Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

It Can Happen Here

After reading Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, I am starting to see how his arguments apply to the business of manned spaceflight and space launch. America's space program was born from the Cold War defense establishment, and for the foreseeable future it will remain a "fascist" space program.

Jonah Goldberg points out that most "fascist" societies share common traits: the mobilization of society under "the moral equivalent of war," the "coordination" of government and corporate power, and most importantly, "the religion of the state." All three traits are systemic to America's space program.

The glory days of NASA covered the period from Project Mercury in 1959 through the end of Project Apollo in 1975. As Tom Wolfe wrote in The Right Stuff, every manned spaceflight represented a round of "single combat" with the Soviets. It was the moral equivalent of war. Project Apollo served to mobilize American industry in a way that was surpassed only by the Manhattan Project.

Through Project Apollo, America dealt a severe blow to the Soviet Union in the greater Cold War. But in order to beat the Soviets, America had to become like the Soviet Union and beat them at their own game. Apollo was a crash program with no commercial application or opportunity for private-sector investment. Its goals were largely centered on national pride, or the religion of the state. After appeasing the gods of statolatry, Apollo was allowed to wither and die.

Fascism continues into the shuttle era. In order to justify the enormous expense of the space shuttle borne by the American taxpayers, and to get the flight rate up to levels which would make the vehicle economical, the shuttle was used to launch commercial payloads during its early years. The thought of a government-funded, government-operated vehicle launching commercial payloads should be anathema to freedom-loving Americans. But the shuttle served its need as "the moral equivalent of war." After all, the Russian efforts to duplicate the shuttle capabilities with Energia-Buran helped to bankrupt the Soviet Union. And the shuttle & space station continue to serve as symbols of national pride, promoting the religion of the state.

As the shuttle program winds down, Fascism will survive well into Project Constellation and possibly make its way to the moon again. The Ares-Orion stack is a prime example of "coordination" between the government and an oligarchy of large corporations. Every surviving aerospace giant gets a piece from the pork barrel. The worst offender is ATK, who is being paid hand-over-fist to produce an all-new solid booster that is the cornerstone of a horribly-suboptimized crew launcher. The line separating NASA and ATK grows fuzzier on a daily basis, as figures like Scott Horowitz continue to pass back-and-forth through the revolving door. Even Orbital Sciences gets a big handout in the form of a COTS prize to develop what's supposed to be a commercial launcher, Taurus II. And the official "state religion" within NASA is the dogma of Mike Griffin's "infallible, genius plan" for getting us back to the moon.

I'm not saying that these examples of fascism within the space program are all bad. For instance, the government subsidies of Atlas & Delta, and the eventual merger of their production, were necessary evils for ensuring DoD's continued space access. But unless there is a clear national-defense rationale, it's really hard to justify the continuing fascism within America's space efforts.

The writing is on the wall for the fascist space program. The news coming from Project Constellation is a continuing stream of schedule slips and budget shortfalls. The patience of Congress will not be infinite. At the same time, firms like SpaceX and Bigelow continue to develop not only commercial space vehicles, but commercial applications for said space vehicles. In time, the American space program will transition from fascism to freedom. And while freedom might not get us to the moon in the course of a decade, it can sustain itself much longer than six landings.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Monday, April 28, 2008

Separation Anxiety

Jim Oberg has a great article on NASA Spaceflight regarding the technical problems that could have imperiled the crews of Soyuz TMA-10 and Soyuz TMA-11. It appears that consecutive Soyuz flights have suffered from off-nominal separation between the descent and propulsion modules, and off-nominal entries ensued.

An obvious course of action for NASA is to oversee the mishap review process and ensure that proper corrective actions are taken. Soyuz TMA-13 should not be launched until NASA is satisfied that the practices and systems which led to the problems on TMA-10 & 11 have been corrected.

