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Falcon 9, The Day After…

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket made it to orbit pretty much on target yesterday, and they have a lot to celebrate. They lost the first stage when it crashed into the ocean, but overall, it was a success.

A company that is about 8 years old spent a reported $400 million to get to orbit. That’s pretty cool any way you look at it. Saving money is very tempting, and America loves a good story. We like rugged individualism, people overcoming odds, taking risks and going great things. We like to think that’s what America is all about. (Wave the flag!) SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk is South African, but never mind, everyone is American if they fit the story.

Reactions in the mainstream news and both the informed and uninformed blogs have been predictable, but we are not hearing from the right people. We hear from Musk, a smart and happy guy, and politicians. We already know what they are going to say! The debate is weak. Space travel is a dangerous and very technical business, and news needs to be seeking out some informed opinion besides a smart guy speaking for his company and some critics in congress that are more worried about elections than requirements and safety factors. Something or someone is missing.

A scan of the news right now would indicate that the commercial era has arrived. Well kinda. In a way, it’s already here because private companies have been part of spaceflight even before Apollo. Most of NASA’s money has gone to private contractors all along. On the other hand, turning everything from design to systems integration, development, construction and testing over to a single company has its issues.
Those issues deserve careful logical, consideration, especially because of the timing.

The whole thing is incredibly political, since the Obama administration wants to use commercial sources to launch crews to orbit, and give NASA other things to do. Obama’s 2011 budget cancels Constellation and relies on companies like SpaceX. Congress needs to agree, and it’s had the ball for months and it’s taking too long to either agree or not.

Meanwhile NASA centers that are still working on Constellation are in limbo, legally bound to keep working on Constellation, even though it’s likely that its crew rocket, Ares 1, won’t go forward. Years of work now seems like a bit of a waste of time. A lot of good people don’t know what they will be working on a year from now, and watch the news while politicians talk and news people try and sort it out.

Those news people could be doing a better job. They need to be talking to people who know something. Reactions to the SpaceX launch that people see and read are coming from people in congress that have the ball, not from space experts and engineers. Let’s hear from them!

Back when NASA was building Apollo, if news wanted to go to the source, NASA had a face and a name, Werner von Braun, an engineer. He walked and talked like an engineer, and had an engineer’s opinion. Things have changed. Today the NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden is a Marine, an ex-astronaut and a good guy, but with all due respect, his job is political, and so are his critics. When he goes to congress to try and sell the administration’s new plans for NASA, he gets beat on by politicians, mainly the ones from states with NASA centers working on Constellation-the same people that were talking to the media yesterday about SpaceX.

A significant news event happened yesterday. The media covered the buildup and the launch very well. It was cool to see. The day after is disappointing. The media had no von Braun to ask “Hey, does this make any sense?”

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20 Responses to “Falcon 9, The Day After…”

  • Steve Whitfield:

    I think it’s inescapable that, to an extent, Congress and the media can’t provide useful technical answers because they don’t understand the technical questions.

    Your point about talking to engineers, I think; is valid, but keep in mind that the engineers, for the their part, don’t really understand the non-technical issues.

    So, while we all have opinions, each from our own perspective, I firmly believe that we’re going to need to have both the technical and non-technical issues considered together, as part of a single whole question, before we’re any the wiser.

    The catch lies in the scarcity of people who adequately understand both sides of the coin (and I exclude those who only think they understand it all). You’d have to (1) find people qualified to make a useful evaluation, (b) get them to commit themselves, and (c) convince the man in the street that your experts really do know what they’re talking about. This is a very tall order indeed.

    I firmly believe that the Falcon 9 flight yesterday “makes sense,” but I’m an engineer, so the worth of my evaluation is very limited, as is that of most people.

  • Tom:

    I have to agree with you. Back in the “good old days”, NASA built and tested actual hardware. Now it seems that it’s primary mission is to build and test project plans, the main objective of which is to produce full employment for project managers. ARRRGH!

