Monday, November 24, 2014

Commercial Launch Market Made Different

"If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking." - George S. Patton.

For years after the Saturn V rocket was retired, rockets in the United States were reduced to a set of parameters.  This reflected a way of thinking in the industry.  If a rocket failed on liftoff, it was to be blown up.  It was an easy solution to minimize collateral damage.  Of course, computers then had a tiny fraction the power of today's computers.  By the way, that smartphone you just dropped? Yeah, it has more computing power than they could dream of back then.  Manufacturing was largely done by hand, or by hand operated mechanical/electrical machines.  Flaws were checked by only human hands and eyes for hours on end.  Now, we have robotic arms equipped with X-rays, infrared, ...etc, sensors.  The flaw checking is done in a fraction of the time it used to.

Saturn V was the so big that it took five of the biggest rocket engines on its first stage.  It was said that it could loose one engine and still complete the mission, or at least it could get its payload to orbit.  That capability went away with the Saturn V.  Elon Musk brought it back with the advent of Falcon 9.

So now, we have a contrast of operations.  One is a legacy operation founded on old technology and a robust track record.  The other is based on new technology capabilities and the need to take launch operations in a whole new direction.  I say 'new' though it's been in operation for four years now, it's still relatively new compared to the many decades of launch history we've had.

On October 7th 2008, Falcon 9 rocket lifted off carrying the Dragon capsule bound for the International Space Station.  There was an engine anomaly and one engine shut down.  The rocket kept on going.  The primary payload got to complete its mission.  The secondary payload did not.  The rocket was not blown up.  If any other rocket had a main engine anomaly and was shut off, the rocket would have to been blown up because there would be no way it could get its payload to any orbit.  Atlas V and Delta IV would have to be blown up if such a thing happened to them.

In contrast, on October 28th 2014, Orbital Sciences rocket, Antares, lifted off and had allegedly a main engine anomaly within seconds.  It was blown up by mission control as soon as they detected the anomaly.  I gathered that from the briefing after the mishap and some articles.  The exact reason and conditions of he anomaly is still being investigated.  Antares was built on the old mindset on how you design a rocket.  Orbital is good at getting parts together and making a rocket.  They leverage the market.

You can see the difference here between the mishaps between Falcon 9 and Antares.  Falcon 9 was purposely designed to succeed with redundancy and Antares was not.  You can say the designers of Antares didn't know or didn't realize.  I say that is total BS.  Everyone knows!  Everyone in rocket design knows the Saturn V.  They know about all the mishaps in the past.  They are just making the same mistake as everyone else is doing by not thinking, or they are rationalizing the problem away.  This problem still exists in Atlas V and Delta IV.  The designers of those rockets did not account for this problem.

I was going to go into other points, but this point is so big and poignant.  It just makes me mad.  It makes me mad that for years big companies have been ripping off NASA and the US taxpayers with high cost for launches on rockets that are sub quality.  In contrast, this entrepreneur is offering high quality rockets at low cost launch service.  How can anyone pass that up?  The reality is they can't.  The Atlas V days are numbered because it's too costly and its engines are politically risky.  So they are trying to give it different engines.  Europe is trying to make a new rocket in an attempt to compete with SpaceX.  Through all of this money is scarce.  Recession is coming back to Europe and things are slowing down in China.  So reducing cost to launch satellites is too tempting.  The old ways have to go.  Elon has the floor.