ULA Stage Recovery

George had a thought in comments on the last post that could easily be relevant. If SpaceX starts reusing the Falcon9 cores, which are the cheapest cores in current production, then how much more financial sense would it make to reuse the SLS cores? The success of SpaceX could put pressure on NASA via the taxpayer to save the hundreds of millions of dollars per launch of the SLS system.

NASA may be the wrong target. ULA has quite expensive Atlas and Delta cores that they should have a financial interest in recovering. The Atlas could use some fairly small kerosene/LOX engines from in-house or any number of suppliers, including XCOR and Masten. Any number of small firms now have in-house expertise on vertical landing systems. Adding a small number of pressure fed engines for the landing sequence would add weight and complexity, with these engines optimized for sea level operation could also be used to increase allowable GLOW.

After main engine cutoff of the booster, residual propellant could be pumped into one of the empty helium spheres. There will be time in between main engine cutoff to compress helium from the main tanks into the new repurposed landing tanks. It seems possible that a minimal amount of hardware would but need to be added to the stage.

The Delta system could use the RL 10 and Delta Clipper software so as to use the same hydrogen propellant as the RS 68. This could use known systems to recover quite expensive hardware.

Posted in Uncategorized | 19 Comments

Pressure On SpaceX

Sometimes seemingly unconnected events can have an effect out of proportion to what seems rational. In this case SpaceX, having no connection to Orbital or Virgin Galactic, will have its next flight partially judged on the misfortune that fell on the other two companies. While there is no rational connection, in much of the public eye they are all commercial companies that stand in opposition to NASA. The negative tweets and comments that have accompanied the two failures have already affected some people’s minds on the viability of independent companies performing critical launch services.

The near worship of NASA by people with less information than most of the people reading this blog as the agency that got us to the moon, casts doubts on the ability of any other organization in the country to do the same job. The upcoming SpaceX flight will be performed in the limelight of both a critical and a hopeful public. The barge landing, whether it succeeds or fails, will be measured against the hundred plus Shuttle flights.

The SLS and Orion crowd will be using the previous two accidents to highlight any problem SpaceX may experience on this mission. They see themselves threatened and backed into a corner even though their budget has consistently been far in excess of anything SpaceX has used.They believe a failure will prove  SpaceX cannot do the job and cannot be trusted anymore than any other company, while a success will highlight their inability to provide reusable hardware. Even a failure to land on the barge would be used to insult all commercial companies, with the Anteres and SpaceShipTwo mishaps used to help make their points.

So I would suggest you be prepared to see a far more critical take on this mission than any reasonable person would use.For the next couple of missions a tendency to overpromise or under deliver by SpaceX or its fans will be used as ammunition to attack the company. And it should be remembered that some of these fairly low information people have a tendency to write their congressman.

Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments

Humble Arrogance For an Inspiring Mission

The Orion flew today for the first time.

The hype and hoopla surrounding this flight was about what you would expect from an agency that is spent so many years and billions getting to this point. If you listen to the media releases it would seem that this is the start of our expansion into the entire solar system with the development of science and exploration to follow.

Those of us that have followed the development and cost of this program, question the value of this flight, especially in relation to the price tag and excessively long schedule. It will be at least 8 to 10 years before astronauts will fly on this vehicle to any destination worthwhile or not, totaling decades from concept to manned test flight.

It would be interesting if SpaceX could do a little trick to upstage the hype and hoopla of the flight of the Orion. If one of the Dragon capsules could be sent around the moon and reenter from there, that would capture the imagination of people that know where the moon is but have no concept of how far 3600 miles from Earth is. I suggest they do this with one of the Dragon One capsules that has already been to the international space station. Demonstration of reusability would be clearly demonstrated in a most spectacular manner.

Justification for this flight could be as simple as Elon Musk claiming, without attribution, that his detractors in Congress are questioning the ability of his vehicles to safely carry humans, especially to the distances expected of Orion. Properly done, he might even get NASA to pay for it. By doing it in a humble manner to address the issues that people claim that his vehicles have, he could actually pretend to be in a very defensive position about the flight, which afterwards would stand in stark contrast to a vehicle that only went 3600 miles into space after 10 years and as many billion dollars.

