Just put chicken wire in it!

Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design #19:  The odds are greatly against you being immensely smarter than everyone else in the field.  If your analysis says your terminal velocity is twice the speed of light, you may have invented warp drive, but the chances are a lot better that you’ve screwed up.  

Dr. David Akin is the Director of the Space Systems Lab at the University of Maryland.  I have not met him, but I admire his writing.   I haven’t taken a class from him but the school of spaceflight hard knocks apparently uses his textbook.

A comment to one of my earlier blogs came in last evening.  The writer states that he had personally developed a method of making an immense amount of electricity essentially out of nothing.  We should get together, he continued, so he could share his plans with us, but he had to be careful to protect the patent by not giving out too many details.

Sigh.  Talk about unfamiliar with the basic concept. 

I did not post the comment.  Can you guess why?

When we were in the return to flight phase for the shuttle following the Columbia accident, we actively solicited public input.  We hoped that there were some good ideas out there in the public which might allow us to improve the shuttle and make it safer.  We set up a web page and an e-mail account for anybody and everybody to send their suggestions in.  We got hundreds, thousands of suggestions.  We studied them all, read them thoroughly, and responded to them individually.  It was a lot of work.  A couple of small businesses in the insulating foam world suggested that they had a product that might help.  On review, their formulations were not suited to space flight applications.  Nice thought though.  We got plenty of  . . . how can I say this delicately . . . nut case inputs.  Seriously there are people out there that need medication.  Maybe they are on it and the institution just lets them write letters.  There is the “numbers guy” for example . . . but the really nut case inputs are easily screened out.  What was the number one suggestion we got to improve the shuttle?  It had to do with the foam on the external tank.  The most popular idea – you got it from the title of today’s blog — just put chicken wire in it.

My grandparents lived in a house that was stucco sided.  That is how you put on stucco — cover your wall with chicken wire (or something a lot like it) and then apply the gooey substance that hardens and is held on to the house by the chicken wire.

We finally had to write up a form letter explaining why this was not a good idea.  I am not going to repeat it here.  Just suffice to say that some very elementary tests and analysis showed that having wire in the foam would lead to worse problems. 

I recently talked to the engineer who handled the web page and all our public input.  Out of the hundreds of submissions, did we actually get any ideas that turned out to be helpful.  Long silence on the other end of the phone.  Not really came the reluctant response.

During STS-51 when we tried to retrieve the errant Intelsat V communications spacecraft and had some difficulties capturing it, lots of folks called in to NASA asking why we didn’t just use suction cups on the spacecraft?  Hmm.  Vacuum.  Hmm.  Similarly, the suggestions to use magnets to capture the bird fell short when you realize that neither the structure (aluminum) nor the covering (glass solar cells) were magnetic.

I was disappointed.  But not, I guess, surprised.  Most of the technical subjects related to rocketry, space flight, and orbital mechanics is foreign to the everyday world that we all inhabit.  Not too many folks encounter cryogenic fluids in their day to day job, for example.

So were we wrong to ask?  Were we wrong to spend the time and effort to review all those inputs?  I don’t think so.  There is always the possibility that there is a genius out there that has THE suggestion, or at least the rudimentary idea of a suggestion that could lead to a breakthrough.  But those type of inputs are rare.  Generally, it turns out, folks who have studied and worked for many years on a complex and arcane technical subject really do know what they are doing.  The experts generally do have the right answer, or at least a number of options which may work with associated pro’s and con’s.  Just because the experts tell you that your idea won’t work doesn’t make you the next Edison . . .

I have to admit that this doesn’t sit well with me.  I’d like to believe that there are folks out there that can help us solve our problems if we would just ask for their inputs.  I hope you folks reading this will prove me right and that I am not just a cockeyed wishful thinker.

But you have got to do your homework.  The plan you propose should not violate the fundamental laws of physics and thermodynamics.  If you do propose such a plan — well, as I have heard it said, an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary support.  Handwaving does not cut it.  Oh, Dr. Akin has it again:

Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design #1:  Engineering is done with numbers.  Analysis without numbers is only an opinion.

And there is no shortage of unsubstantiated opinions. 

In fact, another of my disappointments is in the blog-o-sphere.  NPR recently had a book interview with an author who had written an treatise discussing why the internet is so full of vituperation, mis-information, and down right personal attacks.  Being on the internet is not for the faint hearted.  I don’t mind — and in fact welcome — a civil disagreement and constructive discussion.  But some days it seems like the internet is full of people pushing their own opinions with no facts to back them up and then engaging in the most offensive personal attacks possible when people disagree with them.  Whew.  Is there some place that you get points for being clever and vindictive in your responses?

So; I am still looking for good help, good constructive, grounded suggestions or discussions on how to improve things in the nation’s space program:  both technical and managerial.  If you just want to play some nastygram game, we’re not interested.

And if you want to make a technical suggestion, I am all ears — but I’ll really be impressed if your suggestion comes with analysis which doesn’t violate the laws of physics.  And I’ll really appreciate it if the discussion remains civil.

