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SpaceX Falcon 9 Blasts Off From California 97

Posted by samzenpus
from the to-the-stars dept.
An anonymous reader writes "SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket completed a successful first launch today, taking off from California and putting a Canadian science satellite in orbit. 'The beefed-up Falcon 9 that blasted off on its maiden flight from Southern California's Vandenberg Air Force Base, carrying a small Canadian government communication and research satellite, went through a seemingly picture-perfect countdown and performed on ascent as engineers hoped. The changes to the rocket are aimed at improving capacity and reliability, while simultaneously speeding up manufacturing. Historically, the initial launch of a new rocket has as much as a one-in-two chance of failure. Early this month, Elon Musk, the company's founder, chief executive and chief designer, seemingly tried to play down expectations by sending out a Twitter message emphasizing that the revamped rocket 'has a lot of new technology, so the probability of failure is significant.''"
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SpaceX Falcon 9 Blasts Off From California

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  • "so the probability of failure is significant"
    After all of these years of rocketry experience, one would think that much new technology would be added to decrease the probability of failure, yes?
    • by Anonymous Coward

      After all of these years of rocketry experience, one would think that much new technology would be added to decrease the probability of failure, yes?

      In all these years of rocketry experience, controlled entry and landing of the spent first stage has never been accomplished. I don't believe it's even been tried.

      • After all of these years of rocketry experience, one would think that much new technology would be added to decrease the probability of failure, yes?

        In all these years of rocketry experience, controlled entry and landing of the spent first stage has never been accomplished. I don't believe it's even been tried.

        As a general rule...
        New technology, new problems. Greater complexity, greater complex problems. All of that better technology also requires better talent which is also harder to find. Sure, they undoubtedly probably solved many of the old problems, but they've all been replaced them all with new ones because "problems" never go away. Just look at our modern world, do we have fewer problems than we did a century ago? hah...

    • by mosb1000 (710161) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Sunday September 29, 2013 @04:23PM (#44987321)

      I take it you are not an inventor.

    • by harperska (1376103) on Sunday September 29, 2013 @04:25PM (#44987333)

      The MO of SpaceX is to under promise and over deliver. But adding new technology on top of more new technology increases the probability of failure rather than decreasing it, until that technology has been tested and the bugs are ironed out. Today's launch was one of those tests. They were testing new technology that will let them relight the first stage after separation and bring it back for a controlled landing. That new technology adds additional complexity that had a nonzero chance of making the rest of the rocket fail due to untested redesigns.

      • by khallow (566160) on Sunday September 29, 2013 @07:37PM (#44988199)
        Eh, I say this as an enthusiastic supporter, but they've been quite short on their predicted launch frequency. That's a critical part of their business model.
        • Next year is going to be the year for SpaceX to put up or shut up. Their manifest is absolutely huge, and Elon Musk made some rather bold predictions at the after-launch press conference today. He made the bold claim that he will actually launch a used Falcon 9 1st stage by the end of next year. I'd like to see him try.... seriously!

          The video tour of the SpaceX plant in California (given just before the launch on the webcast) showed the plant being extremely busy and practically at capacity with a half dozen Dragon capsules already under construction, a whole row of completed Merline 1D engines, and a whole bunch of rockets all lined up at various stages of completion. Whatever problems SpaceX has with their rockets right now, it isn't a supply problem at the moment. All of that hardware certainly costs a whole bunch of money, so they've definitely dumped some serious cash on trying to meet that huge manifest.

          • by Megane (129182)
            Part of the problem is that (as far as I can tell) they've switched completely to the new v1.1 for mass production. (I guess the v1.0 just wasn't designed for mass production.) Today's launch is important because now this new version of the rocket has had a successful launch, and that opens up a lot of future launches. In particular, there is one launch of a communications satellite in the next couple of months that was contingent on having a successful launch first.
          • by Skythe (921438)
            In relation to your 'I'd like to see him try' comment - Elon Musk named the Dragon spacecraft after "puff the magic dragon".. because of all of his critics who said his projects couldn't succeed.. http://www.space.com/15799-spacex-dragon-capsule-fun-facts.html [space.com]
        • by tsotha (720379)
          Is that because they can't launch more often or because they can't find customers?
          • by khallow (566160)
            I'd say because they can't launch more often. They seem to have plenty of potential customers.
    • Rocketry is something that is sitting on such a fine line between success and failure that just a tiny mistake that would be ignored in most other human endeavors is likely to destroy the vehicle when trying to put something into orbit. For example, the first Falcon 1 rocket simply disintegrated because a simple three cent nut was made out of the wrong kind of metal and fell off at a most inappropriate moment. The salty air + moisture from sitting just a few hundred feet from the Pacific Ocean at the time didn't help either.

