Rocket Blows Up, Smug Smile Fades

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As an aviation journalist, my job description isn’t exactly to cheer when a flying machine craters, runs amok, blows up or otherwise goes awry. Hey, two wings, one love, right? So it was with a little guilt when, like a beer burp you can’t quite keep down, I had this moment of so there, when SpaceX’s Falcon 9 blew itself into charred scrap metal last Thursday at Cape Canaveral during a test fire.

Horrible thought, right? I’ll concede I’m defenseless, but I know why that thought darkened my otherwise sunny and nurturing disposition. One reason is the private enterprise space industry’s natural tendency toward hubris and the other was that one purpose of the satellite being launched was to bring Facebook—internet access, really—to Africa. When boy billionaire Mark Zuckerberg reacted to the accident, his tone struck me a little shocked that his rocket could blow up. So, yeah, you’re not NASA, but your rockets can still blow up. Welcome to aerospace. There, got that off my chest.

The AMOS-6 satellite, an Israel Aerospace Industries build, was a multi-purpose satellite with 45 transponders for communication services in Europe and the Middle East, not just Facebook’s internet-to-Africa initiative. Facebook’s Zuckerberg has made it his calling to connect parts of the world that don’t have affordable internet access but his true intentions have been met with suspicion, mainly because single providers threaten the concept of net neutrality.

In India, a group of tech companies and users viewed Zuckerberg’s effort as less altruistic than just another marketing plan. My thought is, do people who don’t have clean water, sufficient food and who are dodging tribal wars really pine for the navel-gazing wonders of Facebook? It’s absurd to think this justifies blowing up a guy’s satellite, it just makes it harder to collapse on the floor in inconsolable grief. Hope they had enough insurance. Also, Facebook plans to build as many as 10,000 Aquila solar-powered drones to beam internet around the world. This is actually more ambitious than the satellite project.

But I know where the real genesis of my feeling is and it goes back to the NASA bashing Burt Rutan did in the early days of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space tourism venture. Did I mention that was 12 years ago and Galactic has yet to fly a single tourist? There, got that off my chest, too. (And no, I’ll never get over it.)

If there’s anything useful to be derived from this it’s that private space ventures may or may not, in the long term, have better launch records than NASA or the Air Force. Thus far, before this accident, SpaceX was comparable to the rest of the industry, with about a 93 percent success rate. But it’s not better. SpaceX’s launch costs are the lowest in the industry and expected to get lower with scale and if reusable boosters work out. All good. But it’s always wise to remember this: No matter who you are, your rockets will still blow up. No matter how many likes you have. 

Comments (24)

I was amazed when I realized as a kid that the important innards of Saturn 5 rockets consisted of plate-sized shower heads through which high-pressure kerosene was sprayed to burn in compressed oxygen.
And I am still amazed that modern rockets including Space X still use the same technology -- although Musk has been promising a new sort of rocket engine for some time now.
An awful lot has to work at exactly the right time to control that combination.
The most reliable modern rocket motor has been Arianne's. Dig into the website and you see it has a design life of 300 seconds...

Posted by: John Patson | September 5, 2016 5:29 AM    Report this comment

My biggest concern is the pending man-rating of Musk's vehicles. Clearly there still are some bugs to be worked out. Thus ever is life (and death) on the bleeding edge.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | September 5, 2016 8:38 AM    Report this comment

Ah, the slightly guilty pleasures of schadenfreude 😏
As to the cause & import of this loss though, the video shows it was unrelated to the engine, originating at or near the upper umbilical connections. Likely a case of something simple - a coupling, a fracture in a pipe, a bad weld, who knows. Bad stuff under pressure in a complex system, the danger lurks everywhere. Rocket technology has come a long way since the less than 50% success days but 100% will never be achieved.

Posted by: John Wilson | September 5, 2016 10:20 AM    Report this comment

Maybe the management team will start to realize that building a launch vehicle is not like software or commercial electronics. There is no option for V2.2 for a given vehicle. You can't push something out on the consumer that sort of works (are you listening MS and Apple) and then fix the bugs. With launch vehicles, you must get it right the first time or something may go boom.

