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SpaceX's Falcon 1 Destroyed During Maiden Voyage 293

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the more-waiting-to-become-an-asteroid-farmer dept.
legolas writes "SpaceX's Falcon 1 is the world's first privately funded satellite launch vehicle. After a successful static engine test on Wednesday, it was launched today. Unfortunately, the rocket was destroyed shortly after launch."
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SpaceX's Falcon 1 Destroyed During Maiden Voyage

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  • Early days (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SteelFist (734281) on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:24PM (#14991635)
    Sounds a bit like the early days of our space program.
    • Re:Early days (Score:4, Insightful)

      by susano_otter (123650) on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:57PM (#14991792) Homepage
      Sounds like the early days of any space program.

      I noticed from TFA that SpaceX was touting this as the first totally new rocket design.

      On that basis alone I'd expect it to be plagued with problems for several more iterations.

      I'm pretty sure originality is not a desireable feature in rocket science.
    • Re:Early days (Score:3, Informative)

      by Illbay (700081)
      Good point. I was a bit too young to witness the actual event, but the explosion of the Vanguard satellite on its launch pad [wikipedia.org] was ahuge blow to the fledgling U.S. space effort, coming right on the heels of the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik [wikipedia.org].

      Yet ten years later, the U.S. astronauts walked on the moon.

      Often great things arise from the ashes of early failure.

  • by sconeu (64226) on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:24PM (#14991638) Homepage Journal
    Anyone know if it crashed or the RSO destroyed it?

    Of course, it's never a good thing when your downward-pointing cam shows sky and clouds - spinning...

  • I had wondered... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Shadow Wrought (586631) * <shadow.wrought@gmai l . com> on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:25PM (#14991645) Homepage Journal
    I thought it a bit odd that the static test was for only three seconds and took place the day before the launch. I would not be surpised if the accident was a by-product of them pushing their schedule.
    • by Intron (870560) on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:33PM (#14991683)
      Just as bizarre was that they had a payload on their first launch attempt. That's like trying to ship the Beta! That would never happen in software.
      • by roystgnr (4015) <roystgnr@t[ ]m.utexas.edu ['ica' in gap]> on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:49PM (#14991759) Homepage
        Just as bizarre was that they had a payload on their first launch attempt.

        The payload cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, true, but lifting it into orbit costs millions. As long as they had a better than 10% chance of success, it was a good risk to take.
      • Re:I had wondered... (Score:5, Informative)

        by david.given (6740) <dg.cowlark@com> on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:50PM (#14991765) Homepage Journal
        Just as bizarre was that they had a payload on their first launch attempt.

        The payload massed 20kg (the Falcon could have lifted about 700kg) and was built by Air Force Academy cadets. I suspect it was being launched, er, would have been launched for free. After all, you have to test rockets with something, and you may as well launch something useful rather than a dumb telemetry package.

      • by interiot (50685) on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:53PM (#14991777) Homepage
        Well, the payload was a microsatellite, so the actual hardware didn't cost a huge amount really (~$100,000?). Anybody have any idea how much the USAF Academy paid for the launch?

        Also, a large part of satellite cost is in the R&D, so if there are further funds, then building a duplicate would cost a fair bit less than the first one, right?

      • Re:I had wondered... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by iamlucky13 (795185) on Friday March 24, 2006 @08:15PM (#14991882)
        Since the payload was a student project, it has no doubt already accomplished it's primary mission: to give engineering and science students experience in a large-scale, real world project designing and building a satellite and it's experiments. It's sad that they won't get to see the final fruits of their labors and the product of their effort was destroyed, but this doesn't really affect their overall education. The science loss is pretty small, as I'm pretty certain other satellites have studied similar phenomena in the past.

        I think the Air Force giving SpaceX a launch contract was partially throwing them a bone to help get another launch provider off the ground (no pun intended), and partially saving money. No doubt had SpaceX not happened to be up-and-coming as they are, this would have gone up on a Pegasus or piggybacked with another satellite on a bigger rocket, like I believe the first Falcon-Sat was.

