SpaceX F9R Test Accident in Texas

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Both SpaceX founder Elon Musk and president Gwynne Shotwell have at times chided testing efforts in Texas for not pushing the envelope far enough and creating a smoking hole in the ground.

Tonight they got their wish.

According to multiple reports as well as tweet from Elon Musk, a Falcon F9R test at McGregor went badly awry today, as the vehicle “exploded” in mid-air. Fortunately there were no injuries and no property damage other than the vehicle itself and some minor grass fires.

According to SpaceX spokeperson John Taylor:  “During the flight, an anomaly was detected in the vehicle and the flight termination system automatically terminated the mission.”  He went on to add “Throughout the test and subsequent flight termination, the vehicle remained in the designated flight area. There were no injuries or near injuries. An FAA representative was present at all times.”

Finally, “With research and development projects, detecting vehicle anomalies during the testing is the purpose of the program.” “Today’s test was particularly complex, pushing the limits of the vehicle further than any previous test.”

This marks the first reported test mishap involving the Falcon F9R, and although critics are sure to pounce, and Congressional staffers in Alabama and Colorado are no doubt already working on the next urgent letter to NASA and the Air Force, it is worth recalling that this was test of a cutting edge technology and procedures which literally no-one else in the world is undertaking except SpaceX and Blue Origin.

Along those lines, it is worth recalling Robert Browning’s timeless exhortation to attempt the impossible :

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp”

Per ardua ad astra.



SpaceX Video Confirms Soft Landing on Orbomm Flight

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SpaceX released the following video of the first stage return on the July 14 Orbcomm mission. Early front runner for best short film of the year.

SpaceX Description

Published on Jul 22, 2014

Video of the Falcon 9 first stage reentry and landing following successful delivery of six ORBCOMM satellites to orbit. This test confirms that the Falcon 9 booster is able consistently to reenter from space at hypersonic velocity, restart main engines twice, deploy landing legs and touch down at near zero velocity.

After landing, the vehicle tipped sideways as planned to its final water safing state in a nearly horizontal position. The water impact caused loss of hull integrity, but we received all the necessary data to achieve a successful landing on a future flight. Going forward, we are taking steps to minimize the build up of ice and spots on the camera housing in order to gather improved video on future launches.

Note: For anyone and everyone who observed the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing on Sunday with a pang of remorse over what has become of a nation which could achieve such a thing, fear not.  We’re on the way back.

Sarcastic note: Perhaps elected Representatives from Alabama and Colorado will want NASA and the Air Force to investigate this video too.  Tipping into the water is clearly an anomaly. That never happens on a ULA launch.

SpaceX, OSC and a Window Into the Future


Image Credit: SpaceX

The timing of course, was ultimately a matter of co-incidence driven by weather and mechanical issues, but the back to back launches of the OSC Antares with a Cygnus re-supply ship, and the SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying the first Orbcomm OG-2 mission happen to highlight the stunning progress which has been wrought in great part due to NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) and Commercial Resupply (CRS) programs.

Curiously, it is yet another high point for NewSpace, even as it is a validation of some elements of “Old Space” as well. With the Cygnus cargo ship SS Janice E. Voss, the third vessel of its class en route to the International Space Station for a Wednesday berthing, it is worth reflecting on the truly impressive job performed by Orbital Sciences in integrating multiple elements from multiple companies (and multiple decades) around the world into a low Earth orbit supply system which has seen four successful launches of new booster in barely more than 14 months, three of which carried cargo to ISS.

No, OSC is not SpaceX, but that is precisely the point. Through its exemplary performance in the COTS and CRS programs at what can only be called a miniscule investment of public funds compared to traditional “Old Space” development programs, OSC has demonstrated that it does not require a new, a NewSpace or as the media loves to call it an “upstart” company to achieve outstanding results in supporting human spaceflight.  One cautionary note worth keeping in mind; the ongoing merger with Alliant Techsystems (ATK) is a wildcard which could adversely affect the OSC culture, inexorably dragging it back down into the arsenal space mentality which provided us the Ares-1 and now the Space Launch System. Of course it might work the other way as well.

