October 8th, 2012
05:32 PM ET

SpaceX capsule on course despite engine failure

A SpaceX Dragon capsule remains on course for the International Space Station despite the failure of one of nine engines on its booster rocket after launch, the company reported Monday.

The failure occurred at a minute and 19 seconds into the first commercial space cargo mission, which launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sunday night, SpaceX disclosed.

"Initial data suggests that one of the rocket's nine Merlin engines, Engine 1, lost pressure suddenly and an engine shutdown command was issued immediately," the company said in a written statement.

But the company said the rocket "did exactly what it was designed to do," as its flight computer made adjustments to keep the Dragon headed into the proper orbit. The unmanned capsule, which is carrying about 1,000 pounds of supplies for the space station, is scheduled to arrive at the orbital platform on Wednesday.

Controllers are reviewing the flight data in an effort to figure out what happened, but the company said the initial readings indicate the engine's protective fairing broke apart under stress.

"We know the engine did not explode, because we continued to receive data from it," the company said.

SpaceX launched the Dragon capsule Sunday night.

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Filed under: Hardware in Orbit • In Space
soundoff (64 Responses)
  1. Sinbad

    Things will improve with experience. When the French pioneered civilian rocketry back in the 1980's there were some glitches. Now they launch a satellite a month and very few give any trouble.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:50 am |
    • Cadiz

      Get real, the French did not pioneer 'civilian rocketry' in the 1980s. 'Civilian rocketry' has been around for well over 60 years. Look at the US rockets for example, almost all of them have been manufactured by civilian companies since the 1950s. Th next time you decide to give a plug for the french maybe try the CNN cooking section.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:07 am |
  2. Jon

    I really like the SpaceX design, and this shows why. One of it's unique features compared with the Space Shuttle design, which used solid-fueled rocket boosters, is that you can simply shut off the fuel supply. Which is just what they said they could do and is just what happened. Once you have lit an SRB – that is it. If anything goes wrong with those, you have to ditch them. Or, as the Challenger tragedy showed...
    Well done to the design team of SpaceX. You had a problem, and your design allowed the mission to continue. I have great hopes for your spacecraft.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:26 am |
  3. goo6er

    Take that, Russia!

    October 8, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • dreamer96

      Hey the Russians were hacking into our computer networks decades ago.. using PDP-11's and so very creative assembly code....

      October 8, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
  4. dreamer96

    Look at the time of failure...1 minute 19 seconds ...was the rocket doing it rotation..that puts new stressing on the airframe and the motors....Was number one engine on the outside, or nested in the middle of the group of engines...does the engine protective fairing under go new stresses in a roll...What is the heat level for the engines in the different positions...are they hotter in the center of the engine cluster....

    October 8, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
    • GonzoG

      Excellent. You seem to have some understanding of engineering.
      BUT, the important thing is even with the failure, the design compensated. NASA in the early days (pre-Space Shuttle) had enough redundancy built in that a single engine failure was not a showstopper.

      October 8, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
    • dreamer96

      I was a air-to-air analyst for Aim-9..Aim-7, Aim-120 ...Most people know them as Sidewinder, Sparrow, AMRRAM..and they moved around a lot more then these big blimps do...

      October 8, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • LL

      TIming suggests that the aerodynamic load at max Q had something to do with the failure.

      October 8, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
    • Konadreamer

      Hotter at center? Yes, but the nozzles are designed to handle it and more. Significant roll stress? Unlikely, although I don't know the exact roll rate. It will be interesting to see if they can figure it out. I'm just glad they got the payload into orbit.

      October 8, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • Rob

      Maybe time for Space-X to outsource some production aspects their unofficial motto,"we design it, we build it, we inspect it, we test it, we launch it" might have some integrity issues, not only from a mechanical stand point, but also in manufacturing quality/production ethics

      October 8, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
    • dreamer96

      I do not know this rocket engine design..is the engine cone exhaust thrust steered....if so they might have had a steering control failure..vibration..or hit something....loss of pressure..do they still run the fuel around the engine exhaust nozzle to keep it from melting...like on the Saturn 5 engines....Loss of pressure to that means the fuel lines ruptured...

      October 8, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
      • dreamer96

        also loss of pressure could mean a pump failed, or a pump drive shaft broke...

        October 8, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
  5. bill

    Did anyone watch the launch? You can see it burn through in the video. It looked just like before Challenger blew up with an uncontained burn. This was a near disaster for the ship.

    October 8, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
  6. jth

    I still am confused how this company is going to supply space stations satellites etc. The space shuttle could life over 25 tons. This capsule lifts less than a ton.

    October 8, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • Mouser

      the falcon 9 rocket is capable of putting a 29,000lb payload into low earth orbit (leo) however not sure why it didnt carry more than that on this mission. Maybe they just carried everything the ISS needed this time ?. SpaceX also is making a rocket called "Falcon Heavy" which can lift 120,000lbs to LEO. All of the rockets specs can be found on the SpaceX website.

