Friday, September 30, 2005

Moonward Ho!

Last week, NASA announced its plan to return to the moon.

The link takes you to NASA's site describing the hardware involved. Some of it ought to look more than a little bit familiar.

On the face of it, taking the Shuttle rocket systems apart and jamming them back together like so many Legos sounds ludicrous. But ... it's not a half-bad idea.

Look: the primary lesson we can take away from our experience with the Shuttle is that parallel staging is nothing but trouble. Both times we lost an orbiter, it was because of the hazards inherent in parallel staging. An O-ring burn-through is what killed Challenger, and insulation shedding is what did Columbia in. If the Orbiter had been designed such that it rode atop the External Tank, the Columbia accident could never have happened the way it did.

Now, take another look at the CEV stack. (It's on the right.) SRB on bottom, cryogenic stage in the middle, and the "Son Of CSM" CEV manned module on top. If something goes cubist with one of the lower two stages, the astronauts can jet away with an escape tower. That's proven tech, folks. We never had to use one with Apollo, but the Russians have had to make use of escape rockets, and they really do work.

Looking at the proposed heavy-lift model (it's on the left), we see that the SRBs and External Tank are side-by-side, just like we do it now. But, we've pretty much fixed the O-ring burn-through problem. They'll have to find a brand new way to screw that one up. And the cargo rides up on top. The foam can shed 'till the cows come home, and never hit anything important.

There's evidence of a lesson learned, here. Because we did something quite foolish at the end of the Apollo program in the early 1970s.

We threw all of that old, proven hardware away.

By electing to start from a completely clean sheet of paper, we thought we'd be able to realize some measure of economy by developing completely new technology. But, at the same time, we lost the opportunity to leverage from what we'd learned from building and flying the Apollo/Saturn hardware. We threw away a booster with an absolutely spotless flight record! Every time the Saturn V flew, it put its payload in orbit. A perfect record. You don't see that very often.

What they're doing right here, in my opinion, is leveraging what the American taxpayer has already bought and paid for. We don't need to blow R&D money on a new heavy-lift booster. We've already got one, for the most part, we just need to reconfigure it a bit. We don't need a completely new manned booster. We just need to use what we've already built a little more creatively.

Some might deride this approach as low-tech. Me, I see it as being good stewards of the public's money, using what we've already got to get where we want to go. Using known, proven technology to get the job done. No vaporware. No unobtainium. No dumping massive amounts of cash down a money pit for five or ten years, only to discover that you just can't get there from here.

Well, we can get there from here. What man has done, man can aspire to.

When I was a boy, I saw men walking on the Moon, live on TV. Not many can say that they chose their college major at five years of age, but I did. I always wanted the chance to do that, myself. I probably won't get it -- I'll be 51 in 2018, after all -- but it does warm the heart to know that the Stars and Stripes will once again be planted on extraterrestrial soil.

It is good to see us dare great things, again.

UPDATE: Holy Pimp-Slap, Batman! Now, it's important not to read more into what Dr. Griffin said than he actually meant. He's not saying anything that many of us in the aerospace community haven't already been saying for years: the Shuttle is a seriously compromised design, and always has been. But there's also a side point that ought to be stressed. With the imminent phase-out of the Shuttle, NASA gets a lot of budgetary breathing room. That's where the funds for this new initiative will come from. So, the answer to the inevitable question, "Where's the money come from?" is "Same place it always has." There's no new funding here, just a re-allocation of what NASA already gets.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Back to the Final Frontier (revisited)

I don't often plug products or services. In fact, I don't think I have ever done so. But in this case, I'll make an exception.

The product I'm talking about is Orbiter, a bit of software from Dr. Martin Schweiger of London, England.

For one, it's free. For another, the system requirements for the bare-bones version are quite modest. And finally, I can think of no better way to play armchair astronaut.

It's quite realistic. It's a faithful reproduction of what it's like to fly into, in, and back from space. The learning curve is fairly steep, even for those of us who know our orbital mechanics fairly well. But there are a lot of tools included to help you out. If you're reasonably bright, and you persevere, you'll figure it out.

If you're a flight sim aficionado, it's a must-have. Recommended.

Can do!

We see today from CNN that the Corps of Engineers has patched the broken levees.

