Quotulatiousness

March 10, 2017

The two Elon Musks – the savvy businessman and the crony capitalist

Filed under: Business, Government, Space, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In The Federalist, Eric Peters describes the ways Elon Musk and his SpaceX crew manage to profit from government subsidies in the process of putting their Falcon rockets into space:

Image from SpaceX website.

Today, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration specializes in putting taxpayer dollars into the pockets of crony capitalist chieftains such as Elon Musk, whose SpaceX operation manages to get NASA to pay him to use its launch pads and other infrastructure — all provided at taxpayer expense. He also doesn’t cut NASA in when he uses its facilities — our facilities — to launch rockets carrying private cargo, meaning he effectively gets paid for it twice.

That’s once in the check he gets from the private business whose cargo his rocket is carrying; then again in the de facto subsidy he gets for the free use of NASA’s equipment at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Why isn’t Elon paying the freight, as opposed to blowing it up?

Incidentally, that happens a lot. Over the past five years alone, SpaceX has lost the same number of rockets as NASA did space shuttles over the 30 years it operated them. And the shuttle wasn’t a money-making machine for politically connected crony capitalists such as Musk. Taxpayers funded it, but no private citizens got a check from taxpayers.

The shuttle even made some money for taxpayers. Private businesses paid NASA to carry satellites into orbit, recovering some of the cost of building that infrastructure. The shuttle also did things useful for the public, like put the Hubble telescope in orbit. It has given humanity an unprecedented view of the universe, and not on pay-per-view.

I read a biography of Elon Musk soon after it was published … and it did a good job of pushing a more sympathetic view of its subject than the linked article above.

March 3, 2017

“Apollo 8 altered the self-perception of our species forever”

Filed under: History, Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Colby Cosh contrasts the insane bravado of John F. Kennedy’s moonshot announcement with the more recent insane bravado of Elon Musk and SpaceX:

SpaceX, the private rocketry company founded in 2002 by billionaire adventurer Elon Musk, says it is developing plans to fly two unnamed persons to the moon late in 2018. This announcement has created both skepticism and alarm. This is, I think, partly a matter of confusion about prepositions.

If I announced that, despite being Canada’s most sedentary citizen, I was going to Mount Everest next week, you would probably know better than to assume I was going UP the mountain. SpaceX’s proposal is to send a manned spacecraft beyond the moon. That’s the word they use in the SpaceX press release, and whoever chose it should get a big fat bonus. “Beyond” is an English word of unparalleled connotative power and romance.

But, of course, going beyond the moon — more prosaically, looping around it and coming back — is much, much simpler than landing ON it. It is probably not a fantastically difficult challenge, and the company’s zany-sounding timeline may be justified. (Mind you, this is not a prediction.)

Even if you are old enough to have followed the golden age of spaceflight as it happened, you may not understand or remember the half-insane ambition of John F. Kennedy’s original proposal to land men on the moon. For young and old, the moment that the Apollo 11 lunar module landed on the Sea of Tranquility tends to obscure everything else about the tale in retrospect. But no U.S. astronaut had orbited the Earth yet when JFK threw down the gauntlet. No spaceship had photographed, much less touched, the moon.

Taken by Apollo 8 crew member Bill Anders on December 24, 1968, at mission time 075:49:07 (16:40 UTC), while in orbit around the Moon, showing the Earth rising for the third time above the lunar horizon. The lunar horizon is approximately 780 kilometers from the spacecraft. Width of the photographed area at the lunar horizon is about 175 kilometers. The land mass visible just above the terminator line is west Africa. Note that this phenomenon is only visible to an observer in motion relative to the lunar surface. Because of the Moon’s synchronous rotation relative to the Earth (i.e., the same side of the Moon is always facing Earth), the Earth appears to be stationary (measured in anything less than a geological timescale) in the lunar “sky”. In order to observe the effect of Earth rising or setting over the Moon’s horizon, an observer must travel towards or away from the point on the lunar surface where the Earth is most directly overhead (centred in the sky). Otherwise, the Earth’s apparent motion/visible change will be limited to: 1. Growing larger/smaller as the orbital distance between the two bodies changes. 2. Slight apparent movement of the Earth due to the eccenticity of the Moon’s orbit, the effect being called libration. 3. Rotation of the Earth (the Moon’s rotation is synchronous relative to the Earth, the Earth’s rotation is not synchronous relative to the Moon). 4. Atmospheric & surface changes on Earth (i.e.: weather patterns, changing seasons, etc.).
NASA photo via Wikimedia.

