06 June 2024

Rocket science: two suspenseful mornings in a row

The flap begins to shred before our very eyes...can Starship hold together for just eight more minutes?
(Screenshots from source.)  

I have been a spaceflight fan since the days of Mercury Redstone and José Jiménez, so yesterday and today have been red-letter days for me. The starring attractions: yesterday, Starliner, and, today, Starship.

Yesterday's event was the very first flight of Boeing's Starliner spacecraft with passengers on board. Here the tension was focused on the very fact of the launch: after four and a half years since that embarrassing first test flight, and after additional technical problems surfaced along the way, and after last Saturday's scrubbed attempt that came within 3 minutes and 50 seconds of reaching "zero," it was hard not to wonder whether Boeing's counterpart to the enormously successful SpaceX Crew Dragon would ever take off. In the background: the contrast between these commercial spaceflight competitors, Boeing (expected at first to be the obvious choice for NASA's commercial suppliers for spaceflight) and the unexpectedly nimble winner of this commercial space race, SpaceX.


Back to yesterday's launch. As soon as the Atlas 5 with its Centaur second stage and Starliner cleared the tower, I was relatively sure everything would go well, and today would find the two test-flight astronauts, Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, joining their colleagues at the International Space Station. And so they did, although the flight and docking were not problem-free. Boeing and NASA now have about a week to put their craft through all the steps of its trial voyage.

Even though there were no passengers involved, today's fourth test launch of SpaceX's Starship was high drama for me. (Somewhat confusingly to me, "Starship" refers both to the whole booster/spaceship combination and to the spaceship on top of the booster. By itself, the booster is called Super Heavy.) SpaceX has big plans for Starship, especially for the version that will carry crews to the Moon and beyond. But Starship has a long way to go before it is ready for such missions.

The process by which Starship is being developed has been called "iterative and incremental development," which reminds me of the advice the British Quakers drafting their new Faith and Practice gave us members of our own yearly meeting's Faith and Practice Committee: "fail fast!" Put prototypes (or drafts) together and then get them out for testing. Subject your prototypes to maximum stress and gather data as they fall apart or explode, so that the data collected can be used to get the next iteration farther.

And so it has been with the full Starliner combination. The first test flight (April 2023) went out of control, ending in an explosion at around the four-minute mark. The second flight (November 2023) did better; both segments exploded, but only after a successful separation of the booster and the spacecraft. The third flight (March 2024) did much better, carrying out several functional tests in its long suborbital flight to the Indian Ocean, but losing control and breaking up during reentry.

Since nothing is guaranteed during a SpaceX test launch, there was a sense of drama every minute of today's flight. All of us audience members could see right away that one of Super Heavy's engines did not light, but the 32 remaining engines did their job, and the craft was on its way. At booster separation, everything looked normal, and we could relax a bit (not too much, of course!) while Starship coasted along its near-orbital trajectory toward its destination off the coast of Australia.

At about 45 minutes into the flight, with Starship at an altitude of 105 kilometers and descending gradually, we could see the beginning of a glow developing around the leading face of the craft. As it continued on course, that increasing heat glow of compressed air told us that the temperature would soon test the durability of every exposed surface and every joint or gap, including the control flaps. At the 58-minute mark, we could see one of the flaps start to disintegrate, and even the SpaceX commentators frankly admitted that they didn't know how much more Starship could take. As molten debris hit the camera cover and obscured our vision, and the camera signal cut off briefly several times, I caught myself thinking, "Come on, only eight more minutes! You can do it!"

Indeed it could. As the end approached, we could barely see anything through what remained of the camera lens, but we could follow the telemetry, as Starship maneuvered into landing position and fired its rockets one last time in a successful watery rehearsal for future soft landings.

And I could breathe again.

This week's post marks twenty years since I began this blog. More thoughts next time on how things have changed over these twenty years ... and how I still repeat myself constantly. Thanks for your good company!

I recommend Scott Manley's excellent video overview of today's Starship test flight, including its most dramatic moments.

Pew Research Center on "Cultural Issues and the [USA's] 2024 Election: Immigration, gender identity, racial diversity and views of a changing society." Here's a teaser, although I should say that not all themes align so dramatically:

Among the major findings:

Enduring divisions on race and the legacy of slavery. Just 27% of registered voters who support Trump say the legacy of slavery affects the position of Black people in America today a great deal or fair amount; 73% say it has little or no impact.

Opinions among Biden supporters are nearly the opposite: 79% say slavery’s legacy still affects the position of Black people, while 20% say it has not too much or no effect.

More on Gaza: Some Quaker minutes of concern, collected by Western Friend.

... And what about sending unarmed peacekeepers to Gaza?

... And Tareq Baconi on what Gaza can teach us about the struggles that shape our world. (What do you find persuasive in his essay? Where do you think he might be stretching it ... or not?)

The success of hegemony is predicated on dehumanization, and the role Gaza plays in the Israeli psyche is exactly the role other unwanted and undesirable communities play in the popular imagination of the powerful. It is a mirror unto the Self, and through its very existence, Gaza showcases state-of-the-art ways the powers of our time can deploy for dealing with that unwanted reflection. Confinement, surveillance, mass torture, de-development, de-ecologizing, imprisonment, starvation, bombardment; through such tactics and others, Gaza offers a road map for confronting and managing populations that must be forgotten so that the civilized of the world can claim their humanity and superiority.

Palestinians in Gaza joke, morbidly, about their welcoming of a quick death from an F16 spewing fire over the slow suffocation of the blockade. They understand that the strangulation they live with, day in and day out, is the intended purpose—not their ultimate death. For the very unsustainability of Gaza, highlighted intermittently as if some urgent endpoint needs to be avoided, is precisely what sustains it: Unsustainability in this instance is a structure, a process with its own logic, persisting in perpetuity. Unsustainability is what allows the oppressors to pacify while also claiming a civilized status.

George Fox on the cover of Friends Journal: Bob Henry on his cover art.

Kate Bowler offers a blessing for everything we cannot buy.

"The Ice Queen"—Sue Foley.

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