        NASA's first failed attempts at orbit also had payloads on board.
    • Re:I had wondered... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by iamlucky13 (795185) on Friday March 24, 2006 @08:29PM (#14991939)
      The on pad static fire was just a chance to confirm that all the systems worked together. It was not a proving for the engines or the flight software (which has to be exposed to a myriad of conditions you can't replicate during a static hold-down fire). In fact, firing the tanks dry with the rocket still on the ground receiving back blast probably wouldn't be a good idea. Over the past two years, however, SpaceX has tested the engines thoroughly on stands in the desert, logging several times what it takes to reach orbit on single engines. As Elon has said, they are pretty confident in the capability and reliability of the engines. I think faulting the schedule, especially when they've already been willing to delay a couple times for relatively small issues, is premature and a little unfair.

      They have also thoroughly simulated the flight software, I believe with the hardware hooked up under simulated loads, as well. Of course, it's impossible to truly predict every contingency that the software will have to deal with, and given that the rocket began to exhibit uncontrolled roll rather than loss of power or anything like that, I suspect the problem does ultimately lie in the software rather than the power plant. We will have to wait for them to discuss their analysis to find out. I understand they have a relatively small code base, so hopefully they will be able to track it down quickly.

      One other possibility I think fairly likely is vulnerability of their communications inside the rocket. Supposedly this is the first rocket to rely principly on ethernet, which reduces cost significantly over propriety methods. This is untested in flight, and interference or vibration may have caused problems.

      I'm pretty bummed out by this, but their progress in the last couple of years is still impressive, and I'm looking forward to their eventual announcement of a second launch date. I wonder if it was a non-issue the recovery ship was out of position...or a good thing they moved it.
      • Re:I had wondered... (Score:3, Interesting)

        by DerekLyons (302214)

        They have also thoroughly simulated the flight software, I believe with the hardware hooked up under simulated loads, as well. Of course, it's impossible to truly predict every contingency that the software will have to deal with, and given that the rocket began to exhibit uncontrolled roll rather than loss of power or anything like that, I suspect the problem does ultimately lie in the software rather than the power plant.

        OTOH, it's entirely possible that the fault lies with the power plant components th

    • Re:I had wondered... (Score:5, Informative)

      by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater@nosPam.gmail.com> on Friday March 24, 2006 @09:27PM (#14992129) Homepage
      I thought it a bit odd that the static test was for only three seconds and took place the day before the launch. I would not be surpised if the accident was a by-product of them pushing their schedule.
      Pushing the schedule? This launch is eighteen months behind schedule.
  • by ds_job (896062) on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:26PM (#14991651)
    That will be reusable as in "We are all reused parts of supernovae" or "We all have a billion atoms of Julius Caesar's body incorporated into our own" and not "Just pick it up , dust it off and we're ready to go again!"
    • Hook the afterburner remains up to ten powerful batteries, and you may be able to toast a light snack.
    • Actually it is the "partially" in the sense that the first stage should parachute and be reused, but the second stage is space junk.
      • by roystgnr (4015) <roystgnr@t[ ]m.utexas.edu ['ica' in gap]> on Friday March 24, 2006 @09:22PM (#14992122) Homepage
        Actually it is the "partially" in the sense that the first stage should parachute and be reused, but the second stage is space junk.

        This is the right way to do it, too. Lower stages are larger, so you can save more money making them reusable. They're less important for overall rocket performance, so when making them reusable reduces their performance it's not so bad. They don't reach orbital speeds, so you can recover them without reentry shields or even without flyback capability. If we're going to move toward reusable rockets (which could be a very good idea) at a gradual pace (which the Shuttle program has proved is a good idea), the way to start is from the bottom up.
      • That was the sound of the joke flying right over your head ... until you cut its thrust off and it fell back to Earth in a heap of burning un-funnyness.
  • Guidance? (Score:5, Informative)

    by TopSpin (753) * on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:27PM (#14991652) Journal
    Watching the webcast it looked to me like the vehicle had a guidance problem; the on-board view seemed to be spinning. The feed didn't really provide enough to tell, however.

    It definitely cleared the pad and I think it got to a few thousand feet.

