Commercial Crew And Re-Enacting Apollo 8

Bob Zimmerman has been reading the GAO report (as have I), and has some thoughts:

…my impression here is that NASA is trying to impose its will for political reasons, not safety, in order to make the commercial program as ineffective as SLS/Orion has been. And the proof of this is NASA’s decision this week to consider flying humans on the very first test flight of SLS. If NASA as an agency really cared about safety like it claims in this GAO report, it wouldn’t dream of flying an untested SLS manned. While the GAO report can only point to some specific and somewhat limited issues faced by Boeing and SpaceX, SLS remains completely unknown. Unlike Atlas 5 and Falcon 9, it has not flown once. None of its components have been tested in flight, and to ignore this basic fact and fly it manned [sic] the first time is absurd.

No, it appears to me that NASA and certain members of Congress are trying to manipulate things to save SLS. Their problem is that SLS simply stinks. It has cost too much to build, it is taking too long to get built, and it remains an untested design that has a very limited value. Even if this political maneuvering gets SLS up first with people on board, and that flight does not fail, SLS will still stink. Its second flight will still be years away, while the commercial capsules will be able to fly numerous times in the interim, and they will be able to do it for a quarter of the price.

The worst aspect of this political maneuvering is that it is harming the American effort to fly in space, for no good reason, and might very well cause the death of Americans. Instead of getting Americans launched quickly on American-built spacecraft, these political games are forcing us once again to consider depending on the Russians for an additional few more years. Considering the serious corruption and quality control problems revealed recently in Russia’s aerospace industry, we should not feel save launching Americans on their spacecraft. And we certainly shouldn’t feel safe launching them on SLS during that first test flight.

It’s a political stunt. Instead of trying to win a race with the Soviets, they’re trying to win a race with private industry, while handicapping the competition. There is only one realistic “back up plan” for ending out dependence on Russia. Start flying without “certification,” while making clear the risk.

[Late-afternoon update]

Gwynn Shotwell: “The [heck] we won’t fly before 2019!”

I’m guessing that Marcia bowdlerized her, and she used some other word starting with “He.” And it’s not “helium.”

11 thoughts on “Commercial Crew And Re-Enacting Apollo 8”

  1. You know….demanding humans fly on the first flight is one very good way to delay the first flight for a long long long time. Imagine all the safety rules and regulations and hardware changes that will be written and have to be adhered to. Imagine the delays,

    If you are interested in making a government project last as long as you can so that the money trough lasts as long as it can, and not particularly interested in a an actual first flight…….

    ….this is precisely what you’d do..put humans aboard the first flight.

    If you don’t care about effective rockets or economical rockets coming out of NASA, that’s what you’d do…figuring that Musk et al will take care of that.

    The concept of humans on the first flight is so anti-NASA-super-careful-endless rules etc. that I can’t imagine any other reason for doing it. They are using NASA’s foibles to thwart the first flight…or any flight. They don’t care about flights. They care about money.

    They are not in the business of efficient cost effective rocketry…they are in the business of keeping the money spigot open. At least, that’s how it looks to me.

  2. The combination of the 2020 crewed launch to “someplace” BEO, and the the need of Congressional Committee Chairs to prove their clout to their serfs back in the districts, has given NASA’s turf warriors all the incentive they need. Whether it is lack of testing for the Orion heat shield, or lack of testing the SLS stack, or the continual changing of requirements of forced on commercial crew, the Committee Chairs’ ‘struggle’ with losing their clout will continue.

    1. Is this turning out like the Russian “Heavy Zond” saga?

      “Zond”, I am told, is the Russian word for (space) probe. Our people were trying to “tell the players without a program” at the Soviet space ballgame because the Soviets didn’t disclose their program let alone print and sell one.

      Some of the “Zond” flights were unmanned tests of their dead-end-lunar-circumlunar system (dead-end because their lunar landing program was a different program from even a different aerospace bureau — who says that Communism didn’t have competition?). Our spooks called them “heavy Zonds” to distinguish these unmanned tests of manned spaceflight hardware from honest Zonds that were actually for unmanned scientific space exploration.

      Story I heard is that they just kept sending up their “heavy Zonds” until they got one to follow a return and reentry that wouldn’t have killed a crew, but by that time Apollo 8 happened. On the other hand, Apollo 8 got moved up because our spooks were telling NASA what they thought those “heavy Zonds” were all about?

      1. Sounds about right. From what I remember, the to-be-manned Zonds required a complex reentry to be able to land in Soviet territory, which began over Antarctica and had to ‘skip’ to reach the Soviet Union.

        So it’s not really surprising that it didn’t work too well with 1960s Soviet computer technology.

  3. I’m guessing that Marcia bowdlerized her, and she used some other word starting with “He.” And it’s not “helium.”

    Or some other word starting with F and ending with !.

    Is there wiggle room in the contract for NASA to demand more test flights with SpaceX’s people onboard before they put a NASA astronaut on? It could be that SpaceX flies people before 2019 but just not NASA employees.

    1. SpaceX and Boeing both a few years back did propose flying their own test pilots first before putting NASA passengers, uh, astronauts on board.

      Mike B has it about right: That went over at NASA like poop in the punchbowl. Corporate test pilots publicly showing more “Right Stuff” than NASA’s astronauts? Inconceivable! (Yes, I do not think that word means what they think it means either…)

      Jerry Pournelle had it right some years back: NASA treats astronauts like national treasures, not test pilots.

      Only the closer you look at NASA’s “safety” process, the harder it gets to tell where actual safety improvements end and blame-diffusion starts.

      At one point back at XCOR I was talking with Rick Searfoss, and calculated that each of his Shuttle missions had been about as risky as a combat tour in Afghanistan at the time. (I expect that if his life had gone that direction, he wouldn’t have complained about the Afghan odds either.)

      Putting astronauts on the first flight of SLS (of any big complex rocket) subjects them to odds a lot closer to Russian Roulette. Historically true – first flights of big complex rockets IIRC are pretty near 50-50 propositions, and a decent launch escape system arguably only raises that to one-in-high-single digits, if you consider the overall mission.

      I will guarantee one thing though: After a hypothetical SLS first-mission loss-of-crew, it will be impossible to pin down who exactly to blame. The safety process will have worked!

      1. SpaceX and Boeing both a few years back did propose flying their own test pilots first before putting NASA passengers, uh, astronauts on board.

        Oh, I thought SpaceX was going to use their own staff at first.

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