Category Archives: SpaceX

Landing the Business of Launch

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The history-making Falcon 9 Upgrade ready to launch at Space Launch Complex 40. Image from SpaceX.

SpaceX was very confident that today’s successful landing would happen. Instead of hedging the outcome as they had in previous launches, statements from people within the company before the launch today indicated that today was the day. And today was their day.

I’m assuming you’ve seen the footage of the Falcon 9’s first stage landing on a barge, and–and this is the most important part–staying upright and intact. If not, you should really watch the video, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEr9cPpuAx8. To see the rocket land, on a barge, is pretty nifty.

But after today, what will happen? Does the launch industry change? Does it get cheaper? Well, not right away. Some of it depends on whether SpaceX can just get down to the business of launching. According to SpaceFlightNow.com’s launch manifest, SpaceX has at least 11 other launches to clear this year. That’s quite a few, but perhaps not impossible to accomplish. But the company has barely launched slightly over half that number so far in the past few years. There’s also the possible launch of their Falcon Heavy, promised for many years but yet to make it past artist conceptions into reality.

SpaceX also must prove the Falcon 9’s first stage is reusable. Landing it on a barge is awesome, but how quickly can they turn it around and use it again? Blue Origin, another rocket manufacturer and potential launch provider, is kind of setting the standard with their New Shepard suborbital rocket. The company launched the same rocket and engine three times, supposedly with minimal inspections of the whole thing in-between. The average turn-around for their rocket seems to be about a month and a half. In fact, Blue Origin’s third launch of New Shepard occurred just last weekend, on April 2. Of course, they have a pretty cool video to watch as well: https://www.blueorigin.com/news/news/pushing-the-envelope.

Can SpaceX match or exceed Blue Origin’s turnaround time? How often will a reusable stage be reusable? Whatever the answer, there are quite a few companies ready to buy a berth on a reusable rocket. There’re a lot of plans and pressure for launch services. More importantly, there are markets hungry for the services and products coming from space. The price of a space launch needs to come down. SpaceX is one of the cheaper launch providers, and if it, or Blue Origin, or someone else, succeeds in incorporating a reusable space launch vehicle in their business, prices will, after a while, start falling.

But, while SpaceX deservedly got their time in the limelight today, tomorrow they need to do one thing: launch!

And then launch some more…

SpaceX’s CRS7 mission explodes

The Falcon 9 a little over 2 minutes after launch. Image from NASA TV courtesy of SpaceNew.com

This Sunday morning, a Falcon 9 rocket was supposed to launch and deliver supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). And while SpaceX launched the rocket around 8:20 AM (MST) this morning, the resupply mission, CRS7, didn’t make it. The Falcon 9 exploded a little over 2 minutes into flight. There were mentions of an anomaly right before the explosion, but that word has little meaning to public understanding of what happened.

The mission was intended to get supplies and equipment to the ISS. Two days after launch, the Dragon resupply capsule would have rendezvoused with the ISS and the crew would have started unloading the slightly over 4000 pounds (nearly 2000 kilograms) of supplies, vehicle equipment, experiments, and more. Eight of Planet Labs’ cubesats were also aboard as cargo, and would have been deployed in the months after they had been transferred from the Dragon to the ISS.

After today, of course, none of that mission is possible. The question is, what will happen next? Some might say it’s a reflection of our character as a nation on how we act towards this accident. There are already a few people who are ready to take their “ball,” the taxpayers’ money, and go home. Sad to say, there are some who have been waiting for something like this to happen, and are ready to undercut the pile of work that has gone into not only NASA’s and SpaceX’s work, but Orbital Sciences’, Boeing’s, and Sierra Nevada, and quite a few others.

But, and I admit this as me being optimistic, I’d like to think there are a few more level-head people who will, as they did with Antares, note that this kind of thing is the price of working in space. Occasionally, especially with long tubes of fuel and complex machinery flying through the sky, things go “boom.” And then those same level-headed people will just turn around and continue working to get the U.S. a commercial rocket fleet–which would be a first of its kind in the world.

