Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

An Inconvenient Snowstorm

The media has been running non-stop stories about global warming over the past few weeks. Frankly I'm growing tired of it, especially knowing that it's colder than a witch's teat in New Mexico. We're even getting abnormally frequent snowfalls to accompany the chilldown.

I'll openly admit that I'm skeptical about the belief that humans are a significant contributor to global climate change. I realize that my beliefs will cause me to be persecuted by certain people who equate this denial to denial of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, I want to be on the side of science, not on the side of snap-judgements and dogmatic adherence to theories that are far from proven.

In science, all theories must withstand rigorous testing. The net effect of this is that we have few ground truths and many theories that have been good enough to withstand every test we've thrown at them. Human-caused global warming should be no exception, but many scientists, and the media at large, are willing to accept it on blind faith.

The climate is an exceptionally complex system, and climate models will be very difficult to either confirm or refute. Nevertheless, every theory (and that's what I'm calling the myriad of climate models: theories) makes specific predictions that can be observed or refuted by testing. While lawmakers around the world want to "fix the situation" by adhering to the Kyoto Treaty, my proposal is that humans should deliberately attempt to alter the climate through increased production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. If the climate models are worth the paper they were written on, they'll be able to accurately predict the global changes that result from our excess production of greenhouse gases.

Some may say that it's irresponsible to deliberately increase our greenhouse gas output. Maybe it will prove to be true, but if so, we'd have to fix the greenhouse gas problem anyways. I feel that the peace-of-mind such an experiment would offer would be worth the effort in conducting it, and the effort of cleaning up any ill effects. At the same time, I fear that if the climate models supporting human global warming are refuted, the debate will be far from over. The supporters of the refuted models will claim that the tests were flawed in some way. The case with dogmatic beliefs (and I feel that human-induced global warming has become that way) is that people will believe in spite of evidence, rather than because of evidence.

Studying earth's climate has profound implications for human colonization of other worlds as well. The idea of terraforming Mars into a habitable world is quite popular in fiction. Could it potentially be done in real life? One possible way is through production of greenhouse gases on Mars, which will warm the planet and cause subsurface water and gases to outgas. While advocates of a "Green and Blue" Mars believe that humans have the power to change Mars for the better, it will be mankind's ability (or inability) to change earth for the worse that will determine how effective our terraforming efforts will be.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A Narrowing Launch Window

In response to a post by Clark Lindsay on the HobbySpace blog, a number of readers are commenting on whether Project Constellation will survive the end of the Bush Administration. My fear is that it probably won't.

At this point, it looks like Ares I and Orion are an unstoppable juggernaut. This is both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing in that NASA will be able to reach earth orbit, be able to reach the space station (and probably do it safer than the shuttle can,) and be able to retain the politically-important shuttle workforce to a great degree. It's a curse in that Ares I and Orion are able to operate without the Ares V, lunar lander, or earth departure stage. Without getting the elements needed for a moon mission started before the next administration enters office, it will be politically easy to cancel the return to the moon.

The only way for NASA to have started developing lunar hardware was for the private sector to develop the earth-orbit hardware in NASA's place. If NASA had offered a prize for Orion in the same vein as COTS, and if NASA had purchased a commercially-available or near-term launch vehicle, such as an Atlas V with a wide-bodied Centaur and/or a wider core, it may have rebuilt its post-shuttle manned spaceflight capability without sacrificing its ability to develop lunar hardware.

It's been pointed out many times before, by voices such as Taylor Dinerman, that Congress is unlikely to end its government-funded manned spaceflight program. My corollary to that is that Congress is equally unlikely to fund flights beyond earth orbit. Come 2009, whether by presidential or Congressional initiative, it's likely that our lunar dreams will be buried in the dust, and Orion will be consigned as a costly and infrequent but reliable means of manned spaceflight. The silver lining to this dark cloud is that the door will now be open for private, free enterprise to carry the lunar return mission on a sustainable schedule.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Rush to Disaster

January 27th marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo I fire. Tomorrow is the 21st anniversary of the Challenger disaster, and Thursday will mark four years since Columbia was lost. Taken together, these losses represent NASA's greatest failings and give us all a reason to think about how we can do things better.

