Sunday, September 7, 2008

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

"If he's crazy, what does that make you?"

In the opening scenes way back in 2005, the proud NASA stood behind the Emperor. Even as he assumed the self-appointed title of "Chief Engineer of the Universe," the minions, locked in a tight orbit for so many years, yearned for a way out to the stars. Despite mandating solutions, instead of following the trade studies where they might have led, ARES and ORION was born. The minions stood firm behind their leader much like Patty Hearst stood firm with her captors so many years ago. They wanted to believe.

Well, those days are gone. Even the minions have come to recognize that the Emperor is really playing R.P. McMurphy now. Once again he is in jail for rape, raping the country of its space faring aspirations. Rather than spend time in his cell on E Street, he is now trying to convince us that he is crazy enough to require additional time to finish his mission. His different point of view has improved some of the inmates' conditions after all. The minions are developing a competent capability, but they are awakening to find that they have been sleepwalking. They also no longer taking the meds and can see with clear vision again.

Around the halls at JSC, MSFC, and KSC you hear the words "crazy," "insane," and "scary" fairly frequently these days.

And this week a new word was mentioned: "jihad." And it was used to reference the only sane people in the house. Those in OMB and the administration that have wisely held the line on retiring the throw the dice when you step onboard, 1-in-8, shuttle in 2010 before it kills any other astronauts. It was said by the same man who five years ago would have immediately stopped flying the shuttle and who would have ditched the ISS in the Pacific. The same guy who gave us Bush 41's Space Exploration Initiative in 1989 that was DOA within a matter of months shortly thereafter. The same guy who got a blue voter registration card recently (no, it was not a Men's Warehouse frequent buyer card).

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

When he gets the call from Mr. Marburger to quench it, he might also take the time to explain the SARJ contractor scandal (did you really test it on the ground properly?) and how the gap-filling COTS contractor had half their fail grade changed to pass to avoid bad publicity (the vehicle passed, the program didn't, right Antonio?).

It is now time for this White House to pull the plug. Let Shana take the reigns until the next team picks a leader with ethics, gumption, intelligence, self-awareness, and a sense of pride. And maybe only three degrees.

And maybe Nurse Ratched, played by BroomHilda, can finally retire to her farm with a nice bottle of hooch.

Roll credits.


kT said...

This is getting awfully tiresome.

I'm moving on to the more fertile pastures of VUV laser spectroscopy, but let me reiterate one last time, until you figure out what to do with those 14 space shuttle main engines, besides the idiot's game of retiring them and then bringing them back again after 35 years (think J2X), and until you come up with a better engine (besides the obvious example of using the rockets that you have) then you will be stuck with the shuttle.

Nothing is going to change that fundamental situation. The SSMEs are what you have, deal with it.

If you think you need me, you know where to find me. Good luck!

You're extra special!

Anonymous said...

kt is taking the first step to recovery - getting out. Go, renew thy spirit, hone thy skills in a truly worthy endeavour and don't look back because pillars of salt will be everywhere.

Can't agree that new capabilities are being developed. From what I have read, the minions cannot codify a single idea. Pulling random thoughts out of the region of insufficient light and slapping them on paper does not a specification make. If you can't quantify it, you have not defined it. "They did it that way on Apollo" does not constitute a development strategy for the future. One must understand "WHY" they did it that way and "WHY" that still applies today.

As kt said, 'nothing is going to change that fundamental situation'. You can't develop a new generation of rocket scientists over night or even a year or two. Instead of starting out simple, they tried to reach instant maturity; instead of taking on a wounded animal, they chose to tangle with a full grown water buffalo! The results were predictable.

The time to pine and lament is over. The time for personal, career saving action is upon us all.

Anonymous said...

Nothing has to be done with SSME's- besides sending them to a museum. Their time is over.

Simple economics dictate the path ahead. You can lust for whatever but budgets will drive the demons of ARES I and V into the dustbin of history where they belong. Everyone wants to build rockets when there is a huge oversupply. The already existing US launch industry with plenty of rocket engineers with direct experience is dying on the vine.