This isn't surprising. There are government agencies that can't seem to find their butts with both hands and a map (coughcoughFEMAcough), but when the Corps of Engineers gets marching orders to make something happen, it happens. Mind you, the hard part of that job has just barely begun. Now they have to pump out all the water that came through. But they'll get that done, too. It'll take them a bit of time and a lot of work, but they'll get it done, and quite probably sooner than you might expect.

Difficult jobs, they do immediately. For the impossible, they'd prefer a week's notice.

Let's all raise a glass and toast the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They've made invaluable contributions to the nation's health and welfare, both in war and in peace. We're lucky that our nation's founders had the foresight to establish such a group, and that our leaders since have continued to keep them on the payroll.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Back From the Final Frontier

Some long-delayed thoughts on the recent Space Shuttle mission:

On the one hand, I am a bit disappointed that they were so ready to call off all future missions.

On the other hand, it's somewhat refreshing to see that they're actually paying attention to their flight safety rules.

But on the gripping hand, isn't it way past time to put that sucker up on blocks and build something new? Preferably before it manages to smoke another crew.

Expanding one at a time:

One of my gripes about modern America is how we've become almost obsessively risk-averse. We won't dare anything, if there's a chance of something bad happening. We insist on perfect safety. We insist on absolute reliability. When I look back on who we were forty and fifty years ago, it makes me want to cry, sometimes. Once, we were a people who were prepared to pay any price, bear any burden, dare any deed. Say what you want about John Kennedy's policies, he was a man who called his nation to dream big and dare great things. If we would fail, at least we would fail grandly. If we were to miss, it wouldn't be because we didn't aim high enough. Now, far too often, it seems as though we set low goals, and fail to achieve them.

On the other hand ...

NASA's problems also stem from an eagerness to rush ahead when they've got good reason to suspect that not everything is quite as it should be. Such as, for instance, launching a mission when icicles were hanging off the Orbiter the day before launch. Prudence, in the form of properly-written and observed mission rules, might dictate that you hold on a bit. "Go-fever" always says, go ahead! That's what lost us Challenger. Remember my diatribe about Blaine Hammond a few posts back? How the position of Safety Officer seemed like a dumping-ground for unwanted talent? Maybe, just maybe, that's changed. If that's the case, this may actually turn out to be an encouraging development. A sign that the powers that be really got it this time.

But on the gripping hand ...

Isn't this latest grounding of the Shuttle simply an acknowledgement that it's time to let this old dog go to sleep? When the design was frozen, gas was cheap, no one had ever even heard of disco, and I still thought girls had cooties. That was over thirty years ago, people! It's getting harder and harder to find spare parts for the bloody thing! Ever try to find a water pump for a '73 Buick? Yeah, good luck with that.

Look, it was a marvelous vehicle in its day. It was a bold experiment. We thought that one multi-faceted vehicle would be able to cover all of America's space launch needs. As it's turned out, that isn't true. It couldn't. And now, in its old age, we're finding that it can't even put people into space reliably.

What we need is a vehicle designed according to a whole new concept. A design that's operations-driven, not performance-driven.

Consider a Maserati: a performance-driven design if ever there was one. When it's running right, there's nothing that moves quite like it. But it takes an awful lot of TLC from a highly-skilled mechanic to make it run right.

But on the other hand, consider a Honda: not precisely built for speed. It moves, but that's about all you can say for it. But, it won't darken a mechanic's door for the first two or three years that you own it. THAT'S operations-driven design.

NASA doesn't seem to get it, yet. But that's OK. There are several who do. Rutan does. Elon Musk of SpaceX does. So do a few others. There are enough of them, and their backers have sufficiently deep pockets, that in ten years the center of gravity of the American space effort will be in private industry, not in government laboratories. And where they lead, NASA will be compelled to follow.

A bit of healthy competition never hurt anyone. Maybe that's what's been missing, all along.

Baked Apple, anyone?

I'm not an exceptionally prolific poster to begin with, but I didn't intend to skip the entire month of August. My house was hit by lightning on August 5, knocking out my phone line, and frying my old reliable iMac DV SE, that I've had since '00 or thereabouts. It's taken this long to get back online.

Not that I'm complaining. After seeing what the lightning did, I'm darn lucky the house didn't burn down.

So... I'm back up and running, this time with a cheapo Dell. Which is working out surprisingly well, actually. I've had it about a week now, and I'm quite happy with how it's working so far.

In any case, the rants will resume shortly.