SpaceX launch aborted; next attempt Tuesday

By Phil Plait | May 19, 2012 11:20 am

The launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 this morning was aborted at literally the last second — the sensors detected too high a pressure in a combustion chamber in one of the engines. Apparently this didn’t put the rocket in any danger, but it was outside the limits for an allowable launch so the computer shut things down.

[UPDATE: SpaceX is reporting a faulty valve caused the issue, and it’s being replaced. They should be ready for the Tuesday launch window.]

Here’s video of the last few seconds of the countdown.

Ouch. My thoughts on this are pretty clear: it’s a bummer, but then again that’s all it is. Not a disaster, not a failure, just a setback. These are complicated, complex machines, and delays are inevitable.

The good news is there’s a backup launch date of Tuesday, May 22, at 07:44 UTC (03:44 Eastern US time), and another the next day, May 23, at 07:22 UTC. Hopefully, this glitch can be fixed and the rocket launched on one of those dates.

Related Posts:

Space X set to launch on Saturday May 19
Elon Musk of SpaceX on CBS’s 60 Minutes
SpaceX to launch Dragon capsule December 7


Comments (31)

  1. 4am Phone alarm go’s off,20 minutes later I’m in my front yard, T31 HD camera on 8″ 2000mm f10 telescope,G10 on a tri-pod an on the lap-top live ,It’s 4:55 am Est an still dark out, i have no clouds an watching the count down getting ready to track it, I check the cam,ready the scope,find the rough area when i can see it start to rize.I’m in Orlando,FL,60 miles away. The Count Down’s says 3..2..1…Pause…., Wow!!!, a t-mius Zero shut-down…,Dang it, bring everything back in an try again in 72 hours…Gotta love the drama of rocket launching…8^)

  2. Chris

    Better to abort than explode!

  3. Wzrd1

    Rockets are the simplest things in the world to make. First, you make a bomb. Make that bomb only go off in a controlled, steady manner. Make that bomb not blow up.
    Now, controlled flight and orbital insertion, THAT gets a bit complicated.
    Hmm, come to think of it, all of it is a study in how many things can go really, really, really expensively wrong.
    Or more simply, if anything goes mildly wrong, it can go horribly wrong in an instant and ruin millions of dollars of payload, loss of the entire system and ground damage as well.
    EVERY space agency on the planet has had their failures and catastrophic failures as well.
    This one failed to go catastrophic, due to good planning in launch abort systems.
    So, after a sensor is replaced, a valve is replaced or some other component is replaced, this rocket will soar skyward and NOT act like a bomb.

    And yes, I’m serious about that bomb bit, because, when a high powered rocket malfunctions, it quite often behaves like a really expensive bomb. Get a stress point wrong or fail to restrain fuel handling systems, something breaks loose and fuel burns where it shouldn’t and things get expensive very quickly.

  4. As disappointing as it was to get up early and not see a launch, I was very impressed with how quickly computer shut everything down when it noticed the situation, and how quickly & calmly the ground crew safed the rocket. There was a ton of expertise and professionalism on display, and I’m hoping the SpaceX team has a perfect launch Tuesday to make up for what must have been a huge bummer to them.

  5. chief

    re 3.

    So the Soviet Union discovered when they ramped up for their own moon program. Unfortunately they chose to use multiple smaller rocket engines (re boosters) instead of the NASA’s planned 5 on the Saturn 5. The resulting oscillations from unbalanced rocket loads ultimately shook the mother craft apart and gave us a nice example of a uncontrolled detonation, ie bomb.

    The control of the rockets direction via steerable engines or fins etc, was a early engineering problem and was mostly solved but controlling the mixing of the fuel and oxidizer was the most complex and time consuming part of designing the rockets.

  6. Dragonchild

    @2 . Chris –
    “Better to abort than explode!”

    In other news, “Prometheus” will be in theatres soon. . .

  7. the system functioned as specified. It’ll work.

  8. Slept through the abort. Didn’t miss out on my beauty sleep, but I’m still pug ugly! Rats.
    Any of you BAblogees know the expected ground track of next week’s launch? I’ve seen a shuttle launch from Charlottesville before, but it was a night launch with a groung track that led right up the East coast…

  9. MaDeR

    Judging from news, this was real issue (fortunately easily fixed on spot, so they probably can try again at 22 May), not some overly conservative setting like launch attempt of previous F9.
    This fully gives understanding to saying “better abort than failure”.

  10. MadScientist

    Hmmm … I have great doubts that they’ll make the launch dates. The launch pad isn’t a good place to go inspecting the engines and checking the sensors. It could simply be some dud pressure sensors, but it might be more than that. Back to the integration bay for disassembly is my guess.

