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Space Science

SpaceX's Falcon Launches... Sort Of 164

JHarrison writes "Spaceflight Now is running a story on the SpaceX Falcon 1 launch yesterday. Those of you watching the stream will have no doubt noticed the telemetry failure at 04:50, and turns out that was more than them turning the webcast off.. "A year after its maiden flight met a disastrous end, the SpaceX booster lifted off at 9:10 p.m. EDT (0110 GMT Wednesday) from a remote launch pad on Omelek Island, part of a U.S. Army base at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Controllers lost contact with the Falcon during the burn of the second stage that would have placed the rocket into orbit around Earth. "We did encounter, late in the second stage burn, a roll-control anomaly," Elon Musk, founder and chief executive officer of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., said in a post-launch call with reporters. Live video from cameras mounted aboard the rocket's second stage showed increasing oscillations about five minutes after liftoff, just before the public webcast was cut off. The rolling prevented the necessary speed to achieve a safe orbit, instead sending the stage on a suborbital trajectory back into the atmosphere.""
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SpaceX's Falcon Launches... Sort Of

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  • by dreamchaser ( 49529 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @08:33AM (#18427239) Homepage Journal
    More is learned from failures than successes in most engineering endeavors. Hopefully they'll continue to refine their systems and will enjoy more success next time around.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by fbjon ( 692006 )
      They will. In fact, Elon stated that all the difficult problems were surpassed, another test launch probably won't be needed, and the next launch will have actual payload.
      • by khallow ( 566160 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @10:24AM (#18428467)
        Or it means that he's out of money for more test launches. He has demonstrated two difficult aspects, liftoff and stage seperation. So I'm optimistic. But as I recall, he's said in the past that he'll evaluate the program after the first three launches. So far, he's had one utter failure and one that lost control in the second stage. He still needs to put something in orbit.
        • If I had cargo for the next launch, I might be a bit concerned, but not much. I have little doubt that they will make it work.
          • by khallow ( 566160 )
            It depends on the value of the payload. I doubt the odds of a successful deployment are better than 50% right now. But if I had multiple cheap payloads and could afford the loss rate, then I'd go for it.
            • by Megane ( 129182 )

              If the cost of launch goes down as much as they say it will, then if the cost of a second payload and second launch is on the order of the insurance costs, it's a no-brainer.

              Why build one when you can build two for twice the price?

              • by khallow ( 566160 )

                If the cost of launch goes down as much as they say it will, then if the cost of a second payload and second launch is on the order of the insurance costs, it's a no-brainer.

                Pretty much, but only if you have multiple payloads to launch.

                Why build one when you can build two for twice the price?

                Because they don't have the money for two? And frankly, I'd like to have three at this rate.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by fbjon ( 692006 )
          I did see a rumour somewhere that he was considering pulling the funding. As I see it, however, they did reach the finish line, just didn't get to cross it. But that's what test flights are for, right?
    • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) *
      Yeah, it could mean that you've just got to work out some kinks. Or it could mean that your engineers and fundamental design suck ass. Only time, and a lot of money, will tell.
    • by Keebler71 ( 520908 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @09:57AM (#18428129) Journal
      Did anyone else watching the video notice the apparent contact between the 2nd stage nozzle and the interstage? I wonder if a TVC actuator was damaged leading to the nutation...
      • I just watched it again and there was certainly contact between the interstage and the 2nd stage nozzle. You can even see the nozzle deform and spring back to shape. Now I am wondering if this altered the shape of the nozzle or damaged the ablator material on the inside which could have caused misaligned thrust.
        • Interesting, because towards the end of the video, the bell appears to begin glowing red in some areas. It could be the lighting, but Iswear it appeared to be heating radically.
    • If this was just due to a control system oscillation, then this may have been easily avoided. There is a body of knowledge called control theory []. It is about the analysis of feedback control loops. An engineer applies this to the desired control system performance and guarantee control loop stability.

