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NASA, France Skeptical of SpaceX Reusable Rocket Project 333

Posted by Soulskill
from the we-can't-do-it-therefore-nobody-can-do-it dept.
MarkWhittington writes: "The drive by SpaceX to make the first stage of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle reusable has attracted the attention of both the media and the commercial space world. It recently tested a first stage which 'soft landed' successfully in the Atlantic Ocean. However both NASA and the French space agency CNES have cast doubt that this kind of reusability could ever be made practical, according to a Monday story in Aviation Week. SpaceX is basing its plan on the idea that its Merlin 1D engines could be reused 40 times. However, citing their own experience in trying to reuse engines, both NASA and the CNES have suggested that the technical challenges and the economics work against SpaceX being able to reuse all or part of their rockets. NASA found that it was not worth trying to reuse the space shuttle main engines after every flight without extensive refurbishment. The CNES studied reusing its Ariane 5 solid rocket boosters liquid fueled and reusable but soon scrapped the idea."
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NASA, France Skeptical of SpaceX Reusable Rocket Project

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  • Just because... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by torkus (1133985) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @07:17AM (#46938233)

    ...we can't do it, you clearly can't either.

    Sorry but big government's approach to things isn't what I usually measure up against. They spent how much on the space shuttle and so it would be reusable and instead after every flight the basically take it apart and rebuild every major and most minor subsystems?

    Let someone else give it a go before you just say it's impossible

    • by Anonymous Coward
      Commercial approach need to have a solution ready, or one quickly ready enough. That's the difference. When ESA/NASA says they tried and found it unpractical cost wise and security wise, after trying and wasting money at it, you better pay attention. Because those are the branch of government which have the MOST engineer after civil engineering, and are the least "big government".
      • by clarkkent09 (1104833) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @07:43AM (#46938431)

        the least "big government"
         
        I don't know but from all I read about NASA I get the impression that, as good as the engineers are at the one end, the bureaucracy and politics on the other end are just as bad as in the rest of the government. Space X doesn't have to build their components in 40 different states and in order to please 40 congressmen and get the funding etc.

        Also, don't underestimate the power of competition. NASA only had to meet some arbitrarily set deadline and in the worst case get chewed up in a congressional committee after the 10th delay or cost overrun. Space X has to beat its competitors on price and service or else it goes out of business.

        • by LWATCDR (28044)

          Actually SpaceX also has the "look at where all the parts are made" poster.
          Plus Space has facilities now in California, Texas, and Florida. Texas and Florida makes sense but California for the main factory does not. If most launches are going to be from Florida or eventually Texas then it would make more sense to have the factory in Florida or Texas. The factory is in California because of congressional support. Texas, Florida, and California are a whole lot of votes in congress.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by jae471 (1102461)
            There are a good number of launches in California. Pretty much anything going into a polar orbit is launched from Vandenberg AFB.
          • by romanval (556418)

            It's in California because California has huge historical ties to aerospace/defense-- and there's still a good amount of engineering talent that has never left the state.

            • by LWATCDR (28044)

              You do not need that talent at the factory. And Florida has a huge amount of aerospace firms, Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Pratt and Whitney, United Technologies. and Vought to name just a few off the top of my head. Add in the lower costs and taxes and it just does not make sense to put a rocket factory in California except for the votes in congress.

          • by Teancum (67324)

            The factory is in California because of congressional support.

            Hardly.

            The factory is in California, Los Angeles County in particular, because that is where the aerospace engineers are for the most part as well as the skilled technicians who know how to operate and work in an aircraft or rocket factory. The Space Shuttle was built there and the current SpaceX factory happens to also be the former factory for many of the components of earlier version of the Boeing 747. LA County is also where the design studios for a great many of the aerospace companies who do busine

    • by NReitzel (77941) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @07:22AM (#46938283) Homepage

      Does anyone remember the history of the space station?

      NASA spent billions (with a B) of dollars, and for a decade we had not one bolt flying in orbit. I used to call the project the Origami space station, made out of paper. It wasn't until the Russians went ahead and launched the first module that NASA got around to giving up on Powerpoint and Viewgraphs and meetings, and actually -did- something.

      I just love it when people proudly proclaim that something isn't possible.

      History shows that such pronouncements have a very poor track record.

      • by NotDrWho (3543773) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @07:51AM (#46938523)

        I just love it when people proudly proclaim that something isn't possible.

        Agreed. I remember back in the 50's when I was a kid and innovative thinkers were planning flying cars. A lot of luddite skeptics rose up and proclaimed that flying cars were impractical, too dangerous, too expensive, etc. But did the forward-thinkers let the skeptics hold them back? HELL NO!

        Never let old-school thinkers hold you back! No idea is crazy as long as you BELIEVE IN IT ENOUGH!

        • Terrafugia flying car not good enough for you?

        • by Sperbels (1008585)
          And? Flying cars are still impractical, dangerous, and expensive. This is dictated by the physical laws of the universe. Grounds cars can move from point a to point b with less fuel. Mechanical failures in ground cars are non-fatal events(usually). And ground cars are far cheaper and simpler to build and maintain. This is not going to change no matter how you design it.
      • by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater@gmFREEBSDail.com minus bsd> on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @10:21AM (#46940111) Homepage

        NASA spent billions (with a B) of dollars, and for a decade we had not one bolt flying in orbit.

