Spaceflight Is Hard: SpaceX and Galileo mishaps

Spaceflight is hard.  Failures are, therefore, to be expected.  SpaceX has analyzed the failure of the F9R Dev 1 test article in Texas recently, and has found that the fault was due to a clogged sensor tube which caused the vehicle to not orient itself properly, which in turn led to the on-board computer detecting the flight deviating from plan and terminating.  This single-point-of-failure does not exist on the flight Falcon 9 rockets, because those vehicles have full redundancy.   Additionally, although the test article has only three engines so the loss of one of them would cause a critical navigational problem, the flight model has a whopping nine and can maintain control with only eight.  Meanwhile, the AsiaSat launch scheduled for last week ended up delayed for unrelated tank pressurization concerns.

Spaceflight is hard.

That got demonstrated also on a Soyuz-Fregat launch from Kourou last week, as the Fregat did not impart adequate delta-vee to the payloads (cause is not yet known), leaving them in the wrong orbit.  This is a particular problem since the payload was two more spacecraft for Europe’s nascent Galileo navigation constellation.  Navigation satellites have to fly in very specific orbits at very specific altitudes, so it’s a problem.  ESA hasn’t given up, though.  The spacecraft have deployed their solar arrays, and they’re exploring options at the moment.

And sometimes even when everything goes right, it doesn’t — Russia’s Foton M4 biosatellite just returned after six weeks in orbit.  Almost everything seems to have gone perfectly, with many experiment packages recovered with good data, including a fruit fry colony that has been, well, fruitful.  But the highest profile experiment was a group of five geckos, which it was hoped would mate in space and produce offspring.  Alas, all five are deceased.  It’s not yet clear how they died.

Spaceflight is hard.  And we’re going to be reminded of that many more times.  But you can’t succeed if you live in fear of failure; we must keep pressing onwards.


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