The cargo Dragon would obviously be unmanned, as was the Orion flew today. For the general public it could easily be a distinction without a difference that the Dragon One is not a human rated capsule after you clearly show people from the International Space Station inside it loading and unloading cargo. The Dragon One is clearly capable of housing humans in space as witnessed by the international space station astronauts. It can be shown to have astronauts inside it in space, which the Orion cannot do.

A Dragon capsule which had been to the international space station and back, which afterwards flew to the moon and back, would demonstrate reusability, deep space capability, and a willingness to take risks. This would stand in stark contrast to the Orion that flew today, and the organizations that were responsible for that flight.

The time to do this for flight would be after NASA, Lockheed, and Boeing, have had enough time to emphasize their superiority in space flight based on the Orion test flight.Then do a simple series of press releases which emphasizes that the Lunar flight was simply a test flight to prove the equipment. Now we know the heat shield will work, and that our navigation is sufficient unto the task. Them very humbly refuse to compare it publicly to the Orion, and let the voting public do that for themselves.

If it is possible to fly a Dragon Two on this mission with a simple Falcon Nine, an argument could be made that SpaceX has surpassed NASA on its own turf. Especially a Dragon Two with crash test dummies inside including the one from MythBusters if possible. The recovery of the dummies from the ocean after they had been around the moon could well be the private enterprise spaceflight Kennedy moment.

Posted in Uncategorized | 29 Comments

YHABFT: Perspective and Probability Estimation (SpaceX Edition)

I had a quick thought about SpaceX that I wanted to blog about instead of doing a bunch of tweets. Basically, I think that how you judge SpaceX’s probability of success probably should depend strongly on whether you’re thinking as a competitor or as a customer.

If you’re one of SpaceX’s other competitors, you should probably take your expectations of SpaceX’s probability of success or failure (for reusability, Falcon Heavy working, etc), and bias them a bit more towards the success side. Underestimating your competition is a great way to obsolete yourself. So, if you’re a SpaceX competitor, and you’re being wise, you should probably base your plans on SpaceX being at least moderately successful at reusability, and eventually getting Falcon Heavy flying. You probably don’t need to assume that every word that cometh out of the mouth of the Elon is the veritable word of God or anything, but you should be really careful about making sure you’re being conservative–which in this case means assuming that they’re going to be somewhat successful at continuing to disrupt the industry. Anything less is setting yourself up for failure.

On the other hand, if you’re either a potential SpaceX customer, or a fanboy whose dreams are impacted one way or another based on SpaceX’s successes, you should probably bias your expectations more towards the failure side. You should assume that reuse is going to be harder than it looks (because unless you’ve actually done anything with flight vehicles it probably is harder than you think), take longer to work out, and be not quite as amazingly awesome as it theoretically ought to be. You should probably assume that while FH will probably fly, it probably won’t have the full performance expected initially, will have its own set of teething pains, and won’t be as amazing as you hope–at least at first. Overestimating your suppliers is just as stupid as underestimating your competitors. I’m not saying you should be gloom and doom on SpaceX, just temper your enthusiasm enough that you end up pleasantly surprised occasionally instead of disappointed if things don’t go perfectly. I’ve been watching commercial space since I was 16, and us commercial space fans are almost never under-optimistic.

Do I think SpaceX is going to make a huge difference in the industry? Of course. Do I think they’ll make reusability work at least for their first stage? Of course. I think it’ll take longer than fanboys expect, and be faster than competitors are hoping. I’m not entirely convinced they’ve figured out a way to scale up to the kinds of flight rates they’d need to hit their more ambitious cost targets, but even if they only get down to $1000/lb with a semi-reusable F9R, that’ll be awesome enough.

So to recap: Never underestimate your competitors, and never over-estimate your suppliers.

