WASHINGTON — The Falcon 1 rocket’s third consecutive failure to reach orbit Aug. 2 was another setback for its builder, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), but the mission is being considered a success by the U.S. Air Force-led Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office, which had a payload aboard the vehicle.
The rocket was supposed to put into orbit the ORS office’s Trailblazer satellite in a mission dubbed Jumpstart, which sought to demonstrate the ability to respond to an urgent military need by rapidly selecting, integrating and launching a satellite. These tasks all were accomplished despite the fact that the flight ultimately failed, leading Peter Wegner, director of the ORS office, to label the mission a “tremendous success.”
On May 29, the ORS office decided on one of three potential payloads for the Falcon 1 flight, choosing the Trailblazer satellite built by SpaceDev of Poway, Calif.
“The initial goal was to show up to the launch range 14 days before the launch because we really thought that was the fastest it could be done,” Wegner said in an Aug. 5 interview. “And they were able to successfully integrate it onto the rocket in that time.”
When the launch was delayed from late June until August, the satellite had to be removed from the rocket and placed into storage. The next time around, the satellite was pulled out of storage and fully integrated with the rocket in five days, nearly three times faster than the office’s original goal.
“That’s truly remarkable in my mind,” Wegner said. “If you look at the launch processing timeline for the [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle] system, it’s generally a six-month integration process from the time when the spacecraft shows up to the launch range.”
Despite not being certain that the satellite would have survived the launch and worked once on orbit, Wegner saw no abnormalities during the launch that caused concern. He said an analysis of accelerometer data will provide a higher degree of certainty that the satellite was in good condition up until the launch went awry.
Wegner said it is only a matter of time before SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., proves it can succeed, and the process innovations the company is implementing represent a major change in the launch industry.
“SpaceX has really been able to push a lot of machine-to-machine processes that have previously been human processes,” Wegner said. “That really speeds things up as well, and those are all lessons we can learn from as a community as we move forward.”
also considers the mission a success, saying in an Aug. 4 press release that Trailblazer was a “very positive step” for the company and a boon to the concept of quick-response satellite missions.
But not everyone involved was so sanguine. Marco R. Fuchs, chief executive of Bremen, Germany-based OHB Technologies, which owns a 19 percent stake in SpaceDev, expressed disappointment in an Aug. 7 conference call. “The failure had a negative impact because SpaceDev could not demonstrate what its satellite could do,” Fuchs said.