Commercial Space Services and Changing Times

SpaceX Starbase in  Boca Chica, Texas, United States. 30 minutes before Starship test flight. (April 20, 2023)
SpaceX Starship, 30 minutes before test flight. (April 20, 2023)

This week I’ll talk about the SpaceX Starship and ispace test flights. Whether or not they were successful depends on who’s talking.

I’ll also look at the usual hand-wringing over threats to the status quo.

News and Views

SpaceX Falcon Heavy Demo Mission's image: Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster on the Falcon Heavy upper stage. (February 6, 2018) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.The SpaceX Starship blew up.

I still don’t know what happened to ispace’s Hakuto-R lander.

Seeing both as failures is an option.

That may explain CNN’s “Starship’s explosion is not the failure it appears to be” headline.

And Elon Musk’s knack for getting attention, on top of being wealthier than most of us — is something I’ll get back to.

“We Will Keep Moving Forward”

ispace infographic, illustrating Mission 1 milestones. (April 2023))
Hakuto-R Mission 1 Milestones, ispace. (April 2023)

CNN’s experts weren’t named in the nine-paragraph article. But I think they’re right, and so are the folks at ispace.

Basically, ispace said that Hakuto-R Mission 1 was both a commercial and a test flight.

The lander carried the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre’s (MBRSC) Rashid Lunar rover; SORA-Q , a mini-rover designed by Tomy and JAXA; and Sakanaction’s “Sorato” song on a music disc.

NASA’s Lunar Flashlight mini-orbiter tagged along as a ride-on. It separated from Hakuto-R well before they reached the moon. The last I heard, the Lunar Flashlight mission was still in progress.

Carrying payloads for MBRSC, JAXA/Tomy, and Sakanaction was Hakuto-R Mission 1’s commercial mission.1 Odds are that MBRSC and the other folks won’t get as much out of their investment as they’d hoped.

As for ispace’s test flight of their Hakuto-R spacecraft, they had nine mission objectives.

They achieved eight.

I’d call that a mostly-successful test flight.

And I like the ispace CEO’s expressed attitude: “we will keep moving forward.”

Status Update on ispace HAKUTO-R Mission 1 Lunar Lander
Press Release, ispace (April 26, 2023)

“ispace, inc., (ispace) a global lunar exploration company, issued an update on the status of the HAKUTO-R Mission 1 Lunar Lander.

“The HAKUTO-R Mission 1 Lunar Lander was scheduled to touchdown on the surface of the Moon at approximately 1:40 a.m. JST. As of 8:00 a.m. JST, April 26, 2023, the communication between the lander and the Mission Control Center was lost, although it was expected even after the touchdown, and it has been determined that Success 9 of the Mission Milestones is not achievable.”Based on the currently available data, … the lander was in a vertical position as it carried out the final approach to the lunar surface. Shortly after the scheduled landing time, no data was received indicating a touchdown. ispace engineers monitored the estimated remaining propellant reached at the lower threshold and shortly afterward the descent speed rapidly increased. After that, the communication loss happened. Based on this, it has been determined that there is a high probability that the lander eventually made a hard landing on the Moon’s surface….

“…’Although we do not expect to complete the lunar landing at this time, we believe that we have fully accomplished the significance of this mission, having acquired a great deal of data and experience by being able to execute the landing phase. What is important is to feed this knowledge and learning back to Mission 2 and beyond so that we can make the most of this experience,’ said Takeshi Hakamada, Founder and CEO of ispace. ‘To this end, we are already developing Mission 2 and Mission 3 concurrently and have prepared a foundation that can maintain this continuity. I would like to thank once again all the employees who have contributed to this mission from its inception to the present, all the families who have continued to support it, and all the shareholders, HAKUTO-R partners, customers, suppliers, and many others who have continued to believe in ispace’s vision. We will keep moving forward.‘…”
[emphasis mine]

Fireball After Four Minutes: Starship’s Orbital Test Flight

SpaceX Starship on launchpad, before test flight. (April 20, 2023)
SpaceX Starship on the launchpad, Starbase, Boca Chita, Texas. (April 20, 2023)

I’m running short on time this week, so this bit will be more pictures than text.

Before Starship took off, folks at SpaceX had said that clearing the launchpad would be a successful flight.

SpaceX Starship test flight, at plus 12 seconds. (April 20, 2023)
SpaceX Starship, 12 seconds into the test flight. (April 20, 2023)

By that standard, Starship’s April 2o text flight was a resounding success. It did not explode on the launchpad.

SpaceX Starship in flight. (April 20, 2023)
One minute, 21 seconds, into Starship’s test flight. (April 20, 2023)

On the other hand, several of the Superheavy Booster’s engines weren’t working. I count six out in that screencapture, the display shows five, and either way it’s not a good thing.

SpaceX Starship, three minutes and 10 seconds after liftoff. (April 20, 2023)
SpaceX Super Heavy booster and Starship, after the upper stage should have separated. (April 20, 2023)

Three minutes and loose change after liftoff, something was obviously wrong. The lower and upper stages hadn’t separated properly, and the stack was tumbling. A bit later, the spacecraft exploded.

