Starlink and astronomy

SpaceX’s Starlink constellation is currently a network of 120+ satellites and which, in the next decade, will expand to 10,000+ to provide low-cost internet from space around the world. Astronomers everywhere have been pissed off with these instruments because they physically interfere with observations of the night sky, especially those undertaken by survey telescopes with wide fields of view, and some of whose signals could interfere electromagnetically with radio-astronomy.

In his resourceful new book The Consequential Frontier (2019), on “challenging the privatisation of space”, Peter Ward quotes James Vedda, senior policy analyst for the Centre for Space Policy and Strategy at the Aerospace Corporation, on the expansion of the American railroad in the 19th century:

Everybody likes to point to the railroad and say that, ‘Oh, back in the nineteenth century, when all this was all being built up, it was all built by the private sector.’ Well, hold on a minute. They didn’t do it alone because they were given huge amounts of land to lay their tracks and to build their stations. And not just a little strip of land wide enough for the tracks, they were usually given up to a mile on either side. … I read one estimate that in the nineteenth-century development of the railroads, the railroad companies were given land grants that if you total them all up together were equivalent to the size of Texas. They sold off all that extra land [and] they found that they got to keep the money. Besides that, the US Geological Survey went out and did this surveying for them and gave them the results for free so that is a significant cost that they didn’t have.

Ward extends Vedda’s comments to the activities of SpaceX and Blue Origin, the private American space companies stewarded by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, respectively. We’re not in the golden age of private spaceflight thanks to private enterprise. Instead, just like the Information Age owes itself to defence contracts awarded to universities and research labs during World War II and the Cold War, private operators owe themselves to profitable public-private partnerships funded substantially by federal grants and subsidies in the 1980s and 1990s. It would be doubly useful to bear this in mind when thinking about Starlink as well.

When Musk was confronted a month or so ago with astronomers’ complaints, he replied (via Twitter) that astronomers will have to launch more space telescopes “anyway”. This is not true, but even if it were, it recalls the relationship between private and public enterprise from over a century ago. As the user @cynosurae pointed out on Twitter, space telescopes are expensive (relative to ground-based instruments with similar capabilities and specifications) and they can only be built with government support in terms of land, resources and funds. That is, the consequences of Musk’s ambition – economists call them negative externalities – vis-à-vis the astronomy community can only be offset by taxpayer money.

Many Twitter users have been urging Musk to placate Starlink’s detractors by launching a telescope for them but science isn’t profitable except in the long-term. More importantly, the world’s astronomers are not likely to persuade the American government (whose FAA issues payload licenses and FCC regulates spectrum use) to force SpaceX to work with them, such as through the International Astronomical Union, which has offered its assistance, and keep Starlink from disrupting studies of the night sky.

It’s pertinent to remind ourselves at this juncture that while the consequences for astronomy have awakened us to SpaceX’s transgression, the root cause is not the availability of the night sky for unimpeded astronomical observations. That’s only the symptom; the deeper malaise is unilateral action to impact a resource that belongs to everyone.

Musk or anyone else can’t deny that their private endeavours often incur, and impose, costs that the gloss of private enterprise tends to pass over.

It wouldn’t matter if SpaceX is taken to court for its rivalrous use of the commons. Without the FAA, FCC or any other, even an international, body regulating satellite launches, orbital placement, mission profile, spectrum use, mission lifetime and – now – appearance, orbital space is going to get really crowded really fast. According to one projection, “between 2019 and 2028, more than 8,500 satellites will be launched, half of which will be to support broadband constellations, for a total market value of $42 billion”. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket can already launch 60 Starlink satellites in one go; India and China have also developed new rockets to more affordably launch more small-sats more often.

A comparable regulatory leverage currently exists only with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which oversees spectrum use. It has awarded 1,800 orbital slots in the geosynchronous orbit to national telecom operators, such as FCC in the US and DoT in India. Regional operators register these slots and station telecommunication satellites there, each working with a predetermined set of frequencies.

Non-communication satellites as well as satellites in other orbits aren’t so formally organised. Satellite operators do work with the space and/or defence agencies of other countries to ensure their instruments don’t conflict with others in any way, in the interest of both self-preservation and debris mitigation. But beyond the ITU, no international body regulates satellite launches into any other orbits, and even the ITU doesn’t regulate any mission parameters beyond data transmission.

Starlink satellites will occupy the low-Earth (550 km and 1,150 km) and very-low-Earth orbits (340 km).

So an abundance of financial incentives, a dearth of policies and the complete absence of regulatory bodies allow private players a free run in space. Taking SpaceX to court at this juncture would miss the point (even if it were possible): the commons may have indirect financial value but their principal usefulness is centred on their community value, and which the US has undermined with its unilateral action. Musk has said his company will work with astronomers and observatories to minimise Starlink’s impact on their work but astronomers are understandably miffed that this offer wasn’t extended before launch and because absolute mitigation is highly unlikely with 12,000 (if not 42,000) satellites in orbit.

Taking a broader view, Starlink is currently the most visible constellation – literally and figuratively – but it’s not alone: space is only becoming more profitable, and other planned or functional constellations include Athena, Iridium and OneWeb. It would be in everyone’s best interests in this moment to get in front of this expansion and find a way to ensure all countries have equal access and opportunities to extract value from orbital space as well as equal stake in maintaining it as a shared resource.

In fact, like the debate between SpaceX and its supporters on the one hand and astronomers on the other has spotlighted what’s really at stake, it should also alert us that others should get to participate as well.

The bigger issue doesn’t concern astronomical observations – less interference with astronomical activity won’t make SpaceX’s actions less severe – nor low-cost internet (although one initial estimate suggests a neat $80, or Rs 5,750, per month) but of a distinctly American entity colonising a commons and preventing others from enjoying it. Governments – as in the institutions that make railroads, universities and subsidies possible – and not astronomers alone should decide, in consultation with their people as well as each other, what the next steps should be.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Wire on November 20, 2019.

Playing the devil’s advocate on Starlink

After SpaceX began to launch its Starlink satellite constellation to facilitate global internet coverage, astronomers began complaining that the satellites are likely to interfere with stargazing schemes, especially those of large, sensitive telescopes. Spaceflight stakeholders also began to worry, especially after SpaceX’s announcement that the Starlink constellation is in fact the precursor to a mega-constellation of at least 12,000 satellites, that it could substantially increase space traffic and complicate satellite navigation.

Neither of these concerns is unfounded, primarily because neither SpaceX nor the branch of the American government responsible for regulating payloads – so by extension the American government itself – should get to decide how to use a resource that belongs to the whole world by itself, without proper multi-stakeholder consultation. With Starlink as its instrument, and assuming the continued absence of proper laws to control how mega-constellations are to be designed and operated, SpaceX will effectively colonise a big chunk of the orbital shells around Earth. The community of astronomers has been especially vocal and agitated over Starlink’s consequences for its work, and a part of it has directed its protests against what it sees as SpaceX’s misuse of space as a global commons, and as a body of shared cultural heritage.

