Saturday, September 29, 2007

Deja Vu All Over Again

"NASA will accelerate missions featuring space nuclear power," Aviation Week & Space Technology reports in its Oct. 1 issue. "NASA's objective will be to use nuclear power much more frequently to open previously isolated areas of the solar system for robotic exploration as early as 2013. NASA is moving quickly to make space nuclear power, and eventually nuclear propulsion, an inherent design element in near term, medium cost planetary missions."

Flashback to 2003. Project Prometheus was established by NASA to develop nuclear systems for long-duration space missions. Power and propulsion generated by the Prometheus technology was to be first used by the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter. Northrop Grumman was selected for a $400 million preliminary design contract. The contract was to have run through 2008. Separate contracts, for spacecraft DDT&E along with the individual instruments, were to be awarded at a later date.

Then the Emperor assumed the throne and the program was reduced to a low-level research effort. Its 2005 budget of $430 million shrank to $100 million in 2006. Instead of getting any useful data out of the program, all but $10 million was used to pay closeout costs on canceled contracts.

Now, we are almost five years and at least $100M behind the 2003 head start. And the Emperor will no doubt claim credit for forward thinking and for establishing this "new" program.

Are you familiar with the story of the "three letters?" It is commonly believed that when a leader leaves office he writes three letters, numbers the envelopes, and leaves them in his desk for his successor. He tells his replacement to open one letter each time he runs into a serious problem and considers leaving office.

Letter #1 usually says, "blame your predecessor." Letter #2 usually says, "re-organize everything." Letter #3 usually says, "write three letters."

When the Emperor came to town he must have read that first letter pretty quickly. Now, the reality of his failed policies is becoming evident, as previously cancelled programs come back to life and current programs are shown for what they are: broken and unwieldy. Perhaps the Emperor is grabbing his pen and will soon be reaching for three envelopes.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Take My Space Station, Please!

Earlier, we discussed the evolution of the Emperor's White Elephant, a.k.a. International Space Station (ISS). Despite that fact that it was configured as-is to be a perfectly good lab, the Emperor chose the path of least resistance and most cost in deciding to meet the international partner commitments by completing its build-out. But, just as soon as its assembly will be complete, it may be time to turn out the lights.

The Emperor has no plans for "utilization and exploitation" of the ISS science research lab for more than five years after it is completed, said European Space Agency (ESA) chief Jean-Jacques Dordain who is with the Emperor in Hyderabad, southern India this week.

So after expending some 18 additional space shuttle flights since the loss of Columbia, and somewhere in the vicinity of $60B (give or take), the Emperor is suggesting we will just walk away from the ISS some time around 2016. Try and compute the return on investment on that!

The European Columbus lab module, not yet on orbit but to be sent to ISS this winter, is considered to have at least an 11 year life-time. "Europe considers five years to be too little for the money and effort that would have gone into the space station," said Michael Taverna, European editor at the industry publication Aviation and Space Technology. "It would like the life of the station to be extended as long as possible," he said

Of course, the Europeans would. And so would many others who understand that while it may not have been the smartest thing to build, once its there and paid for, why not take advantage of it? Couldn't it become part of the exploration architecture?

After all, that's a lot of stuff we put up flying over our heads. Speaking of that, if we just walk away, who is going to make sure that stuff doesn't come flying back in on our heads? Even before 2016, what's the keep the Russians and the Europeans from just casting us aside and taking control of the station? Its not like we'll have any way of getting there on our own after the shuttle retires.

One would hope that the Emperor would be sitting on the throne thinking about these issues. Unfortunately, he's doing what any world leader in trouble at home does at times like these. He's out seeing the world...India this week...Russian next week. Maybe he understands that his time is short and is taking his swan song trip? We can only hope.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Only Old Farts Need Apply.

HYDERABAD, INDIA - The Emperor, once again demonstrated his inability to relate to common people on the street this week in India. Students eager to learn about opportunities for young people in NASA were disappointed by his remarks that such work was best left to older professionals. "Most of our work needs to be accomplished by mid-career professionals and not by yound professionals," he told a student at the interactive session at the 58th International Astronautical Congress.

