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Space Science

SpaceX Launch Fails To Reach Space 263

azuredrake and many other readers have written to tell us: "The New York Times reports that the third SpaceX launch has failed following the second-stage ignition of the Falcon 1 rocket. The SpaceX launch had three satellites on board, all of which were presumably destroyed in the incident. This marks the third failed launch for SpaceX — twice they failed to reach orbit, and once the Falcon 1 rocket was lost five minutes after launch. While the company vows to carry on, this certainly raises some questions about the likelihood of successful privatization of the Space industry." Reader Nano2Sol points out a video of the launch from a camera on Falcon 1, and notes a small oscillation just prior to the footage being cut off. Spaceflight Now ran a mission update blog leading up to the failure, and they also have more coverage on the loss of the rocket.
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SpaceX Launch Fails To Reach Space

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 03, 2008 @09:11AM (#24455493)

    ...and a whole industry is pronounced dead. Can you be more dramatic?

  • by damburger ( 981828 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @09:12AM (#24455497)

    Musk's Giant Firework Company seriously believe they can have Falcon 9 up and running in a few months, and have people inside it 'soon' afterwards [bbc.co.uk].

    I've said it before and this seems to confirm it - entrepreneurs aren't good at rocket science. They look at government funded space programs, and see the redundancy as waste and the precision as bureaucracy. Then when they try and do space cheaper without these things, there are predictably explosions.

  • by damburger ( 981828 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @09:14AM (#24455511)
    Considering this is the only company building a serious launcher without government involvement, then yes this is an industry wide failure because they are the industry.
  • by BoldlyGo ( 1288070 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @09:21AM (#24455545)

    this certainly raises some questions about the likelihood of successful privatization of the Space industry.

    The government failed quite a few times before they got anything up. Let's not write off private space travel because of three failures.

  • by Bios_Hakr ( 68586 ) <xptical@nOSPAM.gmail.com> on Sunday August 03, 2008 @09:24AM (#24455559)

    A large portion of NASA's overhead does not come from axillary systems, it comes from managers and politicians.

  • by damburger ( 981828 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @09:26AM (#24455573)
    Shit NASA sends up doesn't blow up with this frequency. What you see as pork is probably necessary to the proper running of a space programme, but because everyone is so indoctrinated with the idea of the supremacy of the market you assume it can do things better.
  • by mh1997 ( 1065630 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @09:42AM (#24455649)

    I've said it before and this seems to confirm it - entrepreneurs aren't good at rocket science. They look at government funded space programs, and see the redundancy as waste and the precision as bureaucracy. Then when they try and do space cheaper without these things, there are predictably explosions.

    Exactly right, private citizens have no right or business being in space.

    If it weren't for this "bureaucracy" (NASA's incredible precision, redundancy, and lack of explosions), where would Roger Chaffee, Virgil Grissom, Edward White, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Rick Husband, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon be today?

    Luckily, the former Soviet Union also has a perfect record that started at Nedelin where only 126 people died when a rocket exploded.

    China and Bill Clinton also had a problem with an Intelsat 708 where it crashed into a village, but we should just stick with the facts and blame entrepreneurs.

  • It Happens (Score:5, Insightful)

    by abarrow ( 117740 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @09:51AM (#24455685) Homepage

    Hey, I'm a child of the 60s. I watched every launch, and attempted launch, that I could. I can't tell you the number of times that NASA blew things up in those early days. Had they quit after only three failures, the world would be a very, very different place today.

    Keep launching SpaceX! You'll succeed and the world will change again...

  • by Jafafa Hots ( 580169 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @09:57AM (#24455719) Homepage Journal
    That's the thing that I wonder about... when you see SpaceX's facilities, they are clearly brare-bones, right down to the launch pad. Obviously they are trying to make their launches cheaper by not "wasting" money.

    Since the three launches have all failed for different reasons, and seemingly reasons not indicating design flaws but rather mundane problems and errors that weren't caught (a rusty bolt, separation failure of the stages, etc.,) it makes me wonder if this is not rather an exposure of a flaw in the business model. Essentially they are all quality-control issues. Could it be that you simply need to have a largish organization to provide the checks and redundancy to catch the flaws that are always going to crop up in a complex system?

    Is this a failure not of the booster, but of a barebones, "cheaper" organizational structure that's just not up to the task?

  • by Yvanhoe ( 564877 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @10:06AM (#24455759) Journal
    It took several years to the NASA in order to achieve their current success ratio. It probably is the same for a private organization. Knowledge and know-how don't come cheap in the rocket business.

