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A 'great day' for the future of commercial space

Jonathan Amos | 22:45 UK time, Friday, 4 June 2010

It's a difficult business developing a rocket. If it were that easy, everyone would have one (even the UK!).

But the stats are clear - some two-thirds of the new vehicles introduced in the past 20 years experienced a failure on their first outing. And of that number, more than one-third tripped up on their second flight too.

So SpaceX must be cock-a-hoop that its Falcon 9 rocket worked straight out of the box on Friday.

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The company, whose goal is to reduce the cost of access to space, had naturally tried to dampen expectations before lift-off.

CEO and chief designer Elon Musk had suggested it would be a "good day" if only the first-stage of the two-stage Falcon worked properly. Making orbit would be a "great day", he said. Friday turned out to be a "great day".

We got clear onboard video of the ascent over the Atlantic, almost to the point of the second stage shut-down, just under nine minutes after the Falcon left the Cape.

The last altitude call I heard was for 256km - a little more than the target injection orbit. The Falcon was equipped with over 100 sensors. We'll hear more about the key performance data in the days and weeks ahead.

But the evident success of the launch will reverberate around Capitol Hill in Washington DC.

US President Barack Obama's insistence on cancelling Nasa's Ares rockets and the rest of its Moon-bound Constellation programme has ignited a furious row with Congress.

Politicians whose states will miss out on Constellation's multi-billion-dollar contracts are up in arms, and they haven't exactly been saying nice things about SpaceX - the upstart that has suggested the commercial sector might be able to launch astronauts into space for a fraction of the cost of traditional government-run programmes.

When I spoke to Elon Musk on Thursday, I put it to him that he and his company had become something of a political football in recent months, kicked back and forth in the war of words between Congress and the White House.

SpaceX was a "punching bag, a whipping boy," he said:

"Our launch should not be a verdict on the viability of commercial space. Commercial space is the only way forward. If we go with super-expensive government developments, in the absence of some massive increase in the space budget we will never do anything interesting in space. And given the enormous federal deficits both in the US and obviously in Europe, that means there will not be an interesting future in space. It's not a path forward; it is the only path forward.

There is a long way to go before SpaceX will be allowed to launch astronauts to the space station on a Falcon 9.

Just because the first launch met its prime objectives doesn't mean everything is guaranteed to go swimmingly in future.

But the company will now push forward with its development programme.

It has a second Falcon 9 already assembled and sitting in Texas awaiting shipment to Cape Canaveral. The next flight will not have a dummy capsule atop its length like Friday's rocket; it will have a fully functional Dragon freighter.

Second-stage video grabDragon is the centrepiece of SpaceX's plan to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).

The second flight will be the first of the so-called Cots test flights. Cots stands for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services. It is the seed programme Nasa established to bring the commercial sector into the business of restocking the ISS.

Whereas Friday's dummy capsule was thrown into a 250km-high orbit and abandoned, on the Cots test the Dragon capsule will be asked to perform a series of manoeuvres to demonstrate its capability.

It will then have to show it can return safely to Earth by passing intact through the heat of re-entry and landing softly in the ocean via parachute.

These are tall tasks, but SpaceX is confident that on the second Cots mission, perhaps by this time next year, it can actually take its unmanned Dragon all the way into the ISS and deliver supplies.

Falcon9 graphicThis is one flight ahead of the Cots schedule agreed with Nasa and the agency has yet to sanction the accelerated timetable. Nasa is mulling it over, but may just decide to go with it.

The retirement of the shuttle leaves a 60-tonne shortfall in the cargo manifest through to 2016 that must be filled by robotic freighters. Even if they all work, the margin will be tight.

So providing SpaceX can meet its milestones, Nasa could accede to the request to go to the station early because the platform really does need all the supplies it can get.

I'm interested to see if SpaceX manages to find and recover the first-stage from Friday's launch.

The plan eventually is to try to make the Falcon 9 totally reusable. That is, to get back everything that went up, reassemble it and put it back on the launch pad to go again.

This is all part of the drive to dramatically reduce the costs of spaceflight. Is it really feasible? I don't know.

But Friday's first-stage was equipped with a heat-resistant covering and a parachute. SpaceX will certainly go and look for it.

Elon Musk told me this week:

"Long term, it's critical that true reusability is achieved for orbital transport. In the absence of that I don't think we will ever extend life beyond Earth because the capital costs will be far too high. The shuttle of course is a partially reusable launch vehicle - the main tank is thrown away each time. But the bits that are reusable are so difficult to reuse that the shuttle actually costs more than an expendable rocket."

It's all interesting stuff. The second Falcon 9 launch should take place before the summer is out.

Watch this space.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Update: The first-stage apparently broke up as it fell. Debris was recovered from the ocean.

  • Comment number 2.

