Tuesday, October 19, 2021     Volume: 22, Issue: 33

Santa Maria Sun / Commentary

The following article was posted on September 22nd, 2021, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 22, Issue 30 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 22, Issue 30

The recent Firefly Alpha rocket explosion shows there must have been a faulty debris analysis before the launch


When either commercial or government missile and space programs are being planned for launch, the team must prepare the rocket for launch, and the military or the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must approve the launch team’s “flight hazard area analysis.”

The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) applies to commercial space programs and specifically says that this report must include an “analysis that identifies any regions of land, sea, or air that must be surveyed, publicized, controlled, or evacuated in order to control the risk to the public from debris impact hazards.” Vandenberg Space Force Base has a comparable standard.

The technical definition of controlling the risk “means a measure that accounts for both the probability of occurrence of a hazardous event and the consequence of that event to persons or property.” The CFR requires that “a flight safety analysis must include a debris analysis. For an orbital or suborbital launch, a debris analysis must identify the inert, explosive, and other hazardous launch vehicle debris that results from normal and malfunctioning launch vehicle flight. A debris analysis must account for each cause of launch vehicle breakup.”

An example of how this works is that Jalama Beach County Park and several ranches south of Vandenberg Space Force Base are routinely evacuated prior to launches from Space Launch Complexes 3, 4, 6 and 8 because the analysis indicates that debris could fall on these areas.

The flight safety team preparing the report, unlike the program management team, must plan for catastrophic failure from the point of ignition until the completion of the ascent into orbit. 

Over the past several decades, there have been hundreds of failures within seconds of release from the hold-down mechanism on the launch platform and in flight because rockets are composed of electrical/mechanical systems with many parts that can and do fail.

On Sept. 9, Firefly Aerospace prepared for its maiden flight from Space Launch Complex 2 near Purisima Point on the base. The first attempt to launch was halted a few seconds before launch due to an anomaly detected on the flight vehicle and the countdown clock was reset so the problem could be fixed.

After the flight management team concurred that the problem was resolved, a second attempt was tried. Spaceflight Now, an aerospace focused publication, reported that a “premature shutdown of one of its [Firefly] Alpha rocket’s four main engines, apparently triggered by an electrical issue, caused the launcher to lose control as it reached supersonic speed during a test flight over California last week.”

It was a clear evening and thousands of people saw the explosion as Vandenberg Space Force Base range safety officials explosively terminated the flight. In a video of the launch, you can clearly see pieces of the fairing (that’s what encapsulates the satellites) coming apart as Firefly Alpha tips over prior to its destruction.

This is the point where the hazard area debris analysis established by the flight safety team is tested. Part of the analysis must take into consideration the type of materials used to build the spacecraft, how they will react if the rocket blows up, and how winds at various levels will affect the distribution of the debris.

Apparently, some very lightweight composite materials were used on portions of the flight vehicle because many pieces of this material rained down on Vandenberg and the area between Point Sal and Orcutt, as we saw in media reports.

This isn’t supposed to happen and probably wouldn’t have if the flight safety team had properly assessed the result of early flight termination and established proper launch weather limits. Fortunately, no one was injured by the falling debris, but there were some close calls.

So, now comes the investigation of “what happened”; the FAA is the lead agency.

Because debris fell onto populated areas, we can assume that the winds aloft had something to contribute as they propelled the lightweight composite materials eastward from as the rocket and its payload package began falling apart. This is something investigators should look at closely to assure that this doesn’t happen again.

So, will Firefly Aerospace be flying again? Probably, but these investigations can take many months to complete. Will it impact other commercial launch companies—probably, because their flight hazard area analysis reports will be scrutinized more carefully in the future. However, just four days later SpaceX, another commercial launcher, successfully launched several Starlink satellites into orbit from Space Launch Complex 6 near Honda Point on the base.

Should you be worried about rocket debris landing on your house in the future? Well, there have been many explosions like this with much larger spacecraft as they attempted to gain orbit from Vandenberg in the past few decades and this is the first that resulted in anything falling on a populated area off base in many years.

Besides, you can bet that Vandenberg and the FAA flight safety officials will be asking some hard questions as launchers prepare their creations for flight.

Ron Fink writes to the Sun from Lompoc. Send a response via the editor at clanham@santamariasun.com.

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