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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Boulder_Guy said...

Thanks for the photos, and the link to the exploding rockets. My daughter was very amused by them. Actually, I have friends who have lost hardware to a variant of your #4, a failure of a fairing to separate, which also dragged their system and satellite to a firey end. However, they were lucky (?) enough that someone half a world away caught it on film.

The very best of luck tommorow and going forward,

Someone who really is sitting at home in Boulder

Adam said...

Best of luck...Keeping our fingers crossed! Big fan of the work you and your brother have done. Especially the Kitchen...yum!