February 13, 2013
Samples are currently making news for NASA’s planetary exploration program. Last August, the rover Curiosity, equipped with a package of laboratory instruments, landed on Mars. On February 9th the rover’s robotic arm drilled its first hole in a rock selected by scientists. In their attempt to gain more information about Mars, scientists will use the rover’s science package to remotely analyze these samples on the martian surface. The results will give them some fairly detailed knowledge on the chemical and mineral make up of these rocks. But what else can we possibly learn from samples?
Geologists in general and planetary scientists in particular often emphasize that “such and such” cannot be known for certain “until we obtain samples” of some planetary surface or outcrop. What is this obsession with samples? Why do (some) scientists value them so highly and exactly what do they tell us? Answers to this question (for there is not a single, simple one) are more involved than you might think.
With today’s technology providing us with only the most rudimentary information, sample analyses made remotely on a distant planetary surface is limited. Some of the things we want to know, such as the formation age of rocks, can only be discovered with high precision, careful laboratory work. That’s a tall order for remote systems. For example, one of the most common techniques used to “date” a rock’s age requires the separation of individual minerals that make up the rock. Next, the ratio of minute trace elements and their isotopes in each grain must be determined. Assuming that the rock has not been disturbed by heating or a crater shock event, this information can be used to infer an age of formation. If we can convince ourselves that the rock being studied is representative of some larger unit of regional significance, we can use this information to reconstruct the geological history of the region and eventually, the entire alien world. So sample analysis is an important aspect of geological exploration.
As I have written previously, we used images to geologically map the entire Moon, noting its crater, basin and mare deposits, and their relative sequence of formation. When the first landing missions were sent to the Moon, great emphasis was placed on obtaining representative samples of each landing site. It was thought that such samples could be studied in detail in Earth laboratories and then extrapolated to the larger regional units shown on the geologic maps. With few exceptions, this approach worked pretty well. As we moved from the landing sites on the maria (ancient lava flows) into the complex highlands, the “context” of the samples – their relation to observed regional landforms or events – became more obscure. A lunar highland rock is typically a complex mixture of earlier rocks, sometimes showing evidence for several generations of mixture, re-fragmentation, and re-assembly. Loose samples lying on the surface were collected from the highlands, none of them were sampled “in place” (i.e., from bedrock). Although this is also true of the rocks from the maria, we observed bedrock “in place” at most of the mare sites and may have actually collected at least one sample from lava bedrock at the edge of Hadley Rille near the Apollo 15 site.
None of the highland samples possess the same degree of contextual certainty as the mare samples. This fact, coupled with their individual complexity, sometimes leads to consternation over exactly what the samples are telling us. It doesn’t help that the Moon’s early history was itself very complex, with magmas solidifying, lavas erupting, volcanic ash hurled into space and laid down in bedded deposits. On top of all those processes were cratering events that mixed and reassembled everything into a complex geologic puzzle, a virtual stew of processes and compositions that hold clues to billions of years of the Moon’s (and Earth’s) history. Nonetheless, we can still perceive most of the story of the Moon’s history, enough at this point to tell us that without those lunar samples in hand, we would be well and truly ignorant of even its most important events and basic processes. The fixation with sample return stems from the science community’s belief that with just a few more carefully selected samples from some key units, all that is now dark will be made light.
There may be severe consequences to the science community’s insistence on the primacy of sample return. The most recent “decadal survey,” the ten-year community study that gives NASA our wish lists for missions and exploration, made a sample return from Mars the centerpiece and sine qua non of future robotic missions. The NRC report was so emphatic in its insistence that it might be paraphrased as saying, in effect, “Give us a Mars sample or give us death!” (with apologies to Patrick Henry). Alas, that formulation may be more apt than anyone desired, as proposed out year budgets for the next five years of NASA funding cuts planetary exploration by almost 30% – a landscape of shifting priorities that raises questions and uncertainty for the future.
Robotic sample return missions to large bodies like the Moon or Mars are expensive because they consist of multiple spacecraft – a lander, which softly places the spacecraft on the surface, a device (such as a rover) to collect and store the samples and an ascent vehicle to bring the sample back to Earth. While none of these functions individually are exceedingly difficult to achieve, all of them (done correctly and in proper sequence) add up to a substantially difficult, complex mission profile.
