Chair Force Engineer

Monday, August 25, 2008

Why We Have a Gap

With all the recent talk about the gap between the Shuttle and Orion, I think it's worthwhile to examine the reasons why a gap will exist in the first place. I think this question presents several instances where case studies in program management and decision-making really pay off in influencing future decisions.

In January 2004, President Bush announced the retirement of the Space Shuttle by 2010, and the onset of the Crew Exploration Vehicle with a goal of 2011, and a threshold of 2014. A cursory glance showed that NASA had between seven and ten years to develop a new human-rated space capsule. Casual space observers wouldn't think that would be too hard. Yet the history since then has showed it to be anything but.

The historical analogies for space capsule development are complex and often contradictory. It is worth noting the amount of time that elapsed from contract award to first manned flight for America's first three capsules:

Mercury: award Feb 1959, manned flight May 1961
Gemini: award Dec 1961, manned flight March 1965
Apollo: award Nov 1961, manned flight October 1968

By today's standards, Mercury was executed on a whirlwind schedule. It was the most simple of America's manned spacecraft, but the program also involved a lot of learning how to do things that no human had ever attempted before. Gemini was a logical evolution of Mercury, and had its development schedule accelerated due to the lessons learned from Mercury. Apollo actually started before America's first orbital space mission, and involved a lot of learning during the design process. While NASA and North American Aviation believed that Apollo was ready for manned flight by February 1967, the Apollo 1 fire tragically demonstrated that the spacecraft had not reached a sufficient level of maturity.

With history as an example, can we truly form a reasonable estimate for the Orion development time? To be fair, Orion requires a significant degree of re-learning forgotten lessons of the past. For instance, the Orion industry team has been unable to reproduce the ablator from Apollo's heat shield. Seven years is a fair estimate for the development time on a lunar-capable Orion, especially in light of the reduced funding levels that Orion receives when compared to Apollo.

I believe that spiral development would have been able to close the gap with Orion, but I disagree with the original strategy laid out by Admiral Craig Steidle when he was running the effort. I don't think it's necessary to have a flyoff between two unmanned "tech demo" spacecraft, as long as you're using technologies that have sufficient tech readiness levels. I believe that a "Block 1" Orion could have been developed to meet the earth-orbital mission requirement by the earliest possible date, with a lunar-capable "Block 2" Orion coming later in the program. NASA uses the "block" nomenclature, but it would appear that the current "Block 1" Orion is overdesigned for its mission of transporting six crew to the space station. It makes the leap to "Block 2" easier, but only prolongs the post-shuttle gap.

In order to meet the 2011 deadline with a seven-year schedule, NASA would have needed to put a prime on contract before the end of 2004. This didn't happen for a number of reasons. For one, presidential administrations tend to avoid big-budget commitments near the end of an election cycle because those decisions may be quickly overturned if the election goes the other way. It must also be noted that it takes a while for government agencies to perform studies, define requirements, issue a request for proposals, and conduct a source selection. While I believe that this could have been performed during 2004, it didn't for several reasons.

Sean O'Keefe's strategy when he was running NASA was to award study contracts for the overall architecture of the lunar mission. In fall 2004, the contractors responded with the results of their "Crew Exploration and Refinement" studies. Many of them utilized EELV's in conjunction with Shuttle-C derived heavy lifters, and favored the Earth-Moon Libration points as places for rendezvous between manned spacecraft, space stations, and landers. Very few of the studies bore any resemblance to the eventual ESAS study.

Rather than select an architecture based on the recommendations of one or many contractors, NASA went through a great upheaval during the end of 2004, continuing into Spring 2005. Sean O'Keefe resigned, and Michael Griffin was confirmed to replace him. The Griffin solution was to ignore the CE&R studies and conduct an internal NASA study in 60 days--Exploration Systems Architecture Study, or ESAS. While it was the administrator's perogative to do so, it rendered most of the work performed in 2004 as wasted.

A good question is whether all of the studies mentioned before were necessary before the Orion contract could be awarded in mid-2006. A lot of work was performed during the Orbital Space Plane program which could have been used to issue a request for proposals on a Block 1, ISS-only Orion spacecraft. The risk is that the Block 1 spacecraft that results might be so unsuited for the lunar mission that the Block 2 spacecraft would be a totally new development. Back in 2004, Americans weren't too concerned that Russia would go rogue and start invading western allies (although Vladimir Putin's curtailment of civil liberties after the Beslan Massacre should have given us reason to pause.) I don't think there was any great rush to get Orion developed, and it was partly due to a naive faith that the Russians would help us get through the gap.