September 8, 2016

QotD: The US space program was “a WPA for engineers instead of artists”

Filed under: Quotations, Space, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… even when uttered by the First Lady of the American Screen, any blather about the constellations leaves me as cold as Neptune. Yes, as a teenager, I obediently watched Cosmos like everyone else. But neither Carl Sagan’s corduroy charisma nor those glossy special effects fired up my heart and brain, any more than all those NASA expeditions to vacant rocks in the sky that had punctuated my childhood (and interrupted my cartoons).

The space program was a spectacular waste of extorted tax dollars, a WPA for engineers instead of artists. Watching nerdy small-government libertarians swoon in pathetic conformity over Apollo and SpaceX proves once again that Conquest’s Laws are bunk: Everyone is, in fact, a raving liberal when it comes to his pet passion. Elon Musk is a welfare queen.

Bores insist that the space program has spun off a host of indispensable inventions, but these they can rarely name, and besides, such wonders, if truly crucial, would have been developed anyhow — perhaps even faster, and more cheaply, had the government left trillions in stolen cash in the hands of private enterprise.

Perhaps some readers will find my opinions more palatable if phrased this way: “Federally funded spaceflight is the quintessential neoconservative project: a giant, wasteful crusade designed to fill Americans’ supposedly empty lives with meaning.”

Kathy Shaidle, “The Lovers, the Dreamers, Not Me”, Taki’s Magazine, 2016-08-23.

December 30, 2015

Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the future of spaceflight

Filed under: Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Colby Cosh on the real significance of the private space companies’ successes:

The science fiction authors who originally imagined spaceflight thought it would be classically capitalistic in nature — a Wild West of chancers, gold-diggers, outlaws, and even slave-traders transposed to the skies. It ended up, in its first incarnation, being a government program. This had the merit of showing that some impossible technical problems could be solved if you threw near-infinite resources and human lives at them. But the money and will ran out before NASA got around to figuring out how to make orbital spaceflight truly routine. Reusable rockets are the important first step that NASA didn’t have time to try in the Golden Age, under the pressure of a “space race” between governments.

Musk and Bezos are trying, I think very consciously, to revive the public interest and inspiration that this race narrative once brought. When SpaceX stuck its landing this week, having previously had a couple of flops, Bezos tweeted “Welcome to the club!” Musk will not mind the cheap shot too much. Bezos is doing him a favour by making a game of it.

It is hard for us to feel passion about accounting, even when “accounting” translates to cheaper satellite technology that means subtle advances in science and cost cuts in earthbound communications tech. Anything you can turn into a mere clash of personalities will get the attention of journalists and readers more readily. Musk and Bezos are exploiting their position as two of the great stage characters of our day.

The benefit they’re really going for is to bring a slightly larger margin of the human neighbourhood within reach for spaceships assembled on orbital platforms — the only practical kind of spaceship, as it seems to have turned out. Routine orbital access means affordable space tourism; it means possible Mars missions predicated on traditional exploration/adventure motives; it means deeper scientific scrutiny and even commercial study of the Moon, the asteroids, perhaps the inner planets. It means space stations that aren’t just for handpicked careerist supermen.

