A small rung on a long ladder to Mars broke on Friday, when a rocket test in Texas ended in a midair ball of fire.
Debris from the SpaceX F9R trundled down from the flames onto an open field outside of McGregor.
The blast was no accident, nor a tragedy. The rocket self-destructed as a safety measure — a common practice in the aerospace industry in unmanned crafts.
A hitch in the F9R test vehicle turned up during launch, and the “flight termination system automatically terminated the mission,” SpaceX said in a statement.
“There were no injuries or near injuries.”
But it was a vivid firework for bystanders parked on a nearby country road — and for their cellphone cameras. CNN affiliate KWTX reported the explosion on Friday and posted video.
The F9R has been successfully tested before, but SpaceX decided to push the limits this time, and it didn’t work out, the company said.
All about the landing
F9R launches don’t rumble the earth with the kind of blastoff thunder that the space shuttles or Saturn rockets once did, and the F9R is small, comprising only one stage.
It’s a sawed-off version of its parent, the Falcon 9, the first rocket from a commercial company to fly to the International Space Station, according to SpaceX.
Nine rocket engines fire up to boost the Falcon 9 into Earth’s orbit. Just three propel the F9R, which has only flown to an altitude of 1,000 meters (3,280 feet). That equals about twice the height of New York’s One World Trade Center — a trivial feat for a rocket.
More exciting is how it comes back down to the ground, because that’s what makes the F9R a stepping stone to a Mars mission. The rocket has landing gear, four legs that stick out like an insect’s. So did its even shorter predecessor, which bore the name Grasshopper.
Up until now, American space rockets have been mostly one-way vehicles.
Their payloads — satellites, for example — tend to stay in space, though rockets transporting astronauts have capsules that come down on parachutes and splash down into the ocean.
But the bulk of the rocket gets tossed into the cosmic incinerator — their stages separating one by one and burning up in the atmosphere as they plummet earthward.
The F9R — all of it in one piece — slowly backs down to the pad it took off from and sets down gingerly on its feet.
Mars, here we come
That makes it reusable, a characteristic useful for a distant-future mission to Mars — if anyone plans to return home from there, that is.
A trip to the Red Planet is the visionary call of the space industry from NASA to Mars One, the latter of which has devised a plan to send a one-way mission there, where astronauts would not return but eventually die.
But SpaceX CEO Elon Musk takes the vision a step further. He foresees the human colonization of Mars and other planets as the next step in human evolution, according to the company’s website.
There is also a less sexy but more immediate advantage to reusable rockets: They save tons of money. SpaceX’s large Falcon 9 rockets cost about $54 million each, the company says.
That’s roughly the price tag of a smaller pre-owned passenger jet in good shape. But a jet flies multiple times. Most rockets usually only fly one time.
Making rockets reusable would cut space flight costs enormously, SpaceX says.
Lose a few
Rocket science is complex even for rocket scientists, and failures in various stages of space missions happen regularly. That includes launches, many that are not experimental.
One need only think of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 that killed all seven astronauts on board when it exploded some 70 seconds into launch.
In mid-May, a Russian satellite launch went sour, when the rocket veered off path, causing an emergency system to cut off propulsion. The rocket had traveled 100 miles high and reportedly burned up in the atmosphere on its way back down.
It was at least the fourth time such a tried-and-true Russian rocket type failed.
As Musk tweeted after F9R’s self-detonation:
“Rockets are tricky …”