SpaceX Whiffs Again

Having watched the webcast of SpaceX’s latest attempt to launch its Falcon 1 booster, I can say the outcome was quite a bummer. But it also wasn’t really a surprise. As fellow watcher Dale Amon noted, there was something amiss from early on. The first-stage exhaust, as seen by the onboard camera, never really settled into a stable pattern.  SpaceX itself is saying the stages failed to separate, but I’m not convinced. The video cut out well before separation was to occur, which suggests either that the vehicle broke up or that the telemetry available to ground controllers was pretty clearly saying the flight would end badly.

The question now is, what next for SpaceX. Company founder Elon Musk says they will press on. I’m sure that’s true, at least in the short run. Eventually, though, they’ll have to produce. Unlike the government programs that pioneered space flight in the 1950s, SpaceX is reliant on private capital that in this country at least is constricted and risk averse. Once Musk burns through his own money, they’ll have to be flying, or someone will take the company away from him. 

There’s a lot to like about the SpaceX approach. The computer technology that’s going into its rockets is state-of-the-art, and the company itself is lean, personnel-wise. Maybe too lean. If what Musk is saying about a separation problem is true, that’s two flights in a row where they didn’t overcome a fundamental hurdle. In the previous flight, the first stage gave the second-stage engine bell a good hard knock as the stages separated. The question I have is whether there’s enough peer-review of the design occurring, or whether they’re suffering a bit of groupthink. If on the other hand the problem’s the first-stage engine, then I also have to wonder if SpaceX has focused too much effort on follow-ons like the Falcon 9 booster and not enough on making sure it flight-verifies its basic technology.

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