Burgeoning commercial space industry

The Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (aka “Augustine Committee”) has finalized its report and it is no surprise that the proposals and alternatives offered there have been the subject of much review and evaluation by NASA leadership and space policy makers.


Re-reading the report last week I was struck by an early sentence in the executive summary which was repeated in the body of the report:


“. . . there is now a burgeoning commercial space industry.”


OK, I’m an Engineer, not an English major so I had to look it up:


burgeon  [bur-juh n]  


to grow or develop quickly; flourish



to begin to grow, as a bud; put forth buds, shoots, etc., as a plant (often fol. by out, forth).

ME burjon, burion; shoot, bud, deriv. of LL burra wool, fluff




Let’s see; in the USA we have, what, three or four space launch vehicle manufacturers in active production?  Is that “burgeoning?”


Sea Launch, one of the most innovative companies in both their business model and their technical approach is in bankruptcy court.  Two of the “old space” major players have formed a joint venture to pool their launch capabilities and fly maybe 5 or 6 times in a good year.  The geosynchronous satellite market has largely gone overseas to Ariane or India or China. 


As my father, the CPA, taught me:  for a business to stay in business, it must make a profit.  That is what businesses do.  If there is no return on investment, they go out of business.  It is not just the technical challenge, nor the production challenge; it is the business challenge and profitability which are inhibiting commercial space flight.  If somebody can do the job cheaper than your company, then you are in real trouble business-wise.  Ergo, commercial satellites have gone “off shore.”


There are a couple of smaller, entrepreneurial, companies which are making good progress toward medium launch vehicle operations.  We applaud them and wish them well and have in fact provided some fiscal support.


But compare where the US commercial space launch business is today with the situation a decade ago when there were at least dozen firms in the space launch business.  The proper adjective for US commercial space flight should be “moribund” rather than “burgeoning.”


Not that there aren’t a lot of folks out there who have an idea, a concept, some preliminary engineering feasibility studies and some hopeful powerpoint charts trying to attract venture capital.  There are a lot of those folks.  Many of these are pursuing the technically simpler and much cheaper sub orbital “market.”  Even that is a struggle as we can see by the serious “gap” in suborbital capability since Space Ship One flew twice in 2003 and the next flight maybe in 2010.


But any student of space flight knows that recent history is littered with the wreckage of serious commercial space launch companies  hat failed.  Just a few names to jog your memory:  Conestoga, Beal, Rotary Rocket, Kistler . . . fill in your own favorites.  Several of these had serious financial backing, great technical teams, and some even built and launched flight hardware.  All are gone. 


On my spaceflight shelf is a slim volume with the title “LEO on the Cheap” written by a guy who should have known better.  In the 1980’s there was a German organization called OTRAG that had a great plan to get to earth orbit cheaply.  Nothing ever came of it. 


All of these fledgling companies share a common belief, that getting to LEO should be easy:  just eliminate the waste, bureaucracy, and inefficiency of the government or of the “old space” (aka military-industrial-complex) guys and apply the latest management theories and – voila’ – cheap, regular, plentiful access to space will immediately follow.


Many people wishfully believe that it is that easy.  I personally wish it were that easy.  I cannot tell you how much I wish it were that easy.  But if wishes had wings then pigs could fly. 


If we are to reawaken the US commercial space launch industry and build it into a vibrant, competitive (which is to say, cheaper), reliable, regular space launch business, many things will need to be addressed.  From my knothole it would appear that the ITAR laws are one of the critical components that prevent competition.  And ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) has its merits in a dangerous world. 


By Federal statute and general interest, NASA is encouraging, promoting, and even to some extent enabling commercial space flight in the US.  Could more be done? Absolutely, and we should.  Will there be problems along the way?  No doubt.  Will astounding breakthroughs in cost reduction appear?  I doubt it. 


Commercial air travel required the revolution from propellers to jets to become really viable.  I suspect space travel will require something similar.  As long as we rely on chemical rocket propulsion it is likely we will see only incremental cost decreases. 


I wish you would find that breakthrough.  Meanwhile, the rest of us will plod through trying to incrementally improve the biplanes.  And the business ain’t “burgeoning”. 

