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« The Failed Paradigm That Won't Die | Main | On Again? »

A Quality All Its Own

The Japanese lost a rocket with its payload of surveillance satellites the other day.

Given the current dangerous situation in the Korean peninsula, in their own backyard across the Sea of Japan, it was a painful loss, and one that they really couldn't afford. The North Koreans have launched missiles across Japanese territory, and are developing nuclear weapons, so far unhindered by either diplomacy or threats, and a lack of space-based intelligence about their behavior and intentions could prove disastrous in the future, perhaps even in the near future.

Unfortunately, in developing their own space capabilities, the Japanese have taken a cue from our own failed space activities, having no successful ones to emulate. Like NASA and, for the most part, the Air Force, they delude themselves that affordable and reliable launchers can be built by souping up ballistic missiles and flying them a few times a year.

In the 1980s, the Japanese became renowned for the high quality of their automobiles, an ironic turn of events, because a scant few years earlier they had developed a reputation for cheap, unreliable toys masquerading as cars. I can attest to this personally, as an owner and semi-daily driver of a Honda from that period with over a quarter of a million miles on it, and still on its first clutch with no major repairs to date.

They accomplished this by importing American concepts of statistical quality control from people like W. Edwards Deming. By continually improving their production processes over millions of units, they gradually achieved a world-class ability to build reliable and long-lasting cars that eventually forced the American auto industry out of its complacency, though not before entirely restructuring it and, in some cases, forcing mergers or causing parts of it to be bought out by foreign interests.

They were so successful in adapting American techniques for their terrestrial transportation industry, that they hoped they could be equally successful in space transportation by following the same strategy.

There were only two problems. First, neither the Americans nor the former Soviets were actually that good at doing space. Their launch systems were extremely expensive and highly unreliable. They only seemed good at it because there was never any truly good space program with which to compare them.

Consider--the most reliable proven launch system is probably the Soviet (now Russian) Proton. According to International Launch Services, the western firm that markets it, and has a strong interest in putting the best face on its capability, it has a 96% reliability record in about 300 launches over the past four decades. They state this with apparent pride.

Let's put that in everyday terms.

Imagine that once out of every twenty five times you drove to the grocery store, you not only didn't get there, but your car was destroyed with all aboard.

Imagine that four times out of every hundred flights of an airliner, it was lost with all passengers. That would amount to thousands of downed aircraft per year and millions of lives, assuming that you could get the airlines to continue to buy replacement airplanes, and people to purchase tickets on death's lottery, with such appalling odds.

Can you imagine anyone with a straight face, and not a hint of irony, calling such a vehicle "reliable"? It's no way to run a railroad or, for that matter, an airline or auto industry. We shouldn't accept it in space either, yet we do.

What's the problem? I've written before about how the low volume of activity leads inevitably to high costs. But it also leads to low reliability.

The biggest difference between Japan's auto industry and Japan's rocket industry is not the almost unfathomable power that the rockets put out, or the harsh environment in which they operate, or their high cost per rocket. The biggest difference is that, as noted above, they built millions of cars, and they've built, at most, dozens of rockets.

There's an old aphorism that "quantity has a quality all its own." For this particular case, there's a reverse corollary--quality requires a quantity all its own. Statistical quality control is very useful when running a million cans of beans, or a million Honda Accords off a production line.

However, it's meaningless when only building a few of something, and only using (and in this case, expending them) a few times a year. There's almost no measurable learning curve, and because they're expendable, making each flight a first flight, there's no opportunity for the traditional "shakedown cruise." Infant mortality is high, and so, when we lose the baby, we also lose the bathwater, the bathtub, the bathroom, and the house that contains them all.

There's only one way out of this dilemma. We have to make a conscious national decision to do enough in space to start climbing the learning curve, rather than remaining at a base camp at the bottom. Until we make a deliberate choice to become a truly spacefaring nation, we will never have either affordable launch, or reliable launch (and unreliability has its own obvious costs, making the status quo even more unaffordable).

If the government, whether ours or Japan's, wants and needs assured access to space (and both must clearly think they do, because they continue to spend and perhaps misspend billions of dollars on it), it will have to decide to buy more than it thinks it needs to ensure that it has what it needs at an acceptable price. The decision makers must consider the possibility of simply putting out an order for currently-unthinkable numbers of launches and pounds of payload to orbit, to allow the private sector to do what it does best--driving down costs and increasing quality through competition and volume.

In the long run, it may turn out to be a bargain, and it's hard to imagine how we could do much worse--we certainly can't afford to continue with the failed thinking that carpeted the seabed with two more expensive (and perhaps, considering the stakes, priceless) satellites just a few days ago.

Posted by Rand Simberg at December 02, 2003 09:15 PM
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Tracked: December 7, 2003 02:51 PM

If i were head of JAXA, i'd just put aside $500M and try this approach:

Note that nothing would prevent using reusables or expendables in this scenario. And nothing would prevent from MCD, designed-for-manufacturing ELVs to win out ( initially, at least )

Posted by at December 3, 2003 01:43 AM


I highly recommend you check out that above link. The writer makse many fascinating points and echos many arguments you make. I would be fascinated to hear your take on it. Much food for thought.