        They spent billions because Congress kept delaying and rescoping the project. Then they had to start over again practically from scratch when the President and Congress insisted they had to include the Russians.
         

        I used to call the project the Origami space station, made out of paper.

        Announcing "I'm ignorant of reality" is hardly a convincing argument.
         

        It wasn't until the Russians went ahead and launched the first module that NASA got around to giving up on Powerpoint and Viewgraphs and meetings, and actually -did- something.

        That's like saying "my neighbor is stupid because he waited until his window was broken to replace it". By the time Zarya launched, NASA had already been "doing something" (I.E. bending metal and building hardware) for years.
         

        I just love it when people proudly proclaim that something isn't possible.

        I just love it when people misrepresent what was said. Nobody said making an engine re-useable on the scale SpaceX is planning is impossible, they said it would be challenging and there was reasonable doubt as to if it would be possible based on existing engineering knowledge. And quite frankly, if you're actually conversant with the engineering involved (or at least not extremely biased and and proudly ignorant), the argument isn't completely without merit. SpaceX is headed off into virtually completely unknown territory here.

    • Re:Just because... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by jellomizer (103300) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @07:25AM (#46938305)

      The biggest thing is Space-X is applying modern technology, not 50 year old technology, to their solutions.

      If you think back to the shuttle design... Most of the work was done on paper, with perhaps a few months on computer simulation.

      Space-X with its new design and all computer driven, means they can test fix test and retest in the computer before they build a working system. This allows them engineer to reliability, without a bunch of testing.

      • Re:Just because... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Drethon (1445051) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @07:36AM (#46938383)
        At least as far as their simulation is accurate. The real world still throws curves on any design but it is still a major jump start.
      • Re:Just because... (Score:5, Informative)

        by torkus (1133985) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @07:43AM (#46938427)

        Exactly.

        NASA built redundancy into everything because they didn't know better. Material science was far less developed. Computer simulations basically non-existent. They didn't design a 30% margin into parts, they guessed and fixed whatever part broken with a strong/better one and tried again. If some part was 5000% over-engineered it wouldn't break but would negatively impact the overall system complexity/weight.

        I'm pretty sure NASA (and plenty of others) also said Elon/Space-X was stupid for getting into building launch vehicles too. Yet here we are with their innovation not only a success, but bringing cheaper launches than anyone else. Clearly Space-X is not to be believed. /sarcasm

        • by morgauxo (974071)

          >>I'm pretty sure NASA (and plenty of others) also said Elon/Space-X was stupid...

          Actually, didn't NASA award SpaceX a bunch of money to help get started... That's what I remember anyway. Do they help fund stupid?

          • Re:Just because... (Score:5, Informative)

            by Teancum (67324) <robert_horning@n ... minus physicist> on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @09:13AM (#46939345) Homepage Journal

            >>I'm pretty sure NASA (and plenty of others) also said Elon/Space-X was stupid...

            Actually, didn't NASA award SpaceX a bunch of money to help get started... That's what I remember anyway. Do they help fund stupid?

            It was DARPA, not NASA, which gave some initial seed money to fly a few experimental payloads. Still, even that money was just a drop in the bucket for what was needed to get the rocket off the ground and certainly wasn't sufficient to pay for the development. All told, the development costs of getting the Falcon 9 ready were under a billion dollars, something a NASA study done a few years ago claimed couldn't be done for less than $10 billion.

            The DARPA money was just a few tens of millions of dollars. NASA has certainly paid for stuff like the ISS resupply missions (one is currently in space as I write this down), and they are also paying for a commercial crew program that also has money going to some other companies as well. Those were also highly competitive contracts that were literally open to any business or even group of investors who cared to put together an idea for a vehicle (including Jeff Bezos with his Blue Origin company who actually submitted a bid for that money too).

            Still, none of that would have been possible without substantial private capital including most of the private fortune of Elon Musk himself who has reportedly invested as much as $200 million of his own money into SpaceX.

          • Re:Just because... (Score:5, Informative)

            by jythie (914043) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @09:18AM (#46939411)
            The idea that NASA has been poo-pooing SpaceX is mostly a myth. NASA has been urging caution and realism, but NASA has been on SpaceX's side from the early days. However people really get into the narrative of hip young capitalists taking on the stogy old government and shoe horn an adversarial narrative in.
      • To some extent the biggest thing SpaceX is doing is tossing the demand for "flight qualified" out the window, and instead building the part they want and then flying it and qualifying it.

        The risk of course being, you might destroy from test rigs. But if you acknowledge that's what they are, then you learn things.

      • by jythie (914043)
        Which is why the final result will probably be somewhere in between. The reusability issues were not expected, engineers believed they would get a lot more out of the parts then they did, thus experience showed them that the operational reality was not as rosy as the calculations. SpaceX will probably encounter something similar, right now they, like others before them, are overestimating how reusable things will be. With any luck technology and materials have improved enough that they will do better th
      • by LWATCDR (28044)

        The Delta IV is all new and also computer designed. Same for the ESA launchers. Even the Atlas V is a new modern design.
        It will be interesting to see if SpaceX can pull it off.

