A night of high drama for SpaceX success

by Chris Bergin

While it wasn’t a perfect launch event, SpaceX are rightly claiming success with the launch of their Falcon I vehicle.

The vehicle reached 300kms into space, before ending its second stage flight prematurely, due to a loss of telemetry and an issue with the vehicle’s roll control. While that is still being evaluated, CEO Elon Musk noted the launch was a success, achieving 90 percent of its test objectives.

**Falcon 1 ATTEMPT 2 – Live Updates, Webcast and Launch Coverage** – 70,000 reads.

**ATTEMPT 1 SCRUB – with background information** – 61,000 reads.

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The drama of Monday’s scrub with just over a minute remaining – due to a range source telemetry and land line issue – was nothing in comparison to what appeared to be a dramatic end to proceedings during Tuesday’s attempt.

With the countdown proceeding all the way to the firing up of the Merlin engine, and with the countdown clock reaching T-0, the launch was aborted just as the Falcon I was expected to lift off the pad.

According to SpaceX, the last gasp abort was automatically caused by the main engine chamber pressure being 0.2 percent lower than the allowable preset limits.

With everyone expecting a scrub for the day, along with at least a 24 hour turnaround, SpaceX engineers decided on recycling for a launch just over an hour later. The stages were drained back of LOX and fuel to 50 percent, before picking up the countdown process once again.

Re-starting from a T-16 minute count, the Falcon I was prepared for a launch time of 1:10 am GMT. This time, SpaceX had good fortune on their side, as the count proceeded without issue.

Finally blasting off from its island launch pad, the vehicle rose majestically, as the Earth disappeared below it via the downward pointing camera on the rocket – the same view that showed the failure last March, leading to a one year stand-down.

No such problems this time, until what is still an unconfirmed issue at stage separation, where the first stage appeared to catch the second stage engine as it fell away.

The second stage still managed to keep flying until just prior to T+5 minutes, when oscillation was observed on the vehicle’s camera, before slowing rolling – what at least appeared to be – off course, as the webcast video ended abruptly.

Musk did note that the second stage did shut off prematurely, and that the vehicle likely failed to make a full orbit.

‘The things we were most concerned about were the first stage ignition and lift off, and the trajectory of the first stage, because that is the most significant portion of the atmosphere where you can have high winds, and potentially where you can have a structural problem,’ said Musk in a post launch Q&A. ‘No anomalies on the first stage.’

‘Stage separation went very well,’ he added, dismissing what may have been observed on the video. ‘Both the stage separation and the fairing sep went flawlessly. Second stage ignition also went flawlessly.’

‘We did see a roll control issue later in the second stage. That seems fairly straightforward to correct.’

Musk, who was still without full data from the launch in order to make the Q&A with reporters was still buoyant over the launch, which he claimed achieved 90 percent of the test objectives.

‘I only just came from the command trailer, so it is a bit premature to say anything. We didn’t achieve the desired orbit, but at this moment I do not know the state of the second stage. The high likelihood is that it re-entered before a full orbit. We reached the altitude of 300km, that’s what I can say.

‘The roll control caused the second stage engine to shut off prematurely. I would say we have retired about 90 percent of the risk associated with the rocket. This was a test launch, not a satellite launch.’

Now Musk and SpaceX can concentrate on making inroads into the launch business, which is an ambitious plan, involving a range of new vehicles, from unmanned to manned.

‘It definitely could have gone a little better today, but we retired most of the risk associated with the rocket, and I think that is a success,’ Musk noted.

‘I would characterize this as a very good day for SpaceX,’ he added. ‘We successfully reached space, and really retired almost all the risk associated with the rocket. I feel extremely good about having successful satellite launches later this year.’

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