Why the center booster crashed …


"When SpaceX's Falcon Heavy blasted off last Tuesday (Feb. 6) from NASA's Kennedy Space Center Pad 39A in Florida, the rocket's three first-stage boosters were expected to return to Earth and land much like the company's Falcon 9 rocket stages. The Falcon Heavy's two side boosters landed successfully (and simultaneously) on twin pads at the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but the center core crashed and burned

That core booster, which was expected to land offshore on SpaceX's drone ship "Of Course I Still Love You," crashed when two of three engines did not fire during a final landing burn, Musk told reporters after the launch. The booster missed the landing ship by about 328 feet (100 meters) and hit the water at 300 mph (484 km/h), damaging thrusters on the nearby droneship, Musk has said.

On Monday, we learned a bit more in Musk's Twitter posts. The two engines did not fire because they ran out of ignition fluid, Musk said.

"Not enough ignition fluid to light the outer two engines after several three engine relights," Musk wrote. "Fix is pretty obvious.""  Space.com


 This is interesting in many ways.  The thing ran out of lighter fluid.  What?  Someone did not fill up the tank?  This reminds me of the incident in which a Canada Air mechanic newly transferred from Europe had liters in his head rather than gallons and did not put enough fuel in the tanks.  The airplane ran out of fuel at cruising altitude and the pilots glided it to a landing on an abandoned RCAF airfield.

This booster hit the water near the drone ship.  What is a drone ship?  Does it steam to its destination with no one on board?

I had not known that SpaceX was planning to recover the fairings and apparently other parts of the front end of its rockets.  How would that work?  The recovery ship has long articulated arms.  They would catch the falling fairings? 

And who is this science fiction writer who Musk admirers so much?  pl  


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42 Responses to Why the center booster crashed …

  1. Harry says:

    I love Iain M Banks and i stronly recommend his sci fi. He also wrote fiction under the iain banks. First book was called the Wasp factory. He is Scottish and lived in Scotland.
    Sadly there will be no more Iain M Banks novels. He died a couple of years ago.

  2. John Minnerath says:

    When I was young I read a lot of science fiction, I’m sure I probably read some by Lain Banks, but just don’t recall them.
    I’m sure the offshore landing barge is towed into position by tugs and then it maintains itself with thruster engines just like many modern deep water offshore drilling platforms do.
    The center booster just running out of gas on the return could have happened. This was a first launch of a new rocket, I imagine the calculations for the exact amount of fuel needed for each booster are pretty complex. Not likely a miscalculation to be made again.
    I knew they were going to try and recover other parts, but there wasn’t a lot of information available. I figured they just most likely used parachutes and probably locator beacons.

  3. JohnsonR says:

    Iain M. Banks wrote a whole series of quite long science fiction stories in which one of the main features was vast spaceships (the size of huge factory complexes or very large cities, iirc) piloted and fully controlled by AI brains, which gave themselves names and often chose lengthy comedic, darkly satirical or whimsical ones like the ones quoted.
    Iirc (and it’s three decades since I read it, since I read them as they came out) the first book Consider Phlebas is set in the context of a kind of long war between his main heroes “the Culture” (who built the aforementioned ships and were liberal US west coasters writ large, pretty much) and a species of militarist and religious fanatic/conservative bad guys (the goodies won, of course).
    It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that the books would appeal to someone like Musk, for obvious reasons – it’s liberal techies uber alles.
    He kept writing Culture books pretty much until he died about 5 years ago. I read and enjoyed the first half dozen or so before I got bored with them, and he wrote some other decent stuff as well, science fiction and literary (the latter mostly pretty dodgy afaic, iirc).
    Hope that helps. Obviously my opinions only, ymmv if you were to read them yourself.

  4. JamesT says:

    Iain M. Banks is the most literary science fiction writer I have ever read, and the only science fiction writer who I considered worth my time in my adulthood. He has passed unfortunately. He was Scottish and something of a socialist.

  5. Arei says:

    “And who is this science fiction writer who Musk admirers so much?”
    I would guess Iain Banks given the name of the drone ship

  6. Apenultimate says:

    The Falcon Heavy was launching into a higher orbit than usual for a Falcon 9. The Falcon 9 first stages actually land with very little fuel left, believe it or not. You might have noticed the center core fired for longer than the side cores, so I can see where that might have resulted in less fuel available than expected (this was the first test flight, after all).
    A drone ship is an unmanned ship. It goes out by itself, and comes back by itself, without anyone onboard.
    Not sure how the fairing recovery works. This is fairly new.
    At least, that’s all my understanding.

