By definition, flight tests are expected to validate a vehicle’s ability to fly as designed and reveal any issues, whether good or bad, as doing so provides the data needed to support further development of a safe and effective flight system, and Friday afternoon spectators in Texas were present to witness one such example when the company’s prototype Falcon-9 Reusable Development Vehicle (F9R Dev for short) exploded in-flight.
The flight test was the latest in a series of launches over the last couple years carried out by the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company at their 900-acre McGregor, Texas, rocket development test site. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk sells his rocket company’s launch services on its affordability, a fact that is heavily dependent on the future reusability of the Falcon-9 launch system. If SpaceX wants to provide the market with a truly reusable, and consequently much cheaper rocket, then the company needs to design and develop it all from the ground up. SpaceX isn’t just focused on F9’s reusability either, they want to go a big step further and return their rockets to the launch site under the vehicle’s own power minutes after liftoff, which would (in theory) allow for a rapid turnaround between flights.
“With research and development projects, detecting vehicle anomalies during the testing is the purpose of the program,” said SpaceX in a statement released Friday evening. “Today’s test was particularly complex, pushing the limits of the vehicle further than any previous test. As is our practice, the company will be reviewing the flight record details to learn more about the performance of the vehicle prior to our next test.”
VIDEO: SpaceX F9R Explodes In-Flight, courtesy of CBS affiliate KWTX News 10
No real details are yet available as to what the anomaly was that caused Friday’s F9R flight termination system to automatically end the flight test, as time will obviously be needed to analyze the flight data collected, but the vehicle did remain in its designated flight area throughout the test. Firefighters were dispatched to contain small grass fires at the test site caused by flaming debris falling from the sky but no injuries or near-injuries were reported.
SpaceX has already successfully conducted many similar flight tests over the last two years, each of which becoming more challenging as the company’s now retired prototype “Grasshopper” flew higher and longer with each test. Not only that, but more recently SpaceX has used their still evolving Falcon-9 v1.1 booster first stage as a “controlled descent test vehicle” after launching their customer’s payloads to low-Earth orbit from both launch sites at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Those tests saw the nine-engine Falcon-9 booster perform vertical controlled powered landings in the ocean offshore from the launch sites, with retractable hydraulic landing legs strapped to the booster itself.
Thus far the landing tests conducted after launching real space missions have confirmed the Falcon’s ability to consistently reenter from space at hypersonic velocity, restart main engines twice, deploy landing legs, and touch down at near zero velocity.
The next such “vertical soft landing test” will occur when SpaceX launches their unmanned autonomous Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station on the company’s fourth contracted Commercial Resupply Flight for NASA in late Sept (CRS-4). Although that test will once again splashdown vertically in the Atlantic, the following tests on Falcon-9 flights 14 and 15 will attempt to land on a solid surface, likely a barge offshore, before trying to land the rocket back at the launch site itself.
Friday’s explosive end to SpaceX’s latest F9R landing test might seem major, but the truth is it’s only a minor setback for the ambitious company. F9R was designed for low-altitude vertical takeoff and vertical landing (or VTVL) flight tests of up to 3,000 meters, as that is the maximum altitude SpaceX can fly for such tests at their Texas test site. Future tests, which will be conducted by a new F9R test vehicle (F9R Dev 2), will fly at high-altitude (up to 91,000 meters) from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
On Friday night SpaceX also conducted a customary countdown dress-rehearsal and static test fire with their Falcon-9 v1.1 rocket at Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex-40, Fla., where preparations are underway to launch the AsiaSat-6 satellite on Tuesday, Aug. 26, at 12:50 a.m. EDT. Whether or not Friday’s fiery end to the Texas flight test will cause next week’s space launch to be delayed remains to be seen.
Check back regularly for updates.