Chair Force Engineer

Monday, February 27, 2006


NASA is reporting the names of the Project Constellation elements: Altair capsule, Artemis lander, and Ares booster.

The irony of it is that Ares was also the name of the booster in Robert Zubrin's proposed Mars mission, "Mars Direct." Further, Zubrin's Ares (publically unveiled in 1990) is almost the same as NASA's Ares-5, launched in 2005.

The differences between the Zubrin and NASA boosters are very subtle. Both are built from the Shuttle fuel tank and boosters, with an upper stage mounted axially on the vehicle.

The biggest difference is the propulsion arrangement. Zubrin used four stock shuttle engines (SSME's) mounted in a pod where the shuttle orbiter's tail would normally be. Theoretically, Zubrin's propulsion pod could re-enter the atmosphere and be recovered. Ares 5 goes to the more expensive step of designing a "low-cost, expendible SSME." The five engines are mounted axially underneath the hydrogen tank. While this is a more efficient arrangement, it requires more extensive modifications to the shuttle's launch pad.

There are other differences as well. Zubrin originally proposed using the now-moribund Advanced Solid Rocket Motors, while NASA goes with 5-segment SRB's. NASA stretches the shuttle's tank, while Zubrin uses the same volume of propellants on the first stage tank as the shuttle does. NASA has an 8.4 meter diameter upper stage (to match the first stage,) while Zubrin went to 10 meters for his (matching the Saturn V's diameter.)

An open question is the definition of "J-2X," the engine that will be used for the second stage of Ares I (The Stick) and Ares 5. While the engine is a modern replacement for the J-2 on the Saturn V's second and third stages, it's a mystery to me whether it will have any commonality with the old J-2 or J-2S. One wonders if the European Vulcain engine, fitted with a nozzle extension to compensate for upper atmospheric & vacuum conditions, would fit that bill. Of course, I smell the odor of "not invented here" creeping up on this idea.

While many groups of space enthusiasts have been disappointed with Project Constellation, Zubrin's Mars Society should not be one of them. Michael Griffin's NASA has joined Zubrin and his Zubrinistas, worshipping at the Church of Heavy-Lift.

A Restaurant Fit For A President

Lately, I've been spending my Saturdays doing Habitat For Humanity with some friends of mine. This past Saturday seemed like a big waste, as two church groups flooded the worksite with a deluge of unskilled, clueless laborers who made up for their lack of skills with enthusiasm. Realizing that too many cooks spoil the broth, we decided to leave at 11 AM and sought lunch elsewhere.

One of the guys in our group suggested "El Pinto," the place where President Bush ate the last time he was in Albuquerque. I asked him if it was a classy restaurant, as I was afraid my dirty sweatpants wouldn't fit the place's dress code. He claimed that the restaurant wasn't very classy, so I relented. Perhaps I should have put my foot down when I heard that the restaurant was at 4th and tramway, on the northern outskirts of town (and way out of my way.)

As soon as I saw the waterfall inside El Pinto, I realized that my friend was a dumbass. El Pinto is one of Albuquerque's classier restaurants; not quite what you'd expect for a presidential restaurant, but certainly the place where the average Joe would only go on a special occasion. I felt out of place there (in my dirty sweatpants,) and my comrades weren't dressed much better. I had the Huevos Rancheros. While the food was great, I have no desire to pay over $15 for lunch again.

I guess I learned a few lessons from the experience:
1) El Pinto is a nice restaurant, but I'd only go there for a special occasion.
2) If somebody suggests that I eat at the same place where a president has eaten, chances are it's probably too classy and too expensive for my tastes.
3) The person who suggested we eat at El Pinto has lost his restaurant-choosing privileges for three weeks.

Thursday, February 23, 2006


After reading Bill White's comments on Transterrestrial Musings, in reference to my proposed moon mission, I get the impression that he thinks I advocate a military takeover of L1. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. Given the current geopolitical climate, I believe that a military moon outpost is an absurd idea.

I just want to remind my readers that anything I post here is my own opinion and not an official one espoused by the US Air Force or any defense contractor. If anything, I live in constant fear that Air Force people are being rubbed the wrong way by this blog (or have already been rubbed the wrong way) and want to pull the plug on it.

