Chair Force Engineer

Monday, December 31, 2007

A New Years' Resolution for NASA

The Year 2008 gives NASA a chance to start again with a clean slate and try to get America's space program back on track. The agency should never forget that the Vision for Space Exploration has been a golden opportunity for the United States to assume a dramatic and bold plan for exploring the solar system. It would seem that the last 2 1/2 years have been spent chasing the ESAS rabbit down the rabbit hole. Whether the ESAS rabbit will find the moon and Mars is a point open to much debate.

Within the halls of Congress, the debate has focused not on the moon and beyond, but on the infamous gap between the end of Space Shuttle operations in 2010 and the beginning of Orion operations in 2015. Congress is justifiably angry that American spaceflight will be held hostage by Vladimir "Person of the Year" Putin during that period of time. If NASA wants to see funding for moon missions, it will first have to please Congress by demonstrating that the gap can be successfully shrunk.

If I were Michael Griffin, my resolution for 2008 would be to reduce the gap at all costs, except for crew safety. NASA needs a full-throttle surge to make up for the time that has been lost since January 2004 in fielding the shuttle's replacement.

The fast-track to a shuttle replacement isn't hard to figure out. Orion is too heavy, Orion is too fault-intolerant, and Ares I is the pacing item. The solution is to delay Ares I indefinitely and mate Orion to the existing Delta IV Heavy. Orion can scale down to 4.5 meters in diameter, and the associated mass savings can be used to restore the fault-tolerance that has been taken out of the spacecraft. Perhaps the landing bags can even come back. The Ares I budget can be spent on modest enhancements to Delta IV Heavy that will trigger the Orion abort tower if the booster should fail.

At this point, if NASA switches to Delta IV, the gap could conceivably shrink by 1-3 years. I'm hardly an expert in this field, and my assumption is that Orion will not be ready until 2013 unless the schedule is crashed with a major infusion of cash and personnel. My guess on Orion's schedule is based on the nearly seven years that elapsed between Apollo contract award and the first manned flight on Apollo 7.

Concurrently with NASA's resolution to make a shrunken gap its top priority, I would like to see NASA re-examine some of the assumptions that were made during ESAS. The most blatant of these trades include:
--Is lunar-orbit rendezvous the best method for supporting a permanent base at the lunar south pole? What are the advantages to L1 or L2 rendezvous?
--What is the baseline design for the Altair lander? Should Altair's functions be split between a habitat lander and a crew lander?
--From a science-return standpoint, what is the optimum number of man-days for a lunar mission? How do we balance the science return of that mission with the engineering challenges of supporting an exorbitant number of man-days?
--What is the lowest-lifecycle approach to launching the elements of the lunar transportation system? Standard EELV's? Evolved Atlas V? DIRECT? Ares V? Some combination of all aforementioned launchers?

It is worth noting that ESAS was a 60-day study that glossed over many of the debates that took up to two years to settle during Project Apollo. Is it too much to ask that NASA take an entire year to re-visit the ESAS assumptions, while the agency's development budget is being used to accelerate Orion and mate it to the Delta IV?

It's worth noting that in the space business, we rarely get more than one shot to get things right. I remember reading about the Space Exploration Initiative in my Weekly Reader back when I was starting grammar school. At the time, I had to scratch my head and ask what was happening when they stopped talking about humans on Mars. As an adult, I was initially excited that we would get another chance with the Vision. But now my tune is starting to resemble "It's All Been Done" by Barenaked Ladies.

The year 2008 represents NASA's last shot at getting the Vision right. Drastic changes need to be adopted in order to ease Congress's justified frustration in the short term. Even more deviations from ESAS will likely be required to make the moon and Mars affordable over the long term. I do not wish ill upon Mike Griffin, Doc Horowitz, Doug Stanley, or anybody else associated with ESAS. I want them to succeed, as much as they want to succeed. I merely ask of them to fix the Vision, and make sure it isn't discarded along with the Weekly Readers and the dreams of American schoolchildren.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Resolutions 2008

One of my more provocative postings from 2007 was my New Years' Resolutions. As 2007 draws to a close, it's time I take stock of what I've accomplished this year and set some new goals for the shiny new one.

2007's Running Tally
1) Tolerate my mother better


2) Eat healthier
Accomplished to a degree. I still eat at restaurants way too often, especially when I'm traveling on business. I still need to get rid of my gut, although my weight is still on the high side within the healthy range.

3) Drink less
I think I've kept my beer-drinking ways in moderation, although near the end of the year I had some instances of feeling sick to my stomach after taking 3-4 beers during the course of a Bears game. I will have to lay off for a while during 2008.

