Missing Destination, Missing Opportunity

It looks to be months from the time that SpaceX claimed to have solved the problem that caused the vehicle loss of September 1 until the actual return to flight. There are stories to the effect that the delays are to convince others that the vehicle is safe. One problem is that piles of paperwork and man years of investigation is less convincing than a flying vehicle. I don’t know if SpaceX has solved their problem or not and people far more informed than I am don’t know for sure either.

A convincing argument would be several vehicles flying with no other entity worried about insurance or loss of payload. Production of the Falcon IX is supposedly able to support a flight rate much higher than current practice would suggest. But flying empty vehicles for no revenue is an incredible waste.

An orbital depot would sure be a handy bit of hardware to have in place about now. While many of us have suggested at various times that a rocket under development would be ideal for delivering propellant, relatively few have suggested the same thing as a pure confidence builder after a mishap.

If an upper stage had been modified for use as a propellant depot totally owned by SpaceX, it could have launched after the 2015 vehicle loss as a confidence builder and alternate destination in times of over supply of vehicles. Over supply could be both from over production and reused stages. The modified stage depot would not have to be as sophisticated as the ULA ACES  as long as it was reasonably useful, and more importantly, in use.

It would seem that SpaceX could have launched a couple of tankers by now to build confidence after the September loss and followed it with revenue flights. Revenue flights sooner rather than later could possibly pay for the marginal cost of the confidence builder tankers. Payroll must be met either way, and little more red ink in one month to avoid several months of slightly less red ink per month could be a sound business decision.

I think most of us are already aware of the benefit of having 40-50 tons of propellant in LEO from the last three flights for use in a major mission to the GLAMs. (GEO, Luna, Asteroids, Mars)

 

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johnhare

johnhare

I do construction for a living and aerospace as an occasional hobby. I am an inventor and a bit of an entrepreneur. I've been self employed since the 1980s and working in concrete since the 1970s. When I grow up, I want to work with rockets and spacecraft. I did a stupid rocket trick a few decades back and decided not to try another hot fire without adult supervision. Haven't located much of that as we are all big kids when working with our passions.
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23 Responses to Missing Destination, Missing Opportunity

  1. ken anthony says:

    Bull’s eye! Hope Elon figures this out.

  2. Propellant manufacturing (LOX/LH2) water depots at LEO and at EML1 are the key to opening up the solar system, IMO. And private commercial launch vehicles should be the primary suppliers of water to such depots until water can be produced and exported from the surface of the Moon.

    For humans in space, water is essential for drinking, food preparation, hygiene, radiation shielding, growing edible plants, the manufacture of oxygen for air, and the manufacturing of oxygen and hydrogen for propellant.

  3. gbaikie says:

    “Propellant manufacturing (LOX/LH2) water depots at LEO and at EML1 are the key to opening up the solar system, IMO. And private commercial launch vehicles should be the primary suppliers of water to such depots until water can be produced and exported from the surface of the Moon.
    …”
    I agree, Musk should launch water payloads rather than LOX. And should put water payload in high orbits [such as EML-1].
    Other than potential of starting water mining in space and be related to rocket fuel market in space, in terms Musk dream of going to Mars, the water could be “down payment” for future crewed Mars missions. Because lots of water would be needed for crewed trip to Mars.
    Problem with LEO is that storing any payload is navigational issue with all traffic in LEO and High orbits such EML-1 can have low station keeping requirements- and one gets higher percentage of sunlight per year as compared to LEO.

    But if NASA had developed a LOX depot in LEO, then it would provide a profitable way of shipping low value payloads of LOX and could used as test payloads. With water payloads there isn’t that kind of situation- ship something and get paid for it, instead in terms of immedate value it’s more PR thing and possibly attracting customers who might want to use the water to make rocket fuel [or use water for other purposes].
    Metaphorically, a water payload is like a chunk of vacate land [in space] rather than a house [in space]. Or it’s a place to start something.

  4. johnhare Johnhare says:

    I tried to post an update but it didn’t work.
    This post was about business not exploration. Launch crews and manufacturing capability that is idle is dead money because payroll goes on regardless. It is a similar problem to the NASA standing army we have discussed for years. Payroll goes on and idle capabilities are expensive.

    It was also about preparing for next time. Another RUD will have some serious repercussions and building confidence will be key. A quick and dirty depot ready to go could shave months off of down time.

  5. Andrew Swallow says:

    All new launch vehicles go through similar problems so SpaceX is not the only firm that can benefit from using a depot as a test load. Couplings for fuel transfer will soon be ready for in-space testing.

