In addition to their regular satellite launch business, SpaceX is conducting a series of test flights with a Falcon 9 first stage core, launching up a ways and then landing again to fine-tune the landing process before attempting a full-up stage return on an orbital mission. The Grasshopper test article was a resounding success, and they moved on to carrying out tests with a prototype Falcon 9R (R for “reusable”) with deployable legs and stabilizing fins. Until now, it’s all been going great, but today they had their first major anomaly.
The vehicle’s onboard computer detected an anomaly and automatically triggered the flight termination system. That’s basically rocket speak for “self-destruct system” — all launch vehicles in America carry these, to destroy the rocket before it can threaten life or property. That actually does include the manned rockets, the idea being that astronauts have signed on for a known risk, which is not the case for random civilians just going about their lives on the ground.
It’s a setback for SpaceX, but it’s not clear how *much* of a setback. They have a commercial flight for AsiaSat scheduled for Tuesday, which would also include another flyback and splashdown test; it’s not clear if this mishap will delay or whether they’ll press on knowing that the flyback test is a secondary objective. They’re also planning on making higher altitude F9R flights over White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico later this year, but it’s also unclear whether this will impact those plans. I’ll post again if/when I hear more. 😉