In the trade they call it a rapid unplanned disassembly, or a RUD. That’s an explosion, to us lay people.
It happened in the sky over the SpaceX proving ground in McGregor, Texas, when a flight computer detected a problem in an unmanned reusable booster undergoing flight test. The flight termination system, i.e., explosives designed to blow up a wayward rocket, automatically triggered to keep fallout in the safe zone.
From CEO Elon Musk via Twitter yesterday:
Aug 22, 8:24pm via Twitter for iPhone
Three engine F9R Dev1 vehicle auto-terminated during test flight. No injuries or near injuries. Rockets are tricky …
I wish I could have been there in the control room to see the reactions of the engineers conducting the test, to hear their frustration and the ad hoc post-test analysis. To see them pick up the pieces in preparation for running the numbers to find out what, exactly, went wrong with their rocket, to feel their determination firsthand to rebuild and fly again as soon as humanly possible.
That’s the kind of thing I had hoped to capture in an article that was assigned to me by a major aerospace magazine back in March. It’s those details—the tense excitement turned to confusion when a rocket unexpectedly quits, turned to anguish when a computer in its cold, split-second judgement turns months of labor into a fireball and scrap metal—and the unstoppable drive to keep pushing upward and outward, no matter what, that brings a story like this to life.
The average person couldn’t care less about rockets or reaching space, or how life on planet Earth will change because of it. That’s because the average person can’t connect with aluminum and kerosene and liquid oxygen. To the average person these are cold, dirty, potentially dangerous things.
But human beings in a control room, people driven since childhood to realize the dreams of their grandfathers’ generation, right goddamn now, and the commitment try and try and try again until they succeed—now that’s a story most people can get into. People inspire people, especially in the midst of adversity. It’s in adversity that one’s mettle is tested and shines through. Rockets break. The creative, inspired, hard-charging minds at SpaceX don’t.
That’s the story I wanted to tell. But the scrappy rocket startup trying to get noticed that invited me to roam its shop floor and sit in the control room for a rocket test accompanied by nothing but a camera and a recorder is no more. In its place is a big company with a lot at stake. And, like other big companies with much to lose, it seeks tight control over its media imprint. That means among other things, apparently, no more free-range visits by independent journalists.
I don’t expect this mishap to change the situation. Which, really, is a shame.