In the aftermath of the three disasters, schedule pressures were cited as major factors in each instance. Management also took a great degree of blame. The message from the investigators is that, regardless of a system's technical limitations, it can be made safe through sound management processes.

Prior to Apollo I, the quest to land a man on the moon "before the decade was out" was speeding ahead full-throttle. If NASA's original schedule had been adhered to, a moon landing could have been accomplished in 1967 or 1968. The problem was that the launch of AS-204 (retroactively named Apollo I) had been delayed from 1966 into February 1967. Even at the time of the fire, the February launch date looked susceptible to further delays. In the end, astronauts Grissom, White & Chaffee died in what was supposed to be a "routine" test of a shoddily-designed spacecraft in a poorly-designed simulation. The aftermath of the accident was a thorough redesign of the Apollo Block II spacecraft. The mission profile that "Apollo I" should have flown was taken by Apollo 7 in October 1968. The delay was 20 months. Had NASA and North American Rockwell used that 20 months to design the capsule and the test procedures correctly, the moon may have been reached without loss of life and still before December 1969.

Schedule pressure was most apparent with the Challenger disaster. The shuttle was falling far short of flight rates that were required to make the vehicle economical (a flight rate that could never have been supported by the hardware in the first place.) The year 1986 had already manifested missions that could have proven disastrous, such as the first shuttle launch from Vandenberg and the deployment of the Galileo probe with the Centaur upper stage. The conditions for disaster had already been set byn the massive schedule slippage and the high expectations that were placed on the shuttle program. The final straw came when mid-level managers rejected arguments from engineers that the O-rings would fail in the freezing weather of Janaury 28, 1986. The flight just couldn't sit on the pad for another day, or so the managers thought. Because they launched the shuttle on that particular delay, the result was a lost crew and a 32-month delay before another shuttle could be launched. The disaster forced a wise and necessary rethink of the national launch strategy. New versions of the Delta, Atlas and Titan were developed in order to launch all payloads that did not rely on the shuttle's unique capabilities. The shuttle program adopted a flight rate that was more consistent with the budget and hardware limitations.

When the Columbia Accident Investigation Board released its final report, it placed what I felt to be an inflated importance on the role of schedule pressure. At the time of Columbia's Janaury 16, 2003 launch, the space station was scheduled to be "US Core Complete" by Feb 2004. This date was very important to NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, because he had gotten the job based on his commitment to avoiding further cost overruns and schedule delays on the space station. The board reasoned that this tight schedule deterred NASA management from redesigning the external tank after a piece of foam hit an SRB during the STS-112 mission. I feel that the schedule was a much smaller factor when compared to NASA's belief, borne out by Boeing's simulations, that falling foam was not a threat to the mission. Foam shedding had been observed throughout the shuttle program and was always felt to be a manageable risk. It was a lesson learned the hard way, with the loss of Columbia's crew. Unlike Challenger, this was not a problem that could be fixed by placing constraints on the launch window. It required substantial redesign of the tank to avoid foam-shedding, and modification of the orbiter to detect damage to the heat shield. It would be another 30 months before the space shuttle flew again, due to the redesign of the external tank. Following the return to flight, it required almost 12 more months to modify the external tank in a way that reduced foam-shedding to acceptable levels. The space station will not be "US Core Complete" until 2008 at the earliest.

