Thursday, February 8, 2018

Falcon Heavy and the era of post-scarcity heavy lift launch

Yesterday (February 6 2018), SpaceX successfully launched the Falcon Heavy rocket. 

This rocket, first publicly announced in 2011, had been a dream for so long I almost could not believe it was only a week away. Then a day. Then an hour. At the moment of lift off, 30 colleagues and I were crammed in a tiny conference room around a laptop with tinny speakers. Several of us had worked on this particular vehicle over its protracted development. You could hear a pin drop. 

And then the 27 Merlin engines roared to life. It flew to space. It staged successfully. It landed two boosters on the ground, and narrowly missed the hat trick. The upper stage flew a whimsical payload of space suit, star man, and Tesla Roadster around the world (and over Australia) once before firing for a third and last time over its home in LA, boosting it away from Earth toward the orbit of Mars. It will orbit in empty space for many thousands of years.

Image: SpaceX YouTube. 

What does this mean? SpaceX does hype well, and millions of people tuned in to watch the launch. People reacted to this concatenation of the impossible in many different ways. I felt a profound catharsis, a joy, a renewed faith in humanity.

As usual, media got a handful of details wrong. This is not the first car ever launched - but it is the first production electric car ever launched! The French mounted (but didn't launch) a Renault once upon the Diamant BP4 rocket, NASA launched 3 electric rovers to the moon in the early 1970s, the Soviets landed two nuclear powered robotic rovers (Lunakhod) on the moon, the Chinese one solar powered rover (Yutu), and of course NASA has also dropped a total of four electric robotic rovers on Mars (Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity). 

Second, the Falcon Heavy has been described as the most powerful rocket since blah. As far as I know, it is the most powerful liquid fueled American rocket since the Saturn V. Other rockets with greater thrust include the Soviet N1 rocket, which experienced four catastrophic launch failures in the 1970s, the Soviet Energia rocket, which launched twice in the 1980s, and the space shuttle, which derived most of its thrust from solid rocket boosters rather than liquid engines.

It also has the largest payload to orbit of any American rocket since the Saturn V. Technically the shuttle had more mass in orbit, but a lot of that was shuttle, and its total payload was, at 25T, comparable to other modern rockets. Officially, Falcon Heavy can deliver 64T to LEO in expendable mode. 

Usually, though, Falcon Heavy will be used in reusable mode. In this configuration, it can launch a similar payload to a single stick Falcon 9 expendable launch, or around 25T. Provided that recovery is usually successful and turnaround on the ground quick and cheapish, this mode for medium lift launch is extremely competitive. 

SpaceX, enjoying a high profile, has an unusually high concentration of public pundits, commentators, and self-appointed experts who are always ready and eager to deliver a verdict on a mission or design choice. Let me add to their chorus and say that launch is really hard, and getting it right the first time is just extraordinary. It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of this technical achievement, particularly given that it was privately funded and relatively quickly developed. It is always easier to critique than to build, and I was somewhat dismayed by the usual twitter outrage over everything from the carbon footprint of the rocket to the colour of the car. 

People, SpaceX *deliberately* chose to be provocative. Why? Because they're competing in an industry against incumbent heavyweights who, instead of using their launches to sell electric cars or liberate the launch market, lobby for protectionist policy and sell weapons to third world despots. If you think humanity has a future, that future involves space, and it has to be done somehow.

So, of course there was Elon's red Tesla sports car driven by a mannequin in a space suit with cameras on every angle, a bunch of memes scattered around, and a tiny hot wheels Tesla with a tiny space suit on the dash. I wouldn't be that surprised if this particular car was retrieved in flight and plonked in a museum before I die of old age, or internet outrage.

This launch and its excitement was important. It showed the two generations born since Apollo that space was cool again, space is relate-able, and space is exciting. NASA does space very well, but NASA is beholden to a bizarre incentive and funding structure, and as a result must be extremely risk averse in both mission execution and PR. NASA and SpaceX have formed a productive partnership in part because, for cents on the dollar, NASA has been able to outsource a lot of development and branding risk to SpaceX. 

As a serious space nerd, I was born in the late 80s, an era of shrinking ambition and fading glory. As I learned more about the practice and prospects of space travel, I grew more and more despondent. There was every chance I would live and die without seeing the next big step. This launch was not that step, but it foreshadows it. I can now live with hope. Hope to see, and perhaps to participate in, this really exciting adventure. Maybe Australia will even get a space program?

The single most overwhelming fact about Falcon Heavy is its size. During the shuttle era, there was a belief put into practice that space activity could be modularized and large stations assembled in orbit. That belief has been tested now for 30 years. It is possible, but it seems that, unless there is no other way, assembling stuff on Earth, where one can breathe, is preferable. I am currently working on a book chapter dealing with ideal division of labor by environmental hostility, but the bottom line is that:

"There isn't a problem in space that can't be most effectively solved by building an even bigger rocket on Earth."

My generation of space nerds has spent decades working out how to design ambitious missions with small, bite-sized launches. Falcon Heavy is big enough that it significantly raises the bar for harebrained space activity design. And SpaceX is deep in development of the BFR, a rocket so mind-numbingly huge that it can launch perhaps six times as much as Falcon Heavy. Instead of spending a decade playing space lego in LEO, a rocket like this can launch an entire neighbourhood in fifteen minutes. 

The final point I want to make goes back to the cost efficiency and reusability of Falcon Heavy. Falcon Heavy is really just a special center core that is compatible with any two normal Falcon 9 boosters that happen to be lying around. Provided that SpaceX has perhaps half a dozen Falcon Heavy cores, plus steady upper stage production, it can perform essentially on-demand heavy lift launch. SpaceX has already successfully recovered 21 Falcon 9 boosters - more than half the total they've ever flown. 

