11 thoughts on “An Agency That Has Too Much Money”

  1. If it was done as a training exercise, then there is some validity to it. If someone just had too much time on their hands, then it isn’t so good.

  2. I think it’s good that NASA engineers are studying the fatigue failure and metalurgy of swivel chairs.

    I shall explain.

    One of my favorite capsule launch configurations is to place the capsule upside down on top of the stack, with the heat-shield forward, and pusher abort motors tucked into the space underneath the inverted cone of the capsule. The capsule is then mated to the equivalent of a Soyuz orbital module, a cargo bay, or even a side-docking cylinder (for mating with the ISS) with an orbital module or cargo bay underneath that. And of course underneath the whole assembly is the service module with the maneuvering engines. At launch the area between the inverted capsule and the rest is covered with a shroud, which is later ejected.

    This offers numerous advantages. It is superior to the Soyuz in that the mass of the orbital module and other attachments don’t have any effect on the abort system, so the launcher and vehicle configuration can be radically changed from mission to mission without having to modify and recertify the abort system. The Soyuz orbital module’s mass is fixed, since it sits on top of the re-entry module, which greatly limits the growth potential and flexibility. The inverted configuration could have the capsule attached to just about anything. And of course this configuration also means the capsule doesn’t have to seperate, turn around, and then dock with something launched on the same rocket, as the Apollo mission required.

    Instead of a tractor-rocket tower eject, where the abort rockets have to out-accelerate the rest of the rocket (always leaving a nasty residue on the capsule windows), the abort motors can be kicked out to the side just after the shroud is ejected. The configuration also keeps the fragile components, such as RCS thrusters, docking collars, windows, hatches, and re-entry parachutes, safely tucked away and protected from rain and accidental damage.

    During an ISS docking (using a cylinder section with a side-facing collar) the astronauts will be staring through their window straight at the docking mechansim, instead of trying to peer over the nose of the craft, and they’re not going to risk bumping the vehicle’s fragile nose area into anything. For undocking, if the capsule is designed with enough internal RCS fuel for a re-entry burn, the docking module and attached orbital module or cargo module can be left docked to the station.

    Even without that feature, when preparing for re-entry they just have to make one seperation, instead of the two the Soyuz requires, since its re-entry module is sandwiched in the middle.

    During an actual abort, the capsule doesn’t have to turn around to get the heat shield facing forwards, it just has to make small steering changes.

    But this whole scheme requires the astronauts to face upwards (toward the heat shield on launch) and then turn around to face the windows (like any other capsule) for the rest of the mission. So when facing toward the heat shield they would see one set of displays and controls used for launch (main stage sequencing, abort, etc) and turning around would present another set of controls for on-orbit maneuvering, docking, and re-entry.

    That would require a swivel chair, one that demands an engineering mastery of swivel chairs under high stress, vibration, and dynamic loads, with fatigue factored in if the capsule is re-usable. That’s what they must have been studying.

    This swivel chair scandal is in fact the first sign of hope and clear headed, get-er-done basic engineering that I’ve seen come out of NASA in quite some time. It gives me confidence that their CEV II or CEV III quasi-conceptual dream-state prototype is headed in the right direction.

    Of course, what they’ll probably due is uprate the chair to look like Captain Kirk’s, then some safety guy will say you can’t spin someone sideways under high acceleration or their neck will snap, so they’ll try some sort of bizarre end-over-end rotator mechanism that the astronauts will call “the vomit slinger.” It’ll all go pear shaped from there.

  3. (a) the NASA memo has to be a joke

    (b) George Turner: Goggle “t/Space” CXV and look at the images offered. you’ll find our rotating fabric seat concept that was tested in 2005, pre-COTS.

  4. My guess is an argument broke out about how the chair broke and who might have caused it to break. Engineers being who they are can’t have a normal argument and NASA engineers are just slightly more neurotic and could settle for no less than full failure analysis to determine who was right.

  5. Don’t know whether to be serious or to “pile on” with the jokes. That heat shield-forward essay actually sounds on-the-money until the bit about the swivel reentry couch.

    Actually, this question about the stack configuration had already been answered — by the MOL. The MOL (manned orbiting laboratory — the “laboratory” was a thin cover story) was to have been a crewed spy satellite, from the days when it was thought that a robotic spy satellite would not do the job.

    The reentry vehicle for the MOL was to be a highly modified Gemini. The Gemini would be on the tippy top of the stack, heat shield down. The Clever Idea ™ was that there would be a hatch through the heat shield, allowing the crew to go from the Gemini into the MOL without any docking and maneuvering etc.

