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Comment Re: Senile? (Score 1) 951

There is still a whole lot of work that needs to happen before boosters are even reused. At the very least, SpaceX needs to restart their F9R development program, which halted due to the one test vehicle blowing up over central Texas. Legitimately SpaceX decided against building a replacement because they thought they were far enough along to at least recover in one estimate about 50% of the boosters and with the launch rate that would have a half dozen by the end of last year. The CRS-7 explosion also set that timeline back a bit further.

I am expecting that the current recovered boosters (beyond the first recovered booster that is already slated to become a monument at SpaceX headquarters) will be flown extensive in both Texas and in New Mexico (Spaceport America). It will likely be an aggressive program to fly and refly those boosters over and over again until several of them crater into the ground to push the limits of what they can be doing, spending just manpower to deal with them and the minor cost of the fuel. SpaceX has also said that a couple of the boosters have already been pulled apart for a deep level engineering review to see how the engines have performed, and that at least some of the parts and pieces are already slated to be reused in future flights even if it isn't the full cores yet. Very likely there will be at least some Merlin engines that will make a flight very soon a second time, which is already a huge savings.

It will take several years before SpaceX will take a recovered core and re-integrate on the spot with a new upper stage and payload. I agree that is the standard being aimed for, but the recovery is just the first of a long, long process of getting there.

Comment Re:Senile? (Score 5, Insightful) 951

I fervently wish he'd leave off the Mars stuff until SpaceX was on a solid footing as a profitable launch company with rapid cadence.

How can you say that SpaceX is not profitable at the moment? They have not had an investment round for several years now, except for the Google investment that seems to be aimed at something other that building rockets. SpaceX is also going to have well over a dozen launches at the current launch rate unless there is a major glitch that appears which would ground the launch fleet.

This comment would have been appropriate in 2009 or earlier when SpaceX was still flying the Falcon 1 and still struggling to simply get into orbit with only announced plans for the Falcon 9 and some test hardware in the assembly line. That is no longer the case right now.

If Elon Musk succeeds at sending a probe to Mars in 2018 like he already announced, it isn't just talking about Mars but rather actually going there. He also committed to sending at least one payload to Mars on every Hohmann Transfer Orbit opportunity between the Earth and Mars for as long as the company exists in the future (and mentioned in the above video). The question isn't just pontificating about what the future could be like, but rather holding actual hardware that will be on the surface of Mars in a definite time table.

When companies talk about spaceflight, I always look at "bent metal" to see how serious they are about getting the job done. SpaceX certainly has plenty of bent metal to prove they are serious about going into space and a growing resume of completed missions in space.

Comment Re:SpaceX's Next Big Challenge (Score 3) 150

But the big challenge for SpaceX now isn't one with astounding demonstrations of technology. It's doing the same thing over, and over, and doing it quickly, and making a profit.

I agree with you that is a core problem for the company. Having two launch pads in Florida and getting the third launch pad in Texas (not ignoring the one in California.... but that is specialized for polar/military payloads) is going to help a lot in terms of clearing their manifest too. Gwynne Shotwell just gave a speech with a Q&A recently about the Falcon Heavy and made a few remarks about the work done on pad 39A too. They are just about ready to start using that site for launch operations there, where a second launch team is likely to help increase that flight rate.

I'll also point out that at the moment range operations at Cape Canaveral in general needs to be streamlined if launch rates are to be increased. That involves more than just SpaceX and might even require a general rethinking for flight operations there for the other launch providers that use the same site. I know for a fact that the Space Shuttle really messed up launch schedules where a Shuttle launch not only took priority but also blocked out a huge hunk of the calendar for nearly a 3-4 week period of time. I would expect that the SLS and the crewed launches (both SpaceX and Boeing are launching out of KSC) are going to be in a similar situation.

By Texas law and the contract signed by SpaceX with the City of Brownsville and the surrounding communities, the Brownsville spaceport can have at most 12 launches per year and each one must be no closer than 20 days from the previous launch. While that might help work around some scheduling problems for some payloads when stuff is happening at the cape, it doesn't mean there is going to be much more of an increased launch tempo.

In other words, I think about the most that almost any private commercial launch provider could ever do right now with the current launch infrastructure for orbital spaceflight in America is about 20 launches per year... and that is being very generous. Last year SpaceX got in seven flight, with one catastrophic failure that required a full engineering review and a return to flight program that satisfied not only the FAA-AST regulators but also all of the customers... especially NASA and the DOD. If they get over a dozen flights in this year, I would be surprised.

Comment Re: So what? (Score 4, Interesting) 150

Part of that effort to build the satellite network resulted in the Iridium satellite constellation. A combination of 1990's electronic technology (it wasn't all that good... really) along with as you said the extremely high launch costs caused the companies to go bankrupt. Iridium itself has gone through several sets of owners, and it was kept on life support financially basically because the U.S. military couldn't find any alternative that could provide global coverage like Iridium was doing.

