Cartoon by John Atkinson

Standing on the upper deck of my home and looking out across Chesapeake Bay toward the Atlantic I spotted a tiny orange pinpoint of light screaming across the clear winter sky. Traveling from south to north and elevated just about where a Space Shuttle mission to the International Space Station (ISS) should be (back in the days when we had a shuttle), I was sure that I was watching the SpaceX Falcon 9 boosting the Cargo Resupply (CRS) 5 mission. Freezing my tail off at just before five o’clock in the morning I did my best to keep my eye on that pinpoint of orange light. Suddenly it flashed bright white! I thought to myself, “that must be MECO” or Main Engine Cutoff. The pinpoint was gone for about as long as it took for me to whisper that thought to myself and then there was a second flash that was about three times brighter. Stepping back into the house I heard over my computer that MECO had taken place and the Dragon spacecraft was on its way to the ISS. The CRS-5 mission had been successfully launched.

That is what this launch of this Falcon 9 was actually all about; the CRS-5 mission. Yet for many in the SpaceX fan club, the CRS-5 mission took a back seat to something that seemed way more “cool.” That something was an attempt by SpaceX to soft-land the Falcon 9’s first stage on a barge positioned out in the Atlantic Ocean. For months there has been an Internet orgy of drooling speculation and fantasy about how awesome that first landing was going to be. Often, without a single consideration of the complexity involved in landing a huge rocket stage on a floating barge, the rabid fans raved on from behind their keyboards. Indeed this was not only going to be awesome, but SpaceX, according to their fans, was going to make it look easy. In the end the stage ended up crashed in pieces all over the barge and the fans were left to mumble, “bummer.”

Yet this was not a “bummer” at all- in fact it was an amazing accomplishment. Sure the true mission of the launch was to place in orbit the CRS-5 Dragon spacecraft, which SpaceX successfully did. That said, a secondary developmental aspect of the flight was to attempt to soft land the Falcon 9 first stage- something that could be considered nearly impossible.  On a previous attempt, they managed to hit the Atlantic Ocean and gained data on how to further advance effort. This time they actually hit the barge. Again they have gained a large volume of data and what this means is that SpaceX is now much, much closer to actually solving the equation and accomplishing the soft landing of a spent first stage.

Of course they are still nowhere near routinely landing these stages on dry land as if they were Thunderbird 3. The local political and especially environmental roadblocks will likely be more difficult to overcome than the engineering of the landing itself. Additionally it is important to keep in mind that SpaceX is struggling to consistently get their Falcon 9 version 1.1 off the ground on a routine basis and thus their demonstrating the ability to get the stages landed on a routine basis is probably nowhere in sight. Add to that the fact that SpaceX is planning to launch their Falcon 9 Heavy, which consists of three Falcon 9 boosters strapped together, and return them in a fly-back landing. Now they will have three huge thrusting boosters headed for Florida’s space coast simultaneously. Not the sort of thing that the owners of the huge cruise ships docked at nearby Port Canaveral, or the owners of expensive hotels and condominiums really want to mention to their insurance companies.

So, was Saturday morning’s crash of the Falcon 9 first stage on its target barge something to be gloomy about? No. That is, unless you would look at an encyclopedia of data filled with clues on how to accomplish the near-impossible and be bummed out about it. My bet is that as you read this SpaceX engineers are eagerly sifting through that data so they can apply changes to their next attempt as Elon Musk breathes down their necks.



I’m not sayin’ it’s impossible

A few days ago I was reading a spaceflight forum and one of the SpaceX super-fans had started a pole asking others of his ilk “How many (Falcon 9) cores will SpaceX recover in 2015?” Of course by “recover” the question addressed the new fly-back first stage configuration of the Falcon 9 version 1.1 and the term “core” was a new-space term for that same first stage.

For those of you who have not been following SpaceX closely, the plan is for the Falcon 9’s first stage to, after staging, fall away and then re-ignite  and use its engines to slow it to the point where landing legs can be deployed to allow it to soft-land and be used again. The first of these sorts of recoveries is supposed to take place on a specially designed barge out in the Atlantic. It is an operation that has never been done previously.

Reading the comments in the SpaceX super-fan’s thread I kept seeing the other fans answering and predicting that the number of recovered cores in 2015 would be “4” or “5.” Over and over again these two numbers were in the replies. It reminded me of that old Saturday Night Live sketch by Comedy writer Robert Smigel of the Chicago Bears super-fans, “Da Bearss,” where the question may be how many Super Bowls will “Da Bearss” win? And the answers from the super-fans, over huge mugs of beer, would be something like, “4” or “5” or “25” or, “minimum 50” all without a shred of reality applied. That was the joke, and it made me laugh- just like the SpaceX super-fans vote of 5 recovered Falcon 9 cores in 2015; there’s not a shred of reality. To me the more plausible vote would actually be one or maybe even zero.