A thornier situation is the fate of Soyuz TMA-12, currently docked to ISS. If the problems are truly common to all Soyuz spacecraft, can we expect the same dangerous reentry anomalies when TMA-12 returns to earth? Unless the Russians can conclusively demonstrate that TMA-12 is safe, NASA should plan on returning cosmonauts Volkov & Kononenko aboard the space shuttle during STS-126 this October or November. With all that is currently known, a re-entry aboard TMA-12 could jeopardize the crew. Then again, NASA has no obligation to save the bacon of cosmonauts who have been consigned to a risky re-entry by the Russian government.

Also slated to return aboard Soyuz TMA-12 is Richard "Lord British" Garriott, the computer game guru and son of astronaut Owen Garriott. As a paying Space-Adventurer, will Garriott balk at the prospect of coming home aboard TMA-12? Will the power of his dollars be able to get the Russians to reconsider their safety and quality-control practices?

The responsible thing would be to bump Garriott to TMA-14, and launch the rehabbed TMA-13 with a two-man crew. TMA-13 would replace the potentially-flawed TMA-12 at the ISS. TMA-12's crew would come home on the Space Shuttle. TMA-12 would be allowed to re-enter unmanned. This might be the only way to avoid a potential space disaster. While TMA-10 and 11 lucked out, it's foolish to rely on luck indefinitely.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Yet Another Reason to Mind the Gap

Details are slowly starting to emerge about the harrowing ballistic re-entry of Soyuz TMA-11 this past weekend. There is speculation that the propulsion module failed to cleanly separate, resulting in a nose-first reentry. The result must have resulted in a very high pucker-factor for the cosmonaut, astronaut and space-adventurer involved (I hate the terms "space tourist" and "spaceflight participant.")

If the speculation is true, Soyuz TMA-11 suffered a failure similar to that on Soyuz 5. The risk to the crew would be exceptionally high, and their only saving grace is the fact that the descent module is made of alloys that are more heat-resistant than the materials which attach the propulsion module to the backside of the capsule. Additionally, the Soyuz capsule is natually stable and assumes the proper attitude for re-entry once the propulsion module is shed. One has to ask whether the Orion spacecraft will be able to survive a similar problem, at least on earth orbital missions (lunar reentries will be so fast that a crew would probably perish under similar circumstances.)

If the capsule truly did begin its re-entry in a hatch-forward attitude, the crew would immediately realize it and would be able to confirm the report. But it would seem that the crew is being muzzled for the time-being. It would appear that "glasnost" is a lesson that Russia's space agency is having a hard time learning.

Regardless of whether the re-entry was hatch-first, the problems on Soyuz TMA-11 serve as a reminder that Soyuz is far from perfect. Despite 41 years of flight history, there will always be some faults. We can always do better. And if we can get a better spacecraft into service, we should implement it as soon as feasible.

For that reason, does it make any sense that we will be waiting until at least 2015 before Orion is ready as America's next spacecraft? Five years of exclusive Soyuz access to space is a sobering thought indeed. We'd better hope that SpaceX comes to the rescue before we resort to that.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

An Airman's Last Full Measure

Today we honored the life of Staff Sergeant Travis Griffin, the second Kirtland Airman to have given his life in the past month during the course of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

I did not know SSgt Griffin, but I felt that attending the memorial was a means to start learning about a great Airman and a great person whom I should have known. His selflessness was exhibited by the fact that he had served three prior tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan prior to his final deployment, scheduled to last 365 days. He always wanted to ride in the lead vehicle in the patrol; when he was recuperating from the wound which resulted in his first Purple Heart, his only regret was not being able to patrol with his men.

Staff Sergeant Griffin's personal motto was "Don't sweat the small stuff." His corollary to the motto was "Everything is small stuff." He never lost his perspective on the big picture; he never lost his sense of humor; and most importantly, he never lost his intensity for training the future security forces in both the US Air Force and Iraqi Police.