    • by Andrio (2580551) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @07:33AM (#46938369)

      "Things are only impossible until they are not." -Picard

    • by aurizon (122550)

      Let us examine the stresses on the various parts and assess rebuilding.
      The main engine takes all the heat and thrust of the launch. How much metal fatigue occurs? The extreme vibration of launch bends the metal back and forth a small amount. How much metal/ceramic has been burned off various surfaces of the engine?.
      Electronics, probably can be used again. Sensors might need replacement. Tanks, piping and pumps all need to be tested for metal fatigue in the launch environment. We might find tanks etc are go

      • by Megane (129182)

        So, with the exception of SSME, how many of the engines that anyone has attempted to reuse, or even thought about reusing, have been recovered with soft landings? Even with a parachute, water landings tend to get seawater all over everything, and that stuff isn't exactly good for precision equipment. And of course parachute ground landings still hit the ground enough bend stuff inside.

        This is the kind of stuff that someone needs to try all the way to completion before we dismiss it as stupid.

        • by aurizon (122550)

          Yes, it takes a full test, in addition, the extra weight of building it to soft land reduces the performance of the system.

          • by Calinous (985536)

            The Falcon 9 can launch with 8 out of 9 engines working. For this, I assume they pack some extra fuel. Maybe they won't be able to soft land with one engine broken and the extra fuel consumption, but if all goes well, there's some extra fuel that has no more uses right now, so they could burn it for a soft landing.

            • by aurizon (122550)

              If one engine stops, the other engines will burn longer to reach orbit and they might have less fuel as they reach orbit since the change of one engine from creating thrust to deadweight will change the specific impulse of the system as a whole. With 2 failed engines, it might not reach orbit and might then decide to soft land while it has the fuel to do it.
              Each situation will differ and will have a point after which it can no longer make a soft landing and will have to go for crew emergency escape procedur

    • Re:Just because... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Registered Coward v2 (447531) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @07:40AM (#46938401)

      ...we can't do it, you clearly can't either.

      Sorry but big government's approach to things isn't what I usually measure up against. They spent how much on the space shuttle and so it would be reusable and instead after every flight the basically take it apart and rebuild every major and most minor subsystems?

      Let someone else give it a go before you just say it's impossible

      They're not saying it is impossible; they're saying they discovered the cost of doing it was much higher than expected. It may have been cheaper to simply build new ones and spread the manufacturing costs over many more engines than try to rebuild them. One challenge they faced was limited engine flight data to identify how to rebuild them cost effectively without compromising safety. Add in the impact of salt water and you have some serious engineering challenges that may not be cost effective to solve. It's great that Space X wants to reuse them but NASA/ESA are saying they need to look carefully at the economics of reusability vs. all new components. One luxury Space X doesn't have that NASA/ESA have is large budgets and the ability to tap into even more public funds if needed so a mistake could spell the end of Space X.

      • Re:Just because... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by putaro (235078) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @07:51AM (#46938519) Journal

        Salt water is a big problem - the SpaceX plan appears to be to land the booster back at the pad, though, not in the water. No one has ever gotten a booster to fly back after a launch before, so that's a pretty big score for them.

        It's easy to say "can't, too expensive, why are you wasting your money?" - the fun thing here is that SpaceX is wasting their own money, not the government's (the government is paying for the launches but not the experimental part). Maybe they'll be right, maybe they'll be wrong. However, they are trying and that's pretty exciting.

        • by jythie (914043)
          Actually, the air force had some interesting prototypes a few decades back for rockets that could launch, do work, and land themselves again. The basic idea has been proven, but they could not find a way to make it cost effective given something like 98% of a rocket's mass is fuel, thus the equipment and power to pull the trick off made it much worse at actually getting a payload up.
      • Re:Just because... (Score:5, Informative)

        by Teancum (67324) <robert_horning@n ... minus physicist> on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @08:02AM (#46938625) Homepage Journal

        Beyond stating the obvious, these quotes from the NASA engineers don't really seem to fly with me.

        I get that building rocket engines is a tough challenge, as can be clearly demonstrated by how few new rocket engine designs ever get completed.n All of the complaints about the RD-180 engine with its manufacturing being done in Russia center around the fact that trying to get even just a rough equivalent would require building a brand new engine from scratch. For large engines that can launch payloads of several metric tones into orbit, typically only one or two ever get designed each decade by anybody around the world. This past decade one of those engines was the Merlin engine designed by SpaceX.

        What makes the Merlin engine so interesting is precisely because it is bland. SpaceX hasn't been trying to push the envelope in a hardcore sense with exotic fuels or pushing the limits of specific impulse (the efficiency rating of a rocket engine). Instead they are using rather mundane fuels (Kerosene and Liquid Oxygen.... stuff used in rockets for decades) and instead are trying to simplify the design of the rocket every chance they get. Also unlike the SSME, the #1 consideration on building the Merlin has been saving money and not trying to improve performance.

        I'll also note that SpaceX does not intend to do sea recovery of these rockets, so doing any consideration of salt water besides general ocean spray into the launch environment (still a problem at KSC) is not really an issue. A problem facing the managers at KSC, or rather the Cape Canaveral Air Station, is trying to find a place for these stages to land. Both the Cape Canaveral Staff and the FAA-AST want to make sure that SpaceX doesn't land their rockets on top of other facilities (like taking out pad 39B), but that is a traffic control problem and not anything to do with the technical capability of getting the rockets to a recoverable location.

