back to article SpaceX launch is a go for Sunday after successful static fire completed

Elon's Musketeers at SpaceX have been on tenterhooks on Friday as the team tried to static fire its improved Falcon 9 rocket ahead of the firm's first commercial launch in months. Falcon 9 went vertical yesterday and the teams ran through pad operations. Working towards static fire later today. pic.twitter.com/ZGMBKrFzik — …

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Someone forgot Grasshopper

SpaceX have successfully landed multiple rockets. They just haven't managed to return a rocket from an orbital launch and land it on a barge at sea. But then Blue Origin hasn't managed that either, or indeed anything close.

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Re: Someone forgot Grasshopper

And those that recall Grasshopper have forgotten the NASA vertical-takeoff and landing rocket, the DC-X which did pretty much everything the Grasshopper did but twenty years earlier.

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Re: Someone forgot Grasshopper

"And those that recall Grasshopper have forgotten the NASA vertical-takeoff and landing rocket, the DC-X which did pretty much everything the Grasshopper did but twenty years earlier."

You have made me sad today remembering this.

Nonetheless, it's always good to remind people just how far behind we are and that much of our current super cool tech was created years and decades ago.

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SpaceX is now fiddling with the ignition timing sequence to see if that will fix the issue.

I'm sure SpaceX wouldn't say it quite like that... Nevertheless it does sound a teeny weeny bit like last minute discovery of how some of their equipment actually functions, again.

I have to say that optimising the timing of events during the launch preparation and ignition does sound a little bit like they know the throttle valve is not good enough. I wonder if the payload insurance company is paying attention; premiums will be going up, even if the flight is successful.

Ready for Manned Flight?

It also doesn't bode well for manned flight on SpaceX. It's one thing to fiddle with things like this when there is little but a well insured customer payload to lose. Any sober minded astronauts paying attention to the condition of their launch vehicle would want to take a long look at that, and all the other "experiments" being tried at the same time.

First rule of manned spaceflight; first you must persuade some of the best educated, most competent and innately sceptical people on the planet that the launch vehicle that you've built is going to work properly. Fail in that persuasion and you haven't got manned flight; they won't get into it. If you set out to hoodwink them, well you'll likely be having to explain that to a board of inquiry, a bereaved family and in this day and age possibly a judge and jury.

Astronauts know that all of the West's losses in spaceflight have been ultimately attributed to managerial failings. It was known that a pure oxygen atmosphere was a dangerous idea. It was known that measuring the circularity of a booster segment at only six places wasn't good enough and that launching at such cold temperatures would mean that sealing rubber wouldn't be pliant. It was known that insulating foam got stripped off the external fuel tank and could hit the shuttle during the launch climb.

A sticky throttle valve being dealt with on the pad by fiddling with the launch sequence? A wise astronaut wouldn't think twice, they'd drive home.

The stakes are high; SpaceX can ill afford another failure

Hmm, one wonders when they'll learn that patience and thoroughness are ultimately cheaper than haste and carelessness? I wish them good luck of course, but ideally they shouldn't be needing it.

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Holmes

Astronauts know that all of the West's losses in spaceflight have been ultimately attributed to managerial failings. It was known that a pure oxygen atmosphere was a dangerous idea. It was known that measuring the circularity of a booster segment at only six places wasn't good enough and that launching at such cold temperatures would mean that sealing rubber wouldn't be pliant. It was known that insulating foam got stripped off the external fuel tank and could hit the shuttle during the launch climb.

The first one I agree but the other two were only "known" with hindsight. This was not reckless or even bad management: problems and warning signs got swamped by the managerial processes and clear-headed step-back-and-think remedial action never got off the ground. Which of course means that said managerial processes should be flattened or rejigged. (More on this here as usual). Or maybe one should just. not. build. a Hail Mary contraption built on bleeding edge technology like the Shuttle where one of the side-goals is to funnel pork money to industrial players in the first place.