  • Space:

    Steve-

    Agree. I guess I’m disappointed that the media do not have that “go-to” person that speaks technically in a way the public will understand, and also does not have a dog in the fight!

    Ask Joe Public who they believe when it comes to space topics, and who would they name? Spock?

    Tom-

    It does seem that way, doesn’t it? It doesn’t have to be. NASA has great people and they want to get the job done. As they say, there are two kinds of deadlines, the one you were supposed to meet, and the one that is funded!

    The agency needs a way to be more isolated from the political winds.

  • Neil H.:

    FYI, Musk is also CTO for SpaceX and was chief engineer on the Falcon 1, making him the closest approximation to Von Braun we have in this case.

  • reader:

    On the other hand, turning everything from design to systems integration, development, construction and testing over to a single company has its issues.

    What is this about, exactly ? A company should not be allowed to design and develop its own vehicles ? And whats this about “a single company” ?

    SpaceX launched a rocket to orbit. Not for the first time. They did it for competitive expenditure, USA now finally has a rocket at a rough price parity with rest of the worlds launchers.

    Its a great boon for the domestic space industry.

    It appears that the company is ALSO on track to develop manned orbital launch capability. We’ll see how that goes, and if the business pans out.

    What is this about “turning everything over to a single company” ?

  • Space:

    reader-

    Thanks for commenting and welcome to the site!

    Your question is a good one and deserves a lot of attention, more than it has been getting.

    I should add that I’m as happy for SpaceX as anyone. It’s only a matter of time before they are ready unless something unforeseen gets in the way. This should have happened 20 years ago.

    The “turning everything over to a single company” comment means a lot of things, all of which need to be out in the open.

    I think we can agree that getting people to space reliably is considered pretty high priority, possibly a “national imperative.” That should also mean that policy decisions should be made accordingly.

    Short list of “issues”-

    1) Space vehicles are on the edge of technology. They are not like airliners, where if you want to buy or lease one, you know what you are getting and you have options. You can chose either Boeing or Airbus, which have track records and reliability is established. I look forward to the day when this is true for space vehicles, but we are not there yet.

    2) Private industry does a lot of things well, but is also subject to economic ups and downs, and sometimes the personal problems of individuals. Look at what happened to banks in the last couple of years. What if the US relies on a private company for something that is considered a national imperative, and something unforeseen goes wrong? Will we be faced with a “too big to fail” dilemma again? What if Tony Stark didn’t get away from his captors, who will make “Iron Man?”

    3) This one can get a bit long, but just to touch the surface- In terms of standards, requirements, even definitions of technical terms, the space business is chaotic. Dig deep into things like configuration management and you will find that just about everyone does things their own way. This makes oversight (such as what the FAA does for aviation) quite a challenge.

    If you want to fly something reliably, you have to know what you have and what to do when there is an anomaly (like the Apollo 13 situation). I’m not convinced we are ready.

    4) Since space vehicles don’t have the luxury of a lot of flights to verify things, development and test work is done piecemeal on the ground. How would an operator (like NASA), know enough about the test and development of what it is flying?

    I’m not saying that these issues are show-stoppers. I just think they need to be part of the debate, and I’m not seeing them discussed out in the open. :)

  • Neil H.:

    > 1) Space vehicles are on the edge of technology. They are not like airliners, where if you want to buy or lease one, you know what you are getting and you have options. You can chose either Boeing or Airbus, which have track records and reliability is established. I look forward to the day when this is true for space vehicles, but we are not there yet.

    I’d argue that this is the position we’ve been in since the 1990s with the 40 consecutive successful launches of the Atlas V and Delta IV.

    > 2) Private industry does a lot of things well, but is also subject to economic ups and downs, and sometimes the personal problems of individuals. Look at what happened to banks in the last couple of years. What if the US relies on a private company for something that is considered a national imperative, and something unforeseen goes wrong? Will we be faced with a “too big to fail” dilemma again? What if Tony Stark didn’t get away from his captors, who will make “Iron Man?”

