Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Before the Shuttle

In the early days of the space program there were several dynamics that worked for and against a winged, reusable space vehicle. First, the space race itself put resources and focus on a moon landing. A winged, reusable vehicle, while studied extensively by NASA and the Air Force through the X-1, X-15, and lifting body programs was not in the immediate plans for the civilian space program. A winged, reusable spaceplane was the ultimate dream, but too far ahead of its time for NASA. This was especially true for an organization that’s main charge was to get to the moon. Capsule technology was the quickest and simplest way to achieve that task. This would, in the early days of the space program, leave the military as the chief evangelist, owner and operator of such a vehicle.

There would be other political and technical issues. Eisenhower’s motivation for creating NASA was due largely to creating an image that America would seek the civilian and peaceful use of space rather than a direct militarization of space. While in practice this was true, both the Soviet and the U.S. program pulled its astronauts from the ranks of the military, and both used rocket technology derived from military ICBMs. Despite the peaceful, public facing manned space programs of each country, neither had been deterred from planning for the military uses of space. The Cold War in space was fueled by Kennedy’s moon landing challenge, but Kennedy quickly backpedaled and sought cooperation for a joint effort with the Soviets. It would be too late, the space race was off and running and long with it a huge national effort that left the military scrambling for ways to use space for military purposes. Military uses of space would require different vehicles and orbiting platforms to dock the vehicles for extended stays. That would require the development of a unique craft with versatility, re-usability, and payload capacity as key characteristics. A military spaceplane would need to plan for a multitude of activities ranging from reconnaissance to perhaps serving as a space “bomber” to potentially conducting on-orbit missions to disable satellites. The vehicles used and planned by NASA to accomplish the moon landing were too expensive, too clumsy and did not offer the rapid turnaround required by the military. The very public NASA program also did not offer the military
the ability to operate with some level of secrecy.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

NASA Plans: Asteroid or Bust

For those of us that passionately support the manned space program, there was a glimmer of hope in the news articles circulating yesterday that NASA was narrowing down targets to send human visitors to an asteroid. Sounds exciting and this would make for some great “Kodak moments” along with a rekindled interest in the program if it were to happen, but not so fast. A NASA asteroid mission is NASA trying to do something with the limited budget they’ve been given.

NASA has a long history of being out of step with the political climate. There are no guarantees that this mission will gain approval and funding. NASA has become conditioned and accustomed since the Nixon days to not think bold, but to think cheap, not to be brave and daring, but be more ‘down to Earth’. This mentality has been driven largely by changing Presidential administrations reworking the strategy every 4-8 years. Long-term strategy at NASA is something that starts after a President’s first 100 days and last as long as the President holds office. Then the cycle repeats. In the space business, where it can takes decades to bring a new system online, from design, build, and test, a three-year plan just doesn’t work. Nothing will ever get done. That has been proven as a historical fact since Johnson’s Presidency. For every bold vision NASA has come up with there has been a President waiting to scale the dream back, time after time. Not that an asteroid mission is an easy mission or is not a worthwhile dream, but it’s being done because Mars is too expensive and few support a return to the Moon. It’s the compromise that NASA thinks it can sell. Throw in that they will reuse an ISS module and it sounds like great efficiency.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hawking: Beware Hostile Aliens Seeking Earth's Treasure

Yesterday, there was the announcement of the discovery of five large planets orbiting the star HD 10180, 126 light years from Earth with the possibility of two additional smaller planets also in that system. The findings indicate that the planets orbit their star in a pattern that resembles the structure of our own solar system. NASA’s anticipated announcement tomorrow (Thursday, August 26, 2010) will likely add similar findings from Kepler of Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars. That news brings to mind the recent debate that has sprung up regarding whether or not people, or more appropriately governments, should communicate with alien civilizations should we discover them. This has received more attention as of late when Professor Stephen Hawking, the noted physicist, stated that alien civilizations were likely to be older, more advanced, and would likely be hostile. He remarked that alien civilizations would likely raid our planet and use what they find here as spare parts for their own civilization and recommended we avoid communication.

Our detection of exoplanets has advanced rapidly in just a few years, but so far we have yet to discover any form of life in the universe outside of planet Earth. However, in the past decade the case has gotten stronger that some form of microbial life may indeed exist in our own celestial backyard either lurking under the soil of Mars or in the oceans of Europa and Enceladus. If that’s true, life is likely abundant in the universe, but what about this “evil empire” waiting to pick up a signal of intelligent life somewhere and raid an unsuspecting planet? It’s a ridiculous argument fueled by one too many sci-fi movies that portray alien civilizations as ‘pirates’ and ‘barbarians’, or reptilian creatures that are savage, but technologically superior and ready to slay an inferior species and not think twice about it. I could write a book about what’s wrong with this concept. From the size of the planet required to support such as advanced race’s resource demands, the additional gravity and the burden that puts on escaping the planet to the same constraints of physics that we face. It all makes for entertaining reading, but that may be the extent of it.

