Monday, May 21, 2012

SpaceX one step closer to perfect Falcon 9 launch

SpaceX' Dragon capsule sits atop the Falcon 9 rocket about 14 hours before anticipated launch
May 18, 2012 (Photo by Jeff Holton)

Saturday morning, I caught my jaw in rapid descent as the SpaceX launch I travelled to Florida to see aborted at T-minus 0.5 seconds.

What happened?

In a layman's nutshell, one of the nine Merlin engines on the bottom of the Falcon 9 rocket was working harder than it should have been. In the two-and-a-half seconds that the engine ran, a computer monitoring the pressure of all nine engines saw a trending "overpressure condition" that signaled that there was something wrong. Imagine for a moment that one of your car's four wheels is spinning faster than the other three. That's bad.

In the following hours of data recovery, analysis, press conferences, and announcements, I learned or was reminded of several things, some technical, some philosophical:

  • Engineering reliability. When you're driving your car and it breaks down, you pull over to the side of the road and you call AAA. That's not an option with a space launch. If it hasn't left yet, and you have good reason to believe it's not working, you stay home. Those with a deep awareness of space launch history will remember the famous four-inch flight of the first Mercury-Redstone launch.

  • Click here to watch the four-inch flight of MR-1

  • Failure vs. iteration. These are failures.

    Click here to watch a British documentary on unmanned US launch failures

    What happened here wasn't a failure. It was a calculated decision to get better.
  • Exploration is about progress and improvement. What do engineers and explorers have in common? They're both humbly aware that as a species we're not where we should be yet. We still have somewhere to go. We can do this better. Scrubbing the launch was the best way to get better faster. If they'd launched and lost the craft, they'd be back at square one. By aborting the launch, they got one step closer to having a flawless launch next time.
  • SpaceX is pretty impressive. These people analyzed the problem, repaired it, determined that it wasn't that big of a deal in the first place, said they were glad they fixed it anyway, and had the whole thing turned around and on track for another attempt way inside of 48 hours. That, to me, is a company that you can trust.
They're going to try again tonight, in the early hours of May 22, 2012. Tune in to my Facebook, Google+, or Twitter feeds for links to watch my team's live commentary and/or NASA TV.

You can view my commentary on the visit and new attempt here. It's worth a look.

SpaceX Launch Scrub Post Report and New Launch Intro


Daniel J. Grinkevich said...

Great article, it was awesome meeting you at the NASA Social, let's launch today!

G Stearns said...

Jeff... Great to be at "Moment in History" with you... Love your WebSite... Love your Style... All The Best... G Stearns