Tag Archives: cost

Thoughts on Commercial Human Orbital Spaceflight

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Shortly after I moved into the Shuttle Program office, I was very surprised to learn that NASA did not own the blueprints for the space shuttle!  The government never purchased the intellectual property and the design details of the vehicle.  The blueprints are all proprietary information belonging to Boeing.


NASA never really built any big rockets; NASA hires contractors to do that.  For example, the Saturn V was built in pieces, the mighty first stage by Chrysler (how times have changed!), the second stage by North American Aviation, the third stage by McDonnell Douglas, the lunar module by Grumman, and the command/service module by North American. 


North American Aviation was an innovative, nimble, flexible, efficient, small commercial aircraft company lead by the legendary “Dutch” Kindelberger.  NAA designed and built many classic aircraft including the P-51 Mustang.  After Kindelberger passed, corporate mergers changed NAA to North American Rockwell, then Rockwell International (which can claim credit as the designer and producer of the Space Shuttle orbiter), and now to merely a division of the Boeing corporation.  The historic site in Downey which saw production of the P-51 Mustang, the Apollo CSM, much of the Shuttle Orbiter was sold, sadly, to commercial interests who couldn’t turn a profit on the land as a strip mall but rent the property out for movie making.  Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.  After Boeing bought out RI, the workforce moved a few miles over to Huntington Beach.  It’s just business, as they say.


So I am quite amused by the current debate about whether or not NASA should build rockets or contract that work out to commercial firms.  NASA per se has never built rockets of any size.  But that statement is so simplistic as to be disingenuous.  There is a marked difference between the “old” way of doing business and what is being proposed as a “new” way of doing space business.


Simply put, in the old days (or even today’s days), NASA (the government) was in control; made all the big decisions, required complete insight into all the details of the design, manufacturing, testing, and production of the space flight vehicle.  Eye watering amounts of documentation were required for every step.  The contractor might do the detailed work, but the government folks got to see everything, review everything, and approve everything.  The contractors work on a “cost plus” basis and charged for every change.  Somewhere along the line, the small, nimble, flexible, innovative, efficient company that was North American Aviation became a cog in a bureaucratic, military-industrial, giant corporation (no offence, Boeing). 


The “new space” model is that one or more nimble, flexible, innovative, efficient commercial companies will provide a reliable, safe, economical launch vehicles and spacecraft that American astronauts can ride to the International Space Station.  Getting to low earth orbit is so easy that practically anybody can do it!  Large government programs are no longer required and NASA should concentrate its efforts on deep space exploration and doing the “hard” things like landing on the Moon or Mars.


Except that in the early part of the 21st century, getting to low earth orbit is neither routine nor easy.  Anybody that has really tried to do it – past the viewgraph engineering stage – can attest that getting to LEO is hard.  It requires precision, care, extremely good engineering, quality control, etc., etc., etc.  Landing on the moon may be “hard”, but getting to LEO and back is hardly a cakewalk.  Recently I have read several statements from some “new space” entrepreneurs concerning space flight safety.  They acknowledge that an accident would be devastating for the commercial crew launch business, so they profess that each of the companies attempting to put human spacecraft in orbit (or sub-orbit) is committed to safety.  I believe that statement.  However, intentions are not enough; remember whither the road leads which is paved with good intentions.  In my mind, I can hear entrepreneurial mortgage lenders claiming giving loans to people who cannot repay those loans is bad for business and could cause the mortgage company to fail.  Surely nobody would do that, right?  There are pressures to compromise safety everywhere and to think that a commercial business won’t be subject to those pressures is naive.  How do you know when you have gone from being “efficient” to having cut the corner too close?


I do believe that commercial human space flight can be accomplished much more economically and efficiently than the government and our “cost plus” contractors do it today.  And it can be done with a reasonable level of safety, even in this low margin, high energy, dangerous business.  But how to accomplish these competing goals is the question. 


It is entirely one thing for a wealthy adventurer to personally choose to go into space on a new and untried rocket.  After all, nobody stops you from climbing Mt. Everest or parachuting into the wild outback for a ski adventure on a pristine mountain, its your own skin, your own risk.  But if the goal is to put U. S. Government civilian employees who are on official U.S. Government business on a commercial rocket, it will be the responsibility of some government agency (NASA?  FAA?) to ensure that the “conveyance” is reasonably safe.  NASA knows only one way to attempt to ensure safety, and that is very invasive.  In this case, synonyms for ‘invasive’ include:  costly, slow, bureaucratic.  Won’t help the business to be nimble.


In the 1990’s, NASA turned over the management of the space shuttle subsystems to the Boeing contractor.  In effect NASA relinquished a modicum of control and insight, a huge change in NASA culture at the time.  Going to a commercial launch vehicle will require a bigger change NASA culture.  This level of culture change is not impossible, but it is hard.  We’re currently studying on how to make commercial human space flight work – safe and economical at the same time.  As always, the devil is in the details.  And the hardest part will be the culture change.  Changing NASA’s culture is a topic for another day.

Sine Qua Non

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I have been pondering the Augustine report (at least the executive summary) which has been released.  There are a couple of sentences up front that have been on my mind:


“Human safety can never be absolutely assured, but throughout this report, it is treated as a sine qua non.  It is not discussed in extensive detail because any concepts falling short in human safety have simply been eliminated from consideration.”  As panel members commented (more than once) during the public sessions, ‘we assume NASA will build safe systems’.


