Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Happiness is a Warm M9

I finally qualified on the Beretta M9 today. My regret is that my grandfather didn't live long enough to see this moment. He had thought it was something important when I told him of my failed attempts to qualify back in spring. I lost him earlier this month, but I'd like to believe that he's smiling upon me from his perch on high.

Most people wouldn't treat qualification on the 9mm pistol to be a big deal. I do, because I wasn't raised around firearms and I haven't developed any marksmanship skills. Even as a youth playing "Duck Hunt" on the Nintendo, I would stand close to the screen to shoot the ducks. (I was also rebuffed in my attempts to shoot that stupid laughing dog. One of these days I will teach him that schadenfreude works both ways.)

It took a generous co-worker to take me to the city shooting range and let me shoot several magazines with his .45 pistol. Compared to the .45, the 9mm's recoil is insignificant. I still notice that I'm pulling my shots down and to the left, but it's not as bad as before, and I'm compensating by aiming high and to the right.

Having recently seen the superb Casino Royale, I feel like I've earned my "Double-0" status now. Yet the Air Force will probably never ask me to use any kind of firearm again. Still, Moqtada al Sadr had better watch out; if our paths cross, he'll find a cap busted in his turban and two in his pubic-like beard.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Dragon their feet?

Will either SpaceX or Rocketplane-Kistler be able to fly their COTS spaceship before the end of 2010? That's a good question, but the reality is that NASA will need the services that only COTS can offer. The Shuttle's lift capability will be lost when that system is retired in 2010, and Orion won't be ready for ISS missions until 2014. Only COTS is able to fill that 4-year gap, but the current schedule projections do not look promising for that to happen.

I believe that the RpK K-1 vehicle is a long-term answer to the COTS challenge, but one that should not be rushed. It's the first fully-reusable, orbital spacecraft that has a realistic chance of success, and we should allow it to develop according to its own schedule (consistent with the funds that RpK can raise to complete it.)

SpaceX's Dragon capsule, on the other hand, is a lower risk development that recalls the heroic age when men strapped themselves on top of Atlas and Titan II rockets. Still, it's a challenge for a small company for SpaceX that has already committed itself to building the Falcon I, V, and IX rockets.

My suggestion to Space X is to adopt a spiral-development philosophy for the Dragon, and to take drastic measures to acclerate the schedule. Specifically, I think that the "Spiral 1" version of Dragon should be designed for launch on the Atlas V rather than the Falcon IX. My logic is that SpaceX will not be able to ready both the capsule and the rocket for flight in 2010. By putting all of its resources behind Dragon and delaying the Falcon IX, SpaceX might just have a shot at meeting the 2010 schedule target. If Dragon succeeds, SpaceX can focus on renewed Falcon IX development and a "Spiral 2" Dragon that will fly on the Falcon IX.

Atlas V has some important advantages over Falcon IX. Most importantly, Atlas V already exists as flight-qualified hardware, and it has a good (albeit short) flight history. Also, Lockheed Martin has expressed its willingness to work with anybody who proposes a capsule to fly on the Atlas V. Presumably, this would include a competitor in the launch vehicle field like SpaceX.

While SpaceX has reasons to favor Falcon IX due to their projected costs, I feel that this may be a bit misguided. Within the launch vehicle industry, there are very few who believe that SpaceX's rocket engineering will lead to cost savings. The final Falcon IX will probably cost almost as much to build as an Atlas V 401. The real savings come from lean management, automated processing that reduces the size of the rocket's standing army, and a high flight rate that results in economies of scale (like spreading the standing army and management costs over many more launches, as well as mass-production of components in the rockets.)

There will be consequences if SpaceX delays Falcon IX development (which is my suggestion, not SpaceX's.) Falcon IX already has a list of potential customers which includes Bigelow, MacDonald-Dettweiler, NASA, and "US Government" (probably NRO.) NASA and "US Government" will probably be able to move to alternate launchers without too much problem, but MacDonald-Dettweiler and Bigelow will be pretty annoyed, to put it mildly. If NASA's COTS development takes precedence over Falcon IX development, SpaceX should use NASA to help persuade the commercial customers to move to other launchers. SpaceX will also have to take bold steps to bring potential customers back after Falcon IX development is complete.

