Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Trick or Treat?

That age old question always pops out around Halloween. And, most appropriately, the Emperor announced yesterday how he will spread the treats of the lunar program around to make 10 healthy centers. Or is it a trick?

Like spreading butter on toast, the Emperor is spreading the work around the centers in what appears, on the surface, to be in equitable fashion. But, we all know that when you break up programs and spread them around wildly, the project you wanted to see succeed just becomes one more jobs program appeasing Congressfolk. Kind of like getting a fish hook in ye olde popcorn ball.

The Emperor also tipped his hand on how he is going to approach the development of the lunar lander in his hand out of treats. Specifying that the lander will be assembled at KSC, in lieu of any competition or trade studies to properly determine its assembly location, means that NASA will develop the lander in house, contracting for pieces and parts from the aerospace industry, which by then will have whithered to a small semblance of its former self. So much for being a good steward of our strategic requirements.

Tonight, when you go out trick or treating, look up. That Halloween Moon sure looks a lot further away than it did the day before yesterday.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Detailed Out

What do you do when the heat gets too hot in the kitchen? When everyone complains about your performance? When your incompetence catches up with you?

What do you do?

For starters you might try to get as far out of town as possible, change jobs, maybe visit with folks who don't know anything about you. If you're an astronaut, perhaps get a detail on the other side of the world?

Marsha Ivins was in Turin, Italy recently clearing dry cargo for launch to the ISS in January on the first Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV).

Don't think we have to say much more about that, do we?

Delayed Reaction

With an additional space walk now planned to inspect the metal shaving filled rotating solar array joint on the ISS, a lot of attention is being brought to bear on the offending system. But, one has to ask, why did it take so long to act?

Just under two months ago it was noticed that the joint motor was experiencing unusual vibrations as it rotated. Greater-than-expected amounts of current were required to turn the motor. The motor on the left hand side of ISS operates at an average of about 0.1 amps. But the one on the right has been averaging 0.2 to 0.3 amps with peaks up to 0.9 amps. Did we mention unusual vibrations?

For almost two months!

We have been to this picture show before. Repeatedly. An anomaly appears. A major inconvenience, if its a real, perhaps systemic problem. Maybe it won't get worse? But over time, it continues to operate (and be operated), and soon it becomes routine. Sound familiar? The Emperor has repeatedly said this can't/won't happen on his watch. However, here we are, once again on the edge of disaster.

Soon the Emperor will offer a mea culpa and promise to do better in the future. Isn't it time for a break from this routine?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Tumbling (Shaved) Dice

How is the space station like Notre Dame in Paris? We may soon find out.

Our astronauts working outside ISS found something they weren't looking for today. Metal shavings inside a joint that is needed to turn a set of solar power panels. The joint has experienced intermittent vibrations and power spikes for nearly two months. Unless the rubbing subsides soon, there is a good chance something will need to be done about the joint.

Only one problem. There is no way to take a new joint to the ISS with the small remaining number of shuttle flights before its retirement. Ooops, let's make that two problems. As it is, the space station is just one failure away from being able to provide enough power for all the pieces and parts that are on the way up to complete the station. You see the Emperor bet on the come when he decided how many shuttle flights would be required to finish the station. Instead of carrying all of the original power panels to the ISS as originally designed, he decided to only launch just enough to get the job done today. No margin is available in the event of a failure of one of the primary panels tomorrow. If that happens, something will have to be turned off. That will bring a whole new meaning to the term "power sharing."

Heads, U.S. wins. Tails, Russians, Europeans, or Japanese lose?

To answer our opening question, like Notre Dame, the ISS may soon not have any lights to illuminate its interior if all of its rotary joints fail early. So much for the Emperor's "cathedral building." Recall, this is the same Emperor who is the Chief Engineer of the Universe. Architect of Constellation. We're just glad he isn't our auto mechanic.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Back to the Garage

Armadillo Aerospace failed in its first attempt to win the X Prize Cup at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. On the return leg of its round trip in the desert, the toy rocket/lander hovered over its landing pad, just shy of $350,000, kicking up clouds of dust. When the dust cleared, the point made here a couple of days ago was provided with an exclaimation point. The craft had tipped over and missed the golden landing zone.

Tell us again the point of all this nonsense?