We should take many lessons from NASA's disasters. Most importantly, safety should be the main factor in determining when we do things, rather than the fantasy schedules that are political in nature and written by kool-aid drinkers. It's better to take a delay that doesn't kill anybody than to take the bigger delay that inevitably follows a fatal accident. Further, testing and simulation must be well-thought-out and realistic. Managers must never be afraid to ask for more simulations if they're unsure of the mission's success at a critical decision point. Finally, lives lost without some lessons that are applied to future missions are lives wasted. Future manned spaceflight must always remember the sacrifices of Apollo I, Challenger and Columbia. They were sacrifices that needn't have been made, if not for the human tendency to react to disaster instead of anticipating it.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Back to Earth

While everybody's talking about the fearful space developments from China, there's not too much talk about a more hopeful one from India. The Space Capsule Recovery Experiment was a success. This is a major step along the path as India mulls an indigenous manned spaceflight program. If I were up for a wager, I'd say that India will be the fourth nation to put a man in space, and they will do so within ten years.

A Million Little Pieces

Taylor Dinerman takes note in the most recent The Space Review that anti-satellite systems of the future will probably try to avoid creating debris which will harm other satellites. While Mr. Dinerman is fond of talking about wrapping a targeted satellite with an airbag, there are plenty of simpler systems that can neutralize enemy satellites.

In the Russian co-orbital anti-satellite scheme of the 60's and 70's, the ASAT would enter an orbit bringing it close to its target, which would then be destroyed by a blast of shrapnel. While the US and China opted for a kinetic kill scheme which creates lots of debris, the Russian system could be refined into a non-debris-producing anti-satellite system. What if the ASAT had a tank of an opaque spray paint instead of a shrapnel warhead? The ASAT could paint over the target's solar arrays, leading to a slow death. Then the ASAT would be free to engage another target in the same orbit. This idea has been around for over 40 years. Perhaps somebody has thought of an effective counter-measure, which is why we don't hear much about it anymore.

As for the scenario where a country's recon sats are destroyed prior to an enemy attack by air, land or sea, there are plenty of alternatives to the kinetic-kill or co-orbital ASAT. Perhaps the most effective, at least for disabling imagery satellites, is a ground-based laser which would destroy the recon satellite's optics. The laser would be less vulnerable to decoys than a kinetic-kill vehicle, too. After all, you could get multiple laser shots but only one shot with an interceptor. The recon sat example is a good illustration of an ASAT's usefulness, though. Because they orbit lower than GPS or communications satellites, it requires far less velocity for a kinetic-kill vehicle to reach them. The effect on wartime strategy would also be felt immediately.

While these scenarios should not be viewed as advocacy for or against them, it illustrates that warfare on "the high frontier" is not a thing of fiction, that it represents a real military challenge, and that it would be naive to believe that treaties alone can stop this scenario from playing out. The armed forces of the major world powers, especially the United States, rely on space assets to an unprecedented degree. And for the most part, they have been untouchable militarily--until now. We mustn't think that America can maintain this cushy status-quo forever.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Denial vs. the National Space Policy

Recent events have motivated me to comment on the National Space Policy. It must be remembered that my perspectives are mine and mine alone. I do not make policy; I am duty-bound to defend whichever policies are put in place by the nation's leadership.

When the US national space policy was released a few months ago, every self-appointed pundit (including Bill Nye, TV's "Science Guy") came out of the woodwork to condemn it as "George Bush's declaration of war on space." The belief was that the United States would move unilaterally to weaponize space under the current policy. That belief is also a farce, born out of denial of the entire history of space programs across the world.

On this past January 11th, China allegedly conducted a successful test of an anti-satellite missile. The event is a technological breakthough similar to what the US accomplished with its successful ASAT test of 1985. Not long before the Chinese ASAT test, the Pentagon publicly expressed concern about Chinese anti-satellite activities involving lasers. Again, this is similar to another provocative test from the cold war, when the Soviets blinded the Space Shuttle.

Tracing the history of the space age shows that the military was involved even before the first satellites were launched. Further, the armed forces of the major spacefairing nations have always looked at space as "the high frontier" where they could gain a strategic advantage over potential enemies. Ever since the 1950's, nations have examined anti-satellite systems, satellite inspection, orbital bombardment, missile defense, and even outposts on the moon.

