SpaceX Down But Not Out After Failure of Falcon 1

Why give up after only 25 seconds?

By Brad Lemley|Saturday, July 01, 2006
RELATED TAGS: SPACE FLIGHT
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Courtesy of Thom Rogers/SpaceX

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Space Exploration Technologies, isn't wavering from his goal of slashing the cost of spaceflight by 90 percent, even though his firm's first attempt at orbital flight went down in flames on March 28. "We plan to launch again as soon as possible," he says, indicating that SpaceX, as the El Segundo, California, company is known, could try again as early as September.

The Falcon 1 rocket's engine caught fire 25 seconds after liftoff from the Pacific island of Omelek. An automatic engine shutdown triggered the crash of the rocket and its payload, an experimental communications satellite called FalconSat-2. Musk's preliminary investigation indicates that "somebody failed to secure a fitting in the fuel system, resulting in a leak." In other words, bad luck, not bad design. "Everything worked perfectly except for the fact that there was a bloody engine fire," he says.

Postcrash analysis reveals that the Falcon 1's data transponders told ground computers about the fuel leak 6.5 minutes prior to liftoff. Launch proceeded anyway because there were automatic abort sequences for every problem that engineers had identified during testing "but not for this," because no one had seen it before, Musk says. SpaceX engineers are now boosting the number of abort sequences tenfold to include this glitch as well as other unlikely eventualities.

Musk has stated he could afford three failures, and he collected so much data from the first flight that he now labels it a success. That leaves three more chances to make spaceflight affordable via simple, reusable rockets. So far, no customers have backed out, and Musk remains upbeat—even going ahead with plans to develop a reusable manned space capsule called Dragon. "Companies, like people, have good days and bad days," he says. "We had a bad day, but we're going to make this work."

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