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Launching and catching Dragons
October 10, 2012 7:40 AM   Subscribe

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft docked with the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday morning, after a slightly problematic launch on Sunday. Following on the successful test flight in May, this mission marks the first official supply run to the ISS by a private company.

SpaceX is also working on the capability to send humans to the ISS, slated to occur in 3 or 4 years.

Meanwhile, other American companies are also working on being able to send resupply missions to the ISS. Orbital Sciences Corporation plans to send its unmanned Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS in early 2013. The Sierra Nevada Corporation continues testing the Dream Chaser, a manned spacecraft.

As for NASA, its focused on deep space missions and continues to develop the Orion Spacecraft.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (98 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
SpaceX is also working on the capability to send humans to the ISS

I like this vaguely threatening wording a lot. "SEND HUMANS". Like, no promises if they'll be alive and willing or not but WE WILL SOON BE ABLE TO SEND HUMANS.
posted by elizardbits at 7:43 AM on October 10, 2012 [20 favorites]


This is the long game - encourage private industry to get into orbit. The goal of US space strategy is to select from a number of commodity services to transport personnel and materiel into orbit, and reserve NASA operations for proof-of-concept technologies, and unmanned planetary and deep space exploration.

It was kind of dicey, there being a gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the deployment of something equivalent in the private sector, which is why they de-classified the robo-shuttle. There was a possibility it would be needed for an ISS mission if the Russians flaked out.

Next step is SSTO and industrial facilities of some stripe in orbit - these should happen before the end of the decade.

It's not a terrible strategy, but it's not necessarily a good one. The military is keeping pace with space technology, but it's keeping too much of it exclusively for itself.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:50 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's about goddam time, but I'm running out of time.

I want they should put that goddam big wheel up there, and spin it up to about point three gees. Reserve me a room at the La Grange Hilton. I've been looking forward to that ever since that goddam Disney character hired that Werner guy put all those thoughts in my head when I was a kid, way back in the fifties.

Then I'll be satisfied.

No I won't. We're supposed to be on Mars already.

Fuckers.

(Still, the NASA channel is awesome.)
posted by mule98J at 7:51 AM on October 10, 2012 [8 favorites]


Can it be simultaneously cool that this was possible and infuriating that this was necessary?
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:51 AM on October 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


As for NASA, it's focused on deep space missions

It's always sad when a former blue-chip company gets driven out of the market it used to dominate.
posted by Egg Shen at 7:52 AM on October 10, 2012


"I like this vaguely threatening wording a lot. "SEND HUMANS". Like, no promises if they'll be alive and willing or not but WE WILL SOON BE ABLE TO SEND HUMANS."
posted by elizardbits at 7:43 AM on October 10 [1 favorite +] [!]


I apologize in advance for sounding misanthropic or insulting, but goddamn it, YES WE SHOULD "SEND" HUMANS TO SPACE. Humans who are ready to that leap into the unknown. Even now, astronauts deal with a lot of challenging and life-threatening situations while out there, and they are mature enough to know full well that that most times it's a life or death situation. And, come on, do you really think they'll send 'unwilling' people all the way to space?!

I guess it just makes me angry and sad because I know I'll never be there. And I just want to see all these beautiful advancements happen in my lifetime. And I KNOW it's not an easy thing, but that's why we have scientists working on it, and that's why all the funding is necessary; but it's these exact same arguments that are made by the people that can decide these things -- "What's the payoff? What's the danger? Why is it necessary?" It stalls exploration and progress!

I want to live vicariously and always in danger through these people while I scramble through my boring life, damn it! Show me the spacez and give me chance to peek into the cosmos through my screen.

So yes, we should "SEND" humans to space.

Sigh, sorry :(
posted by mysticreferee at 8:07 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Next step is SSTO and industrial facilities of some stripe in orbit - these should happen before the end of the decade.

If you mean by 2020, then lol irl. I'd expect to see it within my lifetime, though.
posted by elizardbits at 8:07 AM on October 10, 2012


I apologize in advance for sounding misanthropic or insulting, but goddamn it, YES WE SHOULD "SEND" HUMANS TO SPACE. Humans who are ready to that leap into the unknown. Even now, astronauts deal with a lot of challenging and life-threatening situations while out there, and they are mature enough to know full well that that most times it's a life or death situation. And, come on, do you really think they'll send 'unwilling' people all the way to space?!

I apologize for laughing wildly at your totally heartfelt and unintentionally amusing comment. Please do have your humour/sarcasm meter recalibrated, though.
posted by elizardbits at 8:10 AM on October 10, 2012 [9 favorites]


It's about goddam time, but I'm running out of time.

Already seen everything there is to see on earth then? I don't get the fascination with space travel. The earth is amazing, and you have never seen most of it, and likely never will.
posted by empath at 8:10 AM on October 10, 2012


I'm not sure which is a scarier: space flight as a militaristic, better than the ruskies national endeavor, or space flight as a for-profit, private enterprise driven quest to boost share prices.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:12 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't get the fascination with space travel

The thrill of the forbidden.

What with the no-air, inconceivable cold, deadly radiation and all, space is clearly somewhere the Universe doesn't want us.

So, up yours, cosmos!
posted by Egg Shen at 8:13 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't get the fascination with space travel. The earth is amazing, and you have never seen most of it, and likely never will.

I've never seen all of Massachusetts either but that doesn't mean I don't also want to check out New Hampshire.

You're right, the Earth is amazing. Space is also amazing and for entirely different reasons, one of which is that you can look at the Entire Goddamn Amazing Earth while you're in space.
posted by bondcliff at 8:13 AM on October 10, 2012 [10 favorites]


come on, do you really think they'll send 'unwilling' people all the way to space?!

