Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Return of Saturn

According to a recent piece in Flight International magazine, NASA has not only committed to the RS-68 for its Cargo Launch Vehicle (CaLV,) but it has solved the problem of maintaining the same throw weight in spite of reductions in specific impulse. Specifically, the CaLV has grown in girth from 8.38 meters (diameter of the shuttle external tank,) to 10 meters (diameter of the Saturn V.)

For years, the public has been told that the tooling to build the Saturn V had been scrapped. Many also believed that the plans for building the Saturn V were toast. Dwayne Day delved into this urban legend to a degree with his excellent article "Thunder in a Bottle." However, the recent statements by Michael Hecker (outgoing director of the Constellation systems division) would seem to indicate that at least some of the Saturn V tooling (like the 10 meter jigs) is in storage at the Michoud plant where the first two stages of the mighty moon rocket were built.

The CaLV will be 10 meters in diameter, with five liquid-fueled engines on stage 1 and J-2 engines on stage 2. Sounds a lot like a Saturn V, doesn't it? Von Braun would be proud.

While duplicating the triumphs of the past is a nostaligic and maudlin throwback, it isn't necessarily progress. In many ways, we will be doomed to repeating the mistakes of the past. For near-term lunar missions, the CaLV will not be able to achieve any kind of economy of scale. The situation will only change when there is a need to build up and support a permanently-manned moon base.

Sunday, April 23, 2006


A big news story last week was the untimely death of aviation legend Scott Crossfield. The story behind the story is the reason why he made that fateful flight.

I noticed that the doomed flight had originated from Prattville, Alabama. I had been to Prattville last December. It's a small town, not far from Montgomery or from Maxwell Air Force Base. Naturally, I wondered why Crossfield would be flying from Prattville.

I spoke with a friend, another Air Force lieutenant, this afternoon. It so happens that Crossfield had given a speech to the Air & Space Basic Course earlier in the week. This is a six-week course that the Air Force holds in order to teach the junior officers, senior enlisted, and a select few civilians about the basics of Air Force history and doctrine.

In death, we must remember Scott Crossfield not only for his accomplishments as an aviatior, but also as a person who volunteered his time to help future generations realize why they are here, and where they need to go. The ASBC class that just graduated had been known as Zero-Six-Charlie. They changed to Zero-Six-Crossfield in honor of a great American who had sacrified on their behalf.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Something old, something new, and something borrowed

Until recently, the "J-2X" which will power the upper stages of Ares I and Ares V has been a very nebulous concept. Will it be a ressurrected version of the Saturn's J-2? Will it be the upgraded J-2S that was developed but never flown during the Apollo era? Would it be an all-new development in the same class as the old J-2?

Some answers are coming to light in the March 27 issue of Aviation Week. The engine will use the J-2's gas generator cycle (which burns a small amount of proellant to drive the turbopumps) instead of the J-2S's less mature tap-off cycle, which uses hot gas from the thrust chamber. However, the turbopumps themselves will come from the J-2S, because they were tested extensively for the XRS-2200 aerospike. The thrust chamber and nozzle of the engine will essentially be new. Looking to the Russians for guidance, NASA wants a channel-wall nozzle and milled channel thrust chamber. The resulting engine should put out 294,000 pounds of thrust and have an Isp of 448 seconds.

I'm a little disappointed that NASA won't use an unmodified J-2S, citing the development time for the tap-off cycle. Still, the current plan only forsees a six-month delay versus the SSME upper stage from the original ESAS report. It's also unknown if there will be competition for the new engine, because Rocketdyne owns the original J-2 and J-2S blueprints. Perhaps there can be a competition for the new thrust chamber and nozzle (although the number of engine competitors has narrowed after Pratt & Whitney bought Rocketdyne.) Hopefully, the J-2X that emerges will be a reliable engine that will be produced in large quantities and flown for a long time to come.

Not invented here

NASA's silly insistence on throwaway Space Shuttle Main engines for their Ares 5 is yielding to the reality that these engines are just too expensive to throw away. The RS-68 is under consideration, but it brings many drawbacks to the table, like inferior Isp and about twice the mass of the SSME.

If NASA is open to international cooperation in the lunar return mission, they could ask the Russians to build the Ares 5's engines. The engine NASA is really looking for is RD-0120, built by RPO-Energomash for the defunct Energia rocket that flew in 1987-8.

