October 9, 2012
The big news right now in things that go boom and up, up and away is SpaceX's first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. The mission, named CRS-1, lifted off Sunday evening and seemed to go fine from the SpaceX feed I watched for about 10 minutes.
I then learned that while there is no trouble with the CRS-1 mission to supply the ISS and bring down waste and used experiments, there was a glitch in the launch that may have hurt a secondary, unrelated mission SpaceX was carrying out with the rocket. The best story about it I have found is here.
Apparently SpaceX had a commercial satellite aboard the Falcon 9 rocket and was going to propel it into orbit while the Dragon capsule sailed away en route to the ISS. But one of the nine engines in the Falcon 9 first stage shut off, and this kept the commercial satellite from reaching the preferred orbit.
What this continues to teach us mere mortals is this: Rocket science isn't easy.
I have read many books and seen many TV shows and movies dealing with rocketry. It's kind of amazing that more doesn't go wrong. Rockets are literally controlled explosions, and they're the best -- really only -- way we know to send objects into space. As good as our rocket scientists are, the field is still quite green and has mostly just NASA's track record for experience.
After reading this article, I got a better understanding of how great this new private-public partnership can become and some of the obvious benefits of dividing responsibilities between multiple companies.
The number that first stuck out to me is $133 million per mission. I looked up how much it cost NASA to launch a shuttle mission: $450 million.
This doesn't really indict NASA for wasting money. Space shuttles carried up to seven crew members and could carry much more cargo than the Falcon 9. But what this does show is how space exploration is going to become better as we all learn how to hand projects out to the right company or government.
You can equate this with different types of cars. If you are a person who mostly commutes to and from work and various shopping centers with just yourself and maybe one other person, you have specific needs. I personally have a Toyota Camry to fulfill those above needs. Mostly I just need something comfortable with the best mileage I can get for what I can afford. Some others in my situation will have a mid-size car, others maybe a motorcycle. I could almost get away with an all-electric car if it charged up enough overnight and had enough range.
But then you have families with multiple children who need space for the kids and storage for more items. So you will see most families will at the bare minimum have a car like mine, but others will find a mini-van or sport-utility vehicle depending on other needs.
People who need a vehicle that can tow things very often or have the need for much more cargo room will likely look at pickup trucks. They often sacrifice the fuel economy that people in my group have, but they need to tow a trailer or put 15 bags of concrete mix in the truck bed. So that vehicle makes best sense for them.
With SpaceX, the U.S. has a versatile rocket company that can send payloads and -- in the near future -- humans into Earth orbit, which mostly means to and from the space station. The Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule are pretty much the midsize car for the routine trips to the ISS.
What we had with the space shuttle was a big truck. That's all we had for manned missions, so that's what we used. An orbiter was a big amount of mass to get off the ground, which meant those two solid rocket boosters and the huge external fuel tank. It was perfect for construction of the ISS and getting things like the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. But we don't do that all the time.
If SpaceX can continue learning and keep launching these rockets successfully, both unmanned and manned, we change the game. NASA gets to spend the vast majority of its budget developing the big idea rockets, such as the Space Launch System, that will allow us to send humans and a lot of cargo past Earth orbit to the moon, asteroids and Mars.
This also adds the element of more ideas on how to best build a rocket. The Falcon 9 uses nine engines in its first stage to get the craft off the ground. The space shuttle had three engines on the orbiter and the two solid rocket boosters. The Saturn V, which took men to the moon, had five giant engines in its first stage.
Just as cars have gas engines in different sizes, diesel engines, gas-electric hybrids and electric engines, this will allow scientists and engineers multiple paths to getting the job done.
We have a long way to go to see if this new path succeeds. We're still at least three years away from SpaceX's timetable for sending a crew up on a Falcon 9. It's leading the private sector pack. NASA's SLS is at least five years away from an unmanned launch.
But hopefully what this leads to is a real space industry. No more multi-year layoffs due to either tragedies like the Challenger and Columbia disasters or due to NASA developing a new rocket. We had shutdowns of about 2.5 years for the shuttle accidents. Between the final Skylab mission using Saturn rockets and the first space shuttle launch, nearly eight years passed.
If we really value scientific experiments and leadership for our country, we can't sit mostly on the sidelines like this and only send up one or two Americans at a time to the ISS because we don't have a launch vehicle. Next time we have a manned rocket that needs retooling, hopefully there will be three or four others that will keep us completely in the game while something bigger and better is in the works. It's been a year since Atlantis went up with Americans aboard, and I think we all miss that awesome display of achievement on our soil.