Falcon 9 Loses an Engine (and Fairing), Demonstrates Resiliance

In an update released Monday,  further analysis of the engine anomaly observed in Sunday night’s launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 on NASA CRS-1 mission suggests that engine number 1 experienced a sudden pressure loss which resulted in a computer commanded shutdown, not an explosion as originally speculated.  According to current analysis, the debris seen in high fidelity launch photographs is that of the protective engine fairing being blown away as a result of the corresponding pressure spike.

The incident, which resulted in a lower than planned deployment orbit for a Orbcomm demonstration satellite carried as a secondary payload, was the only black mark on what would have otherwise been a first ever, on-time, picture perfect launch for the Falcon 9. In this case however, the “perfect picture” was that of the protective fairing being blown away.  The fact that cameras captured the incident demonstrates the upside of frequently annoying launch weather restrictions, namely clear line of sight for just this type of analysis.

Although no-one, not SpaceX; and certainly not Orbcomm can be satisfied with the loss of an engine and the corresponding incorrect payload deployment, in the bigger picture, the utterly deft recovery of the Falcon 9 provides a clear demonstration of the engine out capability.  And as the video itself clearly shows, much like the classic Timex add,  the Falcon 9 rocket itself “takes a licking and keeps on ticking” with no visible effect even though the event occurs just past Max-Q.

SpaceX is presently planning to introduce a significantly upgraded Merlin 1D engine on the maiden flight of the Falcon 9 V1.1,  following a second CRS currently slotted for January. In that context, the successful demonstration of both actual engine out capability, and instantaneous flight control re-calculation, should be a source of assurance for the company’s burgeoning customer base.

On a different note, the incident serves as a reminder that introducing a fully reusable launch system, regardless of who is doing so, is going to be a difficult and probably lengthy process which in some ways can’t even start until a launch vehicle is recovered, analyzed and flown again,  (and again) until propulsion systems are thoroughly understood.  That SpaceX is aggressively pursuing this course with Falcon reusable is a great start, but it is also unfortunate and short-sighted that present national space policy essentially ignores the issue of re-usability altogether, even as current plans call for SLS to consume the entire inventory of remaining Space Shuttle Main Engines, only to replace them with more expendable engines when they are gone.

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