        As for the economics argument, a company driven by profits rather than a government agency who gets billions of dollars to extend failed programs is somebody who I expect to understand if something is going to be economically feasible or not. I'm sure SpaceX has done all of the number crunching a long time ago as they don't have the sugar daddies in the U.S. Senate to bail them out if it doesn't work.

        • by nojayuk (567177)

          There have been several new launcher motors developed over the past decade (Vega and Epsilon, for example) as well as new revamped versions of older designs like the Vulcain 2 used on the Ariane V. The Merlin series has improved immensely since the first crude version of a few years back with the latest, the 1D having significantly better Isp characteristics although it still lags behind the much older RD-180 design in both in fuel efficiency and in terms of thrust.

          As for not pushing the envelope SpaceX is

          • by Teancum (67324)

            The recoverable first-stage flight system SpaceX is proposing is meant to launch from a purpose-built launch facility in western Texas with the landing spot for the first stage somewhere to the east of there. This involves flying over populated areas during the first part of the flight profile and that is going to raise some eyebrows. It's Texas though where killing people in industrial accidents is regarded as a cost of doing business without pesky Federal government regulations getting in the way of making money.

            The testing facility is in McGregor, Texas, but the launch is intended to be out of KSC, Vandenberg AFB, or if they get the permits from a general purpose spaceport that SpaceX is building on their own dime in Brownsville, Texas.

            They are not intending nor would likely get any sort of permit to fly over populated areas of any kind, which is sort of the point of having a whole bunch of ocean (hence uninhabited surface area) under the launch profile. All of the testing in Texas has a flight ceiling of about

            • by nojayuk (567177)

              The problem is that if they launch over the sea and then try to recover a first stage back to land it is going to burn a lot of fuel reversing course before it falls out of the sky. That extra fuel will eat into payload-to-orbit, as will the landing leg system and all the other gubbins needed to soft-land it meaning that it can only be realistically used on small-payload launches which means less financial return on such flights. It would be a lot easier just to buy off some local Texas politicians and get

              • The SpaceX Raptor engine as specified in the Wikipedia article will produce about 60% of the thrust of the Soviet-era RD-170/171, the most powerful rocket engines ever flown with 1.8 million lbs of thrust

                Perhaps you should divide the RD-170 thrust by four to make the comparison more meaningful?

              • You don't think SpaceX has already done the math on return flight requirements? That was the whole point of the Falcon 9 1.1 redesign which has now successfully launched twice. It has an increased size in order to launch the same payload as 1.0 with enough fuel left over to fly the legged booster back to land. I don't know if the fully loaded Dragon spacecraft counts as a 'small payload', but the most recent Falcon 9 launch was an ISS resupply mission that included a successful 'landing' of the first stage

          • There have been several new launcher motors developed over the past decade (Vega and Epsilon, for example)

            I thought both of these were simple solid-fuel designs?

            As for not pushing the envelope SpaceX is starting development work on methane-LOX rockets which promise some benefits in terms of throw weight over RP-1/LOX but it's something other folks have investigated before without that fuel combo making an impact on the launch market.

            Actually, when I noticed that their "Mars rocket" (isn't this their ultimate goal?) was going to be methane-powered, my first thought was "they're going for the ideal Mars-sourced fuel!" If we find water at Mars in any significant quantity, methane (thanks to the CO2 atmosphere) - not hydrogen - is going to be the most practicable fuel. So trying to get experience with the CH4/O2 mixture seems like a no-brainer.

            • by nojayuk (567177)

              There have been several new launcher motors developed over the past decade (Vega and Epsilon, for example)

              I thought both of these were simple solid-fuel designs?

              Simple and cheap, both costing less to put a small payload into orbit than SpaceX charges and with lower overheads. The first Epsilon flew with only eight people controlling the launch and there was no launchpad fuel handling etc. needed. I don't know how much a Falcon-9-scale solid fuel launcher would cost to develop and produce though.

              Another mod

        • Re:Just because... (Score:5, Insightful)

          by FatLittleMonkey (1341387) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @09:44AM (#46939671)

          What makes the Merlin engine so interesting is precisely because it is bland. SpaceX hasn't been trying to push the envelope

          It surprises me how few people get this. Even people within NASA.

          Saturn V was Kero/LOx, and it had a crappy Isp. But it built upon the experience of the previous two decades of rocket (and missile) research.

          When NASA went to the shuttle, it threw away everything it had learned and started again. A LH/LOx engine (much harder), with the highest Isp of any engine to date (even harder), which was reusable (seriously?), on a 100 tonne space-plane (I mean, seriously!), launched side-mount on an entirely new configuration. There were no stepping stones, no way to learn your "craft", to understand the limits of materials and techniques. It was completely unrelated to either previous rocket programs or X-Plane research. Much of the proposed design was only theoretically possible, such as the heat-shield, but every single piece had to work right on the very first test launch, manned, in 1981. That is an Apollo level challenge and it's stunning that they were able to get anything that flew, let alone flew for over two decades. But it's not how you build practical systems. It's not how you build affordable systems.