Contending that the space program involved making right decisions at various sensitive stages, the Emperor said the space agency is looking for individuals with experience or apprenticeship at NASA to participate in such programs. "Such decisions cannot be left to young professionals," he said.

Once again, the Emperor is caught without a kurta!

We here at RocketsAndSuch, remember pictures of 20-somethings sitting in front of consoles directing the Apollo missions to the moon. Those young professionals invented the American space program. At a time when the Agency's engineers are rapidly aging and its programs are throwbacks to an earlier time, unattractive to today's XBox kids, it is shortsighted indeed to discourage young people from seeking employment in aerospace.

If this is an example of the Emperor's ability to lead, we are surely headed for the cliffs.

Monday, September 24, 2007

NASA - Need Another Set (of) Astronauts?

"HOUSTON - NASA is accepting applications for the 2009 Astronaut Candidate Class. Those selected could fly to space for long-duration stays on the International Space Station and missions to the moon. " So opens a recent NASA press release. It also points to a serious problem that NASA just won't face up to. It already has too many astronauts.

With over a 100 astronauts in the corps today, one has to wonder if this is the right time to begin selecting even more. With only a few handfuls of flights left before the space shuttle is retired, and a good seven years, in the best case scenario, before its replacement is fielded, why does NASA need to carry so many "unemployed" flyboys and flygirls on its payroll? What is the value added? At what cost?

Astronauts require a lot of care and feeding to keep them in tip-top form. They fly T-38 jets. They develop their spacely skills in expensive simulators and water tanks simulating weightlessness. They require teams of handlers to shepherd them through their training. They put on their blue suits and talk to school kids and Congressfolk. Then they fly in space a couple of times, sometimes with flights coming years apart, and then walk away taking all of that expensive training with them.

Ok, ok. We hear you saying, "Give them a break." They are taking significant risks strapping themselves to millions of pounds of thrust every time they take a ride. They deserve this kind of treatment and should be able to quit whenever they want to.

Maybe so. But maybe we are also doing them a disservice by keeping so many of them around. After all, astronauts represent a very competitive part of our society. They hate to lose. Witness the recent headlines involving a spurned lover and diapers. By making so many astronauts competing for so few seats, maybe, just maybe, we are stressing these superhumans beyond their limits.

Is it also possible that the size of our astronaut corps has indirectly had a negative effect on the Emperor's exploration architecture? The Russians maintain a smaller corps of mostly veteran flyers, honing their skills with each successive flight. The Russians are much more spontaneous and much less paranoid about unscripted space flight operations in general. Could it be that by depriving our astronauts of more firsthand experiences we are, in fact, depriving ourselves of the most cost effective means of flying in space? Quite possibly.

You see the Emperor has been "living large." He favors scale over frequency in the new architecture. His astronaut advisors have told him they are uncomfortable doing so many EVAs to assemble the space station. They want fewer pieces to put together to take a trip to the moon. Those fewer pieces must therefore be bigger and require a big rocket like the ARES-V to loft them. Fewer pieces means fewer operations. Fewer operations means less experience in general. Less experience means it takes longer to achieve a given level of confidence in reliability. And we all know about the economics of building very few, one-of-a-kind, complex pieces of equipment.

Have you figured it out yet? Then take the leap with us.

Because we have too many astronauts NASA has come to favor scale over frequency. And by continuing to add to that group now, we are compromising our space faring future.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

ORION - Once Again Awaiting the Scorpion

The Orion Constellation was probably first visualized by the ancient Greeks in the nighttime sky. Today we are left with several stories relating the mythology of Orion. In one of them, Orion wanted to kill all the wild animals on the earth. The earth goddess, Gaia, would not allow this to happen. So Gaia called on a giant scorpion to stop Orion. To make the long story short, the scorpion stung Orion to death and was placed for all eternity in the nighttime sky constantly chasing after Orion in the heavens.

Lesson learned? Don't try to take on every little thing, least you feel the scorpion's bite?

Hold that thought...

Constellation's Orion (a.k.a., the Emperor's Chariot) is the keystone of NASA's transportation architecture being developed to replace the Space Shuttle and provide the United States with the means to carry humans to low earth orbit and beyond. Right out of the box, however, this Orion got a black eye. The Emperor called it "Apollo on Steroids." Now that's a great line for all of our schoolchildren and future astronauts to recite, isn't it? Perhaps the Emperor was hoping to entice Barry Bonds to promote the space program?

