Category Archives: Science And Society

The SpaceX “Test Failure”

This isn’t new — I wrote it on Saturday at Ricochet, but it’s behind the paywall, so I thought I’d repost it here:

So the big news yesterday for people in the space business was that SpaceX finally lost an experimental test vehicle in its program to make its vehicles reusable (crucial to dramatically reducing costs to the point necessary to achieve its corporate goal of opening up the solar system). Some criticized it as a “failure” of the company. This is nonsense.

People need to understand that the purpose of an engineering test is to learn something. As I said on Twitter last night, the only “failed” test is one in which you didn’t get the information you were seeking. Losing hardware in a test is not a “test failure,” per se:

For example, consider the crash testing of cars, in which a successful test results in a wrecked car, but tells you what its weak points are so that you can improve the design, and the only test “failure” you can have is if the car fails to hit the barrier. In SpaceX’s case, the goal of the test wasn’t to destroy the vehicle per se, but they were fully aware that this could be an outcome. In fact, Gwynne Shotwell, the company president, said last year that she was a little disappointed that they retired the first test vehicle, Grasshopper, because the fact that they didn’t lose it in a test meant that they weren’t pushing the envelope hard enough.

Had it failed to deliver a payload of a paying customer to its designated destination, that could have rightfully been called a “failure” and the company justly criticized for it. But when an experimental vehicle crashes during a flight test, that’s called “flight test.”

SpaceX probably knows, but it hasn’t yet been reported what the cause was. The most common cause of failure in rockets is failure of stage separation, which doesn’t apply in this case, of course, since it is a single-stage test vehicle. Also, it could be an engine failure, but they have a lot of experience with their engines and hardware in general, so that’s an unlikely cause.

For this kind of vehicle, it’s really a test of the flight-control system, which is not only the computers, and sensors, and software, but the actuators that steer it. It’s possible that they had an actuator or engine-gimbal hardware failure, but they’ve had lots of test flights and never run into that problem. My guess (and it’s only that), based on viewing the video, is that they were pushing the vehicle beyond its capabilities to do something (perhaps translate, i.e., go sideways, while also descending or changing attitude) that they’d never attempted before, and it lost control (like an aircraft in a tailspin) without ability to regain it.

Once you lose control the decision to terminate flight comes pretty quickly, because bad things can happen very quickly after that. If they hadn’t been able to do the flight termination, and if it had resulted in unexpected damage on the ground, that would have been grounds for criticism, but the vehicle was safed exactly as planned, under FAA guidance and supervision.

Other than losing the vehicle, this flight was indeed a great success by the criteria of providing the information desired. At least two people from SpaceX, including Lars Blackmore, the lead of their entry, recovery and landing team, tweeted last night that they got “lots” of data.

Presumably in this case, if my theory is correct, they now understand the limits of the flight-control system. It may be that they will be able to ground simulate the failure, and tweak the software to avoid it in the future.

Was this a setback for SpaceX? Someone on Fox referred to the test last night with “A small rung on a long ladder to Mars broke on Friday, when a rocket test in Texas ended in a midair ball of fire.”

Jeff Foust called it that in his piece at the NewSpace Journal, and Jeff is a very smart guy, but I think he’s wrong, or at least, it’s not obvious that it is. In fact, when I asked him, Lars tweeted that he didn’t necessarily consider it one:

I would consider something a setback if it actually results in a delay of a critical program milestone. I think they have another test vehicle (that they’ll be flying out of New Mexico soon to do higher-altitude testing), and if they need yet another for McGregor, given their production capacity, they could probably pull one off the line and modify it pretty quickly. They’ve found something to fix in the next test vehicle (and possibly, though not necessarily, depending on what caused it) in an operational one. Also, in a sense, they’re no longer test-flight virgins, and may even be more bold going forward.

It’s certainly not going to affect their future launches (most importantly, next week’s), since it’s a side experimental program on which none of their current customers are dependent. So no, I don’t think it was much of a setback, if any.

On the other hand, I think that Blue Origin’s loss of its test vehicle three years ago may have been a setback, because they haven’t flown anything since (as far as I know). Unlike yesterday’s event, it may have been a totally unexpected, “back to the drawing board” thing. But I have no inside knowledge.

