Via NASAWatch comes news that the private company SpaceX has released a review of their last test flight. This flight, launched on March 20th 2007, was nearly a perfect success. The one problem -- and it was a big one, unfortunately -- was that the second stage didn't fire correctly so the payload didn't get to orbit. Still, achieving orbit was a secondary objective, and one of the few the rocket didn't make.
But it reminds me of what happened that day. I was on travel, and very busy, but I really wanted to see the launch on the web. We delayed going out to dinner so I could watch. The countdown got all the way to T-1 second, and then stopped. It turns out a pressure sensor had reported a low pressure in a fuel tank, and they had to abort. Depressed, I said we could all go to dinner. Obviously it would take some time to get that straightened out.
At dinner, my phone rang. It was my sooper sekrit contact at SpaceX, asking if I saw the launch! Confused, I said it had aborted. Nope, my mole said, the launch was only delayed by 70 minutes. They partially drained the tank, refilled it, and launched!
I had to laugh ruefully. Over all these years, NASA has trained me to think that any launch attempt that is scrubbed means days or weeks or months of delays. It took this event to shake me out of that, and to remind me: without all the bureaucratic nonsense, private launch companies can roll with the punches, analyze and solve problems on the fly, and get the work done.
I am not saying that NASA is fossilized beyond repair, and in fact when they launch something worth hundreds of millions of dollars, there is a lot to be said about careful, time-consuming thought processes. And it's difficult to compare launching a rocket into orbit versus building a complex space station, but... the latest fiasco aboard the ISS does bring this all into stark contrast.
Right now, NASA is all we have to get into space. But that will change, and soon. Our culture, our very thought processes about access to space will have to change as well. What else will change?