Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Controlling the Narrative

The 24-hour news cycle is easy to manipulate.

Boeing launched its "Starliner" capsule (not to be confused with SpaceX's "Starship" - right?) to the ISS after many delays.  A conspiracy theorist might argue that these delays were awfully convenient for Boeing, as it drowned out SpaceX's latest Starship launch. Starliner was in the news, while Starship was not. But we don't truck in conspiracy theories here.

The Starliner is a capsule mounted on an existing launch vehicle, designed to take astronauts to low earth orbit, a feat SpaceX has already accomplished with its Dragon Crew module.  The Starship is a giant rocket with over dozen engines and a built-in crew compartment - sort of how science fiction authors envisioned "space rockets" back in the 1930's and 1940's.  Flash Gordon, your rocket has arrived!

What SpaceX is up to with the Starship is anyone's guess.  One theory is that they are just setting fire to a pile of government money as fast as they can - and pocketing the difference as profit.  It is weird, but NASA gave them a contract for a lunar lander and they are delivering a rocket that, theoretically, can go to Mars and back and then land on Earth - and be re-used!  The Starship is larger than the rocket that will take the astronauts to lunar orbit.  It makes no friggin' sense. It is like you contracted for a rowboat and they show you plans for the QEII.

Why bother taking off on one spacecraft and then transferring to a second one to land on the moon, when the second craft could have taken you directly there in the first place?

SpaceX seems to have a different philosophy than NASA.  During the "space race" NASA carefully tested each component of the Apollo program (particularly after the Apollo 1 fire) over and over again.  It was a careful, incremental approach that still does not guarantee failures will not occur.  How components test individually in the lab is not the same as an "all up" test in real life.

So SpaceX is blowing up Starship after Starship - on purpose - and using each mission to learn how to make the system better.  It is one approach, although the "all up" testing technique is blamed for at least one of the Shuttle disasters.  Supposedly, SpaceX will blow up two more Starships this summer - with more to come.  Eventually, I guess, the hope is to get one into orbit and then back to a landing pad before they put humans aboard.  You go first.

What troubles me about SpaceX (at least the Starship division) is the cult-like behavior.  I watched the video of the launch and they had a room full of SpaceX groupies and employees (I guess) cheering loudly at certain stages (apparently on cue) as though it were a rock concert or football game.  This isn't how you do science.  I mean, I get it, they cheered when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, but that was about it.  SpaceX groupies go beserk when the second stage adapter is successfully jettisoned.  Big deal.

While it is quite an accomplishment to launch such a large rocket, it still is puzzling as to why such a large rocket is needed as a lunar lander.   The Soviets, oddly enough, used a similar approach in their aborted space program.  Unable to master the art of really huge rocket engines (as in the Saturn V) they came up with a design that used 30 smaller engines firing simultaneously.  As you might imagine, it is hard to get so many engines to work all at once, and oftentimes, weird effects that are not anticipated in testing one engine may appear when you group a dozen together (e.g., harmonics).

The program never took off (sorry, pun) but they built dozens and dozens of those engines.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, the unused engines were snapped up by the West and used for satellite launches, until the supply was exhausted.

It seems like SpaceX is following a similar design philosophy. By using the same engine design for multiple purposes, the cost-per-engine may be far less.  And if they are reusable, so much the better.

While it is an interesting line of development, I am puzzled and a bit alarmed by the cult-like behavior of the employees - cheering on cue like a bunch of Scientologists.  We'll see if this technique yields a usable rocket or not.  In the meantime, NASA has awarded a contract to Blue Origin for a second lunar lander, apparently hedging their bets.  Blue Origin seems to be taking a more traditional approach similar to the Apollo program.

I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, less cheering, please.  This isn't Swift concert!