When the US announced its space shuttle program in 1972, the typical Soviet reaction was that they needed one, too. Never mind the fact that the US shuttle was designed around a polar orbit mission that was never performed when the shuttle went operational.

The Soviets did make a few major changes to the basic shuttle design, based on their inexperience in certain fields of rocket propulsion. The most significant was the use of four LOX-Kerosene boosters instead of the two solids, because they had never built large solid rockets before. Also, the Russians had no experience building large, hydrogen-burning rockets. The Soviets felt that it would be more realistic to build throwaway main engines instead of reusable ones. It was decided that the Buran space shuttle would not carry the main propulsion system on the orbiter, but on the "Energia" rocket that the orbiter mated to.

The Energia's RD-0120 main engines have slightly less thrust and slightly less Isp than the SSME. However, they are only marginally heavier than the SSME. As far as weight and Isp concerns, they beat the pants off the RS-68. Key to the weight savings and good Isp is the chamber wall design. Cooling was provided by milling coolant channels around the nozzle, then affixing a thin metal jacket over the nozzle to seal the coolant channels. As an added benefit, RD-0120 was tested with methane replacing hydrogen as the fuel; this would be excellent if NASA allows methane back onto the lunar return mission.

Two real obstacles exist to implementing the RD-0120 in the Ares 5. The first is a very real concern, which is the ability of Russia to produce the engines. How much of the tooling for the engines still exists? The Energia factory has supposedly been turned into a plant for consumer products, including baby formula. Then again, a lack of tooling hasn't stopped NASA from calling for the resurrection of the J-2 engine from the Saturn rockets.

The other concern is one of national pride. Will NASA be able to swallow their pride and accept an engine that's "not invented here"? Lockheed Martin had no problems accepting the RD-180 for the Atlas III&V. However, some people suspect (and I have no info to corroborate this) that the defense department is not launching critical satellites on the Atlas because it's concerned about having to rely on the Russians for national security.

The big-picture view is that RD-0120 is the right engine for the Ares 5. With Ares 5, NASA is essentially trying to replace Energia using American components. Perhaps NASA should open high-level discussions with Rossaviakosmos and try to leverage as much of the Energia assets as possible--especially the RD-0120 engines.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Missing Man

Scott Crossfield, one of the greatest pilots in the world of flight test, died in the crash of his personal aircraft at the age of 84. He will truly be missed.

When the sound barrier was broken in 1947, it ushered in an "Age of Heroes" in the aerospace world. Fueled by Cold War passions, men went higher and further then ever before, and shattered records at a frenzied pace.

The names of the test pilots (and their successors, the astronauts) were seared into the minds of Americans and motivated the children of that era to join them in the quest for the stars. Chuck Yeager will always be remembered as the first man to go supersonic (although history is not his friend on this claim.) Bill Bridgeman briefly claimed the title "The Fastest Man Alive." Neil Armstrong's name became synonymous with the pinnacle of aviation achievement after he walked on the moon (on top of an incredibly gutsy flying career.)

Scott Crossfield may not have the name recogniton anymore, but he was a great among greats. His many accomplishments include being the first man to break Mach 2 (in the Douglas Skyrocket) and conducting the early flights of the phenominal X-15 spaceplane. He flew practically all of the early X-Planes; after a flight in the tailless X-4, he reportedly said, "Both the aviator and the airplane require a considerable amount of tail."

The Age of Heroes ended with the Apollo program, but Scott Crossfield and the other aviation legends continued until their dying days in advancing aviation & spaceflight. Ad Astra, Scott. You will be missed.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Dumpster Diving

Last Friday, one of my coworkers spotted a crazy old man climbing a cardboard recycling dumpster outside of my building. This behavior is not only gross, but it's dangerous, as the dumpster's walls are over seven feet high. I asked him in a tactful way what he was doing. He claimed that he was moving to Florida and needed boxes. I offered him some intact boxes from inside the office, as all the boxes in the dumpster had been flattened. "That's okay," he said, dismissing my offer. "I'll come back later." He drove away in his big honking SUV.