    Of course it is a shame (and probably a liable thing) that satellites are destroyed during this phase
  • by Greenmoon ( 656273 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @10:09AM (#24455775)


    I respect your right to your view, but that's kind of a crazy position to take. There's nothing intrinsically good at rocket science that government has to offer, and there is nothing to support saying that entrepreneurs as a group are all not good at it. "Good at rocket science" comes from the individual experts doing the work. The organization supporting them, be it government, private industry, or druid commune will be successful or not based on the ability to learn from failures and move forward.

    The failures we've seen are similar to the failures experience when the government space programs were taking off. Private groups will experience challenges that the government didn't but that cuts both ways. They will move past this and we'll see a successful launch. I also believe that the privatization of a large part of the space industry is inevitable. Maybe time for a Long Bet (There probably already is one; better check...)?

  • by francium de neobie ( 590783 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @10:11AM (#24455783)
    That is not exactly an apples to apples comparison. The Apollo program failed quite a number of times before Apollo 11 was able to reach the moon safely and back. NASA has decades of experience in making spacecrafts, and they're still not completely safe. SpaceX doesn't have the same amount of experience, nor do they have the same generous government funding and public support back in the '60s.

    With other factors being entirely different, it does not follow logically that you can just isolate one factor (funds being paid to politicians and managers vs. no such funds) and conclude that is the cause of SpaceX's troubles.
  • by Protonk ( 599901 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @10:22AM (#24455847) Homepage

    ...this certainly raises some questions about the likelihood of successful privatization of the Space industry.

    No, it doesn't. It raises questions about SpaceX and their ability to produce a launch vehicle with an acceptable flight record. It raises questions about private willingness to accept failure on a design they think is fundamentally sound. It doesn't raise any more questions about the "future" of private spaceflight than when an Pegasus blows up or when SeaLaunch has a failure. The ENTIRE spaceflight communit owes a debt to and exists on a continuum of government influence. That doesn't make government the only entity that can test those waters. It just means that in the 20th century spaceflight was subsidized heavily, by and large. Since the entire industry was basically created by government action and most products either had only a government use or were dual use, even corporations who were ostensibly private relied on these pioneering steps made by governments. Even with that in mind, plenty of companies out there operate without government subsidy--and if you consider a government contract earned (and not a subsidy....but I don't), many do so. There are THOUSANDS of companies supporting private aerospace and private spaceflight, just not exclusively.

    We need to get out of the mindset of "only government can do X". Sometimes that is true. Sometimes governments are the only ones who can provide certain services (or more accurately, they are the only ones willing to). But in the case of spaceflight, this is not always true. In the 1960's, only government was willing to go to space because the cost was large and the payoff in dollar terms was small (and highly uncertain). By the 1970's cable companies and phone companies were paying to go into space. IF the space race had never happened, we would probably have built launch vehicles to enter low earth orbit anyway. It would have come later (maybe much later), but it would have happened.

    Failures don't represent a fundamental flaw in an industry. SpaceX had insurance, so this failure is not financially fatal for them--insurance is a good counter to the argument of "too much risk" in private spaceflight. If they fail, someone else will take up the mantle.

  • Re:It Happens (Score:3, Insightful)

    by smchris ( 464899 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @10:56AM (#24456089)

    I guess I'm a "child" of the 50s, and, yes, I can vaguely remember that sputnik was a real concern because there was failure after failure on the American side. If everything government does these days is evil by definition (and often practice) so we can't continue space exploration collectively, then private enterprise hopefully has a few people with a vague sense of history who will remind them that there are going to be some really deep-pocket expenses up front on space exploitation.

  • by CraftyJack ( 1031736 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @11:25AM (#24456299)

    Knowledge and know-how don't come cheap in the rocket business.

    Which raises the question of whether or not a private organization can afford the learning curve.

  • by Geoffrey.landis ( 926948 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @11:29AM (#24456329) Homepage

    I've said it before and this seems to confirm it - entrepreneurs aren't good at rocket science. They look at government funded space programs, and see the redundancy as waste and the precision as bureaucracy. Then when they try and do space cheaper without these things, there are predictably explosions.

    You learn by doing, and that includes learning by failing. Space-X is learning a lot.

    Basically, when you try to revolutionize an industry, you have to accept some risk, and that means risk of failures along the way.