    • Re:Guidance? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by twostar (675002) on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:33PM (#14991680) Journal
      It also looked like it went unstable with a wobble. Spaceflight Now is reporting that the flame looked funny right before video was cut but this could be due to a weird orientation of the vehicle relative to the flight path. (ie sideways)

      Hopefully we get more info soon and Elon flies the next one as soon as they figure it out. Take a page out of NASA's early history and just keep putting them up until you get it right. Luckily at $6 million a pop they're pretty reasonably priced compaired to other vehicles out there.
      • Re:Guidance? (Score:3, Insightful)

        by quanticle (843097)

        Take a page out of NASA's early history and just keep putting them up until you get it right.

        That works when you've got essentially unlimited funding, like NASA got in the '60s. However, SpaceX, being a privately funded company has to get it right a lot faster than NASA before its contract pool dries up.

    • Or Engine (Score:4, Interesting)

      by amightywind (691887) on Friday March 24, 2006 @08:06PM (#14991833) Journal

      Spaceflight Now [spaceflightnow.com] observed:

      A further look at the imagery seen from the onboard camera mounted to the Falcon 1 shows a noticeable change in the color and shape of the flame coming from the Merlin first stage main engine as the vehicle seemed to roll. It was at that point the webcast provided to reporters covering the launch immediately stopped. Repeated efforts to reconnect to the feed were unsuccessful.

      Seems to be a problem with the engine, a leak, or pump failure. A turbopump that has seized could induce a sharp roll.

      • It seems an engine problem would be more worrisome than a guidance problem. If there are structural integrity or turbopump problems, then that's a more fundamental problem than debugging the guidance software.
        • True. I would think that they could debug guidance software pretty well seperate from the integrated rocket unless the sensor inputs were screwed up. I don't know how the first stage is guided, whether it uses gimbal mounted engines or vernier thrusters. Thrusters would be simpler, but I didn't see them. As for a structural problem, remember that the previous launch was scrubbed because of a tank overpressure. Who knows if it was really fixed.

    • Plume (Score:5, Informative)

      by everphilski (877346) on Friday March 24, 2006 @08:22PM (#14991914) Journal
      There was a plume coming out the side of the rocket in the last few frames of the SpaceX feed, normal to the body of the rocket - not the direction of flight. Most likely due to an engine/turbopump failure. This could possibly cause adverse roll/pitching. It looks like a physical problem; I doubt it was a guidance problem.
      • how can you tell it was not normal to flight? I was watching and couldn't tell orientation of the vehicle relative to anything else at that point.
    • If you're looking for it, you can see the LOX blanket didn't detach properly. So that would have been thrashing around in the chaotic airflow behind the vehicle, and trailing into the exhaust plume. Seriously not good.

      For example, if the blanket wrapped around a feedpipe for the engine and then got tugged by the plume or the airflow it could easily have disabled the engines.

      Blankets like that are a known reliability issue, that's why the Shuttle has spray-on insulation on it's ET (not that that's been e

  • by moochfish (822730) on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:27PM (#14991653)
    Now it's the world's first privately funded satellite crater.
  • Woohoo! (Score:5, Funny)

    by MyLongNickName (822545) on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:28PM (#14991659) Journal
    I've got two tickets for the maiden flight of Falcon 2! I guess this means I should get my ride soon, huh?
  • a few seconds after T-0 - it was looking good until then, but then the stream dropped. There was a few seconds of video through a window with water streaming down it - probably one of the pad cameras.

    These things happen...
  • This isn't... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Tackhead (54550) on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:29PM (#14991668)
    C'mon, Elon! This isn't rocket sci... oh, right. Well then, there we are.

    And to add insult to injury, we'll link your web server from Slashdot.

    Seriously, Elon. Good on you. SpaceX is doing something risky and interesting. Make as many mistakes as it takes to get the job done. Unlike NASA, the bulk of your funding comes from a free market, and you're therefore motivated to learn from your mistakes. The day you build something your investors are willing to let you slap a "man-rated" label on, I'll be in line with tickets to fly on it.

    • Re:This isn't... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:55PM (#14991787)
      Wait..you're saying private investors are more likely to have safety concerns?