Just hope that the Gizmonic Institute never gets a grant.
posted by Strange Interlude at 8:16 AM on October 10, 2012 [9 favorites]


It was kind of dicey, there being a gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the deployment of something equivalent in the private sector, which is why they de-classified the robo-shuttle. There was a possibility it would be needed for an ISS mission if the Russians flaked out.
I've heard this idea elsewhere, and I don't believe it was ever realistic. The X-37 just isn't big enough to carry enough crew, docking hardware, and supplies needed for the ISS. And a scaled up X-37 would be, effectively, a brand new spacecraft. Given the concerns about keeping the ISS crewed during the recent Soyuz grounding, I suspect the real "plan B" in in the event of Russia's exit from the ISS was more along the lines of deorbiting the station and staying home.
posted by ddbeck at 8:17 AM on October 10, 2012


Yeah, I was just listening to the latest Radiolab podcast this morning, which recounted an astronaut's experience while in space, and I've just been in a constant WHOASPACEISSOGODDAMNAWESOME mode all day.

As elizardbits said, my humor/sarcasm mode was a little off after glancing at it, so apologies :)

But yeah, my point about that's the same argument made by people who don't want funding for NASA still stands. It's unfortunate :/
posted by mysticreferee at 8:19 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just hope that the Gizmonic Institute never gets a grant.
posted by Strange Interlude at 8:16 AM on October 10 [1 favorite −] Favorite added! [!]


Here's something weird: One of Joel Hodgson's jobs these days is to act as a creative lead for Cannae, a Pennsylvania technology firm working on new drive technologies for satellites and other spacefaring vehicles. I heard him on Nerdist the other day, didn't know the man was THAT into Physics.

Anyway, so the Satellite of Love is not far away.

In the not too distant future...
posted by mysticreferee at 8:23 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Horace Rumpole: "Can it be simultaneously cool that this was possible and infuriating that this was necessary?"

Not infuriating at all. The "problem" of launching small amounts of cargo/people into LEO has already been solved several times, and it doesn't make very much sense for NASA to be developing and building their own vehicles for that purpose. NASA, the ESA, and the Russians all have a lot of experience and expertise in this area. It's last-gen technology, and unless there are some potential big breakthroughs on the horizon, it's not a good use of NASA's R&D resources to rehash an old problem.

Buying a spacecraft "off the shelf" makes a lot of sense here, and provides some previously-absent incentives for the manufacturer to make the process as efficient as possible.

Yeah, the timing was bad, but I'm personally kind of excited that LEO spacetravel is quickly becoming a commodity. Among other things, it also frees up a lot of resources at NASA to begin working on the next big thing.

We're not outsourcing space exploration -- we're just buying some parts off of the shelf. NASA buys planes from Boeing to fly stuff across the country, and now they're buying small spacecraft from SpaceX to make routine trips to LEO. It's very cool that this is now possible.
posted by schmod at 8:23 AM on October 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


> "'What's the payoff? What's the danger? Why is it necessary?' It stalls exploration and progress!"

Perhaps I am misunderstanding you, but are you seriously arguing that these questions should not be asked?
posted by kyrademon at 8:33 AM on October 10, 2012


As for NASA, it's focused on deep space missions

This is a feature, not a bug.
posted by aught at 8:34 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Does anyone know why this mission is delivering only 905kg of cargo when apparently the vehicle and launcher can haul at least three times that amount? I can see why the demo flight was sparsely loaded but this seems like an odd choice.
posted by Dan Brilliant at 8:37 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


NASA buys planes from Boeing to fly stuff across the country, and now they're buying small spacecraft from SpaceX to make routine trips to LEO.

Just to be clear, that is NOT correct. NASA isn't buying spacecraft from SpaceX, and they're not operating them either. SpaceX is basically acting like a delivery service in which NASA gives them a bunch of money and cargo and says "Please take this to the ISS." On one hand there are financial efficiencies to be gained with this approach. On the other hand, NASA's operational expertise is rapidly vanishing. Most of the people who operated Shuttle on a regular basis have been laid off and those abstract plans for future NASA deep-space exploration are so far into the future that very few people with experience in dynamic phases of flight (ascent, aborts, entry, landing) will be left if those plans ever come to pass.

The bottom line is that NASA is being turned into a funding agency without technical expertise. I hope that's okay with folks.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 8:39 AM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't get the fascination with space travel

You ever ridden on a subway? A lot of people think it would be cool to spend the rest of their lives inside a subway car as long as it's not on earth.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:41 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Now you have me wondering about smelly space hobos and dancing space buskers and irritating space preachers.
posted by elizardbits at 8:43 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Does anyone know why this mission is delivering only 905kg of cargo when apparently the vehicle and launcher can haul at least three times that amount?

Some other source said this launch was volume-limited, not mass-limited.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:44 AM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Does anyone know why this mission is delivering only 905kg of cargo when apparently the vehicle and launcher can haul at least three times that amount? I can see why the demo flight was sparsely loaded but this seems like an odd choice.

Generally speaking, you've got several limiting factors and only one of them is mass. There are also volume and center of mass constraints. Also, there's only so much room on the ISS to store stuff.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 8:45 AM on October 10, 2012


Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:48 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I keep having a reflexive "WHAT? NO, YOU FOOLS" when I see references to NASA's new "Orion" spacecraft project because I think they're talking about Project Orion, which is somewhat less feasible.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:48 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm waiting for someone to name their craft Nostromo and have done with it.
posted by arcticseal at 8:50 AM on October 10, 2012


I keep having a reflexive "WHAT? NO, YOU FOOLS" when I see references to NASA's new "Orion" spacecraft project because I think they're talking about Project Orion

Man, if only.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:51 AM on October 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Already seen everything there is to see on earth then? I don't get the fascination with space travel. The earth is amazing, and you have never seen most of it, and likely never will.