Even the experienced launch vehicle companies have fallen into the "almost good" trap. I remember a push to better cheaper and faster with lots of COTS (commercial off the shelf) hardware. The results were not pretty. Space and space launch is a very specialized endeavor. Basically we know what works and what doesn't. Unfortunately some genius comes along and thinks that they can make fundamental changes without thorough testing. Testing is very expensive you say, true, but consider the alternative. Boom is spectacular but post launch failures can be as catastrophic. Things like failure of stages to separate, failure to insert into orbit, failure of the vehicle to light up etc. etc. are not as press worthy but still retain the same undesirable results i.e. loss of vehicle or loss of mission and loss of much $.

Even NASA falls into the over enthusiastic trap. For example, they knew that if the Shuttle Challenger was launched with propellant core temperature too cold, there was a high probability of "O" ring failure. NASA launched and seven astronauts perished.

Yes it is scary to think of Elon Musk at the helm of a man rated vehicle program until he has earned his battle scars. Launch decisions, whether for a flight in your Cub or to put a vehicle in orbit, face the same pressures. It takes a tough man or woman to be the lone voice to say "no" when the conditions are not favorable. Been there and done that.

Hopefully Space X will learn from this experience and other failures so that they can continue on as a successful space launch company.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | September 5, 2016 12:23 PM    Report this comment

I find many of Paul Bertorelli's articles condescending and boring, but this one really crossed the line.

Gloating over the destruction of a space vehicle because 12 years ago, a man from a completely different firm criticized NASA in a way Bertorelli didn't like. He goes on to cast aspersions of the motives for the payload's owners.

This is truly disgusting and outrageous. NASA has killed plenty of astronauts and lost their share of rockets. The loss of the Columbia was inexcusable and resulted from ignoring the many, very well documented defects that lead to the Challenger disaster. NASA deserves criticism and too bad if Bertorelli doesn't like it.

Bertorelli objects to the "hubris" of private space companies. Hubris is an essential element of space exploration. Strapping a payload or people to the top of a hundred tons or more of purified explosives and burning that fuel in a matter of minutes is not for the faint of heart. Neither is accelerating to 17,000 miles an hour or more, all to visit a realm so hostile that there are always 5 different ways to be killed and/or lose the payload.

I look forward to learning more about the cause and remedies for this loss. I also look forward to a day when the efforts of private enterprise have made access to space affordable, and small-minded bigots like Bertorelli don't feel entitled to sit in judgement of every payload, vendor, and owner.

AvWeb should reconsider giving their soapbox to this man. It damages the brand and credibility of the source, and makes it less likely that I will open and read future editions. I'm certainly done with wasting my time on Bertorelli's drivel.

Posted by: Vannesa Albert | September 5, 2016 1:08 PM    Report this comment

I found it amusing that Elon Musk said that the accident wasn't really an explosion, but a rapid burning. He said the Dragon capsule "would have been fine." Probably true, but any time your manned payload has to use an escape tower to exit the premises, I wouldn't call it "fine." I'd call it max pucker.

As far as explosion versus burning, check out the video. There's a very loud report that suggests explosion, followed by several others. Recall when the Challenger exploded, NASA concluded the same. Aerodynamic forces tore the vehicle apart, not the tank failure.

I'm sure they will sort it out. The Atlas system blew up--uh, sorry--rapidly burned a lot of times on the way to becoming a reliable, man-rated booster. A little humility is a necessary ingredient.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 5, 2016 1:22 PM    Report this comment

Paul, re: Zuckerburg, right on!

Posted by: MICHAEL BROOKER | September 5, 2016 4:30 PM    Report this comment


Posted by: Rafael Sierra | September 5, 2016 4:48 PM    Report this comment

Ssssssscussmeee! Condescending maybe but boring...never!!!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | September 5, 2016 5:13 PM    Report this comment

Huh? I missed the email, we're roasting Paul? Lordy, hold me back!

Posted by: Dave Miller | September 5, 2016 5:31 PM    Report this comment

As a ~39-year space professional, I am, um, "amused" at the people who think traveling to space can be reduced to the ease and safety of commercial air transportation.

There's a fine line between a rocket and a bomb...and the finer the line, the better the rocket. You can't get a chemical rocket to the degree of safety some of the captains of (non-space) industry expect..

The next X-Prize should be for the development of a non-chemical lift system compatible with space. We need another way to get to orbit.