Hawking’s alarmist comments were likely meant more to create interest and dialogue on the meaning of humanity than to seriously create worry about a conquering alien civilization waiting to destroy the Earth. Step back, take a deep breath and think about this for a minute. First, any civilization brought up in a manner where destruction of other worlds and a lack of respect for other living beings is the primary driver for that civilization couldn’t survive long without destroying itself much less others. Look at our own planet for example. We’re not nearly as advanced as we project these alien civilizations to be and we live under the constant threat of annihilating each other. Second, these ‘aliens’ would build these fantastic ships to cross the universe and haul their ill-gotten booty and for what? Computer chips? A few fighter jets? Earth’s water? The first two would be obsolete to that civilization and the last is abundant in the universe in the form of ice. They could use their technology to send a few comets back home or tow an icy moon back and all of that would likely be closer to their own home planet. So what does that leave us? Just bad tempered aliens out looking to destroy a planet full of living beings for spite? Seems impractical that they would cross the galaxy to wipe us out and do it just because they could. The Jodie Foster line in “Contact” comes to mind; “It would be like us going out of way to destroy some anthill in Africa”. Why bother?

Perhaps we will find that indeed humans are unique in the universe after all, maybe it is our predisposition for violence that sets us apart. We see evil in others, because we are so use to seeing it in ourselves. Maybe the universe doesn’t work that way at all. Just maybe, alien civilizations don’t have the notion of reigning supreme over the weak, of using technology as a means to threaten domination. Perhaps benevolent civilizations will pick up an earthly broadcast of “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” and be fear struck that it a documentary of how we operate, and feel the need to arm themselves against future invaders from Earth. It could be that they might pick up a broadcast of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and would wait to welcome the altruistic human civilization in the form of Captain Picard and his crew aboard the starship Enterprise as they come visiting on their “continuing mission to seek out new civilizations”. If alien civilizations exist and they were to find Earth or pickup up our decades of broadcast we could understand their apprehension about us or hostility towards us, for any signals they received from us were likely dominated by proof of our preference to use aggression to solve our problems. They may just avoid us altogether.

Though we have not found any evidence of life outside of our own planet, and we have only begun to find Earth-like planets around distant stars, it is mind boggling and an extreme display of hubris that we humans think we’re alone in the universe. We inhabit a small planet around an ordinary star about halfway out from the center of our galaxy with billions of other stars just like it everywhere, and all made from the same materials and processes. We have evidence of oxygen, organic molecules, and water all around us. While a large portion of that water in our own solar system is in the form of ice, it is proof nonetheless that given the right temperature our main criterion for “life as we know it” is abundant. It would be shocking if it turned out that with this abundance of the chemical ingredients for life spread all throughout the vastness of space that the right combination only occurred once in an ordinary galaxy around an ordinary star. What’s more likely is that life is everywhere, from primitive to intelligent, it just happens to be spread so far apart that we can’t detect it or won’t detect for decades, perhaps hundreds of years, if at all.

For all of our fantasy and dreaming of alien worlds, it may be that we will never know. The laws of physics, while not fully understood, may be laws that cannot be broken. Even if we could travel at light speed, it would still take too long to visit distant worlds, too long to effectively communicate. Exceeding the speed of light may be impossible and that may keep us safe from Hawking’s aliens, but also alone. Being alone may come at a price; we could be deprived of the benefits an advanced civilization might bring us. The evidence for why it may stay that way is in the form of a simple experiment. Einstein said the speed of light is a universal speed limit. Here’s how we know. If you were walking down the street at 5 miles per hour and threw a baseball forward at 10 miles per hour, the speed of the ball is actually 15 miles per hour. The speed of light is at its maximum in a vacuum, and less through another medium such as air, but walking down the street with a flashlight shining forward and the total speed of the beam of light is the speed of light. Even though it’s less in air then its maximum, the walking speed didn’t add to it and the speed of light is the same whether you are standing still holding the flashlight or walking with the flashlight. It tends to support the theory that going faster than the speed of light just isn’t possible. The speed of light isn’t the fastest that light can go, it’s the fastest it’s allowed to go, the speed limit imposed on it by the universe in any given set of conditions.

We may indeed find ways to make trips around the solar system faster, but traveling for years at light speed to another star may just be beyond our civilization's reach and that may mean it is beyond an alien civilization’s reach also. For the all the ideas of creating “warp drives” and opening “wormholes” we just may never get there. It has become a near forty year quest to move beyond Earth orbit. I don’t like our odds of getting it together and creating the advanced space technology to move among the stars, but there is hope. In the next 50-100 years the signals of maturing civilizations that may have been on the same evolutionary timeline as Earth may reach us, and maybe it will be from the system orbiting the star HD 10180. We may tune in to see what and how another alien civilization is like by their broadcast, and we may learn something about them and about us, it may give new meaning to the term “educational television”.