I want to stand on the shores of the methane lakes of Titan and see Saturn in the sky; orbit Enceladus and watch it spew geysers hundreds of miles high; explore the mountains and valleys of Shackleton crater and see the Earthrise and watch the sunrise from atop Olympus Mons.

True, the Earth is a jewel with a million breathtaking sights and experiences. But it's also just one planet in a system of eight and I would like to see what treasures those other worlds hold.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:52 AM on October 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


If you mean by 2020, then lol irl. I'd expect to see it within my lifetime, though.

I mean in less than eight years, yes.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:55 AM on October 10, 2012


"Slightly problematic launch" is an understatement. One of the nine rocket engines failed. But hey, no problem, the computers compensated and they achieved orbit anyway. Maybe not quite the right orbit, but seriously, that's a bad-ass correction to make in the middle of a rocket launch. I read somewhere NASA has never tried to recover from engine failure, it'd be a total mission failure.
posted by Nelson at 8:57 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's always sad when a former blue-chip company gets driven out of the market it used to dominate.

Perhaps, but that's not the way I see it. Government sometimes has to do things because they aren't commercially viable to kickstart an industry. The internet and GPS satellites to come to mind as a couple of recent examples of government initiatives that have paid-off very well for the private sector, and for the rest of us in jobs, taxes and flash gizmos. Sometimes this doesn't work out so well. Space was looking like a big rabbit hole there for a while, like fusion research (but hey, there's been encouraging news even there recently). It's really great to see that starting to turn around.

Government can't do big projects alone, not forever, not in isolation. Government can operate as a big entrepreneur, doing pilots that no commercial entity could afford to do, even on really long time scales. If these projects can transform into a viable commercial activity, that's a mark of success, not failure. Space travel isn't there yet---the main client is still NASA and others---but this is an important step.
posted by bonehead at 8:58 AM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


I read somewhere NASA has never tried to recover from engine failure, it'd be a total mission failure.

Ignoring stuff from the Apollo days, you might want to read about STS-51F.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 9:00 AM on October 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


If I know anything about privatising space flight, it's that eventually there will be a orbiting space prison run by a private company for nefarious purposes something something something and then Guy Pearce rescues the president's daughter.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:03 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I read somewhere NASA has never tried to recover from engine failure, it'd be a total mission failure.

That's not true, as mentioned in SpaceX's statement following the launch, the Saturn V twice had single engine failures that the spacecraft was able to recover from.
posted by kiltedtaco at 9:07 AM on October 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


I read somewhere NASA has never tried to recover from engine failure, it'd be a total mission failure.

Apollo 6 and Apollo 13 experienced engine failures on launch. Hell, Apollo 6 had two engine failures and still made it to orbit.

Of course, there were some later problems with Apollo 13...
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:11 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I like this vaguely threatening wording a lot. "SEND HUMANS". Like, no promises if they'll be alive and willing or not but WE WILL SOON BE ABLE TO SEND HUMANS.
posted by elizardbits at 10:43 AM on October 10


MetaFilter: Sending humans... somewhere
posted by four panels at 9:11 AM on October 10, 2012


I read somewhere NASA has never tried to recover from engine failure

Shuttle had several abort modes in case of early engine failure, including a hair-raising U-turn back to Cape Canaveral (thankfully never used).

Saturn V abort modes were a bit more survivable for a number of reasons. You didn't have to worry about gliding back to a runway or waiting 123 seconds for your solid rocket boosters to finish firing. There was more fuel reserve so you could lose a lot of engines and still at least make it to Earth orbit -- Shuttle's tanks were basically dry at burnout. Also you had a real Launch Escape System which never existed for Shuttle.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:23 AM on October 10, 2012


The important thing that the SpaceX Dragon gives us is its return capability. We have lots of ways of getting mass to the ISS, but the Shuttle was the only way to get a large mass down.

Soyuz? Mainly just moves people, only a few kilograms return cargo capacity. Progress? Burns up on re-entry. ATV? Burns up on re-entry. HTV? Burns up on re-entry. Am I forgetting one? It seems like I'm forgetting one.

The Dragon on CRS1 is returning "734 pounds of scientific materials" and "504 pounds of space station hardware" (quotes from the press kit). That's a very big deal, the freezers onboard were getting full.

I see others have addressed the bogus claim about NASA not handling engine failures, so I'll leave that one alone.
posted by BeeDo at 9:25 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of the nine rocket engines failed.

And threw off a bunch of debris, which is bad squared no matter how you slice it or how SpaceX tries to wiggle around it. Expected behavior? Debris shield?. If the debris shield sheds debris, then it's not a very effective shield?

Debris from a failing engine breaks the cluster concept, which is you can shut down the failed engine safely and continue boost. They were damn lucky not to lose the whole vehicle -- all you needed was that debris to smack another engine, and shatter that, producing more debris.

Indeed, if the engine is going to fail like that, the last thing you want is nine of them! That means you have nine chances of an engine exploding.

I read somewhere NASA has never tried to recover from engine failure, it'd be a total mission failure.

Let's see. Apollo 6, Apollo 13, STS-51F, STS-93. So, that would be wrong four times in manned flight. I haven't gone through every unmanned flight, but a number of them have had engine failures or underperforms and still made the mission. Indeed, a Delta IV a couple of weeks back had a serious underperform on the Centaur booster, but managed to make the orbit by burning longer. The controllers could see that the thrust was down, but propellant consumption was also down, so they knew as long as they could make velocity, they could make the orbit.

