SpaceX Falcon I fails during first stage flight

by Chris Bergin

SpaceX’s third flight of their Falcon I launch vehicle – carrying three satellites – has failed during first and second stage separation.

The launch window opened at 4:00 pm PDT – though a problem with the helium load resulted in several holds, before a launch attempt was aborted at T-0 seconds. A final attempt managed to lift-off shortly after recycling, before failing during 1-2 sep. Videos of the failure are available below (read more).

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The vehicle appeared to fail around the 2:20 second mark of first stage flight. The vehicle was observed to be rolling back and forth slightly, with oscillation – however, the official cause of the failure was soon to be revealed.

CEO and CTO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, made a statement on the failure to his workforce, pointing out a problem during first and second stage separation:

‘It was obviously a big disappointment not to reach orbit on this flight. 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,’ said Musk.

‘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 I’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.’

Preview: Falcon I Launch Vehicle:

Falcon 1 is a two stage, liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene (RP-1) powered launch vehicle. The primary structure is made of an aluminum alloy, graduated monocoque, common bulkhead, flight pressure stabilized architecture developed by SpaceX.

A single SpaceX Merlin 1C regenerative engine powers the Falcon 1 first stage, and is flying in this configuration for the first time on Flight 3. After first stage engine start, the Falcon is held down and not released for flight until all propulsion and vehicle systems are confirmed to be operating nominally.

The second stage tanks are precision machined from plate with integral flanges and ports, minimizing the number of welds necessary. A single SpaceX Kestrel engine powers the Falcon 1 upper stage.

Kestrel, also built around the pintle architecture, is a high efficiency, pressure-fed vacuum engine. It is ablatively cooled in the chamber and throat and radiatively cooled in the nozzle, which is fabricated from a high strength niobium alloy.

The first flight of the Falcon I failed shortly after launch back in March 2006, when a fuel leak caused a fire, leading to the vehicle spinning out of control before crashing.

The second launch involved a ‘beefed up’ Falcon I, which managed to fly successfully through first stage flight – which was SpaceX’s pre-set goal – before losing control during second stage flight.

‘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 interview with at the time.

‘No anomalies on the first stage. Stage separation went very well. Both the stage separation and the fairing sep went flawlessly. Second stage ignition also went flawlessly.’

Falcon I Third Flight Payloads:

Now awaiting its third launch, SpaceX are tasked with delivering three satellites into orbit – with a success aiding SpaceX’s confidence levels, with another 11 launch contracts already secured.

The primary customers for the Falcon 1 launch are the Department of Defense, Government of Malaysia and NASA. Falcon 1 is carrying a payload stack of three separating satellites that will orbit at an inclination of 9 degrees:

The Trailblazer satellite was developed by SpaceDev of Poway, Calif., for the Jumpstart Program of DoD’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office, as a test platform to validate the hardware, software and processes of an accelerated microsatellite launch. Trailblazer is deployed from the Falcon 1 second stage shortly after the shut-down of the second stage engine, about 10 minutes into flight.

Deploying four to eight minutes later will be two NASA small satellites: PRESat, a micro laboratory from NASA’s Ames Research Center, and then NanoSail-D, which will unfurl an ultra-thin solar sail, developed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in collaboration with NASA Ames Research Center.

The three separating satellites attach to the Falcon 1 second stage via the Secondary Payload Adaptor and Separation System, (SPASS), developed by ATSB, a company owned by the Government of Malaysia that develops and commercializes space technology. The SPASS was engineered by Space Access Technologies of Ashburn, Va.
Falcon 9:

In tandem with Falcon I, SpaceX have conducted a full nine engine test on their Falcon 9 launch vehicle – which is key to their COTS milestone requirements with NASA.

Under the existing contract, SpaceX will conduct three flights of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft for NASA, culminating in Dragon berthing with the International Space Station (ISS) and returning to Earth.

NASA also has a contract option on Falcon 9 / Dragon to provide crew services to the ISS after Shuttle retirement.

‘This was the most difficult milestone in development of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and it also constitutes a significant achievement in US space vehicle development. Not since the final flight of the Saturn 1B rocket in 1975, has a rocket had the ability to lose any engine or motor and still successfully complete its mission,” said Musk.

‘Much like a commercial airliner, our multi-engine design has the potential to provide significantly higher reliability than single engine competitors.’

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