Chair Force Engineer

Monday, March 12, 2007


For an agency that's trying to create "Apollo on Steroids," NASA seems to be forgetting how it was done in the first place. Many key decisions are being made in a way that runs totally opposite to how Apollo was run.

Mark Wade is fond of pointing out that in Project Apollo, the Apollo CSM spacecraft and Saturn V launch vehicle had their designs frozen well before NASA had settled on a mission mode. The contracts for the Saturn V's stages and the Apollo CSM were awarded in summer 1961; it would be another year before the landing mode debate was settled, and it wasn't until December 1962 that Grumman was awarded the Lunar Module contract.

Fast forward to 2005, when Michael Griffin tosses all of Sean O'Keefe's lunar studies out the window and sets up ESAS to come up with the mission architecture. The team agrees on EOR + LOR and assumes a crew of four on the moon for seven days. The debate over mission modes, mission duration, and crew size is kept within the ESAS group and not opened up to the entirety of NASA like it was in 1961-2.

Since that fateful decision, NASA has made many changes to its proposed launchers just to keep up with the spacecraft, instead of desiging the spacecraft to meet the launcher. In Apollo, the choice was between LOR using a single Saturn V, EOR using two Saturn V's, or direct landing a two-man capsule on the moon with one Saturn V. Fast forward to today. Aside from the shrinking of Orion to 5m diameter, all of the changes have been made to the launchers.

In another sense, NASA's being run totally backwards from the way it was in the 1960's. The grand old NASA administrator, James Webb, was not very knowledgeable about space vehicles, but he was very politically savvy. Michael Griffin is a genius engineer but lacks political savvy. Of those two qualities, it's the latter that's needed in an administrator. The administrator has plenty of smart engineers at his disposal. If he lacks political agility, though, Congress will deny him the bucks that make "Buck Rogers" possible.