Next step is SSTO

I assume you mean reusable SSTO. We could take the original Atlas, replace the three engines (two which were dropped) with one modern one, and have single stage to orbit -- putting a whole 1.5 tons into LEO. That's why we didn't do that.

As long as the best chemical rocket remains LH2/LOX, and G= 9.8m/s2, you will never get a useful mass fraction in SSTO. The last thing anybody wants to do is stage, but the reason they all stage is that if you don't, you take a huge mass penalty.

If you can leave the power on the ground, sure -- but we don't have laser launch.

Doubly so reusable SSTO, which means you need to bring the entire craft to orbit and back. This means you have to count the entire vehicle structure as part of your final mass fraction. This is why the shuttle sucked. It threw almost as much into orbit as the Saturn V -- but rather than a 6 ton CM, it brought back an 86 ton shuttle, plus whatever fuel, payload/payload adapters, crew and crew supplies were on board.

That 85+ tons that came back in those dramatic landings is 85+ tons that can't be left in orbit. So, a booster that was boosting easily 120-140 tons to LEO -- this is Saturn V class, mind you -- could only leave 20 or so tons there, which a Titan III could beat.

Other problems: Our atmosphere is dense. Engines that work well in the atmosphere don't work as well in space, and vice versa. For SSTO, the only answer for one set of engines is to optimize them for vacuum, because that's where most of the work will be done. But this makes them much less efficient while boosting out of the atmosphere -- a problem that staged boosters don't have. Even the Falcon 9 has a different model engine, with a different nozzle, for the second stage (the Merlin Vacuum)

Engines that can cope with this transition, like aerospike engines, haven't panned out.

So, right now, you're looking at about a 1:20 structure/payload:fuel ratio for SSTO. That's not going to work.
posted by eriko at 9:26 AM on October 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


The shuttle had many abort modes, drilled into every single pilot that flew them. It's a little selector switch by their knee as I recall. As a kid I knew all of these, and it's my biggest issue with Spacecamp. All they had to do was reach down, click to "Abort Once Around" and glide their rogue shuttle into Edwards 80 minutes later.

I guess that lack of basic knowledge was the reason Andi never got a flight seat.
posted by ewan at 9:27 AM on October 10, 2012


Also... www.howmanypeopleareinspacerightnow.com is just cool
posted by ewan at 9:28 AM on October 10, 2012


I want to stand on the shores of the methane lakes of Titan and see Saturn in the sky; orbit Enceladus and watch it spew geysers hundreds of miles high; explore the mountains and valleys of Shackleton crater and see the Earthrise and watch the sunrise from atop Olympus Mons.

I want to watch C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate.
posted by Gelatin at 9:28 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


So does anyone know how much cheaper per unit of payload this was than NASA doing the delivery in-house?

Also, is Burt Rutan now the official Professor Frink?
posted by Laotic at 9:31 AM on October 10, 2012


There was more fuel reserve so you could lose a lot of engines and still at least make it to Earth orbit -- Shuttle's tanks were basically dry at burnout.

The Saturn V's tanks were dry at the end of its boost. The final stage had two boosts, one to LEO, and one to TLI, Translunar Injection. It was then down to dregs. On the Skylab Launch, every bit of propellent in the S-IC and S-II stages was used to make LEO.

Fuel quantity doesn't help much with engine out. If you lose one, as long as you have more thrust than mass, you can burn longer to make up the velocity. Where does the fuel come from? Well, when an engine shuts down, you turn off the fuel and oxidizer valves, so the failed engine isn't consuming propellant. Instead, that propellant is burned by the other engines, which burn longer.

If you lose enough engine thrust, though, you can't accelerate anymore. At that point, fuel, extra or no, doesn't help. And carrying lots of extra fuel is a bad idea -- every kilo of propellant onboard is a kilo less payload. When the Saturn IB launched the Apollo CSM into orbit (Apollo 7, Skylab 2-4, and ASTP) the CSM couldn't be fully fueled and still reach orbit. Since it wasn't going to have to burn to get back from the moon, this wasn't a problem, but there was a lot of wasted mass in things that were only needed for a long duration lunar mission.
posted by eriko at 9:33 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


come on, do you really think they'll send 'unwilling' people all the way to space?!

You'll see... You'll ALL see...
posted by Navelgazer at 9:36 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Government sometimes has to do things because they aren't commercially viable to kickstart an industry. The internet and GPS satellites to come to mind as a couple of recent examples of government initiatives that have paid-off very well for the private sector, and for the rest of us in jobs, taxes and flash gizmos.

Swell. Thirty years from now the heirs of the modern Republican Party will be claiming that government never had a hand in the successful LEO industry.

Oh, well, the shuttle rides to space might make such coidswallop worth putting up with.
posted by Gelatin at 9:36 AM on October 10, 2012


The earth is amazing, and you have never seen most of it, and likely never will.
"I love the Earth, do you understand? I love the leaves and the birds, the fish and the sea, the snow and the wind! And I love green and blue and all the colors and the smells, and that's all there is, do you understand? That's all we have, and I don't want to lose it on account of your rockets, do you understand?"