4) Run more, and complete a marathon
Accomplished. I began marathon training in July and finished the race in October. My time was under 4:30, and it's about where I expected to be (based off my times in training.) Having accomplished the marathon, I'm going to take up biking instead.

5) Tolerate my job better
Not accomplished. I probably griped just as much during 2007 as I did in 2006. I hit rock-bottom after somebody commented about it during Wingman Day, and it started to affect me. While Tom Hanks said that "griping only goes up" in Saving Private Ryan, the truth is that I'm the lowest man on the totem pole in my organization.

6) Find out what makes me tick and what makes me happy
Not accomplished. But I think that if I ignore my professional development for a while and try to repair by broken Spiritual and Social development, I think the professional happiness will fall into place.

7) Above all, live for The Lord
It took me a while to get this one down, too. There was another lieutenant I used to work with, and I always thought that he was very preachy and judgmental. But the more I think about what he said, the more I realize the wisdom in what he said. Over the last month, I've tried to make a better effort at respecting people and trying to be a better Christian. One can only tell if I can have the moral fiber to keep that up in 2008.

Goals for 2008
1) Develop my musical abilities
I already want to be a karaoke legend, and I've made some progress. But now I want to pick up guitar, and learn how to play that as well. I think the ability to play will make me a better singer, and the ability to sing will make me a better guitarist.

2) Ride a bicycle to work as often as possible.

Let's face it: gas is expensive, and I'm a cheapskate. I don't live too far away from my office, so the idea makes perfect sense. It's also a great way of staying in shape now that I've quit running (to preserve my joints.)

3) Avoid putting people down, and avoid repeating the negative comments I pick up in the office.

Schadenfreude over other people's setbacks will not fix my own failings. One of the things I've noticed about my organization has been a disturbing tendency by some people to talk smack about their co-workers based on professional disagreements. Unfortunately, I've been part of the problem by amplifying the trash-talk when I should be filtering it.

4) Be brave and confident in everything I set my mind to.

I've always been a bit nervous and introverted. It'd finally time that I checked out all that life has to offer. I've never been skiing before, for crying out loud. This year I need to try new things, meet new people, and be certain of my abilities in anything I try.

5) Spend my free time surrounded with people who share my interests and will work to build me up, instead of tearing me down.

I have to face the fact that the people I've thought of as friends really aren't interested in the things I want to do. That doesn't mean I think any less of them; it just means that they're on a different page from me. I need to find people on the same page. Building camaraderie with the people I work with would be a good start.

6) Work for the Lord

While the entire "living for the Lord" resolution from last year didn't work out so well, I did get a shot in the arm from an old family friend who explained to me that when we go out into the world and perform our jobs, we represent Our Maker. My shoddy and unmotivated work is not a credit to the Lord who gave me a good brain to begin with. I need to fix that for 2008. Regardless of my feelings towards my organization, my job, the Air Force, and Big Government, I have to do the best with what I have been given for as long as my commitment lasts.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Among the Stars

I would be remiss if I did not extend my deepest condolences to astronaut Daniel Tani and his family after losing his mother Rose last week. By all accounts, Rose Tani lived a remarkable life. How many interned Japanese-Americans could have dreamed, during the dark days of World War II, of having an astronaut son? She will be dearly missed, although her will and her vitality will always be reflected in the family she leaves behind on this earth.

I had the pleasure of meeting astronaut Daniel Tani nearly ten years ago. He is truly a remarkable man of great accomplishment, and lives up to the public image that has been crafted over time for America's astronauts. He was extremely personable and willing to share from his knowledge and experience with the school audience he was speaking in front of. The strength of his character is undoubtedly the imprint of Rose Tani. I consider myself fortunate that the first shuttle launch I saw in person was Dan Tani's first mission on STS-108.

One can only imagine how an astronaut copes with death from the isolation of the space station, surrounded by the cold blackness of space and separated from loved ones on earth. It reminds one of how the Space Station crew must have felt when Columbia's crew was lost on February 1, 2003 (as chronicled in Too Far From Home by Chris Jones.)

In this bittersweet holiday season, please remember the Tani family in your hearts and prayers. And from her celestial perch, Rose Tani will continue to watch over her son as he completes his most important mission of all.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Apollo Eight

At dawn's first light, the rocket lies,
Erect on the launchpad that dwarfs its size,
Awaiting the command to rise.

With crew aboard and countdown done,
Her engines roar in unison,
Man's greatest venture has begun.

The booster thrusts her high and clear,
Up through the stratosphere,
As anxious millions hold their fear.

