Wednesday, January 9, 2008

That's Heavy, Man.

The jury is still out on whether the universe is inflating. But not so for poor Orion. Our favorite Constellation is a little paunchy around its belt. And now despite the minions' protestations, denial has taken hold of the Emperor's folly.

Orion is overweight. And not by a little. But before we get into the details, let's understand how the program tracks weight and manages risks. Some of the discussion may enlighten you as to why the weight problem exists in the first place.

On most aerospace vehicle programs, capability requirements are specified by the "customer" which lead to the definition of sizing trade studies. These studies will answer questions like: How fast? How far? How long? How much work needs to get done? With that information, designers can explore options for meeting the requirements with various subsystems configured in a variety of ways. Optimization occurs, some give and take on the requirements happens, and a design results.

Not so for our chubby friend. The Emperor cut to the chase and asked for a 5m diameter capsule, carrying six large people (four to the moon), and a capability to land on land. Is such a beast really needed to ensure our strategic access to space in a timely fashion? Who knows? Real operational concept and life cycle analysis has never been done for any part of Constellation. Why, then, were these hard-wired specs handed down from on high?

Let's start with the 5m spec. We've talked about this before, but to refresh, a 5m capsule won't fit on existing EELVs. That means the Emperor had to build his own new rocket, ARES-1. The revolving door spinning, stick promoting, maybe jail-bound if there is justice in this world, 'Doc' sold his former and probably future employer's solid rocket booster as the alternative answer to DoD's shiny, available, paid for rockets. With a rocket in hand, and some sleight of hand analysis, available payload weight was computed and allocated to Orion.

Other specifications similarly came along without justification. Take the three pilots' displays in the current Orion baseline configuration. No operational concept was worked to determine the workload for the pilots and, in bottoms-up fashion, determining the kinds and format of information to be displayed to the pilots. Such analysis was not performed to yield the number of displays that would be needed to present the information required to fly the vehicle. No, a tried and usually flawed method was used to specify the number of displays: a number was pulled out of some one's rear-end. And that number was three. The program still couldn't tell you what will be on those displays, or justify a response if they guessed, because they haven't done the studies yet. But there are three displays in Orion and each one weighs something.

And when you add up all the weight required to support a 5m capsule, with four 99 percentile-sized crew a trip to the moon, with safety and redundancy concerns accounted for, you quickly find yourself with what the program is calling "6000 pounds of risk." The risk, of course, is to Orion being able to be lifted off the pad by the ARES-1.

This terminology, however, represents more sleight-of-hand. For you see, by pushing some of that weight off the books into the "risk" category, the minions are able to tell the Emperor that everything is A-OK. Unfortunately, that is not the case. In fact, fully 2000 pounds of that risk today is deemed to be "category 5," must have, to meet minimal mission requirements. Orion simply won't be able to safely carry astronauts without it. But right now, it sits in the risk category, and the Emperor can tell Congress with a crooked face that he is on his weight targets.

1 comment:

Mr. X said...

I find it ironic that during the Constellation CE&R studies, several of the contractors proposed capsules that were 4.5m in diameter or smaller. And a cursory reading of the ESAS report reveals that there were no trades as to the optimal capsule diameter or volume.

I've heard things like "5m was the smallest capsule that could accept six crew with one bank of seats," and how two banks of seats was somehow unsafe in a hard landing.

Of course, none of those things have stopped SpaceX from designing a capsule that's 3.6m in diameter with seven passengers seated in two rows. At the rate things are going, Dragon has a better chance of making it to space than Orion.