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Falcon 9 Thaicom 6 launch
A Falcon 9 v1.1 carrying the Thaicom 6 satellite lifts off from Cape Canaveral earlier this month. SpaceX has incorporated a degree of “paranoia” in its launch operations, which may account for its string of recent successes. (credit: SpaceX)

Launch failures: normal, healthy paranoia


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Paranoia often is defined as a normal, healthy reaction to everyone being out to get you. That viewpoint may be rather tainted by both the perspective and the mental state of the individual observer, but it reflects a fact of life in the space launch business: the whole universe really is out to get you.

The problem is that space launch intrinsically represents a greater challenge than anything such newcomers have ever done before.

Newcomers to the field are invariably shocked by the extent to which “paranoia” is considered to be a normal, healthy attitude. Such launch novices may be very experienced in some other area, and this very often leads them to conclude that the people in the launch business are more than a little bit nuts and perhaps are looking to line their pockets at the expense of their customers. The extensive series of checks, tests, retests, analyses, and, of course, the associated documentation, all of which is the norm in the space launch business, to the newcomer often seems to be overdone at best and utterly bewildering at worst.

The newcomer assumption that common space launch practices are based on venality or real, clinical, paranoia is an all too common one. Not only new small organizations but also large, long-established ones, upon entering the business, have all too often concluded, “These people must be doing this job wrong. It simply can’t be this complicated or difficult.” Or as one admiral in the Pentagon put it, while demanding an explanation why a DSCS mission was being delayed, “There are too many guys in white lab coats wandering around on the launch pad.”

The problem is that space launch intrinsically represents a greater challenge than anything such newcomers have ever done before. As compared to the demanding rigors of aviation, putting payloads into orbit is a step comparable to that of going from driving automobiles to flying airplanes—and many would assert it is even a far bigger leap than that.

The challenge of space launch is based on two realities. One is that it is intrinsically difficult to leave mother Earth: as one NASA official once summed it up, “An angry God did the physics.” Another fact is that the launch technologies we have developed thus far are both quite complex and very unforgiving of error. We lack anti-gravity fields that would gently waft payloads into orbit, or laser beams projected from the ground that could boost hardware aloft, or giant space elevators, or even just recovery methods that would save the payload if something went wrong during ascent. You can’t fly into orbit in the way an airplane does, with an ability to chop the throttle and glide back down to it try it again another day in the event of a problem. It takes rockets to do the job, and they are all too prone to failure and difficult at best to even test adequately.

Meeting these challenges has called for an exceptionally thorough approach to both individual component quality control as well as that of systems engineering. This amounts to “normal, healthy, paranoia” in which failure is assumed to be the inevitable result unless human beings take action to prevent it. That approach, in turn, calls for not just thorough review and analysis but for layers of it, including a degree of independent oversight that is beyond anything done in any other industry. And the necessity of the approach has been learned the hard way.

Both General Dynamics and Martin Marietta rather painfully discovered they needed a certain amount of normal healthy paranoia to be successful. And if the federal government was not going to impose the paranoia on you, you had to create it yourself.

In the late 1980s, the stunning launch failures of 1985–1987 (two Titan 34Ds, the Space Shuttle Challenger, a Delta 3920, and an Atlas Centaur) were still fresh in memory, but that did not prevent the rise of an idea called “commercial launch.” It was asserted that the government oversight and control that had been such a key element of space launch were no longer necessary. Better results and much lower costs could be achieved if the government just got out of the way, ceased its meddling, and paid private firms to do the job. Chief among the commercial launch advocates was General Dynamics, whose attempts to market its Atlas boosters to the US government had been far less successful than the company liked (and probably less successful than they really deserved.)

Having successfully advocated the commercial launch idea as theory, GD moved smartly out to implement it—only to have the idea fail as a fact. Three Atlas failures, two of which were due to the same cause, seriously damaged the company’s credibility in the marketplace (see “Launch failures: an Atlas Groundhog Day”, The Space Review, March 9, 2009). Soon thereafter, GD sold its space launch business to Martin Marietta.

Meanwhile, Martin Marietta had used its Titan IV program as a springboard to produce the Commercial Titan III. The Titan III was one of the most powerful commercial boosters around, capable of launching two payloads to geosynchronous orbits. But this ability also proved to be its undoing. The Titan’s main competitor, the Ariane, had a similar dual payload capability, but also had a modular design that enabled the booster’s performance to be scaled up and down as required so to handle either just one payload or two. The Titan could profitably put two payloads into orbit, but far less so with just one. The problem was finding two such payloads that wanted to launch at the same time. The first Commercial Titan III launch had two payloads, but the second launch had to go with only one. And on that launch, the booster wiring harness was connected to the one payload as if it was but one of two, not one by itself. As a result, the mission never got payload separation and was a failure.

