Saturday, June 5, 2010

Failure to Launch

Today was the first day of the lunatic lutherie learnin' vacation--two (or three) weeks of violin-building workshop in Claremont, California under the tutelage of a couple of really good builders. I am becoming more and more aware of just how complicated a thing violin-building is--a myriad of minute details, and the closer they all come to perfect, the better the odds of having a good violin.

Yesterday was the first launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9, a privately-funded two stage liquid fuel rocket. Having a successful rocket launch is an extremely unlikely event. Every single thing has to go right. I once heard an engineer explain that a part that is 99% reliable simply won't cut it for space flight--there are a few thousand parts on a rocket like the Falcon 9, and if each has a reliability of 99%, then you can calculate the likelihood of the rocket working--and a rocket either works, because everything functioned as it was supposed to, or it completely fails, because one thing didn't work. A probability of 0.99 times itself a thousand times is 0.00004--not a good bet for success.

The engineers at SpaceX got it right. After a delay because of a last-second engine shut-down, they had a successful launch:

Throughout the launch video, you can hear the engineers saying that such-and-such function is "nominal," functioning as specified.

Well, our launch didn't go so smoothly. We had a couple of delays getting off the launch pad: stuff to get packed, bills that needed paying, plants that needed to get tucked in, stuff that needed to get washed (including the dog). By the time we were finallllllly ready to launch on our 6-hour drive to SoCal, it was 5:00. Well, SpaceX had a delayed launch, and so did we. We drove our cars down I-5 towards Stockton, chatting between cars on the walkie-talkie:

"Air Temperature?"


"Fuel levels?"


"Dog condition?"


"Gravy Pressure?"


Well, in Stockton, we experienced what the rocketeers call an anomaly. Duva's right rear tire blew in spectacular fashion. She managed to get the car over to the left shoulder, and I stopped about half a mile ahead. The tire was absolutely shredded, with the tread intact but completely divorced from the rim. While she phoned AAA, I nervously drove in reverse to get back to her. After about 15 minutes, the road service van drove up. The driver was the model of cheerful efficiency, with a monster jack and a pneumatic wrench and armfuls of tattoos and a crooked smile. He suggested that we might, maybe, possibly find a place to get a tire in nearby Tracy, but in Stockton? No.

So, we drove to Tracy, keeping below the 60 mph limit of the spare tire. We had good luck, finding a Sears that was just 15 minutes from closing and had the tire we needed. But, it was 8:15 PM, and L.A. was still five hours away. So, we decided to head back home.

We'll try again tomorrow; the launch window starts at 6:00, dictated by the opening of the local coffee shop.

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