If you, like myself, stayed up last night to watch the SpaceX COTS 2+ Mission, aka Falcon 9 Flight 3, launch to the ISS you were probably disappointed by the last minute launch abort. For those of you who didn’t stay up, take a moment to watch this – to save time starting at the 1:45:25 mark:
In short, the flight computer aborted the launch at T?00:00:00.5. One half second before launch. It did so because it detected an abnormally high combustion chamber pressure on engine number five. And SpaceX has already diagnosed the problem – as they announced via Twitter:
Inspections found a faulty check valve on engine #5. We are replacing tonight. Next attempt Tuesday, 5/22 at 3:44 AM ET
As soon as the launch was aborted some critics started commenting on how this was a failure, and even that it shows commercial services aren’t able to supply the ISS, etc. Sure, this was a launch failure – the Falcon 9 didn’t launch, QED. But the rocket is intact and as SpaceX said they’ll be trying to launch again in a couple of days. It demonstrates that the design is sound in that it not only works when everything goes as planned – which is frankly the easy part – but it also handles anomalies.
The computer was able to detect the out-of-spec condition in the moments before launch and safely abort rather than launch and risk a catastrophic failure in flight. SpaceX’s hold-down launch system worked as designed and the rocket never moved an inch. The Falcon 9 was safed successfully, without any damage and is ready to fly again during the next launch window. That’s remarkable when compared to legacy systems. SpaceX designed multiple levels of safety and redundancy into not only the vehicle hardware and software itself, but also the policies and procedures. They’re doing it right.
Critics are quick to pounce on the ‘failure’, but how many failures have the legacy players had in their systems – including catastrophic failures? This is rocket science. It isn’t easy. While I was disappointed that the launch was aborted, it really shows the robustness of the system. And that’s a good thing, in the big picture.
So while it was a failure in the specific launch abort, it was a success in demonstrating the strength of the system overall. No one should expect SpaceX to get it right the first time, every time. There will be a learning curve. But things like this show that they’ve certainly done a lot to improve their odds.
I’m looking forward to the next attempt.