An experimental version of a Falcon 9 first stage used to test technologies for future reusable versions of that launch vehicle was destroyed during a flight Friday at SpaceX’s Texas test site, the company confirmed Friday evening.
The vehicle, known as F9R-Dev, was performing the latest in a series of test flights at the McGregor, Texas, site when the vehicle suffered an unexplained “anomaly,” according to a SpaceX statement issued Friday evening. Video of the flight published by local news media showed the stage perhaps tipping too far during a maneuver to translate, or fly sideways, during the test.
“During the flight, an anomaly was detected in the vehicle and the flight termination system automatically terminated the mission,” SpaceX said in its statement. Video showed the vehicle exploding, with debris raining down.
“Throughout the test and subsequent flight termination, the vehicle remained in the designated flight area,” SpaceX stated. “There were no injuries or near injuries.”
F9R-Dev was a successor to Grasshopper, the company’s first vertical takeoff and landing testbed. While both vehicles were based on a Falcon 9 first stage, Grasshopper used a single engine and fixed, large landing legs, while F9R had three engines and retractable landing gear. F9R-Dev made its first flight from McGregor in April, and flew most recently in June, according to videos released by the company.
The loss of the vehicle is a setback to SpaceX’s efforts to develop a reusable version of the Falcon 9, an effort which had garnered some successes. Besides the earlier F9R tests in Texas, SpaceX had attempted to “land” Falcon 9 first stages in the ocean on some its launches. The most recent attempt, in last month’s ORBCOMM satellite launch, resulted in the stage successfully touching down on the ocean surface before tipping over.
“With research and development projects, detecting vehicle anomalies during the testing is the purpose of the program,” SpaceX said in its statement. “Today’s test was particularly complex, pushing the limits of the vehicle further than any previous test. As is our practice, the company will be reviewing the flight record details to learn more about the performance of the vehicle prior to our next test.”
Company officials had previously indicated surprise that there had not been a similar failure during tests of the earlier Grasshopper test vehicle. “In some ways we’ve kind of failed on the Grasshopper program because we haven’t pushed it to its limit,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said at last October’s International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) in Las Cruces, New Mexico. “We haven’t broken it.”
It’s not clear what affect, if any, this failure will have on the next Falcon 9 launch, scheduled for next week from Cape Canaveral. A static test of the rocket’s first stage took place as planned Friday evening and apparently was a success, according to one unofficial report. This upcoming launch, which, like the previous Falcon 9 launch earlier this month, is for AsiaSat, will not perform any reusability tests in order to maximize the payload the rocket can place into orbit.