The idea of space as a public commons is neither new nor unique but the ideal has seldom been met. The lopsided development of spaceflight programmes around the world, but particularly in China and the US, attests to this. In the absence of an international space governance policy that is both rigid enough to apply completely to specific situations and flexible enough to adapt to rapid advancements in private spaceflight, people and businesses around the world are at the mercy of countries that possess launch vehicles, the regulatory bodies that oversee their operations and the relationship between the two (or more) governments. So space is currently physically available and profitable only to a select group of countries.

The peaceful and equitable enjoyment of space, going by the definition that astronomers find profitable, is another matter. Both the act and outcomes of stargazing are great sources of wonder for many, if not all, people while space itself is not diminished in any way by astronomers’ activities. NASA’s ‘Astronomy Picture of the Day’ platform has featured hundreds of spectacular shots of distant cosmological features captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, and news of the soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope is only met with awe and a nervous excitement over what new gems its hexagonal eyes will discover.

Astronomy often is and has been portrayed as an innocent and exploratory exercise that uncovers the universe’s natural riches, but closer to the ground, where the efforts of its practitioners are located, it is not so innocent. Indeed, it represents one of the major arms of modern Big Science, and one of Big Science’s principal demands is access to large plots of land, often characterised by its proponents as unused land or land deemed unprofitable for other purposes.

Consider Mauna Kea, the dormant volcano in Hawaii with a peak height of 4.2 km above sea level. Its top is encrusted with 13 telescopes, but where astronomers continued to see opportunity to build more (until the TMT became as controversial as it did), Native Hawaiians saw encroachment and destruction to an area they consider sacred. Closer home, one of the principle prongs of resistance to the India-based Neutrino Observatory, a large stationary detector that a national collaboration wants to install inside a small mountain, has been that its construction will damage the surrounding land – land that the collaboration perceives to be unused but which its opponents in Tamil Nadu (where the proposed construction site is located) see, given the singular political circumstances, as an increasingly precious and inviolable resource. This sentiment in turn draws on past and ongoing resistance to the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, the proposed ISRO launchpad at Kulasekarapattinam and the Sterlite copper-smelting plant in Tamil Nadu, and the Challakere ‘science city’ in Karnataka, all along the same lines.

Another way astronomy is problematic is in terms of its enterprise. That is, who operates the telescopes that will be most affected by the Starlink mega-constellation, and with whom do the resulting benefits accrue? Arguments of the ‘fix public transport first before improving spaceflight’ flavour are certainly baseless (for principles as well as practicalities detailed here) but it would be similarly faulty for a working definition of a global commons to originate from a community of astronomers located principally in the West, for whom clear skies are more profitable than access to low-cost internet.

More specifically, to quote Prakash Kashwan, a senior research fellow at the Earth System Governance Project:

The ‘good’ in public good refers to an ‘economic good’ or a thing – as in goods and services – that has two main characteristics: non-excludability and non-rivalry. Non-excludability refers to the fact that once a public good is provided, it is difficult to exclude individuals from enjoying its benefits even if they haven’t contributed to its provisioning. Non-rivalry refers to the fact that the consumption of a public good does not negatively impact other individuals’ ability to also benefit from a public good.

In this definition, astronomy (involving the use of ground-based telescopes) has often been exclusive, whether as a human industry in its need for land and designation of public goods as ‘useless’ or ‘unused’, or as a scientific endeavour, whereby its results accrue unevenly in society especially without public outreach, science communication, transparency, etc. Starlink, on the other hand, is obviously rivalrous.

There’s no question that by gunning for a mega-constellation of satellites enveloping Earth, Musk is being a bully (irrespective of his intentions) – but it’s also true that the prospect of low-cost internet promises to render space profitable to more people than is currently the case. So if arguments against his endeavour are directed along the trajectory that Starlink satellites damage, diminish access to and reduce the usefulness of some orbital regions around Earth, instead of against the US government’s unilateral decision to allow the satellites to be launched in the first place, it should be equally legitimate to claim that these satellites also enhance the same orbital regions by extracting more value from them.

Ultimately, the ‘problem’ is also at risk of being ‘resolved’ because Musk and astronomers have shaken hands on it. The issue isn’t whether astronomers should be disprivileged to help non-astronomers or vice versa, but to consider if astronomers’ comments on the virtues of astronomy gloss over their actions on the ground and – more broadly – to remember the cons of prioritising the character of space as a source of scientific knowledge over other, more germane opportunities, and to remind everyone that the proper course of action would be to do what neither Musk and the American government nor the astronomers have done at the moment. That is, undertake public consultation, such as with stakeholders in all countries party to the Outer Space Treaty, instead of assuming that de-orbiting or anything else for that matter is automatically the most favourable course of action.

Finding trash in the dumpster

Just as there’s no merit in writing a piece that is confused and incomplete, there’s no merit in digging through a dumpster and complaining that there’s trash. However, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt when The Quint publishes something as ass-backwards as this article, titled ‘SpaceX or ISRO, Who’s Winning the Race to Space?’, in a time when finally, at long fucking last, people are beginning to wake up to the idea that ISRO’s and SpaceX’s responsibilities are just different.

In fact, the author of this article seems (temporarily) aware of this distinction, writing, “You have to understand, both ISRO and SpaceX are different entities with different resources at their disposal and ultimately different goals”, even as he makes the comparison anyway. This is immature, irresponsible journalism (if that), worse than the Sisyphean he-said-she-said variety if only because the ‘he’ in this case is the author himself.

But more importantly, against the backdrop of the I&B ministry’s guidelines on combating fake news that were released, and then retracted, earlier today, I briefly wondered whether this Quint piece could be considered fake news. A friend quickly disabused me of the idea by pointing out that this isn’t exactly news, doesn’t contain factual mistakes and doesn’t seem to have malicious intent. All valid points. However, I’m still not sure I agree… My reasons:

1. News is information that is new, contemporary and in the public interest. While the last two parameters can be defined somewhat objectively, novelty can and is frequently subjective. Often, it also extends to certain demographic groups within a population, such as readers of the 18-24 age group, for whom a bit of information that’s old for others is new.

2. The article doesn’t contain factual mistakes but the relationships the author defines between various facts are wrong and untrue. There are also assumptions made in the article (dissected below) that make the author sound stupid more than anything else. One does have the freedom of expression but journalists and publishers also have a responsibility to be… well, responsible.

3. You can make rational decisions only when you know everything there is to know apropos said decisions. So when you deliberately ignore certain details that would render an argument meaningless just so you can make the argument yourself, that’s malice. Especially when you then click the ‘publish’ button and watch as a clump of irrational clutch of sememes reaches 19,000 people in 18 hours.

