Thursday, February 28, 2008

Bait and Switch

Many months ago we pointed out the dangers of specifying a design instead of deriving one from requirements. Many previous entries have expounded on the results. Finally, others closer to the problems are speaking out.

Av Week: "NASA's planned Ares V heavy lift vehicle can't meet its lunar-mission requirements as currently conceived, and will need beefing up...But even with expansion from earlier concepts to a full 10-meter diameter all the way up to the fairing that will cover the Altair lunar lander, allowing the upper stage to carry more propellant, Ares V still falls short, according to Phil Sumrall, advanced planning manager in the Exploration Launch Projects Office at Marshall Space Flight Center. "The payload requirements are very driving and very difficult to get to, and frankly our vehicle today is close but doesn't quite meet those mission requirements," Sumrall told the Third Space Exploration Conference & Exhibit [in Denver] Feb. 26."

Now ARES V might become ARES VI with six engines. The Emperor's common element approach may not employ common elements after all. The SRB casings and fuel could change to get added performance. Time to add back those reduced development and life cycle costs being touted as a benefit of the ARES I/V common concept. It might not fit out the door of the VAB as it grows longer than the Saturn V. Worse still, today's shuttle's launch pad is not wide enough for the ARES VI. One solution offered to that problem involves tipping over the rocket slightly to make it fit. Maybe Steve Cook will just go out and hold it like the leaning Tower of Pisa?

Have to hand it to those ESAS guys. Bragging about how they accomplished in 60 days (ok, it was more like 120) what no one before them could pull off. Now we see the fruit of their efforts.

Haste makes waste.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tick Tick Tick

The scaffold is being constructed. The hood is being sewn. In the distance the torches and pitchforks are approaching. The dog days of summer are almost upon us.

By late summer, the cathedral building will come to a halt. No more Steve Cook mythbusting charts. The sticks and strings which cause Doug Cooke to dance will break and fray. The Queen's refuge destroyed. And the carnival on E Street will go silent.

All Empires eventually crumble. And most Emperors, especially the non-benevolent kind lacking wardrobe and seeking to avoid public embarrassment in courts of law, usually come to non-descript ends. That is the fate the Emperor himself has now embraced and shared with a few of his closest minions.

The throne will be empty before the next autumnal equinox.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Nor'easter A'Blowin'

The east coast of the U.S. is experiencing miserable weather today. Freezing cold, ice, and snow. And the winds are so fierce in D.C. today, that the wind chill can be felt in Houston.

Wayne Hale, #1 shuttle hugger, has been sacked. A rift in the Force has occurred.

Of course, no one is really ever fired from the senior executive service. They are only re-assigned and moved from their home port to a remote location until they decide to give in and find other employment. In Hale's case, he will move to the ice coast and serve at Viceroy Gerst's side as a DoD liaison watching RS-68s come off the assembly line. That's what he gets for falling on his sword and getting in the way of the Constellation Program, protecting his test stands at Stennis and his floor space at Michoud.

And you can bet that Viceroy Hanley is walking a little bow-legged today. But he better watch his back now. The angry bear has been awakened.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Four is the Loneliest Number

One of our favorite sister blogs asked some pertinent ORION/ARES design questions of NASA recently and posted the answers today. When asked if contractors or civil servants were working on CEV designs with reduced crew sizes, the Emperor's minions reported a firm "no" to the questions. Of course, that can be parsed in several ways to allow the respondent to maintain plausible deniability. Who in the chain of command actually has asked for the analysis is not any clearer today that it was before the question was asked. We just know the direction maybe didn't originate on E street. But the small contractor team working the issue would certainly respond otherwise if they had been asked.

Unfortunately, the requisite follow-up questions were not asked. What is the current weight situation on ARES/ORION? What is on the mass equipment list, for real, and what is still lurking off on the side on the risk list? How many requirements are still in the parking lot? And just how much mass is going to go into solving the ARES vibration attenuation problem so that the astronaut's chest cavities and bladders remain in one piece after the ride to orbit?

Red Alert!

At first blush it appears that the Red Planet is up to its old tricks again. Wreaking havoc with those that seek to unlock its mysteries. But this time, first impressions are incorrect. Mars is innocent.

The problem, of course, is one that we have become all too familiar with in reviewing the Emperor's enormous human space flight designs. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) suffers from issues of scale. A good idea gone too big. As we have learned over the last few months, instead of building a small chapel and using the remaining resources to improve living conditions for the poor, the Emperor's minions favor building large cathedrals at the expense of the impoverished.

MSL is so big that it requires a brand new "helicopter-like" rocket landing system to land safely on the red dirt, dispensing with the tried and true airbag system proved on Mars Pathfinder and the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Instead of splitting MSL into two pieces, say a rover and a powerpack, landing both inside airbags, and giving the remaining funds to the next mission, JPL just had to go invent something new and expensive. And because they were so caught up in the thrill of their new development, they overlooked the mundane problem of atmospheric entry and heat shields.

Indeed, a year or so before launch, the SLA-561V material used to breech Mars' atmosphere previously has now been found to be inadequate for safely entering MSL. Kind of late to find this out, isn't it?

