In Failure’s Wake, Military Customers Rally Behind SpaceX

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Boston — Past, present and potential U.S. military customers of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) say they are not discouraged by the fact that the company’s Falcon 1 small launcher failed in its March 24 debut.

To the contrary, officials with the U.S. Air Force and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) said they gained valuable lessons from the experience and that the Falcon remains an attractive launch option.

With an advertised launch cost of under $7 million, the Falcon 1 is considered a key enabler of the Pentagon’s effort to become much more flexible and agile when it comes to space activity. The underlying idea is to be able to launch small satellites quickly and cheaply in response to emerging tactical needs.

So if the failure, which occurred shortly after liftoff from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific, represents a setback, the Pentagon is taking it very well.

“We believe many good things were demonstrated on this flight — thrust level, thrust vector control system, avionics, flight control computer, new launch complex, etc., and we think SpaceX will be successful in demonstrating affordable and responsive spacelift,” DARPA said in a written statement provided by Jan Walker, an agency spokeswoman. DARPA funded the Falcon 1’s inaugural flight.

Other military officials expressed similar sentiments.

An official in the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation, the customer for the next Falcon launch, said that unless the failure investigation turns up serious design issues, the vehicle remains an an attractive launch option .

Even the Air Force Academy, whose student-built FalconSat-2 satellite was destroyed in the failure, expressed its support.

Lt. Col. Timothy Lawrence, director of the Space Systems Research Center at the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based academy, said given the scarcity of affordable options for launching student-built satellites, he would be happy to use the Falcon 1 in the future.

FalconSat-2 cost about $800,000 to build, Lawrence said. The satellite featured a payload built by the academy’s Space Physics and Atmospheric Research Center called the Micro Electrostatic Analyzer, which was intended to detect low-energy electrons in space that form plasma bubbles, Lawrence said. Those bubbles can potentially disrupt space communications transmissions or GPS navigation accuracy, he said.

Although the spacecraft never made it to orbit, students gained valuable lessons both building it and integrating it with the launch vehicle, Lawrence said. Training such as this is vital to creating the next generation of space specialists within the Air Force, he said.

The structure of the spacecraft — which crashed through the roof of a storage shed and landed next to the shipping container used to bring it to Kwajalein — appears largely intact, Lawrence said. However, the solar arrays, antennas and the Micro Electrostatic Analyzer payload were damaged beyond repair, he said.

The academy currently is reviewing possible payloads for a FalconSat-4, and these could include a more sophisticated version of the Micro Electrostatic Analyzer, Lawrence said.

Air Force Lt. Col. Daniel Griffith, director of the Defense Department’s Space Test Program, which finds rides to orbit for experimental payloads , said in a written statement that he was disappointed to see the Falcon 1 fail, but remains “excited” about working with El Segundo, Calif.-based SpaceX in the future.

“It is another reminder that the space business is difficult,” Griffith said. “We have every confidence that SpaceX will exercise due diligence in determining and correcting the root cause of the failure, and at the appropriate time continue towards a successful launch.”

Staff writers Brian Berger and Colin Clark contributed to this story. |Comments: jsinger@space.com