This morning I was again alerted to the cardboard dumpster. This time, there was a mattress poking over the edge of the dumpster. "It must have come from senile old Skeletor," I thought. I also had to get the trash out before the base recycling center could take it away. I scaled the dumpster wall and began my precarious dance across the flattened boxes. It was very tricky, as you never know when an uncrushed box is going to collapse under your weight. I had to grab for the edges of the dumpster a few times to prevent myself from drowning in a sea of refuse.

The mattresses were literally the tip of the iceberg. There was a lot of trash inside, including plastic tool cases, a hockey stick, and several pieces of lumber. I hurled as much as possible over the side while trying to maintain my balance.

There's no way that a single man could have gotten those heavy mattresses and all the other trash into the dumpster. Given the height of the walls, and the fact that the dumpster was overflowing with cardboard at the access hatch, makes me suspect that there are at least two crazy dumpster-divers out there. Next time I see Skeletor in my dumpster or driving around in his big honking SUV, I'm going to give security forces a call. Hopefully they will hunt him down and send him to the psychiatric care he needs.

Zuul the Gatekeeper

Moving into a new building is hard. It's even harder when a dozen people are relying on a single set of keys for entry into that building.

My story began almost two weeks ago when I submitted a request with Chugach, the contractor who runs the facilities, to cut five sets of keys for my building and the individual locks. I submitted the request on a Tuesday afternoon, and was told that it had to be approved by the fire department first. "We submit the info to the fire department on Thursday mornings," the Chugach receptionist told me. This already peeved me off, but it was a taste of things to come.

Eventually my co-workers got impatient about their keys (and rightfully so,) so I rattled a few cages and expedited the key approval process. I found out late last Thursday that I could bring my key to the keysmith for duplication. The only problem was that he's only in his office from 1 PM - 1:30 PM.

On Good Friday, as I was leaving from work, I drove clear across base to the keysmith shop and arrived there at 1:15. Lo and behold, the keysmith was out on a job and was taking the next week off. Nobody could take my keys in the meantime. Happy Easter, sonofabitch.

This morning I called Chugach again and was able to get a hold of somebody who made keys on a substitute basis from 12:00-12:30. Still, I had to drive clear across base and back to get the job done.

In my experience, Chugach has been slower than molasses in January (with the exceptions of the Readiness guys and the plumbers.) Still, I've been told that things were appreciably worse when Air Force civil servants ran the facilities.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Bachelor Chow

I made Easter Eggs (or "Pastel-Colored Holiday Eggs," for my non-Christian readers) for the first time in five years. Being in a college dorm during the entirety of my higher education, I never felt that the inadequate resources available justified the benefits of boiling and dyeing eggs.

One of the unintended consequences were the broken eggs; some were broken by me, others had unnoticed cracks when they left the commissary. The solution: make an omelet for dinner Thursday night. The result was about as elegant as can be expected from a young man who has never had to cook for himself until the past year.

Lacking a skillet, I utilized my teflon-covered spaghetti pot. I assumed that "sautee" meant to cook the veggies with a dollop of margerine, so I put my diced onions and my dollop of margerine in the pot, now sitting on my stove. I also lacked a fresh tomato, but there were plenty of diced tomatoes on a pizza in my freezer. I don't think that the Red Baron would have guessed that I'd be cannibalizing his pizza.

I added the three eggs and began to make my omelet. Flipping the beast proved to be a challenge in the spaghetti pot. I added taco cheese near the end of the cooking process. The result was a respectable omelet, at least by my unrefined standards of what constitutes fine dining. I would give it a "D" grade for appearance but a solid "B" or better for taste. And that's the way that good bachelor chow should be.

Who wears short shorts?

Evolution of Air Force & ROTC shorts

When I first started ROTC, all cadets were issued a blue/gray physical training uniform. It was best known for the blue shorts, where the crotch came halfway down to your knees. Basically, the shorts looked like a big blue diaper. The shorts also had a gray, textured liner that earned the naughty nickname "The Asbestos Nutsack." Needless to say, cadets were quite entertained by the poorly-designed uniform.

Around 2003, cadets were issued the physical training uniform worn by the rest of the Air Force. It was a pair of light gray shorts and a light gray shirt. The shorts were well-designed; they actually had legs, and did not look like a diaper. My only knock against this uniform was the cheap drawstring, which easily tore off.