    It looks like the parachute failed. Better luck next time.
    The roll control looked a bit iffy too. Failed? But all things considered pretty darn good for a first flight.

    For me the most noteworthy aspect of the launch was a one hour turnaround ftom the T-3 sec automatic abort. If that had been NASA there would have been a one month delay as their Falcon was brought back into the hanger; stripped down; reassembled by half a dozen tiger teams and generally prevaricated over!

    It seems that Elon has an even simpler system than Soyuz!

    I also like the Kerolox boost. Reminds this old space cadet of the Saturn launches...

    For those that are interested the Upper stage and boilerplate Dragon are being tracked as:
    2010-026A
    Confirmed by space track
    i = 34.50°
    Hp = 236.6 km
    Ha = 273.3 km
    P = 89.47 min
    Which is pretty well on the money. Not that NASA is paying for ths one! With a hot bird in orbit I would expect the team -after a few margaritas apparently- to relight the second stage and perform some mock orbital manoeuvres and prox ops. See if the above elements set change over the coming months.
    Hopefully we will be able to follow it here:
    https://www.n2yo.com/
    But it is not in their database yet!

  • Comment number 3.

    As a scientist who has taken an amateur interest in this for years I can say that the difficulties in making a working rocket are immense and what a big achievement this is. There are dozens of systems in a rocket and they nearly all have to work exactly right first time and without failure.
    Perhaps the most difficult area is the fuel handling. - Liquid oxygen in particular is very corrosive and very dangerous and every valve and pipe and joint a constant potential point of failure. So much of the cost of the current technology comes from the need for the cryogenic fuels but it doesn't look likely to change soon. Even nuclear rockets tend to feature tanks of cryogenic reaction mass fuel, and ultra high energy technologies like gravity engines if they ever become possible will almost certainly feature near lakes of the even more troublesome liquid helium.

    Its a real shame the 1st stage recovery failed, that still seems to be very much an experimental technology. It has to survive the rocket blast of the next stage and then heating from reentry plus handle a radical change of course and turbulent atmosphere without going into a tumble. Just guessing but the tumble part seems to be the most difficult, but if it can ever be done it will have big payoffs. Great success Falcon 9!

  • Comment number 4.

    @brobof

    Regarding canceling countdowns at the last minute and starting over: NASA launches rockets with people on them. SpaceX doesn't yet.

    In any case, don't confuse the Shuttle's launch window when it goes to the IIS with its general capabilities. With the IIS it has to launch in a very tight window of a few seconds to be able to catch up with the moving target of the space station. Another opportunity doesn't arise for 24 hours. However, prior to switching to 100% IIS missions, shuttle launches often had long windows and could and did cancel and restart.

  • Comment number 5.

    Within a year from now, Orbital Science's Taurus II should also make an inaugural test flight and compete with SpaceX's Falcon-9 in the COTS programme.

    In additional to running freight to the ISS at a fraction of the Space Shuttle's kg/$ cost, these new launch vehicles will, when man-rated, be far safer for astronauts to use in several respects. First, the crew compartment and it's re-entry heat shielding aren't exposed to debris shed during ascent from an External Fuel Tank such as eventually lead to the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew. Second, the Space Shuttles solid fuel rocket boosters (SRB), which can't be throttled or shut down once started, are eliminated on the new launch vehicles. A malfunctioning SRB lead to the destruction of Space Shuttle Challenger and her crew.

    So long as SpaceX and Orbital Science can be kept away from fat military contracts and prevented from turning into a Boeing / Lockheed-Martin cartel, the long term problems of cost and frequency of access to LEO for US civil space programme is looking a lot brighter.

  • Comment number 6.

    For me, it was touching to hear the sheer surprise in the commentator's voice as he said, 'We have stage separation', as if they had never expected to get that far. But please don't oversell this initiative: they've still got a long long way to go: go ask the Ariane boys!
    And Jonathan: UK DID HAVE a launcher, Black Arrow; which had been cancelled before its one and only (succesful)launch.

  • Comment number 7.

    @Tim. The joke is included for precisely that reason.

  • Comment number 8.

    Are you watching this David Willetts and Vince Cable? If this government can't help get the commercial sector into space then who can I wonder.

  • Comment number 9.

    "I would expect the team -after a few margaritas apparently- to relight the second stage and perform some mock orbital manoeuvres and prox ops. See if the above elements set change over the coming months."

    If they don't relight the second stage, then it will re-enter before the
    end of June.

  • Comment number 10.

    Well done, SpaceX! However, this is only a small beginning. There's a long way to go yet.

