Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Mission Abort Summary

The mission has been scrubbed until early next year. The cause of the abort is as follows:

1. During the high winds, we put the countdown on hold and began draining the fuel tank.
2. As the fuel tank was draining from the 1st stage RP1 tank, a faulty pressurization valve caused a vacuum condition in the tank.
3. This caused the fuel tank section of stage 1 to deform and suck inward.

Very painful to watch. Like in those movies when someone takes a hammer to a brand new ferrari. These sort of things should be divinely protected.

Thankfully there does not appear to be any other damage. The rocket will have to be lowered and placed in the hanger for thorough inspection.

Current expectations for the next launch attempt is late January.

'til next time.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

Mission Aborted

I'll send more info when I know more.

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Countdown on hold at T-Minus 15 minutes

Winds are maintaining 28 knots. This is too high and we are holding the countdown to evaluate options.

The sun rising at t-minus 15 minutes

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LOX boil-off picking up

You can see how the winds cause an enormous change in the amount of LOX boil-off.

15 minutes ago, with low winds (7-15 knots)

Current winds (20-30 knots)

T-minus 27 minutes.

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Winds starting to pick up

We are now getting peak winds at 28knots. This is not good.

The highest winds we want to launch in is 24 knots. The wind is erratic though. An hour ago we were at 7 knots.

T-minus 33 minutes.

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T-Minus 40 Minutes

Falcon at T-minus 40 minutes

Rocket Fuel (RP1) is being fueled. Tanks at 20% full.

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Rocket being fueled

The webcam has been closed to the public due to the intense demand to see it. I'll post screenshots as things change.

LOX tanks are almost full in both stages. The boil-off is very low today. We've almost filled the rocket and we've only used one tank. On the last attempt we went through three tanks because of the high winds and heat of the day.

Falcon 1 at 6am Kwaj time

T-Minus 60 minutes.

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It's a Beautiful Morning

Falcon 1 on the launch pad

It's 5:30am, Kwaj time. T-Minus 90 minutes.

Stage 2 is almost completely fueled. They are just about to start on Stage 1 (the bigger, lower part of the rocket).

The Control Room

Elon and me at the Rocket yesterday

Spirits are much calmer this time than last. Confidence is high and everyone is on.

All systems are go.

T-minus 80 minutes.

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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Why we like Rockets

When most people (read: men) think of rockets, they think “Mmm… Rockets…” Rockets have this innate appeal that can sometimes be difficult to explain (to women).

Maybe it’s the shape. That’s what some people (read: women) would say. I don’t think it is though. It’s definitely a cool shape, but there are a lot of long, tubular-shaped items that don’t generate the same excitement. Pencils have a similar shape, but I don’t see anyone with posters of their favorite pencil, and toy stores with giant plastic pencils for kids to play with.

Umm... It just doesn't do anything for me.

Even Pencil-Cases have rockets on them

It could be their destination. Space is definitely cool. But after spending time with rocket scientists, they are generally not the philosophical types spending their evenings gazing at the stars. They’re a pretty intense bunch. They’re out to make the rocket do its job.

Stargazers? They don't even have windows to the outside.

I think the real reason is that it’s because rockets go very fast, make a lot of noise, and most importantly, occasionally blow-up. These guys are basically building very, very expensive fireworks. Bombs at the end of a stick. The fact that those sticks, if designed properly, can be propelled in a specific direction, make it even cooler. But at the end of the day, things can go wrong. And when they do, they go wrong in a very, very big way.

Things going wrong in a big way.

So I thought I’d take everyone through what can go wrong. Just in case you didn’t know that this is fairly common. In fact, since the start of the rocket industry, there have been 687 failures in the categories: Pad; Launch; Orbital; Mission; and End-of-Mission Failures.

I also thought I’d rank them in order of coolness. #10 would the most lame, and #1 would rank similarly to the first time you saw fireworks. In other words: blow your mind cool.

#10: We run out of LOX again. This would be painfully lame. Thankfully, we’re so embarrassed about the last time that we’ve brought enough LOX to Kwaj in the past two weeks to launch the rockets 4 times over.