Our Favorite Sayings...Applied to ESAS

Haste makes waste --that's what you get when you do 60 day studies.
Birds of a feather flock together -- The Emperor, Steve Cook, Jeff Hanley, Marsha Ivins, etc.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall -- ARES V, say no more.
Don't count your chickens before they hatch -- Have you seen a real schedule lately?
Beauty is only skin deep -- Constellation doesn't look that good on the surface even.
Don't put all your eggs in one basket -- ARES V, say no more.
Half a loaf is better than none -- ESAS 1 1/2 launch scenario. They couldn't count to two!
The early bird gets the worm -- 'Cause if they had taken more time it would have been a butterfly.
Lightning never strikes the same place twice -- Apollo hit the sweet spot, Constellation hits the flat spot.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure -- If only...!
A picture is worth a thousand words -- If it looks ugly it will fly ugly. ARES and Orion are UGLY!

Ahhhh, we feel better now.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Lucky Town

If you watched the shuttle launch the other day and you've been reading the popular press, you'd be thinking that that despite the trepidation, some of it expressed here earlier, that this launch was one of the cleanest ever.

And you''d be wrong.

If you, like us here at RocketsAndSuch, watched the launch on TV, you may have noticed that the camera view on board the shuttle external tank was not shown that much on TV until very late in the launch. Want to know why?

Why? Because there was a lot of foam flying by early in the flight. Let's see if they release the video from the SRBs soon. If they do, you will see an incredible amount of stuff flying off the tank. More stuff than usual.

But the lucky part, is that the stuff, for the most part, missed the shuttle itself. It just as easily could have gone the other way.

12 flights to go. Cross your fingers.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Wasting Time in the Desert

This weekend a bunch of amateur hobbyists are taking their dreams to Holloman Air Force Base trying to overcome 14 billion years of physics, give or take. The big draw at the X Prize Cup is the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge and only John Carmack’s Armadillo Aerospace team has managed to qualify to take a shot at the $2M prize. While it makes for good press, let's call it what it really is: a fun diversion .

There is a little challenge in building some tanks and a rocket motor in your garage. There is also some challenge is putting the electronics and flight control software together when you've missed out on 10 years or so of aerospace enginneering school. When you haven't a clue about optimum control, kalman filters, or any of the other tools of the trade it does seem to be some accomplishment to do what these hobbyists are doing.

If you think some major advance will change the course of history this weekend, then you are as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as the folks wasting time in the desert this weekend.

Monday, October 22, 2007

We Can Handle the Truth!

The Emperor's folks sure like to suppress or destroy evidence. We all know how global warming discussions were kept on ice for some time. And we also know how they tried to keep us from hearing how the Emperor may have illegally directed the Inspector General's folks. Fortunately, only the Emperor's credibility, something always in short supply, was at risk that time. And each time the Emperor stepped in at the last possible moment and claimed he would get to the bottom of or reverse the transgression.

This time they are trying to keep us from knowing how unsafe we are when we fly.

The National Aviation Operations Monitoring Service is a national survey of pilots that has uncovered safety problems that are occurring far more often than previously thought. Problems like near collisions and runway interference. Problems that could kill people. But NASA is withholding the information, fearful it would upset air travelers and maybe hurt airline profits. Worse yet, NASA ordered the contractor that conducted the survey to delete all related data from its computers.

NASA has another stinker on its hands. Or, as Rep. Brad Miller, D-North Carolina, chairman of the House Science and Technology investigations and oversight subcommittee put it, "There is a faint odor about it all."

Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tennessee, chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, is getting ready for an investigation. Gordon won't have to work too hard to prepare for it. He'll just strike "IG" in his previous directions to NASA and write in "airplane safety" in its place. Those previous directions were given to the Emperor after the DVDs of his discussions with the IG's people were destroyed.

Knowing how the Emperor is supposed to set the example for his minions, this repetitious behavior becomes even more disturbing. Imagine that his shuttle management team decides to hold back a piece of data on shuttle safety that might convince a reasonable person that the shuttle is not safe to fly. Imagine that they decide to shred that data to keep the public from knowing the full extent of the issue and to the maintain the schedule. But imagine a smart reporter smells a rat and asks for the data. Just how many times does this have to happen before the Emperor takes ultimate responsibility for his defective leadership?

Speculation? Let's hope so.

Tall Tales.

Speaking to the Huntsville Times, Mike Kynard, J-2X program manager, finally 'fessed up to the fact that everyone else already knew. The Emperor and his minions had been lying since the days of ESAS. One of the key pieces of the new lunar architecture is not really a heritage item after all.