It means — well, we don’t know, from this side of the future, what it means. Some grade-three kid out there may already have a “killer app” for reusable rockets that nobody has considered yet. (If the cost comes down far enough, are we certain rockets won’t re-emerge as a possibility for long-haul terrestrial travel? That’s another assumption of early SF we have discarded, perhaps carelessly!) But it is probably a good guess that the balletic SpaceX triumph will turn out, after the fact, to have been one of the biggest stories of 2015.

December 23, 2015

SpaceX Falcon 9 performs successful launch and controlled landing

Filed under: Business, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

William Harwood reports for CBS News:

Making its first flight since a catastrophic launch failure last June, an upgraded, more powerful SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket roared to life and shot into space Monday, boosting 11 small Orbcomm data relay satellites into orbit in a major milestone for the California rocket builder.

In a significant space “first,” the Falcon 9’s first stage fell back into the atmosphere and pulled off a powered landing at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, settling to a smooth tail-first touchdown in a convincing demonstration of reusability, a key requirement for lowering commercial launch costs.

In a scene resembling a launch video running in reverse, the booster quickly dropped out of a cloudy sky atop a jet of flame from one of its Merlin 1D engines, heralded by twin sonic booms that rumbled across Florida’s Space Coast. Cheers erupted in company headquarters in Hawthorne, California, as the stage settled to a smooth touchdown.

In another first, the Falcon 9 used colder, denser-than-usual liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants, a significant upgrade allowing the booster’s nine first-stage engines to generate more power, increasing their combined liftoff thrust from 1.3 million pounds to 1.5 million, or 170,000 pounds of thrust per engine.

The launch, first-stage landing and satellite deployments all appeared to proceed without a hitch, a welcome success for a company returning to flight after a disheartening failure.

“Everything we’ve seen thus far in the mission appears to be perfect,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk said in a conference call with journalists. “The satellites were deployed right on target and the Falcon 9 booster came back and landed. Looks like almost dead center on the landing pad. … As far as we can see right now, it was absolutely perfect. We could not have asked for a better mission.”

October 2, 2015

Something to worry about – chances of a Kessler cascade

Filed under: Space — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

If you’re the worrying type, Charles Stross has a bit more for you to fit into your nightmares:

Today, the commercial exploitation of outer space appears to be a growth area. Barely a week goes by without a satellite launch somewhere on the planet. SpaceX has a gigantic order book and a contract to ferry astronauts to the ISS, probably starting in 2018; United Launch Alliance have a similar manned space taxi under development, and there are multiple competing projects under way to fill low earth orbit with constellations of hundreds of small data relay satellites to bring internet connectivity to the entire planet. For the first time since the 1960s it’s beginning to look as if human activity beyond low earth orbit is a distinct possibility within the next decade.

But there’s a fly in the ointment.

Kessler Syndrome, or collisional cascading, is a nightmare scenario for space activity. Proposed by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in 1978, it proposes that at a certain critical density, orbiting debris shed by satellites and launch vehicles will begin to impact on and shatter other satellites, producing a cascade of more debris, so that the probability of any given satellite being hit rises, leading to a chain reaction that effectively renders access to low earth orbit unacceptably hazardous.

This isn’t just fantasy. There are an estimated 300,000 pieces of debris already in orbit; a satellite is destroyed every year by an impact event. Even a fleck of shed paint a tenth of a millimeter across carries as much kinetic energy as a rifle bullet when it’s traveling at orbital velocity, and the majority of this crud is clustered in low orbit, with a secondary belt of bits in geosychronous orbit as well. The ISS carries patch kits in case of a micro-particle impact and periodically has to expend fuel to dodge dead satellites drifting into its orbit; on occasion the US space shuttles suffered windscreen impacts that necessitated ground repairs.

If a Kessler cascade erupts in low earth orbit, launching new satellites or manned spacecraft will become very hazardous, equivalent to running across a field under beaten fire from a machine gun with an infinite ammunition supply. Sooner or later you’ll be hit. And the debris stays in orbit for a very long time, typically years to decades (centuries or millennia for the particles in higher orbits).