      Another problem is that to improve technology, you need to experiment and try new things. Far more often experiments tend to be failures rather than success as you try these new ideas... hence if you are using new technology, especially for the first time like SpaceX was doing today, the likelihood of failure would actually increase and not decrease. Only when it has been used many times and has been "proven" can you even remotely say that the likelihood of failure would drop.

      And no, in spite of nearly a century of rocketry and nearly a trillion dollars spent by everybody involved, we still are just beginning to understand the technology and what it can do. There still are some amazing ideas that have yet to be tried.

      • by turp182 (1020263)

        Insightful comments, thank you.

        Rocketry is actually the true "intelligent design", pitting human minds and ingenuity against the constrains of the physical world, including space.

        It's unfortunate that there isn't more payoff for commercial efforts, I wouldn't mind quite a bit more space effort. I'd love for near Earth orbit to be our backyard, with a "cruise ship" there. But pure economy and rocketry make it a difficult proposition. Imagine the ship from The Fifth Element...

        Tis a shame we treat our "comm

  • Wall Street Journal (Score:5, Informative)

    by Dan East (318230) on Sunday September 29, 2013 @04:21PM (#44987303) Homepage Journal

    Who the heck posted this here? An employee of the Wall Street Journal? Get this crap off here or at least provide links you don't have to pay to access. There's only a hundred or so other news sites carrying the same story. Ridiculous.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I had some virgin Perl code be part of this launch. It worked!

  • by photonic (584757) on Sunday September 29, 2013 @04:28PM (#44987345)
    I watched the webcast live. The qualification of the upgraded Falcon 9 seemed to have gone very well, with payloads deployed in nominal orbits. They were also supposed to do some first tests for recovering the first stage. The only thing that I could find [spaceflightnow.com] was that the second of two burns after separation sent it into a spin, after which it crash-landed in the ocean. Anyone has some more news about that?
  • by girlintraining (1395911) on Sunday September 29, 2013 @04:42PM (#44987417)

    Historically, the initial launch of a new rocket has as much as a one-in-two chance of failure.

    Historically, new rockets have been of an untested design, without much in the way of previously-tested designs to use as a reference. The SpaceX Falcon 9 is built largely around previously-tested designs, on top of solid engineering. One would suppose this would give it a better than 50/50 chance of success. In fact, the space shuttle program, viewed over its total life, had something like 93% success rate for its engines. Much of the SpaceX projects' development is based on the results of those tests, designs, and engineering expertise.

    It would be highly suspect of their rockets had a failure rate much higher than that -- one would expect a higher success rate due to incremental improvement, not worse.

    • by Teancum (67324) <robert_horning@n ... ro.net minus bsd> on Sunday September 29, 2013 @07:33PM (#44988181) Homepage Journal

      The Falcon 1 rocket had two successful launches out of five attempts. Still, in the case of this particular version of the Falcon 9, so much had been changed that it was essentially a whole new rocket.

      Typically most aerospace engineers try to do incremental changes rather than having so many like is being done here today. If anything, the historical trend is to use very old designs and just do very minor tweaks a little at a time. Examples including the Atlas rocket, which first flew in December 1957 and is still flying today (with admittedly a bunch of revisions over the years that make the current rocket bear almost no resemblance to the original rocket). The same could be said about the Soyuz spacecraft, which also has had numerous revisions over the years but rarely very many changes on any particular flight. Most of even the American rockets are using very old Russian engines (like the RD-180 [wikipedia.org]) instead of newer engine designs.

      It is far more unusual for a new clean-sheet design, especially a brand new engine design like SpaceX did with the Merlin engine. Most of the time when new designs like this are made, it is mostly an academic exercise and the rocket almost never actually flies. Frequently companies who come up with new designs simply go bankrupt before the hardware leaves the ground, assuming that any sort of hardware testing was ever done in the first place. In other words, for actual flying hardware, it is mostly very well tested and very old designs with at best very minor tweaks.

      This particular flight is especially unique not just because of the larger rocket, but most especially the new Merlin 1-D engine where this was the first time that particular engine design had ever been used. From a study done by the Aerospace Corporation around the year 2000, there were several critical areas where rockets would most likely fail, and the #1 cause was a failure with the engine design itself. As a matter of fact, even with this particular flight that was no exception as the Merlin 1-D engine on the 2nd stage apparently did fail. Luckily for SpaceX, if failed after all of the payloads had been deployed so it won't impact their bottom line.... but there was a spectacular test they were going to do (it was rumored they were going to try to fly the raw 2nd stage past the Moon with the remaining propellant). Instead, this stage is going to crash into the Earth eventually as just another piece of random space junk.

