Space X Crash Space Exploration Technologies' Falcon-1 rocket crashed on its maiden launch last Friday. Ira Flatow talks with the founder of the company about what happened... and about plans for the next launch.
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Space X Crash

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Space X Crash

Space X Crash

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Last week, space enthusiasts waited with anticipation for the maiden launch of Space Exploration Technology's, Space X, Falcon-1 rocket, the first privately funded launch vehicle, meant to be a cheaper, more reliable way to get to space than the space shuttle. But after several months of delays, the company suffered another setback. The rocket made it off the ground but it caught fire and was destroyed.

Joining me now to talk about it is Gwynne Shotwell. She's vice president of business development for Space X, and one of their first ten employees.

Welcome to Science Friday.

Ms. GWYNNE SHOTWELL (Vice President of Business Development, Space X): Thank you very much. Appreciate that.

FLATOW: So what exactly happened?

Ms. SHOTWELL: Well, you know, unfortunately, at this particular moment we can't release the details. We have a government team working to help us with the investigation. Basically, their review of the vehicle. We do know what occurred, can't release it yet, but I can tell you that it was a procedural problem. It was not an issue associated with the vehicle itself, which is --

FLATOW: It looked like there was a fire on the --

Ms. SCHOCKWELL: There was a fire. We had a leak of the fuel, which is RP.

FLATOW: Right. Right. Did you recover any of the vehicle?

Ms. SHOTWELL: Oh we have, yes, we've recovered quite a bit of it.

FLATOW: The payload included?

Ms. SHOTWELL: The payload we have recovered, actually. It, frankly, it looks relatively intact. It suffered, it certainly can't be reused at this particular time, but it still looks very much like the satellite that we launched.

FLATOW: Now your whole aim as a private corporation is to get into the space business, right?

Ms. SHOTWELL: That's correct.

FLATOW: As a private corporation? Why do you have a government investigation of a private corporation?

Ms. SHOTWELL: This particular launch was a government launch. Just because we're a private commercial company doesn't mean that we're unwilling to launch government payloads. We want to launch any payload that we're allowed to do.

FLATOW: So the government financed this launch?

Ms. SHOTWELL: The government paid for this particular launch, that's correct. Not the development of the vehicle, but they did pay for the launch. It was a service, like the government would buy a Fed Ex service.

FLATOW: Right. Right. Would it be something like paying Lockheed, or Lockheed Martin for their launch vehicle? Something like that?

Ms. SHOTWELL: I think when the government buys a launch from Lockheed and Boeing they do it under slightly different circumstances. It's very much more a government type purchase. This was kind of a quasi-government/commercial purchase. But it probably was largely the same.

FLATOW: We're talking with Gwynne Shotwell, who's vice president of business development for Space X on TALK OF THE NATION: Science Friday from NPR News.

So, what does this do to your schedule of further launches?

Ms. SHOTWELL: Well, you know, we weren't going to launch our next mission until three to five or six months from now anyhow. The next vehicle, or the next satellite we launch is likely to be a satellite called Tech Sat-1. They needed three to six months to pull the team back together, bring the satellite out of storage and get it ready for launch anyhow.

We expect to be back on the flight line in six months. Since we do know the cause of this particular issue, and it's a very easy fix, we are going to take this stand-down time, however, and go through, carefully, every other vehicle sub-system to make sure that the probability of success is as high as we can possibly make it on the next flight.

FLATOW: I know, I think that you have sort of a problem here, that you don't have when the government launches a missile or a rocket or a government like the shuttle, and something goes wrong, they make public what went wrong as fast as they can. Why the secrecy about what happened on this flight? And especially since partially government funding on it?

Ms. SHOTWELL: Actually, I think I'm going to have to disagree a little bit with you. I think government missions tend to take substantially longer to discuss what occurred.

We put, the day that we launched and had the mishap, we put information out on our website. We put photos out on our website. It, we needed to make sure we know, we need the blessing of the government to say definitively what we found, because they're part of the review team. But we put our own opinion on what we found out as early as we could. That's actually pretty unprecedented.

FLATOW: Well we couldn't even describe in our report what happened to the rocket because there are no pictures of it.

Ms. SHOTWELL: Well, we've actually got pictures of the vehicle in flight on our website.

FLATOW: Well, we've seen the pictures of it in flight, but we don't have pictures of it crashing. We don't know what happened after you cut the pictures on that live webcast.

Ms. SHOTWELL: Well the vehicle came back and hit, obviously.

FLATOW: Well, it's not obvious. You say obviously, we don't have, we don't have any documentation of that. As journalists, as the public, we don't know that it crashed in the water, was it in pieces, was it whole, how much was burned, what it looked like, the basic A, B, C's.

And I'm just saying, as someone who's new to this business, these are the kinds of things that, especially in the space industry, people are going to be interested in. And we kind of think we deserve to see what happened.

Ms. SHOTWELL: Absolutely. I think you deserve to see what happened as well. But again, I have to go back to almost one of my first remarks when I joined, that Space X is not the only organization involved here. The government did buy that launch, and we need to make sure that they're okay with our releasing definitive data and images.

FLATOW: You mean even the debris in the water, it has to be okayed by the government? Pictures of that sort of thing?

Ms. SHOTWELL: Absolutely. Right.

FLATOW: Wow. Was it super-secret kind of payload that we're not supposed to know about? You know that's what --

Ms. SHOTWELL: Oh no, not at all.

FLATOW: -- you see, when those things happen, it raises those kinds of questions. Probably innocuous, but now we start thinking about things, you know?

Ms. SHOTWELL: You know, there was absolutely nothing super-secret about what happened. I think it's more a matter of not coming out and saying, guessing at what occurred. It's more a matter of, you know, giving us, it's been a week, we feel pretty confident we know the issues. We need to make sure the government is comfortable with us releasing what we found. And that definitely takes some time.

FLATOW: But you cut off the transmissions of the images as it was spinning or crashing or something, which we don't know what happened.

Ms. SHOTWELL: Actually, the camera was part of the vehicle, and so it stopped functioning when there were substantial problems.

FLATOW: I'm talking about the images that we see on the website that's taken from a distance.

Ms. SHOTWELL: You know, I don't -- images taken from the distance on the website. You know, I think we just uploaded those pictures last night. I haven't taken a look at what's on the website.

FLATOW: Well, it's the picture, you know, the flames coming out, that sort of thing.

Ms. SHOTWELL: Right.

FLATOW: But obviously there were other pictures. We would assume that showed the whole trajectory and final seconds of it.

(Long pause)


Ms. SHOTWELL: And those are exactly the images that we need to ensure that the government is comfortable releasing.

FLATOW: The government, DARPO was part of this, so I guess this is sort of a secret thing.

Ms. SHOTWELL: No, not necessarily. There was nothing secret about this particular launch. It was a launch of an Air Force Academy satellite. It actually was a demonstration. This was basically a test flight.

FLATOW: All right.

Ms. SHOTWELL: Of a very low -- from a space perspective, that satellite cost about $700 thousand dollars compared to the billions --

FLATOW: We, we, all right. We're going to, we'll follow you. We've had your boss on many times. Hopefully he'll take time to talk with us more about it.

Thank you for taking time to be with us.

Ms. SHOTWELL: Thank you. I appreciate the time.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Gwynne Shotwell is vice president of business development for Space X and one of their first ten employees.

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