SpaceX: Come Hell or High Water

The loss of the maiden Falcon 1 launch on Friday may complicate both the legal and logistical picture, but CEO Elon Musk still proclaims “Come hell or high water, we are going to make this work”.

A formal US Government-led anomaly investigation will be conducted in partnership with SpaceX, while the failure of Falcon 1 is likely to have an impact on SpaceX’s anti-trust suit against Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

The loss of the Falcon I maiden launch on Friday was apparently due to a fuel leak fire around the top of the main engine that cut into the first stage helium pneumatic system.

THE FAILURE

SpaceX’s initial analysis indicates that there was a fuel leak just above the main engine, which caused a highly visible fire. The fire cut into the first stage helium pneumatic system, causing a decrease of pneumatic pressure at T+25s.

‘Once the pneumatic pressure decreased below a critical value, the spring return safety function of the pre-valves forced them to close, shutting down the the main engine at T+29s,’ Elon Musk stated in a statement about the incident.

‘The good news is that all vehicle systems, including the main engine, thrust vector control, structures, avionics, software, guidance algorithm, etc. were picture perfect. Falcon’s trajectory was within 0.2 degrees of nominal during powered flight,’ wrote Musk. ‘Falcon was executing perfectly on all fronts until fire impaired the first stage pneumatic system.

‘I am very encouraged and grateful that our launch customers took the time to call and express their support of SpaceX when their reaction could easily have been the opposite. We will stand by them as they have stood by us.’

Thousands watched and listened to the launch attempt live via online web-cast, with thousands more downloading the recorded flight footage that NASASpaceFlight.com obtained [see our FTP section, free membership required]. Hundreds followed and discussed live coverage in the NASASpaceFlight.com forums as it happened [link], generating over 16,000 views to a single thread within a few hours.

(Frame taken from the video – showing the engine let go)

This was the first Falcon launch attempt which used a thermal blanket on the first stage tank in an attempt to mitigate LOX boil-off. The thin cryogenic blanket was attached to the tank with velcro, and was to be ripped off on liftoff by a lanyard attached to the launch platform. There was much speculation among the webcast audience that the blanket, which in the video clearly failed to fully detach upon liftoff, may have contributed to the failure.

Elon Musk yesterday dismissed concerns that the blanket had interfered with the rockets operation, stating that from the initial analysis it did not appear that the insulation played a negative role.

‘Our plan at this point is to analyze data and debris to be certain that the above preliminary analysis is correct and then isolate and address all possible causes for the fuel leak,’ stated Musk, ‘In addition, we will do another ground up systems review of the entire vehicle to flush out any other potential issues.’

He also stated that there would be a formal US Government-led investigation performs in cooperating with SpaceX to establish an official explanation.

THE NEXT ATTEMPT

‘I cannot predict exactly when the next flight will take place, as that depends on the findings of this investigation and ensuring that our next customer is comfortable that all reasonable steps have been taken to ensure reliability,’ stated Musk, ‘However, I would hope that the next launch occurs in less than six months.’

A return to flight within six months is an ambitious goal. Even before the accident, the second launch of the Falcon 1 had been expected no sooner than three to six months, and the failure will undoubtedly complicate already delicate matters at the Vandenberg launch site.

SpaceX had intended to make their maiden launch from the Complex 3 West launch site at Vandenberg last summer, with the Navy/Air Force TacSat-1 payload.

However, a long-delayed Titan 4 launch on the same range, combined with concerns from Lockheed Martin as they resumed use of the neighboring Complex 3 East launch site, led to frustrations and delays. Eventually SpaceX made the decision to make the maiden launch from Kwajalein with the Air Force Academy’s FalconSat-2 payload.

SpaceX had hopes that a successful Kwajalein launch would clear the air of any remaining friction at Vandenberg. ‘I think the concerns that the 30th Space Wing have about us launching from 3 West will be resolved after we have a successful launch from Kwajalein,’ said SpaceX VP of Business Development Gwynne Shotwell just hours before the Falcon 1 failure. How the failure will impact operations at Vandenberg now remains to be seen.

Regardless of launch site and vehicle reliability issues, the second launch attempt will have an unavoidable delay from the payload customers themselves. When the TacSat-1 launch was re-ordered last fall behind FalconSat-2, the payload was put in storage and the TacSat-1 team dispersed to other projects. SpaceX anticipated that re-assembling the customer’s team would take a few months even before the Falcon 1 failure.

EYES FORWARD

SpaceX’s third customer is the Malaysian government for their 2.5 meter resolution imaging satellite, RazakSat. The launch is planned for February of 2007 from Kwajalein, pushed back from the original schedule by the Malaysians themselves, who decided to make use of the excess capacity on their flight by developing a secondary payload adapter for the Falcon 1.

So, in addition to their primary RazakSat payload, they are going to fly some university cube sats, and other small academic payloads as well. As explained by SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell on Friday, ‘The Malaysians have done a really nice thing for the tiny satellite community, and that is they have built a secondary payload adapter which fits on a Falcon.’

The larger question is how the Falcon 1 setback will effect the first launch of the more ambitious Falcon 9, expected in mid-2007. On the press call before the launch Friday, the Falcon 9 was described as currently being in active development with ‘hardware on the floor’. The first Falcon 9 main tank was anticipated to be friction-stir welded together in the next several weeks.

SpaceX provided NASA Space Flight with some new details on the Falcon 9 and a new 1C variant of the Merlin engine currently under development. The Falcon 9 will be using a new regeneratively cooled version of the Merlin engine. Both the Merlin 1B engine, and a successor regenerative 1C engine are now in development. The set of 1B engines currently being built will only be used for stage firing tests of the Falcon 9. The 1C engine, also now under development, will eventually power the first production Falcon 9 vehicles.

The regenerative versions of the Merlin engines have been under development since last year in response to reliability concerns about the ablative nozzle of the existing Merlin 1A engine. It does not appear that the ablative nozzle was a factor in Friday’s launch.

LAWSUIT TAKES A HIT
The failure to launch will very likely have a direct impact on SpaceX’s anti-trust suit against Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

Two weeks ago, the Space Exploration Company’s anti-trust legal case against Lockheed Martin and Boeing was reopened with the filing of a renewed set of claims by SpaceX. A timeline has now been released that anticipates a new hearing in mid-May.

All claims in the case were initially dismissed in February, when Justice Florence-Marie Cooper concluded that SpaceX ‘is not yet ready to compete with the Defendants in the EELV market. Because it lacks such readiness, its speculative claims regarding future harm are not ripe.’ It seems certain that the unsuccessful launch will do nothing to dispel this impression.

The dismissal ruling in February permitted SpaceX 20 days to file an amended complaint to reopen the case. The new claims filing occurred two weeks ago. However, at the time of the dismissal, Justice Cooper stated that she felt an amended complaint would be unlikely to ‘overcome the constitutional deficiencies that plague its claims’.

Last week Justice Cooper outlined a timeline for the case to proceed:

April 6 – Lockheed and Boeing deadline to file a response to SpaceX’s second amended complaint (almost certainly with a renewed motion to dismiss)

April 27 – SpaceX deadline to file a response to the Defendant’s response.

May 8th – Lockheed and Boeing final filing deadline for response before hearing

May 15th, 10am – in-person oral arguments hearing, assuming Lockheed/Boeing move to dismiss.

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