To freeze a moment in time: I just watched live TV coverage of the launch of two American astronauts from Cape Canaveral toward the International Space Station. It’s been almost a decade since I’ve seen that, and that’s just too long.
This launch had no “window.” It had to be on-time or not at all. The launch was scrubbed for weather several days earlier because they could not wait out the bad weather. The risk was a lightning strike on an ascending rocket and spacecraft, something simply not tolerable.
The actual launch and ascent looked nominal the whole way to orbit insertion where TV coverage ended. They even successfully landed the first-stage booster on a drone ship. SpaceX made this all look easy and routine, but, believe me, it is not. Not yet.
“In the midst of a global pandemic that has taken countless lives and shattered livelihoods, this historic launch serves as a reminder of American strength and grit,” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, chairman of the Subcommittee on Aviation and Space, said of the launch. “For the first time in nearly a decade, American astronauts are going into space, from American soil, on an American spacecraft, and for the first time ever, manning a commercially created rocket. This launch has been years in the making and couldn’t have been possible without the strong bipartisan commitment to America’s leadership in space and a flourishing commercial space sector.”
Now, as most of my neighbors and others in McLennan County know, SpaceX has been launching unmanned, robot-controlled cargo spacecraft to the space station for some years now. And last year they successfully sent the manned version of this spacecraft to the station except as an unmanned, robot-controlled demonstration.
This manned trip is the final demonstration. From here, SpaceX should be cleared to send crews to the space station regularly for NASA, shelving our past need to hitch rides aboard Russian spacecraft. And everything that flies is scrutinized at the McGregor test site, tested by people who are paid well to do it and who spend money to live here. Remember this when you hear that rocket-testing noise: Continuous thunder is the sound of success. It’s the single ear-splitting “kaboom” that spells trouble!
NASA funded two contractors to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. Both need to be in operation in order to make this as reliable as possible. The other contractor is Boeing.
Boeing still needs to demonstrate a successful unmanned, robot-controlled demo before it can launch the final crew demo. They tried this a few months ago, but things didn’t work out.
Uncovering failures to be fixed is the whole point of a testing program, so encountering a problem with an unsuccessful flight is not a bad thing. They will fix it and fly again. They need our support too.
Some of you may have heard about a SpaceX rocket blowing up in South Texas the day before SpaceX’s triumph at Cape Canaveral, an explosion that former Trib assistant opinion editor Sandra Sanchez, now reporting for The Border Report, helped capture on film. This was a highly experimental prototype for the new giant vehicle SpaceX seeks to build. This has nothing to do with the Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule that launched with a crew. It’s a new future thing.
This prototype of SpaceX’s “Starship” rocket blew up apparently due to a propellant leak after a successful engine test. It was supposed to do a gentle, low-altitude “hop” sometime in the next few days, but that won’t happen now because it was destroyed. Such is the nature of early experimental testing of new designs. Better to find such troubles early: You lose fewer lives and less money that way.
The giant rocket is to be a huge transport to orbit, first and foremost. Refilled with propellant from tankers, it can take large loads to the moon and Mars from there. This is the wave of the future, and it won’t happen without lots of experimental testing now. By its very nature, that means some spectacular failures such as what was witnessed in South Texas.
Why is such work important overall? First, the space program offers spin-offs that benefit the public. It always has. Your Pyrex glass cookware resulted from warhead reentry work in the 1950s. The desktop and laptop computers and related cellphone technology that nearly all of us depend upon came from the computer rocket guidance systems developed in the 1960s. The weather predictions we depend on came from weather models and weather satellites developed to support spaceflight in the 1970s. Such examples are endless.
Second, some day, if this gets inexpensive enough, and reliably safe enough, your kids may well travel in space or from point-to-point on Earth through near space. In the 1960s (but measured in today’s dollars), the cost of sending a pound of payload into orbit ranged from $10,000 to $100,000 per pound. Because of SpaceX and other satellite-launch business entities, this has been reduced to $1,500-$2,000/pound. Bigger, more reusable vehicles will reduce costs further.
If it ever gets down under $100/pound, that’s close to the price of a first-class airline ticket. At which point the old dream of vacationing in an orbital hotel begins to become feasible.
We’re not there yet, but the progress to date is astounding — and you can literally hear the progress on occasion.