Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The A-Team

Today NASA made official what had been speculated for a year or more: STS-125 will make a final housecall to the Hubble Space Telescope. I found it most interesting how much the STS-125 crew looks like the last Hubble servicing crew on STS-109.

I'm a bit surprised by the crew selection, because it's not like another crew can't be trained to do the job. I suppose that NASA is leaving nothing to chance and sending a veteran A-Team of astronauts Altman, Grunsfeld and Massimino to do the job.

My memories of STS-109 are quite fond. It was the second shuttle launch I had witnessed in person, and followers of the shuttle program take note of the distinctive contrails that punctured through the low clouds on that nippy March morning. A previous launch attempt was scrubbed because of concerns about the cold temperatures on the SRB's O-Rings. That prompted my drafting professor to recall her memories of witnessing the loss of Challenger on a similar morning, over 16 years prior.

It appears that Hubble will live well into 2013. Perhaps an Orion capsule (outfitted with a payload module) can keep it alive for another few years after that. Of course, only the "Direct Launcher" boosters would be able to launch Orion and the prerequisite payload module into the proper orbit.

Then again, there will be a point of diminishing returns for Hubble. We can now build smaller telescopes with capabilities similar to that of Hubble. We can launch these smaller telescopes into orbits that are optimized for the mission, and even launch them to Lagrange Points. Hubble was designed and built in the early 80's for a planned 1986 launch; its orbit was designed so the shuttle could launch and service the telescope.

NASA's astronomy priority since Michael Griffin was confirmed has been the use of the shuttle to extend Hubble's life. Now that this course has been set in stone, NASA should make it a priority to prepare a true Hubble replacement for launch in 2013.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Don't piss on my leg and tell me it's raining

NASA's "shuttle derived" fraud is slowly revealing itself for what it is: an expensive make-work program that isn't really shuttle derived at all. It's a mostly-new SRB, mostly-new J-2 engine, new launch pads and support structures, and three all-new rocket stages: the 5m upper stage for Ares I and both liquid-fueled stages of Ares V.

Now there are a maverick group of NASA engineers who are advocating something I pushed for a few months ago; something that maximizes commonality with the shuttle program. The plan is being referred to as "Direct Launcher." The 8.38 meter tank, SRB's, pads and service towers are all being reused from the shuttle program under the "direct launcher" proposal. And because the crew and cargo launchers are so similar to each other, the program's operational cost is expected to be under $2 bil per year. The current baseline of Ares I and V will be similar to the shuttle program's current $3 bil per year.

Normally I do not condone a group of mavericks starting their own website and undermining their agency. In this case, I support the direct launcher team because I feel that NASA's Ares strategy is poorly-thought-out and headed for a budgetary trainwreck that will likely kill any chance we have of sending humans to the moon during my lifetime. After all, Ares I's predecessor, "SRB-X," was described as "the single worst shuttle-derived launcher ever proposed."

The pessimist in me thinks that NASA was never serious about having two Ares launchers. As part of NASA's development spirals, the Ares I will be developed first and provide a humans-to-orbit capability. It will not be for another decade or so that Ares V will enable a humans-to-moon capability. With elections looming, it's easy to see a changing of the guard in Congress that will scuttle a manned lunar program, but will keep a humans-to-orbit capability (if for no other reason than to appease traditional allies who helped build the space station.)

Of course, the problem here is that we are sticking with "shuttle derived" instead of pushing technologies that have been developed since the early 70's when the shuttle was finalized. The EELV programs have taught the industry how to reduce the marginal costs of added launches and how to streamline the processing of the Delta & Atlas rockets. And it's also clear that the shuttle hardware was never capable of meeting ambitious flight rates, which are the only way to make spaceflight more cost-effective.

If Congress insists that NASA retain the shuttle workforce to the maximum extent in its moon launcher planning, the "Direct Launch" proposal is the smartest way of launching human missions to the moon. It avoids much of the new development costs (both monetary and time) required under the current Ares plan. If Congress relents in its desire to keep constituents employed at Cape Canaveral, an evolved Atlas V can create the economy of scale that will be needed to sustain the moon landing program.

Beer Floats

The root beer float is a delicious ice cream treat/drink. In thinking about it, the question "How would a float made with beer instead of root beer taste?" will inevitably arise.

The answer is a horrible and disastrous creation. I tried making a vanilla ice cream + Miller Lite float this Saturday and it was fricking disgusting. The ice cream absorbs some beer, becoming a flavorless white mass that floats on the beer. For its part, the beer becomes creamier in taste due to dissolved ice cream. Perhaps my problem was that I was using a piss-water beer like Miller Lite. Nevertheless, the results of this little experiment were so disastrous that I would not waste a good beer (like Fat Tire or Warsteiner) on another beer float.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Laws of Robotics

Forget everything that Isaac Asimov has said about robotics. My ideas for what robots should act like come from the TV show Futurama and its hilarious protagonist, Bender.

