Rocket Carrying Ashes to Space Crashed to Earth Instead

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. (Image credit: Spaceport America.)

The problemthat prevented a suborbital rocket carrying student experiments and the ashesof 16 people from reaching the edge of space last week has been identified.

The May 2launch of the UP Aerospace SpaceLoft XL from NewMexico?s Spaceport America was the first annual education launch from the site,primarily lofting a suite of multi-sensor experiments designed and built by NewMexico students. The rocket also carried a symbolic portionof the cremated remains of over a dozen individuals ? a memorial serviceprovided by Celestis, Inc. of Houston, Texas.

Thesingle-stage solid propellant-fueled SpaceLoft XLrocket ran into trouble some 10seconds after liftoff, at about 38,000 feet, explained Jerry Larson,President of UP Aerospace, Inc., headquartered in Denver, Colorado. The companywas a participating sponsor of the educational launch.

?The causeof the failure was due to an incorrect flight parameter that was uploaded intothe vehicle on the ground,? Larson told Just prior to engineburnout of the rocket ? then traveling at Mach 5, or five times the speed ofsound ? the vehicle?s payload section unexpectedly separated, he said.

Allpayloads recovered

?It turnsout to be something simple?but with catastrophic results,? Larson explained.The inaccurate flight parameter prematurely set off a payload separationcharge, he said, causing that section of the rocket to tumble through the airto roughly 45,000 feet.

The wildlytwisting payload section caused the attached nose cone to come apart, with aparachute system also tearing loose. That rocket section, purposely designed toenter a flat spin, fell onto the desert landscape at about 110 mph, Larsonsaid, hitting broadside on the ground about four miles from the launch pad. Undera normal parachute landing, the payload is designed to touch down at about 20mph, but its flight processors recording the launch did survive the harder, 110 mph crash.

The boostercontinued to climb to some 82,000 feet, later to be found at roughly 5 milesfrom its launch departure point. The targeted suborbital altitude of the rocket- to theboundary of space - was 70 miles.

Allpayloads of the rocket have been retrieved, along with data flight recordersthat clearly identified the rocket?s problem, Larson said. At fault were groundprocessing procedures in uploading flight parameters and ?obviously that?swhere our focus is going to be in moving forward,? he added.

?It?s amystery at this point as to what went wrong during that process,? Larson noted.

Anomalyresolution board

Larson saidthat a ?red team? is being assembled, likely involving Spaceport America, theFederal Aviation Administration, neighboring White Sands Missile Range and U.S.Air Force expertise.

In puttingtogether an anomaly resolution board, any corrective actions recommended by UPAerospace will be reviewed, Larson said.

Thoseexperts will help shape ?a tried and true process next time so this will neverhappen again,? Larson stated. ?But this will be behind us quickly because wehave the smoking gun?it is obvious what occurred.?

As for theeducational payloads carried onboard the UP Aerospace SpaceLoftXL, Larson said the recovered experiments have been returned to the students.

Regardingthe memorial service of Celestis and its ?MissionParticipants?, the goal of sending those ashes into space was not realized.

Among thosehonored aboard the rocket flight was Ralph White, a distinguished andaward-winning cinematographer. Among his credits, he documented the expeditionthat found the wreckof the RMS Titanic, and in 1987 and 2000, White co-directed the salvageoperation and photography during the recovery of over 5,000 artifacts from Titanic?s debris field.

?Ourcustomers are entitled to a reflight and we lookforward to launching again with UP Aerospace,? said Charles Chafer, ChiefExecutive Officer of Celestis.

?The spacefrontier is a challenging one and our families understand that a great deal ofthe value of our service is the fact that they are assisting in the opening ofthat frontier,? Chafer told

Back toschool

The SpaceLoft XL?s educationalmission was spotlighted by Pat Hynes, Director of the New Mexico Space GrantConsortium and the NASA Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research,or EPSCoR.

The launchculminated a semester-long curriculum which delivered to students appliedlearning, workforce development and education.

?We haveall the payloads back,? Hynes told ?The canisters are in goodshape. The payloads have gone through a rough landing. We have not downloadedany data yet. We believe at least one payload is going to require a good dealto get data from the memory chip as the data management chip is in pieces,? shesaid.

Hynes saidthat the student launch project will continue, as will the partnership withSpaceport America.

?This is along term commitment being made by New Mexico Space Grant Consortium to educatethe workforce. This is the beginning. Many of the education objectives were metbefore we launched,? Hynes said.

While theUP Aerospace rocket didn?t reach its intended altitude, Larson said that heexpected the students to glean valuable data, even more so due to theunexpected glitch.

?There?s alot 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.?

Leonard David has been reporting onthe space industry for more than four decades. He is past editor-in-chief ofthe National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space Worldmagazines and has written for since 1999.


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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.