Relative to the original Apollo J-2, "...this one has to generate more than 290,000 pounds of thrust," said Kynard. "Not only is the J-2X going to be more powerful, it's going to be different. Time has seen to that. This engine has its roots in Apollo, but we aren't just lifting their work. It's almost a new engine."

This latest engine "redefinition," along with other design changes and the subsequent elimination of much shuttle heritage from the current architecture reinforces the suggestion that the pony-tailed engineers that produced ESAS based some of their design choices on less than appropriate assumptions. Some would say the Emperor gave the team the answer and they had to work backwards from that.

Now we can see that, having designed the systems from "the inside out," instead of working forwards from a good set of requirements, NASA has reached the end of the line and those assumptions and the resulting heritage designs do not work. Brand new expensive stuff will result. Two years have been lost coming to that conclusion.

GAO will soon release its report on the ARES and ORION debacles. We suspect that NASA has the reports in their possession at this time and are feverishly working on a rebuttal to the damning aspects of the reports. If there is any justice, the reports will be released on Halloween. We can guess how these horror stories will read.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

This Is Starting to Sound Too Familiar...

A lot of hot air was expended the other day by the Emperor's minions discussing the viability of the RCC on Discovery. They claimed victory because they talked out loud about the problem, not because they could solve it. Instead of a incurring a one month stand-down to replace the panels, they also chose the path of least schedule resistance over the prudent answer.

Because NESC wrongly presented inconclusive evidence, the problem was put on the pile of risks list and Discovery was ok'ed for flight. Since the problem is not understood, and flight is allowed in light of its recurrence on many flights, the program has once slipped into the lackadaisical "its happened before, we didn't get hurt, so its routine now" mentality. Hopefully, the hot air will stay here on the ground and not be felt through the RCC like Columbia felt it on its ill-fated re-entry. But, least you think that's the only thing out of the ordinary on this flight, think again.

The External Tank that Discovery is flying was picked up from the used tank lot. You see, this tank was originally destined for STS-114, but was sent back to Michoud for an overhaul of some of its pesky foam. No big deal, you say, tanks have been repaired before and flown without incurring a major loss of foam. True, but those tanks have pretty much avoided multiple hot/cold/hot fill up cycles. When STS-120's tank is filled next time, it will be its third cycle.

The program has been trying to minimize tanking cycles to avoid stressing the foam that tends to break off and fly away, aiming for that delicate RCC. Should STS-120 not get off on the first attempt, the foam will have been doubly stressed over the desired number of times on the next attempt. Questionable RCC and stressed foam typically do not make for a good day. But we're sure that the Emperor will once again proclaim that only the shuttle asset is at risk, not the crew. And, sure, flying on top of millions of pounds of explosive fuel is risky from the get go, but shouldn't we try to minimize that risk best we can? Apparently not, if the cost is an extra month of schedule.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Ceding the High Ground

China might not have a permanent presence in space yet, but its already thinking about setting up a Communist Party branch above our heads. China's first astronaut went on to say, "Like foreign astronauts having their beliefs, we believe in communism, which is also a spiritual power," he said. "We may not pray in the way our foreign counterparts do. But the common belief has made us more united in space, where there is no national boundary, to accomplish our missions."

We can now say one thing for sure. The Emperor is no Ronald Reagan.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Unsung Heroes

There are a couple of unsung heroes of the space program that should get mentioned this week. These guys don't drink (not much water anymore around them), they don't wear diapers, they don't mind getting their fingers dirty, and they have discovered the fountain of youth.

The twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed on Mars in January 2004. Some 45 months ago, they bounced around inside their airbags starting missions originally planned to last for no more than 90 days. In that time, Spirit has driven 4.51 miles and has returned more than 102,000 images. Opportunity has driven 7.19 miles and has returned more than 94,000 images. While a little rough around the edges, there appears to be no end in sight for the plucky explorers, so the Emperor is extending, for a fifth time, their activities on the Red Planet.

But every silver lining has a cloud, and so too does this story. Originally NASA planned to build only one rover. Seeing that as being two risky for programmatic success, a second rover was added to the bill. All told, NASA planned to spend about $600M for the two rovers. The second one cost only about half as much as the first, call it $200M. Multiple copies beyond that would have been even cheaper.

You know where we are going with this line of thought. Instead of taking advantage of a proven landing system (three times, counting Mars Pathfinder), NASA once again threw away a working design to "do better." The yet unbuilt Mars Science Lander (MSL) is already up against its $1.5B cost cap and will utilize an unproven Flash Gordon-like "SkyCrane" landing system to deliver its payload to the surface of Mars. This Rube Goldberg-inspired device if fraught with risk but is said to be "required" to carry the much heavier rover safely to the ground.