And then there is SpaceX, which celebrated Bastille Day in a manner for which France is no doubt uniformly unappreciative, undertaking yet another noble attempt to break down the 62 high mile wall in the prison of high launch costs. Based on the information available, yesterday’s attempt, although not successful, clearly indicates that barrier can be breached, and the cracks are spreading.  In two consecutive efforts, Elon Musk’s company has apparently demonstrated that it can re-ignite and control a descending Falcon 9-R first stage back through the atmosphere and up to the moment of hover above the ocean.  For a vehicle designed to land on a concrete pad, a feat we have all seen its pathfinder Grasshopper prototype perform on multiple occasions, that is a clear indication that the balance of the challenge lies in the still unproven art of managing a stage flyback to a dry land. Appropriately enough, this effort will presumably soon be underway over the very dry land of Spaceport America in New Mexico. (For the impatient and the prurient, one might hope subsequent operational launch attempts would include a water activated flotation buoy for the thrust structure, and a trawler with a long cable to haul it back up.)

Taken together, the back to back OSC and SpaceX flights are more than just a great news cycle for NewSpace. They also provide a tantalizing example of what the right partnership of NASA and a coalition of the willing could provide the taxpayer if the right leadership is ever exercised.  Although the Cygnus cargo vessel due to berth with ISS on Wednesday is to suffer the same ignominious fate as ATV, HTV and scores of Progress cargo vehicles, this does not always have to be the case. Next year OSC will launch the enhanced version of Cygnus, one which offers 27 cubic meters (950 cubic feet) of pressurized volume, more than twice that of the Dragon Spacecraft and almost three times the “habitable” volume of the Orion capsule. Its close cousin, the Permanent Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) is a now a permanent component of ISS.

For want of an affordable heavier lift booster (coming to Launchpad 39A in 2015) and preferably a high power solar electric transfer vehicle, and a mindset which abhors throwing anything away, the various components of the current space program, some old, some new, will soon be capable of providing logistics and a permanently expanding amount of pressurized space anywhere in the inner solar system. How soon it takes to seize the moment is still anybody’s guess. Viva La Revolution, and then..Le Bon Ton Roule!

SpaceX Orbcomm Mission Lifts Off to a Long Awaited Success, First Stage Breaks Up On Landing


Lifting off into a bright blue sky punctuated by intermittent clouds, the SpaceX Falcon 9 / Orbcomm OG-2 mission launched at 11:15 am EDT today from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-40.  After initially pushing the planned launch time back from to 9:21 to 11:44 am in order to investigate a possible ground equipment issue,  it finally came as a good omen when the launch schedule actually advanced to the ultimate liftoff time of 11:15.

This morning’s flight made a noticeably more vertical ascent than most previous missions, with Main Engine Cutoff (MECO) taking place seconds after the launch commentary noted the booster at 51 kilometers downrange.

Following a clean stage separation and second stage ignition, the rocket continued its flight to 743 x 614 orbit inclined at 47 degrees to the equator.  The no-frills SpaceX launch commentary ended at that point, and prior to the deployment of the first of six Orbcomm spacecraft from the Moog adapter ring.

The first words of a full success came from Orbcomm CEO Marc Eisenberg via Twitter saying “6 for 6! Thanks SpaceX! Thanks Moog! We’ll take it from here.”  Elon Musk confirmed moments later stating  “Flight 10 of Falcon 9 was good. All six ORBCOMM satellites deployed on target.”

With the Orbcomm mission finally in space, all eyes turned towards first stage recovery efforts taking place in the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Cape Canaveral where the news showed progress, but also disappointment. According to Elon Musk, again via Twitter:

“Rocket booster reentry, landing burn & leg deploy were good, but lost hull integrity right after splashdown (aka kaboom)” That Tweet was soon followed by another stating  “Detailed review of rocket telemetry needed to tell if due to initial splashdown or subsequent tip over and body slam.”

More updates as details come in.

SpaceX has now completed the 10th consecutive successful flight of the Falcon 9 booster overall (with zero failures) and the fifth of the new Falcon 9 v1.1/F9R.  Today’s flight also marks the fifth mission in less than a year’s time, a number which suggests despite the delays which plagued the Orbcomm flight, the company is making steady progress in advancing its pace of operations,  a necessary accomplishment on the way to achieving its ambitious launch schedule.

