SpaceX’s Winning Formula

The remains of the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage that launched the Jason 3 satellite for NASA. The rocket stage landed softly on a barge in three meter swells, but a problem with the locking system on one landing leg caused it to topple.

Here’s the reason why SpaceX is eating everyone else’s lunch in the launch business:

Improve. Test. Be willing to fail. Learn. Repeat.

In software development we have the concept of ‘failing fast’ – being prepared to try a new or different approach, but validating early whether or not it will work. You can see SpaceX do the same with the Falcon family of rockets. They built the best expendable launch vehicle they new how – and tried recovering it with parachutes. That didn’t work, so they tried using the rocket engines to slow it to a controlled descent. That nearly worked on the first attempt to perform a controlled landing on the ocean, but aerodynamic forces overwhelmed the rockets roll control thrusters and it spun too fast for the engine to fire for the final descent. So they added grid fins, and tried again, aiming for a barge. They nearly reached the barge, but the stage had run out of hydraulic working fluid for the grid fins before it landed, so the stage crashed. They tried again with more hydraulic fluid, but the stage hit the barge too hard and toppled. Today, they tried again, but a hardware issue with the locking mechanism on one of the landing legs meant another topple, despite what would otherwise have been an almost-dead-centre soft landing on the barge.

They will learn from this. They will fix whatever caused landing leg three to fail to lock, and they will try again on the very next launch, due to happen next month. This is what SpaceX does. The company is not afraid to take measured risks, and it’s not afraid to fail, so long as that failure will teach them something that will make their rocket better.

Oh, and they did all of the stuff above, while using those very same rockets to deliver payloads safely and successfully to orbit.

Pretty cool, huh?

Keep failing fast, SpaceX. Your failures are ultimately more successful than everyone else’s ‘perfect, nominal missions.’

Both might end in the destruction of the rocket today. But I’m confident that, in the next few years, SpaceX’s wont. Routinely. And the risk-averse competition will have a lot of catching up to do.

Clarke’s Law applied to rocket reuse

One of science fiction grandmaster Arthur C Clarke’s several axioms was his Law of Revolutionary Ideas, which states that every revolutionary idea passes through three stages of reaction:

  1. “It’s completely impossible – don’t waste my time.”
  2. “It’s possible, but not worth doing.”
  3. “I said it was a good idea all along.”

Based on this article, and thanks to the hard work of SpaceX and Blue Origin, it seems that the revolutionary idea of re-using rocket stages has just moved from (1) to (2).

(3) may only be a year or two away. We are truly living in the future.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage landing attempt today

In a little over an hour, for the first time, a rocket stage may return from its primary mission of lofting a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station, and set down gently under rocket thrust onto a barge floating in the ocean.

Who says we’re not living in the future? 🙂

Best of luck to everyone at Space Exploration Technologies today. These guys are on the verge of a Kitty Hawk moment for practical spaceflight. May today be the day!

Spaceflight setbacks and Earthly hubris

Embryonic baby floating in space

It’s been a couple of weeks since the explosion of the Antares rocket on a cargo delivery run to the International Space Station, and nearly that long since SpaceShipTwo broke apart in the skies over Mojave. I’ve had some time to reflect and read some of the reactions.

I found a piece by Gwyneth Shoecraft in the USD vista that prompted me to comment because I disagree with her characterization of commercial spaceflight as ‘Earthly hubris’ that somehow sullies her experience of space.

In writing a comment in reply, I ended up articulating some things I believe about humanity and spaceflight, and why we do it, and how we should respond to setbacks.

I think it’s worth a read, so here it is:

Gwyneth, thanks for your thoughtful piece.

I also look up at the stars and wonder at the sheer insignificance of humanity on an astronomical scale. But I don’t believe it is hubris for us to want to go up there.

When a baby sees something beyond its reach, yet still stretches out its arm to touch it, that’s not hubris. When a toddler learning to walk stumbles, but keeps on trying, that’s not hubris. Earth is humanity’s cradle. It’s our starting place. It is the most precious real estate in the universe, and we must take much better care of it.