      This control theory stuff is abstract, somewhat difficult and time consuming to learn. But if you have feedback control in a mission critical application it is essential to bring this body of knowledge

      • Control theory is great, but the difficulty doesn't just lie in applying the concepts - it isn't really that hard once you understand Laplace transforms sufficiently well. I'm not going to pretend to be an expert, but I learned enough to put a bit into practice in undergrad mechanical engineering.

        Anyway, like I said the problem isn't in concepts it is anticipating and modeling all the spurious inputs and having a fast enough controller. If control theory were as easy to put into practice as you make it so
  • pfft (Score:3, Funny)

    by djupedal ( 584558 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @08:34AM (#18427251)
    I roll-control anomaly in your general direction!
  • by Shivetya ( 243324 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @08:34AM (#18427257) Homepage Journal
    Hell they made it higher than anything Rutan has put forward and the way people act Rutan is the second coming.

    Look, they are doing a great job. Second flight at they reached 200 miles! Thats beyond the ISS.
    • Hell they made it higher than anything Rutan has put forward and the way people act Rutan is the second coming.

      I, for one, welcome our new suborbital rocket plane-making overlord.

      No, but seriously, Rutan has more hype. He's flamboyant, knows how to work the press, and well, SpaceShipOne just looks cool. If actual results were all that mattered, nobody would be talking about Vista; hence Rutan and Scaled Composites get all the hype, while SpaceX has actually produced the better result.

      • by jezor ( 51922 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @09:15AM (#18427631) Homepage
        Different result, not "better result." Rutan's Spaceship One is good for one valuable task (human suborbital flights); SpaceX's rockets for a totally different one (cargo lifting orbital flights). Both were formerly the sole province of the governments, so both add to the possibility of private exploration of space. {Prof. Jonathan}
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by ausoleil ( 322752 )
        Considering that the Rutan/Scaled Composites and the SpaceX efforts had two completely different sets of objectives, and that Scaled met their objectives completely, that is, winning the X Prize, while the SpaceX second attempt failed in its own mission, what exactly is the point here?

        To be sure, Rutan and company had setbacks in their early efforts. They engineered around them and ultimately met their goal and took home not only the prize but also the investments necessary for funding another generation o
      • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) *
        It's hardly just hype. Rutan, did something NEW. He actually built a truly REUSEABLE spacecraft (what the original shuttle was actually sold as). SpaceX is just a cheap conventional rocket. SpaceShipOne can take off, land, refuel, and take off again--with minimal time and expense. You don't lose the vast bulk of SpaceShipOne every time it takes off (like the shuttle and conventional rockets), nor do you have to virtually rebuild the damn thing it every time it lands (like the shuttle).
        • by khallow ( 566160 )

          SpaceX is just a cheap conventional rocket.

          In other words, Falcon I is something NEW.
          • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) *
            In the sense that conventional rockets have generally not been cheap, yes. In the sense of "This is a design that does things in a truly novel new way," no.
            • by khallow ( 566160 )
              But cheap is what is truly novel here. And that's really what's exciting about Rutan's design as well. If the Falcon 9 can deliver on the order of magnitude lower price per kg than the EELV's, then you have a revolution in launching stuff into space. Rutan's design promises similar level of savings for manned launch over similar time frames.
        • He actually built a truly REUSEABLE spacecraft

          Wake me up when it can orbit.

          I agree that the shuttle is a stupid design, but this thing doesn't do what the shuttle does, either. Which is to say, go to space and stay there for a while.

          I do agree that it is a stunning achievement, but it's not useful for anything other than space tourism. If that. The second generation should be more useful...

    • by devnullkac ( 223246 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @09:11AM (#18427587) Homepage


      Hell they made it higher than anything Rutan has put forward...

