My Comments on the First Commercial Rocket (SpaceX Falcon 9)

4 posts




Unless anyone gets decieved by the media (e.g., television), I will clarify some issues:

* First, the design of the Merlin engines (the most important and complex part of the space launch vehicle) is not something made "privately" - that is completely media spin, and furthermore it's impossible. The Merlin-1A (for the Falcon 9) was based on the overall scheme of the NASA FASTRAC engine. It is also implicitly uses every single "scheme" gradually developed as a result of decades of experience - i.e., lots and lots of tests to determine which schemes and materials were the most promising, and which were only deceptively promising but in fact were dangerous (see the history of propulsion by Hunley). Another company, Orbital Sciences, is openly using the design of Russian rocket engines (from the old Soviet N1 lunar program).

What I'm talking about above is similar to, e.g., the decision to use implosion in the atomic bomb. This was not an "invention" by von Neumann, it was one of the proposals from the very beginning . The problem was never to "invent" it but to determine whether in fact it was a reliable scheme - von Neumann's contribution was not to "invent" it but to develop the calculation methods for proving that it worked. And then it fell back into favor and we ended up using implosion. (For my amusement, I decided to google this on the "internets" and predictably there are all these retarded websites that suggest von Neumann was the only one who came up with the implosion idea.) In rocketry, replace "calculation" with "prototype tests".

Another thing to keep in mind: Falcon 9 is a very very low performance vehicle, designed for being cheap (which is important, of course, but the cheapness here stems from the design optimization of the final vehicle, not cheaper fabrication methods/tooling for the components). I think ferrying stuff around in space doesn't necessarily depend on high technology anymore, as opposed to just design optimization of existing technology (something the commercial sector is the best at - just look at personal computing). "High technology" vehicles are all motivated by military technology - i.e., by pure performance (and also cost-efficiency of design/manufacture, but not sacrificing performance).

* Second. There is the important point that with "current" technology - that is, the improved materials engineering of alloys, powder metallurgy and so on after the 1960s, it is easier for companies (like SpaceX) to develop simpler schemes in terms of design. And so, the design of new systems isn't "so" unreliable (arising from all of the complexities of the hydraulic, electrical, thermal systems) that it requires so many prototype tests, at least compared to before. This is true - up to a point. But of course, the entire point is that the entire associated industry of high-tech fabrication methods for high-performance materials (alloys, other metals) useful in space vehicles and probes - i.e., the "technological base" that has improved since the 60s - was a creation of the military space program in the first place. Why would civilian companies (e.g., for commercial aircraft) need the kind of "supermaterials" in a rocket engine or space probe, like Beryllium?

* Third. Despite all this, I think this is the best thing that has happened to space exploration in a long, long time. Why? Russia is bankrupt, and NASA became rotten shite after the 1960s (they turned into a propaganda organization, not a "technology" one.) The technology has "matured" (just like the microchip) to an extent that the commercial sector can excel in developing on part of it. For the purpose of carrying cargo in space, we don't necessarily need that much a "range" of high technologies anymore - just a combination of incremental advances in a few key areas combined with design optimization (and not even design research). This is similar to the development of commercial comsats and aircraft.

I will not claim "victory" however until:

1. We finally start collecting minerals and natural resources from asteroids etc. rather than here on Earth, and

2. We finally get the "space elevator" working - which is inherently much better than rockets for sending stuff into space. The materials engineering for this looks impossible, however, so of course it will have to come as a spinoff of military technology (that requires the most high performance characteristics for alloys and materials).

3. Most importantly: a new and very intensive "military race" between China and Russia, or China and the USA (or even all three) will lead to serious developments in the broad range of "high technology". Hopefully, relations between China and the other countries will deteriorate, although I don't see how this can happen easily. China still has a Soviet-style military-industrial complex.

Don Johnson

What about full reusability?

That's one of Musk and SpaceX's major goals. It would reduce launch costs dramatically.

It would be a major accomplishment if they achieve it. Government space programs have been unable to do it thus far.

Another goal Musk has mentioned is reducing the cost of a round-trip ticket to Mars to $500,000. But this is mainly about achieving full reusability since that is what will drastically reduce costs down to such levels.

Nah. Full re-usability was one of the goals of the space shuttle. Their goals aren't centered around re-usability as much as cost-cutting without getting to much ire from environmentalists.
Don Johnson
The space shuttle was only partially reusable.

Musk has talked about full reusability being a goal and how it is necessary for significantly reducing launch costs.