As for those hostile aliens, don’t lose sleep over it. In the 126 years or so it may have taken them to get here from some distant star, they would either be too tired to fight us or have long forgotten why they ever wanted to come here in the first place.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Meteorite Men

About 35 years ago, when the skies were darker in the suburbs north of Baltimore I would keenly wait for the large meteorite showers in August and November. I would stay up late and peer through my bedroom window hoping to catch a falling star. They seemed more impressive back then, I could usually count on seeing them if I looked hard enough. To my amazement, and in what could only be considered a coincidence of astronomical proportions, one morning I found a tiny meteorite lying on the garage roof just outside my window. What are the chances that someone actually watching the meteor shower having a small fragment land outside their window. There was no mistaking it. It was a little smaller than the size of a dime, irregular shape, black with and orange crust in a few places. Back then I wasn’t sure what to do. We didn’t have internet, email or any type of instant communication. So I wrote a letter to a university that I had seen in a book while I was doing research on it at the library. I asked how I could tell if it were a real meteorite. They wrote back and said I would have to send them the object. I couldn’t do that, it was a one of a kind. So I tucked it away in a small metal tube for safekeeping. Over the years, somewhere in the accumulated mess of a teenage boy’s world I lost track of it. I’m sure it is still there in my parent’s house somewhere, but wherever that place is, it isn’t obvious.

Last weekend while watching part of the marathon of Meteorite Men that ran on The Discovery Science Channel I began to think about my little visitor from space and whatever became of it. Now, there were other grown adults like me who were captivated by rocks falling from the sky, only they spent their adulthood scouring the country looking for the same little pieces of rocks from space that had come right to my rooftop. The “Meteorite Men” have done quite well finding space rocks of all types, shapes and sizes. So well, that they’ve made a career out of it. Seeing them unearth buried pieces of rock that date back to the formation of our solar system is quite awe-inspiring when you think about it. Being the first human to touch a rock from space, or see a rock from space is quite the feat.

A few years ago, on the 23rd of December, my son had just come into town for the Christmas holidays from his Air Force Tech School training. When he got here we decided to do some very late night shopping to get him caught up. As we were driving back to the house around 1am we saw this ball of fire come out of the sky right in front of us. It was bright and large and it seemed near the city of Charlotte about 15 miles away. As soon as we got back in the house we started searching the internet for news. We were so certain that others had seen it, or that a weather cam picked it up and caught it on film, or that it landed somewhere near Charlotte and someone heard it, but no luck. I emailed local weather people, no response. It could have been miles away or hundreds of miles away, but debris from it is out there somewhere. With no concrete evidence of where it could be, no one will ever know.

So I got to thinking about that and did some quick research on meteorite strewn fields in my immediate area. There are a few, and not what I would call immediate to Charlotte, but within North Carolina, but they are old and date back to the 1800’s and they most likely have been picked clean by meteorite hunters over the years or the fragments long eroded by wind and rain. I did find one intriguing sighting in a nearby state that was recent and the object has yet to be found. Just for fun, I’m going to do a little research using the available data and plan a little road trip and try my luck where others have failed. In the sixty minutes that Meteorite Men is on, the task of actually finding a space rock seems easy, but that is just the edited version. They admit that they often search in futility and find nothing. My endeavor will likely end the same way; it’s searching for a needle in a haystack. The thrill of this is not just the search, but getting out and looking. It’s about being creative and inventive and talking to local townspeople about what might have been seen or found. It most likely will be never found, but it is just another space adventure that will happen right here on earth.

Perhaps one day my little rock will turn up or maybe I’ll start using my spare time to head west and spend some time in the Arizona and Nevada deserts looking for rocks from space. It doesn’t seem like there can be a much better way to see America and meet interesting people than to find the little towns that were lucky enough to have a visitor from outer space come calling.

Good News, Bad News....

The Senate passed the NASA Authorization Bill that put the American space program somewhere in the middle between the drastic retooling that the Obama Administration had sought and the “stay the course” approach outlined in the Vision for Space Exploration. There are a few things we should never compromise in this country and the exploration of space makes the top five behind life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and national defense. I say this because space exploration is one of those things that does not lend itself to compromise very well. Space is difficult, full of unknowns, and when you’re doing something for the first time, incredibly expensive. Getting NASA back on track is turning out to be a lifetime endeavor. By that I mean I’m not sure in my lifetime I’ll ever see it on the right course. Decade after decade the same mistakes and missteps, more compromise that delivers enough to keep the program on life support until we can change strategies yet again. The good news is that we are most likely going to build some things we need, the bad news, there isn’t enough money to do it right or do it in the mandated timeline. That’s just the start of it. This Senate bill is only half the battle. There still needs to be reconciliation with the House version of the same funding authorization. As they stand now, they are both radically different and neither is the optimal solution. It’s getting to the point now where we need to either be in this all the way or out of it and get a thumbs up on whether or not we need to continue manned space or the thumbs down and get out of it and boost unmanned exploration. This continual political infighting ends up costing us more and we get less. If the Senate bill is a compromise and the House bill is radically different then just imagine what we are going to end up with when this is all said and done.