We already saw some wisdom in NASA’s approach when the Antares launch failure occurred. While bad for Orbital Sciences, the accident didn’t seem to cripple NASA’s ability to resupply the ISS, because there was still SpaceX’s Falcon rocket ready for use. If anything, this latest incident with SpaceX seems to be full of opportunities.

First, SpaceX has the chance to show its chops to perhaps do a quick-turnaround on this. The company has already said it wants to be able to launch their rockets quickly, so why not just get another one on the pad? Of course, the company and NASA would still be striving to figure out what happened with today’s rocket. But, isn’t part of this whole concept just to keep launching in spite of some hiccups?

Second, get more players involved with the business of launching. NASA basically whittled the field down to two resupply players, SpaceX and Orbital, because of money. But today’s lesson should be showing just how frail our space launch infrastructure is with even two launch systems resupplying the ISS. Get someone else in there. Heck, the United Launch Alliance might be able to pick up some slack on this, and in the process prove they can compete with the lower launch prices. It doesn’t even have to be through as complicated a contract vehicle as NASA’s Commercial Cargo.

Third, keep pushing government money out of the industry. If other political players are attempting to influence the future of humanity in the stars by taking funding away to get work done on a bridge to nowhere, then maybe that’s a sign that government might not be the best steward for fostering the space industry.

And, oh by the way, the more we do this kind of thing, the better our rockets will be.

In the end, I’d like to think some combination of these three options will happen. But I’ve also seen enough shenanigans to know that none of these options might ever happen because–politics. But for now I’m cheering NASA and all these companies to get up. Get up, keep showing how amazing your products are, and how smart and tough your engineers are, and ultimately ignore the whiners who want to take their ball and go home. You’re the ones on the ball court, not them.

“Hold your fire.” SpaceX’s “Escape Pod”

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule making its escape. Image from SpaceX. Click to embiggen.

When I first saw images of SpaceX’s test of their Dragon capsule’s pad abort test, the obvious nerd-quote going through my mind was “Hold your fire. There’s no lifeforms.” Which was true for the test. And if you don’t get the reference, please just search on the net, roll your eyes, and sigh. For the rest of you, you’re welcome!!

The big news, then, is that on May 6, 2015, SpaceX conducted the first test of the abort system for their capsule, and it looks like it worked. It also looked really cool. But why conduct this nifty-looking test in the first place? In plain English, SpaceX would like to build space capsules to take humans into space. The capsule they’re advertising to accomplish this feat is the Dragon Version 2 (v2). The pad abort test they conducted this last week was a step towards actually building and operating a manned capsule.

The test is a milestone, a critical step, required by NASA of SpaceX as a part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The program’s goal is to ferry people to and from the International Space Station (ISS) using commercially-built space capsules from the U.S. (for more information about this interesting program, click here). This particular milestone begins testing the Dragon’s escape system, which is supposed to keep astronauts safe in case something goes wrong with the rocket beneath it–such as going kablooey like Orbital’s Antares rocket did in October 2014. If such an explosive event were to occur, then the capsule needs to lift off from the rocket body quickly, which it looks like the Dragon does. See the video of the test below and then read on.

According to SpaceX, the capsule accelerated from rest to 100 mph (161 kmh) in 1.2 seconds. It eventually reached a top speed of 345 mph (555 kmh), and was supposed to fly as high as 5.000 ft (1524 meters). It took eight liquid-fed SuperDraco engines to move the capsule that high and that quickly. Each engine puts out 15,000 lbs of thrust. The same engines would normally be used for Dragon capsule landing after atmospheric re-entry.

The capsule does separate from the trunk (the white cylinder it’s attached to), flips, and then pops out a few parachutes to float down to the Atlantic Ocean. The Dragon capsule is supposed to be able to do this type of maneuver throughout a rocket flight, from launch pad through orbit. SpaceX notes that, based on data from the 270 sensors mounted on the capsule and possibly on the dummy sitting inside, a human would have come through just fine. But this is a single test, and there’s more testing to come for SpaceX. SpaceX is aiming to get the Dragon crew-rated and actually manned by humans traveling in it to and from the ISS come 2017. They seem to be making great progress.

You can go to SpaceX’s Pad Abort webpages to read more about the test and view the pictures.

