The SpaceX Odyssey Hits a Speed Bump

July 5, Update: A Falcon 9 failed and fell to Earth and on the founders birthday, no less. Happy Birthday! The day was June 28th and now a week later, Musk has released a tweet informing the public that later this week, the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation — SpaceX for short, will release the details.

The monolith left by an advanced race pointed to Jupiter. Clarke’s and Kubrick’s 2001 Odyssey had astronaut Dave Bowman overcome a sentient machine gone awry and then experienced a pinball array of events that was effectively our first contact with life beyond Earth.

The SpaceX Odyssey has its road sign fixated on Mars. Mars is the goal but any odyssey worth undertaking is not without trials and tribulations. The Falcon 9 failure is a critical challenge for Elon and his argonauts attempting to return to their home, to their maidens, to Penelope. Its actually not so close to such a finale. The Falcon 9 failure, the speed bump, will be quickly followed by several more milestones to achieve in the coming months.

Is this the convergence of a century of space science and science fiction? Is Elon Musk and SpaceX on path to making 2001 Space Odyssey a reality? (Photo Credit: NASA, Apple, SpaceX, Tesla Motors, MGM, Paramount Pictures, Illustration — Judy Schmidt, T.Reyes)

Well designed and built rockets can rack up a hundred launches without a failure. Consider the Delta-II or even the Soviet/Russian Soyuz. After 19 launches, Falcon 9 is 17–1–1. This means one partial failure and what is of utmost importance today — one failure, still unidentified four days after the loss.

For a brief couple of seconds, the Falcon 9 1st stage core continued on course to orbit. Its precious Dragon Cargo hold suddenly separated by an explosion in the Falcon 2nd stage.

What the first failure means to SpaceX and Falcon 9 remains unknown. Although telemetry did not quickly reveal the cause of the failure, something could still be found that makes the fix simple and return to flight quick. Alternatively, it could remain a mystery and many teams inside SpaceX could trudge through their records for weeks trying to find the smoking gun.

Of the remaining 2015 Falcon launches, the maiden flight of the Heavy might be least effected.

Time is of the essence, SpaceX is ramping up production to match demand and undertake an ambitious launch manifest. Their schedule is now on hold. The failed Falcon 9 was likely built months ago and is not a late release from their assembly line. If there is concern about weaknesses in their production due to the ramp up, this failed vehicle may not be part of the most recent production involving changes in assembly, new personnel or new materials or suppliers.

Besides delaying launches or possibly losing some to other launch providers, the failure could effect the assembly process and lead to additional costs. It could mean effectively recalling all manufactured vehicles on their shelf for corrections.

While never considered an option, failures point to issues to resolve, and critical improvements. The severity of the issues causing failures reveal the robustness of a system.

However look back at past launch failures and each had corrective actions completed and the manufacturer moved on and began a new, and most oft, a long sequence of successful launches. This is what we can expect of SpaceX but a major difference between Falcon and for example, ULA’s EELVs- Atlas & Deltas, is that Falcon is not a lineup of independent vehicles. Falcon represents a one-hit wonder. When a Falcon fails, the company’s whole business is put on hold. It was bound to happen at some point.

That it happened with a Falcon 9 V1.1 flying the Merlin 1D on Elon Musk’s 44th birthday was far better than on a developmental mission for Commercial Crew or even a human spaceflight mission to ISS. This event provides lead time to resolve the problem and build up a new string of successes.

Imagine 3 months into the future. It is October 1st and some path is now in place to return to flight. A half dozen launches are rescheduled and the impact on the manifest extends all the way to 2017. But most critical to SpaceX is maintaining the progress to achieve a 2017 maiden flight to ISS — success in the Commercial Crew program.

SpaceX illustration of their Falcon Heavy boasting a triple Falcon core first stage. Without a paying customer’s payload, Falcon Heavy could quickly implement any necessary modifications and function as also a test flight of corrected 2nd stage.

Is this possible? Can SpaceX withstand three or more months delay to their schedule and keep Commercial Crew development on schedule? On the other hand, can they withstand the impact to revenue from commercial launches? The second question is easier to asssess. SpaceX has an income stream and is building liquid assets. They recently received a latest injection of funds from Google and other investors. And major satellite developers have already expressed unwavering confidence in the Falcon 9.

So the SpaceX Odyssey is sidetracked due to failure. This is not SpaceX’s first failure. The Falcon 1 endured a string of failures before success. Soft landings of the Falcon core remain trial and errors. What is critical to their future is that personnel that endured these trial and errors can transfer their experience to the thousands of new employees that are experiencing a trauma. Loss of any space faring vehicle is a traumatic experience. Many hundreds of thousands of hours were committed and it is absolutely like a loss of a loved one.

The failure offers however a huge potential for improvement. Every team inside SpaceX should be scouring their records. Most teams may know that the likelihood of their efforts being the root cause are near zero, but the forced effort can hold the potential of each team uncovering weaknesses and improving themselves.

Gene Kranz (right) of the Apollo program never said “Failure is not an option”. It is dialogue from the movie Apollo 13 but Gene did not disapprove. At left, SpaceX engineers crowd around their mission control with anticipation and on June 28th, with disappointment.

So the path of SpaceX from Falcon 9 to their penultimate goal — Mars, remains on course. Really, it remains on course and holds now a new potential for added robustness. New solutions, diversification may result. Falcon Heavy’s maiden flight is likely a 2016 event now. But talk to customers and Mars is not in their cards. Customers are focused on affairs much closer to home.

Update: To be sure, we are the gawkers and when its crunch time, Elon and SpaceX must direct their attention to NASA and their commercial customers. Paying customers make or break the path to Mars.

Customers and the revenue stream will make or break the SpaceX Odyssey — landing the first colonists on Mars. SpaceX maintains a considerable lead over all ‘new space age’ rivals and must maintain that lead. Return to flight must quickly include the first successful soft landing of the Falcon 1st stage core. Falcon Heavy must fly and their Commercial Crew effort must achieve a first flight to ISS in 2017 (under present NASA funding constraints, 2018 might do as well).

Curiously, the in-flight test of the Dragon 2 abort system atop a Falcon 9 core was quickly postponed. News stories have explained that circumstances were leading up to this decision, however, the full plate of launches and test launches and a maiden flight is now facing even greater time constraints.

The future of human exploration of Mars remains clouded by NASA’s uncertain plans and funding levels and now include the pause in SpaceX’s plans and progress which holds Mars colonization as its goal.

Despite the increasing demand for launch vehicles, Musk is now pioneering a space-based ISP system for the World. It will serve to provide access to all Human knowledge to billions of under-privileged humans but it serves an equally important purpose. Launching over 600 satellites to orbit will create a huge demand for Falcons. With the demand that Elon adds, considerable production ramp up will hold even more potential to lower the cost of Falcons to all customers. Reuse of Falcon cores, adding Falcon Heavy, that by shear increased payload, lowers cost, and increasing demand will also lower costs.

The failure is a serious matter and sleepless nights are everywhere but in the grand scheme of things, this is a kink on the road on route 66 to the stars or at least to our planet Mars awaiting habitation.

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