  7. Apenultimate says:

    Although, now reading his twitter post, I’m not sure why the reflights of the engines would matter!

  8. Russell says:

    Hello Pat,
    The author in question, Ian M Banks, can be recognized by the unusual names Musk gives to his vehicles: “A Shortfall of Gravitas”, “Of Course I Still Love You” etc. Banks used names like this all the time. His “culture” series of novels depict galaxy-spanning civilizations, sometimes in conflict, sometimes in alliances, marked by extreme technological accomplishment. This is probably why Musk refers to this author.

  9. Ian M. Banks. I’ve heard the name, but I don’t think I’ve ever read any of his stuff. Scottish author according to Wikipedia. Best known for his “Culture” series of novels. According to Wikipedia, those involve anarcho-communist themes of a future civilization.
    In other words, you wouldn’t like him. 🙂

  10. Fellow Traveler says:

    Given the core is bigger and reaches higher velocities, I gather there are more relights in the return phase. There’s probably not a lot of experimental research on rocket relights in hypersonic regimes while maneuvering in the meso/stratosphere, so learn by practice.
    The obvious solution would be to put a parafoil on the fairings and fly one into a net supported by those arms. Or have the fairing land in water and crane it onto those arms. But given Elon’s preference towards sophistication, it will probably be more elegant.

  11. Tyler says:

    Sadly enough, not Jack Hanson.

  12. Donald says:

    I am a big fan of Banks, the (deceased) SF writer without agreeing with all of his views. He wrote a lot of novels about a galactic civilization called “the Culture”, which is run by benevolent superintelligent machines. Or in practice it is, though everyone, humans, machines of human intelligence (called drones in the novels) and superintelligent variety all have the vote. However, you get the distinct impression that the machines do this mainly to keep us happy, treating us like loveable dimwitted relations. I like it for the sick humor, of which there is a great amount. I wouldn’t actually want our future to be the Culture. Anyway, it is a secular liberal utopia (Banks hates religion and I find him tiresome on that subject), superadvanced technology so you can change gender or even species if you want, and download your personality so that some version of you never dies if you choose, but most people choose to die after a few centuries. Most people also live basically hedonistic lives, which would make for boring novels, but the stories are mostly about how the equivalent of the CIA (called Special Circumstances) intervenes in the affairs of other civilizations with the best of intentions. Things often go awry. The names of the ships are the names of the superintelligent machines that mostly embody themselves inside gigantic starships. They choose humorous names for themselves, especially the warships. Apparently Musk finds that as funny as most of Bank’s fans.
    Banks liked his utopia, but was smart enough to see the arrogance of it and the shallowness of much of the society. They intervene to save other civilizations from cruelty, to give their own lives meaning, but they sometimes screw up badly. I choose to take some of the novels as a criticism of liberal interventionism, because if even machines with IQ’s millions of times higher than ours can’t always get it right, what chance will we have?

  13. SAC Brat says:

    Air Canada’s Gimli Glider
    “The aircraft’s fuel gauges were inoperative because of an electronic fault indicated on the instrument panel and airplane logs” A chain of errors.
    This also occurred at a time when airlines had a more lax environment for deferring inoperative systems. Some airplanes would operate for years with chronic faults. The fuel quantity systems on these planes were not very reliable and replacement systems became available in the 1990s for retrofit.
    Sounds like Musk needs to hire some engineers with hairy ears.

  14. Patrick H says:

    Col. Lang,
    Iain Banks died five years ago. He was a Scottish writer who published two different kinds of fiction under two slightly different names. I haven’t read his “literary” novels. But the sci-fi, if you have any taste for the genre, is well worth a look.
    The `Culture’ novels that Musk’s referring to (and I can see why he’d like them) are set in the deep future. They’re not really a series. I don’t recall many recurring characters. From memory, I’d recommend `The Player of Games’ or `Use of Weapons’. Some of the others are over-long and ramble a bit.

  15. philmc says:

    I read a lot of spaceX stuff and its only speculation that the center core may have needed to be re-lit more times than expected, without saying why. I think a key to their success has been the ability to model the flights on computer before ever conducting a launch(compared to the Saturn V testing). It seems that this re-light issue was not completely unexpected. I think even the SR-71 had a finite number of re-lights but I cant immediately recall a loss due to not enough TEB
    The drone ships are basically landing pads that are towed to a position in the ocean and left there for the rocket to land on. They have stabilizing jets to keep it flat and in position. They are highly instrumented and have camera’s that film the landings. The ultra-fans have noticed a device on the decks of the drone ships nicknamed the ROMBA which is believed to be designed to track itself out to the landed core and secure it so wave action does not topple it over, before humans can re-board the drone ship.
    Fairing recovery is attempted via parachute and tracking equipment. Think of how the film from the CORONA satellites was recovered, but use a helicopter VS a C level cargo AC.
    I think the ship is less of a catch on decent, but more a how do we get them from the sea back to shore design.
    I am not a sci-fi fan but the authors are listed on this.
    Hope this helps.