      October 8, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
    • Marvin

      Roughly speaking, the Falcon9 delivers about a third of the mass at a tenth of the cost as compared to the shuttle.
      More relevantly, the SpaceX falcon can fly *now*. The shuttle can not.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:44 am |
  7. somerandomguy03

    Wow, CNN what kind of reporting is this? The headline is just flat out wrong. The capsule did not have an engine failure, it was the First Stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. How could you get something so simple so wrong?

    October 8, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • Selmers

      Its called media sensationalism

      October 8, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • EmperorMeiji

      Read the headline again. The capsule is on course despite an engine failure. It's accurate. Calm down.

      October 8, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
      • Steve

        I think he means the headline on the CNN home page, which did say "engine fails on capsule."

        October 8, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
  8. Charles Robertson

    Kudos to SpaceX for designing a system with enough spare capacity to withstand a single engine failure and still carry out the mission. A slap in the face with a wet noodle to CNN for the headline on the home page that says "One Engine Fails on SpaceX Capsule!" Guess they don't know the difference between the booster rocket and the Dragon capsule.

    October 8, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  9. dgptzl

    This headline for this article is a bit deceiving – very deceiving, in fact. The engine on the "capsule" did not fail – one of nine engines on the first stage of the Falcon rocket did fail. There is a big difference . . . a very big difference. But saying that an engine on the capsule failed sounds more dramatic, and will likely get the attention of more readers.

    October 8, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • pvs1

      you really expect cnn's hack interns *ahem* i mean "journalists" to do some rudimentary research on the topic?

      October 8, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
  10. Sam

    Jesus Christ, it's like nobody has ever heard of a little concept called "redundancy"...

    October 8, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • somerandomguy03

      SpaceX obviously has.

      October 8, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
  11. Linanon

    I am a structural engineer in aerospace, and your fairing should not bust apart under stress. Either the analysis and ground test scenarios did not cover all possibilities, or the fairing was damaged after ground tests. We saw a case once where there was a void in the bond between the fairing skin to the honeycomb core which separated under the pressure differences of space versus internal pressure.

    October 8, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • somerandomguy03

      I have yet to see a non-speculative report that states that the fairing came apart. SpaceX previously stated that some panels blew off to relieve pressure as designed. Additionally, as an aerospace structural engineer, you know that margins are heavily balanced with weight, and that the consequence of a failure is look at in terms of overall risk, such that if the risk associated with a failure is low enough, the margins on the structure may be lowered to minimize weight.

      October 8, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  12. LL

    Good news for Boeing. Bad news for Dragon certification.

    October 8, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • Stoneaxe

      Bad for SpaceX? Are you nuts? This is excellent news. Not only does it show that they've built fault tolerance into their design....but that it works! Combine this with their shutdown of the engines after ignition on the last mission (something no ones done before) and this shows SpaceX knows how to get it done.

      As for Boeing, I wish them the best also. Never hurts to have several players in any field of endeavour.

      October 8, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
      • tffl

        Actually, shutdown after ignition was not only not unprecedented, it isn't even that rare (not common, but not extremely rare). Any major liquid fueled rocket has the capability, and it has happened on many different types of rockets. Solids cannot be shut down once ignited, so on the shuttle, once they lit, you were committed. However, there was a (roughly 6 second) window between main engine ignition and solid ignition during which an abort could happen, and it did – 5 times. There was also a post-ignition pre-launch abort on a Gemini launch, as well as on numerous unmanned launch attempts.

        October 8, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • Paul Carroll

      Interesting. Boeing's Delta 4 GPS launch had an engine problem (not generating 25000 lb force as expected) and Space-X lost an engine. But, in both cases, they were able to fulfill their mission. How did Boeing come out on top?

      October 8, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
      • LL

        Delta been around for along time. Falcon is still proving itself.

        October 8, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
  13. Bill Mueller

    Congratulations again Steve! You designed a vehicle with enough redundancy that a complete engine failure did not even skip it off course. Anywhere else that would have been an aborted mission or worse. Nicely done.

    October 8, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
  14. fedup99

    The engineers didn't really "rely" on the backups to be successful. The backups are there because of great planning and design. As some have noted, nothing mechanical is perfect. the design planning to try to account for the worst is the best kind of risk management. It most assuredly saved millions worth of equipment and supplies, not to mention timely replenishment and replacement for the humans aboard the ISS.

    October 8, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
  15. Just Me

    Good to see that this happen so people can realize that science and technology are't 100% perfect at what they do.

    October 8, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • tony

      Let's hope that's not a creationist comment. Like that vile and incompetent buffoon Congressman and Science Committee Paul Broun.

      Now this is a case where IMPEACHMENT is immediately necessary.

      October 8, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
  16. JustDaFacts

    I always log into stories like this to get a count of exactly how many adult men still live in their mom's basement.

