The Morpheus lunar lander suffered a mechanical failure and crashed during its first untethered test flight, which took place at Kennedy Space Center on Thursday. The crash occurred almost immediately after rocket engine ignition.

Morpheus had previously completed numerous tethered flight tests at Johnson Space Center in Texas. It was recently moved to Florida for untethered flight testing. Morpheus was built for NASA by Armadillo Aerospace and derived from the Quad rocket which Armadillo successfully flew in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. Morpheus was modified and tweaked by NASA after it took delivery from Armadillo.

It’s inevitable that someone will contrast this failure to the successful landing of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, which occurred the same week. We hope people don’t take the wrong lesson from that coincidence. The MSL landing was successful, but it came at orders of magnitude higher cost. NASA could afford to build and crash hundreds of Morpheus landers for the cost of Curiosity.

There are surely lessons to be learned here, as there are after any mishap, but we hope that NASA does not once again learn the false lesson that low-cost projects are too risky to undertake.

One of the contributing factors, we suspect, is the lack of management and political support for the program. Morpheus was originally Project M, a low-cost X-project intended to place a walking robonaut on the Moon in less than 1000 days. The official commitment to that goal was never forthcoming, however, and Project M morphed into a relatively unfocused lunar-lander technology-test program called Morpheus. Rather than developing a lander that was good enough, the new goal was simply to experiment, so tweaking became the order of the day. This is very similar to what happened when NASA took over the DC-X project, with similar results.

We also wonder if NASA’s decision to take the program in-house, rather than keeping the Armadillo team involved with flight testing, may have been a mistake. We understand NASA’s motivation and desire to train its own team in lander operations, but having the experienced Armadillo crew would probably have allowed things to go more smoothly.

These are problems which can be easily fixed, if NASA has the will to do so. The cost of a replacement lander would be about the same as Curiosity‘s coffee budget. It isn’t obviously that NASA has the will to fix the problems, however. Developing a functional lunar lander is a low priority for NASA right now, and it would be all too easy for the agency to slip back into CYA mode (cover your anatomy) and simply cancel the program.

Written by Astro1 on August 11th, 2012 , Armadillo Aerospace

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    Dave Klingler commented

    Ed, please. There’s no failure here, and more management would only destroy the point of the program. These guys are building, flying and crashing. The experience of failing, and more importantly, of being allowed to fail without having a lot of handwaving from the peanut gallery, is invaluable.

    I’ve known a lot of NASA engineers who spent their entire careers never being allowed to do anything but paper studies. Good job, Morpheus Team! Crash a dozen more, if you need to!

    August 13, 2012 at 4:02 pm
    admin commented

    Where did we call for “more management”?

    I think you misread one sentence. We criticized “lack of management… support for the program,” not “lack of management.” i.e., The failure of senior management to vigorously support the original goals of Project M in the NASA budget process.

    August 13, 2012 at 4:14 pm