Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Mars Money?

The Associated Press ran two recent stories; the first described an effort in Congress to defund "the Mars mission," while the more recent piece talked about how "the Mars mission" survived the House vote. Once again, the mainstream media isn't being straight with the American people, and they're demonstrating their ignorance of the space program.

In the real world, we are faced with a NASA that has its sights set on the moon, in hopes that moon missions will enable a Mars mission after 2030. This is a very questionable proposition when one considers the two-year turnover in the House, four year turnover in the White House, and six-year turnover in the Senate.

In the media world, manned spaceflight is a waste of money that can be spent on social programs, and flights beyond earth orbit are the stuff of science fiction that can't be taken seriously. The mainstream media always talks about the Vision For Space Exploration as a program to put a man on Mars. Whenever I see the media mention "the Mars mission," I usually infer a subtext of scorn and cynical amusement.

The NASA buidget that was voted on yesterday wasn't about Mars at all. For that matter, it wasn't about the moon, either. The money in question will go towards developing the CEV and CLV. If Congress wants to preserve a manned space capability (if for no other reason than national prestige,) it will have to spend the money on the CEV+CLV stack. If future Congresses want to see humans back on the moon, they will have to approve even more development funds for the CaLV, EDS, and LSAM. If there is to be a Mars mission in the period beyond 2030, even more money will need to be spent, most likely on Mars landers and nuclear propulsion stages.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Polar Express

Tonight, Boeing finally launched the Delta IV rocket from the cursed SLC-6 launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The pad was built on a Native American graveyard and it was originally intended for launches of the aborted Titan 3M and Manned Orbiting Laboratory. However, it gained the greatest deal of its infamy for the aborted polar orbit missions of the space shuttle. In spite of all the money invested in refurbishing SLC-6 for the shuttle, there were legitimate fears about acoustic damage to the launch pad, damage to surrounding buildings, and the potential for hydrogen explosions. The Challenger disaster forced a greater reliance on expendible rockets, and the shuttle program was allowed to slink away.

While the pad has had successful launches (two Athenas in the late 90's,) the curse of the Chumash tribe still seemed to linger over the pad. Tonight, I'd have to say that the Boeing-Air Force team took a giant leap towards making SLC-6 productive.

During the O'Keefe days when the Delta and Atlas were considered for launching the CEV, the thought occurred to me that the Delta IV at SLC-6 and Atlas V at SLC-3E could launch a manned CEV into polar orbit. It would certainly be unique, as no human has ever gone to a polar or other highly-inclined orbit (such as sun-sync) before.

Of course, just because something can be done doesn't mean it should be done. Manned Orbiting Laboratory was supposed to be a manned satellite for earth observation; this task was better suited to an unmanned satellite. The shuttle was supposed to deploy satellites into highly-inclined orbits, but this task was just as easily given to unmanned Titan rockets.

Highly-inclined orbits don't have any forseeable benefits over easterly, low-inclination orbits for manned spaceflight. In fact, they have two big disadvantages. First, the rocket doesn't get the same boost from the earth's rotation that it would during a low-inclination launch. Second, the procession of the earth underneath the orbit track will take the spacecraft away from the launch site. For the Gemini-based MOL, it wasn't a problem because Gemini had to land in the water anyway. For the space shuttle, the orbiter was designed with large wings that would endow it with the cross-range to reach California if it were to re-enter after its first orbit. Of course, the Vandenberg shuttle pad was mothballed, and the orbiter was stuck with wings that were too big for the missions it would eventually perform.

[EDIT 3 July 2006] Dwayne Day, space historian extraordinaire, explains that there was no Chumash burial ground discovered at SLC-6. In spite of this, SLC-6 still stands on ground regarded as sacred by the Chumash, and represents a sore spot with the tribe.

Monday, June 26, 2006

No Guts, No Griffin

Michael Griffin is taking a lot of heat for his personal decision to let Discovery fly on STS-121, perhaps as soon as this Saturday. The New York Times opposes the choice (which usually means I will agree with NASA.) Several NASA officials have broken ranks and publicly criticized the decision (in the same vein as James Hansen, the climatologist who claimed that NASA was censoring his controversial views.)

I usually take the opinion that members of an organization should have the class to avoid public criticism of their organization and leadership. (Then again, many would argue that Chair Force Engineer is a scathing and irreverent indictment of the US Air Force.) Still, there are extreme situations that warrant public dissent, such as the Challenger launch decision, when there are extreme repercussions for not speaking out against a dangerous decision.

