Posted by: bkivey | 8 October 2012

Success In Spite of Failure

On 7 October the second Space X launch, and first operational mission, lifted off from Cape Canaveral on the way to the International Space Station. Aside from the fact that a private company is on it’s way to providing  launch and return service to Low Earth Orbit, this particular launch was remarkable for what happened on the way to orbit.

About a minute and a half into launch, the #1 engine failed. Video shows a bright flare and large pieces coming off the vehicle.  Opinion differs on whether this was an explosion or not; the verbiage used is ‘rapid unscheduled dis-assembly’, the fact is that an engine left the party in a rather spectacular fashion. The fail-safe systems failed safe; the vehicle remained intact, and the flight control software was able to use the other eight engines to achieve a useful orbit. This makes Falcon 9 the only current launch vehicle with a demonstrated capability to operate successfully after major system failure. This isn’t unique among American spacecraft.  Saturn V experienced engine failure on Apollo 6 and 13, and successfully reached orbit on both occasions.

I’m sure that the engineers at Space X are working long hours to understand the cause of failure, a job complicated by lack of access to the failed part. Customers might be nervous about putting multimillion dollar payloads on a vehicle that might fail. On the other hand, I suspect that morale at Space X is pretty high. While the company would prefer the vehicle not fail, they, and potential customers, know that a catastrophic engine failure won’t necessarily kill the mission. That’s a significant competitive advantage in the high-stakes world of space launch.

Fun with Engineering Terminology

Technical reports, by their nature, tend to be rather dry. Technical people deal in hard facts, and are trained to use very precise language in a conservative manner, and most technical folks aren’t good writers. These factors often make for tedious reading. It’s also why terms like ‘rapid unscheduled dis-assembly’ are used instead of the more descriptive, but less precise, ‘that shit blew up’. Technical language can strike a non-technical person as humorous, opaque, or both. You can have some fun with it.

  • Rapid unscheduled dis-assembly – see above.
  • Rapid scheduled dis-assembly – test-to-failure
  • Unscheduled dis-assembly – damaged through unforeseen action.  Ex.: someone ran a forklift into it.
  • Scheduled dis-assembly – something we actually planned.


Miscellaneous Items

A very impressive collection of LEGO works by artistic people .

A video of the world’s largest operational steam locomotive in revenue service. In 2008.






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