How about a kickstarter campaign for laser-equipped orbit-cleaning satellites? Sweep up our orbital trash before it becomes a huge problem. If you’ve read Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, you’ve already got the image of a really extreme result of too much space junk (in the case of the novel, it was shattered pieces of the moon creating the Kessler cascade).

August 25, 2015

Roger Kimball says Elon Musk is crazy

Filed under: Business, Government, Space, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Oh, sorry, he actually said Musk is “crazy like a visionary“:

I am an unlikely fan of Elon Musk, the flamboyant, Steve Jobs-like (some would say Tony Stark-like) entrepreneur behind SpaceX, SolarCity, Tesla Motors, and other enterprises that seemed like starry-eyed impossibilities a scant decade ago. Musk’s two governing passions, he has said repeatedly, are “sustainable transport” to battle “global warming” and finding a way to make mankind an interplanetary species, beginning with a space colony on Mars.

For my part, the word “sustainable” has me reaching, if not for my revolver, then at least for an air-sickness bag. I regard the whole Green Lobby as a cocktail composed of three parts moralistic hysteria mixed with a jigger of high-proof cynical opportunism (take a look at Al Gore’s winnings from the industry) fortified with a dash of beady-eyed left-wing redistributionist passion. You can never be Green enough, Comrade, and if the data show a 20-year “hiatus” in global warming (so much for Michael Mann’s infamous hockey stick), that’s no reason not to insist that capitalist powerhouses like the United States drastically curtail their CO2 emissions right now, today, while giving egregious polluters like China a decade or more to meet its quotas.

No, when it comes to energy, I often quote, sometimes with attribution, the Manhattan Institute’s Robert Bryce: what the world needs now is cheap, abundant energy, period, full stop, end of discussion. My motto is: frack early, frack often. Do you want to help the poor/clean up the environment/save the spotted wildebeest? Then you need economic growth, and to achieve that you need energy, which at the moment means you need fracking. Q.E.D.

When it comes to interplanetary travel, I suspect that Musk’s passion for transforming us into “space-faring” creatures was heavily influenced by his youthful reading of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and (one of his favorites) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Not that those adolescent chestnuts necessarily argue against the plausibility of his ambitions. Behind Musk’s enthusiasm for space colonization is a worry that a future “extinction event” might delete human consciousness from the emporium of the universe.

For what it’s worth, I’m very much split on Musk and his works: I generally agree with his desire to help get humanity expanding beyond our single, frail planet … I just wish he wasn’t guzzling down government subsidies to get there. I’ve read the book Kimball is reviewing (Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future), and I certainly feel I got my money’s worth from the purchase … Musk is potentially a very great man. Right now, he’s a pretty good man who still takes everything he can get from the government.

July 26, 2015

Colonize the moon … now 90% off!

Filed under: Science, Space — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In Popular Science, Sarah Fecht dangles the tantalizing prospect that we may be over-estimating the costs of colonizing the Moon by a huge margin:

Only 12 people have walked on the moon, and we haven’t been back since 1972. But a new NASA-commission study has found that we can now afford to set up a permanent base on the moon, by mining for lunar resources and partnering with private companies.

Returning humans to the moon could cost 90 percent less than expected, bringing estimated costs down from $100 billion to $10 billion. That’s something that NASA could afford on its current deep space human spaceflight budget.

“A factor of ten reduction in cost changes everything,” said Mark Hopkins, executive committee chair of the National Space Society, in a press release.

The study, released today, was conducted by the National Space Society and the Space Frontier Foundation — two non-profit organizations that advocate building human settlements beyond Earth — and it was reviewed by an independent team of former NASA executives, astronauts, and space policy experts.

