Category Archives: Space

NASA’s Vietnam?

An email from Andrew Case informed me of an item that Clark Lindsey over at RLV News found. Homer Hickam (author of Rocket Boys, the book on which the movie October Sky was based) has an op-ed in today’s Journal (subscription required, unfortunately), titled, NASA’s Vietnam.

…when I put emotion aside, I can’t ignore my engineering training. That training and my knowledge as a 20-year veteran of the space agency (and also a Vietnam vet) has led me to conclude that the Space Shuttle is NASA’s Vietnam. A generation of engineers and managers have exhausted themselves trying to make it work and they just can’t. Why not? Because the Shuttle’s engineering design, just as Vietnam’s political design, is inherently flawed.

He thinks that NASA doesn’t have a culture problem, just a lousy vehicle design. He wants to build an OSP and fly it on an expendable. That will make everything all better!

Sorry, Mr. Hickam, with all due respect to your cherished agency, it has both. It has a lousy design partly because of a cultural problem, partly because of a policy problem, but there’s much more to be fixed at the agency, that simply coming up with a different expensive and unsafe way to put people into space isn’t going to solve.

I know that it pains a veteran like you, but we need to fundamentally break the connection in the minds of both the public, and policy makers, between NASA and space. They are not synonymous. It’s time to open up the competition and let some other folks give it a shot.

Besides, I’ve always thought that Space Station Albatross was NASA’s Vietnam, and that we should just declare victory and go home.

[Update at 4 PM PDT]

For those who want to Read The Whole Thing, there’s a slightly longer version of it up at Spaceref now, with a different title–“Not Culture, But Perhaps A Cult.”

[Update on Saturday afternoon]

It occurs to me that this piece, which I wrote last fall, is relevant to this topic.

NASA’s Vietnam?

An email from Andrew Case informed me of an item that Clark Lindsey over at RLV News found. Homer Hickam (author of Rocket Boys, the book on which the movie October Sky was based) has an op-ed in today’s Journal (subscription required, unfortunately), titled, NASA’s Vietnam.

…when I put emotion aside, I can’t ignore my engineering training. That training and my knowledge as a 20-year veteran of the space agency (and also a Vietnam vet) has led me to conclude that the Space Shuttle is NASA’s Vietnam. A generation of engineers and managers have exhausted themselves trying to make it work and they just can’t. Why not? Because the Shuttle’s engineering design, just as Vietnam’s political design, is inherently flawed.

He thinks that NASA doesn’t have a culture problem, just a lousy vehicle design. He wants to build an OSP and fly it on an expendable. That will make everything all better!

Sorry, Mr. Hickam, with all due respect to your cherished agency, it has both. It has a lousy design partly because of a cultural problem, partly because of a policy problem, but there’s much more to be fixed at the agency, that simply coming up with a different expensive and unsafe way to put people into space isn’t going to solve.

I know that it pains a veteran like you, but we need to fundamentally break the connection in the minds of both the public, and policy makers, between NASA and space. They are not synonymous. It’s time to open up the competition and let some other folks give it a shot.

Besides, I’ve always thought that Space Station Albatross was NASA’s Vietnam, and that we should just declare victory and go home.

[Update at 4 PM PDT]

For those who want to Read The Whole Thing, there’s a slightly longer version of it up at Spaceref now, with a different title–“Not Culture, But Perhaps A Cult.”

[Update on Saturday afternoon]

It occurs to me that this piece, which I wrote last fall, is relevant to this topic.

Stuck In the Sixties

There’s a very depressing example of how sterile and mindless the debate about space remains in the wake of the CAIB report over at the WaPo today. If not a full-blown fisking, it requires an almost line-by-line analysis.

Administration officials disclosed in an interview that the White House will begin work next week on a blueprint for interplanetary human flight over the next 20 or 30 years, with plans calling for Bush to issue an ambitious new national vision for space travel by early next year.

Ahhhh, no timorous five-year plans for these central planners–we’ll have a thirty-year plan!

The officials said they will wrestle with the military’s role in space, as well as with whether to emphasize manned or robotic missions, whether to build a base in space, what vehicle should replace the shuttle and what planets should be visited.

