Chair Force Engineer

Monday, March 27, 2006

Failin' for the first time

The supporters of SpaceX have taken consolation in the fact that of all "first flights" for rockets, about half will end in failure. At the same time, there are things that rocket companies can do to reduce this risk associated with new vehicles. Flight heritage plays a huge role in establishing confidence in new rockets.

The best example of using flight heritage to reduce risk has been seen in the Atlas series since 1991. While the original versions of the Atlas (both the ICBM's and space launchers) had plenty of failures, the General Dynamics engineers learned from their mistakes. The Atlas II first flew in 1991. By the time it made its last launch in 2004, the Atlas II family had made 63 successful launches with no failures.

Similarly, the Atlas III combined the proven Atlas II with the first stage engine for the proposed Atlas V (and later added the dual-engine Centaur for the Atlas V as well.) The Atlas III made six successful flights with no failures, being retired in favor of the new Atlas V.

Since 2002, Atlas V has been a reliable rocket with an unblemished success record. I think that's due in no small part to the use of engines and upper stages that had been validated on the earlier Atlas III.

Where is the lesson for Falcon in all of this? Falcon has the disadvantage of no flight history. SpaceX looked at orbital launch vehicles from the ground up, with cost-savings in mind. Perhaps SpaceX could have built up to an orbital launch with a series of suborbital demonstrators--at the expense of millions more dollars and perhaps years.

Right now, the big rocket vendors (Orbital and BLoMart) are looking at SpaceX with an incredulous eye, but also with more than a hint of fear that they are sunk if SpaceX succeeds. I tend to believe that current rocketry ventures would be more profitable if they had 1) lean management structures with reduced overhead, and 2) economies of scale. SpaceX definitely has the lean management, and they are trying very hard to promote launch rates to support an economy of scale. Perhaps there is money to be saved in the engineering of such rockets, but Falcon I will be proof of that.