The only thing constant in the Air Force is change, and in late 2004 or so, a new physical fitness uniform came out for all Air Force personnel (I suspect that it was designed so we could show up the Army and their new PT uniform.) First off, the warmups (zippered jacket and pants) are hella-expensive. Second, the diaper is back with a vengeance. Although the materials have changed, the same diaper-like design is back. Some of my friends who are still in ROTC report that there's already a nickname for this new pair of shorts: "Ball Huggers Two-Point-Oh-My-God."

Friday, April 14, 2006

Karma 52

In the minds of some, the Global War on Terrorism began on April 14, 1986, when the United States launched Operation El Dorado Canyon. After Libya had been linked to a series of terrorist bombings, President Ronald Reagan ordered a series of airstrikes against terrorist targets in Libya.

The main thrust of the attack came from F-111F medium bombers based in Lakenheath, England. Because the US was denied overflight rights by our "ally" France, the aircraft flew westward around the Iberian peninsula on their way to Libya, adding 1300 miles to the mission.

While the strikes were generally viewed as a military success, one of the crews didn't make it home. Captain Fernando Ribas-Dominicci and Captain Paul Lorence, callsign "Karma 52," were shot down over the Gulf of Sidra inbound to their targets. The two airmen were missing and presumed dead.

In January 1989, almost three years after El Dorado Canyon, Pope John Paul II successfully persuaded Libya to return the remains of Capt. Ribas-Dominicci to the US. His body washed ashore about a month after the shootdown. An autopsy revealed that he had drowned, suffering only a broken foot. The Libyans had held onto the remains for nearly three years. This brought up the disturbing question: were the Libyans still holding Paul Lorence's remains?

Based on the autopsy results, the most likely scenario is that the two aviatiors escaped their crippled airplane in the F-111F's escape capsule. A failure of the flotation bags caused the capsule to sink in the Gulf of Sidra. The aviators either drowned in place or drowned while trying to swim free of the capsule.

The last few years have brought about a thawing of the chilly relations between the US and Libya. In early 2004, hope was raised that a US team could travel to Libya and investigate the rumors that Capt. Lorence's remains were still in Libyan custody. The team came back from their mission empty-handed.

On this 20th year since he was killed in the line of duty, America still waits to welcome Capt. Lorence home. If the Libyans still possess his remains or any of his personal items, they should be returned immediately, if only to give his family closure.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Stopping the Bleeding

By now, the problems with NASA's Exploration Systems Architecture Study are bleeding out for the public to see. Major changes to Ares I to compensate for no air-start SSME on stage 2, possible substitution of RS-68's for the horribly expensive "expendible SSME's" on the Ares 5, a shrinking CEV, and no more methane in the CEV or LSAM. Now it's looking like NASA is having to drop the entire mission architecture in favor of either 1) rendezvous at L2 instead of earth orbit, or 2) de-scoping the project so that it's no better than the original Apollo.

Jeff Bell, the devil's advocate of the space community, has a good piece on SpaceDaily listing many of the problems (although we happen to disagree sharply on the methane issue.) Also, Rand Simberg goes into detail about why L1, and not L2, is the best place to rendezvous the two components of the lunar spacecraft.

Unless NASA slams on the brakes right now, the lunar return mission will be killed by the Congress that takes office in January 2007. The current choices are equally unacceptable. L2 rendezvous is risky and would require more money to be spent on lunar communications spacecraft (perhaps Lunar Recon Orbiter can last until 2018 and double as a comm relay.) De-scoping the operation back to Apollo means we will be left with an expensive, unsustainable architecture for permanent lunar settlement.

Michael Griffin took some advice from Barry Bonds and demanded a juiced version of Apollo. While the ESAS plan is still expensive like Apollo was, it had seemingly more traceability to a future lunar base (due to its more capable lunar lander, which enabled access to all latitudes and longer surface stays with highly-capable rovers.) The "Walmart" lunar lander under discussion sounds like it could be a carbon copy of the Apollo LM (except that the contractors will reinvent the wheel on the Walmart lander, because it means bigger profits.) The only similarity between Walmart and a lunar landing is that, if NASA doesn't get it's act together soon, the next manned spacecraft on the moon will be "made in China."

From my perspective, NASA is straddled with the costs of two new launch vehicles, both of which are viewed as under-performing in light of the spacecraft mass. I propose that NASA whittle their stable down to just one of the two boosters, and base the moon mission around that booster.