#9: We run out of something else. This is the middle of nowhere, as I’ve mentioned in the past. So this is possible. But man that would suck.

#8: Wind causes us to abort the launch. Current winds in Kwaj vary from 15 to 30 knots. Anything over 24 knots is considered unfavorable.

The rocket needs to clear the launch mount that holds it in place. As it launches, wind can push the rocket against the mount. We would be forced to abort the launch if the winds do not cooperate.

So, assuming we don’t run out of something or abort, let’s get on to the other things that can and have gone wrong with rockets…

#7: The rocket launches, goes into space, and but does not release the satellite. This happened recently in 1999 when Lockheed's Athena rocket's nose fairing failed to separate and the extra mass caused it to re-enter the atmosphere and fall back to earth.

#6: The rocket doesn’t go where it’s supposed to go. It goes up, it goes into space, just not where we want it to go.

#5: The on-board computer incorrectly turns the rocket engines off in mid-flight. Sounds ridiculous, but it has happened before. On September 10th, 1998, a rocket carrying twelve communication satellites fell to the ground when a faulty command was issued in the control system, shutting down the engines. It turns out rockets are actually quite heavy. It landed somewhere in northern Russia with a loud thud.

#4: Stage 1 fails to separate. This is quite common. Almost 30% of all rocket failures are due to a problem when stage 1 needs to be set free. Sometimes stage 1 hangs on by a thread (albeit a very strong thread) and is dragged as far as it can until the rocket eventually gives up and falls back down to Earth. This happened recently in 1999, when a Boeing upper stage vehicle failed to separate correctly.

If it doesn't separate, stage 1 makes for a pretty serious anchor

Okay. So that takes care of the un-entertaining failures. One's that would are bad, but not something we can experience first-hand. Now, on to the one’s we all want to be able to casually bring up with our friends afterwards.

As in, “Hey Bob, you know what I saw this week-end..?”

At #3:

The rocket takes off at the wrong angle, flying across the atoll into the ocean and blowing up.

Lockheed Martin's Trident 2
Going for a spin.

#2: The rocket launches, and then blows up in the sky. Pretty cool.

Boeing's Delta II 17 January, 1997
Now that's what I call a firework

And #1, with a combination of being the most spectacular and the most damaging:

The rocket launches a few feet and then falls back to the ground, completely obliterating the launch pad and the rocket in a giant fireball. For this, you have to see the video:

[Lockheed Martin's Titan going boom on the launch pad]

For other videos of similar failures, check out this website.

At the end of the day, this is all things that happen a lot in the industry. I've been amazed by how tolerant the industry is of this level of reliability. Insurance is a significant part of the cost in a launch vehicle. That way, if something goes wrong, they're covered to do it again. Nobody likes the risks, but frankly there's no alternative. The only way to get something up into space is at the tip of a highly volatile rocket.

By the way, I got all this information directly from the SpaceX guys. They know these failures like the back of their hand. They know why they happened, when they happened, and every detail on how they could have been prevented.

They don't intend to let it happen to them.

Launch in T-Minus 18 hours.

Note: this blog is for entertainment purposes only and intended only for viewing by my friends. This is not endorsed by SpaceX, or part of SpaceX's official communications. Please don't trust a word I say. Really. For all you know, I'm making it all up and I'm actually sitting in my basement somewhere in Boulder.

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Kwaj-Rockets: Take 2

We're back on island. It's still beautiful, and it's still surreal, but this time we're going to see a rocket launch!

The team is rested after a much needed break. Some went home to California, some went to Hawaii, and some stayed in Kwaj. Wherever they went, they're here now refreshed and pumped up.

The SpaceX Team on the island this morning

The launch is scheduled for 11am CA time on Monday Dec. 19th. Less than 24 hours from now.

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Post-Launch Summary

It is a frustrating day, but in truth, the chance of a brand new rocket launching from a brand new launch pad on its first try was exciting, but unlikely.

