Why SpaceX’s first stage failure is really a magnificent success


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Yesterday SpaceX attempted for the second time to land the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on an unmanned barge in the Atlantic. They failed, spectacularly.

I however consider this attempt to be a magnificent success. I also think they could fail at achieving this vertical landing for the next twenty launches and still those failures would each be a magnificent success.

Why? How can an engineering failure like this really be considered an achievement? It is very simple. Even if SpaceX continues to fail in its effort to recover its Falcon 9 first stage and reuse it, the possibility that they might succeed — demonstrated time after time by the company with each launch — has struck terror in the hearts of every other aerospace launch company. Each landing attempt shows SpaceX’s commitment to lowering launch costs while developing cutting edge engineering capabilities. Each attempt shows the world that they are the world’s leading launch company.

The result? Every other launch company in the world, both old and new, are scrambling desperately to lower their own costs as well as improve their own engineering.

  • ULA is going to try to recover the engines of the first stage of its next generation rocket Vulcan. They are going to make Vulcan’s upper stage refuelable and maneuverable, so that once in orbit it will have the potential capability to be used as a space tug.
  • Airbus Safran is demanding control and ownership of Europe’s next generation rocket Ariane 6. They won’t build it for ESA unless they get that control, because only with that control will they be able to lower their costs and compete effectively.
  • China is now exploring ways to recover and reuse its rocket stages
  • Russia is finally scrambling to finish and launch its Angara rocket, twenty years after conception and after years of slow unhurried work.
  • New companies like Stratolaunch have appeared to meet the challenge, taking advantage of their fresh start to build a new launch system from scratch, as SpaceX did, to leverage innovative engineering to magnify launch cost savings.

This list is not complete. Expect it to grow. And expect that in five years the cost of getting a payload into orbit will have dropped significantly, with the downward trend in cost continuing. The competition from SpaceX, even when they fail, is forcing the world to review the manner in which it puts objects into orbit, and to find ways to do it better and for less cost.

How else can I see this but as a success?

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35 comments

  • geoffc

    The Vulcan announcement was the ultimate in proof of SpaceX’s success. ULA had to respond, even if in a half hearted way.

  • Kelly Starks

    >..How can an engineering failure like this really be considered an achievement?

    Because you consider everything SpaceX does, no mater trivial, to be a magnificent advance! ;) If they restripe the parking lot you’ll be claiming its a sign from the heavens. You credit everything happening in the business to be a reaction to SpaceX.

  • Kelly Starks

    ..or, the fact they have wanted for a decade or so to shut down the delta, and the RD-180 supply is — controversial…

  • Heh. I guess you are implying that SpaceX’s attempt to land their first stage vertically on a barge is trivial. I suspect you might be very much alone in thinking this.

    I should point out again that, in every case, the other companies have repeatedly said that they are reacting to the competition that SpaceX is presenting. I didn’t say it. They did. Anyone who reads BtB regularly would have seen me post the many examples of this. I am only reporting this fact, not making it up.

  • wodun

    Another notable recent development is that the Jupiter space tug and ULA’s proposed upper stage are both craft desinged to operate only in space, possibly our first two spaceships, depending on how you define the term.

    Granted, these two vehicles are years away but these companies can see how SpaceX is the catalyst for lower launch costs. ULA and Lockheed are the first players in this new market being opened up.

  • Kelly Starks

    April 15, 2015 at 11:24 am

    >.. I guess you are implying that SpaceX’s attempt to land their first stage vertically on a barge is trivial…

    Trivial, silly, not likely to do much for them or customers. yup.

    > I suspect you might be very much alone in thinking this.

    Hasn’t been my experience.

    >.. in every case, the other companies have repeatedly said that they are reacting to
    > the competition that SpaceX is presenting. …

    Actually they didn’t always say that or anything like it. And ni some cases there saying it was laughable, like Ariane, whose bloated jobs program expenses are underwritten by the gov that demands it. Its completely irrelevant to what they charge, what their costs are. Just like with the Shuttle, which charged going market rates regardless of their bloated costs.

    Ignoring that, what they say to the press, often has nothing to do with the reality. Politics after all is king.

  • Kelly Starks

    Don’t forget LEM. Or for that mater any upper bus could count.

    Curious what they expect the market will be? Or how they intended to do inflight servicing?

  • Richard M

    By that measure the Apollo LM would qualify – though it was very expensive and non-reusable, of course.

  • wodun

    Guys, I said depending on how you define it. I didn’t offer a definition. I agree that the LEM is in that class but it may not meet some definitions either.

    But even if we grant that the LEM was a spaceship, current events are all the more remarkable.

  • Kelly Starks

    How? That were replicating things we did a half century ago?

    (The fact were really move back to cruder, more expensive, less capable, systems is one of my big downers.)

  • geoffc

    Kelly,
    My point is not the Vulcan replacing Delta/Atlas/RD-180. Rather it is the fact they had to add some kind of reusability. To both stages, just to be competitive. That is the interesting part of the announcement.