      • by Talderas (1212466)

        It's not just refurbishment but also recovery. In this case, NASA might be more on the money than CNES because the shuttle was landed in an easily recoverable location and not in the ocean. Even so, there was a cost in transporting the shuttle back to Florida after it landed. A first stage, of a rocket might easily be transportable by truck which would be vastly cheaper than loading it onto a specially designed 747.

        SpaceX has also said that they wanted to have their first stage return and soft land near the

      • by Megane (129182)

        Add in the impact of salt water and you have some serious engineering challenges that may not be cost effective to solve.

        Which is why their goal is for the rocket to land itself on a launchpad. They're only dropping them in the water until they're sure the rockets can land themselves properly on ground without crashing and breaking shit in the landing zone. Meanwhile, if they do manage a water recovery, they can still get a lot of data from taking a used engine apart.

        I seriously hope you didn't think their plan was water recovery. Have you not noticed all those cool Grasshopper landing videos from SpaceX over the past year o

      • SpaceX is planning on doing a controlled pad landing (go watch the Grasshopper video)... no sea water will be involved. I'd imagine their contingency plan would be if there were any anomalies to ditch in the sea.

        Making a comparison between the Merlin engines and the SSME's is just silly. The Space Shuttle Main Engine was an amazing piece of engineering... but it was a complicated beast that had to be completely disassembled and thoroughly examined. It's "reusability" was only in the sense that the known
    • by NotDrWho (3543773) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @07:47AM (#46938473)

      Exactly, SpaceX thinks *outside the box*. This innovative thinking allows them to toss aside all learned wisdom and knowledge from those old dinosaurs at NASA.

      Innovative thinking, used to build synergy and form a new paradigm, THAT'S what it's all about. The physical reality will follow from that.

      • by jythie (914043)
        Or if it doesn't, I am sure it must have been the fault of lobbyists or other conspirators out to make sure they do not succeed.
      • Exactly, SpaceX thinks *outside the box*. This innovative thinking allows them to toss aside all learned wisdom and knowledge from those old dinosaurs at NASA. Innovative thinking, used to build synergy and form a new paradigm, THAT'S what it's all about. The physical reality will follow from that.

        Except this is the opposite of what SpaceX did. They took a tested but cancelled design from NASA for a simplified Kero/LOx engine (Fastrac) and built an engine based on it. They gradually upgraded it, learning as they went. If they hit a wall they hired engineers from NASA and the Primes who'd been involved in rocket development. They incrementally improved their technology, they proved their engines first on the test stand, then, and this is important, they proved them on a single-engine launcher. Which f

    • by morgauxo (974071)

      You have a point that just because one group couldn't do it doesn't prove that another can't either. Maybe they should try. On the other hand you seem to be completely discounting the wisdom of learning from other people's experience. Having already tried to do this maybe NASA knows something about it. Or should every other rocket maker from NASA to the end of time all repeat the same expensive mistakes just in case they can find a way.

    • by jythie (914043)
      On the other hand, people who have been doing things for decades tend to have a better idea of the problems one encounters then people who have never actually done something.
  • NASA, France Skeptical of SpaceX Reusable Rocket Project

    Yes, that's a lovely headline. But the original headline ("NASA, CNES Warn SpaceX of Challenges in Flying Reusable Falcon 9 Rocket") tells the same story with 42% less bullshit.

    NASA found that it was not worth trying to reuse the space shuttle main engines after every flight without extensive refurbishment.

    Really? So because the space shuttle couldn't do it, nobody could do it, perhaps by learning lessons from the shuttle program? If this is an example of the kind of thinking in the article, it's a fat waste of time. If it isn't an example, why mention it at all?

    I went ahead and skimmed the article, and indeed, the sole counterexample to the potential of reuse continues to be the space shuttle. The article is crap. Flush.

    • by Talderas (1212466)

      Well it is an economic problem. SpaceX has cheaper launches so it does have some headroom to increase prices to cover the increased costs of refurbishment. What we should be looking at is SpaceX's goal for the first stage. They don't want to water land but instead land land near the launch site. The shuttle landed a thousand miles or more from where it launched and it required a specially modified 747 to carry it back to Florida. That's a huge cost and may have made the extra costs of refurbishing engines n

      • by jythie (914043)
        While it is getting less attention, there is another element involved that your point touches on. Reusable rockets that return to the pad rather then fall over the ocean have been tried, the pattern NASA followed for the shuttle did not come out of thin air. Granted congressional corruption played a role, but the task of getting something to return like that is tricky and has its own problems. In the past it was either risky (one advantage of dropping things in the ocean, there are no houses there) or e
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by sir-gold (949031)

      The French excuse is even worse: "we tried converting Ariane 5 solid-fuel rockets to liquid-fuel, and it didn't work, therefore reusable rockets are impossible"

      That's like saying: "my horse can't pull my RV (mobile home), therefore RVs are impossible"

    • by jythie (914043)
      So.. the single existing example of this being successfully implemented on a large scale and the lessons they learned from it are somehow worthless?

