It’s official: first flight in 2018 (something that has been obvious for a while), though as noted, it’s more likely going to be 2019. What a disaster.
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:
— Rand Simberg (@Rand_Simberg) August 23, 2014
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.
— Lars Blackmore (@larsblackmore) August 23, 2014
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:
— Lars Blackmore (@larsblackmore) August 23, 2014
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:
Three engine F9R Dev1 vehicle auto-terminated during test flight. No injuries or near injuries. Rockets are tricky …
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 23, 2014
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.
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.”
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.
Doug Messier has written the first review of my book that is less than glowing (though he still recommends it), which I actually appreciate — I’ve gotten very little negative feedback so far. I’m busy, and have only skimmed, but I may respond some time this week.
Over at NBC, where Yours Truly is quoted.
Here’s Tariq Malik’s story. Note this (for some in comments):
“With research and development projects, detecting vehicle anomalies during the testing is the purpose of the program,” SpaceX representatives wrote. “Today’s test was particularly complex, pushing the limits of the vehicle further than any previous test.”
Makes sense to me.
I’m at the Tall Ship Festival, but hearing that they lost a vehicle, maybe Grasshopper. Fortunately, with their production line, shouldn’t take long to replace.
[Late-evening update, after getting back from Port of LA]
Yes, I was using the informal “Grasshopper” to refer to SpaceX VTVL R&D test vehicles. It was the F-9R, version 1. Gywnne had said last year she was actually disappointed that they never lost the initial Grasshopper, because it meant they hadn’t been pushing the envelope enough. Looks like they solved that problem today.
Oh, and they had a successful static fire at the Cape today of the vehicle for next week’s Asiasat launch.
[Update a while later]
OK, Jeff Foust has the story up at New Space Journal.
Research in meteoritic agriculture.
Just imagine how much progress we could make if we could redirect funds from unneeded “powerful” rockets to more things like this.
Here is the traditional career track for someone employed in journalism: first, you are a writer. If you hang on, and don’t wash out, and manage not to get laid off, and don’t alienate too many people, at some point you will be promoted to an editor position. It is really a two-step career journey, in the writing world. Writing, then editing. You don’t have to accept a promotion to an editing position of course. You don’t have to send your kids to college and pay a mortgage, necessarily. If you want to get regular promotions and raises, you will, for the most part, accept the fact that your path takes you away from writing and into editing, in some form. The number of pure writing positions that offer salaries as high as top editing positions is vanishingly small. Most well-paid writers are celebrities in the writing world. That is how few of them there are.
Here is the problem with this career path: writing and editing are two completely different skills. There are good writers who are terrible editors. (Indeed, some of the worst editors are good writers!) There are good editors who lack the creativity and antisocial personality disorders that would make them great writers. This is okay. This is natural. It is thoroughly unremarkable for an industry to have different positions that require different skill sets. The problem in the writing world is that, in order to move up, the writer must stop doing what he did well in the first place and transition into an editing job that he may or may not have any aptitude for.
Engineering has a similar problem, in that if you want to advance, you often have to go into management, even though a lot of good engineers are terrible managers.
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.
I agree that “we” (if by that he means NASA) are not on a path to Mars, but this is nonsense:
“The answer is because we are not a spacefaring nation,” Griffin asserted. “The bottom line, for me, is that we have better stuff in museums than we have in operations today. I can’t think of another technical discipline in which that statement would be true.”
Really? What do we have in museums that’s better than a Falcon 9, particularly if it becomes partially or fully reusable? What are his criteria for “better”? More (Tim the Tool Man) Power?
I do agree that we’re not a spacefaring nation, though. But neither Constellation or SLS/Orion are on a path to make us one.
[Update a few minutes later]
We’ve blown ten billion dollars on Orion so far, with billions more to go before it flies (if it ever does).
Greg Autry has a good overview of the current state of play:
All three commercial efforts should be funded. However, if the program must be reduced, it should be noted that both SpaceX and SNC are committed to pursuing a private market in space regardless of NASA support. Boeing’s panel representative expressed a lack of interest in continuing without government funding and in a cynical attempt to prod Congress the firm publicly announced looming layoffs. Professional investors only bet on teams that truly believe in their future returns and never on firms for which outside investment is the only goal. NASA must begin to think like an investor in America’s future.
Good luck with that.
This is a very disappointing article at Breitbart. I don’t know who Chriss Street is, but he’s grossly misinformed (to be polite).
Doug Messier pays a visit to Mike Adams’s memorial.
The company has made a promotional video.
A long (I haven’t read the whole thing yet) article on SpaceX and other private companies versus NASA in terms of its appeal to employees:
SpaceX inspired Hoffman to reimagine a career with opportunities to work on her engineering projects even if the technicians were busy and not have it considered diverting work from contract labor. If she chose to work long hours at a commercial company, she wouldn’t be “punished for being an overachiever.” If she spent months on a project, she could be assured it would get launched into space.
For Hoffman, having her projects go unfinished at NASA may have been the personal foul that tipped her toward private industry, but she also suspected her own engineering frustrations were only the surface byproduct of more institutionalized problems. NASA’s financial insecurity, its lack of administrative direction and its bureaucracy had worn on her confidence in its future.
As the author notes, today’s NASA isn’t capable of doing what the 1960s NASA could.
