Nice Work


SpaceX suffered a minor setback over the weekend, and the brash space-transportation startup came out of it smelling like a rose.

The company's Falcon 9 rocket is still sitting on the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, it's Dragon cargo capsule still packed and ready for its first attempt at linking up with the International Space Station.

On Saturday morning, the Falcon 9 suffered an on-pad abort and shut down all nine of its engines after they ignited.

Jim Wise/AW&ST

It's hard to watch an on-pad abort without a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. The engines have fired and then shut down. The rocket is just sitting there, filled with fuel and liquid oxygen, and the smoke of ignition still wreathes the pad.

"I thought we'd be higher when the engines quit" is how NASA astronaut Steve Hawley tried to use humor to dispel the tension after he experienced a pad abort from the flight deck of the shuttle Discovery. Mike Mulane, one of his crewmates, later wrote "I wanted to hit the SOB. I wanted to scream, 'This isn't funny, Hawley.'"

The SpaceX launch crew didn't think it was funny, either. Instead, they did what NASA and more experienced commercial launch operators do. They turned the page and started working through their checklist for securing their vehicle after a pad abort. It went smoothly. The Falcon 9 and Dragon are intact and ready for another attempt, as early as 3:44 a.m. tomorrow.

There hasn't been much opportunity to see how SpaceX handles operations. The public link to their launch loop Saturday morning showed that they do know what they're doing. Since the abort they've found that the flight computer shut the engines down because one of them -- No. 5 -- was running at higher than nominal pressure. The cause of that issue has since been traced to a valve that has been replaced.

The company has big plans for the future, starting with using Dragon to take crews to the ISS.

Space Exploration Technologies Inc.

NASA astronauts already are helping the company set up its capsule for commercial crew missions. Even with the simpler cargo version, the U.S. space agency has big plans for Dragon, including using its ability to return cargo from orbit to bring back experiment samples for analysis on Earth.

Pad aborts are hard to do. The company's performance Saturday morning was an encouraging harbinger of what may come in the future.

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