      There were also new avionics that had never been used before, a new faring design (also a common failure point for many rockets), and a brand new launch site that had never been done along with an orbital profile that this particular rocket had never been proven with doing either. The only other rocket that I'm aware of that did this many firsts all at once was the Saturn V, and that was done simply because the NASA officials involved didn't want to waste several launches proving new technologies and decided to do everything at once. The "space race" was also a major factor with the Saturn V as NASA was under some extreme time pressure to perform and get people to the Moon.

      • Typically most aerospace engineers try to do incremental changes rather than having so many like is being done here today.

        Perhaps as an integrated system. But each component here has been previously tested in other designs. The big problems so far seem to have been software and integration issues. There was a non-fatal flaw in excessive vibration which caused a premature engine shut down, but these are all pretty normal from a systems integration perspective. The project has seen far fewer setbacks overall than what historically should be happening if it was a true clean sheet design.

        (it was rumored they were going to try to fly the raw 2nd stage past the Moon with the remaining propellant). Instead, this stage is going to crash into the Earth eventually as just another piece of random space junk.

        One hopes that a company would be responsib

        • by MightyYar (622222)

          One hopes that a company would be responsible enough to dispose of its trash instead of shooting it at, or past, the moon, where it would likely be recaptured by the gravity well of another celestial...

          I'm genuinely curious... why would that be a problem? I would think that space junk around another celestial object would be better than space junk around the earth.

        • by Teancum (67324)

          Are you saying that this private company isn't under "extreme time pressure to perform"?

          Especially not a privately owned company. That usually implies somebody with a vision is running the company and furthermore is interested in actually making a profit rather than wasting huge piles of money for some minor political gain.

          In the case of the Saturn V and the Apollo program, there literally was a saying that was printed on huge banners that hung in the manufacturing plants, posted on walls in engineering offices, and in the minds of everybody involved: "Waste anything but time". Cost was def

        • by rasmusbr (2186518)

          Well, I would think the idea of flying the second stage past the Moon probably involved flying it back and crashing into the Pacific. Maybe another time.

      • Most of even the American rockets are using very old Russian engines (like the RD-180 [wikipedia.org]) instead of newer engine designs.

        Except that RD-180 is *not* an old engine. It's from the 1990s.

        • by Teancum (67324)

          Most of even the American rockets are using very old Russian engines (like the RD-180 [wikipedia.org]) instead of newer engine designs.

          Except that RD-180 is *not* an old engine. It's from the 1990s.

          Yeah, it isn't something from the 1960's. That still is a design that is over 20 years old, being designed at the same time most PC computers were running with 8088 chips as the primary CPU and the primary operating system was MS-DOS. Well, perhaps slightly better computers were around, but not much better.

    • The SpaceX Falcon 9 is built largely around previously-tested designs, on top of solid engineering. One would suppose this would give it a better than 50/50 chance of success.

      The only reason one would suppose that is pretty much a complete lack of knowledge about this type of engineering. Integration is the hard part, no matter how well known the components are and how well the paper engineering went.

      In fact, the space shuttle program, viewed over its total life, had something like 93% success ra

    • The SpaceX Falcon 9 is built largely around previously-tested designs,

      New engines in the first stage, in a new arrangement, in a new thrust frame, new avionics systems, new comms system, new engine in the second stage, new lengthened/narrowed tanks/housings for both stages, and a new payload shroud. And every part of that had to work just to get the payload into orbit. On top of that, they added extras for recovery and multiple engine restarts.

      Sure sounds like a test flight to me.

  • Production version (Score:5, Informative)

    by Animats (122034) on Sunday September 29, 2013 @04:48PM (#44987453) Homepage

    Space-X has four more Falcon 9 launches on their launch manifest for 2013, and ten scheduled for 2014. This is the first launch of the volume production version. Now they start cranking them out. With 9 engines per rocket, Space-X has to build over a hundred engines a year, which means they can set up an assembly line and get economies of scale.

    Next year is the first flight of the Falcon Heavy, with 27 engines. Biggest rocket since the Saturn V.

    Here's the Space-X price list. [spacex.com] Pricing is about half of other launchers.

    • by OzPeter (195038) on Sunday September 29, 2013 @05:19PM (#44987575)

      Here's the Space-X price list. [spacex.com] Pricing is about half of other launchers.