You grew white with anger. And your every muscle warned me to be quiet, not to go on with my nonsense. But I couldn't keep quiet any longer: it was as if a war, a gulf, had opened up between us. And I told you, though I don't know if these were my words, that I love the Earth too, Father. It's my home and I love it. But a home you can never leave isn't a home at all, it's a prison, and you have always told me that man isn't made to stay in prison, he's made to escape from it and too bad if he risks getting killed escaping.
- Oriana Fallaci, If The Sun Dies
posted by Egg Shen at 9:37 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I mean in less than eight years, yes. [link to Armadillo Aerospace]

Haha, no.

Next step is SSTO

Not as long as the rocket equation stays the same. What might happen is that SpaceX gets their plan to land the first stage vertically back on the pad working, that's a hard enough goal.
posted by atrazine at 9:41 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the corrections to my misstatement about NASA and recovering from engine failure. I must have been thinking about the Kerbal Space Program; those poor little guys have a lot of mishaps.
posted by Nelson at 9:51 AM on October 10, 2012


SpaceX is basically acting like a delivery service

SpaceX: it's like FedX -- but for space!
posted by Slothrup at 9:58 AM on October 10, 2012




And because nobody has said it yet:

Good news, everyone!
posted by Navelgazer at 10:01 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Shuttle had several abort modes in case of early engine failure, including a hair-raising U-turn back to Cape Canaveral (thankfully never used).

I was reading about the Return To Launch Site abort mode, described in "First-Flight Shuttle Ride" by Mike Mullane:
The Return-To-Launch-Site (RTLS) abort window had closed. We were now too far from Florida and headed east too fast to land back at KSC [Kennedy Space Center]. If an engine failed, we were committed to a "straight ahead" abort. That was OK; nobody wanted to do a turnaround RTLS abort, an unnatural act of physics. If selected, it required pitching the shuttle into an outside loop that would point us toward Florida. Because it would take a few minutes to cancel our eastward velocity, we would actually be flying backward over the Atlantic. Ultimately, we would emulate a million-lb. helicopter, 50 mi. high, with zero forward speed, before starting a slow acceleration toward our objective 200 mi. away.
Wouldn't it be worse—wouldn't they be flying backward over the Atlantic upside down? Or is there a roll to invert back into place as well?
posted by grouse at 10:07 AM on October 10, 2012


Haha, no.

Yeah, and they were laughing at Space-X and before that they were skeptical anyone could claim the X-Prize. Clarke's First Law hasn't let me down yet.

Armadillo isn't the only one working on it... Bezos' Blue Origin is working on an updated version of the Delta Clipper. There's a lot of money being sunk into this on a reasonable time scale by businessmen who aren't prone making bad investments. Even SpaceX is working on a reusable launch system.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:08 AM on October 10, 2012


I was reading about the Return To Launch Site abort mode

This is a great YouTube video illustrating an RTLS abort. The creator took audio from actual RTLS training done by a Discovery crew, and then put in video from a space shuttle simulator program to show what's actually going on. Pretty hair-raising.

Spoiler: they don't make it back to KSC.
posted by zsazsa at 10:16 AM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ignoring stuff from the Apollo days

I appreciate what you meant, and mean this with love:

That is a bad, awful phrase and you should never say it again. If you do, Gene Kranz will kick your ass. He won't even use his fists, just his motherfucking haircut.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:31 AM on October 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


There was a possibility it would be needed for an ISS mission if the Russians flaked out.

Pish tosh. It's an orbital test vehicle, without any docking -- let alone crew -- capability. Now, the X-37-derived crew vehicle concept is potentially viable but would need to undergo development and some years of testing before being a usable Soyuz replacement.

But the Soyuz and Progress are utterly reliable, proven vehicles, and the Russians aren't pulling out of a space station whose core is theirs. At best, if this isn't just internet/fanboy rumor, this was a negotiating tactic when NASA and the Russians had to hammer out the "fare" agreements. Instead of paying you $millions, Boris, we'll spend $billions and develop it ourselves on deadline! Haha!
Still wish they'd built the damn lifeboat.

Wouldn't it be worse—wouldn't they be flying backward over the Atlantic upside down? Or is there a roll to invert back into place as well?

The sim seems to show a roll, but it probably doesn't matter much until they jettison the tank and shut off the engines. At that point you become a falling brick with wings and need them to both shield re-entry and hold onto as much altitude as you can. It's best not to think of any of this as "flying" in a traditional sense.

I don't get the fascination with space travel.

Well, I think it would be cool. (On the other hand, with current tech, getting almost anywhere beyond the Moon would be incredibly boring.) But reducing this to mere tourism is not sufficient to explain the motivation for all space enthusiasm. I really believe, for instance, that we need to establish a beachhead on other planets in case we screw this one up too much (not to mention the lower probability risk of something like a meteor strike). I also believe, more prosaically perhaps, that these challenges will be extremely helpful in developing technology and strategies for survival in the face of a global environmental disaster.

As a devotée of the Drake equation, I am also leaning more and more as an adult toward the conclusion that we must be alone and unique. In that scenario, I believe we have a responsibility to ourselves to survive. Not just the death of the Earth, but of our Sun and eventually the Milky Way.

But mostly, I think having a frontier and working to explore it are extremely important to ourselves here and now. If we think in the finite terms of Earth we are more likely to resent and squabble with each other; the Blue Dot theory.
posted by dhartung at 10:52 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


The most important part of this mission is that taking back all of those astronaut piss samples and whatnot opens up freezer space for the ice cream.
posted by ckape at 10:57 AM on October 10, 2012


a reusable launch system

But not an SSTO. Big difference.
posted by BeeDo at 11:00 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


RTLS is the abort mode that everyone was glad never had to be tested. STS-1 was originally proposed as an RTLS launch. Legend says that once John Young studied it, he basically refused to fly that mission profile, declaring it more or less suicidal.

