Archive for the ‘Space’ Category

SpaceX Launch Failure

June 28, 2015

Here’s my thoughts on the SpaceX launch failure, written while the debris is still smoking in the water. This is what I saw, replaying the YouTube video.

At first I thought it was a staging failure. You often get that cloud burst as the main engines cut off (and the remaining fuel in the pipes evaporates), the explosive bolts separate the two stages, and the second stage engines flare fuel clouds before igniting. But this happened approximately 44sec after MaxQ, the point when the atmospheric forces on the vehicle are highest (before this, it’s not moving fast enough; after this, the atmosphere is getting too thin), and roughly 30sec before scheduled MECO (I’m taking these values off the timeline at the bottom of the vid).

At 23:44 into the video (not into the flight), there’s a puff of white gas from the right-hand side of the booster. This billows out into an explosion three seconds later, with the shadow/sillhouette of something that might be part of the rocket, or might be a cloud shadow (but probably isn’t, because of how long it lasts).

At 23:49, the cloud starts to clear, and we see what looks like a normal engine burn. This is visible for another three seconds, when everything is overwhelmed with cloud, with no signs of flame, which clears two seconds later, to show multiple debris fragments.

UPDATE: Elon Musk has tweeted that it looks like there was an overpressure event in the second stage liquid oxygen tank. That would produce a white cloud when the tank blew out, followed by an explosion above the main body of the booster as the oxygen ignited. The first stage keeps firing, not realizing that it’s been chopped off at the hips.

Here’s the vid

Just a note on the language of reporting. A couple of news sites are calling this a failure of SpaceX’s efforts to recover a booster after launch. They seem to be confusing the up-goer and down-goer parts of the mission. The mission was a failure. The effort to put a resupply capsule into orbit was a failure. Landing the booster on a ship was never tried.

Second note. Musk’s tweet was posted an hour and a half after the event. Pretty fast reporting, and an amazing display of openness.

Conclusion. Space is hard. You fail a lot. You learn from each failure, and you want your failures early, before whatever caused them is baked in. It’s like that old video game. You may die; your little dog may die, but eventually, Oregon gets settled.

To quote  Julia Ecklare, the only way to go from here is out.



Memories of my youth: Failures in Space

October 29, 2014

I’m a child of the Space Age. I lived on Vandenberg AFB when it was still Cook AFB and they were still pouring concrete for the Atlas-C launchers. I worked summers during high school on Point Arguello Naval Missile Facility, before it became Vandenberg South, putting in drainage ditches for the SLC-6 launch facility, the one that never saw a shuttle. I once had a transporter carrying a Agena upper stage, the one for the Corona reconnaissance satellites, drive over my foot.

Those were the days when the US was rushing into space, and wasn’t quite sure how to do it. Launch failures were common. Sometimes the missile would fail at ignition (or before — one Titan I night-test I saw had the silo elevator fail and drop the loaded bird into the silo), sometimes early in the flight (when it was easier to see), and sometimes later, when the only evidence was the crazy dance of the contrail as the bird tore itself apart at the edge of space. At VAFB, we all knew when a launch was scheduled, and I would sometimes climb up on the roof of our Air Force family housing to watch. The very first launch I saw was an RAF Thor training launch. My mother chased my brother out of the shower, naked, so he could see it.

Yesterday’s failure of the Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares launcher hearkened back to those days.

So we start with the familiar cadences of a launch crew in the final stages of the countdown, marking off lines from the checklist. Ignition (at 2:54) looks good, and the bird clears the tower OK at (3:03). That’s when we start to hear the familiar, to me, crackling roar of the 734,000 pounds of thrust from the pair of NK-33 engines — five times what a Thor would generate. At about 3:08 on this vid, the exhaust plume brightens (as if the oxidizer pumps were overclocking), and then there’s an explosion at the base of the booster, at the top of the engine, near the pumps. The bird loses power and sinks back to the pad, possibly toppling to the left as it drops. It looks like the main explosion takes place just prior to impact, which probably means the RSO destroyed the booster just before it hit and destroyed itself. Hard to tell. The RSO might not have even seen the booster falling. He just knew from his readouts that it was doing something dangerous, and hit the destruct switch. The ball of fire is followed by the distance-delayed sound of the explosion, and we end with the LCO starting his post-launch-failure checklist.

OSC’s stock immediately dropped 16%, and you can be sure their competitors will start a jeremiad of all the reasons the contract should be canceled.