Tonight we pray for the Lord's strength and blessings to be with SSgt Griffin's widow and son. May their comfort come in knowing that SSgt Griffin had no regrets about his service, gave every ounce of his soul for his nation, and made a lasting impact on the world up to his final moments on this earth.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Downsizing workforces for Bigger Rockets

NASA expects to lose 8,600 jobs after the Shuttle is retired in 2010. Kennedy Space Center will feel the brunt of the impact, losing 6,400 employees. An initial assessment would make this development seem devastating. But it might not be as much of a disaster as we might think.

The current Space Shuttle System relies on an orbiter, Space Shuttle Main Engines, external tank, and solid rocket boosters. If Project Constellation comes to fruition, the orbiter will be replaced by Orion and Altair spacecraft; Space Shuttle Main Engines will be replaced with RS-68 and J-2X engines; the external tank will be replaced by the Ares I upper stage, Earth Departure Stage, and the mammoth Ares V core; the solid rocket booster workforce will remain largely unchanged.

The Constellation architecture has more elements to it, but the number of personnel needed at the Cape to support them decreases. It cannot be forgotten that the orbiters and their main engines are maintenance-hogs that are extremely manpower-intensive. But for expendable launchers like Ares (if you neglect the SRB's,) a larger fraction of the total workforce is devoted to production of the expendable components.

The NASA estimates of job losses only cover the projections from now through Fiscal Year 2014. During that frame of time, production of external tanks will come to a halt; Orion capsules will be produced at a pace that will support two missions per year; Ares I upper stages and J-2X engines will be produced at a similar rate; the shuttle orbiters will head off to museums. NASA faces the potential of a damaging brain-drain in the period between the final shuttle flight and the ramp-up of the Ares V program.

Fear not, fans of big government space programs, earmarks, and pork-barrel spending. The jobs will be coming back to Kennedy Space Center, Michoud and elsewhere. Ares V will require NASA's employment numbers to ramp up to levels similar to the shuttle program. The problem is that Ares V won't ramp up until the second half of the next decade, and neither Ares V nor Altair will fly until 2018 at the earliest. NASA's challenge will be ramping up its workforce to support Ares V and Altair (or finding ways of keeping people on their payroll and keeping their skills sharp during the gap between Shuttle retirement and Ares V ramp-up.)

Many of the job losses will likely be offset through retirements (both scheduled retirements and early buy-outs.) The aerospace industry as a whole is older than many other industries. Younger engineers are increasingly drawn into other industries because aerospace careers have a dimmer outlook than, say, careers in software or consumer electronics. It makes for an easier downsizing process, but the "graybeards" and their institutional knowledge will be sorely missed.

Another safety concern arises when discussing layoffs in the shuttle program. As it draws to a close, how do you keep skilled people from jumping ship? Obviously, you want the best people working on the shuttle to ensure that we don't get anybody killed in another accident. But if they see no future for themselves and if they view it as career suicide, where's the incentive for them to stay aboard?

Now that we've taken a glance at the workforce issues facing Project Constellation, we have to ask if things would be any better under a competing architecture. If NASA had adopted DIRECT instead, I think the situation would play out thusly:
--A fairly constant employment level would be maintained at Michoud. The transition from Shuttle external tanks to Jupiter cores would be seamless. As Jupiter upper stages went into production, there would be a spike in employment numbers, but nowhere as high as the Constellation scenario where Ares cores, upper stages, and EDS's are rolling off the line at the same time.
--Kennedy Space Center employment numbers would be somewhat less than under Constellation. There would still be a loss of personnel after the orbiter retirement. The number of unique stages (Jupiter upper stage & core vs. Ares core, upper stage & EDS) is lower and the stages are smaller, so less personnel would likely be needed.

The difference in employment strategies between DIRECT and Constellation is stark. DIRECT would retain a higher fraction of the shuttle workforce immediately after orbiter retirement, but would not add too many jobs over the long haul. Constellation gets hammered with job losses early on, but then brings a lot of people aboard once the post-shuttle gap is closed.