    I'm still cheering them on. Space-X has changed from a group of charmingly enthusiastic but naive innocents into a team of battle-scarred rocket veterans, and done it the hard way. The space entrepreneuring field has far too many naive innocents that promote paper spaceships, and far too few steely-eyed rocket veterans. While I'm saddened and even horrified that they lost their third rocket, nevertheless, if they can hold their team together and stay focussed despite the stumbles along the way, I'll say, keep at it, Space-X; keep at it!

  • by drooling-dog ( 189103 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @11:30AM (#24456345)

    Exactly right, private citizens have no right or business being in space.

    You're reacting to a point the parent never made. He simply pointed out the hubris that has been so characteristic of the space privatization movement of late. Space flight is hard and requires a huge investment of money, time and talent, whether done by governments or private entities. The "free market" - whatever that is - does nothing to obviate the need for extensive testing, exhaustive engineering, and redundancy that is necessary to achieve consistent success.

    I hear people on this forum and elsewhere talking about space hotels and the like in just a few years through private enterprise, and they seem like naive children to me.

  • by ThreeE ( 786934 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @12:15PM (#24456713)

    Or you could consider them to be the most successful in their industry.

  • by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @12:15PM (#24456715)

    Mercury and Gemini were both incident free with plenty of people sent to orbit.

    Project Mercury: six manned launches, all successful. total men in orbit: four. (that's fewer than the Shuttle carries on one flight, by the by.

    Project Gemini: ten manned launches, all successful. total men in orbit: sixteen different men - four went up twice.

    Shuttle: 123 flights so far, two unsuccesful. total men in orbit: about 800 (I don't feel like checking each flight for actual crew count, so it's only "about")

    For the Soyuz fans out there: 99 flights, four unsuccessful (defining unsuccessful as either not reaching orbit or crew dying on reentry) OR ten unsuccessful (defining unsuccessful as ay of the above or failing to complete design mission (usually a failure to dock with Salyut when that was intended mission)), total men in orbit: about 245 (some were launched on one flight, landed on another - I may have miscounted some in sorting those out).

    Note that Shuttle had 14 dead in its 123 flights (about 1.6%), Soyuz had four dead on its 99 flights (about 0.8%), but on a per flight basis, Shuttle had a failure rate of about 1.6%, Soyuz about 4% (or 10%), depending on definition of "failure". Neither Gemini nor Mercury suffered any failures (by either definition) but between them they put about 2% of the men into orbit that Soyuz and Shuttle combined did.

    Note further that Shuttle put into orbit more men than all other space programs combined. By a factor of three.

  • by element-o.p. ( 939033 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @12:42PM (#24456889) Homepage
    After enough failures, they will figure out where it's really cheaper to do things, well, cheaper and where it's actually *more expensive* to do things cheaper. How many payloads do you have to lose before it becomes cheaper to add some of the redundancy back in?

    Anyway, it is called rocket science for a reason? Hypothesize, test, analyze results, repeat as required, right?
  • by badasscat ( 563442 ) <basscadet75@y a h o o . com> on Sunday August 03, 2008 @01:17PM (#24457135)

    Has anyone given any thought to the fact that it really isn't easy to do this?

    Lots of us. The comment section on Slashdot is not entirely representative of the world at large.

    In almost every story about the privatization of space flight here, I find myself defending NASA despite their (few) accidents and supposed lax culture when it comes to safety. The fact remains, their success rate is extremely high. When they've been forced to cut costs and/or rush launches is when they've had problems. And that's exactly what the private industry is attempting to do now.

    I think the lesson here is that space flight is difficult, it is dangerous and it is expensive. There are no shortcuts - not if you want a success rate anywhere close to 100%, anyway. And with the amount it costs to build and insure the average payload, anything less than near 100% is not going to be acceptable to most potential customers.

  • by khallow ( 566160 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @01:24PM (#24457195)
    Ah, so you see the groundbreaking nature of SpaceX's approach. Going barebones is the major innovation over other launch providers. With three launch failures, SpaceX's attempt isn't working so far, but if it fails, the end result is that only an eccentric rich guy and a few investors are out a large sum of money. If it succeeds, then we not only know that a barebones approach works, but it can immediately begin driving launch costs down globally.
  • by l0ungeb0y ( 442022 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @01:34PM (#24457287) Homepage Journal

    "SpaceX had insurance, so this failure is not financially fatal for them--insurance is a good counter to the argument of "too much risk" in private spaceflight."