Posted in SpaceX, YHABFT | 7 Comments

Random Thought: Venus Really-Balloon Rockets

I haven’t run the numbers on this yet, but I was thinking about how to do reusable transportation on Venus recently. My previous Venusian Rocket Floaties blog post showed that existing upper stages, sealed off, could float at altitudes high enough not to melt their seals (though still roasty-toasty). My thought was that you could drop down to that altitude, deploy a balloon, and float back up to a safe altitude for recovery by another vehicle. But I got thinking about the reliability and risks of that approach, and it gave me a crazier idea (which as I said above I haven’t run the numbers on yet):

What if you designed a rocket with one of its tanks (the fuel most likely) actually a balloon with the fuel in gas form? Make the balloon big enough so that when the propellant tank is “empty” (and just some sort of buffer gas is in there to fill it), the whole stage is buoyant at a safe altitude. Leave the engine and oxidizer tanks at the bottom “normal”, but have a big balloon tank attached to them via some sort of truss structure.

Some considerations:

  • You’d most likely have to attach payloads to the side not the top of the balloon because you probably want the balloon at as low a pressure as possible when it reaches orbit.
  • However you’d want it at around 1atm pressure of something when you come back in, so it won’t collapse at the 1atm pressure level.
  • You’d have to parallel stage bimese style instead of the more traditional vertical stacking you do on earth, for similar reasons to those mentioned above.
  • While a spherical balloon would be most mass efficient, to keep air drag down you’d probably want a cylindrical balloon.
  • It might be best to pick a fuel gas that liquifies when chilled (methane or propane?). Then you could theoretically have a fan pull gas from the balloon, and run it through a heat exchanger with the LOX to liquify it before running it into the engine?
  • Likewise, you probably want the gas in the balloon on reentry to be something light like GH2 or GHe…not sure the best way to transition between the fuel filling the balloon and this filling the balloon. Could be something carried in an onboard reinflation tank, or it could be something you do at an orbiting station?
  • Due to the very large diameter you could get even with a cylindrical real ballon tank, I wonder if you could use that large diameter to wrap a fixed MAC coil around for both initial aerocapture, and maybe magnetoshell assisted aeroentry. Could you get the velocity low enough that your balloon can take the remaining heating without any special TPS on it?
  • You probably don’t want to make the thing have to float when fully-fueled–you probably want the carrier blimp to support it until it is launched. That way your balloon volume is determined by the mass of the system at recovery, and you just fill the balloon to whatever density of fuel gas makes the most sense to provide the right amount of fuel for the stage.

I won’t have time to run the numbers on this for a week or more, but I wanted to toss this out there. It’s crazy, but if you could pull it off, it would enable fully-reusable Venus rockets with passively safe recovery. You’d still need a carrier vehicle to come out and fetch it, much like ocean recovery of capsules, but without flat, non-moving platforms to land on, this may be the best way of doing things.

Posted in Launch Vehicles, Space Transportation, Venus | 10 Comments

Integral Payload Fairing Habitats

In the spirit of my previous post promoting healthy, competitive industries, I wanted to toss out an idea I’ve had for several years about an alternative to inflatable structures for providing large volume pressurized space facilities. The idea is a derivative of one of the concepts I discussed for dual fluid depots in my paper I did with ULA back in 2009–to make the pressure vessel be integral with the payload fairing walls.

Normally payloads fit inside the fairings, and have to have a sufficiently large gap between them and the fairing that they don’t accidentally vibrate into the fairing during launch. This “dynamic envelope” often cuts the diameter of objects inside a notionally 5m diameter fairing to ~4.5m or less. Building your structure so its cylindrical section is the fairing structure can increase the effective cross-section of your module significantly (~35% more cross sectional area for a 5.1m vs. the 4.39m cross section used for ISS).

Here’s an illustration lifted from that paper I referenced earlier:

Integral Payload Fairing Depot Concept provides ~200m^3 of volume fitting within existing Atlas V payload fairings

Integral Payload Fairing Depot Concept provides ~200m^3 of tank volume fitting within existing Atlas V payload fairings

As you can see, by building a tank that effectively replaces part of the fairing wall, you can fit over 200m^3 of pressurized volume into an existing Atlas fairing (actually closer to 250m^3 once you include that gas buffer tank shown in light blue between the big tank and the Centaur, and add in a docking node fitting into the nosecone area). I haven’t run the numbers on versions flying on Delta-IV or Falcon 9, but figure they’re likely similar since all have ~5m diameter fairings.

