Tuesday, 22 June 2004

Between the Lines

SpaceShip One LandedThanks to CNBC (who covered the take-off live, unlike CNN and BBC), CNN (who covered the separation live, unlike CNBC and the BBC), and BBC World (who along with the other two, covered the landing live) I got to see SpaceShip One complete her mission. Took a bit of channel-surfing from 2330 to 0130, but we got there in the end.

Congrats to all concerned.

From The Australian:
Mr Rutan said some "risks" had been taken in the design of SpaceShipOne - a winged, bullet-shaped white rocket-plane that weighs about three tonnes - but that most of it had been the same as he first thought of it in 1999.

"There were three or four times during the flight when everybody (in mission control) ... I saw those people emotional."
Reading between the lines, in addition to the weight of a pilot and several passengers, SpaceShip One carried two extra things. Big Brass Ones.

From CNN :
SpaceShipOne damageThe spacecraft returned safely, but control problems revealed after the flight forced Melville to cut it short and use a backup system to keep SpaceShipOne under control.

He said trim surfaces on SpaceShipOne -- movable surfaces on the craft's wings -- jammed during supersonic flight. The craft rolled 90 degrees twice during its vertical ascent and veered more than 20 miles off course in a few seconds.

"Right at top, I tried to trim the nose up, that's when I had the anomaly and had to switch to backup," he said. The craft peaked at 328,491 feet (100.12 kilometers), just 408 feet (124 meters) above the international boundary of space, according to Scaled Composites.

The trim surfaces were reconfigured for landing and then remained unused as Melvill guided SpaceShipOne back to a comfortable landing.

"It was a pretty smooth ride after that," he said. "I headed back to Mojave as fast as I could without reasonably hurting anything."

A loud bang Melvill heard during the flight appeared to be a nonessential part of the composite airframe buckling near the rocket nozzle. The slight indention in SpaceShipOne's exterior did not affect the craft's performance.
BIG Brass Ones.
Rutan said he would not speculate about the problems until technical data had been reviewed, something he expected in the next few days.

"The anomaly we had today was the most serious safety system problem we've had in the entire program," he said. "The fact that our backup system worked and we made a beautiful landing ... makes me feel very good."

Melvill, who has tested Rutan's planes extensively, reaffirmed Rutan's engineering skills and commitment to safety.

"That's why we are so good at what we do," Melvill said. "We cover all the bases."
Or as someone once said when talking about spacecraft avionics:
"The question for software developers is not, 'Are you paranoid?', the question is, 'Are you paranoid enough?' "

The last word I leave to Burt Rutan:
"The new private space entrepreneurs have a vision. We do want our children to go to other planets."


Redneck Texan said...

We just started getting a 24 NASA satelite channell here (US). All space, all day. I think you would really enjoying it.

Lots of simulations and live and taped videos. Its pretty cool. But scientist dont make good actors.

meankangaroo said...

I've just finished a PhD in "Math & Scientific Computing"[0] and I can only second with immense amazement the big brass ones[1] not only of the guy who flew the craft but of the guys who wrote the software behind the craft and the guys who designed the craft. Brave as the fellow was who flew it, if something goes wrong it's all over for him in a tenth of a second--everyone else has to live with it for the rest of their lives. The willies I got on 'Oh Dear, I need to run a few extra test cases on the advice of my thesis committee' even though I had spent a month working in robustness must pale immensely in front of what the folks in Mojave must have felt. Fatalism isn't an option when your rear end is NOT on the line.

Software is dreadfully difficult to get right. Right now at this point in my life I'm tempted to say 'especially software that deals with floating point arithmetic', but indeed, I've never written software to control actual physical devices.

[0] Well, defended the dissertation, completed the first draft of the revisions; hopefully I'll be spending horrible sums at the bindery later this week. FWIW my work is on a robust method of solving the equations of compressible inviscid flow in geometrically complex domains, which is I suppose of tangential relevance to this business--but I sit in the math department, not in the aero engineering department, so.

[1] Taken generally. My advisor is a woman; one of the few senior leading lights in my subsubspeciality is a woman, a very senior academy of sciences level person in my subspecialty is a woman, a young researcher active in exactly the topic I worked on is a woman, and the other person closest to what I'm doing in the academic fellowship I'm being funded by is a woman Is the Aero Engineering/Control systems programming as guy-centric as all that? I'm a guy, myself. Sorry if it's the Ann Arbor in me coming out.

Dean Esmay said...

This is why they call them "test flights," and why test pilots are considered half-crazy.