Friday, March 12, 2010

Nothing Succeeds Like Failure Redux

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. ~ Albert Einstein

I first wrote about SpaceX and its Falcon about 3 1/2 years ago, in a little pastiche that got me into a big go-round with some Space Frontier Foundation folks. It was a passing reference to the Ansari X prize and the fact Falcon 1 had gone blooey in its first launch.

Six months later, SpaceX was trumpeting that their latest failure was in fact a success. Political spin doctors have less nerve than Elon Musk. When the rocket failed because the second stage stopped firing. I noted that this event involved a definition of success with which I am not familiar. Oh, and the cost of this to U.S. taxpayers was a tidy $278 million. I have nothing against using tax dollars to explore the cosmos; in fact, I favor the idea. I'm just against throwing money away.

Apparently fearing others might have the same idea, SpaceX decided that it wasn't sufficient to merely classify a failure as a success. They now declared a rocket that had never completed a flight "operational." As I said, at the time, this is the hubris medal with an oak leaf cluster.

A year later, we find, thanks to the incredible track record of SpaceX (the rocket hadn't killed anyone yet) the government had awarded "an indefinite contract" to the company for their services to deliver supplies and people to the International Space Station.

As if the hilarity hadn't gone far enough, SpaceX tried again a few months later(I mean you gotta get at least one of these things to fly). This time the second stage once again stopped firing. It stopped firing because the first stage whacked into it, due, apparently, to a lack of understanding of how stage separation should be timed. Of course, Elon Musk once again termed this a success.

Remember, SpaceX is trying to build a rocket to carry people. One wonders how their next-of-kin would feel about this sort of "success."

Well, somewhere along the line, SpaceX finally got a Falcon 1 to work. Based on their one real success, they felt ready to move on. Falcon 9 (which is essentially 9 Falcon 1 engines strapped together) is sitting on a pad at Cape Canaveral doing its best to live down to the reputation of its predecessor. In this "success", the engine aborted "nominally", meaning it quit working, but it did it nicely.

At least it didn't blow up. Presumably, that comes later.

The President has already decided that using Robert Goddard technology to go to the Moon doesn't make sense. Unfortunately, he and his advisors haven't come up with anything better yet. Congress is already talking about extending the shuttle. The only good news is that the idea of scrapping the ISS in 2015 (President Bush's bright idea) seems to be losing steam. I don't like the ISS, but putting all that time and money into a project only to bring it down after less than five years of full operational status is a waste of monumental proportions.

I don't know where the space program is going, which is okay, because I don't make the decisions or spend the money. Trouble is, the President, Congress, and, worst of all, NASA don't seem to know either.

Let's hope they at least remember to get everyone off the ISS before they shut it down.

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