Posted by: ron wanttaja | September 5, 2016 6:57 PM    Report this comment

I have to agree with Vanessa Albert on this on. Berterelli's smug, self-righteous article comes off written like a condescending jerk. Here we have several entrepreneurs who, instead of sitting on their insane wealth, have decided to put their money into Science. Yes, there is an intense learning curve and they will go through it just as NASA did, with a whole new generation of technology that will be debugged and tested, with successes and failures. To gloat over the failure of a rocket because you personally don't like someone is childish. I'm not much of a Zuckerberg fan, but I'm certainly not going to assume that he has something dastardly up his sleeve. Maybe if you write a nasty letter to Burt Rutan and get that off your chest, you might get your objectivity back

Posted by: Mark Bolla | September 6, 2016 12:19 AM    Report this comment

I never can predict what's going to touch a nerve. For me, that comes with being an insensitive ogre (is there another kind?). Well, it's comforting to know that the readership extends far beyond the usual suspects.

Actually, Paul, can you share the monthly count of unique hits?

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | September 6, 2016 6:46 AM    Report this comment


Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 6, 2016 7:12 AM    Report this comment


Posted by: Tom Yarsley | September 6, 2016 7:17 AM    Report this comment

I think the Dodgers will take the pennant.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | September 6, 2016 8:06 AM    Report this comment

Oh, Paul. I always look forward to your stuff, but this is so disappointing it makes me feel sick. I suppose we all have a dark side, but must you parade it? Had you lived a hundred years ago would you be harboring resentment against the Wrights, and pulling for Professor Langley?

Posted by: Bob Key | September 6, 2016 10:45 AM    Report this comment

Once again, Paul has done his job. An editorial writer is supposed to poke the hornet's nest and see who (or what) flies out. Besides, both Musk and Zuckerberg are a little too smug and self-righteous for their own good sometimes. It never hurts to get a little mud on your face occasionally to remind all of us we are human. NASA seems to learn that the hard way every so often, except they usually kill people when they do. So far, SpaceX has only killed satellites. Turns out, rocket science really is hard.

But seriously, Paul - sunny and nurturing disposition? ;-)

Posted by: John McNamee | September 6, 2016 11:33 AM    Report this comment

It's a natural reaction to have, when reality catches up and finally bites braggadocios people in the arse. Musk, Rutan/Bransom, Obama or Trump, whoever. Rockets and space travel are dangerous and corporate logos don't make it any less so.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | September 6, 2016 5:44 PM    Report this comment

"... 12 year ago" ... wasn't that exactly the same time as the introduction of Light Sport, too. Hmmm ... musta had something to do with the ~11 year solar cycle? Ironic, for $200K, you could take a ride into space or buy an LSA "rocketship" for the masses. Who knew? Mark shoulda waited until next year.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | September 7, 2016 4:54 AM    Report this comment

I think many readers missed the tone of the article. Paul correctly points out that the private initiatives have about the same accident rate as NASA--even though they have less experience. (Look at NASA's failures with their own first rockets).

In the last two paragraphs, he reveals that the genesis of his feelings go back to the days when Burt Rutan and Richard Branson were crowing about their achievements, and "promised" that they would be flying space tourists in a matter of a couple of years. As he also points out--that promise 12 years ago has YET to be fulfilled.

It was not about delighting in the misfortunes of others (schadenfreude). Instead, Paul might be likened to the perhaps apocryphal story of the slave tasked with whispering in the ear of Roman Generals during their parades--while the crowds were cheering, the slave whispered "Remember, thou art mortal."

Posted by: jim hanson | September 7, 2016 10:04 AM    Report this comment

I agree with Jim Hanson. I don't think anyone (including our esteemed editor) takes any pleasure is seeing any of these spaceflight attempts fail. I didn't read that into Paul's writing. Instead, I think it is actually a bit painful for those that have come before to see the hopes of the next generation revert to the norm.

But the article does seem to imply that when newcomers enter an arena (especially one as serious as space flight) proclaiming that "This time it's different" that maybe the hubris should be dampened a bit until a provable record is established. Remember, the Titanic was an "unsinkable" ship; the Maginot Line was an impenetrable fortress, and Light Sport was going result in affordable airplanes for the common man. And we'll all be in flying cars by 1970...

Posted by: A Richie | September 7, 2016 11:03 AM    Report this comment

Paul, what about the UFO around the rocket just before it exploded?

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | September 7, 2016 8:02 PM    Report this comment

No launch insurance coverage since it took place before the launch and more. According to Spacenews.

Good article.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | September 7, 2016 10:20 PM    Report this comment

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