To give Mr. White credit, his plan for an L1 takeover by a "helpful billionaire" under the cover of Greenpeace sounds like a great plan for James Bond's next nemesis. After all, "why make billions when we can make... millions?"

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Get your ass to the moon (CFE-style)

In designing an architecture for lunar flight, we face a difficult choice: do we take the easy way back to the moon in exchange for an unsustainable lunar effort, or do we take the hard way back to the moon so we can build a sustainable lunar colony? Project Apollo falls into the former category, and so does the current Project Constellation. I would like to see Project Constellation evolve into the latter, so I can see a sustained human presence on the moon in my lifetime.

Tom Cuddihy, Rand Simberg and Ken Murphy have been pointing out the need for a space platform at the L1 Lagrange point, an argument I am in total agreement with. While lunar-orbit rendezvous worked for Apollo and "Plan Griffin," the needs of a sizable colony dictate the use of a point whose position does not change relative to the positions of the earth and moon. If people need to get back to earth in a hurry, L1 is the way to do it. Example: if a person becomes ill or injured on the lunar surface, they could be sent to an L1 space station to be stabilized, then sent to earth for extensive medical treatment. Direct return from the moon to earth would get that person home fastest, but it comes at the expense of propellant. Lunar orbit rendezvous would require a precise rendezvous with a lunar orbiting CEV or space station, and would probably take longer to accomplish than an L1 rendezvous.

As a first whack at a lunar architecture, I propose the "CFE Plan" for human lunar return. It consists of five elements: the "Delta-Atlas" booster, the crewed CEV, the Lunar Surface Access Module, the Earth Departure Stage, and the L1 Space Platform (L1SP.)

My CEV would be a biconic capsule, capable of reentry in earth's atmosphere upon return from Mars. It would carry enough propellant (either internally or in an expendible service module) for a return to earth from L1. It would be reusable to the maximum practical degree. The CEV and its crew would be launched on a single-core Delta-Atlas.

On the first mission, the CEV would rendezvous with the EDS and L1SP in low earth orbit. The EDS and L1SP would be launched just prior to the CEV, on board a triple-core Delta-Atlas. After rendezvous, the EDS would fire its engines, deliver the stack to L1, and perform necessary propulsive braking maneuvers.

The purpose of the initial mission is for a human crew to test out the L1SP (which would essentially serve as a "mini-Mir" at L1) in both its inhabited and untended modes. Assuming all goes well, L1SP would be left at L1 and the CEV would return to earth.

For the second mission, the stack in LEO would consist of the CEV, LSAM, and EDS. The single-stage LSAM would use liquid oxygen as its oxidizer (and either hydrogen or methane as a fuel) so it could refuel with oxygen from oxidizer production plants on the lunar surface. The EDS would deliver CEV #2 and LSAM to L1SP. When all systems on the LSAM were checked out, it would be "go" for landing on the moon.

While the initial LSAM would be discarded, it would establish the oxygen production plant used to refuel future LSAM's. Hydrogen could be produced on the moon if water ice persists, but it will likely have to be sent from low earth orbit via ion rockets. Likewise, all aspects of the CFE Plan are modular and can be upgraded in the future. The Delta-Atlas can be replaced by a future RLV. L1SP can be built up beyond the bare-bones space station that will be launched on the initial mission. Modules for a lunar surface base could be checked out at L1 before being delivered to the surface on modified LSAM's. Enlarged, multi-stage LSAM's for direct return from the moon to the earth could also be pre-positioned at the lunar base.

Note that the CFE plan is very short on numbers and specifics. If I find the time and motivation, I may attempt to flesh the plan out. Nevertheless, it represents a concept of operations that should guide future lunar colonization.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Explorer: Beyond the Buzz

The web is abuzz with Space Adventures's plan to procure the Explorer spaceplane and operate it from a variety of destinations like the United Arab Emirates. The most bold claim is that this system will beat Rocketplane Ltd. and Virgin Galactic to the punch. Without hearing the details, my reaction to the claim is extremely skeptical.

