What really happened this past weekend in American rocketry


Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

 
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SpaceX's first Starship prototype
SpaceX’s first Starship mock-up,
January 2019

Three days ago it appeared that the past weekend would see four private Americans companies attempt to launch six different times with five different rockets from four different spaceports, all in less than two days.

Not surprisingly, things didn’t happen as planned. Of the six launches, three were rescheduled because of poor weather. First, bad weather in Kodiak, Alaska forced the new startup Astra to cancel its first attempt to complete an orbital flight with its Rocket 3.0, rescheduling to no earlier than September 10th.

Then, in Boca Chica, Texas, SpaceX twice tried on August 30th to launch its sixth Starship prototype on a 500 meter hop, both times scrubbing because of high winds. They are going to wait a few days before trying again.

Finally, in Florida SpaceX scrubbed its first Falcon 9 launch on August 30th for the same reason, rescheduling it for tomorrow, September 1st.

A fourth cancelled launch, by ULA using its Delta 4 Heavy rocket, occurred when the rocket did an automatic launch abort three seconds before liftoff. The company has not yet rescheduled as they try to figure out what caused the problem.

Two launches however did get off this weekend. both on August 30th. First the weather at Cape Canaveral cleared enough by evening for SpaceX to successfully launch a Falcon 9 rocket, putting an Argentinian satellite into orbit. Next that same evening Rocket Lab returned to flight after a July failure with the launch of its Electron rocket from New Zealand.

So, only two of six launches lifted off. While some of today’s fear-mongers and fans of misfortune would call this a sign of failure, it is nothing of the sort. If anything, it illustrates the slow maturing of American rocketry, from a technology that once only rarely could launch to one that now has the potential to dominate the world with multiple companies competing aggressively in an open free market, assuming of course that our increasingly fascist society doesn’t decide to shut it down.

In fact, the state of modern rocketry has strong parallels with the ship industry in the early 1800s. Before 1800, sailing ships were never expected to sail on any kind of schedule. Ships left port only when their holds were filled with cargo, something that could take weeks and was never set by any timetable. More important, they were always at the mercy of the tides and weather.

The result was that if you wished to sail from New York to London you might book your ticket, but you recognized that you could not predict the day you would leave. You could only wait in port, sometimes for weeks, for your captain to finally tell you it was time to board, that he finally had a ship ready to sail and with acceptable weather.

1850s Sailing ship schedule
Published steamship schedule from 1855

Then, in the 1830s the competition for customers, mostly immigrants coming to America from Europe, caused American ship companies to start publishing set schedules. No longer did a passenger have to wait in port for weeks. They could arrive, buy a ticket for a specific date and ship, and sail more or less on that date on that ship.

This change was fueled by the free competition between companies which fueled the quick development of new technology. First sailing ship technology improved, using new designs that made possible many sail combinations depending on weather and wind so that the ships could cross the Atlantic faster and more reliably. Next came the steamships, with powered technology that was not dependent on wind at all.

For rocketry it is much the same today. The weather often cancels flights. Technical problems often cause launches to abort or be scrubbed. The engineering is simply not that mature to function with full reliability in all circumstances. Launches can be scheduled but no one can guarantee if they will take off as planned.

Competition and freedom however is changing this dynamic. New rocket designs, some reusable, have lowered the cost while making it possible for more rockets to launch more frequently. This in turn has resulted in more customers able to buy tickets.

The consequence? This past weekend we had six launches scheduled from four spaceports from four companies using five different rockets. That a majority of launches did not take off means little, as the customers and the rockets still remain. They will take off, and as long as their freedom to compete and operate is not snatched from them, they will certainly follow with better and cheaper rockets capable of launching more customers on more missions at an even more hectic pace.

That is what really happened this past weekend in American rocketry. These launch companies gave us a glimpse into a very bright future, if only we allow freedom to function. Left to their own devices, human beings always come up with a better way to do things. It is the best part of our nature.

The secret is freedom, and the willingness to let people alone to do what they want. We need only the courage to let it happen.

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9 comments

  • LocalFluff

    Ships before steam had a narrow “launch window” for visiting East Asia from Europe. They had to follow the seasonal monsoon winds. And if they stayed for the next year, the ship would likely be damaged, even if in port, during the typhoon season. Today orbital mechanics dictate similar timing requirement for interplanetary travel. Earth orbit is much more forgiving.

    Boca Chika has better weather than Florida, right? Florida is not ideal for a space port, especially for the high frequency of them we are going to see in the coming years. Or they perhaps need to build more launch pads so that they can use good weather days fully.

    “Only two launches last Sunday”… No problem!
    I wonder what happened to Delta IV Heavy, it has rarely had problems.

  • LocalFluff

    Btw, I read that the Falcon 9 launch Sunday was the first polar orbital launch from Florida in 50 years. Polar launches will probably not happen from Boca Chica.

  • Tom Billings

    “Or they perhaps need to build more launch pads so that they can use good weather days fully.”

    More mobile pads *will* be built, floating several 10s of kilometers offshore from the cities they serve. That way the sound of 31 Raptors firing at once won’t cause complaint so often. In addition, the EPA will have less to say about permitting.

    “Polar launches will probably not happen from Boca Chica.”

    True, but they *can* happen once the operational launch pads are floating as little as 50 kilometers *East* of Boca Chica, which will give them a 640 kilometer throw straight South, for the SuperHeavy Boosters to get turned around in, and get back to their lunch pad. In fact, if the Booster fails to return somehow, and crashes, it will fall in the water exclusively. Other than that, it will give the Mexicans the same sort of show in a sunset-timed launch as L.A. got in the last launch out of Vandenberg, and as the Cubans probably got in the launch Sunday afternoon, …if their security apparatus allowed anyone to look up during the launch.

  • john hare

    I suspect (along with many others) than seriously low launch frequency leads to seriously low proficiency, and mechanical problems. Crank your car once every year or two and you will have ample evidence of this, perhaps too much.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “Before 1800, sailing ships were never expected to sail on any kind of schedule. Ships left port only when their holds were filled with cargo, something that could take weeks and was never set by any timetable.

    Shipping was once at the convenience of the shipping company until competition made it for the convenience of the customer. Today, some of this is happening in the space industry. Costs coming down, and we have shown that we can at least plan for a more rapid launch rate than in the past. We now have a launch company that caters to the small satellite industry, so they can go into the orbit they want and launch when they want rather than piggyback on someone else’s ride to space into someone else’s chosen orbit.

    The freedom of the launch companies to compete for customers is giving their customers more freedom to choose their missions. Freedom begets further freedom.

  • Tim Kyger

    Very well said. Let Freedom ring!

  • Edward notes “Freedom begets further freedom.”

    And this very year, in this very country, we have seen that the opposite is true.

  • sippin_bourbon

    Meanwhile, Arianespace got a launch of a Vega rocket in this evening.
    As I watch the 2nd stage is still pushing.

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