Experimental SpaceX rocket self-detonates over Texas

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A small rung on the long ladder to Mars broke Friday, when a rocket test in Texas ended in a midair ball of fire.

Debris from the SpaceX F9R rained down from the flames onto an open field outside of McGregor.

The rocket self-destructed as a safety measure — a common practice in the aerospace industry in unmanned craft. A hitch in the F9R test vehicle turned up during launch, and the “flight termination system automatically terminated the mission,” SpaceX said in a statement.

“There were no injuries or near-injuries.”

But it was a vivid firework for bystanders parked on a nearby country road — and for their cellphone cameras. CNN affiliate KWTX reported the explosion on Friday and posted video.

The F9R has been successfully tested before, but SpaceX decided to push the limits this time, and it didn’t work out, the company said.

All about the landing

It’s not how it flies up but how it comes down that makes the F9R a stepping-stone to a Mars mission. The rocket has landing gear, four legs that stick out like an insect’s. So did its even shorter predecessor, which bore the name Grasshopper.

Until now, American space rockets have never been designed to return in the same fashion or form that they departed. The bulk of the rocket was tossed (or lowered by chutes) into the ocean, or discarded to fall back through Earth’s cosmic incinerator, or left in the eternal void.

Not so the F9R. All of it, in one piece, slowly backs down to the pad it took off from, using its booster engines, and sets down gingerly on its feet.

Mars, here we come

That makes it reusable, a characteristic useful for a distant-future mission to Mars — if anyone plans to return home from there, that is.

A trip to the Red Planet is the visionary call of the space industry from NASA to Mars One, the latter of which has devised a plan to send a one-way mission there, where astronauts would not return but eventually die.

But SpaceX CEO Elon Musk takes the vision a step further. He foresees the human colonization of Mars and other planets as the next step in human evolution, according to the company’s website.

There is also a less sexy but more immediate advantage to reusable rockets: They save tons of money. SpaceX’s large Falcon 9 rockets cost about $54 million each, the company says.

That’s roughly the price tag of a smaller pre-owned passenger jet in good shape. But a jet flies multiple times. Most rockets usually only fly one time.

Making rockets reusable would cut space flight costs enormously, SpaceX says.

A short-hopper

F9R launches are less exciting. They don’t rumble the earth with the kind of blastoff thunder that the space shuttles or Saturn rockets once did, and the F9R is small, comprising only one stage.

It’s a sawed-off version of its parent, the Falcon 9, the first rocket from a commercial company to fly to the International Space Station, according to SpaceX.

Nine rocket engines fire up to boost the Falcon 9 into Earth’s orbit. Just three propel the F9R, which has only flown to an altitude of 1,000 meters (3,280 feet). That equals about twice the height of New York’s One World Trade Center — a trivial feat for a rocket.

Lose a few

Rocket science is complex even for small rockets sometimes, and failures in various stages of space missions happen regularly.

That includes launches.

One need only think of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 that killed all seven astronauts on board when it exploded some 70 seconds into launch.

In mid-May, a Russian satellite launch went sour, when the rocket veered off path, causing an emergency system to cut off propulsion. The rocket had traveled 100 miles high and reportedly burned up in the atmosphere on its way back down.

It was at least the fourth time such a tried-and-true Russian rocket type failed.

As Musk tweeted after F9R’s self-detonation:

“Rockets are tricky …”

By Ben Brumfield