  16. kao_hsien_chih says:

    Colonel Lang,
    I have some serious trouble trusting people like Elon Musk wholly: too much visionarying and not enough precautions. He is quick to excuse himself when things go awry and dismiss difficulties. In a way, a high tech version of utopian democracy mongers. Makes for good PR, but lousy planning for actual events if his public face is the reality of how things get done. He might hit it big doing something completely out of blue, or he might flop big and take a lot of other people with him. I sure hope he has far more careful people double checking his stuff behind the scenes than he lets on publicly.

  17. JamesT says:

    A list of spaceship names in Ian M Banks’ culture series (which Musk is clearly emulating) is here:

  18. Fred says:

    Turning off the bold
    Safety margin? What’s that. Was the fuel margin on mass for the launch that tight? Does he have a submersible to pick up his equipment off the sea floor when one eventually sinks?

  19. Jack L says:

    I don’t read science fiction and had to read up on Iain Banks. this from his Wikipedia page:

    An extract from Banks’s contribution to the written collection Generation Palestine: Voices from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, entitled “Our People”, was published in The Guardian in the wake of the author’s cancer revelation. The extract relays the author’s support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign that was issued by a Palestinian civil society against Israel until the country complies with what they hold are international law and Palestinian rights, that commenced in 2005 and applies the lessons from Banks’s experience with South Africa’s apartheid era. The continuation of Banks’s boycott of Israeli publishers for the sale of the rights to his novels was also confirmed in the extract and Banks further explained, “I don’t buy Israeli-sourced products or food, and my partner and I try to support Palestinian-sourced products wherever possible.”[36]

  20. Mike C says:

    – attempt to close bold –
    The lighter fluid for the Merlin engines is the same stuff used to light the Saturn V’s F-1, triethylborane (TEB) and triethylaluminum. TEB is also what the SR-71 used to start and restart its engines.
    Back on Jan 31 SpaceX launched the GovSat-1 comsat for Luxembourg on a Falcon 9. The plan was to dispose of the booster in the ocean, but they threw in a test of the three engine high-retrothrust landing intended for the center core. The result was the booster survived intact and floating. SpaceX apparently had no plans or procedures to safely recover it, so the USAF got some target practice.

  21. ked says:

    “welcome to the club, Elon…”
    There’s a tradition of human errors, accidents & oversights causing catastrophic failures. NOAA-19 Weather satellite dropped onto the floor before loading for launch, Helios crashing into the ocean due to bad launch weather conditions (reminds one of the Challenger launch criteria over-ride), the Mars Climate Orbiter’s metric / Imperial conversion, Ariane 5… a floating-point conversion SW programming error.
    There’s little or no excuse for failures due to errors that can be revealed through test & simulation… like calculating the amount of fuel (or igniter, or pyro charges)… it’s just math. Damn humans… & contractors. Musk can always blame the guy driving his Tesla.

  22. Apenultimate says:

    Two articles on SpaceX from ArsTechnica today. The first comparing the costs of various heavy rockets (of course, the Falcon Heavy comes out way ahead):
    The second on the Falcon 9 launch this upcoming Saturday that should place two (experimental) “Starlink” satellites, which is SpaceX’s plan for a satellite-based internet service with latency comparable to cable or fiber:
    Sorry if anyone here dislikes ArsTechnica strongly (they are part of Conde Nast), but I find their articles the most detailed and informative.

  23. Apenultimate says:

    For SpaceX at least, Musk has Gwynne Shotwell running the show:
    From what I hear, she’s probably one of the most effective COOs out there (she’s also President of the company).

  24. philmc says:

    USAF denied being given the chance at the target practice.
    SpaceX said they hired some company to blow it up.

  25. DH says:

    They read like race horse names.

  26. Mike C says:

    Thanks, hadn’t looked at that since the initial report. Trust but verify, etc. etc. (trying to nuke the bold again)

  27. b says:

    When will Musk explain why his advertisement car display did not fly to Mars but ten-thousands of miles off to nowhere?
    That is WAY more important for further plans than the miss-landing of a rocket part.