SpaceX: They’re Not the First Ones to Try This

Image hosted on Pat Dollard’s website. There are some videos of the Falcon 9 Reusable’s untimely demise on that site, too.

It seems I hear this refrain a lot in reference to SpaceX and its rocket reusability attempts, “They’re not the first ones to try this.”  It gets a little tiresome because it sounds like an informed opinion, but really isn’t.   It also seems that SpaceX itself is dealing with the same kind of sentimen–but I can only imagine it’s on a larger scale.  At least that’s what this Aviation Week article, which was posted in May 2014, hints at.

The post talks about the optimistic assessment SpaceX naturally has about its own engines and about how many times they can be used (SpaceX say about 40 in the article).  And it contrasts this optimism with the experience and cautions of people who worked with the space shuttle and the French-run attempts at building a reusable Ariane 5 rocket.  Sure, such people should be listened to, because there probably are very few people in the reusable rocket area with hands-on expertise.  But just because the way they attempted to make reusability a reality didn’t work, doesn’t mean that SpaceX will not be successful.  What it does mean is that making reusable rockets that can deliver payloads into space is very hard.

So, okay–it’s been attempted before.  But it was attempted by different people in a different time in different programs with older technology.  As humans, some of us tend to learn from all of those variables.  SpaceX tends to hire some smart humans who are definitely capable of learning lessons from those.  They might even recognize certain lessons might not apply.  Does it matter if they aren’t the first ones to do it?  Probably not.  Just look at Microsoft and smartphones, or Microsoft and tablet computers.  That company tried very hard to push either computing platform into the mainstream–with very little success.  Then along comes Apple…

I’m not saying SpaceX is Apple.  But they might just be the rocket company that pushes cheap launch services, because of reusability, towards the mainstream more than any other company.  It just depends on how they do it, and not who attempted to do it before.  If they don’t initially succeed, there’s always the people who come out of the woodwork and, with a perverse glee, talk about how wrong it was for SpaceX to try their hand at this sort of thing.  But SpaceX will probably ignore those comments, thankfully, and try again.  And if they succeed, is that really such a terrible thing?  As for the post, it might be worth reading, if only to understand some of the arguments and history for the “It’s been tried before sentiment.”

Three Guys, Three Shovels, One Launchpad

They’re smiling because it’s only a few shovelfuls for them. Then the real work begins. Perry looks very comfortable at shoveling though.  Image from Rick Perry’s Twitter feed, 11:22AM, 22 Sept 14.

Let’s continue the whole SpaceX/Texas spaceport theme a little bit more.  Last week there were a few posts on this site about SpaceX’s move of launch operations near Brownsville, Texas.  According to The Register, SpaceX broke ground on the future launch site Monday, 22 Sept 14.

Texas is giving SpaceX a little over $15 million to build the privately owned launch complex in the southern part of the state.  Even though ground was broken for the site yesterday, actual construction probably won’t begin until mid-2015.  Everyone seems very optimistic about job creation in south Texas, but Musk has made it clear the launch complex will be used to launch rockets not only into orbit, but also to Mars.

Image from Slashgear.

Yes, it looks barren and uninteresting. It’s south Texas after all. Image hosted on Slashgear.

What will the launch complex look like?  According to the pictures (above) on Slashgear’s site, it doesn’t look like much.  However bland it looks, exciting and possibly historic activities might occur there.  It may be the launchpad where SpaceX starts using their first truly reusable Falcon-9, since there will be a lot less red tape for them to cut through.  Even though building starts in mid-2015, Musk believes they will be launching 1 rocket a month from the site starting in late 2016.  Chances are good that the facility will have more up-to-date equipment for safety and launching than NASA or the DoD would have been able to field for their sites.

Nevada is another state that gave money to Musk in hopes of job generation and setting up a golden goose for tax purposes.  The state gave Musk’s proposed and privately-owned Tesla battery factory a $1.3 billion (yes, that’s a ‘b’) package.  In comparison, Texas, for being such big state, donated a relatively paltry sum.  But maybe they’re being more responsible to the taxpayers.  JK–no one in government thinks they’re responsible to the taxpayers :-(.