Now beyond the canopy of life,
The craft cuts voidness like a knife,
To leave behind a world of strife.

Born of man's proud boast and claim,
Apollo Eight her christened name,
To carry freedom's flag to fame.

Toward a lunar orb she sped,
With unknown dangers still ahead,
Her valiant crew by duty led.

Close to the moon's terrain they race,
A nearly perfect path they trace,
With hurried care the view embrace.

From their slim grip on lunar girth,
To mark the eve of His great birth,
The Flight Commander spoke to earth.

A prayer for peace was his first thought,
Then from the book of Genesis he sought,
To comfort a world in trouble fraught.

Then back to mother earth they sped,
A small oasis in space so dead,
Outside this cloister they had tread.

The dream of centuries was now cast,
A few kilometers in space so vast,
Accumulated wisdom triumphs at last.

Ahead lie greater thrusts than this small shaft,
Discoveries that depend on plans we draft,
And men and quality of craft.

But mostly men...

--Major Michael A. Titre, USAF (ret.)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Oh my God! Altair killed Beau Bridges!

NASA has officially announced that its Lunar Surface Access Module will be named "Altair," an Arabic word for "the flying one."

It should be noted that during early 2006, the name "Artemis" was rumored for the LSAM, while "Altair" was rumored for the Crew Exploration Vehicle. As it played out, the CEV became "Orion," while the "Artemis" name was bid good riddance. My personal preference was that the LSAM would be called "Orion Lunar Module," as Apollo's lander was the "Apollo Lunar Module."

Readers of James Michener's delightful Space will recall that "Altair" was the name of the Apollo command module which brought John Pope back home from the darkness and cold of deep space. As long as the "Altair" lander doesn't kill Beau Bridges, I really don't care what the name is.

A more substantive question than the name is the design of the lander. Right now, NASA does not have a baseline design for Altair. The 47 metric ton mass target appears to be difficult, if not impossible, to reach with any design. It's worth noting that the design of Apollo's lander changed greatly between contract award in November 1962, and first flight in January 1968. But I think the trade space is worth a re-examination.

"Crasher" stages have seen a lot of attention from NASA as of late, but I do not think they set a wise precedent for sustained lunar exploration. If reusable landers ferry astronauts between the lunar surface and Lagrange points, they shouldn't be dropping the bulk of their engines and tankage on every mission.

Previous NASA studies for Altair have depicted a large habitat that would be left on the moon, plus a spartan ascent cabin that would return astronauts to lunar orbit. It might be wise to take this a step further, with a separate habitat lander and crew lander. Robert Zubrin proposed a similar architecture in The Case for Mars, launching a fully-fueled crew lander and a long-duration habitat lander on two launches of a heavy-lift rocket. Such an architecture could be adapted for a future Mars mission.

Since the ESAS report was rolled out in Summer 2005, the lander has been the least-defined element of the plan. Having a name for the lander is nice, but the hard work of defining and designing the lander is barely getting started. We can only hope that the effort will receive the funding needed to make it real.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Requiem for a Vision

Dennis Wingo has a somewhat lengthy but very good piece in which he dissects the fall of the Vision for Space Exploration. I'm not going to declare the Vision dead and nail up the coffin, but it's clear that the plan is in serious trouble.

The odds of getting Ares I and Orion operational by 2015 (at the earliest) are so low, that Rep. Dave Weldon is sponsoring legislation to keep the shuttle flying. Let's think about that for a second. In 1986, and again in 2003, there have been calls to ground the space shuttle permanently. It's just too dangerous, many pundits claimed. And if routine space access is your goal, then the shuttle IS too dangerous, not to mention expensive. But for Rep. Weldon and other members of Congress, the shuttle represents emplyment for thousands of people in his home district. For the American astronauts, who are willing to take great risks to fulfill the dream of flying in space, the shuttle is the only ticket in town. For American policymakers, the shuttle's continued existance frees us from being politically beholden to the Russians for manned space access.

I disagree with Mr. Wingo (whom I've met in person, and spoken with briefly) on some of the similarities between the Vision for Space Exploration and the Space Exploration Initiative. In the case of SEI, the plan was dead, for all practical purposes, within a year of its announcement on July 20, 1989. The sticker shock from the $450 bil price tag (an unreliable figure, but one that would be spread over thirty years) was enough ammounition for the plan's political opponents. The SEI was also undercut by a lack of support from NASA's administrator, Richard Truly.