A sticky throttle valve being dealt with on the pad by fiddling with the launch sequence?

Welcome to the real world. Don't tell me this kind of think isn't done in state space programs.

A wise astronaut wouldn't think twice, they'd drive home.

No-one drove away from NASA though.

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A wise astronaut may well walk away. And they will, no doubt, be walking away from any chance of ever going into space. Your point that astronauts are generally smart and sceptical is fair enough. But that didn't stop White, Grissom and Chaffee climbing into a 100% O2 atmosphere. Booster issues didn't stop the 7 Challenger crew climbing in. Shedding of foam didn't stop the 7 Columbia crew getting in either. In all those cases either the crew weren't aware of the threat, in which case they weren't quite as well informed as you might suggest, or they were informed and decided that the risk as they understood it was worth it.

As you said, every western loss in space has been due to management (arguably, every western achievement in space is equally the result of management, you can't blame management for all the failures and credit the engineers and scientists for all the successes; someone had to manage the projects and make the final call of risk vs cost vs schedule, engineers will always recommend the lowest risk approach but sometimes you just don't have the cash/time/whatever to be able to take that approach. Without the managers you've just got a disorganized rabble of nerds). Ultimately management will decide whether to launch a crew in a Dragon perched on top of a Falcon. Each crew member will decide if they are happy with the risks and if they aren't they will be replaced with someone who is.

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Flame

Absent oracles, real-world systems will fail, deal with it

I will just cite copiously from the link to the review given above.

Upside-down rocket exhaust as icon because "If this part starts pointing towards space, you are having a bad day and you will not go to space today".

"Risk and the Work Group Culture"

After [Diane Vaughan] systematically rejects the hypothesis that in managerial decision making, any amoral calculators was at play [in the Challenger Launch Decision], she turns her attention to recreating the work group culture and the environment in which NASA engineers and managers worked, negotiated risk and took decisions under uncertainty. She attempts to create a “native view” of the workgroup culture in NASA. There was always a “residual risk” present in all the flights, due to unique design of the shuttle, and a large number of uncertainties associated with such a large complex technical system, which did not have any prior experience, therefore “work groups were calculating risk...where it was fundamentally incalculable” The concept of “acceptable risk”, which was a formal status conferred upon a component by following a prescribed procedure based on a documented engineering analysis and technical rationale, is key to estimating the flight risk. Whereas other enquiry commissions expressed their surprise at the use of “acceptable risk”, it was a norm to fly in NASA culture with a known residual risk. The decision to assess risk and to categorize it as “acceptable risk” was based on scientific method and engineering judgment based on tests and data, and was often negotiated in the work groups.

"Normalization of Deviance"

Normalization of the deviance in performance of O-ring incrementally increased the “acceptable risk” criteria. Also, the (strong) belief in redundancy (there were two O-rings in shuttle design, one primary, and one backup, as opposed to the Air force’s Titan III solid rocket, which had only one O-ring) led to the construction of risk, which was normalized when test performance deviated from design predictions. The early decision to accept the risk became a precedent and part of the workgroup culture, which led to repeated normalization of the deviance. Diana Vaughan explores the normalization of deviance in chapter five and also revisits and revises the post-accident accounts of controversial NASA actions to continue to fly after observing extensive erosion on the STS-2, declaring the space shuttle operational, and failing to report the joint performance during the Flight Readiness Review to the upper-level NASA administrators. After fourth flight of the shuttle, it was declared operational, which resulted in reducing the testing of vehicles and its components, and requirement for reporting problems. This decision had serious structural impacts that affected the work group’s decision-making process.

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"The first one I agree but the other two were only "known" with hindsight"

The SRB 'O' ring and foam insulation impact damage issues were known about before the fatal flights, but unfortunately the engineers that knew about them didn't manage to convince a sceptical and under pressure NASA management that they were enough of a problem to present a serious level of risk to the programme.

