Posts Tagged ‘SpaceX’

Once you know something about a subject, you can see most news reporting and public discussion as the horrible misguided speculation and false myths presented as facts that it really is. This time it’s SpaceX’s successful orbiting.

Some myths and their corrections:

  • SpaceX is the first private company to reach orbit – not so, Orbital Sciences did this in the nineties.
  • Well, Orbital used government motors – no, they were allied with a solid rocket manufacturer. And SpaceX’s Merlin engine is based on the NASA-funded Fasttrack engine of the nineties. The turbomachinery manufacturer is the same, Barber-Nichols.
  • SpaceX is very lean – no, Orbital had much less employees back in their first launch of their first rocket, Pegasus, which was a success on first launch and developed much faster than the Falcon 1.
  • SpaceX is going to change everything – how exactly? They are vertically integrated but their rocketry is very ordinary and conservative and completely expendable (as I predicted. We already got reports that the first stage was destroyed during re-entry).

Of course, the mechanics of peer moderation on Slashdot leads to confirmation bias – people moderate up some points which they agree with, and the discussion floats into its own sphere that is completely unattached to reality.

This is completely opposite to expert and professional knowledge.

It’s a real problem with Wikipedia as well, where popular myths peddled by amateurs rule over the experts simply by majority and perseverance. Anti-intellectual arguments and the separation of those who know (the people in lab coats) and the ordinary people (who vote and thus hold the power) just gets worse day by day.


Kert in the comments section links to an article (Thanks!)

If [insert rocket here] works, the company said it could sell commercial launchings for $6 million to $7 million each, or about $6,000 per pound of payload. That would be a vast improvement over the $20,000 per pound to send a small satellite aloft on the only other rocket designed specifically for lightweight payloads, the ground-launched Scout rocket made by the LTV Corporation.

[insert rocket here] = Orbital Sciences’ Pegasus. The article is from New York Times April 4 1990.

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Congrats to SpaceX

Felt a bit surreal to finally see the rocket reach orbit after three failures. What a sense to at last use a dummy payload.

SpaceX won’t change the world of space travel, all their hardware seems expendable in reality. I don’t think we’ll hear about the first stage recovery this time either.

The real reusable launch vehicles will come. As I write this, people like Paul Breed, John Carmack and many others are probably going back to their work after watching Elon Musk’s moves. The future awaits…

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The first stage worked flawlessly but the staging malfunctioned. I wasn’t watching, but went to bed at 4 am local time after waiting through some launch delays, thinking that it’d take forever anyway, and of course the launch was right after.

What’s always been a mystery to me, if SpaceX is selling their Falcon 1 rocket at just about eight million dollars, why don’t they do a lot more test flights with dummy payloads? It seems that it would accelerate development a lot, since the hundreds of workers can’t be cheap to just keep working – a delay of a few months in selling some rocket flights will surely be costly.

During the webcast run-up to the launch, they showed Elon Musk doing a tour of their factory, and everything in their production processes seemed well automated and thought out, since they have to do so many engines for Falcon 9 anyway. Just to mention the totally automated copper milling for the chamber and nozzle root liner, as well as the automatic pipe bending machine for the nozzle. 80% of the hardware of Falcon 1 is produced in house from bare metal.

On the other hand, the Merlin 1 main engine has gone through many changes, with power increases (don’t remember if the turbomachinery or injectors have changed) and the regenerative nozzle at least. That means early flight testing could not have been very representative of the design or the build or integration processes. Now they seem further along in that, with the Falcon 9 first stage recently having done a full-up hold down firing of its nine engines.

Design vs Test

There’s something fundamental about the whole issue of designing vs testing. It’s not a totally simple picture, with the current advanced computation and simulation capabilities making the boundary fuzzy. And there has always been partial hardware non-destructive testing too, like structural test models. So, can expensive destructive test flights be seen as just an extension of finding a workable design, as well as production, integration and operation processes? In that sense they all can be pooled into one, as just means of getting to some combination of capability, cost and time goals.

Even if there are no rigid mental boundaries between development and testing, one still has to make more careful judgements before doing a very expensive destructive flight test vs running a few minute configuration simulation. Of course you have to be careful with time allocation in design too, conceptual design is one tool for that, to avoid spending huge amounts of time and thus money for elaborate dead-end designs and configurations. The previous post is about that, where NASA spent a lot of design time for launchers and components that ended up too small anyway. But actually they started from very far and little assumptions in ESAS, eliminating lots of fundamental concepts in a tree analysis, pictured below.

