The wrong stuff – Musk and the 4/20 rocket drill

So on the 20th of April (4/20, so at least we know what he was smoking), chief twit Elon Musk launched his ego rocket to cheering crowds, which was deemed a success. …despite blowing itself to bits and scattering debris over a wetlands habitat. I’m sorry, but that’s not what can even be considered a success. But it just goes to show the double standards the media applies to Musk and other tech bro’s. And how lazy most journalists are.

NASA’s first launch of the SLS went off without a hitch, as do most first launches of modern rockets. In fact when they do fail its considered a big deal (e.g. the first launch of Ariane 5 was a rather embarrassing failure due to a computer coding error). Yes this is why NASA space launches are boring compared to SpaceX, but that’s sort of the point, aerospace is supposed to be boring. That’s a good thing. When I get on a plane, my goal is to doze off and sleep for most of the flight, not be wondering if we are going to have the excitement of an in-flight emergency.

Granted, there were a lot more failures during the early days of rocketry, but that’s largely because back then the engineers were flying blind. They didn’t have the experience with rocketry we now have. They lacked the computer software to run simulations, nor the material science and aerodynamic knowledge we now have. Hence, a lot more launches did end up as failures. In fact, I’d also note that its considered bad luck to cheer during a rocket launch (as it was not unusual for people to cheer in these early days only for the rocket to shortly there after blow up). Musk and his fanboys seem intend on re-learning what we all ready know.

Indeed, there’s very little that we learnt from this test flight that couldn’t have been learnt from ground testing, simulations, some quick calculations….or applying some basic common sense. For example, the main problem was how Musk’s rocket was less the world’s big’s rocket, but the the world’s biggest drill bit. It chewed up its own launch pad and effectively destroyed it, spraying chucks of concrete out to a distance of several hundred metres, damaging equipment on site (likely including the rocket itself as several engines failed immediately upon launch) and scatter debris into a protected wetland area.

This was entirely predictable and indeed several commentators did predict it (but obviously Musk the college drop out knows way more about rocketry than these guys with their fancy degrees). This is why most other launch complexes have a flame pit and maintain a large separation between the pad and anything that might not react well to flaming chucks of debris (like a tank full of propellants).

There was also some control and stability issues, as the aerodynamic surfaces at the front of the craft require control inputs from the engines at the back just to fly in a straight line (think of an arrow, where you put the fins on the front instead of on the back). Obviously, this means the engines have to work harder to steer. Plus you lose enough of the steerable engines (or you hit gimbal lock) and the rocket becomes uncontrollable (which towards the end of the flight, is basically what happened).

And since we are talking about it, I still can’t understand why he’s using Methane as a fuel. This gives a specific impulse of only 360s, while Lox/LH2 will give you at least 450s (i.e. 20% more bangs for each gram of fuel). And NASA has the RS-25 engines used by the SLS (based on the space shuttle engines, so a proven technology), which are also reusable and can be throttled. The only reason not to use them seems to be not invented here syndrome. Either way, it would make far more sense to adapt Starship to be brought up to orbit in sections by the SLS (or just go with a more sensible space craft design), or adapt SLS to lift it up in one go (e.g. cluster several core SLS stages together, similar to the soviet Energia system).

And least we forget, Starship is supposed to be a man rated rocket (which for NASA means getting the probability of loss down to 1 in 500…good luck with that one!). There has to be serious doubts about it meeting that now. Aside from the issued I discussed previously related to its stainless steel construction, it also has to undertake a very risky manoeuvre in order to separate both halves. The rocket does a 180 degree spin arse over end, sling shooting the upper stage away from the lower stage (keeping in mind the control issues I mentioned earlier, will be much worse due to the fact the rocket is now nose heavy, as most of the fuel in the lower stage is gone). And its possible the rocket broke its back trying to do this.

Its also unclear how Starship is supposed to separate and land safely in the event of a booster failure during the early launch phase (had more of those engines been lost earlier on, this type of failure would have occurred shortly after lift off). By contrast the Orion capsule on the SLS (or indeed Soyuz or the Dragon capsule) has an escape tower, which will boost the capsule and its crew away from a failing rocket. No such escape options appear to exist for Starship. Indeed on nearly all the times Musk has tried to land Starship its blown up or crashed.

But its Musk’s money, he can do whatever he likes with it surely? Actually, no Starship now forms a critical part of NASA’s lunar landing project. These tests are mostly taxpayer funded. Quite apart from the costs of delaying the entire lunar project, the costs of the impending FAA investigation and the time the US wildlife service are going to have to devote to cleaning up the mess in the wetlands.

And this is hardly the first time Musk has promised way more than he can deliver. As I mentioned before, Falcon was supposed to be fully reusable, but is only partially reusable (and even then, more in theory than practice), at a significantly higher cost than he promised (and again, mostly taxpayer subsidised). Hyperloop is still a pipe dream, and the Vegas loop (also taxpayer funded) is a glorified Disney ride. Meanwhile twitter is an increasingly unreliable hellscape which has lost half its value since he took it over, and self driving cars? Will be available in 2013, 2015, 2017, 2020, 2024.

I mean imagine if NASA behaved the same way as Musk. Or god forbid, some sort of lefty wasted this much tax payer’s money doing stupid things. Or let’s suppose some Mexican billionaire started blowing up rockets just across the border in Mexico, showering debris into the US. Would they be treated the same way by the US government or the media? No, they’d be pretty quick to shut them down. But being a billionaire is basically an excuse to get away with anything in America, even if its criminal, immoral or insane.


About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
This entry was posted in aviation, cults, defence, environment, future, history, news, space, sustainability, technology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The wrong stuff – Musk and the 4/20 rocket drill

  1. peNdantry says:

    An excellent spotlighting of the lunatic forelock-tugging shown by far too many to the moronic antics of the insanely rich. Keep it up!

    PS My proposition to proofread your posts prior to publication persists. For instance, some examples from this article (there are several more):

    when they do fail itsit’s considered a big deal
    They diddidn’t have the experience with rocketry we now have
    note that itsit’s considered bad luck
    only for the rocket to shortly there afterthereafter blow up
    And leastlest we forget
    itsit’s blown up or crashed

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.