Humbug. (BTW, only 69 shopping days left until Christmas).

NASA could have built at least seven more Rovers just like Spirt and Opportunity and spread them around Mars to have a look at some real undiscovered territory. Think of the discoveries possible just by upping the statistical coverage of the planet! A variety of upgrades and instruments could have been deployed to do everything MSL might do and more and sooner. Without radioactivity. So why MSL?

Well, if NASA tells you that the lifetime of the Rover is an issue, hold your nose. If they tell you that the Rover solar panels don't provide enough power for expanded operations, keep reading. If they tell you they couldn't land the heavy instrument set in airbags, ask them why they didn't split the MSL into two pieces? One piece with the payload, one with the power pack. You get to use a proven landing system and get something for free with that idea. Eventually, whether it happens on the moon or on Mars, robotic vehicles will have to find each other, get together, and move things around in anticipation of their human partners coming later to use those assemblies. And guess what? A Spirit-like rover could have been updated to find such an airbag landed power pack as well, to extend its capabilities.

We could have saved a lot of money and done significantly more science if NASA had not walked away from these successful systems. Unfortunately, that seems to be in its genes. Saturn, Skylab, EELV, soon ISS. We at RocketsandSuch sure wish our parents were more like the American taxpayer, willing to fund new toys whenever the old ones, although working perfectly, aren't shiny enough to impress anymore.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Crossed Wires

So it turns out that our friends at NESC have done everyone a disservice, not making a clean cut case for replacing the wing panels on STS-120. NESC took pre-flight data of RCC panels and compared them to Discovery's panels. Unfortunately, NESC compared Discovery's RCC panels with thermography data from Endeavour's RCC panels, ruling out commonality and flight history with Discovery.

NESC appears to have shot itself in the foot as the analysts crying "wolf!" Nevertheless, the root cause of the panel problem remains a mystery.

But do you think the NESC folks would be sent back to the showers to get the proper data to make or deny their case? Nope. Not enough time for that.

So while the Emperor pats everyone on the back and declares victory for the new NASA way of dealing with risks, the problem remains. Just talking about a problem does not make it go away or make it right to fly in the face of uncertainty. Just because the NESC folks followed the wrong logic chain, doesn't mean their logic is entirely faulty. Once again, NASA claims the crew will be safe and rescueable, even if my tax money, your tax money, everyone's tax money goes down with the ship in the deep Pacific. Save the crew, lose the national asset. That's ok as long as we are meeting schedule.

Just because the clock is ticking towards 2010, doesn't make it right to launch on Oct 23.

Gut Check

NASA shuttle program managers will lay out the rationale for proceeding with the launch of the space shuttle on October 23. Small defects on three wings panels, two on the orbiter's right wing and one on the left, are at issue in the discussion. The Emperor will listen to the arguments from the program to fly in the face of caution, and from the engineers working for the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) charged with seeing to it that a Columbia-like accident never happens again.

Schedule vs. Prudence.

The shuttle has flown with its heat shield panels and these defects before. Post-flight inspections found that the defects did not appear to worsen after each flight, but engineers have been unable to determine the root cause of the coating loss. "At this point, the space shuttle program has determined that Discovery's astronauts can safely carry out their mission without having to replace the panels," NASA said in a statement.

Sound familiar? It should. Continuing to fly with a known defect that could not be explained fully, but hadn't killed anybody yet, was how we walked down that road to the Columbia accident. Foam flying off of the External Tank became routine until that unfortunate, unlucky day.

Let's hope the shuttle management team takes advantage of the NESC that was formed in the Columbia aftermath to keep such things from happening.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


All's quiet on the eastern front. The Emperor hasn't been heard from in awhile now. Makes you wonder who pulled his chain, doesn't it? And let there be no doubt, his chain got pulled!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Schedule Pressure? What Schedule Pressure?

The NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) has been reviewing degradation of material coating the wings on Space Shuttle Discovery for the past several months. The safety center recommended Wednesday that three panels be replaced before Discovery flies again on Oct 23. But the shuttle program is leaning toward leaving them alone, for now, and proceeding with the launch based on data from other engineers, ignoring NESC.