Thanksgiving Memories

The shuttle is in flight once again this Thanksgiving Day, not the first time a holiday has come during a shuttle flight.  My station friends remind me that they fly 24/7/365 and Christmas is really just GMT day 359.  But when the shuttle is flying during Thanksgiving, I am always reminded of one significant day:


STS-33 was one of those classified DoD shuttle flights we can’t really talk about.  But I don’t think I’ll be in any trouble with security over this mostly true story.  I was the Orbit 1 team Flight Director and the shift schedule called for my team to be on console about noon.  We had a big family Thanksgiving meal early that year (a real challenge for my wife).  Satiated with turkey, all the trimmings, and pie, I arrived at the MCC to start handover from the planning team lead by Rob Kelso.  We were expecting a really quiet shift. 


Falcon Flight gave me the big news before I even plugged my headset into the console:  “Potty is broken!”  Sigh.  Flight Directors spent hundreds of hours studying the various systems:  engines, fuel cells, navigation.  Everybody’s least favorite system was not working.  “If we don’t get it fixed, the crew will have to break out the Apollo bags” Rob continued.  If you don’t know what an Apollo bag is, well . . . let’s just say that you really didn’t really want to know.  It’s a big plastic bag with sticky substance on the lip which you apply to your . . . anatomy . . . to take care of your . . . business.  Not glamorous.


Fixing the potty is not exactly the kind of problem you want to work on following a big meal.


So MC finished team handover, got a few sketchy details from the crew, and set to work to see how the “Waste Management Collection System” could be fixed. 


It wasn’t until the post flight debriefings that we heard what really transpired onboard.  Story Musgrave, raconteur extraordinaire, was an eyewitness.  It seems that the victim of the WCS failure was the commander, Fred Gregory. 


First, you must have a primer on how to go to the bathroom in space (every schoolboy’s favorite subject).  The lack of gravity means that everyday earth based technology does not work.  Early efforts were primitive (reference the discussion of the Apollo bags above).  #1 might be easily taken care of, but #2 is a much bigger problem (Pardon me here, my vocabulary is influenced by the recent effort to get my grandchildren potty trained here on earth).  Without gravity the . . . waste material . . . tends not be removed from the body.  The shuttle potty deals with this mainly by airflow.  A very small opening in the toilet (much smaller than earth based toilets) allows just the critical part of  . . . your anatomy . . . to fit precisely over the hole.  There is a famously closed circuit TV in the WCS trainer at JSC’s building 5 to help astronauts learn how to correctly position themselves.  Flight Directors did not have to go through this little indignity during our training.  In early WCS designs, there was a complicated mechanism down that hole called the “slinger/shredder” which was pretty descriptive of its intent.  The astronaut office objected to having a high RPM mechanical device so close to . . . . their person . . . and tests showed that the “slinger/shredder” probably wouldn’t work well, so the design got changed early in the shuttle.  Now the toilet just uses airflow to do what gravity does here on earth.  One sits in the WCS compartment with your feet in stirrups and a lap belt to hold you down.  Once correctly positioned, the victim uses a handle much like an automobile gear shift lever to start the mechanism.  First pull on the lever closes the vacuum valve – all the odors in the quiescent potty are sucked out through the orbiter’s overboard vent system.  Second pull on the lever opens the “slider valve” just under the seat and that means the toilet is open for . . . business.  Next pull starts a small fan which circulates air to help with . . . removal.  When you are done, reversing the gear shift lever first turns off the fan, then closes the slider valve, and finally opens the vacuum vent.  In that order. 


Some quirk of sadistic spacecraft design required that all the air coming into the space shuttle crew compartment comes in through the “roof” of the WCS compartment.  Normally there is very little makeup air required, but when the pressure falls slightly due to the natural leakage of the crew compartment, makeup air flows in through automatic valve outlets.  A sophisticated system automatically keeps track of whether the makeup gas should be oxygen or nitrogen, the desire being to maintain a sea level atmosphere composition and pressure.  Since the crew breaths in oxygen (and the exhaled carbon dioxide is removed elsewhere), the makeup gas is usually oxygen.  The cryogenic oxygen tanks in the payload bay feed both the fuel cells and breathing air.  The liquid oxygen from the tanks must be warmed to become a gas, but it still comes out very cold in the WCS compartment.