But we also must not be limited by it.

The universe is incomprehensibly vast and, on that scale, the Earth is the mere-est electron in a single metal atom sitting atop a pin-tip. Yet, as far as we know, it’s the only place in the universe that can naturally support our life.

The only sane response to knowing that, the only response with a long-term future, is to take that fact as a challenge, and a goal, and reach out into the universe – or at least our solar system for now – and learn to take our Earthly ecosystems and make our own habitable spaces up there, so that the things we hold precious about the Earth can thrive out there, as well as down here.

Our solar system is full of abundant energy in the form of sunlight, and raw materials in the form of asteroids and comets. Everything we need is out there, except for the living ecosystem that we can bring. We can make places where humanity can thrive, and do it without depleting the resources of our cradle planet.

Imagine if humanity, instead of being responsible for depleting Earth’s ecological diversity, was responsible for bringing it to dead worlds and letting them live. There is unimaginable potential up there, not just for humanity but, through us, for all of life.

Humanity may become the Earth’s dandelion seeds, floating out through space and bringing life to the places where we drift. Maybe that’s been our purpose – or a part of it – all along.

But we can’t do this without technology, and that technology is fledgling and – like humans – fallible. We are the baby taking her first steps. We will inevitably stumble as we learn to walk.

Rockets will blow up, brave people will die. These are not reasons to stop.

We are defined by how we confront our setbacks. It is human to be discouraged, but also to be persistent. It is a paradoxical truth that more learning happens through failure than through success. We must learn the lessons of our mistakes, deal with our grief and our discouragement, and, like the toddler, take that faltering step again.

I believe the future of life in our corner of the universe depends on it.

New ULA Low in Smear Campaign Against SpaceX

Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle, @chronsciguy, just tweeted a couple of pics of “scorecards” that United Launch Alliance is currently handing out at a Boeing event in Florida:

Scorecard from ULA, them vs SpaceX

ULA is handing out these “scorecards”

Wow, this is low, and rather sad.

That US space launch near-monopoly United Launch Alliance thinks they need to trash-talk SpaceX like this says a lot more about them than it does about SpaceX. To call the comparisons disingenuous would be charitable in the extreme. It’s pretty tone-deaf. And the tagline, “Know the Facts. Understand the Truth.” is just cringe-worthy.

Here’s the thing: SpaceX is not Stark Industries, despite the media hype. It’s not some perfect comic-book super-techno-utopia company. It’s just an upstart space launch company willing to take programmatic and technical risks that, so far, ULA has not.

That strategy has been paying off for SpaceX, and it’s got the United Launch Alliance spooked.

The way they should respond is to innovate – make better and cheaper launch products, and let the market decide which rockets are best. After all, they’re starting with a pretty impressive home-team advantage, as their “scorecards” show.

Scorecard from ULA, them vs SpaceX

ULA is handing out these highly biased “scorecards”

Instead, they seem to be resorting to the playground tactics of name-calling and shouting “I’m bigger than you!”

This action looks more like a tacit admission that they can’t compete with SpaceX on cost and innovation. That’s a really tone-deaf move. Anyone with a passing familiarity can see the huge apples-to-oranges bait-and-switch comparison ULA is trying to pull off here.

Guys: You’re just making yourselves look bad.

And, desperate.

You can do better. Go build great rockets!

Space vs The Environment: A Study in False Choices

Earth from orbit, at sunrise. A thin blue shell of air is all that protects us from space

Who should win in the battle of space vs the environment? Both! It’s a false choice.

The recent release of the National Research Council’s comprehensive report into human spaceflight, coinciding with the discovery of another “possibly habitable” exo-planet, has stirred up some interesting but misguided sentiment pitting space against the environment.

I’ve seen this point of view floating around the internet before, and I wanted to dig into it a bit deeper, because I disagree profoundly with the unstated premise that human spaceflight is somehow anti-environmental.