    It seems that the DOD and NRO are doing pretty well with relying on commercial rockets (presenting the Delta IV and Atlas V) for launching billion-dollar payloads critical to national security. That’s also why you have multiple competitors — if one is problematic, you have capable backups.

    > 3) This one can get a bit long, but just to touch the surface- In terms of standards, requirements, even definitions of technical terms, the space business is chaotic. Dig deep into things like configuration management and you will find that just about everyone does things their own way. This makes oversight (such as what the FAA does for aviation) quite a challenge.

    Quite, although this is one of the areas where SpaceX’s vertical integration becomes quite handy.

    > 4) Since space vehicles don’t have the luxury of a lot of flights to verify things, development and test work is done piecemeal on the ground. How would an operator (like NASA), know enough about the test and development of what it is flying?

    Actually, it looks like SpaceX will have quite a few verification flights under its belt before it starts flying humans.

  • Neil H.:

    Btw, I hope I don’t seem too argumentative. I just recently came across your blog via Clark Lindsay’s rlvnews.com, and think you’ve written a lot of great content here. :)

  • reader:

    Ok, so i still don’t get the comment about a “single company”. Nobody is turning anything of national importance over to a single company.
    Exactly as Neil said : you do not place all your eggs in one basket, you line up multiple service vendors.

    Also, to your 4) point : SpaceX is an operator of their flights, as ULA is the operator of Delta and Atlas. Their customers hire a launch service, they don’t operate the flight.

  • Space:

    Neil-
    No worries. This is awesome. We all need to sound off more.

    Just about everyone is watching the news carefully and talking to everyone else at work. Depending on where you are and what you do, the local “meme” develops and it’s good to throw it out there and get some feedback. Stick around!

  • Space:

    I agree with the multiple vendors thing. It’s just a matter of time.

    If SpaceX is the developer, tester, manufacturer, AND the operator, who will be the “FAA?”

    I have great respect for our FAA. What they do works. But it works because the industry they watch has matured and the most important things are pretty much standardized across manufacturers and operators. It’s different when everything is new and still basically experimental.

  • reader:

    If SpaceX is the developer, tester, manufacturer, AND the operator, who will be the “FAA?”

    Who is the FAA for multibillion dollar national security assets flown on EELVs right now ? Who is the FAA for Soyuz, Ariane ATV etc ?

  • George William Herbert:

    How about the FAA being the FAA?

    http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ast/

    The FAA has been licensing commercial launches and reentries for years. They’ve broadened out into the licensing and permits for commercial and serious amateur suborbital reusable rockets as well. They’ve been very engaged with the new space industry, trying to avoid becoming a bottleneck on anyone else’s ability to do tests and operations.

  • Space:

    This is a good discussion.

    I’ve read a lot of those documents on the faa.gov site, and the technical standards (NPRs) on nasa.gov. To be honest, I was disappointed. There is a lot of good stuff there not relating to hardware. Maybe I’m expecting too much.

    There is a lot of detail about human factors, ergonomics, training, etc. But I work in design engineering and wanted to see it go a bit more in depth.