So during crew sleep early Thanksgiving morning, Fred Gregory had to do what comes naturally.  All was well until (as) he moved the gear shifter to close up the WCS.  Story related what happened next with great relish. Unfortunately, somewhere in the mechanism, the slider valve failed to close – but the vacuum vent was opened up!  Depressurization!  You can imagine what it would be like to be strapped down, have the suction of pure space applied to . . . . your person . . . , have a rush of cold oxygen burst in over your head, and the depress Klaxon alarm going off simultaneously. 


Story opened the WCS door and together they got the mechanism to close the slider valve, and then got Fred off the seat. 


Of course the whole crew was awakened by this commotion and John Blaha, the pilot, was starting to work the emergency procedure for cabin leak. 


The immediate danger passed, but Mission Control was now on the radio and wanted to know what happened.  A much abbreviated narrative was received.  Needless to say, not much sleep was had for the remainder of the crew sleep period.  And the bathroom was definitely closed for maintenance.


On the ground, MCC called in the engineering team that designed and tested the WCS (remember, it’s a holiday and most folks were just then sitting down to the Big Meal!)  We got a crew of techs to open up one of the WCS units on the ground.  Meanwhile, the flight controllers studied systems schematics and flight rules.  We all pondered how to make the thing work.  The IFM (in-flight-maintenance) guys came to our rescue.  By removing the cover from the front of the device and applying vise grip pliers to an appropriate lever, the potty could be used without depressurizing the cabin again. 


Whew.  Problem solved.  That’s what MCC is there for. 


Every Thanksgiving now, sometime after the pie and before the football game/nap, I chuckle as I remember that episode.  And give thanks for 1 G and three toilets in my house.


A few days later, Fred Gregory tried to land the shuttle like he did the T-38 . . . but that is another story for another day . . . .


Happy Thanksgiving!


Gathering Dust

By chance I was in Omaha this week when the news was announced that the X-38 was going on display in the Strategic Air & Space Museum there.  What an interesting and out of the way place to display this remarkable device.  My work schedule didn’t allow me the luxury of a visit to the museum, but then I’ve seen the X-38 up close before.

Disclaimer:  I was a member of an independent review team for the X-38 development for a short period of time.

The X-38 was a tremendously ingenious device lead by a group of talented and unorthodox NASA employees.  Their leader, John Muratore, one of the most gifted systems engineers I have ever known.  These “pirates” who worked largely free of the typical government space bureaucracy in a skunk works type environment.  Free to innovate, free to be highly flexible, co-located with the hardware, they were on the brink of a stunning technological achievement when politics intervened.

The X-38 was a lifting body spacecraft that was to serve as the International Space Station’s lifeboat.  It was the prototype of the Crew Rescue Vehicle, the CRV.  If it had been allowed to succeed, it would have been an alternative to the Russian Soyuz in that role.  As a spacecraft it was the potentially evolvable beginning of new space taxis that would have been able to provide alternate ways to get humans to low earth orbit and back.  Again, eliminating our sole reliance on the venerable Soyuz, but also providing a way to rotate crews without the Shuttle – which we so desperately needed after Columbia.  And the X-38 would have preceded the proposed commercial human launch vehicles by almost a decade.

Unfortunately, new political leadership inside the beltway thought that NASA’s only problem was not being able to do our accounting in line with the arcane rules proposed by the OMB.  The new political leadership – which by their own admission – knew nothing about the technical aspects of getting into space – needed a scapegoat, an example, something that they could “cut” to show that they were serious about keeping NASA financially in line.

So they picked the brightest star of the future of human spacecraft and killed it with extreme prejudice.

A few years later, in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, Admiral Gehman stated that the failure to replace the Shuttle with something safer was “a failure of national leadership.”  The cancellation of the X-38 is exhibit A of that failure.

So if you get to Nebraska (Nebraska?!?) go out to the museum and see the nearly flight ready X-38 vehicle there.  Think about how the history of the last decade in space exploration might have been different if the mindset inside the DC beltway was focused on achievement instead of ignorantly punishing the most successful.   Penny wise and pound foolish.

There are many morals that can be drawn from this history lesson.  I leave it as an exercise for the reader to see if you can come to the most obvious conclusions, and how they are still in force today.

Nebraska is a really nice state, and Omaha is a really nice town.  I appreciate them providing a venue for the X-38.

And if you look up John Muratore, you will find him teaching college students about systems engineering.  We need more of that. 

Shame on those people who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”