Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Falcon 1 Update - Not a Structural Failure After All

As we posted previously, the Falcon 1 maiden flight that was scheduled to liftoff yesterday was again scrubbed just before launch due to technical difficulties. The problem at the time was apparently with the first stage fuel tank. But, according to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, the problem was not structural in nature, as was originally thought.
While initially counting down under the threat of wind gusts above the rocket's rated 24 knots, the crew felt confident that they still had a good chance to get a launch in due to the generous 8 hour flight window this time around. As it turned out, though the winds eventually did cause the countdown to be placed on hold, this alone was not enough to keep the Falcon 1 grounded and scrub the launch.
It seems that during the hold period, while following procedures to drain the fuel tanks and attempt to wait out the winds, an electricalfault within a pressure valve in the first stage fuel tank caused an excess vacuum, leading to a partial collapse of the tank itself.

Thus while the problem first manifested itself as structural failure, Musk made it clear that the cause of the structural damage was an electrical failure, and not due to a structural design fault. It is not simply a matter of semantics, either. On the contrary, this is an all-important distinction indeed. While the delays and glitches are somewhat problematic - and certainly frustrating - an electrical gremlin is a world away from an inherent structural failure. Furthermore, it seems that no other collateral damage was sustained by the rocket, though of course a more thorough analysis will be forthcoming in the days ahead.
As of this writing, the earliest Falcon 1 could make another attempt is near the end of January 2006. Here's hoping the third time's is indeed a charm, and of course we'll be keeping you posted...

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