To claim that President Bush is "starting a new arms race in space" is a naive and partisan fantasy that flies in the face of over 50 years of history. The arms race in space has always been with us throughout the space age. Its progress has been slow, but it has never stopped. People take alarm at America's actions in this old and ongoing race, but America is at a disadvantage because it allows far more of its activities to become public knowledge than the Russians or Chinese do. That's what living in an open and free society is all about. (The number of dissenters and malcontents is a good barometer of how free a society really is.)

The rate of the space arms race is something that will be decided, based on current and projected events, by America's political and military leadership. While the need for missile defense may have seemed sketchy when the Soviet Union collapsed, it seems far more plausible in the present now that North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, and other baddies are developing both long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. At the same time, American space arms programs can also be used to deter further arms development. In the Dec 2004 issue of Spaceflight, and later in The Space Review, preeminent space historian Dwayne Day argues that the net effect of US ASAT efforts in the 1980's was to deter the Soviets from continuing with their even more elaborate ASAT efforts.

As far as the national space policy is concerned, America definitely needs the flexibility to respond to all threats upon its space assets. While America should not try to be an aggressor in denying space access to peaceful nations, it also shouldn't concede the high frontier to aggressors based on idealistic principles. Nor will America allow itself to be caught asleep on the job; the complacency that culminated in the Pearl Harbor attack must not be repeated in the field of outer space. The United States will have to remain vigilant about the space arms race that has been going on for over 50 years, and come up with a measured response that will ensure its right to access space and protect its assets.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

I Read It For the Article 15's...

Much of the Air Force is talking about the sergeant who faces disciplinary action after she posed for Playboy. It's a weighty question, because it has implications for how much control the armed forces can exercise over its members when they are off duty.

I have a very libertarian perspective on life, and I generally don't believe in punishing people if they're not harming others. However, I believe that members of the armed forces should keep their professional and private lives separate from each other. In this case, the sergeant in question crossed a line and used her position as a noncommissioned officer in the Air Force to gain public exposure and notoriety. In that event, the Air Force has every right to protect its image. At the same time, many members of the Air Force are concerned that the Playboy sergeant will face an extremely stiff sentence in order to "make an example" of her.

At the same time, it's worth considering whether Chair Force Engineer is crossing a similar line. I really have no credibility as an engineer, and using my title may convince certain gullible people into giving my judgements an undeserved degree of respect. Undoubtedly the Air Force probably disapproves of this blog. Then again, they should take comfort in knowing that I will never be able to pose in the buff for a magazine. I'm so hairy that only Field & Stream would be interested in my pictures.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

What doesn't kill us...

...only makes us stronger.

That's my reaction to Doug Stanley's analysis of the Direct Launcher proposal. I'm glad that Dr. Stanley gave his honest assessment of the situation, and I don't believe he's trying to pull a hatchet-job.

As it stands, the "Direct" rocket can't launch the moon mission in two launches. This is because the regeneratively-cooled RS-68 variant doesn't live up to the expectations that Ross Tierney and other "Direct" supporters had for it. At the same time, I don't think that we should give up on Direct. My firm belief is that NASA's budget will not support the development of the Ares I&V boosters. It may not even support the development of a single Ares IV booster (especially in light of the fact that NASA will continue to be funded at FY2006 levels instead of getting a planned increase of ~$500 mil.)

I see as many as five approaches for fixing "Direct."
1) Reduce the size and capabilities of the Orion capsule & lander.
2) Split the mission into three launches instead of two.
3) Use existing SSME's instead of RS-68's, because the shuttles won't be needing them after 2010.
4) See if the Russians can still produce RD-0120's.
5) Shave mass off the SRB's by using filament-wound casings and deleting the parachutes.

I see option 1 as a non-starter. After all, NASA's plan was sold to America as "Apollo on Steroids." If we suddenly took the steroids out, it would be a major letdown to the congress and ultimately the taxpayers who will have to fund it. Still, there are plenty of smart people out there who argue for more austere initial missions and open-cockpit landers.

