Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

COTS Parts

In today's The Space Review, Jeff Foust gives an excellent accounting of the COTS program thus far. While it has the potential to give birth to a true commercial market for manned orbital spaceflight, the execution has been uneven.

Some good commentary on COTS can also be found from "Rocket Man" at the "RocketsAndSuch" blog here, here, here, and here. It's definitely worth a read, even if you're not fond of his demonizing of "Emperor" Griffin.

Rocket Man has a good point in noting that NASA is spending COTS money on new rockets that essentially duplicate what we already have. Falcon IX is similar to the under-utilized Atlas V and Delta IV in their single-core versions. Taurus II is a more economical replacement for the Delta II, which will likely be retired by 2012 unless new orders come along. Could COTS move along faster if all of the funds were being spent on capsules instead of rockets? It's not always possible to crash the schedule by throwing more money at the problem, but I suspect that both Dragon and Cygnus capsules could be accelerated to some degree if the funding was present.

NASA's current strategy for COTS D is quite schizophrenic, as Mr. Foust points out. The capability isn't currently funded, even though it will sorely be needed after the shuttle retires in 2010. But let's assume that a manned Dragon flies by 2012. It will only be needed for another three years once Orion comes online in 2015. And Orion will be out of the ISS picture when the US abandons ISS in 2017. Does any of this make sense? COTS D appears to compete with Orion for a market that is very small to begin with. But COTS D only applies to Dragon, since the Cygnus spacecraft bus is probably too small to support a useful manned capsule for the COTS D mission (especially when Taurus II is the booster.)

The most enduring part of Michael Griffin's legacy is likely to be the COTS program, which is currently stimulating two teams attempting to resupply the space station. Eventually COTS may lead to a commercial manned spaceflight program. The opening of the orbital frontier to NewSpace will have a far more enduring legacy than any fiscally-unsustainable push to put humans on the moon by 2020 and establish a base. At the same time, space observers should have justified reservations about whether this effort is likely to succeed.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Getting a Good Buzz

When you look at the "NASA vs. DIRECT" arguments, they typically boil down to the following:

NASA: Trust us when we say that DIRECT will never work. We're f**king NASA, bitches!
DIRECT: Nuh-uh. You're fudging the numbers. It's because you're in bed with ATK, aren't you?

At this point it's clear that Mike Griffin's NASA will not accept anything other than the current strategy, insisting on an Apollo-sized rocket in spite of not having an Apollo-sized budget. The proponents of the DIRECT proposal approached NASA from a position of weakness, outside the agency itself. It appeared that there wouldn't be an independent and unbiased authority to arbitrate between the two sides in the debate. But now Buzz Aldrin wants a say in the matter. (Hat tip to Clark Lindsey)

Within the space business and also from an outsider's perspective, few space commentators and visionaries enjoy the level of respect that Buzz Aldrin possesses. In addition to being the second man on the moon, he has gone on to espouse a clear vision for the future of manned spaceflight in both his technical proposals and the science fiction he has written. When Columbia was lost and when North Korea launched its unsuccessful ICBM, Buzz Aldrin was the first guy the cable news networks turned to for an interview. While other retired astronauts have failed at their attempts to be administrators and rocket designers, Buzz Aldrin stays relevant through his keen analysis of the problems at hand and his common-sense technical approaches for solving them.

Buzz Aldrin is most interested in the choice of rockets for going back to the moon. But the smart place to start is a through examination of the mission requirements. Mike Griffin's NASA decided, for reasons never fully explained, that four astronauts would spend seven days on the lunar surface (for a total of 28 man-days.) This has driven the mission architecture towards a rocket that's bigger than Saturn V and threatening to outgrow the existing infrastructure. What if Buzz Aldrin looked at something like a three-astronaut mission, with two astronauts spending fourteen man-days (seven per astronaut) on the lunar surface? Such a reduction in the scope of the mission would greatly ease the requirements on the launch vehicle.

