April 9, 2009
I watch closely the new company Space X and its commercial attempt to private space launches. I have real mixed emotions about it, as I come from 30 years working in the rocket business, and part of the Space Shuttle program, building the engines. I have a perspective of knowing what the standard of small issues can be, in terms of how close they should be scrutinized and results if they fail.
Space X is really at a point where the early space programs were, in terms of learning curve. They only have a few launches and all have had some sorts of anomaly, which Space X is now telling NASA the cause is proprietary and non of their business. Where I worked, nothing was done without government approval, every single part and step, had approval, what we called QAP, had to be stamped on all paperwork. They are the customer, and it is their payload put into space. Space X is privately owned but think they can tell the taxpayers they do not need to be accountable for problems.
These anomalies have resulted in the loss of a satellite in which Space X blamed NASA for an engine shut down that required a mid course change in order to get the primary payload to the space station. It resulted in the 2nd payload not being able to reach orbit, and was lost. In another problem a bracket and some shield broke off, sound familiar like foam breaking off and hitting tiles?
This is where I think Space X may be on the wrong track, trying to make cheaper launches, means less attention to detail on things that are small. A poor decision that maybe a bracket can just be a simple thing, rather than something built much more complex, that can never fail. AVerage people see a bolt as just a bolt, but what is the right bolt to use? Just use one from Home Depot that costs .25 cents, or do you need a areospace quality stainless steel bolt, that may cost $25 dollars. What bolt would be too soft, or too hard, what bolt can withstand the vibration or heat/cold that affects many alloys. Nothing is simple is the point. How many of these simple things are Space X not seeing the full picture of?
Elon Musk is a great visionary, but in the testing of the landing system, such lack of detail, they could not even mount a good quality on board camera to it, and in the last test they declared the landing a success, but it fell over and was lost. they also have incorporated a test along with a actual mission, which to me is unthinkable. Musk thinks he is ready to launch humans, but he is not certified for that. Manned flight is a totally different standard.
IMHO there is considerable merit to a long history of successful launches, something Space X is decades behind, with only a hand full of launches. They are doing great, but IMHO not at a level of the kind of complexity of major missions. The country needs a good shot in the arm with our space program, and need them to succeed, but they are not the only space launch company that have long proven histories. This is an unforgiving business, where the simple things missed can be a disaster, and they are in a very early learning curve.