Here's the summary of the cause of the abort from Elon:

"What happened was that an auxiliary liquid oxygen (LOX) fill tank had a manual vent valve incorrectly set to vent. The time it took to correct the problem resulted in significant LOX boil off and loss of helium, and it was the latter that caused the launch abort. LOX is used to chill the helium bottles, so we lose helium if there is no LOX to cool the bottles.

Although we were eventually able to refill the vehicle LOX tanks, the rate at which we could add helium was slower than the rate at which LOX was boiling away. There was no way to close the gap, so the launch had to be called off. In addition, we experienced an anomaly with the main engine computer that requires further investigation and was arguably reason in and of itself to postpone launch.

The next launch attempt is expected to occur in approximately mid-December, depending on the time required to resupply LOX and helium."

In the end, what I saw was a team of very smart and experienced people, making each decision after careful consideration. No one wanted to abort, but in this business, you always do the right thing.

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Expected Launch Date

Based on the ensuing discussion after the abort, the team expects to get new LOX and helium delivered in time to allow for a launch in mid-December.

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Mission Aborted

I'll update once I know more.

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LOX tanks are full

We are on hold at T-minus 10 minutes to refill Helium tanks and other procedures.

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The Money Shot

We're T-minus 25 minutes. There is no turning back now.

They are refueling both the LOX and the RP1.

During the operation, they unloaded about 15% of the RP1 from the rocket tanks. The reason they did this was because the LOX tanks and the RP1 tanks are adjacent to each other. If the RP1 tank is full, the fuels effect each other's temp. With a temperature differential between the LOX and RP1 of about 400F, that causes the LOX to boil-off much faster.

Since the race was to finish the operation before all the LOX boiled off, this move bought them some time. The LOX burn-off went from 8 gallons per minute to 4 gallons per minute. The delay took three hours in all. That's 750 gallons saved.

I told you they were smart.

T-minus 20 minutes.

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T-Minus 45 Minutes to Launch!

A very stressful thumbs up

The operation has been successful and the countdown is back on.

Launch time is now 12:50pm Kwaj time, 4:50pm CA time.

Man. Tense doesn't even come close to describing it.

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Procedure in process - Team is still on the island

The problem has been fixed and team has started the operation to refill the LOX into the high-pressure tanks. The back-up LOX is stored in low-pressure tanks, so it needs to be pressurized.

Once it is in the pressurized tanks, they can then start refueling the rocket. Even though the rocket was full at countdown, refueling is necessary because of boil-off.

No status yet on timing.

Every minute counts as they race to stay within the launch window.

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The Team is on the Island

The team is on the island and they are working on the problem.

As a result of the LOX burn-off during this process, we are now in do-or-die mode. If we do not get this procedure done before the launch window closes, the launch is off until a new shipment of LOX can be brought in.

The team here are some of the best in the industry. If it can be done, it will be done.

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Waiting for the crew

The camera is now trained on the dock where the crew will arrive. They should get there any minute.

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Status 11am

The team has been approved to land on the island. They are on their way.

The operation is expected to take 2 hours.

Once the operation is complete, they will be able to reassess whether the launch can occur today.

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Status 10:51am

The team is waiting to be allowed back on the island. The manual adjustment required can only be done by hand and the LOX is burning off at 500 gallons per hour.

Unfortunately, we have to write up a procedure in order for the military to let us back on the island.

We are waiting painfully while the team writes up a procedure and waits for approval.

Launch will not happen for several hours. The danger of no launch today will be if we run out of LOX before we can fix the valve problem.

Very, very tense.

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Valve not closing

We are now on indefinite hold.

A valve is not closing on one of the external LOX storage tanks.

They are waiting on a safety approval to send the SpaceX team back to the island to close off the valve manually.

The concern here is that if the procedure takes too long, LOX will boil off to a point where they will need more LOX. That's not good.

The far left tank has a valve that is not closing.

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T-Minus 10 Minutes and on hold

The count is being held very briefly at T-Minus 10 minutes to ensure that all procedures have been properly finished.

Very tense and excited atmosphere.

All external variables are within acceptable ranges (weather).