A final factor worth mentioning is that the Ares program relies on taking over shuttle facilities as that program dwindles to a close. Gemini didn't need to wait for Mercury launch pads to open up, and Apollo didn't wait for Gemini launch pads. While the Orion spacecraft is just as much of a pacing item as the Ares I rocket, the need to rebuild shuttle launch pads and reuse other shuttle facilities creates interesting dilemmas. Any extension in the shuttle program (a position now favored, to various degrees, by both presidential candidates) is a likely delay to a first Ares-Orion launch. If one launch pad is modified to support Ares I and Orion, it forces the shuttle program to abandon parallel processing of orbiters and adopt a slower "serial processing" workflow. If a Block 1 Orion could be flown on a Delta IV Heavy, the shuttle program could be extended while retaining parallel-processing and making no impact on the Orion schedule.

It's been a winding road of political and management decisons which got us to The Gap. It will be an even more difficult traverse to get us out of this predicament. The shuttle can't go on forever, and America can no longer rely on Russia's political leadership or buy the Soyuz. Unless Elon Musk can get a manned Dragon and Falcon 9 flying within the next few years, we're going to be in for a lot of trouble.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Skirting the Issue

After months of intense study, NASA's engineering teams seem to have settled on three solutions for the thrust-oscillation issue which threatened the safety of crews flying on Ares I:

1) Use of sixteen "tuned oscillator arrays," a passive damping system, inside the SRB aft skirt
2) A "SoftRide" Isolation System between Stage 2 and the Interstage
3) Possible mounting of crew seats on springs

The aft-skirt dampers shouldn't add too much mass to the system, and should work pretty reliably (unlike the active thruster concepts that have been studied in the past.) It should be noted that thrust oscillation should not be a problem on Ares V because the twin boosters cancel each other's vibrations during flight. It would make sense to replace the skirts with non-damping versions for the Ares V SRB's.

For years, various versions of SoftRide have been used to isolate fragile spacecraft from the vibration environment of their launchers. It's only natural to apply the SoftRide concept to Ares I. But there's two big differences between the Ares I SoftRide and all those which have flown before. First, the Ares I upper stage and Orion Spacecraft are far more massive than the microsatellites which have previously flown on SoftRide. Second, the Ares I upper stage and its SoftRide are subjected to aerodynamic loads in addition to the vibrational environment. This has not been an issue with previous SoftRide missions because the spacecraft and its isolators are protected inside the launcher's fairing.

Still unclear is whether NASA will give the SoftRide contract to CSA Engineering, award it to another vendor, or perform the work in-house. The CSA team has done a thorough and professional job in everything I have seen, and they deserve a shot at this challenging task.

The ideas presented have much promise for making Ares I a workable design. It's a shame that they will not be tested on Ares I-X in 2009. In the past, I have been critical of the marginal risk reduction that will be accomplished by Ares I-X. But it's the perfect way to get an early assessment of whether SoftRide can handle the second stage mass simulator and the aero loads. NASA could slip the Ares I-X schedule, work the thrust-oscillation solutions into this test flight, and retire much of the thrust oscillation risk that faces the real Ares I.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Tempest in a Teapot

All the space blogs seem to be possessed with discussion over the space policy positions being taken by the two major presidential candidates. When thinking about it, I have to say I'm more amused than anything else. At the end of the day, both candidates will have very general, and very similar, positions on space exploration. The devil is in the details, and the future of America's space efforts will boil down to the person selected by the next president to be NASA's next administrator.

The presidential candidates are both bound by two hard truths. One, America will never cede its ability to put humans into orbit. Two, neither political party wants to take the blame for massive layoffs in central Florida and elsewhere when the shuttle program winds down. Thus, it's pretty likely that Ares I or another NASA-operated crew launcher will win the support of the next president.

With that being said, the campaign promise to close the gap by accelerating Orion with more money should not be taken too seriously. Using Apollo as a historical example, it takes nearly seven years to move a manned, lunar-capable spacecraft from contract award to first manned flight. Using this metric, even a level of funding similar to Apollo wouldn't get Orion ready until 2013. Now that we're two years past Orion contract award, the opportunities to accelerate that program in any meaningful way are dwindling.

The real space policy questions should be saved for whomever is appointed to run NASA after Michael Griffin resigns. I'm looking forward to a tough Senate confirmation hearing with real questions instead of softballs. Will you adhere to the current Project Constellation schedule? What will you do to support COTS? How will you keep Constellation on budget? What is your vision for the agency after the moon? How will you retire the shuttle while still ensuring the safety of the crew and the retention of the workforce?

