Wednesday, June 3, 2020

On the Manned Spacex Launch

Update 6-6-2020:  a version of this article just appeared Saturday 6 June in the Waco Tribune-Herald,  as a board of contributors item on the op-ed page.
On Saturday May 30th, I watched live TV coverage of the launch of two American astronauts toward the space station,  from Cape Canaveral.  It’s been almost a decade since I’ve seen that,  and that’s just too long.

This launch had no “window”,  it had to be on-time or not at all.  This effort was scrubbed for weather just last Wednesday,  because they could not wait out the bad weather.  The risk was a lightning strike on an ascending rocket and spacecraft,  something known not to be tolerable.

The launch and ascent looked “nominal” the whole way to orbit insertion,  where TV coverage ended.  They even successfully landed the booster first stage on the drone ship.  Spacex made this look easy and routine,  but,  believe me,  it is not.  Not yet.

Now,  Spacex has been launching unmanned,  robot-controlled cargo spacecraft to the space station for some years now.  And last year,  they successfully sent the manned version of this spacecraft to the station as an unmanned,  robot-controlled demonstration. 

This manned trip was the final demonstration.  From here,  Spacex should be cleared to send crews to the space station regularly for NASA.  And everything that flies is tested at the McGregor test site.  Tested by people who are paid well to do it,  and who spend money to live here.

Remember that when you hear that rocket testing noise:  continuous thunder is the sound of success.  It is the single ear-splitting “kaboom” that spells trouble!

NASA funded two contractors to do this astronaut ferry job to the space station.  Both need to be in operation,  in order to make this as reliable as possible.  The other contractor is Boeing.

Boeing still needs to do a successful unmanned,  robot-controlled demo before it can launch the final crewed demo.  They tried that a few months ago,  but it didn’t work right. 

Uncovering the failures to be fixed is the whole point of a testing program,  so having a problem with an unsuccessful flight is not a bad thing.  They will fix it and fly again.  They need our support,  too.

Now,  some of you may have heard about a Spacex rocket blowing up in south Texas about that same time.  That was a highly-experimental prototype for the new giant vehicle Spacex is trying to build.  This has nothing to do with the Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule that just launched with a crew.  It is a new,  future thing.

It blew up,  apparently from a propellant leak,  after a successful engine test.   It was supposed to do a gentle low-altitude “hop” sometime in the next few days,  but that won’t happen now,  because it was destroyed.  Such is the nature of early experimental testing of new designs.  Better to find the troubles early:  you lose fewer lives and less money that way.

This new giant vehicle is to be a huge transport to orbit,  first and foremost.  Refilled with propellant from tankers,  it can take large loads to the moon and Mars from there.  This is the wave of the future,  but it won’t happen,  without lots of experimental testing now. 

Which activity by its very nature is going to have some spectacular failures.  Like the one in south Texas. 

Why is this important?  First,  the space program has spin-offs that benefit the public.  It always has. 

Your Pyrex glass cookware resulted from warhead re-entry work in the 1950’s.  The desktop and laptop computers and the related cell phone technology that nearly all of you depend upon came from the computer rocket guidance systems developed in the 1960’s.  The weather predictions you depend on came from weather models and weather satellites developed to support spaceflight in the 1970’s.  And so on,  and so on.

Second,  some day,  if this gets inexpensive enough,  and reliably safe enough,  your kids may travel in space,  or from point-to-point on Earth through near space. 

In the 1960’s (but measured in today’s dollars),  the cost of sending a pound of payload to orbit was $10,000-100,000 per pound.  Because of Spacex and the rest of the satellite launch business entities,  that has been reduced to nearer $1500-2000/pound.  Bigger,  more reusable vehicles will reduce that further.

If it ever gets down under $100/pound,  that’s getting much closer to the price of a first-class airline ticket.  At which point the old dream of vacationing in an orbital hotel begins to become feasible.  We’re not there yet,  but the progress to date is absolutely astounding.

Third,  there is a need to protect the Earth from asteroid and comet impacts.  There is no better justification for both manned and unmanned space programs than this.  It requires sending both unmanned and manned craft out there to develop the protection means,  and then to use it when the need arises.  And it will arise,  at some time in the foreseeable future.

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