Chair Force Engineer

Monday, October 29, 2007

Downsize This, NASA!

At this juncture in Project Constellation, it's pretty clear that NASA did not pick its current shuttle-heritage architecture because of its performance benefits, and it did not pick it due to low development or operational costs. Instead, the Ares I & V promise to MAXIMIZE operational costs, owing to their inheriting of the "standing army" that was raised to support Apollo and was sustained throughout the Shuttle years.

By the same token, it's clear that the non-use of EELV's (Delta & Atlas) for Project Constellation had nothing to do with performance or economics. Delta and Atlas have already sunk their development costs, and an economy of scale could be achieved if the EELV plant in Decatur AL was cranking out the ~40 cores per year as it was designed to do. The economic case for the EELV's was made on the basis of 1) high flight rates, and 2) low fixed costs with a reduced labor force.

If NASA had adopted an EELV-based architecture, it would represent a shift from a workforce employed by NASA and United Space Alliance, to a workforce employed by United Launch Alliance. And what would become of the Shuttle Standing Army under an EELV-based architecture? While some of them could still work on Project Constellation (particularly the astronaut trainers and the life support technicians,) many of them would likely have to work on another job.

Congress has mandated upon NASA that the agency retain the Shuttle Standing Army to the fullest extent. It would certainly work against the Congressional incumbents, particularly those in Central Florida, if there was an exodus of jobs and the accompanying "brain drain" following the shuttle's retirement.

At the same time, I do not believe that the government has the duty to act as a jobs program, and I do not believe the American taxpayers should fund a standing army when a leaner force can achieve the same result. It may sound heartless, but I could care less if the Shuttle Standing Army was cut loose. The standing army is made up of talented and dedicated individuals who should have no trouble finding other work once the shuttle is finished. Such is the nature of the defense business. Defense contractors and civil servants must always remember that they serve the taxpayer, and there's no obligation for their continued employment after their service is over. The Air Force is letting 40,000 of its own people go during the force-shaping program, but neither Congress nor the American people seem to be concerned over the loss of jobs.

At the same time, an EELV-based architecture need not cut the shuttle workforce loose. While stock EELV's (Atlas V with SRB's, or Delta IV Heavy) are perfectly capable of launching Orion into earth orbit, a growth variant of the EELV's could launch out of LC-39, make use of facilities like the shuttle's Vehicle Assembly Building, and keep the standing army employed. ULA has promoted concepts such as Atlas V Phase 3, which would require a new launch site. One idea is to cluster five Phase 2 cores, while another would use a shuttle-derived core of 27-feet diameter. Doing so would put LC-39 back in business and retain the jobs of most who worked there.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Running Against the Wind

This morning I realized a goal I set five years ago: I finally completed a marathon. The day was beautiful from the perspective of temperature, but the notorious Albuquerque winds definitely acted up. The run took place from downtown along the Bosque, paralelling the Rio Grande River before turning east on Paseo Del Norte.

I went into the race with three goals, representing fairly low expectations. I wanted to finish at or under the target time I expected based on my training, I wanted to finish the race without walking, and I wanted to complete the race without using any port-a-johns. In that regard, I was successful in meeting all of those goals.

The most disappointing development was how I prematurely hit my performance wall. Most marathoners hit it around the 20 mile mark; mine occurred around the 12 mile mark. The story is told in my times for the two halves of the race. The first half was run around 8:24 per mile; the second half was run at 11:45 per mile. I would describe myself as trotting, rather than running, during the second half.

My only explanation for my poor second-half performance is that I didn't eat very much during the days leading up to the race. I was too afraid of having to stop and use the port-a-john during the race, as distance runs make my stomach upset. Still, I can be proud that my only walking was done while drinking at the water stations (which I used at every mile starting at Mile 17.)

All-in-all, I'm pretty happy about the way I did. With this race behind me and the goal accomplished, I'm going to preserve my joints and take up bicycling as my preferred form of exercise.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Death Race 2007

I can't believe I did it, but I put my money down to run a marathon next weekend.