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Countdown on Hold

Due to the supply pump for Helium being slower than expected, the launch countdown has been put on hold.

The destination tank for the Helium is at 4900 PSI and the source is at 1400PSI. As a result, you need a very strong pump to keep pushing the helium into the rocket tanks. The pump is slower than expected but it is working.

Current expected launch time: 10am Kwaj time, 2pm CA time.

Quick rocket fuel primer for dummies:
LOX, liquid oxygen is stored in the tanks with Rocket Propellant 1 (RP1). In Stage 1 (the big bottom section of the rocket), the ratio is 2.2:1, LOX:RP1. In the 2nd stage, the upper section of the rocket, the ratio is 2.35:1. The LOX and RP1 are combined at the base of the rocket and accelerated by the turbo pump. That makes the rocket go.

The Helium is used to ensure a constant pressure in the fuel tanks, and is used to activate the valves in the rocket. In the 2nd stage, there is no turbo pump and the helium is essential to pressurizing the fuel tanks.

LOX, Helium and RP-1 being filled

The steam you see being released from the rocket is the boil-off from the LOX.

By the way, the rocket goes very fast. The 1st stage accelerates the rocket to 6,850 miles per hour. That is very fast. It gets to this speed in 160 seconds.

But truthfully, if you know rockets, that is not really that fast. So after it jettisons the first stage, it accelerates to 17,000 miles per hour. Now that... is very fast.

Countdown has restarted. T-minus 40 minutes and counting.


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T-minus 1 hour and 35 minutes to launch window.

Up at 3 am, the SpaceX crew have been filling the rocket with LOX (liquid oxygen). The Pad-Crew leave the island just before the LOX gets filled and retreat to an island three miles away. The Control Room is 26 miles from Omelek, the Rocket Island.

That's where I am. I feel like that Farside Cartoon where the dork leopard goes up to the other leopards as they stalk a deer. The dork leopard goes up to them and says: "What's up guys?"

A thank you to Gary Larson for teaching me when to keep my mouth shut.

LOX being filled into the rocket

The Control Room on Mission Day

The way that a launch day works is that SpaceX is given a window by the military of 6 hours in which to launch. In our case, we've been given 9am to 3pm Kwaj time (1pm to 7pm CA time).

If everything is a go at 9am, then we launch at 9am. Right now the only thing that might hold us up is winds. They are varying from 14-25 knots this morning. We would prefer to launch in lower winds.

Elon getting Psyched!

Me in the Secondary Control Room

It's now T-minus 52 minutes.

I'll update as things change.


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Friday, November 25, 2005

What do Ronald Reagan and Mark Hamill have in common?

Both are bad actors and played a leading role in Star Wars.

Pop Quiz: Which one was president?

So with a day to kill (since the launched was pushed a day), I decided to spend time finding out what the hell that thing is above the SpaceX headquarters. Remember the picture, from the first post:

SpaceX Headquarters

View from the other side

To give you an idea of how big this structure is, imagine a football stadium. It's huge. It's probably 20 stories high. And it's scary looking.

So I asked a few folks around what the hell this thing once did. There answer (I'm not kidding here): it was used as a target for laser beams from space. It had Giant Frickin' Laazzzzeeerrrr beams shooting at it from satellites in space. Dr. Evil, are you listening?

These laser beams would be powerful enough to take out an ICBM heading towards the mainland. The idea, I guess, was to test the accuracy and power of these lasers.

The inspiration: Luke using "laaaazzzzers" to blow away incoming

Turns out, that was harder than it sounded. And more expensive. And harder. Did I say harder? In the end it was determined that in order to get the level of power you would need to make such a laser, you would have harness the energy from an atomic bomb each time you shot one laser.

Really, really hard.

Ever tried surfing? It's also hard.

Although I've never tried it, I hear this is also pretty hard to do.

The Star Wars laser system was even harder.

Turns out, even if we did figure it out, we would need an enormous number of these things to counter a major offensive. We could ask nicely for the enemy to send one missile at a time, but it's unlikely they would accommodate us.