In the space business (as with most endeavors), more difficult and complex means that more money is required. Moonrise, a proposed robotic mission to return about a kilogram of sample from the far side of the Moon, was projected to cost around one billion dollars. A Mars sample return mission consisted of three separate missions: one to land, collect and store the samples, another one to retrieve those samples and place them into orbit around Mars, and a final mission to return the samples to Earth. With each step costing up to several billion dollars, such a technically challenging Mars sample return mission would be unaffordable.
Although samples have many advantages over remote measurements, those benefits must be weighed against the cost and difficulty of obtaining them. Perhaps the complete extent of what can be accomplished remotely has yet to be fully explored. As mentioned above, absolute ages are key information that we get from samples. Several dating techniques could be adapted to a remote instrument; these methods may not be the most precise imaginable, but they might be of adequate precision to answer the most critical questions. On the Moon, we do not know the absolute age of the youngest lava flows in the maria; age estimates range from as old as ~ 3 billion years to as young as less than 1 billion years. In such a case, a measurement with 10-20% precision is adequate to resolve the first-order question: When did lunar volcanism cease? In addition, such a result would enable us to calibrate the cratering curve for this part of lunar history, a function that is widely used to infer absolute ages throughout the Solar System. A solid result obtained from a robotic lander – even such a relatively imprecise one – would have important implications for lunar volcanic processes, thermal history, impact flux, and bulk composition.
Complex robotic operations in space are always dicey, especially when attempting something for the first time. Samples are a key part of a planetary scientist’s toolbox but their acquisition is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Samples from robotic missions are more likely to have ambiguous context, thus rendering less scientific value. Scientifically useful sample collection may remain problematic until people can physically go to exotic places in space and fully use their complex cognitive skills. This trade-off between cost and capability must be carefully considered when weighing future exploration alternatives and desired outcomes.
Previous relevant posts:
November 17, 2012
Space missions are commonly thought of as the ultimate in “high tech.” After all, rockets blast off into the wild blue yonder, accelerate their payloads to hypersonic and orbital speeds and then operate in zero gravity in the ice-cold, black sky of space. It requires our best technology to pull off this modern miracle and even then, things can go wrong. Why would anyone believe that with high technology, sometimes less can be more – that we’re missing a bet by not utilizing current technology. Like the intellectual tug of war involving man vs. machine, there also is a tug of war between proven technology and high-tech. Creating these barriers and distinctions is nonsensical. We need it all. And we can have it all.
Point in question – in situ resource utilization (ISRU), which is the general term given to the concept of learning how to use the materials and energy we find in space. The idea of learning how to “live off the land” in space has been around for a long, long time. Countless papers have been written discussing the theory and practice of this operational approach. Yet to date, the only resource we have actually used in space is the conversion of sunlight into electricity via arrays of photovoltaic cells. Such power generation is clearly “mature” from a technical viewpoint, but it had to be demonstrated in actual spaceflight before it became considered as such (the earliest satellites were powered by batteries).
The reason we have not used ISRU is because we’ve spent the last 30 years in low Earth orbit, without access to the material resources of space. Many ideas have been proposed to use the material resources of the Moon. A big advantage of doing so is that much less mass needs to be transported from Earth. The propellant needed to transport a unit of mass from the Earth to the Moon keeps us hobbled to the tyranny of the rocket equation – a constant roadblock to progress. If it takes several thousand dollars to launch one pound into Earth orbit, multiply that amount times ten to get the cost to put a pound of mass on the Moon.
In the space business, new technologies tend to be viewed with a jaundiced eye. Aerospace engineers in particular are typically very conservative when it comes to integrating new technology into spacecraft and mission designs, largely on the basis that if we are not careful, missions can fail in a spectacularly dreadful fashion. To determine if a technology is ready for prime time, NASA developed the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) scale, a nine-step list of criteria that managers use to evaluate and classify how mature a technical concept is and whether the new technology is mission ready.