What is the NESC? Let's read from their overview: "NESC is an independently funded program with a dedicated team of technical experts that provides objective engineering and safety assessments of critical, high-risk projects. This is the charge of the NESC: an organization dedicated to promoting safety through engineering excellence, unaffected and unbiased by the programs it is evaluating. The NESC is a resource and is meant to benefit the programs and organizations within the Agency, the Centers, and the people who work there...Another important function of the NESC is to engage in proactive investigations to identify and address potential concerns before they become major problems."

NESC was formed in the wake of the Columbia accident, piling on yet another layer of review where program engineers could relay their concerns if they felt they had been ignored by their management.

Let's recap the processes and organizations all doing the same job today. First, there is the program itself. If an engineer is correct, and is ignored or not addressed, it is the program manager who should be fired for one of two reasons. Either he ignored his engineer or, if resource concerned to pursue further, he failed to make the proper case to senior management to get the resources needed to resolve the problem. No need for another organizational band-aid to handle walk-around traffic. The buck should stop with the program manager.

But then we also have the Safety and Mission Assurance Organization. And the Chief Engineer's Office. And the Warrant Holders (folks who are supposed to know the systems they are watching as if they were family)...A lot of money is being spent to make sure the programs do their job. Too bad the programs apparently aren't (and if they have, why do we need NESC with all of the other processes in place?). Maybe they should read 7120.5D?

And now, the band-aid says blood may be leaking form a wound and only gets the finger from the program.

Could the Emperor be tapping his watch?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Columbus Day Remembered (Accurately, this time).

Exploration can be hazardous to your health. Your mental health that is. Or maybe just working for the Emperor is. Day in and day out, forced to shun innovation in developing a copy of work carried out by your ancestors, enlarged by several per cent of course. And on the "cloudy" days, like the holidays when we remember the real explorers from our history, the minions must really suffer a crisis of faith.

Witness the latest tome from the Constellation Viceroy. It seems that he wasted his Sunday writing an inspirational piece, along with the countless minutes lost from the lives of his minions who paused to read the resulting drivel. We'll save you the pain of reading it for yourself, save for one telling paragraph repeated here for your displeasure.

In trying to justify the fact that, from the Emperor on down, all have failed to articulate the importance of space exploration, and the ill-formed machines that will enable it, for the common taxpayer, the Viceroy called up historical analogy in his defense. "These people did not set out or justify their exertions by listing to their stakeholders all the discoveries and innovations 'they would surely make'. Yet today we are often held to just such a standard by some - to look into our crystal ball and somehow be able to tell Queen Isabella all we will discover BEFORE we discover it - to somehow and someway know the unknowns before we encounter them - in order to justify the exertion a priori. Those who hold us to such a standard contribute to cutting our own national nose off to spite our face. Even the most casual observer of history should find this absurd."

We casual observers do not find this absurd, nor do we find the analogy accurate.

If the Viceroy had saved the ink in his quill and read, instead of skimmed, the books he attributes his inspiration to, he would have known better. Simpler yet, he could have watched PBS's "THE MAGNIFICENT VOYAGE OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS," and learned that, indeed, Columbus sold his voyage, and thereby earned his endowment, by promising to find an innovative route to the east by going west. The Admiral of the Seas promised to return with gold, spices, and other riches.

In the run-up to 1492, Columbus was spurned multiple times by potential benefactors. Only with specificity of intent came eventual investment. The same should hold true today. Perhaps, the Viceroy of Constellation should stop pontificating and start defending.

Rushing Roulette

The ARES-1 Emergency Escape System (EES) is a roller coaster like system for evacuating astronauts or other personnel working on the launch pad in the event of an emergency.

The space shuttle has a similar system, albeit nothing more than a basket that flies away from the pad on a guy wire carrying astronauts to safety. This time around, the minions quickly decided to go to something a little more sturdy and a little less nerve racking (considering it will be used in the ultimate nerve racking situation to begin with), or so they thought. Just as they rushed ESAS, this rushed design turned out to be faulty as well.

It turns out, the new system had to be redesigned to reduce the g-forces on personnel escaping the pad. It seems that the Emperor's comically ineffectual ACME ride designers weren't able to come up with a system that satisfied the astronauts. Lacking the competence to do so themselves, the minions turned to the folks at Disney to help redesign the ride. Thank heavens for Space Mountain!

These same minions are trying to design the new rockets, spacecraft, and lunar landers, yet can't satisfactorily solve the simple escape ride problem on their own. We're just hoping that Wile E. Coyote won't be called in next to solve ARES' multiplicity of problems.

Monday, October 8, 2007

What have you done for me lately?

