Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Rise of the Internet Rocketeer Club

Practically since the first leaks about the ESAS study were made public in Summer 2005, there has been a small but vocal group of NASA critics who have used the internet to "snipe" at the plan for replacing the shuttle and moving onto the moon. Mark Whittington chides these net-based space critics as the "Internet Rocketeer Club." The implication, amongst NASA supporters, is that the "Internet Rocketeer Club" is a bunch of Sunday Drivers who are distracting NASA from implementing its "excellent" plan.

Maybe they're right. Maybe I'm just a Sunday Driver. After all, what do I know? All I have is a bachelors' degree in engineering, zero practical experience, and a massive chip on my shoulder against Big Government. But I certainly don't speak for the entirety of the "Internet Rocketeer Club," many of whom have tremendous industry experience and the educational credentials to back up their criticism. Regardless of experience or lack thereof, I believe that the Internet Rocketeer Club serves as an important check on a space agency that, for all intents and purposes, is withering on the vine.

Looking back on the history of NASA, it's clear that there have really been two NASA's. The first NASA began in 1958 and died in 1975, when Project Apollo ended. The second NASA started in 1975 and continues to the present. The first NASA embodied the "can-do" spirit of America. It Put the first American in space, first American in orbit, beat the Soviet duration record, achieved the dream of lunar flight, brought Apollo 13 home safely, and fixed Skylab. After Apollo ended, NASA became mired in the shuttle program, an uneconomical and dangerous vehicle that was undersold and has under-delivered on its promises. Proposed replacements for the shuttle, like NASP, X-33 and OSP, have died by fading into obscurity after bring propped up with bold claims when the projects were initiated. The original Space Exploration Initiative couldn't even get the support of the administrator at the time it was proposed. The agency has achieved few "firsts" since Apollo ended, and has lost much of its ability to inspire America.

There was another change at NASA between the end of Apollo and now. When the agency was established, it was decided to conduct its mission in full view of the public, which stood in stark contrast to the Soviet approach of silence, followed by selected release of information (some of it downright fabricated) which portrayed the mission in the best possible light. Today's NASA has drifted far from the openness of the Apollo 13 days. The agency stalls on air traffic safety reports and erects a wall of silence when faced with rumors of thrust oscillations on Ares I and abandoning the capability to land Orion on the ground. The agency still hasn't justified its crew size, mission duration, or crew volume requirements for lunar missions. There's a good reason why NASA has a reputation for meaning "Never A Straight Answer."

If not for people like Keith Cowing at, continually pressuring the agency with tough questions, it would never admit to the problems that currently exist. It's in the vacuum of silence that the "Internet Rocketeer Club" is able to speculate and criticize. Some of it is justified and some of it is the ramblings of true "space cadets." But rational debate shouldn't be viewed as a bad thing. Indeed, it is usually healthy (especially in the case when the underdog idea of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous was debated in 1960-62.)

So who's afraid of the Internet Rocketeer Club? Nobody should be. NASA should give good rationales for the ways it spends taxpayer dollars. And the Internet Rocketeer Club should be asking the tough questions, and pressuring the agency to act like the NASA of the Apollo days.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Learning the Wrong Lessons

Over the course of this week, America remembers its most visible and most profound space disasters. The sacrifices of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia will not be in vain if we choose to be smart and learn the correct lessons. But the brave astronauts who perished will have done so needlessly if we take the easy way out and embrace the wrong lessons from the tragedies which are seared in our minds.

Apollo 1 was a case where an immature spacecraft was rushed to the launch pad, under poorly-designed test conditions, and after proper quality controls were neglected. While the fire claimed the lives of three prominent astronauts and delayed Project Apollo by approximately 20 months, the result was a dramatically improved spacecraft that brought all of her crews home safely.

The Columbia disaster resulted from a broken safety culture which largely ignored a known defect in the Space Shuttle System: the liberation of ET foam and the risk it posed to the fragile thermal protection system. The reasoning was that because the foam had never caused a problem before, it was not a significant threat to crew safety. Columbia disproved this belief in tragic fashion. Fortunately for the program, NASA management has been judicious in trying to mitigate the shuttle system's inherent design flaw, and even more judicious in assessing damage from the foam strikes that still do occur.

Unfortunately, I think that the correct lessons of Challenger are being buried in the false ones. Challenger demonstrated that the shuttle was a finicky and complex system that could never achieve the fictitious flight rates that were promised at the program's outset.

Moreover, the Challenger disaster was the result of grossly-negligent decisions by middle managers within both NASA and Morton-Thiokol. The flight rules prohibited a launch in the conditions that existed on January 28, 1986. The Thiokol engineers had plenty of evidence to justify the reasoning behind those flight rules. Nevertheless, the launch wasn't stopped by the people who had the power to do the right thing.

