Category Archives: Space

Commercial Crew

There’s going to be an announcement at 4PM on NASA TV. Jay Barbree says it’s going to be Boeing and SpaceX. Which if true means two capsules, no wings.

[Update a while later]

Here‘s another similar report from the WaPo.

[Update a few minutes later]

Joel Achenbach has more, including the (bizarre, to me) part of the story about ULA getting a new engine for the Atlas from Blue Origin.

[Late-morning update]

OK, now James Dean is reporting that there will be two full awards, not “leader-follower.” I wonder if they have the money for that with a CR?

[Update just before noon]

Alex Brown has a story at National Journal. Annoyingly, everyone is calling them space “taxis” when, at least for NASA, it’s more of a rental-car model (if you insisted on a new car every time you rented). Also, everyone’s regurgitating NASA’s 2017 date. I’d at least note that SpaceX could possibly fly as early as next year, unless there is something else on the critical path than abort tests. Final point:

Boeing’s program is reported to be further along in its development goals.

I think that Pasztor story is BS. How can Boeing be in the lead when they haven’t even flown anything? I love this:

But people familiar with the process said Boeing, with its greater experience as a NASA contractor, appears to have become the favorite partly because it has met earlier development goals in the same program on time and on budget.

Everyone hits their budget. It’s a fixed-price contract. And who cares if they’re hitting program goals, if those are trivial goals (like design reviews)? How anyone can think that a paper vehicle is ahead of one that’s going to have its abort tests in the next few months?

Don’t Go To Mars

David Attenborough takes a novel and courageous stand. Let’s “sort out life on earth, first.” [Paywall]

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone make that argument before, except a lot of people, for decades.

“America? Let’s sort out life in Europe first.”

“Europe and Asia? Let’s sort out life in Africa, first.”

It’s obviously a mindless prescription for never settling new territory.

Giant Solid Rockets

Yes, let’s keep using them:

In this case, the DM series motors passed all of ATK’s and NASA’s inspections and test firings. It wasn’t until ATK was proceeding toward QM series motor segments that NASA requested more thorough inspections of the QM series motors to determine whether the switch to non-asbestos containing insulation liners was having a previously unseen effect.

“The beauty of the solid rocket motor inspection system is that defects will be found and solutions reached to ensure the motors delivered will perform with the highest reliability,” said Reed. “This is a requirement to ensure SLS is a safe and reliable system for human exploration of deep space.”

Yeah. Right.

[Update a few minutes later]

The SLS Frenzy

So apparently, the SLF fanbois (and fangirls) going crazy over a giant welder on Twitter.

Anyway, I was rereading this essay I wrote half a decade ago. It was depressing. Here’s how little of some of it I’d have to change to keep it relevant to today.

Continue reading

KSC Versus MSFC

I had an interesting Twitter discussion this morning, that gave me an insight that had been floating around in the back of my mind, but that I’d never articulated, either to myself or others. It sort of crystallized when someone said that Bob Cabana, head of KSC, was an SLS supporter.

One of the tenets of the Apollo Cargo Cult is that we can’t go beyond earth orbit without a really big rocket. The conventional wisdom has been that the biggest constituency for SLS is Marshall, because that’s were it is being developed. But if you think about it, there are a lot of things Marshall could be applied to — it doesn’t have to be developing big rockets (something it hasn’t successfully done in almost four decades). For instance, it could be developing technology and demonstrators for orbital fuel storage and transfer. That would be at least as much in its wheelhouse as SLS.

KSC, on the other hand, has little justification for existence if NASA doesn’t have its own (big) rocket to launch. Without a big rocket, it doesn’t need the VAB, and the VAB and the crawler are really the only unique capability it has, in terms of physical infrastructure. If everything is going up on commercial rockers, even from Pads 39, KSC doesn’t have much to do, other than integrating NASA’s payloads onto them. That’s not a trivial task, but it’s not one that justifies the center’s budget or workforce. So, while Marshall could in theory be redirected to something useful, KSC can’t really. That’s why Nelson supports it so strongly.

It struck me in fact that the VAB is the high cathedral for the cargo cult. What would happen to the religion if it was taken out by a hurricane?

Another Close Approach

An asteroid will pass us on Sunday at about a tenth of the distance to the moon.

There are a lot of natural disasters we won’t be able to prevent (e.g., supervolcano explosions, or a nearby gamma-ray burst). But this is something that we could, if we were willing to devote more resources to it. And it wouldn’t take a lot more. In fact, it could be done for a lot less than we’re wasting on SLS/Orion.

The Hubble Group

So the big news today is that they’ve named the supercluster we live in:

Scientists previously placed the Milky Way in the Virgo Supercluster, but under Tully and colleagues’ definition, this region becomes just an appendage of the much larger Laniakea, which is 160 million parsecs (520 million light years) across and contains the mass of 100 million billion Suns.

Which kicked off this Twitter exchange between me and Lee Billings.

Accordingly, I propose that we rename the Local Group the Hubble Group, in honor of its namer, and making it consistent with the other names. I will henceforth call it that. If anyone asks, I’ll explain.

The Coalition For Big Expensive Rockets

I agree with Stephen Fleming about this press release.

I’ve been pointing out all of the nonsensical, engineering-illiterate praise for SLS on Twitter. “Most powerful,” “fastest” etc. I loved this one today:

My response:

The SpaceX Vehicle Loss

Apparently it was a blocked sensor port:

“I can tell you that it certainly looks like it was basically a single-point failure that existed on that test article that does not exist on the Falcon 9,” Reisman said. “We think it was a failure of a single sensor, and Falcon 9 has multiple sensors in its algorithm that it uses. So if the same failure occurred on the Falcon 9 it would not affect the mission in any way.”

The sensor failure in one of the three Merlin 1D engines on the Falcon 9R caused the vehicle to stray from its intended flight path, triggering an automatic self-destruct command to ensure it did not threaten nearby people and property.

Reisman said an operational Falcon 9 flight, which uses nine first stage engines, could overcome the loss of an engine. On the three-engine Falcon 9R, such redundancy does not exist.

But still no announcement of a new launch date for AsiaSat 6?

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.

More SpaceX Coverage

Over at NBC, where Yours Truly is quoted.

[Sunday-morning update]

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.

SpaceX Test Flight Booboo

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.

Against Editors

A writer’s rant:

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.

Mike Griffin’s Latest

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).