to feed the engines on both stages.
To keep the liquid oxygen from warming up and naturally boiling away while the rocket sat on its tropical launch pad before liftoff, a "thermal coat" had been wrapped around the first stage. Problems running out of liquid oxygen on the remote island have bedeviled SpaceX over the past few months.
"A glaring deficiency that we had in the November and December attempts was the fact that we were basically boiling LOX at an unacceptably high rate. It is hard to get LOX on the island. So what we did was put a blanket scheme together to cover the first stage LOX tank," Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX vice president of business development, told reporters during Friday's countdown.
"It is held to the rocket by Velcro and we've got lanyards that hold it down to the ground. So basically the lanyards will pull a zipper as the vehicle lifts up, a Velcro zipper, and that LOX tank insulation will stay on the ground as the vehicle flies through it."
Countdown clocks hit T-zero and the Merlin main engine fired to life. The powerplant, expected to generate about 77,000 pounds of thrust, was developed in-house by SpaceX.
The Falcon 1 had set sail on its maiden voyage, and a video camera mounted on the rocket beamed back live footage of the booster ascending skyward. However, the launch video did not show any signs of the liquid oxygen blanket unzipping and being yanked free from the rocket by ground tethers as planned.
As the vehicle climbed higher, a white blanket presumably the cover Shotwell had mentioned could be seen flapping wildly in the onboard video. Large pieces appeared to rip away at T+plus 20 seconds due to the rocket's increasing speed.
The vehicle had a noticeable rolling motion, rocking back and forth a bit, and then at T+plus 26 seconds rapidly pitched over when its fiery engine plume became greatly distorted.
"This is the RCO, we have an active track with the radar," the Range Safety officer announced.
Just moments later the rocket impacted the ocean, apparently on its side, at about T+plus 41 seconds.
Did the blanket play a role? Was the engine damaged? Did the nozzle fail? Investigators are beginning to sift through the data collected during the brief flight to construct a full picture of the launch.
"We did lose the vehicle," Shotwell said in announcing the failure. "Clearly this is a setback. But we are in this for the long haul. We will proceed with follow-up information as we learn it."
In a pre-launch press briefing last November before the first attempt to fly the Falcon 1, Musk acknowledged the difficulty in rocketry. Successfully launching a rocket requires everything to go right, and history is littered with failed inaugural flights. Musk compared the maiden flight with trying to develop perfect software.
"It is like...if you had a very complex piece of software that you test pieces of but you can't test the whole thing together until you ran it for the first time, nor could you test it on the exact computer that it had to run for the first time. But when it does run for the first time it can have no bugs. When was the last time you saw a piece of software that met that criteria?"
SpaceX had planned to launch its second Falcon 1 rocket with an experimental communications satellite for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in three to six months from the company's pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. How Friday's failure will change those plans is not clear.
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