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SpaceX Has Opportunity in Rocket Test That Ended in Detonation

A SpaceX prototype rocket automatically detonated after an "anomaly" was detected during a test flight in McGregor, Texas on Aug. 22, according to the company.@EthansMommy17 via Twitter

Although a SpaceX prototype reusable rocket exploded in dramatic fashion Friday during a test flight in Texas, the test wasn’t the failure that it might appear — and data gained from the flight may be nearly as valuable as if it had gone off without a hitch, an expert told NBC news.

“The only 'failed' test is one in which you don’t get the information you were seeking,” said aerospace engineer Rand Simberg, author of “Safe Is Not an Option,” who compared the detonation of the Falcon 9 Reusable rocket to an automaker that crash tests a car to find weak points. “In SpaceX's case, the goal of the test wasn't to destroy the vehicle, but they were fully aware that this could be an outcome.”

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The Falcon 9 Reusable (F9R for short) was automatically detonated and erupted into a fireball after an “anomaly” was detected during a flight in McGregor, Texas, Friday. SpaceX entry and landing team leader Lars Blackmore tweeted that the detonation was “not necessarily a setback,” adding that engineers “still got very useful data you don’t get unless pushing the envelope.”

SpaceX founder Elon Musk deadpanned on Twitter: “Rockets are tricky …”

The F9R has been launched and successfully landed in the past. SpaceX said that Friday’s test was “particularly complex, pushing the limits of the vehicle further than any previous test,” although it didn’t say what is suspected to have prompted the flight termination system to engage. Typically such systems use shaped charges or other explosives to breach the propellant tanks, Simberg said. Detonating a rocket in mid-air prevents the rocket from losing control and travelling outside of the test range where it could do damage.

The F9R is part of Musk’s vision to develop a low-cost, reusable rocket that could reduce the cost of spaceflight to one percent of the cost using conventional rockets and possibly open the door for the settlement of Mars. The F9R is supposed to rise off a launch pad and then ease back down to a controlled vertical landing, which is essential for reusability.

The three-engine rocket detonated Friday is a test version of the nine-engine Falcon 9 rockets that have already been used to launch satellites into orbit and deliver goods to the International Space Station. Those rockets are not designed to take off and then land the way the F9R is.

Friday’s detonation is the first time SpaceX has lost a “vertical takeoff, vertical landing” (VTVL) rocket. In July the company successfully decelerated a booster rocket from a larger Falcon 9 rocket launched into space in a "soft landing" in the Atlantic Ocean, but the hull breached after splashdown. Another private aerospace company, Blue Origin, lost an experimental VTVL rocket in 2011.

“As Elon [Musk] said, rockets are tricky. I'd say that losing a VTVL vehicle in flight test is inevitable, almost a rite of passage, and that SpaceX just finally joined the club,” Simberg said.