The race among private companies to put satellites into orbit and landers on the Moon and Mars gets more crowded every day, and a recent crash of a test flight shows just how dangerous it can be for start-up companies in the field. On September 2nd, after a successful liftoff at Vandenberg Space Force Base northwest of Lompoc, California, an Alpha rocket designed by Austin, Texas, based Firefly Aerospace exploded over the Pacific Ocean two minutes and 30 seconds after takeoff when Space Launch Delta 30, the Department of Defense operation which manages launches from Vandenberg, terminated its flight its flight due to an “anomaly.” Ironically, one of the missions of this test was to prevent what happened next.
"I saw this thing floating down from the sky ... then another piece, then another, and then hundreds of pieces varying in size were falling. It was surreal to have rocket debris raining down on you. I quickly registered that it was debris from the rocket. Some fell as close as 50 feet from me.”
Mike Hecker told the Santa Maria Times he was biking in the Orcutt Hills 13 miles northeast of Vandenberg when he saw the rocket explode and its debris began falling all around with some pieces as large as a Volkswagen Beetle. a large group of friends. Via Twitter, Firefly Aerospace alerted the public to possible debris in the area and asked people to stay at least 50 feet away from pieces of wreckage. It later announced it was analyzing the wreckage and launch data to determine the cause of the unidentified “anomaly.”
Per its mission statement, Firefly launch vehicles use commercial off-the-shelf components to “reduce risk, maximize reliability and minimize development time.” However, that’s not the irony of this failed attempt.
“Engineers are set to test a device that could pull defunct spacecraft and used rocket parts back to Earth, allowing them to burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere.
Researchers at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, are launching a prototype drag sail Thursday aboard a rocket made by Firefly Aerospace, a private space company based in Austin, Texas. The mission is designed to assess how well the kitelike sail can de-orbit the rocket's spent upper stage.”
Per NBC News, onboard that Alpha rocket was a drag sail being developed by Purdue University to slowly bring a spent rocket back to Earth safely and more economically than the controlled landing of reusable rockets deployed by SpaceX and others. The eventual goal is to deploy these giant drag sails into space and attach them to dead satellites and other space debris in order to slow them down until they fall out of orbit sand sail safely back to Earth – rather that waiting for their orbits to deteriorate naturally but unpredictably and fall to Earth in a dangerous fireball. Two noble and ironic causes – return spent rockets safely and de-orbit the very same satellites and space junk the company wants to launch.
Do we need any more flaming signs from the skies that the reinvigorated space industry is growing too fast for its – and our – own good? Is it time from stronger regulation, inspection and education … or is it too late?