Little known fun fact is that STS-1 almost ended up as an abort: one of the things that engineers did not expect was the massive acoustical sound wave from SRB ignition reverberating back up and smacking the bottom of the vehicle before it left the pad. Apparently the pressure was such that it forced the body flap at the bottom rear of Columbia to swing well outside of design limits with unknown consequences. During the debrief, Young stated that had he been made aware of the event he would have declared an abort. I'm assuming it would have been an RTLS and not an AOA since he was trying to avoid a re-entry scenario with a (potentially) damaged body flap.

As it turned out, the flap functioned just fine. The result of the event was the installation of massive water bags into the flame trough that explode on SRB ignition and help dampen the acoustic wave.

Reason #2,656 why Young and Crippen were pretty damned ballsy to take the chance they did on this flight.
posted by tgrundke at 11:00 AM on October 10, 2012


This is a great YouTube video illustrating an RTLS abort.

That is a great video. I'd be really curious to see this, or at least listen to the audio, for more training scenarios. Even listening to the same voice loops for a normal launch would be interesting to provide a baseline scenario.
posted by kiltedtaco at 11:01 AM on October 10, 2012


The RTLS abort plan was just to give the pilots something to do while they were waiting to die.
posted by vibrotronica at 11:04 AM on October 10, 2012


Does anyone know why this mission is delivering only 905kg of cargo when apparently the vehicle and launcher can haul at least three times that amount?

Because they need the other 1800kg+ to carry the components for the orbital death laser.
posted by Strange Interlude at 11:08 AM on October 10, 2012


Yeah, and they were laughing at Space-X and before that they were skeptical anyone could claim the X-Prize. Clarke's First Law hasn't let me down yet.

Armadillo isn't the only one working on it... Bezos' Blue Origin is working on an updated version of the Delta Clipper. There's a lot of money being sunk into this on a reasonable time scale by businessmen who aren't prone making bad investments. Even SpaceX is working on a reusable launch system.


What "they" were laughing at isn't of much interest to me, I was always very optimistic about SpaceX and Scaled Composites and am optimistic about Blue Origins as well because their goals and resources are adequately matched. I've been following Armadillo Aerospace for years and read their blog regularly, they're a great company and maybe they will eventually succeed in getting a suborbital VTVL craft working but orbital flight isn't even a stretch goal for them.

Let alone SSTO or industrial facilities in space, neither of which has anything to do with AA. The research direction they've taken - simple but low Isp monoprop engines - is far from the complicated high Isp engines required to even consider SSTO.

A much better approach is re-usable stages. SpaceX even has ambitions to re-use the second stage (which would require an ablative nose-cone and a stage design that can survive re-entry from just barely sub-orbital velocities) although I think that is unlikely to happen any time soon. First stage re-use is much more plausible because the vertical velocity component is small (you can potentially land at the launch site which is certainly impossible for the second stage) and because there is far less energy to shed.
posted by atrazine at 11:13 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you want to dream big, the realistic plan would be laser ablative launch, followed by nuclear pulse propulsion around the solar system. That's doable with today's technology. It would be about as difficult and expensive as building a next generation aircraft carrier.

On the ground, you would be building a dedicated power plant, some really big energy storage, and a seriously whoop-ass laser, or a series of less whoop-ass lasers. It would be very safe on launch, as if your lasers failed mid-way you would just go into an arc and deploy parachutes somewhere over the water. There's no reason to think that would happen, though, as you could build as many lasers as you want... if it is on the ground, the mass is free.

Once you have escaped Earth, NPP will take your giant spaceship anywhere you want to go in the solar system. You wouldn't land the big NPP mothership on Earth, you would use a much smaller crew return vehicle. You might land it on Mars, though, as a pre-built base.
posted by BeeDo at 11:38 AM on October 10, 2012


I, of course, got my terminology muddled, I meant re-usable launch systems, so the pedants can carve another notch into their nit-picking stick.

Pure SSTO may be a ways off, but rocket stages or spaceplane booster rockets that land themselves are coming within 8 years, and will dramatically reduce the cost of getting stuff into orbit - including industrial facilities (likely automated) and humans (satellite repair while-u-wait).
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:51 AM on October 10, 2012


I, of course, got my terminology muddled, I meant re-usable launch systems, so the pedants can carve another notch into their nit-picking stick.

It's full, we need another stick.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:52 AM on October 10, 2012


But not an SSTO. Big difference.

As others have mentioned, there is lots of analysis showing that SSTO is a loser both economically and energetically. I'm not quite certain why people keep coming back to it. It's a great romantic idea sure, a needle landing on a white-hot rocket exhaust, but a single body craft is prohibitively costly in our atmosphere and with chemical rockets that need huge amounts of propellant mass. One of the big lessons of the shuttle, IMO.
posted by bonehead at 11:57 AM on October 10, 2012


there is lots of analysis showing that SSTO is a loser

I don't doubt this claim, but I'd enjoy reading these references if anyone knows where to find them.
posted by kiltedtaco at 12:05 PM on October 10, 2012


Notch carved!
posted by BeeDo at 12:20 PM on October 10, 2012


I'm curious what aspect(s) of a Shuttle RTLS abort seen so suicidal to people. Seriously, what EXACTLY do you think is so bad? I'm asking because I don't think the engineering analysis would agree with you.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 12:54 PM on October 10, 2012


I am not an engineer, but the going in one direction, then flipping around and firing engines to dispel that momentum, ditch the external and make it back to Florida with single chance for landing seems a tad hopeful. Sounds like the stress on the Shuttle and crew would be high.