From the start, the Emperor and his minions had their own vision for what Orion should be. That vision was inviolable, no matter how any trade study or any analysis came back in defiance of its basic premises. Keeping in line with Apollo, Orion would be a "Back to the Future" capsule. Keeping in line with the steroids theme, Orion would be BIG. Two and one-half times the volume of Apollo BIG.

Originally, Orion was sized to be five and one half meters in diameter. The biggest capsule ever built by far. Why so big? Well, at that size, the existing fleet of EELVs (e.g., Atlas and Delta) could not lift the Orion off the launch pad. Of course, the Emperor also did not want to be beholden to the Department of Defense for launching his astronauts into orbit. So he mandated the development of a new launcher, ARES-1, a.k.a. "The Stick." Unfortunately, the Emperor's new toy couldn't get the job done either!

Orion would be sized to carry six astronauts to low earth orbit, four for missions to the moon. But the seats for Orion would be bigger than those that you find in any Apollo capsule now residing in your local museums. You see, the minions wanted to be able to carry 99.9% of the population of the planet in those seats. Generally speaking, bigger guys and gals eat more food, drink more water, need larger clothes, and make more waste than their smaller brethren. All of that makes the Orion capsule bigger and heavier than one would think it should be. Bigger capsules need bigger parachutes that weigh more than smaller ones. The list goes on. Do you really think the six foot five folks are going to feel offended if they have to find a ride elsewhere?

Never mind that NASA just announced its only going to select astronauts five foot two to six foot three in the next go around, quite a smaller percentage than the 99.9 Orion is being designed to carry. Why the discrepancy? Well, with the space shuttle retiring in 2010 (maybe), the only way to get to the space station will be via the Russian Soyuz capsule. So the next set of astronauts will still have to fit in those seats while waiting for Orion to make its first flight. But wouldn't the current corp of astronauts be able to fill that gap? After all, they were previously selected to fit Soyuz. Maybe the Emperor doesn't believe his own schedules and thinks that we may be flying on Soyuz beyond 2014, well after the last astronaut in the current corps retires?

To recap, the Emperor wanted his own rocket, so he made Orion too big to fit on anything else. Yet at the end of the day, Orion was still too big to fit on the Emperor's rocket. So the self-anointed "Chief Engineer of the Universe" allowed Orion to stop taking some steroids and it shrunk back to five meters in diameter. Would that be enough weight loss to allow the ARES-1 to do its job?

In addition to those large astronauts, Orion also carries a fairly good sized galley, no doubt outfitted with a separate cabinet to carry Marsha Ivins' cookies, and a more or less private bathroom. And volume for lots more. Makes you wonder. Why do you need to carry all of that for a short trip up and down through the atmosphere? Answer: you don't, unless you want to make a capsule so big that no existing rocket can carry it. Yet, even at it's now smaller size, Orion was still 6000 pounds too heavy to get off the ground on ARES-1.

Which brings us to today. The Emperor's minions are struggling mightily to get weight out of his Chariot so that it can be matched to ARES-1's capability. They have thrown just about every requirement (including safety and system redundancy) into a "parking lot" where the individual systems must fight their way back into the capsule. Who decides what stays and what goes? Why the Emperor, of course! Never mind 50 years of human space flight heritage and a pretty good understanding of what works and what doesn't.

So you see, like its namesake in the nighttime sky, this Orion is trying to take on every little thing. Will it, too, feel the sting of failure?

With Apologies to Pink Floyd

"Is anybody out there?"

If you are an avid reader of RocketsAndSuch, we'd like to hear from you! Have a tip you'd like to share with the rest of us? Want to correct something? Perhaps you'd like to lend a little encouragement to the writing staff?

Let us know what you think!

"Tear down this wall!"

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Speaking Up

"Taxpayer-funded NASA should only fund research and not development. When you spend hundreds of billions of dollars to build a manned spacecraft, you're...dumbing down a generation of new, young engineers (by telling them) "No, you can't take new approaches, you have to use this old technology."

That's Burt Rutan talking at the 50th anniversary space conference in Pasadena this week.