From day one, Michael Griffin has been forthcoming with the public on the dangers of spaceflight, particularly those of the shuttle. The shuttle is a hopelessly complex machine that could never achieve its goals of safe, routine spaceflight. Griffin explicitly said that the shuttle and ISS were mistakes, before being forced to backpedal by angry employees of NASA and the United Space Alliance.

At the same time, Michael Griffin is willing to accept the shuttle for its flaws and accept a certain amount of risk. If we wait for everything on the shuttle that could go wrong to be fixed, STS-121 will probably be delayed past 2014, by which point the safer Crew Exploration Vehicle will already be flying.

This begs the question, what is acceptable risk? My answer would be that "acceptable" risk would be a level of risk that the crew would be willing to accept. I think that threshold is pretty low, based on talking to college friends (now Air Force pilots) who would accept a space mission even if it was certain to mean suicide. Of course, a twenty-something, testosterone-fueled, bachelor jet-jockey probably has a lower appreciation for his own life than a seasoned test pilot with a family to worry about.

Of course, the crew's safety should always be the highest priority, and in the case of STS-121, it still is. Even Bryan O'Connor, a straight-shooter who criticized the lack of safety during the Shuttle-Mir missions, feels that the crew has adequate backups in the form of the space station safe haven. Perhaps the threat to the orbiter may be overstated as well. It's been rumored that a secretive system to auto-land a disabled orbiter has been installed in Discovery.

Michael Griffin's decision boiled down to this: if we see any value in continuing the space shuttle program, we should be able to accept a certain amount of risk, even if that risk is higher than we would like in an ideal world. If we are not willing to take that risk, let's quit wasting $7 bil per year on the shuttle and ISS. For that matter, let's not take the dangerous risk of flying to the moon. Let's stay in the safe cradle of the earth where Mommy and Daddy will take care of us (until overpopulation, an environmental catastrophe, or asteroids make the earth unlivable in its present form.)

Let's light this candle. Go, hot dog, go! Godspeed Discovery, and may this mission bring us closer to leaving the cradle.

Thursday, June 22, 2006


NASA's Lunar Surface Access Module (LSAM) is at a very embryonic stage, but important design decisions are being made right now that will have serious ramifications when humans return to the moon. The new lander will be much more capable than the Apollo Lunar Module. Yet this additional capability will come at the expense of features that made Apollo's LM so reliable in the first place.

The biggest change with the LSAM is that it will use cryogenic fuels, at least in the descent stage. Apollo used low-energy, storable propellants. LSAM will have the propulsive capability to visit a variety of sites on the moon, while the Apollo LM had to stay near the equator. LSAM will also carry enough equipment to sustain a four-man crew for over a week, while the LM could only support two men for a few days.

The baseline for LSAM's descent stage is hydrogen and oxygen propellants, burning in four RL-10 series engines. RL-10 has had an enviable history. It has also been used in a similar application, in the DC-X reusable rocket (where the four RL-10A-5's were throttled down to 30% thrust for landing.)

Nevertheless, the RL-10 is not going to be smooth sailing for the LSAM. The descent and ascent engines on the old LM used hypergolic propellants and a reliable pintle-injector design, because the engine would be certain to ignite upon the opening of a redundant set of valves. In the RL-10 based LSAM, the astronauts will have to rely on four RL-10's igniting properly.

Storage of the cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen, and ensuring that they do not boil away during the transit to the moon, will also be a challenge. To that end, NASA plans on using hydrogen and oxygen propellants for the unmanned landers that will precede the LSAM. Another problem will be the loading of the propellants. It's unlikely that the LSAM will be fueled prior to encapsulation inside the Cargo Launch Vehicle's fairing. The most likely scenario is some sort of fuel port on LSAM that can be accessed through a door on the fairing, which will allow LSAM to be fueled along with the CaLV while on the launch pad.

I think Pete Conrad would be ecstatic knowing that the DC-X he worked on would be contributing to the lunar return mission. But I think that Grumman's LM project engineer, Tom Kelly, would be disappointed in knowing that so much of what his team pioneered would be cast aside.

Beer & Ice Cream

I have recently discovered the most perfect dinner combination: beer & ice cream. I came to this realization because I've been doing a lot of business travel and haven't been restocking my refrigerator very often. Beer and ice cream may be the last two foodstuffs remaining in my apartment.

I had beer & ice cream for dinner last Thursday. I had it again on Friday. The problem with Friday is that I lost my spoon somewhere and couldn't find it, regardless of how hard I searched.

