Thursday, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket burst into flames and was destroyed on the launch pad during a test fire procedure leading up to a scheduled launch on Saturday. The payload, an Amos-6 satellite, was consumed by the fire. Elon Musk characterized the event as “really a fast fire, not an explosion.”
What’s the difference? In Musk’s mind, had human space traveler been sitting atop the rocket instead of a satellite, they would have had time to activate the special escape procedures pioneered by SpaceX. For manned space flights, the command module is ringed with 8 so-called SuperDraco engines that can blast it out of harm’s way in the event of a malfunction and lower it safely back to earth.
Musk believes the escape system would have worked as intended during a “fast fire.” An explosion might have been a different story. A spokesperson for SpaceX made this statement, “SpaceX can confirm that in preparation for today’s static fire, there was an anomaly on the pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its payload. Per standard procedure, the pad was clear and there were no injuries.”
Musk is the perfect example of someone who believes that every mistake is an opportunity to learn. No doubt the cause will be meticulously investigated and the lessons learned applied to future missions. One person, however, is not happy. Mark Zuckerberg, overlord of Facebook, is on a mission of his own to bring internet access to areas of the world where it is still a rarity such as India and sub-Sharan Africa. Facebook had reserved a portion of the bandwidth of the Israeli built Amos-6 for the express purpose of providing internet services to to the lower African continent. His statement after the aborted test firing was caustic.
“I’m deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX’s launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent,” Zuckerberg wrote in a post on Facebook. Asked whether the satellite was insured, Zuckerberg said “the problem isn’t the money; it’s that now it may take longer to connect Africa.” He later amended his statement to say “to connect people.”
Some view Zuckerberg’s intentions as an echo of the exploitation visited upon large swaths of the world’s population in ages past — particularly in India and Africa. Last year, the Indian government said “No, thank you,” to a Zuckerberg proposal to bring limited internet access to young children in the country via a service known as Free Basics. The program was viewed as little more than a marketing campaign for Facebook and the government ruled it violated net neutrality rules.
But all is not lost for Zuckerberg’s dream of being internet czar to the world. Facebook is about to launch a new experimental aircraft called Aquila. The autonomous plane looks like a giant flying wing. It has the wingspan of a 747 but only weighs as much as a small car. Powered by the sun, it can remain aloft, flying at very low speeds high above the clouds and commercial aircraft. It is like a geosynchronous satellite but costs far less to place in service. It can also be updated with the latest technology whenever it is on the ground.
The race for global internet access is fierce. Google also plans a similar service designated Project Loon that will use high altitude hot air balloons scattered everywhere around the world. Musk himself is planning his own array of low orbit satellites using SpaceX rockets. All he has to do is figure out how to keep them from having really fast fires on the launch pad.
Source: New Yorker