It's unclear what will happen to the results of Buzz Aldrin's analysis of alternatives, but it's clear that they will not earn so much as a second glance from Mike Griffin. My suspicion is that Buzz Aldrin is preparing himself to advise the next NASA administrator, and perhaps the next president himself.

Supporters of DIRECT might take heart in knowing that Buzz Aldrin is not currently pleased with the status quo. But if his past proposals are any indication (see here and here,) he's not totally sold on DIRECT either. At the same time, Buzz Aldrin's mindset favors shorter development times and smaller development budgets than NASA has currently baselined. These are qualities that many DIRECT supporters will rally around, even if their preferred strategy isn't chosen. While there is no guarantee of which option Buzz Aldrin's panel will support, there's little reason to hope that it will be favorable towards the current Ares I and Ares V.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Wedge Issue

It has been argued that America needs Project Constellation to fend off attempts by China to monopolize the moon. While it will be important for America to hang on to its own corner of the lunar surface in the event that foreign powers try to claim it, there are serious reasons to doubt that the specific plan laid out in Project Constellation will be sustainable enough for America to retain any lunar real-estate.

Project Apollo has been summed up as "flags and footprints" by many space enthusiasts. NASA came, it saw, and it abandoned. There was neither funding nor political will to sustain a presence on the moon or develop the hardware which would be required for a permanent lunar presence. We will have to examine "Apollo on Steroids" to determine whether the same political and economic factors will doom this effort to becoming "flags and footprints" as well.

For the past 27 years, NASA has succeeded in keeping Americans in space by obtaining the funding to keep the shuttle program alive. It's a sound assumption to believe that inflation-adjusted levels of shuttle spending can be sustained, because America's leaders believe that 1) America should ahve some type of manned spaceflight capability, and 2) laying off the shuttle personnel will be political suicide. At the same time, it's hard to imagine NASA getting any funding increases for manned spaceflight beyond an adjustment for inflation. The political will to do so can't be conjured up unless America enters into an over moon race with another spacefaring superpower. Even still, such will cannot be sustained after said race comes to a comclusion.

It stands to reason that NASA should conduct Project Constellation in such a way that the operational costs per year do not exceed the yearly costs of the Shuttle and ISS programs in constant-year dollars. Unfortunately, I'm skeptical that the current Constellation architecture can fit within the shuttle funding wedge. Even if the program is limited to two lunar missions per year (two Ares 5/6 launches and two Ares I launches,) the size of the enlarged "standing army" and the cost of the expended hardware will probably outpace shuttle spending.

NASA will always have the option to grow its share of the pie if it can't fit within the current funding wedge. If the private sector is involved early in the game, it will bring private dollars in to enlarge and sustain the effort. If international partners join it, it can also help the Constellation effort at the expense of added oversight by additional nations.

The current Constellation architecture is not well-suited for either foreign partnership or private investment. Constellation has been designed around preserving America's industrial base and making use of American facilities, with the noted exception of the J-2X nozzle (being designed & built by Volvo, utilizing their experience from the Vulcain 2 engine.) It's also hard to imagine a system that is designed, owned and operated by the government being open to private funding anytime soon.

I've been skeptical the Project Constellation will receive full funding, but I don't think that a Constellation-based moon landing is out of the question. The real political challenge will be sustaining the effort after we've gotten there. That was the failure of Apollo, and NASA is currently on its way towards reliving history.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Perhaps not the best analogy

The chief prosecutor for war crimes trials at Guantanamo compares the process to the Space Shuttle. He's trying to argue that the trials are events that seem extraordinary now, but will soon become commonplace and unremarkable.

But is that what most people think of when they hear the phrase "Space Shuttle." No way! They think of a hopelessly-complex albatross that has a significant risk of blowing up or disintegrating under intense heat and stress. Every Space Shuttle mission should be seen as a remarkable achievement of thousands of people who must do their jobs perfectly in order to get the crew back safely.