Using three "Direct" rockets instead of two Ares IV's or one Ares I + one Ares V is not inherently bad. NASA may cringe at the thought of an additional rendezvous in earth orbit, but I see it as an opportunity to decrease the "standing army" costs that are spread over as many launches as can be made in a given year. The cost of adding one or two additional "Direct" launches per year (assuming two lunar missions per year) over the life of NASA's moon efforts might be cheaper than the development and standing army costs associated with the Ares I/V or Ares IV.

How dare we throw out SSME's? Well, I would still argue that the cost of producing and expending SSME's is worth considering in light of development and standing army costs. Besides, at the time of the Shuttle's retirement, there will be several SSME's that are capable of being flown again. The museums might get mad, but the SSME's will be sacrificed for their intended purpose if they are reused for an expendible rocket. That was similar to the plan for Shuttle-C, to use SSME's near the end of their useful lives. Alternatively, a recoverable engine pod could be developed, although that means more development costs and retaining recovery assets that would be used to fish the engine pod out of the ocean.

My favorite option (and the most questionable option) is to get the Russians to start building the RD-0120 again for use on the "Direct" rocket. This was the engine used for the Energia core, and had similar performance to the SSME (think of NASA's expendible SSME or the earlier Space Tramsportation Main Engine.) Of course, "Not Invented Here" comes into play, although the use of Russian engines for the Atlas V has eased those fears to some degree. A more realistic concern is whether the Russians possess the tooling and manufacturing expertise to put this engine back into production. Supposedly the RD-0120 plant is now used for producing consumer goods like baby formula.

The "lighter SRB" option isn't a complete solution for Direct's performance issues, but it's always a smart way of saving money and getting a little more payload to orbit. Most of the issues regarding filament-wound casings for the standard SRB were solved in the 1980's prior to the loss of Challenger. The biggest problem was that the emptied casings weren't as tough as the standard ones when it came to splashing down, and there wasn't a reliable way to determine if there was any delamination between the filaments. The simplest solution is to throw the SRB's away, leave off the mass of the parachutes, and dispense with the mini-Navy that NASA uses to recover the SRB's. Recovery of the boosters has never been better than a break-even proposition anyways.

We shouldn't count out "Direct" yet. An independent analysis of the different options (multiple Atlas launches, variants of Direct, Ares IV, and Ares I + V) should all be examined from the standpoint of total lifecycle costs. The use of multiple Atlas V's is even worse than Direct (from NASA's perspective) in all the regards that NASA has used to disqualify Direct. Still, I consider the use of multiple Atlas V's to represent a real step forward in terms of building a free-market, spacefaring society and an economy of scale.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Resolutions 2007

I've been thinking about what I can do in 2007 to make this year go by smoothly and make myself a better person. I'm making these public for two reasons. One, for the people who don't know me, it might give a sense of where I'm coming from and where I want to be. Two, for the people who do know me, it might encourage them to help me stay on track.

1) Tolerate my mother better
I don't get along with my mother. Then again, nobody in my family does. I don't get to pick my parents but I do have to co-exist with them. I want to eliminate all unnecessary conflict and try to be at peace with the people I have to deal with.

2) Eat healthier
I don't want my family to see me die an agonizing death, like the kind that accompanies cardiovascular disorders or diabetes. I want to eat more chicken and vegetables and pastas, while staying away from candy and red meat when possible.

3) Drink less
Again, this goes along with eating healthier. I can't say that I drink that much to begin with, but beer makes me fat, while harder liquor is just poisoning me slowly.

4) Run more, and complete a marathon
In fall 2002, I set a goal for myself that I would complete a marathon within five years. I was geared up to do it in 2006, gradually extending the distance I ran during the spring and much of the summer. Then I found out that the marathon I was shooting for was on the same weekend as the X-Prize Cup. I chose the cup instead, but this year is different. I no longer feel the Cup is important, because I have decided that I am leaving the aerospace and engineering fields. If there is a conflict this time, the marathon wins out. And I have the end of winter, all of spring, all of summer, and part of fall to train myself for this.