  • pzatchok

    I get the feeling that if they tried this landing on solid ground it would go much better.

    This one looked like they fired the engines a little to late to make a good try at the landing. They don’t seem to have given it the time to get stable before landing.

    I also wonder if the big water spray/cloud its getting during landing is causing it some radar trouble?

    That and the barge might be getting moved by the engine trust whet that hits it also.

  • Kelly Starks

    it looked like it wasn’t vertical when it landed, then fell inward toward the center of the barge. Both landings had a fairly high horizontal velocity, and seemed to have balance issues.

    One of the reasons this old ’50’s sci-fi idea of tall thin boosters landing no their tails was abandoned in favor off other designs, is its innately hard to balance, and the remaining fuel slosh’s back and forth every time you tilt it, or give a side thrust. Its like balancing a pole on your finger, but half way up the pole is a 3/4th empty gallon of milk.

    As normal, Musk starts out doing things the hard way, then does a sloppy job of it.

  • Edward

    Over the past year or so, it has become clear that you, Kelly, dislike SpaceX no matter what they do. However, it is very clear that the success of SpaceX, and their low-cost launches, has challenged the launch vehicle community to become more competitive. It isn’t just the competition citing SpaceX’s lower prices, it is the commentaries in aerospace magazines and aerospace news media. All these people know that SpaceX is changing the cost of getting to space, and they all know that the competition has to keep up. The competition is now desperately trying to retain business by pointing out that they have better on-time launch records. That is an admission that they are no longer competitive on price.

    I have no doubt that ULA would never have proposed reusing first stage engines if SpaceX were not there to threaten to undercut the launch market by saving so much money by reusing their own first stage engines. This has rarely been done before; I don’t remember any proposals to do so; and this is the first we have heard of it from ULA. So far, only the Space Shuttle, the X-37, and some failed attempts at single stage to orbit (SSTO) have done anything about reusing engines on spacecraft. It had not been a popular choice, until SpaceX reduced the cost of getting to orbit.

    I also give much credit to Virgin Galactic (despite their difficulties), Scaled Composites, and especially to Peter Diamandis for boldly creating the X-Prize despite no one having any concepts for achieving it and despite him not having the prize money when he made the challenge. These people have also inspired many in the aerospace world to try and to fund bold ideas. The old ways are too expensive to make space profitable (read: worth expending the resources).

    I can’t help but hope that such successes will draw young engineers away from electronic entertainment and into the space frontier.

    Kelly, I have noticed that you consider everything that SpaceX achieves to be trivial, no matter how much it shakes up the standard way of doing aerospace. This company is only one of the few that are daring enough to break the mold and try new and innovative concepts, and it is one of the very few of these that have flying broken-mold hardware.

    Eventually, one of these daring companies will do something like Star Raker, the air-breathing SSTO reusable spacecraft that you would like to see. Oh, wait. Reaction Engines in Britain is already working on Skylon and its SABRE engine.

  • Edward

    Actually, they are just as innately hard to balance on launch, as well, but that was solved early in rocket development.

    As you may not have noticed, solving the difficult problems is what the Grasshopper tests and these tests are all about. If the cost can be reduced enough, then these tests are well worth their cost.

    I am not quite certain what you think is the easy way, but I have not had many easy assignments in my career. But then again, the payoff for my bosses and customers would not have been worth the development costs, either, if all they wanted was easy. “Make another one exactly like the last one” may work for Congress and their next Curiosity rover, but it is not development work, and it does not progress us farther along toward the better or more affordable.

    You may have to explain what is so sloppy about these tests, as it is not obvious to us test engineers. It sounds more like you have a bias against all things Musk.

  • Kelly Starks

    That’s a assumption on your part. Certainly false in the case of the second stage, likely on the first. And that assume the fed customres won’t get angry with the cost reductions?

    Further, previous attempts from Boeing and Lockheed martin to introduce fully reusable craft (the DC-X and VentureStar SSTO’s) hit a brick wall with federal customers, who make up the bulk of the market. So the question is why do they think this minimal degree of reusability will be accepted now?

  • Kelly Starks

    > Over the past year or so, it has become clear that you, Kelly, dislike
    > SpaceX no matter what they do. ..

    No its because of what they do, from bad business practices, bad engineering practices, over priced low quality crap, and the pied piper ability of Musks to get so many fans to follow along and quote double think. All while hes real helping to push the countries potential to do anything in space farther and farther away.

    From his ridiculously high flight costs and cost per ton to the ISS that is hailed as cost savings when they increase costs significantly. (And if a commercial operation can’t beat THE NASA PORK BLOATED SHUTTLE costs, your doing amazingly bad!!) To his “priced below cost” commercial launches underwritten by federal dollars, being hailed as revolutionary. All driving my nuts!! And while folks completely ignore or have forgotten better folks who got better results in the past.