The next presidential term will see the retirement of the shuttle, the inevitable (and intolerable) spaceflight gap, and the continuing development of Project Constellation. While neither Ares nor Orion will make a manned flight during those four years, the decisions made in that span of time will have a profound impact on America's manned spaceflight capabilities and lunar ambitions. Neither candidate wants to see the effort end in disaster, but NASA needs an iron administrator who can see it through.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

For SpaceX, a Golden Opportunity

As I’ve noted in my last post, the United States faces an uncertain immediate future in space due to its reliance on Russia. The ISS and American use of Soyuz spacecraft were marriages of convenience to save the American and Russian space programs as they sought new relevance in the Cold War’s aftermath. Unfortunately, the current relationship leaves Russia in the driver’s seat. Which is all the bigger problem in light of Russia’s recent moves to intimidate America’s allies in eastern Europe.

On the flip side of the coin, one US-based company could potentially reap the profits from America’s growing mistrust of the Russians. That company is SpaceX.

In discussions of the gap between Shuttle and Orion, the idea of moving Orion to an Atlas V or Delta IV or DIRECT comes up. The problem in all of these scenarios is Orion itself. As currently designed, the spacecraft won’t be ready for flight until 2013-2014, regardless of whether it rides on Ares or an alternative launcher. It’s unlikely that the program schedule can be accelerated at this point, regardless of how much additional money it receives.

The solution to the gap is a simpler capsule that can beat Orion to the launch pad. Of the competing capsule designs, SpaceX’s Dragon is farthest ahead. Dragon is the basket into which the US should be placing its eggs.

There is hope that a cash infusion would be able to help accelerate the Dragon schedule. It’s unclear how much testing has been performed towards preparing Dragon for human spaceflight. SpaceX certainly hasn’t performed any tests of the Dragon escape tower, in either the pad abort or flight abort scenario. While more cash could help with Dragon, it’s unclear whether SpaceX’s current manpower levels, management structure, and facilities could support an accelerated timeline. If SpaceX was forced to team with an established aerospace contractor (akin to the LockMart-Boeing team responsible for the F-22 fighter jet,), it would help in a situation where the schedule was dramatically accelerated.

A less-discussed aspect of the Russia situation is the impact it will have on Atlas V launches. Among industry observers, it was perceived that the Defense Department was biased against Atlas V because of its Russian-supplied RD-180 engine. The problem reared its ugly head in early 2007 when United Launch Alliance took over Atlas operations, and the engine supplier used the contractual name change as justification to delay engine shipments. If relations with Russia deteriorate further, Atlas V could become a victim. It’s not like this sentence is totally undeserved, as Pratt & Whitney never lived up to their obligation to set up domestic production of RD-180’s. Domestic production would have been expensive to set up, and the engines would be more expensive than those made in Russia. But the alternative is being held hostage to the political battle between the US and Russia.

If Atlas V goes defunct as a result of sour US-Russian relations, SpaceX’s business case for Falcon IX gets much brighter. While Dragon launches were the main use for Falcon IX, it would be possible to augment those with two or three DoD missions every year. SpaceX would still have to compete with Delta IV from ULA, but it should be able to hold its ground if the cost and reliability estimates hold up.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Intolerable Gap

As I'm typing this entry, Russia is invading the sovereign, democratic nation of Georgia. This brazen act of war should be offensive to the shared values of the American people. The US government should be using all elements of the nation's soft power to force Russia's retreat from Georgia.

Throughout the course of the space age, spaceflight programs have been viewed as a form of soft power for spacefairing nations. It logically follows that the US should be using space as a means of compelling a Russian withdrawal from Georgia. The easiest way to do so would be to temporarily withdraw from the International Space Station until the Russians went to the peace table. But that's much easier said than done. A mixed Russian-American crew is currently aboard the station, with no way of evacuating the American contingient without getting the Russians involved.

Regardless of how long the Georgia crisis drags on, it represents a disturbing long-term trend. As long as the Putin regime is running the show in Russia, that nation will continue to intimidate and coerce former Soviet clients and breakaway republics to prevent them from forming close ties with the US and western Europe. As long as this status-quo remains true, America cannot in good conscience cooperate with the Russians in space endeavors or purchase Soyuz spacecraft under an exemption to the Iran Nonproliferation Act.

The Space Shuttle's imminent retirement and the wait until 2015 until the first crewed Orion mission should give America reason to pause. Its astronauts will be hostage to a mafia-run bully-state for at least five years. This frightening reality should make Congress, the President, and NASA more willing to consider accelerating the SpaceX Dragon program, flying Orion on a Delta IV or DIRECT, or even extending the shuttle program. As a last resort, American astronauts can stay grounded, as they did during the 1975-81 gap. But the alternative of sponsoring a rogue hegemon like Russia should be morally repugnant.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Depression sets in

Going into yesterday's Falcon I launch, I really thought they were going to make it to orbit. The second flight in March 2007 made it oh-so-close, and I hoped that Launch 3 would work out the remaining bugs. Unfortauntely, the launch was a step backwards, and terminated after less than 2.5 minutes.

