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May 24 2012

ISS flyby

Here’s something a researcher told me in a  recent interview with some asteroid miners: when it comes to newspace, failure is an option. It has to be. If we restrict ourselves as a species only to tasks with super high confidence rates, the rate of progress will slow to a crawl. This failure is an option theme may lead in my upcoming post on Planetary Resources. For now, SpaceX is doing marvelously:

Artist's rendering of the cargo variant of Dragon being berthed to the ISS. Click for more info on the SpaceX Dragon.

(The Register) — Having launched its new Dragon spacecraft on Tuesday – on only its second flight – SpaceX is now seeking to bring the ship to a docking with the International Space Station on Friday. Many boxes must be ticked before this can happen, however: but today the first was checked off as the Dragon made a close pass within 1.5 miles of the station, and ‘nauts aboard the orbiting outpost confirmed that their remote-control console was able to command the new ship. This was done by ordering the Dragon to illuminate its strobe lights as it flew by the Station.

In fact the station’s crew – the Dragon tests were handled by André Kuipers of the ESA and NASA’s Don Pettit – couldn’t see that the lights were on owing to bright sunlight illuminating the still quite distant Dragon. However telemetry confirmed that the capsule had received the radio command from the ISS and activated its lights, and viewers of NASA TV were treated to video of the Dragon as it gradually overhauled the station from beneath, passing above South Africa and the Indian Ocean as it did so.

BTW, last week a SpaceX Falcon 9 had to be shut down after fuel had already been injected into one of the main Merlin engines when a sensor detected an unhealthy pressure build up. That alone was a pretty impressive. What’s even more amazing is engineers pulled that cowling open, got down inside there and replaced some critical valves in the space of a few hours. The rocket had to wait a couple of days for another launch window, but it could have theoretically been turned around the same day.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    Palle Raabjerg

    I’m quite enthusiastic about SpaceX as well. Liquid engine rockets does seem to be the way to go. Copenhagen Suborbitals, who was initially betting on hybrid engines for their project has actually switched tracks. And just a few days before the Falcon-9 launch, they successfully tested what is so far allegedly the biggest amateur built (for some definitions of “amateur”) liquid powered rocket engine:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRyh66zPy5U

    Fuelled by LOX and alcohol. (It burned 300 litres of alcohol in that test. So it’s a faster drinker even than most Danes.)
    At the test, it was apparently running at half power. But it should be capable of 65kN at full power. It seems they decided to switch from helium to nitrogen for the pressuriser a few days before the test, and as I understood it then, they need better piping to pressurise the tanks for full power burn.

  2. 2
    Trebuchet

    It seems they decided to switch from helium to nitrogen for the pressuriser a few days before the test, and as I understood it then, they need better piping to pressurise the tanks for full power burn.

    That sounds reasonable. Helium has the smallest molecule, by far, of any gas. Being a noble gas it’s monatomic, while hydrogen (and nitrogen) are diatomic. That gives helium a great propensity to leak, where other gasses can be contained.

  3. 3
    Crudely Wrott

    Ahh, failure; life’s finest and arguably sternest teacher.

    Once you have discovered the myriad ways something does not work, and assuming you survive the errors, the closer you are to knowing how it does work.

    We are closing in on nearly a century of modern rocketry. The first half of that time is exemplified by failure and modest success. The second half, well, just rewind the movie and watch it again.

    Actually, the history of rocketry is a fine example of how to learn to do something difficult, dangerous and fantastic by first doing it wrong and then learning from those mistakes. I can imagine future texts using this history as an object lesson applicable to lots of unrelated endeavors.

    All hail Tsiolkovsky and Goddard! Hat tips to William Congreve, Hyder Ali and the Chinese who started it all with a bang. There are many more who contributed along the way. A quick primer can be found at the Wiki:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rockets#Spread_of_rocket_technology

    Rocket science! It’s not just for eccentric visionaries anymore!

  4. 4
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    I hope SpaceX suceeds.

    I musadmit I’ve had my doubts and misgivings but, whoah, are they ever winning me over.

    So far the’ve been very impressive.

    But agree with the OP I do. Very much so.

    Somethings are inherently going to be risky and challenging.

    Spaceflght – like motor racing, sky-diving and mountaineering is always going to have its potential dangers.

    But then so too does just crossing the road or driving a car. Life is risky.

    What would you rather die of – Alzheimers after a long cushioned risk-averse life of doing nothing great or in a fireball in your prime doing what you love and achieving something astounding? Give me option II please!

    “We do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard as JFK – the last truly great US President in my view* once famosuly said.

    +++++

    Before my time, JFK was. Reagan was the first US President I remember -and taht memeory wa sseeing him give a an address to nation post the Challenger’s loss – and they only seem tohave gotten worse since. (Well Obama may be a slight improvement upon Bush but not by all that much. Huge let down with BHO really. Expected better of him.) Reagan was certainly one of your better ones. But JFK will go down with Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt I think when future generations look back at the all time great POTUS’es and certainly was more inspirational and better with, I dunno, creating an aura of awe (maybe?) than any since.

  5. 5
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Goshdurned dangnabbed typos! Sorry folks, hope y’all get the gist anyzhow.

    (BTW. Can I swear properly here or is that just Pharnygula?)

    Hope its okay netquette~wise to post this link :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2012/05/25/dragon-is-approaching-the-space-station/

    which in turn links to the current Dragon mission progress as I type?

  6. 6
    Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew

    An observation, I have done a fair bit of skydiving, and a huge amount of rock climbing. At a few times and places I got myself into scary situations. In the thick of the worst of them, for a fleeting terror drenched moment or two … Alzheimer’s or cancer actually looked pretty goddamn good.

    But I understand the sentiment Stevo, and I’ve said similar things myself many times :)

    BTW, I am working on a super double-secret project that would, hopefully, do a better job of explaining space development to a wider group of people.

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