Spaceflight’s not easy: Space X loses “Scotty” (and a rocket)

Until recently, spaceflight has been the preserve of nations. The USA and USSR battled away in the space race of the 1950s and 1960s, and China recently jumped into the expensive game by sending people into orbit. But thanks to the Ansari X Prize, private rocketeers have been working hard to end the state monopoly on spaceflight. Unfortunately, it's not all smooth launching, as Space X discovered with the loss of its Falcon 1 rocket yesterday. HangZhou Night Net

Falcon 1 DemoFlight 2 prior to liftoff.
The March 20, 2007 test flight reached
an altitude
of approximately 290 km.

The dawn of the last century saw industrial magnates like Carnegie and Rockefeller use their amassed wealth to fund causes they felt worthwhile; the modern equivalent would have to be the dotcom moguls, and standout among them might be Elon Musk, founder of PayPal.

Musk is involved with a number of efforts to break paradigms, many of which are now being done for profit along with the good of mankind. One venture is the Tesla Roadster, an electric-powered sports car derived from the Lotus Elise, and another is Space X, a company that aims to "reduce the cost and increase the reliability of space access by a factor of ten."

Unfortunately for Space X, the loss of another rocket was the third unsuccessful attempt with the Falcon 1, a liquid fueled (oxygen and kerosene) two-stage launch vehicle that will form the basis of its model line up.

Space X hasn't just lost a rocket, though. The flight was carrying a trio of small satellites belonging to NASA and the DoD. Perhaps less seriously, but probably more newsworthy, the ashes of over 200 people were also on board, including a pair of rather well known astronauts, one actual, one fictional. They were Gordon Cooper, one of the original Mercury 7, and "Scotty" himself, James Doohan.

Falcon 1 flight 3 was lost during the attempted separation of the second stage. The previous attempts were stymied by a fuel leak (flight 1) and a loss of control following second stage separation (flight 2).

In a statement to employees, Musk said that he would never give up and noted that the company has significant resources behind it. "As a precautionary measure to guard against the possibility of flight 3 not reaching orbit, SpaceX recently accepted a significant investment," he wrote. "Combined with our existing cash reserves, that ensures we will have more than sufficient funding on hand to continue launching Falcon 1 and develop Falcon 9 and Dragon. There should be absolutely zero question that SpaceX will prevail in reaching orbit and demonstrating reliable space transport. For my part, I will never give up and I mean never."

Virgin Galactic

Developing a private orbital delivery system for unmanned payloads is one thing, but building a machine that takes people into space without the backing of a government is another. For a very large fee, you can go into space with the Russians, but the multimillion dollar ticket excludes pretty much everyone save the aforementioned dotcom billionaires. Richard Branson, the bearded hypemachine from the UK, is attempting to capitalize on this gap in the market with Virgin Galactic.

That company recently revealed the mother vehicle (White Knight Two) for its two-stage system, which builds on the lessons learned from SpaceShip One, winner of the Ansari X Prize. White Knight Two will carry the second stage, SpaceShip Two, which will actually take the passengers into space.

A ride on SpaceShip Two will cost around $200,000 (as of now) and over 200 people have signed up. One hopes they have a better trip than Scotty and pals.