1) If NASA sticks with Ares I, it will have to assemble the lunar spacecraft in more than the "1.5 launches" proposed under the original plan. That's not inherently bad, as an economy of scale can be built around launches of the smaller Ares I. Rendezvous between spacecraft components can take place at L1 (my preferred option,) or they can take place in LEO (as Von Braun wanted for Apollo.) The LSAM would be launched with its propellant tanks empty, then fueled by subsequent tankers launched into LEO.

2) NASA could also elect for a two-Ares 5 architecture. In Robert Zubrin's The Case For Mars, he illustrates one way of doing this (with his shuttle-derived "Ares" heavy lifter.) One Ares 5 launch would put an unmanned, fully-fueled return vehicle on the lunar surface. The second Ares 5 would launch a crewed lunar lander. The crewed lander would have to land close to the unmanned return ship (at least within drving distance of the rover,) and the crew would change ships prior to the end of the lunar stay.

Option 2 would go well beyond being the "Barry Bonds" of "Apollo on Steroids." Think of it as Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage, put together. It's definitely overkill, and you're not going to get an economy of scale by merely doubling the Ares 5 flight rate. Still, I think that option 2 would be enough to get Robert Zubrin to jump for joy.

Regardless of which option is chosen, I want my methane propulsion back on the CEV and both stages of the LSAM (which only had it on stage 2 in the original plan.) I think that any storability issues can be solved, and it will definitely give the lunar ships a kick in the pants, as far as Isp goes.

[EDIT 13 Apr 06] I am obligated to post that NASA Spaceflight has retracted its story about the hard choices facing the lunar return mission. There is still hope that NASA can make "Apollo on Steriods" work within a reasonable budget and timetable without significantly diminishing capabilities.

Nevertheless, I still favor an L1 architecture, multiple assembly flights on smaller rockets (Atlas V 502, Delta IV Medium, or Ares I will all be acceptable,) and methane propulsion to the maximum practical degree. Even if ESAS proves to be technically possible, I still view it as a fiscally-flawed means of putting humans back on the moon.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Super-Size Me

The other day I looked into buying a refrigerator (using my program's funds) for our new office building. It turns out that there are all sorts of asinine rules which prevent Air Force people from buying refrigerators. For instance, you have to be a considerable distance away from the nearest "snack bar." It would appear that while the Air Force pushes physical fitness, the Government Purchase Card office promotes unhealthy eating.

To prove the absurdity of the situation, I'm thinking about taking the GPC office's guidance, and eating from the local fast-food establishments twice a day for the next thirty days. By the time I'm finished with this plan, I will make a certain 400-pound muckraking filmmaker look like "Twiggy" by comparison with me. I will apply for a waiver so I can wear a mumu to work, because I will have outgrown the Air Force uniform. For physical training, I can drive to the top of a large hill and roll down it like the boulder from Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom.

So I have two options here: eat so much fast food that I get cast in "Free Willy 6," or find some loophole in the GPC regulations so I can get my damned refrigerator. The former will mean certain death; the latter may be almost as bad.

An Era Begins

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin made mankind's first manned spaceflight. He circled the earth for just shy of one orbit in his Vostok capsule, returned to earth, then escaped his capsule in an ejection seat because the Vostok lacked any landing rockets or airbags. Still, Yuri showed the world that mankind's place was the cosmos. And he forced the American space program, still trying to catch up to the superior Soviet rockets, to ask, "A Godless communist just went into space. Why can't we?"

Since Yuri's flight, more have followed in his footsteps. In spite of the difficulties, it would seem that mankind will not stop its travels into the final frontier.

On April 12, 1981, John Young and Robert Crippen launched on the maiden voyage of the space shuttle program in the orbiter Columbia. Although Columbia's mission was very similar to those of capsules twenty years before, it still captured an electric excitement in the United States and much of the world. Perhaps Columbia was tapping into a hope, still unfulfilled, that spaceflight would be accessible to the common man. Astronauts used to be culled from the upper echelons of the military's hot-shot jet jockies. The shuttle was supposed to make every starry-eyed child's dream of being an astronaut come true.