10 thoughts on “Just put chicken wire in it!”

  1. Wayne, I’ve always enjoyed your blog entries, and frequently recommend them to my undergraduates in Spacecraft Design as great examples of some of the challenges in space systems engineering. I’m honored to be cited in your blog, and am gratified that my “Laws” even get read in the real world…
    – Dave

  2. Wayne if you would just use a little super glue and some well place duct tape—just kidding. How about moving the foam inside of the tank and on areas on the outside that are known issues with ice buildup, use thin copper wire to heat up to remove it. Similar to the rear defroster in your car.
    Just curious on your opinion why the “Shuttle-C” concept was never used. Just read about it on Keith Cowing’s website and it looks like a great concept. The only issue I could see was getting the SSME back without damaging them or dunking them in salt water. Your thoughts?

  3. I remember seeing the webpage soliciting suggestions and advice for improving the shuttle programme and I did wonder if NASA realized the sort of responses that they would get.

    One of the responses that sticks in my mind suggested removing the RCC and replacing it with the equivalent of a fridge, after all, a fridge is cold isn’t it? And you want to get rid of heat don’t you?…………..

    I have the good fortune to have a couple of friends that know a lot more than I do about the space programme. One has done some satellite design work for (I believe) ESA. We didn’t even attempt to think of anything which would improve the foam problem but we did talk about some ideas an options and over the course of a few hours I certainly realized that space is a tough environment. It made me glad to work in IT but to be able to have glimpse inside the reality of what NASA have achieved.

  4. Wayne

    I loved your “Stifling Dissent” blog, but fear you have missed an import point with this blog entry.

    Yes asking for ideas is great. Someone is reading them, evaluating them, and then going “No”.

    The work is done, what is missing is the last mile of posting why each “unique” idea won’t work. You end up with a one way process that doesn’t allow for refinement that may be a better way to do things.

    Feedback is important. Can you imagine a rocket without feedback in the flight controls?

    Keep up the good work.

  5. Yet another insightful post, Wayne — you’re making a habit of it 😉

    “All” that you need to do now is complete the cycle — how does management keep from stifling new ideas and approaches (your 1/29 post) when it knows that the vast majority of new ideas and approaches in a highly technical field like spaceflight will be poppycock? The “add chickenwire” idea is perfectly plausible (and intuitively obvious) in the normal world of concrete & stucco reinforcement — it’s just that many things involved with spaceflight falls outside our intuition.

  6. Holy cow! I don’t know if you realize what you’ve done here for the “civilian space nut” contingent out here with this blog, Wayne. It’s a kind of access I think we always craved but maybe didn’t even realize exactly what we were lacking. I have a hard time getting through each entry, because about 3 paragraphs in I rush off to start writing a comment, and then I realize I’m getting too embarrassingly gushy and I abandon it.

    Thank you. I’m reading these essays to my nearly-5-year-old daughter, because I want her exposed to more brains than I was. I’ve been watching this series they ran the other day on the Science Channel, “Moon Machines.” It’s different from the many other, many good, Apollo rehash documentaries out there, in that it *specifically* focuses on the engineers who made the various systems happen. And it’s wonderful. Maybe, where you’re at, you don’t fully realize how precious it is to be surrounded by a buncha folks who regard “violating the laws of physics” as a major misstep. Thanks, sincerely, for sharing a bit of that world with those of us who only realized too late, that they shoulda taken more math in high school.

    (I remember that NASA input website too — and I’m proud to announce that I didn’t add anything. Because I knew I didn’t know enough to have anything useful to add. Except for that whole anti-gravity-drive thing I gave you, that you’re working on at Area 51.)

  7. I’ve never understood why the wing RCC box is a single-point-of-failure design. Seems like the designers could have put some sort of secondary protection inside the box to prevent hot gas intrusion into the wing structure should the primary RCC be damaged. Perhaps you could discuss the wing TPS design in a future blog.

  8. A bit of social engineering in input forms does wonders. I.e. tell people to mark which key parameters from a brief list they didn’t or couldn’t research.

    In any case, poor or nut suggestions are harmless because they are easy to identify. ‘Try chicken wire’ is the layman’s equivalent to ‘try a different polyisocyanurate composite’. In the second case a sloppy factual background can lead to a way higher waste of time and resources. So ‘chicken wire’ suggestions may be better left as they are.

    Since sharing simple ideas serves an everyday purpose –keeping in mind the basic solutions for problems– that’s a phenomenon that will be always there. Placing the expected answer just slightly above the social-talk level should get rid of most of the noise.

  9. Wayne,

    Just a minor correction. Intelsat retrieve was STS-49. STS-51 was ACTS/TOS.

    Terrific post which has a great message…as always!!

  10. “why the internet is so full of vituperation, mis-information, and down right personal attacks”

    that's absolutely right but there is a lot of good also. The future of mis information will be sought through online communities of like minded people, the information will have to be verfied and tested by these communities who will do it for free out of passion. No more reading reviews from non experts who are being paid to post random information on the .

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