In addition to the general point of the difference between a hardware loss in a test and failure in operations, there is another point to consider here. While you expect problems in flight test of any new vehicle, VTVL (vertical take-off, vertical landing) types are particularly susceptible, not having wings to come home on if there’s a failure (though some use chutes as backup). I don’t think there is any serious VTVL company that hasn’t lost a vehicle in flight test, from Blue Origin, to Masten, to Armadillo, to Unreasonable Rocket. As Elon Musk tweeted last night, rockets are tricky:

I’d say that losing a VTVL vehicle in flight test is inevitable, almost a rite of passage, and that SpaceX just finally joined the club.

In fact, this isn’t actually the first experimental vehicle they’ve lost attempting to land it. It’s just the first on land. In a very real sense, every previous attempt to do an ocean recovery of the first stage, after it had completed its primary mission, was a flight test, and a success in that they got great data from each one to build on the next, and “failure” only in the sense that they didn’t succeed in actually recovering them. The company plans one more of these water “recoveries” this fall. Based on history, they have low expectations of getting the vehicle back this time as well, but obviously expect to get critical data needed to start to land actual first stages on land (though the first attempt or two will be on a barge at sea before they have demonstrated the control required for the FAA and the range to allow a flight back to the launch site).

But with each test, regardless of whether they get the vehicle back, they continue on their risky quest, with their own money, to achieve a long-time dream of the space industry (though one that NASA abandoned after the Shuttle), of an end to the wasteful and costly practice of throwing vehicles away. They should be encouraged to continue in their boldness. As I note in my recent book, such boldness, not caution or timidity, is crucial in opening up the harshest frontier humanity has ever faced.

[Sunday-morning update]

OK, not exactly a “setback,” but SpaceX has announced that they will delay Tuesday’s planned AsiaSat 6 satellite launch one day, to Wednesday, to allow them time to review the test results to ensure that the vehicle loss wasn’t caused by something that could affect the flight. “Mission assurance above all.”

[Wednesday-morning update]

They announced yesterday that they’re delaying the launch for several days now, but it’s unclear if it’s related to the vehicle loss on Friday.

The 50-50 Argument

It’s not logical to state that most warming since 1950 has been caused by man (or Mann):

The glaring flaw in their logic is this. If you are trying to attribute warming over a short period, e.g. since 1980, detection requires that you explicitly consider the phasing of multidecadal natural internal variability during that period (e.g. AMO, PDO), not just the spectra over a long time period. Attribution arguments of late 20th century warming have failed to pass the detection threshold which requires accounting for the phasing of the AMO and PDO. It is typically argued that these oscillations go up and down, in net they are a wash. Maybe, but they are NOT a wash when you are considering a period of the order, or shorter than, the multidecadal time scales associated with these oscillations.

Further, in the presence of multidecadal oscillations with a nominal 60-80 yr time scale, convincing attribution requires that you can attribute the variability for more than one 60-80 yr period, preferably back to the mid 19th century. Not being able to address the attribution of change in the early 20th century to my mind precludes any highly confident attribution of change in the late 20th century.

In other words, we shouldn’t and can’t have as much confidence as many would like to push their policy agenda.

Misandry

Speaking of modest proposals, check out this totalitarian feminist:

I believe we must remove men from the community and place them in their own specific sections of society, akin to subsidised or state-funded reservations, so they can be redefined. We can make not only men safer, but women as well. By subsidising said reservations through the state we can provide men with activities, healthcare, entertainment, shelter, protection, and everything that one could ever require in life. This will remove conventional inequality from society. By reducing the number of men to 10 percent of the total population, their socio-biovalue will be raised. They will live out their lives happily and safely, and male disposability will be a thing of the past.

I can’t wait.

Mann Suit Update

I didn’t mention it last week, because I’ve been busy dealing with life, but both we and National Review submitted our brief in the case to the DC Court of Appeals last Monday. I’m not sure if the CEI brief has been discussed anywhere, but here’s a discussion of National Review’s. We requested that the lower-court ruling to refuse dismissal be overturned and the case dismissed (implicitly) with prejudice. That means that if the appeals court agrees, we can go after Mann for legal costs.

Anyway, the reason I mention it now is that Alliance Defending Freedom has filed an amicus brief today on our behalf. I’ve got the filing, but haven’t seen any links to it yet. We also have one from Reason, Cato, Goldwater Institute, and the Individual Rights Foundation.