Realistically, we’ve moved very little since Apollo. One could argue we’ve done almost nothing since the moon landings since we appeared ready to abandon the space station and we have already committed retiring the shuttle. We haven’t learned from those projects and built upon them a better future. We’re treating the Shuttle era like that forgettable season on the television series Dallas where Bobby mysteriously reappears after being killed off the previous season and we find out it was just a dream. Just like that we’re being asked to forget that whole Shuttle and ISS program happened and let’s pickup where we left off with Apollo. It’s senseless. We can’t have this both ways. We can’t keep the space program as a trophy in the case while providing minimal funding to keep us in the spotlight. The strategy and funding mistakes of the past have costs us the lives of astronauts and we’ve lost valuable time.

I think it was Dave Scott, Commander of Apollo 15 that said we shouldn’t be so worried about the program, that explorations of great discovery have sometimes had hundreds of years between them. The difference then and now was the evolution of technical capabilities, not a will or commitment to explore. It was because those predecessors never lost that will to explore that we have a space program, but now it’s different. We’re willing to do only what we think we can afford. This cycle has to be broken. We need to once and for all decide what we’re going to do, how we’re going to do it, and when we’re going to do it. Once we agree on that, then it will cost what it will cost to achieve. Somehow, this mindset has creeped into the Congress and the President that NASA willingly makes things more expensive just to waste taxpayer’s money. The solution then becomes dictating a spending ceiling and a timeline that fixes NASA’s problem. It doesn’t work that way. This logic escapes me. I challenge any member of Congress to tell me a real world example of where that works. Where do we dictate broad specifications on something extremely complicated and provide funding and a timeline as if every detail was known? What inevitably happens is that it costs more and takes longer because we didn’t do it right up front. Everyone’s angry and the course changes and funding restrictions only get more frequent. I don’t know that I care if we spend less and it takes longer if it’s the right course. It’s where we spend less and compress the timeframe, or compromise the strategy and don’t get what we need just get something that disappoints me the most. We’ve got lots to do in the area of space exploration. There are so many exciting destinations for humans and unmanned spacecraft. I realize we can’t do it all right now, but we need an integrated approach independent of costs. Once we have that, we can decide how we will pay for it and how long it will take. The way we’re doing it now we will never make any real progress.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Just for fun.....

There is only one place in our Solar System outside of the planet Earth where an astronaut could stand outside a vehicle/craft without a pressured spacesuit, with gravity close to our own planet, atmospheric pressure equal to Earth at sea level, and carrying only a bottle of breathable air in what could be termed relatively comfortable temperatures (above freezing and below 100 degrees Fahrenheit)? Now, this isn’t a trick question per se, but you do have to read it carefully. There could be other factors like exposure to radiation that might make wearing a protective spacesuit a good idea, but it is possible for this to occur.

Imagine an astronaut for the very first time feeling the wind and air of another world on his face. Considering this is likely to be the only place this could occur within any reasonable proximity to Earth (within our Solar System), it would seem quite an event, maybe on a par with stepping on the surface on the moon. Where is this place? Maybe the answer will surprise you, but it shouldn’t be that hard to figure out. I’ve given you one very big clue already. A simple process of elimination will get you pretty close, but given what you know and given that is has a relatively hospitable environment would you be in favor of sending astronauts there to explore such a place? How it could be done is almost as fascinating as the fact that it could be done. Now, I’ll let you off the hook from over thinking where this place might be just a little, since for all the pluses about it exploring it, there are many many more minuses. This is why we haven’t done it. We could debate the scientific value of such a mission, for as intriguing as it sounds I don’t know that I see the value right now, but it might be one that is getting more relevant year after year. Well, you ponder this one for a little while. I’ll post the answer in a few days.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"No Go" for Launch

Thousands of people came to the Kennedy Space Center on February 7, 2010 for the last night launch of the Space Shuttle program. I made the trek down hoping to catch one last piece of history and see a spectacular launch. The complex was as crowded as I had ever seen it. There were long lines everywhere, long lines to get in; long lines to catch a bus out to the causeway, a crowded gift store with people buying up jackets, blankets and chairs hoping to stay warm. Once I finally made it there, thousands were crowded on the causeway. The ground was covered in people. They were huddled in chairs wrapped in blankets, on the ground asleep in sleeping bags; the sounds of babies crying could be heard scattered in the crowd. Off in the distance stood the reason we braved the elements, the Space Shuttle, bathed in bright lights about six miles away ready for launch.

Earlier in the day when I left Orlando, the winds were stiff, I had a feeling that perhaps they were too high to launch, but out on the causeway the winds had lessened, and the skies were clear. Over the loudspeaker, as the updates came in, the chances of launch were dropping, first they were 80%, then 60%, then 30%, all the while clear skies and moderate to light winds were all the frozen thousands could see.The forecasters would be right. About an hour before launch, low clouds filtered in. Occasionally, they were scattered and broken, giving hope that the launch would go on, but just 9 minutes before launch it was scrubbed. The low cloud deck and the thickness of the clouds were right on the edge of the margin of safety should the Shuttle have an abort event during liftoff where it would have to glide back to the runway at the Kennedy Space Center. During such an event, the Shuttle Commander and Pilot would not have the benefit of preprogrammed guidance into their computer; it would be pure piloting, in the darkness, with very little moonlight providing any extra light for visibility.

