Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Space Technology

SpaceX Launch Not So Perfect After All 272

Posted by samzenpus
from the we-have-a-problem dept.
First time accepted submitter drichan writes "Those of us who watched the live feed of last night's Falcon 9 launch could be forgiven for assuming that everything went according to plan. All the reports that came through over the audio were heavy on the word "nominal," and the craft successfully entered an orbit that has it on schedule to dock with the International Space Station on Wednesday. But over night, SpaceX released a slow-motion video of what they're calling an 'anomaly.'"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

SpaceX Launch Not So Perfect After All

Comments Filter:
  • by residieu (577863) on Monday October 08, 2012 @04:12PM (#41589753)
    Just because you have a backup plan, and it works, doesn't mean the launch was perfect.
  • by wierd_w (1375923) on Monday October 08, 2012 @04:12PM (#41589755)

    The engine failure of the falcon 9 engine #1 is not really a bad thing. It served to prove the reliability of the shutoff system, and flight control hardware.

    Considering the horrendous failure rate of NASA's early engines, (the kind that explode spectacularly), this managed failure situation is very promising.

    Rest assured, there will likely be a strong inquiry concerning the manufacture and design of the engine fairing that failed, causing the pressure drop, and engine shutdown.

    Managed failures like this one don't speak poorly of spacex. On the contrary. They show spacex planned ahead, and the failsafes they built actually work.

  • by Hentes (2461350) on Monday October 08, 2012 @04:14PM (#41589777)

    The fact that the rocket had enough redundancy built in doesn't mean that the cause of the failure should not be investigated.

  • by Maximum Prophet (716608) on Monday October 08, 2012 @04:18PM (#41589807)
    Pilots say any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.

    In space, any launch that accomplishes its goals is a good launch. If good costs 10% of perfect, go for good.
  • by Maximum Prophet (716608) on Monday October 08, 2012 @04:21PM (#41589843)
    Who is saying it shouldn't be investigated? Every launch should be measured and checked.

    If you can recover the engines, the unburned parts tell you where they're too heavy, and the burnt through parts tell you where you need more strength.
  • by Virtucon (127420) on Monday October 08, 2012 @04:38PM (#41590017)

    Not just Early Engines..

    Let's see, there was the Titan IV which took out a facility at Edwards AFB on April Fools Day in 1991. [nytimes.com] Now that was an Air Force engine, but fairly modern. There was another Titan IV which exploded in more spectacular fashion. [nytimes.com]

    Recently, we have the NASA Morpheus Lander Explosion. [csmonitor.com]

    Then there's the Delta II, which is a newer launch system which has exploded at least twice that I'm aware of. Once in 1995 [youtube.com] and another in 1997 [nasa.gov].

    The point is that NASA and the Air Force and their various subcontractors, SpaceX not included, don't have a perfect record on launch vehicle malfunctions. You can't have lots of propellant with oxidizer burning without some sort of malfunction. While still rare, these events can and do happen and it's good to see SpaceX plan for these kinds of things unlike the Soviets did when their Moon Rocket went "boom" when they were testing in the 60s [youtube.com] In Fact, all four launches of the N-1 were failures. [starbase1.co.uk]

  • by TWX (665546) on Monday October 08, 2012 @04:41PM (#41590083)
    Obviously SpaceX wants to achieve man-rating so that they can launch and return personnel in addition to the cargo runs they're currently beginning. I'm curious as to how this moderate malfunction will impact the rest of the program.

    Bearing in mind, of course, the deaths of Chaffee, Grissom, and White in the Apollo 1 accident, the launch-time engine failure and later unrelated catastrophic failure for Apollo 13, the Challenger disaster, and the Columbia disaster, it's difficult to call SpaceX's anomaly as being any worse than those. If SpaceX manages a series of cargo deliveries without any loss of the capsule or with complete success on delivery then even with this anomaly they're arguably no worse off than any of the previous space programs were, as far as reliability and safety goes.
  • Re:An (Score:5, Insightful)

    by the gnat (153162) on Monday October 08, 2012 @04:45PM (#41590125)

    Libertarians rode the back of this and shouted about how much better it would be to privatise space. But in fact we're just right (*) here again, with SpaceX substituted for Boeing.