I don't feel very good about this race. My body hurts every time I run. I was supposed to be running three days a week for the last fifteen weeks, but I have not been as disciplined as I should have been in my training. I haven't been motivated to cross-train as aggressively as I should. I missed a lot of workouts when I was traveling for business and pleasure.

I've promised myself that next Sunday's race will be my last. After saying that I completed a marathon, there's nothing more I can prove. The degradation of my running times that I've observed over the course of this year is evidence enough that there is nothing to be gained if I continue to run, aside from stress fractures and busted knees. God willing, I will at least be able to finish this marathon with dignity before I hang it up for good.

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Shiny New Talon?

For the fighter jocks of the world, the T-38 Talon represents a gateway between the world of being an undergrad flight student and being "Maverick" of "Top Gun" fame. Since the early 60's, it's been a reliable training aircraft that introduced its students to supersonic flight.

Due to attrition and fatigue issues, the Air Force must be considering what's next after the T-38. There's been some talk that the South Korean T-50 trainer will be adapted for US service, but that's a long ways off, and it's not really necessary.

The question in my mind is whether Northrop Grumman has preserved the industrial base required to produce more Talons. The airplane has been out of production since 1972, so this is no trivial matter. Then again, the computer-aided manufacturing revolution that has swept the industry since that time will make it possible to restart the assembly line much faster than the older tooling methods would have allowed.

One area of improvement for the T-38 is the engines. Many T-38's have recently undergone an intake modification which improves the plane's fuel economy, but prevents it from going supersonic in level flight. The T-38 is still flying with the creaky old J85's that were designed in the 50's. One possible upgrade area would be the engines. Utilizing propulsion advances that have been made for UAV and Very Light Jet engines, it might be possible to redesign the T-38 in a way that will restore its supersonic capabilities while still maintaining the range improvements that recently came about after the intake mods. New engines would probably necessitate a change to the T-38's engine bay, intakes, and perhaps a widening of the aft fuselage. As a more drastic measure, a new T-38 would use a single F404 turbofan, much like its brethren, the F-20 Tigershark. The single-engine design would really move, but the operating costs would likely be high, and the single-engine layout isn't desirable for flight instruction for safety concerns.

One characteristic of the T-38 is that it's pretty simple for being a supersonic aircraft. But the Air Force may want to revise its training syllabus to incorporate more advanced maneuvering. If so, the new T-38 could adopt the wing and shark nose of the F-20 and modified F-5E/F. The shark nose and leading-edge-root-extensions would make the plane much more maneuverable, as are the leading edge flaps which were left off the T-38 for simplicity.

The old Talon airframe has plenty of life left in the basic design, but more new-build airframes will be needed in the coming years. This will be a very important acquisition for the Air Force, and it's important that the specs for a T-38 replacement be well-thought-out so the service can get the correct planes for its needs.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The End of the Sputnik Era

On October 4th, space enthusiasts the world over will be commemorating the launch of Sputnik 1 as the first object ever put into orbit by human hands and minds. Mark Wade has a good piece on the zeitgeist of that era.

The short history of the early space race is that the United States was lagging behind the Russians. In America, rivalries between the branches of the armed forces, and mistrust of the German engineers who had surrendered in the waning days of World War II, squandered the strategic advantage that America had gained from Von Braun's defection. America really didn't take space very seriously until the Soviets launched Sputnik and made America realize how vulnerable it could be to an attack from space.

On the other hand, the Soviets were intensely focused on the use of rocketry for reconnaissance and nuclear strike. The two most powerful engineers in the Soviet program, Korolev & Glushko, were able to put aside their personal animosity (dating back to the gulags in the 1930's) and worked together professionally to create the R-7 launch vehicle. While the R-7 was a failure as an ICBM, it became the basis for the most enduring family of space launchers to have been built by man.

