Reflections on a successful launch abort

Like many people I dragged myself out of bed at stupid o’clock on Saturday morning to watch Space X make history by becoming the first private company to build and launch a vehicle to the international space station. I tuned in to NASA TV early to listen to the range and launch crews going through their preflight polls, my excitement levels rising with each confirmation to “Proceed”. Then it’s was over to SpaceX.com to watch their live webcast containing various short films and interviews with the team and of course the launch of Falcon 9. Then after 40 minutes of preamble and punditry that would make any sporting event proud, it was over to the main event. In those final few moments before launch I felt a surge of excitement and as the last few seconds disappeared from the clock the engines ignited and…

Nothing.

In that last second before launch, a second which hung in the air for an eternity, the engine controller had spotted a problem. It had noticed an upward trend in the chamber pressure on engine 5 and with 0.5 seconds left on the clock Falcon did exactly what she was supposed to do and aborted the launch. The brilliant burst of fire that had erupted from the flame trench extinguished it’s self, the roar of the engines quietened and my excitement turned to disappointment.

In those first few moments after the abort I thought about all of the people at Space X and NASA who have worked so hard to get to this point and the disappointment that they must be feeling, and I thought of the millions of people around the world who like me have been watching and waiting for a company like Space X to come along  and give space exploration the shove it needs, and the disappointment that they must be feeling…

But then I got a grip…

Sure, it would have been great to see Falcon souring through the sky taking food supplies and the hopes of millions to the ISS, but it didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen because the right call was made at the right time. Launching with 8 engines instead of 9 would have made it impossible for Falcon to complete it’s mission and could even have caused the destruction of the vehicle; in either scenario the vehicle and the mission would have been lost. As it stands the vehicle is not lost, the faulty check valve that caused the problem has been replaced and a new launch date (22nd May) has been chosen.

Getting in to space isn’t easy as both the Russians and the Americans have found out on more than one occasion. Thousands of procedures, valves, pipes, switches, microchips, pumps, connectors, programs, circuit boards, surfaces, fluids and people all have to work together in harmony for the mission to be a success, only one of them has to fail for the mission to be over.

The scrubbing of a launch is not something new NASA has scrubbed hundreds of launch attempts over the years for all manner of reasons, but with pressure on NASA and companies like Space X to provide launch solutions in the post shuttle era it is easy for people to come away from this thinking that it has been a failure. But as Gwynne Shotwell (president of Space X) pointed out in the post mission press conference, this was not a failure, simply an abort with purpose, to launch and lose the vehicle would have been failure – Although I’m quite sure the Space X would view this as a learning opportunity and not failure.

I cant wait to see Falcon fly, but she will fly when she is ready… hopefully that will be on the 22nd but if not lets hope for another successful abort.

You can watch footage of the launch abort here… and the post mission press conference here

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4 Responses to Reflections on a successful launch abort

  1. ZombieBodhi says:

    Forgive me if I’m wrong but I believe I’ve heard both Gwynee and Elon say that the Falcon 9 could complete it’s mission even if it loses up to two engines, in which case they would simply burn the other ones for longer, or something to that effect. Obviously it’s better that they ere on the side of caution, but thought I’d throw that out there.

    • It all depends on when Falcon loses the engines, she can lose up to two engines and still complete the mission, but that’s only if she loses them later in the flight. At launch she needs all 9 to build up the thrust to get in to orbit.

      Thanks for the question! 🙂

      • RocketKnight says:

        I think it might have to do with mass, during launch you have the full fuel tanks so you’ll need 9 until later in flight when the rocket gets lighter

      • Exactly right… There are no redundant engines at launch which is why an effective abort is so important. Once thy have shed weight in the form of fuel, pushed through Max Q (maximum dynamic pressure on the vehicle) and the majority of the earths atmosphere, they can compensate for the loss of a couple of engines with a longer burn. Its all about the power to weight ratio; on the ground you have more weight so you need more power. Adding redundant engines at launch means adding more weight, so in turn you need more fuel, which adds even more weight so in the end you need a more powerful engine or a cluster of additional engines to restore the balance…

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