The old NASA prior to Challenger and Columbia might have launched. The margins were close. The current NASA couldn’t chance it. Such is life for NASA. After the loss of two Shuttles in accidents that could have been prevented – there can be no risk taking, even if the odds are in your favor. Flying into space is risky enough, adding even the slightest risk is out of the question. I got to thinking about the other well known accidents and whether scrubbing this launch was evidence of NASA at its best watching out for safety. Interestingly enough, when the poll was taken and they proceeded to get a “go for launch”, the Range Safety Officer and Weather Officer gave a final “no go”, you could tell in the voice of the launch director what sounded like a little hesitancy to call a scrub. NASA had a 10 minute window and the scrub came 9 minutes before launch which was in the middle of the window. So NASA had about 15 minutes for the weather to change. The launch director asked if they should continue to wait it out in hopes that it would change before the launch window expired. The call came back, “no”, it wasn’t going to change and they wouldn’t launch. We all wanted it to go. I thought if they have asked me what would I had said?

There’s a difference between having all the facts and making a call, and making a call based on rationalizing the past history. In the absence of facts, people tend to rationalize history. For example, there’s never been an instance of an abort back to the landing strip. Therefore, it’s an unlikely event, and if that were the only risk holding up launch assume it won’t happen and launch. This is the type of thinking that led to Challenger. This launch though was cause for additional caution. It was a cold night, breezy, clouds, the shuttle has been on the pad for weeks through some unusually cold weather for Florida (although the Shuttle was protected and heated during that time), and it was early February. The three loss of crew events have all occurred at the end of January or beginning of February. It’s a statistical anomaly that must lurk in the back of NASA’s mind whenever a launch occurs around that same time. All of those events and the serious in-flight accident of Apollo 13 all share a common thread.

The link between Apollo 1, Apollo 13, Challenger, and Columbia is that they are failures of systems and process, and not of the crew. What is most striking about the four is that they were all preventable. Ultimately, NASA is responsible for the oversight and the process that protects the crew and prevents or greatly reduces the likelihood of an accident and does not increase the risk. These four examples are the most striking, but the process has failed before without tragedy, but only because luck was on the side of the crew. In some instances, the safety nets kicked in and prevented tragedy and in others, the human element of the process failed.

When NASA launched Apollo 12 through rain clouds, the vehicle was struck by lightning and the systems went offline. The rocket could have lost control or not regained its bearings had the computer been damaged or the electronics disabled from the strike. The response: no one knew that could happen. NASA launched the first shuttle manned, even though the vehicle was little understood. NASA continued launching despite issues with the thermal protection system and foam loss early in the program. There were other issues that received little public attention:
  • While Columbia was being transported from the factory where it was built in Palmdale, California, 5000 tiles fell off the vehicle. This included 4800 temporary tiles and 200 critical heat resistant tiles.
  • In a January 1990 mission, as the crew slept, the Space Shuttle Columbia tumbled out of control for nearly twenty minutes.
  • On a Columbia mission in 1993, an Auxiliary Power Unit leaked fuel and caused a minor fire while the Shuttle was descending. This was discovered as technicians found a burned section of the vehicle during inspection.
  • In January, 1986, the launch of Columbia was stopped with 14 seconds to go when sensor readings caused a launch abort. It was discovered that a technician had accidentally drained the liquid oxygen from the fuel tank. The fuel starved Columbia would not have reached orbit. The shortage would have certainly led to the first ascent abort in the program history. It would have taken flawless computer and sensor performance to shut down the engines before the fuel ran out and avoid a catastrophic failure before the vehicle could attempt a high risk abort-to-landing site maneuver. It would have made for an unlikely survival scenario.
  • In yet another close call, during a 1999 Shuttle mission by Columbia, it main engines leaked hydrogen from launch all the way to orbit. It resulted in an abnormally high use of the liquid oxygen fuel resulting in a premature engine shutdown. It was a stroke of luck that the leaking fuel did not explode and cause a loss of the vehicle.

There were also signs of o-ring erosion that were not addressed. The response: the Shuttle has to meet aggressive launch schedules to meet its costs and performance objectives. The Shuttle has had one ATO (abort to orbit), which occurred on the 19th flight when a main engine failed, but the mission proceeded normally until six missions later when Challenger exploded. Then on STS-95, the cover for the deceleration chute came off on the pad during launch and struck the vehicle without causing damage. There have been numerous launch pad aborts, an early cutoff of the Space Shuttle main engines due to a 4000lb shortage in the external tank, a failure of the primary system to detonate an explosive bolt on the SRBs to release the Shuttle stack from the pad. Luckily the backup system worked. In total, there were 16 abort events in the final 60 seconds to SSME ignition or after SRB ignition. There were numerous instances of foam coming off the vehicle, but it was considered a “maintenance” issue and not a “safety” issue.