Posted by Mike Puckett at December 3, 2003 09:29 AM

Not that it detracts from your point at all, but I believe that the Tsiklon booster has the lowest failure rate. Lots of good (if slightly dated) background information is at, which unfortunately has some readability problems starting at about page 26.

My only substantive comment is that I'm not at all clear on how "putting out an order for currently-unthinkable numbers of launches and pounds of payload to orbit" can become part of national space policy. This seems rather artificial. Nonetheless, this is an excellent column -- I presume it's on its way to Fox.

Posted by Jay Manifold at December 3, 2003 12:48 PM

In some sense, our entire civil space program is "artificial" (whatever that means), at least the human portion of it. If we both mean the same thing, then it's driven not by actual national need for space activities, but other ancillary (and often unstated) purposes. Was the airmail program "artificial"?

We already have a de factor industrial policy with regard to space. I'm just asking that we recognize this, and try to align the policy with our actual goals. If the goal is lower unit cost and higher reliability for space launch, the only way to get there is to goose the market. If the government ends up buying more reliable launch capacity than it "needs" (whatever amount that is...) it can auction the surplus back on the market. After a few years of this, it seems likely to me that it would become self sustaining, and the government could reduce its expenditures, simply buying launch services at much lower prices on the now-existing commercial market.

And yes, this is tomorrow's Fox column, if they run it.

Posted by Rand Simberg at December 3, 2003 12:59 PM

The Japanese surveillance of North Korea is an ideal use for suborbital vehicles. A modest fleet of suborbital vehicles equiped for photorecon could give Japan the ability to see anywhere in NK on half hour notice. The fact that the vehicles are suborbital implies that you get to tweak and upgrade the sensor package easily, and you aren't limited by orbital dynamics. The high flight rate has a positive effect on both reliability and cost, and the lessons learned could be put to good use on orbital RLVs.

Posted by Andrew Case at December 3, 2003 02:50 PM

YES damm good rant!

Posted by Dr. Clausewitz at December 3, 2003 04:56 PM

YES damm good rant!

Posted by Dr. Clausewitz at December 3, 2003 04:56 PM

YES damm good rant!

Posted by Dr. Clausewitz at December 3, 2003 04:56 PM

Sorry major lag on the post button.

Posted by Dr. Clausewitz at December 3, 2003 04:57 PM

Your argument is half-baked.

Reliability comes with a cost.

Many failed launches must occur.

Many astronauts will die.

The total cost of astronauts and machines will be astronomical.

Before reliability can be achieved, spaceflight will be finished.

Posted by John at December 4, 2003 06:38 AM

If my argument is "half baked," then your post doesn't even have the batter mixed. The cost of the machines is already astronomical. When we stop throwing them away with every flight, it can only come down. Human life, on the other hand, is relatively cheap, since most of those who die in the process of wringing out designs will do so willingly.

We lose tens of thousands of lives on the highways every year, but somehow, auto travel is not "finished." Many die in coal mines, construction and bathtubs, but we continue to mine coal, build things, and take baths. We lost many lives in developing aviation to the point at which it is today, and no one (well, at least no one with any sense) said that we must stop flying airplanes. There's nothing sacrosanct about space that dictates that we cannot lose lives in its development.

Frankly, your "argument" (to use a generous term) is unoriginal and absurd, and doesn't grow any less so through repetition. I know, because I've been hearing it, and laughing at it, for years.

Posted by Rand Simberg at December 4, 2003 08:59 AM

We have only been tinkering with space travel since we last went to the moon. Its time to make a really firm commitment and get back in the saddle. One thing that is sorely need before we start tho is well educated and capable engineers. Education has failed us miserably in last 20 years with feel-good warm fuzzy education such as "mile programs" that teach nothing. They stopped teaching the basics! What a disservice to our kids. Time to remove the computers from schools and start memorizing times tables. I'm 49 and I really hope to live to see a permanent Moon base, a man walk on Mars, and pictures of the oceans under the ice of Europa.

Posted by Eric at December 4, 2003 11:16 AM

[b]The Japanese surveillance of North Korea is an ideal use for suborbital vehicles.[/b]

A suborbital vehicle launched from Japan and overflying N. Korea will land either in China or in Russia. I don't think either is politically feasible

Posted by Ilya at December 4, 2003 06:56 PM

That depends on how much cruise capability it has (there are no rules against having an airbreathing engine as well as a rocket), and what trajectory it uses (e.g., it could probably get permission from the Russians to start over their territory and launch south, as long as they share data).

Posted by Rand Simberg at December 4, 2003 08:55 PM

Bring the space program,"back down",before we can send it ,"back up and running' and better than before".Let's bring it back down'into the ,"Business parks and small companies",that line are cities and highways.If the u.s goverment can finance these people,or had been financing these good people and thier small companies,we could or,can have a major,"revolution in space technology", on a scale not seen before.I suppose this will eventaully happen,most likely by the 2020's.If the goverment has 300 billion to spend,lets give the space station,better sattilites and the moon," half", and the other half to the small bussiness man,and see what he comes up with.....p.s,is there a rocket in your back yard?

Posted by MIKE at December 5, 2003 02:03 PM

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