Saturday, August 09, 2008

Falcon Flops and Phoenix Foibles

Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing. ~ Wernher Von Braun

SpaceX must be doing lots of research, because they sure as heck don't know what they're doing.

When last I took note of this particular private-enterprise attempt at space flight (funded in large part with taxpayer bucks), Falcon 1 had just bought the farm after its second launch. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk promptly announced that the failure to reach orbit was a rousing success. In fact, showing cohones the size of bowling balls, he proceeded to call a rocket
operational that, on its only two launches, had blown up after going a kilometer and failed to reach orbit respectively (for reasons which were never determined, but I'd put a bet on it having something to with staging).

Well, even the ever-optimistic Mr. Musk is having trouble calling the most recent flop a success. It seems this time that, on stage separation, the first stage didn't shut down before the second stage ignited, thereby crashing into the second stage. Oopsie.

Of course, Mr. Musk isn't saying that they've got any problems, since he's saying that this little timing thingy is no problem. All they've got to do is adjust the timing a skosh, and everything will be just peachy. Mind you, this is the same person, who after the last flop said that SpaceX had "really retired almost all the risk associated with the rocket." And then there's the business of calling it operational.

Now let's consider how long multi-stage rockets have been in use. Normally, the only problems that can occur are a) stages don't separate or b) a stage doesn't fire. I won't say that a separated early stage has whacked into an upper stage, but I can't ever recall hearing of one. With the ability of this group to come up with new and imaginative ways to destroy a rocket, I can hardly wait for the next launch. Perhaps they'll mount it upside down on the launch pad.

If the big brother to this firecracker, Falcon 9 (what happened to 2 through 8?), is as much of a success, Russia is going to have to supply a veritable stream of Progress missions to keep the ISS supplied until NASA comes up with something to replace the shuttle. Since that won't happen before 2015, and the shuttles supposedly quit flying in 2010, the Russian space program is going to get wealthy on US taxpayer money.

Presumably the European space bus will also pick up some slack for supplies, but the Russians will still be busy ferrying astronauts to and fro using Soyuz, probably well past 2015, if the current progress on Ares is any indication.

Then there's Phoenix. Phoenix can, I guess, be considered a success, if you define success as "doing something that's been done before" and "finding out stuff we already knew". Phoenix has found water ice on Mars. Big whoop. Radar explorations, rover data, and just plain common sense reviews of photographs have determined that. Oh, and you can grow asparagus on Mars (if it was a lot warmer) thanks to the minerals in the soil, again something I think we already knew.

Then, recently, stories were floating around the Web about some sort of really big announcement to come out of the Phoenix team. In fact, they had supposedly been briefing the White House about the pending news. Now, there's been a lot of discussion over the years about what protocol would be followed if life was discovered on another planet. While no one seems exactly sure about what to do, one major element would be to talk to the President first thing. Why? I have no idea, because one of the main purposes of all the space flitting about is to find out if life could have existed anywhere else in the solar system.

So if we find it, the President has to decide if NASA can tell anyone? Oh, well, that's the protocol.

So anyway, the Web is abuzz. Unfortunately, the announcement that came is that perchlorates were found and that said perchlorates were entirely enimical to life. So, no life on Mars. Sorry, Martian Chronicles fans.

Except that within a week, scientists were jumping all over themselves to set the record straight. Actually, it seems that finding perchlorates didn't necessarily mean anything negative after all. In fact, you can find them on Earth in places where things live.

In fact, you can find them on rockets, which may mean that, even more embarrassingly, Phoenix may have found its own exhaust.

Ultimately, what made this whole brouhaha ridiculous is that Phoenix isn't designed to find life (unlike the Viking missions, which may or may not have found evidence). About the only way Phoenix can determine if life exists on Mars is if a Martian giraffe comes strolling through one of its photographs.

Phoenix got its mission extended, probably in the hopes that it will find something to justify its half-billion dollar cost. There won't be many more extensions because once the Martian summer ends, Phoenix will be in darkness most of the time. Since it was not designed to have a nuclear power source that could keep it functional under those circumstances, it will stop working.

Meanwhile the rovers Opportunity and Spirit continue wandering around the planet, providing more science data than Phoenix ever could, even if it did have a means to survive the darkness.

I've never figured out what Phoenix was supposed to be good for, other than to try to make up for the embarrassment of the Mars Polar Explorer (both were built by the same people). With the success of the rovers, it would seem that the next step should have been a super rover with more chemical testing capabilities. Yes, that would be expensive. But then there's a half-billion bucks worth of very minor science sitting on Mars that could have been put toward a new rover.

Not to mention all that money going down the SpaceX rat-hole.

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