Saturday, August 15, 2009

COTS- D(EAD)

The greatest thing since sliced bread, or so it would seem to the 475nm Ribbon Panel, is COTS. While there is nothing "off-the-shelf" about a commercial cargo and crew delivery service today, even the new Band Leader and Snow Princess have high hopes for a miracle on E Street.

Unfortunately, not much about the program announced last week makes sense or cents.

Who has ever heard of a government agency trying to put together a workable program that effectively puts the same government agency out of business? Bureaucracies are constructed to do just the opposite, to perpetuate their existence well past the their time of need. COTS seeks to take away just about the only remaining job the minions have left in their soon to be empty jar, that of safely transporting 475nm suiters to low earth orbit.

Can you imagine Danica Patrick being asked to sit in the back seat while she takes a ride around Indy? Maybe a tank rolling off a Fed-Ex C-5A in the middle east? How about a Blue Angel being moved aside by a Southwest Airline pilot? Can you visualize an F-18 pulling up to a Chevron decaled KC-tanker? Or Neil Armstrong in the back of a yellow taxi headed for Tranquility Base?

Having a hard time with those aren't you? As well do the minions.

And consider, how will those same bureaucrats more known for buying $475 toilet seats and $1200 hammers figure out how to buy rocket seats cheaper than the price they currently pay driving themselves? (oh wait, they did figure that out didn't they, Mr. Putin?) The odds of that happening in non-ITAR fashion are vanishingly small as well. Its not because the private sector couldn't do the job more cost effectively, in theory, than the government. The problem is that the government isn't going very far away when it comes time to mil-specify the leather on the seats in the Dragonbuster 3000 XL. And it will also wait until its too late to make that specification. And then they'll change it. Three times.

The new program, announced Thursday, suffers from all of the above. Failure to exemplify knowledgeable, inspiring, confidence-building leadership. Check. Failure to identify market, expected price points, and overall business case. Check. Failure to specify exact human rating requirements. Check. Failure to pin down destination interfaces. Check.

So what will be the result of all this wishy-washy-ness, this gap-non-filler?

We suspect a musky down payment on a launch abort system to be argued over in bankruptcy court next year. Anyone else interested in making a buck on this job will stay far far away from this program.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Houston's German Waiter and his sommelier won't have the chance for hands-off management again. Soon enough per N.A. QA will be OBE by OA just like they were for the third C.

kT said...

They just need to see what's 'out there'. These CCDev 'research proposals' are an integral part of the Obama, OMB, OSTP, Augustine Committee process. This has forced the 'elephants' out into the open, where they can be herded into the corral, and the real showdown can begin. Perhaps NASA itself, JSC or even MSFC might consider submitting.

It's gonna be great fun. I love a good showdown, perhaps everyone can finally make peace, and sit around the lunar campfire singing Kumbaya.

Anonymous said...

Why are they arguing concepts when nobody has defined, in writing, what the new system is supposed to do. Each concept is nothing more than a hammer looking for a nail! If NASA, Augustine, the COTS crowd or the dozens of napkin sketchers cannot describe, in concrete terms, what the product is supposed to do or how it is supposed to behave they are no better than the former emperor who gave us the wiggle stick.

The taxpayer is watching his money being wasted by group after group that insists upon straining at gnats and swallowing camels! This isn't about building a one off rocket to go to LEO and beyond. This is really about rebuilding a capability that we lost in 1985. That requires more than a plan to make updated copies of rockets out of the past and having the temerity to even think that we stand shoulder to shoulder with the giants of the past.

The plan that gets my vote is one that starts with competent people, has small programs where they learn the first principles of rocketry, building a body of knowledge in reasonable, rational steps toward a defined goal. Along the way, we bring on successive generations and mentor them to be more than PowerPoint experts. We should strive to grow a sustainable cadre of engineers who see an entire career in front of them instead of program - layoff - program - layoff.

BenRG said...

I have to agree that it really isn't likely that NASA will be willing to hand over all crew launch (indeed, possibly all launch) operations to third-party providers. That said, they may not be given a choice in the matter.

kT, as much as I would like to see a careful, reasoned process to ensure that NASA ends up with the best compromise of LV, spacecraft and mission, the four wasted years of CxP and looming shuttle retirement makes that less likely. Instead, I expect a panic-stricken 'Orion Charge' with everything in NASA's HSF program list with the exception of ISS (and possibly a lot of robot science) being sacrificed in the name of getting Orion to FOC by 2016.

There may even be extra money.

Will wonders never cease?

~

Ben the Space Brit

kT said...

Why are they arguing concepts when nobody has defined, in writing, what the new system is supposed to do.

I don't know what your requirements are, but mine a pretty clear - 7500 m/s relative velocity. Of course, I always further require that engines be returned to the launch site. How you do that is completely up to you. The less cost and trauma the better.

Anonymous said...

Here's the bottom line: You DON"T GET to develop two new boosters for > $20B. You get to spend at most $5B to mod up the existing boosters to do what you need to do. You don't get 10m payload fairings. You can't afford keeping Cx 39 and all that VAB/crawler infrastructure and ground control stuff alive for a couple crew missions /year. You need to staunch the bleeding and kill unneeded crap.

You DON"T GET to spend what they are planning to spend on Orion. If LM is smart they will redesign to get rid of the Service Module propulsion system which is not even required if you use a decent EELV. That will truncate billions out of that program. With EELV's you get the performance margins and known environments that are lacking on ARES I and dogging that program.

You DON"T GET to design four completely different in-space propulsion stages. You get one. You have to make it work for everything.

And you had better design so that when they get to the moon they spend months there- not a few days. If you don't do that it is not worth spending another dime on exploration. This means cryogenic fluid management. If you ignore this mandatory technology then you had best just wait for a ride with the Chinese in a few decades.

Anonymous said...

If the President says NASA won't launch anymore, NASA won't launch anymore. The minions can't change that.

Anonymous said...

No doubt the astronauts want to continue to wear NASA logos on those sexy coveralls. But please note that only 2-4 flights per year are going to be happening until 2020. NASA can certainly maintain the rigorous control over that number of flights and they should be doing them on the smallest, simplest EELV. That is more than sufficient to get to ISS.

Then the rest of the real work can be done with industry designed hardware and operated with substantial industry involvement. Just like the C-5 and F-18 and KC-10 that you refer to. The USG did not design those machines- they bought them from people who know how to do that and stayed involved from start to finish to make sure they got what they wanted. The more mundane the chore the less involved the USG is- the post office does not insist on mail being delivered only on 747's. How is that so very different from what is being proposed? Most of the work of supplying ISS and going to the moon has all the romance of delivering iron ore.

John said...

"the post office does not insist on mail being delivered only on 747's. How is that so very different from what is being proposed? "

Margin.

The post office and these other customers can easily scale up the number of flights and reduce the per-flight payload to accommodate existing systems.

Human spaceflight stresses the minimum requirements for launches making off-the-shelf rockets borderline for vehicle capabilities other than single-string I-hope-we-make-it-to-ISS-before-something-fails-on-our-bird designs.

Of course, I could be wrong.

kT said...

Of course, I could be wrong.

Look at it this way, Earth to LEO flights can be designed to decay gracefully. You don't have that option in deep space at all.

Of course, if you design crap, crap is what you'll get. And why would anyone build poorly designed crap?