So to me, this article is fake news.

Here’s another locus: according to Dictionary.com, fake news is

false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared online for the purpose of generating ad revenue via web traffic or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc.

The Quint article is sensational. It claims ISRO and SpaceX can’t be compared but goes on to make the comparison anyway. Why? Traffic, visibility and revenue (through ads on The Quint‘s pages). It’s textual faff that wastes the reader’s time, forces others to spend time correcting the irrational beliefs that will take root in people’s minds as a result of reading the article, and it’s just asinine of The Quint to lend itself as a platform for such endeavours. It’s the sort of thing we frequently blame the male protagonists in Indian films for: spending 150 minutes realising his mistakes.

But again, I do apologise for whining that there’s trash in the dumpster. (Aside: A recent headline in Esquire had just the term for journalism-done-bad – ‘trash avalanche’.)

§

I must dissect the article. It’s an addiction!

India’s premier space agency Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has built a reputation for launching rockets into space at very convenient prices. The consequent effect?

A lot of customers from around the world have come flocking to avail India’s economical rocket-launching services and this has helped the country make some extra bucks from its space exploration program.

Extra bucks, eh?

However, it’s a pretty competitive space.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has had a decent run in the past couple of days and the recent successful launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket has paved the way for launching heavy satellites into space.

You don’t say…

SpaceX and ISRO are competitors of sorts in the business of commercial satellite launches. The question is, how big of a threat is SpaceX to India’s space agency?

Wrong + 🚩

Okay, first some facts.

That’s kind of you.

ISRO is an experienced campaigner in the field of space exploration as it’s been launching rockets into space since as early as 1975. From sending India’s first satellite into space (Aryabhata), to successfully launching some of the most historic missions like Chandrayaan-1 (2008) and Mangalyaan (2013), ISRO has done it all.

You should check out some of the stuff NASA, JAXA and ESA have done. ISRO really hasn’t done it all – and neither have NASA, JAXA and ESA.

ISRO has carried out a total of 96 spacecraft missions, which involve 66 launch missions.

Apart from the above, it has various other goals, ranging from maintaining the communication satellite constellation around the Earth to sending manned missions into space. Not easy by any means.

Not easy to have goals? Have you seen the todo lists of most people?

Meanwhile, SpaceX is the new kid on the block and really isn’t a big space exploration agency (at least not as big as ISRO).

That’s a comparison 🚩

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by maverick entrepreneur Elon Musk with an aim to provide economically efficient ways to launch satellites and also colonise Mars!
Overall, since SpaceX’s first mission in June, 2010, rockets from the Falcon 9 family have been launched 51 times, out of which 49 have been successful. That’s a 96 percent success rate!

So, in terms of experience, SpaceX still has some catching up to do. But in terms of success rate, it’s tough to beat at 96 percent.

Do you know that if I launch one rocket successfully, I’ll have a success rate of 100%?

SpaceX is a privately-owned enterprise and is funded by big companies like Google and Fidelity. According to a Forbes, SpaceX is valued at more than $20 billion (Rs 13.035 crore) as of December 2017.

That’s Rs 1.3 lakh crore, not Rs 13.035 crore.

ISRO on the other hand is a state-owned entity and is run and controlled by the Government of India. Each year, the agency is allocated a certain part of the nation’s budget. For the year 2018-19, the Centre has allocated Rs 8,936 crore to the space organisation.

There is also a big difference in terms of cost per mission. For example, the Falcon 9 launch vehicle’s cost per launch comes up to $62 million, while ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) costs roughly $15 million per launch.

Why are you comparing the mission costs of one rocket that can carry 10,000+ kg to the LEO to a rocket that can carry 3,800 kg to the LEO? Obviously the former is going to be costlier!

The size of the payloads are different as the Falcon 9 carries much heavier bulk than India’s rockets.

Dear author: please mention that this fact renders the comparison in your previous line meaningless. At least refrain from using terms like “big difference”.

Currently, India makes very less on commercial missions as most of them carry small or nano-satellites. Between 2013 and 2015, ISRO charged an average of $3 million per satellite. That’s peanuts compared to a SpaceX launch, which costs $60 million.

First: Antrix, not ISRO, charges $3 million per satellite. Second: By not discussing payload mass and orbital injection specifications, he’s withholding information that will make this “peanuts” juxtaposition illogical. Third: ISRO and SpaceX operate out of different economies – a point incumbent ISRO chairman K. Sivan has emphasised – leading to different costing (e.g. have you considered labour cost?). Finally, source of data?

According to a 2016 report, India’s premier space agency earned a revenue of around Rs 230 crore through commercial launch services, which is about 0.6 percent of the global launch services market.

India is still to make big ‘moolah’ from their launches as small satellites don’t pull in a lot of money as compared to bigger ones.

That last bit – does the Department of Space know you’re feeling this way? Because if they did, they might not go ahead with building the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV). So that’s another 🚩

Despite the fact that ISRO is considered competition for Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the business of commercial satellite launches,

Although this claim is bandied about in the press, I doubt it’s true given the differences in payload capacities, costs to space and launch frequencies of the PSLV/GSLV and the Falcon 9.

he doesn’t shy away from acknowledging how he is “impressed” by India’s frugal methods of conducting successful launch missions.

Is this a big deal? Or are you awed that India’s efforts are being lauded by a white man of the west?

Last year in February, India launched 104 satellites into space using a single rocket, which really caught Musk’s attention. This is a world record that India holds till date.

If that’s not impressive enough, India also launched it’s Mars probe (Mangalyaan) in 2014 which cost less than what it cost to make the Hollywood movie “The Martian”. Ironical?

It’s not “impressive enough”. It’s not ironic.

You have to understand, both ISRO and SpaceX are different entities with different resources at their disposal and ultimately different goals. But again, if Musk is impressed, it means ISRO has hit it out of the park.

But if Musk hadn’t been impressed, then ISRO would’ve continued to be a failure in your eyes, of course.

I am not going to pick a winner because of a lot of reasons. One of them is that I like both of them.

ISRO and SpaceX must both be so relieved.

SpaceX is a 15-year-old company, which has made heavy-lift reusable launch vehicle, while ISRO is a 40-year-old organisation making inroads into the medium-lift category; Not to mention it also has a billion other things to take care of (including working on reusable rockets).

Since the objective of both these organisations is to make frugal space missions possible, it’s no doubt that ISRO has the lead in this race.

How exactly? 🤔 Also, if we shouldn’t be comparing ISRO and SpaceX, how’re they in the same race?

Yes, there is a lot that SpaceX can learn from what India has achieved till now, but that can work both ways, considering the technology SpaceX is using is much more advanced. But in the end one cannot deny the fact that SpaceX is all about launching rockets and getting them back to Earth in one piece, not making satellites.

