SpaceX launch good for NASA, not private firm (Update)

Oct 08, 2012 by Seth Borenstein

A private rocket successfully sent a capsule full of cargo zipping toward the International Space Station in a first of its kind delivery for NASA, but couldn't deliver on job No. 2: putting a commercial satellite into the correct orbit.

One of nine engines on Space X company's Falcon 9 rocket failed Sunday 79 seconds after launch because of a pressure loss. The engine didn't explode, but it did start a series of events that meant another company's private satellite is not in the place it is needed.

The main mission for the Falcon launch—delivering half a ton of science and food supplies toward the space station—is still on track with a docking of the cargo-laden Dragon capsule scheduled for Wednesday. SpaceX on Monday said the ship's flight computer calculated a new path to the station for the capsule. It is the first of a dozen supply runs under a mega-contract with NASA.

"Falcon 9 did exactly what it was designed to do," the California based SpaceX said. "Like the Saturn V, which experienced engine loss on two flights, Falcon 9 is designed to handle an engine out situation and still complete its mission."

But not all of its mission.

The original plan was for Falcon to fire its second stage engines after Dragon left and then deploy an industrial communications satellite into orbit for Orbcomm of Dulles, Virginia.

Because this is a new resupply ship for the space station, NASA and its international partners had set detailed safety rules in advance for Falcon, even though the engine failure was far from the station. And those rules prevent SpaceX from firing its second stage engines, Orbcomm said in a statement.

The satellite is in a lower orbit and engineers are trying to figure out how to boost it, Orbcomm said.

This was the first of 18 satellites that Orbcomm had hired SpaceX to deliver. The satellites help in two-way communications for companies to track their heavy equipment across the world. The company wouldn't respond to questions about the cost of the satellite or launch services.

Harvard University astronomer Jonathan McDowell, who tracks launches worldwide, noticed the problem for hours before either company acknowledged that the satellite was in the wrong orbit. Even though SpaceX was congratulating itself after the launch, McDowell said: "We can't say that it was a perfect launch."

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5 / 5 (1) Oct 09, 2012
"NASA and its international partners had set detailed safety rules in advance for Falcon, even though the engine failure was far from the station. And those rules prevent SpaceX from firing its second stage engines, Orbcomm said in a statement."

That is hard to understand, there must be some missing information about what the risk is.
4.5 / 5 (4) Oct 09, 2012
Agree with Sanescience. If I'm reading that correctly, the problem here is NASA's (apparently excessive) safety rules. 1st stage engine failure was unexpected but within the vehicle's design parameters. 2nd stage would still be able to fire, but NASA's rules didn't allow it to do so.
My guess is that the first failure changed the "state" of the spacecraft (position, orientation, altitude) to one that is unexpected and thus not "cleared" for firing of the 2nd stage engines but is still suitable for docking.
So basically NASA is saying "something unexpected happened, so according to the rules you can't fire 2nd stage engines".

1 / 5 (1) Oct 09, 2012
So since it was NASA's rules that nixed the 2nd stage firing, then it wasn't SpaceX's failure to put the satellite in the proper orbit, but NASA failing to allow SpaceX to do so.
not rated yet Oct 09, 2012
I feel like NASA shouldn't have any jurisdiction over what SpaceX does with its rocket once it's cleared the launch platform.
not rated yet Oct 15, 2012
I feel like NASA shouldn't have any jurisdiction over what SpaceX does with its rocket once it's cleared the launch platform.

Nasa is the primary customer, and the orbcomm satellite is a tertiary customer on the flight.

This article lacks the exact parameters, but it sounds like the orbcomm satellite was supposed to go first, but at that point it would have fallen outside Nasa's flight specifications.

Perhaps it would have left the falcon/dragon module with a low fuel amount that could prevent it from making extra maneuvers if something else went wrong while attempting to dock to the ISS - Thereby increasing risk to the space station, which is a far more important piece of equipment than a small communication satellite.
5 / 5 (1) Oct 15, 2012
Actually, the real deal is that the engine failure in the first stage caused the rocket to use up slightly more fuel than initially planned. This, in turn, did not leave enough fuel for the second stage to guarantee with >99% certainty that the comsat would clear the ISS orbit (there was only enough fuel left for a ~95% certainty, which was not good enough for NASA.)

Orbcomm knew the risk when they signed the contract; in fact they explicitly were warned by SpaceX long ahead of time. They still managed to accomplish part of their mission, such as deploying solar arrays and checking out the power bus, maneuvering thrusters, and communications on the test satellite.

Here's a better article, with a few more details:


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