Published online 4 August 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1008


Falcon 1 blows it again

Private space travel takes another hit, but isn't doomed.

For the third time, privately funded rocket Falcon 1 has failed to reach orbit in a test flight.

rocketThe Falcon 1 rocket has launched several times, but never reached orbit.SpaceX

The US-based company Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) attempted to loft Falcon 1 into an Earth orbit on 2 August from Kwajalein atoll in the Pacific Ocean. But the two rocket stages failed to separate, bringing the flight to a premature end.

Two other launches, in March 2006 and again in March 2007, were also unsuccessful. The first rocket flew for less than a minute before a suspected fuel leak ended the trip. The second launch went slightly better, but the rocket didn’t manage to reach orbit before diving back to Earth and burning up on re-entry – this fault also seemed to be related to the stage-separation machinery.

Despite being disappointed for a third time, Elon Musk, founder, chief executive, chief technology officer and main funder of SpaceX, remains optimistic — and, he says, solvent. “As a precautionary measure to guard against the possibility of flight 3 not reaching orbit, SpaceX recently accepted a significant investment,” Musk said in a statement to employees directly after the launch. Details of the investment weren't given officially, but a SpaceX representative quoted by The Wall Street Journal has confirmed that private equity group The Founders Fund will provide support to the tune of $20 million.

Most of SpaceX’s funding so far has come from Musk’s own purse. Future funding will depend on customers using SpaceX rockets to send their payloads into space. The big appeal of SpaceX is that the company claims to be able to get things up there for much less money than other launch systems, and fast.

Small-fry satellites

The botched separation was bad news for the rocket's three payloads – the US Department of Defense’s Trailblazer satellite, and two small satellites from NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, including Nanosail-D, which deploys a solar sail. But these satellites were very small fry as space payloads go, says Jonathan McDowell at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It’s not like losing the Hubble,” he says.

The Trailblazer satellite had been cancelled previously, and went up without any cameras or sensors on board, McDowell explains. This was to test whether a satellite could be deployed and switched on rapidly, for example if a satellite had been shot down and needed replacing quickly. For future paying customers, though, the loss of cargo is crucial. “No one with a serious payload wants to fly on this thing yet,” says McDowell.

The reputation of SpaceX will not be damaged by the failed launch, says Wolfgang Demisch, an aerospace consultant based in New York who has served on the US National Science Foundation’s 'Next Generation Launch Technology' panel. “None of the glitches look like they’re fundamental,” he says. This problem just goes to show how hard rocket science is, he adds: “Eventually they will get it right.”

Other rockets have survived unsuccessful early launches. The Ariane 5 rocket, now used routinely to launch large European payloads, blew up just seconds after launch in its first test flight, and its second test flight was deemed a partial failure. Jean-Yves Le Gall, chief executive of Arianespace, the company that builds the Ariane rockets, thinks that things will be difficult for Musk and SpaceX after a third failed test. Musk has a “long journey” ahead of him. “They are in a quite difficult situation,” he says.

Yet SpaceX’s resolve is holding so far: the company recently announced the successful test of the nine Merlin rocket engines for Falcon 9, the successor to Falcon 1. “SpaceX will not skip a beat in execution going forward,” Musk’s statement says. “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.” But resolve may not be enough to survive another launch failure. “I think if [Musk] has a fourth failure in a row, it would be very hard to go on,” says McDowell. 

Update: SpaceX have now identified why the two rocket sections didn’t separate. The third test flight had used a new engine, which held small amounts of unburned fuel in its cooling channels after the engine was turned off. This meant that after separation, even though the engine cut out, the bottom stage could produce a bit more thrust, enough to keep moving upwards and stop the stages from successfully separating.

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