Saturday, December 16, 2006

Arrogance of the Underdog (Chihuahuas Yap Loudly)

Space Cynics

Little dogs bark a lot. The Space Frontier Foundation’s recent white paper does too. The document has some interesting arguments and ideas that merit consideration, but those positive aspects are lost in arrogance.

Unfortunately, the idea that NASA should give significant public funds to unproven launch alt.spacers with no track records is the height of ignorant arrogance. It would be a totally irresponsible violation of the public trust to disburse public funds in that manner.

It is actually amusing to see these independent hairy-chested capitalists jostling to swill at the public trough.

A more constructive approach for the launch alt.spacers would be to start small, get their own capital, and grow like most start-ups as they develop track records. Rather than appear like a coalition of COTS losers trying to get a second chance, the groups that were eliminated should prove themselves with deeds rather than rhetoric.

SFF advocates having NASA leave relatively near term LEO access to the alt.space launch community. How? Who? What alt.space companies have demonstrated their ability to gain reliable and inexpensive LEO access? Who is currently bending metal for future LEO access? What are their track records? How does NASA taking money from Boeing or LockMart and giving it to the alt.space launch start-ups differ from the status quo other than by switching recipients?

Advocacy organizations like SFF could approach NASA management and offer to work with them to develop and improve a coherent national space policy rather than nipping at their heels like a berserk Chihuahua. Besides, they are nipping at the wrong set of heels. NASA is only part of the problem. Congress has been and continues to be the major part of the problem with their propensity to micromanage and politicize the entire national budget.

13 Comments:

Blogger Monte Davis said...

A more constructive approach for the launch alt.spacers would be to start small, get their own capital, and grow like most start-ups as they develop track records.

But that might bring into question the fundamental premise of all alt.space chest-beating: that there's a great unsatisfied market demand for access to space, which will start showing up quickly with only modest decreases in cost.

Congress has been and continues to be the major part of the problem with their propensity to micromanage and politicize the entire national budget.

Budgets are and always have been "politicized" -- that goes with the territory of representative democracy, however much spacers (or anyone else) might wish for a Congress of far-sighted, disinterested solons. Might as well get used to it and move on.

Sunday, December 17, 2006 7:53:00 AM  
Blogger oldspacecadet said...

Of course, an alternative approach is to make money, and then spend your own funds on the required R&D. Elon Musk took this approach and is apparently finding out that "it always takes longer and costs more ... ."

Sunday, December 17, 2006 12:24:00 PM  
Blogger Jon Goff said...

OldSpace,
While it would be great to see "alt.space" companies taking over the earth-to-orbit part of NASA's exploration transportation architecture, I would be just as satisfied if they were to let Boeing and Lockheed use their existing vehicles for the job. Or are those alt.space fantasy koolaid too?

Asking NASA to not waste $50-70B building rockets that mostly launch liquid oxygen into orbit (with a little lunar hardware wrapped around it) shouldn't be considered that outlandish. There are existing companies, with existing hardware, that have proven track records, and that would be substantially cheaper than the approach NASA is taking. There's also the side benefit that by going with an architecture that was open to existing launch vehicles (say a dry-launch style architecture like what I've been advocating), that it would also be open to future launch vehicles. This would allow NASA to both spur on future launch cost improvements, while at the same time actually being able to benefit from them.

One other point that stands worth mentioning is that the COTS contracts are pay-on-milestone contracts. Those companies don't get money without making real technical progress. This isn't just welfare handouts for alt.space. It's how they should be doing all of their business, as opposed to current cost-plus contracts that mostly pay for effort, as opposed to results.

~Jon

Tuesday, December 19, 2006 10:25:00 PM  
Blogger oldspacecadet said...

COTS is underfunded and I speculate that it may ultimately fail on that basis.

Who are the companies with proven track records for implementing your proposal? What are the names of the actual vehicles and how reliable are they?

Working in space is hard. Refuelling in space is a nice concept, but it is just a concept. If we adopt on-orbit refuelling as a critical part of the lunar return architecture, the concept could become a show-stopper. At the recent AIAA Houston meeting, talk was that an adequately funded on-orbit refuelling depot would take at least 5 years to become operational if done by the aerospace biggies. Which alt.space companies are capable of designing, fabricating, and implementing an on-orbit refuelling depot?

