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On the Targeting of SpaceX

To the casual observer, the middle of January 2018 might have seemed to be rather rough for SpaceX. After the launch of the mysterious Zuma payload, rumors quickly circulated indicating something had gone wrong with the apparently expensive satellite. Heavily slanted articles were quickly written by known critics of SpaceX and then read in to the US Congressional record during hearings about the NASA Commercial Crew program. Additionally, during those hearings, SpaceX Vice President for Build and Flight Reliability, Dr. Hans Koenigsmann, was given little reprieve as panelists repeatedly grilled him about Zuma, safety concerns, and Falcon 9 reliability. However, upon looking deeper at the matter, there is not much substance to the apparent attacks on SpaceX.

Zuma was a remarkable achievement for SpaceX, and also something of a thorny subject. Originally reaching the public eye in October 2017 and slated for a launch by November 30, 2017, the unusually quick (from a public point of view) turnaround from entering the manifest till launch was a great demonstration of how resilient SpaceX has become. They were able to move around some launches and boosters between customers to accommodate the payload. Unfortunately, the launch did not occur in 2017 due to manufacturing concerns with a different client’s fairing necessitating airlifting Zuma’s fairings back to Hawthorne, CA for inspection.

Zuma did eventually launch on January 7, 2018 at 8pm local time. The launch was rather typical for classified cargo. The first stage lifted the second stage and cargo flawlessly and, following MECO and stage separation, the live video stream followed the first stage back to Landing Zone 1 for a perfect landing. Meanwhile, second stage operations were performed in private. It appeared to be a perfect mission and life went on with most of the space community focusing on the upcoming Falcon Heavy static fire tests.

The SpaceX web cast for the Zuma launch (SpaceX)

Several hours later, unconfirmed rumors began springing up stating that the launch was, in fact, not a success. These rumors, though, didn’t point to anything or anyone solid that could confirm what happened, just anonymous sources. Some indicated that the payload never left the second stage and fell back into the atmosphere when the stage deorbited. Others indicated that the payload did in fact separate and was actually in orbit, just not responding. The fact that the satellite was given a designation of USA 280 on the website should confirm that the payload achieved at least one orbit. While this article won’t go too much in depth about the subject, The Everyday Astronaut covers what we really know vs what is guess work in the following video.

The Everyday Astronaut (reluctantly) covers the speculation surrounding Zuma (The Everyday Astronaut)

Quickly, these rumors became articles, with several well-known SpaceX critics taking the precious few bits of information about Zuma, along with some assumptions and guesses portrayed as facts, and forging sensationalist articles touting a SpaceX mission failure and doubts about SpaceX reliability. One such article published on Forbes was even partially read into the congressional record by Representative Mo Brooks (Alabama) during a hearing regarding Commercial Crew systems development. It should be noted that Mo Brooks has been a strong defender of ULA, a competitor of SpaceX, and has even supported multi-year monopolies in favor of ULA in the past.

To be clear, if these rumors were verified and SpaceX had indeed been responsible for a loss of mission, concerns about reliability and the Falcon 9s design would be very much justified. SpaceX has lost two Falcon 9 vehicles in the past (the CRS-7 mission in 2015 and the AMOS-6 test anomaly in 2016). These two losses hurt the company financially and were a setback at the time for their reputation and their attempts at increasing their launch cadence. However, SpaceX learned from these losses and made improvements to the Falcon 9 launch vehicle as well as the company processes.

Official Statement from Gwynne Shotwell (President, CEO of SpaceX) regarding Zuma

On January 9, 2018, SpaceX released an official statement informing that the Falcon 9 performed correctly during the Zuma launch and that the company will be continuing with their manifest for the year. This statement was quickly followed by tweets from SES and Matt Desch (Iridium) defending SpaceX and expressing confidence in their upcoming launches. However, members of the House space subcommittee repeatedly brought up the issue of Zuma during the hearing. The only reply that Dr. Koenigsmann could give was that “Falcon 9 performed as specified,” and variants on that theme.

Dr. Hans Koenigsmann testifying before the House space subcomittee

However, Zuma was not the only concern raised during that hearing. In addition to that launch and the two losses mentioned earlier, concern was raised about the COPV (composite overwrapped pressure vessel) technology used by the Falcon 9 inside the first and second stage LOX tanks as well as the proposed process of late loading the fuel into the rocket while astronauts are on board. Both of these are definite technical issues that need to be put to rest, although they are not necessarily matters that should shed doubt on SpaceX’s reliability or commitment to safety.

The COPVs were the apparent proximate cause of the AMOS-6 testing anomaly. One of the vessels appears to have ignited, leading to the conflagration that destroyed the rocket. The ultimate cause has not been absolutely determined, and likely can’t be, but is thought to be due to an improper weave or lamination issue in the composite overwrap leading to liquid oxygen entering the space between weaves and freezing, causing enough friction to ignite the overlay material.

A video illustrating the process of creating a COPV (Interorbital Systems)

In response to these findings, NASA and SpaceX have been working on a COPV-2 design. This design would protect against SOX formation leading to a detonation of the rocket. As a secondary plan, NASA has also requested that SpaceX investigate the feasibility of using ICONEL based tanks instead of COPVs for the storage of Helium inside the LOX tanks. The end result of this research will likely lead to improved COPV technology that will have impact extending outside of the Falcon 9 program and will lead to greater reliability on all SpaceX vehicles.

