Typical Slashdottery

Once you know something about a subject, you can see most news reporting and public discussion as the horrible misguided speculation and false myths presented as facts that it really is. This time it’s SpaceX’s successful orbiting.

Some myths and their corrections:

  • SpaceX is the first private company to reach orbit – not so, Orbital Sciences did this in the nineties.
  • Well, Orbital used government motors – no, they were allied with a solid rocket manufacturer. And SpaceX’s Merlin engine is based on the NASA-funded Fasttrack engine of the nineties. The turbomachinery manufacturer is the same, Barber-Nichols.
  • SpaceX is very lean – no, Orbital had much less employees back in their first launch of their first rocket, Pegasus, which was a success on first launch and developed much faster than the Falcon 1.
  • SpaceX is going to change everything – how exactly? They are vertically integrated but their rocketry is very ordinary and conservative and completely expendable (as I predicted. We already got reports that the first stage was destroyed during re-entry).

Of course, the mechanics of peer moderation on Slashdot leads to confirmation bias – people moderate up some points which they agree with, and the discussion floats into its own sphere that is completely unattached to reality.

This is completely opposite to expert and professional knowledge.

It’s a real problem with Wikipedia as well, where popular myths peddled by amateurs rule over the experts simply by majority and perseverance. Anti-intellectual arguments and the separation of those who know (the people in lab coats) and the ordinary people (who vote and thus hold the power) just gets worse day by day.


Kert in the comments section links to an article (Thanks!)

If [insert rocket here] works, the company said it could sell commercial launchings for $6 million to $7 million each, or about $6,000 per pound of payload. That would be a vast improvement over the $20,000 per pound to send a small satellite aloft on the only other rocket designed specifically for lightweight payloads, the ground-launched Scout rocket made by the LTV Corporation.

[insert rocket here] = Orbital Sciences’ Pegasus. The article is from New York Times April 4 1990.

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9 Responses to Typical Slashdottery

  1. kert says:

    I dug up a NY times article covering first Pegasus launch, the coverage is eerily similar to current reporting on SpaceX : new era begins, first private rocket, cheap spaceflight and so on.

  2. gravityloss says:

    Excellent, Kert, I’ll update your comment to the main post as well.

  3. John Kavanagh says:

    While the hyperbole from spectators is similar with both the Falcon and Pegasus flights, the launch architecture favors the Falcon 1 as it validates many aspects of the EELV near-peer competitor, Falcon IX. Also keep in mind the vote of confidence from DoD: the first two Falcon 1 launches were purchased by DARPA. The demand side today is arguably more favorable for SpaceX with the COTS opportunity, Bigelow Aerospace habitats and ORS.

  4. gravityloss says:

    And there were the Iridium and other satellite constellations in the nineties, promises for the future just as well. Even when they didn’t happen as planned, Orbital still managed to survive, and are the other COTS competitor downselected together with SpaceX.

    Just. If you try the same thing and expect different end results, you are quite stupid. Well, still, that’s mostly what SpaceX is doing. Not entirely, and not completely fairly said, but that’s what a lot about it is. Most people observing don’t know of the possibilities out there.

  5. Clark says:

    I’m obviously all for moving beyond expendables and recoverable/rebuildable vehicles. I also think Orbital should be commended for a super job with the Pegasus. However, I think you are greatly underestimating the significance of the F1 flight success. WRT your points:

    – Slashdotters may get it worng, but I think SpaceX has been pretty careful about saying the F1 would be the first “liquid-fueled” rocket developed by a private firm to reach orbit.

    – Even when “based on” a previous engine design, building a new engine is a difficult challenge. It would not be a good idea to start a new myth that the Merlin is just the Fasttrack engine. The Fasttrack never powered a vehicle and its development problems were said to have contributed to the cancellation of the X-34. Finally, to have a truly comparable situation to the Orbital/Hercules partnership, SpaceX would have had a company like P&W partner with them to build the engines.

    – Of course, SpaceX has more employees than Orbital did at the time of the first Pegasus launch – SpaceX is developing the F9 and the Dragon. These are extremely challenging projects even with 500+ employees.

    – The hardware overlap between the F1 and F9 is perhaps the most significant difference between this program and that of the Pegasus. There was never a direct development path from the latter to an orbital crew capable system.

    – From the start, the F1 was meant to develop hardware and operational experience as a steppingstone to a big, crew capable vehicle. Once COTS was won, the F1 took a lower priority.

    — Yes, the first Pegasus was a success. Pretty amazing considering the novelty and complexity of the air launch. However, it’s worth noting that the first Pegasus XL was a failure and there were three failures total for the Pegasus XL in the first 9 flights and two partial successes (missed orbits) in the first 5 flights of the Pegasus. We’ll see if the F1 will do as well in its first 14 flights.

    – WRT reusability, Elon has always indicated that this would be developed gradually. The published prices don’t assume reusability.

    – I don’t know if SpaceX will change everything but if they can keep to their target launch prices, they will change the launch industry. If they manage to get the Dragon to orbit with cargo and then with crew, they will change the course of space development.

    p.s. Sorry for the long comment but I thought your points were worth addressing.

  6. Paul F. Dietz says:

    One should also note that recovering the first stage intact is not needed for there to be a savings from its recovery. Simply reusing the titanium thrust frame (on which the engine is mounted) would lead to significant savings.

  7. kert says:

    Obviously they will change the launch industry. The orbital launch industry is so small that every new entry or dropout changes the landscape. And the biggest losers here seem to be russian converted ICBM launchers, a slice of their launch market just went to SpaceX.
    Whether they will be a complete game changer and rewrite the rules is a different matter entirely.

    However, getting a manned launch under belt _will_ be a game changer, just because the change of perception that human spaceflight is not only for governments.

  8. I’ll give four cheers for Space-X finally putting something into orbit. And I think it’s worth noting that the Pegasus architecture was pretty much maxed out with the Pegasus XL, whereas Falcon 1 may be a stepping stone to much larger vehicles that none of the air-carried rocket firm can realistically consider.

  9. gravityloss says:

    Clark, I agree with your points. I was a bit direct and oversimplifying in my post, that’s what you get when you write short.

    This is a significant achievement, but I don’t think it will change spaceflight that much. Even if Falcon 9 flies, or Dragon, or even if there are a couple of tourist flights for ten million bucks per seat.

    Paul, that’s an interesting point, but I wonder how much that Ti structure really is worth. One good thing about it is that I understand titanium is highly sea water corrosion resistant. I don’t know how it is welded or assembled though, and how vulnerable those structures are. Also if the stage comes down engine first, the thrust structure might suffer.

    Orbital’s Taurus II will have a NK-33 powered Ukrainian built first stage, Castor 120 derived second stage motor, which traces back to Peacekeeper, and the third stage is a bipropellant hypergolic one, so there’s no direct Pegasus heritage that I know of. Pegasus uses Orion solid motors and a cold gas attitude control system, and the hydrazine monopropellant HAPS is an option. All IIRC.

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