  11. ElmarM

    They can actually roll the rocket back into the hanger, replace an engine and then roll it out again just in time for Tuesday…
    It is also worth noting that the mission would have still been completed successfully with an engine out at any point of the launch. This would have not resulted in a failed mission.
    Also people have to understand that this is a test launch. Nowadays the meaning of the word “test” does seem to exclude the possibility of “failure” in peoples minds. If they fail, SpaceX will simply try again. It wont cost the taxpayer anything either, since they get paid on a milestone basis. That is the difference between “new space” like SpaceX and old space like the SLS will be (if it ever happens). Old space means that companies get paid on a cost plus basis. They continue to get paid with slipped schedules and missed milestones…. until the project is years behind schedule and billions over budget (many will deliberately underestimate the true cost just to get the project funded). Then it gets cancelled. But that is OK. The old space company still made billions until that point and will probably get contracted again for the follow on project. That was the case with any launcher and manned space craft project that NASA has built since Apollo, including the shuttle.

  12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Bummer! They can’t get off the launch pad with engines out, as opposed to later when they can have one or two engines out. Apparently the central engine trended to high pressure, which probably means too little fuel was delivered.

    @ Wzrd1:

    Jet engines and rocket engines are, generally, continuous combustion engines, not intermittent explosive combustions.

    If you want bombs, go to cars. Your car is exploding away at a rate of ~ 1000 combustions/second (or ~ 3-5000 revs in a 4-stroke engine). But you don’t hear people complain about cars as bombs.

    In fact cars, as rockets, mostly catch fire if there is a problem. Don’t mistake the abort option of an intentionally triggered high altitude explosion as a propensity for explosive failures.

    @ chief:

    The V2 engine in fact consisted of some ~ 40 small engines into one outlet. Again, no one complained about imbalances.

    The N-1 problems were manifold, none of the 4 failures were alike:

    “N1 3L – first launch attempt, engine fire, exploded at 12 km
    N1 4L – never launched, parts used for other launchers
    N1 5L – partially painted gray; early launch failure destroyed pad
    N1 6L – launched from the second pad 110, deficient roll control, destroyed at 1 km
    N1 7L – all white, last launch attempt; pogo failure, cutoff at 40 km” [Wikipedia]

    Pogo failures haunted Saturn V especially, which had a lot less engines.

    @ MadScientist:

    SpaceX claimed at the post-launch attempt press briefing that even if they would have to replace an engine they could keep the next 22/5 launch attempt. They have a full set of engines with the next, assembled and engine tested, Falcon 9 waiting nearby.

  13. Crudely Wrott

    It was a big disappointment but after catching a couple hours of sleep I learned that the SpaceX crew can swap out a new engine over the week end and be ready to go for the next window.


    Learning that compensated nicely for the disappointment.

    I can’t remember NASA ever having that capability. Another good reason to hand routine launches over to private industries. They’re just so . . . so . . . darned industrious!

  14. Renee Marie Jones

    I remember when a very similar thing happened to one of our manned flights, but I cannot remember if it was a Gemini or Apollo launch. The engines started, followed almost immediately by a shutdown. I think it was something simple, like a switch. I wish I remembered more.

  15. This was disappointing, but not as disappointing as seeing how CNN billed it. Their headline read “SpaceX rocket launch fizzles on pad.” I feel that is a gross misrepresentation of what occurred.

  16. chief

    re #15

    I cringed at the cnn headline myself. Talk about not caring to get the correct information out. Glad there is a strong following here and other important websites.

    btw. how much will Space X take to put my business logo on the side of the rocket.

  17. Tedd


    Gemini 6A was the launch you are thinking of.

    See Wikipedia for a great article. The same T-0 launch abort excitement!

  18. Messier Tidy Upper

    @14. Renee Marie Jones :

    I remember when a very similar thing happened to one of our manned flights, but I cannot remember if it was a Gemini or Apollo launch. The engines started, followed almost immediately by a shutdown. I think it was something simple, like a switch. I wish I remembered more.

    The one you might well be thinking of there, RMJ, is the Apollo 13 launch which had one engine shut down in flight and still made Low Earth orbit comfortably enough. It’s in the movie.

    Apollo 12 was struck by lightning seconds after launch and also still managed an even more successful flight.

    The early US space program pre- first manned flight had a lot of failed or aborted launches – one that aborted and was dubbed “Flopnik” or “Kaputnik” where the main rocket failed to ignite or was shut down but the escape tower was fired carrying the capsule off for a very short flight and embarrrassing nearby landing. Another early launch lifted off okay but then veered off course and had to be destroyed. (A scene from the movie ‘The Right Stuff’* features a watching astronaut – Alan Shepherd? – say “We-yell, I’m glad we got that one out of the way.”)

    As (#12.) Torbjörn Larsson, OM has observed, the Saturn V had a lot of “teething troubles” with “pogo-ing” and , if memory serves although they fixed that problem they still don’t really understand how or why, they just altered something and it worked.

    The Space Shuttles weren’t immune either – as I mentioned in the last thread on this, I was watching the very first launch attempt of Columbia as a young kid and that ended in an abort due to a computer glitch. That was far from the only such occassion too.

    So whilst this SpaceX abort is disappointing it’s far from unprecedented and, yeah, this sort of anti-climax has long been a risk and part of, well, rocket science.


