SpaceX rocket launch aborted in last half-second (Update)

May 19, 2012
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the unmanned Dragon capsule, sits on the launch pad on May 18 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in south Florida. The capsule will be launched to the International Space Station in what may be a historic mission for private spaceflight.

Engineers aborted the launch of a privately built spacecraft on a landmark mission to the International Space Station at the last second Saturday due to a rocket engine problem.

The California-based company SpaceX scrubbed the launch of its Dragon capsule a half-second before liftoff after an engine controller noted high pressure in the central engine of the Falcon 9 rocket, forcing the shutdown.

"This is not failure. We aborted with purpose. It would be a failure if we were to have lifted off with an engine trending in this direction," SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell told reporters.

"We will be out there looking for whatever we can find and we will put out a statement as soon as we find a root cause," Shotwell said, adding that early indications have ruled out a sensor failure or a faulty fuel valve.

All nine engines are required for a successful liftoff, though up to two engines can be lost in flight.

Elevated temperatures could have caused the high pressure in engine five, possibly from too little fuel flowing into it, though it is too early to know for certain.

"We're going to have to spend more time looking at the data," Shotwell said, warning it could take several days to replace the defective engine.

While SpaceX has a next launch opportunity on Tuesday at 3:44 am (0744 GMT), the date of the next attempt will remain uncertain until inspectors determine the root cause of the engine problem.

Another launch window opens up on Wednesday at 3:22 am (0722 GMT).

A similar issue with engine five forced a temporary delay of the Falcon 9's first-ever flight, but that liftoff was not scrubbed because there was a longer launch window and SpaceX was able to renew the attempt, Shotwell said.

However, this time there was a very narrow window of opportunity to launch toward the ISS so the attempt was put off entirely.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk initially downplayed the problem, saying in a tweet that there was "slightly high" combustion chamber pressure. But Shotwell said his statement was based on early data.

"Further analysis of the data we were able to get it looks like it is something we want to go and inspect," she added.

NASA urged patience for what would mark the first attempt to send a privately built spacecraft to the orbiting research outpost.

"We're ready to support when SpaceX is ready to go," said Alan Lindenmoyer, NASA's manager of the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program.

Graphic on commercial spacecraft maker SpaceX and Dragon lab capsule, which is expected to launch for a mission to the International Space Station.

SpaceX is the first of several US competitors to try sending its own cargo-bearing spacecraft to the ISS with the goal of restoring US access to space for human travelers by 2015.

The company made history with its Dragon launch in December 2010, becoming the first commercial outfit to send a spacecraft into orbit and back.

Until now, only the space agencies of Russia, Japan and Europe have been able to send supply ships to the ISS.

The United States had that capacity too, with its iconic space shuttle that long served as part astronaut bus, part delivery truck for the lab.

But the 30-year shuttle program ended for good in 2011, leaving Russia as the sole taxi for astronauts to the ISS until private industry comes up with a replacement.

SpaceX has benefited from NASA dollars in its quest but has also poured its own money into the project.

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation both have billion-dollar contracts with NASA to supply cargo to the ISS in the coming years.

The US space agency has given SpaceX about $390 million so far of the total $680 million that the California-based company has spent on cargo development, according to Shotwell.

SpaceX also gets funding from NASA on a separate effort to develop a commercial crew vehicle for carrying astronauts to space, along with competitors Blue Origin, Boeing and Sierra Nevada.

In a few years' time, Shotwell said she hopes SpaceX will be able to undercut the hefty price NASA pays Russia for US astronauts to get a seat aboard the Soyuz space capsule -- around $63 million a ticket.

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User comments : 19

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ShotmanMaslo
4 / 5 (8) May 19, 2012
Well, at least their safe abort system was proven working. Looking forward to tuesday attempt.
kaasinees
2.8 / 5 (9) May 19, 2012
Better than wasting the rocket mid air. It remains to be seen what will happen, they will probably go crazy tweaking the engines and cooling system before the new launch. It might be an engineering fault.
ShotmanMaslo
3.9 / 5 (7) May 19, 2012
It was a slight engine overpressure on engine 5 that triggered the launch abort. According to SpaceX, the limit was set too conservative, so they will just relax it a bit.
Mike_Massen
1.6 / 5 (7) May 19, 2012
Risk assessment in terms of probabilistic limit settings is a fairly sophisticated decision process, hope they have a clued up mathematician on board with engineering experience, especially in fluid mechanics. Also wonder what sort of filtering and EMC they have on their data-loggers.