This failure doesn’t bother me, and it doesn’t scare me into selling OSC stock (if I owned any). I’ve seen it all before. This is spaceflight. This is the big rocket business. You learn from your mistakes. You keep going.

Dinosaur Killers 2

July 16, 2012

In a NYT article, by way of Boing Boing, columnist Errol Morris, asks for your opinion on a statement by David Deutsch about the asteroid threat to Earth:

…we live in an era of unprecedented safety: the twenty-first century is the first ever moment when we have known how to defend ourselves from such impacts.

The survey asked not only for your opinion, but your level of confidence in that opinion.

The problem with this survey is that it asks for a single answer to two questions: “Do you think Deutsch’s claim is true? Is it true that ‘we live in an era of unprecedented safety’?” Of course, that’s because Deutsch makes two claims (1) we live in an era of unprecedented safety and (2) the twenty-first century is the first ever moment when we have known how to defend ourselves, and both of these miss the point.

My answer to claim (1) was that his claim was false, and there wasn’t any place I could answer claim (2), which is true. Claim (1) is false because of the third claim that no-one mentioned — that we not only know what to do, but we have the technical capability to do it on an appropriate timescale. (more…)

Apollo 13

April 11, 2012

I have updated my Ballad of Apollo 13 page with a YouTube audio performance by Julia Ecklar.

UPDATE on the 12th, from the Funny Old World department: Ballad is one of my more popular posts. Not in a HOTD class, but it consistently gets a few hits every month. Yesterday…nothing.

The Stars Just Got Further Out of Reach

July 22, 2011

I am a child of the Space Age. I was in junior high when Sputnik was launched. I lived my high school years on Vandenberg AFB, watching the Atlas, Titan, and Discoverer launches from my back yard, and rooting around at the dump for discarded rocket parts. One summer, I worked on a construction crew, building the roads around Vandenberg’s SLC6 launch site. I watched the Apollo 11 Moon landing on a small B&W TV in DaNang, VietNam, and the Apollo 13 coverage on BBC in Mildenhall, England. Although I never attended a Shuttle launch, I am roughly of the same generation as the father in this now-famous photo pair:

Father and Son: STS-1 and STS-135, by Chris Bray

Father and Son: STS-1 and STS-135, by Chris Bray

It’s hard to describe what it was like, growing up in that environment. (more…)

Hawking vs Alien

April 26, 2010

Stephen Hawking is in the news for reports on his comments on the inadvisability of communicating with aliens. We’ll have to wait for the full Discovery Channel series to see what he really said, and keep in mind it’s a made-for-TV statement. But it does give me an early morning hook to bang out a post instead of prepping for class.

There’s two reasons why the “hide and watch or they’ll loot us” approach is wrong. First off. The hide and watch part won’t work. It’s not the “Hello World” signals that SETItionists and other astronomers send out that will attract attention, it’s our normal human activity. First, of course, are our radio and TV transmissions. While all information in the signals will have degraded before it gets beyond much beyond the nearest stars, the carrier wave will still be there. Second is our military/aviation activities. We transmit lots of high power radar signals. We used to transmit even more, with our BMEWS and the Soviet Hen House radars. Those signals will be detectable long after “Lucy” has faded. Finally, there’s the big blue ball itself. We are getting to the point that we will soon be able to detect earth-like planets at great distances and, under special circumstances, detect signs of life, like liquid water and an oxygen atmosphere. So don’t worry about talking to the aliens, they’ll know we’re here long before we can think of what to say.

The second reason involves the looting and pillaging part of Hawking’s concerns. I am not going to talk about the morals of aliens. I suspect they will be incomprehensible to us (you know, alien). What I would argue is the old argument for having us Earthlingas establishing a space-based civilization — it’s raining soup out there and all we need is a bowl. There’s nothing in the way of resources at the bottom of the Earth’s gravity well that a space-faring people couldn’t get far more easily elsewhere. Metals? Melt down an asteroid. Petrochemicals? Go mine Titan. I seriously doubt that any race capable of interstellar viking isn’t also capable of building any long-chain organic molecule they want, using water from the outer solar system, and solar power from the inner…erm…solar…system.

That leaves lebensraum, and there you have me. A oxy-water world may be rare, and might be the target of colonization. But if you have built your civilization around living in an FTL habitat, or a generation ship for that matter, your mindset is to get the stuff you need from the Oort or the Main Belt, and leave the gravity wells alone.

The final reason I am not worried about this is my take on the Fermi Question. From everything I can see, in our Galaxy, right now, n = 1 and it’s us. I’ll have more to say about that in future. Right now I have to go prep.