In the past, Space Adventures has (smartly) refused to be bound to any particular launch system for space tourism. Over the years they have promoted different companies, like Xerus from XCor (I don't know what the status on Xerus is now that XCor is throwing its weight into rocket racing.)

One of the systems promted by Space Adentures was the Cosmopolis XXI, built by Myasischev and launched from an M-55 aircraft. While the mockup of the craft was unveiled in 2002, very little has been said about the project since then. At the 2005 X-Prize Cup, the mockup was again on display (sans M-55 mothership.) I saw nobody from Myasischev or Space Adventures to extoll the virtues of the Cosmopolis system.

The craft at the heart of the Explorer system is based on the Cosmopolis XXI but enlarged to carry five paying passengers. The craft would use a solid rocket, which represents a low developmental risk. However, the enlarged spacecraft may require a new mothership (much like the design of the larger SpaceShipTwo necessitated the creation of the larger White KnightTwo.)

When it comes to Russian aerospace companies in the post-Cold War period, their bark is far worse than their bite. They are notoriously bad at making bold claims in hopes of luring in foreign investors (examples include offers to restart production of the Energia Heavy-Lift rocket and plans for a solar-electric Mars mission.) Fortunately, most foreign investors have had the necessary facts to help them know a rat when they see one. The situation is tragic, because the Russian aerospace industry does have a lot of potential and imagination but very little funding to proceed. Sound space projects like the Kliper spacecraft and Angara rocket have been delayed, while promising fighters like the Yak-141 and Su-47 are now grounded.

Space Adventures has the right idea by trying to promote Space Tourism around the globe. The United Arab Emirates is a perfect spot, as the country is very affluent, and it has a reputation for being a high-class bazaar to the world. Unless I see evidence otherwise, though, I think it's unwise for Sapce Adventures to marry itself to the Cosmopolis system. Should SpaceShipTwo or Rocketplane XP see the "black sky" before Cosmopolis does, Space Adventures shouldn't hesistate in buying into the rival system.

[EDIT 20 FEB 06] According to the March 15, 2002 press release from Space Adventures about the Cosmopolis C-21, development time of the two-passenger spacecraft would take approximately two years after being funded (first flight was anticipated by 2004.) It should be noted that a larger version of the C-21 would probably require more development time. Now that the Ansari family's Proda firm has forked over the money, the best Explorer can hope for is a first flight in 2008. Space Adventures must be banking on Rocketplane XP running into delays which will preclude a safe flight, or they may expect a more relaxed regularoty environment in the UAE which will allow them to start passenger operations first.

Also worth noting is the flight trajectory for the Cosmopolis 21. Craft like the Pegasus and SpaceShipOne have been carried to around 40,000 feet (about 12 km,) dropped while in a horizontal attitude, and executed a stressful pitchup maneuver while under rocket power. C-21, according to the original plan, will be launched at an altitude of 20 km and an attitude of 40-60 degrees. This tells me that C-21 doesn't have as much delta-V as SpaceShipOne, or that its structure isn't designed to handle the powered pitchup.

The advantage to C-21 appears to be economic. For a price of $98,000 per ticket in the original proposal, it's about half of what Virgin, Rocketplane, and PlanetSpace have discussed. By expanding from two to five passengers, Space Adventures will either pad its profit margins or lower ticket prices (probably the former in the short term, and the latter once development costs have been recouped.)

Looking towards retirement

Media reports suggest that the orbiter Atlantis will be the first orbiter retired under the shuttle's phased retirement plan. From NASA's perspective, this is a logical move. Retire the bird instead of putting her through an expensive overhaul just two years before the planned retirement. Previous reports had Discovery retiring first because it was the oldest orbiter in the fleet. This made no sense, because Discovery had just come out of a major overhaul in 2004. Endeavour, having been cannibalized to support the return to flight, is emerging from its last major overhaul.