In many ways this concept is pretty similar to what was done for Skylab. While NASA originally intended to use a “wet workshop” design for Skylab–where the habitable space would actually be filled with propellant during launch and only converted to warm living space after reaching orbit–in the end they ended up going with a dry-lab that was pre-fitted-out with internal structures, wiring, and a lot of the hardware that would be used on-orbit.

For an Atlas V-launched version, the 5.4m OD of the fairing would work well with the 5.1m OD LH2 tank tooling used for the DCSS upper stage, leaving about 15cm on each side for a variant of Quest Thermal’s  MMOD-MLI that could include a thin aeroshell over the outside similar to the LV-MLI. With a tank stretched to fill the available length in the long Atlas V fairing, you’d have somewhere in the 210-220m^3 in the main cylinder, with a pressure vessel and MMOD/MLI dry mass under 4 tonnes.

Quest Thermal MMOD-MLI Test Article

Is this revolutionary? Not really. But I think it’s a reasonable competitor to inflatable modules for a similar job. Some of the benefits of this approach, compared to inflatables:

  • Much simpler, lower-risk design, analysis, and fabrication. You’re basically just doing a stretched propellant tank for your pressure vessel. Most of the complexity in a useful hab isn’t in the pressure vessel itself, so making that as simple as possible might not be a bad idea.
  • Similar overall volumes. The BA330 would only be about 30-50% bigger (220-250m^3 vs 330m^3 for Bigelow), in spite of the benefits of inflation. This would also be significantly (~50%) bigger than the largest ISS module–Kibo.
  • More efficient internal volume utilization. Unlike an inflatable you wouldn’t have a rigid core structure taking up prime real estate down the center of the module, and you also wouldn’t need to have all the volume associated with the inflation pressurization system, as you could launch the module pre-pressurized. If you wanted to have a wide open space for some reason, this would provide it a lot easier than you could get with a comparable inflatable structure.
  • If you went with an isogrid aluminum construction like the DCSS tank, you can probably put threaded/helicoiled holes at the repeating nodes where the 6 rib elements come together. This would make it very easy to attach structures or other systems in a reconfigurable manner, whereever you want. With some work, you might even be able to have some set of the node holes done as blind (not thru) tapped holes on the outside for externally mounting hardware.
  • Since the structure is rigid, it’s possible to mount items like solar arrays or radiators to the outside of the structure a lot easier than it is with a soft-walled structure. These pieces would have to be stowed somewhere else for launch (maybe back in the gap between the centaur stage and the bottom part of the fairing), and then moved into place using a robot arm, and attached to some form of separable interface. There are some definite details that would need to be sorted out there, but nothing that seems to hard. Plus you wanted a robot arm anyway for delivery vehicle capture/berthing. This may not seem like that big of a deal, but one of the real challenges with a Bigelow module is all of those external pieces have to attach to two fairly narrow pieces of real estate at either end. Being able to attach to the cylinder section gives you a lot less crowded of a space to deal with.
  • Adding windows or other local stress points is also a lot easier to do with a rigid structure, as is adding vacuum electrical or fluid pass thrus along the cylinder section if desired.

Now, I didn’t mean this post as bashing on Bigelow or inflatable structures. I’m a big fan of what Bigelow is trying to do, and have nothing but respect for a guy willing to put that much of his own money on the line to make a dream happen. That’s balsy. I’m not even necessarily saying that my approach actually is better overall once all factors are taken into consideration. I’m just saying it’s another approach to solving the “large amounts of pressurized volume” problem that’s not particularly high-tech or high barrier-to-entry.

While I definitely want to see Bigelow successful, I’d also love to see him have some successful competition as well, and I just wanted to point out there are other legitimate approaches for solving this problem that I hope someone will try out.

Posted in Bigelow Aerospace, Commercial Space, Space Development | 12 Comments

Suborbital VS Orbital

I did a post on this a few years back, but couldn’t find it to repost.

