In my last post I wrote about SCAMPER, a proven idea generating technique. In this post, I am going to examine ways we can apply SCAMPER to come up with the kinds of innovation we see at SpaceX.
S is for SUBSTITUTE
Substitute: Why send a brick when you can send a car?
Test space flights usually are sent up with payloads of negligible value like concrete or steel blocks, since there is the high likelihood of the mission failing, destroying that payload.
In 2018, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon Heavy with Elon Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster as its test payload, substituting a memorable spectacle for what would normally be forgotten ballast.
“That seemed extremely boring.”Elon Musk @elonmusk
Substitute: Pneumatic stage releases instead of explosives
SpaceX substitutes a pneumatic release to disconnect the first stage from the second for the previously standard explosive bolts. This allows SpaceX to non-destructively test the release systems before launch.
C is for COMBINE
Combine: Carbon Fibre and Aluminum
SpaceX uses pressure vessels nestled within the fuel and oxygen tanks that contain pressurized helium. This helium is released into the tanks to keep the pressure up. Not only does this improve fuelling, but it also keeps the tanks rigid.
To resist the high pressures inside these helium tanks, COPVs, or composite over wrapped pressure vessels are used. In the Falcon 9, these vessels use a thin tank of aluminum wrapped in carbon fibre composite to resist the high internal pressures.
Combine: multiple engines
At first glance SpaceX’s decision to use 31 engines on the first stage of the planned enormous Starship is baffling. Surely that is less reliable than a smaller number of engines. Surely a handful of larger engines would be more efficient.
Saturn V used five huge engines to produce similar thrust to the Starship, but the larger the engine the less stable its combustion, making them prone to failure. Also, the Saturn V engines could not be throttled. They were either on or off.
SpaceX using multiple existing rockets means they can take advantage of their proven design, and having more engines actually improves reliability, since a couple of engines failing has a manageable impact on total thrust. Further, the ability to shut down some engines and use fewer for maneuvering, particularly during the tricky landing, is an advantage.
In another example, the Falcon Heavy is made up of three cores, each with a reusable first stage, combining them for extra lift capability.
A is for ADAPT
Adapt: air travel
Reusability is a defining adaption of SpaceX. By focusing on reusability, SpaceX is adapting the economics of air travel to space transportation.
Often I’ll be told, ‘But you can get more payload if you made it expendable.’ I say, ‘Yes, you could also get more payload from an aircraft if you got rid of the landing gear and the flaps and just parachuted out when you got to your destination, but that would be crazy and you would sell zero aircraft.’Elon Musk at the International Astronautical Congress in, Australia, September 28, 2018
SpaceX is considering a novel form of cooling for its Starship: transpiration. This adapts the cooling method found in nature – sweat. The system will squeeze the frigid fuel through tiny pores on the exterior of the vessel to form a protective boundary layer between it and the superheated atmosphere as it slows down from supersonic speeds.
M is for MODIFY/MAGNIFY/MINIFY
Magnify: Bigger is better
To successfully land for later reuse, the first stage of the Falcon rocket needs to reserve some fuel. This reduces the payload size. To address this, SpaceX built the Falcon Heavy, and has plans for the BFR (Big Falcon Rocket) which magnifying the size of the payload capability by being much larger rockets.
Minify: Supercooled oxygen
SpaceX uses supercooled, “deep cryogenic” liquid oxygen, or LOX, to propel its Falcon 9 rockets. This is colder than more commonly used liquid oxygen which is chilled only to its condensation temperature. The advantage is that the oxidizer is more dense, allowing SpaceX to cram more onto their rocket.
Magnify: Build lots of engines
A single Falcon 9 launch has a total of ten Merlin engines, 9 in the first stage and one in the second. This means that they build a lot of engines, for their various missions. This coupled with the fact that they recover many engines with first stage reusability, they are able to gather information on engine performance and durability and build this into successive engines.
P is for PUT TO ANOTHER USE
Put to another use: Reusable first stage
What could be more put to another use than shifting from a disposable rocket to a reusable one?
Put to another use: Landing with rocket propulsion
SpaceX rockets’ first stages return to earth on their tails, reusing their primary propulsion rockets. This is a first for space vehicles. Only the Space Shuttle before it was reusable, and it landed like a glider, necessitating wings, a heat shield, landing wheels, maneuvering flaps etc.
Put to another use: High pressure fuel as hydraulic fluid
SpaceX rockets need powerful hydraulics to gimbal (point) their engines for flight control. Whereas previous rockets typically used separate hydraulic systems for this, SpaceX reuses the high pressure fuel that is being sped to the combustion chamber first to act the hydraulic fluid, eliminating an extra system.
If you are playing the home game you might notice that this is both “put to another use” and “eliminate”. That’s okay – lots of good ideas can be inspired in more than one way.
Put to another use: Reuse tank design
Falcon 9’s first and second stages use nearly identical tank designs, with the second stage only differing in length. This lets SpaceX use the same production techniques and tools for both stages, resulting in significant cost savings.
E is for ELIMINATE
Eliminate: ground-based safety monitoring
On February 19, 2018, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched without supervision from a Air Force Mission Flight Control Officer. Instead, an on-board automated system monitored the rocket to ensure it stayed within its intended trajectory, ready to issue a self-destruct order if it veered off course. This is a first in US space launch history.
This dispenses with the need for ground-based monitoring of telemetry and radar, making the system less complicated and more reliable. It also opens up the possibility of different flight paths since the ground-based equipment is no longer needed. On this flight, SpaceX was able to reduce its range personnel headcount by over 140.
R is for REVERSE/REARRANGE
Reverse: Parachutes instead of propulsive landings
SpaceX’s favourite party trick is landing its rockets propulsively, i.e. under rocket power, tail first. It originally considered this for its Crew Dragon capsule which is intended to take people into space and home again. This is a reversal of Elon’s first thoughts on this:
That is how a 21st-century spaceship should land… anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter.Elon Musk, 2014 SpaceX Dragon V2 Unveil Event
SpaceX decided not to pursue powered landings because of the delays and expense it would have caused to get the Crew Dragon approved for human flight by NASA. With parachutes, SpaceX is reverting to the solution first used over fifty years ago in the original astronaut capsules.
This reversal is interesting because it demonstrates that while every change is made with the hopes of making things better, some changes are back to the old way. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. As circumstances change, sometimes old ideas make sense again. Witness Apple building stores when every other company was abandoning retail.
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Photo by SpaceX
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