Even Elon Musk admits that the odds of recovering the first of these fully fly-back able boosters, which currently sits at Cape Canaveral after having its launch scrubbed, is about 50/50. Yet, personally, I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I am saying that getting this first attempt to land successfully on-target and intact is an incredibly complex operation involving factors that, in many cases, cannot be overcome with better software.

Additionally, before SpaceX can recover the stage, they have to get it off the ground. Scrubs seem to have become a habit with SpaceX along with schedule slips. The specific reasons are many and sometimes, such as cases where weather is the culprit, they are unavoidable. Yet when launching a resupply mission to the ISS, a simple hold in the count can scrub the entire day’s effort. The reason for this is that the Falcon 9 has a limitation in its overall power that allows the vehicle to launch to the ISS with only an instantaneous launch window. Thus it must launch precisely on time or the Dragon spacecraft will not be able to rendezvous with the station. So, a call of “Hold, hold, hold” equates to “Scrub, scrub, scrub.”

Everyone should keep in mind that the Falcon 9 series of boosters are extremely complex vehicles that are being asked to do unimaginably complex things. Thus just getting one off the ground in the first place is an amazing accomplishment. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m just saying that it ain’t easy by any stretch of the imagination. But to add to that foundation of complexity, SpaceX has the self-implemented fault of almost never launching the vehicle in the same configuration. Instead they try to leap-frog through the development by adding new game-changing stuff as almost every launch comes along.

The CRS-5 mission that was scrubbed today, (Tuesday January 6th) and has bunches of the SpaceX super-fans betting on how many cores their favored team will recover this year, was a mission to re-supply the ISS. That is what the American tax payers are supposed to be funding. That is what SpaceX proved that they could do with the Falcon 9 Version 1.0. I doubt that there was anything in that deal that involved fly-back cores or landing legs or anything else from “Tom Corbett Space Cadet,” (perhaps “The Thunderbirds” would be closer to Musk’s era). The mission is straight forward; fly cargo to the ISS and return cargo to earth. In spite of what the SpaceX super fans may think, the mission is ISS resupply and nothing more.

“The fly-back and recovery system had nothing to do with today’s scrub” the super-fan would reflexively bark back as easily as making their vote for “5.” Correct, yet it has added to the complexity of the overall mission. The more complex that the overall mission becomes the greater the possibility that small, yet critical things will be overlooked and may fail. SpaceX would be doing the US taxpayer a better service by simply launching the CRS Dragon on a proven Falcon 9, version 1.0, but those are no longer in vogue, now are they super-fans?

Another factor in my vote of “zero” is the ever increasing and over-reaching schedule set up annually by SpaceX for launches. In 2014 they projected that they would get 12 launches off the ground, they accomplished only 6. Now, for 2015 the projection is 15 launches. When any organization has a program with such complexity, where EVERY aspect must function every time, the pressure on the people attempting to meet an over-reaching schedule is so great that through human factors alone the end goals slip farther and farther from the organization’s grasp. The schedule goes from being ambitious to being caustic.

Even if Elon Musk wins his 50/50 bet (let’s face it folks, he is a born winner) and actually succeeds in soft-landing and recovering the CRS-5 first stage or “core” as the super-fans call it. The event is a far cry from doing the same thing repeatedly  4, or even 3 more times in the next 12 months. In fact people, such as myself, who actually are looking at SpaceX and wanting them to succeed will be happy if they just get 4 launches in a row off the ground on-time and on-date. Frankly, that would demonstrate far more to some of us than playing Thunderbird 3 with a Falcon 9 first stage.

Can the Falcon 9 version 1.1 one day become a workhorse for spaceflight? Well, when considering that question also consider the Atlas Centaur. The first version of that booster sat on the pad so long that the Cape Canaveral pad rats nick-named it “the civil servant” because it didn’t work and you couldn’t fire it. When it finally launched it flew for a total of 55 seconds before it crumpled into a fireball. The fifth Atlas Centaur got up about two feet and blew itself to pieces scattering bits of Atlas and Centaur, as well as the launch tower far and wide. In all 3 out of the first 5 of those boosters failed and suffered from multiple scrubs. Eventually, however, the Atlas Centaur went on to become one of the most trusted launch vehicles in the US inventory serving the Air Force and NASA from 1962 until 2004. So, I’m not saying it’s impossible for SpaceX and the Falcon 9 boosters to do great things- including landing a fly-back booster. But I’m also not saying “Da Baress” either.