Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favor of the continued exploration of space, be it public or private funding. Space X HQ is barely three miles from my office, and I have a buddy who works for the Ansari X Prize project.
Space X actually has a launch tomorrow; the first U.S. contracted resupply mission to the International Space Station.
relantel wrote:I heard about that, assume it went up ok?
Not entirely. Engine 1 of the nine Merlin 1-C engines on the first stage failed at about T+1:20. According to SpaceX, because the engine shutdown happened right around the point in flight when aerodynamic stresses on the rocket are at their peak (Max Q), the sudden loss of pressure from that engine caused part of the bottom of the first state to tear away. Here’s a slow-motion video of the incident. Unfortunately, the launch was at night, so it’s hard to see how much damage there was, but one can definitely see parts falling away from the rocket.
While an engine failure is certainly not wanted, this event may actually end up making SpaceX look good. SpaceX has advertised the Falcon 9 as being able to keep flying after losing an engine, and that’s exactly what happened in this case. The other eight engines were not damaged by the rather destructive-looking loss of Engine 1, and the rocket’s on-board guidance systems immediately compensated for the loss of Engine 1 by changing the rocket’s trajectory and running the first stage for a longer time before stage separation. The second stage then also ran slightly longer in its burn, and the Dragon capsule ended up in the orbit it was supposed to reach. All of the redundancy built into the Falcon 9 worked exactly as it was supposed to.
There was a casualty, however. In addition to the unmanned Dragon capsule carrying supplies to the ISS, the Falcon 9 was also carrying a secondary-payload satellite for a company called Orbcomm. Due to the loss of Engine 1 on the first stage, the second stage had to use more fuel to get to orbit. After the Dragon separated to head for the ISS, the second stage was supposed to re-light to lift the Orbcomm satellite to a higher orbit. But the longer burn left the second stage with too little fuel to do that and not leave the empty second stage in an orbit where it could possibly intersect with the ISS. For safety reasons, NASA vetoed the second burn. Thus, the Orbcomm satellite ended up in a too-low orbit where it will probably burn up in the atmosphere in a year or two.
As an addendum to my posts, SpaceX explained in a press release the reason it didn't re-start the second stage to put the Orbcomm satellite in its proper orbit. Apparently, NASA has extremely tight tolerances for anything that might fly anywhere near the ISS:
As a result of shutting down one of its nine engines early shortly after the launch, the Falcon 9 rocket used slightly more fuel and oxygen to reach the target orbit for Dragon. For the protection of the space station mission, NASA had required that a restart of the upper stage only occur if there was a very high probability (over 99%) of fully completing the second burn. While there was sufficient fuel on board to do so, the liquid oxygen on board was only enough to achieve a roughly 95% likelihood of completing the second burn, so Falcon 9 did not attempt a restart. Although the secondary payload, the Orbcomm satellite, was still deployed to orbit by Falcon 9, it was done so at the lower altitude used by Dragon in order to optimize the safety of the space station mission.
SpaceX probably could have but the Orbcomm satellite where it was supposed to go, but the fact that there was “only” a 95% chance meant that NASA vetoed the second burn. I might be a little ticked off if I were Orbcomm, but then again they probably knew and accepted those risks when they signed on to be a secondary payload.
The SpaceX Dragon berthed at the ISS on Wednesday, and is in the process of being unloaded. The Orbcomm satellite, on the other hand, has already re-entered the atmosphere and burned up.