CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — Approximately 139 seconds into Sunday’s flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 v1.1 booster, its payload of the Dragon spacecraft and the 4, 000 lbs (1, 814 kg) of cargo it carried disintegrated as the rocket exploded. The multi-million dollar mission ended in a rain of debris into the Atlantic Ocean. This marks the first time that the company’s Falcon 9 has encountered such a failure. Historically, how significant was this accident?
Up until now, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has only encountered one prior, minor anomaly in the eighteen times that the NewSpace firm has utilized the launch vehicle to send an array of payloads to orbit. This occurred during the October 2012 CRS-1 mission to the International Space Station. During that flight, while the secondary payload of the Orbcomm OG2 satellite was essentially a loss, the primary payload, the Dragon spacecraft, successfully reached the International Space Station.
A comparison of two launch vehicles employed during the early days of the Space Age helps to provide perspective in terms of this failure.
The Atlas booster was designed as an intercontinental ballistic missile in the late ’50s by the Convair Division of General Dynamics. During the first year that the Atlas launch vehicle took to the skies, 1957, the rocket was launched three times – all three flights were failures. The following year, 14 of the boosters were launched – and six of those ended in failure. During the same amount of time that the Falcon 9 has been in service, five years, the Atlas booster encountered 48 failures out of 105 flights – achieving a success rate of about 54 percent.
The Titan I and II rockets were first launched in 1959. In its first year, the rocket flew six times, encountering two failures. In the following year, it was launched 21 times – six of which ended in failure. During its first five years of service, the Titan booster encountered 18 failures out of a total of 91 flights – a success rate of about 80 percent.
In its first five years, the Falcon 9 has a success rate of 18 out of 19 missions – or roughly 95 percent.
There are an array of differences between the Falcon 9 v1.0 and v1.1 launch vehicle than these older boosters. The Atlas and Titan were developed as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) more than 50 years ago, whereas the Falcon was developed by a private company for commercial purposes in the past decade.
Both Atlas and Titan were launched numerous times between 1957-1960 and SpaceX has only launched the Falcon 9 a total of 19 times during its first five years of service.
Gaining an understanding as to how much either the early iterations of the Atlas or the now-retired Titan cost and then comparing those to the Falcon 9 is problematic.
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