    * Based on the non-fiction novel by Tom Wolfe. I’d heartily recommend both the book and the movie as classics. :-)

  19. Nick M

    Not a setback at all. A crucial piece of safety equipment (as well as the launch team) performed perfectly when a situation arose that *could* have been dangerous. A solid margin of error has been tested successfully. In the grand scheme of thing, this just makes things more viable when we get to putting *people* up there in private rockets.

  20. Messier Tidy Upper

    Thinking of the Apollo 13 engine loss issue – I wonder if the Falcon 9 had lost one engine , would it still have been capable fo making it to LEO and /or the ISS?

  21. Messier Tidy Upper

    See :

    For the sequence of rocket failures as shown in ‘The Right Stuff’ movie.

    Plus this :

    for some early rocket failures captured on film.

    Oh & apparently according to this :

    China actually has the worst rocket launch record although they’ve taken pains to keep it quiet.

    (Been looking for the engine failure post-launch for Apollo 13 on youtube but haven’t found the, er, right clip there.)

  22. Ferris Valyn

    Actually, the mission that had the abort on Pad was Gemini 6A (the 6A came from a change related to their docking target change).

    From Wikipedia

    The first attempt to launch the 6A mission (second attempt for Gemini spacecraft No. 6) was on December 12, 1965 at 9:54 a.m. EST.[3] All went well right up to ignition—in fact the engines did ignite, but then a plug fell out of the bottom of the rocket, starting the onboard computer. This was not meant to happen until the rocket had actually lifted off, and the onboard computer detected that there was no upwards motion, causing it to abort the launch.

    Anyway, that is the mission in question

  23. Renee Marie Jones

    Gemini 6A! That was the one. Back then my whole family was glued to the television for every launch. That one was scary … the engines actually started, but then shutdown before liftoff. Wally Schirra was on that one. He was one of my real heros. We were so glad the astronauts were ok.

    Thanks Tedd and Ferris!

  24. Nic

    I find the current US approach to manned spaceflight (from congress I suppose) bizarre.
    As a Brit my own government abandoned manned spaceflight or even the idea of it in I dunno 1970 or something? So I was 4.

    But what I find SO weird right now is funding for COTS etc is getting cut, cut all the time. Ooh maybe only one commercial vehicle now.. etc. The funding is now way less (half? a third?) of a single shuttle launch.

    Re the CNN coverage (IMForeman@15) my guess (as a Brit – I don’t know) is given enough congressional pork for the status quo as was, SpaceX or anyone else could land a battleship on Mars for 10 cents and get criticized anyway by any news corporation you can name.

    Sorry heavy cold, cynical mood..

  25. Das Boese

    20. Messier Tidy Upper Says:
    May 19th, 2012 at 11:35 pm

    Thinking of the Apollo 13 engine loss issue – I wonder if the Falcon 9 had lost one engine , would it still have been capable fo making it to LEO and /or the ISS?

    According to SpaceX, Falcon 9 can complete its mission with an engine failure “at any point during the launch”. I think I’ve read somewhere that (above a certain altitude) they can even make it with 2 engines out, because if one of the outer engines fails they also shut down the opposite one to maintain symmetrical thrust.

    People often criticize Falcon 9’s nine-engine design as overly complicated, but redundancy does have its perks. Not to mention enormous cost savings achieved through commonality with the upper stage and Falcon 1.

  26. @ ^ Das Boese : Cheers for that. :-)

    As for those who think the Falcon 9‘s nine engines make it overly complicated, wonder what they reckon of the Russian manned moon shot design which had something like 30! 😉

    PS. Yep – The Soviet N1 rocket design had :

    “30 NK-15 engines arranged in two rings, the main ring of 24 at the outer edge of the booster, the inner of 6 at about half diameter.”

    Source : Wikipedia as of now. (Click my name here for the relevant wiki-link.)

  27. Das Boese

    26. Messier Tidy Upper Says:

    As for those who think the Falcon 9‘s nine engines make it overly complicated wonder what they reckon of the Russian manned moon shot design which had something like 30! 😉

    Well, Falcon Heavy is going to be 3 Falcon 9 cores strapped together for a total of 27 engines which isn’t far behind 😀

    Seriouly, N1 (the failed soviet moon rocket) is frequently brought up by critics of Falcon 9 and Heavy as an example that a large number of engines spells D-O-O-M.
    Needless to say, from an engineering standpoint this is complete nonsense.

    Today’s aerospace engineers have incredibly powerful design tools like finite element analysis and CFD at hand, things that people (especially in the Soviet Union) could only dream off back then, and of course control hardware and -software is similarly orders of magnitude more advanced today.

  28. Satan Claws

    Ignitio interruptus…

  29. puppygod

    And it flew like a dream.

    Can’t wait for docking to ISS. Good luck Dragon.

  30. Satan Claws

    May 22nd, 2012: IT’S AWAY!

  31. BigBob

    Smoooth! Without delays I could make it to work, boot up the antique PC and catch NASA TV in time for the launch. Worked like a dream. This is SO exciting.


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