How are you going to going to let Boeing or Lockheed do the job and cut the cost? (Reread paragraph 2.) By the way, they aren't kool-aid, but they aren't exactly alt.space either. The fundamental problem is still the high cost of getting to LEO. Without solving that problem, everything else remains very, very expensive. Solve the cost to LEO problem, and everything else becomes cheaper. The alt.spacers have claimed many times that they can cut those costs markedly and that the biggies cannot. It is put up or shut up time.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006 10:17:00 AM  
Blogger Professor L said...

Greetings fans of Space Cynics. Professor L now has an end of the year homework assignment for all the engineers, want to be engineers, rocket scientists, spacers, advocates, experts, and more. The homework assignment is for each of you and your friends and bosses, and financial sources, and spouses and kids to get a copy of the following book: " The World's Worst Aircraft: From Pioneering Failures To Multimillion Dollar Disasters." The author is Jim Winchester who is a well known airplane book author. This book details over 100 aircraft made from all over the world that were a bust for a variety of reasons.

Many of the aircraft in the book were military, many civilian aircraft. Some failed for economic reasons, some for faulty engineering designs, some because of sheer foolishness.

I recommend this book because though many failed for economic and engineering reasons, all were designed and made by seasoned engineers from major aerospace companies, minor companies, unknowns, Russia, French, British, and American companies, our military, the Russian military, the Chinese military, etc. Despite being a bright and capable engineer with amazing resources at hand and an advanced airplane industry with much known, even in the 30's with some of the older failures, these seasoned engineers made costly mistakes.

Here are just two examples from the book. 1. Page 230, the Percival P.74 from 1956 which was British and supposed to be a helicopter. Quoting from Jim Winchester, "One engineer associated with the project says that a consultant designer used the wrong formula for calculating lift. All the figures added up the P.74 went nowhere. Actually it was ordered to be towed across the airfield out of sign, and that is about the last anyone heard of it.

2. The next example I cite from the book is on page 62. This is the Antonov KT Flying Tank from 1942 and Russian built. Here, the plan was to have a Soviet wartime design to take the KT Tank behind enemy lines using a tow plane to do the job. Again, quoting from Jim Winchester, "on its one and only test flight the weight and drag of the KT caused the TB-3 bomber tow-plane's engines to overheat and the glider had to be jettisoned, making a smooth landing in a rough field. The flying surfaces were dropped and the tank drove back to its base....The lack of a tow-plane with sufficient power was one reason the idea fell out of official favor and was dropped.

Ok, so why do I mention all this. These are airplanes, not rockets. First, even though the examples I cite were decades ago, aviation was further along than we are with rocket building and space transportation. Many today claim we have not yet even reached the point of a DC-3 equivalent for space transportation. You be the judge of that one. Also, all these projects were built by qualified aviation engineers with track records and experience. All had bent metal so to speak. All had flown something. As you go through the book and look at the more recent aircraft bombs, track records and superb qualifications for those building and designing the aircraft that failed become even more obvious.

I use this book as a teaching guide for my graduate classes. Not only are many of the examples absolutely hilarious as are the rare pictures of the planes, it shows how even with good engineering, track records, and budgets running into the millions, mistakes are made and failures exist. I also use the book to demonstrate that nothing in engineering is a slam dunk or a given. Now everybody, extrapolate over to rockets and space transportation. Do you get the point I am suggesting, am trying to make?

I caution all of you out there reading this rather long post. Spacecraft engineering is hard. Track records are essential but not always a guarantee. Its possible to blow the calculations or make mistakes that come back and bite the project or the engineer or the full design team. I simply urge people to use caution and temper excitement and claims. I hope someone reading this post does figure out how to get low cost to LEO space transportation. But the old Missouri adage of "show me" is a pretty good position to take from those of us on the outside. History is full of great engineering designs and even more wonderful claims. But where are the vehicles, how many worked, how many failed, how many failed because of an error or just faulty designs, or management, or economics, or market conditions, or stupidity?

Finally, I wish all you cynics out there and those that protest the cynic state of mind but still visit this site a great Christmas, Chanukah, New Years and any other holiday you might honor. Make it safe and count and come back in 2007 to show us all or to point out more issues needing resolving. My best to the space world for a rousing successful 2007 that moves us closer to being space-faring.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006 12:06:00 PM  
Blogger oldspacecadet said...

Perhaps Professor L will write "The World's Worst Rocket Ships" as a companion piece in a couple of years.

As far as fiascos by otherwise skilled people, there is always the hafnium bomb that was projected to have a two kiloton yield. The military engineers specified that it fit into a one kilogram hand grenade.

The physics were questionable at best, but a broader view is essential. A 2 kt nuke ground burst creates approximately a 50 meter crater, a 1,500 rad prompt dose out to about 700 meters, and a 20 psi overpressure out to about 500 meters. The troops would have to have really strong arms when they threw the thing unless they were into self-immolation.

