The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Delta 2 launch
The Delta 2 may be one of the most reliable rockets around because of, not in spite of, its use of decidedly old technology. (credit: NASA/KSC)

Space myths

The famous writer Robert A. Heinlein once observed that something that “everyone knows” is inevitably untrue. Even in the relatively new area of space transportation, exploration and exploitation, some myths have arisen that contain more falsehoods than truths.

Space is the ultimate in high tech. It’s quite true that advanced technology is highly valued in space applications. Space has served as a driver in a variety of areas, from propulsion to materials to electronics. In the early days in particular, the requirements of space pushed the envelope of many of the sciences, from the very large to the extremely small, in widely-separated fields ranging from aerodynamics to the life sciences.

High tech is indeed valued in space applications, but reliability is valued even more. Once something was developed that worked, there was a powerful incentive to keep using it. Significant improvements not only cost money but inevitably introduced failures until the bugs could be worked out. And space was nearly unique in that the environment not only failed to forgive any failure but also could not be duplicated very well on Earth.

High tech is indeed valued in space applications, but reliability is valued even more.

Even when known flaws were present in developed hardware, it was a case of the devil you knew versus the unknown. On one rocket program, a critical piece of ground guidance equipment had an underdesigned relay that tended to stick closed. The answer was to go whack it on the side to get the relay to unstuck. The replacement of the relay with a digital controller was greeted with not relief but rather with some trepidation; after all, they knew how to fix the sticky relay.

And it was not until well into the 1980s that one major rocket manufacturer phased out the use of wooden parts in its space launch vehicles.

The result of this attitude is the continuation of equipment of older design far beyond what would be tolerated in most fields. The two newest operational space launch systems in the U.S., the Delta 4 and Atlas 5, use basic engine designs that first came out 20 or more years ago. Walk onto a new car dealership and you are apt to see more advanced technology than on a launch pad. For an even more extreme example, compare Boeing’s new 787 to the same company’s Delta 2 booster; you are comparing the 1950s to the 21st century.

Space is horribly expensive. The typical image of space hardware is of something that could fit comfortably in the back of a pickup truck but which costs more than the factory that made the truck. That is sometimes a correct image relative to individual pieces of flight hardware, but it does not reflect the bigger picture.

Space provided useful capabilities that no other medium could match, but even more importantly, it provided superior capabilities as compared to the earthly alternatives. And one of those capabilities was lower costs.

As one highly experienced US Army general said at the launch of a NATO communications satellite, “This thing has to work! None of you were in World War 2, so you don’t know what it is like trying to fight a war using shortwave radio.”

And that satellite, as expensive as it was, was no doubt not only vastly superior to thousands of high frequency radios and their teams of highly trained operators trying to pump radio signals through the fickle ether, it also cost far less than all those ground installations.

Space became such a popular place to utilize because, above all, compared to the alternatives it is cheap.

This same logic applies to a great many other areas. Lowering costs by utilizing space quickly became the norm. In fact, in the’70s the USAF calculated that using satellites to conduct weather reconnaissance saved $100,000 a day over the cost of flying airplanes to get the job done. Aside from that, of course, flying airplanes over some of the places that the satellites could observe would have been impossible and in other cases might well have started World War 3, which darn sure would have been pricey in its own right.

Space became such a popular place to utilize not because it was cool, impressive, and the latest thing to do, or even just because it offered unique capabilities, but, above all, because compared to the alternatives it is cheap.

We need less government regulation affecting space. People who make this claim invariably say they would like to see a more “commercial-like” environment for space activities, say, like is done with the airlines. After all, everyone knows that the airlines have been “deregulated.”

Okay, so let’s use the airline example. Say you are going to buy an airline ticket to go from Orlando, Florida to Atlanta, Georgia, and that ticket costs you $100. It is a purely commercial transaction between you and the airline, so the federal government is not involved, right?

Arriving at Orlando Airport you must pass through the security procedures, under the control of the Department of Homeland Security. Upon boarding the airliner, you are on an aircraft certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) after demonstrating it meets a set of exacting standards and also individually licensed by the FAA after the manufacturer and the airline have proven that it has been properly maintained and proven on an annual basis.

Every part of the aircraft must meet rigorous specifications and cannot be replaced without the approval of the FAA. If as much as a bolt securing one of the overhead baggage compartments in place breaks and one of the flight crew decides to replace it with one he bought at the hardware store on the way to the airport, a potentially serious violation has been committed. The hardware store bolt does not meet aerospace standards, and even if it did cannot be installed except by an appropriately qualified and licensed person, a mechanic licensed by the FAA.

The pilot and copilot flying the airplane are also licensed by the FAA in accordance with specific requirements. The crew has to meet rigorous standards, including medical examinations conducted not less than every six months. The doctor that gives those medical exams has to be trained and approved by the FAA. The FAA also reserves the right to observe the flight crew performing their duties and suspend or revoke their licenses if all is not up to snuff.

These same kinds of requirements extend back into history. The pilots learned to fly in FAA-certified and -licensed aircraft and were taught by flight instructors who were also specifically licensed by the FAA to provide flight instruction. The mechanics that maintain the airplane were also licensed by the FAA and had to be trained by other FAA licensed personnel.

Once everyone is on board, the aircraft departs the gate after the FAA air traffic control facility approves its movements, proceeds to the runway as directed by the FAA and is cleared to take off by FAA-operated control tower. The airliner flies to Atlanta following FAA-developed procedures, under positive control by FAA air traffic control facilities and utilizing FAA navigational aids. Once it arrives in the Atlanta area it then proceeds as directed to the airport and the appropriate gate.

That is all required for a “commercial” airline flight that supposedly has no government involvement.

Now, suppose that instead of a commercial airline ticket costing $100 you want to purchase a commercial space launch costing $100 million. How much of the previously described type of involvement by the federal government comes into effect?

Answer: none of it—none. There is no one doing any or all of that type of federal oversight and control of a commercial space launch.

The degree of government involvement and control of commercial space launches is but a small fraction of that known in the commercial airline industry.

What is in fact done in the way of oversight is analogous to the FAA approval process for the design of airports, runways, and air traffic patterns. In both space launches and aircraft operations the federal government makes sure that those activities do not kill more than a very small number of the general public. You can’t locate runways too close to things such as housing and public roads for that reason. In the same manner, the federal government simply makes sure that is something goes wrong during the launch that the general public will not be endangered beyond a certain level—a level that for all practical purposes amounts to zero people killed.

As it turns out there is one area of control that is possible for a commercial space launch that is not for an airline trip. If, after you arrive in Atlanta you plan to perform some act that is illegal, immoral, or even fattening, the FAA cannot direct the airline to refuse to carry you. If you plan to purchase hundreds of millions of dollars worth of foreign goods while in Atlanta, thereby worsening the US balance of payments, they can’t stop your trip for that either.

But for a space launch, the law allows the government to refuse to grant you a license if for some reason they think it will be bad for the country. This provision probably will be brought into play the first time someone seeks a license to launch a satellite devoted to direct broadcast of kiddie porn—but probably not before then.

So, in summary, the degree of government involvement and control of commercial space launches is but a small fraction of that known in the commercial airline industry. Maybe we do indeed need less government control, but we already have very little compared to most other comparable industries.

These are just three of the more common “Space Myths”. Future articles will cover more.