Last Tuesday I had to catch a flight at Phoenix Sky Harbor. The one thing you must understand about the Phoenix airport is that it sucks ass. I mean, it's worse than O'Hare, and it may even be worse than Boston-Logan. Every restaurant was too crowded, so I got "dinner" at a TCBY. Later, the people I was traveling with convinced me to partake in their ritual "tall expensive airport beer" that occurs after holding a meeting at a contractor facility. I had a Sam Adams. If you count fat-free frozen yogurt as ice cream, you could say that beer & ice cream was my meal for three nights in the course of a week.

As for my MIA spoon, I finally located it last night. It had somehow gotten underneath my oven. Perhaps beer & ice cream led to a very wild night.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Kim Jong Ill

Global Security's Charles Vick has some intriguing insights on a possible ICBM launch from North Korea that are worth reading. The most important points, in my opinion, are:
--Taepo-Dong 2 is not a cluster of No Dongs, as parroted by The New York Times and others, but an all-new design based on the Russian SS-N-6 sub-launched ballistic missile.
--North Korea's self-imposed missile moratorium was not rooted in benevolence, but in a need for more time to reverse-engineer the SS-N-6 into the No Dong-B and Taepo-Dong 2.
--North Korea and Iran are cooperating closely on missiles, with the Iranian Shahab-4 being a carbon copy of No Dong-B. Hence, North Korea doesn't have to test missiles as long as Iran is doing it.
--If North Korea does test Taepo-Dong 2, they will likely use a third stage and try to orbit a small satellite. A satellite gives them plausible deniability that the missile test was really a peaceful space launch. This is exactly what happened when the first Taepo-Dong was launched in August 1998.

The Taepo-Dong 2 allegedly uses Inhibited Red Fuming Nitric Acid and Unsymmetrical Dimethyl Hydrazine (IRFNA & UDMH.) These are extremely toxic and caustic fuels. I suspect (though my depth of knowledge isn't extensive enough to say with certainty) that IRFNA is so corrosive that it will require a rocket to be launched within a reasonable time period after being fueled. If the rocket sits on the pad too long, it will likely corrode.

An open question is which trajectory North Korea would choose for a potential missile test, and where the stage drops would occur. Unauthorized overflights of other countries can (and in this case, should) be regarded as a hostile act. Back in 1998, the Japanese were justifiably pissed that the Taepo-Dong flew over the Japanese mainland. If a stage from the rocket impacts into a landmass, there will be much ill-will towards Kim Jong Il.

It should also go without saying that I have no inside knowledge of the North Korean missile program, aside from what Global Security will openly talk about. If I had anything more detailed to say, I certainly wouldn't be sharing it on this forum.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Boeing vs. Airbus, Part 2: Bring Da Noise, Bring Da Funk

Last week I was forced by the government to fly United Airlines. If I had a choice in the matter, I would have flown Southwest, that all-American symbol of capitalism at its finest. However, United (the bloated beneficiary during the dark days of regulation) was the contract carrier for my destination.

The biggest indignity I had to suffer on United was flying in an Airbus 320 instead of a Boeing 737 (which isn't the case with that other, patriotic airline that I love.) While the Airbis 320 is slightly roomier than the 737 (which I don't really notice, being of below-average height and weight,) it's also noisier. I mean, the 737 is hardly a quiet airplane, especially if you have a wing seat. But the A320 is even worse.

In terms of noise, my favorite airliner was the Boeing 757. Because the wings were so long, the engines are far enough away from the fuselage and you don't get so much of it in the cabin. I also liked the old 727's, because the engines were at the back of the plane. Ironically, it was the FAA's Stage III noise requirements that took a lot of 727's out of passenger service.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

RIF'ed from the headlines

US Space News reports that Boeing's Delta workforce will be trimmed by 10%. In light of the Delta II's impending retirement after 2007, it seems like a logical thing to do, although the timing is premature.

Also hurting Boeing is the loss of market share to the Atlas V from Lockheed Martin. While the Delta IV won the lion's share of initial EELV launches, many of them were shifted back to the Atlas after the 2003 revelation that Boeing had acquired proprietary pricing data on the Atlas V. Atlas V has also seen a better flight rate than Delta IV since then, due primarily to a labor strike at Boeing (although glitches with the Delta IV last year didn't bode well either.)

As the United Launch Alliance appears to collapse, there is a real danger that Boeing might exit the launch business entirely unless Delta IV can start winning launch contracts again. The recent GOES-N launch was an optimistic sign, but we'll have to wait and see how Boeing's planned launches for the rest of 2006 (including the first Delta IV from the infamous SLC-6 at Vandenberg) turn out.