    >..However, it is very clear that the success of SpaceX, and their
    > low-cost launches, has challenged the launch vehicle community
    > become more competitive. ..

    Except the numbers and actions don’t like up with that. Companies talking about how SpaceX is driving them to reduce costs, when their driven by government agencies that are mandating higher costs, and the companies aren’t doing anything that would actually impact costs much.

    >..All these people know that SpaceX is changing the cost of getting to space, ..

    And yet the customers don’t report real cost savings – especially when you consider the real cost to Musk of the launches.

    And the commentators arguments are often easy to pull apart, like Bobs talking about how “…SpaceX launches are 10 times cheaper then the shuttle..” years after that was torn apart by the CBO (or some basic arithmetic).

    >..I have no doubt that ULA would never have proposed reusing first stage engines…

    Actually 20 years last year ago both parent companies proposed fully reusable SSTO launchers they would build out of pocket for no charge to the gov, with a cost per flight guaranteed to be at least 10 times cheaper.

    >..Space Shuttle, the X-37, and some failed attempts at single stage
    > to orbit (SSTO) have done anything about reusing engines on spacecraft.

    Also a lot of X planes obviously. And the SSTOs did fail to work, just failed to sell. The utter rejection of the bulk of the market to lower cost fully reusable launchers (especially NASA which blackmailed and eventually bribed Lockheed to drop it) sent a very icy chill through the industry — and further solidified stockholders demands they drop such “nonsence” that has no possible markets.

    >…. inspired many in the aerospace world to try and to fund bold ideas.

    The folks ni the aerospace world don’t fund anything. Though they have long done extensive design studies and research (resulting in many better, cheaper, etc designs Musk could have tried replicating) they are owned by stockholders, who take a lethally dim view at aerospace developing speculative projects the market has (willingly or unwillingly) expressed no interest in.

    They were desperately hoping that if Musk could commercially develop something, and open up a big new market, they could use that to convince the stockholders to let them go after it. But he couldn’t.

    > Kelly, I have noticed that you consider everything that SpaceX achieves
    > to be trivial, no matter how much it shakes up the standard way of
    > doing aerospace. …

    Because they are trivial, and doing negligible changes. Because of my familiarity with the field, and what has been done, I know how unimportant and trivial SpaceX’s efforts and results have been, how heartbreakingly backwards and unproductive, and know that far from feeling “shaken up” or amazed by what SpaceX is doing. They are shocked hes still making mistakes the industry learned no to do in the ’60’s, that virtually all engineering companies stopped doing by now, ignoring cost savings methods and arguing boldly that all other engineers were wrong … while his results show the failures that drove everyone else to stop doing it that way. Folks arguing the (extremely low) quality standards launch vehicles are held to – is far to limiting, and is just waste full paperwork.

    Its like watching old Soviet propaganda talking about how the Tribants innovative design will revolutionize the world — and they turn around and see all the car fans nodding excitedly about their “new and innovative concepts”.

    >.. Eventually, one of these daring companies will do something like Star
    > Raker, the air-breathing SSTO reusable spacecraft that you would lik
    > to see. Oh, wait. Reaction Engines in Britain is already working on
    > Skylon and its SABRE

    Actually the Sabers a weird bit of overkill. Pratt and Whitney and Rolls Royce already assured the DOD they could make a lighter airbreathing engine that could fly faster then Skylons saber engine using normal jet fuel, built out of in production current jet engine parts. Generally superior then the Star-Rakers design from the ’70’s. (I cofounded a group trying to get a commercial suborbital craft for trans pacific flights off the ground with ones like it, and normal Kerosene (well jet fuel) and LOx rockets.

    If someone does do something like that I’ll be applauding, and I’ve long given props to newspace companies like SNC or orbital, or old space companies like Scaled, ESAD, L/M, McDonnell Douglas, etc doing cutting edge work and trying to move us forward. I got no patience for groups like NASA or SpaceX pushing for pricer, lower quality retro crap.

  • Kelly Starks

    As to sloppy about test, Musk skips the bulk of qual test, requirementstest traceability, or even most formal test plan development. I wasn’t referring that testing landing by trying to land the full up system was innately sloppy.

    As to balance. A booster taking of with full tanks doesn’t have as bad a sloshing issue, then trying to back down with mostly empty tanks. Nor would a wider shorter design like a LEM, grasshopper, etc.

  • Edward

    > Musk skips the bulk of qual test, requirementstest traceability, or even most formal test plan development.

    So you must have thought Iridium was likewise sloppy, as they skipped a bunch of expensive qualification tests after the first five or so satellites. They *do*, however, tend to perform pre-launch test firings, which is rare in the industry.

    > A booster taking of with full tanks doesn’t have as bad a sloshing issue, then trying to back down with mostly empty tanks.

    Gee. You don’t suppose that is why his (in)formal test plan consisted of building a couple of test rockets to test over land and a bunch of flight rockets to test the concept over the ocean, would you?