      The shuttle was not the only attempt at reusable rocket stages, it is simply the only one that was implemented with even a little success on a production scale. Other attempts went much worse or were impractical to the point they were abandoned even harder.
    • by js3 (319268)

      NASA, France Skeptical of SpaceX Reusable Rocket Project

      Yes, that's a lovely headline. But the original headline ("NASA, CNES Warn SpaceX of Challenges in Flying Reusable Falcon 9 Rocket") tells the same story with 42% less bullshit.

      NASA found that it was not worth trying to reuse the space shuttle main engines after every flight without extensive refurbishment.

      Really? So because the space shuttle couldn't do it, nobody could do it, perhaps by learning lessons from the shuttle program? If this is an example of the kind of thinking in the article, it's a fat waste of time. If it isn't an example, why mention it at all?

      I went ahead and skimmed the article, and indeed, the sole counterexample to the potential of reuse continues to be the space shuttle. The article is crap. Flush.

      Ugh, why can't people comprehend mildly complex topics? You contradict yourself in your post so much that it hurts.

      NASA "warns", does not mean NASA "says it is impossible".

      NASA "warns" implies it IS possible but there are other challenges to overcome.

      Basic comprehension people.

  • And so what? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bruce_the_loon (856617) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @07:30AM (#46938347) Homepage

    Why not let SpaceX try and find out for themselves. They know their engines and have tested them for reuse long before they started building Grasshopper and the test protocols for Falcon 9.

    The Merlins are designed to stop and start, and have done it successfully on the launch pad with the launch aborts experienced during their test flights. And SpaceX probably has a set that they've run on a static test pad for a full flight profile, then dusted them off, checked the bearings and seals and ran them again. And again. And again.

    The SSMEs are excessively complex systems that have a much greater thrust than the Merlins. They need a full strip and rebuild because of their complexity.

    • by kyrsjo (2420192)

      Also, the consequences of a SSME failing (killing the human occupants) are a bit worse than for an unmanned rocket carrying a satelite, or even a manned traditional rocket where a launch escape system have a fair chance of pulling the capsule away from the malfunctioning carrier rocket.

  • Denying Reality (Score:5, Informative)

    by Teancum (67324) <robert_horning@n ... minus physicist> on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @07:30AM (#46938349) Homepage Journal

    No doubt that SpaceX has put a whole lot of effort into making this work, but it amazes me that people who are otherwise knowledgeable about this kind of stuff can't stand looking at actual results rather than assuming this is just random musings. One of the ways SpaceX knows how many potential launches they can get out of their engines is because they have put some of these Merlin-1 engines on their test stand in Texas and have fired them for full mission duration burns 40-50 times. SpaceX definitely doesn't make up these numbers out of their hind end but rather from experience and actually using this equipment.

    Again reality sort of bites these guys hard because SpaceX has been able to bring the 1st stage down to a soft landing. With the most recent launch, SpaceX was denied the opportunity to do more because both the FAA and the USAF folks at Cape Canaveral didn't really want that return stage going anywhere near the launch pad until SpaceX has proven they have control of the vehicle. Regardless, SpaceX has done the really hard part of actually getting the spacecraft to return in a recoverable condition.... something these "experts" in this article are denying is even possible in a theoretical sense.

    The 2nd stage recovery is going to be a whole lot harder, and it is something that even SpaceX themselves have said may not be successful. Still, I wouldn't categorically write off SpaceX either and it is just stupid to dismiss something like this as impossible without even making an attempt to see if it could be done.

    • > fired them for full mission duration burns 40-50 times

      That doesn't mean it works economically, which is what this article is saying. The SSME could do the same thing, but doing so was extremely questionable. More to the point, the SRB's were recovered and refurbed, but doing so was almost certainly more expensive than simply building new ones.

      Unlike NASA, SpaceX actually has to make money. So if we see them reusing their stages and engines, then they figured out how to make it work. As always, the proo

      • The SRB's were hard landed into salt water, were solid engines (where a good portion of the cost and complexity is laying the fuel correctly), and were designed 40 years ago.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by jittles (1613415)

      No doubt that SpaceX has put a whole lot of effort into making this work, but it amazes me that people who are otherwise knowledgeable about this kind of stuff can't stand looking at actual results rather than assuming this is just random musings. One of the ways SpaceX knows how many potential launches they can get out of their engines is because they have put some of these Merlin-1 engines on their test stand in Texas and have fired them for full mission duration burns 40-50 times. SpaceX definitely doesn't make up these numbers out of their hind end but rather from experience and actually using this equipment.

      Again reality sort of bites these guys hard because SpaceX has been able to bring the 1st stage down to a soft landing. With the most recent launch, SpaceX was denied the opportunity to do more because both the FAA and the USAF folks at Cape Canaveral didn't really want that return stage going anywhere near the launch pad until SpaceX has proven they have control of the vehicle. Regardless, SpaceX has done the really hard part of actually getting the spacecraft to return in a recoverable condition.... something these "experts" in this article are denying is even possible in a theoretical sense.

      The 2nd stage recovery is going to be a whole lot harder, and it is something that even SpaceX themselves have said may not be successful. Still, I wouldn't categorically write off SpaceX either and it is just stupid to dismiss something like this as impossible without even making an attempt to see if it could be done.