"I think it's absurd they're doing Orion development at all. It should be done commercially," he said, referring to the name of the lunar spacecraft. With these comments, Rutan is hitting NASA right where it is hurting the country the most. It has been happening in subtle ways, and its happening very slowly, but what Rutan is pointing to is that NASA is in the process of neutering our aerospace industry.

Think about it. While ORION represented a more or less a traditional procurement, set in motion before the Emperor came to the throne, the ARES 1 Upper Stage represents a new way of doing business for NASA. All of the white collar work that has been traditionally undertaken by industry with requirements specified by NASA is now being done inside the agency. On the Upper Stage, Boeing's contract is for blue collar, build to print, manufacturing tasks for the NASA designed launch vehicle component.

And soon the aerospace industry's investment in design skills will whither away. And the lack of an educational pipeline, cut off by the termination of technology investments in the universities, will see to it that we are strategically disadvantaged for many years to come. We might as well hand the next set of lunar golf clubs to the Chinese right now.

In the meantime, industry is rolling over and ignoring the problem, maybe thinking (hoping? praying?) that the Emperor will soon take his leave. Talk about turning the other cheek. NASA is now considering its strategy for procuring the lunar lander (LSAM). Internal discussions go as far as suggesting that NASA integrate the vehicle themselves from components that industry will build from NASA designs. And who is going to do this work? Retirees?

The best that the Emperor could shoot back with on Rutan's position came in a speech later in the day. "Unlike Rutan, I will continue to think space programs are important," The Emperor said.

Gee, I thought that was why Rutan was speaking out. Maybe the Emperor should look down and grab a towel or something. What little clothing he has is really starting to wear thin.

Launch Abort - Reclaima (a little)

One of the things that this blog strives for is accuracy. A couple of days ago we wrote about the alternate abort system being comtemplated for ORION. The so-called MLAS originated on the back of an envelop and has since become a works project for the Langely Research Center. As we've received more data on the configuration being simulated, we want to set the record straight. Unlike the Emperor on E Street, we do take new data into account at RocketsAndSuch and give it a fair hearing!

The configuration that is being considered is a "pusher" as we mentioned before. However, the pusher rockets are actually attached to the shroud that surrounds the command module and service module, and grab the command module from underneath during an abort, leaving the service module behind. The rockets are disposed of when the shroud separates from the launch vehicle, so that parasitic mass isn't carried to orbit. The rockets can also be fired in an nominal ascent, imparting their thrust to the entire stack so that their propellant is not wasted. So the wntire system may trade better in weight that originally envisioned in our commentary.

Because the rockets are firing well behind the center of mass of the shroud/command module system, and given the aerodynamics of the shroud, the system is dynamically unstable. To get around that, canards or fins are being considered to stabilize the system. Unfortunately, those fins don't work at zero velocity, such as in the case of a pad abort. Band-aids that only work part of the time require more band-aids! So here we go again, adding more complexity to the one system that you absolutely want to be the simplest, most reliable, least susceptible to potential failures so that it might save your life on a bad day.

Unlike the Emperor, we did take the time to consider the benefits of the alternate approach and didn't dismiss it out of hand when presented with new data. So while the configuration may be a little different than we originally reported, and we've now set the record straight on that, our misgivings related to the inherent problems in pusher systems, such as giving up vital milliseconds of survival by putting the system you are depending on closer to the initiating event, still stand.

Of course, all of these issues are arising from one basic fault in the Constellation architecture: its too dang big!

Tomorrow we'll discuss why ORION is too big, how it got that way.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

White Elephant

Steven Weinberg, a particle physicist at the University of Texas at Austin and a co-recipient of the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics was recently quoted as saying, "The International Space Station is an orbital turkey," said . "No important science has come out of it. I could almost say no science has come out of it. And I would go beyond that and say that the whole manned spaceflight program, which is so enormously expensive, has produced nothing of scientific value."

Can't disagree with him.

The Emperor entered the throne room with the pretty much the same opinion on the ISS as Weinberg. In fact, he commissioned a study seeking his options for dealing with the ISS and the international community. The study group told him he could finish the space station as intended in about 15-18 space shuttle flights and pay the associated costs for that. Or he could maintain the station at the configuration he found it in and still achieve over 90% of the objectives defined for it to support the new program of exploration. The question was how to meet the international partner "commitments?"