Perhaps the project could have been saved by merging it with Project Orion with the grenades used to boost the vehicle.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006 6:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, OldFart you are correct! The alt.space people couldn't build a rocket they could launch up there.....

Ok, I will make an exception SpaceX, they have built a rocket, would of flown it, but the big boys jumped in and caused it to sit and wait creating the Hangar Queen effect, which caused it to fail. Elon you should sue them!

NOW, I don't want NASA to be getting money, or Boeing, or Lockheed, or alt.space, or ANYONE, unless they are going to actually start designing and building stuff that is going to take ME or YOU into space (space being orbital)! I am sick and tired of paying for other people to have their fun and not being able to use it myself, you know if that is how it is going to be then we need to desolve NASA a put that money to good use somewhere else, or let us keep it so we can use it on our own nutbag ideas about space.

Oh, and this subspace (sub-orbital) wank is for people to develop on their own, no money what-so-ever for that funstuff!

You are also correct it is time to "shut up, put up, or shut it down!" NASA, they better develop a program that takes us into space, that goes for the government too, start governing for our (the tax payer) benefit not their lifestyle and retirement, or we need to cut them off too!

Now, the alt.space people, 99.99% of you guys are TWO HEADED CHIHUAHUAS, make alot of noise, run around and around in circle and never do.....! Old guy is correct: "SHUT UP AND LAUNCH SOMETHING!" If it works people will pay attention.

Finally, I don't want any alt.spacers getting my tax dollars to fund their nonsense, and I don't want NASA to give it them BIG MONEY SUCKING AIRCADETS at Boring or Lockedup, if anyone should get it it should be me, to build my own rocket, then if I launch, "and it works?", I go to space (and I am taking EVERYONE with me)and I am happy, or it blows up, and you know what, I'm dead and I don't care! Either way everyone is happy!

I apologize if I have been a little turse, but they promised us freakin hoover cars back in the fifties, where the H$#* are they!

Also, to write this I had to start a blog. It is Civilian Space Access so you may all adjust your sites and sqeeze, don't pull the trigger!

Thursday, December 21, 2006 4:54:00 AM  
Blogger Kelly Starks said...

The big question to the assumption is what is NASA for, adnd what do they need to do it? While I’ld love for NASA to be like NACA and trying to push the state of the art in aerospace and opening the space frontier; they adamantly aren’t. If cost effective access to space was their goal and mandate, they could issue contracts for transport of cargo and craft to orbit – or to really push it add a waver to underwrite development costs of promising launchers. About all the major areo firms have had and proposed designs with dramatically (a order or two of magnitude) lower direct operating costs then Shuttle and the new ESAS designs. All have proposed them to NASA and others when there was any reason to think they might get a sale.

You can credibly argue if the Alt.spacers could actually deliver on their designs on schedule and at cost (give or take), and hence is it worth it to NASA to take a risk on them; but you can’t argue that the big established firms couldn’t do it. After all – they are the ones who built all NASA (and most everyone elses) old stuff. As they have demonstrated when the opportunity arises (like with SDIs contract that lead to DC-X.) they can rapidly assemble a small tight economical team when called apon.

The issue is, if NASA opened up major transport to orbit contracts, outside of current political contractual overhead, the big established firms would likely be extremely competitive with the Alt.spacers. (Who are still shocked that L/M got a big nod from Biggelow.) With their resources they could come up with far more advanced designs very rapidly and economically (as they have demoed on military contracts over the decades.), and the resulting craft (demonstrating staggeringly reduced direct operating costs) could well open a floodgates of new space industries (or not). But for NASA the result would be devastating. All that waste in the current systems and contracting procedures equates to jobs in politically important districts. A return to the moon program that spawned commercial space activities that would make return to the moon laughably boring, and depopulated the centers and districts that give NASA its political clout would be agency suicide.

Its not about the technology, its not even about the ability of the firms to deliver, its about the lack of benefit to NASA and its customers. As long as bloat and inefficiency are BENIFICIAL to NASA, don’t get surprised they aren’t racing to give anyone a chance to demonstrate a cheaper more efficient way to do it.

Thursday, December 21, 2006 12:36:00 PM  
Blogger Kelly Starks said...

...they promised us freakin hoover cars back in the fifties, where the H$#* are they! ...


Well first time the downwash peels your lawn, you'll lose interest.