      Okay but where do they land these engines after they've launched them? Over land? Or over the occean? Because salt water will wreak havoc on the internal plumbing of an engine. So unless they take the risk of dropping the engine module onto someone's house, they are going to need to land in the ocean and refurbish the engine just to use it again. I really don't blame the FAA or USAF for preventing them from returning the engine core to the Cape. Elon Musk probably doesn't have the bucks to repair the fa

      • by Teancum (67324)

        The current plan is to have these go to land. If you want to see the full flight profile of what SpaceX is aiming for, I'd suggest watching this (now two year old) video:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_1WJ7UUm8I [youtube.com]

        They are not going to be landing in the water except as a part of the testing process while they get the FAA-AST comfortable with the landing process. Yes, they are taking very seriously the potential of this to ruin somebody's breakfast by taking out their garage, so I also understand why they a

      • Re:Denying Reality (Score:4, Interesting)

        by camperdave (969942) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @11:22AM (#46940775) Journal
        I believe the return profile is to aim at the ocean and use the engines to slow down and laterally transition over land. Thus, if there are any failures, the rocket ends up in the drink and not in somebodies basement via the roof.
    • by Megane (129182)

      With the most recent launch, SpaceX was denied the opportunity to do more because both the FAA and the USAF folks at Cape Canaveral didn't really want that return stage going anywhere near the launch pad until SpaceX has proven they have control of the vehicle.

      I don't think even SpaceX wanted it coming back anywhere near ground. The chance of breaking shit is just too high. I know I wouldn't feel confident about it until at least four or five successful low altitude hovers.

      • by Teancum (67324)

        I was merely trying to imply that those who are critical SpaceX isn't already putting these on land is precisely because it is still in testing. That still shouldn't be a reason to dismiss the soft landing attempt they have already done though.

        It is a huge difference to be merely suggesting that you can recover spacecraft compared to actually launching a spacecraft and needing only a barge to fish the thing out of the water.

    • No doubt that SpaceX has put a whole lot of effort into making this work, but it amazes me that people who are otherwise knowledgeable about this kind of stuff can't stand looking at actual results rather than assuming this is just random musings.

      So, where are the actual results they can't stand looking at? How many engines has SpaceX reflown even once let alone forty plus times?

      What the people actually knowledgeable know that you don't is that NASA was building engines that could be fired multiple

      • by Teancum (67324)

        No doubt that SpaceX has put a whole lot of effort into making this work, but it amazes me that people who are otherwise knowledgeable about this kind of stuff can't stand looking at actual results rather than assuming this is just random musings.

        So, where are the actual results they can't stand looking at? How many engines has SpaceX reflown even once let alone forty plus times?

        How about just as starters the Grasshopper engine as well as the current Falcon 9R test vehicle?

        This is bent metal territory that SpaceX is in, not just some paper study that I was talking about. SpaceX also was successful last week with a soft landing that could have been recovered had the weather been more cooperative and the landing zone not out in the middle of the ocean... done because it is admittedly in a testing phase where both SpaceX and the FAA-AST aren't comfortable with them getting much clos

  • by Cassini2 (956052) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @07:38AM (#46938393)

    In the case of NASA, people were on-board for every shuttle launch, and each launch cost billions. The satellite payload could cost over $400 million each. If a $15,000 dollar component has a 1 in 10,000 chance of scuttling a launch, it was easy to justify fixing it. The space shuttle had many subsystems, and each and every subsystem was built from from many small individual components. Thus, NASA rebuilt, checked or replaced everything on the entire shuttle on every launch.

    I don't think SpaceX is going after the same market. For human rated launches, ISS resupply missions, or expensive satellites, they can sell brand new rockets. For inexpensive payloads, it could pay to roll the dice. SpaceX rockets are designed to be much less expensive than the competitions.

  • If SpaceX wants to develop a reusable rocket that's their business. If they expect NASA or other countries to pay for it they will have to play by another set of rules.
    • by Megane (129182)
      So then I guess it's good that they have been paying for it by themselves? Even the rockets themselves are just scrap metal once stage separation happens, so they're doing experiments on junk.
  • by NEDHead (1651195) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @07:55AM (#46938553)

    That the first jet engines were unreliable, and required extensive maintenance after each test. Progress happens. With effort.

    • You bet. Just reading the Me262 Wikipedia page should be fun. But the thing is the Germans had issues getting strategic materials and material technology was improved later on.

  • by Andover Chick (1859494) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @07:58AM (#46938581)
    Between NASA/CNES being correct and Elon Musk being correct, I'll side with Elon. He's already created the first practical electric car which besides having 200+ mile range is freaking awesome and sporty. Behemoth GM failed to do the same over the course of decades. So proving NASA/CNES wrong, the smart money is on Elon.
    • by jittles (1613415) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @08:38AM (#46938977)

      Between NASA/CNES being correct and Elon Musk being correct, I'll side with Elon. He's already created the first practical electric car which besides having 200+ mile range is freaking awesome and sporty. Behemoth GM failed to do the same over the course of decades. So proving NASA/CNES wrong, the smart money is on Elon.

      You're right. There were no geniuses working at NASA or CNES. They were doomed for failure. Elon will save the day.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The cost of the certification and test paperwork alone drives the cost so high that the reuse of the mere metal in the engine is a small part of the cost.