      *boggle*

      I mean, we're talking about the same sort of folks who, in other industries, constantly push companies to release products as early as they can in order to start realizing a profit. Go look at the drug industry. As private companies have increasingly gained influence over the FDA through lobbyists, the number of things slipping through has increased. Private companies cannot be relied upon to have the best interests of anything but their own pocketbook.
      • Re:This isn't... (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Tackhead (54550)
        > Wait..you're saying private investors are more likely to have safety concerns?
        >
        > *boggle*

        Yes, that is what I'm saying.

        When NASA becomes "Need Another Seven Astronauts", they burn through several billion dollars in funding to fly nowhere, and to change the name to "Need Another Seven, Again".

        When SpaceX, or Scaled Composities, or Armadillo, or any other startup blows up a manned spacecraft - twice - and for the same fundamental reason, they'll go out of business.

        Out of curiosity -- would

        • Re:This isn't... (Score:3, Insightful)

          by crotherm (160925)


          You obviously have no clue the lengths the NASA contractors go to make safe spacecraft. The two shuttle disaster never had anything to do with the orbiter. It was always the add on stuff. Sure it was part of the whole package, but the contractor that made the orbiter did not make the external tanks and engines.

          Out of curiosity -- would you prefer to fly JetBlue, or Aeroflot?

          What a horrible example. What would you rather fly, SpaceX, the Shuttle, Soyuz, an Apollo circa 1972?
          • Re:This isn't... (Score:4, Informative)

            by georgewilliamherbert (211790) on Friday March 24, 2006 @09:37PM (#14992169)
            Do you have any idea how many orbiter specific safety problems remain with the Shuttle system?

            The main engines are still cranky, though probably an order of magnitude better than the early Shuttle launches.

            The hydrazine APUs are an issue.

            Aging of the reinforced carbon-carbon leading edge panels is still not as well understood as we thought a few years ago, and may leave them much more vulnerable than we would like.

            These are just the ones at the top of my head; last rundown I saw including all the age-related stuff they would need to recertify for flight past 2010 had several hundred crit-1 items.
        • Re:This isn't... (Score:4, Insightful)

          by EnronHaliburton2004 (815366) * on Friday March 24, 2006 @09:20PM (#14992115) Homepage Journal
          they burn through several billion dollars in funding to fly nowhere,

          Except they flew to SPACE, didn't they. I think NASA has even made it to orbit once or twice since the Challenger disaster, and I dare say they've had a couple successful experiments while they were up there.

          Can private interests do this also? Probably.

          Spaceflight is dangerous. Your jokes about the Challenger & Columbia accidents are pretty fucking lame.
      • Wait..you're saying private investors are more likely to have safety concerns? ... Private companies cannot be relied upon to have the best interests of anything but their own pocketbook.

        Sure, but space launch is a situation where safety has a direct impact on the company's pocketbook, which is why space launch companies are so paranoid about it.
      • Wait..you're saying private investors are more likely to have safety concerns?

        Not necessarily, but the investors providing the payload will be motivated to minimize their risk. If it's cheaper to improve the launch vehicle's reliability than to replace a lost satellite, you bet they'll work on improving reliability.

        Eventually the system reaches a point where the rocket is safe enough that the chances of losing one's investment are very small.

        Of course, once it's cheaper to just fly instead of improving saf
      • Private companies cannot be relied upon to have the best interests of anything but their own pocketbook.

        Exactly the grandparent's point. Whose "pocketbook" is served when a rocket blows up, losing expensive cargo and/or killing passengers? Safety is a market force.
  • I am confident (Score:2, Insightful)

    by irimi_00 (962766)
    I am confident that if this is a decent company whose mission is positive and positive things will come from their success, then in the long run they will succeed despite short term failure.
  • ...servers crashing sucks but at least I don't have to worry about millions of investment dollars going up in flames. Ouch.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:39PM (#14991710)
    Looks like engine failure or some kind of catastrophic tank or plumbing failure.

