At low altitude
an explosion returns the satellite to earth in a much shorter time than the sail. Explosion 1, Sail 0.
The sudden and explosive end of Firefly Aerospace's first test flight of its Alpha rocket rounded out a hat-trick of woe for rocket fans this week. The Alpha, which Firefly has pitched as being able to loft 1,000kg to low earth orbit (LEO), finally left its pad at California's Vandenberg Space Force Base at 01:59 UTC on 3 …
And rocket science is hard. To succeed you need explosions, otherwise you're not learning where the leading (or bleeding) edge is and you can't learn where the flaws are in your design.
I wish them well in their next attempt. Here's a pint to drown your sorrows before you get back to work.
Tricky it may be, but there's well over half a century of experience, both successes and failures, to build upon. If you try something new like SpaceX landing and reusing their first stages you can expect some irreversible rapid disassembly before you get things right, but launching a rocket like this should be old hat by now.
The flight was nice and stable, but it was noted that it wasn't accelerating as fast as predicted. I'm not sure if that lead to the problem they had which required the Range Safety Package (a bomb) to be activated.
There is always that question of whether the rocket was overbuilt if nothing bad happens on the first flight. Were there places they could have shaved some weight? Now the question is where they need to reinforce if it was a structural failure and why there was less performance from the motors than expected. Still, much more stable than any of the Starship flights.
Scott Manley has a video analysing the flight. He thinks one of the engines went kaput early on in the flight. That probably explains the slow asscent. The wobblyness and RUD, Scott thinks is due to areodynamic forces on the rocket as it goes supersonic. Due to the way the gimbaling is design on the Firefly, it's much harder for it to compensate for the imbalance in thrust. So those supersonic forces just made a difficult situation even harder.
If you're putting cargo on the very first flight of anything (airplane, rocket) you should be expecting that your cargo is unlikely to reach its destination in fully working order.
For Alpha, they need some kind of payload to properly test the rocket. They could either just put a big rock in there, or they could say "Hey, anyone want to risk our new rocket? The flight's free but there's no guarantee of success" For a Uni, a free flight is very appealing. The Uni's main aim could have been to teach designing and building somethig for space flight. What better way is there to learn than by doing? (And Alpha get some experience working with a payload customer too)
It's a shame to see your work get destroyed - but what a way for it to get destroyed. Way better than some clumsey oaf knocking it off the bench!
And when the flight is aborted? Big rocks dropping from high altitudes. No thanks.
Back in the days of yore (late 80s, as I recall), a Titan launch planned for Canaveral Air Force Station was delayed because a Floridian congresscritter had discovered that the Titan was launching with sand for ballast. Beach sand, on a $250 million tech rocket delivering a high-tech spy satellite to space!
So the USAF pulled the Titan back into its hangar, quickly slapped together some ballast weights out of aluminum plate, and launched the rocket several million dollars later.
Had the Titan blown up during launch (as they liked to do), that would've been tons of aluminum plate dropping around Cocoa Beach rather than a cloud of sand.
"It's a shame to see your work get destroyed....."
Or in the case of NOAA-N Prime (in 2003):
What a way for something to NEARLY be destroyed and BEFORE it even got to the launch pad...all down to someone removing some bolts and not documenting it and then someone else not checking the bolts were in place beforehand:
That cost $135m to put right !!
"Seems strange to load up on cargo when they haven't actually had a successful launch."
They usually put a dummy load in to simulate the mass of what a normal production flight will do. In this case some of that dummy load was a (probably free) ride for a university experiment. I didn't see any mention of a customer payload that the uni experiment was attached to, so I'm assuming from that the uni experiment was the entire payload.
It seemed not to be going as fast upwards as it should have done (according to reports) and it also didn't seem to tilt over, in order to get to orbit (which would have sent it over water, away from the spectators)
And in clear air, when it exploded with some mighty force, those bits of rocket and payload would have been sent off quickly in all directions, and so some would have made landfall, as shown in the video. :-(
I like the comment someone made (@4:22): "They're gonna not let us be here for the next launch now"....whilst watching a large piece of rocket drop in front of them.
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That's one bad camera operator.
Rockets can be expected to go up, although not all of them actually do. Still, you put the cam on a tripod and check that when you tilt the thing it stays pointed at the rocket. So that when the rocket actually goes up you actually, you know, just have to tilt the cam instead of having to hunt left and right to keep it in view. Any decent tripod can be set so that tilting is smooth while resisting panning.
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