God willing, the space shuttles will operate without another major accident, and Atlantis will be the first to retire. A battle will then erupt between various museums to take hold of the three remaining orbiters. As it stands, Enterprise is at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center, while the Cape and Huntsville both have realistic mockups of the shuttle orbiter, plus tanks and boosters that had been used during testing. It's not hard to imagine a shuttle being put on display in Dayton or perhaps Pensacola (if the Naval Aviation Museum wasn't so small.) Chances are good that the Smithsonian will want a spaceworthy orbiter to either supplement or replace Enterprise.

The fight for the pieces of NASA's history will be a contentious one, made all the worse by the two accidents which decimated NASA's fleet. It's a fight I would rather not be involved in.

Thursday, February 16, 2006


During a recent meeting, I had to pose the question why Air Force Research Lab doesn't offer firearms training for its officers. (I think I phrased it "We're in the freaking Air Force. Why don't we get to shoot shit?") The people in the meeting didn't seem to appreciate my gripe; they were of the mindset that engineers don't get to shoot shit (at least not on the Air Force dime) and shouldn't have a desire to shoot shit.

If I want to shoot things so badly, why did I become an engineer? It's a story for another day, but it can basically be summed up in this bit of advice for ROTC cadets: whenever one of your ROTC instructors gives you career advice, you should discard it.

Despite the cold reaction I got during the meeting, I know that most of my fellow lieutenants feel the same way that I do. They have a hard time seeing how the nation benefits from their work. They see themselves helping the nation by putting 50-cal rounds in the head of "Jihad Joe." Doing anything that looks "operational," like Readiness Support Team or field exercises, is highly motivational for young Air Force engineers. There is never a shortage of engineers who want to volunteer for deployments overseas.

When I was taking the Air & Space Basic Course at Maxwell Air Force Base, we were working in teams with the senior enlisted. We had a competition where our team was timed in disassembling and reassemblng an M16. I was totally clueless about what to do. I stood in the back of the line, and I luckily wasn't called to the assembly station before time ran out. I realized that the engineer was a totally different breed from the average Air Force officer. I did not view that as being a good thing.

Somehow, someway, I'm going to find a way to get trained in the M9 and M16. If I can fire the grenade launcher, that's even better. And putting a 50-cal in Jihad Joe's head? Priceless.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Launch Vehicle Valentine

Pausinias and Jeffrey Bell are predicting that the ever-shrinking CEV (now down to 5 meters instead of 5.5) will be moved off The Stick and onto the Atlas or Delta. Nonsense, I say. NASA is truly, madly, deeply in love with The Stick.

The love note that seals the deal is the ESAS report, chapter 6. One of NASA's most stressing requirements is limiting the loads placed on a crew during an abort. Because Delta and Atlas fly "lofted" trajectories, these loads will exceed NASA's limits while the second stage is firing. Instead, NASA wants a booster with a lot of thrust on the first stage so it can fly a depressed trajectory that avoids the unacceptable abort loads. The 5-Segment SRB that now forms the first stage of Stick puts out around 3,272,000 pounds of thrust; Atlas V has 931,000 pounds in vacuum, and Delta IV a wimpy 743,000 pounds in vacuum (source: Bear in mind that the Stick is heavier than Atlas, and Atlas is heavier than Delta; there's a reason why those rockets have the amounts of thrust that they do. Still, Stick will probably have the thrust excess needed to fly the depressed trajectory NASA wants.

The question I have is whether NASA's abort loads requirements were legitimate. Did Redstone and Atlas D have the same concerns? At least with Titan II, a bailout from the Gemini capsule was by ejection seat; it became useless shortly after liftoff, when the astronauts would have encountered extreme speeds and altitudes that would have precluded safe ejection.

Until I see strong evidence otherwise, I'd say that NASA is head-over-heels in love with The Stick. Only an act of Congress (literally) will keep these crazy love birds apart.

I hope that my blunt double entendre wasn't too nauseating. Have a happy Valentines Day.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The booster we really need

I've been putting some thought into the strategic direction of the current launch vehicle fleet, and I see a niche for a new class of rocket that hasn't been fully explored. Basically, I'm thinking along the lines of the "Atlas V Phase 2." I want a bigger EELV.