I guess the point of this little rant is that it's prudent to use the space shuttle analogy sparingly and wisely. Unless you intend to talk about risky ventures.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Picken' on the Feds

Oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens is making waves by turning over a new leaf in a bold fashion. He's proposing an alternative energy plan which, among other things, would build more wind turbines to generate electricity. In turn, this would free up natural gas to replace petroleum in automobiles.

In general, I see much to like with the basics of the Pickens Plan. But I have to ask how we can implement such an ambitious undertaking. Elected leaders and government employees in a position of influence have a responsibility to set the example for Americans to follow. Alternative energy should be no exception.

Every year, government agencies purchase thousands of fleet vehicles. What would be the impact of guaranteeing a market for natural gas cars by mandating that a fraction of new government vehicles run on natural gas? What if every Defense Department and Department of Energy installation had a natural gas fueling station? It would certainly be an impressive start for the Pickens Plan.

But let's go one step further. Why not supplement the electrical needs of DoD and DoE installations through wind turbines? Or allow private wind-farms on stretches of federal land that are suited for the purpose?

When it comes to alternative energy, the United States has a long ways to go until it achieves its energy independence from the nations that breed terrorism, and from despots & mafiosos. If the government practiced what it preached, it would be a bold step towards this goal.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Hurry Up and Wait

NASA has released the schedule for the final ten space shuttle missions, claiming that the program will wrap up with the final mission in May-June 2010. But let's think about this for a second. The current plan counts on launching five missions in 2008 (three down, two to go) and five in 2009. This will be a tall feat to accomplish with just three orbiters. It's even harder when one considers all of the challenges the shuttle workforce must overcome to put each massively-complex machine into orbit. Add to that the Congressional pressure to fly the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the space station.

What does it all add up to? A gut feeling that we'll be wrapping up the shuttle program in FY11 instead of FY10. Unless NASA insists on a hard cutoff at the end of FY10 that would ground all unflown missions. Hopefully the schedule pressures will not get the best of the shuttle team, particularly at a time when working on the shuttle program is perceived to be a step below working for Project Constellation.

Ticket to the Moon

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, has provocatively declared that an eventual flight around the moon would cost $80 million. I assume he means $80 million per seat, which is four times the rate of an ISS trip on a Russian Soyuz.

Mr. Coppinger complains that passengers in the cicrumlunar "Dragon" will be cramped. They'll need a habitation module and an earth departure stage, or so he claims. While SpaceX's Dragon capsule can carry up to seven people, it's likely that some seats would be removed for the lunar voyage to reduce mass and/or provide more habitable volume. It is likely that a circumlunar version of F9 Heavy would need a restartable upper stage to perform the mission, unless the current second stage can restart, and if it has enough propellant left over once the capsule has achieved orbit.

The plan to launch a Dragon around the moon using a Falcon IX heavy has a lot of merit. Unfortunately, I'm skeptical whether Falcon IX Heavy is capable of the 27 ton payloads that are promised. That's similar in performance to the postulated Atlas V Heavy. Unfortunately, Falcon IX has less energetic engines on both stages compared to Atlas V. The gas-generator Merlin has a vacuum Isp around 309 seconds, while the staged-combustion RD-180 has an Isp of 331. The upper stage comparison is between the kerosene-burning Merlin and the hydrogen-burning RL-10A-4A; there's no contest betweenthe two upper-stages performance-wise. Until a Falcon IX flies, it's hard to say whether it will live up to expectations.

Still, Elon Musk's announcement should serve as testing the waters on whether there's a commercial demand for lunar exploration. While the lunar trip might only appeal to eccentric billionaires at first, it's the first step towards an entire lunar exploration industry.

