Saturday, April 24, 2021

NASA's Getting What It Wanted - Independent, Reliable Access to Space

As we sit here today, the International Space Station has two American spacecraft docked to it.  The last time two manned, American, spacecraft with two separate crews were in space together was the Gemini 6 and 7 mission in 1965.  Today, the crews of the Crew 1 and Crew 2 missions are sharing the (relatively) spacious inside of the ISS. 

Today, we're three months short of the 10th anniversary of the last flight of a Space Shuttle.   NASA had to rely on the Russians for rides to the ISS; who promptly raised prices once they knew they had a captive audience.  Yesterday, SpaceX launched the Crew 2 mission at 5:49 AM local time.  It was the third manned mission that they've launched in under 11 months.  In itself, that's a healthy launch cadence, but since these missions are for months at a time on the ISS, it's likely they won't need to launch much more frequently.  I bet they could if there was a need.
"It took 10 years to get there, to achieve this bold vision for commercial crew," said NASA's acting administrator, Steve Jurczyk, during a news conference after Friday morning's launch. "It’s been amazing what the team has been able to accomplish."

The "team" is a collaboration between engineers at NASA and SpaceX that have worked to develop and certify the Crew Dragon system for human spaceflight for a fixed price of about $55 million per seat. Since 2017, NASA had been paying Russia more than $80 million for an astronaut to ride into orbit.
As I've mentioned before, I've read that back in 2014 when SpaceX was proposing reusable rockets, it was four years before they actually succeeded at recovering a rocket at sea.  NASA told them, in essence, "don't bid that; it's a pipe dream that'll never happen."  Fast forward to Friday morning and the reused Crew Dragon capsule Endeavor was launched on a reused, recovered booster.  In a moment of candor, Elon Musk showed that the progress in their reusable Falcon 9 system is surprising even him.
After the launch, SpaceX founder and Chief Engineer Elon Musk said he felt increasingly confident in the prospects of developing a reusable launch system. "It’s only recently that I feel like full and rapid reusability can be accomplished," he said. "I wasn’t sure for a long time, but I am now."

With the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon, SpaceX has gotten mostly there. However, the Falcon 9 rocket's upper stage is expended after a launch, and the Dragon capsules undergo significant refurbishment between flights. Musk sees this launch system as an interim stage to full reuse, and SpaceX is still learning lessons. The company has already flown one of its Falcon 9 first stages nine times and will soon fly it a tenth time. The plan is to push the limits of the Falcon 9 with the company's own Starlink missions, Musk said.

"There doesn’t seem to be any obvious limits to the reusability of the vehicle," he said. "We intend to fly the Falcon 9 rocket until we see some kind of failure."
I've worked on designing radio systems for satellites before and it always amazed me to think that the level of screening, testing and documenting the parts is the most stringent of all components.  Then we'd build most rockets, use once and throw away.  I suspect that they're going to find their Falcon 9 boosters will easily exceed the 10 flight milestone.   

Changing perspective wildly, I was able to watch the launch from my back yard as usual, and we were treated to a gorgeous flight, much like the one I wrote about last June.  It looked like a typical night launch until the two stages poked above the day/night terminator at altitude, and suddenly the whole contrail started glowing a bright, light blue.  When the booster cutoff and was jettisoned, the spreading  contrail from the upper stage glowed and I immediately saw the light pulsing stronger and weaker.  Within a few seconds I realized I was seeing the booster guiding itself toward it's eventual landing using its nitrogen thrusters.  Every time the first stage fired them, a spreading arc of white radiated out of it, in whichever direction, also turning light blue.  I got to see the first entry burn, but the landing burn is below the horizon from here.  Photographer Trevor Mahlmann at Ars Technica caught several great photos. 

Here's what you're looking at.  The lowest bright spot is the second stage on the way to orbit.  The bright spot higher in the frame is the booster.  Below it are two spreading lobes of the bright reflection of its thrusters.  Farther out from booster in the upper right is the spreading arc of a slightly earlier firing of the thrusters. 


  1. I watched the launch and first stage recovery, and recorded the docking, which I'll watch later.

    This is the stuff that I've dreamed about since I was 8 years old.....

  2. NASA had only three fatal occurrences since they started strapping men to giant roman candles more than half century ago. If SpaceX can match that safety record while cutting costs then the efforts should be considered a massive success. If not, if they start losing crews during missions, the legal costs and repercussions could spell the end of private space flight. NASA...being a .GOV agency and their astronauts being .GOV employees enjoyed a freedom from
    legal risk that NO private company can enjoy in the current paradigm. We are treading on new ground here....not just in technology but in the realm of laws and civil liabilities.

    1. The only in-flight deaths were with that POS shuttle system. Which both accidents were known issues pretty much from the start of the shuttle flights.

      Neither of them were 'out of the blue' accidents. Both of them were preventable accidents caused by paper-pushers and accountants having more say-so than actual engineers and workers and astronauts.

    2. The shuttle was inherently unsafe, with a demonstrated catastrophic failure rate around 10% in the earliest flights getting down to 1% later in the program.

      The worst part was that anybody who pointed that out was summarily ignored, because narrative.

    3. My dad, big believer in Gemini and Apollo, would not watch one shuttle launch even though he lived in Satellite Beach.

      That's how bad the known potential for failure was.

      Stupid stupid system. And all that money wasted because of politics and stubborness.

