Super Sunday

While the rest of us were laying around on our butts watching football, the geeks were busy inheriting the Earth…or rather the sky above us.

Orbital Science’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft docked with the International Space Station, making it the second commercial launch provider to do so:

Cygnus berthing at the ISS

Meanwhile, the first commercial operator to reach the ISS flew their upgraded Falcon 9R launcher out of Vandenberg AFB in California. This was a number of firsts for SpaceX: first flight of the 9R, first all-commercial payload, and first relight of a booster in a controlled re-entry:

Falcon 9R

That last bit is by far the most significant — it’s the key to SpaceX’s plans for reusable rockets, which is the key to lower launch costs, which is the key to the rest of us being able to afford a trip to orbit (or even farther) some day.

The goal is to eventually return the first stage of an operational Falcon 9 (and later, when it flies, the three cores of the Falcon Heavy) to the launch site, and reuse them.

Sunday’s flight test on an ostensibly operational mission was less ambitious. The goals were to see if 1) they could get the vehicle back into the atmosphere in one piece with the first burn (all previous Falcon 9 uncontrolled first-stage entries have been destructive) and 2) if they could gently drop it into the ocean with the thrust of a single engine, and recover it. The company has emphasized repeatedly over the past several months that this was not part of the primary mission goal, and that they didn’t have high expectations of success.

As it turned out, they seem to have succeeded at their first test goal, but failed the second…

Despite the recovery failure, company founder and CEO Elon Musk seemed very optimistic about the results.

The above is clipped from Rand Simberg’s authoritative roundup at PJ Media. Interestingly, DARPA and McDonnell Douglas made some significant advancements along these lines 20 years ago with the Delta Clipper Experimental (DC-X). Made on the cheap with a good deal of off-the-shelf parts, they managed several successful flights until the project was transferred whole-hog to NASA:

DC-X, first hover landing

NASA agreed to take on the program after the last DC-X flight in 1995. In contrast to the original concept of the DC-X demonstrator, NASA applied a series of major upgrades to test new technologies…

The upgraded vehicle was called the DC-XA, renamed the Clipper Advanced/Clipper Graham, and resumed flight in 1996.

…Its next flight, on 7 July, proved to be its last. During testing, one of the LOX tanks had been cracked. When a landing strut failed to extend due to a disconnected hydraulic line, the DC-XA fell over and the tank leaked. Normally the structural damage from such a fall would constitute only a setback, but the LOX from the leaking tank fed a fire which severely burned the DC-XA, causing such extensive damage that repairs were impractical.

In a post-accident report, NASA’s Brand Commission blamed the accident on a burnt-out field crew who had been operating under on-again/off-again funding and constant threats of outright cancellation. The crew, many of them originally from the SDIO program, were also highly critical of NASA’s “chilling” effect on the program, and the masses of paperwork NASA demanded as part of the testing regimen.

NASA had taken on the project grudgingly after having been “shamed” by its very public success under the direction of the SDIO.

Read the whole entry at Wikipedia for a case study of what happens when a willingness to take risks is swallowed up by ass-covering bureaucratic inertia.  Surprising? Sadly, no…but at least the commercial camel’s nose is now all the way up in NASA’s government tent and sniffing at their junk.

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