To dramatically reduce costs, NASA would have to take advantage of private and international partnerships — perhaps one of which would be the European Space Agency, whose director recently announced that he wants to build a town on the moon. The new estimates also assume that Boeing and SpaceX, NASA’s commercial crew partners, will be involved and competing for contracts. SpaceX famously spent just $443 million developing its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon crew capsule, where NASA would have spent $4 billion. The authors of the new report are hoping that 89 percent discount will extend beyond low Earth orbit as well.

Similar to SpaceX’s goals of creating a reusable rocket, the plan also relies on the development of reusable spacecraft and lunar landers to reduce costs.

Plus, mining fuel from the lunar surface could make going back to the moon economically viable. Data from the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) suggest that water ice may be plentiful on the moon, especially near the poles. That’s important because water can be broken down into hydrogen propellant for rockets (and, conveniently, oxygen for humans to breathe).

July 21, 2015

A strut failure is the preliminary cause of the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch failure

Filed under: Space — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Alan Boyle on the preliminary findings of telemetry analysis of the failed SpaceX Falcon 9 launch last month:

The June 28 loss of the Falcon, plus SpaceX’s robotic Dragon capsule and more than two and a half tons of cargo, will set back the company’s launch schedule by at least a few months and is likely to result in hundreds of millions of lost revenue, Musk told reporters.

SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket is grounded pending the conclusion of the company’s investigation and the Federal Aviation Administration’s signoff. Also, the debut of its Falcon Heavy launch vehicle will have to be put off until next spring, Musk said.

He said that the strut assembly would be redesigned and readjusted before the Falcon flies again, and that SpaceX would readjust its attitude as well.

“This is the first time we’ve had a failure in seven years, so to some degree the company became complacent,” Musk told reporters. “When you’ve only ever seen success, you don’t fear failure quite as much.”

Musk emphasized that the focus on a faulty strut was only a preliminary rather than a definitive determination of the cause, but here’s how he and SpaceX’s investigators think it went down, based on an analysis of data from 3,000 channels of telemetry: One of the steel struts holding down a bottle of helium inside the Falcon’s second-stage liquid-oxygen tank assembly broke loose during the first couple of minutes of flight. The helium is supposed to be released in a controlled fashion to keep the liquid oxygen under stable pressure, and the struts connected to the bottles are supposed to withstand 10,000 pounds of force.

But on June 28, something went wrong when the stress on the struts amounted to only 2,000 pounds. “It failed at five times below its nominal strength, which is pretty crazy,” Musk said.

July 2, 2015

A bad day for the space program

Filed under: Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In National Review, Taylor Dinerman discusses the bad news from SpaceX and what it means for the space program:

June 28 was Elon Musk’s 44th birthday, and he had hoped to celebrate with a successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It would be carrying a Dragon capsule full of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS), under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract he signed with NASA back in 2006.

Musk had also hoped that once the Dragon capsule was well on its way to the space station, the Falcon’s first stage would return to Earth’s surface for a powered landing on a barge off the coast of Florida. A successful flight would have been a major step toward building a reusable launch vehicle, which could radically reduce the cost of getting payloads into orbit.

Instead, the Falcon 9 exploded a few minutes after leaving the launch pad.

It has been a rough time recently for ISS logistics. In October an Antares rocket launched from Virginia by Orbital Sciences blew up, and in April a Russian Progress supply capsule was lost when its Soyuz launcher malfunctioned. NASA says that there are enough supplies onboard the ISS to last until October. If this summer’s planned launch of a Japanese HTV supply capsule goes wrong, things could get dicey.

April 22, 2015

SpaceX Launch You Up (Uptown Funk Parody)

Filed under: Media, Space — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 15 Apr 2015

THIS VIDEO IS A PARODY OF THE ORIGINAL “UPTOWN FUNK” by Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars and does not infringe on the copyright of Sony Music Entertainment (SME).

This video was created by fans of SpaceX and does not reflect the views of SpaceX or its partners.

You Elon MUST share this SpaceX music video, and help promote the future of science and space exploration! #GoBold (Lyrics at the bottom!)

