Saturday, January 17, 2015

Spectacular SpaceX Video of Falcon 9 Recovery Experiment

Rocket explosions are always spectacular and, provided no one is harmed, something to see if you appreciate the flash, bang, crash of it all. Therefore, I duly provide a link to a Spaceflight Now article that includes the video released by SpaceX of their attempt to propulsively land the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that successfully sent supplies to the International Space Station last week. This landing was performed on an autonomous barge in the Atlantic ocean, about 200 miles downrange from the Cape Canaveral launch site.

In fairness, you should also see a video of one of the many successful full-scale test flights that led up to this recovery experiment.

I imagine the crash video will get a lot of play, because—hey—crash! explosion! flying debris!, but probably without the proper context which is roughly this: nobody else has ever attempted to do what SpaceX attempted here: recovery of a rocket after it has flown its mission into space … and not only that, but recovery entirely intact, such that, after appropriate checkouts and repairs, it can fly again.

(As a nation, America had a great opportunity to build an even more economical and re-usable vehicle—that’s “reusable" as in airliner, not “partially salvageable” as in Space Shuttle—with the proposed Delta Clipper project, whose sub-scale prototype, referred to by the shorthand "DC-X”, is mentioned at the bottom of the Spaceflight Now article, but NASA management bungled that possibility utterly when they selected Lockheed to develop an un-prototyped and completely different design as the “follow-on” X-33 project.)

SpaceX and this rocket, the Falcon 9, have already changed the worldwide launch market by delivering large payloads to space (and optionally bringing materials back in their Dragon capsule, as they do with each of their supply flights to the International Space Station) at an excellent price (and so far their reliability has been 100%).

If SpaceX can succeed in making recoverable the Falcon 9 first stage, and later the second stage (as is their stated goal), they’ll revolutionize the launch market with their ability to profitably launch large payloads into space at an unbeatable fraction of the price charged by their competitors. That’ll be a great thing for everyone except their competitors (in the short run), and their competitors are already receiving a long-overdue and badly-needed kick in the ass, as SpaceX runs rings around them in terms of technology, the rate at which they can bring it to market, their willingness to fund more-or-less everything out of their own pocket (including very-high-risk experiments like stage recoverability), and so on. I’m reminded of the stagnant “smart” phone market prior to the (seemingly) sudden appearance of the iPhone, which changed everything. It’s good when the complacent market leaders have the rug pulled out from under them by a brilliant upstart.

While I’m sure SpaceX wants to recover the hardware from every flight, and in time they can probably manage that (or come very close), in the meantime I can’t help but be reminded of the quality control criteria for one of America’s secret weapons in WW II: the proximity fuse. It was decided that anti-aircraft shells equipped with those fuses were so effective against enemy aircraft, that it was OK if the fuses failed 50% of the time - the half that worked more than made-up for the half that didn’t. I think the same is true here: even if only 50% of the recoveries are successful, it would make a huge difference to the price point at which SpaceX could offer launches.

I’ve gone on too long, I think, but enjoy the kaboom. And here’s wishing the SpaceX folks complete success with their next attempt in two or three weeks.