    I think you'll find it's not just libertarians cheering for this - after all, privatizing the launch infrastructure has been a key element of Obama's space plans. The difference from the previous situation, where NASA relied on bloated defense contractors, is that SpaceX and its competitors will have to enter fixed-price bids, instead of the old cost-plus contracts which gave the contractors zero incentive for efficiency. Whether this will actually work in the long run remains to be seen, but it's hard to see how this is worse than the old system, and putting the federal government into the launch vehicle business sounds like a spectacularly awful idea.

  • by EvanED (569694) <evaned.gmail@com> on Monday October 08, 2012 @04:47PM (#41590141)

    Not to take anything away from SpaceX, but to the extent that you mean to suggest "SpaceX did a better job than NASA did early on" (which may be none at all), it's of course not really fair to compare considering that SpaceX didn't exactly throw out the knowledge that NASA and others built up because of those failures.

  • by Electricity Likes Me (1098643) on Monday October 08, 2012 @05:03PM (#41590337)

    Obviously SpaceX wants to achieve man-rating so that they can launch and return personnel in addition to the cargo runs they're currently beginning. I'm curious as to how this moderate malfunction will impact the rest of the program.

    Bearing in mind, of course, the deaths of Chaffee, Grissom, and White in the Apollo 1 accident, the launch-time engine failure and later unrelated catastrophic failure for Apollo 13, the Challenger disaster, and the Columbia disaster, it's difficult to call SpaceX's anomaly as being any worse than those. If SpaceX manages a series of cargo deliveries without any loss of the capsule or with complete success on delivery then even with this anomaly they're arguably no worse off than any of the previous space programs were, as far as reliability and safety goes.

    The important thing is whether they can successfully determine what actually happened, and why it happened (i.e. replicate the malfunction on a test bed engine). This was the thing Feynman was most critical of NASA for post-Challenger - that the whole disaster was caused by this faulty assumption about engineering risks on the O-Ring seals (i.e. the seals were getting eroded by exhaust during launch, but the question posed was "is this dangerous" not "why is this happening" - the former being foolish since the system was not designed to cope with this, and it's true cause was unknown).

    It's a triumph that the launch still succeeded, but having averted an unforeseen consequence the only safe thing to do is make sure it's both forseen and mitigated in the future.

  • by Teancum (67324) <{ten.orezten} {ta} {gninroh_trebor}> on Monday October 08, 2012 @05:08PM (#41590377) Homepage Journal

    From what can be read between the lines, the engine didn't explode but rather imploded. It shut off at "maximum dynamic pressure", sometimes called simply "Max-Q", when the atmospheric pressure pushing against the vehicle due to its velocity is at the highest it can be at that point in the flight. Between the pressure from outside of the spacecraft and from the nearby engines, the nozzle apparently collapsed in on itself and tore loose, hence the debris.

    The engine itself was still there, just missing the nozzle. That is why data was continuing to be sent from the engine and respond to system queries about its status. Had it exploded, those sensors and microcontrollers running the engine would not be in place.

    Technically you are correct that all that could be said from the telemetry is that the sensors were still in place, but those sensors would not be registering if it was an outright explosion.

  • by rickb928 (945187) on Monday October 08, 2012 @05:12PM (#41590433) Homepage Journal

    If that's accurate, then SpaceX is looking into a shutdown event, a LOT different than a destructive failure. The fairing imploding will either be the anticipated result, or a new issue to understand and resolve/document.

    Shutdown may be accompanied by data, and there is a fix. Valves, pumps, all kinds of fairly well understood stuff to analyze and resolve. Destructive catastrophic failure would be much more disturbing.

    So far, they seem to be doing at least as well as NASA did in the early days. Mercury was a real crap shoot, and early Saturn development was exciting to say the least. I filled a few scrapbooks with notes on those faiures. Fun times...

  • by mosb1000 (710161) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Monday October 08, 2012 @05:20PM (#41590505)

    They've launched 4 Falcon 9 rockets. One engine has failed, so that's an observed failure rate of 1/36 or about 3%. The means the odds of 0 or 1 engine failing (a successful launch) is 97.6% and the odds of more than one failing is 2.4% assuming the currently observed rate is representative of the actual rate. 2.4% would be an excellent failure rate for any rocket launch system. In fact, no one has achieved a failure rate that low. And bear in mind this rate includes 3 experimental launches and only one production launch. Of course, a launch failure can be brought about by more than just engine failures, so 2.4% is really a minimum and other factors which haven't yet manifested themselves would add to it.