Data on 'O' ring failures vs. estimated joint temperature at launch was given flawed statistical analysis when presented to management - they could see no linear relationships on the graph that they were shown and so rejected low air temperature as a factor, whereas subsequent analysis of the same data after the loss of the Challenger vehicle and crew showed that 'O' ring failures were, statistically speaking, significantly more likely to happen during a cold launch.

Similarly with the foam insulation issue, engineers knew about the problem, and ran a series of experiments firing foam blocks at a simulacrum of a Space Shuttle wing leading edge in order to estimate the chances of non-survivable vehicle damage. However, the computer model they used to track and predict vehicle damage was subsequently found to make several flawed assumptions, resulting in a report to NASA management that stated that while damage to wing tiles was possible but survivable, the risk of non-survivable wing leading edge damage was very low and therefore not significant. Obviously this conclusion was shown to be flawed after the loss of vehicle and crew during Columbia's re-entry on flight STS-107.

This is not to heap the blame on the engineers involved - the Anderson Committee (Apollo 1), the Rogers Commission (Challenger) and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board have all been highly critical of NASA management 'group think', and their reluctance to give engineers' advice and opinions more weight relative to other factors and pressures (i.e. the financial and political costs of cancelling a launch.)

"Welcome to the real world. Don't tell me this kind of think isn't done in state space programs."

Couldn't agree more. Even in manned spaceflight, where engineers and management are obviously more risk averse, there are so many unknown variables and bits of kit that can go wrong that decisions such as those above have to be taken all the time. All they can do is make sure that the risks they know about have been accurately technically assessed so that the correct decisions can be made when it comes to crunch time, such as when a sticky throttle valve manifests itself.

And as to the previous post's mention of a flight crew 'driving home' due to a small glitch? Every launch they do, they know that there is a small but significant chance that they won't make it back to terra firma alive, if at all. But they do it anyway, many of them again and again. And they are not stupid. You really can't sing their praises high enough.

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Anonymous Coward

Management vs. engineers? It's not black and white.

Suggesting that engineers are just a disorganized rabble of nerds without having "the managers" is rather insulting to professional engineers. A fully developed professional engineer IS a manager - and for that matter a pretty good beancounter, too. It's part of the job.

Now then, you can be a scientist at the top of his/her game and have pretty much no managerial ability whatsoever, but the same does not apply to professional engineers. Engineers are employed to get specific practical things done, and that always means "within a budget, operating with a staff, and with the oversight of bosses". A top flight engineer has to be a good manager: has to be good at managing a budget, managing underlings, managing bosses, and so on.

If you look at the Western space disasters, they were often caused by managers without engineering skills making the decisions. When it's gone right, it's because the engineering voices were followed, not those of the managerial class without an engineering background.

(One notable Soviet rocket launch explosion, the Nedelin disaster, was caused by a military man pushing the engineers to do things they knew were unsafe - look it up. It's not just NASA...)

I'd say it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that managers are to blame for all the problems and can take the credit for all the successes, but blame and credit should be correctly apportioned: (non-engineer) managers are mostly to blame for the failures and engineers (as managers) can take most of the credit for the successes.

(actually, it takes the good will and competence of everyone involved in a space launch project to make it work. Without almost all the workers at all levels being competent and taking pride in a job well done - managers and all - no satellite launcher would deliver its payload correctly. SpaceX's recent exploding launcher shows what you get when just one supplier doesn't bother doing the job properly - parts were certified as being a particular strength, but were nothing like what they should have been. Result: boom!)

The recent news from SpaceX shows an outfit which is run according to the principles of good engineering management. Practically speaking, nothing is perfect. And when you've got a machine as complex and finicky as a modern orbital launcher that's still being developed, it's going to be a good deal less than perfect than one would like. Things will be not quite right, and will need tweaking - this is unavoidable. But unlike NASA with the Space Shuttle (RIP two crews), when SpaceX spots an issue, it looks into it and tweaks when needed. This is a sign that prospective astronauts can trust them, not the reverse.

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Well, they pulled it off, congratulations to them. Now, can they do it several times in a row?