In terms of detailed knowledge of the event and causation, do their data loggers sample at a much higher rate then telemetry - one would hope so and with considerable depth of data history ?

Would be interesting to know, if they shut down the offending engine during launch would they still be able to reach orbit with that weight of payload ?
Vendicar_Decarian
1.8 / 5 (5) May 19, 2012
Translation - they will now relax safety standards to compensate.

"According to SpaceX, the limit was set too conservative, so they will just relax it a bit." - ShotMan
MrGrynch
3.9 / 5 (7) May 19, 2012
Translation - they will now relax safety standards to compensate.

That's not necessarily true. In complex systems like liquid rocket engines, the failsafes are by necessity over-engineered. Then monitoring is put in place to make sure that they know what's going on with the system. Then they set operational limits based on the design and their risk sensitivity. At the time of the fault, they did not know what was wrong. A short time later, their analytics determined the problem and they identified it was an area they had some wiggle room in their limits. This does not represent a relaxation in safety, just a relaxation on their definition of safety. I am a programmer and I put warning messages in my code all the time at spots that *might* mean there is a problem. During normal runtime, I see these errors and often determine that there is a condition that happens which excites these warnings in a way that is not detrimental to operation, so I remove the warning
axemaster
5 / 5 (5) May 19, 2012
Good luck to SpaceX. They're doing some of the most difficult engineering in the world, it's no wonder they have a few stumbles before they get it right. Hell, NASA blew up a ton of rockets before they fixed them.
Mike_Massen
1 / 5 (2) May 19, 2012
I'd hazard an educated guess the issue with engine shutdown has a lot to do with oscillations (paradigm of water hammer), these can be very destructive.

In my own studies in Electronic Fuel Injection in 1982 the shockwave from the closing of solenoid operated injection nozzles was enough to fracture steel pipes at a mere 35psi nominal.

The pressure pulse & occasional reinforcement can be enough to cause failure resulting in fire, either on exhaust or through engine bay etc. I'm not saying the same types PWM control is an issue, clearly proportional control valves are far better with tight servo controlled loops.

Oscillations also can reach a crescendo when flow type shifts from laminar to turbulent & back again, with cryogenic fluids this can happen rather quickly indeed, despite there being sufficient pressure, chaotic cavitation can also occur sporadically.

I hope SpaceX has really good data-logging & means to analyse results & am looking forward to details if at all possible :-)
gwrede
5 / 5 (3) May 19, 2012
No panic, this is rocket science, and it is supposed to be hard.
Russkiycremepuff
1.9 / 5 (9) May 19, 2012
Good luck to the Space-X. But our Russian space industry will continue to help the NASA for as long as we are needed and our cosmonauts are always ready to fly to ISS. I have started to search personnel records of American private space industries for Chinese scientists and engineers. It is interesting search. I am recalling the scandal at Los Alamos with amusement.
Mike_Massen
1 / 5 (2) May 19, 2012
gwrede made a negative assumption that elsewhere might be tragic
No panic, this is rocket science, and it is supposed to be hard.
Nah ! Don't believe that one bit !

So much time has passed, so much has been learned, we have more powerful tools. We just need to be open and positive to our intellects being ready to handle rather more complexity & as quickly as possible.

Rocket Science *should* be easier and approachable & understandable & our future may well be dependent upon it & not just from the point of resources but from the Gaia sense so humans can be more intelligent {about us} as one of many inter-related species on our only home we know of at present.

I'm keen to see the resurgence of the pioneering spirit, this can occur on a grander scale re SpaceX and Tesla car and on a lesser scale by improving our thinking processes in advanced and sophisticated approaches to (long term) solve our basic needs and sustainably so.

More of us could then approach the grander scale !
brt
4 / 5 (4) May 19, 2012
I remember when NASA used to have these same problems, they would say they had to "delay" the launch due to weather or a technical problem in mission control's monitoring capabilities; "light from Jupiter reflected off of some swamp gas which..." Space-X is full of smart people who can do it better and cheaper than NASA. As a consequence, they have no P.R. department because smart people see no reason to be in denial about anything.
Russkiycremepuff
1.6 / 5 (7) May 19, 2012
I see that kaasinees has again rated me the "one" as he is in habit of doing with all of my posts in many threads, but he is not man enough to explain what it is I have said that he disagrees with. I can only surmise that it is because I am proud Russian as source of his bigotry.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (3) May 19, 2012
Bummer! Let us hope next time is the trick.