With the 50th anniversary of Sputnik last week, the Emperor's minions put out a torrent of press releases pointing out how our daily lives have been affected by the space program. Unfortunately, the releases did nothing more than perpetuate another great urban myth: space program spin-offs.

It appears to be very popular today to attribute the existence of every gadget we own to its beginnings in the space program. Lazy press correspondents regurgitate these releases without actually taking the time to verify the heritage of these claims. Along with every story comes the mandatory disclosure about Tang or Teflon or Velcro, always associated with the space program, but whose existence was not inspired by it. Too bad these same writers are not looking deeper before reprinting the new falsehoods.

Our cell phones, it is said, came from the space program. Too bad they were invented in 1947 by AT&T long before the first man left the earth to join the 62 mile high club. Heart defibrillators (and many other medical devices, no doubt) would never have been invented, it is said, if not for our desire to walk on the moon. How is it then, that the first human life was saved by one in Cleveland, also in 1947?

Sure, some developments were sped along by the requirements of space flight. Most of those advances came about in mathematics and materials. And most of those advances came in the period leading up to our first forays into space, 1955-1965 or so. Ancient history. How long must we continue to relive our glorious past as if it was happening still today? Just what has the program done for us lately?

The answer: not much.

The space shuttle flies with computers designed in the 1970s. Its newly installed glass cockpit comes not from advances spun out by technologists in the employ of the Emperor, but rather spun in by the commercial aviation industry. ARES and ORION are retro-designs best described by "Apollo on steroids." Just what is so advanced about a solid rocket booster designed over 30 years ago? Why are we going back to flying capsules through our very aerodynamic atmosphere? Will ORION employ some new fangled technology to compute its trajectories to and from the space station? No, the same computers flying in a 787 will probably be employed. Not much you could call a spin-off there.

Can we all agree then to one thing? Our human space flight program, as defined today, is not making our lives better, not pumping our economy, and not spinning out useful devices for our personal use. More accurately, the space program is benefiting from all of the other industries advancing our economy today. If ARES and ORION disappeared we would not become a third world country, our economy would not decline, and our cell phones will still continue to shrink in size over time.

The Emperor's lack of innovation goes hand-in-hand with his elimination of technology development programs. The repeated reliance on ancient claims of spin-offs, revisted again on this anniversary of Sputnik, continues to obfuscate his reliance on historical designs and lack of forward thinking. It is very difficult to drive a car forward with any success when only looking backwards through the rear-view mirror.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Physio-economics 101 (a.k.a., Rocket $cience)

Over the last 50 years or so, rocket scientists have come up with all sorts of schemes to reduce the cost of getting around the physics of the problem of getting to orbit. The thing is, rocket scientists should have taken more economics classes when they had the chance.

To understand the problem, in a vastly oversimplified sort of way, we need to go back to the Big Bang. About that time, the laws of physics were cast for the universe we live in. Flash forward about 14 billion years and those same laws drove the evolution of a collection of cosmic dust in the neighborhood we find ourselves in today. That neighborhood, our solar system, came alive when some of that dust collected into the round globe we call the earth. Formed at a comfortable distance from a glowing orb called the sun, our planet evolved into a giant chemistry set, and life arose out of the swamp. Every atom, every molecule, every chemical reaction driven by laws of physics. Or something like that.

The earth pulls everything on its surface down towards its center with a force we generically describe as "gravity." Our planet also has a thin layer of gases that resist attempts to move through them with a property we typically call "friction." Both of these forces conspire to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground, or moving slowly near it. To overcome these forces, and leave behind the surly bonds, we need to gather up a lot of energy and expend it in one way or another such that the object we want to move is accelerated to "orbital velocity."

Rockets are one means of accomplishing this. We ignite some "propellant" that expands out of a nozzle and Newton's first and third laws of motion take care of the rest. Time to get the equations out? F=ma. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The hotter the propellant, the more energy is released, and the more force is created to move the rocket. The burning propellant produces a thrust that accelerates the rocket up, up, and away.

We told you this would be oversimplified! Hang in there.

Again physics helps us burn the propellant in a (usually) contained and controlled fashion and gets us moving in the direction opposite of the one in which we wish to travel. The materials we use in the rocket engines, in the fuel tanks, and in the structures supporting the whole lot, are also bound by the same physical laws set up at the end of the Big Bang. So to deal with the forces involved, we need some minimal amount of material, with some minimal amount of strength to hold the whole thing together, pushing through the friction of the atmosphere and leaving gravity behind. When all of the propellant is gone, what we have left we call the payload.

