A free test flight of NASA's prototype Morpheus lander ended prematurely, spectacularly and in flames on Thursday when the vehicle lost stability directly after take off, crashed upside down into the dirt, before experiencing a number of explosions that left the lander in flames and apparently completely destroyed. Thankfully, no one was hurt in the incident.
The lander had undergone successful tethered testing on August 3, when, suspended from a crane, the lander completed a successful take off and landing at the Kennedy Space Center. The August 9 flight, the first without the assistance of a crane, experienced what NASA described as a "hardware component failure" which "prevented the vehicle from maintaining stable flight." In other words, it crashed. The subsequent fire appeared to result in the explosion of Morpheus' fuel tanks, and their stores of propellant which is a combination of liquid oxygen and methane. The fire crew on hand was able to extinguish the flames.
"Failures such as these were anticipated prior to the test, and are part of the development process for any complex spaceflight hardware," said NASA in a statement following the incident. Certainly, if crashes are to occur it's preferable that they occur in testing.
NASA describes the Morpheus lander as a "full spacecraft," which it hopes will one day be capable of transporting a 1100 pound (xx kg) payload such as a robot or rover to the moon. The agency additionally sees Morpheus as an opportunity to test "lean development" (presumably cost effective) engineering practices.
There is no suggestion at this stage that the incident will in any way deter NASA from the Morpheus program. A video of the crash can be seen on the NASA website.
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