How safe are rocket launches?

After a few quiet decades, South Australia is re-joining the rocket-launching game, with SA-based company Southern Launch hoping to host a launch to the Moon in the next few years.

Rocket launching is, well, rocket science. Can we expect one of these rocket launches to go wrong?

“It’s a matter of when, not if, a rocket will fail,” says Lloyd Damp, CEO of Southern Launch.

Damp recently gave a talk at the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Council conference in Adelaide on the future of space and emergency services.

Satellite imagery is already a crucial predictive tool for emergency services, but within the next five years, satellites could also be helping to spot fires and floods in real time.

But with new industries also comes new risk. What can we expect as rocket launching becomes more common in Australia?

“The biggest risk is always to people and third-party property,” Damp tells Cosmos.

“That’s why, under the Australian Space Agency’s launch permit process, the applicant or the operator of the vehicle has to provide a lot of justification as to why they believe the vehicle is safe. The onus is actually on the operator to demonstrate safety.”

More on Southern Launch: SA manufacturers get $1m to build high-tech rocket launcher

If a rocket launch fails, the debris is going to fall nearby. That’s the risk: how does it get addressed?

“The easiest way to mitigate against the risk of a rocket launch is to exclude people and property from the downrange area,” says Damp.

“So, even if something happens, you can ensure that no one or nothing will get damaged by the event.”

This is why Southern Launch’s sites – at Whaler’s Way on tip of the Eyre Peninsula, and Koonibba,  just west of Ceduna – are in very sparsely populated areas.

“The goal is to try and make sure the rocket flies as anticipated, but that if it doesn’t, it can fail in a way that doesn’t put anybody at risk,” says Damp.

Reports of rocket launch failing seem surprisingly common, but they happen in places where they’re not going to put anyone at risk.

That said, although rocket launches have caused injuries and deaths in the past, they are increasingly becoming safer.

“Because Australia’s come in late to the space game, we’ve learned from the mistakes other nations and companies have made,” says Damp.

“Because if there is a failure, there’s usually an investigation and then a public report.”

In fact, Damp suggests because there is unlikely to be a human injured or killed by a launch, it might actually be in the company’s interests to push a rocket launch to the point of failure.

“The payload mass, which is what you’re getting paid to carry, is 1-2% of the overall rocket lift-off mass,” says Damp.

“So if you can minimise the mass of the structure, you can maximise the payload.

“Engineers and scientists will then pore over the data they collected from the rocket and they’ll go: ‘that middle strut, what was the stress on the strut? We thought it was going to be 17 but it actually turned out to be five. Well, let’s make it slightly smaller or lighter’.”

You know you’ve gone too far when the rocket explodes while launching.

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“That’s what we would expect to see from operators up at our launch ranges. Initially, they are very, very conservative in their designs from a space launch perspective. But then over time, they start to understand their vehicle and the performance of their vehicle and optimise to increase payload,” says Damp.

The commercial space industry is a relative newcomer to Australia. According to Damp, the combination of this and our cultural approach to public safety makes rocket launches here different to other countries.

“Here in Australia, we almost have zero tolerance for risk.

“Compare that to America, or Europe, or China, where if a rocket blows up in mid-flight, it’s almost celebrated.”

He cites SpaceX’s video of failed rocket launches, set to the Liberty Bell march, as an example of this.

“At the moment, I don’t believe Australian is at that point yet. And it could be because we haven’t grown up with rocket launches on our doorstep, whereas America and other locations have.”

But now there is a growing commercial space industry, people are becoming more familiar with the protocols and failsafes.

“My hope is that over time working with the Space Agency, we can provide education to the community so rocket failures and the development of experimental vehicles is something that we embrace.”

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