  6. johnhare Johnhare says:

    I agree on new vehicles. My thoughts this time were more focused on a high production (relatively) production line and several reusable cores not generating revenue. I think it might be worse than new development due to the ongoing red ink.

  7. ken anthony says:

    The point I got was a business model that gets completely shut down due to events that are guaranteed to happen from time to time is very much below optimum. No amount of analysis equals the safety you learn from a higher flight rate and it better amortizes your costs (labor and fixed.)

  8. Paul451 says:

    It’s worth pointing out that a failure on the scale of the Amos-6 F9 also takes out your launch infrastructure. You still need the “grown-ups” to sign off on an RTF even if your only cargo is a bucket of water.

  9. DougSpace says:

    Does a LEO propellant depot make less sense in the light of GEO sats using very efficient electric propulsion to boost from LEO to GEO? Also, it would seem to me that FH will always be more cost-effective from a $/kg to LEO basis than even the lowest cost launcher presently (F9). So, would a propellant depot only make sense for missions that had the need for more chemical propellant than a single (or even two docked) FHs, and if so, what % of launches need that performance?

  10. Andrew Swallow says:

    An ion thruster space tug will still need refuelling, just a different propellant.

    The tug could pick up a new cargo at the same place it refuels.

  11. gbaikie says:

    “Does a LEO propellant depot make less sense in the light of GEO sats using very efficient electric propulsion to boost from LEO to GEO?”
    I don’t think electric propulsion is used to boost from LEO to GEO, or GTO to GEO. Though believe electrical propulsion is currently used for station keeping with some GEO satellites. And it would seem to make sense to me to use electrical propulsion for GTO to GEO.
    Or do mean to compared “theoretical” models of SEP vs chemical?

    “Also, it would seem to me that FH will always be more cost-effective from a $/kg to LEO basis than even the lowest cost launcher presently (F9). So, would a propellant depot only make sense for missions that had the need for more chemical propellant than a single (or even two docked) FHs, and if so, what % of launches need that performance?”

    I don’t think depots can started commercially. Nor do I think SEP for GEO satellites could have been used if not for governmental use of them. I also don’t think commercial lunar water mining is something to be expected without some kind of government or non-profit [or some billionaire wants it] exploration of the moon- which I think is more or less required before mining can be commercially done.

    I think NASA should develop a depot in LEO and get the depot up to operational activity. Once that is done, one might see commerical depots- which could provide chemical or other propellant for spacecraft going to GEO.
    So part of NASA developing a depot in LEO should related to commercial satellite market, but primary NASA purpose would be related to using depots for Lunar and Mars exploration programs.
    Or I think before NASA does major lunar exploration program to find commercial minable water on the Moon, it should develop a LOX depot at KSC 28 degree inclination at LEO. And NASA should use this depot for robotic and manned missions to the Moon, and after finishing the lunar exploration, it use LEO depot and other depots for Mars exploration.
    So I see using LEO depot by NASA in LEO as step of lowering cost of lunar and Mars exploration programs. I think most of lowered costs of such depot would related to Mars exploration. Or don’t expect a cost savings related to only lunar exploration. But developing an operational depot would be a step towards making lunar water “more minable”.

  12. johnhare john hare says:

    Paul —-you are right about the grown ups needing to be convinced. A RTF with the Amos 6 type failure would require multiple launch sites under control by different entities, one of which would need to be convinced to allow flights. My thoughts were for cases where the main stumbling block is vehicle problems in flight. With the pad failure case mitigated by a pad somewhere with near 100% in house ownership and risk.

    Doug—-Most of the GEO sats still use a GTO transfer with chemical rockets as far as I know. The more efficient electric propulsion for the much smaller circularization burn and station keeping. The cost per kg may be lower for the FH, but the cost per mission will almost certainly remain with the single core. And if the propellant is available in LEO for minimal cast due to circumstances, then the single core could launch heavy on payload and light on fuel compared to a vehicle that had to carry the fuel to do the entire burn to GTO.

    gbaikie—-You don’t think depots can be started commercially when this post lays out a possible scenario to do just that? This was not a post about what NASA should do, or a post about the most efficient theoretical use of depots, and especially not about mining water sometime in the future. This was a post about having a capability about expediting a RTF in event of another RUD and making lemonade out of lemons.

  13. Andrew Swallow says:

    Depots will have a development cost and a manufacturing cost. If the manufacturing cost is low then it can be used as a test payload. If the launch vehicle being tested blows up we just make a second depot.