    Obviously, Falcon is still essentially a ballistic missile. Without wings, it will always be problematic recovering the vehicle. And Dragon is still a capsule. Trying to operate an economic service to orbit and back is hardly possible if the returning passengers have to ditch in the ocean, and the navy has to be sent out to rescue them every time. How many flights to New York would there be per day if each passenger jet ditched in the sea off North America and the passengers were fished out by a coastguard helicopter? That's how far we still have to go.

    I would say this illustrates the bankruptcy of the US space programme. After thirty years of Shuttle operations, Orion-Ares represents a huge step backwards through choice, and Dragon-Falcon through necessity. A well managed Shuttle programme would have progressively developed the Shuttle into a more usable vehicle, capable of progressive privatisation. But there was no leadership, and the myth that space is a fundamentally different kind of place, accessible only to an elite of heroic explorers, had become entrenched.

    The greatest annual Shuttle launch rate was 9 flights in 1985, and the greatest annual rate of reusability of an individual orbiter was four flights, for Discovery, also in 1985. These are the figures which Dragon-Falcon has to beat if progress is to be resumed at last after the Challenger disaster -- a quarter century ago!

    Stephen
    Oxford

  • Comment number 11.

    “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
    —Teddy Roosevelt

  • Comment number 12.

    wow

  • Comment number 13.

    There is nothing special about this launch regarding commercial space craft. Most rocket systems ever made in the US has be built by commercial contractors. What is SO ground breaking with SpaceX is they are not using NASA's standard cost plus model.

    A simple example of the ground breaking change is the launch towers of the constellation's Ares I and of the SpaceX's Falcon 9...

    SpaceX's launch tower, it is very simple. They laid down some standard railroad track and they build the rocket horizontal then roll it out on the railroad track, then lift it vertical at the pad. Much much cheaper and simple.

    Constellation's Ares I launch tower was built for $500 million. Of course this is what you get, when you are getting paid more to spend more. It is a huge structure and I would guess very complicated and would require a big staff just to maintain it.

    In the cost plus model, you don't get innovation to spend less. People know I'll have a job longer if we spend more and make it extra complex. It isn't about safety, actually uncomplicated is usually much safer.

    SpaceX represents a major change in how NASA conducts business, they are offering a fixed price per launch. The established contractors and the entrenched NASA benefactors and representatives are not happy. The gravy train might get canceled.

    NASA role should be that of regulator and they should also be doing much of the R&D. NASA needs to spec out the requirement and assure the safety of the crew and the public.

  • Comment number 14.

    @Stephen Ashworth.
    "Obviously, Falcon is still essentially a ballistic missile. Without wings, it will always be problematic recovering the vehicle. And Dragon is still a capsule. Trying to operate an economic service to orbit and back is hardly possible if the returning passengers have to ditch in the ocean, and the navy has to be sent out to rescue them every time. How many flights to New York would there be per day if each passenger jet ditched in the sea off North America and the passengers were fished out by a coastguard helicopter? That's how far we still have to go."

    Perhaps having wings and reconditioning the whole thing over and over again is the problem. Let it not escape those at Oxford that many inexpensive restaurants serve their food in disposable paper and Styrofoam containers with plastic utensil instead of conventional porcelain and silver.

    The Shuttle proved time and time again that it is simply to expensive to reuse. The advanced glass tiles on the belly are indeed reusable but every flight many have to be replaced due to loss or damage. The cost of this replacement is higher than if the shuttle had a simple ablative heat shield like the Apollo capsule. The shuttle was a misstep, an impressive cheque that technology at the time could not cash. It should have been canceled shortly after its first flight but political will to continue and avoid embarrassment kept it limping for way too long.

    "The greatest annual Shuttle launch rate was 9 flights in 1985, and the greatest annual rate of reusability of an individual orbiter was four flights, for Discovery, also in 1985. These are the figures which Dragon-Falcon has to beat if progress is to be resumed at last after the Challenger disaster -- a quarter century ago!"

    The Russian Soyuz, the most prolific and reliable space vehicles while also being one of the cheapest, owes many of its virtues out of the nature that it is a ballistic missile. Originally made to bombard the US in large number it is cheap to build. Due to the predicted shortness of any superpower war it erects on the pad quickly.(18 hours prep and 6 hours after launch to ready for the next one. 24hour turnaround) to be a weapon of war, it can launch in any weather, sun, rain, snow or sleet. It requires minimal crew. At its height the launch site in Kazakstan(not the most developed of places) had 16 launch pads each capable of launching 1 rocket per day, over 5000 per year. All for less money than the shuttle program.

  • Comment number 15.

    Great success for US Space and the Obama plan. Now the US is only ten years behind the Chinese ( and will never catch them). Well at least the USAF and the (x-37) is where NASA should have been today. Too bad it's not human rated.

    Now if it could take 3 years and $6B to get a man rated passenger version of the x-37 spaceplane, why are we messing around with this old school technology and wasting stacks of money on the "Orion" capsule. This just doesn't pass the sniff test. Somethings up, anybody got a clue?