[Late evening update]

OK, we’ve got a couple more. One is from Newsmax Media, Inc., Free Beacon,LLC, The Foundation for Cultural Review, The Daily Caller, LLC, PJ Media, LLC, and The Electronic Frontier Foundation. The other is from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and twenty six other media organization, which I won’t list here.

Also, as with the last time, the District of Columbia has filed an amicus on our behalf to defend its anti-SLAPP law.

I’m guessing that a lot more media organizations are filing this time because they they were shocked at the ruling the last time, and wanted to make their views clear to the appellate court.

[Wednesday-morning update]

CEI has links to all the legal filings in the case to date, including Monday’s amici.

“Indiscipline”

The strange behavior of an ebola victim:

Looking to get to the bottom of Sawyer’s strange ailment on the Asky Airline flight, which Sawyer transferred on in Togo, hospital officials say, he was tested for both malaria and HIV AIDS. However, when both tests came back negative, he was then asked whether he had made contact with any person with the Ebola Virus, to which Sawyer denied. Sawyer’s sister, Princess had died of the deadly virus on Monday, July 7, 2014 at theCatholic Hospital in Monrovia. On Friday, July 25, 2014, 18 days later, Sawyer died in Lagos.

“Upon being told he had Ebola, Mr. Sawyer went into a rage, denying and objecting to the opinion of the medical experts “He was so adamant and difficult that he took the tubes from his body and took off his pants and urinated on the health workers, forcing them to flee.”

The hospital would later report that it resisted immense pressure to let out Sawyer from its hospital against the insistence from some higher-ups and conference organizers that he had a key role to play at the ECOWAS convention in Calabar, the Cross River State capital.

So here’s my question. Was this merely an individual irresponsible in the first place, whose “undisciplined” behavior resulted in his contracting the disease, after which he simply lashed out in anger, wanting to take others with him? Or does the disease have a rabies-like component that in addition to its other horrific physical symptoms, drives the victim literally insane?

Coffee

A list of its health benefits.

This sort of thing is why I finally started drinking it a few months ago, even though I don’t perceive any actual benefit in doing so. I’ve been making it for her for years, so it was just a matter of making extra. One discovery I made that reduces the awfulness of the taste is to throw some sea salt in the filter before brewing it. It really does take the bitter edge off it. But it’s still something I basically drink as medicinal. I derive no pleasure from it, and sometimes forget to pour it or drink it if I get distracted, so I’d say I’m not addicted in any way. The only obvious benefit I’ve gotten is much cleaner dental exams, to the point that I’ve backed off from quarterly to semi-annual cleanings.

Robert Redford And Cate Blanchett

Do you really want to make a movie in which you unwittingly depict people who are fools?

…let me put my own cards on the table: I voted for Bush in 2004. If I were a character in Mapes’s book, this would mean you should ignore me, because she repeatedly disqualifies statements that hurt her case by pointing out that the person speaking is a Republican or a Bush supporter. However, I should note that I also supported Al Gore in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008, and I do not view either liberals or conservatives as presumptive liars.

Nor do I view Mapes as a presumptive liar. That would require implausible levels of evil and stupidity: evil, because she’d be trying to alter an election result with a massive lie; stupid, because the odds of getting away with such a scheme are vanishingly small. We’re talking a supervillain-who-leaves-hero-in-a-remote-quarry-to-be-devoured-by-carnivorous-GMO-squirrels level of evil and stupid. Too evil and stupid to get as far as Mapes did in the cutthroat world of television production.

I do think she made a very bad mistake, which could have been averted had she been more skeptical about the documents she received from Bill Burkett, a disgruntled National Guard retiree who reportedly had it in for Bush. I think that she has become unable to recognize that mistake, for the same reasons that we all cling to our own self-serving narratives rather than admit that we have screwed up. After reading through all the contemporary reports, the report from CBS’s independent panel and Mapes’s book, I think Mapes fell prey to the journalist’s two worst enemies: confirmation bias and motivated cognition.