    Quoting Spaceflight Now (a real space news site!)

    http://spaceflightnow.com/falcon/f1/status.html [spaceflightnow.com]

    326 GMT (6:26 p.m. EST)
    Here is the official statement from Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX:

    "We had a successful liftoff and Falcon made it well clear of the launch pad, but unfortunately the vehicle was lost later in the first stage burn. More information will be posted once we have had time to analyze the problem."


    2250 GMT (5:50 p.m. EST)
    A further look at the imagery seen from the onboard camera mounted to the Falcon 1 shows a noticeable change in the color and shape of the flame coming from the Merlin first stage main engine as the vehicle seemed to roll. It was at that point the webcast provided to reporters covering the launch immediately stopped. Repeated efforts to reconnect to the feed were unsuccessful.
    • the change in plume could have just been because of a change in the orientation of the vehicle relative to the trajectory (ie turned sideways). Nothing really points to an engine malfunction yet. Could have been avionics, which have been known to cause problems for rockets in the past.
  • by nacnud75 (963443) on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:42PM (#14991724)
    Live video was shown of the vehicle's ascent from an onboard downward pointing camera. Within a few seconds the feed started to become intermittent. The small amount of imagery available showed a bright yellow glow protruding away from the normal exhaust pattern, as the rocket began to roll violently. The ascent profile also appeared to be more horizontal than what would be expected for that stage of the ascent. The video then cut out completely - with SpaceX confirming the rocket had been lost just moments later. - http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/content/?id=4394 [nasaspaceflight.com]
    • Video URL (Score:5, Informative)

      by antdude (79039) on Friday March 24, 2006 @09:07PM (#14992062) Homepage Journal
      2.3 MB WMV [nasaspaceflight.com].
      • Re:Video URL (Score:3, Interesting)

        by d474 (695126)
        Looks like from the video and the comments from the rocket buffs at SpaceX comment thread, the thermal blanket didn't completely come off during the take off. Supposedly, it's attached to the rocket with velcro and a lanyard of some sort is supposed to pull it off at launch. But if you watch the video, you can clearly see something flapping or moving around that looks like a blanket. Then there is a puff of dark gray smoke, flames start shooting off in some weird direction, and the rocket starts going si
  • by Skiron (735617) on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:57PM (#14991794) Homepage
    Perhaps they should have called it 'Vista'.
  • Space Aint Cheap (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Ash Vince (602485) on Friday March 24, 2006 @07:59PM (#14991802) Journal
    Its interesting to compare this with the scram jet trials currently scheduled by Qinetic (British Defence Contractor thats just been privatised)

    Qinetic are about to test fire a £1 million scramjet directly into the ground. If it works it will fire for 6 seconds before it hits earth at mach 7.

    The problem with seeking venture capital is the the investors usually want a return of their investment within a specified (Probably too short) time frame.

    Successful space exploration takes man decades not man hours.
  • Did it impact the ground before Range Safety got to it? Inquiring minds want video!
    • A mirror of video the launch is at http://cxreg.genericorp.net/ [genericorp.net]
    • by kitzilla (266382)
      Falcon defaults to engine shutdown, not auto-destruct.
    • Re:Anyone know? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by iamlucky13 (795185) on Friday March 24, 2006 @08:55PM (#14992026)
      "...before range safety got to it?"

      That reminds me of an interesting talk I attended by an X-ray astro-physicist back in college. He had been involved in several launches. Not surprisingly, they are very personally invested in the payloads, since they spend quite a few years fighting for budgeting and designing and building, and plan to spend several more years analyzing data. He said there was one launch where the rocket went off course and the Range Safety Officer gave the order to blow it, but the lead scientist jumped on the guy in charge of the button in a rather desperate attempt to save his project (which was doomed anyways). Since then, the customers have been kept in a seperate room from the RSO's.

