Rocket Carrying Ashes to Space Crashed to Earth Instead
UP Aerospace SpaceLoft XL rocket roars off New Mexico Spaceport America launch site in the first annual education launch on May 2, 2009.
CREDIT: Spaceport America.
The problem that prevented a suborbital rocket carrying student experiments and the ashes of 16 people from reaching the edge of space last week has been identified.
The May 2 launch of the UP Aerospace SpaceLoft XL from New Mexico?s Spaceport America was the first annual education launch from the site, primarily lofting a suite of multi-sensor experiments designed and built by New Mexico students. The rocket also carried a symbolic portion of the cremated remains of over a dozen individuals ? a memorial service provided by Celestis, Inc. of Houston, Texas.
The single-stage solid propellant-fueled SpaceLoft XL rocket ran into trouble some 10 seconds after liftoff, at about 38,000 feet, explained Jerry Larson, President of UP Aerospace, Inc., headquartered in Denver, Colorado. The company was a participating sponsor of the educational launch.
?The cause of the failure was due to an incorrect flight parameter that was uploaded into the vehicle on the ground,? Larson told SPACE.com. Just prior to engine burnout of the rocket ? then traveling at Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound ? the vehicle?s payload section unexpectedly separated, he said.
All payloads recovered
?It turns out to be something simple?but with catastrophic results,? Larson explained. The inaccurate flight parameter prematurely set off a payload separation charge, he said, causing that section of the rocket to tumble through the air to roughly 45,000 feet.
The wildly twisting payload section caused the attached nose cone to come apart, with a parachute system also tearing loose. That rocket section, purposely designed to enter a flat spin, fell onto the desert landscape at about 110 mph, Larson said, hitting broadside on the ground about four miles from the launch pad. Under a normal parachute landing, the payload is designed to touch down at about 20 mph, but its flight processors recording the launch did survive the harder, 110 mph crash.
The booster continued to climb to some 82,000 feet, later to be found at roughly 5 miles from its launch departure point. The targeted suborbital altitude of the rocket - to the boundary of space - was 70 miles.
All payloads of the rocket have been retrieved, along with data flight recorders that clearly identified the rocket?s problem, Larson said. At fault were ground processing procedures in uploading flight parameters and ?obviously that?s where our focus is going to be in moving forward,? he added.
?It?s a mystery at this point as to what went wrong during that process,? Larson noted.
Anomaly resolution board
Larson said that a ?red team? is being assembled, likely involving Spaceport America, the Federal Aviation Administration, neighboring White Sands Missile Range and U.S. Air Force expertise.
In putting together an anomaly resolution board, any corrective actions recommended by UP Aerospace will be reviewed, Larson said.
Those experts will help shape ?a tried and true process next time so this will never happen again,? Larson stated. ?But this will be behind us quickly because we have the smoking gun?it is obvious what occurred.?
As for the educational payloads carried onboard the UP Aerospace SpaceLoft XL, Larson said the recovered experiments have been returned to the students.
Regarding the memorial service of Celestis and its ?Mission Participants?, the goal of sending those ashes into space was not realized.
Among those honored aboard the rocket flight was Ralph White, a distinguished and award-winning cinematographer. Among his credits, he documented the expedition that found the wreck of the RMS Titanic, and in 1987 and 2000, White co-directed the salvage operation and photography during the recovery of over 5,000 artifacts from Titanic?s debris field.
?Our customers are entitled to a reflight and we look forward to launching again with UP Aerospace,? said Charles Chafer, Chief Executive Officer of Celestis.
?The space frontier is a challenging one and our families understand that a great deal of the value of our service is the fact that they are assisting in the opening of that frontier,? Chafer told SPACE.com.
Back to school
The SpaceLoft XL?s educational mission was spotlighted by Pat Hynes, Director of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium and the NASA Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR.
The launch culminated a semester-long curriculum which delivered to students applied learning, workforce development and education.
?We have all the payloads back,? Hynes told SPACE.com. ?The canisters are in good shape. The payloads have gone through a rough landing. We have not downloaded any data yet. We believe at least one payload is going to require a good deal to get data from the memory chip as the data management chip is in pieces,? she said.
Hynes said that the student launch project will continue, as will the partnership with Spaceport America.
?This is a long term commitment being made by New Mexico Space Grant Consortium to educate the workforce. This is the beginning. Many of the education objectives were met before we launched,? Hynes said.
While the UP Aerospace rocket didn?t reach its intended altitude, Larson said that he expected the students to glean valuable data, even more so due to the unexpected glitch.
?There?s a lot more learning with an anomaly than with a successful mission,? Larson said. ?I?ll vouch for that as UP Aerospace is going back to school as well on this.?
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Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than four decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.
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