To give an example of the technical capabilities of Iridium, the first generation had a data throughput speed of 2400 baud for individual customers. That might have been sufficient for reading a few e-mails in the 1990's, but is grossly slow for current needs. The costs for Iridium phones are also insanely expensive compared to what was promised.... and frankly the satellites couldn't handle the crush of millions of users in that first generation either to spread those costs around.

Bill Gates' plan to have a large number of cheap satellites might have worked, but as you have pointed out it needed cheap launch costs to make it possible. $10k/kg to orbit is not cheap.

Comment Re:Simple question (Score 5, Insightful) 150

How does this impact me or most other people in any significant way?

To start with, you would likely not be writing this comment in the first place if it wasn't for space-based assets. While you might be able to say that your actual TCP/IP packet only traveled along a fiber cable, the work of placing that cable inevitably used at least the GPS satellite constellation along with numerous other space-based vehicles. Like it or not, spaceflight has every day impacts upon your life, no matter how disconnected and isolated you might think your life has become. It is what makes the modern civilization function.

As a matter of fact, this particular satellite was a telecommunication satellite that will be broadcasting over the western Pacific Ocean region (aka eastern Asia).

Shouldn't we put our resources to better use, like stopping global warming?

It is stuff like this that you even know about global warming. How else do you think a genuinely global monitoring effort measuring temperatures, ocean conditions, sea levels, and other factors are even followed in the first place? This is how resources are being used to help stop such environmental pollution. If you don't know what is happening, you can't stop it from happening in the future.

I promise you that at least some data packets you are going to be using in the future will go across this particular satellite. The world is just far too interconnected.

The fact that the rocket landed again successful means that anything going into space is going to be much, much cheaper in the future as competitors to SpaceX try to copy the effort and come up with at least something that can compete commercially against SpaceX. That is what is so significant about this particular flight in addition to the payload that actually got up into space.

Comment Re:Finally (Score 2) 105

Unfortunately SpaceX is screwing the American taxpayers right now, being incapable of getting even 10 tonnes into orbit for 133M with its CRS flights.

You do realize that SpaceX just sent a CRS payload into orbit this past week, and the capsule is still up on the ISS attached to the station as I'm writing this reply?

I don't know what you are complaining about, other than a big oops happened with the CRS-7 flight. Those issues (at least the cause of that incident) have been resolved and the Falcon 9 has gone back into service with what I have seen as one of the fastest turn around times of any launch provider after a complete catastrophic failure of their primary launch vehicle.

The only people complaining are folks who are clueless about rocket science.

Comment Re:Finally (Score 1) 105

China is also being extremely timid with their space exploration plans. While they have done everything you have said, they aren't really pushing any sort of frontiers in any real sense of the word or doing anything that hasn't been done repeatedly by other spacefaring countries in the past.

In that sense, statements like "we will build a base on the Moon" definitely makes them sound a whole lot like "space nutters" that you are railing against. They have so much to accomplish and so much to learn about what it would take to actually get there that I strongly question any bold statements of that nature. Ditto with anything going to Mars or the Moon beyond just a duplication of the Surveyor & Ranger series of vehicles. China is at least 20-40 years away from duplicating Neil Armstrong's walk on the Moon as a weekend camping trip much less actually building a permanent structure of any kind there.

Yes, they can eventually get there if they actually commit resources to making it happen. China even now has the money necessary to do some national prestige projects like planting a red Chinese flag next to the completely white flag with a few extremely faded strips left by the Apollo astronauts several decades ago.

My largest complaint about the Chinese astronaut corps though is the lack of an operational tempo where those astronauts definitely are not getting the experience needed in space to actually perform the tasks that are going to be needed when the going gets tough. It took a decade of constant practice, multiple crewed spaceflights each year, and frankly some incredibly bold steps in order for both the USA and Russia to be ready to send people to the Moon. Russia's main drawback was that they couldn't get a reliable super heavy launch vehicle working (aka the N1 rocket). China doesn't have that kind of depth to its astronaut corps to pull off any significant effort beyond LEO right now.

Comment Re:Money not well spent (Score 1) 205

The big difference between private companies and government is that a private company who screws up with budget and schedule problems (like Rocketplane Kistler.... a private space launch company started well before even SpaceX and even won a similar COTS launch award to bring cargo to the ISS like SpaceX), they simply go bankrupt and go out of existence providing a niche for a new company to take its place. Managers and employees in that old company going bankrupt don't hold the same positions in any new companies, so they need to prove themselves all over again and more importantly can't make the same mistakes.

Governments on the other hand also have budget and schedule problems, but making bad governments go away is sort of a tough thing to do. Government agencies or even sections can almost never disappear. Entire governments almost never go away... or when they do they usually cause a whole lot of bloodshed and other civil strife that accompanies that sort of event. There are often counter-productive things that happen in government agencies too simply because the purpose of that government is not necessarily to provide a particular product or service, but instead has other significant goals well outside of the core principles. A good example of this is the Muslim outreach that Administrator Charles Bolden did with NASA... something that has absolutely nothing to do with aircraft R&D or sending vehicles to Mars.

There is nothing specifically wrong with governments doing things, and sometimes they get done well with government agencies too. It is how to deal with them when the organization falls apart is the problem.

