Monday, August 04, 2008

It's not rocket science

SpaceX Falcon 1 Rocket
Image Credit: SpaceX

On Saturday night I was mindlessly surfing the web, waiting for some clothes to dry before I went to bed. I visited Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog, and he had a post with a link to watch a live webcast of SpaceX's first commercial launch of its Falcon 1 rocket.

First, a little background. Until recently, all large rocket launches in the U.S. have been run by NASA. NASA contracts private companies, such as Lockheed and Boeing, to build the Atlas and Delta rockets used for most launches, but NASA runs the show.

Recently, there has been a push by industry and the public to encourage private (by which I mean non-governmental) corporations to build and launch rockets capable of carrying satellites and people into space. The thought is that a private company can build a reliable, functional rocket with costs far lower than NASA's going rate. Competitions such as the Ansari X Prize are spurring development.

One of the first companies to try and go commercial is Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX. They have developed the Falcon rocket family that is supposedly capable of launching both small and large satellites into Earth orbit. They've attempted three launches so far. The first demonstration flight failed shortly after launch because of a bad bolt on the engine. The second demonstration flight almost worked, but failed to achieve orbit when fuel sloshing in the tanks caused the engine to shut down early. But they solved those problems, and pressed ahead.

Saturday's launch was their first commercial launch, and carried a handful of small satellites. Unfortunately, the launch failed when the first stage failed to separate from the second stage. In spite of the failure, SpaceX has vowed to carry on.

I don't know much about the SpaceX company, nor any of the other companies working on private space vehicles (like Virgin Galactic). And I know nothing about their rocket designs, and next-to-nothing about overall rocketry. I'm an astronomer, not an aerospace engineer. So, I don't have a good opinion on why the failure may have happened, whether SpaceX has a good or poor rocket design, and other such topics. But I do know that getting into space is very hard. Earth's gravity is pretty strong, our atmosphere exerts significant pressure and turbulence on rockets, and any rocket has so much fuel, it is essentially a flying bomb. Rocketry is a tricky business; there's a reason our language uses "rocket science" as a metaphor for ridiculously complex endeavors.

As new companies start and try to get into space, there will be failures, and likely multiple failures by any given company. Money will be lost to seemingly minor problems (like a rusty bolt); worse will be when lives are lost in flight (and that will happen). I don't know if private space flight will be economically feasible in the near term (I'm not an economist, either). I do find it exciting that there are people willing to try, willing to risk money and lives on ventures that may or may not succeed in the short term. In the long term, I think the outlook is good, as people learn from their experience and as technology continues to improve. But whether private space flight becomes common in ten years or fifty years, I don't know.

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