      Winners compare their achievments to their goals, losers compare theirs to that of others

      • by khallow ( 566160 )
        Life would be so boring if I weren't brazenly displaying my hypocrisy. The grandparent though, he can't do that.
    • ISS has a higher nominal orbital altitude than 200 miles. And altitude isn't the issue - sounding rockets having been going up higher (and falling back down) for decades. What matters for orbital flight is velocity.
  • There was something unexpected happening, so they shut down the engine and it plunged back into the atmosphere. What I don't get is why let some potential problem (ok maybe it didn't much of a chance) ruin the whole flight? You are up high/fast enough anyway so why not take every chance you got and just ride it untill it breaks. Stopping will surely break it so you have nothing to loose. Or do they?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Scutter ( 18425 )
      Stop it *while they still have control* you mean. A rocket tumbling out of control back to earth is a danger.
      • by nietsch ( 112711 )
        If you only shut down the engine during unexpected roll events, you basically have a rocket tumbling out of control. They did. What was your point again?
        • by Goaway ( 82658 )
          You know where it will land at that point.
          • by khallow ( 566160 )
            Remember that to get permission to launch from the Feds, they need to demonstrate that the rocket has an extremely low chance of killing anyone. In particular, they need to know where it could possibly go when things go wrong. So having the rocket shut off when it goes out of control like this is part of the reason they were allowed to launch in the first place.
    • There was something unexpected happening, so they shut down the engine and it plunged back into the atmosphere.

      While that makes sense now, I would hope this protocol will change by the time they get around to human passengers.
      • by khallow ( 566160 )
        Why should they change anything? A 100% failure rate is more than good enough for any manned program. It's perfect actually.
        • by Teancum ( 67324 )
          If an event like this (the roll control issue) happened on a manned spaceflight (it did BTW, with Gemini 8 []), there would be abort procedures to get people out of this. In other words, this is a "survivable" accident. The earlier launch, where the 1st stage blew up 35 seconds into the flight, would have been quite a bit tougher to get out from on a manned spaceflight. Not impossible, but it would have required an automated abort system and something like a launch escape tower.

          Let's just say I would rather
    • For safety. If it goes out of control near the ground, you don't want it to just accelerate into any inhabited areas. 200 miles up in the atmosphere, it probably doesn't matter that much.
      • by nietsch ( 112711 )
        It was five minutes into the firing of the second stage. You'd think it would be a bit highere than close to the ground...
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by hmbcarol ( 937668 )
      They never said they intentionally shut the engine down. The shutdown was an unavoidable side effect of a strong roll. Their quote was "If you have a significant roll, what could happen is that the propellants can centrifuge out."

      If the spacecraft is spinning, all the fuel is pushed to the outside walls of the tank and away from the fuel outlet at the center of the tank bottom. This leaves the fuel pumps with nothing to pump. Engine shut down. Rocket fall, go boom.
    • by Ihlosi ( 895663 )
      Stopping will surely break it so you have nothing to loose. Or do they?

      Yes, they don't want to have a large piece of space junk loose in a random orbit. This isn't the first space race - putting something into a random orbit doesn't win prizes, but might smash things that are already up there on purpose.

    • Stopping will surely break it so you have nothing to loose. Or do they?

      The first stage is designed to be recovered and reused. The rolling motion caused the propellent to act like a centrifuge potentially damaging the engine. Considering it was the second stage which was not designed to be recovered damaging the engine is probably not a problem, but the control software was probably designed similarly to the first stage where not damaging the engine may be a higher priority than a successful flight if you

  • Videos are up (Score:5, Informative)

    by savuporo ( 658486 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @08:52AM (#18427405)
    For those of you who didnt catch the webcast:
    YouTube : launch []
    SpaceX official, high-res: []

    Five minutes of fame !
  • by toupsie ( 88295 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @09:06AM (#18427529) Homepage
    Just change the description of the vehicle from a spaceship to a ballistic missile and its a successful launch.
  • by Rob T Firefly ( 844560 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @09:07AM (#18427535) Homepage Journal
    Maybe it landed on Chris Kattan.
  • by decaym ( 12155 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @09:07AM (#18427543) Homepage

    Did anyone else notice the bump the Kestrel engine took during stage separation? On the 40MB video [] from SpaceX, it happend at 3:28 in or at T+00:02:52 on the screen clock. Maybe this is normal for the engine, but it was rather odd looking to me.

    Also, there was a story [] earlier that the 2nd launch was delayed "due to concerns over a thrust vector control pitch actuator on the Falcon 1 booster's second stage". I wonder if this came back to bite them?

