Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

TeamVision (Part 2 of 5)

Yesterday I shared my thoughts on the TeamVision approach to the Vision for Space Exploration. I decided that I would devote one post to each of the "eras" projected by the TeamVision report. Today's post relates to the second of five development spirals.

After access to the ISS has been assured through use of the Block I Orion CSM and Delta & Atlas rockets, the next challenge is to extend human presence to the moon. TeamVision does not envision taking "one giant leap" from the ISS to the lunar surface. Instead, a series of three precursor events must take place:
--Establishment of a communications node (a single satellite will probably do) in a halo orbit around the Earth-Moon L2 point (on the far side of the moon.)
--Robotic "Lunar Surface Vehicles" that would deploy rovers and determine which lunar landing sites are most worthy, from a scientific and a feasibility standpoint, of a human presence.
--A human mission to lunar orbit and back to test and validate the Block II Orion CSM (akin to Apollo 8.)

The lynchpin of Spiral 2 is a heavy-lift rocket known as Jupiter I. This rocket looks an awful lot like Direct Launcher. The only difference is that Jupiter I has an upper stage, the Integrated Common Evolved Stage. This is a 5m diameter rocket stage that should be easy to develop, using the Delta IV tooling and the existing RL-10B-2 engine. Jupiter I will be able to place 80 mT in low earth orbit, and it will launch the "Era 2" missions.

The Block II Orion CSM is an evolution of the ISS-only Orion that was developed in Spral 1. The difference is that the CM will have systems like parachutes and heat shields that are beefed up for the lunar mission, while the SM will probably employ higher-energy propellants (liquid hydrogen or methane as a fuel, and liquid oxygen as the oxidizer.) TeamVision acknowledges that NASA may decide on hypergolic propellants for the SM, in which case the Block II SM will be a lengthened version of the Block I SM. The SM engine, like its Apollo predecessor, would be used for lunar orbit insertion and trans-earth injection (I believe that NASA's current architecture uses either the earth departure stage or the LM descent stage for lunar orbit insertion.)

Interestingly, TeamVision proposes a heavy-lift rocket for placing robot rovers on the moon. With the added mass margins afforded by the Jupiter I rocket, the robot's designers can build an extremely capable rover. Even the Soviet Lunokhod rover and its lander only got a Proton rocket. There's a lot of potential for a lunar rover that could prepare a base camp for human inhabitants, or even serve as a manned rover after humans land on the moon.

So far, TeamVision is looking pretty good with its proposal for "Era 2," establishing the infrastructure for a manned lunar base and testing the lunar-capable Orion on a faster schedule and lower budget than the one NASA would use for the same task. Spiral 2 will be more expensive and more challenging than Spiral 1, but still doesn't represent anywhere near the level of challenge that went into Project Apollo (including both Saturn rockets and the unmanned precursors like Surveyor.) However, I see major storms over the horizon for TeamVision, starting with Era 3: the human lunar landing. Stay posted!

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

TeamVision (Part 1)

I'm currently reading through the TeamVision proposal for streamlining the Vision for Space Exploration. It's a fascinating read that encompasses the work done by LockMart's human-rated Atlas team and the Direct Launcher team, but goes much further. It starts with the fundamental observation that an EELV-based VSE overlaps with the capabilities of the shuttle, while a shuttle-derived VSE overlaps with the capabilities of the EELV's. By splitting VSE into five development spirals (referred to as "eras" by the report's author,) the Framework CT software package can be used to create an optimal combination of shuttle-derived and EELV-derived elements to fulfill the Vision for Space Exploration.

The first era, "Manned Exploration Transition," covers the period from today through the end of the ISS program. The objective is to resupply and inhabit the space station until its retirement. To that end, TeamVision recommends use of Delta and Atlas rockets and an optimized Block I Orion spacecraft.

Unlike LockMart, TeamVision isn't afraid to fly their man-rated Atlas with SRB's. The rationale is that, while we value human crews more than we value even the most expensive satellites, we still take every precaution to ensure mission success for our EELV launches. Based on the statistical records of the Delta and Atlas families (plus a 95% reliable escape rocket on the capsule,) it's assumed that loss-of-crew accidents will take place on less than 2% of all launches. TeamVision dismisses the need for desigining launchers to "man-rated" specifications, as the "man-rated" shuttle's failure rate is little better than the expected loss-of-crew rate for the Atlas V (with Delta IV only being used for cargo missions.)