SpaceX Adds Steerable Fins to F9R for Flight Testing

What a fascinating time.  SpaceX RLV testing is proceeding on two fronts, one at Cape Canaveral with orbital launches, and the other at its McGregor Rocket Development Facility.  Yesterday, SpaceX released this video showing the next step in its sequential program. Here is the official description:

“Video of Falcon 9 Reusable (F9R) during a 1000m test flight at our rocket development facility in McGregor, TX. This flight was our first test of a set of steerable fins that provide control of the rocket during the fly back portion of return. The fins deploy approximately a minute and 15 seconds into the flight, and return to their original position just prior to landing. The F9R testing program is the next step towards reusability following completion of the Grasshopper program last year. Early flights of F9R will take off with legs fixed in the down position, however we will soon transition to liftoff with legs stowed against the side of the rocket with leg extension just before landing. Future test flights of F9R at our New Mexico facility will include higher altitudes, allow us to prove unpowered guidance and to prove out landing cases that are more flight-like.”

Meanwhile, with two prior controlled reentry attempts, on the CASSIOPE and CRS-3 launches respectively, each meeting or surpassing its goals,  SpaceX is drawing ever closer to a controlled water landing and recovery  of the Falcon 9 first stage. While it could come as early as the Orbcomm OG2 launch presently on the pad, even if the booster is not fully recovered, a repeat of what it accomplished on the last attempt would signify a remarkable three out of three success rate, suggesting that the company is well on the way to perfecting the basics of bringing a live first stage back following its natural flight path. The sole remaining goal, and it is a big one for sure, is flying the booster back to the vicinity of the launch area for a powered touchdown  “on the hard.” This is clearly where the directional ability provided by the fins seen in the above comes into play. It is also why the next phase of F9R testing is so critical, and will determine if we are about to enter a new era once and for all.  If higher altitude testing scheduled to begin shortly in New Mexico proves out long distance directional flight, the company will have separately demonstrated all the pieces to combine efforts in one single production.


SpaceX /Orbcomm Launch Set for Friday, June 20


The much anticipated,  but oft delayed launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying 6 Orbcomm OG2 satellites has been reset for this Friday, with a backup slot open on Saturday.  The latest delay was triggered when Orbcomm  elected to perform further investigations regarding an undisclosed problem on one of the six satellites.  The issue apparently resolved, all six satellites are encapsulated aboard the Falcon 9, which successfully completed a static fire on Friday, June 13.

One upshot of the recent series of delays is that the new launch time, set at 6:08 pm ET will allow for an attempted first stage recovery effort to take place with ample daylight remaining on one of the longest days of the year. The weather forecast currently calls for a 30% chance of rain on Friday.

Perhaps of greater interest, the marine forecast in offshore waters could not be better, with calm winds and very placid 2-3′ seas. In the case of a local weather delay on Friday, the same forecast will hold for Saturday. In short, if the Falcon 9 first stage can manage to repeat the controlled re-entry and hover performance it displayed on the CRS-3 flight which took place in far worse conditions, the odds of a successful recovery appear to be as strong as they are ever likely to be at this stage of the program.

NASA / SpaceX Press Conference Reveals New Details on Today’s Launch

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A post launch news conference on today’s SpaceX CRS-3 mission to the International Space Station shed a few key details on the mission itself, as well as the subsequent effort to recover the first stage in the Atlantic ocean.

For anyone who viewed the launch, it was difficult to miss the rather odd plume of what appeared to be soot coating the side of the booster before it left the pad.  According to Elon Musk, who addressed the press by phone from SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Ca. the plume was the result of excess water pad technicians had sprayed prior to liftoff.  In other words, according to Musk “we got dirty water on ourselves.”

Also, once in orbit, the Dragon experienced a problem with a single isolation valve, causing a momentary delay in one of the thruster pods coming on-line.   Fortunately, a back-up valve functioned nominally, and the Dragon is well on its way to a Sunday morning berthing.

