SpaceX’s Philosophy: Reliability Through Continual Upgrades

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Remains of a Falcon 9 rocket fall to Earth.

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

To succeed in the launch business, you need to be very, very good and more than a little bit lucky. Eventually, there comes a day when you are neither.

That is what happened to SpaceX on June 28. A string of 18 successful Falcon 9 launches was snapped as the company’s latest rocket broke up in the clear blues skies over the Atlantic Ocean. A Dragon supply ship headed for the International Space Station was lost, SpaceX’s crowded manifest was thrown into confusion, and the company’s reputation for reliability was shattered.

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Space Access Update: Falcon 9 Failure

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Space Access Update #143 7/2/15

copyright 2015 by Space Access Society
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Sunday’s Commercial Cargo Mission Loss

Background

Sunday’s (6/28/15) SpaceX cargo resupply launch to Station failed, breaking up a little over two minutes into the flight. (More here and here.) This was SpaceX’s eighth such flight; their initial test mission then six commercial-contract cargo flights had essentially gone as planned. This was SpaceX’s nineteenth launch of the Falcon 9 booster; the first eighteen F9 launches all reached orbit successfully.
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Falcon 9 Launch Failure Scrambles Schedule

Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

With the failure of the Falcon 9 on Sunday, SpaceX’s only launch vehicle will be grounded for an unknown number of months while engineers identify the cause of the crash and make necessary changes to ensure that failure won’t happen again.

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NASA and Commercial Partners Review Summer of Advancements

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WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA’s spaceflight experts in the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) met throughout July with aerospace partners to review increasingly advanced designs, elements and systems of the spacecraft and launch vehicles under development as part of the space agency’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) and Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev2) initiatives.

Blue Origin, The Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corporation and SpaceX are partners with NASA in these initiatives to develop a new generation of safe, reliable, and cost-effective crew space transportation systems to low-Earth orbit.

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NASA Commercial Crew Decision Expected Soon

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Charles Lurio of The Lurio Reports that NASA is likely to announce contracts for the next round of the Commercial Crew Program on either Aug. 22 or Aug. 29. Sources have told him that the space agency is likely to make two full awards for partners to build and flight test their crew vehicles.

If he is correct, that would leave one of three competitors — Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation or SpaceX — without a seat at the table. Sierra Nevada and SpaceX have said they would continue with vehicle development if they are not chosen for this round. Boeing has said it would be difficult for the company to close the business case for its CST-100 spacecraft without additional NASA funding.

NASA’s goal is to have commercial crew transport to the International Space Station (ISS) by the end of 2017. SpaceX has said that it believes it can begin service about a year prior to that deadline with its Dragon V2 spacecraft, which is an upgraded version of the Dragon cargo vehicle that has already flown to and returned from ISS four times. Boeing and Sierra Nevada have said they are on track to meet the 2017 deadline.

Hadfield Impressed With Dragon, Sees Much Work to Do

Dragon Version 2. (Credit: SpaceX)
Dragon Version 2. (Credit: SpaceX)

C/NET.com has an interesting interview with Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield about the unveiling of SpaceX Dragon V2 spacecraft on Thursday. Don’t be misled by the headline [Astronaut: Musk’s capsule no substitute for Soyuz (Q&A)]; Hadfield is actually quite complimentary. However, he does provide some really excellent insights into what it takes to get from what Elon Musk unveiled last week to a functioning spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts into space.

Hadfield: It’s really impressive what Elon Musk and SpaceX have done. They’ve only been around a dozen years, and they’ve done what most countries have been unable to do: build a rocket that can take heavy payloads to Earth orbit, build a spaceship that can navigate and dock with the Space Station, and then undock, and return to Earth.

What we saw yesterday shows the vehicle’s shape, which is really important. That constrains everything. It shows the possibility of seven people fitting inside. It shows the possibility of what an avionics display might look like. Of course, it’s missing all the critical stuff: the lights, and all of the integration and complexity that goes into making that habitable and safe for crew. And there’s all sorts of engineering questions that weren’t addressed yesterday. But you have to start somewhere, and they have a really impressive track record over the last 10 or 12 years, and they’ve put together a really capable group of people.

Musk sort of admitted something similar the other night, saying it would take about a billion dollars to get the ship ready to carry crews into space. That’s a far cry from a few years ago, when SpaceX was claiming it needed only a few hundred million dollars to make Dragon crew ready. However, that was prior the finalization of NASA’s certification process. In the meantime, Dragon have evolved from plopping down on the ocean to making a propulsion touchdown on land.

Musk said the other night that he anticipated a test flight in late 2015, followed by a crewed flight to the International Space Station (ISS) in mid-2016. If all went well, the first Dragon V2 would ferry crews to the space station on a commercial basis by the end of 2016, about a year ahead of NASA’s current schedule.

Given Musk’s past optimism and the tendency of SpaceX’s already crowded manifest to slide to the right, I would expect that schedule to slip. Aiming to fly a year earlier will provide a margin for the company to meet NASA’s schedule.