Pay them back!

For a little over $8B, the US government could have written checks to the Europeans and Japanese and made them whole. We could have offered in-kind opportunities to use the existing facilities on the ISS for their research programs. We could have stocked up the ISS with spares and equipment and started a real research program immediately and done so in fewer (and therefore safer) space shuttle flights (5-8). And we could have put a European and a Japanese citizen in two of the first seats on a CEV to the moon and, in doing so, we would have made everybody happy.

Let me tell you, Mitsubishi and the other Japanese space companies received their last paycheck from their government a long time ago. They'd rather see a new program get started where they could build new equipment and get new paychecks for doing that than sit around waiting for the ISS to get finished before starting something new. Conversely, why would a good old conservative government in the U.S. pass up an opportunity to quietly set back our technical competition by making it more difficult for them to carry out research in space?

Why indeed?

Well, the White House gave the Emperor the opportunity to do what he thought best. Before he was on the throne he would have taken the pay back option without remorse. Now, the Emperor found himself with the opportunity of a lifetime but ultimately caved to the internal NASA pressures to continue flying the space shuttle, sucking the NASA budget dry, and delaying the opportunity for an real research for at least 10 more years!

In addition to committing to the cost of flying space shuttles to complete the ISS, the Emperor then spread NASA thinner by embarking on the defective ESAS path to the moon. And he has provided more ammunition for the likes of Steve Weinberg. It didn't have to be that way.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Missed Turns and Forked Tongues

We'll take a little digression from the design reviews to review a speech that the Emperor gave today to an audience assembled at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. to celebrate 50 years of NASA history. Unfortunately, NASA quit making history about 40 years ago.
"NASA opens new frontiers and creates new opportunities, and because of that (NASA) is a critical driver of innovation," Griffin said. "We don't just create new jobs, we create entirely new markets and possibilities for economic growth that didn't previously exist. This is the emerging space economy, an economy that is transforming our lives here on Earth in ways that are not yet fully understood or appreciated. It is not an economy in space -- not yet. But space activities create products and markets that provide benefits right here on Earth, benefits that have arisen from our efforts to explore, understand, and utilize this new medium."
Wow! That's real interesting commentary considering that the first thing the Emperor did when he came to office was to kill off $1B in technology development programs and to saddle up our space-faring future to a 50 year old architecture.
The Emperor went on to say, "We see the transformative effects of the space economy all around us through numerous technologies and life-saving capabilities. We see the space economy in the lives saved when advanced breast cancer screening catches tumors in time for treatment, or when a heart defibrillator restores the proper rhythm of a patient's heart. We see it when GPS, the Global Positioning System developed by the Air Force for military applications, helps guide a traveler to his or her destination. We see it when weather satellites warn us of coming hurricanes, or when satellites provide information critical to understanding our environment and the effects of climate change. We see it when we use an ATM or pay for gas at the pump with an immediate electronic response via satellite. Technologies developed for exploring space are being used to increase crop yields and to search for good fishing regions at sea."
You see, NASA always falls back on that same old "spin-off" story when it comes to justifying its budget. Like Al Gore inventing the Internet, the Emperor would have you believe that NASA invented every gadget we carry around with us today. The only problem is that GPS was developed by the Air Force and cell phones have been around in one form or another since 1947 (look it up!), the same year the first practical defibrillator saved a human life. Tell me again how NASA invented that stuff?
There is no denying that some technology development was accelerated by the spin-offs from the Apollo program, 40 years ago. And communication satellites are whizzing TV and phone calls all around the world today as well. But that's ancient history on the technology development timeline. Give me an example of something NASA developed recently that is in your pocket today?
I'm waiting???
What is the real impact of terminating those aforementioned technology programs and investing instead in the plan to (re-)build "Apollo on Steroids?" That's easy to see. The curtailing of the exploration technology development programs implemented prior to the Emperor's tenure is resulting in cutbacks in university research programs. Fewer graduate students are supported today by NASA investments than ever before. Where will the replacements for NASA's aging and retiring workforce come from? What aerospace student entering school today wants to work on a 50 year old design that just happens to be a little bigger than their grandfather worked on?
So how do we get NASA back on the technology development track? I would suggest that the Emperor should spend less time speechmaking and more time picking out his wardrobe for his retirement.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Launch Abort!