While NASA's current Orion design weighs in at 25 metric tons, the Block I Command & Service Module in the TeamVision proposal is just over 17 mT, including escape system. The reason is that the Service Module is sized for orbital insertion and de-orbit from ISS rather than lunar missions. The rationale here is that it's premature for NASA to determine the SM requirements this early in the design process, before its lunar objectives have been totally fleshed out. Again, I would agree. The Apollo SM was actually oversized, based on a need to lift off directly from the lunar surface (back when NASA was debating Direct Descent/Ascent vs. Earth Orbit Rendezvous.) This time, we'll need to stretch the Block I SM to the Block II configuration, but only after we get into the second development "era." TeamVision does agree with NASA and LockMart on their re-use of the shuttle's OMS engines for the Orion SM engine.

So far, I'm really liking what TeamVision has to say. Their ideas are very logical. My biggest disappointment thus far has been some missing details on the cost of infrastructure for their proposed launchers and spacecraft. For example, a manned Atlas V will require crew access to the capsule atop the rocket; then again, this was already addressed in LockMart's studies (such as a crew elevator added to the existing Atlas launch tower.)

Competition between all-EELV-derived and all-Shuttle-derived approaches might result in a better system, but we live in a world where the government will only fund one approach. The hope of TeamVision, a hope that I share, is that we'll end up funding the optimal combination of shuttle-derived and EELV-derived elements to make the Vision succeed.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Getting out of the Business

Does NASA still need to participate in the manned spaceflight business?

NASA was formed in 1958, a unique child of the cold war. The United States had been caught unprepared by the October 1957 launch of Sputnik. While the US had the potential to co-opt the Soviets for first satellite in space, the US space program was divided and flailing. The Army, Navy and Air Force had maintained separate space programs. The nation was frightened by the implications of Sputnik, and the government believed that only a unified space effort (NASA) could ensure American technical dominance on "the high frontier" of space.

In those earlier years, the Soviets clearly had an edge in the field of launch vehicles (the story was completely reversed in the field of ballistic missiles, but that truth was suppressed in the political climate of 1960.) NASA's primary success came from establishing American dominace in the fields of manned spaceflight (arguably beginning with the Gemini 4 mission) and launch vehicles. One could argue that NASA had fulfilled its mission and reason for existence with the first moon landing in 1969.

In the post-Apollo era, NASA struggled to find direction. The shuttle program was conceived for political reasons that make little sense, even today. The space station, as proposed by President Reagan in 1984, was primarily motivated by a desire to achieve parity with the Soviet space station program and bolster unity with America's cold war allies. When the cold war ended, NASA's human spaceflight program was re-cast as a bridge between former enemies; hence, we got the shuttle-Mir program and the ISS.

Are the taxpayers being well-served by their government-administered, socialist space program? A majority of people probably don't think that the $7B spent on human spaceflight by NASA every year isn't being well-spent on a dangerous shuttle and a space station that doesn't do enough science to justify the investment.

What if there was another way to access space? What if some real-life Dagny Taggart came up with a "John Galt Spaceline" to open the space frontier to the common man? The way ahead might not be too far off. Sir Richard Branson and others are temptingly close to offering suborbital spaceflights. Some enterprising figure like Elon Musk or George French might launch a manned, orbital mission by the end of this decade. Robert Bigelow is pushing ahead with a realistic plan to build a space hotel, and even has the audacity to talk of building a lunar base.

"Space for all" used to be a fantasy. Now it's more like a waking dream, and it will shortly be a reality. Between 2010 and 2014 there will be a gap where NASA has no manned spaceflight capability and a space station of questionable value; at the same time, the private sector might have an orbital manned spacecraft and a space hotel. If the private sector has the ability to surpass NASA, why do we even bother paying NASA to launch men into space? With each passing day, it appears that the money being spent on NASA's lunar return plans would be better spent on COTS and other programs which encourage private-sector spaceflight.

