Obviously it would have been preferable to be congratulating Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and its founder, Elon Musk, on these pages following the third launch attempt of the company’s Falcon 1 small rocket Aug. 2. Alas, it was not to be, as the vehicle, intended to shatter price barriers that have long kept space off limits to all but a privileged or lucky few, failed to reach orbit yet again.
This time, the rocket was done in by a first stage that continued to fire even after separating from the second stage, causing the two to bump up against each other; it was enough to send the rocket and its payload – the Pentagon’s Trailblazer satellite platform, a pair of NASA nanosatellites, a Malaysian payload adapter demonstration and cremains – tumbling into the Pacific Ocean. There is little to be said about the latest incident that wasn’t said after the earlier two; the difficulty of what Mr. Musk is attempting to do should be more than self-evident by now.
In what now appears to be an eerie portent, Mr. Musk expressed regret recently for suggesting prior to the Falcon 1’s failed March 2006 debut that he likely would call it quits if the vehicle did not score a success in any of its first three flights. Anyone could be forgiven for throwing in the towel at this point – indeed the vast majority of launch startups never even make it to the pad – but Mr. Musk has made clear he intends to soldier on. He also announced a fresh investment of $20 million in SpaceX by the Founders Fund, a venture capital group led by some of Mr. Musk’s fellow co-founders of the PayPal Internet bill-paying service.
It does not really matter whether his primary motivator now is pride, a continued desire to make a difference, or the fact that SpaceX has a number of active contracts – the company’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) deal with NASA being a prominent example. What does matter is that small satellite makers, university-based researchers and others with lofty aspirations but limited budgets still have some reason to hope that semi-affordable space access might eventually become a reality.
But three successive failures raise doubts as to just how inexpensive the Falcon 1 will be relative to comparable vehicles – even if SpaceX can iron out the technical bugs. The vehicle’s original advertised price tag of around $6 million is now close to $8 million; one can easily envision it climbing much higher as SpaceX takes the steps necessary to ensure reliability and assuming Mr. Musk ultimately intends to recoup some of his substantial investment – and pay back his new investors.
Meanwhile, NASA, which is subsidizing development of SpaceX’s larger Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo delivery capsule under the COTS program, also has reason to be concerned. These vehicles, intended to work in concert to deliver supplies to the international space station, will be far more complex both in design and in operation than the Falcon 1.
Web site shows a busy manifest ahead for the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9, beginning with the launch of
‘s RazakSat Earth observing satellite aboard the smaller vehicle. But Mr. Musk said Aug. 6 he now intends to conduct another Falcon 1 demonstration before attempting to launch RazakSat. This is appropriate, even if, as Mr. Musk contends, SpaceX fully understands what went wrong Aug. 2 and that it will be relatively easy to ensure it does not happen again.
One could hardly blame the Malaysian space agency – or any other customer, for that matter – if it were to shift gears and opt for a proven launcher; satellites are neither expendable nor cheap, after all.
Those who choose to remain with Falcon 1 will have to hold their breath and hope for a better outcome on the next flight. So should anyone else with a stake in this industry who still believes access to space costs more than it should, leaving it the single biggest roadblock to opening the space frontier to more than the handful of governments and large corporations who seem willing to spend whatever it takes to get their payloads into orbit.