Friday, March 31, 2006
First Flight Success isn't the Whole Story
5:03 am est
This information has also been submitted to The Space Review
In the wake of the Falcon 1 failure
on the 24th of March, Dwayne Day's essay "Our rockets always blow up" (The Space Review, March 27th 2006) makes a valid point
that not all orbital rockets fail on their first launch. In fact, the list he uses shows that the first launch success rates
are actually more than 50%, though not by much. He simplifies the argument a little too much, however, by drawing no distinction
between rockets that were developed from scratch, such as Falcon, and those derived from other vehicles. Getting a long-range
rocket with a payload to fly is hard, getting into space is slightly harder (it could be easier, if we worked at it), but
getting into orbit with all-new equipment from a company new to the business is rare and much harder.
Why is this important? Because anyone who compares the fact that Falcon 1 failed on its first orbital flight while the Atlas
B succeeded on its first flight is not giving the SpaceX team enough credit. The Atlas B orbital launcher was an improvement
on the Atlas A intercontinental ballistic missile, and the Atlas A took three tries before it got a flight right. The Jupiter
C orbital launcher, which put America's first successful satellite into orbit, was based on the Redstone intermediate range
ballistic missile, which nicely absorbed flight failures in its development program, paving the way for Jupuiter C.
Let's revisit the successful list from "Blow up" and see if prior flight experience of similar rockets or a comination of
previously working rockets may have contributed to some successful first flights:
(Derived from the R-7 ICBM)
(Derived from the Redstone IRBM)
(Actually Juno 2 according to reference, derived from Jupiter IRBM)
(Derived from the Atlas A ICBM)
(Derived from the Redstone and Jupiter IRBMs)
(Derived from the R-14 Ballistic Missile)
Long March 1
(Derived from the DF-3 IRBM)
(Pegasus upper stages, Peacekeeper ICBM first stage)
(Pegasus upper stages, Minuteman ICBM first stage)
So more than a third of the rockets listed here have easily tracable pedigree, meaning flight experience for both the hardware
and the teams that work on it. Such a pedigree is not a guarantee for success, but it likely improves the odds. The Chair Force Engineer
discusses other examples.
Count me as one of the many who attributed the failure of Falcon 1 to "The first flight blues" afflicting many rockets, and
I was surprised that the percentage of successful first flights (pointed out in Mr. Day's article) was higher than I thought.
While a first flight isn't a guaranteed failure, the number of items in a rocket that can't be tested together until a booster
leaves the ground makes a successful first flight something to brag about. High flight rates at low cost with continuing
success is the important goal to shoot for, however, and SpaceX still has that potential.
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Kudos to NASA Select
I've taken swats at NASA Select in my book and several articles, due mainly to my previous experience with them showing old
film clips over and over with little commentary or production. It has gotten much better recently, and today's broadcast
of the total eclipse from Turkey was a great example. Filmed in an ancient ampitheater in the town of Side (see DA), the
production had multiple filtered views of the sun as it approached totality, along with demonstrations of safe ways to view
the sun without glasses and children tracking the dropping temperature as the sun went away. The hosts, Paul Dogherty and
Dr Isabelle Hawkins, kept a pretty lively commentary going throughout the event, and even brought the mayor of the town on
camera for a priceless exchange where he got to exercise his english (and, as I always say in this type of situation, I wish
my Turkish skills were comperable to his english skills) and received a NASA hat and a plaque.
8:47 pm est
One nit: I wish they'd flashed back and forth to the darkening of the scene while the sun vanished. This could have been
done as part of a replay. Admittedly, the sun is where the action's at, but some view of the land around the hosts would
have been cool.
So again, kudos to NASA Select. Things are definitely moving in the right direction.
Mark Your Calendars
4:54 am est
Researching today's eclipse, I got curious about when the next celestial show will cover the Continental US. Turns out the
date is August 21, 2017
with a great one. I emailed a buddy who celebrates his anniversary that day.
