The cadet-built rocket exploded after firing for a fraction of a second as the FalconLaunch cadre watched from more than one-half mile away.
Academy firefighters were on-site for the test-fire.Once the rocket exploded, they moved in quickly to stifle any small bits of fire created by the rocket’s fragments. After a minute, responders declared the area safe, and the cadets and instructors moved in to survey the site and locate the rocket’s remnants. Overall damage to the area and test pad were minimal, with only a few small patches of scorched grasses. Fragments of the rocket were scattered over a 50-yard radius.
The purpose of the static test fire was to validate a new data acquisition system and perform further testing on an igniter design that was developed during a previous academic year. The current academic year’s team of FalconLaunch cadets was set to analyze and compare the actual thrust and chamber pressure data received from the test against predicted simulations.
“We expected 10.5 seconds of burn with about 4,000 pounds of thrust. This one was not that. Hopefully we’ll be able to recover the data analysis and be able to review the video. Now the cadets’ job is to find out why this happened,” said Col. Marty France, permanent professor and director of the Department of Astronautics.
Analysis began immediately after the attempted static test fire. Cadets and instructors immediately began scrutinizing the video and discussing possible causes of FalconLaunch 6’s demise. Items discussed included a pressure plug, chamber pressure, the igniter, and the nozzle throat, and team members examined the pressure and thermal tolerances for each system.
“This was not what we expected, but it will become a learning experience to figure out why this happened and prevent it from recurring,” said Cadet 1st Class Sean Foote from the FalconLaunch propulsion team. “We’ll collect all the pieces and the data, try to figure out why this happened and determine how it will affect the rest of the program.”
A thorough analysis is now under way to determine what caused the malfunction. As for the cadet rocket program, FalconLaunch 6 was actually a step back into recent history.
FalconLaunch 6 was originally scheduled to launch from NASA’s Wallops Island, Va., range in April 2008, but a crack discovered in the solid propellant grain scrubbed the launch. The rocket was again scheduled for launch (with the existing crack) from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in April 2009. That was canceled again, however, due to the possibility of impacting the White Sands National Monument.
Meanwhile, Astronautics continued and advanced the FalconLaunch program despite FalconLaunch 6’s issues. FalconLaunch 6 was the product of the 2007-2008 academic year, but the FalconLaunch 7 rocket from the 2008-2009 academic year had a successful launch at White Sands in April. Radar data showed that FalconLaunch 7’s boosted-dart payload section reached an altitude of 354,724 feet, setting a world altitude record for university-built rockets.
FalconLaunch 8 is under development during the 2009-2010 school year.
“We’ll test the new design for FalconLaunch 8 in January, and if all goes well, then we’ll launch FalconLaunch 8 from White Sands in April,” Colonel France said.
FalconLaunch is the product of the Astronautical Engineering 452 and 453 courses, a two-semester senior capstone design course for cadets where they learn space by doing space. During the course of the year, the multidisciplinary cadet team, with faculty mentors from several academic departments design, build, test and fly a solid-fuel sounding rocket carrying Department of Defense payloads.
The FalconLaunch program’s end goal is to provide the Air Force and Department of Defense with a cost-efficient, operationally responsive method of delivering small scientific and engineering nanosatellites into a suborbital flight path.To do that, the nanosatellite must reach an altitude of 100 kilometers, or 328,084 feet, which FalconLaunch 7 accomplished and surpassed in April.