A socialist space program like NASA sometimes buys us faster schedules (like getting to the moon by 1969,) at the cost of great expenditures. NASA was a necessity during the cold war, when it became necessary to match the Soviets in a "war by other means." Now that the cold war is over, NASA has been reduced to a doddering relic. Even with a new and exciting mission like returning to the moon, there's little hope that NASA will be able to meet its budget and schedule targets. The private sector will take even longer than NASA to reach the moon, but it will be assured of reaching the moon once there is a market for the moon.

The launch of the first private orbital spacecraft will be the first nail in the coffin for NASA's manned spaceflight program, as it should be. Socialist space programs should be a thing of the past. NASA will have to focus on basic aeronautical research (as it did in the old NACA days) and space sciences, including unmanned planetary probes. Spaceflight will no longer be the realm of government-appointed demigods (including the occasional homicidal astronaut.) It will be open to an ever-expanding mass of people who want to go into space not for some lofty ideal of science, but to pursue the self-interests ingrained in the human spirit.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Path of the DynaSoar

Jon Goff has two good posts (here and here) about the difficulties that went into designing the Space Shuttle, the impossibility of building a fully-reusable shuttle during the 70's, and a possible way ahead.

I have long shared a similar belief. The group that sent Apollo to the moon must have felt very confident in their abilities, but they stretched too far in designing a spacecraft as long as a 737, with a design goal of flying into space every two weeks. If they had attempted building a smaller, reusable spaceplane before proceeding with the space shuttle, they'd have learned some lessons on how to do it. They'd probably go into the shuttle development with lowered expectations for the shuttle, and design the shuttle accordingly.

Specifically, I think the X-20 DynaSoar represented a painful missed opportunity. I came to this belief shortly after Columbia disintegrated, motivated by my admiration of the X-20's hot structure TPS. The metallic TPS and heat-absorbing structure of the DynaSoar would have likely been more robust than the shuttle's tile-on-aluminum construction, at the expense of a much heavier vehicle.

The X-20 DynaSoar went through many changes over its lifetime, but it appeared to have found direction prior to the December 1963 cancellation. Its original billing as a space bomber and recon platform doomed it in the eyes of defense secretary Robert McNamara, who felt that Manned Orbiting Laboratory was a more prudent use of defense dollars. In a military sense, he was justified. But X-20 was still important, in terms of establishing technologies and operational procedures for a reusable manned spaceplane. While X-20 achieved much knowledge that was applied to the shuttle, there was so much more to be learned if X-20 had proceeded with its planned 1967 launch.

I don't like playing "what if" with history, as there are too many variables to truly know how history would have proceeded had a different choice been made. I would say that the following would have been likely outcomes if DynaSoar had been built and flown:
--The shuttle would have been designed for a lower flight rate, with more realistic turnaround times
--The shuttle would not have been designed for large Air Force payloads, and may not have gotten Air Force support at all
--The shuttle would have probably been built with a hot structure and metallic TPS
--Upon seeing the difficulties of operating a reusable spaceplane, NASA may have opted to continue with an Apollo Applications Program utilizing the Saturn IB, Apollo CSM, and small space stations / mission modules instead of pursuing the shuttle

DynaSoar represented the first development spiral of a real reusable spacecraft. Subsequent spirals could have brought us farther down the path to a true RLV, through such steps as:
--Enlarging the DynaSoar glider to carry the engine and propellants for orbital insertion and de-orbit
--Replacement of the SRB's on the Titan booster with liquid-fueled, flyback boosters
--A further enlargement of the glider to include a larger crew and a useful payload
--Development of an all-reusable system with at least one flyback booster (staging around Mach 6) and a spaceplane that could fly all the way to orbit with a useful payload and return safely to earth.

I think most engineers agree that a true RLV was out of reach during the 1970's when the shuttle was designed. It's probably within reach now, but we need to work our way up to that point. Spiral development was the answer then, and it's still the answer today. The problem in the early 70's was a lack of development money. Today, we can find the money if the market sees a need for an RLV. We're caught in a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma: we need an RLV to open space for commerce, but the market doesn't currently exist to justify spending on an RLV. But a first step has to be the development of a reliable manned spaceplane that can be launched on an expendible rocket and returned to flight in a safe manner.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Born Under the Sign of Capricorn

Dwayne Day expresses his thoughts about the upcoming movie Capricorn Two at The Space Review. The idea has some promise, but I have little faith that Hollywood would get it right.