After the Challenger accident and the subsequent review, there were numerous issues identified with Challenger including the brakes, steering, landing gear, tires that were unrelated to the disaster, but known weaknesses that were overlooked. After Columbia, there was discussion about the “bolt catchers”. It was a primitive system that is designed to “catch” the explosive 80lb bolts from the SRBs. If it failed, the bolt could strike the orbiter. Even with modifications, there is no guarantee that fragments still couldn’t escape into the airstream and hit the orbiter. On a sophisticated spacecraft, it could have come down to a bucket catching a bolt that could mean the difference between a crew’s life or death.

To look at the four accidents out of context of every mission and every near-miss would lead one to believe they are an anomaly. They occurred far enough apart to be considered a statistical risk of flight, but viewed in another light and one could assume that a) human spaceflight is risky, but loss is preventable, b) to meet its objectives, NASA must compromise time, safety and costs; NASA can only have two of the three, c) NASA is operating vehicles that they do not fully understand in environments that they don’t understand, and d) NASA’s training and culture does not adequately support its mission objectives.

It appears that a mix of all four has been at play in NASA’s organization over the years. NASA grew up in an era where it had unlimited funding, an ambitious and exciting goal, but little time to execute. That occurred during a time where it was also building its organization, its culture, and the systems and processes that would last long beyond the moon landings. In the full scope of NASA’s history, the race for the moon was the most impressionable, but just a small part of its total history. It left a ‘muscle memory” that lingered long after and through many changes. NASA had to adapt to substantially lower funding and take more risks to accomplish its goals. NASA didn’t knowingly put lives at risk, but it did so unknowingly and with a naiveté of an organization that didn’t know how to adapt. The organization never had a chance during its formative years to pace and learn all it needed to know, but instead was under a timeline to land on the moon, and second was under the gun to deliver at the least expense. Both philosophies would prove tragic.

In Apollo 1, the NASA contractor was guilty of poor workmanship, but there were design flaws like the inward opening hatch, the use of pure oxygen, the failure to recognize the flammability of oxygen saturated items such as Velcro, paper and fabric. There were process failures in oversight of the vendor and lack of quality control checks. In Apollo 13, the tank that exploded was a tank from the Apollo 10 Command Module that was damaged during removal for modification. The tank was repaired and an underrated component was not replaced during the upgrade. Subsequent testing showed an anomaly in the tank. After a conference with the contractor, a process was used to complete the test and approve the tank. The process used to clear the tank overheated and damaged the underrated component which damaged the internal heating element. The oversight would prove disastrous and near fatal. The conference with the manufacturer, and the subsequent decision to approve and use a critical component that was not performing as planned had a familiar ring and was reminiscent of NASA's next accident, Challenger.

In Challenger, NASA overrode the recommendation of the manufacturer of the SRB’s and launched in cold weather well below any previous Shuttle launch, and well below the previous near miss launch in 52 degree weather. Little known is that the Challenger may have survived had it not been buffeted by wind shear prior to explosion , which dislodged the debris blocking the o-ring leak, or that a misread on the weather had scrubbed a perfect day to launch the Sunday before the disaster. Any event could have prevented the disaster, but may not have solved the root problem. Even the disaster itself didn’t solve the process that looked at all aspects of flight safety and operational anomalies. Seventeen years later, another event caused the loss of Columbia. In that event, despite rather ominous visual evidence of a strike on the left wing, NASA failed to order additional checks on the condition of the orbiter from ground and space based assets and dismissed the impact a suitcase sized object with the consistency of Styrofoam could have on the orbiter’s wing.

Ultimately, NASA owns these issues. These were systemic failures of process and organization. I previously stated that NASA has had shifting sand beneath its feet since its inception, and has had to deal with numerous administrations and numerous administrators; but it never instituted a risk management or oversight process from its inception that could have avoided accidents and tragedies. A process that would permeate, become part of the agency’s DNA, and become part of the agency’s culture. Through their 50 years of operation, that aspect has proven hard to change. After ARES I had already been designed, there was debate over whether the harmonic oscillation would cause enough vibration to damage electronics and harm the crew. Rather than redesign the vehicle, the plan was to put dampers in the booster to absorb the vibration. The modifications left the vehicle with no margin for future increases in power and already there have been compromises in vehicle weight. It appeared that once again NASA’s culture was to work within the budget and accept risk rather than demand the necessary funding to adequately build and fly vehicles with the greatest amount of safety money can buy, but on this chilly, somewhat cloudy night in early February, the process worked. NASA did not move the margin higher in the risk category to get the launch off, but waited for better conditions. Thousands like me would be disappointed, but the crew and vehicle launched safely the next night proving that NASA has learned. Had they launched safely I would have been ecstatic, had this been the time that another tragedy would befall the space program and the weather would have made a difference, it likely would have brought an end to America’s manned spaceflight program or at a minimum, and an even longer hiatus then is already planned. I’m sorry I missed the launch, but glad NASA made the right call.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Wrong Stuff