Resource utilization has a very low TRL level – usually TRL 4 or lower. Thus, many engineers don’t think of ISRU as a viable technique to implement on a real mission. It seems too “far out” (more science fiction than science). Believing that a technology is too immature for use can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, a “Catch-22” for spaceflight: a technology is too immature for flight because it’s never flown and it’s never flown because it’s too immature. This prejudice is widespread among many “old hands” in the space business, who wield TRL quite effectively in order to keep new and innovative ideas stuffed in the closet and off flight manifests.
In truth, the idea that the processing and use of off-planet resources is “high technology” is exactly backwards – most of the ideas proposed for ISRU are some of the simplest and oldest technologies known to man. One of the first ideas advanced for using resources on the Moon involve building things out of bulk regolith (rocks and soil of the lunar surface). This is certainly not high-tech; the use of building aggregate dates back to ancient times, reaching a high level of sophistication under the Romans, who over 2000 years ago built what is still the largest free-supported concrete dome in the world (the Pantheon). The Coliseum was made of concrete faced by marble. The Romans also built a complex network of roads, some which remain in use to this day; paving and grading is one of the oldest and most straightforward technologies known. Odd as it may seem, sand and gravel building material is the largest source of wealth from a terrestrial resource – the biggest economic material resource on Earth.
Recently, interest has focused on the harvesting and use of water, found as ice deposits, at the poles of the Moon. Digging up ice-laden soil and heating it to extract water is very old, dating back to at least prehistoric times. This water could contain other substances, including possibly toxic amounts of some exotic elements, such as silver and mercury. No problem – we understand fractional distillation, a medieval separation technique based on the differing boiling temperatures of various substances. Again, this concept is not particularly high-tech as only a heater and a cooling column is needed (basically the configuration of an oil refinery). Some workers have suggested that lunar regolith could be mined for metals, which can then be used to manufacture both large construction pieces and complex equipment. Extracting metal from rocks and minerals is likewise very old, developed by the ancients and simply improved in efficiency over time. Processes like carbothermal reduction have been used for hundreds of years. The reactions and yields are well known, and the machinery needed to create a processing stream is simple and easy to operate.
In short, the means needed to extract and use the material wealth of the Moon and other extraterrestrial bodies is technology that is centuries old. Even advanced chemical processing was largely completely developed by the 19th Century in both Europe and America. The “new” aspects of ISRU technology revolve around the use of computers to control and regulate the processing stream. Such control is already used in many industries on Earth, including the new and potentially revolutionary technique of three-dimensional printing. A key aspect of the old “Faster-Cheaper-Better” idea (one NASA never really embraced) was to push the envelope by relying more on “off-the-wall” ideas, whereby more innovation on more flights would lead to greater capability over time.
Nothing that we plan to do on the Moon involves magic, alchemy or extremely high technology. Like most new fields of endeavor, we can start small and build capability over time. The TRL concept was designed as a guideline. It was not intended as a weapon eliminating possibly game-changing techniques from consideration or to carve out funding territories. Attitudes toward TRL must change at all levels, from the lowly subsystem to the complete, end-to-end architectural plan. A critical first step toward true space utilization and for understanding and controlling our destiny there is to recognize and take advantage of the leverage one gets from lunar (and in time planetary) resource utilization.
September 8, 2012
Rick Tumlinson of the Space Frontier Foundation published a “free-enterprise” critique of the Republican platform in regard to the American civil space program. Indeed, the text of the space plank is vague (no doubt intentionally, so as to give the candidate maximum flexibility to structure the space program to align with his vision and goals for the country). But what I found most interesting was the underlying premise and assumptions in Tumlinson’s article, a worldview that I find striking.
In brief, Tumlinson approves of the current administration’s direction for our civil space program. The U.S. has stepped back from pushing toward the Moon, Mars and beyond and redirected NASA on a quest for “game-changing” technologies (to make spaceflight easier and less costly), while simultaneously transitioning launch to low Earth orbit (LEO) operations to private “commercial space” companies selected by our government to compete for research and development funding and contracts. Many see this as gutting NASA and the U.S. national space program. To be clear, the term “commercial space” in this context does not refer to the long-established commercial aerospace industry (e.g., Lockheed-Martin, Boeing) but to a collection of startup companies dubbed “New Space” (typically, companies founded by internet billionaires who have spoken much and often about lofty space plans, but have actually flown in space very little).
