Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Fall

Click here to watch the SpaceX CRS-7 launch and loss. Video source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.

Less than five years after their first powered flight, Orville and Wilbur Wright brought one of their Flyers to Fort Myer, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The brothers hoped to sell their two-passenger craft to the U.S. Army.

On September 17, 1908, Orville took to the air with Lt. Thomas Selfridge of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Division. As the two circled the field, the right propeller broke and hit a guy wire bracing the rear vertical rudder. The Flyer plunged into the ground. Orville was badly injured but survived. Selfridge became the first known fatality in a U.S. powered flight.

The Wright Flyer crash on September 17, 1908. Image source: Wikipedia.

In May 1919, New York hotelier Raymond Orteig offered $25,000 to the first team that could successfully fly a powered aircraft non-stop between New York City and Paris. Over the next eight years, six men died in three crashes attempting to win the prize. On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to successfully fly across the Atlantic.

Later that year, seven lives were lost in August during the Dole Air Race to become the first team to fly non-stop between San Francisco and Hawaii.

During the spring and summer of 1927, twenty-one people were killed in various long-distance flight attempts.

Despite the fatalities, interest in aviation boomed. Entrepreneurs across the nation invested in starting their own airlines, some to deliver cargo, a few to fly people. The boom was spurred by the U.S. Post Office offering exclusive contracts in the mid-1920s to commercial companies that would fly air mail along designated routes. To defray costs, some of the airlines carried a few passengers, although the cargo was the priority.

One of the first commercial air mail pilots in 1926 was Charles Lindbergh. By flying commercial air mail, he gained the experience to cross the Atlantic.

Echoes of the earliest days of commercial aviation can be heard in the June 2004 report A Journey to Inspire, Innovate, and Discover released by the President's Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy. Commonly known as the Aldridge Commission after its chair, the group was charged with recommending how to implement President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration.

In Section III, titled “Building a Robust Space Industry,” the commission found that “sustaining the long-term exploration of the solar system requires a robust space industry that will contribute to national economic growth, produce new products through the creation of new knowledge, and lead the world in invention and innovation. This space industry will become a national treasure.”

The Aldridge Commission holds a public hearing in New York on May 3, 2004. Image source: University of North Texas.

The commission believed that, given the chance, “The private sector will continue to push the envelope to succeed competitively in the space field.” The report recommended using prizes as an incentive, specifically citing the Orteig Prize that led to Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic.

Recognizing that risk had to be introduced into the space industry if innovation could begin, the commission wrote:

Government regulation of the nascent private sector space industry is ongoing and will be necessary in the future, but it is important to ensure that this industry not become over-regulated. A key issue in the private space flight business is liability. There is a pressing need for a change in liability laws to set a reasonable standard for implied consent. People throughout society do dangerous things for fun and profit; it is not reasonable to impose governmental risk standards on people who are willing and eager to undertake dangerous or hazardous activities.

Based on the commission's recommendations, NASA opened the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office on November 7, 2005. NASA courted entrepreneurs who might want to be part of this venture to open space to the private sector.

One of them was Internet entrepeneur and SpaceX founder, Elon Musk.

April 20, 2005 ... NASA Administrator Michael Griffin (left) meets with SpaceX founder Elon Musk (right). Image source: Wikipedia.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin addressed the X-Prize Cup Summit on October 20, 2006. He recalled the origins of commercial aviation through the U.S. Post Office in the early 20th Century. That model would now be applied to the space industry. Griffin said:

If we can do this, we will be able to change the paradigm for transportation services to be more in line with the air mail service of the 1920s, meeting the logistics needs of the ISS, some 7,000 to 10,000 kilograms per year, after the Space Shuttle is retired in 2010. In the process, we may be able to spur innovation for low-cost access to space. This is a carefully considered investment with known risks that we can all see and appreciate, but with a potentially huge upside that makes it well worth the risks.

SpaceX received one of the first commercial contracts to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, even though the company had yet to successfully launch a rocket, much less a cargo ship.

A little more than two minutes after launch today here on the Space Coast, SpaceX lost its seventh commercial cargo flight to the ISS. A tweet by Elon Musk suggested a problem with the upper stage:

In less than a year, both commercial cargo companies have lost vehicles. Orbital ATK lost its third Cygnus flight last October when an engine on its Antares rocket failed. For now, NASA is without a domestic means of ISS cargo delivery.

But this is why the commercial cargo program was created. Failure must be an option if we are to progress. As Michael Griffin said in October 2006, the “potentially huge upside” makes it worth the risk.

Fourteen lives were lost during the Space Shuttle program due to two accidents. In the 1970s, the United States chose to put people on cargo ships, while the Soviet Union simply developed a robotic cargo ship. The first Progress flew in 1978. Although Progress ships have failed from time to time — most recently, on April 28 — no lives were lost. The Soviet Union and Russia have not had a space fatality since 1971.

Today's incident is a tragedy, but as with Cygnus no lives were lost.

SpaceX critics will point to the perfect flight record to date by rival United Launch Alliance, but it's unfair to compare the two. ULA was created as a legal monopoly in 2006 after Boeing and Lockheed Martin claimed there wasn't enough guaranteed government business to keep their production lines open. So ULA was formed, and for years the Department of Defense granted ULA bulk-buy contracts with little public explanation for the costs.

If not for SpaceX disrupting the launch industry, commercial satellite launches would still be going to overseas competitors because ULA costs too much. Since December 2013, seven commercial satellites have launched on Falcon 9 boosters from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The last time ULA launched a commercial satellite from the Cape was 2009.

Overlooked in today's reporting is the implication that commercial satellite launches might also halt until the upper stage anomaly is resolved. The ambitious SpaceX manifest will have to wait for the foreseeable future.

In his September 12, 1962 Rice University speech, President John F. Kennedy described the Apollo human lunar spaceflight program as “the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” Lives would be lost. Technology would fail. He warned us it would not be easy. It would be hard.

Humanity reached the Moon in 1969, yet failures and fatalities still happen. They always will.

Today I met a 12-year old from a Colorado middle school who had an experiment aboard SpaceX CRS-7. I told her I was sorry she lost her experiment, but she was undeterred. Grinning from ear to ear, she said, "We'll build another one and do it again!"

That is what SpaceX will do. Build another one. And do it again.

Click the arrow to watch the post-launch press conference. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

1 comment:

  1. That little girl has a lot of faith & confidence. She is the face of the future of Human Space Exploration/Settlement. She may be one of the first humans on Mars. I would rather listen to what she has to say than the naysayers that try to discourage innovation & progress in the face of disaster.