    Space X is saying that this is probably a failure in the aerodynamic structure of the rocket, not the rocket engine itself. If that's the case, the above statistical analysis is invalid because it assumes no interdependency in engine failures. A structural failure could lead to more than one engine failing. It would also be problematic in assessing the future failure rate because the engine configuration is going to change in their 1.1 version. The outer engines will be circularly arranged in future versions while in current versions they're arranged in a square.

  • by TWX (665546) on Monday October 08, 2012 @06:14PM (#41591033)
    Very true, especially in the infancy of SpaceX's program. I do hope that they figure out why the engine failed, and hopefully their records on its manufacture and testing prior to its use will contribute toward answering that.

    I'll have to ask my wife about it- she actually is a rocket scientist, albeit one that deals with solid rockets, not liquid, but I'd expect that the post-failure analysis would follow the same kinds of procedures.
  • by cplusplus (782679) on Monday October 08, 2012 @06:24PM (#41591119) Journal
    The Ars Technica article states that Apollo missions had the same protections against engine failure, and that two of the Apollo missions actually suffered engine losses and still completed the mission. So, maybe there's precedent?
  • by TWX (665546) on Monday October 08, 2012 @06:30PM (#41591157)
    First, what's the cost per unit of payload mass?

    Second, what's the value in being able to send up smaller missions, akin to a commuter flight versus a jumbo jet?

    Third, what's the redundancy of having multiple functional launch systems worth?

    Fourth, what's the value in the US having a launch system of its own without depending on other countries?

    Fifth, what's the likelihood that having this launch system prove to be successful will result in the developer working on heavier-lift systems?

    When the United States has no launch system we are completely dependent on the Russians for access to a very expensive machine built with enormous cost to us and to all of the other participating countries. Should the Russians decide that they don't want to play anymore, they could simply deny our astronauts access, making the station de facto Russian property. Since the Russians have significantly more station experience than we do, I'm sure that they'd be able to operate it without us.

    Our having a launch system, ultimately intended to be man-rated, essentially prohibits that possibility. Same with the Europeans, if they ever have a man-rated rocket. I'm all for that.
  • Re:An (Score:4, Insightful)

    by khallow (566160) on Monday October 08, 2012 @07:02PM (#41591427)

    What I don't like is the fact that space is becoming increasingly privatised.

    Well, why shouldn't it be? Most endeavors in the US are handled privately.

    Then Musk came along and said, "Hey, I've got rich from founding the world's worst consumer bank, how about I give you the first few hits for free?" and hired a few experienced people.

    Libertarians rode the back of this and shouted about how much better it would be to privatise space. But in fact we're just right (*) here again, with SpaceX substituted for Boeing.

    And a considerably cheaper launch vehicle compared to the Delta IV (which Boeing put in the United Launch Alliance rather than continue to fly it themselves). I can't argue with results.

  • by uvajed_ekil (914487) on Tuesday October 09, 2012 @01:54AM (#41593709)
    Yep, you can't have all the answers until you know the questions. Components of the lift vehicle may have failed, but the failsafes performed as designed and the mission was completed successfully and on schedule. The redundancies and backups are built in as a function of the design, and may not even be called into action most of the time. All in all, this is proof that the system works, and I can not wait to see more launches. This was a perfect result and demonstrates a functional system that is good and will get even better.

    If you took a team with an average age of 23 to the World Series or World Cup finals, you wouldn't complain if they only won 3-2.
  • by Raenex (947668) on Tuesday October 09, 2012 @02:20AM (#41593793)

    Maybe he doesn't really have them and is bullshitting. People do that a lot.

  • by TheLink (130905) on Tuesday October 09, 2012 @02:33AM (#41593835) Journal

    Space travel is relatively safe compared to some of the shit jobs out there, particularly in places with lax safety records, like China.

    One of the most dangerous jobs is President of the USA. About 10% have died due to job-related issues. And it does not appear that the job has become much safer over the years.

The person who's taking you to lunch has no intention of paying.

Working...