There is no way to make this flick without it being either truthful (in which case they won’t want to do it) or embarrassing:

Well, some of them (unlike you, apparently) were smart enough to call the fax number on the memo, and determine that it came from a Kinko’s in Texas. And though there was in fact analysis of what the documents actually said, which also helped torpedo them, it was in fact enough, Mary. It’s hard (perhaps impossible) to prove that a document is authentic, but it only takes one solid strike against its validity to show it to be inauthentic. And the fact that you still don’t understand that, or understand basic logic at all, is why you are now out of a job, and should never have had that job to begin with.

Ah, the best and the brightest.

Speed Limits

A great piece on the general irrationality about them, and the history. I find most interesting (and new) the point that the main benefit of posting a speed limit was not to slow the fastest down, but to speed the slowest up. More people need to understand that it is not absolute speed that is dangerous, but relative speed. When I was young, in Michigan, before Nixon’s double-nickle stupidity, the freeway signs had both a maximum and a minimum: 70/45. That was back in the days when older cars weren’t as safe or reliable at higher speeds. Today, I’d make it more like 80/60.

I’m also glad that they (as I always do) pointed out what a problem a lack of lane discipline is. If they’d give tickets for hogging the left lane, instead of speeding, traffic would flow both more smoothly and more safely.

Infinity Aerospace

Announcing tools to utilize ISS. Ardulab, is an Arduino modified with features to work on the station. Developed with NASA and Nanoracks. Enabled an 8th-grade class to do a plant-growth experiment for different light conditions in space, ready to fly. Takes up only ten percent of allowed volume, leaving remainder for experiments. Completely open source, hardware and software. Will be opening web site right after talk today.

Math

Why Americans suck at it:

American institutions charged with training teachers in new approaches to math have proved largely unable to do it. At most education schools, the professors with the research budgets and deanships have little interest in the science of teaching. Indeed, when Lampert attended Harvard’s Graduate School of Education in the 1970s, she could find only one listing in the entire course catalog that used the word “teaching” in its title. (Today only 19 out of 231 courses include it.) Methods courses, meanwhile, are usually taught by the lowest ranks of professors — chronically underpaid, overworked and, ultimately, ineffective.

Without the right training, most teachers do not understand math well enough to teach it the way Lampert does. “Remember,” Lampert says, “American teachers are only a subset of Americans.” As graduates of American schools, they are no more likely to display numeracy than the rest of us. “I’m just not a math person,” Lampert says her education students would say with an apologetic shrug.

Consequently, the most powerful influence on teachers is the one most beyond our control. The sociologist Dan Lortie calls the phenomenon the apprenticeship of observation. Teachers learn to teach primarily by recalling their memories of having been taught, an average of 13,000 hours of instruction over a typical childhood. The apprenticeship of observation exacerbates what the education scholar Suzanne Wilson calls education reform’s double bind. The very people who embody the problem — teachers — are also the ones charged with solving it.

…Left to their own devices, teachers are once again trying to incorporate new ideas into old scripts, often botching them in the process. One especially nonsensical result stems from the Common Core’s suggestion that students not just find answers but also “illustrate and explain the calculation by using equations, rectangular arrays, and/or area models.” The idea of utilizing arrays of dots makes sense in the hands of a skilled teacher, who can use them to help a student understand how multiplication actually works. For example, a teacher trying to explain multiplication might ask a student to first draw three rows of dots with two dots in each row and then imagine what the picture would look like with three or four or five dots in each row. Guiding the student through the exercise, the teacher could help her see that each march up the times table (3×2, 3×3, 3×4) just means adding another dot per row. But if a teacher doesn’t use the dots to illustrate bigger ideas, they become just another meaningless exercise. Instead of memorizing familiar steps, students now practice even stranger rituals, like drawing dots only to count them or breaking simple addition problems into complicated forms (62+26, for example, must become 60+2+20+6) without understanding why. This can make for even poorer math students. “In the hands of unprepared teachers,” Lampert says, “alternative algorithms are worse than just teaching them standard algorithms.”

No wonder parents and some mathematicians denigrate the reforms as “fuzzy math.” In the warped way untrained teachers interpret them, they are fuzzy.

It’s a long, but interesting, and depressing article.

I should note that I was one of the kids who suffered from the “New Math” in the sixties, but I had a great algebra teacher in junior high (I forget her name, but she was a black woman), and good ones in high school as well. We actually learned calculus and analytic geometry from Mr. Troyer.

[Update a while later]

The more I think about this, the more furious I get that we have these worthless schools of “education” that don’t even teach teachers to teach.