    October 8, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • Curtis

      So, we can add you to that list, JustDaFacts?

      October 8, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • Kris Wood

      So counting you, we're at 1.

      October 8, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • gunner51

      We have a lot more money than you by living in Mom's basement.

      October 8, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  17. Mayan Man

    The END is near. Mahabone.

    October 8, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • 111Dave111

      The Maya is a Mesoamerican civilization, noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems. Initially established during the Pre-Classic period (c. 2000 BC to AD 250), according to the Mesoamerican chronology, many Maya cities reached their highest state of development during the Classic period (c. AD 250 to 900), and continued throughout the Post-Classic period until the arrival of the Spanish. Maya influence can be detected from Honduras, Guatemala, and western El Salvador to as far away as central Mexico, more than 1,000 km (620 mi) from the Maya area. Many outside influences are found in Maya art and architecture, which are thought to result from trade and cultural exchange rather than direct external conquest. The Maya peoples never disappeared, neither at the time of the Classic period decline nor with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores and the subsequent Spanish colonization of the Americas. Today, the Maya and their descendants form sizable populations throughout the Maya area and maintain a distinctive set of traditions and beliefs that are the result of the merger of pre-Columbian and post-Conquest ideas and cultures. Millions of people speak Mayan languages today.

      October 8, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  18. Proud American

    Production is the ultimate test region. Test failed, system passed.

    October 8, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  19. CF

    "successful failure" Would you buy a seat on a 'successful failure'?

    October 8, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • metalr

      Is there an aircraft model in existance that has NEVER has a problem, be it mechanical/electrical/or other, at one point, however isolated it may have bee? Nothing is perfect, you leave the ground, you take a chance....

      October 8, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • HZ

      Yes, because success means you'd still make it. But they aren't selling seats yet. A lot more testing is required before a vehicle is deemed ready to carry humans.

      October 8, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
    • RF Burns

      There's a reason it's called "rocket science", dude.

      October 8, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • MOCaseA

      Depending on how many times you have actually bought a plane ticket, I'd say you've done it several times without your knowledge. Most commercial airlines don't use all the engines on the plane to maintain flight or land, only for take-off, and that is so the plane can get off the ground faster. One in flight many four engine plane shut down two of their engines for the remainder of the flight, and only the air passing over the engine makes the turbine blades spin.

      Additionally, mechanical error occurs regularly, and in those instances the pilots shut down the faulty engine and spin up one of the stand-by engines. Once on the ground the fault is quickly isolated and repaired for the next flight.

      October 10, 2012 at 4:55 am |
  20. Josh

    "We know the engine did not explode"

    Forget about data, I think if that happened, something really bad would have happened to the rocket overall.

    October 8, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • Dave2

      Nope. Each engine is shielded from the others, so even if one does actually blow up, the computers will shut down the fuel to that engine and compensate with the others.

      October 8, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
  21. Ideas1234

    This cat's still got 8 more lives.

    October 8, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • Skipper Tom

      Dragon X should be re-named "Alley Cat IX"

      October 8, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • 111Dave111

      Clever Line.
      But I suspect 1 failure is one thing, and
      4 failures (esp unbalanced) would be quite another.
      I bow to greater authorities (like {ironically} Dave2).

      & I like t3chsupport's & metalr's & fedup99's &Bill Mueller's comments. and of course Dave2's comment.

      October 8, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  22. tct

    No big deal, American needed a couple parts from it to tighten some seats, they'll return them next week.

    October 8, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  23. Daveo

    call AAA

    October 8, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • tct

      A friend told me I'm a founding member of AAAAA, our motto is "We'll drive you to drink!".

      October 8, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • MOCaseA

      tct – Is that pronounced "eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeh!" and is the CEO Henry Winkler?

      October 10, 2012 at 4:58 am |
  24. t3chsupport

    A successful failure is actually fantastic news. Things fail, it's what machines do. That it was accounted for, and they were able to correct it, speaks very well of the future of private space flight.

    October 8, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • FactChecker

      The only "successful failure" is an intentional failure to test backup systems. On a flight mission a failure is always bad. Even if the backup or redundant systems work, it increases the risk till that system is no longer needed.

      October 8, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • metalr

      I kind of agree with both T3ch and FactC, I've always had the belief that everything manmade will eventually fail, you can do everything you can possible for preventative maintenance, inspections, replacement, but you can't plan for every variable. That being said, the fact the backup system worked as planned/needed, is a testament to good design for a bad situation. On the other hand, I agree with FactC that you shouldn't have to rely on backup systems, if they fail, basically, you're screwed. It's sort of a win/win lose/lose situation. If that doesn't make sense I apologize. Just basically saying, I'm glad the failsaife worked, but shouldn't have to rely on the failsafe.

      October 8, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
      • Agnes Root-Canal

        There will always be failures which is why backup systems are needed.

        October 8, 2012 at 7:58 pm |


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