  14. Hop David says:

    John Hare,

    Great article! The best way to learn and grow more competent are frequent flights and lots of them. And low value commodities like propellent are much better payloads for SpaceX to cut their teeth on.

    But I am wondering if SpaceX’s rival ULA holds too many patents on orbital propellent depots.

    One of the genius ULA innovations: use hydrogen boil off for station keeping. Ordinary station keeping would burn hydrazine or some other propellent and generate heat. Not good for deep cryogens. But hydrogen boil off actually cools the remaining propellent. It seems to me that since H2 has the lowest molecular mass, it is the best evaporative cooling imaginable.

    This plan would be more doable if SpaceX could get Kutter and Zegler on their team as well as acquire the ULA patents.

  15. gbaikie says:

    “gbaikie—-You don’t think depots can be started commercially when this post lays out a possible scenario to do just that? This was not a post about what NASA should do, or a post about the most efficient theoretical use of depots, and especially not about mining water sometime in the future. This was a post about having a capability about expediting a RTF in event of another RUD and making lemonade out of lemons.”

    I think the use of depots would required element to settle Mars, and Musk seems to think settling Mars could done commercially.
    I would say roughly speaking the landing the first stage of a rocket for later reuse is similar in magnitude to idea making usable depot in LEO.
    And there seems to me to be connection between having reusable first stages and the idea making a commercial depot- and rather launching a newly built rocket, one could instead launch a refurnished rocket to deliver depot payloads.
    Musk could make reusing first stage commercially viable and he could make depots commercially viable- and both would be directly connected to the goal of settling Mars.

  16. Since launching propellant to orbit right now is exactly as useful as launching a load of dirt to Venus, it begs the question: What’s the minimum set of technologies necessary to make a propellant depot a useful resource?

    Seems to me that the low-hanging fruit is probably satellite refueling services, but that comes with a suite of technologies that allow the satellites to actually get serviced. That actually sounds harder than the propellant depot tech, if for no other reason than you have to wait for new satellites with the right tech on them to replace the stuff that’s already there. Maybe figuring out how to grapple and do one-shot station-keeping burns would turn out to be a better short-term market.

    One other thing that ought to considered: I’d expect that the military would be revving up its freak-out over anti-satellite technology from Russia and China pretty soon. An obvious response to that will be milsats with a lot of (refuelable) relatively high-thrust delta-v, so they’re able to maneuver out of the way of kinetic killers. Seems like just ferrying hypergolics and/or hydrolox around for the military could be a pretty nice business all by itself. Of course, launching ten tonnes of MMH and NTO as a way to do safety qualifications doesn’t exactly sound like a good idea…

  17. gbaikie says:

    “Since launching propellant to orbit right now is exactly as useful as launching a load of dirt to Venus, it begs the question: What’s the minimum set of technologies necessary to make a propellant depot a useful resource?”

    launching propellant is similar to launching separate booster which then docks with another spacecraft and also similar to a current practice of using test payloads, using ballast: concrete, etc to test the performance of a rocket.
    ISS routinely has boosters launched which then dock and add delta-v to the station. Such as Japanese, European, and Russian {ATV or Russian Progress spacecraft} which after boosting station such boosters then undock and then de-orbit. Eg, wiki: “The ISS requires an average 7,000 kg of propellant each year for altitude maintenance, debris avoidance and attitude control. Based on current usage, it will need 105,000 kg through 2014.”
    The other way to boost ISS was using the Shuttle engines and also bringing rocket fuel which is used by the station’s propulsion engine. And there is talk of using Ion engines and using ISS solar panel for electrical power.
    But answer question, one needs system of safely docking a depot to supply craft and “user craft”. And a way of transferring the propellant. And I assume it’s done robotically rather than having a “manned depot”. And were the depot used for GEO destinations, LEO orbit should close to zero inclination.

  18. DougSpace says:

    Andrew > The tug could pick up a new cargo at the same place it refuels.

    A xenon propellant depot in LEO would require two dockings between three objects (payload, depot, & tug). If each payload were launched with a xenon tank then there would be that additional tank mass but then only a single docking between the payload/tank & tug. If each payload were launched with its own xenon tank and ion engine then there would be the extra mass of the tank and xenon engine but no need for any docking. It is not clear to me how those options would trade out.

  19. DougSpace says:

    Hare > Most of the GEO sats still use a GTO transfer with chemical rockets as far as I know.