    As I have said before (and you tried to disagree with me before), no one has done this before. It does not surprise most of us that it isn’t easy. After all, it *is* rocket science.

    Maybe the cause of the problem is sloshing tanks, but with the successful Grasshopper tests (some with quite a bit of tilting to make trajectory corrections, so I suspect that sloshing is not a new phenomenon to overcome), I suspect that there is a different cause.

    I have previously guessed that wind may be more of a problem than they expected. This could result in more over-correction than anticipated or than the software is yet able to handle. I don’t know how they handle the change in the wind speed or direction as the rocket nears the barge, and it didn’t look like their was much of this kind of trouble during the Grasshopper tests.

    Some months back, while you were away (welcome back), I suggested that landing on a rocking, rolling platform could be tricky. To the rocket, whose software has only successfully landed on a stable pad, the landing might look a little like this:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bC2XIGMI2kM#t=31

    It will be interesting to find out what the problem really is, how many other problems are yet to be discovered, and how well this business model works, complete with how low the price to orbit can go.

  • This landing is what a person (or company) chooses to make of it. Could be a failure that proves its a fool’s errand or one more step closer to a step-change in aerospace capabilities.
    Seems obvious to me that we’ve seen this movie before, and we are witnessing the struggles that will lead to an awesome new age.

  • pzatchok

    The sloshing issue can easily be reduced by adding in very light expanded aluminum baffles to the inside of the tanks.

    They do this with foam on Formula one cars because the fuel sloshing around actually caused excessive tire wear during a race and handling problems.

    But on aircraft they still use expanded aluminum.

  • pzatchok

    Actually they are moving back to cruder, more dependable, cheaper to build, just as capable designs and ideas.

    SpaceX’s only try at innovation is the vertical landing of the first stage. And they seem pretty close to getting it right.

    Which you claim is something we perfected 50 years ago.
    But I can not think of any rocket powered craft that could do it.
    A few prop driven craft and a few jet engines but no true rockets.

  • That’s kind of along the lines of my thoughts. I have nothing but encouragement to offer to Mr. Musk, and the fact that the Dragons are routinely making it to station is, all on its own, a great achievement. Making something as difficult as docking with a space station look mundane, there is something to be proud of here.

    Likewise, getting the past two first stages to actually hit the barge pad is no small thing, and I can’t see anything to criticize there. It’s actually fairly amazing.

    But.

    The past two attempts were not landings. They were most definitely crashes. Yes, SpaceX will learn from them, as they should. They are not triumphs by any means, they’re just very expensive and spectacular data. If the company can use that data to make a successful landing, THAT will be triumph. And I think they’ll get to taste that victory. Until then, the spin just looks like some sort of Dale-Carnegie-esque over-compensating optimism, and means something only to the fans.

  • Neil

    How can they be expensive when they would have just been ditched in the ocean any way? This is one of the smart moves by SpaceX. They’re using what is simply be thrown away by other launch companies, to undertake a studied and incremental development program.
    Well done SpaceX and boo to the naysayers such as Kelly Starks who can’t see beyond bloated pork-laden government-industrial programs.
    The author is spot on. Every other company is running scared and desperately trying to play catch-up.
    Cheers

  • thanley

    I Think you’re both wrong and Zimmerman is right. SpaceX has created a sea change throughout the industry. Even without every committing to reusability SpaceX’s vertical integration has allowed massive cost reductions. The result is a company that is more efficient, building a lower cost product, and the fear that reuse will be achieved. To compete other companies can no longer focus only on low failure rate while charging what ever the greater group charges based on what the customer or government restrictions can support. Competitors must now redesign their entire companies, launchers and investigate reuse. No one other than SpaceX caused this.

    You can also see this same activity beginning as a result in other New Space companies. The difference is that most are offering new products and technologies not possible or required before this point in space infrastructure development. While using disruptive technologies, they aren’t in areas with existing products in many cases.

    The issues with DC-X and Venture Star were more technology related than funding. The search for customers wasn’t really a realistic issue at that stage. DC-X was a tremendous craft for all it’s qualities, but wasn’t readily scaleable to an orbital craft without complete redesign requiring full development funds. Venture star hit major roadblocks especially with the composite fuel tank which also served as a structural element. When it failed under tests with cryogenic fuels NASA lost faith in Lockheed and ultimately pulled the plug. It’s problems could have been overcome, but only after substantial input of extra R&D funds. This was too early in the development of composite aerospace structures.

    Finally, Michael Gass of United Launch Alliance (ULA) finally lost his job by attempting to ridicule SpaceX and there mission and making statements like “Our customers are not interested in launch cost savings”. This is a truly bankrupt attitude. There will never come a day when a customer does not want lower prices within reason. Even the US Air Force wants cheaper costs provided mission assurance is protected.

  • The tests are expensive for a couple of reasons.