1) A robot should use profanity while communicating with humans, robots or aliens (with Robo-Nixon counting as both human and robot.)
2) A robot should consume vast volumes of beer and other potent potables.
3) A robot should steal purses at every opportunity.
4) A robot should adopt as many orphans as possible to maximize the amount of government welfare he collects.

NASA and Sandia Labs had several robots on display at the recent X-Prize Cup. Frankly I found them bemusing rather than amusing. Did these robots start swilling beer or start telling people to "kiss my shiny metal ass"? Hell no. These robots were extremely lame, because they failed all of Bender's basic laws of robotics.

The next robot to fly to Mars should be fueled with beer. Perhaps one of the major breweries will offset the mission costs in exchange for sponsorship. If it was up to me, the next Mars rover would drink Fat Tire.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

X-Prize Cup 2006: Something Corporate

I arrived at the X-Prize cup on Saturday afternoon around 11:30. I had intended on leaving Albuquerque at 5 AM and arriving before 9 AM, but my friends had insisted that we leave after 6:30, and they made me stop for breakfast. It worked out in the end because I had too much to drink on Friday night and wouldn't have been well-rested by 5 AM anyway.

The signs leading to the event parking (after getting off I-10 onto the frontage road) weren't very big, and I ended up taking a wrong turn and having to get back onto I-10 before I could get to the parking lot. Hopefully this will be fixed for next year.

Differences between this year's cup and last year's were immediately apparent. Both the government (NASA) and the industry (LockMart and NorthGrum) had thrown far more support behind this year's cup. NASA had plenty of displays like Shuttle and Saturn/Ares engines, plus the lunar module static test article. A NASA F/A-18 even made the trip to Las Cruces. NorthGrum put its money where its mouth was, putting up $350,000 for successful completion of the two phases of Lunar Lander Challenge.
Space Shuttle Main Engine display

The afforementioned challenge had been billed as the centerpiece of the cup after Rocket Racing League had to scale back its plans. Armadillo Aerospace was the only team ready to attempt the challenge, despite being barred by the FAA from conducting any test flights with their "Pixel" vehicle prior to the X-Prize Cup. I had the honor of witnessing the third flight attempt, which successfully lifted off, hovered for over 90 seconds, translated to the landing pad, and touched down safely over the course of 1:35. To complete phase 1, Armadillo would have to fly again within two hours and land at the original launch pad. Flight four was attempted with less than half an hour to spare, but aborted shortly after liftoff due to a failure in the Inertial Measurement Unit. There was speculation at the time that the IMU couldn't compensate for previous damage to one of the vehicle's feet. All-in-all, Armadillo put in a valiant effort, and I hope to see great things from John Carmack & Co. in the near future.
Pixel hovers during its third Lunar Lander Challange flight

The Armadillo team bringing the "Pixel" lander back to base after its last mission

The other main event was a demonstration of the Rocket Racing League. While the Velocity-based Rocket Racer wasn't ready to fly, the league flew a LearJet through the virtual race course in the sky. Spectators on the ground were able to see the computer-generated course markers from the large screens which relayed a pilot's eye view of the action.
The Lear Jet which filled in for the Velocity-based Rocket Racer

I learned of other exciting developments while talking to industry representatives and building connections. Here's a brief rundown:

--UP Aerospace is currently conducting a failure investigation from their inaugural launch at the New Mexico spaceport. No findings can be discussed at this time. While the accident investigation does not follow an ISO-type procedure due to the sounding rocket nature of the mission, it has been developed to follow industry best-practices including fault-tree analysis. The ashes of James Doohan and Gordon Cooper were recovered from the impact site, but different samples will probably be used on a future mission. The four-person team at UP Aerospace plans on launching eight missions for undisclosed customers in 2007.

--Lockheed Martin was promoting the manned Atlas V, Atlas V Heavy, and Phase I&II growth variants of the Atlas V. They were also showing off models of a pod which would eject microsats from the Atlas V. It would fly in place of the SRB's. It was explained to me that Robert Bigelow (who has been the driving force behind the need for a manned Atlas V) views space tourists as a loss-leader for his envisioned program. The primary customers will be foreign governments who want to fly passengers and experiments. In that case, the price of an orbital flight may rise to above the ~$20 mil that is currently being paid for Soyuz flights.
A model of what may be the next manned launcher

--Rocketplane-Kistler discussed the possibility of manned K-1 flights, but was focused on developing the K-1 for cargo missions to the space station. Cargo modules (and a future passenger module) would be interchangeable between vehicles. For a manned K-1, the cabin would be separated by rockets mounted below the capsule to avoid any penetrations of the heat shield atop the K-1. Swivel seats would seem like a no-brainer based on the K-1's mode of operations, but they're currently "in the trade space."