EDIT: After re-reading the Rob Coppinger piece, it appears that the quoted $80 mil figure is for the entire mission, and all seven seats will be utilized. Such a boast does not pass the sniff test. But a four-crew mission with each ticket costing $80 mil seems to be a more credible approach.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Stranger Than Fiction

I recently read Houston, You Have a Problem, the autobiography of Danny Deger. This review of the novella (96 pages when printed) is based on two assumptions:
1) The author is the Danny Deger described in the text, a real person, and
2) The text is an accurate description of real events

With both of those caveats, I will add that the story would be interesting even if it was a total fabrication. If it were a movie, it would be equal parts Top Gun, Office Space, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

The narrative begins with Danny Deger as an intelligent, God-fearing young man who decides to serve his nation as a pilot in the US Air Force. He flies the legendary F-4E Phantom II during the height of the Cold War and learns quite a bit during the adventures that ensue. After a brief tours as Air Liason to the Army and a civilian in the field of "Special Weapons," he goes to work for NASA's Johnson Space Center. He trains the astronauts in launch aborts and entry procedures, then goes to work designing displays for the shuttle cockpit. Along the way, he experiences bullying managers and the banality of NASA internal regulations. The stresses of a hostile workplace culminate in a message from Deger to the much-despised JSC Director, George Abbey. The consequences of that action would be very profound for Mr. Deger. He would eventually return to JSC and play a formative role during the Orbital Space Plane and Orion/Ares I programs, but the long-ranging consequences from the earlier incident would come back to haunt him.

In the story, Mr. Deger admits that his language skills are weak compared to his analytical reasoning. With that being said, he does write well. His prose lacks the polish that would be expected of a commercial publication, but it is servicable to a reader with some technical knowledge. I would complain that the descriptions of dogfighting and other combat while flying the Phantom II are hard to follow, especially for those uninitiated in aerial warfare. Frustratingly, much of the story hinges on the e-mail to George Abbey which is neither reprinted or paraphrased for the reader's benefit.

The heart of the story will undoubtedly engender much controversy. Should it be viewed as an expose of an agency whose management is steeped with the culture of narcissism on multiple levels? Or is it merely the diary of a madman who is trying to convince the world that he is sane? Without being able to hear a rebuttal from NASA JSC, the jury is out. But it doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to envison a large federal organization lashing out in an illegal fashion to silence a whistleblower.

If you have spare time on a weekend, I would definitely recommend reading "Houston, You Have a Problem." If it's accurate, then it's a disturbing look inside Johnson Space Center. If it's all fiction, then it's nonetheless a story that vacillates between amusement and horror while never boring the reader.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Write Stuff?

People always ask me what I'm going to do after I am emancipated from the Air Force. I'm still not sure, but I want to try being a writer (the kind of writer that gets paid in money, not the blogger who gets a charge from every time that somebody in the blogosphere gives him kudos.)

In pursuit of that goal, I recently submitted a short story for a contest. At the outset, it seemed like an easy task. By the end of the process, I wound up with a lot more respect for professional writers (not that I lacked it to begin with,) and a lot of self-doubt as to whether I'm meant for dramatic writing.

The story started with a simple premise and a limit of 6,000 words. With that upper bound, I had to narrate a lot of events in the story rather than hinting at them through dialog and subtle clues. The high concept was that of a man who has made a lot of mistakes in his life, but tries to make things right and finds redemption through sacrifice. Shortly after I started typing, the characters quickly turned into a way to espouse the things I'm feeling right now. The protagonist became more like myself, the antagonist morphed into my program's chief engineer, and the nefarious corporation that weaves throughout the story assumed the traits of the Air Force.

I finished the story with a sense that it was a burden lifted from my shoulders. A few friends read it and liked it. Then I ran it past an avid sci-fi reader who told me that it was all too cliche. Most importantly, she made me realize that I created personalities for the main characters, then turned everything on its head for the conclusion. Can we really expect the cold-hearted antagonist to have an epiphany at the end? I hastily rewrote some of the dialog and much of the ending. The protagonist's sacrifice was now motivated by spite, and the edge was taken off the antagonist to make his conversion more believable.