That’s interesting, but how can they do that, when no one seems to be discussing what we’re trying to accomplish? How can one decide whether to “emphasize manned or robotic missions” when we don’t know what the the hell we’re trying to do?

Guys?

“The question is: What do we say to the president about why we should continue humans in space and in what vehicles and to what ends?” a senior administration official said.

Yes, that is the question, but there’s a wide array of answers, and I seen no indication, at least not in this article, that there’s any discussion of anything beyond “exploration” and “science.”

But those answers will not come as swiftly as Congress would like, and lawmakers and some administration officials said they do not see how Bush will find the money to pay for any meaningful expansion of the space program given the costs of his tax cuts and the demands on the budget from the Pentagon, homeland security and possibly new Medicare benefits.

Well, look, not that I necessarily favor an increase in NASA funding (and in fact, right now I’m in the “abolish NASA” camp), but this is just fiscally stupid. We are spending less than one percent of the federal budget on NASA. We could double it and it wouldn’t even make a blip in the deficit. There may be, and in fact are, good reasons to oppose an increase in funding, given the current plans, but “we can’t afford it” ain’t one of them.

That could turn his aides’ study of options for future astronauts into something of an academic exercise.

“You can’t fight a war on terrorism and stimulate the economy and put billions and billions of new dollars into the space program,” an official said, adding that the end of the Cold War had made mastery of space a less pressing priority.

Well, some would argue that putting billions and billions of new dollars into the space program would be part of stimulating the economy, though how well it does so depends in part on how you actually spend the money.

But what does he mean when he says that “the end of the Cold War has made mastery of space a less pressing priority”?

Is he talking about civil space? If so, it’s pretty appalling that, almost half a century after Sputnik, policy makers still think that the only reason to go into space is to flex our technological muscles to impress other countries.

If he means from a military standpoint, I don’t know if he’s noticed, but we’re engaged in a hot war right now, and one in which space assets played a critical role that will only increase in future battles.

I would really, really love some elaboration on this comment.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), chairman of a Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA, said he will seek a presidential panel to examine the future of the space program, including whether to shift resources from the shuttle in order to resume the exploration of the moon.

Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.), a member of the House Science Committee, is calling for a shift from manned to unmanned flight “for both safety and research value.”

See, instead of “it’s all about ooooiiiiillllll,” when it comes to space it’s all about “exploration” and “research.”

Of course, one does not intrinsically increase “research value” by leaving people at home. I disagree with Bob Zubrin about a lot of things, but he’s certainly right when he says that you’ll learn a lot more about a planet by sending a geologist than you will a robot. And for those who obsess about “safety,” I’m sorry, but I have nothing but contempt. Yes, we should try not to kill people, but ultimately, the only way you can avoid it is to not let them go at all, which seems to be Rep. Smith’s goal here. As the old saying goes, a ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships, or explorers, are for.

A senior administration official said a White House group will meet at least weekly to assess “the benefits to the nation and the world of continued human spaceflight by the United States.”

“We know we can do it. What do we seek to achieve through it?” the official said. “Where and how does human spaceflight fit into national requirements and national priorities over the next several decades?”

Yes, those are good questions. Even better one are “is human spaceflight going to continue to be performed only by NASA, or are we going to encourage the nascent private human spaceflight industry?” “What role will they play?” “Are there things we can do to help make that happen that don’t require expenditures of taxpayer dollars to a bloated, sclerotic civil space agency?”

But I’ll bet those kinds of question won’t get asked, at least based on anything I read in this business-as-usual article.

Officials said the new panel on human spaceflight, led by the White House and involving several Cabinet departments, is scheduled to have recommendations ready for Bush in the next several months. Aides said they hope Bush will make decisions by the end of the year so that the ideas can be included in the administration budget for 2005, which will go to Capitol Hill in February.

The official said the interagency group will look at the space program’s relationship with national defense, as well as with the advancement of science, and at “the question of how this relates to national goals that, at first blush, have nothing to do with spaceflight.”

OK, this does look a little more encouraging. I would hope that those departments include (at the least) Commerce, Transportation, Energy and Defense.