A commentor in response to one of Rand Simbergs’ articles brought up (again) the old orbital is 8 times the velocity of suborbital and therefore 64 times as hard because energy goes as the square of velocity. Where to begin arguing this again?

The argument was that suborbital is Mach three vs orbital being over Mach twenty-four. Mach three won’t get you to space. 900 meters per second (~Mach 3) vertical velocity will get you 90 seconds of climb at an average of 450 meters per second, or about 40.5 kilometers of altitude. That doesn’t include drag, gravity losses during acceleration or engine back pressure losses. Mach 4 gets you 72 kilometers if you are in vacuum the whole time. It would take nearly Mach 5 to reach the Von Karmin line from sea level if you were in vacuum the whole way. 1,430 meters per second is considerably more than the 900 meters per second implied by the comment.

That was a straight up and down in vacuum from sea level. The flight doesn’t start in vacuum. Back pressure losses on a rocket engine gives 5-20% less performance at sea level than in vacuum. That is a major Isp hit on performance to a vehicle with a finite propellant capacity and facing exponential weight gain for excess mass. That 5-20% more propellant for a given thrust must be lifted by even more propellant. That extra propellant requires a larger airframe and engine capacity. The larger engine and airframe requires more propellant and so on. A suborbital vehicle has just as much back pressure loss as an orbital vehicle .

The vehicle has drag while it is accelerating toward space. The drag costs more propellant equals more engine and airframe, equals even more propellant and so on. If too much acceleration is done too early drag goes up by several more factors which would cost more propellant etc… Another aspect of the drag is heating if too much time is spent at high mach during the climb in the atmosphere. Thermal protection can get up there fast with a poor design. A suborbital vehicle has just as much drag loss in the climb out as an orbital vehicle.

There are gravity losses during the climb out. A suborbital vehicle has just as much drag loss as an orbital vehicle.

Actual mass ratios for suborbital above the Von Karmin line tend to be in the 3 to 4 range. If Mach 3 in vacuum was the whole story, then mass ratios would be in the 1.3 to 1.5 range. Orbital mass ratios tend to be in the 10 to 20 range depending on propellant choices and engine efficiency. The difference in mass ratios is about 4 to 5 with similar propellants. That is undeniably a major difference and order of difficulty. Just not 64 times the difficulty, especially with staging.

Life support is clearly different for manned vehicles. Bottled air for 30 minutes is different than 30 days for one. Food, toilet facilities, and creature comforts are quite different as well. This particular aspect may well be 64 times as hard. I doubt it, but it is possible.

Acceleration couches, controls, and displays will be about the same. More propellant for the RCS with the same number of thrusters is not that much more difficult. Communications will be more complex if the mission requires, though not an order of magnitude, and certainly not 64 times as hard.

Unmanned vehicle payloads have even less need for the 64 times as expensive meme. The energy supply is about the only thing that is clearly in a different league, though solar panels are getting to be quite well known even there.

Look at the historical record for more data. Working backwards from Elons’ billion investment in orbit with the 64 times as hard, any suborbital company spending more than 15 million should have been providing reliable service. Count for yourself the ones that have spent over 15 million and still don’t have an operational vehicle.

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Healthy Industries vs. Monocultures

One of the things I’ve believed for a long time is that for the NewSpace industry to be successful and healthy, that we need to see multiple providers and customers for the various goods and services in the industry. One needs look no further than the situation with Aerojet/Rocketdyne and ULA to realize how unhealthy monopoly/monopsony arrangements can be. In an ideal, healthy industry, we’d see several competitive low-cost launch companies offering a range of launch services, multiple companies building in-space facilities like hotels, stations, unmanned free-flyers, and depots, etc.