Tumlinson criticizes the Republican space plank because it does not explicitly declare that a new administration would continue the current policy. In his view, the very idea of a federal government space program, including a NASA-developed and operated launch and flight system, is a throwback to 1960’s Cold War thinking. Instead, he envisions space as a field for new, flexible and innovative companies, untainted by stodgy engineering traditions or bloated bureaucracy. Many space advocates on the web hold this viewpoint – “If only government would get out of the way and give New Space a chance, there will be a renaissance in space travel!” But travel to where? And why?
The idea that LEO flight operations should be transitioned to the commercial sector is not new. It was a recommendation of the 2004 Aldridge Commission report on implementing the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). NASA itself started the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program (COTS) in 2006, designed to nurture a nascent spaceflight industry by offering subsidies to companies to develop and fly vehicles that could provision and exchange crew aboard the International Space Station. That effort was envisioned as an adjunct to – not a replacement of – federal government spaceflight capability.
The termination of the VSE and the announcement of the “new direction” in space received high cover from the 2009 Augustine committee report, which concluded that the current “program of record” (e.g., Constellation) was unaffordable. The Augustine Committee received presentations with options to reconfigure Constellation whereby America could have returned to the Moon (to learn how to use resources found in space) under the existing budgetary cap, but they elected to start from first principles. Hence, we have something called Flexible Path, which doesn’t set a destination or a mission but calls on us “to develop technology” to go anywhere (unspecified) sometime in the future (also unspecified). With target dates of 2025 for a “possible” human mission to a near-Earth asteroid and a trip to Mars “sometime in the 2030’s,” timelines and milestones for the Flexible Path offer no clarity or purpose. Try getting a loan or finding investors using a “flexible” business plan.
Tumlinson argues that both political parties should embrace this new direction because New Space will create greater capability for lower cost sooner. He also makes much about the philosophical inclinations of the Republican Party (the “conservative” major party in American politics) – Why don’t the Republicans support free enterprise in space? Why are they putting obstacles in the way of all these new trailblazing entrepreneurs? As to those obstacles, it is unclear exactly what they are. True enough, there are regulatory and liability issues with private launch services, but not of such magnitude that they cannot be handled through the traditional means of indemnification (e.g., launch insurance).
The COTS program record of the past decade largely has not been a contract let for services, but a government grant for the technical development of launch vehicles and spacecraft. Close reading reveals the real issue: Tumlinson wants more of NASA’s shrinking budget to finance New Space companies. He is concerned that a new administration might cut off this flow of funding. However, what will cut off the flow of funding is having no market, no direction, and no architectural commitment – regardless of who occupies the White House.
The belief of many New Space advocates is that once they are established to supply and crew the ISS, abundant and robust private commercial markets will emerge for their transportation services. Although many possible services are envisioned, space tourism is the activity most often mentioned. Whether such a market emerges is problematic. Although Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has a back-listed manifest of dozens of people desiring a suborbital thrill ride (at a cost of a few hundred thousand dollars), those journeys are infinitely more affordable than a possible orbital trek (which will cost several tens of millions of dollars, at least initially). Nevertheless, there will no doubt be takers for a ticket. But what will happen to a commercial space tourism market after the first fatal accident? New Space advocates often tout their indifference to danger, but such bravado is neither a common nor wise attitude in today’s lawsuit-happy society (not to mention, the inevitable loss of confidence from a limited customer base). My opinion is that after the first major accident with loss of life, a nascent space tourism industry will become immersed in an avalanche of litigation and will probably fully or partly collapse under the ensuing financial burden. We are no longer the barnstorming America of the 1920’s and spaceflight is much more difficult than aviation.
