Category Archives: NASA

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.

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.

House spending bill includes modest increase for NASA

The house passed a spending bill that includes a modest increase for NASA, but does not fully fund the Administration request for Commercial Crew.

Still, they must have been paying some attention to the Russian threats to cut off access to the International Space Station – or to the ever-increasing price of rides on the Russian Soyuz rockets, perhaps – because even though they didn’t get to the Administration’s proposed budget level, they have still funded Commercial Crew at a higher level than ever before.

Of course, the Senate still has to weigh in with its version of the spending bill, and then any difference between that and the house one will be reconciled in committee. Traditionally, the Senate has voted a higher budget for Commercial Crew than the house. We’ll have to wait and see how it all turns out.

Read the full article at Florida Today.