Still Floundering

Once again, we have a pathetic defense of the current architecture, in which (following up on the Friday Griffin speech) we are once again assured that NASA looked at all the options, and this really is the best one, trust us. And once again, there is no data or supporting documentation or assumptions provided to support the bald assertions:

NASA looked at a wide variety of launch concepts — from the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (Atlas V, Delta IV), Space Shuttle (including Shuttle C, Direct type approaches and other solid and liquid rocket booster propelled systems) combinations, foreign systems and clean sheet designs.

The Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) was chartered in the spring of 2005 to recommend a fundamental architecture for supporting International Space Station, Lunar and Mars transportation.

Using data from previous and ongoing studies (several hundred vehicles), and consisting of a team of knowledgeable experts from inside and outside NASA, this study compared many launch and staging options for safety, effectiveness, performance, flexibility, risk and affordability.

This reminds me of the last scene in the first Indiana Jones movie:

“We have top men studying this.”


“Top. Men.”

Well, in this case, we know who the “top men” are — names like Doug Stanley, and Scott Horowitz, and Mike Griffin. But we still have never seen the actual process by which these top men came up with this travesty.

And they wonder why we don’t trust them.

Clark Lindsey responds:

Just to give my same old refutation in a different way, I’ll list the major weaknesses of the program as seen by someone who wants humanity to become genuinely spacefaring:

  • Ares I/V/Orion will be stupendously expensive both to develop and to operate.

  • Furthermore, these systems do not provide any technology development path towards future vehicles that would be less expensive to develop and operate.
  • They do not contribute to the development of a robust in-space transportation infrastructure.
  • And thus they do not lead to lower cost in-space transportation either.
  • Even if Constellation performs as promised, the very modest lunar surface capabilities it provides will not compensate for its staggering costs.
  • The opportunity costs will be enormous as well:
  • Money going to Ares I/V will not go towards development of crucial technologies such as fuel depots, orbital tugs, in situ resource extraction systems, etc.
  • And the money will also not go towards buying the services of commercial providers who would drive down the costs of spaceflight via the economies of scale arising from large scale delivery of propellants, components, and crews to orbit.

Now does NASA disagree with these characterizations of their plan, or do they disagree that these are worthwhile figures of merit? Do they think those conditions unnecessary to become spacefaring? Or do they think that our becoming spacefaring is unnecessary?

It must be one or the other, but these topics never even seem to be discussed.

[Update early afternoon]

It occurs to me that, sometime during the accumulation of all of his degrees, Dr. Griffin was likely to have been penalized (or at least warned about a penalty) for turning in an assignment requiring math and physics with just the answer, without showing his work, including assumptions. In fact, even if the answer is wrong (because, for example, you punched a calculator button incorrectly), you’ll often get partial (and in some cases even full) credit, because the most important part of the exercise is understanding the problem and how to solve it, not just coming up with an answer. I certainly had this drilled into me, and I don’t know anyone with a technical or hard science degree who did not.

All we’re asking of you, Mike, is to show your work, just like you did in school. You don’t get a pass on this just because you’re NASA administrator. Not even when you have multiple engineering and management degrees and are a “rocket scientist.”

[Monday morning update]

Architecture, not point design.

15 thoughts on “Still Floundering”

  1. Given that 11 teams spent about $50M studying VSE architectures (without even a PDR), for the year preceding Griffin’s ascendency to the NASA throne, and many more millions were spent on launch studies for the prior years (OSP, etc.) the notion that a handful of NASA folks could spend 90 days and come up with the perfect solution is ludicrous. Not to mention that of those 11 teams, comprised of hundreds of competent industry personnel, essentially no one was proposing the Shaft seriously even though it was considered by some.

  2. You guys just don’t get it!

    Mike Griffin wanted to go with just COTS for LEO – but he knew that was politically infeasible. So he did the next best thing – he funded COTS, and created a huge superproject that he knew would never work (or at least would never be competitive) for NASA to work on. The secret was to keep NASA busy on the doomed effort long enough to let COTS show that it was obviously going to work.

    That’s why we must keep the Shaft to NASA – to make COTS look amazing in comparison!

  3. All my math and science teachers always gave partial credit for solutions with minor errors until I took a mechanical engineering statics class in college. The professor explained his policy this way: “No partial credit for wrong answers. This is engineering. You get the sign wrong and the bridge falls down.”

  4. All the more reason to relieve NASA of space exploration duties. If we want to be space faring, we need to incentivize private efforts, either by prizes (think X Prize), promises of government contracts for successful efforts proven out on the developers dime, and/or promising franchises for ongoing service to successful project developers. NASA long ago became a behemoth that simply defends its existing structure. We need to stimulate the creative juices of more nimble organizations, and approach the problem from many different angles. NASA is not, and never will be capable of doing so.

  5. Part of the blame lies with the Administration and Congress, which failed to provide independent oversight.

    During the Apollo program, there were separate technical oversight boards created by both Congress and the White House, and NASA engineers had to justify their architectural decisions to those boards.

    By contrast, Griffin was simply thrown a pot of money to build whatever he chose. I don’t recall a single technical question being asked during Congressional hearings, and even if they had been asked, there was no one there with the expertise to understand and evaluate the answers.

    I see no reason why NASA should be allowed to build its own vehicles rather than buying commercial transportation services, but if they are going to build their own vehicles, there at least needs to be some sort of independent oversight commission.

  6. Excellent post Rand. “Apollo on steroids” .

    If Constellation moves to EELV, and Orion is launched an Atlas for ISS, should we still call it “Apollo on steroids”, or can we appropriately call it “Gemini on steroids”?

    “Mercury on steroids” isn’t quite right. At least Orion must prove the ability to perform rendezvous and docking operations like Gemini.

  7. As of this morning it appears the article Rand is pointing to is actually posting comments along this line. So at least someone is being fair about that. I doubt if the “show us the data” request will actually work, but its at least useful to ask the question on that blog entry.

    And I will give NASA some kudos for allowing that. Would something like that have ever happened under Goldin?

  8. or can we appropriately call it “Gemini on steroids”?

    That’s slander on the Gemini team. Development of Gemini began after Apollo started. They were able to incorate lessons learned from both Mercury and Apollo. Lessons that are still missing in the capsules being designed today.

    Gemini L, the lunar version, weighed about the same as the standard Gemini — 8,500 pounds. The Big Gemini, designed to carry nine astronauts and 2.5 tons of payload to a space station, weighed 34,370 lb. By comparison, Orion carries six and weighs 47,300 lb.

    Jim Chamberlin was not on drugs.

  9. Not to mention Gemini was supposed to be the baseline for the canceled MOL from the Air Force. But that got taken down as too expensive given robotic satellites could do much the same jobs.

    I still wonder what would have happened if the USSR hadn’t collapsed, Star Wars ABM actually worked, and the USSR managed to put Polyus in orbit using it frequently.

    Maybe we would have the Delta Clipper flying now, or at least the Air Force would be making a serious manned space effort, instead of half-assed R&D like X-37.

  10. I’m waiting for the day we can talk about Toyota’s and Chevy’s on steroids for the family spacecraft. Craft kits welded together by hobby clubs, etc.

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