I own the original Capricorn One on DVD and I share most of Dr. Day's observations. I loved the chase scene between the biplane and the two helicopters. I thought Telly Savalas gave the most inspired performance in the movie. Most importantly, I appreciated the irony of O.J. Simpson being on the receiving end of the murder.

There are plenty of avenues that the director can take with Capricorn Two. We live in an era similar to the one in which Capricorn One was released. The national attitude towards its government is cynical and suspicious, and it would be foolish for the director to downplay this in the final movie.

Then again, important changes since 1978 also need to be captured. I like the idea of replacing the "intrepid reporter" with a blogger, especially given the growth of "do-it-yourself journalism" and the decline of print and broadcast media. Also, a Mars mission made sense in the aftermath of Apollo's successes, but a faked lunar return mission is more relevant to our times. I'd also add commentary about the need to maintain the charade in order to maintain jobs at The Cape, and how the charade is necessary because we're less capable of going back to the moon today than we were in 1969. After all, my generation has seen the space program defined by two disasters instead of a highly-visible achievement like the moon landing.

Plenty of cameos are also in order. Sam Watterston, who played one of the astronauts in the original before his defining role in TV's "Law & Order," should prosecute the villains in Capricorn Two. Christopher Walken should play the biplane pilot, because Christopher Walken is awesome, and because he (like Telly Savalas) played a James Bond villain in the past.

While I have hope that a loose remake of Capricorn One could be an excellent movie, I'm not holding my breath.


Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Dream Isn't Over

Every once in a while, Hollywood is able to give us a positive and uplifting movie that makes us believe, once again, in the power of our dreams. The Astronaut Farmer is just that movie. It will open nationwide on February 17, and I give my strongest recommendation to anybody who's thinking about seeing it.

The Astronaut Farmer is a simple tale about a man who attempts to live his dream of spaceflight by building his own Mercury-Atlas and enlisting his family to help him fly it. The acting is top-notch, especially the performance given by Billy Bob "Bad Santa" Thornton. Directed and written by the Polish brothers, the movie has a washed-out look that hearkens back to an era of simplicity and innocence. They've created a fantasy that doesn't promise realism, but gives audiences a believable world where strength of will can overcome any physical barrier.

How do I evaluate a movie like The Astronaut Farmer? Do I give it high marks based on its ability to make me suspend disbelief? Do I judge it based on its ability to make a jaded man such as myself to believe in dreams again? On both counts, it succeeds marvelously. It reinfoces the values that I hold dearly, including the love of family, resistance to overbearing government, and belief in our power to make our dreams into reality.

On February 20, 1962, John Glenn lifted off on a mission that would captivate the nation. Forty-five years later, we have a movie that tries to recall those maudlin days gone by. The Astronaut Farmer is a beautiful fantasy for people of all ages to enjoy.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Wider SRB's Are Better

As a consequence of adopting the Ares I design, NASA has to build a taller servicing tower. Ironically, a rocket with a smaller payload and smaller crew than the shuttle will require a taller servicing structure. The Ares I will exceed 300 feet tall, being dwarfed only by the Saturn V and N1 in terms of the tallest rockets built to date.

The long, narrow nature of Ares I makes its critics jittery about possible stability problems. They liken it to balancing a pencil on your palm The solution, in my view, is to make the rocket wider and shorter.

You may have heard the expression, "The shuttle SRB was designed by a horse's ass." The proponents of this phrase are referring to the railroad tunnels which dictated the SRB's maximum diameter, which is 16.7 feet at its widest, and the fact that the width of a horse, in an indirect sense, dictated the rail gauges. Because NASA is sticking with the casing size for the shuttle, the Ares I will fall under the same width constraint.

I maintain that the 5-segment SRB will be so different from the 4-segment SRB that it's essentially an all-new rocket. If NASA and ATK are going to spend the money on an all-new SRB, why not design it correctly this time? Why not cast the propellant as a single, monolithic grain instead of a series of segments? Why not barge the single-segment SRB's from south Florida to the Cape, and avoid the diameter constraint? The idea was tossed about during the late 60's, but this time there is no concern about barging the motors to Vandenberg.