;)


Though yes, were do so much less then we were capable of even in the '50's its PAINFULL! I remember as a kid how confused I was that folks were raving over the Mercury capsules, and hardly noticed the X-15, or knew about the follow ups planed to steping stone up to something far more CATS like then anything we have now.

By now, folks literally don't beleave its possible to develop technologies to do, what we did do 40-50 years ago. And dismis the past records of the stuff as some kind of techno myth.

Thursday, December 21, 2006 12:45:00 PM  
Blogger Jon Goff said...

Old Space Cadet,
Who are the companies with proven track records for implementing your proposal? What are the names of the actual vehicles and how reliable are they?

I do believe you've heard of Boeing and Lockheed Martin (now both part of the United Launch Alliance). They have these newfangled rockets called the Atlas V and the Delta IV. They've only launched those vehicles what about 15 more times than the Shaft or the Ares V? They probably don't have Loss of Mission numbers as good as Ares I, and they probably don't even know the reliability out to four significant figures yet either....so you may have a point. ;-)

Working in space is hard. Refuelling in space is a nice concept, but it is just a concept.

Well, it's a concept that's been demonstrated several hundred times now over a wide variety of propellants. Heck, even NASA has transfered cryogenic propellants on orbit. I guess that going through a quick disconnect and into another tank must be really tough compared to running it into a spinning piece of turbomachinery, into a combustor, and out a nozzle....

If we adopt on-orbit refuelling as a critical part of the lunar return architecture, the concept could become a show-stopper.

Well, if you were actually doing it right (as opposed to just setting up a strawman), you'd probably do a risk reduction demonstration pronto to verify early on if it is technically feasible. Sure there are some risks that need to be retired, but that's not a reason not to do it. There are plenty of risks inherent in the ESAS approach, but NASA's going full steam ahead in spite of them. All approaches have risk attached to them. All of them have some potential gain for taking the risk. On-orbit propellant transfer just happens to have a much, much higher risk to reward ratio than the current approach. Paying for risk reduction missions early on can help decide if this much more effective branch can be taken instead of the current high-risk, high-cost, low-payoff route.

At the recent AIAA Houston meeting, talk was that an adequately funded on-orbit refuelling depot would take at least 5 years to become operational if done by the aerospace biggies. Which alt.space companies are capable of designing, fabricating, and implementing an on-orbit refuelling depot?

What's wrong with taking 5 years? Ares I isn't even supposed to be flying until 2014, and Ares V even later than that. If it only took 5 years to get a refueling depot going on orbit, that would be a significant schedule improvement. You're really not making your case.

How are you going to going to let Boeing or Lockheed do the job and cut the cost? (Reread paragraph 2.) By the way, they aren't kool-aid, but they aren't exactly alt.space either. The fundamental problem is still the high cost of getting to LEO. Without solving that problem, everything else remains very, very expensive. Solve the cost to LEO problem, and everything else becomes cheaper. The alt.spacers have claimed many times that they can cut those costs markedly and that the biggies cannot. It is put up or shut up time.

EELVs are high cost. But they're cheap compared to Ares I and Ares V. For the cost of developing Ares I, Ares V, and EDS, you could do a propellant depot done the "dinosaur way", and still have enough money left over to buy dozens of Atlas Vs or Delta IVs, before you even factor in the marginal cost of the first lunar mission. So, even if nobody in alt.space delivers, and even if Boeing and Lockheed have to build the depot, it will still be cheaper than the current approach. Now, with a huge market for propellant launches, a potentially very elastic market, I think the odds of someone in alt.space or not coming up with a cheaper launch system is pretty darned good. One of the biggest obstacles to low-cost space launch by anyone alt.space or otherwise has been the lack of a credible, elastic market. Provide one, and it won't guarantee someone will be able to deliver on a better vehicle, but I wouldn't bet against it. Even as cynical as you are you'd be dumb to take such a bet. But as I said, even if alt.space totally drops the ball, old.space is perfectly capable of doing better than the ESAS approach.

So, even if the SFF is full of stupid alt.space koolaid drinkers who don't have anywhere near as many degrees or wisdom as you do, they still have a point.

~Jon

Thursday, December 21, 2006 8:19:00 PM  
Blogger Jon Goff said...

Professor L,
I accidentally lost my reply, so I'll try to be a bit more brief this time around.

Basically, I think you have an excellent point, that is very appropriate to this discussion. All engineering and all business involves risk and uncertainty. Anybody can fail, even the best. Orbital propellant depots aren't destined to succeed by any stretch of the imagination. The important thing to remember is that neither is ESAS. Government projects fail and are canceled all the time. Government engineers make mistakes as well as private ones. Nobody is immune to human fallibility.