The Wikipedia page on Shuttle abort modes has an astronaut describing RTLS as an "unnatural act of physics". Which sounds damn terrifying.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:03 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Brandon Blatcher: "I am not an engineer, but the going in one direction, then flipping around and firing engines to dispel that momentum, ditch the external and make it back to Florida with single chance for landing seems a tad hopeful. Sounds like the stress on the Shuttle and crew would be high."

Also, remember that this would all be happening to a shuttle that was somehow damaged during takeoff, with absolutely no time to determine how extensive that damage was.

This scenario only became slightly less scary after Challenger, when NASA installed a mechanism for the crew to bail out before landing.

I'm pretty sure there are multiple good reasons for why this capability was never tested on a healthy craft, let alone a damaged one. I haven't done the math, but I have to imagine that some Very Bad Things could happen in this scenario if 2-3 of the SSMEs were inoperable.

It might not be the "guaranteed suicide" that some others here are proclaiming to to be, but I don't think you could convince anybody that it's a particularly good idea. TAL is a lot less complicated, and doesn't require the SSMEs to be working, or for craft to be pitched around 180 degrees.
posted by schmod at 1:28 PM on October 10, 2012


the pedants can carve another notch into their nit-picking stick.

Actually I think you'll find that tweezers are used instead, as they are far more efficient.
posted by elizardbits at 1:34 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


space preachers.

Doesn't matter. It's still there... waiting.

it's my biggest issue with Spacecamp.

I went to space camp. Where we watched spacecamp in order to laugh at all of the things wrong with it. I think it was the counselors' favorite part.
posted by flaterik at 1:39 PM on October 10, 2012


The vehicle is largely exoatmospheric for the pitch around so it doesn't really care what direction it's pointing (plus or minus the velocity vector). The entry back into the atmosphere occurs at a relatively low speed and is thermally benign. The approach and landing are the same as any end of mission landing.

Stuff like this is frustrating because people spent a huge amount of work to make sure this procedure works and had enough confidence in the analysis to allow over a hundred crews to rely on it being available and trustworthy. Dismissing all that work with "Well it sure looks dangerous" or even accusing those people of advertising a capability that they knew wouldn't work saddens me.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 1:43 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thinking about it some more, I imagine RTLS is similar to ice skating in one direction very quickly and then doing a 180 turn and reversing direction. But with seven billion pounds of machinery traveling at Mach 5 or so and exactly one chance to get an untested procedure right.

Interesting description of RTLS here and here. The first link touches on the riskiness of the maneuver:
The main thing about an RTLS abort that makes it risky is while the shuttle is traveling down range, it essentially has to do a pitch manuever (about 5 degrees per second, until it is flying tail first) to kill its forward momentum and then begin to gain some momentum back to return to KSC for a safe landing. Altitude that the abort is typically initiated would be above 200,000 feet with the flip manuever occurring above 300,000 feet (presumeably when the air is thin enough that flipping the orbiter around won't have the back end getting roasted by the exhaust plumes from the remaining SSMEs due to air drag).

The second half involves energy management as the pitched around orbiter with the ET uses up the remaining fuel and drops the external tank to initiate a (hopefully) normal approach back to KSC for landing. Of course, whether the shuttle makes it back to the launch site will entirely depend on whether it gained back enough velocity on the turnaround since if it ended up short, somebody is going to be taking a swim in the Atlantic (and shuttles don't have good ditching characteristics AT ALL).
Stuff like this is frustrating because people spent a huge amount of work to make sure this procedure works

Was it every actually tried? It was conceptual as far as I know, i.e. never actually done. Compare RTLS testing to testing the Lunar module. The latter first flew unmanned on Apollo 5, then manned in Earth orbit on Apollo 9 and then manned again in lunar orbit on Apollo 10 before even attempting a lunar landing on Apollo 11.

Was RTLS ever done?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:57 PM on October 10, 2012


If I know anything about privatising space flight, it's that eventually there will be a orbiting space prison run by a private company for nefarious purposes something something something...

And then the alien gets loose.
posted by aught at 2:06 PM on October 10, 2012


No, it was never flown in real life. Consider that each launch costs hundreds of millions of dollars, that orbiters are largely irreplaceable, and that people are completely irreplaceable. Suppose that analysis shows that RTLS works in 99.9% of dispersed cases. What would be your justification for flying an RTLS test?
posted by LastOfHisKind at 2:07 PM on October 10, 2012


No, it was never flown in real life.

That right there is the point. On paper it sounded like it might could work, but there was no way to test it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:26 PM on October 10, 2012


Further to tgrundke's comment, I looked up the STS-1 solid rocket booster ignition and damn, that's one hell of a bang. It looks bad on camera, which means up close it must have been terrifying.
posted by anthill at 5:45 PM on October 10, 2012


Via a NASA update: "Running well ahead of schedule, Expedition 33 commander Suni Williams and flight engineer Aki Hoshide opened the hatch to the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft at 12:40 p.m. CDT (1740 GMT) Wednesday, marking a milestone for the first commercial resupply mission to reach the International Space Station.

Hatch opening had been scheduled to occur on Thursday, but the crew sped through its post-berthing procedures, enabling the earlier entrance into the cargo ship."

Here's video of the approach and berthing. Technically Dragon doesn't dock since it's pulled to the ISS by the one of the station's arms rather than under its own power.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:57 PM on October 10, 2012


Even more amusing (in the ARS article) is the link to the idea of establishing an outpost at Earth-Moon Lagrange point 2 (Orlando Sentinel article).