  • Comment number 16.

    @Phillyjimi
    I agree with the cost plus theory in principle but the AresI launch tower is perhaps not the best example. It is my understanding that that same tower would also be used for the AresV which will be the largest rocket ever built in terms of total payload. Obviously the tower for something so big will be more expensive.

    Water mellons and Cherries

  • Comment number 17.

    Jonathan is obviously too young to remember that Britain did have a rocket, well two actually, Black Arrow and Blue Streak. Both flew reliably from their first flights. Black Arrow even put a satellite into orbit. Blue Streak provided the first stage for the original European booster. It worked every flight but the UK pulled out after repeated failures of the French and German upper stages. However, commercial space launch has never really been commercial up until now and if other countries want to waste tax payers' money on prestige projects that is up to them.

  • Comment number 18.

    We all have our own theories of how to do it better and reduce costs, I have a few of my own. -

    1. 747 Theory, its cheaper to fly 500 people by 747 than by F16. Costs reduce diametrically with size so why are todays rockets smaller than what they had in the 60's. The Sea Dragon proposal had a 500 ton payload, nothing today comes close.

    2. Shuttles. The original Space Shuttle was basically a prototype. Built with todays technology you wouldn't use thermal tiles and you would have much better engines like the Russian RD-180 used on Atlas 5, and what happened to aerospike engines?. Add to that a more efficient shape lighter avionics simpler lighter support systems and so on.

    3. Go nuclear. Some things just fit naturally together, nuclear and rocket technology are two of them. Literally at least twice as efficient as chemical rockets plus higher safety margins and safety factors. With a working closed cycle engine your talking single stage to orbit. But the biggest payoffs are in terms of manned interplanetary travel. With chemical rockets they are talking in terms of things like 18 months for Mars transit, with nuclear reduce that to a month. (which reduces cost weight and complexity and increases safety substantially) Then there's costs, current NASA estimate to Mars 500 billion, reduce that to 20 to 40 billion - a factor of twenty.

    4. I might add as a distant fourth exotic technologies, from things like gravity manipulation or 'photonic' thrust to nuclear lightbulbs, novel materials, hypersonic flight, or fusion. The chances of success of most of them might be next to zero but research in new areas always has a chance of a big payoff.

  • Comment number 19.

    @Forlornehope. Oh dear, my comedic skills clearly leave a lot to be desired. My little joke obviously went straight over the top of your head as well. Perhaps that's just because it's not funny! If you're feeling nostalgic for Black Arrow, I included it in this past story of mine.

  • Comment number 20.

    Jonathan, I understood your reference to Black Arrow when I first read your piece!

    But it's a sad joke, because in my view so much of our national character is connected with our achievements in technology, particularly in transport. Britain was a world-leader in bringing in the steam age, building the railways and steamships which unified the globe. Remember the Great Eastern and the laying of the first transatlantic cables. Or the first Oceanic, which was the first truly modern ocean liner. This country was the first to put a passenger jet aircraft into operation (the Comet), and of course remains the only one to successfully operate a supersonic passenger jet. So many of the world's explorers and colonisers were British. But fighting two world wars seems to have knocked the stuffing out of us.

    I remember reading as a child stories set in a future where there were (obviously) three moonbases -- one American, one Soviet, and one British. A pity more of our industry and political leaders didn't read them when they were young!

    Stephen
    Oxford

  • Comment number 21.

    @Stephen. Don't be so sad, I am sure the Americans will be nice enough to house some UKSA astronauts (and sent in a French/European rocket of course) in their moon base from time to time.
    Well... OK, I agree it would be very sad indeed ;).

  • Comment number 22.

    rpbourne: thanks for your response (14) to my earlier comment (10).

    If I understand you correctly, you are saying that because a flawed design for a winged reusable space transport vehicle with 30-year-old technology and a very low flight rate is more expensive to operate than a throwaway ballistic missile, therefore a better design with up-to-date techology at a high flight rate must also be more expensive -- would that be a fair statement of your view?

    I can only comment that the people in Britain who are actually trying to build reusable winged space transport vehicles (at Reaction Engines and Bristol Spaceplanes) would disagree. (For details, see David Ashford's book Spaceflight Revolution, Imperial College Press, 2002.)

    You talk about Soyuz. The most active year for manned Soyuz launches (according to my somewhat sketchy notes) seems to have been 1980, with six launches (Soyuz 35, 36, T-2, 37, 38, T-3) and a total of 13 people carried into orbit. That was thirty years ago. Thirty years ago!!! After thirty years of activity Soyuz launches are now down to four a year. This is no way to open a frontier. Or even an inexpensive restaurant.

    Stephen
    Oxford

 

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