SpaceX got it right when things went wrong
- June 1, 2012 1:03 PM |
- By Quirks
By Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks
It was back slaps and hugs all around this week as the Dragon space capsule, the first privately-built spacecraft to visit the International Space Station, returned safely to Earth. What's most impressive is how problems that arose during the mission were solved along the way.
The Dragon mission was a milestone in the history of spaceflight, as government hands over the role of flying in space to the private sector. It's a repeat of the birth of the airline industry after World War 2, where industries building bombers adapted the big four-engined planes to carry people and sold them to private air carriers.
SpaceX is the first of five private companies hoping to win contracts to deliver supplies and people to the Space Station. But before that happens, they had to prove that their system was capable and reliable.
Reliability will be shown with more flights, but on this mission, they certainly showed ample capability.
The launch of the Falcon rocket that carried Dragon into space was delayed several times, and when the countdown did reach zero, the engines were shut down after two seconds and the rocket went nowhere. At first glance, this would look like the system failed, but in fact, it was doing everything right.
Flight computers detected an over-pressure problem in one of the engines and the system was shut down to prevent an explosion after liftoff. Engineers fixed the problem and the launch took place successfully a few days later, similar to being delayed on an airliner because of a mechanical problem. Much better that they fix it on the ground.
Later, as Dragon approached the Space Station, the LIDAR, a laser range finder that measures the distance between the two spacecraft, was getting jumbled signals. So, they backed Dragon away and re-adjusted the instrument before making a successful docking.
This ability to fix problems on the fly is the hallmark of a well-thought-out system that is flexible enough to handle unexpected problems that can pop up along the way. It certainly builds confidence among those who will put their lives on the line inside these machines in the future.
When the space shuttles were introduced more than 30 years ago, they were hailed as the beginning of routine spaceflight. They never achieved that. Two of the five shuttles were destroyed in flight, in both cases because of poor decisions to allow the vehicles to fly with known flaws in the equipment - O-rings on Challenger that couldn't seal properly in cold temperatures, and foam falling off the fuel tank on Columbia.
The private sector can't afford those kinds of mistakes because they'd put companies out of business.
Four other private companies are developing spacecraft that will compete with SpaceX, which is good, because competition keeps costs down.
Also this week, Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space tourism company was given approval by the Federal Aviation Authority to begin powered rocket flights of its new Spaceship Two. Once the company proves that system is safe and reliable, tourists will be taking flights to the edge of space out of a private spaceport in New Mexico - possibly within the next couple of years.
Commercial spaceflight has begun. But private industry can only take us where we've been before, and where they can make money - to low-Earth orbit with tourists, or to the International Space Station with astronauts and cargo. If we want to really explore space and go to the next frontier, it will take the resources of governments. Now it's up to them to make the next giant leap beyond Earth.
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