Saturday, March 2, 2013

Thrill Ride

Click the arrow to watch the SpaceX CRS-2 launch on YouTube.

All seemed well until SpaceX was scheduled to deploy Dragon's solar panels.

I was about to board a tour bus at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, after watching from there the launch of the Falcon 9 with the Commercial Resupply Services 2 mission.

Standing in line, I was checking Twitter, and as I was about to board the bus I noticed a string of tweets suggesting something had gone wrong.

Then came the official word on Twitter from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

Immediately I thought of that immortal line from every Star Wars film:

“I have a bad feeling about this.”

Musk's relentless critics have claimed that his space vehicles are sub-standard, fraught with flaws that NASA would not tolerate. The claims are untrue, of course, but a large army stands by with knives sharpened awaiting the first failure of a SpaceX mission to justify their claim that we have to go back to the old and bloated way of doing business in space.

After the CRS-1 launch in October, we learned that one of the nine Falcon engines had failed. It was believed initially that the engine had exploded, a mistaken assumption I made in the introduction to this video:

Click the arrow to watch the SpaceX CRS-1 engine failure on YouTube.

It turned out that the debris was only the engine casing falling away. The engine failure did not harm the other eight engines, which increased thrust to compensate for the loss.

With yesterday's launch, three of Dragon's four thruster quads failed to fire upon achieving orbit.

We learned that a minimum of two working quads were necessary to maneuver in space, and three to approach the International Space Station for berthing.

Elon's critics stood by with their carving knives.

But SpaceX diagnosed that apparently a clog had occurred in a propellant line, perhaps frozen gas. The line was pressurized, the clog cleared, and one by one the other three quads were brought on line.

The carving knives went back in the drawer.

Musk and SpaceX lived to fly another day.

Those pre-disposed to find fault with Musk's methods will cite this as yet another example of sub-standard work, yet if you look at the history of the Space Shuttle program it was fraught with problems as well — the worst being two accidents that cost fourteen astronaut lives. The early days saw loss of heat shield tiles, balky engines, and falling debris that was never solved during the thirty years of the program.

The French philosopher Voltaire wrote, “The best is the enemy of the good.” In more modern terms, the economic law of diminishing returns suggests that the more money spent on attempting to achieve perfection, the more is wasted as you try to do so.

My friend Justin Kugler wrote on his blog what may be the most reasonable interpretation of yesterday's events.

As with their recovery from a relatively minor computer anomaly on the previous flight, SpaceX’s lower-cost approach to fault tolerance so far appears to be validated here. They’ve argued that it is more cost-effective to be able to withstand an adverse event than prevent one from happening. I studied flight test engineering under their mission assurance director, John Muratore, at Rice. He showed us the history of aerospace disasters and how they can all be traced to systems that weren’t resilient to failure.

If this philosophy holds up, SpaceX will change the way the aerospace industry does business and seriously drive down the cost of getting to orbit. That will open up opportunities for private industry to bring the resources of the solar system into our economic sphere and enable government agencies, like NASA, to focus their effort on science and exploration missions instead of getting out of the gravity well.

I suspect that from Musk's critics we will hear this is just more evidence that, one day, a SpaceX vehicle will “blow up.”

One day? Sure.

Just like the Space Shuttle.

The fundamental difference is that the cost of the risk — and loss — will lie with the private vendor, not the taxpayer.

If the CRS-2 Dragon had been lost, NASA would be out only the cost of the deliverables on board. SpaceX would not be paid for a failed mission. When Challenger and Columbia were lost, the cost was absorbed by the U.S. taxpayer, as was the cost of the replacement orbiter Endeavour.

And as for the false assertion that SpaceX will risk lives, well ... NASA has lost seventeen lives in its history. Losing lives is bad for business in the private sector, so SpaceX has every monetary incentive to assure its customers survive. NASA can lose lives but the worst it faces is Congressional scrutiny and funding cuts.

So let's set aside the false claim that SpaceX will risk lives. No one wants to lose lives.

Of the three commercial crew candidates, SpaceX is the only one that will have years of experience flying its vehicle with cargo. That is one advantage they will have over the Boeing CST-100 and the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser.

So perhaps the best way to look at this is to return to our science fiction metaphor.

We'd all love to have the Starship Enterprise. But in the real world of economics, we'll settle for the Millennium Falcon.

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