Having multiple providers and multiple customers is good for many reasons:

  1. Resiliency: If you have multiple providers and customers, problems with one entity don’t necessarily grind the industry to a halt. An example of this was how badly ISS was impacted by the Shuttle fleet stand-down post Columbia. There was also the close-call with Soyuz a year or two ago, where it wasn’t clear if they were going to have to stand-down crew deliveries to the station. On the customer side, technologies and consumer preferences change over time, so having a wide range of customers means that if one particular application stops being as viable, it doesn’t take down the industry with it. In general, more providers and more customers makes any one entity less critical, and makes the industry more robust.
  2. Competition: Having multiple providers to chose from often helps keep an industry innovating, and keeps costs lower than if there were just one provider. Think how good it was for computer users to have both AMD and Intel competing with each other for much of the past 20 years. Would Intel have moved as aggressively at innovating, and would costs have been as low for consumers without them?
  3. Diversity and Specialization: One size doesn’t fit all, and the more firms there are in an industry, the more likely you are to see specialization leading to better solutions for people with different needs.

The interested reader could probably think of other reasons why it’s good to have a range of providers.

Now admittedly, while having a range of providers and a range of customers is ideal, not all industries are large enough to support that level of diversity. Some tend towards “natural monopolies”.  I think at current launch costs, reasonable people can differ on if space launch falls into that category or not. But I think we can all agree we’d like to see a space industry that has a big enough pie to make that sort of healthy diversity possible.

Why am I bringing this all up? Mostly because I’ve been noticing an unhealthy trend towards monoculturalism/”Highlander Syndrome” among many in the NewSpace community. You see this a lot in twitter commenters who seem to think the government should just ditch ULA and give all their flights to SpaceX, or the anger over why NASA picked Boeing as well for a CCtCap award even though they were more expensive than SpaceX. You see this in how people only ever talk about Bigelow Aerospace for in-space habitats. You see this with people badmouthing Masten or Blue Origin and saying that they should give up now because obviously SpaceX is better.Now, I actually like SpaceX and Bigelow a lot, have a ton of respect for what Elon’s team has managed to do over the years, and really genuinely want to see both of those companies wildly successful. But I want to see others successful too. In many cases there isn’t a huge amount I can actively do, since Altius isn’t very involved anymore on the launch side of things, so my support may be limited to trying to cheer on progress by not just SpaceX, but ULA, and Blue Origin as well. I do what I can to put ideas out there that can benefit everyone, and to work on technologies at Altius that can help more than one provider be competitive. I’ve always preferred to run a shop with a reputation for being on friendly terms with everyone as much as possible.Anyhow, I hope others find these thoughts useful.

Posted in Bigelow Aerospace, Commercial Crew, Commercial Space, Launch Vehicles, Space Policy, SpaceX | 17 Comments

Capsule Que Pasa

I was jolted a bit when I read the amounts and requirements for commercial crew last week. Not that Boeing got more than SpaceX, but rather that $6.8B is budgeted for a developing a couple of commercial capsules to fly on existing launchers. Boeing’s $4.2B doesn’t bother me as it should be expected of traditional contractors, SpaceX’s $2.6B does.

I am not going to suggest that human transport vehicles to LEO should be trivial or cheap. I do suggest that SpaceX requiring $2.6B to finish development of  a capsule that is supposedly almost ready to go, even including the maximum 7 flights, is well out of step with the reported development costs of that company. It has been said quite often that SpaceX developed the Falcon 1, Falcon 9, and Dragon 1 for under a billion dollars.

My question is, why should capsule development cost on the order of triple that of an entire Falcon 9 launch vehicle? This is not to trivialize the work to be done, or the paperwork involved, but seriously asking what is so complicated and expensive inside that vehicle that drives the cost far beyond that of entire launch vehicle families?

This post might be considered snark. That is not the intention. It is a serious puzzle that affects development of the solar system. A puzzle that I can’t yet understand. I am not real interested in the standard NASA bashing response of how the government drives up costs that we have all rehashed a hundred times. I am interested in any solid information on the hardware/software cost drivers of this bus without a main engine.

Posted in Uncategorized | 23 Comments

CCtCap and Blue Origin/ULA Article on SST

I just did a guest post on the Sic Semper Tyrannis blog on the CCtCap and Blue Origin/ULA announcements. They’re aimed at people less familiar with space news than most Selenian Boondocks readers, but I figured I’d link to it so I can say I’ve done at least one post on this blog this month… :-)

Posted in Administrivia, Commercial Crew, SpaceX | Leave a comment