With the current EELV's currently unprofitable, why should we build a bigger one? There are actually a few good reasons for doing so. For starters, manned spacecraft in the HL-20 class will weigh approximately 25 tonnes once the launch abort system is factored in. While this is within the capabilities of the current EELV-Heavy rockets, the need for parallel stages increases the risk of first stage engine failure. If a single-core rocket could boost the HL-20, it would be much safer for a human crew.

There are other benefits to a bigger EELV that can launch 25-28 tonnes in its single-core variant. The single-core booster could launch Geosynchronous-orbiting satellites and the Pentagon's polar-orbit satellites, both of which have similar energy requirements to the HL-20.

NASA's previous studies have poo-pooed the EELV's for launching manned spacecraft. They point to "highly lofted trajectories" on the upper stages that would produce heavy deceleration loads in the event of an abort. NASA also feels that the current ISS requirements for the CEV can't be met by the current Delta or Atlas. Finally, NASA strikes down the EELV's under the ill-defined hammer of "human-rating."

In response to NASA, they have a legitimate point regarding the abort loads, but they preface those comments with "single engine upper stage." Has the analysis been done for the dual-engine Centaur that is part of the Atlas V family? Also, the ISS requirement for the CEV is only a problem because NASA insists on flying the CEV to the ISS using the same service module as used on the moon missions. The CEV could get away with a much smaller service module for these missions; as Mark Wade points out, the CEV is carrying an extra 9.3 tons of propellant that will likely go to waste.

Shooting down the "human rating" requirement is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. After all, NASA had no problem human-rating the Redstone, Atlas D, or Titan II, even though all of those missiles had been designed for hurling warheads at the commies. Obviously there will need to be trajectory modifications to limit the g-forces, and some form of vehicle performance-monitoring to activate the escape system if a failure is detected. None of these are show-stoppers, and they are much cheaper than building The Stick from scratch. Of course, the Shuttle was never really "human-rated" either. Let me refer you to the shuttle abort procedure, as taken from the shuttle pilot's manual.
1.) Place head between legs.
2.) Kiss butt goodbye.

In short, any EELV can be made safer than the shuttle. The Stick is not necessary.

My optimal solution to the issue of CEV launch is a 5-meter diameter variant of the Atlas V. This was actually addressed in the ESAS report as "Atlas Phase 2, 5.4 meter." It would (hopefully) combine the reliability, modularity, and lean pad processing of the Atlas V with the lifting abilities sought in The Stick. Furthermore, three Atlas (5-meter) cores could be strapped together to form an unmanned heavy lifter. While this rocket would have about half the capability of the shuttle-derived heavy lifter, it would be a lot cheaper to build a 5-meter Atlas than it would be to build both The Stick and the shuttle-derived heavy lifter.

The 5-Meter Atlas could be the best thing to come out of the merger of Atlas and Delta production lines. United Launch Alliance can start out with the 5 meter tooling for the Delta IV to build the 5 meter Atlas. ULA would probably want to upgrade from the two-nozzle RD-180 to the four-nozzle RD-171 as used in the Zenit rocket (nearly double the thrust, and would solve NASA's fears about upping the first-stage thrust to depress the trajectory.) The new rocket could use the 5-meter upper stage used on the Delta IV Heavy, if the twin-engine layout from the Atlas V was added. In that sense, the new rocket would appear to be a "Delta-Atlas" hybrid.

The consequences of "Delta-Atlas" could be far reaching. As a reliable, single-core booster that can launch a ten-man spacecraft like the HL-20, it could open the frontiers of orbital space tourism. The triple-core version of "Delta-Atlas" could launch hotels for space tourists, resupply a moon base, and even launch elements of a Mars-bound spacecraft.

In short, "Delta-Atlas" has commercial viability in the short term (thanks to the single-core version,) even before a moon base is established to make a heavy-lifter economically viable. I'd like to see The Stick and the shuttle-derived heavy lifter (and the associated army of support personnel) pull that off.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Tumbleweed Connection

The winds were blowing heavily on the drive back home from base tonight. Of course, Albuquerque is a fairly flat city that's partly surrounded by mountains, so it naturally acts like a bowl when the wind picks up.