The Space Shuttle never fulfilled its promise, due to an undersized development budget and oversized expectations. Nevertheless, important lessons were learned. We are starting to see a new generation of passenger spaceships, like SpaceShipTwo, Dragon, and CXV. Despite the difficulties, the common man will press onwards into the final frontier.

The notion of civilian spaceflight started with the Space Shuttle, and it will outlive the shuttle program. In that sense, the shuttle program has succeeded. Hail Columbia! May the spirit of Columbia and Vostok and all the other pioneers fuel the dreams that are to come.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


Today marks the unofficial 5th anniversary of the death of X-33. At one time, the space plane (shaped like a potato wedge) was NASA's best hope for the post-shuttle era. Like much of the world that existed in the years prior to the 9/11 attacks, the dream of a single-stage spacecraft seems like a blissful illusion when viewed in the present.

The X-33 program began with unrealistic expectations. While the X-33 was only supposed to fly suborbitally, NASA wanted the vehicle's prime contractor to eventually build a commercially-viable, single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) launcher. The problem was that there was no traceability between a Mach 15 demonstrator and a Mach 25+ orbital system. Further, it's doubtful that the materials and propulsion technologies of the day would have supported SSTO. Even if they did, a fully-reusable two-stage system would have been able to launch more payload for a given liftoff mass.

NASA chose the Lockheed Martin X-33 from three proposals with varying levels of merit. The Rockwell proposal was the lowest-risk of the three: established propulsion system (Space Shuttle Main Engine) and established reentry technique (wings.) McDonnell Douglas & Boeing teamed for what was essentially a bigger version of the DC-X. While DC-X achieved some non-trivial miracles, the larger X-33 concept would have required a lot of miracles to work precisely and correctly.

Lockheed Martin's "Winged Potato" may have been the riskiest of all. It paired a new, metallic thermal protection system with new structual concepts (multi-lobe, composite fuel tanks,) new engines (linear aerospikes,) and lifting-body reentry (with the "winged potato" shape having inferior aerodynamic characteristics to previous designs like the HL-20 and Starclipper.)

NASA was willing to take the risks inherent in the winged potato for one reason: LockMart was willing to put its money where its mouth was, to a degree that Rockwell, McDonnell Douglas, or Boeing weren't. LockMart had even touted its orbital "VentureStar" as a replacement for the shuttle and Titan IV, ready for flight between 2004 and 2006.

I disagree with the assessment of former NASA director Ivan Bekey that X-33 would have been a waste without composite fuel tanks. If anything, the X-33 manufacturing process taught us that the benefits of composites are often outweighed by their drawbacks. If we consigned ourselves to the fact that SSTO wasn't viable, and looked at X-33 as a technology demonstrator for a realistic TSTO, I think there would have been plenty of value in completing and flying the vehicle. X-33's thermal protection system and health-monitoring systems would have been essential technology for any future TSTO spaceships.

In the aftermath of failed programs like X-33 and Orbital Space Plane, the US government has all but abandoned the dream of reusable spaceships. This is a shame, because the technology to do so is already in hand, awaiting a government agency with the funds, time, and will to get the job done. There are two critical demonstrations needed to pave the way for truly reusable space access. The first is a flyback booster that can achieve altitudes greater than 100,000 feet and speeds of Mach 6 or greater during the boost phase, then glide back to base (a feat far more difficult than many are willing to acknowledge.) The other demonstrator would be a small spaceplane (like X-20 or HL-20) launched on an expendible rocket. It would demonstrate a robust heat shield design, integrated vehicle health management, and reliable, reusable propulsion for orbital insertion / maneuvering / deorbit.

Space cadets of the world should not give up on the dreams of reusable rocketships simply because there is no more government support for the idea. While programs like X-33 have left us "Venture-Scarred," reusable rockets will be brought into the realm of the feasible if they are rooted in sound, conservative technical judgement and incremental development. Reusable rockets will initally be very expensive, but the cost of a sustainable means of space access is well worth it.

[EDIT 11 Apr 06, 1930] Rand just disemboweled part of my polemic. Fair enough. There's no doubt that NASA was blinded by "gee whiz" technology during the mid-90's, and the "winged potato" did an excellent job in embodying practically every risky new technology available at the time.

It's also apparent that there existed no market for the VentureStar; while the market for EELV and for small-sat launchers collapsed unexpectedly, NASA and the NRO were the only forseeable customers for VentureStar. Even if the rocket was capable of high flight rates (say, 20 missions per year,) there's no way that flight rate could be justified by sufficient payloads.

