SpaceX failures small in comparison to its successes
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — 2018 is turning out to be the biggest year in SpaceX’s history. However, this success wasn’t always guaranteed as the company has had two high-profile failures between 2015 and 2016, costing customers and U.S. taxpayers millions. However, these losses should be weighed with the innovations and launch tempo that have become a hallmark of the company’s activities.
If all continues to go as planned in 2018, the company could end up launching two dozen rockets on behalf of their many customers. This already includes the maiden flight of the massive Falcon Heavy, several cargo Dragon resupply missions to the International Space Station and, if the schedule holds, the first unpiloted flight of the company’s Crew Dragon on the first demonstration test for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (Demo-1).
2018 has also seen the debut of the Block 5 version of the Falcon 9, potentially making the re-flyability of recovered first stages more cost effective with a rapid turnaround between launches. This is something that has made the company attractive to more customers and has increased the company’s launch manifest even further.
Reliability in question
Two years ago, on Sept. 1, 2016, the reliability of the company was called into question after a massive explosion erupted around a Falcon 9 rocket prior to a seemingly routine pre-launch test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40. As the company was fueling the rocket—with the $184 million Amos 6 satellite encapsulated on top—friction between the layers of a helium-filled composite overwrapped pressure vessel (COPV) inside the second stage of the vehicle likely caused a spark, igniting the liquid oxygen and causing a cascading failure that destroyed both the rocket and the customer’s payload.
The test was supposed to culminate in a several-second firing of the 229-foot (70-meter) tall vehicle’s nine first stage Merlin 1D engines before a planned cutoff. The rocket was to remain firmly on the ground, to have its engines’ performance evaluated and then launched several days later. The massive explosion also destroyed the transporter erector that held the vehicle and many facilities on the pad itself.
It was a setback that prompted many months of investigation to find the ultimate cause, which company CEO Elon Musk described as “turning out to be the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years.”
Less than 14 months earlier, on June 28, 2015, another high-profile event cost U.S. taxpayers millions. This was the ill-fated CRS-7 mission to the ISS. Just over two minutes into the flight to send a Dragon capsule to the orbiting outpost, the rocket’s second stage ruptured, causing the capsule to fall off and range safety system to finish the job of destroying the vehicle, preventing it from potentially veering off course.
The CRS-7 accident also involved the COPVs, however not directly. In this case, a faulty strut holding the bottle to the sidewall of the second stage failed. This caused the vessel to rise to the top of the vehicle, rupturing the tank.
Returning to flight while making history
In both of these failures, the company solved the problem and quickly got back to launching rockets in less than six months. In the case of the first return to flight, the company did something no other rocket company or organization had done—returned an orbital-class first stage rocket to the launch area following a mission.
The success of the December 2015 Orbcomm OG-2 mission and the delivery of its 11 satellites may have been the primary goal, but the secondary landing goal made all the headlines. The first stage touched down at Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1 after the rocket sent its payload on its way.
Since then, SpaceX has successfully landed 28 times. This includes the feat of landing not one – but two first stages a few seconds apart. The dual-booster landing followed the launch of the triple-core Falcon Heavy in February of 2018.
Reusability has been the goal of SpaceX’s Falcon family of rockets since the very launch vehicles’ inception. With the debut of the Block 5 variant of the vehicle the company is edging ever closer to the “rapid” part of the equation.
The Block 5 is supposed to be able to launch at least 10 times with minimal refurbishment (previous variants have only launched twice with refurbishment) and potentially up to a hundred times with some refurbishment. About three elapsed between the first Block 5 on May 11, 2018, and its reflight on Aug. 7. While that is not quite as much as the company’s record of 72 days, that time included evaluation of the effects of its first flight.
Musk said SpaceX hopes to demonstrate a 24-hour launch turnaround for the same rocket sometime in 2019.
SpaceX and its engineers have not only been reflying first stage boosters, they have also been working—and succeeding—on reflying its Cargo Dragon capsule. Since 2010 the company has flown a Dragon into space 17 times with only one mishap (CRS-7). However, starting with CRS-11 in June 2017 refurbished capsules have been used. The last new Dragon was sent into the black during the CRS-12 mission to the ISS.
To date, four Dragon flights to the station have utilized previously-flown capsules with at least one vehicle only requiring a replacement of its heat shield, trunk and parachutes before once again being sent into the skies of the Sunshine State.
It is unclear if the company plans on flying these capsules more than two times. However, a cargo-only variant of the Crew Dragon is also planned and will likely take up the role of SpaceX supply runs to the outpost once operational.
The first flights with astronauts on the Crew Dragon are expected in early 2019. Along with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, it is expected to return the United States’ capability to launch astronauts on U.S. soil.
With all of the development on reusable spacecraft and rockets, SpaceX is still continuing its long-promised high launch rate. As of Sept. 5, 2018, SpaceX has launched 61 members of the Falcon 9 family of rockets since its debut in 2010. More than 50 percent of those occurred in the last 20 months.
Additionally, the company’s advertised price on its website as of 2018 for a Falcon 9 is $62 million and a Falcon Heavy is $90 million—even this rate drops for bulk-order customers according to a report appearing in Time.
For comparison, SpaceX’s closest competitor, United Launch Alliance, prices its Atlas V rockets for around $100 million. That price will fluctuate up and down depending on the size of the variant required and orbit needed.
Customers are flocking to SpaceX due to the company’s low rates and with these launches the Hawthorne, California-based company is using the missions to innovate further.
While more expensive, ULA markets its rockets as having a 100 percent success record (since the company was formed in 2006) and as being more versatile. For example, while Bigelow Aerospace’s 43,000-pound (20,000-kilogram) B330 space station is within the lift capabilities of an expendable Falcon 9, the rocket’s 43-foot (13.1-meter) payload fairing is too small for the 45-foot (13.7-meter) long module in its launch configuration. As such it can only launch on the largest configuration of an Atlas V—the 551 variant with its 17.7-foot (5.4-meter) wide, extended payload fairing, five solid rocket boosters and a single engine Centaur upper stage.
Making Falcon 9 and Dragon obsolete
However, even this could change as SpaceX is currently developing an even-larger rocket called the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR. Musk has described this 347-foot (106-meter) tall launcher as being a fully-reusable two stage to orbit rocket.
BFR is the size of the Saturn V Moon rocket that that flew in the 1960s and 1970s. BFR could launch as early as 2022 (although that timeline is viewed as being optimistic). SpaceX is already deep in the process of developing the Raptor engines that are tasked with lifting the vehicle. A construction site in the Port of Los Angeles has been selected with the manufacture of the first prototype expected sometime next year (2019).
When it does launch, and if it is successful, Musk has stated it would make the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsules obsolete. While its main purpose is to facilitate the colonization of Mars, it is also expected to double as a rocket that can send anything into low-Earth orbit or even the Moon.
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a blog about the International Space Station, called Orbital Velocity.