Despite labeling themselves “free marketers,” New Space (in its current configuration) looks no different than any other contractor furiously lobbying for government sponsorship through continuation of its subsidies. True free-market capitalists do not seek government funding to develop a product. Rather, they devise an answer to an unmet need, identify a market, seek investors and invest their own capital, provide a product or service and only remain viable by making a profit through the sale of their goods and services.
Tumlinson bemoans the attitude of some politicians, ascribing venal and petty motives as to why they do not fully embrace the administration’s new direction, e.g., the oft-thrown label “space pork” to describe support for NASA’s Space Launch System. In regard to New Space companies, Tumlinson asserts that, “[We] have to both give them a chance and get out of the way.” But in fact, he does not want government to “get out of the way” – at least not while they’re still shoveling millions into New Space company coffers – nor when they need (and they will) a ruling on, or protection of, their property rights in space. Any entity that accepts government money is making a “deal with the devil,” whereby it is understood that such money comes with oversight requirements (as well it should, consisting of taxpayer dollars).
Successful commercialization of space has occurred in the past (e.g., COMSAT) and will occur in the future. But the creation of a select, subsidized, quasi-governmental industry is not by any stretch of the imagination what we commonly understand free market capitalism to mean. It is more akin to oligarchical corporatism, a common feature of the post-Soviet, Russian economy. True private sector space will be created and welcomed, but not through this mechanism, whose most worrisome accomplishment to date has been to effectively distract Americans from noticing the dismantling of their civil space program and preeminence in space.
August 26, 2012
Because of his flying career and the life that he led, Neil Armstrong’s passing has many recounting his place in the history of spaceflight and remembering a life well lived. He holds a special place in our hearts and a unique place in history – and he always will.
I met Neil Armstrong at a conference, an encounter I won’t forget. A quiet, unassuming man of medium height and build, pleasant and genial, surrounded by a horde of admirers and well-wishers, I could tell he was slightly uncomfortable with (but resigned to) the adulation he received. In his mind, the 1969 flight of Apollo 11 was simply another professional assignment he flew as a test pilot – the landing on the Moon was of more significance than his first step on it. He was an aviator, in every sense of that word. The landing was an accomplishment for humanity – a giant step for mankind.
My glimpses of Neil come not from personal encounters with him, but from others who knew him. During a discussion several years ago with Dave Scott (Apollo astronaut and Commander of the 1971 Apollo 15 mission), I inquired about an obscure incident during the 1966 flight of Gemini 8 (flown by Neil and Dave). That mission conducted the first docking of two spacecraft in space and I wanted to know some details of the emergency experienced by the crew on that flight.
The incident had occurred shortly after the docking, when the Gemini-Agena spacecraft began to roll slightly. The rate of rotation became greater with time and it was evident that something was very wrong. Neil, as commander, was responsible for “flying” the spacecraft but couldn’t get the rolling under control. Thinking that the Agena (their unmanned target vehicle) was responsible, the crew made the decision to undock from it (they were out of contact with Mission Control at the time). As soon as they did, the Gemini spacecraft started to roll and tumble at an ever increasing and alarming rate. Dave recalled with a chuckle that Neil looked over at him, pointed at the attitude control stick and said “See if you can do anything with it!” Dave’s recollection of their exchange gave me a glimpse of a very human moment in a life and death situation. This was serious – if they couldn’t regain control, they would black out from the centrifugal forces in the tumbling vehicle. Neil kept his cool, activated the re-entry thrusters and soon stabilized the bucking Gemini spacecraft. The solution saved their lives but ended the mission, sending them home prematurely but safely.
The story of the first lunar landing is well known. The automatic systems of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle were targeting the vehicle into a large crater filled with automobile-sized boulders. Landing there would be disastrous, as the LM would likely topple over on touchdown, eliminating the crew’s ability to liftoff from the Moon and return home. Taking manual control, Neil (with Mission Control advising the crew they had thirty seconds of fuel left) guided the LM over the hazardous debris field to a safe touchdown a few hundred meters beyond the original landing site. Tension during the agonizingly long pause in the air-to-ground communications was palpable. Relief could be heard in Capcom Charlie Duke’s voice as Neil calmly announced that the Eagle had landed. Yet again, a critical situation expertly handled by a test pilot just doing his job – the calm and collected decision making necessary when flying finicky machines near the edges of their performance envelopes.