The Star Wars Building from far, far away

So in the end, they stopped the program and focused on good old-fashioned missiles. Also really hard to make work, but not as hard, and missiles are cooler. And you get to see them up close and go "oooohhh..."


The launch is now less than 24 hours away. All final preparations are in place and pre-launch activity is done.

Now I'm going scuba diving.



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Thursday, November 24, 2005

Day 3: Life as a Target

Example of a picture from around town

After being in Kwaj for three days now, I started to wonder what all these posters were around town. They were quite stunning and other-worldly. My first assumption was that it was some unique anomoly of light caused by our unique location. Turns out I was wrong.

Kwaj is not only a launch site for missiles, it is also a giant target for testing missiles launched from the continental US. Those images are the re-entry trails of the ICBM's launched from California. I found this out on a bike ride around the island. There is a beautiful view on the north side of the island looking into the center of the atoll.

The beautiful view of the center of the atoll from this chair

What it looks like when ICBMs re-enter (from the chair).

So I thought I'd look around some more and see what life is like on this mini-island.

First of all, there is a downtown.

Parking downtown

It has a Macy's. Not a real Macy's, but they call it Macy's. You can get most things at Kwaj's Macy's as you can get in New York's Macy's, it just much, much smaller. And you can't be picky.

For example, they only sold women's sunglasses. If you're a man and you want sunglasses, then stop being picky and wear one of those nice, shapely sunglasses they're selling.

The Macy's at Kwaj

The Restaurant at Kwaj. It's a cafeteria, but it's actually a pretty good one.

Truthfully, life is pretty good out here for the folks that choose Kwaj. Almost everyone on the island is non-military. I was told that less than 50 people worked for the army. Everyone else is part of contractor companies supporting the military operations in Kwaj.

Schools are apparently so good here that over 90% of students move on to college. The motivation might also be partly "get me off this tiny island" as much as good schooling, but you can't beat those odds.

The beaches are actually really nice where the residents live

On the ride around the island we saw people scuba diving, swimming and lazing on the beach; basically doing what you would imagine people would do on a beach resort. Except they live here and seem pretty darn happy. Everyone seems to be smiling.

It's hot, but it's not that hot. It's humid, but it's not... actually, it's damn humid. Still, I hear you get used to it after a while.

All round, not a bad place to live.

See, no lines at the Travel Agency

On the rocket front, the launch has been pushed a day due to a "request" from the army. The details are so infuriating but suffice it to say, we're pissed. Elon received a call at 4am in the morning saying that they need to move Spacex's long planned launch time because they need to "work" that day near the Spacex island.

So now the launch is Sunday our time, Saturday Mainland time.

'til next time.


What a rocket looks like when it launches from Kwaj

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Day 2: On Dr. Evil's Island

We spent the day today on the island where the rocket will launch from. It's several miles from Kwaj by boat. The island was once used as a launch pad during the cold war but since had been overtaken by brush and trees.

If you've seen Austin Powers, then you know what I mean by Dr. Evil. Truthfully, Austin Powers was a spoof of so many of the same movie: megalomaniac wants to take over the world. The first step of course being finding a remote island and building one of the various "world conquering" rockets.

Example of what could be a the first step towards "World Domination"

Thousands of Gallons of Liquid Oxygen. A typical target of sabotage in a James Bond movie.

The plastic bucket at the base of the rocket engine is just one of the many innovations at Spacex.

When Spacex leased the island, the first thing they did was cut it down some of the brush to open land. Then they poured concrete down, and presto: instant launch pad. Sounds easy, except that almost every piece of equipment needs to be brought in over 5,000 miles by boat. You look at a truck a little differently when you know it's the only truck. As in, it's the only truck.

Did I mention we're in the middle of nowhere:

The middle of nowhere

The team spent today attaching the final piece of the rocket: the chamber. that's the cone-like thing that goes on the bottom of the rocket. It looks kind of like a big bullhorn.

The chamber has been signed by the guys who built it.

Me and Elon at the rocket

The Rocket at Dusk

It's been a cool day. Rockets and islands. Hard to beat it.

Happy Thanksgiving and see you tomorrow.


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