So now, JPL has a big problem that is extending beyond its walls in the San Gabriel mountains. This week, Constellation Viceroy Hanley dispatched several thermal engineers from his purview to Southern California to assess the use of Orion's heat shield material, called PICA, for MSL. Tens of millions dollars more will be spent creating this new shield. On top of the millions spent for the helicopter rockets. But, that's not all.

It is quite possible that this new heat shield might not be available in time for MSL's original launch date. Now a large share of the 800+ folks working this mission will either have to be kept around for up to two years (when the new launch opportunity comes around) or they will be walking the streets of Pasadena in short order. That's because MSL is consuming resources at an alarming rate from other missions that might have picked up the slack if not for MSL's ravenous appetite. We'll certainly be hearing soon about the impact to the Mars Exploration budget and the outcries from the Prinicipal Investigators whose missions will be delayed or cancelled as a result of this oversight and overrun.

So when will the lesson be learned? "Smaller and frequent" is always better than "bigger and far-between."

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

And the winner is...


Well, what we found out today is that the Big Fish won't be playing in the small pond. It hurts to have existing hardware and a working rocket. It sure pays to be a FOM ("friend of Mike"). And we also found out, as expected, what a sham COTS is after all.

Yet another rocket that will miraculously jump off the paper at Wallops to save the day in 2010. Just what this country needs. NOT. And its a replacement rocket for the Delta II that the government has said it can no longer afford. No proposal for crew carrying capabilities. A foreign provided pressurized carrier. Use of DART mission capabilities for prox ops at ISS. Alan, dear friend, did you not read the DART failure reports your very own S&MA groups produced??

While our predictions for COTS have not been very accurate so far, primarily because we believed, no, hoped, a real effort to obtain services commercially would be undertaken with the program. Nevertheless, we'll make another prediction now. You won't be hearing about COTS much come this time two years from now.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Spring Cleaning

The smells of spring are in the air. Pollen, dust, and rotting mulch. Time to get out the buckets, mops, and rags and tidy up the old homestead. Viceroy Hanley's domain is no different. And its about time for a clean sweep.

Handed his budget for this year, Hanley is having to make some drastic cut backs and hope for the best. Next week, at his management retreat in Utah (we wonder home much retreating will be accomplished among the skiing?), he'll lay out his reduced program for all of the minions to see. Systems engineering, the so far poorly stirred glue of the program, will be the first to suffer by the axe. As Squire Hardcastle departs, many of his fellow SIG (systems engineering group) buddies will be following him out the door as Hanley limits the participation in each SIG to but two people.

But the real cuts are going to be handed to the ARES Upper Stage effort. No amount of Formula 409 will be able to clean up the mess that is about to be spilled. With moths in his wallet, Hanley is going to cut back significantly (again) on propulsion system and structural testing of the stage. Despite the weight problem in the entire vehicle, he is also going to mandate that the minions in Huntsville dispense with the idea of building any part of it out of composites. Why give up this potential weight savings, you ask? Well, in the eyes of the program, metal is a lot easier (read: cheaper) to analyze. So by eliminating composites in the Upper Stage, Hanley can take a lot of analysis and test costs out of the development program. And, hey, if you're only flying four people to the space station, you just might make the weight with this approach after all.

Apollo on Slim-Fast, anyone?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Giving Up On Steroids

Poor Roger "the Rocket" Clemens. You could almost see him shrinking on the stand yesterday as he proclaimed his innocence. Whether you believe he did it or not, we have now been educated in the dangers inherent in trying to bulk yourself into something you shouldn't be.

The Emperor's self-proclaimed,"Apollo on steroids" is facing the same fate. We've discussed many times here how overweight ORION is, at 5m diameter and six crew to ISS, exceeding the capability of the ill-formed ARES I rocket to lift it. Now it seems that the minions have run out of design tricks to get the weight back in the box. All but one, that is, and they are studying this one hard.

The CEV contractor has been asked to quietly address the weight issue by reducing the crew size to four for trips to the ISS and see how that helps. That appears to be the only way the capsule will limbo under the wire. And the implications are just as astounding.

Four crew to ISS means a CEV and a Soyuz would always have to be docked to bring six crew back in the event of an emergency evacuation. Alternately, the permanent crew size on ISS might have to be reduced to four. So instead of a full complement of Americans onboard, perhaps just one with the car keys is all that we can afford?

The much smaller Apollo was once configured to carry five astronauts back from Skylab in the event of a primary taxi failure. Now the Emperor's folly, steroids and all, appears unlikely to achieve that very level of performance.

Columbus Sets Sail

Its hard to believe, but the space station has finally witnessed the arrival of the European's Columbus module. Reading the press, one would believe that it was pulled out of the box, batteries installed, and viola', it works just like it is supposed to. Unfortunately, as in most cases, life is never as it seems.

Columbus is having its share of hiccups. Commands have to be sent twice to gets things turned on. What should be steady status bits toggle on and off. Cooling loops are not working as advertised. Sounds like normal birthing pains, no? Why should this be of concern?