With the Vision for Space Exploration, the plan largely flew under the radar for over a year. Sean O'Keefe's NASA commissioned some promising architecture studies from the contractors, but they were not acted upon. Michael Griffin took over as NASA administrator and decisively rolled out an architecture of his own in Summer 2005. The plan, as originally presented in the media, seemed to have the support of the American people. After all, we were told that it would fit within the current funding wedge reserved for the Shuttle and ISS. Even the questions of national priorities, brought to the fore by Hurricane Katrina, couldn't slow the Vision down initially. In spite of the problems that have arisen since the announcement of the ESAS architecture, Michael Griffin can at least take credit for coming up with a plan that has out-lasted its predecessor.

The problem with the Vision is that it's being run in a business-as-usual fashion by the same agency that gave us the Shuttle and ISS. NASA still hasn't gotten past the fact that it will never see Apollo-era budgets. NASA still hasn't accepted that its business is space exploration, not job creation. The agency is still trapped in the shuttle-era, big-government mindset that the government has to design the spacecraft, and the government has to provide transportation to low earth orbit. NASA needs to shift the paradigm and view space launch as a commercial service that can be provided today by commercial vendors. NASA's finite resources should not be squandered in reinventing the mousetrap and coming up with better earth-to-orbit launchers.

On January 14, 2004, President Bush asked NASA to complete the ISS and retire the shuttle by 2010, fly a new manned spacecraft between 2011 and 2014, return to the moon by 2020, and land humans on Mars during the decade after that. The agency is doing its best to complete the ISS by 2010 (although the recent STS-122 delay casts doubt on that goal.) NASA is planning on retiring the shuttle as scheduled, but members of Congress have other ideas.

The goal the agency is focusing on, and the one for which they are taking the most Congressional criticism, is establishing a manned spaceflight capability between 2011 and 2014. It should be noted that Congress has not given NASA the money that was originally budgeted for this goal. But with that being said, NASA has chosen a wasteful and expensive approach that has little (if any) chance of being completed by the originally scheduled date. There's a perfectly-capable launcher available in the form of Delta IV Heavy, but NASA continues (for now) down the route of Ares I and retention of shuttle-program jobs.

The Vision for Space Exploration stands as a monument to government largesse in the face of fiscal austerity. As an agency, NASA still hasn't grasped the need to assume a smaller footprint and contract out more of its work. If Ares I should falter, and America go without a manned spaceflight capability, it will be NASA's inability to evolve that will have doomed it.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Stay of Executrion for the Albatross

Rep. Dave Weldon is set to introduce legislation that will keep the Space Shuttle in service until 2015. Over the past week or so, I've been sensing that this option has been gathering political momentum. The rationale is Congress' justified concern that America will have to rely on Russia for space access for an entire five years.

We didn't have to get to this point. When President Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration, he wanted the vehicle now called Orion to fly sometime between 2011 and 2014. We're now talking about a 2015 operational capability at the earliest. The O'Keefe Administration at NASA spent the first nine months of the Vision paying its contractors to study different architectures for going to the moon. Then Sean O'Keefe quit, and Michael Griffin took over. Those initial architecture studies were discarded, and the 60-day ESAS study was commissioned. Hence, the first 18 months of the Vision were largely squandered. This represented 18 months that could have been used towards getting Orion ready by 2011.

Since then, the decisions made during ESAS have continued to incur schedule inflation. The development of the Ares I (including the five-segment SRB, J-2X engine, and all-new upper stage) has added to the cost, complexity and schedule for replicating the shuttle's ability to put humans in orbit.

Replacing the shuttle on NASA's limited budget has always been a tall order. The agency is expected to find the development dollars to fund Orion and Ares while still committing approximately $7 bil per year to the Shuttle and Space Station programs. Without a major funding wedge for Orion development, there will always be a lag in capability between the shuttle retirement and Orion debut. Unfortunately, this wedge will not open up until the shuttle's retirement.

Under the current plan, an extension of shuttle operations without a corresponding budget increase will only add to Orion's development time. Without the anticipated funding wedge that will open upon the shuttle's retirement, Orion development will stall.

There is one way to crash the schedule, but it involves dropping Ares I (at least until the shuttle is retired,) switching to Delta IV Heavy, and using the cost savings to accelerate the Orion program. Even still, it's unlikely that Orion will be ready before summer 2013. After all, it took roughly seven years for the Apollo CSM to progress from contract award to first manned mission. I would think that Orion development would take the same amount of time from its Summer 2006 contract award.

The Albatross that is the Space Shuttle continues to weigh down the necks of NASA budgeteers while serving as a mark of shame. Its continued operations represent a threat to the funding of a replacement vehicle. At the same time, that brilliant white bird will remain America's only means of reaching space for the foreseeable future.