by Duncan Wilcox, Aug 29, 2022
I’m a big space nerd, I love rockets, I love the sheer manifestation of power, and the engineering that goes behind controlling and harnessing that power.
Today the first launch of the Artemis missions was cancelled due to an “untested valve” in the $20 billion SLS rocket, that’s been in development for over a decade, or nearly two decades considering the roots in the Project Constellation Ares rocket.
Previously the Space Shuttle program launched 135 missions over a 30 year span ended in 2011. While the ambition of the Space Shuttle program was to have a reusable system, NASA never developed the vehicles beyond the initial design, which required so much refurbishing after each flight that the final cost estimate was around $1.5 billion per launch (2011 dollars).
SLS is the first big rocket to launch in just over 10 years, though it’s not a reusable system, so more comparable to the Saturn V rocket of the Apollo missions, that last launched 50 years ago in 1972.
Be it 10 or 50 years, rocket engineering is clearly not just about controlling the power, it’s also about making a launch reliable and repeatable, and shooting a one-off design into space, a rocket that’s never been launched before quite like this, is full of unknowns and leaves no room for failure. This breaks schedules and budgets, and the SLS is a testament to that.
A reusable rocket design makes it cost effective for SpaceX to launch a rocket every few days, an average of 12 days in 2021 and on track for an average of 7 days between launches in 2022, with exceedingly rare cancellations due to technical reasons. The technology and the process have been perfected.
Interestingly the term “launch” is also used for websites, or a website redesign, often a multi month project, as if the engineering that goes into building one is as complex as a rocket.
Clearly there’s a different philosophy at work, 10 years versus 10 days, several months versus several minutes.
Simply put, the rapid iteration is a great indicator of technical stability and consistency.
When you “launch” your website many times a day, you know the technical issues have been taken care of, you know you can rely on Sparkle, you know the website code is engineered, there’s no trembling artisanal work, no last minute untested valve, no holding your breath.