When the Bush era Vision for Space Exploration was released NASA said "it was going back to the future" for its next generation of space vehicles, they didn’t realize how right they were. They went all the back to 1970. Back to a time when Richard Nixon decided manned spaceflight wasn't a priority anymore. In 1970, Nixon gave a speech on the future of the space program eerily similar to the latest Obama direction for NASA. Outside of the speech, Nixon had already established a timetable to end Apollo and use the last of the hardware for Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

Only because NASA persisted did manned spaceflight survive. NASA had managed to sell Nixon on the idea that deploying satellites would be cheaper if they were launched on a manned reusable spacecraft than using unmanned expendable rockets. It was a close call for the manned space program. Nixon was drunk with his power. He had forced NASA to rethink how they did space, and forced them to do at a cost much less than Apollo. He touted it as a bold new era for space. We would do even bigger things with a much smaller budget. Well, at least that was the thinking. What Nixon, along with his successors in the Oval Office, never learned is that space is incredibly complicated. Presidents aren’t engineers, aren’t strategists, they’re aggregators of information. We hire them to make decisions based on their ability to come to a reasonable assessment. For a large part of our history, they have failed us.

Space is an area where if you do it wrong, lives are lost. You plan wrong and costs go up. We know how the Nixon strategy played out. It wasn't cheaper to fly the Shuttle, and it diverted scarce funds for decades that could have gone into the next phase of deep space exploration. NASA has never recovered. Now, another President wants to make another bold course change; one that will be better, cheaper, and take us on new adventures. Where have I heard this before? Did you realize that since Apollo 17 left the moon in December of 1972, and counting the time until ARES-1 was supposed to fly, that NASA would be grounded 11 years during that time? Twenty-five percent of the time NASA stayed here on Earth. That’s what you call a bad strategy.

I like Charlie Bolden, the NASA Administrator, but if he seriously believes we'll get to the moon quicker under this direction, than Barack Obama is not just a politician, he’s a magician. It can't be done. At an absolute minimum, we need the ARES V heavy lift vehicle. You still need to put components of significant weight into orbit even if you can get crews there commercially using SpaceX. You'll need transit vehicles, fuel, and a lander. If SpaceX is going to do all that, then great, but it certainly won't be in the lifetime of anyone reading this. Sending NASA off to explore this hodgepodge of new technologies is something they should have been doing all along, but not as a substitute for manned space. What makes Obama think this assortment of research won’t be more expensive than he’s given NASA money for?

If you kill Constellation, it's not coming back. In 2020, when we bailout of the ISS, we'll be having this "what to do next" discussion all over again. The anti-NASA crowd always cites "how it was over budget anyway". It wasn't "over budget", it was "underfunded". NASA spends more than it plans because it gets less than it needs. NASA had tried to do the most complicated thing on or off the planet on a shoestring. It won’t work. It’s been that way for forty years. NASA has been given a fixed budget and then has to make the rocket fit the budget. It’s a disastrous formula. We never learn.

That Bolden equates the loss of Constellation to a “death in the family” is evidence NASA wasn’t in agreement. What have we learned from Nixon and Obama? Nixon didn’t care about space. He was out to be the President who would be the world’s statesman. His mission, have détente with the Soviets and open China to America. Sending people into space and to the moon was Kennedy’s dream. Nixon was out of touch with what space could do for America. The program and the country would pay the price – in human lives, financially, and technologically.

As for Obama, what his passion for space is we don’t know. He’s been on both sides - for it and against it. What we do know is he wants to be branded as different and works hard at it. When it calls for conventional, he’ll do the unconventional. Do I think he knows it all? That he’s infallible. Hardly. Let’s look at an example. He decides the Air Force doesn't need the F-22 Raptors - despite the fact that the current mainstay, the F-15, is a 70’s era fighter. "The Air Force is out of touch with modern warfare – they’re fighting last century's war” he says, “We need to build more UAVs". On the surface, that sounds reasonable. We’re fighting two wars and neither requires air-to-air combat. However, China announces their 5th generation fighter, the F-22 equivalent - and guess what? They're going to build at least 500 of the fighters, and likely more - enough to overwhelm whatever concentration of F-22s we could deploy in a conflict (less than 200 will be produced out of an original plan of 800). It just happens to be that the Chinese are about 5 years ahead of when we thought they’d be able to build them. It sounds like a strategy mistake. It’s the right tactic for one situation and wrong for another. In the case of UAVs versus F-22s, we need them both. There’s no choice to be made. Our continued missteps have emboldened China. Every weakness we exhibit makes them that much more confident and stronger.

Recently we announced we’re going to sell arms to Taiwan. The move antagonized China. That’s fine, but China is expecting a clash with the U.S. over Taiwan. They are preparing for it. Obama, Clinton and Gates need to do their homework. China is out to dominate space and to take the U.S. advantage away in such a battle. We have taught China well. They’ve watched how we've conducted military operations and they know the importance of space. Their civilian program and military space program are tightly connected. Did you know that in 2006 China blinded a U.S. satellite with a ground based laser? How about when China did that well publicized anti-satellite test – did you know if was from a mobile launcher? The test showed a mastery of multiple space skills and a bold strategy that could create a “Pearl Harbor” equivalent in space. Finally, in January, 2010, they successfully conducted an anti-ballistic missile test, their version of Star Wars. One other point of interest – in the early 50’s China tried to talk the Soviets into attacking the United States. They saw it as inevitable and combined with the Soviets they figured sooner was better than later. Hard to believe, but the Soviets showed restraint. They knew it would be a nuclear exchange that would devastate their country while leaving China largely intact. All of this talk about we’re not competing with China, we are, and especially in space technology.

