You've probably seen the film clip of NASA's 1960 Mercury-Redstone 1 test launch attempt in compilations of failures. Nothing much happens, but the rocket does not slip the surly bonds of earth. Not by a long shot.
As you can see from the video, the rocket engines fired, but then stopped again very quickly. What followed were several seemingly random events. The first thing to happen was the escape tower disappearing in a cloud of smoke, followed by the release of the recovery parachute that was designed to carry the Mercury capsule safely back to Earth. You will notice that the parachute did not inflate. This is hardly surprising, as the capsule was sat motionless on its launchpad.
The whole rocket had travelled 4 inches. 10 centimetres. Less than the length of your smartphone.
Everything then fell silent but the potential for disaster was still high. Here was a rocket, full of fuel, powered by internal batteries and packed with explosive charges. However, luck was on NASA’s side – the wind was gentle, and the rocket stayed safely upright. What began as a dangerous situation ended as an amusing comedy of errors. But what had gone wrong?
(Image credit: NASA)