A Man I'll Never Be

Yesterday I got off a shuttle bus at an airport while wearing my uniform; a passenger on the bus asked me "are you going back?" I figured that he was referring to Iraq. I told him "I'm going back to Albuquerque." I hope the answer was good enough for him. I'm a geek, not a hero. I hope that's clear to everybody.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Transformers, More Than Meets the Eye

I was tipped off to the fact that two CV-22 Ospreys at Holloman Air Force Base recently took part in the filming forMichael Bay's Transformers: The Movie, scheduled for a 2007 release.

I guess that the CV-22 is a natural choice for the Transformers, as it transforms from an airplane to a twin-rotor helicopter and back. This uniqueness comes at a price, as the Osprey is more complex than a twin-rotor helicopter. While helicopters are more dangerous than fixed wing aircraft due to their complexity, the Osprey and future tiltrotors should be viewed as more dangerous than helicopters due to their even greater complexity. Of course, the Osprey's complexity is justified by the capabilities it brings to the battlefield, like its extended range and faster speeds when compared to helicopters.

On the subject of Transformers, I would definitely like to see a retro-80's approach to the character designs for this new movie. That means heroic Autobots based on American military equipment, while the evil Decepticons would resemble Soviet vehicles. That would force the treacherous Starscream to become a MiG-29 or Su-27 instead of the familiar F-15. The Autobot war-hero Kup should be the ubiquitous Humvee. Autobot leader Optimus Prime should take the form of a fire truck, as nothing screams heroism like a firefighter.

It would be desirable if the people who wrote the Beast Wars series of Transformers came back to write the script for the new movie. Beast Wars was one of the mature mid-90's childrens' shows that featured dark and realistic storylines. It played out much like a war movie, except that the soldiers were replaced with computer-animated robots.

One last note: if Michael Bay thinks he can kill off Optimus Prime yet again, he's sorely mistaken. The fans will never forgive him, much like how they never forgave the Transformers franchise when Prime was killed in the 1986 Transformers movie.

Friday, June 02, 2006

The World's Mightiest Air Force

We have now entered the "101 Critical Days of Summer," when the Air Force constantly reminds its people not to do something incredibly stupid during their summer vacations. My e-mail box is full of PowerPoint presentations, each being about 6 MB in size, reminding me to do logical things like check my tires, don't drink while operating a motorboat, and to avoid slips, trips and falls.

Grr... So this is the way we insult the intelligence of the world's mightiest Air Force.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


The US Space Foundation has put out a press release crediting former NASA Admin Dan Goldin for the success of the Mars Exploration Rovers. While there is some truth to that conclusion, the essay is so riddled with errors that it damages the reputation of the US Space Foundation and makes the group look a like a group of Goldin's mindless cheerleaders.

It is widely known that Dan Goldin took the reins at NASA in 1992, as Mars Observer was steaming towards a September launch. Less than a year later, the large and expensive Mars probe was lost during orbit insertion. Dan Goldin directed NASA's future Mars efforts along his familiar mantra of "Faster, Cheaper, Better."

In the world of program management, there are three baselines: schedule, cost and performance. It is generally accepted that two of these baselines can be enhanced, but only at the expense of the third. If your project has a faster schedule and cheaper cost, the performance is bound to get worse, not better. Of these three baselines, I tend to feel that performance is the most important. After all, if your satellite becomes a non-functioning brick, nobody is going to care how quickly it was built or how cheap it was. Asking somebody to do a project "Faster, Cheaper, Better" is asking the impossible.

Six Mars missions were planned under the "Faster, Cheaper, Better" philosophy: Global Surveyor & Pathfinder in 1996-7, Climate Orbiter & Polar Lander in 1998-9, and Odyssey & Lander in 2001. The first two missions were smashing successes and seemed to indicate that "Faster, Cheaper, Better" was working. The 1998-9 missions, however, became embarassing failures that forced NASA to scale back ambitious plans for exploring Mars. While Odyssey forged ahead, the lander was delayed indefinitely (it will now fly in 2007 as Phoenix.)

The 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers were in development when NASA was hit by the twin failures. The rovers were at an early enough stage in development that the lessons of the failed probes could be incorporated. Among the changes included bigger budgets and more extensive testing. Although these reforms were initiated during the twilight of "The Goldin Era," Dan Goldin's successors also deserve credit for sustaining their commitment to realistic budgets, schedules, and testing.

The lesson of this case study is that Dan Goldin didn't inherit all of NASA's Mars failures. The failures of 1998-9 can be directly linked to his absurd "Faster, Cheaper, Better" philosophy. The credit for the successes of the 2003 Rovers should be shared between Dan Goldin, his successor Sean O'Keefe, and all of the people who worked on that project to make it the success it is today.