Yesterday we examined some of the technical issues associated with the Emperor's launch vehicle. One gets the idea that this $6-9B investment may not be in the taxpayer's best interest after all. It's kind of like ordering lobster for dinner and ending up with lutefisk! In their attempt to eliminate complexity in the design (i.e., getting rid of the turbomachinery of a liquid first stage), the NASA "rocket scientists" at MSFC (more accurately, the NASA "vu-graph engineers" let's take that back, one would ever accuse Steve Cook of being an engineer) have added complexity back into the design with band-aids to keep the wobbly spaghetti stick flying straight. That makes one piece of safety equipment, the launch abort system (LAS), even more critical in the Orion/ARES design.

The basic LAS design goes all the way back to the Mercury program. A small tower attached to the top of the crew capsule contains a rocket motor that can quickly pull the capsule away from its launch vehicle in the event of a catastrophic failure. The tower puts the safety system as far away as possible from any initiating event in the launch vehicle. The Russians have had some real world experience in that department. Soyuz T-10-1 and Soyuz 18a both employed a launch abort system similar to (based directly on Max Faget's design for which Max received an award acknowledging that fact from the Russians many years later) the American design. These early systems were small, simple, and got the job done.

Of course, on Orion/ARES, nothing is small or simple. We'll discuss the reasons for that later, but suffice to say, Orion is so heavy it requires a very large, very sophisticated LAS. The large system's early designs also suffered from a severe acoustics problem. Shocks coming off the tip of the tower and the escape rocket nozzles re-impact the capsule and give it an unacceptable "buzz." Protecting the capsule with a heavier blast protective cover only adds more weight to an already stocky system.

Large and sophisticated means heavy, so instead of solving the primary problem (Orion=heavy), NASA engineers once again started looking for point design band-aids. On the back of a napkin, Doc Horowitz (to be remembered as ARES' proud papa), once again illustrated his lack of engineering prowess by suggesting that a pusher system might serve better as an LAS for ORION.

Pushers suffer from multiple problems, some implementations are worse than others. First and most obvious, pushers are located behind the capsule and closer to the potentially offending launch vehicle failure. I don't know about you, but I'd rather have those couple extra milliseconds for the blast wave to find its way to the top of my safety system, than to give up that precious time and lose out with the system engulfed underneath me.

If its a liquid system, more precious time is taken spinning up the system to full thrust to get away. If its a solid propellant based system, its probable distributed around the circumference of the vehicle in separate motor pods. Now a complex ignition system must get all those rocket motors fired up at exactly the same time, and all of the hold downs released simultaneously, least the capsule hang up on one side and start to tip in unacceptable fashion.

By the way, if the pusher is to just carry away the capsule, then it must somehow be configured circumferentially around the capsule above the service module. That would seem to interfere with the launch aerodynamics of the system, and would suffer from severe heating and acoustics environments. So a more benign configuration would place the pusher under or inside the service module. Of course, this system must now carry not just the capsule, but also the service module off the top of the exploding rocket. More lift capability = more propellant = more weight.

If the whole thing is surrounded by a shroud, necessary to protect the capsule from the acoustics and heating brought on by ascent through the atmosphere, the shroud must at some point split in two, allowing the capsule to safely deploy its parachutes and land. Of course, the capsule must also now separate from the service module before safely returning to earth. Complexity just always to seem to creep back into NASA's simple solutions, doesn't it?

A freshman engineer could do some simple math in his head to see that such a pusher system won't be lighter than a tractor system. Consider that the capsule must be pulled away at a specific level of acceleration. That defines the thrust that must be delivered by the rocket motors. With all things being equal between a tractor system and a pusher you then have to add in the weight of the service module and shroud. Now you need an even bigger set of LAS rockets. Of course, those rockets have to push their own weight away when they are used, so make them even bigger to do that.