Neil’s scientific work on the Moon during his EVA warrants special mention. Being the first humans to land on another world, it is understandable that the crew had many ceremonial duties to perform. Although they had been carefully instructed to stay close to the LM, without informing Mission Control, Neil walked back a hundred meters or so to Little West crater (overflown earlier) to examine and photograph its interior. Those photos showed the basaltic bedrock of Tranquillity Base – documenting that the Eagle had landed amidst ejecta from that crater thereby establishing the provenance of samples collected during the crew’s limited time on the surface. According to Gene Shoemaker and Gordon Swann, both of the U.S. Geological Survey, Neil was one of the best students of geology among the Apollo astronauts. Through his work on the Moon, he showed an ability beyond mere mastery of the facts of geology – he intuitively grasped its objectives, as well as the philosophy of the science. Like every other facet of the mission, Neil understood and took this role seriously. No matter what topic was addressed or which role was taken, he could always be counted on to turn in his best performance.
Armstrong understood the historic role of being the first man on the Moon but he never succumbed to the siren call of fame. He could have cashed in on his status but choose a different path. He was the quintessence of quiet dignity, possessing the “Aw shucks, t’weren’t nothin’” Gary Cooper-ish manner of understated heroism. After retirement, he lived happily in his home state of Ohio, taught aeronautics (his first love) at the University of Cincinnati, and advised on various engineering topics and problems for both government and industry. Throughout NASA’s post-Apollo efforts – without fanfare – he often and freely lent his efforts to the space program. He served his country with honor and dignity.
As a test pilot, Neil routinely showed his ability to make quick, life saving decisions in dangerous situations. As a senior spokesman for space, he clearly voiced his concern over the dismantling and destruction of our national space program. Neil understood that our civil space program is a critical national asset, both as a technology innovator and a source of inspiration for the public. Who would recognize this more clearly than Neil Armstrong? From long experience, he knew what kinds of government programs worked and what kind didn’t. He knew his fellow man. In appearances before Congress in recent years, he outlined specific objections to our current direction in space. A true patriot, Neil did not hesitate to voice his opinions, whether they aligned with current policy or not.
It’s become cliché to say that Neil Armstrong holds a unique place in history. On this occasion, we should pause to consider just how singular his place is. No one – not the first human to Mars nor the first crew to venture beyond the Solar System – will ever achieve the same level of significance as the first human to step onto the surface of another world. The flight of Apollo 11 was truly a once in a lifetime event – and by that, I mean in the lifetime of humanity. That first step was indeed one to “divide history,” as the NASA Public Affairs Office put it at the time.
Goodbye, Neil Armstrong – and thank you. We’ve lost one of our most authoritative and articulate spokesmen for human spaceflight. I mourn him and share his valid concerns for our dysfunctional national space program.
July 22, 2012
Elon Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) in 2002. Its stated business objective was the development of launch services for a fraction of the cost of the then-available commercial launch providers – to the greatest extent practicable, they would create reusable pieces of its launch system, thereby greatly lowering the cost of space access. Toward that end, SpaceX sponsored the development of its own launch vehicle and engines, using a vertically integrated business model in which SpaceX would design, fabricate, prepare and operate a launch system.
Alan Boyle’s recent review of commercial efforts to supply the International Space Station naturally included coverage of the successful flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon’s delivery demonstration. The article focused on the way commercial space is financed, specifically how NASA is sponsoring the development of some of these capabilities. This financial arrangement is the basis for a point repeatedly voiced by critics of the heralded vision of “New Space” replacing “government” space – a company like SpaceX is not actually commercial in the traditional free market sense, but simply another government-funded contractor using a different procurement model.
Falcon 1 was the first rocket developed by SpaceX. It is a two-stage launch vehicle capable of putting a metric ton (1000 kg) into low Earth orbit. Falcon 1 uses a single Merlin, a SpaceX-developed, LOX-kerosene rocket engine producing ~570,000 newtons of thrust (for comparison, a single Shuttle main engine burns LOX-hydrogen fuel and produces about 2,300,000 newtons of thrust). The Falcon 1 was designed to put relatively small satellites into low earth orbit. With such payload capacity, it is also capable of sending 100-200 kg microsats beyond LEO, into cislunar space.