Comment Re:That's a loop (Score 1) 81

Burning an orbiting spacecraft inside an orbiting spacecraft?

You are missing something here. It is simply the orbiting spacecraft.... catching fire on the inside of that same spacecraft.... in space!

It is like a Beowulf Cluster of Linux servers........ in space!

That is why this is so impressive..... in space!

Comment Re:Uhmmmm (Score 1) 42

Other than the fact that the test track is currently under construction and test vehicles are also being built by a dozen different teams including a couple of commercial enterprises that plan on installing them in the not too distant future. It isn't as if there is a lack of effort in trying to figure out how to build the capsules themselves.

Comment Re: Why the drone ship (Score 1) 129

You can't just move the launches to California. The reason why the launches are happening in Florida is because there aren't people to the east of the launch site for hundreds of miles. If the launch was done instead at Vandenberg, the flight path would take the rocket over Santa Barbara and potentially Los Angeles, where not very many people would be happy if pieces of the rocket like what happened during the CRS-7 flight started to fall on their homes.

Moving the launch site to perhaps the Mojave Airport (which is even licensed by the FAA as a proper spaceport for some spaceflight activities) would still have this rocket arcing over Las Vegas and Phoenix and eventually over the whole south-eastern USA.

Russia gets away with launching their rockets in the middle of Asia in part because the flight path is similarly over almost completely unpopulated parts of the world (mostly Siberia and the steppe of Kazakhstan)... and the Soviet Union (when the launch site was built) didn't worry about pesky details like lawsuits from its citizens. The Russian government still doesn't care, and by the time rockets from Russia are heading over Alaska it isn't too big of a worry as the rockets are already in orbit.

In short, a flat plain or desert in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean would be nice, particularly if it had no people. Unfortunately that land without people doesn't exist.

Comment Re: Expectations game (Score 2) 129

about the only question I might be asking would be how much are they spending to develop this technology and how much money do they think they'll save--in short, what is the ROI for something like this?

Some hard numbers to throw around on something like this:

The current "price" of a Falcon 9 is about $70 million USD. This is how much you would be asked to pay for a standard Falcon 9 if you made a serious inquiry to sales @ spacex.com for a real quote, but that comes before special one time engineering charges or extra features and special handling. That price gets you a rocket, the basic range fees for an ordinary simple LEO payload delivery, and engineering data for a standard SpaceX payload connector. Most payloads usually require some special engineering considerations, so the price usually goes up from there.

The "cost" of a Falcon 9, in terms of raw labor and manufacturing costs to get that vehicle actually manufactured is definitely less than that figure, where I've heard the price is speculated to possibly in the very roughly $20-$30 million range to build that rocket, with most of that cost concentrated in the construction of the lower (1st) stage of the Falcon 9.... let's say about $15-$20 million for actual labor & manufacturing costs of the lower stage. That is a huge profit margin, which one of the reasons why Steve Jurvetson (a member of the SpaceX board of directors) is publicly quoted as saying the SpaceX financials are "financial porn".

Elon Musk also suggested that the fuel costs for a typical Falcon 9 flight are well less than $1 million per flight, more along the line of about $250,000 per flight to give a general ball park figure.

You can use that as a range of figures to try and figure out what the ROI of performing multiple failures and how many times you need to recover the lower stage before it becomes profitable. Also of note, this particular launch of the SES-9 vehicle likely would have been to purchase the full vehicle and not really involve any bonus for lower stage recovery where the expectation is that the stage would not have been recovered. It should also be of significant note that purely for R&D purposes that have nothing to do with reflying the lower stage, obtaining the physical equipment for engineering review is incredibly valuable where actual rocket engines used to delivery payloads into space and then put on a test stand for additional performance testing can help to significantly improve reliability. Just using a borescope to peek inside of the engine parts to see how they held up under actual flight conditions is alone worth the price of that stage if it means fewer disasters like the CRS-7 flight.

In short, I think you could likely make a case that even recovering one in three or more likely every other launch for that lower stage would more than pay for this whole recovery program effort from a strict cost accounting basis. I'd love to see what the engineering costs for this recovery development have been,but compared to the costs of developing the Merlin engines or the costs of developing the Dragon spacecraft, I suspect it is minor and almost incidental. A single successful recovery is worth at a minimum of $10-$15 million cash in hand, and that even includes the costs of the barge operations.

To show where SpaceX is looking from their own caculations, they intend to drop the price of the Falcon 9 to about $30 million with the regular recovery of the Falcon 9 lower stage, and if they can ever get the upper stage to the point of being recovered as well, that price goes down to a mere $7 million per launch that they intend to charge their customers. SpaceX has also announced their intention to perform payload faring recovery and reuse, just to show the extent of their reuse plans.

Comment Re:Expectations game (Score 1) 129

You are 100% correct on every point above, at least based on stuff I have heard about from SpaceX from a variety of sources.

Switching to an internal TCP/IP network for the rocket also saved a tremendous amount of mass for sensor cabling too, which matters a whole ton more when you are talking about the rocket equation.

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