Starship’s “Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly”, RUD, was deliberate. Flight Termination Systems (FTS) in the Super Heavy Booster and Starship were triggered, since the vehicle had started tumbling and was falling toward the Gulf of Mexico.2

So, how come Elon Musk and folks at SpaceX have been calling a four-minute flight ending in a fireball a success?

It’s because Elon Musk apparently doesn’t enjoy wasting money. That’ll take some explaining, which is what an astronautical engineering professor did.

“…’Even though that rocket costs a lot of money, what really costs a lot of money are people’s salaries,‘ [University of Southern California astronautical engineering professor and former NASA astronaut, senior adviser to SpaceX Garrett] Reisman told Reuters in an interview hours after Thursday’s launch.

“Reisman said SpaceX saves more money in the long run, and takes less time to identify and correct engineering flaws by taking more risks in the development process rather than keeping ‘a large team working for years and years and years trying to get it perfect before you even try it.’

“‘I would say the timeline for transporting people (aboard Starship) is accelerated right now compared to what it was a couple of hours ago,’ Reisman said….”
(“SpaceX rocket explosion illustrates Elon Musk’s ‘successful failure’ formula“; Steve Gorman, Arlene Eiras; Reuters (April 20, 2023) [emphasis mine])

Starship Planned Mission Timelines: April 17 and 20, 2023

Starship’s test flight would, if everything had gone right, have lasted 90 minutes.

Although it ended about four minutes after takeoff, the Super Heavy Booster and Starship test flight successfully passed eight, nine or maybe nine and a half of 22 events. Depending on how you count “Fluid interfaces…” and “Max q“.

For the first test flight of the combined vehicle, that’s not bad.

TimeEventApril 17April 20
−02:00:00SpaceX Flight Director conducts a poll and verifies go for propellant loadingSuccessSuccess
−01:39:00Super Heavy booster propellant load (liquid oxygen and liquid methane) underwaySuccessSuccess
−01:22:00Starship fuel loading (liquid methane) underwaySuccessSuccess
−01:17:00Starship oxidizer loading (liquid oxygen) underwaySuccessSuccess
−00:16:40Booster engine chillSuccessSuccess
−00:00:40Fluid interfaces begin the venting sequenceNot passedResumed after hold
−00:00:08Booster ignition sequence beginsSuccess
−00:00:06First-stage engine ignitionSuccess
00:00:55Max q (moment of peak mechanical stress on the rocket)Success, yet later than planned
00:02:49Main engine cutoff (MECO)?
00:02:52Stage separation?
00:02:57Starship ignitionDid not take place
00:03:11Booster boostback burn startup
00:04:06Booster boostback burn shutdown
00:07:32Booster is transonic
00:07:40Booster landing burn startup
00:08:03Booster splashdown
00:09:20Starship engine cutoff (SECO)
01:17:21Starship atmospheric re-entry interface
01:28:43Starship is transonic
01:30:00Starship Pacific impact
From SpaceX Starship orbital test flight, Wikipedia. (April 28, 2023)

Now, before getting into some of the usual sound and fury, Overlook Horizon’s five-minute video discussing SpaceX and Starship.

Changing the Game, and Why That’s a Good Thing

(“6 Ways SpaceX Starship is Game Changing”, Overlook Horizon (December 1, 2020))

Neocolonization, Environmental Racism and Gentrification: EEK!

(Getty Images, via BBC News: protestors protesting against Donald Trump and climate change in Hamburg. (July 2017))Now I’ll get back to the dreadful and terribly serious threat of Elon Musk.

Elon Musk is rich. He’s got more money than most folks, certainly more than I do.

That might not be a problem, from a particular perspective, if he behaved as though he knew his place: supporting the correct causes and conducting himself as befits one of his station.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect Elon Musk’s high profile and lack of proper decorum is behind this sort of denunciation:

“…Brownsville community member Josette Hinojosa, released the following statement:
“‘SpaceX continues to disrespect Brownsville by continuing to destroy our beach, limit access to it, and push out longtime residents at the same time. Our region has dealt with generations of poverty and exploitation, which it seems like SpaceX has arrived to take advantage of. The exacerbation of these issues by SpaceX’s creation and contributions to gentrification is nothing short of neocolonization. Applauding this experimental technology that has no immediate benefits for anyone besides the wealthy is a further contribution to environmental racism and how communities like my own get sold out to large corporations like SpaceX.’…

“…Gloria Thomas with DSA-RGV (Democratic Socialists of America – RioGrande Valley), released the following statement:
“‘SpaceX has brought nothing but gentrification, and environmental destruction to the Valley. The promises of ‘economic development’ and ‘technological innovation’ are false promises. The so-called economic development is only meant for elites and opportunists, who take advantage of our community, land and resources. SpaceX continues to show incompetency from the previous launch failures and explosions. The lack of oversight from federal and state agencies, and local government, has allowed SpaceX to get away with launch failures that have caused explosions. It shows that these agencies are willing to compromise the public’s safety, and the environment for a billionaire’s pet project.'”
(“Rio Grande Valley Community React Ahead of SpaceX Rocket Launch Blast on the South Texas Coastline 27 Organizations sign onto letter expressing community concern“,
Press Release, Sierra Club (April 19, 2023))

Can’t say that I blame folks who joined the Sierra Club in opposition “neocolonization” and “experimental technology”.

