Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Space NASA

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."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

NASA, France Skeptical of SpaceX Reusable Rocket Project

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

    by torkus (1133985) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @08:17AM (#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 on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @08:21AM (#46938267)
    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 NReitzel (77941) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @08:22AM (#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.

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

    by jellomizer (103300) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @08:25AM (#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.

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

    by bruce_the_loon (856617) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @08:30AM (#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.

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

    by Drethon (1445051) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @08:36AM (#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.
  • by Teancum (67324) <robert_horning@n e t z ero.net> on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @08:37AM (#46938387) Homepage Journal

    The Challenger exploded because the spacecraft was flying outside of its design parameters. The engineers themselves asked for, I dare say even begged NASA to not fly that day, but NASA was under a huge amount of political pressure to get the vehicle into orbit or risk an embarrassing trip to congressional meetings to explain why this supposedly reusable spacecraft (meaning the Space Shuttle) wasn't really reusable and couldn't fly in conditions that were not a problem with the Saturn V.

    No doubt that the Space Shuttle was an incredibly complicated machine that could break with a series of bad events, but there is far more to the destruction of the Challenger (or the loss of the Columbia a few years later) than simply hand waving and saying "it is so complicated that it was simply going to have problems."

    Besides, the Space Shuttle is a really horrible demonstration vehicle for reusable spacecraft. So many design compromises were done with that spacecraft it is a wonder it flew at all in the first place. It certainly was never going to live up to the hype that surrounded the spacecraft in the late 1970's and early 1980's.

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

    by Registered Coward v2 (447531) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @08:40AM (#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.

  • by clarkkent09 (1104833) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @08:43AM (#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.

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

    by putaro (235078) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @08:51AM (#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 NotDrWho (3543773) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @08:51AM (#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!

  • by sir-gold (949031) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @09:21AM (#46938783)

    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 Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @09:24AM (#46938805)

    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" to prevent corner case Z from occurring (since we already have paper work to document that processes to prevent corner cases A, B, C, D, E, etc). Then you need paperwork to make sure that all the paperwork is in order, and then you need some reviews to make sure the paperwork documenting the other paperwork is correct, confirming the results of the original reviews of the original paperwork.

    This is also coming from the same "old national space" that relied on checking the paperwork to make sure the mounting bolts for NOAA N-prime were installed before tipping the fixture. oops..

  • Re:Denying Reality (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jittles (1613415) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @09:33AM (#46938911)

    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 facility if he drops that engine through the roof of the wrong building. I will be really surprised if they get FAA approval to do this anywhere but perhaps New Mexico's deserts.

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

    by grep_rocks (1182831) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @09:33AM (#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 queazocotal (915608) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @09:43AM (#46939033)

    Then there is the interesting question of why having a career as an astronaut should be safer than having a career as a deep-sea fisherman, or a lumberjack.
    If I have the numbers correct - from http://www.bls.gov/iif/oshnoti... [bls.gov] - fishery workers have around 100 deaths per 100000 per year - or 1 death per 1000 years worked.
    If an astronaut flys once a year, then the rocket only needs to get to 99.9% safety - not 99.9999.

    Six nines would make it considerably safer than a career in a library. (0.3 deaths per 100K)

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

    by FatLittleMonkey (1341387) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @10:44AM (#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 DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @11:21AM (#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.

  • by phayes (202222) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @12:49PM (#46941097) Homepage

    The traditional launcher companies (Boeing Lockmart ATK etc) have all considered the Nasa budget to be a captive market with Nasa having no choice but to use one of them. Their MO was to raise prices as high as possible to maximize profits & then subcontract most of the fabrication out so that it could be farmed out widely in order to play the pork game.

    SpaceX doesn't play by the same rules. They are very heavily vertically integrated & prefer fabricating in-house to farming it out. Yes there will be less support from the porcine section of Congress, but SpaceX is now pretty much the only short term game in town, they are cheaper than the traditional launchers and if recovery keeps going as well as it has so far, will be much cheaper within 2-3 years. Nasa is much more than just a govt subsidy for launchers and congress isn't going to defund Nasa.

    SpaceX would be hurt by a nasa slowdown but they are on the cusp of being able to go on even without them.

  • by sjbe (173966) on Wednesday May 07, 2014 @12:52PM (#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.

If all the world's economists were laid end to end, we wouldn't reach a conclusion. -- William Baumol

Working...