Conditions got so bad that the air was filled with dust; it was hard to see straight ahead. The tumbleweeds were blowing very hard. A very large one (at least 1.5 times the diameter of a basketball) hit my car head-on and made a nasty noise as it scraped the underside. An inspection of my front end didn't reveal any damage; I'm hoping the undercarriage was just as lucky.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Transform Space

Initially, I was a skeptic when I first read the proposals from t/Space. That was back in Fall 2004, when various contractors were proposing different architectures for the Vision for Space Exploration. t/Space wanted to launch multiple moonships at the same time (an idea I liked,) but needed multiple launches to fuel said moonships (which I didn't like.) I was skeptical of the benefits of their air launch system (and I still am,) and I was skepical they could pull off the flight rate proposed for their moon mission.

As time has gone on, my skepticism has yielded to optimism, at least for t/Space's earth-to-orbit plans. The t/Space system has three distinct components: the Very Large Aircraft (VLA) that will carry the spacecraft to around 40,000' altitude, the rocket itself, and the CXV (Crew/Cargo Transfer Vehicle.)

I have the most faith in t/Space's VLA, because Burt Rutan will probably be designing it. It's been rumored that White Knight 2, being developed to launch SpaceShipTwo, will also serve as t/Space's VLA. If there is one truism in the field of aerospace, it's that Burt Rutan equals awesomeness. If something can be done but the industry doesn't know how, Burt shows them the way.

I started to warm to the CXV after seeing the mockup at the X-Prize Cup. The shape, based on the Discoverer/Corona capsule, is a proven one (and I assume that it can make a semiballistic or ballistic reentry.) Everything on the mockup seemed well thought-out from my perspective, including the attitude & retro rockets, the window shape and placement, the docking system, the reversible hammock-seats (which rotate between launch & reentry positions,) the equipment racks, and even the toilet.

I still have some skepticism about the propane/LOX booster rocket that will be dropped from the VLA to boost the CXV to orbit. t/Space's partner for this element is AirLaunch LLC. While a vertical airlaunch does require slightly less delta-V to reach orbit when compared to a vertical ground launch, it also introduces new challenges. There is some concern about safely venting propellant from the rocket if the launch is aborted. This isn't as hard with the t/Space booster because it's carried externally from the VLA. It's another matter when you have a smaller rocket (like the proposed QuickReach from AirLaunch LLC) that's pushed out the back end of a C-17 cargo plane. Frankly, I prefer the old AFRL "Bladerunner" concept over AirLaunch's proposed configuration.

Still, t/Space has a good shot in NASA's competition to find a commercial means of delivering astronauts and supplies to the space station. Nothing in the t/Space system is unproven; the challenge is integrating the various technologies together in a seamless and safe fashion.

Monday, February 06, 2006

A CEV For All Seasons

Mark Wade's CEV rundown on Astronautix.Com is a fascinating view of the work that went into designing the CEV. However, I am put off by Mr. Wade's repeated insistence on the way he thinks the CEV should have been designed. In some ways I agree with his rants, and in others I do not. Mark Wade advocates a CEV based on the Soyuz/Shenzhou concept (orbital module + capsule + service module) and blasts the current Apollo-derived design. I feel that the Soyuz-style might be highly-efficient for earth-orbital missions, but it is optimised for neither a moon mission or a Mars adventure.

The drawback of NASA's "Apollo Redux" is the lack of applicability to Mars missions. A Mars spacecraft will be travelling much faster than a moon ship upon return to the earth. It will have to bleed off all of this extra energy in earth's atmosphere without subjecting its passengers to extreme g-forces. This means a prolonged, lifting reentry instead of the high-g, short-duration reentries of semi-ballistic capsules like Apollo. Previous studies have indicated that a biconic vehicle (like the original Kliper studies) would be best. Boeing's Earth Entry Module from their 1968 IMIS proposal is a perfect example. The Martian reentry requirement led to the design of the "Lockheed Lifting Monstrosity."