H/T to Boing Boing for the link.

September 17, 2014

SpaceX and Boeing get NASA funding for 2017 deadline

Filed under: Business, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:11

In Ars Technica, John Timmer reports on the NASA decision to fund two of the three competitors for manned launches to the ISS:

Today, NASA administrator Charles Bolden announced that there were two winners in the campaign to become the first company to launch astronauts to low-Earth orbit: Boeing and SpaceX. The two will receive contracts that total $6.8 billion dollars to have hardware ready for a 2017 certification — a process that will include one crewed flight to the International Space Station (ISS).

In announcing the plan, Bolden quoted President Obama in saying, “The greatest nation on earth should not be dependent on any other nation to get to space.” And he promoted the commercial crew program as a clear way of ending a reliance on Russian launch vehicles to get to the ISS. But Bolden and others at the press conference were also looking beyond that; several speakers, including Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana and astronaut Mike Fincke, mentioned that the ultimate goal is Mars.

To that end, Bolden emphasized that NASA is still doing its own vehicle and rocket development. The Orion crew capsule, intended to be suitable for missions deeper into the Solar System, recently underwent a splashdown test in the Pacific. Its first test flight aboard a Delta IV rocket is scheduled for this December. Work on the Space Launch System, a heavy lift vehicle that can transport the additional hardware needed for deep space missions, was also mentioned.

August 27, 2014

Disappointingly, SpaceX plays the crony capitalist game with Texas politicians

Filed under: Business, Government, Space — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:28

If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you’ll have picked up that I’m a fan of SpaceX and other non-governmental organizations in the space race. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Elon Musk is a hero, but I’ve generally been happy about his company’s successes in bringing more private enterprise into the launch business. However, as Lachlan Markay explains in some detail, Elon Musk is not above taking government funds to do things he’d be doing anyway, just like crony capitalists in the rest of the government-industrial complex:

Shortly before a private spaceflight company’s test rocket exploded over southern Texas last weekend, state lawmakers announced millions in subsidies to get the company to continue launching rockets in the Lone Star State.

Space Exploration Technologies, commonly known as SpaceX, will receive more than $15 million in public financing to build a launch pad in Cameron County, near the Mexican border.

The subsidies came after SpaceX’s founder, billionaire tech mogul and pop technologist Elon Musk, made campaign contributions to key state lawmakers and hired lobbyists with ties to Austin.

SpaceX is one of a number of innovative and disruptive startups that, though lauded by some free marketeers for making government-run markets more competitive, are finding themselves drawn to political advocacy, whether out of shrewdness or necessity.

Of the more than $15 million in incentives for a SpaceX launch facility in Brownsville, Texas, announced this month, $13 million will come from the state’s Spaceport Trust Fund.

Initially created in 2002, the fund began to wind down together with the idea of commercial spaceflight. But with the ascendancy of SpaceX and similar companies, Texas looked to secure its place as a destination for commercial spaceflight operations.

Musk took notice. A prolific political donor, he began pouring money into the campaigns of key state lawmakers. On November 7, 2012, he donated $1,000 to state representative Rene Oliveira (D). Two weeks later, he gave state senator Eddie Lucio Jr. (D) $2,000.

The next month, the Associated Press reported that Lucio and Oliveira were working to secure state backing for a potential SpaceX launch pad in Brownsville.

As Drew M. says at Ace of Spades H.Q., it’s not like this is a new thing for businesses or for politicians, it’s just disappointing:

I’m not naive to think this sort of stuff hasn’t gone on forever and will go on forever, it’s simply human nature. That’s why making government at levels as small as possible is so important.

What does continue to surprise me when it shouldn’t is how cheap it is to buy politicians. Remember Team GOP’s hero, Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran’s longtime aide who accepted $20-30K in gifts from Jack Abrahmof in return to ensuring the felon’s clients received millions in government money?