While LockMart certainly wasn't willing to bail the X-33 out with its own money, they certainly spent a sizable amount of their personal fortune on the winged potato. I should probably do some research into how much LockMart was willing to bankroll, versus what McDD+Boeing or Rockwell was willing to put up. But I tend to believe that at least the Rockwell people would be wise enough to see that X-33 would never lead to SSTO, and wouldn't put more than a token amount of company funding into it. Even McDonnell Douglas wasn't willing to continue the DC-X series as a private development after the military lost interest, or when the flight article crashed and burned.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Reluctantly Sticking With It

Most of the alt.spacers are quite angry (and justifiably so) that it will take $3 billion instead of $1 billion to modify the Shuttle SRB for use on The Stick/AresI/Crew Launch Vehicle. I'm certain that some of that figure has to do with final development and certification of the 5-Segment SRB, which was not part of the original baseline. If that's the case, I think that the extra $2 billion is money well-spent, because the 5-Segment SRB would have been needed for the future heavy-lifter.

Now that NASA is committed to The Stick, it's best to "stay the course" and make their chosen solution work as best we can. If NASA changes direction now, the Vision for Space Exploration will likely rack up more cost overruns, face further schedule slip, and get canned by Congress. Unlike a lot of the alt.spacers, I was too young to witness "the heroic age" of manned spaceflight. The most heroic thing I've seen NASA do is fix an orbiting telescope. I want to see NASA do something heroic again, like landing on the moon--even if it's not the most technically sound way of doing it.

Back during the heroic age of the 60's and early 70's, nothing would have scared NASA away from using existing boosters for a manned capsule. Redstone, Atlas D, and Titan II were all considered "good enough" for manned spaceflight, even though they had all been designed for launching warheads instead of humans, and some of those rockets had spotty success records.

Obviously, NASA's previous decisions on manned space launchers were influenced, in part, by a very tight schedule that decreed a moon landing before Jan. 1, 1970 (and before the Soviets, if possible.) There was no time to develop "man-rated" boosters from the ground up. At the same time, I think that NASA's choice of The Stick was motivated less by "man-rating" and more by a desire to retain shuttle-related jobs (at the expense of the American taxpayer.)

The Stick will use the same facilities and a similarly-sized workforce to that used by Apollo and Shuttle. NASA should have learned how to make things more efficient over the last 45 years, but they choose not to implement these methods because of the initial costs of doing so, and the lost political support that results from laying people off. LockMart and Boeing, for all their faults, have at least applied their years of experience in making their EELV processing as lean and automated as possible.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Pink Mist Club

The sobering experience of my Friday was learning about unexploded ordinance: how to spot it, how to report it, and how to avoid getting killed.

It takes some realistic training to truly appreciate how dangerous The Sandbox really is. Death can lie concealed in a styrofoam block (painted like a rock) or inside an animal carcass--in the form of an IED. It can be a small mine, hidden in the desert scrub, with its tripwire barely perceptable to the human eye. While nobody wants to think they could fall victim to such a simple trap, the truth is that IED's, mines, and other booby traps are highly-effective means of turning a human being into a "pink mist." While we've certainly honed our defenses against IED's, the enemy has to get it right just once to send an American home in a pine box.

I have to admire the mettle of the Airmen who could spend months in Iraq, survive numerous convoy attacks, and then talk to us about it with a straight face, never showing any signs of pent-up anguish or rage. They must take some solace knowing that their training will save others from joining "the pink mist club."

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Boeing vs. Airbus, Part 1: Beast Wars

The Boeing vs. Airbus debate is a common and very heated one that takes place within aviation circles. It often occurs that the rhetoric is more nationalist than technical in nature. The purpose of this recurring series of posts is to cut past the politics and look at the technical merits of the two airliner manufacturers.

Part 1: Beast Wars--A380 vs. 747
Airbus made headlines last year with the first flight of its A380 jumbo jet, which will carry over 550 passengers. Its prime competitor is seen as the Boeing 747, a type which made its first flight in 1969 and entered airline service in 1970. At first glance, it might appear that Airbus will beat Boeing in the long-range, high-capacity airliner segment. But two questions must be asked. First, is this market segment worth winning? Second, is Airbus's design really an improvement over the old 747?

