Rocketry is risky business: Proton-M falls and Delta IV flies

Rocketry is *hard*.  The rocket must generate tremendous energy, contain it, direct it, and not blow up.  It must do this while screaming through the atmosphere so fast that even a tiny deviation in course could rip it to pieces.  If it manages all that, it must also accelerate along very precise flight parameters to exactly the right speed at exactly the right altitude, or all of that will be for naught because the payload won’t be where it needs to be.  And it must do this while bringing along everything it needs, leading to what rocket scientists lament as the tyranny of the rocket equation; the more you need to lift, the more propellant you need, which means you need even more propellant to lift the more propellant and also more tank to hold the propellant, which means you need even *more* propellant . . . .  It’s almost a Xeno’s Paradox, but not quite, and rocketry lives on the “not quite”.

Based on that, it’s amazing it’s ever successful, really.

Yesterday, a Proton-M rocket carrying a European-built commsat for a Russian telecom made a spectacular ascent from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.  The first and second stages were beautiful, but for reasons not yet know, something went wrong during the third stage and the vehicle exploded.  It had reached an altitude of 100 miles, and Russian officials say the debris should all have burned up.  (But you never really know, and the current political climate in Russian aerospace means it would be unwise to express any cynicism about the launch.  The blamefinding will already be underway, after all.)  But the part of the launch visible from Baikonur was beautiful.  Just look at that engine plume!

By contrast, today’s Delta IV launch of the latest element of the GPS constellation went off flawlessly.  Delta IV currently enjoys 100% success except in its Heavy configuration, which has had one partial failure (premature engine cutoff on the test flight).  This was an evening launch from Cape Canaveral Air Station, so there’s a lovely pink tinge to everything.

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