The rest of the article pretty much focuses on NASA and its budget and the CAIB.

You know, it would help if reporters themselves, like Mike Allen and Eric Pianin, would bring up these issues, but they’re sadly apparently unaware as well, and stuck in the same NASA-centric mindset. Maybe they should read this weblog once in a while…

The Gehman Report

I’m reading it, and I’ll probably post on it as I go, in a series of posts. I’m also working on an related column for NRO. My initial impression, having read the summary and just started to get into the first section–it’s a great, free book for anyone who wants to understand the history of the manned space program, and the Shuttle, and how we got into the mess we’re in. The fact that John Logsdon was on the panel helps ensure that the history is accurate. I often disagree with John about the future, but he can be counted on to get his past correct (even if he occasionally misinterprets it).

A lot of it I’m just skimming, because little is new to me. I just want to comment on this bit for now:

Rockets, by their very nature, are complex and unforgiving vehicles. They must be as light as possible, yet attain out-standing performance to get to orbit. Mankind is, however, getting better at building them. In the early days as often as not the vehicle exploded on or near the launch pad; that seldom happens any longer. It was not that different from early airplanes, which tended to crash about as often as they flew. Aircraft seldom crash these days, but rockets still fail between two-and-five percent of the time. This is true of just about any launch vehicle ? Atlas, Delta, Soyuz, Shuttle ? regardless of what nation builds it or what basic configuration is used; they all fail about the same amount of the time. Building and launching rockets is still a very dangerous business, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future while we gain experience at it. It is unlikely that launching a space vehicle will ever be as routine an undertaking as commercial air travel ? certainly not in the lifetime of anybody who reads this. The scientists and engineers continually work on better ways, but if we want to continue going into outer space, we must continue to accept the risks.

As regular readers are aware, I disagree that it is “…unlikely that launching a space vehicle will ever be as routine an undertaking as commercial air travel.”

It may not achieve the level of safety and reliability of aircraft, but I do think that it will become routine, in the sense of regular schedules, and something that millions of people will be able to afford to do, and will be safe enough for them to do, in my lifetime, and certainly in the lifetime of young adults. This conventional wisdom is based on 1) an underestimate of how long lifetimes of those living today may be and 2) a misunderstanding of the reasons that it isn’t routine.

And of course, most of the “basic configurations used” are variations on a flawed theme–one-shot systems, built at low rates, which makes it difficult to get good statistical quality control. It’s not really a physics or an energy problem–it’s more a consequence of the path that we’ve followed in launch system design for the past forty years. Fortunately, we’re starting to break out of that with a return to developing suborbital vehicles, and doing it right.

[Update at 5 PM PDT]

Page 24: “The per-mission cost was more than $140 million…”

What does that mean?

One of the frustrating things about discussing launch costs is that people don’t use the vocabulary consistently. I suspect that’s the marginal cost (that is, the cost of flying the next flight, given that the system is already operating). It’s not the average cost (the total number of flights per year divided by the annual budget)–that’s much higher.

NASA’s Culture Of Denial

There’s been a lot of talk, with today’s release of the Gehman Report, about NASA’s “culture.” Jim Oberg (who should certainly know) has a pretty good description of it.

I haven’t read the report yet, but I’ve heard nothing about it in the various news accounts that I found surprising. I had a pretty good idea what it was going to say within a week of the event, to a very high confidence level. They examined every possibility, but the prime suspect was always the foam debris hitting the leading edge, and I predicted that it would be a broken leading edge on the day it happened. But this was an interesting comment from Admiral Gehman:

…when asked at a press conference how much of his final report could have been written BEFORE the disaster, Gehman thought momentarily and replied, ?Probably most of it.?

Yup.

But this is the key point:

Perhaps the most salient characteristic of the ?NASA culture? is that its managers act as if they are proverbial ?rocket scientists.?

In late 1999, following the loss of a fleet of unmanned Mars probes, a NASA official was asked at a press conference about what the repercussions might be. Would anyone lose their jobs over such performance, a reporter asked?

There would be no such consequences, the official replied. ?After all,? he explained, ?who would we replace them with? We already have the smartest people in the country working for us.?