    On general principal, testing with proper data and analysis is a significant task. Even a successful landing flight test is expensive, and generates, or SHOULD generate, the same level of work as that of a crash. This is not surprising, and is in no way a criticism of SpaceX, unless the company is blowing off analysis for any tests that show an expected result. Am I implying that they are doing this? No. I’m just saying that’s an innate issue with testing and cost, and I hope and assume that they are putting full attention to both successful and unsuccessful tests.

    In specific test, when the booster detonates on the landing pad, they have to repair the pad. That can’t be cheap.

  • Kelly Starks

    > Actually they are moving back to cruder, more dependable, cheaper to build, just
    > as capable designs and ideas.

    No they are moving back to more expensive, harder to do well, less capable designs. And using obsolete inferior ways to do them. They rae clearly not as capable, nor as economical (correcting for subdize etc) then other current and past systems (like shuttle.

    > But I can not think of any rocket powered craft that could do it. [ vertically land]

    went into this on another post, but yes there have been a few from the LEMs to the DC-X

  • Kelly Starks

    >> Musk skips the bulk of qual test, requirementstest traceability, or even
    >>most formal test plan development.

    > o you must have thought Iridium was likewise sloppy, as they skipped a bunch
    > of expensive qualification tests after the first five or so satellites. ..

    They were sloppy, and it help drive the company into bankruptcy, but not doing all the qual tests on their sats after the first few were built isn’t unusual. Inmass production configuration, the first ones get the full verification testing, verifying the design works. The later just get manufacturing tests to make sute that unit was built correctly.

    Irridium initially did skip a lot of engineering steps, launched some sats that were completely worthless, had to go back and redo a lot of the work from scratch and dpo full tests. But by then the cell phone networks they expected to beat to the market were established and their busness case was toast.

    > As I have said before (and you tried to disagree with me before), no one has done this before.

    Yes, and you were wrong, its been done several times before. Never on a LV like this, since its not a good idea for this.

    > I have previously guessed that wind may be more of a problem than they expected. ..

    Seems to be more control issues. note both landings the craft were not vertical at impact. In the second it was waving back and forth all over the place. Could be sloshing was generating unpredictable ossilations, could be the control system just couldn’t adapt fast enough, or over corrected.

    > Some months back, while you were away (welcome back), I suggested that
    > landing on a rocking, rolling platform could be tricky. ..

    Thanks.
    Note the deck wasn’t rocking in these test flights, and the craft was not in a controlled touchdown when it did hit the deck. So that certainly would be a issue ni rough water, but that doesn’t seem to be effecting it here.

    >…how well this business model works, complete with how low the price to orbit can go.

    Good question, but given hes already marketing to commercials at well bellow his cost per flight, its not clear how well this could help. Given the booster design is optimized for expendable performance assent, its a very awkward place to start if you want low cost reusability.

  • Edward

    > went into this on another post, but yes there have been a few from the LEMs to the DC-X.

    Sorry, Kelly, but neither the LEM nor the DC-X were first stages. Pzatchok was specific about landing first stages.

    You need to respond to the points presented and not change them to suit your argument of the moment. Otherwise, these discussions will end up going around and around like dogs chasing their tails.

  • Kelly Starks

    >… but neither the LEM nor the DC-X were first stages.

    DC-X obviously was since it was a single stage launch craft, LEM used its first stage as a landing stage.

    If you want to restrict it to ICBM style booster first stages, no – its a stupid configuration for a RLV that no one was stupid enough to try to refit into a RLV stage. All the reusable first stages implemented or proposed used other simpler designs.

  • Edward

    Kelly wrote:
    > Yes, and you were wrong, its been done several times before. Never on a LV like this, since its not a good idea for this.

    What is up with comments like this? You continually tell me that I am wrong, then tell me that I am right. You clearly know that my comment was correct, despite your initial comment to the contrary.

    As for being “not a good idea,” that is your opinion. Other people think otherwise, and SpaceX is proving you are wrong. If it were not a good idea, then the Grasshopper tests would have demonstrated it. Instead, the Grasshopper tests showed the rest of the aerospace industry that not only could a tall rocket be successfully landed on its “tail,” but that it can be reflown a few times. Grasshopper proved the concept; now the techniques and refurbishment are left to be developed.

    Whether this can be done in an affordable manner is another question. If we are to reuse flight launch hardware as the airlines reuse aircraft, then we are on the path to a more affordable way into space.

    With more practice, we may even figure out how to do single stage to orbit properly, and if that had worked better back in the 1990s, then SpaceX might have started with SSTO.

    >> I have previously guessed that wind may be more of a problem than they expected. ..

    > Could be sloshing was generating unpredictable ossilations, could be the control system just couldn’t adapt fast enough, or over corrected.

    It could be a large number of things, and we are just guessing; most likely we are both wrong. Whatever the cause, it is clear that it would be better if there were not such large swings in the correction, especially at low altitude. The Grasshopper and Falcon 9R tests tended to have lesser and more gentler corrective maneuvers, so it seems that the real world conditions are harsher than the test conditions.

