Friday, July 4, 2008

Marginal Paranoia

Paranoia is a symptom in which an individual feels as if the world is "out to get" him or her. The latest publicized failure of Elon Musk's new Merlin 1C engine has him standing down launch of the third Falcon 1 it will attempt to take to space. A weld defect in the engine nozzle got through SpaceX's "rigorous inspection process."

"By our calculations and by our tests that should be safe for flight," Musk said. "However, in the interest of paranoia we are going to change the nozzle."

Instead of more self-referential flim-flam, you'd think the interest would be a.) why was there not sufficient margin in the weld to begin with, b.) how did this defect make it through the inspection process, and c.) what else made it through the white gloves and is still lurking about, waiting to turn this third launch into yet another excuse-fest?

You'd think the Emperor and Chief Engineer of the Universe would have whispered into our aloof friend's ear over and over: "Margins, Margins, Margins."

Or maybe that was all part of the plan to begin with. No wonder OMB, savvy members of Congress, minions, and the E Street Band laugh at the thought of COTS-inspired vehicles filling the gap the Emperor has created.


Anonymous said...

I wish Musk and company well, but how many times can he casually brush off major engineering concerns like this before SpaceX takes a serious credibility hit?

It's not that their business success depnds on public credibility (I wouldn't blame him if he didn't give a flying fig about public opinion), but cred with their customers (real and potential) IS an important consideration and isn't helped by major engineering and manufacturing flaws sneaking by.

The big aerospace guys had their problems too with their new EELVs, but they had their heritage records to show they knew what they were doing. That's not a cushion SpaceX has got.

Anonymous said...

"No wonder OMB, savvy members of Congress, minions, and the E Street Band laugh at the thought of COTS-inspired vehicles filling the gap the Emperor has created."

Nevertheless, I still think there should be a well-funded COTS round for crew transportation, in part to fill in (some of) the growing gap. There's nothing that says such a competition has to be won by SpaceX or (if they're even interested) Orbital. It could be won by some EELV-based proposal, a NewSpace upstart, a hybrid of U.S. systems and existing foreign ones, or even something with Shuttle heritage. Perhaps Bigelow would even pitch in.

The longer we wait to kick off the competition, the more painful the results of the gap will be.

Alpha Lupi said...

Reading this blog maxes out my pessimism meter. Ares/Orion won't work. DIRECT isn't any better. SpaceX is run by a moron. Orbital must surely have bribed "The Emporer" to get its COTS contract. And for that matter, COTS itself is laughable. Soyuz is likely to kill someone soon. Is anything going right?

Anonymous said...

Is anything going right?

The SSMEs are still working great!

Only a completely uniformed idiot would suggest that we NOT immediately apply our EELV assets to the problems of human space flight in America, and only a complete ignoramus would suggest that we retire the SSMEs without embarking on some kind of RLV demonstration project using them.

It's that bad. Wait, it's worse :

Pessimism does not even begin to describe the situation that America finds itself in with the Bush Administration and its cronies, and the mindless masses that still feign support or ignorance of them.

Seriously, it must be lead in the water and mercury in the fillings.

We are talking about a tragically dumb populace, and mindlessly idiotic representatives elected to lead them, like lemmings, off a cliff. You still continually hear things like 'STAY THE COURSE'.

I will not be surprised at all when McBain wins this next election.

You voted for it, you bought it, and now all you have to do is figure out how to pay for something you will likely never receive.

Anonymous said...

Wow, the chinese were losing 1/4th of the long march's in the early 1990's by the 3rd failure
they had basically lost all their international
clients except iridium.

SpaceX splashes 1 or 2 more, and that's about it.

Anonymous said...

Well, Musk comes from Silicon Valley. If you spend any amount of time out there, you realize that the entire high tech industry is built on buggy and imperfection-filled products that are, as often as not, just barely functional enough to release.

If you hit on something that a lot of people find valuable (as Elon did), you can make a load of money no matter how crappy the product performs. Get tossed out in a boardroom coup, cash out those stock options, and let the engineers worry about fixing all the flaws in your product.

Elon is now in a field where the margins are slim to none and the customer base is very small. You screw up, you end up putting a lot of expensive hardware on the bottom of the ocean. Or killing your crew.

SpaceX's two failures are less worrisome than Elon's rhetorical excesses (calling the second flight a "success" and declaring Falcon 1 "operational" come to mind). I'm not sure he has ever mentally left the Valley, where such hubris actually seems to work. The fact that the Sea Launch exec lasted only six months at SpaceX was not a good sign.

Anonymous said...

the entire constellation program is negative
margin. the orion, the ares,Altair
far too many problems, far too many
challenges, far too little performance

but that's what happens when you start
with zero margin for anything.
Apollo started with 20% perfarmance,
20% structure and 100% cost margin

Anonymous said...

I can tell you WRT the recent recompete of COTS or was it CRT - whatever- that the contractual language was what stopped one major aerospace company from even submitting a bid. Despite having spent quite a bit of B&P money on the proposal. When NASA puts in language that effectively says: you can invest all this money and I can terminate without liability and may never place any order without penalty you have to be an idiot to engage with them. This is not a contract in the classical sense- it is a kind of perverted game.

NASA leadership have serious personal issues that bar them from engaging with the folks that know the most about launch vehicles. How one man's personal foibles are allowed to squander tens of billions on pipe dreams is a total mystery to me- but it does show a major weakness in NASA management. When there is someone competent at the helm they have almost no minders to serve- very efficient. When there is someone incompetent there there is no means of countering bad decision making. Except by the bluntest methods of brute budget manipulations.

Atlas proposed a commercially viable extension to existing designs (phased to meet real demands) that extended to a performance sweet spot at 80mt to LEO. You could go to 130mt but it was way off optimal economics. By the time NASA cargos were ready we would have had 50 flights on the new hardware. Now that's how you show real-world reliability. We thought it was a winner. This whole launch vehicle project, bloated with management uncertainty factors, was officially priced and came up to less than $3B. It had NO major new engines, one upper stage tank and one booster tank as major development items. Engineering was appalled at that number- how could we compete. Little did we know that NASA would be perfectly happy to spend ten times that! For a one-use system! Based on junk-yard wars designs! What planet are we on Scotty?! BTW this also contributed the Orion service module and LSAM descent module - you got those nearly for free.

The main point was lost on them: point designs, no matter how excellent, are dead from the start since they have no commercial usage. You must develop hardware that shares overheads with other users or you will be killed economically. Saturn was not a "bad" design. It died because it had no other use or users.

A whole architecture, based on the systematic establishment and accumulation of assets (using the mind-boggling concept that missions are not independent but linked) in L1/LLO and on the lunar surface was based on this practical 80mt LEO mass.It used a single upper stage to do everything from service module to lunar descent stage. It was a thing of beauty and opened the door to lunar-wide hybrid robotic/crewed exploration. You can even ride share lunar-bound cargo with GTO missions.

Perhaps the Chinese will use the architecture when we are finally exhausted and the public finally says NO.

We watch (without speaking- since to do so would bring the wrath of the emperor) as the psycho-historical (Seldon's version) inevitability of failure applies its weighty heel to the emperor and his spawn. Crunch crunch.