Enough rocket science. Let's recap. Big Bang. Physical laws set. Stuck on ground. Don't want to be. Get a rocket. Move payload to orbit.

So how much does this all cost? Time to match up economics with the rocket science. The less stuff we need to make for our rocket, in general, the less it will cost us, right? Engineers have worked very hard to develop minimal solutions for rockets. They have optimized the designs to get the most performance they can out of the collection of parts that make up a rocket. They have minimized the amount of material used to build the rockets. And they have tried to minimize the processes used to build the rockets. Optimization, less materials, less process should result in lower costs. But lower relative to what? At some point you just have to conclude that to overcome the physics of the Big Bang, there is some minimal price you have to pay to safely and reliably convert potential energy into kinetic energy and move a pound of payload to orbit. That is the bottom line.

We contend that we are almost there. It is highly unlikely that some new material or process breakthrough, short of the Star Trek transporter, will radically reduce the cost of launching through our atmosphere. So what are we to make of the boasts and claims of the new age rocketeers who hope to radically drop that cost while dealing with the very same physics? Sorry, have to call B.S. on them.

There are only a couple of ways left to cut costs. You can pay your employees less. You can skimp on designs and margins, resulting in a less reliable vehicle. Or you can try and bring reusability into play.

The problem with reusability is that you first have to add more materials to the rocket to give it the capability to repeatedly deal with the physics of launch and recovery. Then you have to almost put it through the same inspection process that a non-reusable system goes through as it is assembled to make sure it is safe and reliable to launch again. So where is the cost savings in all that? Witness the Space Shuttle. The ultimate reusable vehicle. That's how it was sold to the country and to Congress. Yet the reality is far different than its development plan would have led you to expect. Reusability is no panacea.

Is there no hope? Well, we have one thing left in our bag of tricks. Quantity. Today we tend to buy rockets one at a time. Its an artifact of the government budgeting process. Either way you look at it, if you can buy parts in quantity to build rockets that you plan to fly frequently, the price of launch will come down. Way down. Just ask the Russians. Or any other economics major. Imagine how much that SUV would cost if GM bought engine blocks one at a time for each order they get for a car!

So you see, we don't need any new rockets made with 2.0 processes. The ones we already have will do quite well, thank you very much. What we need to do is cut contracts for quantity buys of those rockets. Then rocket makers can buy their parts in quantity. And rocket part makers can spread their overhead over more than one part at a time. And give better prices to the rocket makers. Who, in turn, can give much better prices to their customers. Customers who will now fly more often.

Now why didn't the Emperor think of that? Could it be that he doesn't count economics among the multitude of degrees Congress fawned over? Shame. Because if he had taken those courses when he had the chance we might not be on the side of the dock waving bon voyage to the Chinese.

Friday, October 5, 2007

COTS: Theater of the Damned

Like all Emperors, our least favorite likes to surround himself with dancing minions providing entertainment and merriment to his liking. His theater on E street is filled with the voices of the choir, always in lockstep with their employer, even as he repeatedly sings out of key. And, like all good monopolies, the E Street theater puts on a single show and abhors competition.

Unfortunately, His Royal Lowness' theater had to go dark for renovations for a number of years. New sets, new decorations, new players were being readied in the wings to once again light up the night. But those who seek regular entertainment clamoured for an alternative to fill the gap. The cacophony of the Emperor's subjects became so great, that the Emperor had no choice but to relent and allow a couple of small theater troupes an opportunity to placate the masses. Of course, the Emperor only sought to quiet the din, not to open the door to competition for his fabled theater. Among his minions he called his plan for subversive domination by a single code-word: "COTS."

As part of the plan, the Emperor appeared as benefactor, offering small sums of cash to the new players to put together a show of modest quality. The cash allowed the groups to initially pay monthly entertainment license fees to the Emperor and to begin to construct backdrops for their shows. With this meager start, the troupes set out with tin cups and small dance routines, seeking additional funds to fulfill their aspiring dreams.

And, just when these groups started to show signs of success, the Emperor exercised the second part of his well thought out plan. He brought in a Russian ballet troupe to divert attention from his closed theater and he printed flyers suggesting that other opportunities for other players might be forthcoming. As you might expect, the change stopped dropping in the tin cups of our small group of friends, tarnishing their ambitions and dashing their dreams.