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
5:01 am est
Over at The Space Review
, Dwayne Day makes the argument
that orbital launches don't "always blow up." I don't have a real problem with his numbers, but there's a problem with the
premise. Many of his entries in the "success" column are not originally-developed rockets, but derivations of other boosters
or ICBMs. I'm putting together a longer, more coherent discussion that will be posted here and possibly at TSR.
Sunday, March 26, 2006
First Photo (that I've seen)
9:08 pm est
The Bad Astronomer
has a photo
of Falcon fairly early in its flight. Looks like trouble started early, although Delta IV tends to have fires burning at
its tail end at liftoff.
Saturday, March 25, 2006
5:32 pm est
I've never served on a big source selection board like what will take place for the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), but I
sincerely hope that this kind of stuff
is more for show than anything legitimate.
I'm not naive enough to believe it carrys no sway.
More Detail Coming to Light
4:47 pm est
(permalink appears to be broken on his site, the entry is titled "Falcon 1 prelim analysis points to fuel leak") links to
. Looks like a leak started a fire which cut the main engine and let the booster fall into the sea. Either something fell
off to cause the leak or something wasn't rated for the pressure it was carrying.
It's all preliminary, of course.
Friday, March 24, 2006
Setback for Falcon
7:18 pm est
I write this after the pieces of the first Falcon booster have come to rest, likely at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Details
are sketchy right now, but apparently the rocket got about 1 minute of flight before the flight ended. Video footage ended
much earlier. It's unclear whether the loss of video was due to the malfunction or an attempt at PR damage control on the
part of SpaceX.
What does it mean? I've seen Elon speak, and he said he'd go with the idea of "three strikes" before considering himself
out of the rocket race. That was before he unveiled the Falcon V and Falcon 9
boosters, and the Dragon
spacecraft. I'm sure that determining the cause of the problem will weigh in on some of the decision process.
So now we find out how well he instrumented his rocket. There've been many
claims about how SpaceX simplified rocket design, and all of them sounded good on the surface, but if an unspoken part of
that simplification involved skimping on instrumentation on board the booster, that will make it harder to figure out the
root cause of today's problem.
This effort is still important. Seeing someone build their own rocket and fly it successfully will be a pivotal moment in
spaceflight. Just like Burt Rutan described SpaceShipOne's flight as the "Hey, I can do this!" moment of suborbital flight,
I sense SpaceX's first successful mission will have a similar impact on orbital flight.
Long-term prospects? I'm still upbeat. The first flight of most rockets goes badly, so this one doesn't stand out in any
way yet. The important thing will be to see how quickly they can isolate the cause, fix it, and fly again. Of course, that
flight will need to be successful to prove the fix.
At least no one got hurt. It's easy for the media or other (dis)interested parties to dismiss this as a rich kid's folly
as long as no one gets killed in the effort. When we lose our first life in pursuit of space tourism (either suborbital or
orbital) I'll expect a firestorm.
Spaceflightnow is reporting that SpaceX confirms vehicle loss. About 1 minute of flight. Hopefully, we'll have more details
later, I'll probably have some thoughts in a bit.
5:46 pm est
Falcon is up and...gone?
5:40 pm est
is liveblogging the launch. They report liftoff, a rolling motion, then a video cut. Apparently, the headquarters for SpaceX
is looking at the same video, and they've lost it as well.
Mars is Ready for its Close up
3:25 pm est
Looks like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
's main camera, HiRise
, got checked out. Images look great, and reportedly have a resolution of 28 cm. Here
is some more detail. Next images in November.
Thursday, March 23, 2006
7:31 pm est
Something Other Than...