[Update a few minutes later]
Ah, here it is:
“You can take safety overboard,” Leonce said. “I’ve sat in many meetings where we’re just arguing over the simplest things. It just becomes borderline ridiculous. I don’t think we could have ever gotten to the moon if the culture that now exists at NASA existed in the ’60s.”
Leonce said he understands the older generation’s anxieties considering they’ve worked through the deadly Challenger and Columbia disasters. Yet private launch companies will be more attractive for engineers fresh out of school, he said, because that culture of risk aversion is “a death in itself.”
I would note that one of the reasons I left Rockwell over two decades ago was that in my decade and a half in the industry, virtually nothing that I worked on ever came to fruition (and many of the things I had to work on never should have). I also think that Bonnie Dunbar is deluding herself.
This is where I differ with Lileks (and Virginia Postrel). I have no desire to customize anything. To me it’s pointless work. Perhaps because I have absolutely no artistic talent (at least visually) or even that much aesthetic sensibility. My computer screen has the same background that was installed with the OS. I did put an effect on my phone when I first got it, because I was playing around with it to see how it all worked, but I’ve never downloaded, let alone paid for, a ring tone. Or a fancy case. I really just don’t care.
This could be an interesting series. Hope they don’t screw it up.
By “man,” they mean humans, of course.
I will confess that I have done many of these things. Though I’m also often the quiet engineer who eventually speaks up.
Thought I actually do know what “Will this scale?” means. I often ask it, seriously. No one at NASA seems to understand it, though.
Yup, looks like it:
See a tree with 20 apples hanging on it and reasonable people conclude it’s an apple tree. So is it a criminal conspiracy when 20 government employees illegally destroy important official emails?
If that seems like an extreme question, consider the steadily accumulating evidence about the Obama administration’s modus operandi with potentially incriminating documents subpoenaed by Congress: A scandal erupts. Congressional hearings are held. Documents are requested and withheld. Subpoenas are issued. Contempt charges threatened. A few documents dribble out.
Then come the admissions that, oh by the way, emails required by multiple federal laws to be preserved have either been destroyed or “lost.”
Oh, don’t be ridiculous. People lose emails under subpoena all the time. In the mob, anyway.
Inspector Generals say that Obama aides obstruct investigations.
[Update a few minutes later]
Elusive federal documents: Six serious questions:
In Fast and Furious, President Obama declared executive privilege to withhold documents in a controversy that the White House claimed revealed no evidence of White House involvement. Of course, if all the evidence isn’t turned over, then how is one to be confident no evidence exists? Further, multiple federal agencies have refused to turn over many documents requested in the case under the Freedom of Information Act as far back as 2011.
In the instance of Benghazi, the Obama administration failed to turn over requested documents when asked by Congress and requested under Freedom of Information law. Only recently, nearly two years after-the-fact, under court order, did it produce some withheld material to the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, which sued the State Department for failing to respond to its Freedom of Information requests. The documents continue to contradict the Obama administration’s narratives surrounding the September 11, 2012 Benghazi attacks.
With the IRS, President Obama insisted there wasn’t a “smidgen” of corruption surrounding the tax agency’s targeting of conservatives. But a key IRS official, Lois Lerner, refused to testify to Congress. And the IRS “lost” subpoenaed documents generated by Lerner and other key officials. These may include documents that Lerner sent to outside agencies and officials. Though the IRS says it will turn over tens of thousands of other documents, it’s hard to feel confident that the most damning ones, if any existed, will have been miraculously saved.
Now, HHS–which has stonewalled subpoenas and Freedom of Information requests in the investigation of HealthCare.gov–has likewise announced that it probably destroyed some materials that have been subpoenaed in that probe.
All just coincidence, I’m sure. After all, if we just happened to “lose” documents that the IRS demanded from us, nothing would happen to us except that we would be “retrained.” Right?
You don’t say.
Here‘s one of the reasons I almost never use it, despite having multiple accounts. And I never, ever use it on my phone. I have plenty of ways of communicating with people without this kind of crap.
The next Mars rover will generate oxygen from the atmosphere.
It’s a small step, but a lot better than nothing.
Let Africa have a potential weapon against ebola.
The overcautiousness over the past half century as a result of thalidomide has probably killed millions.
As I’ve often noted, the word “genocide” is overused, but as Neoneocon notes, ISIS (and followers of the true faith) really are genocidal.
As I noted on Twitter,
When are Obama and Kerry going to lecture ISIS about how this is the 21st century and don't they know that crucifixions aren't au courant?
— Rand Simberg (@Rand_Simberg) August 8, 2014
And speaking of genocide, Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson continue to be Hamas’s useful idiots. They aren’t of much use to anyone else.
No, the flight of Orion is not going to inspire us in space:
Just how an empty Orion capsule designed to make work for displaced Shuttle employees doing two orbits before it splashes down into the Pacific Ocean is going to inspire taxpayers to spend hundreds of billions on Mars escapes me.
Stop. Just stop. Don’t be an Apollo cargo cultist.
A brief history of SLS, up to this week.
This looks too good to be true, and it probably is, but it’s worth pursuing.
And since when is thrust rated in “grams”?
Is it time to abolish it?
To me, the more interesting question is what to do with milspace, which isn’t discussed there at all, with its focus on airpower.
No, it’s probably not caused by sexism.