Am I happy with the story? Not really. It has a mechanical quality to it, and the most human scene was cut from the original ending because it bordered on cheesiness. The story that developed from my original concept had a lot more untapped potential to explore themes like "how much should a man give of himself to a cause he doesn't believe in?"

I'm left with the conclusion that my half-baked story was the result of being something I was forced to write. Maybe things will go smoother with a story that wants to write itself. My goal is to write and publish a satire of the military acquisition bureaucracy. Now that's a story that demands to spring forth to life across my computer monitor. It also gives me a canvas for humorous writing. I can't guarantee that my humor will work, but my drama obviously didn't.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Nature of the Beast

Dwayne Day, who happens to be one of my favorite space historians, takes a swipe at people like myself who have compared NASA to Fascist systems of government. The gist of his argument, in my view, is that "Fascist" is an arbitrary label that's applied as an invective. In this sense, he is correct, a fact that I pointed out in my first post on the subject.

Many people are taken aback by the overuse of the term "fascist" because of its negative connotations. But Jonah Goldberg is quick to point out that things that are "fascist" are not necessarily wicked. He admits that some of his favorite movies have overtly-fascist themes. I will admit to enjoying "fascist" movies like "Gladiator" and "Falling Down."

For those who truly knew the horrors of the Holocaust or the Second World War, I can only begin to understand why the hurting is so deep, and I apologize if a seemingly-juvenile invective has touched off on the deep scars of the past.

Regardless of whether you feel that "fascist" is an overused insult, or whether it's being misused in respect to NASA, it does not change the basic facts of the agency, its behavior, or its mission. NASA's manned space program is a taxpayer-supported effort which primarily serves to enhance national prestige, while enshrining a small number of large corporations as the titans of the aerospace and tech sectors.

As far as NASA not being "fascist" because "fascists don't allow for competition," I think that the recent history speaks for itself. Will NASA allow for parallel manned space efforts? Dan Goldin was certainly opposed to Dennis Tito's space vacation on the ISS. Mike Griffin's NASA resorts to debunking alternative approaches to manned lunar missions, even though their current approach is not likely to survive the current election without profound changes. NASA officials currently resort to scare tactics, raising support for Project Constellation by claiming that China will be on the moon by 2017 unless we give Project Constellation full funding. There's no reason why the US and China can't share the moon, no compelling reason to beat China to the moon, and no evidence that China has the means to fly a human around the moon by 2017.

To be fair, NASA has done a better job at allowing for competition as of late. If properly funded, the COTS program will create an alternate means for space access that's closer to a free-market approach. With that being said, awarding a COTS contract to Orbital Sciences is hardly the way to break the oligarchy of large companies that dominate the space economy. Furthermore, with NASA dropping out of ISS in 2017, the incentives behind COTS become diminished.

Is the "fascist" label for NASA extreme and deceptive? Perhaps. But the fact remains that NASA subverts the capitalist system in the name of national pride. I will admit that a private-sector rationale for exploring the moon will require at least 30 years pull off; the NASA plan is the way to go if you're willing to throw untold quantities of taxpayer dollars at going back as soon as possible. But I would rather sacrifice the moon in my lifetime than undermine capitalism. I don't care what name you want to apply towards NASA's manned space program and its practices. You can call NASA what you will, but it doesn't change the nature of the beast.

EDIT (7/3/2008): The tone of this piece did come off as unapologetic, but I wanted to state unequivocally that my use of the term "fascist" is divisive, hurtful and not conducive to the rational debate that truly needs to be held in this country regarding manned spaceflight and the NASA mission. It was a mistake that I should have avoided in the first place. With that being said, I unapologetically oppose taxpayer-funded manned missions whose primary benefit is preserving the nation's prestige. As for the topics of COTS and China, they will be addressed in the near future.