5) Tolerate my job better
About a year ago, I realized that the Air Force (and the government in general) was not the place for me to be. A few months ago I realized that I wasn't cut out to be an engineer, either. Yet I still have over two years left on my commitment to the Air Force as an "engineer." So what am I to do about it? Simple: suck it up and take it like a man. At least I'm not dodging IED's on a daily basis, so I guess it's not that bad. My challenge is to serve honorably and try to hide my utter disillusionment. Hopefully I can be force-shaped when fiscal year 2008 begins; if not, I suck it up again for another year.

6) Find out what makes me tick and what makes me happy
I've spent four years on a degree that I'm no longer passionate about, and I'm about to spend another four years in a career field that I plan on leaving at the first opportunity. It's like I'm back in high school, trying to make decisions about what to do for the rest of my life (because I obviously screwed that one up the first time around.) Back then I didn't listen to my conscience, and I went against everything I knew about my aptitudes and abilities (it didn't help that I needed college and some time thereafter to do a little more soul-searching and maturing.) Hopefully when I have to make my next career choice, I'll do it smarter the second time around. I should definitely do my homework and find out what's entailed in the job. If I screw up the second time around, I don't think I'll get a third chance to make things right.

7) Above all, live for The Lord
Last year, when I accepted that I was reliving Office Space every day, a line from a song in that movie stuck in my head. In the Geto Boys' "Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangsta," the rap group sings "But this gangsta here is a smart one/Started living for The Lord and I'll last." Then it hit me: I was unhappy because I had strayed too far from God. I was working for Caesar (the government) when I should be living (not working, but LIVING life as it was intended to be) for The Lord. I accepted that the lifestyle practiced by Jesus Christ in the Gospels is the blueprint for a happy and productive life. While we are all weak, human and erring, we all have the power to be a personal savior for somebody. I want to dedicate myself to helping the human family and living a life dedicated to the joy that the Lord intended for us to find. At the very least, I can spend my Saturdays helping the downtrodden and the weak to improve their lot in life. I can improve my relationships with people and treat them with the dignity that was intended for us.

This gangsta here will try to be a smart one, and try to make 2007 as good as I can.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

5 + 1 = 4

About six months ago I realized (as many wiser observers had recognized even longer ago) that NASA could never afford to develop two all-new rockets for its return to the moon. Now NASA is slowly coming to the same conclusion by quietly studying the "Ares IV" rocket.

In the alternative plan, two Ares IV rockets would launch the Orion capsule and lander on separate flights to the moon. The two would rendezvous in lunar orbit, separate, carry out their missions, dock again, and either return to earth (capsule) or crash into the moon (lander.) I;m glad that NASA is re-opening the mission mode trade-space, but I hope they will give serious thought to an L1 rendezvous. If a lunar base is to be sustained, an L1 complex is almost a necessity. L1 would require less fuel in the earth departure stage (in the Ares IV case, the 5.5-meter upper stage) but more fuel for the lander.

The Ares IV rocket combines the first stage of the Ares V heavy lifter with the upper stage of the Ares I. While the idea of a single booster with a capability between the Ares I and Ares V makes a lot of fiscal sense, other elements don't add up. Why do we need new 10m tankage when we already have 8.38m tankage? Why develop the essentially-new J-2X when we have the RL-10 and RS-68? Why develop 5-segment boosters when we already have 4-segment boosters? Why create a 5.5m upper stage when Lockheed Martin is willing to build a wide-body Centaur?

Ares IV is a small step in the right direction. Unfortunately, NASA needs a giant leap in its thinking if it seeks to win Congressional funding for a moon mission. Direct Launcher or evolved Atlases would be more elegant and cost-effective solutions for the problem at hand.