There’s an old saying about pride and falls…

NASA’s Culture Of Denial

There’s been a lot of talk, with today’s release of the Gehman Report, about NASA’s “culture.” Jim Oberg (who should certainly know) has a pretty good description of it.

I haven’t read the report yet, but I’ve heard nothing about it in the various news accounts that I found surprising. I had a pretty good idea what it was going to say within a week of the event, to a very high confidence level. They examined every possibility, but the prime suspect was always the foam debris hitting the leading edge, and I predicted that it would be a broken leading edge on the day it happened. But this was an interesting comment from Admiral Gehman:

…when asked at a press conference how much of his final report could have been written BEFORE the disaster, Gehman thought momentarily and replied, ?Probably most of it.?

Yup.

But this is the key point:

Perhaps the most salient characteristic of the ?NASA culture? is that its managers act as if they are proverbial ?rocket scientists.?

In late 1999, following the loss of a fleet of unmanned Mars probes, a NASA official was asked at a press conference about what the repercussions might be. Would anyone lose their jobs over such performance, a reporter asked?

There would be no such consequences, the official replied. ?After all,? he explained, ?who would we replace them with? We already have the smartest people in the country working for us.?

There’s an old saying about pride and falls…

NASA’s Culture Of Denial

There’s been a lot of talk, with today’s release of the Gehman Report, about NASA’s “culture.” Jim Oberg (who should certainly know) has a pretty good description of it.

I haven’t read the report yet, but I’ve heard nothing about it in the various news accounts that I found surprising. I had a pretty good idea what it was going to say within a week of the event, to a very high confidence level. They examined every possibility, but the prime suspect was always the foam debris hitting the leading edge, and I predicted that it would be a broken leading edge on the day it happened. But this was an interesting comment from Admiral Gehman:

…when asked at a press conference how much of his final report could have been written BEFORE the disaster, Gehman thought momentarily and replied, ?Probably most of it.?

Yup.

But this is the key point:

Perhaps the most salient characteristic of the ?NASA culture? is that its managers act as if they are proverbial ?rocket scientists.?

In late 1999, following the loss of a fleet of unmanned Mars probes, a NASA official was asked at a press conference about what the repercussions might be. Would anyone lose their jobs over such performance, a reporter asked?

There would be no such consequences, the official replied. ?After all,? he explained, ?who would we replace them with? We already have the smartest people in the country working for us.?

There’s an old saying about pride and falls…

International Bureaucrats In Space

Jeff Foust reports that the OECD is starting to study the issue of commercial space. They’re going to study it and issue a report in a year and a half. As he points out, it’s likely to be too little, too late, and focus on trees while missing the forest.

Assuming the report is approved, the OECD will publish the report by April 2005.

There is an absence of representation by both entrepreneurial ventures and developing countries, primarily because of the high membership fees.

It?s this timescale and lack of inclusiveness that should cause the most concern about the OECD?s efforts. To get the best view of the prospects for commercial space, the project needs to take into account the plans and opinions of those small entrepreneurial ventures that largely operate under the radar of established players in commercial space, but who represent technologies and markets that hold the greatest promise for the future. These companies, in general, don?t have over $50,000 lying around to participate in such ventures, and typically lack the personnel and time required to participate at the same level as large companies and government agencies. The IFP needs to reach out to these companies and solicit their input for the project?s efforts to have the best chance of success.

Meanwhile, the drawn-out schedule of the project threatens it, if not with obsolescence, then at least with being overtaken by events in some arenas. By April 2005 it?s quite possible, for example, that suborbital space tourism will be a real industry with one or more companies offering services, based on the considerable progress made by companies like Armadillo Aerospace and Scaled Composites. Broadband satellite services offered through Ka-band satellites scheduled for launch in the next two years could prove to be a major growth sector for the satellite telecommunications office, or they might prove unable to compete with entrenched terrestrial alternatives like DSL and cable. While the IFP?s 30-year planning horizon is unlikely to make the whole report irrelevant, they will have to take care to keep up with and respond to developments in the industry in the next eighteen months.”

Yes, it’s (happily) a particularly dynamic time to be doing such an analysis.