--Scion Aviation was showing off a partly-completed high-speed UAV which would be used for military target practice and for atmospheric sampling of forest fires, to give fire fighters a better idea of how the fire needs to be extinguished.

--Masten Space Systems showed off the XA-0.1, which unfortunately couldn't compete in the Lunar Lander Challenge. I was hoping to meet Jon Goff but failed in my mission. Masten did perform a successful engine firing, though.

--Orion Propulsion got a lot of enthusiasm for their successful static fire of the rocket truck. I asked a lot of questions when I met one of the people at the Orion tent. She eventually revealed to me that she was a security volunteer, but she had amassed a remarkable amount of knowledge about Orion by working with them.
Jet trucks rock!

--The model rocket hobby was in force, thanks to successful rocket launches and static fires conducted by the Tripoli high-power rocket association. I also got to meet Wes Oleszewski, the creator of Klyde Morris and Dr. Zooch rockets.
A successful static fire from Tripoli

Another benefit for me was getting to meet people I had gone to school with and hadn't seen in a long time (some as long as three years.) It's good to see how well my alma matter was represented.

Overall, I had a good time. I regret not leaving earlier, so I could at least listen to lectures by the likes of Anousheh Ansari and John "Herringbone" Herrington. Still, it was a good experience, and you can expect to see me there next year.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Visitors to the west side of Kirtland were recently inconvenienced by road construction on Aberdeen Drive. By the time all the barricades were gone, I was totally disgusted by what I saw. The construction crew in charge of fixing Aberdeen (which was never in bad shape to begin with, at least not as bad as Wyoming Street) did an incredibly shitty job. In fact, the new Aberdeen is far bumpier than the old one.

Why does the government give contracts to incompetent contractors to fix things when they aren't broken? I suspect that it's patronage, pure and simple. The more I see of the federal government in action, the more I become a libertarian government-hater.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


There was a blood drive on base today to support the local community. However, in a month there will be an armed forces blood drive. With a mandatory six-week wait in between donations (which is traceable because both drives are part of United Blood Services,) I knew I couldn't do both.

The choice I faced was 1) help Albuquerque trailer trash, or 2) help the soldiers or Marines who are being wounded because they answered their nation's call on the field of battle. I think I'll pick #2 any day of the week.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Some Have to Live With the Scars

I got to meet astronaut Mike Mullane tonight at a presentation he gave to local scout groups. Like all astronauts I've met, he's really larger than life. In Mike Mullane's case, it's a wall of enthusiasm that isn't pinned down by the official NASA talking points.

Looking at his humble roots, it may seem surprising. He wasn't a great athlete while in high school. His grades were barely good enough to get him into West Point (after the two people selected ahead of him were unable to attend.) He skipped out on junior & senior prom, and the only thing written in his yearbook was "You missed out on Korea, but here's to hoping you get to go to Vietnam."

And go to Vietnam he did. He couldn't live out his dream of being a pilot, but he was a weapons systems officer in the greatest jet airplane ever built (the F-4 Phantom II) and did his best. Even though he thought he would never get to be an astronaut with his WSO background, fortune smiled upon him when NASA created a new category of non-pilot astronauts, mission specialists, for the Space Shuttle.

While the presentation dealt with some physics on a level the young audience could understand, Mike Mullane focused primarily on the four keys to living a great life, even if you don't get to be an astronaut:
--Dream big (within your limits)
--Do your best at whatever you do
--Take care of your body
--Learn as much as you can

Again, they're very sound rules for life in general. Implied in this message is that the worst setbacks we suffer are the ones we inflict on ourselves. How many people have been held back or suffered because of poor diet, insufficient exercise, smoking, drinking to excess, or drug abuse? How many people have been too scared to strive for lofty goals that were within reach? How many people were gifted but never applied themselves towards their lot in life? How many people abandoned an education early in life, only to be denied later on when it came time to fulfill an ambition?

Mike Mullane summed up his advice by citing Sir Elton John in Circle of Life:
Some of us fall by the wayside
And some of us soar to the stars
And some of us sail through our troubles
And some have to live with the scars

If we take care of ourselves, put in the effort, strive to learn, and strive for our dreams, we will soar to the stars regardless of the troubles. For those who cut their education short and abuse their bodies, they often fall to the wayside.