No one wants to do the "hard" jobs because the technical foundation is not yet laid. We can't handle long duration cryogens yet. Can't make a long term closed loop habitat. Don't even know WHERE we want to go and why. We need a decade of focused development before any hardware worthy of long duration lunar operations is ready for flight. NASA has gotten far, far ahead of itself. It cannot support a damn space station efficiently much less run a lunar exploration program. It hires bone-heads instead of getting serious.

There is much to learn on orbit- like how to get comfortable with routine autonomous docking and propellant transfer without spending a billion dollars qualifying systems. How to do a mission without every minute being rehearsed and scripted. How to get a crew to do real work and self direct without having to get an OK from Houston. How to handle long-term radiation and make a space suit that can last for 6 months with daily exposure to lunar environments. How to store a megawatt-hour of energy without chemical batteries.

Everyone hates homework but it HAS to be done.

kT said...

Nothing has to be done with SSME's- besides sending them to a museum. Their time is over.

Just like the J-2s time was over.

That sort of statement has ZERO credibility when you're flying an SSME next month. Let me give you a clue since you apparently don't have any. The time of the most powerful and efficient propulsion machine ever produced my humanity is never over. And now it looks like their time will be extended.

I'm guessing those things will hit the museums sometime after 2020, and whatever replaces them will look and perform roughly the same.

Like jet turbines, the SSMEs have hit their performance ceiling, evolution will only make them more reliable, easier to refurbish, flyable without refurbishment, and already, if you honestly look at the numbers for the entire SSME program from start to finish, they are already on par with any other expendable engine, operationally and financially.

You are as deluded as Michael Griffin when you make offhand remarks like that without any research or analysis to back it up.

Sure we'll be flying EELVs very shortly, but we aren't going to give up those SSMEs. That would be committing national suicide.

If you want national suicide, it's very easy, you know how to vote.

Anonymous said...

Yes the time of the SSME is over- of course they will be flown out over the next few years but your comment seemed to suggest an ongoing role for them beyond the obvious. They are wonderful machines. So was the 727.

I give the J-2X or whatever they are calling it these days about a 10% chance of being built. The program is unaffordable and completely unnecessary. If it did get completed NASA would be supporting a huge P&W staff to make 5 engines a year- a financial disaster that replicates exactly what the US launch industry is suffering with. It is only required if you want to build unaffordable ARES rockets. All the engines you need to go anywhere you are capable of going near-term are already in production and will be for decades. Adding the NASA launches to the existing manifests gets production costs down and all the players benefit enormously.

The absolute key to affordability & reliability is the use of commercially available hardware that is in everyday use. We have a starving launch industry that can lift more stuff than NASA can ever build. The ARES V is only required if you insist on lifting everything in one go. This is neither mandatory nor desirable. This is the freaking lesson of Saturn- a big, wonderful rocket that was completely useless to anyone except NASA. So it died and the lowly Atlas survived- and thrived.

Your assessment of SSME is based on techno-lust. There are many figures of merit for an engine and chamber pressure is hardly the most important. The cost and complexity and size of support staff are far, far more important. SSME is far off the optimum when it comes to these real-world measures.

The real lesson here is that burning LH2 on a booster is just plain dumb. it lead to a misguided inflexible Shuttle architecture and it is a marginal thing on the Delta IV. The benefits of Isp are completely overridden by the cost of oversized structures, insulation, and engine mass/complexity.

I strongly doubt your assessment of SSME vs present commercial engines. The entire staff at P&W supporting RL10 is dwarfed by the NASA & contractor heads at Marshall, KSC, Stennis etc. The overhead costs alone are astonishing. The total cost for RS68 was only a couple billion- low enough to be digested (with some indigestion by now) by a single company. I suspect that SSME development, including the pump redesigns runs into the many tens of billions by now. But if you say it ain't so I guess it must be true.

kT said...

They are wonderful machines. So was the 727.

They weren't replaced with a Lockheed Constellation powered by JATOs.

