The misadventures of Commander Merlin and the crew of RV-103
Wednesday July 23rd 2014

SpaceX and Their Falcon 9 Launch

On June 4th, 2010 SpaceX “successfully” launched their Falcon 9 rocket for the first time.  For that accomplishment, I give them my congratulations.  To launch a rocket and achieve orbit is a massive undertaking and very few nations can do that let alone private companies.

The reason I put the word “successfully” into quotes is because SpaceX has never, to my knowledge, released their mission goals or milestones they hoped to achieve during this inaugural launch of their Falcon 9.  Unlike NASA, Space X does not seem to have to release this information because they are a private company.

I would be more apt to say they had “limited success.”  Elon Musk, the owner of SpaceX, would only say that his rocket achieved orbit within one mile of their intended goal of 100 miles.  There is also the question of the first stage failure to land safely in the ocean to be recovered and the unusual spin the second stage experienced during flight.  That spinning stage was witnessed over Australia 45 minutes later resulting in numerous UFO calls to authorities.

Prior to launch, Elon Musk was making statements to downplay the launch realizing that most inaugural launches of new rockets historically have a 50% failure rate.  “Tomorrow’s launch, or the next day’s launch, should not be a verdict on the viability of commercial space,” he said.

Of course afterwards, Mr. Musk was making statements saying, “I think this bodes very well for the Obama plan.  I think it really helps vindicate the approach that he’s taking, and it shows that even a sort of small, new company like SpaceX can make a real difference.” I think part of his statement is post launch hubris from celebrating the launch and part of it was just public relations on Obama’s part.

With the limited knowledge of the launch goals we have, let’s break down just how “successful” this launch was.  Are they ready to climb another 150 miles and deliver supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station?  I’ll let you decide.

First of all, there is the failure of the 1st stage to splash down in a controlled manner and be recovered.  These things happen.  Even in the Shuttle Program, occasionally the solid rocket boosters land a bit hard and are damaged.  During the Ares 1-X launch, the first stage had a parachute failure resulting in the stage being damaged during splashdown.

Second, was the unusual spin on the second stage.  Though the Falcon 9 achieved orbit, spinning end over end spewing out fuel from the side of the rocket is not good.  In 1966, Gemini 8 commanded by Neil Armstrong, had a thruster stick causing the spacecraft to violently spin out of control nearly killing the crew with one rotation occuring every second.  Armstrong shut off the thrusters and brought the spacecraft back to Earth saving the crew and the spacecraft, but without completing the mission objectives.  This occurred 44 years ago and NASA corrected the problem. As far as I know, NASA never experienced such a problem with their spacecrafts again (with the exception of Apollo 13 that was due to an explosion on board).  End over end spins are dangerous and can lead to the loss of the spacecraft, cargo, and more importantly the crew.  SpaceX just experienced what NASA has dealt with and corrected 44 years ago.

Gemini 8

The original purpose of SpaceX was to launch payloads in orbit for a cheaper price.  They also became part of the Commercial Orbiter Transportation Services (COTS) program done by NASA to set up a way to supply the International Space Station with cargo during the gap between the Shuttle Program and Constellation.  NASA at first, had no intention of using SpaceX to deliver crews to the ISS, for that was to be one of Constellation’s tasks (besides carrying crews to the Moon and back).  Obama changed all that by putting SpaceX into the role of being the one and only agency to transport human crews.  Considering SpaceX youth, inexperience, and a failure rate of 60% out of 5 total launches (Falcon 1 and Falcon 9), there are questions if this company is truly ready to take on the mantle and responsibilities of America’s Human Space Flight Program.

From a recent article on SpaceNews.com, “Roger Tetrault, a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) formed in the wake of the February 2003 space shuttle disaster, has joined the chorus of critics of NASA’s plan to cancel the Moon-bound Constellation program and rely on commercially oriented firms like Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) to fly astronauts to the international space station.

“America’s path is now threatened by the decisions being proposed in the NASA budget,” Tetrault wrote in a May 27 letter to U.S. Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas), a critic of President Barack Obama’s proposed human spaceflight overhaul. “We are cancelling a program built around the findings and lessons learned from Columbia. There is no clear mission or direction given to NASA, and the use of proven-technologies is being shunned. Further, the choice to commercialize our launch capability provides insufficient safety for the brave men and women that will be asked to ride these rockets. Surely, they deserve the best we can provide.”

“…the new entrepreneurial space transportation companies” should first demonstrate they can be counted on to deliver cargo before they are trusted with NASA’s human spaceflight mission.

“Only after they have proven that they are mature and safe enough, should they be allowed to step up to the much harder task of carrying humans…”

SpaceX has also not dealt with NASA as contractors such as United Space Alliance does everyday.  NASA requires “complete accountablity” from it’s contractors when it comes to Human Space Flight.  This means that every nut, bolt, screw, etc must be accounted for on the ship.  USA has to provide where they got the parts, who made them, who installed them, who signed off on it, etc.  The oversight and paperwork tracking all these parts and work done on the shuttles are immense and time consuming, but for good reason; the safety of the ship and the crew.  SpaceX has chaffed in the past over the Air Force’s regulations concerning range safety at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station which is next door to Kennedy Space Center.

“Musk said the decision to launch Falcon 9 from the Cape was a big contributing factor to the launch delay because of the huge volume of regulatory work that has to be completed to conduct a launch from the Cape.

Air Force rules and regulations at Cape Canaveral are increasingly being identified as big obstacles to Florida attracting more space business to the Cape. The costs, security demands and rules for launching rockets from the Air Force rocket range…”

I have no idea how SpaceX will accept and comply with  NASA’s oversight when and if they start launching crews.

I do hope for SpaceX’s continued success, but I do not think they are a viable replacement to Constellation, no matter what Obama thinks.  They do not have the decades of expertise, and institutional knowledge that contractors such as USA, Lockheed, and Boeing have.  SpaceX is just not ready for Prime Time yet nor will be for many years in my humble opinion.

See my past posts about Obama’s new plan here and here.

Update:  Dwayne A. Day wrote a wonderful article about determining SpaceX’s “success” rate compared to government success rates, etc.

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