Thursday, June 24, 2004

The Meaning of Monday

Jeff Foust in the Space Review writes SpaceShipOne makes history — barely, an issue that's sometimes lost in the (rightful) hoopla surrounding Monday's flight. While the all-important goal of 100km was reached, the flight was not without problems.

However, the flight also demonstrates the reason why incremental testing is viewed as a requirement by the space access community. Monday's goal was 107km to meet the record previously established by the X-15), without carrying the ballast required to meet the X-Prize requirements. This would have established that Spaceship One had sufficient performance to reach the required altitude in an actual X-prize attempt. They fell short of this goal because of control system problems of currently unknown origins. Had this been an actual Prize attempt (as many believed it should have been) the attempt would likely have failed, doing significant damage to the reputation of the Prize. However, the emphasis on reusability inherent in the Prize saved the day, Astronaut Mike Melvill was able to continue the flight and land safely. SpaceShip One will fly another day once the issues from Monday's flight are resolved and once the system is proven functional, take a shot at the Prize.

Monday's flight has also obscured another important point; the real goal of Cheap Acess to Space lies much higher - in low earth orbit. As Robert Heinlein wrote "If you can get into orbit, then you're halfway to anywhere".


At 4:26 PM, Blogger Jake said...

I don't see where the damage to the reputation of the X-Prize would have come, had this been an X-Prize attempt. It's not like the DARPA Grand Challenge experience - SS1 was at least in the ballpark and "attempt at record falls just short today, another attempt on deck for tomorrow" is usually good publicity.

Pending the investigation of the control upset this flight could still have demonstrated that SS1 has X-Prize performance once they fix the actuator, at least to a very high level of confidence.

At 5:28 PM, Blogger Eric said...

I agree with Jake. Does anybody remember the round-the-world baloon attempts? Not much credibility lost for failure, since the same team would likely be back next year when the winds were right.

X-prize attempts will likely be similar. The problem will come when we have a catastrophic failure (Monday almost was). When people die the press will be all over it with widows and crying children, then we'll get a whole new regulatory regime which may kill any chance at a commercial space industry.

At 10:30 PM, Blogger Derek said...

A very public failure is rarely good publicity. Balloon flights are frequently problematic for reasons beyond the control of the pilots, and thus are viewed in a very different light. A serious failure on a prize shot (had Monday been a prize shot) would have reinforced the public perception that 'space is hard and dangerous and not for the common man'.

As it stands, it's argueable that Monday's problems were are good things, not for the publicity, but because it shows that you can have serious, but non fatal failures, and that man-in-the-loop is an important capability.

At 5:40 PM, Blogger Jake said...

Sure, if SS1 turned itself into a smoking crater, that would be bad publicity.

Exceeding previous performance marks while falling some small percentage short of your goal due to a quickly identified, if not completely understood failure? That's not bad publicity, unless it happens repeatedly. Don't you ever watch any motorsports?

"We thought we had a real good shot at breaking four seconds today, but the gearbox hung up on the 1-2 shift. Looks like we had a little piece of debris stuck in an air line. It's a bummer for sure, but we'll be back at Harrisburg and going for it again, and I'd like to thank the guys down at Chrysler for all of their support and assistance - without them we wouldn't have a chance."

At 3:44 PM, Blogger Derek said...

I mostly watch baseball Jake; there falling short is often a disaster regardless of how spectacular the performance.

(Prime example; the 2001 Mariners.)


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