Your assessment of SSME is based on techno-lust.

Actually, no, it's based on numbers and analysis :

I strongly doubt your assessment of SSME vs present commercial engines.

Skepticism without evidence is nonsense. I just gave you the numbers. Deal with them.

The overhead costs alone are astonishing.

I just quantified them for you. What seems to be your problem?

I suspect that SSME development, including the pump redesigns runs into the many tens of billions by now. But if you say it ain't so I guess it must be true.

According to the verifiable numbers I just handed to you, you suspect wrongly. Let me quote those numbers through the year 2000 for you, just in case you're too lazy to click on the link and do your own analysis :

Begin Quote
Design (1973-82): $3B
Production (1978-83): $1.3B
Operation (1983-2000): ~$4B
Upgrades (=Pratt & Whitney turbopumps, 1986-2000): $1.4B
The SSME inventory in the year 2000 totaled 55 engines. The unit manufacturing cost of the SSME is in the $45-60M range.

You can get more info on these engines in Chapters 12 and 33 of my recent (2002) book on U.S. manned spaceflight in the 20th century.

Ray Schmitt

End Quote

Anonymous said...

Ummm kt, you just made my point. I will concede that the cost of SSME has been only a bit above 10B. Not tens of billions. Your own link shows the relative cost of RS68. We can quibble about the precedence of SSME helping RS68. We should also be clear about whether these are then-year dollars or are escalated. Using the numbers you referred to in terms of development alone the SSME cost six times what RS68 cost. The recurring engine costs are something like 3 times that of a RS68. I really do not understand why you are so violent in your discussion. The engine produces less thrust than a RS68 and that parameter is king when it comes to boosters.

This is precisely what I meant when I said that SSME is far off of optimal when it comes to rocket engine development. It is not at the apex of anything. It is just a machine meant for a particular use. Its utility outside of that use is essentially zero.

By the way there is no need for vitriol within a post- I am not there to respond to your snarling. I am open to being corrected- I accept your data without criticism- although I suspect that many more costs could be attributed to SSME that are not "direct". It is however important that your data support your premise-that SSME costs are "typical" of commercial engines. Your own numbers do not support this conclusion.

I am also quite mystified about your comments about the 727 replacement. Can you clarify?

By the way recognize that I am an inventor and dyed in the wool rocket fanatic. I love technology and what it can do. But I am compelled on a daily basis to detune great ideas so that they can be really made at a low cost. This is the hardest job of all. As the old saying goes: an engineer is someone who can do for a dime what any damn fool can do for a dollar. Cost effectiveness-that is the most important driver in our designs. Much of the Shuttle and SSME in particular are the result of not following this path. There was too much focus on pushing to the limits and too much money available to enable these marginal designs to come to fruition. The present ESAS architecture is following this path as well and the designs will not have any greater utility in the long run. It is this cultural behavior that motivated me to respond to you in the first place. I find it absurd to praise any hypertechnological machine without recognizing the disproportionate costs that attend it.

kT said...

I am sorry. but you are clearly not integrating the costs over the entire life cycle of the program, and then comparing it to the fixed price of the RS-68. Regardless, the RS-68 is not efficient enough for the vehicles I envision, it's not reusable, and it already exists on a perfectly fine launch vehicle. The numbers are right there, already the SSME is approaching $40 million per engine fight, and at the flight rates that I anticipate, it would equal them, and near future capabilities indicate great leaps in cost, reliability and reusability benefits, possibly approaching $10 million per engine flight or less. Plus the 14 engines are right there with 36 flights remaining as indicated by Rocket Man. If you want to phase out the shuttle, the SSMEs is the way to do it. I want to actually transition to the Delta V using the shuttles. Plus, this is what spaceports (for instance, the ISS) do. This is why we built one. This is no holds barred build stuff in LEO. Clearly the transportation is lagging.

I'm not saying we should build more SSMEs, what I'm saying is we should dispose of existing capabilities a little more wisely, since they clearly set the bar for success.