Privatized Space – SpaceX

SpaceX delays launch to ISS again.  Looks like they actually want to be successful.

The hard-tech news these days is that SpaceX plans to launch a resupply mission to the International Space Station to test their man-rated Dragon capsule.


SpaceX Falcon-9 with Dragon capsule, 2012. NASA photo

This has been scheduled and rescheduled for months; recently it was to be April 30, then May 7.  Elon Musk, CEO, and principal dreamer at SpaceX commented that the remote communication and control system was too sensitive during the 2010 orbit test, with responses too rapid and too strong for the commands.  A mis-tuned feedback system is good reason to delay things, even at a late date.

The May 2  announcement was that there is to be yet another delay.  SpaceX apparently wants to be successful by actually sending that capsule to the ISS and bringing it back again.


Merlin engine firing during previous Falcon-1 launch

This followed the April 30 test of the 9 Merlin engines on the Falcon 9.  The engines fired for the allocated time and the test was reported to be successful.  But there was an unexpected hold during the final minute.

Rocket Development Stress

These are intensely  complex pieces of mechanical/chemical/electronic technology.  Many countries build and launch with minimum pretesting and failure mode analyses. They fail.


Vanguard TV-2BU 1957 launch

Americans discovered early-on how difficult it was when we built the Vanguard launcher for the International Geophysical Year (1957).  This was a wholly new system design for engines, fuel systems, and automatic control systems.  It was under development when launched out of political pressure to answer Sputnik.  The first several  ended with spectacular fire balls, though, ultimately, they did launch a Vanguard satellite (still in orbit).

In the 1950s, we had few test and analysis protocols and it seemed the best thing was: don’t  check it out, test it, blow it, fix it; try again.  In those years, we ran our space programs as we did our X-plane program (either the test is successful or the craft is lost and the pilot dies).

The Soviets, unfortunately, did the same with their moon rocket program, the N1, which was the competitor to the American Saturn 5, and was about its size.  The N1 was developed under intense internal politics between engineering factions.


Soviet N1 moon rocket was pushed to launch too quickly, canceled after 4 tests

The first 4 N1 tests ended in horrible explosions. The Party Central Committee viewed them as expensive failures and  canceled the project before the 5th test.  Development stress and political pressure killed their program.  If the first four Saturn 5 launches had exploded on the pad, would the new president (Nixon) have persevered to the moon?

F9+Dragon 2010 test Launch

SpaceX Falcon-9 with Dragon capsule, orbit test launch 2010 Dec.

SpaceX launch to ISS

The point is, if we want to see success in this bold privatized launch venture, we must hope that Elon Musk and SpaceX has the patience and courage to authorized repeated checks and tests until their experienced engineers are confident that all is ready.

Failure comes when political or commercial demands overcome engineering sense.

The U.S. has lots of examples of this.

The next launch window is May 10 and additional delay could force a delay until next month to avoid traffic congestion with the scheduled Russian resupply capsule.

click for list of our Space Exploration posts

SpaceX may be the best American hope for continued presence in space technology.  I personally wish them engineering patience and technical success.


Charles J. Armentrout, Ann Arbor
2012 May 04
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About LastTechAge

I am a physicist with years of work in fusion labs, industry labs, and teaching (physics and math). I have watched the tech scene, watched societal trends and am alarmed. My interest is to help us all improve or maintain that which we worked so hard to achieve.
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