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An earth-shattering kaboom!

August 9, 2012

This is NASA’s Morpheus testbed, designed at Johnson Space Center to test a number of technologies that are intended to be used in moon landings of unmanned cargo craft. When it had been tested in the past it was always tethered. This was the first untethered test.

There are fairly spectacular explosions at 1:56 and 6:21. The vehicle used LOX and liquid methane, which are considered less toxic than other storable propellants that could be used in moon missions.

It looked like the stability system failed almost immediately. It will be interesting to hear what NASA finds out in the investigation.

While this is a setback – I’ve not heard that there is a backup vehicle – this is often how we learn things in developing the technology of space travel. Things don’t always work perfectly the first time. 

That’s why I was relieved, but not necessarily happy, when the SpaceX Dragon mission worked out so well. There was tremendous pressure from the press, most of whom didn’t take any more science courses than absolutely necessary, that the flight had to go perfectly or SpaceX was doomed. Some went as far as to say that if it failed, commercial space flight would be considered a failure.

If you’re reading this, you probably pretty much automatically understand why that’s so much BS. The trouble is, a lot of people – maybe most people – don’t know that. They don’t know about the years of testing and failures involved in developing reliable complex remotely controlled systems.

In many ways we’ve been too good at the spaceflight thing. We have had failures that cost lives, but we haven’t flown nearly the number of flights we should have to validate spacecraft and launch vehicles. The Saturn V was so big, so complex, and so expensive that we couldn’t afford to blow a couple of them up, like the Soviets did with the N-1. (The final N-1 failed launch destroyed most of the pad as well as the vehicle, and they abandoned it – and going to the moon – altogether.) So we tested pieces and validated the hell out of systems and parts. Every single one of those low-bidder-manufactured million parts that went into an Apollo/Saturn V was had a paper trail pretty much back to the ore the metal it was made of came from. The Shuttle had to be man-rated from the very first flight.

So let’s blow up a few of these things if necessary, to learn what we need to know. Then let’s go out there!

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