    > Note the deck wasn’t rocking in these test flights, and the craft was not in a controlled touchdown when it did hit the deck.

    It was not visibly rocking, in this test. I wasn’t trying to suggest that it was a problem this time, but it could be a problem in the future. It is hard to say what they have in their software to compensate for any rocking, rolling, or bobbing that the barge could do in the future.

    I am also concerned about the voyage back to shore. It seems to me that they would need to secure the rocket so that it does not roll overboard from wave action or get blown overboard from strong winds. If there is a plan in place, I don’t know what it is.

    > given hes already marketing to commercials at well bellow his cost per flight …

    I don’t know where you get that idea. Seeing as how Musk has run other successful businesses, I think that he is too smart to intentionally drive his company out of business. At least, not before he reaches his goal of getting to Mars. It is not as though he is sitting on a huge pile of money and can afford to lose $100M or so on each of his 17 (so far) launches, and since he is still developing hardware and techniques, he has to be making a profit somewhere.

    > Given the booster design is optimized for expendable performance assent…

    I’m not sure why you have that idea, considering that the current fleet of Falcons and the current Merlin engines could too easily have been designed with return to launch site in mind. They had this idea many years ago, before the Falcon 9 V1.1 and before the Merlin 1D.

    Kelly, you write as though you believe Musk and the people at SpaceX are a flock of fools who merely get lucky with each successful launch or test, with each failure proving your point. This is still rocket science, and it is very difficult science and engineering to accomplish. I consider the people at Kistler to have been very smart, yet they were unable to be successful navigating the traps and pitfalls that imbue rocketry.

    Other companies and countries still do space the expensive way, and their prices reflect these inefficiencies. That they are now starting to announce that they will be doing things less expensively in the future tells us that they know about efficiencies that they can incorporate.

    Unlike some companies and countries, SpaceX has the gumption to display their tests to the public. This opens them up to criticism, as you are prone to do, but there have been failures at most, if not all, of the other aerospace companies, whether they have made them public or not. Those that do not make their failures public only look more successful, but we really can’t tell. The Russians bamboozled the world for a decade, until the US, which had had spectacular public failures, suddenly had spectacular successes, and the world stopped paying attention to the Russians.

  • Edward

    > DC-X obviously was since it was a single stage launch craft

    There you go again. Changing definitions to suit yourself, and contradicting yourself — this time inside the same sentence.

    DC-X obviously was not, since — as you point out — it was a single stage to orbit. If SSTO were a first stage, then it wouldn’t have to have undergone such basic development exercises, and it would have been fitted with an adapter for an upper/second stage.

    I stand corrected: DC-X was not SSTO; it was not intended as an orbital launch vehicle. DC-X was intended to fly suborbitally in order to test out certain concepts to be used on the next — orbital — version, so in every way it was not a first stage.

    > If you want to restrict it to ICBM style booster first stages …

    What do you think we have been discussing this whole time? Lunar Modules, which didn’t have to worry about reentering an atmosphere from altitude and at speed, and were not designed for reuse?

    Just because you disagree with the hardware or techniques does not mean we are discussing something you wish existed. Someone is trying to accomplish what you believe to be a bad idea, and he is getting closer and closer to success, and the rest of the aerospace world is taking note and adapting to the new competition.

    Maybe, in the near future, someone will try to develop a launch vehicle that we all agree is a better idea — a more efficient vehicle — but right now, we are stuck with ICBMs and their derivatives. (If only SSTOs had succeeded, in the 1990s …)

    Meanwhile, we should stick to the topic at hand so that we are all on the same page.

  • Kelly Starks

    > DC-X obviously was not, since — as you point out — it was a single stage to orbit.
    > If SSTO were a first stage, then it wouldn’t have to have undergone such basic
    > development exercises, ====

    Ever new craft needs engineering work, and the DC-X was a proof of concept testing out the full integrated systems, and their serviceability. All for about $30 million.

    But again if your reducing SpaceX vertical landing is a first – by only considering this exact configuration of rocket. Its like giving a award to the first redheaded Canadian to clime a specific mountain. I.E. a novelty fact of no real significance.

    >> If you want to restrict it to ICBM style booster first stages …

    > What do you think we have been discussing this whole time?

    That SpaceX had achieved some historic milestone of some engineering, commercial or other significance. Not that it made a trivial mod to a obsolete design.

    > Maybe, in the near future, someone will try to develop a launch vehicle that we all
    > agree is a better idea — a more efficient vehicle — …

    They did decades ago.

  • Kelly Starks

    > > Yes, and you were wrong, its been done several times before.
    >>Never on a LV like this, since its not a good idea for this.

    > What is up with comments like this? You continually tell me that I am wrong,
    > then tell me that I am right. You clearly know that my comment was correct,
    > despite your initial comment to the contrary.