ISRO v. SpaceX doesn't make sense

Though I’ve never met the guy, I don’t hold Pallava Bagla in very high regard because his stories – particularly of the Indian space programme – for NDTV have often reeked of simplistic concerns, pettiness and, increasingly of late, a nationalistic pride. The most recent instance all these characteristics were put on display was February 12, when NDTV published a 20-minute video of Bagla interviewing K. Sivan, ISRO’s new chairman.

The video is headlined ‘New ISRO Chief Rocket Man Sivan K, A Farmer’s Son, Takes On SpaceX’. What a great story, innit? A farmer’s son taking on SpaceX chief Elon Musk! But if you’re able to stop there and ask a few questions, you’re going to realise that the headline is a load of tosh. First off, the statement that Sivan is a “farmer’s son” is a glancing reference, if not more, to that New York Times cartoon – the implicit jingoism of which we really must get past soon. The national government has been building false narratives around supporting farmers but here we are, valorising the son of one.

Also, referring to Sivan as a “farmer’s son” IMO reduces the man to that one factoid (particularly to serve a narrative Sivan himself may not wish to pursue), as if that’s all we’re going to choose to see about his origins, neglecting what else could have enabled him to succeed the way he has.

Second: ISRO “takes on SpaceX” is a dumb statement. ISRO is a public sector organisation; SpaceX is a private corporation. Their goals are so markedly different that I’m not entirely sure why whoever crafted the headline (not necessarily Bagla) feels ISRO might be threatened by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch (on February 4); I’m less sure why Bagla himself went on to spin his story thus. Case in point: SpaceX is going bigger to be able to take humans to Mars within 10 years; ISRO’s going smaller to help Antrix capitalise on the demand for launching micro and nanosats as well as bigger to launch heavier telecom satellites. Additionally, I know for a fact that ISRO has been cognisant of modularised launch vehicles for at least three years, and this isn’t something Sivan or anyone else has suddenly stopped to consider following the Falcon Heavy launch. The idea’s been around for a bit longer.

All of this is put on show in an exchange about five minutes into the video, as Bagla goes hard at the idea of ISRO possibly lagging behind SpaceX whereas Sivan says (twice) that the PSLV and the Falcon 9 can’t be compared. Transcript:

KS: We can’t compare how much the launch vehicles cost. It depends on the environment in which the manufacturing is realised. I can assure you that our costs are very low because of the way we are manufacturing, the materials we’ve chosen to work with – this way, our costs are always low. But I don’t want to compare because this is always subjective.

PB: But at the same time, we are known for our very low cost missions. For a Falcon 9, they charge about $70 million per launch (ballpark figures) while India did a mission to Mars for roughly the same price. This included the rocket and the satellite, going all the way to Mars. Does that make us feel like we’re very, very competitive in pricing, which is why so many foreign customers are also coming to India?

(ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission was a technology demonstrator. The endeavour’s primary mission was to provide a proof of concept of an Indian orbiter at Mars. Second, the satellite’s size and capabilities were both limited by the PSLV’s payload capacity; to wit, MOM’s scientific payload weighed a measly 15 kg whereas the NASA MAVEN, which launched in the same window as MOM, had instruments weighing 65 kg. Third, not many scientific papers have been published on the back of MOM-specific findings. When Bagla says “India did a mission to Mars for roughly the same price” as a single Falcon 9 launch, I also invite him to consider that ISRO has access to cheaper labour than is available in the West and that the MOM launch was noncommercial whereas the Falcon 9 is a rocket developed – and priced – for commerce and profit.)

KS: Foreign customers are coming to India for two reasons. One is, as you said, we’re cost effective – mainly by way of manufacturing and selection of materials. We also make simple rockets. The second reason customers prefer us is the robustness. The reliability of our PSLV is large. When a customer comes to us, they want to make sure there’s a 100% chance their satellite reaches its orbital slot.

PB: So are we cheaper than SpaceX or not?

🤦🏾

KS: Again, I don’t want to compare because it is not correct to compare. If the two rockets were made in the same timeframe, in the same place with equivalent amounts of effort, we can compare. But the rockets have been made in different parts of the world, according to different needs. What I can say is that we have a low-cost vehicle.

Almost exactly a year ago, I’d argued the same thing for The Wire, in an article that didn’t go down well with most readers (across the political spectrum). The thrust of it was that the PSLV had been designed from 1977 onwards to launch Indian remote-sensing satellites and that ISRO receives all its funding from the Department of Space. OTOH, SpaceX designed the Falcon 9 to fit prevailing market needs and, though the company receives a lot of money through NASA contracts, its raison d’être as a private entity is to make money by commercialising launch services. Excerpt:

Casting the GSLV, presumably the Mk-III, as a super-soldier in the space-war arena could be misguided. Unlike SpaceX or Arianespace, but much like Roscosmos, ISRO is a state-backed space agency. It has a mandate from the Department of Space to be India’s primary launch-services provider and fulfil the needs of both private entities as well as the government, but government first, at least since that is how policies are currently oriented. This means the GSLV Mk-III has been developed keeping in mind the satellites India currently needs, or at least needs to launch without ISRO having to depend on foreign rockets. …

On the other hand, Arianespace and SpaceX are both almost exclusively market-driven, SpaceX less so because it was set up with the ostensible goal of colonising Mars. Nonetheless, en route to building the Falcon Heavy, the company has built a workhorse of its own in the Falcon 9. And either way, together with Arianespace, it has carved out a sizeable chunk of the satellite-launching market. …

Thus, though Antrix is tasked with maximising profits, ISRO shouldn’t bank on the commercial satellites market because its mix of priorities is more diverse than those of SpaceX or Arianespace. In other words, the point isn’t to belittle ISRO’s launchers but to state that such comparisons might just be pointless because it is a case of apples and oranges.

Sadly for Bagla – and many others like him looking the fools for pushing such a silly idea – our own space programme assumes value only when compared to someone else’s agenda, irrespective of whether the comparison even makes sense. I also wonder if Sivan thinks such are the questions the consumers of NDTV’s journalism want answered – an idea not so farfetched if you consider that not many journalists get access to ISRO’s top brass in the first place – as well as what fraction of the Indian citizenry consumes the success of the Indian space programme simply relative to the successes of others and not as an enterprise established to serve India’s needs first.

ISRO v. SpaceX doesn’t make sense

Though I’ve never met the guy, I don’t hold Pallava Bagla in very high regard because his stories – particularly of the Indian space programme – for NDTV have often reeked of simplistic concerns, pettiness and, increasingly of late, a nationalistic pride. The most recent instance all these characteristics were put on display was February 12, when NDTV published a 20-minute video of Bagla interviewing K. Sivan, ISRO’s new chairman.