That said, the key to good management isn't avoiding risks (because you can't), but dealing with them wisely. To paraphrase something smart that Paul Dietz said a month or two ago, it's important to avoid the risks that you shouldn't take, but to take the risks that you really ought to take. There are some risks whose potential payoff is so high that not taking them is foolish. I think that orbital propellant transfer is one of those. I could be wrong. It sure wouldn't be the first time. But John could be wrong as well.


Anyhow, we wish you guys a Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays (etc, etc) too! I look forward to getting to chat with you some more on the 10th.

~Jon

Thursday, December 21, 2006 9:03:00 PM  
Blogger Professor L said...

Jon, at the AIAA meeting two weeks ago in Houston re implementing the vision, loaded for bear with NASA folks, Boeing, LockMart and other large aerospace companies, I had several interesting conversations about on orbit fueling. I can share some of it with you and others. The people talking with me would not approve my using their names, etc. so let's just say the conversations were with the people at the conference represented by the agencies and companies I referenced above.

First, I was told that if we had a low cost launcher right now today, a contract for around 30-40 launches a year for refueling at a depot cold be let with the right agency. I was told that this will never happen with the Delta, Atlas, Arianne, etc. Way too costly. The big hope is Falcon 9 and its a huge hope because its concept only at this time. Even the Falcon 1 has yet to fly but we are all pulling for it during the launch window in the latter part of January.

When asked how long it would take a large aerospace company to make an on orbit refueling station, I was told around five years if the funding holds. This would likely be a government project needing government funding despite possible private sector profits downstream.

I was told that if Falcon 9 does not fly, forget it.

So I summarize that this is a serious project that the large aerospace companies and NASA want and they all realize they need something like Falcon 9 to bring it to life. This assumes Falcon 9 launches for considerably less than a Delta IV or Atlas V. If not, the program dies as over and over again it was stated these rockets are just too damned expensive.

As for some of your other comments, you can has them out with the Old Guy and on the show on Dec. 10th (everybody if you want to hear Jon Goff in detail, check it out at www.thespaceshow.com) as he is the star for Jan. 10th.

I might also say that its doubtful from my perspective that the lunar program and all the architecture, etc. will actually unfold as NASA has suggested. I really think if they are going back to the Moon by 2024, the program will stumble badly. I think the architecture will resemble something very different by the time this program actually goes to the Moon. The stick has problems, Ares I, then V, jeez, why not just fly Shuttle again for a billion a launch?

Anyway, as you know, my expertise is not engineering, its business, finance, markets, etc. I cannot see the program flourishing as a business program given its current presentation. I think all of us who want this program to work and know that we need the big aerospace industry and NASA as well as alt.space and the brave and courageous entrepreneurs, all of us, we need to work Congress to get real funding for space, space science, RTM and more. We cannot do this on a shoestring and a prayer and lots of rhetoric. Space is our future, we all need to step forward and get Congress to comprehend it. And we need to get NASA to realize that 18 years to return to the Moon is not going to cut it. I do not think this program can survive 4 presidential elections and about 9 congressional elections. I don't care how hard the players work to make this a jobs program so congress will not dare cut it or shrink it.

We have our work cut out for us. Again, I say we work with the players to help guide, enlighten, critique and offer solutions. We do not do it by being on the outside bashing.

I know this comment is off topic from the Old Space Cadet's original post but I think its worth the space. I hope all of the readers agree. Now, let's get back to the original post and string. Surely there are more comments, right? Bring them on. I know Old Space Cadet is waiting anxiously for them.

Finally, I am writing this fairly late after a day that started before 6AM Forgive me for not proof reading my work and for making typos assuming they are loaded into the note by the dozen.

Thursday, December 21, 2006 10:19:00 PM  
Blogger Professor L said...

Jon and others, sorry, I forgot one thing. Jon, in your replay to Old Space Cadet, you reference markets, demand, etc. I urge you and others to lilsten to the recent Space Show program with GWU economics and policy professor, Dr. Henry Hertzfeld. Henry is one of the top guys in the world on launch demand, markets, pricing, etc. He states why in clear economic language this idea about demand, markets, pricing, etc. is flawed. You can find the archived show at www.thespaceshow.com. Just scroll down for the program with Dr. Hertzfeld on Nov. 28th. This is an important program for everyone to hear who thinks the conventional way about demand, markets, launch rates, pricing, etc.

Thursday, December 21, 2006 10:28:00 PM  

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