Third time lucky for SpaceX

by Chris Bergin

SpaceX will make a third attempt to debut their Falcon 1 rocket on February 8 (4:30pm West Coast – 00:30 Feb 9, UK), with a new first stage in transit by barge to the Omelek Island site.

The rocket has made two previous attempts, on November 26 and December 19 – with the latter attempt scrubbed due to a failure of an electronic component in one of the first stage fuel tank pressurization valves, resulting in tank being damaged beyond repair on-site, requiring replacement.

‘Although we have triple redundant pressure sensors and dual redundant pressurization valves, when this component shorted, it caused the valve controller board to reboot, effectively eliminating the redundancy,’ noted Space X head Elon Musk in a media release.

‘This is the first time in 3.5 years of hard testing that we have ever seen this happen. Moreover, the component in question has a cycle life and power rating far in excess of the theoretical load that it should see. To address this specific problem, we are replacing the component with one that has a quasi-infinite lifespan and taking a few other steps that will isolate any issue with this component if it goes wrong in the future.’

SpaceX flew a whole new first stage to Hawaii on a C-5 transport plane in time to catch the barge that is shipping towards an arrival date of mid January. It will then be swapped with the damaged stage – which is being sent back to California for repairs.

To avoid further problems during a launch attempt, Musk noted a full re-evaluation of their procedures is being carried out.

‘Throughout January, the SpaceX team will be doing another full review of vehicle systems, including propulsion, structures, avionics, software and ground support systems,’ he added. ‘We will be conducting additional engine tests, stage separation tests and avionics tests to once again attempt to flush out any issues. Even if we find nothing, the exercise is worthwhile.

Although it seems a long time away, Musk also announced that the experiences of their troubled Falcon 1 rocket is helping their learning curve ahead of aim to start testing and fabrication of their Falcon 9 rocket – a far more powerful version in what will be an eventual family of Falcon rockets.

‘The challenges to date I think vindicate the strategy of building a small launch vehicle before a large one. If we had started out with an F9 class vehicle, the cost of every mistake would be multiplied by as much as an order of magnitude,’ Musk said. ‘As it is, we are able to overcome problems comparatively quickly and cheaply.

‘With the benefit of lessons learned on F1, it is taking far less time, effort and money to create F9. Despite the distraction of the F1 launch countdowns, I still anticipate a flight F9 first stage firing later this year and a maiden launch in late 2007.’

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