News from SpaceX


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Capitalism in space: At the annual convention of the National Space Society, Elon Musk revealed some significant new details about his company’s future engineering and launch plans.

The first two stories are related, as it had been powered landings that SpaceX hoped to use for its Red Dragon Mars landings. Dropping powered landings, at this time, means that the first Dragon mission to Mars will likely not happen in 2020. While Musk outlined a number of good engineering reasons for this decision, to me this quote from the first article was significant:

SpaceX planned to transition from splashdowns, which is how the current cargo version of the Dragon returns to Earth, to “propulsive” landings at a pad at some point after the vehicle’s introduction. Certification issues, he said, for propulsive landings led him to cancel those plans. “It would have taken a tremendous amount of effort to qualify that for safety, particularly for crew transport,” he said.

In other words, NASA was balking at this innovation, and was putting up so many obstacles that it just wasn’t worth the company’s effort at this time. NASA is their main customer for manned launches, and NASA doesn’t like daring or creativity or innovation. The powered version of Dragon will probably have to wait for other private customers looking for a way to get into space.

The third story outlines the engineering challenges that SpaceX has been dealing with in its effort to build the Falcon Heavy, and includes this tidbit from Musk:

With all of these elements in consideration, Mr. Musk is urging caution regarding public expectation for Falcon Heavy’s first flight, saying that there is a “real good chance that the first vehicle [won’t] make it to orbit. So I want to make sure to set expectations accordingly.”

Even more telling was how Musk continued on this point, stating that he hoped Falcon Heavy makes it far enough away from LC-39A before failing so the pad will escape significant damage. “I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it’s not going to cause damage. I would consider that a win, honestly,” said Mr. Musk.

Thank God NASA is not involved in the development of the Falcon Heavy. SpaceX would have probably had to abandon this as well.

Meanwhile, this detailed article by Eric Berger gives us Elon Musk’s position on NASA’s contracting system. Not surprisingly, much of what Musk says mirrors what I wrote in Capitalism in Space:

During his remarks Saturday, Musk said NASA could avoid unnecessary delays and costs by transitioning to a system of competitive awards for fixed-price contracts, in which companies are only paid when they meet “milestones” such as completing a flight test or satisfying NASA about the safety performance of a vehicle. Additionally, he said, at least two entities should compete during the development process.

There’s a lot more there, and it is worth a full reading.

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5 comments

  • Des

    NASA bureaucracy contributed to the decision to cancel propulsive landings but I think it is overly simplistic to say that it is all down to NASA bureaucracy. There were many other factors in this decision, including a change in direction for ITS that made Red Dragon less useful as described here : https://mainenginecutoff.com/blog/2017/07/farewell-red-dragon .

  • Des: You need to practice your reading a bit. I began the discussion with these words, “While Musk outlined a number of good engineering reasons for this decision…” No where in my post did I say that “it is all down to NASA bureaucracy.”

    It is obvious that SpaceX had many reasons for making this decision, many of which were good engineering. It is also obvious that the NASA bureaucracy played a large part. Why do you have a need to defend that bureaucracy? Why do you want to minimize its negative effects on creative engineering?

  • Edward

    From the nasaspaceflight.com article: “Mr. Musk has hinted on Twitter that SpaceX might conduct multiple static fires of the first Falcon Heavy at Pad-A ahead of its first launch campaign

    This explains the slip for the first Falcon Heavy launch into the last quarter of the year.

    From Des’s linked article: “The SpaceX style is to develop their systems iteratively as part of the missions they fly for customers—most notably, the reusability of Falcon 9’s first stage which was developed, tested, and implemented as they flew missions for NASA and others.

    SpaceX has a way to reduce the cost of development of future technologies and techniques. The technique of using especially chilled, denser propellants were also tested on operational rockets with customer payloads. One of these tests showed that the technique needed modification when the test destroyed a rocket, its payload, and the launch pad which resulted in severe delays to SpaceX’s launch schedule and the Falcon Heavy first launch as well as resulting in two other payloads being redirected to other launch vehicles.

    As Des’s linked article says: “Progress is messy.

    But for the topic at hand, the most important sentences in Des’s linked article: “Without the ability to develop, test, and implement Dragon 2 propulsive landings on NASA flights, their budget and timeline expanded into unacceptable territory. The NASA decision alone may have added two or more additional years, pushing the first flight to 2022 or beyond, and several hundred million dollars—to cover the cost of engineers, hardware, test flights, and so on—to the Red Dragon project.

    This shows the dramatic effect that NASA’s bureaucracy played on the decision to abandon propulsive landings.

    Speaking of progress, The best use of a cost plus contract is for development of new technologies. It is difficult to predict how long it will take or how much it will cost to develop a technology. The story is that Thomas Edison had to try a large number of potential filaments before choosing tungsten for his light bulb. There is still the problem that the contractor is has little incentive to hurry on the development project. Early-completion incentive payments may help.

    The reason that SpaceX and Orbital Sciences were able to develop their commercial resupply vehicles on fixed price contracts is that they were not developing new technologies. What they were using was already known and proved; they just had to put it together and test it, more as a formality than as a proof of concept.

  • Anthony Domanico

    I too suspected NASA had a big part to play in this development. To be honest, I was really bummed to learn that SpaceX abandoned propulsive landings for the Crew Dragon. It seems to me personally that now that NASA has refined basic rocket technology enough to get people to orbit somewhat safely they won’t tolerate any deviation from those time honored practices despite the huge benefits that new technology and methods could bring. In addition to their dislike of propulsive landings for man-rated vehicles, NASA still hasn’t accepted the practice of flying used first stages for the ISS resupply missions.

    If NASA won’t support innovation then COTS-like contracts aren’t nearly as valuable as they could be. I understand this view may ruffle some feathers and to be clear I’m a huge fan of NASA, but if they really did give SpaceX a hard time about propulsive landings and they continue to not allow some freedom to innovate then soon their name will no longer be synonymous with cutting edge technology.

  • ken anthony

    Musk is iteratively trying to figure out the right size for things.

    Dragon doesn’t have enough fuel to loiter before landing. ITS is too big to afford.

    It looks like the stretch Dragon I predicted years ago will have to come into being.

    FH was supposed to put 13 mt in mars orbit. I believe they’ve upped that to 16 mt.

    That would be an affordable mars lander for no more than about 8 crew? That’s good enough to start, but collapses Elon’s vision (which is too conventional to work.) Yes, conventional. Elon’s success is because he’s NOT radical.

    The key issue is not the tech. The key issue is ideology. Only free people financed by mars ownership will be able to afford to go. That is a log jam that only ideology can break.

    A bank chartered for colony development will be required. It will use existing assets at market value to finance everything. Musk can stay in the business of just selling transportation.

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