Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

Established technology tends to persist in spite of new technology. ~ Blaauw's Law

The 2007 Award for Outstanding Achievements in Hubris has been clinched already, so don't bother to compete. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX has put the award so far out of reach that even the President's claims about how well things are going in Iraq can't touch him.

It seems that SpaceX finally got Falcon I off the ground, actually reaching an altitude of 186 miles. Unfortunately, it was supposed to reach 425 miles. It stopped short because the second stage engine stopped firing, which it did because the rocket had begun to tumble, which is bad. In most circles, this would be called a failed shot. In fact, Tariq Malik actually began his article, "The second test flight of the privately-built Falcon 1 rocket failed to reach its intended orbit late Tuesday, nearly one year to the day of the booster’s ill-fated spaceflight debut."

But if you read the BBC's take on it, you would think the flight was a wondrous success. Compared to the first attempt, it was a significant improvement but hardly a success. But the quotes that came out of SpaceX people were positively ecstatic (quotes are from Mr. Maliq's article):

  • We did encounter, late in the second burn, a roll control anomaly, but that’s something that’s pretty straightforward to address. - Elon Musk. Perhaps if Mr. Musk's people had address the problems prior to launch, we wouldn't have yet another piece of space junk in orbit.

  • “We successfully reached space, and really retired almost all of the risk associated with the rocket, - Elon Musk. Two launches, two failures. What risk, exactly, have you retired? The risk of making a really successful flight?

  • We, in the Washington D.C. office are celebrating with champagne. - Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX vice president of business development. Getting drunk won't help.

  • I’ve got all fingers and toes crossed hoping that it works. - Michael Griffin, chief optimist, NASA. Should have rubbed a rabbit's foot and thrown a horseshoe over your shoulder, Mr. Griffin.
This is the sort of success $278 million dollars of your money and mine is helping to fund. But that's not the funniest bit.

The Falcon is 21 meters long and uses liquid oxygen and kerosene as fuel. Vanguard, which was mercifully retired a long time ago, was 21.9 meters long and used liquid oxygen and kerosene fuel. Vanguard had three successful launches -- and eight failures. Now, I'm sure the SpaceX people will go on and on about how there is all sorts of new technology and materials in Falcon I, but at its heart, it's still the same thing that was being launched (well, 32% of the time) in 1958 and 1959.

Remember, it's taking a quarter of a billion dollars for them to work out this technology.

However, just to let you know that NASA is watching the pennies (while letting the dollars go tumbling into low orbit), is likely to shut down its think tank, the Institute for Advanced Concepts. This will save a whopping $4 million (yes, that's million with an "m") of NASA's $17 billion (that's with a "b") budget. Keich Cowings of NASAWatch has it right when he says Mr. Griffin, noted for hacking away at NASA's science budget, is "cutting down the forest and ploughing up the fields and throwing it all in the furnace."

He will also prevent any embarrassing futuristic ideas being developed that could lead to innovative approaches to space flight. Lord knows, we wouldn't want to be embarassing the commerical space flight interests. They do a good enough job on their own.

Now, think tanks do tend to put forth "out there" ideas that are generally not immediately practical. But, every once in a while, they hit on something that someone else can take to practical levels. When the guys at Bell Labs developed the transistor, they really weren't sure what to do with it, but a bunch of clever folks, a lot of them in Japan, certainly figured out some ways to make money with it. Along the way, they provided electronic products that vastly outlast the old tube technologies that were superceded.

I probably shouldn't bring that example up, because the commercial space flight crowd might rediscover vacuum tubes.

So while our commercial space programs consist of retooled Apollo capsules, 1950's technology rockets, and the promise of roller-coaster passenger flights where people can go up into space, throw up, and come back, NASA is closing down a group that might provide insights into technologies that could give us a real chance for manned exploration and colonization in space.

Just business as usual.

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