When a person's gross negligence results in people getting killed, those people are often sent to jail. When Challenger was lost, nobody went to jail. In fact, NASA was REWARDED for its negligence when Congress funded construction of a replacement orbiter, and when President Reagan and the national leadership supported the continuation of the Space Shuttle Program.

The aftermath of the Challenger disaster is a dramatic example of the difference between the government and the private sector. Government endeavors will continue as long as Congress funds them, regardless of their success or failure. In the private sector, success means generating a profit for the stakeholders. If a private venture fails in that regard, the stakeholders will pull the rug out from under the failing effort. Twenty-two years after Challenger was lost, the American taxpayers still toss roughly $7 billion per year at a manned space program that can't accomplish much more than space station housekeeping and three shuttle flights per year. NASA is still in the business of flying the dangerous and finicky shuttle, and ATK (successor to Morton-Thiokol) is still getting paid hand-over-fist for both the existing SRB's, and for the new solids that will fuel the next generation of big-government pork-launchers.

NASA management's most enduring lesson from Challenger is the flawed mantra of "Crew must be kept separate from cargo." While such flawed logic is enough to trick Congress into funding the development of two very different launchers, it doesn't always hold true. If a launcher can be made safe enough for a human crew, there's no reason why it can't be trusted with carrying a reasonable amount of cargo at the same time.

Additionally, the ESAS architecture could potentially create the same schedule pressures that led to the Challenger launch decision. Because the EDS and lander can only loiter in orbit for 14 days, it creates conditions where NASA management could be tempted to launch the manned Ares I and Orion spacecraft in spite of borderline launch conditions. Managers may be willing to assume more risk if the alternative is throwing away multi-million-dollar hardware that's already in orbit, and missing the launch window for a lunar mission.

As NASA carries out Project Constellation, the agency has no incentives to hold to its schedule, budget, or performance claims as long as Congress funds NASA unconditionally. What the agency really needs is a set of safety and performance benchmarks that must be achieved in order to justify further funding. And if NASA fails to meet those benchmarks, the agency should be thrown under the tires in favor of SpaceX or Scaled Composites (or any other firm with the potential to clear the hurdles of putting humans in orbit.)

While the Challenger disaster fades into becoming a painful memory, its legacy is open to all who choose to seek it. We all have a duty to act in the interests of safety. And when we fail to do so, there should be serious ramifications.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Athena Rising

The most exciting story of the day (coming just one day before the SpaceShipTwo design unveiling) is the announcement of a new Delta II-class rocket, informally known as Athena III. Brought to you by the team of PlanetSpace, ATK and Lockheed Martin, it's a strong contender for the Commercial Orbital Transportation System contract.

The design challenges posed by "Athena III" are interesting to speculate on. Stage 1 consists of 2.5 segments from the Shuttle SRB. Stage 2 is a Castor 120 (the link to the old Athena I/II rockets.) Stage 3 is the Castor 30, a new development from ATK. Topping it all off is an Orbital Assist Module from Lockheed (and probably an Atlas-heritage payload fairing.)

The 2.5 segment SRB reminds me of the 3-segment SRB proposed for the "Stumpy"crew launcher. As the industry knows well, changing the length of a solid rocket is no trivial matter. Perhaps ATK is willing to settle for the change in thrust profile and burn rate that will accompany the shortened SRB. Or perhaps ATK has been working on this new SRB for a while in secret. Most interesting will be ATK's plans for the SRB casings and nozzles. Will they build new casings and nozzles that will be expended? If the casings are new, will ATK go with a composite material instead of the steel casings of the old SRB?

I don't know too much about Castor 30, but I start to suspect that it will also serve as the upper stage for Orbital's proposed "Taurus II" launcher. The Castor 120 is a known quantity, which should increase our confidence in "Athena III."

Overall, the design appears to be fairly low-risk. This is a drastic (but fortunate) change for PlanetSpace, which had previously backed the Canadian Arrow suborbital rocket and the "Silver Dart" lifting body. In search of a COTS profit, the company is turning to low-risk, short-term solutions. Hopefully any profits from Athena III will continue to push the development of Silver Dart.

In the battle to replace Delta II, the fight between Taurus II and Athena III will be a stiff one. While Orbital has deliberately designed a rocket to minimize operational costs, it remains to be seen how well the company will adapt to the largest liquid-fueled rocket it has ever dealt with. A longer-range issue is what the company will do once it's stockpile of Russian-built NK-33 engines is depleted. Athena III is at a cost disadvantage (solid propellants don't come cheap,) but it has the potential to be highly reliable. Moreover, the SRB-derived nature of Athena III will probably gain NASA's support if it means trickle-down benefits for the Ares launchers.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

In the Sandbox, A Reporter Who's Stuck on Stupid

I was alerted to a provocative article in this past Saturday's Washington Post about US forces who are currently serving in the Green Zone. The article, "A Darker Shade of Green Zone" by Karen DeYoung, begins as follows:

BAGHDAD -- Several dozen soldiers and embassy staff members relaxed on the patio around Saddam Hussein's old swimming pool, shivering in the desert chill, as a boombox blared Latin rhythms over the racket of low-flying helicopters. It was Salsa Night in the Green Zone, but on a Friday evening in late November, only a few bundled-up couples shuffled awkwardly to the beat.

