As everyone who follows Morpheus knows, our first Morpheus “Campaign Zero” free flight test campaign at Kennedy Space Center in 2012 ended with a spectacular vehicle crash, after 26 successful static hot fire and tethered tests. Shortly after the crash, our Project Manager, Jon Olansen, gathered the sad but resolute team at the KSC hazard field landing pad and reiterated, “this is why we test.” We keep the dream, we learn from our failures, and we try again. NASA management, all the way to the top, understood the risks, and immediately turned us around to rebuild and fly again, because they understand the value of what we are trying to achieve. They can do this, because we are a low cost and lean project with an incredibly dedicated and competent team – a team who wants to build rockets and spacecraft and do whatever they can to help further human spaceflight and exploration.
Last week we had our first successful free flight of the “Bravo” vehicle. The flight was impressively on target with regard to the planned trajectory. All of the things we worried so much about – because of the Alpha vehicle crash and all of the testing since then – turned out to not be problems on that beautiful flight test day. There was definitely something redeeming for the team and the Agency -- to show that we could do this.
This past weekend, a bunch of the Morpheus team members went to KSC’s new “Atlantis” space shuttle orbiter visitor’s center. The exhibit is phenomenal, and found many of us with tears in our eyes as we revisited that amazing engineering endeavor coming to a close. One part of the historical film struck me – that the engineers who conceived of the space shuttle set out to make it a reusable spacecraft. Many rocket engines and spacecraft are single-use. Our little vertical test bed – our lander – is also designed to be reusable. But we don’t have thousands upon thousands of team members or a budget like that – we are a small project with less than 50 people (and that’s padding the number).
So just doing one successful free flight would be a career achievement – but two in one week is a tribute to the hard work and efforts by a team that has become like family. Today’s free flight went higher, and further, and faster – and it was 82 seconds of picture-perfect flying.
Last year after the crash, I remember vividly walking to the building next to our KSC vehicle hangar and seeing the Alpha vehicle wreckage for the first time up close. The crash itself had happened so fast that there was barely time to comprehend what happened. But there was the wreck, our wonderful creation, smashed and burned.
Today I waited outside in the sunshine (we’ve been lucky on weather this week here in Florida compared to much of the country) for the Bravo vehicle to be driven back to the hangar. I watched it roll in and marveled at the gift I have been given to be an aerospace engineer on a project such as this one. After today’s flight test we will spend a couple of days inspecting the systems and putting away all of the ground support equipment to get it ready for Campaign One in January, where we will fly increasingly challenging flight trajectories with our prototype lander vehicle.