The video is headlined ‘New ISRO Chief Rocket Man Sivan K, A Farmer’s Son, Takes On SpaceX’. What a great story, innit? A farmer’s son taking on SpaceX chief Elon Musk! But if you’re able to stop there and ask a few questions, you’re going to realise that the headline is a load of tosh. First off, the statement that Sivan is a “farmer’s son” is a glancing reference, if not more, to that New York Times cartoon – the implicit jingoism of which we really must get past soon. The national government has been building false narratives around supporting farmers but here we are, valorising the son of one.

Also, referring to Sivan as a “farmer’s son” IMO reduces the man to that one factoid (particularly to serve a narrative Sivan himself may not wish to pursue), as if that’s all we’re going to choose to see about his origins, neglecting what else could have enabled him to succeed the way he has.

Second: ISRO “takes on SpaceX” is a dumb statement. ISRO is a public sector organisation; SpaceX is a private corporation. Their goals are so markedly different that I’m not entirely sure why whoever crafted the headline (not necessarily Bagla) feels ISRO might be threatened by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch (on February 4); I’m less sure why Bagla himself went on to spin his story thus. Case in point: SpaceX is going bigger to be able to take humans to Mars within 10 years; ISRO’s going smaller to help Antrix capitalise on the demand for launching micro and nanosats as well as bigger to launch heavier telecom satellites. Additionally, I know for a fact that ISRO has been cognisant of modularised launch vehicles for at least three years, and this isn’t something Sivan or anyone else has suddenly stopped to consider following the Falcon Heavy launch. The idea’s been around for a bit longer.

All of this is put on show in an exchange about five minutes into the video, as Bagla goes hard at the idea of ISRO possibly lagging behind SpaceX whereas Sivan says (twice) that the PSLV and the Falcon 9 can’t be compared. Transcript:

KS: We can’t compare how much the launch vehicles cost. It depends on the environment in which the manufacturing is realised. I can assure you that our costs are very low because of the way we are manufacturing, the materials we’ve chosen to work with – this way, our costs are always low. But I don’t want to compare because this is always subjective.

PB: But at the same time, we are known for our very low cost missions. For a Falcon 9, they charge about $70 million per launch (ballpark figures) while India did a mission to Mars for roughly the same price. This included the rocket and the satellite, going all the way to Mars. Does that make us feel like we’re very, very competitive in pricing, which is why so many foreign customers are also coming to India?

(ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission was a technology demonstrator. The endeavour’s primary mission was to provide a proof of concept of an Indian orbiter at Mars. Second, the satellite’s size and capabilities were both limited by the PSLV’s payload capacity; to wit, MOM’s scientific payload weighed a measly 15 kg whereas the NASA MAVEN, which launched in the same window as MOM, had instruments weighing 65 kg. Third, not many scientific papers have been published on the back of MOM-specific findings. When Bagla says “India did a mission to Mars for roughly the same price” as a single Falcon 9 launch, I also invite him to consider that ISRO has access to cheaper labour than is available in the West and that the MOM launch was noncommercial whereas the Falcon 9 is a rocket developed – and priced – for commerce and profit.)

KS: Foreign customers are coming to India for two reasons. One is, as you said, we’re cost effective – mainly by way of manufacturing and selection of materials. We also make simple rockets. The second reason customers prefer us is the robustness. The reliability of our PSLV is large. When a customer comes to us, they want to make sure there’s a 100% chance their satellite reaches its orbital slot.

PB: So are we cheaper than SpaceX or not?

🤦🏾

KS: Again, I don’t want to compare because it is not correct to compare. If the two rockets were made in the same timeframe, in the same place with equivalent amounts of effort, we can compare. But the rockets have been made in different parts of the world, according to different needs. What I can say is that we have a low-cost vehicle.

Almost exactly a year ago, I’d argued the same thing for The Wire, in an article that didn’t go down well with most readers (across the political spectrum). The thrust of it was that the PSLV had been designed from 1977 onwards to launch Indian remote-sensing satellites and that ISRO receives all its funding from the Department of Space. OTOH, SpaceX designed the Falcon 9 to fit prevailing market needs and, though the company receives a lot of money through NASA contracts, its raison d’être as a private entity is to make money by commercialising launch services. Excerpt:

Casting the GSLV, presumably the Mk-III, as a super-soldier in the space-war arena could be misguided. Unlike SpaceX or Arianespace, but much like Roscosmos, ISRO is a state-backed space agency. It has a mandate from the Department of Space to be India’s primary launch-services provider and fulfil the needs of both private entities as well as the government, but government first, at least since that is how policies are currently oriented. This means the GSLV Mk-III has been developed keeping in mind the satellites India currently needs, or at least needs to launch without ISRO having to depend on foreign rockets. …

On the other hand, Arianespace and SpaceX are both almost exclusively market-driven, SpaceX less so because it was set up with the ostensible goal of colonising Mars. Nonetheless, en route to building the Falcon Heavy, the company has built a workhorse of its own in the Falcon 9. And either way, together with Arianespace, it has carved out a sizeable chunk of the satellite-launching market. …

Thus, though Antrix is tasked with maximising profits, ISRO shouldn’t bank on the commercial satellites market because its mix of priorities is more diverse than those of SpaceX or Arianespace. In other words, the point isn’t to belittle ISRO’s launchers but to state that such comparisons might just be pointless because it is a case of apples and oranges.

Sadly for Bagla – and many others like him looking the fools for pushing such a silly idea – our own space programme assumes value only when compared to someone else’s agenda, irrespective of whether the comparison even makes sense. I also wonder if Sivan thinks such are the questions the consumers of NDTV’s journalism want answered – an idea not so farfetched if you consider that not many journalists get access to ISRO’s top brass in the first place – as well as what fraction of the Indian citizenry consumes the success of the Indian space programme simply relative to the successes of others and not as an enterprise established to serve India’s needs first.

Is it so blasphemous to think ISRO ought not to be compared to other space agencies?

Is it so hard to consider the possibility that we might get a better sense of ISRO’s activities if we did not keep comparing it to those of other space agencies?

ISRO is one of those few public sector organisations in India that actually do well and are (relatively) free of bureaucratic interference. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before we latched on to its success and even started projecting our yearning to be the “world’s best” upon it – whether or not it chose to be in a particular enterprise. I’m not sure if asserting the latter or not affects ISRO (of course not, who am I kidding) but its exposition is a way to understand what ISRO might be thinking, and what might be the best way to interpret and judge its efforts.