The late loading of fuel is a contentious topic in the space community. The idea of fueling a rocket with highly explosive propellant while the astronauts are strapped into their capsule on top of said rocket is considered to be too dangerous by most traditional space engineers. The “correct” way is to fill the rocket first, then have the astronauts and support crew approach the rocket and secure the astronauts and late load cargo into the capsule while continuously topping off the fuel as it boils off.

The challenge here is that the Falcon 9 is designed to use “densified propellant”. Specifically, the liquid oxygen that they use is cooled far below its boiling point, making it denser and allowing for more LOX to be stored in the tank. The trade off is that the rocket cannot sit for several hours topping off the LOX that has boiled away. Instead, the propellant loading is timed such that launch happens only a few minutes after the tanks have been filled. (Check out this detailed estimate of the Falcon 9 countdown)

NASA has not dismissed the SpaceX approach for late loading of fuel out of hand. In part, this is because of the integrated flight abort system on the crew Dragon spacecraft. This launch abort system provides abort functionality for the entirety of the trip to orbit, including “Abort to Orbit” functionality if sufficient height has already been achieved. It would certainly protect the astronauts from any sort of explosion while on the pad. However, it is a new approach that has to be fully researched and understood before NASA is willing to risk the lives of their astronauts.

So given all of the negatively slanted media that has been focused on SpaceX in the past couple of weeks and the intense inquiry the House subcommittee gave towards SpaceX in their recent hearing, are there any obvious underlying issues? Is SpaceX pulling the wool over the eyes of the public and playing a bandit with taxpayer money? In a word, no.

New technology and new approaches to established norms are almost universally opposed at first, until they are proven out. This is referred to as the giggle factor. It is generally considered to be a healthy aspect of science and engineering that strange ideas are laughed at, or at least shunned, in order to prevent costly flights of fancy. Of course, sometimes the “common sense” approach ignores equally valid methods, yet is still strongly defended (such as with the case of Peter Woit).

With space flight, this problem is exacerbated by the fact that it originated in the military circles as a weapon and intelligence tool. While, there were eventually commercial launches, obviously, they were typically handled by the established military-industrial complex members that had emerged during the early-mid 20th century. They had a lot of influence with policy makers and knew the right way to do things to ensure a guaranteed launch for military or intelligence applications, but they carried a heavy price tag.

With the emergence of fully private commercial launch providers, the playing field has changed. Prices have dropped significantly and new approaches to rocketry are being tested out. This is especially true with SpaceX since Elon Musk openly uses a First Principles approach to solving problems rather than just relying on the established ideas. Some of their ideas have been challenged by the gigglers, but later proven as viable (landing legs and reusable rockets in general).

These new approaches and ideas are also helping SpaceX to dominate the market. In 2017, SpaceX had the most launches from any private launch provider, the most commercial launches overall, and came in second to Russia in total launches.

Global Commercial Market Share Chart (SpaceX)

So the negative and distorted press is likely just a natural reaction of a stale marketplace suddenly seeing innovation and true competition. It should be noted that most of this criticism is coming from a national security and “taxpayer’s money” point of view. Very few issues have arisen with commercial customers (generally limited to scheduling issues and the loss of the AMOS-6 satellite). Furthermore, looking at the authors of these articles, it is very easy to find connections to ULA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, etc.

Detail from an illustration in an 1894 issue of Puck magazine. Full image available here.

Journalism in the United States has always had a bit of sensationalism and outright lies (the term yellow-journalism was coined during a famous feud between Pulitzer and Hearst). The maturity of the Internet has made it easy for just about anyone to start publishing articles. Meanwhile, the desire to drive traffic for ad revenue has led some once vaunted publishers like Forbes or Washington Post to instead promote drivel, anonymous sources, and leading phrasing. This recent splurge of anti-SpaceX articles and the accompanying questions are just an example of this.

If you would like to learn more about what is happening in the space industry, however, there are some excellent journalists who don’t slant the truth. Please check out these sources below. If you know of some other excellent sources of quality space journalism, please leave a comment below.

NASA Space Flight — This outlet offers articles covering every aspect of space flight and prides itself on journalistic integrity. In addition, the site provides a very rich forum filled with experts on every space subject.

The Verge — Loren Grush is a science reporter for The Verge and covers space launches and space policy. She has lived her life surrounded by rockets and is a solid source of insight and information.

SpaceNews — Similar to NASA Space Flight, this site is a general go to for all things Space. Their correspondents are honest with their coverage and there are no sensational or click-bait headlines.

Space Policy Online — Touting itself as “your first stop for news, information and analysis about civil, military and commercial space programs”, this site is an excellent source for events surrounding government influences into space. Despite their lack of love for the Oxford Comma.

Ars Technica — Eric Berger of Ars Technica is also a great resource for space news. As mentioned in the comments, “ He repeatedly writes insightful coverage of industry events and his coverage always seems fair and balanced to me. He’s especially receptive of New Space efforts without being immune to criticizing them where it is due.” TBH, I am surprised I left him out on this at first.

SpaceFlightNow — This comes recommended from Just A. Tinker on Twitter:

Chris Rogers is a SpaceX enthusiast and over all fan of privatized space flight. His goal is to author articles that make space related news and events approachable by lay persons and people just starting to follow the New Space industry.

Would you like to learn more? Here are some great resources for SpaceX information: