June 30, 2015
“… it’s not all or nothing. We must get to orbit eventually, and we will. It might take us one, two or three more tries, but we will. We will make it work.” Elon Musk said this in a now-famous interview to Wired in 2008 when questioned about what the future of private spaceflight looked like after SpaceX had failed three times in a row trying to launch its Falcon 1 rocket. At the close, Musk, the company’s founder and CEO, asserted, “As God is my bloody witness, I’m hell-bent on making it work.”
Fast forward to June 28, 2015, at Cape Canaveral, Florida, 1950 IST. There’s a nebulaic cloud of white-grey smoke hanging in the sky, the signature of a Falcon 9 rocket that disintegrated minutes after takeoff. @SpaceX’s Twitter feed is MIA while other handles are bustling with activity. News trickles in that an “overpressurization” event occurred in the rocket’s second stage, a liquid-oxygen fueled motor. A tang of resolve hangs in conversations about the mishap – a steely reminder that #SpaceIsHard.
In October 2014, an Antares rocket exploded moments after lifting off, crashing down to leave the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia, unusable for months. In April 2015, a Progress 59 cargo module launched by the Russian space agency’s Soyuz 2-1A rocket spun wildly out of control and fell back toward Earth – rather was incinerated in the atmosphere.
All three missions – Orbital’s, Roscosmos’s and SpaceX’s – were resupply missions to the International Space Station. All three missions together destroyed food and clothing for the ISS crew, propellants, 30 small satellites, spare parts for maintenance and repairs, a water filtration system and a docking port – at least. The result is that NASA’s six-month buffer of surplus resources on the ISS has now been cut back to four. The next resupply mission is Roscosmos’s next after its April accident, on July 3, followed by a Japanese mission in August.
But nobody is going to blame any of these agencies overmuch – rather, they shouldn’t. Although hundreds of rockets are successfully launched every year, what’s invisible on TV is the miracle of millions of engineering-hours and tens of thousands of components coming together in each seamless launch. And like Musk said back in 2008, it’s not all-or-nothing each time people try to launch a rocket. Accidents will happen because of the tremendous complexity.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch was the third attempt in six months to reuse the rocket’s first-stage. It’s an ingenious idea: to have the first-stage robotically manoeuvre itself onto a barge, floated off Wallops Island, after performing its duties. Had the attempt succeeded, SpaceX would’ve created history. Being able to reuse such an important part of the rocket reduces launch costs – possible by a factor of hundred, Musk has claimed.
In September 2013, the first stage changed direction, reentered Earth’s atmosphere and made a controlled descent – but landed too hard in the water. A second attempt in April 2014 played out a similar narrative, with the stage getting broken up in hard seas. Then, in January 2015, an attempt to land the stage on the barge – called the autonomous spaceport drone ship – was partially successful. The stage guided itself toward the barge in an upright position but eventually came down too hard. Finally, on June 28, a yet-unknown glitch blew up the whole rocket 2.5 minutes after launch.
The Falcon 9’s ultimate goal is to ferry astronauts into space. After retiring its Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, NASA had no vehicles to send American astronauts into space from American soil, and currently coughs up $70 million to Roscosmos for each seat. As remedy, it awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to build human-rated rockets fulfilling the associated and stringent criteria in September 2014. The vehicles have until 2017 to be ready. So in a way, it’s good that these accidents are happening now while the missions are uncrewed (and the ISS is under no real threat of running out of supplies).
June 28 was also Musk’s 44th birthday. On behalf of humankind, and in thanks to his ambitions and perseverance, someone buy the man a drink.