I think there’s a very real risk that the SpaceX Starship, or something like it, will make spaceflight a great deal less expensive than it is now.3 And that, in turn, will almost certainly trigger other changes.

Villainy Runs Rampant as Chaos Stalks the Streets!

'At the Sign of the UNHOLY THREE' cartoon, warning against fluoridated water, polio serum and mental hygiene. And 'communistic world government.' (1955)Change is scary.

I think seeing how fear affects folks is easier when it’s ‘those people over there’ whose prudence is skidding toward paranoia.

“…when we’re afraid of certain things in ourselves or we’re afraid of change, we project those fears on to other things, and a lot of very ugly social situations can develop….”
(Gary Ross, commenting on his film “Pleasantville” (1998), quoted in “Review of Pleasantville”, Edward Johnson-Ott. Via Wikiquote.)

I remember the ‘good old days’, when frighteningly fervent folks were stalwartly defending America from fluoridated water and other communist plots.

By the time I was in my teens, that flavor of craziness was wearing thin. And probably helped make reforms of the 1960s look like good ideas. Which many were, and that’s another topic.

Time passed. I worked as a flower delivery guy, sales clerk, radio disk jockey, beet chopper, computer operator, and a mess of other jobs.

Meanwhile, folks around my age with less interesting lives were pursuing successful careers: staying true, in many cases, to their youthful ideals. I suspect that many didn’t notice that their side had won. And that now they were The Establishment.

Small wonder that some, looking at threats to distilled and/or warped versions of their cherished beliefs, have gotten a tad die-hard in their never-ending battle against neocolonialism and gentrification.

Which I’ll grant is a change of pace from traditional slogans like ‘capitalistic oppressors of the proletariat’.4

I don’t know enough about the Boca Chica situation to have an informed opinion about the threat of new jobs.

On the other hand, I figure the SpaceX Starbase employs folks who aren’t rocket scientists.

Many jobs involve low-status skills: and fill vital functions. As my father told me, the first thing a boss with any sense does is get to know the janitor. And that’s yet another topic.

Defending the Status Quo: A Cautionary Tale

Google Street View: 15892 County Rd 11, Sauk Centre, Minnesota. (August 2009)
Somewhere in rural Minnesota. (2009)

I remember a neighbor’s cautionary tale about the town he came from. It had been a small place, with a very limited number of businesses.

The town’s leadership strove, and ultimately succeeded, in protecting their community from a company which had threatened their way of life with new jobs. And more to the point, I suspect, a change in the status quo.

The ‘not one of ours’ company eventually gave up and built elsewhere.

Then, as folks with get up and go got and went, the town faded.

It’s been a while since I heard about that situation. My guess is that there’s still a bar and maybe a gas station on the site. And not much else.

There’s a lesson here. Maybe it’s “be careful what you wish for”.

“My End of the Boat”, Obligations and Being Catholic

Carl Hassmann's 'The Almightier' illustration for Puck. (May 15, 1907)My life might be easier if I took the “my end of the boat isn’t sinking” approach. But that’s not an option.

Neither is putting my brain on hold and taking my cues from whichever party or action committee’s slogans trigger conditioned responses.

Since I’m a Catholic, using my brain isn’t an option: it’s an obligation. Thinking about whether something is right or not is a must. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1749-1756)

Good news, the rules I follow are simple.

They boil down to loving God and my neighbors, and seeing everyone as my neighbor. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:4344, 7:12, 22:3640, Mark 12:2831; 10:2527, 2937; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1789)

Not-so-comfortable news, acting as if loving God and neighbor matters is not easy. At all.

Getting back to sinking boats and cliches, part of my job is doing what I can in public life. That includes recognizing humanity’s solidarity, respecting our transcendent dignity, supporting social justice and honoring authority. Within reason. (Catechism, 1778, 1915, 1897-1917, 1928-1942, 2199, 2238-2243)

Social justice, in this context, is acknowledging that we’re not all the same. And that difference isn’t an excuse for mistreatment. (Catechism, 1934-1938)

(left) Homer Davenport's 'I am Confident the Workingmen are with Us' cartoon. New York Journal (1896) - (right)Karl Kae Knecht's 'A Teddy Speech' cartoon (October 1912)Then there’s patriotism, politics and dyspepsia. I am not looking forward to the upcoming presidential election’s brouhaha, and that’s yet again another topic.

The “politics” thing is a deplorable mess I’ll leave for another time. As for patriotism —

Loving my country is a good idea. Again, within reason. But letting love of country slop over into worship of country is idolatry. And a very bad idea. (Catechism, 2112-2114, 2199, 2239)

That’s all I’ve got for this week. Apart from the usual links:

1 East, west and looking up:

2 SpaceX Starship test flight, mostly:

3 On the Tamaulipas-Texas Border:

4 Slogans, ballyhoo and fearmongering; then and now:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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