Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

When Idiots Try to Comment on Space

Traditionally, I have loved savaging media pundits like Gregg Easterbrook and Elanor Clift when they have offered their half-witted insights into space policy and rocket science. It is generally wise to leave rocket policy to the rocket scientists, lest a layman make a fool of himself. The most successful space policy decisions have been made when the people who actually understood the underlying science were given maximum authority.

In the case of Michael Griffin (NASA's administrator,) this situation is brought to a logical extreme: one of the nation's most brilliant astro engineers is now the most powerful space policy-maker in the country, and perhaps the world. On the other end of the spectrum, we have self-appointed media "experts" like Martin Sieff who seem to think there is a strong parallel between the lunar return program and ballistic missile defense.

Where do I begin when intellectually tearing Mr. Sieff a new oriface? My biggest problem is that he tries to make the case that "rockets aren't as reliable as they used to be." Bull-plop. Didn't he watch that sequence in The Right Stuff where it shows rocket failure after failure during the late 50's and early 60's?

Space launch has generally become more reliable as history has progressed. The engineers had to start somewhere, so the first orbital launches in the 1950's were highly unreliable. Early in the space program, Thor missiles exploded quite often (again, refernce The Right Stuff.) Atlas rockets had a notorious habit of blowing up, too. This made NASA's Mercury-Atlas program even more risky. As time went on, engineers learned from their mistakes, and rockets became more reliable.

Today, the Delta (descendant of Thor) and Atlas rockets have become highly-reliable launchers. The Atlas II and Atlas III rockets (recently retired) combined to make 69 successful flights with no failures. The Delta 7000 series, currently the workhorse behind GPS and Mars missions, has a 97.94% success rate.

In the case of the last two failures of Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD,) it is true that the interceptor missiles never left the ground. However, if Mr. Sieff actually did his homework, he'd see that neither failure had anything to do with the launch vehicle. The test on December 15, 2004 ended when an anomaly caused the launch system to shut down. The test of Feb. 14, 2005 also ended when the ground equipment failed.

Solid rockets are fairly simple and well-understood. As the astronauts say about the shuttle's solid rockets, "Once they ignite, you know you're going somewhere." In the case of GMD, the rockets were never ignited. The rocket is merely a small part of a highly-complex, integrated system that is designed to essentially hit a bullet with another bullet. In spite of GMD's setbacks, the Aegis missile defense system soldiers on, displaying extraordinary results during testing.

What we have is a newsman who will deliberately ignore the facts to prove a contention that is very wrong. While the shuttle was the wrong direction for manned spaceflight, the unmanned side of the space industry has only been getting better. The "back to the future" approach of NASA's moon plan has absolutely nothing to do with missile defense.

Mr. Sieff knows that nobody buys newspapers to read the good news. Papers and news programs only garner audiences when they offer up gloom, doom, and sensationalism. Martin Sieff is trying to apply the song "I Ain't as Good as I Once Was" to American space efforts. It would be wise to leave that song to Toby Keith.