The Space Race these Days…



Those of us of a “certain age” remember the 60s (although it has been said that if you can remember them you weren’t really there).

My family had moved to the Central Valley and on a still hot summer evening, you could hear the muffled sound of a rocket engine being tested – 40 miles away.

It was being tested by Aerojet, who was tasked with developing the engine for the Apollo Command Service Module.

Compared to the mighty Saturn V F1 this was a pretty small engine. Recently the people at NASA have been studying the F1 – still one of the most powerful engines ever made, to learn “how they did things” and to see how – with our more advanced production aids, how we can duplicate it for less money.

In reading about this from various publications over the past few weeks, something grabbed my attention as to how we won the “Space Race” to the moon.

The government awarded the winning contractors a “cost plus” contract – they were allowed a free reign in designing the components, they just had to work, and safely!

Given the times, I can understand this approach – when everything was new and undiscovered and with – a timetable.

This approach had some good effects and bad effects. With the good, a lot of safety redundancy was built into the systems – a Smithsonian Air & Space article cites one in the industry saying that they could never design something like the Soyuz in its bare simplicity.

(in a bit or irony  it is the Soyuz that is ferrying our astronauts to the Space Station until we get another system capable of manned flight!).

The bad side, besides the tremendous cost, resulted in a lot of extra “stuff” being engineered in. The space shuttle, for example, has over 1100 switches that each pilot had to learn. Companies had no incentive to simplify systems – they just passed the bill on to the government.

What I find interesting today is that  most of our space rockets and capsules are being developed with private money – with some seed money given by NASA.

The most interesting to me is the efforts of Elon Musk, founder of Paypal and now SpaceX.

What I find interesting about him is his efforts to simplify systems – to the point or redesigning components from the 60s and 70s – making them better and many magnitudes less expensive. Most interesting of all is his plan to make his rockets reusable – not like the shuttle which dumped them into the ocean but have the rocket fly back and land, ready for reuse.

And he refuses to patent any of his inventions saying (with a lot of justification) that the Chinese would just copy them.

I think we are on the verge of leaving the space doldrums and into some exciting times.

And interview with Musk is here and a current article on Boeing’s efforts is here.

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