Chair Force Engineer

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Depression sets in

Going into yesterday's Falcon I launch, I really thought they were going to make it to orbit. The second flight in March 2007 made it oh-so-close, and I hoped that Launch 3 would work out the remaining bugs. Unfortauntely, the launch was a step backwards, and terminated after less than 2.5 minutes.

Elon Musk's press release attributed the failure to a stage separation. Flight 2 also suffered from an off-nominal stage separation, but it wasn't enough to destroy the vehicle during the earlier flight. I would suspect that it was a new failure mechanism, rather than the same one that affected separation on Flight 2. Perhaps it was the fix for the Flight 2 problem that doomed Flight 3.

I really feel for the SpaceX team, especially Elon Musk. They've started from the ground-up, and are re-learning many of the hard lessons that NASA and the Air Force learned during the early Thor, Atlas and Titan programs of the late 50's. One must ask how much fortitude they have, and how much money they are willing to sink into the effort. It must be very easy to get discouraged after the first three failures, and requires a high degree of faith in the future of the Falcon program (and all of the manned spaceflight effort, in general.)

I must also question whether SpaceX will go ahead with a Falcon IX flight test if they haven't flown Falcon I successfully. If the Falcon IX flight schedule slips, the chances of closing the post-shuttle gap to three years or less will evaporate.

I have a lot of respect for everything that SpaceX has accomlished so far, and I feel for the tough breaks they've been given. At the same time, I have to side with Rocket Man and ask why NASA has put SpaceX's new rocket on the critical path for closing the spaceflight gap. Hopefully SpaceX will recover from the recent failure and succeed on attempt 4, but I feel that the goal of closing the spaceflight gap has already slipped away.