The Soyuz-style orbital module does have its advantages, such as a lighter reentry capsule. However, the orbital module goes to waste after the mission. This isn't a problem for the single-use Soyuz, but for the CEV (which will supposedly be used for as many as 10 flights in space station service,) bringing a heavier capsule back to earth can be desirable from a reusability standpoint.

Reusing the Apollo shape for the CEV also should not be viewed as a failure of design or planning. The ESAS report specifically spells out why Apollo's shape is being recycled: it's the optimal shape for generating lift at the speeds encountered by a craft returning from the moon. In fact, Buzz Aldrin predicted (among other Aldrin predictions that have come to fruition) the emergence of an enlarged "Apollo II" in his sci-fi book Encounter With Tiber.

The one area where I agree strongest with Wade is that the current CEV is too big and heavy. I would have preferred an EELV-based strategy for exploring the moon, with an all-new heavy-lifter (or an all-new reusable launcher) coming online in time to support the Mars missions. To that end, the safest option for a human launch is a single-core Delta or Atlas with no SRB's. The largest CEV that could fly on such a rocket is a 4-man CEV, as demonstrated by curmudgeonly Jeffrey Bell in his 2003 essay "Orbital Stupid Plane," which advocated such an option under the aegis of "Orbital Space Plane."

However, NASA seems set in its ways that CLV/"The Stick" will be developed (esentially from scratch) to launch the current CEV design (which has shrunk from 5.5 meters in diameter to 5 meters to make up for deficiencies in The Stick's performance.) Ultimately we have to view the CEV as NASA's own design for accomplishing its mission. The onus is now on NASA's shoulders to make their CEV design work for them, rather than second-guessing the decisions that initially drove the design. Instead of wasting our energies in criticizing these decisions, we should try to make CEV and Stick the safest and most reliable spacecraft & booster ever built. The regrets and lessons we take from CEV & Stick should be applied to future space exploration endeavours.

Off the radar screen

The New Mexico media is abuzz with rumors that the Air Force's F-117's (all stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico) will be withdrawn from service by 2009. Understandably, New Mexicans are upset that this unique plane and the jobs it brings to the state may soon be gone. At the same time, the Air Force must do what it can to stay within budget while meeting its needs.

As the Air Force aqcuires new stealth planes like the F-22, the faithful old F-117 is becoming a redundancy. It was a point design meant to penetrate the most dense threat environments and put two laser-guided bombs on target. Meanwhile, the F-22 can defeat any airplane ever built in a dogfight, in addition to striking targets, and it can do it at faster speeds than the F-117.

That doesn't mean the F-117 is totally replacable. The F-22, for instance, does not have a laser target designator built into the airframe. If the F-22 were to deliver laser-guided bombs, it would have to carry them externally (bad for keeping the plane masked from radar) and would need another aircraft or a combat controller on the ground to shine a laser on the target. While the F-22's GPS-guided bombs will prove adequate for most targets, there are still applications where laser guidance is desirable.

To the best of my knowledge, the F-117's capabilities will not be duplicated until the F-35 comes into service in the 2010 time frame. The F-35 will have a built-in laser designator and stealth features. Still, its weapon bays are sized for smaller 1,000-pound bombs, not the 2,000-pounders usually carried by the F-117.

When Holloman does lose the F-117, the base's manned fighters will be dedicated solely to the training of the German Luftwaffe. While it is rumored that Holloman will take on a greater role in training NATO air forces, it's clear that this state probably lacks the Air Force assets to support three Air Force bases. With Cannon losing the F-16's of the 27th Fighter Wing, the last active combat wing in the state will be the National Guard's 150th Fighter Wing (F-16's) at Kirtland. The Defense Department will then face the hard choice of closing Cannon (and cutting off over 20% of the local economy) or trying to find a new mission for the base. It would make sense to close either Cannon or Holloman when 2009 rolls around; the decision would eventually fall on which base offered the best facilities for Luftwaffe training.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Real Turkey of a Movie

Apparently, the Turks are going wild over a movie which depicts American soldiers in Iraq as baby-killers and villifies Jewish doctors. The fact that such a movie could be made, let alone gain widespread popularity, speaks volumes about the poor standing of the US in the Islamic world.