7:29 pm est
...water created the gullies on Mars? One team of researchers, looking over old photos of the moon from 1969, thinks they've
found similar features there
. Of course, there's no water on the moon, so maybe the same mechanism caused the gullies on both bodies and didn't involve
Monday, March 20, 2006
8:42 pm est
I took a couple moments to read over an article
in The Space Review. The article deals with a new approach to reporting asteroid threats, and builds the story around a
space rock named 2004 VD17 which has a chance of hitting Earth in 2102. (I suggested another approach in an earlier article,here
) 2004 VD17 is currently the highest-ranking asteroid on the threat page
, yet there is no press release
on it. The article tells about some recently-discovered old images which may provide new data for 2004 VD17, but which the
minor planet center has been a little cagey in describing how they're handling the new data. The lack of a press release
probably has to do with the rethinking of the Torino Scale
, where the rankings of 2-4 were changed from including the words "merits concern" to "merits attention from astronomers."
7:53 pm est
Looks like another good collection of articles this week at The Space Review
. It's a weekly stop of mine, plus I download it to my Palm, so I can read at my leisure.
SSMEs Totally Out?
7:51 pm est
reports on a trade study
underway at NASA right now. The choices being weighed: go with the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) on the heavy-lift
(on the left, with SSMEs) to be used in the next phase of human space flight or the cheaper-to-produce-yet-potentially-overall-complicating
, used now on the Delta IV vehicles.
When I first found out about the heavy-lift booster, I heard that it was going to use RS-68s in the first stage, so the announcement
of the official plans to use the SSME came as a surprise to me. Of course, no matter which engine they choose the engines
won't be produced in any meaningful numbers, meaning that there won't be enough ordered to lower the price significantly.
(The "totally out" portion of the title comes from the fact that an air-startable SSME was dropped
from the upper stage of the Crewed Launch Vehicle (CLV, though I may not have the expanded title right) booster a few months
Sunday, March 19, 2006
12 for 12 on a Mars Quiz!
7:32 am est
has a trivia quiz on Mars on their front page today (or at least at the time I wrote this). There doesn't appear to be a
way to link to it directly. Page down to just below their headline image and look for Marvin the Martian. The questions
go from the Warner-Brothers silly ("Why was Marvin the Martian upset at the Earth?") through the scientifically obscure ("Which
of the following is NOT one of the three stages of Mars' geologic history?"). I'd say it's a good trivia summary.
Friday, March 17, 2006
New Book en Route
3:34 pm est
...for me to read, though I've got projects in the mill. Orbit
by John Nance has an interesting premise:
The year is 2009. For Kip Dawson, winning a passenger seat on one of
American Space Adventure's commercial spaceflights is a dream come true. One grand shot of insanity and he can return to earth
fulfilled. It's a bittersweet moment of triumph, however, muted by his wife's terror over his accepting the prize. The day
of the launch, Kip tries to reconcile his wife's and daughters' fears and even tries calling his estranged son, to no avail.
He sets off, vowing to make amends upon his return. But a successful launch quickly morphs into chaos when a micrometeor punches
through the wall of the spacecraft, leaving the radios as dead as the pilot.
In the blink of an eye, Kip Dawson is truly alone and has no way of navigating the ship home. With nothing to do but wait
for death, Kip writes his epitaph on the ship's laptop computer, unaware that an audience of millions has discovered it and
is tracking his every word on the Internet. As a massive struggle gets under way to rescue him, Kip has no idea that the world
can hear his cries -- or that his heroism in the face of death may sabotage his best chance of survival.
heard about it through a Transterrestrial
link to an article
written by the author.
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
A few Items
8:09 pm est
- "Hail MRO! It doesn't have the same ring as the IMAX show "Hail Columbia", but the MRO team deserves some kudos. There are now 6 spacecraft operating on or over Mars.
- The astronaut who was on
survivor got voted off. Here, he talks about how reality TV and space travel can relate. I wrote an article for Space Times on this topic. Unfortunately, there's no online version.
- More info on NASA looking for users of its runway at Kennedy Space Center.