Appears that the genesis of the idea (an outpost 277,000 miles from Earth) is to give "purpose to the Orion space capsule and the Space Launch System rocket, which are being developed at a cost of about $3 billion annually"; the outpost would be "possible only with 'modest increases' to the current budget."

Sounds like NASA is still building solutions in search of a problem. They describe the (no price yet) outpost as "the best near-term option to develop required flight experience and mitigate risk." Required flight experience ... for what, Mars? If so, it'd be great to see the plan to provide atmosphere, food, water, shelter, power and radiation protection at Mars. At $10K per pound.
posted by Twang at 11:31 PM on October 10, 2012


BeeDo: "Soyuz? Mainly just moves people, only a few kilograms return cargo capacity. Progress? Burns up on re-entry. ATV? Burns up on re-entry. HTV? Burns up on re-entry. Am I forgetting one? It seems like I'm forgetting one. "

Very good point! Even two-thirds of Soyuz burns up. The one you're forgetting is the Cygnus, for the very good reason that it's never yet been launched. It also has no cargo return capacity.

Any idea whether the Dragon or Cygnus could boost the ISS orbit, or dock without the Canadarm2? AFAIK, the US is entirely reliant on its international partners for this: only Progress and the ATV can boost the orbit, and only those and the Soyuz can dock if the arm is out of commission somehow.

ewan: "Also... www.howmanypeopleareinspacerightnow.com is just cool"

It's also wrong right now, only three astronauts are on the ISS. The rest of Expedition 33 won't get there for another couple of weeks.

eriko: "The Saturn V's tanks were dry at the end of its boost."

Right, but Saturn V had enough energy for lunar insertion, not just LEO. So even a number of plausible failure modes could at least have reached stable LEO, though the main mission would have to be aborted. Presumably any future moon missions would have the same advantage.
posted by vasi at 2:44 AM on October 11, 2012


I'm assuming it would have been an RTLS and not an AOA since he was trying to avoid a re-entry scenario with a (potentially) damaged body flap.

No, he would have probably pick TAL, TransAtlantic Landing. NASA picked a couple of airports im Southern Europe and North Africa, with long enough runways, etc. the exact ones changed per mission. depending on launch azimuth and political concerns. It was still risky, but far safer than RTLS.

The order, best to worst - ATO, AOA, TAL, RTLS, Contingency Bailout, which was a LOV event, and crater in the ground, which was a LOCV.

A successful abort would probably result in LOM, Loss of Mission, though the one explicit abort they flew (ATO on 51-F) didn't. It was a lab mission that wasn't orbit dependent.

Understand that to NASA, LOM is a failure. First, you protect the crew, then the vehicle, but then the mission. To this day, NASA lists Apollo 13 as a failure resulting in LOM. And, one of the contributing causes to 51-L and 107's LOCV was too much effort on the mission, not enough on crew and vehicle.

So even a number of plausible failure modes could at least have reached stable LEO, though the main mission would have to be aborted. Presumably any future moon missions would have the same advantage

Far more important to that was the SPS engine on the SM. The Mode 3 abort (S-IVB to orbit) wasn't available very long, and depended on the stage working. There was reall only about 30 seconds where Mode 3 was useful. Far more useful was when they reached Mode 4, which meant they could ditch a failing third stage and make orbit with the CSM, which, for a LEO mission, was a completely spare stage.
posted by eriko at 4:16 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


On paper it sounded like it might could work, but there was no way to test it.

Isn't that true of all the abort procedures, though (at least the ones that involve leaving the pad)?
posted by adamdschneider at 6:55 AM on October 11, 2012


Isn't that true of all the abort procedures, though (at least the ones that involve leaving the pad)?

Of the five Shuttle ascent abort modes, Redundant Set Launch Sequencer (RSLS) Abort, Return To Launch Site (RTLS), Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL), Abort Once Around (AOA) and Abort to Orbit (ATO), only RTLS has never been tried at all, on any flight, as far as I know.

Other missions have aborted at the last second (Gemini 6 and several Shuttle launches), limped into orbit by burning engines longer (Apollo 6 and 13 and STS-51), or orbited briefly and then come down in a different part of the world after only a few hours (Gemini 8).

Turning the spacecraft around and using its launch rockets to direct the craft back to Florida to land there? Never been done, as far as I know.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:36 AM on October 11, 2012




Ok, the Wikipedia article lists four abort modes post-SRB ignition. Three of them are listed as having never been needed in the history of the shuttle program. It says nothing about testing them. I'm not sure how relevant what happened to Apollo or Gemini missions is when the question is: isn't the "not testable" thing applicable to all of the post-liftoff abort modes? I mean, they used one...but did they test it first?
posted by adamdschneider at 8:14 AM on October 11, 2012


To my non-engineering mind, there's non-testing when something has never been tried before and non-testing when concept has been shown to work on other spacecraft. Hence the Gemini and Apollo references.

Has been testing or an actual procedure down with other spacecraft that is similar to RTLS?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:41 AM on October 11, 2012


Oh, I have no idea, actually. I mean, RTLS sounds bad, I was just objecting to the specific "it's never been tested" line because it looks like a bunch of procedures that aren't as objected to have not been tested per se.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:03 AM on October 11, 2012


And I guess they never will be tested now. Say what you will about the Shuttle as a spacecraft (and it had many flaws), but it was very iconic.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:37 AM on October 11, 2012




Satellite burns up following SpaceX rocket glitch. They decided for the safety of the ISS primary mission not to do the second stage burn that would lift the satellite (secondary mission) to its desired orbit.
posted by Nelson at 8:27 AM on October 13, 2012




The Dragon returns to the nest
posted by homunculus at 12:48 PM on October 28, 2012


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