Suddenly, a 30-something woman and a 20-something man, both in Air Force uniform, took the dance floor, their camouflage jackets and holstered sidearms swinging with each smooth, expert turn. The bored patio denizens perked up, transfixed by a rare moment of magic.

The moment was a fleeting reminder of the good times in the war's early days, when the pool patio was the Green Zone's social hub and young conservative staffers, eager to remake Iraq, danced away the cares of nation-building. Those times and people are long gone, replaced by sober diplomats and soldiers with lower expectations, slogging diligently through their duties, collecting combat pay, and envisioning an Iraq where the electricity works and where a trip to the market does not court death.

When the music stopped, Tech Sgt. Heather Warr of Miami smiled and left the floor. She had been here three months, and the best thing about the Green Zone, she said, is that she has a "wet trailer" -- one with an inside bathroom.

Her dance partner, Capt. Jaime Bastidas of Albuquerque, had arrived three days earlier, and he said the best thing so far had been finding someone else who could dance. The next day, they would return to work -- Warr assisting Iraq's Air Force, Bastidas working with the Defense Ministry, and both counting the days until their tours end.

Thanks to the advent of electronic media, members of the armed forces are now able to defend their reputation in front of a forum, albeit not one that gets as much attention as the Post's print circulation.

As I stated in the article comments section, this is a total misrepresentation of my character. Ms. DeYoung doesn’t know me, she doesn’t know why I volunteered, and she doesn’t know why I am here in Iraq. Her job allows her to write her perspective on military issues but not about people’s character. I am here a volunteered in the memory of a friend of mine, Sgt. Clayton G. Dunn. He died in what he believed and I dedicate my work here to him and his family. I am here to help the best way I can, in everyway possible way to complete my mission I have been assigned to do.
--Capt. Jaime Bastidas

Captain Bastidas, like so many of his fellow Airmen in the US Air Force, actually volunteered to be in Iraq. He left behind his wife, his home, his friends, his graduate classes, and his important space-industry job to serve his nation in the war zone. He is not unique amongst the US Air Force in this regard. It takes an understanding of the military mindset to understand why the Air Force offers up so many volunteers; it's because the nation is at war, there's a mission to do, and America's armed forces are up to the challenge, regardless of the politics or the personal risk. It reflects on the force's incredible devotion to their nation that they would choose to put their lives on the line to fulfill the mission.

While America's fighting forces undoubtedly need and deserve morale and welfare activities, it should be stressed that, even in the Green Zone, it's still a dangerous place with an important mission to perform. Capt. Bastidas and his fellow Airmen are busting their butts every day trying to get Iraq back on its feet again. The least we can afford them is a little salsa dancing in their down time to keep their minds off the constant threat of mortar barrages, convoy attacks, and suicide bombers. Any normal person can be forgiven for "counting the days until their tours end." But it takes true warrior spirit to accomplish the assigned mission while still longing for home.

And for the record, Sergeant Clayton Dunn was a great American who set the standard for us to follow. When I first heard about who he was and heard of his loss, I was deeply moved. Our nation is truly poorer for having lost him. We can pray that his efforts during the surge last May will have contributed to a lasting peace that can hopefully be forged in Iraq.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Winging It

Jon Goff knocks the ball out of the park with his most recent blog post on the benefits of air launch for single-stage rocket vehicles. Never before have I seen such a comprehensive and balanced discussion of what advantages and disadvantages are offered by this approach. It’s posts like this which demonstrate the educational power of the internet, when used properly.

I must admit some bias on the topic of air-launched rockets. When I was younger, and before I truly understood the ramifications of the rocket equation, I was enamored with winged spaceplanes. As I progressed through my undergrad classes, and as I read some insightful analysis, I began to understand how difficult it would be to incorporate all of the spaceplane-specific systems into the tiny structural mass budget of an air-launched RLV.

In the first semester of my senior year, my design professor forced my team into cloning the Pegasus launcher. While the design project was hardly original or creative, it at least allowed us to appreciate the decisions that were made in the design of Pegasus. My big takeaway from the design exercise was that air-launched vehicles would be tiny (due to the constraints imposed by the mothership,) and the velocity gains from air launch would be small.