    Part of my concern is this exchange from a Senate hearing with Bolden and John Frost speaking on 26 April 2010. I found a transcript and edited it down to keep this short-
    SPEAKERS: SEN. BARBARA A. MIKULSKI, D-MD. (and others)
    WITNESSES: NASA ADMINISTRATOR CHARLES BOLDEN JR.…
    JOHN FROST, MEMBER, NASA’S AEROSPACE SAFETY ADVISORY PANEL
    ….MIKULSKI: Thank you very much, Administrator Bolden.
    .. I think we’ve got to get right to the human exploration aspects.
    My number one concern, while we have to always look at the budget, is the safety of the astronauts. Many members on this committee have been to launches, but we’ve also been there when the Challenger went down, with the terrible tragedy of the Columbia. We say a grateful nation will never forget. Well, what-ever course of action, we don’t want to forget.
    So my question will be the safety standards. Will NASA have — first of all, how will you ensure the safety of the astronauts in this new proposed program? And will NASA have one safety standard for humans in space, not one safety standard for government development programs that are very tough, and another for commercial companies?
    One commercial company said they could produce a crew vehicle in three years. Well, that sounds promising. It also sounds ambitious. My look at the history books showed that the shuttle took 12 years from when President Nixon approved it to the first human test, from 1969 to 1981. Again, tell me about the safety standards and are we going to have one set of safety standards for global orbit and commercial vehicles and so on, because it would be my hope that there is one safety standard.
    BOLDEN: Madam Chair, as has been pointed out already by several speakers, I was a member of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, the NASA Safety Advisory Panel that now advises me. And when I was a member of that panel, as John Frost, who will testify after me will comment, we were concerned that NASA was not sharing its human rating requirements with the commercial vendors.
    I think and I hope Mr. Frost will attest to the fact that since my becoming the NASA administrator, we share the human rating standards with all the prospective vendors whether they’re large or small business, whether they’re entrepreneurial or not. We are actually developing a set of human rating requirements for commercial vehicles that will take the massive numbers of engineering requirements and various other requirements and put them in one source document that will be available for all who wish to enter the commercial launch market….
    further down…
    …MIKULSKI: ….
    …. we’re not sending cases of Tang into space. We’re sending our astronauts …
    So here goes the question. On page three of your testimony, you say: “we have not evaluated the pro-posals and cannot comment on their eventual safety.” Here’s the key point: “However, we must point out that NASA has not yet established any safety requirements for their commercial providers.”
    Now, as you recall, in my questions to General Bolden, I said: Is there going to be a single standard? He told me yes. Then he told me they have this manual that they’ve either developed or are in the process of completing. I’m confused. Is there a standard? Is there not a standard? Is there a manual? Could you share with us your comments on this?
    FROST: Yes, I’ll be happy to. My understanding is, and we’ve been briefed and evaluated this very carefully, that NASA does have a human rating — NPR, it’s called. It was recently updated in 2008. It specifically did not address and exempted commercial providers. It was aimed at the type of program where NASA manages the hardware. And that’s critical because the way you state and explain and track the safety requirements depends on the kind of program it is.
    If you’re buying a taxi ride, you have a different set of requirements than if you are developing a taxi. So that was exempted. The ASAP made that a primary recommendation for, I think, about two years that that section of the standard be built out so that the people trying to develop commercial vehicles knew what to aim for.
    General Bolden has taken initiative to make that a priority. The current estimate is that some type of standard for those commercial providers will be available by the end of 2010 setting the requirements.
    MIKULSKI: So if in fact you say to these bold, innovative companies that we are now betting the future of our astronauts going to the space station on a low orbit, we’re going to have — there is going to be a safety standard, but we won’t have it complete until 2010?
    FROST: That’s the current estimate, that’s correct. And I might point out that that’s the hardware requirements. Then we need a process, set of processes that will take longer. Those processes depend on how much knowledge we have of the provider. If we don’t have much insight into how they develop their rocket ship, if you will, then we will need very extensive testing and verifications. And that process will take longer, in my opinion, than 2010.
    MIKULSKI: So then there’s the processes. Now, there is the hope that they will be ready to go in three years. You know, that’s all part of the glitz and the glory that we’re hearing about, that they’re going to be ready to go in three years, when — I’m looking at the development of the shuttle — we have followed the development of the shuttle together. Senator Shelby and I came to the Congress and have worked together since we came, and the shuttle had problems. But remember, the shuttle was going to go 100 flights and it was going to be, you know, like the Greyhound bus to wherever we wanted to go. Now what I’m saying, though, is if in fact the safety manual is not done until 2010, and those processes that are really mandatory, usual and customary, then how could a commercial vehicle just getting what they need to know in the standards, be able to meet a three-year timeframe? Do you think that’s realistic?
    FROST: I’m not privy to the development schedule of the COTS folks. That sounds highly optimistic to me.
    MIKULSKI: I’m not trying to pin you down. I’m trying to get your experience.
    FROST: My experience would be that that’s going to be a tough schedule to meet. And one safety con-cern that drives our panel is that they’re designing parts of those vehicles today. There are engineers at tables picking safety factors and design features that may or may not comply with the requirements that will be developed later in the year. In which case, we’ll have to either accept the risk or step back and redesign. Both involve risk.
    MIKULSKI: So they’re designing today without having the firmness and definite — the definite nature of NASA standards.
    FROST: That is correct. They are attempting to design to what they think the standards will be. And if they’re right, then we’ll be in good shape. And if they’re wrong, then we’ll have difficulty…..
    Link: https://www.usna.com/SSLPage.aspx?rss=alumni_arch&referrer=sub_alumni&pid=10350

