SpaceX is the fastest-innovating space company out there, and also the most public about conducting all of its testing in the public eye. But as a result, when things go wrong, they go wrong publicly.
This morning’s explosion of a Falcon 9 on the pad was an unexpected setback for SpaceX, but it’s hardly the first time one of its rockets has had an unplanned violent disassembly.
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The most famous SpaceX blooper reel involves the attempts at landing the first stage of a Falcon 9 on board a drone ship. Vertically landing a rocket on a floating platform in the ocean is, as you might imagine, not easy. SpaceX compared landing a rocket to “balancing a rubber broomstick on your hand in a wind storm,” which sounds about right.
The first attempt to land a rocket came back in January 2015, as part of a resupply mission to the ISS. That landing failed and turned into more of a crash-landing, marking the first (but certainly not last) time that a Falcon 9 impacted the poor rocket barge at speed.
In a blog post, SpaceX explained what went wrong:
“While we came close, the first stage prematurely ran out of the hydraulic fluid that is used to steer the small fins that help control the rocket’s descent. The vehicle has now been equipped with much more of that critical fluid for steering purposes.”
In April, SpaceX tried and failed again. This time, the cause of failure was different:
“About 10 seconds before landing, a valve controlling the rocket’s engine power (thrust) temporarily stopped responding to commands as quickly as it should have. As a result, it throttled down a few seconds later than commanded, and—with the rocket weighing about 67,000 lbs and traveling nearly 200 mph at this point—a few seconds can be a very long time. With the throttle essentially stuck on “high” and the engine firing longer than it was supposed to, the vehicle temporarily lost control and was unable to recover in time for landing, eventually tipping over.”
Luckily, that time the landing happened during the day, and the whole thing was caught on video.
In June last year, SpaceX was sending a Falcon 9 loaded with supplies up to the International Space Station, before a malfunction with the second stage caused the rocket to explode. A subsequent investigation discovered that the problem was with a two-foot strut inside the upper-stage liquid oxygen tank caused the explosion.
The video above is a good short history of the Falcon 9 rocket and all the testing it’s been through to become a viable system for putting payloads into orbit. It’s also a great way to watch all of SpaceX’s most painful crashes in one place.
Of course, rockets exploding is not just a SpaceX problem. As today reminded us, space is hard, and missions run by NASA and private companies alike have all ended in explosions. Luckily for SpaceX today, no one was near the pad, and the explosion only wrote off a $200 million satellite belonging to Facebook.