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Jason Davis headshot v.3

SpaceX's first paid cargo run off to bumpy start

Posted by Jason Davis

08-10-2012 23:03 CDT

Topics: mission status, amateur image processing, International Space Station, commercial spaceflight

SpaceX successfully sent their first paid Dragon capsule towards the International Space Station Sunday night. But the bigger story happened on the way to orbit.

According to SpaceX, engine number one on the Falcon 9 lost pressure and shut down approximately one minute, 19 seconds into the flight. Long-range tracking cameras showed an orange flash blow outward from the engine, followed by several pieces of debris flying off the vehicle. SpaceX says the engine did not explode, and the materials falling away from the rocket were panels designed to relieve pressure inside the engine bay.

I grabbed eight frames from the launch video showing the failure, adjusted them to bring out more detail and created an animation:

Falcon 9 loses an engine

SpaceX / animation by Jason Davis

Falcon 9 loses an engine
In this animation from SpaceX's CRS-1 flight, the top-right engine (number one) is engulfed in an orange flash, just before several pieces of debris fall from the Falcon 9.

It certainly looks harrowing, but the Falcon 9 is designed to withstand an engine failure and still be able to place Dragon into its intended orbit by simply increasing engine burn times. That’s exactly what happened here.

However, after releasing Dragon, the second stage was supposed to execute a second burn before deploying a satellite payload for Orbcomm, another paying customer. NASA safety rules say that if an engine dies on the way to space, an additional burn is not allowed. Therefore, Orbcomm's satellite was deposited into an orbit much lower than intended.

Orbcomm is currently trying to see what they can do to raise their satellite's orbit (link goes to PDF). In the meantime, SpaceX is likely trying to figure out what caused the pressure drop in engine one. Dragon is still on course for its Wednesday arrival at the International Space Station.

CRS-1 takes flight


CRS-1 takes flight
SpaceX's Falcon 9 and Dragon liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral to begin the private spaceflight company's first paid cargo run to the International Space Station.
See other posts from October 2012


Or read more blog entries about: mission status, amateur image processing, International Space Station, commercial spaceflight


Steve: 10/09/2012 10:22 CDT

What's the rationale for the rule that doesn't allow a second burn if an engine burns out?

Gordan: 10/09/2012 11:28 CDT

In this particular case, the rationale was adequate propellant margin to ensure no upper stage underburn that would leave Orbcomm and the stage in an orbit close to ISS. If this was any other parking orbit, the stage would have restarted and at least raised the apogee to some higher altitude, if not actually hitting the target apogee (I'm guessing the propellant quantity had to include some amount of additional margin beyond actual burn delta-V requirement). Sources say the propellant condition was *almost*, but not quite satisfied. There was less leftover propellant because of additional 1st stage gravity losses that needed to be compensated for by the 2nd stage. The 2nd stage had to burn for something like 15 seconds longer than planned to compensate. This obviously ate away the propellant reserved for Orbcomm.

Gordan: 10/09/2012 11:38 CDT

The propellant quantity check was automatically performed by the upper stage, it was one of the health checks by the flight software to determine if the stage restart would be allowed. That software logic was driven by NASA safety considerations for the ISS, but it's not related to engine out conditions as they don't play into this by themselves.

Jason: 10/09/2012 12:19 CDT

Hi Gordan, thank you for clarifying. Do you have any technical documentation regarding the safety gates and requirements? I'd love to correct with some sourced info. You can email me at

Gordan: 10/09/2012 12:40 CDT

Jason, I don't have any technical documentation to back that up, the information about the "safety gate" and what it entailed at the F9 2nd stage level I got from Chris Bergin of and which he ultimately worked into his article as well. I consider it to be reliable information. It also makes more sense from the NASA ISS safety standpoint as it's a performance-driven consideration and not an arbitrary rule about engine failures disallowing 2nd stage restarts.

bware: 10/10/2012 01:31 CDT

Dragon was captured at the Harmony Module and the hatch was opened at 1:40 pm EDT 10/10/2013. 882 pounds of cargo were delivered.

bware: 10/10/2012 01:38 CDT

Jason, if you still need the regulations to quote have you tried your credentials via NASA HQ PR people for help on that? I tried to locate them on NASA.GOV but there is no access to those from there. - Bob

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