    NASA centers (e.g. JSC) have a congressionally mandated workforce, so there's not much incentive to "do more with fewer people", so there tends to be an ever increasing set of documentation requirements in the face of fewer actual missions/flights. Each time something bad happens, the usual answer is "we need better (or failing that, more) documentation" t

  • SpaceX -whoopie! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by grep_rocks (1182831) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @08:33AM (#46938915)
    I know this will not be well recieved - but I do not understand the enthusiasm, or what is remarkable about SpaceX - the government never has built rockets, it always subcontracts them out to (usually to Boeing or Lockeed) maybe integration is done by the government but usually that is subcontracted out too - so the "innovation" in SpaceX is basically just a change in the way goverment contracts are run, removing the rider that lets the contractor get paid more if the budget goes over (note SpaceX recieved 250M+ in "seed money" from the gov't - sounds alot like the old way of doing things to me) - I guess this is what the we call innovation these days - as for the critique by NASA and the ESA, it is more credible that both agencies say it could be an issue, they both have experts and have tried re-use before - so SpaceX should listen to what they have to say - but listening to experts is out of fashon these days too - anyway call me us when someone develops a new type of rocket motor or spacecraft system concept, not a new way to write government contracts, or just the government having another contractor to shop with.
    • by sjbe (173966) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @11:52AM (#46941151)

      I know this will not be well recieved - but I do not understand the enthusiasm, or what is remarkable about SpaceX - the government never has built rockets

      Several things are interesting about SpaceX.

      First is that rockets are cool and SpaceX builds them.

      Second is that SpaceX is doing things at a much lower cost than historical NASA contracts. NASA does not tend to contract with price as the primary objective. In fact SpaceX appears to be undercutting prices for commercial comsat launches which have nothing to do with NASA or the US government at all aside from permits. Lower costs means improved access to space which means more exploration and more useful technology both in space and in spinoff products.

      Third is that SpaceX privately funded the development of their key technology. It's first launch vehicle (Falcon 1) and three rocket engines were developed without any government money. NASA has funded development of the Falcon 9 but that is really largely a modification of the technology SpaceX already had developed. This is NOT trivial. Contractors historically have built the rocket for NASA but NASA actually owned it. This may not sound like much on the surface but the implications are huge because it means that NASA no longer has to be in the space freight business. The government has successfully gotten the technology going and now is transferring important pieces of it to the private sector. SpaceX is unlikely to be the last company to get into the space cargo business but they've proved it is now possible.

      I guess this is what the we call innovation these days

      Technology that reduces costs and improves access to space definitely qualifies as innovation. Don't underestimate the importance of cost reduction. The computer you are reading this on is only possible because of innovations that led to reduced costs. That requires new technology, new operations and new designs. The purpose of NASA is not to drive down costs. NASA is fundamentally a research organization which we have been using as a sort of transport company. Thanks to the efforts of SpaceX and others the transport company part of their mission appears to be ending and NASA can and should concentrate on boundary pushing research activities.

  • It all depends on the application. So re-using the rocket on earth is not cost effective, because it's cheaper to just use a new one. Ok, I can go along with that. But what about the moon? Mars? Where are you going to get a new rocket on mars? Being able to land and return to orbit from mars would be pretty handy.

  • Wait, these are the folks who thought commercial space flight was infeasible.

    I'd wager that 50 years ago this was true. But we have made immense leaps in materials manufacturing. I wouldn't be surprised if we could develop nanite structured spray coatings that we could just re-spray on with each use. There are more ideas out there than NASA has considered.

    Like using an off-the shelf tape measure as an extending satellite antenna.

  • by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater@gmFREEBSDail.com minus bsd> on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @09:20AM (#46939427) Homepage

    NASA found that it was not worth trying to reuse the space shuttle main engines after every flight without extensive refurbishment.

    *sigh* This myth again. Folks, this claim is a complete and utter fabrication. (And if you read TFA, it's not actually attributed to NASA.) By the mid-90's, while NASA was still removing the engines after each flight, this was solely for inspection - they no longer disassembled or refurbished them between every flight. By the late 90's/early 00's, they'd stopped routinely removing them after every flight, instead inspecting them with fiber optics and only removing them after every three-to-five flights or if inspection showed them to require removal. As is the case with so much science and technology journalism, the author is... not entirely aware of the facts or in possession of a clue. (Sadly, 90%+ of the Slashdot readers replying to this doesn't know these facts, and will attack the article anyhow because it disagrees with their biases.)
     
    That being said, I tend to agree somewhat with NASA on this one. SpaceX has reduced launch costs mostly by applying known engineering and production techniques that had not previously been applied to launch vehicles. (And with the limited number of launches to date, it's far too early to be reasonably analyze if they've truly been successful.) But when you're talking about flying an engine 40+ times... there aren't really any such previously known but unused techniques. They're headed off into largely unexplored regions of engineering and technology.
     
    Slashdot really needs to stop taking Musk's pronouncements as gospel at face value and look at the engineering and the facts.

  • I thought the idea was that SpaceX would initially use the rockets with NASA, and then for commercial satellite launches re-use them. Once a few satellites have gone up on re-used launchers then more customers would be happy going up on a multi-use launcher rather than on the initial use.

"It's when they say 2 + 2 = 5 that I begin to argue." -- Eric Pepke

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