That’s not to say that I find all air-launched RLV designs to be impractical. About a decade ago, AFRL had an internal concept known as BladeRunner. Unlike Pegasus and other designs that are volume-limited due to ground clearance concerns, BladeRunner would have been popped out the aft cargo doors of an Air Force transport. The wings would be simple scissor-wings on a pivot. BladeRunner had two stages, avoiding the mass penalties of the “assisted SSTO” approach. To this day, BladeRunner is one of the most sound RLV concepts I’ve ever looked at in detail. Perhaps I’m biased, having been given the BladeRunner briefing by one of the gentlemen who developed the concept. Not that it matters, as BladeRunner is a dead concept (unless some enterprising NewSpacer wants to take the idea and run with it.)

There are plenty of other ways to get around the performance penalties associated with an airlaunched SSTO. A fairly cheap one is to move some of the spaceplane’s propellants into a drop tank, much like the one used on the shuttle (which leads to the Soviet MAKS concept.) A more expensive concept is a custom-designed mothership that uses rockets or ramjets (perhaps both) to achieve speeds of Mach 3 or higher to provide a bigger velocity boost to the spaceplane (such as in the Blackstar fantasy.)

Thursday, January 03, 2008

I'm the Man Without a Plan

I am a frequent reader of Mark Whittington's Curmudgeons Corner. There's plenty of things I agree with in his monologues. There's also some things I disagree with. Overall, it's a quality blogging experience. Still, I had to take exception to his characterization of my previous column on what my resolutions for 2008 would be, if I were running the show at NASA.

There is nothing quite so off putting than someone claiming that "Unless you choose my plan, than doom and destruction will ensue." Unless, of course, one can prove it. But, of course, it is not proved. So the above is wasted bandwidth.

I don't think my rhetoric is "hyper heated." I'm asking where we went wrong between President Bush's goal of replacing the shuttle by "no sooner than 2011, and no later than 2014" and the NASA prediction (with 65% confidence) that Orion and Ares won't be operational until 2015. I would like to see NASA get back to the mission it was charged with. Maybe this is an article of faith on my part, but I don't believe that any kind of budget increase is necessary to return to the original goal of 2014 or sooner. I believe that minimizing near-term development to fit within the existing NASA budget (at least until the shuttle retirement) is the way to get it done.

I also will admit that I have no preferred architecture for returning to the moon. There are things I like about EELV's, things I like about evolved EELV's, things I like about DIRECT, and even things I like about ESAS (much to the surprise of my readership.) No architecture will be perfect. What I care most about is delivering a lunar architecture to the American taxpayers which can be sustained within NASA's existing budget, and delivers the best value (most crew-days on the moon) for the money.

I can't "prove" that one architecture is better than the other, or more cost-effective. But I've seen enough of the space business to know that there's much uncertainty that goes into the cost-estimating process and risk analysis process (especially when all-new hardware is being developed.)

What I do know is what the "sand chart" for the NASA budget looks like over the course of Project Constellation. When it was unveiled in early 2004, the "sand chart" showed modest increases in NASA funding for the first five years of the program, followed by only inflationary increases after that. The plan was shot in the foot when NASA's FY07 budget didn't receive the expected increase. This represents a decline in the buying power of the NASA budget as the US dollar loses value. Because the original VSE budget called for funding Project Constellation using money from the retirement of Shuttle and ISS, it means that Constellation will have its growth stunted until two critical events occur: retirement of the shuttle at the end of FY10, and American withdrawal from ISS after FY17. This is a dramatic departure from the days of Apollo, when the development budget was front-loaded to assure sufficient funds early in the program.

In such an environment, it's unlikely that ANY architecture can meet the president's schedule for returning to the moon. That's why I prefer to reuse systems that have already been developed, such as the Delta IV Heavy. DIRECT would seem, on the surface, to minimize development costs. But it's also true that adapting existing systems for new purposes often creates unforeseen challenges.

Admittedly, NASA is being asked to do a lot with a very small amount of money (by US Government standards.) We should keep in mind that there was a six-year gap between Apollo and Shuttle. As long as nearly half the current NASA budget is going to support Shuttle and ISS operations, the development of any new vehicle will be kept on the back burner.

So what is my "plan" to cope with this sobering budget reality?
1) We can either tolerate a gap of five years or more, or we can choose to accelerate the development of the spacecraft at the expense of the launch vehicle. Because we already have an acceptable alternative launcher (Delta IV Heavy,) I do not view this as a big loss.
2) Development of lunar-specific hardware will have to wait until later, when the Shuttle & ISS funding wedges open up. If Ares I development is dropped, the development of a lander or heavy-lift rocket (whether it be Evolved Atlas, Ares V, or DIRECT) can ramp up in FY11. Otherwise, Ares I will ramp up in FY11 at the expense of lunar-specific hardware.

Again, there's nothing technically unworkable about ESAS. But in the face of an unforgiving budget, the initial schedule promises from Summer 2005 are falling apart. The biggest question is whether America is willing to tolerate a gap of five years or more. I, for one, am not.

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