In a defiant message to his employees after Saturday’s Falcon 1 loss, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) said, “I will never give up and I mean never.” This statement, along with some positive details about what went right with the launch of the 47 tonne rocket, he outlined his plans for the future direction of the corporation. Interestingly, he also overviewed what went wrong with Flight 3 as it ascended through the atmosphere. According to Musk, the first Merlin 1C rocket stage performed perfectly, but the problem occurred during stage separation, causing the first and second stages to be held together for too long. An inquiry is under way…
Watching the live video feed from the Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific a few hours ago was a frustrating experience. As reported by another reader of the Universe Today, the feed was low quality and pretty choppy, especially during the T-10 second countdown. But I was very excited all the same to see the Falcon 1 Merlin 1C engine light up (for two frames), blast out a puff of exhaust… only for it to stop and abort. This was at 8pm PST. According to Max Vozoff, SpaceX mission manager, some parameter was 1% out of “normal” operating limits so the Falcon 1 rocket shut down. Quickly, engineers were on the scene evaluating what had gone wrong. In an amazingly quick turn around, Vozoff had announced the ground crews were good to go and a new countdown would commence.
Within the hour, we were back to T-10 seconds and the Merlin engine blasted to life once more, this time with a lot more conviction. Before the female voice at mission control could say “two, one,” Falcon 1 had blasted off and powered away from the launchpad. It was an awesome sight (even if the video had become more choppy than before, probably due to online demand). The delight at mission control could be heard and the atmosphere was alight with enthusiasm.
But during the flight, 35 km off the ground and 140 seconds later, the video stream was suddenly cut. According to some viewers there was some anomalous rotation oscillations. Soon, we were back at mission control looking at the concerned faces of Max Vozoff and Emily Shanklin. Vozoff was listening to instructions from the flight controllers and eventually composed himself to say the following statement:
“We are hearing from the launch control center that there has been an anomaly on the vehicle. We donâ€™t have any information about what that anomaly is at this time. We will, of course, be doing an assessment of the situation and providing information as soon as it becomes available.” – Max Vozoff.
The anomaly, according to Musk, was with the stage separation not occurring when it should. The Merlin 1C engine in the first stage (which was completely designed from scratch by SpaceX) performed “picture perfect,” but the second stage rocket wasn’t able to prove itself as the launch had to be aborted. At this time, I am uncertain whether Falcon 1 was remotely destroyed or whether it was allowed to plunge into the ocean (although the latter option seems unlikely). We’ll know at a later date as to the details of this anomaly.
For now, our thoughts go out to the SpaceX scientists and engineers who have exhaustively put all their efforts into this third flight of the rocket (the previous two test flights also failed to varying degrees). For now, I’ll leave you with the full text of Elon Musk’s statement to his employees:
The full text of Saturday’s statement:
Plan Going Forward
It was obviously a big disappointment not to reach orbit on this flight [Falcon 1, Flight 3]. On the plus side, the flight of our first stage, with the new Merlin 1C engine that will be used in Falcon 9, was picture perfect. Unfortunately, a problem occurred with stage separation, causing the stages to be held together. This is under investigation and I will send out a note as soon as we understand exactly what happened.
The most important message Iâ€™d like to send right now is that SpaceX will not skip a beat in execution going forward. We have flight four of Falcon 1 almost ready for flight and flight five right behind that. I have also given the go ahead to begin fabrication of flight six. Falcon 9 development will also continue unabated, taking into account the lessons learned with Falcon 1. We have made great progress this past week with the successful nine engine firing.
As a precautionary measure to guard against the possibility of flight 3 not reaching orbit, SpaceX recently accepted a significant investment. Combined with our existing cash reserves, that ensures we will have more than sufficient funding on hand to continue launching Falcon 1 and develop Falcon 9 and Dragon. There should be absolutely zero question that SpaceX will prevail in reaching orbit and demonstrating reliable space transport. For my part, I will never give up and I mean never.
Thanks for your hard work and now on to flight four.
Hello! My name is Ian O’Neill and I’ve been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!