Sunday, August 03, 2008

Microspace News.... Another Falcon falls short

I would have bet money SpaceX's Falcon 1 would make orbit on Flight 3. Alas, I would have lost.
While the main engine and first stage worked fine, there was a problem with separation. The DoD and NASA satellites aboard were lost, always a crushing blow to satellite engineers who have to wait months to years for launch opportunities.

CEO Elon Musk was resolute. His statement after the mishap reads,

"Plan Going Forward

It was obviously a big disappointment not to reach orbit on this flight [Falcon 1, Flight 3]. On the plus side, the flight of our first stage, with the new Merlin 1C engine that will be used in Falcon 9, was picture perfect. Unfortunately, a problem occurred with stage separation, causing the stages to be held together. This is under investigation and I will send out a note as soon as we understand exactly what happened.
The most important message I’d like to send right now is that SpaceX will not skip a beat in execution going forward. We have flight four of Falcon 1 almost ready for flight and flight five right behind that. I have also given the go ahead to begin fabrication of flight six. Falcon 9 development will also continue unabated, taking into account the lessons learned with Falcon 1. We have made great progress this past week with the successful nine engine firing.
As a precautionary measure to guard against the possibility of flight 3 not reaching orbit, SpaceX recently accepted a significant investment. Combined with our existing cash reserves, that ensures we will have more than sufficient funding on hand to continue launching Falcon 1 and develop Falcon 9 and Dragon. There should be absolutely zero question that SpaceX will prevail in reaching orbit and demonstrating reliable space transport. For my part, I will never give up and I mean never.
Thanks for your hard work and now on to flight four.

--Elon-- "

COMMENT: I'm a bit curious about the "significant investment."

Three failures is not necessarily a sign the design is bad, only that this whole space launch thing is complicated. By historical standards, it's not the best or worst of performances. The Saturn V worked on every flight, but Wernher von Braun's simpler Redstone went into its tests as a ballistic missile with a program of 62 launches. (It was cut to 35 when it was clear the major bugs were worked out.) I feel very bad for the SpaceX folks and even worse for the satellite developers who waited months or years for a launch, but I don't think SpaceX is out of the launch business.

ADDED COMMENT: I note the press releases before this flight, as with the second Falcon attempt, described numerous upgrades and improvements over the previously launched vehicle. In other words, SpaceX has really flown three different configurations, which raises the possibility that new failure modes have been introduced. Folks, I'm not an engineer, but here's my unsolicited advice: Freeze the configuration. Find out what went wrong on Flight 3 and fix that - ONLY THAT - and get a successful flight accomplished before you turn to upgrades. Sure, a test flight is just that, and is often intended to try out something new, but prospective customers have to be getting a little nervous at this point. Sometimes, no matter how good your engineers are, you have to rein them in a bit and say "Just make sure the next one orbits." Just one guy's opinion....

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