For the past fifty years, we have been living in the Sputnik Era of spaceflight. It has been characterized by nationalist and military justifications for the most elaborate and impressive of space endeavours. The most elaborate, most impressive feat of the Sputnik Era was the Apollo expeditions to the moon. They captured our imaginations, laid the groundwork for human settlement of worlds beyond the earth, and continue to be the meterstick against which we measure human space achievements.

Unfortunately, publicly-driven displays of nationalism such as Apollo have shown themselves to be unsustainable over the long-term. NASA tried to address this with the space shuttle. While the shuttle has been an impressive display of technological advancement, it's that same level of technological complexity which prohibits it from flying at high rates that would make it economical.

In my view, the Sputnik Era started on October 4, 1957, and ended on October 4, 2004. On that fateful day, SpaceShipOne completed its third successful flight to space, winning the X-Prize in the process. We are now transitioning to the "SpaceShipOne" era of manned spaceflight. Commerce will replace nationalism as a justification for human space endeavours. The signs of this transition are everywhere: the Space Station's retirement date has been set even before it's been finished, the shuttle will be retired in three years, Russian efforts to replace the Soyuz spacecraft have run out of funding, and NASA's own lunar return plan faces major fiscal challenges once the next president is sworn in.

Looking back, I cast a wistful look back at an idealized portrait of the Eisenhower Era, bolstered by stories from my parents and films like American Graffiti. Having grown up with the benefits of satellite communications, it's hard for me to imagine the world before Sputnik. Having grown up in the era of "Gorby," Yeltsin & "Pootie," it's hard for me to imagine the fear that people lived under when the Soviets answered to Stalin and Khrushchev. The closest modern analog to Sputnik is the rude awakening we received when China demonstrated its anti-satellite capabilities.

I'll be celebrating the anniversary at dinner with friends from my engineering school days. We'll toast the genius and drive of Korolev & Glushko, and pray that America will never grow as petty and complacent as we did in the years leading up to Sputnik.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


NASA Spaceflight has an excellent overview of recent developments with the Orion capsule and Ares I launcher. Some are quite positive, while others are worrysome and demand the attention of NASA's best minds.

The Positive
--Ares I performance has improved. Perigee of the initial orbit has increased by 19 nautical miles (from -30 to -11,) and the insertion orbit has increased from 55 to 70 nautical miles.
--J-2XD performance is increasing to above 452 seconds, vs. the predicted 448 seconds. This is a bit confusing, as I had previously read that the interim J-2XD was being dropped, in favor of moving straight to the final J-2X configuration. Of all the current aspects in Project Constellation, J-2X development appears to be the most successful.
--The boost protective cover which connects the escape tower to Orion has assumed a bullet-like shape, as previously reported by Flight International. This improves the aerodynamics of the Ares I stack and reduced drag losses (increasing payload to orbit.)

The Negative
--Ares I has insufficient margins to lift the lunar-capable version of Orion without removing certain types of fault tolerance.
--The Orion design team has adopted the "Zero Baseline Vehicle" approach, which starts with a minimal amount of redundancy, then adds some redundancy back in as Ares I performance will permit.
--While the airbag trade study is not complete, there's a very good chance that airbags could be dropped in the middle of the current design cycle.

I like a lot of the effort that has been made towards getting the Ares-Orion system to work, especially in regards to the J-2X. However, I think that NASA has put itself in this bind because of poor systems engineering practices that were employed from the outset. Every spacecraft is designed to carry certain amounts of reserve mass at different points in its design evolution. While Ares I was capable of meeting the performance goals based on the mass targets, it quickly became clear that NASA had skimpy margins for Orion, which were quickly outgrown once the design for Orion became more detailed.

NASA's current choice is to meet the mass targets by removing safety, or by removing capabilities. Sadly, I feel the agency is making the dangerous decision to remove safety features before removing capabilities. Landing bags are probably the most glaring safety feature that may be thrown out, because they may be needed if the capsule has to abort over dry land. I would rather that NASA reduce the crew size or on-orbit lifetime for Orion before they take out the redundancy. The agency's wounded "safety culture" still has a long way to go before it's acceptable to our astronauts and to the taxpayers who make the missions possible.