    Finally, I'm impressed as hell that they could experience an abort after engine start yet still cycle back and launch in just another hour! When the Shuttle once aborted after engine start it took them a month to change out the engines and try again.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Did anyone else notice the bump the Kestrel engine took during stage separation? On the 40MB video from SpaceX, it happend at 3:28 in or at T+00:02:52 on the screen clock. Maybe this is normal for the engine, but it was rather odd looking to me. So far as is known, it didn't materially affect anything. The nozzle is made of Niobium which is quite malleable, and small dents only mildly modify the efficiency of the engine, and that's one of the known advantages of Niobium over other high temperature metals, a
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by decaym ( 12155 )

        I had read about the Niobium nozzle being able to take a dent. I'd be more concerned about the bump damaging the vectoring hardware for the engine. It was also really interesting to see the glow coming through the nozzle. I was really worried we'd see a burn through of the nozzle, but I guess the glow is just the normal behavior.

        Some of the early comments by Elon talked about spin causing centrifuge effect on the fuel supply to the 2nd stage engine. In the video, although the nozzle is oscilating back

        • On the arocket email group the consensus seems to be that it looks like fuel slosh being driven by the control system moving the nozzle in a circular mode. Eventually the magnitude of the control inputs seems to have created a roll angle, and that's what killed the telemetry and the engine apparently is likely to have shut down shortly afterwards.

          • by decaym ( 12155 )
            Interesting. Guess it is time for some slosh baffles in the fuel tank.
            • by khallow ( 566160 )
              Or perhaps bigger baffles. It would be somewhat surprising to me if they didn't put baffles in. I wouldn't be surprised if I didn't do so, but then I don't have that experience.
  • by dosle ( 794546 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @09:10AM (#18427571)
    Do a barrel roll!
  • Where did it land?

  • by jpellino ( 202698 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @09:20AM (#18427693)
    "We did encounter, late in the second stage burn, a roll-control anomaly"
    "Rocket fall down go boom."

    Actually I think I know what the problem was. As it is son-of-paypal-entrpreneurism, the actual button for turning on the roll control was tiny and at the bottom of a large screen offering to upgrade to super turbo rocket engine pumps and 3% off your next tank of LOX.

  • From the Website... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Mizled ( 1000175 )

    Falcon flew far beyond the "edge" of space, typically thought of as around 60 miles. Our altitude was approximately 200 miles, which is just 50 miles below the International Space Station. The second stage didn't achieve full orbital velocity, due to a roll excitation late in the burn, but that should be a comparatively easy fix once we examine the flight data.

  • This is awesome. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by xx01dk ( 191137 ) on Wednesday March 21, 2007 @12:06PM (#18429841)
    Yep, nay-sayers be damned, but to think this isn't a big, government corporation undertaking this, wasting our tax dollars with endless beaurocracy. This is the product of back yard and garage tinkerers (albeit several generations removed). Who can't look at that webcast and imagine seeing that for real, in the 1st person, someday? It gave me chills when the curvature of the earth came into the frame. I've seen dozens of rocket launches and shuttle launches, but that was pretty unique. Reminds me of when I was in grade school back in the eighties, watching the shuttles go up.

    Regardless of the success or failure of the launch, this is mightily impressive. My hat's off.
  • Perhaps the most amusing part of the live webcast was just after the last second launch halt, when someone on the open mic was heard saying "Ah fuck" and a few other utterances.
  • When you see how hard it is for the private companies to do anything, it's hard to believe NASA actually launched the first space shuttle with humans in one attempt. Maybe it's a statement of how devestating government pension plans and entitlement programs have been, since private individuals are now taxed so severely that they can't achieve anything close to what their government can.

    • by Teancum ( 67324 )
      NASA hardly has a good track record here themselves. When the test rockets were being developed for the original Mercury Project flights, there was some serious concern that a rocket would even get launched at all. Dozens of flights occured where the rockets literally blew up just seconds into the flight or in a few cases even before the rocket could leave the tower. That is why "the rocket has cleared the tower" is such a huge deal for most rocket launches: They have already beat some of NASA's earlier

Who goeth a-borrowing goeth a-sorrowing. -- Thomas Tusser