When you think about it it’s really no surprise that politicians sell themselves so cheaply. Unlike honorable whores who sell their own bodies, politicians sell other people’s money. Plus, they make it up in volume.

This bi-partisan rush to hand out everyone’s money for their own gain is part of why I’m drifting away from conservatism and towards libertarianism. Screw them all.

August 23, 2014

SpaceX test launch goes wrong

Filed under: Space, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 08:36

As they say, this is why you do the testing: to find out what can go wrong (and hopefully fix the design to prevent that from happening again). The Washington Post‘s Christian Davenport reports:

A new test rocket manufactured by Elon Musk’s upstart space company, SpaceX, blew itself up a few hundred feet over the Texas prairie after a malfunction was detected, the company said in a statement Friday evening.

At its facility in McGregor, Tex., the company was testing a three-engine version of the F9R test vehicle, the successor to its re­usable Grasshopper rocket, which was designed to launch and then land on the same site.

“During the flight, an anomaly was detected in the vehicle and the flight termination system automatically terminated the mission,” company spokesman John Taylor said in the statement.

The rocket never veered off course, and there were no injuries or near injuries, the statement said. A representative from the Federal Aviation Administration was on site during the test flight.

The company stressed that rooting out problems like the one exposed in the flight is the purpose of the test program and said Friday’s test “was particularly complex, pushing the limits of the vehicle further than any previous test. As is our practice, the company will be reviewing the flight record details to learn more about the performance of the vehicle prior to our next test.”

May 25, 2014

Russian rocket export ban means increasing opportunities for private enterprise in space

Filed under: Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:46

Strategy Page looks at the knock-on effects of the Russian government banning the export of rocket engines to the United States:

The U.S. government is being forced to use satellite launchers developed without government financing because the usual methods of obtaining these launchers is falling apart and currently is unable to supply enough rockets to get all American military satellites into orbit. The immediate cause of this problem is the recent (since earlier this year) Russian aggression against Ukraine. The U.S. responded to this aggression by placing sanctions on some Russian officials and firms. Russia responded to that by halting RD-180 shipments to the United States. That’s breach of contract and it will do enormous damage to Russian exports in the future because now many countries and firms realize that a contract with a Russian firm can be cancelled by the Russian government for any reason. This was always seen as a risk when doing business with Russia and many Western firms declined to do so or have pulled out of Russia in the last decade because of the growing unreliability of Russia as a business partner. The RD-180 affair got a lot of publicity, all of it bad with regard to future Russian exports of high-end industrial items. Europe, which gets about a third of its natural gas from Russia, is already looking for alternate sources and investors are fleeing Russia (and taking their money with them).

[…]

This is good news for the new private firms that are developing rockets for launching stuff into orbit. One such firm is SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) and is has been trying to break the current cartel controlling U.S. government satellite launch services. Since 2006 all this business has gone to a government-approved monopoly called the ULA (United Launch Alliance) which is composed of Lockheed Martin (Atlas 5 rocket) and Boeing (Delta 4). These two firms have dominated U.S. space launches for over half a century. Because of the RD-180 the Atlas 5 is more attractive (in terms of performance and price) than the Delta 4. Meanwhile SpaceX expects to have Atlas 5 competitor ready in a few years.

In 2012 SpaceX obtained its first contract to launch U.S. military cargo into space. SpaceX had earlier obtained a NASA contract which included 12 deliveries to the International Space Station (at $134 million each). What makes all this so noteworthy is that SpaceX developed its own launch rockets without any government help. SpaceX also developed the Dragon space vehicle, for delivering personnel and supplies to the International Space Station.

SpaceX has since proved that its rockets work and is pointing out that the SpaceX rockets can do the job cheaper that ULA. Currently ULA gets a billion dollar a year subsidy from the government that SpaceX would not require. SpaceX still has to get all the paperwork and approvals done so that they can handle classified missions. SpaceX does not see this as a problem, it’s simply going to take another year to satisfy all the bureaucrats and regulations.

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