Assuming that NASA were to order a 5.5 meter diameter SRB (to match the upper stage,) it could get away with an SRB that's just over 24m tall. The current Ares I first stage is 53m tall, and I'm modeling it as a 3.71 m diameter cylinder. It's a rough approximation, but the adoption of a 5.5 m SRB would shave almost 29m (95 feet) off the Ares I's height. That would bring Ares I from 309 feet tall to 214 feet tall, which isn't much taller than the shuttle (184 feet.)

Now let's assume that NASA ditched the 5.5 m upper stage (the S-IV redux, as I've pointed out) and went with a 6.6 m upper stage (a more literal redux of the S-IVB.) The SRB would be widened to match the upper stage diameter. The result would look a lot like the Saturn INT-05, which had similar capabilities to the current Ares I design and only stood 141 feet tall.

Adopting the shuttle SRB might have sounded like a good idea at the time, but when it's been thought through, it creates a lot of challenges that need not have been faced if another solution was picked. When it comes to modifying the Shuttle SRB, added girth is proving to be far better than added length.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

AFRL Shrugged

The lab has experienced a rash of retirements and departures over the past few months. We've lost a lot of the people I worked with, people who made it possible for me to get my job done. In their absence, few (if any) people have been hired to replace them. For the most part, we've asked existing personnel to work harder and cover for the people we have lost. It's getting harder to get things done around here. We've gone beyond the point of "doing more with less." AFRL is now "doing less with less."

It reminds me of Atlas Shrugged, where society begins to collapse after the people who form the pillars of society (predominantly the capitalists) start to vanish mysteriously. In Ayn Rand's magnum opus, there is a good reason behind the disappearances. I wish that the same could be said about AFRL's personnel problems, but that's not the case.

The world of Atlas Shrugged has a mysterious detroyer who is involved in the disappearances. In the Air Force's case, there is no mystery behind the destroyer's identity. The destroyers are the F-22, the F-35, and all of the other expensive (and unneeded) weapons systems that are being purchased at the expense of personnel.

When I leave the Air Force, I wonder if the people I worked with will make the same complaints about "doing less with less." Frankly, I never thought that I had much to offer the Air Force, and hopefully my co-workers will be able to adapt quickly to my absence. I will undoubtedly be torn between my desire to pursue self-interest (which, for me, lies outside the Air Force and outside engineering,) or to continue bearing the burden of supporting my co-workers. In this case, I'll listen to Ayn Rand and pursue self-interest.


Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Danger of Diameters?

When NASA announced the initial specs for the Ares I rocket in late summer 2005, I was a bit perplexed by the 5.5 meter diameter of the Ares I upper stage. My cynical reaction was that they wanted to make the Orion capsule too wide to fit on the Delta IV, which is 5 meters wide. But that idea was quickly refuted when NASA shrank the Orion diameter to 5 meters while keeping Ares I at 5.5m.

My thoughts then turned to the Saturn I's S-IV stage. In some ways, the Ares I upper stage is similar, albeit much longer, especially due to the use of a single J-2 (like on the later S-IVB.) The use of six RL-10's on the S-IV was an idea that I feel should have been probed further by NASA for the Ares rockets, in order to eliminate the cost of J-2X development. The Ares I upper stage is looking even more like an S-IV or S-IVB, due to the recent change to a common propellant bulkhead.

Then I noticed that Ares I's upper stage had the same diameter as proposed Liquid Rocket Boosters for the shuttle, which were projected during the mid-80's. My assumption is that NASA's Michoud facility has the tooling for 5.5 meter diameter tankage.

I'm under the impression that there's a lot of neat tooling at the Michoud plant. For years we were told that "those NASA idiots destroyed the tooling for the Saturn V," only to find out recently that Michoud still has the tooling to build the 10m tankage that was used on the first and second stages of the Saturn V. I don't know what program would have paid for the 5.5 meter tooling, but apparently it exists. Perhaps they're reusing the jigs and such from the S-IV after all.

On the topic of rocket manufacuring facilities, I do see problems on the horizon. One big question is where NASA plans on building the Ares i and Ares V, and I haven't yet seen the details to ease my concerns.