So last evening, I wrote and published an article on The Wire titled ‘Apples and Oranges: Why ISRO Rockets Aren’t Comparable to Falcons or Arianes‘. Gist: PSLV/GSLV can’t be compared to the rockets they’re usually compared to (Proton, Falcon 9, Ariane 5) because:

  1. PSLV is low-lift, the three foreign rockets are medium- to -heavy-lift; in fact, each of them can lift at least 1,000 kg more to the GTO than the GSLV Mk-III will be able to
  2. PSLV is cheaper to launch (and probably the Mk-III too) but this is only in terms of the rocket’s cost. The price of launching a kilogram on the rocket is thought to be higher
  3. PSLV and GSLV were both conceived in the 1970s and 1980s to meet India’s demands; they were never built to compete internationally like the Falcon 9 or the Ariane 5
  4. ISRO’s biggest source of income is the Indian government; Arianespace and SpaceX depend on the market and launch contracts from the EU and the US

While spelling out any of these points, never was I thinking that ISRO was inferior to the rest. My goal was to describe a different kind of pride, one that didn’t rest on comparisons but drew its significance from the idea that it was self-fulfilling. This is something I’ve tried to do before as well, for example with one of the ASTROSAT instruments as well as with ASTROSAT itself.

In fact, when discussing #3, it became quite apparent to me (thanks to the books I was quoting from) that comparing PSLV/GSLV with foreign rockets was almost fallacious. The PSLV was born out of a proposal Vikram Sarabhai drew up, before he died in 1970, to launch satellites into polar Sun-synchronous orbits – a need that became acute when ISRO began to develop its first remote-sensing satellites. The GSLV was born when ISRO realised the importance of its multipurpose INSAT satellites and the need to have a homegrown launcher for them.

Twitter, however, disagreed – often vehemently. While there’s no point discussing what the trolls had to say, all of the feedback I received there, as well as on comments on The Wire, seemed intent ISRO would have to be competing with foreign players and that simply was the best. (We moderate comments on The Wire, but in this case, I’m inclined to disapprove even the politely phrased ones because they’re just missing the point.) And this is exactly what I was trying to dispel through my article, so either I haven’t done my job well or there’s no swaying some people as to what ISRO ought to be doing.

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We’re not the BPO of the space industry nor is there a higher or lower from where we’re standing. And we don’t get the job done at a lower cost than F9 or A5 because, hey, completely different launch scenarios.

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Again, the same mistake. Don’t compare! At this point, I began to wonder if people were simply taking one look at the headline and going “Yay/Ugh, another comparison”. And I’m also pretty sure that this isn’t a social/political-spectrum thing. Quite a few comments I received were from people I know are liberal, progressive, leftist, etc., and they all said what this person ↑ had to say.

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Compete? Grab market? What else? Colonise Mars? Send probes to Jupiter? Provide internet to Africa? Save the world?

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Now you’re comparing the engines of two different kinds of rockets. Dear tweeter: the PSLV uses alternating solid and liquid fuel motors; the Falcon 9 uses a semi-cryogenic engine (like the SCE-200 ISRO is trying to develop). Do you remember how many failures we’ve had of the cryogenic engine? It’s a complex device to build and operate, so you need to make concessions for it in its first few years of use.

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“If [make comparison] why you want comparison?” After I’ve made point by [said comparison]: “Let ISRO do its thing.” Well done.

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This tweet was from a friend – who I knew for a fact was also trying to establish that Indian and foreign launchers are incomparable in that they are not meant to be compared. But I think it’s also an example of how the narrative has become skewed, often expressed only in terms of a hierarchy of engineering capabilities and market share, and not in terms of self-fulfilment. And in many other situations, this might have been a simple fact to state. In the one we’re discussing, however, words have become awfully polarised, twisted. Now, it seems, “different” means “crap”, “good” means nothing and “record” means “good”.

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Comments like this, representative of a whole bunch of them I received all of last evening, seem tinged with an inferiority complex, that we once launched sounding rockets carried on bicycles and now we’re doing things you – YOU – ought to be jealous of. And if you aren’t, and if you disagree that C37 was a huge deal, off you go with the rocket the next time!

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The Times of India even had a cartoon to celebrate the C37 launch: it mocked the New York Times‘s attempt to mock ISRO when the Mars Orbiter Mission injected itself into an orbit around the red planet on September 27, 2014. The NYT cartoon had, in the first place, been a cheap shot; now, TOI is just saying cheap shots are a legitimate way of expressing something. It never was. Moreover, the cartoons also made a mess of what it means to be elite – and disrupted conversations about whether there ought to be such a designation at all.

As for comments on The Wire:

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Obviously this is going to get the cut.

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As it happens, this one is going to get the cut, too.

I do think the media shares a large chunk of the blame when it comes to how ISRO is perceived. News portals, newspapers, TV channels, etc., have all fed the ISRO hype over the years: here, after all, was a PSU that was performing well, so let’s give it a leg up. In the process, the room for criticising ISRO shrank and has almost completely disappeared today. The organisation has morphed into a beacon of excellence that can do no wrong, attracting jingo-moths to fawn upon its light.

We spared it the criticisms (offered with civility, that is) that would have shaped the people’s perception of the many aspects of a space programme: political, social, cultural, etc. At the same time, it is also an organisation that hasn’t bothered with public outreach much and this works backwards. Media commentaries seem to bounce off its stony edifice with no effect. In all, it’s an interesting space in which to be engaged, as a researcher or even as an enthusiast, but I will say I did like it better when the trolls were not interested in what ISRO was up to.

Featured image credit: dlr_de/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

So what's ISRO testing on May 23?

ISRO has said that the RLV, should it someday be deployed, will be able to bring down launch costs from $5,000 per kg to $2,000 per kg.

Apologies about the frequency of updates having fallen off. Work’s been hectic at The Wire – we’re expanding editorially, technologically and aesthetically – but more to the point, Delhi’s heat ensures my body has no surplus energy when I get back from work to blog (it’s a heartless 38 ºC at 10 pm). Even now, what follows is a Facebook Note I posted on The Wire‘s page yesterday (but which didn’t find much traction because of the buildup to today’s big news: the election results from five states).

At about 9.30 am on Monday, May 23, a two-stage rocket will take off from the Sriharikota High Altitude Range and climb to an altitude of 48 km while reaching a speed of ~1,770 m/s. At that point, the first stage – a solid-fuel booster – will break off from the rocket and fall down into the Bay of Bengal. At the same time, the second stage will still be on the ascent, climbing to 70 km and attaining a speed of ~1,871.5 m/s. Once there, it will begin its plummet down and so kick off the real mission.

Its designation is RLV-TD HEX1 – for Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstration, Hypersonic Experiment 1. The mission’s been in the works for about five years now, with an investment of Rs.95 crore, and is part of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s plans to develop a reusable launch vehicle in another 15 years. The HEX1 mission design suggests the vehicle won’t look anything like SpaceX’s reusable rockets (to be precise, reusable boosters). Instead, it will look more like NASA’s Space Shuttle (retired in 2011): with an airplane-like fuselage flanked by delta wings.

Screenshot from a presentation made by M.V. Dhekane, deputy director of the Control Guidance & Simulation Entity, VSSC, in 2014.
Screenshot from a presentation made by M.V. Dhekane, deputy director of the Control Guidance & Simulation Entity, VSSC, in 2014.

