Twilight Zone: The Morpheus Lander Crashed and Burned, and Critics Say NASA Never Fully Investigated What Went Wrong
On August 9, 2012, on a sunny day in eastern Florida, NASA's Morpheus lander hovered 15 feet over the ground. One second passed, then two. Then the craft tilted to its right, kept tilting, collapsed into the ground, and thudded for a moment before fuel met light and a fireball erupted. A further explosion 100 seconds later sent sparks 25 feet out, destroying most of the remainder of the craft.
The clip of the Morpheus lander's destruction would be nearly comical -- the squat, disco ball-decked craft looks more amphibious than aeronautic -- if it didn't show the culmination of a series of failures since the project's start. The crash was but the latest in a litany of engineering and logistical failures plaguing the lander and helped to serve as something of a microcosm for recent issues surrounding the entire agency. And while no one was hurt during this crash, NASA's stated goal of returning to manned launches within the near future means that forthcoming tests won't be limited to empty machinery.
Mistakes and failures, however, can be corrected. With its myriad struggles during its Apollo and Shuttle heydays, NASA knows this well.
But a check of NASA's records shows that there never was any follow-up investigation of the August crash released. Instead, according to those who worked on the project, NASA dismissed the accident as another company's hardware problem rather than anything that the agency needed to correct.
According to NASA software engineer Kyle Clement (not his real name), NASA, which did not return calls for this story, should have known problems were amiss.
"You could tell something was wrong prior to [Morpheus] blowing up," Clement, who has been working at NASA for decades, told the Houston Press.
A former NASA contractor, Tim Cousins (also not his real name), saw the issues as the culmination of the atrophy that has slowly been smothering NASA.
"That's the thing about NASA -- they don't like hiring people who are smarter than themselves," Cousins, who recently retired, told the Press. "So you've got this transition where things just get worse and worse, and then you have shit like this."
While Cousins could attest to other projects within NASA suffering through similar issues, Clement had a chance to see the Morpheus project from its inception three years ago. Attempting to test both autonomous landing technology and a combination of liquid methane and liquid oxygen as fuel -- a potential mix for future missions to Mars -- Morpheus was meant as a relatively low-cost, low-risk project, coming in at only $8 million. At 2,800 pounds with a full fuel tank, it was intended to be far less significant than anything that, say, private space contractor SpaceX is currently approaching.
But despite Morpheus's relative simplicity, problems arose early.