@ Vendicar Decarian:

"Translation - they will now relax safety standards to compensate.

"According to SpaceX, the limit was set too conservative, so they will just relax it a bit." - ShotMan"

You are both wrong, it was an engine overpressure trending out of known bounds. Most likely the engine got too little fuel. Since Falcon 9 can't launch with engines out it was a good abort.

@ Russkiycremepuff:

As context, I haven't seen you comments before but your first one jumps out to me as auspiciously political and conspirationist. I would rate it negative on a science site. Not that a science site can't touch politics if the subject is related to it, but it shouldn't be a self serving objective.

So I would think there is no bigotry involved, but an understandable silent protest towards what may be trolling and conspiracy theory. (Conspiracy theory which is ultimately anti-science by its nature of attempting to be non-testable.)
simplicio
not rated yet May 19, 2012
Nah ! Don't believe that one bit !
So much time has passed, so much has been learned, we have more powerful tools.

It is true and we know theory very well and can simulate. But every design is new and different people work on it with different experience. It is still very complex plumbing operation! High pressures, high accuracy, hi temps, tight timing and control.

It is simple in theory, but devil is in details like always. I hope they are rewarded for their care.
Russkiycremepuff
1 / 5 (1) May 20, 2012


@ Russkiycremepuff:

As context, I haven't seen you comments before but your first one jumps out to me as auspiciously political and conspirationist. I would rate it negative on a science site. Not that a science site can't touch politics if the subject is related to it, but it shouldn't be a self serving objective.

So I would think there is no bigotry involved, but an understandable silent protest towards what may be trolling and conspiracy theory. (Conspiracy theory which is ultimately anti-science by its nature of attempting to be non-testable.)
- Torbjorn -

I did not say anything about conspiracy from only one individual. I also am not the only person that he rates ones and does not explain the purpose or reason. I consider it a cowardly act to do such without explaining before leaving thread. If you examine my Activity page, you will find the name "kaasinees" in majority of threads where I posted with giving me ones. He says not a word to me and that makes him bigot.
Russkiycremepuff
1 / 5 (1) May 20, 2012
@Torbjorn
(From my first post in this thread)
"Good luck to the Space-X. But our Russian space industry will continue to help the NASA for as long as we are needed and our cosmonauts are always ready to fly to ISS. I have started to search personnel records of American private space industries for Chinese scientists and engineers. It is interesting search. I am recalling the scandal at Los Alamos with amusement."

Kindly explain to me where is the conspiratorial part of my statement if that is what you were referring. Perhaps you deny that Russian scientists have helped the NASA many times in the past? If you are instead referring to Los Alamos scandal, yes it did happen by Chinese spy. If that is conspiratorial to you, then is it possible that you are unaware of the event? I wished good luck to Space-X. The article only described failure of lift-off and exchange of money. Where is the science?
DrMordrid
5 / 5 (3) May 20, 2012
"May 19, 2012
Todays COTS 2 Demonstration launch was aborted half a second before liftoff when the flight computer detected slightly high pressure in the engine 5 combustion chamber. We have discovered root cause and repairs are underway.

During rigorous inspections of the engine, SpaceX engineers discovered a faulty check valve on the Merlin engine. We are now in the process of replacing the failed valve. Those repairs should be complete tonight. We will continue to review data on Sunday. If things look good, we will be ready to attempt to launch on Tuesday, May 22nd at 3:44 AM Eastern."

A later tweet & release confirmed it was a faulty turbopump check valve.
Mike_Massen
1 / 5 (2) May 20, 2012
simplicio assumed design methodology hasnt improved much
It is true and we know theory very well and can simulate. But every design is new and different people work on it with different experience..

It is simple in theory, but devil is in details like always. I hope they are rewarded for their care.
Contemporary computer aided design software & especially so in simulations of fluid mechanical systems have advanced significantly from the days of the cold war space race. A great deal of the work of practical tests and post mortem analyses are integrated into commercial packages. I understand also Nasa has a great deal as part of various programs (eg. STARS) which would have been sensible to share with SpaceX - as it is their money after-all.

We also have the advantage of considerably improved metallurgical understanding, improved production & purification techniques for all the materials involved, eg, Single crystal alloy turbine blades, use of MRI and ultrasound inspection etc.