      Which is why I like the cut of SpaceX's jib. They aren't 'too big to fail' and are willing to, after sinking bunches of money into something, to toss it aside. Like trying to catch payload fairings - gone. Or Falcon 5 - gone. Or landing boosters back on land most of the time - gone. Even, well, how many iterations of Starship before the first launch or testing of a prototype? Like they bought huge carbon fiber spinning and production equipment, got it all set up, and then said "Nope, that sucks" and went to metal then to stainless steel and they are still playing with thicknesses and alloys (though they seem to have settled on 4mm and whatever current alloy they are using right now, for now...)

    4. Pretty much ANY fatal incident could have been foreseen and prevented....if people had looked at the right data, listened to the right people and done the correct thing. Sometimes the incident is due to humans being fallible...sometimes it's due to humans being selfish and greedy and willfully ignoring facts. The deaths that occurred under NASA's watch were of course preventable. But considering the nature of the endeavor the numbers were small.

  3. We are finally achieving what the early space pioneers wanted so long ago.

    SpaceX's smaller rocket and capsule system is beating the living snotwads out of Blue Origin's New Shephard and Virgin Galactic or whomever they are these days.

    And then SpaceX being selected as the only lunar lander. They could easily skip the whole Lunar Gateway station thingy, saving NASA even more money, unless NASA really wants a station around the Moon.

    Exciting times. And have been enjoying watching yousetubies of everything.

  4. NASA's loathing what it's getting - Independent, Reliable Access to Space. What NASA wants to happen is "nothing". NASA would be happy to do some liberal navel-gazing about how some ancient Muslims -- nothing like modern Muslims -- should be proud of inventing algebra. Anything else. Anything other than practical delivery to 100 miles up.

    Not seeing NASA revive any of the ramp-up-a-mountain or launched-from-a-cannon work which is perfectly valid in engineering terms, simply not fashionable because it's too cheap and easy.

    1. Algebra is so difficult that... the ancient Chinese, the Greeks, the Mayans all discovered and utilized it, along with Geometry.


      And Arabic numerals were stolen from the Hindi.

    2. Beans, have you heard anything about "Muslim outreach" since the Obama era? I haven't.

      Not to say it couldn't be there, but it was roundly criticized back then and either went away or went clandestine.

    3. Nope, that went away around January 20th, 2017...

  5. NO Private Industry is DOING what a bloated oversubscribed NASA could never do.

    Can anyone point out a time when ever did anything with in time frame or budget? Unless you count Moving the Goal Posts to improve their results? AND those were done with Hired Private PR Firms.

    We need out of our way and Americans will get things done.

  6. Well, we'd best get started on our next US space station, because the old ISS is falling apart and the Russians intend to build their own to replace it. Which will leave us with exactly nothing.

    1. There are a couple of things going on that might solve that problem.

      First, there's an effort going on to put up a private space station by a company called Axiom Space:

      Second, there's SpaceX themselves and their Starship Super Heavy system. At the projected costs to orbit they're expecting, it could well solve the ISS problem by launching compatible modules, or lifting it higher, or by connecting Starships with some sort of hardware infrastructure.

      Finally, there's the inflatable modules Bigelow has been working on for years. They currently have a cargo module called BEAM on the ISS.

    2. Bigelow is dead, but Sierra Nevada has basically taken over the inflatable habitat market.

      I forsee some Starships being parked and used as stations. It would be a way of dealing with early flying prototypes that aren't quite ready for longterm launchings and landings.

  7. While the Shuttle system was problematic it provided the US with a path to space in our own ship. Obama cancelled it in order to 'spread the wealth around' to his Russian buddies without having a viable replacement system ready to go. That was due to the impractical system NASA was developing and still is developing. I do not think solid rocket boosters are safe for manned flight.....

    The obvious lesson from all of this is that government spending is inherently wasteful and slow to produce results. The re-usability of SpaceX launch systems is the key to future affordable space exploration. It is just a shame that it took a Marxist in the white house to get that idea started.

    As to the ISS, the Russian module is presently the weakest link in the entire station. It is leaking and is likely structurally fatigued.
    If I had to guess, the Russians are pretty sure that their module will fail sometime in the future and are bailing to avoid any 'responsibility' if a cataclysmic disaster occurs when it is fired to keep the orbit in the proper location.

    My thought is that we utilize the viable portions of the present ISS by sending up a new main section that is designed to replace and upgrade that module. We need to also replace the thruster section that the Russian module provides with a design that when fired does not unduly stress the remainder of the station. These thrusters are used to maintain orbit and are essential to the system that is a space station to survive in orbit.

    1. But if we had just stayed with next-gen Apollo (which was 75-80% reusable) and next-gen Saturn systems (basically a series of plug-n-play pieces parts to give whatever lift was needed) and even Big Gemini (basically an upscaled Gemini capsule for Low Earth Orbit only, leaving Apollo for the Moon and Mars,) and the various nuclear powered space systems instead of throwing all that money down the 'reusable' hole of the Shuttle (which never ever brought any innovations based on it's platform like we were promised - Heavy lift vehicles, unmanned 'shuttles' and such..)... where was I? Oh, yeah, if we had just stayed with the capsules et al instead of throwing all our seed corn away to go play space-truckers with a winged turd...

      If only.

      About the only thing I agree with #44 over was cancelling the stupid shuttle. Of course, if Comrade Obamki hadn't cancelled the Ares system about as soon as he took office, we'd have had a replacement ready for personnel transport to the ISS. But, nooo...

      As to the ISS, well, really, looking at it... Um, we've been having problems with Russian parts since pert near the beginning, and their stuff is rapidly aging out. The loss of Bigelow Aerospace at the beginning of the Covidiocracy screwed many chances of improving ISS components.

      And it may be just better to throw it all away, or move it to a parking orbit for possible future harvesting of parts/space smelting and manufacturing. Which makes me wonder what the brainiac weirdos at SpaceX have up their sleeves now?