    What I take from that is the technical details of human rating have not been delivered, and may be verified after the fact. I do have a lot of respect for the FAA, but they can’t verify requirements If that will be their role too) before they are delivered.

  • Kelly Starks:

    Its intersting that Musk commented after the flight that the launch showed Obamas plan [to carry people to ISS etc commercially] was a good bet, but Bolden just said it was a good step toward SpaceX developing the ability to deliver cargo to the ISS.

    Also theirs seems to be a consensus ni DC against awarding commercial crew carry to start up companies like SpaceX. Even Musk said he thniks spaceX has little chance of winning commercial crew contracts.

  • George William Herbert:

    Have you actually read the complete NASA human rating standards?

    Have you ever seen a vehicle which came close to meeting them, without any exceptions approved?

    Between those and the ISS Visiting Vehicles process, it’s an impressive hurdle to meet. Impressive enough that NASA can’t meet its own standards…

  • Space:

    I did open a few and paged through them, looking for nuts and bolts type requirements. They sure do have a lot of human factors and environment covered. Everything you ever wanted to know about head room and reach is in there!

    As far as meeting them and writing exceptions, as you know exceptions have more than one category. I would expect a lot of minor ones on anything. I have written plenty myself (not spacecraft).

  • Neil H.:

    > Its intersting that Musk commented after the flight that the launch showed Obamas plan [to carry people to ISS etc commercially] was a good bet, but Bolden just said it was a good step toward SpaceX developing the ability to deliver cargo to the ISS.

    That’s because NASA is legally prohibited from saying anything substantive than that until FY2011 is approved by Congress.

  • Kelly Starks:

    > Neil H. Says:

    June 9th, 2010 at 12:12 am
    >==That’s because NASA is legally prohibited from saying anything
    > substantive than that until FY2011 is approved by Congress.

    Interesting. Doesn’t look like he’ll ever get to bring it up then.

    ;)

    Though I’m pretty sure Bolden at least could have mentioned this being a step toward private commercial travel to Earth orbit?

  • FD3SA:

    The whole idea of new companies entering the space arena is to begin a competitive design process.

    What you describe is exactly what a ULA representative would throw at a competitor. ULA doesn’t want competitors because it reduces their monopolized profit margins. If we had left the computer industry to the government, we’d have building sized computers in national laboratories that cost billions of dollars to use, with their major parts all being built solely by IBM (at a pretty penny might I add). This is exactly what has happened to the space industry.

    Von Braun was a visionary pioneer, similar to Konrad Zuse. However, what got the computer industry going was Silicon Valley pioneers like Will Hewlett and David Packard. The birth of SV is analogous to NewSpace today (Rutan, Musk, Bigelow, etc.).

    We’ll see how this plays out, but my guess is we will see far more growth in the hands of public enterprise than big government, as is the historical precedent.

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