    Funny how you talk about the government being the only ones willing to do something when everyone else is unwilling because of the high cost vs low rewards then come out with this gem of thought: "It's ok, because the rocket and it's payload of multimillion dollar satellites were insured, MetSpace will just cover that with a minor increase monthly premiums."

    Insurance companies are not in the business of paying out money, they are in the business of getting something for nothing. Seeing that SpaceX already had two previous failures, if I was unlucky enough to insure them, I would consider canceling that policy right about now.

    But you do raise a good point: Insurance is vital to privatized space flight. And if companies like SpaceX continue to cause losses for insurance companies, it might cause problems for other companies to get into the space flight sector due to the unwillingness of insurers to provide policies.

  • Fools Commentary (Score:5, Insightful)

    by StarsAreAlsoFire ( 738726 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @03:37PM (#24458245)

    "While the company vows to carry on, this certainly raises some questions about the likelihood of successful privatization of the Space industry."

    I cannot imagine that there exists on this world one person knowledgable in the field that would not have been hellishly impressed if SpaceX HAD succeded on their third try.

    Actually BEING knowledgable in the field I can state with some authority that the poster is not.

    Name one new launch vehicle that was succesful on its third launch. No derivatives allowed. And this isn't just a new vehicle, but a new everything. The whole stack, all newly designed.

    It took over two years to determine the correct process to START the space shuttle main engines. To START them. The engine was already designed and built.

    While unfortunate, this launch failure only proves that point which is already well known: engineering launch vehicles is damned hard.

  • by Teancum ( 67324 ) <robert_horning AT netzero DOT net> on Sunday August 03, 2008 @07:09PM (#24460317) Homepage Journal

    One thing to keep in mind about the payloads that have been on the current set of falcon rockets:

    All of the "customers" were well aware of the fact that these were experimental rockets on their first attempts at trying to get up. Essentially they were given a huge price break (even considering the lower advertised costs of the Falcon 1) and were essentially "throw-away" spacecraft that would otherwise not have a practical way of getting into space otherwise... at least without somebody else heavily subsidizing the cost in some other way.

    The first two, and even this last flight, were intended to be sent up with a "dummy" payload of essentially just a tank of water. With the possibility that it could reach orbit and to do so cheaply, it seems reasonable to substitute the tank of water for something else that might have a little more value.

    The upcoming scheduled "flights" of the Falcon 1 are scheduled to be carrying something of a bit more value, so I supposed that the next flight is likely going to be another cheap student project (such as was the case with last year's flight) or perhaps even the tank of water as was originally planned.

    Considering that this is a whole new rocket design from a completely blank piece of paper, it isn't that surprising that there aren't a few problems that they've uncovered when reality hits theory.

    With two huge failures at stage separation, I bet that is going to be something SpaceX is going to study real hard at over the next couple of months and come up with some more ingenious techniques to get that to happen without a flaw.

  • by Teancum ( 67324 ) <robert_horning AT netzero DOT net> on Sunday August 03, 2008 @07:22PM (#24460413) Homepage Journal

    The cost of the fuel on a spacecraft is so minor that in most cases it is covered as a part of the "overhead" of the rocket instead of even being considered as a significant cost center for rocketry development. Something like about 1% of the cost of actually sending something up. Even if you triple the cost of kerosene, it will be something still so minor that it is hardly something to even bring up to the customer.

    The expense of rocket design has do to with the engineers and exotic metals, as well as production workers who have specialized skill like aviation-grade aluminum welding experience. Paying somebody to do that sort of work doesn't come cheap.

    Keep in mind the engineering adage that you can have things built:

    1) sooner (or faster)
    2) cheaper
    3) reliably

    Choose only two of the above options!

    A great many consumer electronics tend to select options 1 & 2. Most of the major military contracts concentrated on options 1 & 3, with the idea that cost really isn't a huge concern for a government like the USA. It is far more important that we have an ICBM that can get up *NOW* instead of sometime next year. The Apollo program especially was one that was "screw the cost, let's just get it done now!"

    SpaceX really is trying to see if they can build a rocket that may take a bit more time to develop, but can be done far cheaper and still maintain reliability. What I hope doesn't happen is that SpaceX engineers and technicians don't get under the pressure to get things done right now as well, in which case you simply end up with an expensive, delayed, and unreliable device. If you try all three approaches at once, you end up eating engineers and throwing lives away in one form or another.

  • by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @08:38PM (#24460967) Homepage Journal

    That might be the reason that the government attempts succeed where private ones fail.

