In-Flight Anomaly Forces Self-Destruct of Experimental SpaceX Rocket in Latest Flight Test

A SpaceX F9R prototype rocket exploded during a flight test in the skies over Texas on Friday, August 22 when an anomaly was detected in-flight. Photo Credit: Amanda Spence
A SpaceX F9R prototype rocket exploded during a flight test in the skies over Texas on Friday, Aug. 22, when an anomaly was detected in-flight. Photo Credit: Amanda Spence

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. 

SpaceX's 3-engine F9R prototype is seen here during a flight test at the company's McGregor, Texas test site last May. Photo Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX’s 3-engine F9R prototype is seen here during a flight test at the company’s McGregor, Texas, test site last May. Photo Credit: SpaceX

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.


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    • What the object of the Grasshopper/F9R flights has been has always been a curiosity.

      To date they appear to have flown straight up then straight back down to the same landing site without any reorientation of the vehicle or engine restarts and no lateral alignment of the vehicle. More has been done with the tests on actual F9 launches. More in terms of actual vehicle positioning was done 20 years ago with the DC-X.

      The real question is what was the cause of the anomaly that required the destruct of the vehicle.

      Does it involve potential flight hardware problems are it an artifact of the test hardware configuration?

  1. Onwards and upwards, push on SpaceX, we’re still in the baby steps phase, babys trip up, get up and toddle on!

  2. Of course, all of this good-natured understanding, unbridled support, and wishes of success will be present in equal abundance should an “anomaly” occur during Experimental Flight Test 1 of the Orion spacecraft to be done later this year. Anything less might cause one to wonder if hypocrisy is afoot. Success NASA! Onwards and upwards Orion/Space Launch System!

    • If such an “anomaly” does occur during EFT-1, I’m sure that the people who support the Orion program will offer it exactly the kind of good-natured and unbridled support that you’d want.

      Other people, who don’t necessarily believe the program is a good idea, will not at all be hypocritical in refraining from offering such support in that event.

    • Yes it is predictable that those that have chosen sides will support those sides regardless of data. Fortunately, the hard decisions will be made on hard facts and not on fan support.

      I personally appreciate that Americaspace is more balanced now than a couple of years ago. That doesn’t mean that any of us have to take biased cheerleading, or biased bashing, seriously.

      • I sincerely hope you are right about “hard facts” being the dominate consideration in the selection process, but there have been a lot of campaign contributions applied to all the proper people.

        Time will tell.

  3. Politics is part of the hard facts of dealing with a government agency. I would actually be happier if no one got paid until delivery.

    • No one being paid until delivery would be a true commercial program.

      It is an appealing idea, but I think we both know that is not going to happen.

  4. Current indications are that in the November mid-term election, the Republicans will definitely retain control of the House, and in all probability will gain control of the Senate. With Republicans in control of the Senate, Senator Shelby (R. Al.), a strong supporter of NASA and Orion/SLS will be in a position to exercise greater power and control. Elections do have consequences, and for those who were generous and avid fund-raisers for the “other side”, those consequences may not be very favorable.

    • Zeroing the funding for commercial crew would quickly sort out the true commercial players from those just playing the game. That could be a good thing.

      My opinion of Orion/SLS is possibly lower than yours is of the ersatz commercial crew program. Since neither of us is likely to convince the other though, I’ll leave it at that, and you can have the last word if you wish.

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