Wednesday, March 8, 2006
7:53 pm est
Tuesday, March 7, 2006
8:50 pm est
revealed a spacecraft they've been working on for a while, designed to visit/service the ISS. It's called Dragon
. They say it can carry seven passengers. The pictures seem to show a ring on the back, which may be the guidance package
from the Falcon 9
. I remember when I read the description (more here
) of the booster, it sounded like they were shooting for some sort of integrateable manned capability. Of course, first they
have to get the Falcon 1 off the launch pad at Kwaj. Current launch date is late this month.
In a rather strange unveiling, Aviation Week has released an article
about a military two-stage-to-orbit spaceplane that's supposedly been flying for years and now it's under consideration for
being shelved. I join the skeptical crowd
, even though I really wish that something like this existed, there are just too many holes in the theory. Fuels with the
consistency of toothpaste and spare parts from exotic bombers (the XB-70) combined with an abandoned military spaceplane
which was to be boosted into orbit by its own huge rocket (the Dyna-Soar) just don't make a compelling case for a valid program
Sunday, March 5, 2006
What we Meant to say was...
8:10 pm est
Apparently, Wired got ProSpace's attention with their recent strange article. I got an email from ProSpace saying
that a new version of the article has been posted here
(oooh, they added a note) and the letter complaining about the coverage is here
Color me unimpressed with the integrity of Wired in how their handling this. Hopefully, more correction is
One of my favorite parts of the article is where it reports that an anti-nuke space activist got called by the ACLU so
they could inform him that NASA was monitoring his phone calls. If I were in the ACLU and familiar with this particular
activist's claims, I would probably set up a call like this:
ACLU "Boiler Room" Pledge Operator: "Hello, Mr X, this is Becky calling from the ACLU, we're working
on our latest pledge drive this year. Are you aware that government agencies could be spying on your phone calls?"
Mr. X: "You mean like NASA and the Air Force?"
Operator: "They're the ones"
Mr. X: "Wow! I always suspected that."
What will this do to Their Lunar Aspirations?
7:48 pm est
I've read many discussions and threats of a Chinese space program, but haven't given the idea of China beating the US
back to the moon much credence. In some cases, the rousers misquote the date of their proposed lunar probe as the date
they plan on landing on the moon. In other cases, it's just the idea that "they're making huge leaps with each mission,
and could easily accelerate and surprise us." While I won't go on record saying that the last statement is impossible,
I will say that there's been nothing suggesting that type of acceleration so far, and this latest 6-month delay is another
example of a very methodical program that's not in any rush. If they start building a heavy booster, that will get my
attention. If they start assembling spacecraft in orbit, that's another indicator, and here I'm talking about more than
docking two orbital modules. It would have to be something like launching a fueled upper stage, and sending a manned
craft to dock with it. Granted, when that happened, it wouldn't take much to "light the candle" and go pretty high above
Earth, but it would likely take many such stages to do anything serious. A hydrogen/oxygen upper stage launched
by a rocket like this
may allow a lunar flyby, if only such a rocket had flown.
Friday, March 3, 2006
8:35 pm est
I'm down for the night with a virus. Not as bad as the kids had it earlier in the week, but plenty to slow you down. Hope
it'll run its course through the night. In the meantime, here are some gems from Space.com
- Jupiter has a new red spot
- The Dawn mission's been cancelled. There's a bit of a flap about the timing of the cancellation, done right after a NASA official testified on space science
- Here's a report on why we should do a Mars Sample Return misison. One item not mentioned was that delays may get us out of the
kooky international rendezvous plan that's been the norm so far. I admit that it could work, but a much more robust mission
would use two craft, have them generate their own propellants, then bring them directly back to Earth. It also has the advantage
of demonstrating an important technology for human missions to Mars.
Wednesday, March 1, 2006
Wired or Weird?
9:55 am est
I may have more to say on this later, but this article
is a hoot for anyone who knows anything about ProSpace
Jeff Foust talks a bit more about the article here
. Comments are enabled, and the first comment is about as well-reasoned as the Wired article.