    But reasons why something is true aren't proof that it's false.

    You just proved that the government is better at some big things than private corps are.

    And since just spending $billions on complex projects isn't any way to do anything but a lot of expensive work, there's clearly more to success than just a big budget. Even the government knows that.

  • by Rich0 ( 548339 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @08:53PM (#24461059) Homepage

    Quality is essential in any complex machine. Suppose the shuttle has 1 million critical points of failure. If each of them is 99.999% reliable then the chances of a successful launch is 0.99999^1000000 or 0.0045%. If you want to get off the ground you need to either reduce the number of points of failure (add redundancy or simplify the design), or increase the reliability of the parts (aka quality control).

    If you want your bolts to have a tolerance of 1 um then you need a lathe that is calibrated umpteen times per day. Those bolts get individually packed in cotton and the box it is carried in gets followed by a procession of monks. The wrench used to tighten the bolt is also crafted with similar care, and operated by a $30M robot and not a human. When so much can go wrong the only way to prevent problems is to take extraordinary care with every step of the process. That costs a lot of money.

    Software is the same way - everything is engineered with specs and written in something like ADA with extremely paranoid compile-time checks. Every function is tested on every boundary condition, every function call is carefully traced to ensure that the parameters will be in-range, etc.

    And even so they occasionally lose a launch vehicle - even the best designs. What can you say - it isn't a cheap business to be in. That doesn't rule out private investment, but it does rule out cheap investment. I think that the only way it could be done privately would be if a company had a guarantee of profit in the event they got off the ground - the initial costs are just so high nobody would spend them if NASA might just decide to stick with their own rockets.

  • by Free the Cowards ( 1280296 ) on Sunday August 03, 2008 @08:59PM (#24461107)

    NASA's success rate is extremely high? They've lost about 1 out of every 70 Shuttle launches, and that's manned spaceflight, with people getting killed when they fail. I haven't checked it, but presumably their unmanned launchers have a considerably worse record simply because unmanned launchers always have a considerably worse record.

    There's a reason why "rocket science" is used as a euphamism for "something extremely difficult". Three launch failures of a brand spanking new rocket is nothing unusual in this field. NASA has certainly not done any better with theirs. To the extent that they do better now, it's because they're using proven designs, with the major early failures well in the past.

  • NASA's success (Score:3, Insightful)

    by boarder ( 41071 ) on Monday August 04, 2008 @12:02PM (#24467963) Homepage

    Good luck trying to find info on NASA's unmanned launcher success... they don't have one. When NASA needs to launch a satellite they use a Delta II or Atlas V, depending on the size of the satellite and where it's going.

    And they have extremely good success with those vehicles. The failures you think you've seen are with the satellites themselves, not the launch vehicle. My work is launching rockets, so I have a bit of insight into this. The only failed launches in the major private industry that I can remember were the first flights of the Delta IV Heavy config and the Delta III test vehicle. Yeah, there have been some anomalies with second stages that caused the satellite to either not make the intended orbit (but still be mostly usable) or not get as close as they wanted.

    As far as your statement that
    "presumably their unmanned launchers have a considerably worse record simply because unmanned launchers always have a considerably worse record."
    Well, that's just incorrect. Manned spacecraft are considerably more complex than unmanned, and whenever something is more complex there is a greater chance for part of it to fail. Also, the Space Shuttle design just sucks balls. There's a reason the new launcher designs are going back to the Apollo style vehicle. The Delta II has had only one total failure out of 136 launches with over 81 successful launches in a row (around 99% success rate). The Atlas II went 100% with 63/63 successful launches. The Atlas V is at 14 launches with only a partial failure during the coast of the second stage.

    Three launch failures of a brand spanking new rocket is nothing unusual in this field.
    Actually, nowadays it is. The Delta II, Atlas II, Atlas V, Delta IV (non-heavy), Atlas III, Arianne, etc all had zero failures for their first three launches (as far as I've found). The Shuttle took many launches before its first failure. The major difference is what SpaceX is trying to do: they want to make their launches be their check out tests. They don't test components on the ground very much before flying. That's how they save so much money: they just don't test. THAT is why they fail 100% of the time. As you can probably tell, I heavily disagree with this philosophy. Lockheed and Boeing probably had tons of failures during ground tests, but they didn't affect the first flight because they had tested every component 100 times. SpaceX doesn't test nearly as much so of course there will be spectacular failures.

    Your overall point that NASA's success rate is low is still valid, though.

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