And the one that’ll be flying on Monday will be a version six-times smaller in scale than what may ultimately be built (though still 6.5-m long and weighing 1.7 tonnes). This is because ISRO intends to test two components of the flight for which the RLV’s size can be smaller. The first (in no specific order) will be the ability of its body to withstand high temperatures while falling through Earth’s atmosphere. ISRO will be monitoring the behaviour of heat-resistance silica tiles affixed to the RLV’s underside and its nose cone, made of a special carbon composite, as they experience temperatures of more than 1,600º C.

The second will be the RLV’s onboard computer’s ability to manoeuvre the vehicle to a designated spot in the Bay of Bengal before crashing into the water. That spot, in a future test designated LEX and a date for which hasn’t been announced, will hold a floating runway over 5 km long – and where the RLV will land like an airplane. A third test will check for the RLV’s ability to perform a ‘return flight experiment’ (REX) and the final one will check the scramjet propulsion system, currently under development.

ISRO has said that the RLV, should it someday be deployed, will be able to bring down launch costs from $5,000 per kg to $2,000 per kg – the sort of cuts SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly asserted are necessary to hasten the advent of interplanetary human spaceflight. However, the development of advanced technologies isn’t the only driver at the heart of this ambition. Private spaceflight companies in the US recently lobbied for a ban against the launch of American satellites onboard ISRO rockets “because it would be tough for them to compete against ISRO’s low-cost options, which they also alleged were subsidised by the Indian government”.

Then again, an ISRO official has since clarified that the organisation isn’t competing against SpaceX either. Speaking to Sputnik News, K. Sivan, director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, said on May 17, “We are not involved in any race with anybody. We have our own problems to tackle. ISRO has its own domestic requirements which we need to satisfy.”

So, good luck for HEX1, ISRO!

Featured image: The PSLV C33 mission takes off to launch the IRNSS 1G satellite. Credit: ISRO.

Note: This post earlier stated that the HEX1 chassis would experience temperatures of 5,000º C during atmospheric reentry. It’s actually 1,600º C and the mistake has been corrected.

So what’s ISRO testing on May 23?

ISRO has said that the RLV, should it someday be deployed, will be able to bring down launch costs from $5,000 per kg to $2,000 per kg.

Apologies about the frequency of updates having fallen off. Work’s been hectic at The Wire – we’re expanding editorially, technologically and aesthetically – but more to the point, Delhi’s heat ensures my body has no surplus energy when I get back from work to blog (it’s a heartless 38 ºC at 10 pm). Even now, what follows is a Facebook Note I posted on The Wire‘s page yesterday (but which didn’t find much traction because of the buildup to today’s big news: the election results from five states).

At about 9.30 am on Monday, May 23, a two-stage rocket will take off from the Sriharikota High Altitude Range and climb to an altitude of 48 km while reaching a speed of ~1,770 m/s. At that point, the first stage – a solid-fuel booster – will break off from the rocket and fall down into the Bay of Bengal. At the same time, the second stage will still be on the ascent, climbing to 70 km and attaining a speed of ~1,871.5 m/s. Once there, it will begin its plummet down and so kick off the real mission.

Its designation is RLV-TD HEX1 – for Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstration, Hypersonic Experiment 1. The mission’s been in the works for about five years now, with an investment of Rs.95 crore, and is part of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s plans to develop a reusable launch vehicle in another 15 years. The HEX1 mission design suggests the vehicle won’t look anything like SpaceX’s reusable rockets (to be precise, reusable boosters). Instead, it will look more like NASA’s Space Shuttle (retired in 2011): with an airplane-like fuselage flanked by delta wings.

Screenshot from a presentation made by M.V. Dhekane, deputy director of the Control Guidance & Simulation Entity, VSSC, in 2014.
Screenshot from a presentation made by M.V. Dhekane, deputy director of the Control Guidance & Simulation Entity, VSSC, in 2014.

And the one that’ll be flying on Monday will be a version six-times smaller in scale than what may ultimately be built (though still 6.5-m long and weighing 1.7 tonnes). This is because ISRO intends to test two components of the flight for which the RLV’s size can be smaller. The first (in no specific order) will be the ability of its body to withstand high temperatures while falling through Earth’s atmosphere. ISRO will be monitoring the behaviour of heat-resistance silica tiles affixed to the RLV’s underside and its nose cone, made of a special carbon composite, as they experience temperatures of more than 1,600º C.

The second will be the RLV’s onboard computer’s ability to manoeuvre the vehicle to a designated spot in the Bay of Bengal before crashing into the water. That spot, in a future test designated LEX and a date for which hasn’t been announced, will hold a floating runway over 5 km long – and where the RLV will land like an airplane. A third test will check for the RLV’s ability to perform a ‘return flight experiment’ (REX) and the final one will check the scramjet propulsion system, currently under development.

ISRO has said that the RLV, should it someday be deployed, will be able to bring down launch costs from $5,000 per kg to $2,000 per kg – the sort of cuts SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly asserted are necessary to hasten the advent of interplanetary human spaceflight. However, the development of advanced technologies isn’t the only driver at the heart of this ambition. Private spaceflight companies in the US recently lobbied for a ban against the launch of American satellites onboard ISRO rockets “because it would be tough for them to compete against ISRO’s low-cost options, which they also alleged were subsidised by the Indian government”.

Then again, an ISRO official has since clarified that the organisation isn’t competing against SpaceX either. Speaking to Sputnik News, K. Sivan, director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, said on May 17, “We are not involved in any race with anybody. We have our own problems to tackle. ISRO has its own domestic requirements which we need to satisfy.”

So, good luck for HEX1, ISRO!

Featured image: The PSLV C33 mission takes off to launch the IRNSS 1G satellite. Credit: ISRO.

Note: This post earlier stated that the HEX1 chassis would experience temperatures of 5,000º C during atmospheric reentry. It’s actually 1,600º C and the mistake has been corrected.

SpaceX rocket blows up but let's remember that #SpaceIsHard

The Wire
June 30, 2015

“… it’s not all or nothing. We must get to orbit eventually, and we will. It might take us one, two or three more tries, but we will. We will make it work.” Elon Musk said this in a now-famous interview to Wired in 2008 when questioned about what the future of private spaceflight looked like after SpaceX had failed three times in a row trying to launch its Falcon 1 rocket. At the close, Musk, the company’s founder and CEO, asserted, “As God is my bloody witness, I’m hell-bent on making it work.”

Fast forward to June 28, 2015, at Cape Canaveral, Florida, 1950 IST. There’s a nebulaic cloud of white-grey smoke hanging in the sky, the signature of a Falcon 9 rocket that disintegrated minutes after takeoff. @SpaceX’s Twitter feed is MIA while other handles are bustling with activity. News trickles in that an “overpressurization” event occurred in the rocket’s second stage, a liquid-oxygen fueled motor. A tang of resolve hangs in conversations about the mishap – a steely reminder that #SpaceIsHard.

