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  • Astronauts Aren't Cheese
    Posted by Frank Morring, Jr. 5:37 PM on Dec 10, 2010

    SpaceX packed a wheel of cheese in the Dragon capsule that flew to orbit and returned intact in the highly successful Falcon 9 flight this week. I haven't heard what happened to the cheese, but it certainly would make a spectacular snack for a post-flight celebration.

    blog post photo
    Chris Thompson, SpaceX

    The flight, too, was spectacular. It is almost unbelievable that a private company could develop, build and fly the hardware necessary to accomplish something that only a handful of taxpayer-backed governments have been able to do. Elon Musk, the company's visionary founder, properly credited the "giants" who went before him, but he deserves the lion's share of the credit for the feat.

    Given the way Musk runs SpaceX, it probably was his decision -- hopefully backed by engineering analysis -- to have a technician use a pair of metal shears to chop four feet off the cracked Merlin-engine nozzle that threatened to delay the flight. The extra length wasn't needed to meet performance needs for the demonstration mission, and the cracks were in the way. In a sense, Musk was betting his company on the seat-of-the-pants fix.

    NASA, which funded a big chunk of the SpaceX development program, gets some credit for letting him do it. There would have been hell to pay on Capitol Hill if the mission had failed, but if the government is going to support the commercial development of space it has to risk some public money too. With the successful gamble, NASA could have a commercially provided U.S. cargo route to the International Space Station next year for an investment of less than $300 million. That, too, will be almost unbelievable.

    After the Falcon 9 splashdown Musk, who admitted he had a "blown mind" at what his team had done, indulged in a little hyperbole about converting the Falcon 9 cargo carrier to a crew vehicle.

    "People sometimes think that to take a cargo spacecraft and put a crew into it requires this enormous amount of magical pixie dust or something," he crowed at the post-splashdown press conference. "This is not at all the case. If there had been people sitting in the Dragon capsule today they would have had a very nice ride. They would have experienced maybe up to 4.5 Gs, about what you'd see in an amusement park, and they would have done quite well.”

    Careful, Elon. If there had been astronauts in the Dragon, it is highly unlikely that NASA would have okayed the tin-snips approach that worked on the test flight. And as ebulient as you were, I wonder whether you would have been as willing to risk human life up front. You've spent a lot of your fortune on the best engineering "pixie dust" money can buy to get this far, but I know you know that astronauts aren't cheese.

    Not far from the pad where the Falcon 9 lifted off, the space shuttle Discovery waits with some cracks of its own. NASA has pushed the launch back until next February while it figures out why some aluminum lithium stringers in the shuttle's external tank have cracked, and whether it will be safe to launch the orbiter on its 39th and final flight to orbit with seven astronauts on board. John Chapman, who recently retired as the external tank project manager, has a nice description of why NASA is so careful.

    “You don’t become a spaceship until you’re going 17,500 mph.,” he says. “In order to do that, the laws of physics say you’re going to be operating on the margins. You’ve got to get the weight way down. You’re going to be dealing with pressures and temperatures that somewhat boggle the mind, and so you’re going to be challenging the performance capability of materials throughout the whole thing."

    Musk and SpaceX have demonstrated that they can operate at the margins. The Falcon 9/Dragon combination is essentially a U.S. version of the Russian Soyuz, with its kerosene fuel, horizontal processing and multiple first-stage engines. It is far simpler than the space shuttle, to put it mildly, and it has the potential to be much safer. But it's going to require more than pixie dust to get it ready for human spaceflight.

    Tags: os99, SpaceX, Falcon 9, ISS, Musk, shuttle

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