      Smells of a tall tale, but probably based on fact.
  • by atari2600 (545988) on Friday March 24, 2006 @08:03PM (#14991813)
    Unconfirmed reports state that Chuck Norris was seen leaving the scene of the accident with a blow-pipe in his left hand.
  • Darn (Score:4, Informative)

    by FleaPlus (6935) on Friday March 24, 2006 @08:05PM (#14991826) Journal
    I'm pretty bummed out about this, but hopefully they'll figure things out and the next flight will go better. My sentiments are pretty much the same as this commentary from Clark Lindsay: [hobbyspace.com]

    Well, this is fairly typical for the first launch of a new vehicle. I hope they will figure out the problem soon and be ready for a second attempt not long after. Elon Musk has said he can afford up to three straight failures before he will decide if they should give up or not.

    Also, an interesting comment from that page:

    According to Astronautix, the Ariane 1 had failures on the 2nd and 5th launches and Aerospatiale spent a lot more than SpaceX.

    Both SpaceflightNow and the forum on NasaSpaceFlight are speculating it was an ablative engine failure. If so, I would imagine they'll hold off on any more launches until the regen Merlin 1B is ready. According to an SpaceX update in mid-2005, they should already have a dozen 1Bs by the end of the 2005. Or it could be the turbopump which according to SpaceX engine page is also responsible for roll control. That might explain why it started to roll after launch.
  • You just dont have problems like this when writing code for the web.... that is unless you are coding for a bank and and use 1...2...3...4...5.. as your session numbers! :)
  • by yermoungder (602567) * on Friday March 24, 2006 @08:15PM (#14991883)
    I hope they have enough flight data to re-create (virtually) what happened in the lab. I'd be very interested to find out if this was a software error... and if so, what could have prevented it - different language (Ada95?), better test tools (www.polyspace.com?)...
  • by nurb432 (527695) on Friday March 24, 2006 @10:11PM (#14992265) Homepage Journal
    Going to space is hard, and risky. To get it right will take a few brusies. Thankfully no one had to die to learn todays lesson.
  • Ariane 5 (Score:5, Informative)

    by JonBuck (112195) on Friday March 24, 2006 @10:21PM (#14992297)
    Consider for a moment the failure of Ariane 5's maiden flight in 1996. [cnn.com]

    Aboard Ariane 5 was Cluster -- a $500 million set of four identical scientific satellites that were designed to to establish precisely how the Earth's magnetic field interacts with solar winds.

    The unmanned rocket was on its first voyage after years of intense development by some of Europe's leading scientists. The explosion was a setback for Arianespace, whose previous models of the Ariane rocket had been some of the most reliable vehicles for satellite launches.

    The European Space Agency estimated that total development of Ariane 5 cost more than $8 billion.


    Maiden flights are perilous things. They got a full minute of flight data that they didn't have before. I'm sure the next one will be a success.
  • by Baldrson (78598) * on Friday March 24, 2006 @10:26PM (#14992302) Homepage Journal
    One of the things that John Carmack does correctly is lots of small flights with the possibility to scale upon success. John Walker wrote a paper about this approach (restricted to expendables) called "A Rocket a Day Keeps the High Costs Away [fourmilab.ch]". It's good advice. It's too bad more people (to be fair, such as John Walker himself) don't take it to heart.

  • by Jafafa Hots (580169) on Friday March 24, 2006 @10:45PM (#14992352) Homepage Journal
    This was how it's supposed to work - the rocket had never had this large an amount of activity before, so when their systems detected a sudden surge in activity, the rocket was flagged for suspicious behavior and frozen.

    The customer assures us that they were launching a legitimate satellite, but they have been unable to get a response from SpaceX customer service.

  • Master Blasters (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tekrat (242117) on Saturday March 25, 2006 @08:02AM (#14993231) Homepage Journal
    How come on the failed Sci-Fi show Master Blasters, they could shoot a Mini-Cooper 1000 feet successfully with a week of construction, but these guys, with a real rocket, built over months, couldn't do any better?

    Is there something I'm missing here?

    We have very well-known research that dates back to Goddard and a little later, the V-2, which launched successfully from cruder facilities.

    Why is it that we continue to have a non-bulletproof system after all these years of engineering? This is like building cars 50 years later that still only go 12mph and sputter and smoke and backfire, and have to be cranked to run. How is it that we have cars that go 100mph easily, that are comfortable, fairly safe, and affordable by the average person?

This system will self-destruct in five minutes.

Working...