When the A380 was first announced, Boeing planned to counter it with improvements to the 747: the 747X and 747-400X. These planes were dropped in early 2001, in favor of the abortive "Sonic Cruiser." When Boeing dropped the improved versions of the 747, it claimed that airlines didn't want bigger; they wanted planes that were faster over long routes with smaller numbers of passengers. When Boeing dropped the Sonic Cruiser in favor of the 7E7 (now called 787,) it decided that airlines would rather fly at slower speeds if it meant less fuel consumption and lower operating costs.

Since that time, the A380's sales have validated Boeing's market projections. The A380 has about 149 orders on the books with 50 options, a number which has remained almost flat since the 9/11 attacks. The 787 has since surpassed it in terms of projected sales. The nation's top airliner-buyer, Steven Udvar-Hazy, has publicly said that he only sees a market for 400-500 of these jets. While airlines like Emirates and Virgin have jumped on the A380 bandwagon, American carriers still haven't bought on.

Nevertheless, Boeing has hedged its bets with a new version of the 747. It was quietly studied as the 747 Advanced, and was officially named 747-8 when launched last fall. As the name implies, the new 747-8 will leverage technologies from the 787, including the high-efficiency GE-NX engines and various comfort features in the cabin. The fuselage will be moderately longer than the previous 747-400, and a new wing with single-slotted flaps and raked wingtips will round out the 747-8. However, the 747's future, at least in the near-term, seems to lie with cargo carriers instead of passenger lines.

The other question is whether Airbus's technical solution for building a bigger, better jumbo is best. The A380 is very similar in fuselage length to the 747; it fits more passengers in a full-length upper deck (instead of the short upper deck on the 747.) However, the A380 is a much heavier plane with much larger wings. Most airports will have to redesign their gates to accomodate it (as they did when the 747 first entered service.)

There's a graphic on the net (I think it was on Flight International's site) comparing the dimensions of the 747-400 and A380. To carry 32% more passengers, it requires 42% more weight, 24% more wingspan, 66% more wing area, and 12% more thrust. It would appear that Airbus could have come up with a jet that carried the same number of passengers as the 747-400, and done it with a shorter airplane with equivalent wingspan. Airbus's use of composite materials and newer, more efficient turbofans could have resulted in superior range to the 747-400. However, Airbus opted for for more passengers (a dubious trade) instead of a more efficient competitor to the 747-400.

Airbus has introduced a host of logistical problems by switching to two full decks. Because the upper deck will not be accessed by boarding gates, it means that all 550+ passengers will have to enter through the bottom deck and take the stairs if they have seats on the upper deck. It also means two sets of stewards and two separate food services. It will take even longer for passengers to board the A380 than with the 747. In America, we are already fed up with waiting at the airport; Americans will have little tolerance for the enhanced congestion that the A380 will introduce.

After giving the double-decker concept much thought, I have to say that I still prefer a single-deck design, even for massive airliners. In the past, Boeing had studied a single-deck jumbo jet (the model 763) that featured 12-abreast seating, and sleeper berths above the seats. I'd rather have seen Boeing forge ahead with the model 763 than the 747-8, although economic realities would prevent them from launching a massive, clean-sheet airplane like the model 763 at the same time they were doing the 787. The needs of the market are encouraging Boeing to forge ahead with a 737 replacement before they look at all-new jumbo jets.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Lowe Blow

I was in Lowe's today, executing my primary duty of buying blinds for an office building. While the deals on blinds weren't as good as Home Depot's, I wound up buying a can of lubricant for my car.

While processing through the checkout, I flashed my ID card past the cashier to get the 10% military discount. The cashier had never seen a Common Access Card (with embedded microchip, which works in PC card readers) before. She was only used to seeing the colored cards used by reservists and military dependents. She called in for the gastropod-looking manager to approve the discount.

By the time the manager waddled near the cash register, the checkout process had taken far too long. I didn't want to hold up the line any more, and I knew that 10% of a $5.00 item wasn't worth the fight. I gave up on the discount, paid full price, and got the hell out of there.

The moral of the story is that Lowe's "military discount" is an empty promise, at least if you're active duty. I think I'll be taking my business to Home Depot for now on.