Jettisoning the Escape-Pod Mentality

First, a little reading homework provided by Andrew Simms at The Guardian: Forget life on Mars, it’s closer to home that matters – TheGuardian.com. (Or, you can get the gist of the piece from the quotes below).

If they found on Mars a single blade of grass there would be ecstasy at mission control, unleashing visions of humanity spreading out across the cosmos.

It won’t take  a blade of grass to unleash visions of humanity spreading out across the cosmos, we have those visions now, and they are not contingent on there being life on Mars.

And yes, there would be ecstasy at Mission Control. Finding evidence of life elsewhere in the universe, life that arose separately to ours here on Earth, would be a truly profound discovery.

But does the obsession with finding life on other, potentially habitable planets somehow excuse and blind us to the trashing of this one?

No. No it doesn’t. Why would it? The false assumption here is that anyone starry-eyed enough to be looking out out into the cosmos has no regard for the amazing planet they are standing on.

Which is complete rubbish. In my experience, the polar opposite is true: people who have the perspective to understand that our whole world is just a pale blue dot, a dust-speck in the vastness of the universe, and that it is the only place we know in the universe that can naturally sustain our form of life – people like that can’t help but have a reverent and protective attitude toward our planet. There’s even a name for it: it’s called the Overview Effect.

News of the discovery of yet another Earth-like planet fuels the fantasy that if we scorch our own, we can always relocate. From Richard Branson to Stephen Hawking, there’s a hypnotic fascination with the possibility of escape which somehow relieves the pressure to look after our own, extraordinary planetary home.

And here is the heart of the assumption that fuels the space vs the environment false choice: The idea that human space settlement is about escaping from the messes we make down here on Earth.

Andrew is not alone in believing this.  Check out Bob McDonald’s piece Let’s go to Mars, but make sure it’s for the right reasons at CBCNews.com, where he makes a similar “space vs the environment” fallacy:

A new report from the US National Research Council on Spaceflight recommends a more realistic approach to sending humans to  Mars, including the rationale that going there, “ensures the survival of the human species through off-Earth settlement.”
That is the last reason we should explore other worlds.

Why? Because:

Let’s go to other worlds to discover the nature of planets, so we can appreciate our own and learn better ways to protect it. Let’s not use Mars as a reason to think of the Earth as disposable.

In one respect, I actually agree with Andrew and Bob: It’s a fantasy to think humanity could escape a polluted Earth. Even with full-scale settlement of space, which I would love to see started in my lifetime, the vast majority of humanity will never leave our cradle planet.

We will always have a responsibility to take care of the Earth.

But I couldn’t disagree more strongly with their implicit characterization of space exploration advocates, that we would willingly write the Earth off as disposable.

Is space exploration and settlement really all about pulling the eject handle on the good-ol’ Earth Escape Pod? Is that what the likes of Branson and Hawking are actually saying?

No, it’s not.

Home and Contents Insurance for a Whole Planet

What they are actually saying is that the human race can’t afford to put all its eggs in one planetary basket.

If something catastrophic like an asteroid strike happened to the Earth (and they have happened in the past), it would potentially be curtains for the human race. Having branches of our civilization thriving elsewhere in the solar system – Mars, the Moon, or free-space orbiting colonies – provides an extinction insurance policy.

That’s not the same thing as running away from our messes down here.

I get the impression from articles like those above that the authors would like us to cease all space exploration to concentrate solely on cleaning up this planet.

Terrestrial environmentalism is a worthy goal, and it’s not actually in conflict with humanity’s expansion into space – we don’t have to stop doing one to do the other. It’s not space vs the environment, it’s space and the environment.

But environmentalism alone is simply not sufficient to secure the welfare of future generations. We could return the Earth to an untouched natural paradise, but that wouldn’t matter to some future planet-killer asteroid that had us in its cross-hairs.

If such an asteroid ever comes calling, the worst case outcome is that we lose the unique and amazing Earth, and with it our unique and amazing human race.

Everything.