SpaceX has a lot on its plate, and I believe that the company will have to examine its priorities. Is it really a priority to "reinvent the wheel" and come up with a competitor to the government-subsidized Atlas V? Or does SpaceX want to make the most of NASA's unprecendented COTS program and use the opportunity to develop the first private-sector orbital manned spacecraft? The window of opportunity for COTS is small, and if SpaceX can't get Dragon to fly between 2010 and 2014, NASA will give the space station resupply mission to the business-as-usual Orion capsule and its absurd Stick launcher.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Bring Da Noise, Lose Da Moon

Apparently Scott Horowitz and Jeff Hanley aren't being disturbed by "the noise" that the space blogs are making about Project Constellation and the renewed exploration of the moon. I really have to agree with this bit of wisdom from Clark Lindsey:

Whatever. I have no interest in wasting my time making noise to disturb Mr. Horowitz. There are too many exciting things happening in the commercial spaceflight world to get all worked up about NASA. It's just a shame to see all those tens of billions of dollars going for so little.

This brings up the interesting possibility that we may have to rely on the private sector rather than NASA to put humans back on the moon. In case Michael Griffin and company haven't noticed, there are many in Congress who think that humans on the moon is a waste of money that could be spent on social programs. And even the members of Congress who truly believe in lunar exploration aren't prepared to write NASA a blank check.

There's a good chance that Constellation will not survive the incoming Congress in its current form. Congress could make NASA reconsider smarter alternatives like Direct Launcher or multiple Atlas V launches. If I were a betting man, I'd say that NASA will get Ares I and Orion funded, but only as a means of accessing the ISS. The moon will be off the table.

At the same time, the private sector will inevitably get us back to the moon. It will probably take longer, as the private sector needs to play catch-up, but it's not out of reach. I don't fall for the arguments put forward by some pundits (who are good, patriotic Americans at heart) that we need a government-funded effort so we can beat China to the moon. There's plenty of moon for all of us, and while I'm skeptical that China will get there in the next 15 years, it won't be the end of the world if the thirteenth man on the moon is a Chinese communist.

What isn't hard to believe is a private orbital spaceflight program within the next five years. I can forsee SpaceX or somebody else building a capsule that would fit on an Atlas V and visit Bob Bigelow's space station. From there, the next steps are circumlunar flights, which wouldn't be a problem for a two-Atlas launch scenario. Eventually there would be a market for manned missions to the surface of the moon.

The message to my fellow "space cadets" is to keep the faith. NASA might be making poor choices that will ensure either cancellation now, or nothing more than "flags and footprints" in 12 years time. But there are plenty of bright minds in this great nation who do not work for NASA, and they will ensure that sometime within my lifetime, Americans will be on the moon again. For me, it's not a choice between taking the fast boat and taking the slow boat. It's looking increasingly like a choice between the "no boat" and the slow boat.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


I am not an engineer.

Well, at least I don't feel like one. And for the past two years, I've known that I really didn't want to be an engineer.

I guess it started during my senior year in college, when I just felt burned out. I talked to my ROTC instructor at the time about this inconvenient little development. His response was that the Air Force has invested large sums of money on my education as an engineer, that Air Force Personnel Center would make sure that I became an engineer, and that I would be in deep doggy doo if I requested any career field besides engineering. I was a good and obedient tool, and I did as I was told.

My fears were recently confirmed about what the engineering career field entails. I'll have to endure all-day meetings where self-serving windbags prattle for hours with technical details that are far above my level of education and experience. While the afforementioned ROTC instructor was probably correct about AFPC, I should have at least taken a chance and applied for an interesting career field.

I'm filled with regret in knowing that the last 5.5 years of my life have been squandered towards a meaningless end. It's no comfort in knowing that the next 2.5 years will be frettered towards a similar, nihilistic purpose. The only mercy will be the broadsword that we euphemistically call "force shaping," which will cut 40,000 Air Force personnel over the next few years. If it happens to me, it will be a one-year respite from my commitment.