But it gets even worse. With the tractor system, after it would no longer be effective, you get rid of it. That extra mass doesn't have to get carried with you all the way to orbit, impacting overall payload performance. Not so with the pusher, as you have to carry that system all the way to orbit, maybe all the way to the moon. What engineer familiar with the rocket equation would even propose such an ill-formed solution? That's a penalty that the ORION can not afford to bear.

Pushers are losers.

And we didn't even mention that unlike Apollo's very simple passive system (light it off and it is able to bring the crew back safely without need for complex computers and flight sensors), Orion's system is loaded with avionics to "make it more versatile." In the old days, versatility meant "opportunity for failure."

Recall that this discussion resulted from reviewing a concept born on the back of an envelop. Your tax money is now being spent to assemble this deficient concept into a test article and keep folks employed at NASA's Langley Research Center The artist, Doc Horowitz has been leading the development of our next generation spacecraft and launch vehicles. What's wrong with the picture?

Maybe the Emperor should take his entire team to the department store for a fitting?

Saturday, September 15, 2007


So let's start examining the Emperor's architecture for returning to the moon. Prior to the release of the Vision for Space Exploration in Jan 2004, NASA had undertaken several programs, mostly managed by the Marshal Space Flight Center (MSFC), to take the next steps in developing a vehicle to replace the aging space shuttle. These concepts either violated basic physics (x-38), suffered from NASA interference (x-34 engine program), or did not improve on safety (Orbital Space Plane).

As the inevitable befell the OSP, a "soon, simple, safe" mantra started to be heard out of the astronaut office. Led by Doc Horowitz, the concept of flying a capsule on a space shuttle solid rocket booster (a.k.a. "the stick") started to take hold as an alternate means of lofting humans into orbit. The solid rocket booster, on the surface, looked like a simple way of accomplishing the goal. With only burning solid rocket propellant, and no high pressure turbo-machinery to go awry, how could this concept not be safer than using the existing, already taxpayer paid for, EELVs (Atlas and Delta) to get to orbit?

Today's liquid fueled rocket engines operate at high pressures, high temperatures, and the turbo-machinery running inside of them spin at high rpm. That enables the engines to develop high levels of thrust. With all of those "highs" in the preceding sentences, its easy to see that today's engines encapsulate high levels of energy. Properly channeled it lifts the rockets off the ground. But when something goes wrong, all of that energy can make for a big explosion, potentially putting crews riding along at risk.

Complexity, in and of itself, is not an argument for dismissing liquid fueled EELVs as potenitally man-rated rocket boosters. After all, your car likely has an internal combustion engine, composed of thousands of moving parts, that reliably starts every day under a variety of environmental conditions, and can run for well over 100,000 miles if maintained properly. The same goes for rocket engines. If assembled with care, they will work reliably, as designed. Indeed, hundreds of satellites have been succesfully placed in orbit by these same EELVs over the past 50 years. Heck, our first astronauts launched on EELVs and the liquid fueled Saturn 5 took us to the moon.

Nevertheless, in an attempt to improve upon the safety record of the space shuttle, NASA fell into the trap of doing a point design to remove one problem deemed likely to cause failures. Remove the initiating turbo-machinery and you remove the biggest threat to astronauts going uphill to low earth orbit. Right? And if you use a demonstrated space shuttle solid rocket booster (SRB), aren't you inheriting a man-rated system from the get-go?

Not so fast. When you do a point design, something unexpected usually falls out the other end. Tweak an existing design and its not an existing design anymore, its "new" in an engineering sense. The problem is exacerbated when you don't have competent managers with a respect for the history that came before them. In the case of ARES-1, you've got all of those things coming together in a future class case study of failure.

So what's wrong with the ARES-1 stick? For starters, imagine pushing a piece of cooked spaghetti along a table. Very hard to do. The segmented structure, bolted together at its field joints, is very much like the italian dinner staple. When attached to a space shuttle external tank , it is stiffened by being held at two points along its length. By itself, there are no attach points to grab onto and provide that stiffness. Consequently, when you light the rocket up, it will vibrate and bend in response to its inherent dynamics and environmental inputs, much like a rope being pushed from one end.