Every single thing, from Picasso to Pol Pot, Stalin to Shakespeare the good, the bad, the mundane. Nothing about our whole existence, with the exception of a few interplanetary spacecraft and Lunar Module descent stages, would survive.

Humanity would certainly be gone, and with it almost all of the diversity of life on Earth that we might want to preserve from our own exploitations.

If we have settlements in space, at least some part of our civilization would survive.

But to me, that’s not the compelling case for space settlement, that’s good, but it’s really just a consolation prize: “Gee, sorry you lost your planet, at least you still have your health.”

The compelling case is this: Learning to live and operate in the hostile environment of space would almost certainly give us the capability to deflect our hypothetical asteroid from ever hurting Earth in the first place.

What better expression of environmental care could there be than saving the entire planetary biosphere from annihilation?

Space settlement is not about escaping from an Earth we messed up because we always knew we could leave. It’s about insuring our civilization against a planetary catastrophe just like you would insure your house against an earthquake or fire.

And, ultimately, it’s about protection. You can’t stop an earthquake. You can stop an asteroid.

But, not if you don’t have a space program. There is no “space vs the environment” false choice. Bringing life to other worlds is not about abandoning this one.

Watch the Full Dragon V2 Q&A with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk

After the official unveiling of the Dragon V2 astronaut-carrying space capsule, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stuck around to answer questions from the assembled media. Some of the answers are pretty interesting.

  • The pad abort test, where the Dragon will fly off a simulated rocket sitting on the launch pad, will happen later this year.
  • The in-flight abort test, where Dragon will use its Super-Draco rockets to escape from it’s rocket during an actual launch, will occur next year, in 2015.
  • The first test flight to orbit (without a crew) could occur at the end of 2015.
  • The first crewed test flight is slated for 2016, which Musk thinks is “very achievable.”
  • The next Dragon V1 cargo flight will be carrying some little astronauts of its own – or mousetronauts, in this case.
  • Not only does Musk think that Russia is taunting the US over its current lack of indigenous access to space, it’s “massively overcharging” the NASA for seats to the International Space Station on its Soyuz spacecraft.
  • Dragon cost per astronaut will be in the range of $20M, and at higher flight rates “could potentially get to the single digit millions.”
  • Long term, Musk wants there to be thousands of space flights a year, and ultimately bases on the Moon and Mars.
  • Hundreds of space flights a year in 12 to 15 years from now, and thousands a year in twenty years from now.
  • Aiming for ten flights of a Dragon V2 before it needs refurbishment. Main part that would need refurbishment is the heat shield.
  • Thinks the heat shield technology could eventually be improved to the point where it lasted a hundred flights before needing replacement.
  • Aiming for rapid vehicle reuse – “We want this to be able to fly the same day. So it has to be able to arrive and depart the same day.”
  • Musk has a sense of humor – “I’m trying to get back to my home planet, ya know.”
  • Dragon V2 development would continue even if SpaceX doesn’t win in the next contracting round with NASA.
  • Dragon V2 can carry seven passengers along with a ton of pressurized cargo “if you really cram things in” and two to three tons of unpressurized cargo in the trunk section.
  • Most of what was shown in the Dragon V2 unveiling is flight hardware.
  • “From a SpaceX standpoint, we expect to be ready to transport crew in 2016”
  • NASA will not buy the capsules from SpaceX, SpaceX will operate the capsules on behalf of NASA.
  • NASA is SpaceX’s single largest customer, but only accounts for 20 to 25 percent of the SpaceX launch manifest.
  • “We can reach the space station from [the proposed launch site in Brownsville,] Texas. I should say, we would only do so in emergencies.”
  • By default, crewed flights to the International Space Station will depart from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

Why Commercial Crew is Critical for Future Exploration

Universe Today has an excellent one-on-one interview on the subject with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.

The short version is: if NASA wants to get on with exploring beyond cis-lunar space, it really needs the commercial sector to take over the mundane business of hauling people and cargo to and from orbit, and even of running orbiting research labs after the International Space Station reaches the end of its life.

Read the whole thing at Universe Today.

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