Saturday, August 9, 2008

SpaceX Blame Game

On August 6, Elon Musk released an explanation for last week's Falcon 1 launch failure. Evidently, the two stages did separate, but they reimpacted seconds later. When the second stage engine fired it damaged both stages, sending them tumbling to their destruction.

This flight of the Falcon 1 was the first flight test of the new Merlin 1C engine. The previous version of the engine was ablatively cooled, meaning that the rocket nozzle is lined with a material that slowly burns away, thus protecting the metal nozzle. The new version is regeneratively cooled, which means that the kerosene fuel circulates through channels in the nozzle to cool it before it gets injected into the engine. With regenerative cooling, when the fuel flow is cut off there is more residual fuel in the engine, so it takes longer for the thrust to drop off to zero. Evidently, SpaceX engineers did not take this into account by lengthening the time between engine cutoff and stage separation. The small amount of remaining thrust enabled the first stage to catch up with the second stage again instead of being out of the way when it ignited. You can see the whole thing in the video posted by SpaceX.

I mentioned last week that the various newspace bloggers and industry pundits have been engaged in an orgy of speculation and criticism. The new information from Musk didn't really quiet the crowd. It just shifted the focus to a discussion of whether this problem could have been foreseen and avoided. At some level that's no doubt true. Before the release of the video, some commentators had leapt immediately to the correct explanation, knowing nothing more than that there had been a "stage separation failure" and that this was the first flight with a regeneratively cooled engine. Much has been made, as well, about the fact that SpaceX has experienced three consecutive failures.

Why did they fail? There has a lot of loose criticism of SpaceX implying they are are a bunch of amateurs. That's not consistent with what I've heard about their organization and I think it is very unfair. I don't mean to say that every mistake they have made is unavoidable. But I also think there's another reason why one would expect them to have more failures than the established aerospace companies. Their whole strategy is to find ways to simplify and automate the process of designing, building, testing and launching rockets. They are being innovative and taking risks by seeing which parts can be cheaper, which processes you can do without, which jobs you can automate, etc. If you're really going to find the floor on costs you have to go a little too low and then selectively restore some extra checks and redundancies as needed to get acceptable reliability. New, privately held, self funded companies can afford to take these kinds of risks more than established organizations.

Entrepeneurship drives progress in unique ways, and we are fortunate that we still have an entrepeneurial culture in this country. Most fail, but some succeed, and they do it by exceeding what earlier suppliers were able to achieve. If Musk is wrong, and there are no economies to be found in the way rockets are currently designed, built, tested and launched then he will fail. He might fail anyway if he makes too many mistakes. But I think his basic premise is sound and I suspect he will, in the end, succeed.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

SpaceX Falcon 1 Failure

Alas! Flight 3 of the SpaceX Falcon 1 vehicle ended with the loss of the vehicle. The flight seemed to be going well until shortly before stage separation. This is the moment when the first stage shuts down and is jettisoned, then the second stage begins firing. The live video stream from the rocket was cut off about 2:11 into the flight. A few seconds later the SpaceX announcer said there had been an anomaly. In a statement to his employees and the general public a short while later, Elon Musk said there had been a stage separation failure. We have no other information at this time, although speculation has been rampant in the blogosphere.

When something like this happens the blogosphere is always full of naysayers. I can't resist a few comments of my own. First, it is true this is a serious failure for the company. This flight didn't get as far as the last one, which doesn't look good. We have yet to learn how their customers will react to the failure. It is definitely a significant setback. Musk says he has brought in new investors and his cash position is very strong. He thinks he can weather the crisis. I still wouldn't bet against him.

Many of the naysayers appear to be part of the traditional aerospace industry and it seems almost as if they are hoping SpaceX will fail. They seem to be motivated by a desire to prove that no one can improve on their own track record. They would like to think that it is always going to take billions of dollars and an army of thousands to develop new spacecraft. But look at what SpaceX has already accomplished. With a total workforce of 525 people and no more than about $250 million expended so far, they have developed one small launch vehicle (Falcon 1), are well along in development of a medium lift vehicle (Falcon 9) and are working on a spacecraft that will dock with the International Space Station (Dragon). All that would have cost the Europeans about $5 billion!! Even Lockheed-Martin or Boeing would have spent far more. SpaceX can afford to lose several more Falcon 1 vehicles as they perfect their systems and still be way ahead of what anyone else has done in terms of cost efficiency. I really think the big boys better be looking in their rearview mirrors!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Go SpaceX!

This is a big week for the newspace company SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies). Today they announced the first nine-engine test firing of their new Falcon 9 booster. A video of the test firing is posted on their website.

Even more significant, perhaps, is the opening of the launch window for Flight 3 of their smaller Falcon 1 rocket. (The launch of Flight 2 is pictured at right.) Sometime between now and August 5 I'm hoping to watch a live webcast of their first successful launch into orbit. The first test launch of the Falcon 1 ended after 30 seconds of flight when a fire caused the first stage engine to fail. The second flight nearly made orbit, but sloshing fuel in the second stage tanks caused a premature engine cut-off. Flight 3 is not billed as a test flight, but an operational flight. They are launching an experimental DOD payload, along with two smaller payloads for NASA and one for the Malaysian space agency. I think they have an excellent chance for success, based on the progress made in the past two launches. I can't wait!

SpaceX is a new company founded by Internet mogul Elon Musk with the money he made from selling PayPal. It is one of a new breed of space enterprises often referred to as "newspace". These new companies, mostly self-funded, are aiming to create a new era of private commercial space travel by bringing down the cost of getting into space. The genius of newspace is to leverage the market economy and entrepeneurial spirit of this country to vastly accelerate the pace of innovation in this industry. Dozens of companies are trying dozens of different approaches. Most will fail, but some may succeed. Musk's approach is more conventional than most. He aims to beat the majors (Boeing, Lockheed-Martin) at their own game by producing conventional boosters that compete directly against existing ones, but undercutting their price. He is betting over $100 million of his own money on it.

How can a new company produce rockets cheaper than the big boys? I think there are several key elements of Musk's strategy:

  1. Hire the best and the brightest engineers away from the majors.

  2. Run a lean operation with a flat structure and a spirit of innovation that empowers these engineers to produce the best products possible with the least overhead.

  3. Start with a clean-sheet design while still leveraging the accumulated experience of the past fifty years.

  4. Optimize the design for lowest price instead of highest performance.

  5. Leverage automation whereever possible to reduce labor costs in the design, manufacture, testing, and operation of the vehicle.

So far SpaceX is doing rather well financially. They haven't put a single payload into orbit (yet!), but they have at least a dozen missions on their launch manifest. They won a COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) contract from NASA worth $278 million that is helping to bankroll their development work, and have so far made all their milestones. The big question, I think, is not whether they will get to orbit successfully, but whether over the long haul they can deliver on their promise of significantly lower launch costs than the majors. Right now, I wouldn't bet against them. Go SpaceX!

[Afternoon update] SpaceX has announced the opening of a five hour launch window at 6:00 pm CDT (4:00 PDT and 7:00 EDT). Webcast will begin 30 minutes before launch.