      Given that I don't have a few hundred million to drop on some satellite projects, I'm more interested in Space-X careers [spacex.com]
       
      And you have gotta love a company that advertises a position as:
       
        SOFTWARE DEVELOPER (BORG) [spacex.com]

      • by Rxke (644923)

        And you have gotta love a company that advertises a position as:

            SOFTWARE DEVELOPER (BORG)

        Beautiful how they put in an extra paragraph to encourage new graduates. At last a company that does not expect you to be 25 and have 30 year of experience in Office 2010 :rolleyes:

        • by Anonymous Coward

          30 year of experience in Office 2010

          I feel like I age 10 years every time I use it, does that count?

    • by Teancum (67324)

      SpaceX counts a "launch" on the manifest for when the hardware gets delivered to the launch pad, not for when they actually go up. It seems very likely there will only be one more launch of the Falcon 9 this year, but I might be mistaken.

      Still, I agree with you that SpaceX has gone into actual mass production with the Merlin engines with a permanent assembly line that continuously produces these engines... being made at the rate of about one every week or two at the moment and as you are pointing out rampi

      • by Lumpy (12016)

        Tesla is not mass production, Its a small scale specialty car. Call me when they roll 28,000 of them off the assembly line in a year.

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          They're at more than 30,000 a year already.

          http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2013/08/27/a-guide-to-determining-production-numbers-for-tesl.aspx

        • Ring Ring. Tesla is rolling cars off the line at that rate now though just barely as of this month. The model S (unlike the roadster) is produced on an assembly line fully qualifying for the term 'mass production'.

          • by Lumpy (12016)

            Well look at that. Be right back, I need to find some sauce to eat my hat.

    • Space-X has to build over a hundred engines a year, which means they can set up an assembly line and get economies of scale.

      Not really. Economies of scale don't kick in all that much when your annual production is that tiny.

      • Economies of scale kick in when you are able to keep your staff fully occupied and you tools continually in use. That will happen at different productive outputs depending on what you're building and how you are building it. You can't just say "Economies of scale don't kick in all that much when your annual production is that tiny." It's not that simple.

        • by ron_ivi (607351) <sdotno AT cheapcomplexdevices DOT com> on Monday September 30, 2013 @03:53AM (#44990055)
          For a rocket, economies of scale kick in after you have *a* successfull one.

          Suddenly your costs go from "damn, we need to figure out something new, build it, and test it" to "cool, let's do it again".

          And the latter is far cheaper.

        • That will happen at different productive outputs depending on what you're building and how you are building it.

          Since we're talking about rocket engines, well... you do the math (as they say). Or did you think I was talking about croquet sets? Moron.

          • by mosb1000 (710161)

            I take it from your response that you must be an expert in building rockets. So tell me, how many rockets do you need to build every year to achieve economies of scale?

  • Historically, the initial launch of a new rocket has as much as a one-in-two chance of failure.

    Just ask Germany, North Korea, Japan, India. . .

  • Video of the launch (Score:3, Informative)

    by Ivan Stepaniuk (1569563) on Sunday September 29, 2013 @04:59PM (#44987499)
  • by joh (27088) on Sunday September 29, 2013 @05:46PM (#44987693)

    Here's a much better link: SpaceX successfully launches debut Falcon 9 v1.1.

    Then, this F9 "v1.1" was much more of a version 2.0. It had its engines uprated from 95,000 lbf (sea level) to 140,000 lbf (sea level). They also are arranged in different way (from a 3x3 grid to a circle of 8 with one engine in the center) which meant a new thrust structure. It also has its fuel tanks stretched by 60% making it much heavier. This is as far as you can go from the 1.0 and still keep the name. Succeeding with this in the first try is good.

    There's no news though on them recovering the first stage. It was meant to brake and reenter intact and try for a "landing" on water. Or maybe they just want to tow it home first (but its hard to imagine Musk not bragging about it).

    • by Lumpy (12016)

      Why does it sound like that Space X is using Kerbal Space Program as a simulator and to test ideas?

      • by tp1024 (2409684)

        It sounds like that because KSP is based on what real rocket engineers actually do in the real world. [wikipedia.org] You can see this in just about any major rocket family. Although, admittedly, the changes are a bit larger than what people usually do. But that's a function of most companies not having the technological reserves to increase the thrust of their engines by 50%. (Actually, the Merlin 1D has 135% more thrust than the original Merlin 1A. But 50% more than Merlin 1C.)

        For comparison: getting 20% more thrust wit

    • Re:OK (Score:4, Informative)

      by Guspaz (556486) on Monday September 30, 2013 @01:11AM (#44989567)

      The basics of the first stage recovery were that it re-lit fine for re-entry, and re-lit for the deceleration burn, but developed a spin that exceeded the ability of the attitude control thrusters to counter, causing the fuel to be flung against the walls of the tank, starving the engine. It broke up on impact. SpaceX believes that the data gathered will be sufficient to solve the puzzle.

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