Elon Musk's press release attributed the failure to a stage separation. Flight 2 also suffered from an off-nominal stage separation, but it wasn't enough to destroy the vehicle during the earlier flight. I would suspect that it was a new failure mechanism, rather than the same one that affected separation on Flight 2. Perhaps it was the fix for the Flight 2 problem that doomed Flight 3.

I really feel for the SpaceX team, especially Elon Musk. They've started from the ground-up, and are re-learning many of the hard lessons that NASA and the Air Force learned during the early Thor, Atlas and Titan programs of the late 50's. One must ask how much fortitude they have, and how much money they are willing to sink into the effort. It must be very easy to get discouraged after the first three failures, and requires a high degree of faith in the future of the Falcon program (and all of the manned spaceflight effort, in general.)

I must also question whether SpaceX will go ahead with a Falcon IX flight test if they haven't flown Falcon I successfully. If the Falcon IX flight schedule slips, the chances of closing the post-shuttle gap to three years or less will evaporate.

I have a lot of respect for everything that SpaceX has accomlished so far, and I feel for the tough breaks they've been given. At the same time, I have to side with Rocket Man and ask why NASA has put SpaceX's new rocket on the critical path for closing the spaceflight gap. Hopefully SpaceX will recover from the recent failure and succeed on attempt 4, but I feel that the goal of closing the spaceflight gap has already slipped away.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Red Scare

As we head into the Beijing Olympics, the event is being widely portrayed as a means for China to enhance its national prestige. The same is generally said about China's manned spaceflight program.

Since 2003, the Shenzhou project has moved at a slow flight rate but has achieved very deliberate goals. The second mission, two years later, introduced a second "taikonaut" into the capsule. The third mission, anticipated for later this year, will probably be China's first spacewalk. It's fair to say that China's manned spaceflight program matches the prowess of the Gemini and Voskhod programs, and is quickly catching up to the early Soyuz.

Beginning in 2010, China intends on launching the first in a series of incrementally-more-capable space modules, leading up to a true space station. Beyond that general plan, China's manned space activities are anybody's guess. While the words "China" and "Moon" are linked together in the minds of many, there has been no stated desire by Chinese officials for a human lunar landing.

In spite of the slow flight rates and unanswered questions, this hasn't stopped American space officials, including Michael Griffin and Richard Gilbrech, from painting a "doom and gloom" picture of a new space race with China, with the moon as the ultimate destination. Even Buzz Aldrin has warned that China will make it to the moon with a human by 2017. The implied message to Americans: keep supporting all the money you're sinking into Project Constellation. We can't let the Reds beat us!

What's so magical about the 2017 date? By 2013, China intends on launching its Long March 5 rocket. Unlike previous Chinese boosters, Long March 5 is a modular family of rockets which use cryogenic propellants. While the first Long March 5 will fly by 2013, it's reasonable to look at 2017 as the year when the heaviest, most powerful member of the Long March 5 family will fly.

In its heaviest variant, Long March 5 will offer similar performance to Delta IV Heavy. That is probably enough to fly a Shenzhou around the moon, similar to the Soviet Zond program. But it's a far cry from putting a human on the lunar surface and returning to earth safely. It serves the Chinese goal of national prestige, but does nothing for the goals of lunar settlement, science and exploitation.

Assuming that a Chinese lunar landing utilizes a heavy-lift rocket (which, NASA assures us, is necessary for going to the moon,) it will take several years to develop. Heavy-lift rockets are very difficult to cloak from foreign intelligence, because the facilities to build and launch these rockets are behemoth. This fact helped the CIA to produce remarkably-close estimates of the Soviet lunar program during the 60's. If China is to attempt a lunar landing by 2017 with a rocket in the mold of Saturn V, they'd better start development soon. But it's unlikely they'd launch such an outlandish program when they're still five years away from flying the relatively-puny Long March 5.

Claims of Chinese lunar prowess are often trumpted up by supporters of Project Constellation. The idea is that we need "Apollo on Steroids" so we can prevent Chinese monopolization of the moon. But there's no reason to believe that a program which molds itself after Apollo will be any less temporal. Apollo had the political will of a genuine Cold War behind it, and it could only manage six lunar missions before it was scrapped. Project Constellation will likely meet the same fate, if Ares V and Altair are funded at all. Even in Red China, the prospect of sustaining a Chinese equivalent to Apollo should be greeted with a large amount of skepticism.

China's manned space program has made some big strides over the last five years, but it is still plodding along at a slow flight rate with uncertain goals for the future. Any claim that China can beat America to the moon should be treated with a large amount of skepticism. The only way that will be reversed is if America insists on a fiscally-unsustainable and politically-unpopular approach to lunar exploration, which kills the American lunar effort and allows China to walk to the finish line.

Labels: , , , , ,