SpaceX’s drive to create the first reusable multistage rocket suffered a severe setback, according to a a Friday piece on NBC News, when a three engine F9R test vehicle exploded in mid-air over the company’s McGregor, Texas test facility. The F9R is the follow up to the highly successful Grasshopper vertical takeoff and landing test prototype that made numerous successful flights in Texas. Apparently the onboard computer detected an anomaly severe enough that it performed a detonation of the rocket. There were no injuries and minimal damage to the test facility.
NASASpaceFlight.com notes that the accident highlighted a busy Friday for SpaceX. The entrepreneurial space launch company successfully completed a static fire of a Falcon 9 at Cape Canaveral in advance of a planned commercial space launch next week of ASIASAT-6. SpaceX has already successfully launched ASIASAT-8 which, like ASIASAT-6, is a communications satellite.
The fact that SpaceX managed to see a test rocket blow up is not unusual in a test program. Rocket development is an edge of the envelope operation, which occasionally means that a test article has to be tested up to and sometimes past the point of destruction. Virtually every rocket program, whether conducted by NASA, the military, or the private sector has featured explosions and craters in the ground.
SpaceX is engaged in an ambitious development program to create the first multi stage reusable launch vehicle. The idea is that the stages of a reusable rocket, instead of being flung into the ocean, would instead fly back to the launch site and land intact. The stages would then be refurbished, restacked, refueled, and relaunched. The idea is that SpaceX would garner tremendous cost savings, thus making its launch services far and away the cheaper alternative to its competitors. Reusable launch vehicles would also be of use in the company’s visionary goal of establishing a private Mars colony later this century.