SpaceX Falcon 9 Explodes in Test Flight Over Texas

On Friday August 22 a Falcon F9R exploded with the on board computer detected a problem during a test flight. In a statement SpaceX said “flight termination system automatically terminated the mission,” …”There were no injuries or near injuries.” It is not yet known what actually caused the system to abort the flight.

This version of the Falcon is the three engine model which they hope to be able to launch as a single stage to orbit and then soft land using the engines to touch down. SpaceX has demonstrated soft landings several times using its Grasshopper test bed but these flights only attained an altitude of about a thousand feet.

By and large SpaceX has been highly successful, their rocket program being one of the few new private ventures to provide cheap reliable methods to insert payloads into Earth Orbit. Normally the tried and true parachute has been the preferred method to return equipment safely from space. SpaceX is attempting to go where no rocket has gone before and use the engines to return the vehicle safely to Earth. Thus far that is only been done in the realm of science fiction.

Related : SpaceX Grasshopper completes 744m test flight

To be honest I still don’t see the real value added in this method, other than the cool factor. The fuel you use to land is carried at the expense of additional payload. The math for this has never really worked, the cost of carrying the mass of the larger entire vehicle into space and soft landing using engines never really made sense. Until there is a much more efficient propulsion method the fuel mass to thrust equation just does not support this concept in my humble opinion. Taking into account the resources needed to refurbish the rocket even if it does land safely are you really saving enough money/resources to make it worth while? I think not.

Related : Video – Falcon 9 1000m Fin Flight Onboard Cam and Wide Shot

Maybe SpaceX has unlocked some formula or concept that makes sense we don’t see but I remember back in the early days of the Space Shuttle when the Russians were caught off guard at the design of the shuttle. They did not understanding why America would design a vehicle astronauts could not escape from, they looked at the math and also did not see how it could make economic sense. Russia wondered what America was up to, what were they missing. Did America know something they did not. It was a design that just did not add up. Russia even went as far as to build their own clone of the shuttle to see if they could learn something, had they missed some basic premise..Well they had not, and ultimately the Space Shuttle proved costly in both terms of lives and money. America ultimately wound up contracting Russia to use their rockets to deliver payloads to space.  The Shuttle was a technical marvel, but just not the best, safest way to get the job done.

The same thought applies to the soft landing rocket design SpaceX is using. It just does not pass the sniff test for something that is feasible. It is neat no doubt to see a rocket landing like that, but a parachute seems much more efficient, reliable, and cost effective. Something that would work is a space plane concept. A vehicle that takes off and lands on a runway. Virgin Galactic is doing something like this to put tourists in space, and the Orbital Pegasus used a similar concept where the rocket is carried to altitude and dropped from a plane. This method is okay for smaller payloads but I will start to get excited when we have a large plane that goes into space and then returns. Image if we could put something the size of a 747 in space and return it. Now THAT is a reusable spacecraft. Once we do something like that spaceflight will be as safe and routine as an airplane flight.

The Engineers at SpaceX will no doubt figure out what happened an fix it, every failure is a lesson learned. Failures are exactly why we test. When your pushing the envelope of new technology there are bound to be bumps in the road. So I would not think if this as a failure but rather a success in finding an issue with the systems. We will see how it all ultimately plays out, maybe Buck Rogers is in our future after all.

About the author

Recipient of many prestigious NASA Awards including the Exceptional Public Service Medal and the Robert H. Goddard award. Experience includes working for NASA, as a contractor, in satellite design, construction and operations. Expert in the satellite operations concepts and ground systems including command, control, and science data processing.