Why don't other rockets have this problem? In fact, they all do, but usually the structure is not segmented like the SRB and is made beefy enough to avoid this bending. So couldn't the SRB be made beefier to avoid the bending. The answer, of course, is yes, but only at a significant weight penalty which would take away from its ability to lift the already overweight CEV (more on that to come!). Still wanting to use the SRB for its safety advantages, NASA's manager must have hired Rube Goldberg to come up with an answer.

The bandaid answer is to ring the top of the SRB with small rocket motors around its circumference and to fire them as needed to keep the booster going straight along its trajectory when it starts to bend. Two sets of 32 motors do the job. Primary and back-up. Hmmmmm, that's starting to sound a little more complex than a simple SRB, doesn't it?

On top of that, let's add a 5th segment to a normal four segment SRB to get more performance out of the system so we can lift that overweight capsule. But now ,with this new segment adding its thrust to the exhaust system designed for four segments worth of propellant burning, we need to change the internal configuration of the propellant to slow down the burn so we don't overstress the system. While we're at it, let's change the grain we are using to optimize the performance. Hmmmmm, doesn't sound like the ARES-1 is exactly an off-the-shelf SRB anymore, does it?

It's not.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Vision

Back in 2004, President Bush asked the question, "What does NASA do?" The answer was "We are building the International Space Station in low earth orbit to meet our international partner commitments." Knowing full well that this was a dead end, the President set his staff and senior NASA execs in motion to outline a more exciting program of exploration...complete the ISS, retire the shuttle, then begin a program of exploration to the moon, mars and beyond.

Of course, the government way is to put together a "tiger team" and come up with an answer in 60 days or less. Fortunately, at the time of the announcement of the vision, wiser heads prevailed and a more deliberate four pronged approach was outlined: 1. Define the objectives for lunar and Mars exploration. 2. Get started quickly on a space shuttle replacement. 3. Put a technology development program in place to increase reliability and reduce the cost of exploration. 4. Determine the best way to launch the exploration hardware. The government would define the requirements and the best minds from government and industry would participate in a refinement of those requirements.

NASA gathered eight teams from industry and asked them to examine different architectures for returning to the moon. Those eight along with another three also examined the requirements for a vehicle to replace the space shuttle and carry astronauts into space. That vehicle was called the Crew Exploration Vehicle or CEV. While the industry teams all defined different architectures and objectives for returning to the moon, an interesting thing fell out of the CEV exercise. A single vehicle could be configured to carry out the objectives of just about any exploration program. With that result in hand, a competition could be started to build the CEV while time could be afforded to properly define the other architectural elements to complete the lunar mission set.

Well, a funny thing happened as this disciplined path was being followed. The NASA administrator was replaced and most of the former administrator's team was disbanded. Of course, the new guys started their own 60 day study, blamed the old guys for all ills that followed, and now find themselves with a solution that does not close technically, financially, or by the original schedule called for in the President's Vision speech of Jan 2004.

In the days ahead, we'll examine the revisionist history being recounted by the incumbents, the poor, politically motivated choices they have made, and the terrible technical mess they have gotten themselves into. How's a $20B unaccounted for budget problem for transitioning from the shuttle to the CEV going to get resolved after all?

Here's a hint: Max Faget and Werner von Braun found a sweet spot in design space when they designed Apollo/Saturn. When you move out of that design space by inflating the objectives to do more, carry more, return more, etc. it isn't a given that you can just scale the preceding architecture and come up with the correct answer. In fact, it is likely that the architecture will have to change radically and will find a new sweet spot in design space. But the curent administrator is a guy who grew up under Faget and can't see past all of those biases set almost 50 years ago. Do you want a guy who a.) doesn't know what an XBox is, b.) probably doesn't know anything about Core Duo, c.) is allowing NASA headquarters to build its own email software applications, d.) and has surrounded himself with "yes people" under threat of eviction running America's 21st century space program??

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Tomorrow we'll start to examine the wardrobe that the Emperor on E street has put on display for all to see...


Welcome to RocketsandSuch! In this blog, we'll discuss the nation's space program from an unbiased point of view, while seeking to get best value for this country's exploration endowment. We'll provide insider views and outsider's perceptions to today's news items and issues. And we'll listen to your inputs and comments as well. Join us now as we find out whether the Emperor on E street has any clothes or whether he needs a new wardrobe...