There’s one other thing China has learned from the U.S. – how not to run a space program. China recently stated that they are not in a space race. Their goal, build a sustainable, long term space program. The U.S. version, change every few years as Presidents, who closest qualifications of directing a space program are that they may have watched an episode of two of Star Trek, discard what we’ve built and start all over. This is not the way to advance human spaceflight. Alright, so what’s the point? The point is that mastery of space is important. Our military and civilian programs feed each other. Cutting half of the program out will hurt us short term and will cripple us long term. China is no longer the backwards country we all think they are. They’re moving fast and have a long standing grudge against the west for previous occupations, they hold the key to our financial stability, and they’re buying time for the day that they will stand toe-to-toe with the United States on the world stage. That day is coming fast.

In 20 or 30 years, when China is leveraging the resources of space to their benefit, we’ll look back at this time in history and see it as the moment we gave up. The moment our President decided to throw the towel in the ring and concede defeat. We bailed out GM, AIG, Citibank, and a host of banks and industries that we deemed vital to America, but we let the dream of space fail. Every nation in the world can build cars, only a few can go into space. That Barack Obama decided that being a technological leader in space wasn’t worth saving speaks volumes for our leadership in this country. Obama’s decision is much like Nixon’s. He’s trying to be different to be different. Nixon was wrong, Obama’s wrong. It likely won’t be reversed and NASA will wither. For those followers of human spaceflight, all is not lost. There’s always Russia, China, India, and Japan – and more countries to follow who see leading in space as a technology enabler and not just an expense.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Way of the Pyramids

Standing on the Giza Plateau outside of Cairo, Egypt stands a modern marvel for its time, the Great Pyramid. For 3800 years it stood alone as the tallest man-made structures on the planet. The Egyptians don’t build pyramids anymore and haven’t for over 4500 years. At night they shine lights on the monuments as a testament to the great civilization that they once were – and so we have our own monuments to great achievements of how great our civilization can be, our rockets to the moon. After reaching the unreachable, we canceled the program and let our monuments rot. A few years ago, before the Saturn V in Huntsville was restored, I was shocked on a visit there to find the Saturn V laying on its side, on the grass, and rotting. It was faded, the metal eaten in parts, overtaken by rodents, birds and other animals that made it their home. Now, the Saturn V is restored and sits in a museum where like the pyramids future generations can come and say “what great people these must have been”.

The space race began because a unique set of circumstance occurred to give birth to it, and along the way those events kept happening, at first they made the race more exciting, but after the race was won, the events turned against the program. Manned spaceflight has been misunderstood since its beginning. We put a lot of national treasure into reaching the moon, but we never saw it as an investment. Like Steinbrenner and his Yankees, we just thought, how much will it cost to win, and just do it. When we had won, we looked at space in a new light. Having never established it as an investment in our future and in our technology – we saw it as an expense. An investment is something you put money into and get a greater value back. If space exploration were sold as a good investment with a guaranteed return, funding it would have never been a problem, but that wasn’t done. Instead, we viewed space exploration as a necessary evil – if we have to do it, then spend as little as possible. As so it floundered. So many people have failed the space program. Strategy mistake after mistake. Political wrangling, waning public support, a lack of creativity and vision for the future. Everyone has some accountability for the state of where the U.S. Manned Space Program is today. As I read the reports on Obama’s latest proposal, one Congressman remarked “if we're not going to do it right, then why do it at all”. So it has come to this. The people and not just the few fervent supporters must step up and say they want America to be leaders in space. For without that we will fail.

Every four years NASA comes under the gun, every change in Administration threatens a new direction. Our world has changed too. In the 60’s, the space program WAS the technology. We used typewriters, and had three tv channels to watch and most shows were in black and white. No CDs, DVDs, Cable, Cell Phones, Computers, iPods,Email, or Internet. The space program marveled us like nothing else could. Today, technology is so pervasive that not being able to reach the moon seems nonsensical. We can do so much and we did that in the 60’s – it has to be easier now. Couple that with movies that look so real footage from the Mars or the Moon would disappoint. It’s much harder to dazzle the public’s fancy with space when movies can take them there without leaving their living rooms.

“The World is Flat” as Thomas Friedman says and I’d bet on a global alliance to develop a Mars mission before I see the U.S. going it alone. I hope we will adequately fund the space program, but I’m skeptical. Who will stand up and speak for NASA? For now, we seem content to live off our past laurels. I don’t want my future grandkids and their children to go to the space center, and like the pyramids marvel at our monuments and wonder - who were these people that did such bold and great things?