At 4:55 a.m. on Saturday, hordes of space enthusiasts held their breath as engineers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center prepared to see SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket off to the International Space Station (ISS) — a mission which, if successful, would have been the first private one to accomplish its aim of being the first private vehicle to dock with the station. As the countdown timer at Cape Canaveral, Fla. neared zero, the rocket’s engines revved before shutting down with half a second to go. With the spacecraft still grounded, the mission was soon officially aborted, and 3:44 a.m. on Tuesday, May 22 was given as the potential time for SpaceX’s next attempt.
To sync up with the ISS’ orbit, the rocket must be launched during a near-instantaneous window that grows earlier by approximately 20 minutes per day. Thus, even the slightest errors mandate that the mission be shelved for the day, resulting in a highly anticlimactic experience for those watching. But in spite of this temporary disappointment, there are still many reasons to be optimistic about SpaceX and its potential as a future space industry pioneer.
1) An aborted mission is not a failed one. While it is easy to view Saturday’s events as a mistake, it should be noted that the Falcon 9 did, in fact, exactly what it was supposed to do: It recognized a faulty check valve on one of its 9 engines and shut down. Failing to do so would have made it impossible for the Dragon to reach the ISS, and would have caused the destruction of the vehicle, costing SpaceX millions of dollars. Getting into space is not an easy task, as both the American and Russian space programs have seen on multiple occasions (last year in particular saw many unmanned mission failures from Russia’s Soyuz capsule program), and bumps along the road to new enterprise are to be expected. Thus, rather than as a failed mission, Saturday’s launch should be seen as a successful launch abort.
2) For a scrubbed mission, a 72-hour turnaround is exceptional. Although all eyes are currently on SpaceX in the wake of the Shuttle program, one must recall that even during the heyday of the Shuttle, NASA missions were occasionally aborted post-ignition. In the case of STS-68, this resulted in a month-and-a-half delay from the originally scheduled launch time, as the error required replacing of an engine. The Falcon 9, however, has been more-efficiently designed to be ignited multiple times, minimizing the delay between launch attempts.
3) SpaceX has already made leaps and bounds for the space industry. In 2010, the company became the first private one to recover a spacecraft from low earth orbit with an earlier iteration of the Falcon 9 and Dragon — a feat that has been accomplished by only a handful of countries. This result waxes optimistic for the future of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which has awarded contracts to Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Virginia, in addition to SpaceX. While the U.S. government will not profit directly from private space companies’ successes, these companies' efforts will stimulate the economy far more than the current $60 million payments made to Russia for each seat aboard their Soyuz capsules.
4) NASA knows what it is doing with its funds. Although the Falcon 9 won SpaceX one of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts, the company’s receipt of funds is contingent on their success in achieving the objective of the COTS program (i.e., to ferry cargo to and from the ISS). As CEO Elon Musk has confirmed, SpaceX will receive full payment for their three demo flights only if they manage this. While some private investors may be deterred by a launch delay or aborted mission, the effect of such an incident is nowhere near as devastating to the taxpayer dollar as a failed Shuttle launch.
To watch SpaceX’s next launch attempt live, tune into NASA TV on May 22 at 3:44 a.m. EDT.