The linked article references the popular Turkish novel "Metal Storm." I remember hearing about the book from another Air Force officer who was just coming back from Incirlik AB in Turkey. His reports about Turkey were very interesting. He made it clear that Turkey, in many ways, is a very modern country, and quite distanced from the fundamentalist Islamic beliefs that fuel the Jihad Joes of the world. Nevertheless, there is great resentment of the US in Turkey.

At the same time, Americans should do whatever they can to stop fueling the fires of anti-Americanism. Americans should be appalled that American actors like Billy Zane and Gary Busey would appear in a movie that villifies America and the American soldier. At the same time, Americans living abroad should try to respect the local customs and avoid being the 'ugly Americans."

The best advice I can give to American service persons traveling to Turkey is to lower their expectations for how they will be treated, and they won't be disappointed. At the same time, they should learn whatever they can about the land and the people, and avoid doing anything that could bring discredit to the US of A. As individuals, we may not be able to heal the cultural rift, but we can at least stop it from getting worse.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Name that CEV

Eventually, NASA will have to finalize one important aspect of the Crew Exploration Vehicle and Crew Launch Vehicle: the name.

Without a catchy name, people will be stuck with the harsh-sounding acronyms "CEV" and "CLV." And the vehicles will not endear themselves to the public or Congress. While the engineering that underpins these craft is important, the Public Relations decisions can sometimes be more crucial.

To that end, I have a few suggestions for the spacecraft's name.

ARTEMIS: In Greek mythology, the goddess of the Moon and the hunt. Also, the twin sister to Apollo.

SELENE: An alternate moon goddess in Greek mythology. The name was also used for Phillip Bono's plan to explore the moon with his plug-nozzle RLV, ROMBUS.

DIANE: The Roman form of the Greek Artemis. The name is probably unsuitable, as it is a fairly common name on earth.

MOONRAKER: Originally, the title of Ian Fleming's third James Bond novel, published in 1955. Although the movie used a Space Shuttle as "Moonraker," Fleming's Moonraker was a British ballistic missile, inspired by the V-2. Despite my preference for the novel, I'll always remember Q's last line from the movie: I think he's attempting re-entry...

SCORPIO: The legendary scorpion who killed Artemis's hunting companion, the mortal Orion.

CONSTELLATION: If the plan to explore the moon, Mars, and beyond is called "Project Constellation," then shouldn't the spacecraft also be called "Constellation"? It seems like the Constellation name has been dropped as the term "Vision for Space Exploration" has come into accepted use. Also, the CEV acronym is taking the place of a name for the spacecraft.

This situation is unlike what occurred for Apollo. Because the moon missions were "Project Apollo," the spacecraft was called "Apollo," and the portion of the spacecraft where the crew sat was the Command Module (CM.) If NASA doesn't settle on a name soon, CEV will stick as the name for the spacecraft instead of the crewed capsule.

A Thought About Diversity

If you have ever worked in aerospace or other technology sectors, you've probably heard the phrase "there's no diversity in the workplace" at least once. I do not believe that the tech sector is trying to be discriminatory; it's just that the tech sector as a whole is not as diverse as the rest of society. The industry at large has to admit this is a problem and make a concerted effort to fix it.

The college I went to was a small technical school. Much to the chagrin of male students, the female enrollment was only 18% of the student body. Under such extreme circumstances, an appreciation for a diverse workforce begins to grow amongst the future generations of engineers.

In spite of the "sausage fest" atmosphere at the school, there were still organizations (such as Society of Women Engineers and National Society of Black Engineers) which promoted diversity in engineering and related fields. Nevertheless, groups like SWE and NSBE can't fix the problem by themselves. There is plenty that the private sector can do (such as offering scholarships and sponsoring math & science competitions) that can bridge the educational divide (at the primary and secondary school levels) and try to alleviate the problem that exists in the industry.

Sometimes we want to "party all the time" (to paraphrase Eddie Murphy's song debut,) but all parties must come to an end. Hopefully we will see a more diverse workforce, and the tech sector "sausage party" will meet its end within my lifetime.