ESAS conceptual launch vehicle design

ESAS conceptual launch vehicle design

Conceptual design is from the top down, but real hardware testing is from the bottom up. Both are needed to work in a real capability. Armadillo Aerospace’s John Carmack has mentioned innumerable times how building working hardware always discards too ambitious and overcomplicated designs (I have to shamefully admit, I have very little experience in designing built hardware, though I am in the process of changing that). If you only do conceptual design without basing anything in real hardware, you are moving on very thin ice. The NASP program was quite a good example of that.

Armadillo Aerospace's Module in tethered hover testing

Armadillo Aerospace's Module in tethered hover testing

In a sense, Falcon 1 is the hardware and process test platform for the real rocket, Falcon 9. Now that SpaceX seems to have their production line ready, I hope they would just do Falcon 1 test launches in rapid succession to iron out their bugs. (Of course, first do a lot of nondestructive ground testing, like for the pyrobolts this time.) Hopefully without charging money from the payload customers.

Again, when looking back to Wernher von Braun, after V-2 he proposed in USA the development of some new rockets and humongous amounts of test launches were included in the plan. Hardware got more reliable and rockets bigger and more complicated and thus expensive, which eliminated this approach, but it is an interesting historical mindset and viewpoint.

And again, too, of course, the fundamental property of expendable rockets that every flight ends in destruction, prevents economic partial testing. You can’t do careful envelope expansion or survive flight anomalies. Reusable flight vehicles on the other hand allow a lot of flight testing.

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I’m quite that just right now. It will pass. Perhaps.

There’s been some discussion in various places about both NASA and potential future launch vehicles. Everything’s just so static in a large sense. Completely hopeless. I’ll throw in the towel for now.

Almost nobody has the required long attention span or patience to make any useful progress on the space front, and certainly not society itself.

The Players

USA is the only instance that is putting any significant money into doing anything new. And that’s wasted on the Ares rockets. ESA consists of a bunch of bickering countries, they’ve achieved some nice things but most of the people in the parttaking countries don’t even know they exist. No significant money spent on doing anything new, and what is done in Europe, is very often just me-too copying of American approaches. (Take Hermes as an example.) India is running with some crazy hypersonic stuff. China is doing intermittent Soyuz copy PR flights. Japan is doing something overcomplicated and abortive like they have always seemed to.

What are we left with? A bunch of US newspace companies with so little funding they won’t reach much in the next decade (Euro real newspace like SPL has zero funding at the moment). Scaled’s Spaceshiptwo is a dead end propulsion wise with the hybrids, and the air launching provides some scalability problems too. Maybe XCOR’s Lynx will fly some tourists to some altitude, and maybe there might be some X-racers. It won’t change stuff radically. The X-15 lessons were tossed to the trashbin too, to make way for the farces of NASP and X-33. Armadillo might fly something newish. So what? They don’t have enough money to even put turbopumps on the vehicle, resulting in ridiculous performance for orbital missions.

SpaceX? Forget it. It’s a rerun of Orbital Sciences Corporation, at best (and at the moment it looks much worse). No revolution, and evolution only very slightly.

COTS? Maybe something will actually fly, as it seems it has to try to pick up the mess that NASA put itself in with Ares and Orion. I’m not so well versed into the coming phases and how the politics will go. Both Lockmart and Boeing are in Ares/Orion so they don’t have such strong incentives to replace it with their own COTS solution flying on EELV on the short term. Depending how tightly they can keep their own ULA/EELV guys on a leash, and that has been shown to be ugly, people having gotten into trouble for what they have said on some web forums. NASA’s logical short term COTS alternative, a capsule on an EELV is thus self-censored.

But all this, even when happening in a good way, won’t change price to orbit significantly or enable real spacefaring.

What You’d Need

You’d need a refuel and go again reusable launch vehicle (RAGA RLV) that has turbopumps. No newspace company has money for that (and they are wisely using their little money on something else anyway). Besides, you’d in any case need multiple X-vehicles to develop the techniques like TPS or launch infrastructure and procedures to maturity so they could be operated with reasonable crew size and consistency. A launcher could be depended upon.

Human societies don’t seem to have capability to demand long term commitment to that technology development.

Environment Analogy

Same with the environment. If oil prices stay above 100 dollars, coal based petroleum will come soon and the synthesis already will produce massive amounts of CO2. New coal plants will be built too to produce cheap electricity to consumers who want it. Earth will change significantly with the resulting temperature rise.

No significant new energy producing or saving technology or international pacts will be seriously considered, never mind put into effect in the next ten years.

P.S. This post was written with the new Firefox 3. Hope it doesn’t muck up during publishing. Happy Midsummer. Looks to be rainy here.

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