    After searching, I can’t yet tell if Boeing’s all-electric satellites start from LEO or after chemical GTO. Can you (or anyone) find out? Circularizing from HTO would still require the perigee to expand slowly through the Van Allen radiation belts although not for as long as spiraling from LEO to GEO. So, if the latest all-electric satellites start from GTO, why? Is it radiation, the time value of money, ??

    > And if the propellant is available in LEO for minimal cost due to circumstances, then the single core could launch heavy on payload and light on fuel compared to a vehicle that had to carry the fuel to do the entire burn to GEO.

    If FH could deliver propellant to LEO at lower $/kg than other launchers then is the only circumstance meeting your criteria when propellant is cost-effectively sourced from asteroids or the Moon (not counting more exotic approaches like gun launch)? In other words, would LEO propellant depots not make sense until for anything less than FH-sized missions until the more challenging sources of propellant are developed?

  20. gbaikie says:

    “After searching, I can’t yet tell if Boeing’s all-electric satellites start from LEO or after chemical GTO. Can you (or anyone) find out? Circularizing from HTO would still require the perigee to expand slowly through the Van Allen radiation belts although not for as long as spiraling from LEO to GEO. So, if the latest all-electric satellites start from GTO, why? Is it radiation, the time value of money, ??”

    GEO is a zero inclination orbit- orbits at the equator.
    Changing the inclination of say 28 degree at LEO to zero inclination, requires a lot of delta-v.
    There two ways of getting a 28 degree inclination launch to GEO. Fly rocket to equator and then enter a zero inclination trajactory orbit, or second way change the inclination at higher orbit [where there is less orbital velocity to change]. A GTO orbit has less orbital velocity at it’s apogee, so to get to GEO, one changes the inclination of the orbit to GEO inclination when you reach the apogee of the GTO.
    One also go further from the Earth than GEO distance and change the inclination [to get to GEO- or wherever. When AsiaSat 3 was stranded in GTO, it increased orbital height and used the Moon gravity.
    Oh, apparently it was stranded in LEO, according to this account:
    “On Christmas Eve 1997, a Russian Proton K/Block-DM launched a satellite to GTO, or at least that was the plan; what really happened was that the Block DM failed during one of its burns, the satellite, AsiaSat 3, was stranded in LEO. Subsequently, the satellite was declared a total loss, and the insurers took title.”
    https://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=35272.0

    Anyhow even when change inclination at GTO distance it costs about 1.5 km/sec from 28 inclination and higher cost if from an higher inclination- like 51 inclination of Russia’s launch location. And if higher orbital distant from Earth cost less [or essentially nothing]. Btw this one more aspect of why I think one should stage for Mars from Earth’s high orbits [eg, EML-1. You can get payloads from all launch site on Earth, or you can get to a different orbital inclination at low costs- unlike LEO.

    other aspect related to Ion engine and GTO, is that at GTO, one spending more time at spot in the orbital path when further from earth. So the low thrust engine has more time to add the delta-v needed- so one burn at apogee might bring up perigee height by a much more significant amount. Roughly it’s minutes vs hours of time for the burn time- or say, 50 times more time or like having 50 times more engine thrust.

  21. Andrew Swallow says:

    DougSpace > It is not clear to me how those options would trade out.

    It is likely to trade out differently for different payloads. If they are sending the payload to a depot then the payload is likely to be too massive for direct GSO or LLO using the launch vehicle.

  22. ech says:

    NASA has studied depots in house from a safety and mission assurance point of view. Very positive results. They recommended a model of paying a fixed fee per pound delivered to the depot.

    I have suggested that if SLS was scrapped, MSFC could be put to work developing a depot, upper stages that refuel at the depot, and the vehicles needed for landing or cargo delivery for Moon/Mars/asteroid missions. Turn LEO launches over to ULA/SpaceX or whoever. There are technical issues with depots as handling cryofluids in microgravity is still not well understood. In addition, high performance cryocoolers to keep LOX and LH2 chilled are needed and have to work on orbit. (There were rumors that such a cryocooler might exist in the classified world.) This gives NASA jobs to do that are R&D related and have limited commercial application in the near term.

  23. spacerfirstclass says:

    “One problem is that piles of paperwork and man years of investigation is less convincing than a flying vehicle.”: I doubt SpaceX is delaying the launch because of paperworks, and I think investigation is as important as a flying vehicle. Remember F9FT flew 8 times before the accident, it goes to show just because you flew a few times successfully does not prove the vehicle is bug free.

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