We are on the cusp of a paradigm shift in launch. Today, launch is so expensive and missions so difficult and dangerous that program management necessarily has to function in an incredibly risk averse way. In the early 1960s, the US launched dozens of Ranger and Surveyor spacecraft at the moon in preparation for Apollo. What is the difference? In the 1960s there was an essentially unlimited supply of ICBMs that could be used to launch experimental, iterative, minimalist designs. 

Today, a single space robot carries the hopes, dreams, and careers of hundreds of engineers, scientists, and technicians. But there's essentially no reason why previously flown systems, such as the Curiosity Rover, can't be mass produced and one with custom instruments sent to Mars for every university on Earth. It is my fervent hope that Falcon Heavy symbolizes the return of launch supply abundance and post-scarcity robotic space exploration. One Falcon Heavy launch could easily fly six Curiosity-style rovers or literally thousands of solar powered drones to Mars. We're going to need to upgrade the Deep Space Network!

I would like to see NASA, ESA, JAXA, or any other funded agency sign a contract with SpaceX today that guarantees a Falcon Heavy launch to every planetary exploration target on every launch window - a steady campaign of about one launch per year per planet. With a steady pipeline of launches guaranteed, the race will be on to fill each one up with a variety of complimentary and innovative payloads. Let's do this!

Image: Wikipedia.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Rocket launches!

This post is the first in a series describing a number of recent projects that I've recently completed! This one is to do with rockets.

Some time in 2015 I was reading some space exploration history and came across this photo on Wikipedia.

It depicts the Redstone and Atlas rockets launched with humans on board as part of Project Mercury - the first six flights to space by US astronauts - at their moment of lift off. At this moment, the rocket is supported entirely by hot expanding gases at its base and is pushing hard to escape the Earth. Of course no crewed flight has ever completely escaped Earth's gravity (yet) but getting to orbit is just staggeringly difficult and amazing.

Here's another photo in a similar vein.

These are the launches in Project Gemini, ten crewed launches by Titan II to Low Earth Orbit to test technologies for the Moon landing. Each flight tested a variety of things, such as space walks, docking, control, orbital rendezvous, and the systems that made them possible. 

The following Apollo program used two types of rocket, the Saturn IB and Saturn V. The Saturn V was the most powerful rocket ever launched, and here's a photo of every flight.

The first two flights, and the last flight, didn't have people on board. But Apollo 8-17 took three humans each into space. Six of these flights (11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17) landed two people on the moon, a total of twelve humans who have ever walked on another rock. As of February 2018, seven of these have died of old age, leaving just five alive. Given the time it takes to develop space exploration programs, there's a good chance that even if China, Russia, the US, or any other country began development in earnest tomorrow, all twelve Apollo moon walkers would be gone before anyone else landed there. Food for thought.

After Skylab was launched on the last Saturn V flight, the three remaining vehicles were parked in various museums or fields and the US space program turned to the space shuttle. Over about 30 years, the five shuttles launched nearly 800 people into space on 134 separate successful launches. One more launch was not successful, and one re-entry was also not successful. The shuttle was retired in 2011, and since then no astronauts have launched to space from US soil. 

Hopefully this won't be a permanent state of affairs. Several entities, including NASA, Boeing, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic are developing human rated space vehicles which are due to fly in the next few years.

Still, I was captivated by the minuscule number of rocket launches that have *ever* launched people to space, so I decided to make a version of the images above that included every single launch. 

This process began with identifying every launch and a photo online and collating them in a gigantic spreadsheet. While I was at it I wanted to collect metadata - the who, when, where, why, and how, and combine this somehow. And since I was being ambitious, I have a separate spreadsheet for Soviet/Russian and Chinese launches of humans into space. In total, a meager 321 flights to date. Fact checking and proof reading all the metadata took FOREVER. But one really cool side effect was being able to make a world map with all the landing sites, colour-coded by program.

This is what the metadata formatting looks like in the final version. If you find any errors, be sure to let me know!

I quickly realized that photos at the moment of launch and the same perspective, while being in some cases difficult to find, are also very similar and thus monotonous. So I found a variety of photos of launch that captured some of the power and diversity of the experience. In 2011 I personally witnessed the last launch of the space shuttle in Florida, and it is really something else, even from 10 miles away.

After two years of neglect and then a few months of work, I'm pleased to report that the US launch poster is complete, and indeed hanging on the wall behind me! Moreover the metadata poster is also done. The full size images are available on my website, but this is what they look like!

And the version with all the metadata. 

As an important note, Challenger's final flight is not included in this list as it did not make it above 100km, the boundary of space, before catastrophe struck. By this criteria, other failed missions including Columbia's last flight, Soyuz 1, Soyuz 11 are included as they reached space before suffering fatal accidents during landing. Finally, Soyuz 18a, which suffered a staging fault but reached an apogee of 192km before (barely non fatally) crashing to Earth, would also be included. Early X-15 flights which went above 50 miles (80km) but not 100km, are excluded.

I would love to make a Russian version or even a combined version, but unfortunately publicly available photos of Russian launches are often of very poor quality, or even missing entirely. If anyone can find me a photo of Vostok 3, Vostok 5, Soyuz 12, Soyuz 18a, Soyuz 22, Soyuz 23, Soyuz 34, or Soyuz T-14, that would be amazing. Russia is still regularly flying people to space, so the poster would probably have to have a few blank spaces towards the end!

In the meantime, I literally cannot wait for a new US human space launch so I have to update and fix the poster. I'm glad to have finished it off and I hope you enjoy looking at it as much as I enjoyed making it.