Much of the private start-up capital for SpaceX was used to develop the Falcon 1. They also received some government funding from other than NASA. The Department of Defense (DoD) had need for reliable, quick, and cheap space access for small payloads. To that end, SpaceX received funding from several DoD entities, including several million dollars from the U.S. Air Force under a program to develop launch capability for DARPA (a defense research agency). Space X was given access to and the use of DoD launch facilities at the Reagan Test Site (formerly Kwajalein Missile Range) in the Marshall Islands.
The early days of Falcon 1 development were not pretty. The first launch failed after 25 seconds of flight. The second flight successfully launched and staged, but did not reach orbit. After the third attempt at flight failed during staging, a review board looked in detail at SpaceX’s launch processing stream and made recommendations for some significant changes. The next launch was successful in putting a dummy payload into orbit. In July 2009, six years after Falcon 1 development had begun, SpaceX achieved its first (and so far, only) commercial space success with the launch and orbit of the Malaysian RazakSAT imaging satellite on a Falcon 1 launch.
Typically when a space company finally achieves a long-sought success, it moves rapidly to exploit the new vehicle’s operational status and begins to aggressively market and sell its new launch service. However, no Falcon 1 launch has occurred since the success of RazakSAT. A visit to the SpaceX web site describes the Falcon 1 vehicle, but at the bottom of the page it states that a Falcon 1 launch is no longer available for purchase. Instead, small, one-ton class payloads will be accommodated in the future through “piggyback” rides on the new, Falcon 9 medium-class launch vehicle.
For a company to spend six years and start up money developing a needed launch system, only to abandon it just as success and profit is at hand, is difficult to sort through. One could be forgiven for imagining that the development of the Falcon 1 as a commercial launch system was never intended but rather a pretext to flight qualify the pieces (specifically the Merlin 1 engine) used in the nine-engine cluster that powers the Falcon 9 launcher. Interestingly, others have noted that the now-cancelled NASA Constellation Ares I launch vehicle (“The Stick”), purportedly designed to launch the new Orion spacecraft to LEO, likewise appeared to be more of a development effort than a flight project, in that its various pieces (e.g., cryogenic upper stage, five-segment SRB) were all needed to build the large Ares V heavy lift rocket.
Meanwhile, customers in need of low-cost options for launching small payloads are out of luck. Falcon 9 has yet to launch an ounce of commercial payload and Falcon 1 is not for sale. Of course, one can launch small satellites using Orbital’s Taurus launch vehicle, but its ~$50-70 M cost and recent record of unreliability (e.g., the Glory satellite launch failure) engender neither comfort nor confidence. More significantly, after investing in the R&D effort of a new, unproven company that was offering a low cost, small launch vehicle, SpaceX’s original DoD customers, banking on the creation of a quick, inexpensive capability to launch small satellites, saw their support of Falcon 1 go by the board. It appears that SpaceX dropped their initial operational vehicle for the promotion and promise of far more ambitious and distant goals.
That template seems to work for them – NASA has “invested” more than $500 million in the Falcon 9 over the last five years. Now, SpaceX holds court to advance their founder’s Mars fantasies and plans for a Falcon “heavy” launch vehicle – designed and marketed as sending very large payloads into space, at unbelievably low prices. (As an aside, I thought that a New Space article of faith is that heavy lift is a boondoggle and that fuel depots are the way to go beyond LEO.)
When New Space advocates characterize old NASA contractors, legacy launch companies and politicians with NASA centers in their districts as “pigs at the trough of government funding,” they’d be wise to watch out for a “pig” donning falcon feathers. Debate, like competition is good and helpful but only useful when advocates honestly pitch their abilities, services, products and intentions. Money is an important consideration, however our nation’s ability to compete in the arena of space must be the overriding concern. In light of the current situation, that ability is slipping further and further away. We need to honestly assess what we’re buying before nothing remains of our decades long investment and leadership role in space.
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