In October 2014, an Antares rocket exploded moments after lifting off, crashing down to leave the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia, unusable for months. In April 2015, a Progress 59 cargo module launched by the Russian space agency’s Soyuz 2-1A rocket spun wildly out of control and fell back toward Earth – rather was incinerated in the atmosphere.

All three missions – Orbital’s, Roscosmos’s and SpaceX’s – were resupply missions to the International Space Station. All three missions together destroyed food and clothing for the ISS crew, propellants, 30 small satellites, spare parts for maintenance and repairs, a water filtration system and a docking port – at least. The result is that NASA’s six-month buffer of surplus resources on the ISS has now been cut back to four. The next resupply mission is Roscosmos’s next after its April accident, on July 3, followed by a Japanese mission in August.

But nobody is going to blame any of these agencies overmuch – rather, they shouldn’t. Although hundreds of rockets are successfully launched every year, what’s invisible on TV is the miracle of millions of engineering-hours and tens of thousands of components coming together in each seamless launch. And like Musk said back in 2008, it’s not all-or-nothing each time people try to launch a rocket. Accidents will happen because of the tremendous complexity.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch was the third attempt in six months to reuse the rocket’s first-stage. It’s an ingenious idea: to have the first-stage robotically manoeuvre itself onto a barge, floated off Wallops Island, after performing its duties. Had the attempt succeeded, SpaceX would’ve created history. Being able to reuse such an important part of the rocket reduces launch costs – possible by a factor of hundred, Musk has claimed.

Broad outlay of how SpaceX's attempt to recover Falcon's first-stage will work. Credit: SpaceX
Broad outlay of how SpaceX’s attempt to recover Falcon’s first-stage will work. Credit: SpaceX

In September 2013, the first stage changed direction, reentered Earth’s atmosphere and made a controlled descent – but landed too hard in the water. A second attempt in April 2014 played out a similar narrative, with the stage getting broken up in hard seas. Then, in January 2015, an attempt to land the stage on the barge – called the autonomous spaceport drone ship – was partially successful. The stage guided itself toward the barge in an upright position but eventually came down too hard. Finally, on June 28, a yet-unknown glitch blew up the whole rocket 2.5 minutes after launch.

The Falcon 9’s ultimate goal is to ferry astronauts into space. After retiring its Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, NASA had no vehicles to send American astronauts into space from American soil, and currently coughs up $70 million to Roscosmos for each seat. As remedy, it awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to build human-rated rockets fulfilling the associated and stringent criteria in September 2014. The vehicles have until 2017 to be ready. So in a way, it’s good that these accidents are happening now while the missions are uncrewed (and the ISS is under no real threat of running out of supplies).

June 28 was also Musk’s 44th birthday. On behalf of humankind, and in thanks to his ambitions and perseverance, someone buy the man a drink.

SpaceX rocket blows up but let’s remember that #SpaceIsHard

The Wire
June 30, 2015

“… it’s not all or nothing. We must get to orbit eventually, and we will. It might take us one, two or three more tries, but we will. We will make it work.” Elon Musk said this in a now-famous interview to Wired in 2008 when questioned about what the future of private spaceflight looked like after SpaceX had failed three times in a row trying to launch its Falcon 1 rocket. At the close, Musk, the company’s founder and CEO, asserted, “As God is my bloody witness, I’m hell-bent on making it work.”

Fast forward to June 28, 2015, at Cape Canaveral, Florida, 1950 IST. There’s a nebulaic cloud of white-grey smoke hanging in the sky, the signature of a Falcon 9 rocket that disintegrated minutes after takeoff. @SpaceX’s Twitter feed is MIA while other handles are bustling with activity. News trickles in that an “overpressurization” event occurred in the rocket’s second stage, a liquid-oxygen fueled motor. A tang of resolve hangs in conversations about the mishap – a steely reminder that #SpaceIsHard.

In October 2014, an Antares rocket exploded moments after lifting off, crashing down to leave the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia, unusable for months. In April 2015, a Progress 59 cargo module launched by the Russian space agency’s Soyuz 2-1A rocket spun wildly out of control and fell back toward Earth – rather was incinerated in the atmosphere.

All three missions – Orbital’s, Roscosmos’s and SpaceX’s – were resupply missions to the International Space Station. All three missions together destroyed food and clothing for the ISS crew, propellants, 30 small satellites, spare parts for maintenance and repairs, a water filtration system and a docking port – at least. The result is that NASA’s six-month buffer of surplus resources on the ISS has now been cut back to four. The next resupply mission is Roscosmos’s next after its April accident, on July 3, followed by a Japanese mission in August.

But nobody is going to blame any of these agencies overmuch – rather, they shouldn’t. Although hundreds of rockets are successfully launched every year, what’s invisible on TV is the miracle of millions of engineering-hours and tens of thousands of components coming together in each seamless launch. And like Musk said back in 2008, it’s not all-or-nothing each time people try to launch a rocket. Accidents will happen because of the tremendous complexity.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch was the third attempt in six months to reuse the rocket’s first-stage. It’s an ingenious idea: to have the first-stage robotically manoeuvre itself onto a barge, floated off Wallops Island, after performing its duties. Had the attempt succeeded, SpaceX would’ve created history. Being able to reuse such an important part of the rocket reduces launch costs – possible by a factor of hundred, Musk has claimed.

Broad outlay of how SpaceX's attempt to recover Falcon's first-stage will work. Credit: SpaceX
Broad outlay of how SpaceX’s attempt to recover Falcon’s first-stage will work. Credit: SpaceX

In September 2013, the first stage changed direction, reentered Earth’s atmosphere and made a controlled descent – but landed too hard in the water. A second attempt in April 2014 played out a similar narrative, with the stage getting broken up in hard seas. Then, in January 2015, an attempt to land the stage on the barge – called the autonomous spaceport drone ship – was partially successful. The stage guided itself toward the barge in an upright position but eventually came down too hard. Finally, on June 28, a yet-unknown glitch blew up the whole rocket 2.5 minutes after launch.

The Falcon 9’s ultimate goal is to ferry astronauts into space. After retiring its Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, NASA had no vehicles to send American astronauts into space from American soil, and currently coughs up $70 million to Roscosmos for each seat. As remedy, it awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to build human-rated rockets fulfilling the associated and stringent criteria in September 2014. The vehicles have until 2017 to be ready. So in a way, it’s good that these accidents are happening now while the missions are uncrewed (and the ISS is under no real threat of running out of supplies).

June 28 was also Musk’s 44th birthday. On behalf of humankind, and in thanks to his ambitions and perseverance, someone buy the man a drink.