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Commercial Spaceflight Industry Drifts Back to Earth

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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SpaceX launch of Dragon 9

Dragon 9 rocket lifts off March 1. Credit: SpaceX

As the brash, stylish new kid on the block, SpaceX was sure to win its share of admirers. But last week’s launch hiccup showed that the private space operator, helmed by Elon Musk, has a few issues to work out, just like stodgy old NASA.

Don’t get me wrong: SpaceX has done unbelievably impressive things. The company’s Falcon 9 rocket has gone from its first test launch to making deliveries to the International Space Station in less than two years. SpaceX is the only private operator allowed to dock with the ISS, which, given the station’s colossal costs, says something about the faith NASA has in the California upstart. (Imagine if your dad let you park next to his $100-billion sports car.)

But space exploration is hard, no matter who you are, what your business model is, or what engineering innovations you bring to the table. (There’s a reason people use “rocket science” as shorthand for something difficult.) And the first two official SpaceX deliveries to the ISS, while successful, have each served as a reality check—a valuable reminder of the enormous complexity and high stakes of spaceflight.

During the first commercial resupply mission, in October 2012, one of the nine engines on the Falcon 9 rocket lost pressure and shut down about 80 seconds into flight. The rocket still delivered its primary payload to orbit, and SpaceX touted in a statement that “Falcon 9 did exactly what it was designed to do.” The statement went on to boast that “Falcon 9 is designed to handle an engine out situation and still complete its mission. No other rocket currently flying has this ability.” But the engine failure caused the Falcon to deposit a secondary payload—a small satellite—in an unstable orbit, lower than had been planned, and the satellite quickly fell back toward Earth and burned up in the atmosphere.

SpaceX Dragon capsule at ISS

The Dragon capsule docking with the ISS. Credit: NASA

The second resupply trip, which began March 1 with a clean liftoff of a Falcon 9, quickly took a turn for the worse when three of the four thruster pods on the Dragon cargo capsule failed to fire up. For a time, it looked as if the Dragon might not be able to reach its intended orbit to rendezvous with the station. By the time the problem had been corrected, six hours into flight, NASA and SpaceX had postponed by a day the Dragon’s planned arrival at the ISS. Eventually the Dragon docked successfully on March 3.

As a colleague pointed out to me this week, the two anomalies—or, more specifically, the contingency planning and on-the-fly repairs that minimized the impact of the anomalies—might actually bode well for SpaceX. It is one thing to hope for a perfect mission, and quite another to scramble to a quick recovery when something goes wrong. Taken to an extreme, such ingenuity and adaptivity are what made NASA’s salvaging of the Apollo 13 mission so impressive.

So the question, to my mind, is not whether the launch hiccups are indicative of larger engineering problems. Thus far, SpaceX has a record to be proud of. The question that keeps bothering me is whether the sunnily optimistic view that NASA and the general public have for newcomers such as SpaceX can weather the realities of a dangerous, failure-prone business, especially once the Dragon capsule is outfitted to carry astronauts and not just cargo to the ISS. The history of spaceflight is punctuated by rocket malfunctions, crashed probes, and—tragically—numerous deaths, both of astronauts and of workers and other civilians on the ground.

The private spaceflight industry has already tasted tragedy. In 2007 an explosion in California killed three people at a company called Scaled Composites who were working on engines for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. That mishap, like so many workplace accidents in the aerospace industry, has largely been forgotten. Virgin soldiers on toward its first commercial launch in the coming years, at which point public scrutiny will increase manyfold. If a mishap involves customers on a suborbital flight rather than workers on the ground, we will hear much more about the accident and its victims. And I suspect that many of the 500-plus people now lining up to fly to space will change their minds.

When NASA lost three astronauts in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in 1967, the U.S. pushed on. There was a space race under way, and the nation’s skyward aspirations had no outlet other than NASA. Nowadays, manned space exploration ranks much lower as a national priority (look no further than the NASA budget, which during Apollo was roughly 10 times larger as a share of the nation’s total expenditures). And the goals of the human spaceflight program, at least for the near term, are much more mundane. So I have to wonder what kinds of losses the public will tolerate when the primary benefits of NASA’s exploration include staffing an orbiting space station and stimulating private companies rather than landing on the moon and winning a space race with a geopolitical foe. Similarly, I wonder what level of risk thrill-seekers will accept when weighing a suborbital spaceflight.

I wish nothing but the best for SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and the rest. But I hope their customers (a group that, in the case of SpaceX, includes U.S. taxpayers) and their boosters recognize that the road to the bright new future of commercial spaceflight, which many believe to be just years away, will likely be a rocky one. History shows us that space is a challenging, often dangerous place to operate, and it would be foolish to think that the new kid on the block will be immune to the troubles—both minor and catastrophic—that every space agency in the world has had to contend with.