Martin Marietta only launched two more Commercial Titan III missions after that failure, one of which was in fact a NASA mission, after which they concentrated on their newly procured Atlas capability for the commercial marketplace.

Both General Dynamics and Martin Marietta rather painfully discovered they needed a certain amount of normal healthy paranoia to be successful. And if the federal government was not going to impose the paranoia on you, you had to create it yourself. In the case of the Commercial Titan failure, a government inspector almost certainly would have found the wiring error; for a commercial mission, that inspector was not there. As for the two identical Atlas failures, a government-run launch failure investigation and corrective action effort has not suffered such a problem for some decades.

In that same time frame, a completely new company entered the launch business. Orbital Sciences Corporation developed the Pegasus booster, a unique air-launched vehicle for small payloads. Orbital started out with a tendency to view the launch business as unnecessarily complex, expensive, and hidebound. Government oversight in the program would be the lowest ever in a space launch procurement effort. The first Pegasus launch was a success; the second ran into some problems, but the company still was able to count it as a success.

There were two more Pegasus successes, and another failure. Then came the Pegasus XL, an upgraded version designed to meet Air Force and NASA requirements. The first two XL launches were failures. From May 1994 to November 1996, Orbital had an impressive ten launches, but with four failures. They, too, had to learn the value of normal, healthy paranoia. Today, they have not had a Pegasus failure in over 17 years, and although their Taurus booster has had some problems, their new Antares vehicle has been flawless from the start..

SpaceX, like the rest of the launch industry that is still actually around, has discovered the value of “normal healthy paranoia.” They are no longer just fixing things that break but have incorporated a prudent degree of paranoia into their corporate culture.

After the Pegasus XL failures came a similar experience for McDonnell Douglas. The company’s Delta II rockets had been the biggest winner in the scramble to recover ELV launch capabilities after the loss of the Shuttle Challenger, but Delta II was outstripped by the needs of the new larger commercial communications satellite payloads. The answer was the Delta III, a major upgrade to the Delta series. It would also be the first rocket that the company would have to build without the NASA or the Air Force looking over its shoulder: there was a danger of a paranoia shortage.

The orders for the Delta III came in quickly. McDonnell Douglas got ten launches to commercial satellite companies before the first one ever lifted off. But when that liftoff occurred it was a failure; even worse, so was the second launch.

Those two failures ended the Delta III program: no one wanted to buy one any more. One more launch was conducted but it was without a paying customer, an engineering test flight.

Then came SpaceX, a company determined to blaze a new trail, with bright young people and real innovation.

SpaceX represents something a microcosm of the launch business in one company. Virtually everything they did failed the first time, but each time they came back with the problems corrected and went on to the next step, learning each time. And the company’s first two commercial geosynchronous communications satellite launches really showed how far they have come, not only in capability, but in basic attitude.

Their first launch attempt on November 25 was scrubbed due to suspicious liquid oxygen tank pressure readings. When the second launch attempt on November 28 suffered two aborts due to anomalies, they showed even more caution. SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk summed up things very well in a tweet: “We called manual abort. Better to be paranoid and wrong. Bringing rocket down to borescope engines.”

There you go! “Normal healthy paranoia” is now official SpaceX company policy. That does not sound like a brash newcomer who is sure that everyone else is too cautious and a bunch of stick-in-the muds. For one thing, SpaceX not only generated their own paranoia but imported some as well. They had representatives from their payload customer embedded with them, checking on how well things were going.

The company displayed further caution by delaying their third launch attempt for the geosynchronous mission so they could examine the available data more closely. And even following their successful first geosynchronous launch, they were still very cautious for the next mission. At one time this would have been derided by some people as an absurdly paranoid attitude.

SpaceX, like the rest of the launch industry that is still actually around, has discovered the value of “normal healthy paranoia.” They are no longer just fixing things that break but have incorporated a prudent degree of paranoia into their corporate culture. The people who did not discover that vital quantity quickly enough are mostly no longer in the business. But it seems too true that only the programmatic equivalent of at least a few sharp raps on the head with a high velocity pine two-by-four is capable of implanting that essential attitude—and even then, it is not a permanent condition. Experience is the best teacher, and in the world of space launch it may be the only one that counts.


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