As for the first stage recovery attempt, the results are still not in, but the presence of high waves; reported at 10-20 feet in the recovery zone, meant that even if the first stage descended to a hover level, the pitching seas would have confused the sensors, leaving little chance of a smooth touchdown anyway.  As it was, the sea state was bad enough to prevent recovery vessels from approaching as near as they would have liked. Clearly, even if the stage is located, and is intact, a recovery effort would be a perilous affair.

On the the other hand, data clearly indicated the F9 first stage had successfully come through the transonic barrier, and, making use of more powerful thrusters and an increased nitrogen supply, effectively counteracted the spin encountered on the previous recovery attempt, ultimately achieving a zero roll rate.

That last point is highly significant, meaning SpaceX has cleared one of the major hurdles in its development path, a fact which prompted Elon Musk to observe that the company was “starting to connect the dots” on re-usability.

On a related note, in response to a question posed by Joeseph Abbot of the Waco-Tribune Herald, Musk revealed that SpaceX will be using two different versions of the F9R for testing, with the first one, F9R Dev 1, remaining at McGregor for low altitude tests, while the other goes to Spaceport America in New Mexico for high altitude testing. Interestingly, Musk left to press conference at that point in order to look at telemetry coming in from today’s recovery attempt in the Atlantic.

On that note, one other tidbit emerged.  NASA, which had been planning on sending a P-3 observation plane to photograph the incoming first stage, had to call off the attempt due to icing conditions. SpaceX however, using a different plane, was in the the air, and will be the source of any incoming imagery.

SpaceX Releases F9R Flight Test Video Hours Before Orbital Launch


One perplexing item regarding today’s SpaceX CRS-3 launch to ISS, and subsequent first stage landing recovery attempt, was the fact that we had yet to see any flight test of the new F9R test vehicle, with the only released video having been a ground level static fire.  It seemed therefore, that even if first stage re-ignition and recovery went better than expected, once the rocket descended close to the surface of the ocean, it would be in uncharted territory.

Apparently not, as this undated video released shortly before today’s launch indicates. Note the Falcon 9R has absolutely no trouble landing with its set of flight weight legs which are considerably smaller than the “training wheels” on its Grasshopper predecessor.

SpaceX description:

“Video of Falcon 9 Reusable (F9R) taking its first test flight at our rocket development facility. F9R lifts off from a launch mount to a height of approximately 250m, hovers and then returns for landing just next to the launch stand. Early flights of F9R will take off with legs fixed in the down position. However, we will soon be transitioning to liftoff with legs stowed against the side of the rocket and then extending them just before landing.

The F9R testing program is the next step towards reusability following completion of the Grasshopper program last year (Grasshopper can be seen in the background of this video). Future testing, including that in New Mexico, will be conducted using the first stage of a F9R as shown here, which is essentially a Falcon 9 v1.1 first stage with legs. F9R test flights in New Mexico will allow us to test at higher altitudes than we are permitted for at our test site in Texas, to do more with unpowered guidance and to prove out landing cases that are more-flight like.”

No “Surrendering America” Here: Watch SpaceX Test Fire New Falcon F9R First Stage

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Image Credit: SpaceX/Youtube

SpaceX released the following statement with the video Friday evening. Several hours later, FOX News ran a special segment “Surrendering America” which focused in part on the decline of the American space program.  Perhaps they should have checked youtube first.

SpaceX statement:

SpaceX successfully test fired the first stage of F9R—an advanced prototype for the world’s first reusable rocket—in preparation for its first test flight in the coming weeks. Unlike airplanes, a rocket’s thrust increases with altitude; F9R generates just over a million pounds of thrust at sea level but gets up to 1.5 million pounds of thrust in the vacuum of space.

The F9R testing program is the next step towards reusability following completion of the Grasshopper program last year. Future testing, including that in New Mexico, will be conducted using the first stage of a Falcon 9 Reusable (F9R) as shown here, which is essentially a Falcon 9 v1.1 first stage with legs. F9R test flights in New Mexico will allow us to test at higher altitudes than we are permitted for at our test site in Texas, to do more with unpowered guidance and to prove out landing cases that are more-flight like.