For Mike Mullane (and, undoubtedly, the vast majority of people at the core of the Shuttle program in the mid-80's,) the scars of Challenger are still raw. People in a position to make a difference didn't do the best they could, and seven brave astronauts paid the ultimate price. I suspect that everyone within the program went through intense soul-searching over whether they could have done something differently to prevent the disaster.

I will try to continue my education, not for selfish reasons, but to make me a better engineer and a better citizen. I won't give up on my dreams of working to put man back on the moon and beyond. And I will always remember that the deepest wounds occur when we hurt ourselves.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Atlas Launch Alliance

After over a year of deliberations, the Federal Trade Commission has finally approved the United Launch Alliance, placing the Delta IV and Atlas V under the same roof. While there may be near-term benefits to the deal, ULA strikes me as a means of mitigating failure rather than producing success.

The cost savings associated with ULA will primarily be associated with eliminating redundant facilities and management. Hence, Atlas V and Delta IV will both be built at Boeing's plant in Decatur, AL while LockMart's Colorado manufacturing facilities will likely close down. LockMart's leased An-124 will likely have its lease terminated, as the Atlas V can go on Boeing's barge. Yet this near-term savings will actually hinder the EELV program in the future if the market for EELV-type rockets suddenly lifts off.

Presentations by Boeing would indicate that the Decatur plant is capable of producing ~15 booster cores per year. This is more than sufficient to meet current DoD and NASA needs. But what if NASA needed more EELV's to support the space station and lunar missions? What if Bob Bigelow needed a dozen or more EELV's per year to support his space stations? The future commercial market predicted in 1996 (when EELV was authorized) had evaporated by 2002 when the EELV's first flew, destroying the business case for keeping both rockets in production. But what if this market were to suddenly come back? ULA is a sign that LockMart and Boeing weren't anticipating future prosperity.

If ULA goes ahead, the Delta IV will likely end production within two or three years. Delta IV is viewed as being less reliable, probably because it has flown fewer times than Atlas V (last fall's labor strike certainly didn't help.) At the time Delta IV production ends, ULA will be left with the tooling to make the rocket's 5-meter diameter tankage. It just so happens that Lockheed Martin has been pushing for a 5.4-meter version of the Atlas V (Phase 1&2 in the company's parlance.) If ULA were to scale the Atlas growth variants back to 5 meters in diameter and adopt Delta IV's launch facilities (including the horizontal integration and transport,) it would be a wise use of the leftover assets. Nevertheless, ULA will only be capable of producing 15 booster cores per year.

In my vision for the United Launch Alliance, the venture would actually become the "Atlas Launch Alliance." There wouldn't be any production cost savings, and both plants would be working at full potential. The Colorado plant would work at full capacity producing standard Atlas V's. The Decatur plant would switch over to a hypothesized 5-meter Atlas which would replace the Delta IV Heavy and the Ares I.

The difference between the real ULA and my "Atlas Launch Alliance" is one of vision. The Boeing-LockMart vision is that the market will stay stagnant, and there is currently excess capacity. My vision (similar to the vision of SpaceX) is that the market will expand dramatically over the next decade, and that current capacity may not be enough to meet it. While SpaceX believes that ULA is harmful to their case for the Falcon IX, I would argue that ULA puts Boeing and LockMart into a corner. If SpaceX has a success with the Dragon spacecraft, it will be easier for SpaceX to build sufficient production facilities from the ground up. ULA will be stuck with the Decatur plant and will be forced to rebuild what they gave up in Colorado.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

A Tease of Things to Come

Sir Richard Branson has released a computer-animation of SpaceShipTwo to coincide with the vehicle's interior mockup. Overall I have to say that I'm not too surprised that it looks like a bigger version of SpaceShipOne and the original White Knight.

The biggest difference in my view took part on the SpaceShipTwo, as the wing is disproportionately longer than on SpaceShipOne (having apparently absorbed the function of the horizontal stabilizers.) I'm guessing that the elevons will act differentially to control the vehicle, with no need for the precise pitch functions performed by the separate horizontal stabilizer.

SpaceShipTwo will also have viewing ports in the lower fuselage, which is generally frowned upon in the world of structural engineering. Each cutout (such as a window) represents a stress concentration in the craft's fuselage. The stresses are worst in the lower fuselage because that region is subjected to the highest heating during re-entry (except for the nose cap and leading edges.) The problem shouldn't be as extreme as the shuttle, as SpaceShipTwo probably will fly no faster than Mach 4. Windows in the bottom floor shouldn't be an impossible challenge, but it is something the engineers will have to pay a lot of attention to.