Fields of Dreams
Will starry-eyed entrepreneurs transform today's wide-open spaces into tomorrow's spaceports?
- By Ed Regis
- Air & Space magazine, May 2007
(Page 4 of 6)
Arriving at the viewing area in temperatures just above freezing, launch-goers could see faint traces of dawn behind the San Andres range to the east. Launch time was set for 7:30 a.m. Well before then, Rick Homans, New Mexico’s state secretary for economic development who was acting as master of ceremonies, announced over the PA system that the rocket’s transponder wasn’t working. The transponder was essential for recovering the payload: The vehicle had no guidance system; the rocket, aimed a few degrees from vertical, would be launched ballistically, like a cannonball. The plan was for the rocket to reach Mach 5 in 13 seconds, then coast to its target altitude of 70 miles. At that point, the nosecone would separate from the body of the rocket, parachutes would deploy, and both sections would come down gently within a 20-mile-wide area somewhere in the White Sands Missile Range, which would track the thing by radar. The entire flight was to take approximately 13 minutes. However, fixing the transponder required the removal and replacement of 72 bolts.
Hours later the transponder is working. During the delay, UPA’s commercial clients take the chance to describe their payloads. A Las Cruces company, Heavenly Journeys, is flying the ashes of a veterinarian whose widow is attending the launch. Another firm is flying ingredients for an energy drink. There are other oddments—a plastic bag of 12 Cheerios, for one—all tucked away inside pizza-shaped payload containers.
As the final countdown nears, launch time shifts back and forth from 2:05 to 2:15 with no explanation. Reuters is here, ABC, Fox News, National Public Radio, Associated Press, a French film crew, local reporters—there’s probably more media here than customers—millions of cameras on tripods to record the flight that is to inaugurate the revolutionary, paradigm-shifting, historic era of public access to space.
At last the rocket gets away. Watching it is a thrilling experience: a point of dazzling white light followed by a contrail straight as a knife edge and as bright as if it were illuminated from the inside. Then, suddenly, the contrail becomes a corkscrew, and I’m immediately reminded of the Challenger disaster. In a few more seconds, although everybody is still looking skyward at the twisting track of rocket exhaust, it’s announced over the PA system that, barely three minutes into the flight, the rocket is back on the ground.
Back on the ground?
An Associated Press story filed five days later described the SpaceLoft XL rocket as “the first launched from a commercial spaceport in New Mexico—and the first to crash.” That was not in the least surprising. At the post-flight briefing, held the same night back at the Hilton, Lonnie Sumpter, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, who had also acted as the flight’s launch director, said: “Forty-six percent of first launches suffer a failure.”
Sumpter, who died in February after a brief illness, was a commanding presence. A mechanical engineer who had spent 16 years at White Sands flight testing missile systems, he knew whereof he spoke. Still, a 46 percent failure rate was scarcely a comforting thought in view of the question on some people’s minds, namely: What if this had been a manned flight?
The crash of the UPA rocket was a cautionary tale. It is wrong to think that rocket flight is like aircraft flight, only a little higher and a little faster. Unlike atmospheric aircraft, a spacefaring rocket undergoes extremes of acceleration and deceleration, plus vibration and buffeting, reentry heat, and other space-specific influences. All these factors combine to make spaceflight a classic case of “sensitive dependence upon initial conditions,” meaning that the smallest mechanical, software, or other imperfection—such as the brittle O-ring that doomed Challenger —can have momentous outcomes.