For the Saturn 1B and Saturn V, four different facilities were employed to build four different rocket stages. The S-IB was built by Chrysler (I enjoy the thought that my car's manufacturer built rockets back in the good old days.) The S-IC was built by Boeing at NASA's Michoud plant (now operated by LockMart and used for building the Shuttle ET.) The S-II was built by North American Aviation in the government-owned factory at Seal Beach, CA (I believe this plant is now used by ULA for the Delta II.) Finally, the S-IVB was built by Douglas Aircraft at the Huntington Beach, CA plant. For the Ares I and Ares V, does NASA have a plan for spreading out the construction, or does it plan to do everything at Michoud?

I see challenges ahead if NASA plans on doing everything at Michoud--not because the flight rate is too high (only 2x Ares I + 2x Ares V are envisioned per year,) but because the variety of tankage is a challenge from a manufacturing point-of-view. The Michoud plant will have to crank out two 5.5m tanks, two 10m tanks, and two 8.38m tanks (reusing the Shuttle ET tooling for the Earth Departure Stage.) It should also be remembered that the 42m height of the S-IC was dictated by the ceiling height of the Michoud plant, and that costly mods to the plant would be necessary to grow any longer. I haven't seen the published numbers for the Ares V first stage, but it appears to be almost 60m long based on the published artwork! I've never seen this question asked, but I have no clue how NASA intends to build the Ares V. Perhaps they'll build it horizontally and never turn it vertically while in the building.

NASA may quickly get a rude lesson in the difficulties of large-scale manufacturing. Dreaming of a rocket is a challenge, demonstrating its feasibility is a challenge, and drafting it is a challenge. But the hardest challenge may very well be the transformation of an engineering drawing into real hardware. Even if a design is technically feasible, the question of manufacturability is left open.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Only in the Movies

With all of the bad press that's been following the astronaut corps lately, I guess it's a good thing that young children no longer admire astronatus like they used to. It seems like the only astronauts worthy of admiration these days are the ones created by Hollywood.

It doesn't help that NASA doesn't pick the most emotionally-balanced people to fly in space. After all, most astronauts are military pilots. In my experience, the military pilot stereotype has proven to be remarkably true: the majority of the ones I have met have proven to be cocky, hot-headed, self-absorbed Maverick-wannabes.

In hindsight, perhaps President Eisenhower was wrong to insist on exclusively choosing test pilots for Project Mercury, setting a dangerous precedent that would pose many challenges for the space program. The NASA public relations people have worked very hard over the years to promote their image of the astronaut as being everything Americans should aspire to. The veneer didn't really begin to peel off until Tom Wolfe wrote The Right Stuff in 1979.

Spaceflight will always dictate that we have a certain number of pilot-astronauts; NASA will have to be careful in ensuring that they get "Goose" instead of either "Maverick" or "Iceman." The agency should also try to do a better job in looking outside the military talent pool to find qualified civilians from the engineering, medical and science communities. The agency has too many "Mavericks" as it is; they need to do a better job finding more astronauts like Charles Farmer.

Monday, February 05, 2007


When members of the US Air Force want to buy computers for business use, they're not allowed to buy them directly from the vendor. In fact, they're not even allowed to buy them from the GSA schedule. Instead, Air Force personnel are forced to buy through AFway, which is probably the worst way of buying computers that has ever been conceived.

Here's how AFway works:
1) The person who holds your unit's Government Purchase Card gets permission to access the AFway website.
2) The GPC holder will navigate through a series of clunky and decidedly un-friendly menus to input the specs you want for your computer.
3) The AFway website spells out a list of computers that match your description; however, none of them are from the vendors you trust, and they all are more expensive than what you'd pay if you just bought the damned computer directly from the vendor.
4) Your order takes several days to be approved by six different people.
5) A month or two later, your new computer arrives.

Sounds really stupid, time-consuming, and wasteful, right? That's because it is! Of course, I'm certain that some dipshit probably got a big fat promotion for dreaming up this nightmarish service.

The Air Force would be best served if they disposed of the overhead associated with the AFway website, allowed their airmen to pick the computers THEY want from the vendors THEY choose, and handled the approval at the wing level. Granted, GPC purchases have to be competitively sourced, but if there's no selection criteria there can be no cries that the competition was a farce. Trusting "the little guy" to do the right thing--it's a simple idea that "Caesar" will never understand.