  28. outthere says:

    You asked about autonomous drone ship/barge.
    Here is an article from NASA from 2015 about that.
    My best friend old college buddy Capt Latham provided barge for catching SpaceX off Florida, at times it was very exciting.

  29. outthere says:

    Pardon me, Capt Latham was captain/owner of the tugs pictured in article (they towed the barge), the barge itself belongs to Musk.

  30. outthere says:

    My comment has disappeared, so I will repost.
    You asked about the barges used by SpaceX.
    Here is a NASA article about them from 2015.
    My college roomate/buddy Capt. Latham was/is Captain of the tugs which handle the SpaceX barge. A couple of his tugs are pictured in the NASA article, at his marina in Florida. He designed/built/ owns the tugs himself, taught himself how weld, etc. One of the most original minds on planet earth. Last year he towed the Constellation from Seattle to Texas for demolition. It was of course too big for Panama Canal.

  31. Apenultimate says:

    It wasn’t supposed to go to the planet. Scientists would have condemned that as a huge potential source of contamination of the planet, which has the potential to harbor microbial life underground. This has been explained in at least a few places.
    The only object of the Tesla portion of the mission was to prove the Falcon Heavy could propel something to the distance of Mars orbit. This it did successfully.

  32. sillybill says:

    This test was merely to prove that the Heavy could boost a significant payload to the orbit of Mars – not to orbit Mars.
    The orbital path itself is a ‘Hohmann transfer orbit’ which is the most economical path, and pretty dang slow. If they wanted to actually get to Mars they also would have had to time the launch properly – Earth and Mars are in the proper positions for this type of launch only once every 26 months. Obviously, they can’t wait around that long just to test the rockets. When they get the bugs out of the systems, then they will get everyone and everything in one spot for a launch to Mars. If there are problems with that attempt they would actually have to wait around another 2 years for another launch window. Getting there faster, and on a better schedule would require lots more fuel or vastly more efficient rockets.
    The Culture starships would of course just dip into hyperspace and be there in a flash.

  33. Lars says:

    When the drone barge is in Port Canaveral, there is a support ship tied up next to it and I suspect it tows the barge to the landing zone and then pulls away to a safe distance.
    I still think being able to reuse rockets is a big game changer. It was very exciting to watch the first one land at the Cape. It came down so fast that I thought it would crash, but it didn’t.

  34. paul says:

    i find it far more concerning that it was caused by an oversight, or what one might call negligence than because of some technical fault or failure.

  35. Sans Racines says:

    The only Iain Banks novel I read was The Bridge when it came out – the thing that stuck in my mind to this day was the thought of the Barbarian rampaging around Greek mythology and doing away with Charon – who would have thought of that?

  36. Apenultimate says:

    You mean the center booster running out of fuel? These things are difficult to test for until you actually get real situational data, and this was the first real time they could get that.
    I wouldn’t call that negligence. This was advertised as a test flight. That’s what test flights are for. With the data SpaceX gained here, I’m sure there is a much higher chance of them getting things right for the center core the next time around.
    And at any rate, the only entity affected by the failure was SpaceX. If this would have happened with a customer flying something on the rocket, they would have been very happy with the results. Whereas all other rockets nowadays do essentially what the center core did (fall to the Earth destroyed), it’s a bit interesting to see people use words like “concerning” and “negligence” and other derogatory language towards SpaceX when little things go wrong.
    Unless I’ve misunderstood what you’re referring to, in which case, pay no attention to me!

  37. r whitman says:

    Slightly off subject: For a good science fiction read I suggest “Saturn Run” by John Sanford(of Prey series detective novels fame) and Ctein(photographic artist and rocket scientist).

  38. Amir says:

    Another source of inspiration, might just be the following:
    Check the section past 10’10” for a minute and thereafter one more minute past 6 min mark.
    Caveat conflict of interest: my brother-in-law works for his not-really-competition, Orbital.

  39. DH says:

    I recently discovered the Revelation Space universe where they have sleeper technology down pat. Talk about your space opera, Reynolds can surely write.

  40. JW says:

    Also the introduction of digital systems eliminated analogs along with the often bizarre defects that went with them. I suggest that, unfortunately, digital aircraft design has gone too far in some areas.

  41. philmc says:

    I appears that SpaceX is going to try and attempt to catch the payload fairing.
    They have never provided any detail about other recovery attempts, other than if the fairing(s) were recovered or not: but never ever how.
    Launch is scheduled from Vandenberg at 6:17AM and it should provide a good show as the exhaust trail is illuminated by the sun against the dark morning sky.

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