Friday, January 8, 2010

Fantastic Future Friday: Falcon 9 Engine Test

On Monday SpaceX had a successful test of the upper stage engine for their Falcon 9 rocket.

That completes the ground testing phase of the Falcon 9 and in one to three months they will be ready to go ahead with a full test flight.

While I can’t say enough about how I think having another launch system capable of lifting cargo into orbit is great for both America and humanity, I do fear many politicians will look on SpaceX’s success as a reason to abandon the work being done on Ares I.

One of the proposals that the Augustine commission gave President Obama was that NASA stop research on the Ares I and go straight ahead to the Ares V Super heavy lifter.

They estimated with that plan NASA could get by with a $2 billion budget increase instead of a $3 billion increase.

So far Obama has increased NASA’s budget by $900 million and people that I consider reliable sources tell me that people that they consider reliable sources have heard from people they consider reliable sources that Obama is going to increase NASA’s budget by another billion.

If this third hand information is correct, that would have the budget right for NASA to return to the Moon, relying on the Falcon 9 only.

On paper the Falcon 9 should be the most reliable launch system to date. It uses liquid oxygen- kerosene rockets like Atlas launchers that were used in the Mercury space missions, which are stable and reliable. These are still complex pieces of machinery that have thousands of interacting parts.

The biggest problem NASA has had in the past has been relying on only one way to get to orbit. After the Challenger disaster a lot of unmanned missions were postponed because they were designed so that they could only get to orbit by the Space Shuttle, when there were other rockets that could carry them to orbit.

While I’m excited that the Falcon 9 program is going well and I hope that it and other commercial rockets are successful and eventual replace NASA in taking smallish commercial payloads into orbit, I think switching all of NASA’s manned activities on to one launch vehicle, their own or someone else’s, is setting them up for the same problem they had with the Shuttle.

If they use only the Falcon 9 to get people into space and there is a problem with it, they have no alternative other than to stop activities until it is fixed. With manned missions going on both the Falcon 9 and the Ares I, which are based on different architectures, if there is a problem with one the other can be used to until it is fixed.

With two American alternatives for humans to get into space as well as using the Russians or Chinese programs, manned commercial ventures in LEO get less risky. As a manned commercial presence develops in LEO more companies will develop their own rockets, making it even less risky.


Stephanie B said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephanie B said...

I'm actually unimpressed by any program that trumpets its reliability before they've even launched (especially "unprecedented" reliability).

Being derived from successful programs is no guarantee of success. There are dozens of examples, many of whom never made it past five flights.

We currently have multiple ways to get cargo to orbit. It's a crying shame the US doesn't have one of them (except the Shuttle), including vehicles from Japan, Europe and Russia as well as, potentially, China.

But I also don't want to pursue a program just because I want a program, any program - I want it to work.

Project Savior said...

The US does have a couple ways besides the shuttle to get cargo to orbit, the Delta V and Atlas V. But for some reason they can't be upgraded to be man-rated. I'm not sure why they can't take cargo to the ISS but they don't.

Stephanie B said...

It's a valid question and something brought up by the Augustine Commission.

I don't think anyone thinks it's impossible to upgrade it. The question is, how long will it take, what will it cost, and will the changes made adversely affect reliability. Note that even the best EELVs don't have better reliability that then soon-to-be retired Shuttle, which actually has one of the better reliabilities out there.