Friday, July 3, 2015

Why Russian ReSupply Rocket Made It - While Space-X Rocket Failed

Image for the news result
Russian Soyuz blasts off from Baikonur Cosmodrome yesterday - saving the ISS from potential evacuation.

Yesterday the Russians came to the rescue of the ISS crew with three tons of food, fuel and other supplies, mere days after the Elon Musk private commercial rocket (Space-X)  failed miserably. That failed launch not only messed up reception of needed supplies but also caused consternation for more than 60 Colorado science students who had patiently prepared experiments - all of which came to perdition.

How was the Space-X different from the Russian rocket OR to the previous successful military spy satellite launches? This is the 64 dollar question that needs to be addressed. The primary difference is that the military-Pentagon has been using a proven performer in the Russian-produced RD-180 rocket engine (also used for the Soyuz)  which powers the Atlas V that lofts two thirds of all national security satellites.

As noted in a WSJ piece ('National Security After the Space X Explosion', June 30, p. A18) by William Shelton, the U.S. government "encouraged Lockheed Martin to use this engine primarily because of its performance and relatively low cost." The RD-180 is also used in the Delta IV rocket, and with the Atlas V there've been 83 launches without failure.

Space X meanwhile used the Falcon 9  rocket 1.1 engine which as the WSJ observed "ought to give everyone pause about jettisoning a dependable arrangement vital to U.S. security". (Space - X is also developing a "full thrust" version which has yet to be certified but designed to take astronauts to the ISS).

What is he talking about?

He's talking about congressional legislation that would prohibit the use of any Russian-made engines on U.S. rockets.  As a result of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act which became law last December, the RD-180 Russian made engines were banned with the exception of the few remaining in stock. According to Shelton (ibid.):

"The purported rationale is to uphold Russian sanctions and avoid rewarding the country's bad behavior in Ukraine"

Which is totally stupid and irrational, as I also noted last year in terms of NASA halting cooperation with the Russians, e.g.

Is it stupid to ban the RD-180 before a reliable U.S. engine comes to the fore? Of course! This isn't rocket science! (The December legislation mandated a new U.S. engine to be ready by 2019 - but that is 4 years away and many more ISS resupply missions are needed).

As Shelton notes, the U.S. will run out of RD-180 engines well before the new rocket is ready. Would the military be ready to go to Elon Musk's Falcon  9,  1.1 full thrust engine when the RD-180s run out? After the recent performance of the 1.1 prototype for ISS resupply, don't hold your breath.

Unlike the evidently expendable civilian rocket trips, the military and security state will not tolerate sub par rocket engines (or what they perceive as such) for their special security missions.

My argument is that this congressional legislation is hare-brained and needs to be repealed, or at least modified. This is feasible since as Shelton writes:

"In April, the House of Representatives passed a new, slightly revised fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. It contains a clause that allows the Secretary of Defense to waive the ban on the RD-180 for as long as needed if the Secretary deems it in the national interest to do so."

I, along with many others do believe it in the national interest, and Ash Carter ought to act expeditiously to ensure the RD-180 remains in use until a certified U.S. engine is available and passes at least five performance tests in real life cargo operations.

Still, it's a pity NASA also doesn't mandate the use of the RD-180 for resupply to the ISS as opposed to the iffy commercial space -based engines like the Falcon 9 1.1.

Congrats to the Russians for at least getting some critical supplies to where they need to be!

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