    Your statement “tried to disagree with me before), ” was in the context I understood as “no one has vertically landed a rocket powered craft before”. It wasn’t clear you just ment this specific design type of a craft which is rather trivial.

    > As for being “not a good idea,” that is your opinion. Other people think otherwise,
    > and SpaceX is proving you are wrong.

    Clearly SpaceX has not demonstrated its a good concept, or even that they did a good job implementing it. Even a couple successful landing wouldn’t have proven that. Certainly 2 crashes didn’t.

    > Whether this can be done in an affordable manner is another question. If we are to
    > reuse flight launch hardware as the airlines reuse aircraft, then we are on the path
    > to a more affordable way into space.

    So your first assuming the Falcon tail landing first stage is a good and functional design. Then that it would reduce operating costs and get market acceptance. Then that this is a positive step toward lower cost launches…. on a system with cost numbers uncompetitive with the shuttles??

    > With more practice, we may even figure out how to do single stage to orbit properly,
    > and if that had worked better back in the 1990s, then SpaceX might have started with SSTO.

    That actually worked fine in the ’90’s. Accept they couldn’t find a customer.

    >>> I have previously guessed that wind may be more of a problem than they expected. ..

    >> Could be sloshing was generating unpredictable ossilations, could be the control
    >> system just couldn’t adapt fast enough, or over corrected.

    > It could be a large number of things, and we are just guessing; most likely we are both wrong.
    > Whatever the cause, it is clear that it would be better if there were not such large swings
    > in the correction, especially at low altitude. …

    True.

    Given the bad rocketing it seem,s more a control issue rather then being pushed by wind gusts though. Obviously in non calm air a issue like that would be much worse.

    > .. I am also concerned about the voyage back to shore. It seems to me that they would
    > need to secure the rocket so that it does not roll overboard from wave action or
    > get blown overboard from strong winds. …

    Yeah that would be embarrassing. Like DC-X falling over and burning because someone forgot to reinstall one of the landing legs pneumatic lines.

    >> given hes already marketing to commercials at well bellow his cost per flight …

    > I don’t know where you get that idea. …

    Company yearly expense ($1.2b-$1.6B) divided by numbers of flights.

    >.. Seeing as how Musk has run other successful businesses, I think that he is too smart
    > to intentionally drive his company out of business.

    All Musk business depend on gov subsidize. Solarcity obviously, Tesla sells its cars far bellow cost, but makes it up selling carbon credits. etc

    >> Given the booster design is optimized for expendable performance assent…

    > I’m not sure why you have that idea, considering that the current fleet of Falcons …

    The ICBM style booster config. its high cost, but a good way to get a H-bomb quickly out of the air. The design was never developed or considered a good design for cargo launching. But historical quirks got a lot of them in production, and the launch market was always tiny in comparison….

    > Kelly, you write as though you believe Musk and the people at SpaceX are a flock of fools
    > who merely get lucky with each successful launch or test, with each failure proving your point.

    They have a high failure rate, pour design choices, and ignore basic engineering practices.

    That doesn’t suggest their a well run state of the art organization?

    > This is still rocket science, and it is very difficult science and engineering to accomplish…

    Yeah I know, I work in the field remember. Still they are simpler them airliners — vastly simpler then combat aircraft. But still deserving of the engineering effort Cessna puts into a new flight deck design. Though Musk and newspace clearly disagrees.

    > I consider the people at Kistler to have been very smart, yet they were unable to
    > be successful navigating the traps and pitfalls that imbue rocketry.

    Wasn’t rocketry, it was economics. They never had the money to get significantly nito the rocketry issues.

    >… Unlike some companies and countries, SpaceX has the gumption to display their
    > failures at most, if not all, of the other aerospace companies,..

    Pretty much all big aero companies (vehicle integrators) have their test failures publicly informed — they often make headlines. They are just fairly rare now a days.

  • Edward

    > It wasn’t clear you just ment this specific design type of a craft which is rather trivial.
    The rest of us are not changing the topic, but you seem to be willing to change the topic willy nilly whenever your point cannot be made.

    You have also tried to tell us just how difficult it is to land a tall rocket on its tail, which has been the topic (before you changed it to something else, whatever that topic is), so which is it: trivial or difficult?

    > Clearly SpaceX has not demonstrated its a good concept, or even that they did a good job implementing it. Even a couple successful landing wouldn’t have proven that. Certainly 2 crashes didn’t.

    Hmm. Interesting point. A few Grasshopper landings and two examples of being able to find the barge and come down fairly close to vertical are better than anyone else has done on a tall ICBM-style liquid fuelled first stage non-SSTO demonstrator rocket that has reentered an atmosphere from altitude on a ballistic trajectory (TISLFFSNDRTHRAFAOABT). (Do I need to get more specific about the topic? It is clear that we are not talking about trying to reuse a Dream Chaser style vehicle but the launch vehicle that Dream Chaser could conceivably use, some day. Nor are we talking about trying to land on the moon or other windless world, or trying to parachute into the ocean for a major refurbishment project. I am disappointed that you do not understand the basic conversation.)

    It looks like with a little more work, the concept can be proved (of course, for you 17 successes would still mean a failed design, unless they were failed SSTO development craft, in which case you would consider the concept to be a success looking for a customer). As to whether it is “good” (my meaning: economical) has yet to be seen. After all, the Space shuttle turned out to be a dud, and the Russians implemented an even worse version.

    > So your first assuming the Falcon tail landing first stage is a good and functional design. Then that it would reduce operating costs and get market acceptance. Then that this is a positive step toward lower cost launches…. on a system with cost numbers uncompetitive with the shuttles??

    1) Should you ever get the Shuttles running again, you can compare their expensive price and low launch rate with other current launch vehicles, but they are not available and no one is working on bringing that system back. The closest anyone is coming is launching a reusable winged Dream Chaser on an expensive throwaway rocket, and that is even more expensive than the Shuttle was.

    2) Just because landing a TISLFFSNDRTHRAFAOABT is not the best solution for the 22nd century, it is better than the current 20th century technology that we are flying now, and it is more practical (or even more practicable) than the single stage to orbit (SSTO) rockets that failed in the late 20th century. It may even turn out to be less expensive than the Shuttle was. Or maybe the next generation TISLFFSNDRTHRAFAOABT will be the ones that turn out to be less expensive.

    3) We are not discussing the best of designs, we are discussing the hardware that we have now. With the possible exception of Skylon, no one is developing a better method of getting into orbit, but SpaceX is working on an improvement that may finally get innovators and financiers working on even better or cheaper (or both) methods of getting into orbit.

    4) I sincerely hope that one day we get even better launch vehicles, such as Skylon or Star Raker, but right now those are not close to operational.

    5) Finally, you should get yourself onto a development project, sometime. They are not as linear as you think, and they often require rework and retest before they work right. If innovators and financiers gave up at the first failure, then we wouldn’t have SSTOs right now.

    Oh, wait! That’s exactly what happened to SSTOs. And that happened at the equivalent of SpaceX’s Grasshopper phase of development. It is because of attitudes like yours that we don’t have SSTOs, or Star Rakers. Would you have also abandoned Apollo after the Apollo 1 fire? Do you also think that Virgin Galactic is failing because it killed a test pilot? Would you abandon Dream Chaser the first time it kills a crew?

    >> With more practice, we may even figure out how to do single stage to orbit properly, and if that had worked better back in the 1990s, then SpaceX might have started with SSTO.
    > That actually worked fine in the ’90’s. Accept they couldn’t find a customer.

    Review your revisionist history. SSTO did not work at all, in the 1990s, much less work “fine.” Not a single SSTO in the 1990s reached ballistic trajectory, much less proved the concept to orbit. It was not lack of customers that killed the concept but lack of willingness to fund the development beyond the first test failure.

    >> given hes already marketing to commercials at well bellow his cost per flight …
    >> I don’t know where you get that idea. …
    > Company yearly expense ($1.2b-$1.6B) divided by numbers of flights.

    As I have noted elsewhere, you are assuming annual expenses based upon company size. You may be comparing this with horizontal companies, but SpaceX is vertical. They make most of their hardware in house, so you are likely adding into your assumption goods and services that other companies (which you are using as your standard) buy from outside vendors. Your assumption is certainly far too high.

    >>.. Seeing as how Musk has run other successful businesses, I think that he is too smart
    >> to intentionally drive his company out of business.
    > All Musk business depend on gov subsidize.

    Your definition of subsidy turns out to mean “any sale made,” so your claim is moot. You ignored Musk’s successful Pay Pal company, but then again, your definition of subsidy would include Pay Pal, too.

    >>> Given the booster design is optimized for expendable performance assent…
    >> I’m not sure why you have that idea, considering that the current fleet of Falcons …
    > The ICBM style booster config. its high cost, but a good way to get a H-bomb quickly out of the air. The design was never developed or considered a good design for cargo launching.

    Well, that explains why no one ever bothered to develop a “good design for cargo launching.” [End sarcasm] The low launch rate of the Shuttle made that a very poor design for cargo launching, and its bad safety record is why NASA decided to not use it as the national cargo launch vehicle (as had been the plan, during the first half of the 1980s, which almost killed the US launch companies and allowed Arianespace to get a good customer base). Good or bad, the “ICBM” design is the design that we are stuck with. If only Americans had been as bold in the 1990s as we were in the 1960s …

    > They have a high failure rate, pour design choices, and ignore basic engineering practices.

    All evidence to the contrary (read: just because you want it to be so does not make it so, and NASA and several satellite operators disagree with you).

    > But still deserving of the engineering effort Cessna puts into a new flight deck design.

    You still haven’t convinced anyone that SpaceX hasn’t put the same or more engineering effort into their designs or tests. Or operations, for that matter. Just because you say so, does not make it so.

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