    The idea of the crew climbing through that tiny hatch and through a claustrophopic tunnel had been tested — either on the Vomit Comet or in the water tank or some combination thereof. The idea of putting a plug hatch smack in the middle of the heat shield had also been flight tested on an unmanned “Blue Gemini” mission.

    OK, back to the jokes. In Mr. Turner’s concept where the spacecraft has a launch shroud that needs to be removed soon after launch, we could call this concept the MOL only we would be adding an “eye” sound after the “O” . . .

  6. Gary Hudson, neat. 🙂

    Paul M, it took me a lot of writing to get to the rotating seat punchline. ^_^

    There was also Big Gemini which was an outgrowth of the MOL concept. It retained the configuration and heat shield hatch and just made the Gemini bigger, to hold 8 to 12 people. Frankly, had NASA accepted the proposal it would’ve been far more useful than an Apollo for Skylab missions. Heck, we still need something like it today for supporting the ISS.

    I like the inverted configuration I described better, but it does come down to either hanging by straps (launching on your tummy) or swivel chairs.

    Another thought that occurs to me is that since the capsule doesn’t have to be streamlined like a nosecone for launch (the shroud would also cover the whole thing anyway), you could put a few lightweight ablative fins around the nose to guarantee that the craft will quickly flip around (heat shield first) during a re-entry that’s lost attitude control. The great benefit there is that it means the capsule, when manned, could have it’s jets manually fired to orient it for retro firing and then it’s going to re-enter safely even if the flight computer and RCS system fails.

    If the software fails and the vehicle defaults back to a Mercury or Gemini level, or even a bit safer than those, then the capsule’s own flight control software, or large components of it, aren’t really mission critical (in terms of crew and vehicle survival). That would have a huge impact on computer and software costs.

  7. George Turner:

    So you didn’t answer my question. Is the MOL concept but with the shroud that has to come off called the MOHEL (pronounced moy’l)?

  8. Oh, definitely! I forgot to respond to that, though I LOL’d.

    Another couple of launch configurations I haven’t examined are having the capsule sort of sideways on the stack, which is really the same orientation everyone proposes for winged re-entry vehicles, since aerodynamics necessitates that the wings aren’t flat plate at launch. This actually rotates the vehicle 90 degrees relative to the astronauts, who are still sitting on their backs during launch.

    Or you could have the astronauts sitting up, perhaps slightly reclining, during launch, which to them would be no different than pulling a 3-G turn in an aircraft.

    If not for the oddball astronaut orientation problem on re-entry, I always thought the Shuttle should’ve been flipped upside over, turning it into a high-wing aircraft for landing. The landing gear would then be at both ends of the cargo pay, the cargo bay would be like a bomb-bay, and the vertical tail would be replaced by downward winglets on the wingtips. It would re-enter upside down, then roll over somewhere in the Mach 1 to Mach 5 regime. Moving the vertical stablizers to the wingtips should allow them to gain control authority much earlier in the re-entry sequence.

    This configuration also moves the landing gear to areas of the ship that aren’t as structurally critical (in case a tire blows), are much cooler on re-entry, and it entirely eliminates the big landing gear doors in the heat shield. On launch it moves the critical leading edge and thick re-entry tiles far away from the external tank, and also moves the critical external tank plumbing connections from the hot re-entry side to somewhere just aft of the cargo bay, on the cool side.

    The problem is what the heck do you do with the cockpit? Either the windows are underneath for landing instead of on top, or the windows get torched on re-entry. And do the astronauts have to flip over or can they re-enter upside down?

    If anyone can figure out the cockpit problem then it could probably be a worthwhile configuration to try.

  9. With respect to the landing gear tires being deployed through openings in the heat shield, wasn’t the Dyna Soar supposed to land on wire brush skids instead of tires for just that reason?

  10. Yep. I think landing on a runway might be a little overrated in terms of reducing support costs. Of course, NASA or the GAO might’ve thought that splashdown recoveries were exceedingly expensive, but I’ll bet the Dragon capsule documentation doesn’t say “The recovery and retrieval shall be by a nuclear powered fleet aircraft carrier and its attached escorts, and the rest of the US Navy will be on standby.” It’s a job that only requires a couple glorified shrimp boats, at most.

    Of course you could just not do anything for ocean recovery, since the capsule will eventually wash up on a beach somewhere (which is how Major Nelson found Jeannie after his capsule re-entered off course). If you built a flying boat type of shuttle it would sure open up more re-entry opportunities, eliminate the landing gear, eliminate the required precision to hit one of a couple runways that are long enough, and trivialize the intact abort maneuvers. But you’d really want the touchdown speed to be much lower, which requires a much bigger wing.

    Anyway, even if it had to hoist masts and sails, it could still make it back to Florida in time to beat the Space Shuttle’s average mission turn-around time.

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