And so the Emperor never had to worry about anyone suggesting that his own theater might be too pricey or overbuilt. The Emperor repeated this scenario a couple of more times for his own entertainment. In the end, he lost interest in his little game and just waited for his own theater to reopen.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Feeding the Addiction

The Senate decided today to add $1 billion to NASA's largess. Led by Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, our Congressfolk favored feeding the addiction over interdiction. Instead of doing the job we elected them to do, that is to ascertain the health and status of our exploration program and see that our taxes are spent wisely, they blindly afforded the Emperor even more resources with which to fulfill his compulsion.

You'd think that your friends at RocketsAndSuch would be jumping up and down with such apparently good news. Who would look at a cool $1B and not want to immediately stuff it in their wallets? Why the disappointment? Here's why. Instead of pushing good money after bad into the space agency veins, Congress should be asking a basic question, "What are the objectives of our exploration program?"

Really? We don't know what the objectives are yet? Sadly, we don't. What is it that we plan to accomplish on the moon and how will we benefit from it? This is basic stuff that, after almost two years, the Emperor still hasn't been able to provide answers for. Despite providing for a significant endowment every year, Congress has listened to the threadbare Emperor's pleas, yet failed to ask why he is not wearing clothes.

We're not done asking the questions Congress should be asking. "Why do the Constellation designs have so many technical problems requiring band-aid solutions that add cost, weight, and schedule time to their resolution? What promised capabilities are now being removed because the solutions do not close? How is the education pipeline being affected by the withdrawl of technology development programs at the universities? Is the procurement approach being used to design and build these new systems damaging our strategically important aerospace industry experience base? What are the real costs of transitioning from the space shuttle to the new systems?"

And, what if we had to live within our means? Shouldn't Congress be asking, "What kind of balanced space program could we have for $17B a year?"

Last but not least, "Why won't the Emperor's new designs be ready to close the human space flight gap being opened up with the retirement of the space shuttle? How is it that the Emperor's solutions are taking so long to build that China, who is just getting started with a space program, will beat us back to the moon?"

Oh yeah, we already have the Emperor's answer to that one: "I think when that happens, Americans will not like it. But they will just have to not like it.''

He's right about that! We are not going to like it. And we shouldn't have to. His defeatist answer is unbecoming of an American. If Congress was doing its job, asking even some of the questions posed above, we would be getting better value for our investments.

We've just seen what the subprime loan market meltdown did to our economy. Is it too much to expect Congress to ask the same questions any competent bank loan officer should ask before providing funds to finish a project?

Happy Birthday, Sputnik!

50 years ago today, a small inanimate sphere sailed into history and changed the world forever.

Perhaps the Emperor should consider doing the same today.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Freedom's Just Another Word...

The Emperor, who had previously only held sway over small inconsequential dominions, now finds himself directing a $17B enterprise for which he is ill-prepared to lead. That this is so only became more evident in his recent note to one of his minions, who also finds himself in over his head.

You see, NASA has a guidebook for how to run programs. Like all heavy NASA documents it is better known by a number rather than a name. 7120.5. Now in its fourth revision, it is an oxymoronic document. If NASA had good managers, they wouldn't need a handbook. For the managers that they have, a handbook won't really do them any good.

And now we find out that if the handbook gets in the way, it is time to throw it away.

From the Emperor's quill: "The institution devises and imposes standards and processes solely for the purpose of aiding programs to be successful, not as a matter of doctrinaire adherence to a standard of 'technical purity.' There is no such thing as a 'successful' independent review board, or a 'successful' NASA, without a successful Cx. If 7120.5D does not serve Cx well, meaning help produce a good outcome, it is the document that will be revised, not Cx."

Put another way, if anything representing good management principles should get in the way of executing a NASA program it is OK to ignore the offending barrier. When there are no immutable requirements, no processes immune to being jettisoned, no metrics by which to judge success, no calendar to adhere to, it becomes easy for failure to stay disguised for long periods of time. The freedom to manage programs without discipline, making up the rules as you go along, working without guide wires or constraints, usually comes about at the point where you say you have "nothing left to lose."

Janis Joplin would surely be dismayed if she were around today to see such a misappropriation of her prescient words.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Looking Backwards

The Emperor, speaking on his archaic programs, said at a recent space conference, "We have here a program which is affordable, sustainable and which can be highly correlated to historical successes and developments from the past."

Highly correlated to historical successes from the past?

As Burt Rutan again rightly put it, kids today are more inspired by the iPhone than by exploration. Kids are about the future, not the past. And our space program should be too.