There is a reason why there aren’t that many launch operators in the world. Its just plain difficult.
But even so, its not a complete mystery these days. Humanity has been to the moon. So why is it still so challenging to reach space?
Firstly, missions in the past were big. The Apollo missions and Shuttle Missions were throwing Tonnes of payload into space. To do this, you need a great big vehicle. Describing it as an engineering challenge is an understatement. You build components that fit warehouses in size to then be assembled in stadium size rooms. The amount of testing of every component is a mission itself.
Even with government budgets, there is still tragedy. The Apollo One mission is a key example. Fire on the test pad killed three astronauts. The Space Shuttle Columbia and Challenger missions also saw the loss of life during their missions. Large complex missions particularly when a life is involved makes the risk all the more greater.
They were the biggest missions, so naturally you need a big rocket. So what now when you have a small missions with cubesat payloads that resemble a tissue box in shape and mass? well, you want a small rocket of course. Easy enough? Not quite.
Virgin Galactic is a leader in the new space movement for personalized crew missions to low Earth orbit. But they too experienced catastrophe with the loss of life during the test flight mission for the SpaceShipTwo. The issue was a switch accidentally actuated causing the vehicle to change configuration mid boost, causing the vehicle to tear itself apart.
Scaled Composites is an engineering firm working on rocket motors and space craft experienced three deaths during a cold fire test of their engines. A nitrous oxide tank left out in the sun exploded killing three and six being injured.
Everyone in launch hopes for the best and we do our best to plan for the worst. Whether we work on the launch pad or in space, the risk is there. Lives have been lost to the mission of getting to space. These are the hard lessons that cannot be forgotten. The personal risk to life is there for those in the industry now and also to the Space Ops Crew.
This is why it takes time and money to make a launch vehicle. We are mindful of the risk inherent with every design, calculation, simulation, manufacturing, assembly, and testing we do.
We reduce our requirements as best we can, simplify where we can, test as much as we can.
Launch is not for the faint of heart but it’s damn exciting!