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Space Station

How SpaceX learned from Nasa’s successes – and failures

About the author

Richard is a science journalist and presenter of the Space Boffins podcast. He edits Space:UK magazine for the UK Space Agency, commentates on launches for the European Space Agency and is a science presenter for BBC radio. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

  • Launch success
    The launch of SpaceX’s Dragon was an eventual success after an earlier abort. But this was not the first private venture to go into space. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Trailblazing Telstar
    Launched in July 1962, Telstar was a private concern. Built by Bell Laboratories, it sent the first TV images across the Atlantic via satellite. (Copyright: Getty Images)
  • Setting records
    Telstar – little over a metre across – became the first orbiting satellite to send live and taped TV images, as well as the first phone call sent via space. (Pic: Getty Images)
  • Mission of mistakes?
    Weeks before Telstar, Scott Carpenter (right) brought Aurora 7 back to Earth despite a systems failure. It showed the flexibility of humans when things go wrong. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • New age
    SpaceX’s successful delivery of the Dragon cargo craft to the International Space Station heralds a new, privately funded era of space travel. (Copyright: Nasa)
SpaceX only succeeded because it learned from the past, says our space columnist Richard Hollingham, who discovers striking parallels with two key missions that took place 50 years ago.

A few minutes before the launch of the Dragon capsule to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted: “Whatever happens today we could not have done it without @Nasa, but errors are ours alone and me most of all.”

His words proved somewhat prescient when, a few minutes later, the Falcon 9 launcher shut down at the very last second. Having commentated myself on more than my fair share of launch failures (three so far…I’m not proud), I really felt for the poor Nasa guy at mission control. All credit to him for rather neatly turning the words “lift off” into “shut off”.

When the Falcon 9 really did blast off, I noticed he was careful to use the word “launch”, instead. But what a launch…with smoke billowing from the pad, the white rocket described a perfect arc across the night sky over Florida.

Amid the frenzy of excitement, I was part of the virtual crowd tweeting about a “new era” in human spaceflight. But SpaceX hasn’t done anything particularly new; it’s just done it differently. As Musk acknowledges, you don’t build a space rocket without studying some history. And not just the missions that go to plan.

I’m particularly drawn to the striking parallels between the SpaceX launch and a couple of missions, 50 years earlier, at the very dawn of the space age. One kick-started an entire industry, the other almost ended in disaster.

Transmitting satellite

The biggest space story of 1962 wasn’t John Glenn’s pioneering orbital flight but the launch of a small spherical satellite around a metre across. Fitted with a valve amplifier, Telstar was the first active communications satellite. ‘Active’ because it didn’t just go beep like Sputnik but was capable of receiving and transmitting television pictures.

Just a day after launch, the satellite beamed the first live TV across the Atlantic. The event captured headlines around the world and even inspired a hit record. Telstar by the Tornadoes was number one on both sides of the pond and the first British hit to reach number one in the US.

Although Nasa provided the launcher, Telstar was built and paid for by phone company AT&T as a private venture. So, the idea of a private company working in partnership with a space agency is nothing new. I would though sound a note of caution for SpaceX: in the subsequent publicity surrounding Telstar, Nasa did its best to take the credit.

Communication to and from space – enabling us to communicate with anywhere on Earth – represents one of the greatest contributions space technology has made to our lives in the last 50 years.

I watched the Dragon launch on the phone while walking my son to school. If SpaceX can make even a fraction of the impact of Telstar, it will be a success. But today’s space entrepreneurs could also do well to learn from another pioneering mission that flew almost exactly half a century before SpaceX’s mission to the ISS. Unlike the celebrations that surrounded Telstar, this one has been quietly forgotten. But it may have been just as important…

It is 24 May 1962, almost a year after President John F Kennedy has promised an American would walk on the moon’s surface by the end of the decade. Carpenter is in the final hour of his five-hour mission, the fourth manned Nasa space flight. His mission involves hours of scientific experiments. The problem is, these experiments have distracted him from the re-entry checklist. The craft is critically short on fuel.

As the Aurora Seven capsule passes over the Hawaii ground station, mission controllers are getting tetchy.

“Aurora Seven, can we get on with the checklist? We have approximately three minutes left of contact.”

“Roger. Go ahead with the checklist. I'm coming to retroattitude now and my control mode is automatic and my attitudes…standby. Wait a minute, I have a problem in…”

At mission control in Florida, Flight Director Chris Kraft grits his teeth. If the capsule isn’t pointing in the right direction for re-entry, it will bounce off the atmosphere or burn up. Either way, Carpenter will be dead.

“I have an ASCS [Automatic Stabilization and Control System] problem here. I think ASCS is not operating properly. Let me... Emergency retrosequence is armed and retro manual is armed. I've got to evaluate this retro…this ASCS problem…before we go any further.”

But Carpenter is running out of time. Kraft later admitted that mission control had no idea what was going on.

‘The Man Malfunctioned’

The capsule passes out of range of the Hawaii ground station and into radio silence.

As Carpenter travels across California, a few minutes later, everything seems to be back on track and the astronaut back to his chatty self:

“Okay. I can make out very, very small…farm land, pasture land below. I see individual fields, rivers, lakes, roads, I think. I'll get back to reentry attitude.”

The spacecraft plummets to Earth, buffeted by the atmosphere and swinging wildly backwards and forwards; Carpenter’s rising heart rate starts to worry the medics. He might even be having a heart attack. The last word comes at 4.55:

“Aurora Seven, Aurora Seven, Cape Cap Com. Be advised your landing point is long.  We will jump air rescue people to you in about one hour.”

[Carpenter] “Roger. Understand one hour.”

Aurora Seven splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, 250 miles off course and out of radio contact.

Kraft swore that Carpenter would never fly in space again (he didn’t). The chapter on Carpenter in Kraft’s autobiography is called ‘The Man Malfunctioned’, so you get the gist of how he felt.

But read the entire transcript of Carpenter’s mission and a whole different story emerges. The astronaut gave the most vivid descriptions of the space environment and the Earth beneath him. He conducted the first scientific experiments in orbit, in a cramped, malfunctioning capsule against an overly ambitious mission schedule.

There were times when he was totally isolated with no contact from the ground and yet, when things were going wrong, he still managed to splashdown safely.

The transcript of Carpenter’s flight makes compelling reading, you get a sense that both the astronaut and his support team were feeling their way through the mission. However much training they’d done, they were still having to figure stuff out as they went along.

Even 50 years later, getting to space and back is hard. Soon, the Dragon capsule will be approved for human spaceflight and then the stakes will be even higher. SpaceX has only succeeded because it learned the lessons of the past. From the failures, disasters and near disasters like the Carpenter mission.

Other new space ventures would be wise to do the same. After all, the generation of scientsts, engineers and support staff that built Telstar and got Carpenter safely back to Earth have done it all before.

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