by Chris Tobias
I’ve watched a lot of Falcon 9 launches. Some have carried satellites into orbit for private customers. Some, like yesterday’s, launched Dragon capsules to rendezvous with the International Space Station as part of SpaceX’s Commercial Resupply contract with NASA. Like everyone who’s watched SpaceX’s launches live online, I’ve gotten used to holds and scrubs for all manner of different reasons, some mechanical, some meteorological, some just precautionary. But one thing that has always been the case is that in the end, SpaceX does the job. In fact, the Falcon 9 has become so reliable that this amateur space enthusiast had begun to take it for granted. In Musk we trust. Period.
In the run-up to yesterday’s CRS-7 launch, I e-mailed Jeff to tell him that I had a feeling in my gut that this launch was going to be the lucky one, and that SpaceX would finally succeed in recovering their first-stage Falcon 9 rocket booster on their drone-piloted barge “Of Course I Still Love You.” I told him that because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to watch the launch live, or even follow its progress on social media. My teenage son, who is a very serious lacrosse player, was playing a tournament at a remote field complex that morning, and even if the launch weren’t occurring about twenty minutes after his first game faced off (which it was), I doubted I’d have the cellular service to keep tabs on what was happening. With my luck, I figured, the fact that this was the first launch in nearly two years that I wouldn’t be able to watch live either on my laptop or my cell phone meant it was sure to make history.
Well, I guess that last bit wasn’t wrong, just not in the way I was thinking.
Shortly after my son’s first game, I decided to see if I could get enough bars to check for some news of the successful launch and recovery on my phone. The reception, which was spotty all day, afforded me only a brief moment of connectivity, just long enough to see Jeff’s Facebook post on our Twitter feed:
At that point I had a very different feeling in my gut, and my heart just sank. The Falcon 9’s perfect launch record had come to an end with its ninth launch. The Dragon was lost, and with it the International Docking Adapter (IDA-1) that would enable future manned missions to dock with the ISS. And there I was, stuck in a field in the middle of nowhere, unable to get any significant news of what happened, discuss the event or share my disappointment with people who, like me, really care about the future of the private space industry and manned space exploration.
It wasn’t until yesterday evening, at the end of a cold, wet, dreary day that saw my son’s team go unbeaten most of the tournament only to get upset in the championship game by a goal in the final minute of play, that I was able to sit at my dining room table and watch a video replay of the failed launch. It’s a part of human nature that our confidence in a good team will tempt us more and more with each victory to take success for granted, whether it’s on the playing field or on the launch pad. Yesterday was not a good day, but if there’s any silver lining to days like yesterday, it’s that they serve as a reminder that great achievements will never come easy or without risk. That’s what makes them worth striving for, and that’s why they can’t be achieved by just anybody. My son’s team will be back at practice tomorrow, taking stock of what they learned from yesterday and preparing for their next tournament two weeks from now. SpaceX has already poured thousands of man-hours into analyzing what went wrong with yesterday’s launch so they can make sure it doesn’t happen again. At this point we don’t know when the next Falcon 9 launch will be, but I’d bet dollars to donuts that it’ll break atmo without a hitch. In Musk we trust. That hasn’t changed a bit.
Why? Because SpaceX is a gorram good team. In the words of that Howie Day song, “even the best fall down sometimes,” but you know they’re always going to get back up, and when they do, they’ll be better for it.
I’m writing this on the 44th anniversary of the Soyuz 11 tragedy, when her entire crew of cosmonauts died upon reentry. Events like yesterday’s and anniversaries like today’s remind us that spaceflight isn’t easy, and despite human nature’s tendency to the contrary, we should never take any mission for granted– no matter how many times we’ve seen it succeed in the past.
Some people are going to say that yesterday’s “interesting” launch should make us less confident in SpaceX’s ability to send astronauts into the black in a manned Dragon atop a Falcon booster rocket. I’m going to argue that yesterday should make us more confident in SpaceX’s ability to do it, to do it safely and even to do it first. Why? Because although yesterday saw a disappointing loss of equipment and a blemish on SpaceX’s record, nobody died this time, and because SpaceX is a private company and the Dragon is a privately-owned transport ship, there won’t be any time lost cutting through red tape when it comes to sussing out what went wrong and fixing the problem so it doesn’t happen again, especially when the cargo on board is a human crew. As I said before, just one day after the event, SpaceX has already invested thousands of engineering hours into finding and fixing the problem that caused yesterday’s mishap. NASA, for all its past achievements and great qualities, would still have to waste an immense amount of time with federal committees charged with government-mandated investigations and reports, all of which would require approval from multiple sources before they could proceed. And Boeing? Well, quite frankly they still don’t know what to anticipate, because their CST-100, manned or unmanned, has yet to leave the launch pad for the first time! SpaceX knows that yesterday’s problem has both a cause and a solution, and they’re already hard at work finding both. That’s the kind of decisive action I want if I’m looking for someone to take me out to the black, and I don’t know about you, but if it were up to me I know I’d want the first private manned ship that flies our astronauts to the ISS to be one that’s already benefited from lessons learned during its many unmanned flights, both successful ones and ones that were a little more “interesting” in Hoban “Wash” Washburne’s sense of the word. Spaceflight is never going to be easy, but in the end SpaceX will do the job. In Musk we trust. Period.
I’m thinkin’ SpaceX’s Falcon 9 will rise again, and soon. Until then, you can follow us here, on Facebook and on Twitter for updates.
Peace, love and rockets.