A privately built spacecraft designed to put a payload into orbit yesterday made the initial jump into space but failed when its second-stage rocket engine would not work properly and fell back into the atmosphere. The second demonstration flight of the Falcon 1 launch vehicle, built by privately held Space Exploration Technologies, of El Segundo, Calif., cleared the launch pad at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands at 0110 GMT (2110 Eastern Time). However, after the successful first-stage burn, controllers lost contact with the second stage's telemetry a little more than five minutes into the mission.
Nevertheless, the CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, said in a written account: "The launch was not perfect, but certainly pretty good. Given that the primary objectives were demonstrating responsive launch and gathering test data in advance of our first operational satellite launch later this year, the outcome was great."
In a separate statement, SpaceX said that at the point of stage separation of the Falcon 1, the spent first stage struck the second-stage engine bell. 'This resulted in a circular oscillation that increased in amplitude until onboard video was lost', they observed. 'At around T+5 minutes, the vehicle started to spin and telemetry ended.' It added that the status of the remnants of this Falcon 1 were unknown at present.
Musk, who is financing much of the project with earnings from technology start-ups such as PayPal, wrote last night that the spacecraft, carrying a mock satellite payload, "flew far beyond the 'edge' of space." He estimated that the second stage reached an altitude of 200 miles—only 50 miles short of the orbital path of the International Space Station. "The second stage didn't achieve full orbital velocity, due to a roll excitation late in the burn, but that should be a comparatively easy fix once we examine the flight data," he explained.
"All in all, this test has flight proven 95+ percent of the Falcon 1 systems, which bodes really well for our upcoming flights of Falcon 1 and Falcon 9, which use similar hardware."
The U.S. Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency underwrote the first two test flights of the Falcon 1 series. The first demonstration, one year ago, ended in complete systems failure caused by a fuel-line leak and subsequent fire.
Musk reassured his firm's government backers that yesterday's aborted mission would not prove a roadblock for subsequent launches. "We do not expect any significant delay in the upcoming flights at this point," he noted. The first commercial flight of the Falcon 1 is still, as of now, scheduled for sometime in late summer. It will attempt to launch a satellite into orbit for the Department of Defense. If all goes according to plan, SpaceX would then follow up that mission with a deployment of a satellite for the government of Malaysia in the fall.
Looking on the bright side of yesterday's events, Musk said that SpaceX had "retired almost all of the significant development risk items" on its checklist of goals for the mission. He described these as: first-stage ascent past maximum dynamic pressure; avionics operation in vacuum and under radiation; stage separation; second-stage ignition; fairing separation; second-stage nozzle/chamber at steady state temperature in a vacuum.
Obviously, SpaceX needs to "retire" several more items on its orbital flight agenda between now and this summer. Still, you've got to admire its fledgling space entrepreneur's undaunted spirit in the face of such cold, hard reality.