"A sticky throttle valve being dealt with on the pad by fiddling with the launch sequence?"

Welcome to the real world. Don't tell me this kind of think isn't done in state space programs.

Er, no. To succeed in the real world you write a specification, and build and test against it. If you're discovering hitherto unknown issues that late on then something (the spec, the build or the testing) earlier in the process has gone wrong, and you're launching equipment whose performance is, by definition, unknown. You are then trusting to luck, not an option in manned space flight.

"A wise astronaut wouldn't think twice, they'd drive home.

No-one drove away from NASA though.

No they didn't. And before the Apollo pad fire tragedy everyone including the astronauts knew it was appallingly risky.

It's still hideously easy to die during spaceflight. No one can afford to take short cuts or get complacent. Just because we've got 21st century kit doesn't mean that anyone can make any assumptions about how well it will perform. We still have to get specifications, build and test completely right.

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Re: Management vs. engineers? It's not black and white.

The recent news from SpaceX shows an outfit which is run according to the principles of good engineering management.

I have to disagree with you. As you say their last failure was down to poor quality control practices which lead to a below-spec strut being launched, according to their own publications. And prior to this launch they're finding problems with a very cold throttle valve.

In this day an age in no well run engineering environment launching rockets (and aspiring to launch people) should the strength of a vital strut be unknown, or a vital throttle valve be found to be sticking that late into the launch process. It's not like the temperature profile of a valve was going to be unknown before they filled the thing up with cryogenic fluids.

Fundamentally speaking SpaceX are not carving a new pathway for how these things are done. NASA and the Russians did that, and Ariane too to some extent, working out that total quality control really, really matters. On a machine where every part is essential, it is essential that every part is spec'ed, built and tested to ensure that it works as needed.

To me it feels like SpaceX have found that there are not huge improvements to be made in design (they kinda tried that, turns out a lot of rockets are fairly efficient thrust / weight) or manufacturing (they tried that, turns out you cannot make the manufacturing process a lot cheaper). If you can cut QC processes, that's a big saving (and may be they've been trying that). If you can re-use large parts of your rocket, that too is a big saving. Their recent success is a big step towards potential cost reductions. They can consolidate that advantage if they apply QC sufficient to make it routine, not lucky.

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Astronauts

These are a strange breed. They would try to fly a kerosene powered propane tank with a lawn chair tied to it if you let them and it had some chance of reaching space. Even if the trip were one way.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Astronauts

Wait until we get the "Event Horizon" gravitational drive.

Straight to hell and back!

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Anonymous Coward

Routine Disasters

Just what do they expect using rocket fuel only the desparate Nazis were reckless enought to use.

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Re: Routine Disasters

They use RP-1, essentially kerosene, which is also used in the first stage of Soyuz, the Delta family of rockets, Atlas and Zenit, and was used on the Saturn V first stage as well. It's pretty much the standard rocket fuel. The nazis used ethanol.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Routine Disasters

> Nazis use unholy unamerican fuel

Internet Meme LOL

Meanwhile: SpaceX webcast Time To Launch 4h 56min

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Re: Routine Disasters

Never mind, delayed 24 hours - current launch time: Tue, Dec 22 2015 1:34 AM GMT

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Now delayed by 24hrs, simulation (Monte Carlo) shows tomorrow 10% better chance of good landing

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Never tell me the odds.

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Launch scrubbed for tonight, rescheduled to tomorrow. More time to look at the liquid oxygen problem that delayed the static fire and better conditions for the RTLS attempt.

"Monday's launch time is set for 8:33 p.m. EST (0133 GMT Tuesday) with a 60-second launch window."

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Spaceship naming...

Perhaps it would have been better titled "Fate amenable to change"?

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All right...

We are aiming for launch in 1h6min30s from .... now!

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Pint

They did it!

Falcon 1st stage has landed back on Earth spot-on, while satellites delivery to orbit proceeds "as nominal"!

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