The future's up in the air, but it's not very optimistic. I feel like the years when I should have found my way in life have been lost, and there's no easy way to make up for them. Right now, my plan is to teach High School once I get out of the Air Force. At least that way I can contribute to America in a far more effective way than I am right now.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Die, Stick, Die

Well, one can only hope, especially if this rumor is true.

Even if Ares I is under-performing, NASA has plenty of options that would retain this rocket that they have grown so attached to. Perhaps ATK can change the propellant grain geometry to increase the thrust, or shift to a more energetic solid propellant. NASA could also negotiate with Lockheed Martin and revise the Orion contract, to make a smaller, lighter, and less-capable capsule that can still be launched on the under-performing Ares I. Finally, NASA could simply settle on a lower insertion altitude for the Orion capsule.

As long as NASA is working under the Congressional mandate to preserve shuttle jobs, Direct Launcher is the best way to launch a moon mission. The agency would be wise to change gears (and launchers) now, before it gets stuck holding "The Stick" without a way of making it work within the schedule and budget constraints.

Sobering experiences

The most sobering moment of my Veterans Day was marching with a flag, passing a row of people who were taking part in the state's memorial service. I took a good look at the people and realized that they were the family members of soldiers and Marines who had recently given their lives in combat. I realized that I had to lock on and be as sharp as possible for the ceremony, and to honor the veterans in attendance. Yet for the survivors of our hallowed dead, you realize that no matter how smartly you salute, you will never be able to restore what was taken from them. The most eloquent of speeches can never bring their loved ones back.

During the speeches and tributes, the band was playing "America The Beautiful," which made me think about Ray Charles's unique re-arranging of the verses. Singing the third verse ahead of the (less-poignant) first verse, Charles reminds us that
Oh beautiful, for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine,
'Til all success be nobleness, and ev'ry gain divine!

For our hallowed dead, they placed their love of country ahead of their well-being. The least we can give them is a day without politics, a day without judgement, and a day when we can take the time to lovingly remember them for who they were.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Hail CSAR!

The Air Force has finally picked its new combat search and rescue helicopter (the CSAR-X program,) and the future looks a lot like the past. A specialized version of the CH-47 Chinook will conduct the search-and-rescue missions of the 21st century.

From the outset, and from my outsider's perspective, I liked the Sikorsky S-92, if for no other reason than the fact that I thought Sikorsky got a raw deal during the competition for Marine One. Lockheed Martin's "US 101" won the contract for Marine One instead due to factors like cabin size, when the S-92 had superior range, speed, and maintainability (due to only two engines instead of three.)

Lockheed Martin had been favored for CSAR-X, as the US-101's three engines give additional redundancy which is sorely needed on combat missions, but isn't needed for the presidential helicopter mission. Of course, US-101 is a fancy moniker designed to hide the fact that the helicopter (based on the EH 101) is primarily built in England and Italy, although final assembly and integration will take place at the Bell plant in Amarillo TX and the LockMart plant in New York state.

In the end, I suspect that Boeing emerged victorious because of their design's speed (the big CH-47 also happens to be the fastest helicopter in service,) its large cabin, its ability to lift heavy payloads (including the miniguns and four-wheelers that are used during search-and-rescue,) its established logistics train, and its proven history of performance in combat.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Killing Cassini

While the Cassini spacecraft's mission to Saturn will probably last past 2010, NASA is already weighing its options for disposing of the planetary probe once the mission is complete.

Personally, I'm partial to casting Cassini on a trajectory that will take it as far from our sun as possible. If the RTG holds up (and I assume it will,) Cassini can still make useful contributions to astronomy by flying through the Kuiper Belt and beyond, much like the Voyagers and Pioneer 10 & 11. Perhaps, in the distant future, some wayward spacefarer will find Cassini and ask what civilization built and flew it so many years ago. It's "V Ger Two" all over again.

I do find it funny, though, that NASA has no apparent qualms against slamming Cassini into Mercury. I thought that the agency was committed to planetary protection from contamination. They probably figure that nothing could possibly live on hellish Mercury, so there's no justification for keeping the planet uncontaminated.