About the Author: John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter @jmtsn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Jim Muncy 1:13 pm 03/6/2013

    Dear Mr. Matson,

    Certainly everyone I know in the space industry knows that space is hard and a bad day can be really bad. Commercial space firms do not have a magic shield against mistakes. But — and this is important — private mistakes are just that, private. Just because we have afflicted NASA with a “never make a mistake” culture of political “gotcha” oversight doesn’t mean that we should extend that to all commercial space ventures.

    Small civilian airplanes do crash, frequently because of pilots and weather. Trucks on their side block multiple lanes of highways. Ships run aground. People die. Companies suffer and jobs are lost. But we do not question the fundamental precept of private ventures providing transportation vehicles or services.

    Neither should we in space. No matter how spectacular the failure of a privately-developed rocket.

    – Jim

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  2. 2. PhillyJimi 1:36 pm 03/6/2013

    This article make no points.

    No one expects traveling to space to be 100% safe. When we still have automobile manufacturers recalling cars because of defects why would anyone expect a commercial space company or NASA to be perfect? If a car’s tire blows out due to a manufacturing defect we don’t shut down all automobile traffic.

    Since 1975 over 1.5+ million Americans have died in automobile accidents. No one even blinks an eye at that stat but somehow we expect space travel to be safe?

    Link to this
  3. 3. TheAntiHero 6:12 pm 03/6/2013

    What is this fluffery of an article even saying?

    You make no cogent arguments against private enterprise in space. In fact you quite correctly point out the adaptability and versatility of the SpaceX launch and payload delivery system , albeit in a very backhanded way, as well as insultingly insinuate poor engineering “… indicative of larger engineering problems.” when, in fact, this private company has far exceed both governments and other organizations in terms of cost, technology and efficiency.

    The title itself “Commercial Spaceflight Industry Drifts Back to Earth” seems to imply somehow a failure when in literal fact it has been the exact opposite. you make no points, you have no argument, you espouse a vague sense of dread and cryptically warn current SpaceX customers of what, “But I hope their customers … recognize that the road to the bright new future of commercial spaceflight, … will likely be a rocky one.”

    Who are you?! And who are you writing this for? How did you even get this job?!

    Your fear mongering and nay saying is so inappropriate in the avenue of the private space industry and exceedingly idiotic ESPECIALLY considering that you point to the fact that other private individuals(gosh no!) take risks (gasp!) in private ventures (wha?!) with their own money and lives (how dare they!).

    Also, thanks Captain Obvious, for pointing out this industry is dangerous. Really bringing home the journalism. Hey did you know that the sun is hot? Or rain is wet? Just ideas for your next article.

    This is just an example of piss poor writing and I am entirely disappointed at Scientific American to let this drivel on.


    P.S. Get somebody excited about the private space industry on. We get enough of this tripe from Fox.

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  4. 4. bgrnathan 10:48 am 03/7/2013

    DOES GOD PARTICLE EXPLAIN UNIVERSE’S ORIGIN? Just google the title to access this popular Internet article of mine.

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. Bible/Biology)


    *I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I’ve been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East” for my writings on religion and science.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Dr. Strangelove 10:31 pm 03/7/2013

    You should distinguish between accidents on the ground vs. in the air and space. You don’t count accidents in the Boeing factory as air flight accident. You should compare the airplane vs. spacecraft fatalities per manhour flight. My guess is space flight is more dangerous.

    Link to this
  6. 6. steveberl 1:57 pm 03/12/2013

    Seems like you could have written the same article about commercial aviation, or even railroads back in their beginnings.

    Link to this
  7. 7. bucketofsquid 4:24 pm 03/13/2013

    Mooo! Oh Noes! Evil Mr. Matson are attack our sacred cow!

    Grow up people. Early aviation had more fatalities then successful trips but it still succeeded enough to become what aviation is today. Mr. Matson is simply pointing out that like many new arenas of human endeavor, space travel will continue to be risky for quite some time to come. Too many drooling fanboys get stars in their eyes and gloss over the unfortunate reality.

    Do you really think that if a famous movie star gets killed by a failed launch or worse, the rocket falls out of the sky onto a cruise liner, that no one would care? The law suits and bad PR would be horrendous. All of these companies need to have their ducks in a row because bad things do happen. No business can survive without income.

    Fore warned is fore armed. Zeppelins were cutting edge right up until they were abandoned altogether. There were and still are practical uses for lighter than air craft but I’m not aware of any meaningful efforts to exploit those opportunities because two or three disasters ruined it. We need to be ready to overcome the inevitable bad day and one of the best ways is to be open about the risks.

    If you think that even a 50% chance of dying would stop me from going into space or to Mars or the moon if I could afford it you are mistaken. I’m pretty sure I would be puking and miserable the whole time. It doesn’t matter. If I had the money I would go.

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