Why we are worried, and not just for Columbus but for all of ISS, is that Columbus experienced none of these issues on the ground when supposedly tied into a replica of the ISS flight software systems. The fact that it is experiencing these issues on-orbit means that the minions do not understand the configuration they have on-orbit...and have not replicated it faithfully on the ground. And not having a known configuration makes for tough troubleshooting when time is short.

What other surprises await? It will only become more complicated, with trouble lurking around each successive corner, as more pieces and parts are added, moving towards assembly complete. Some time needs to be allocated for working through these issues, to understand the real configuration, and to develop an understanding of the implications on continued operations. Not doing so is a recipe for disaster.

And Then There Were....

Well, one less anyway, as another of the big mice jumps ship this week. Squire Chris Hardcastle, who has brought confusion and more viewgraphs than one would think possible to Constellation systems engineering, is about to depart for more forgiving pastures. Having accomplished his goal of getting his support contract bids in the door, he is now ready to move on.

Given the sorry state of affairs he leaves behind, we will watch with great interest who takes his seat next.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

All's Quiet on the E Street Front

It's been a quiet week in never never land. Well, not really, but you've heard all this news before. It's like the summer re-runs, but summer isn't here yet.

The Emperor launched into a tirade blaming the failure of his follies on the "losers" who didn't get the contracts for ORION and ARES. Funny, how is it that the losers know so much about the major technical issues facing these systems? Yet there are more tiger teams up and running now than you can shake a stick at. Why is it that PDR has now slipped six months then? You know the answer to the first question. But the answer to the second is that PDR really should have been slipped a year as Viceory Hanley originally wanted to do. The reason it is only slipping six months is that the Emperor wants to sit in on a Systems Performance Review before he is replaced by the next administration. So we must have a PDR before December.

But how can that PDR happen when MLAS and land vs. water probably won't have been resolved by then. Or will they? And if the answers are that close at hand, then why is the Emperor wasting Hanley's precious resources on them at this late stage. In a word: jobs.

The other "losers" will meet this week in California to proclaim a new vision for space exploration. Perhaps they should take a page from one of the other historical groups who broke off from the pack to heed a new vision. Witness the results of Mitt Romney's campaign, after all.

And finally, the latest set of "losers" for COTS will be announced this week. Delayed one week by the shuttle launch, we will find out just how uncommerical commercial space is about to become.

Just after the STS-122 launch, we learned that the Europeans really don't have a "stomach for space travel" after all.

In the background, the shuttle huggers now have enough material in hand for 17 tanks. Last we checked there were only 12 or so flights to go before 2010. Despite public proclaimations to the contrary, the huggers are not giving ground to Constellation at Michoud or Stennis. The floor space and key test stands still have "do not disturb" signs on them.

Like we said, not much has changed this week.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Handicapping COTS

This week the theater on E street will once again light up to introduce a new cast of characters gathered to accept a pittance from the Emperor in exchange for dancing proudly for him in public. Or will they be that new after all?

COTS 2.0 ostensibly will be announced this week. Let's review the bidding.

Spacehab is hanging by one hand at graveside. Orbital has a plan for "yet another rocket" while SpaceX is already supposed to be far down the road on their new one. PlanetSpace has brought ATK and LM into the fold for credibiliy, has cash, and begins to look like the "most likely to succeed"company in the 2008 yearbook. And then, there is Boeing.

Boeing! Not Andrews? That's right.

So Boeing, with its deep pockets, understanding of the problem, and most trusted vendor of Viceroy Gerst is standing at the threshold of filling "the gap." If the stigma of being a big guy playing in the little guy's pond can be overcome, Boeing will provide the country with a viable solution to fill this extremely strategic need. And COTS will be exposed for the sham that it is.

And the demise of Orion/Ares won't be far behind.

Pressure to Perform

Poor Viceroy Hanley. The guy just can't get a break. And that, of course, will eventually break him.

The Orion/ARES program are haltingly being pushed by the Emperor towards a PDR this year. Despite numerous open technical issues, including the supposedly unresolved landing and abort modes, PDR is stuck on the calendar. How do you hold a PDR if you are not in a position to select ALAS over MLAS and might change the entire aerodynamic configuration of the launch vehicle after that PDR?

Hanley tried managing the program, slipped the ARES 1Y launch date, and promptly got called up the hill. "Jeff Screwed Up," was the Emperor's quote to the assembled masses at a breakfast a couple of weeks ago. One wonders how the "screw-up" can get up in the morning, look himself in the mirror, and convince himself he is anything more than a puppet. And Marsha's puppet at that.

Since then, Hanley has tried a couple of times to get the PDRs moved to the right. Give him credit. But, the Emperor is unrelenting. He wants to leave the throne having gotten PDR behind him and a systems review that follows on the books. No matter how incomplete or ineffective. Its a mockery of the process. And its costing us, all of us taxpayers, a lot of money that is being wasted on the incomplete design of these systems that will never see the light of day.

Any self-respecting program manager would do the honorable thing at this point and throw his badge on the table. And he would become a hero in the process, opening everyone's eyes to the lack of cloth on his boss's misbegotten plans.