I’m not a Latin scholar so I had to look it up.  Sine qua non means the something or someone indispensible.    So safety is indispensible.  I’d agree with that.  As a matter of fact, I have spent my entire career based on making spaceflight as safe as possible while still actually flying. 


Actually, the assumption that NASA will build safe systems is poorly demonstrated by our history.  Our failures are painful to enumerate.  Early after the Columbia accident, we engaged Dr. Charles Perrow of Yale University to talk to us about his book (and theory) titled “Normal Accidents”.  In summary, Dr. Perrow believes that accidents are unavoidable in complex systems.  Very depressing to read.  Nothing you can do will ultimately prevent a fatal flaw from surfacing and causing catastrophe.  Life is hard and then you die.  Not very motivational, but perhaps true.  So all of us who listened to Dr. Perrow determined to prove him wrong.


In any event, safety in space flight is a relative term.  A launch vehicle with a 98% success record is considered very safe, but you would never put your children on a school bus that only had a 98% chance of getting them safely to school.  It is a high risk, low safety margin endeavor.  Probabilistic Risk Analysis has made great strides in recent years but the only statistic I put any faith in is the demonstrated one.  The shuttle has failed 2 times in 125 flights.  That is not good enough.


Six years after the loss of Columbia, I’m not sure that we can make a spacecraft safe, but I have empirical evidence that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that we can make it expensive.  The cynical part of me says that is what we do at NASA: demand extraordinary proof that things are safe.  ‘Proof’ means a series of tests -a large enough number of tests to be ‘statistically significant’- and/or very complex analysis which examines every facet of each part of a system in detail to demonstrate that in the worst possible set of circumstances the system will perform as required.  Trouble is, there is no end to imaginative tests, and there is always something else to throw into the analysis.  And it all must be extensively peer reviewed, debated at length, documented to the nth degree, briefed to multiple layers of management, and signed off by virtually everybody in

the organization.


This is a very expensive process.


History indicates that attention to safety doesn’t seem to last.  Sooner or later the people charged with making a system safe retire or die off, the bean counters get their knives out and the organization gets trimmed in the name of efficiency and cost savings, and somewhere along the way an invisible line is crossed.   And Dr. Perrow is proved right again. 


Not to be too depressed, but these report’s two sentences on safety are counterbalanced by many more sentences describing how space systems must be made cheaper and should accomplish its goals sooner.  ‘Faster, better, cheaper’ was the rallying cry of management over a decade ago.  The wags soon added ‘pick any two’.  My experience has been that a project manager is lucky to get two, and many projects end with having failed on all three counts.


I found another Latin phrase which may apply here, from Horace:  Splendide mendax.  It means ‘splendidly untrue’.  Safety at low cost, that is. 


So as we look to the future, it is going to take a great deal of careful management to ensure that commercially provided crew transportation systems are adequately safe and yet not drive the cost (and schedule) through the roof.  This balance is not easy to accomplish.  Careful and thoughtful management attention will be required.  No doubt you will hear some debate about this topic in days to come.


Which brings me back to sine qua non.  About a year after the loss of Columbia, NASA had a conference on risk and exploration.  A number of folks who do dangerous exploratory work talked with the NASA leadership about these issues.  Probably the most memorable thought of the whole conference came from James Cameron.  After almost two days of people repeating the phrase “safety first, safety is the most important thing”, Mr. Cameron made this observation:  “While safety is very important and must be considered at all times, in exploration safety is not actually the most important thing.  In exploration, the most important thing is to go.”


If I were writing the report, it would echo those words.  Actual exploration is not safe.  Actual exploration does not take place on powerpoint slides.  Actual exploration takes courage.  Actual exploration take action.  Actual exploration requires going.


Actually going is  sine non qua.

Real Engineers

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I earned an undergraduate degree in engineering from a prestigious and notoriously competitive university.  After that I went on to do engineering research and complete a graduate degree in engineering from another major university with a reputation for excellence in engineering; along the way I wrote and defended a thesis and authored several papers which were published in professional engineering journals.

When I came to work for NASA, I was fortunate to get a job in the operations area:  mission control.  A thorough understanding of engineering principles and practices was mandatory for my job.

So I was floored just a few months later when I first heard it:  “you are not a real engineer”. I was just “an ops guy”.

In the NASA pantheon of heros, the highest accolade any employee can be granted is that they are a “real engineer”.  Not even astronauts rate higher.  The heart of the organization worships at the altar of engineering:  accomplishment, precision, efficiency.  What does it take to be a “real engineer”?

In the ethos and mythology of NASA, a real engineer is one who has several characteristics. 

First, they must have a superb grasp of the physics of their subject, a complete an total knowledge of the details of their specialty.  This almost goes without saying.  No nincompoops allowed; no fuzzy thinkers who are vague on the basic concepts.  A “real engineer” knows his arcane stuff forwards and backwards and from the middle out towards both ends and can recite it in his sleep.  “Let me tell you about the inviscid terms of the Navier-Stokes equation . . . ” a real engineer might say. 

Second, a “real engineer” must create something, taking it from original concept to working, functioning reality.  No view graph engineers ever get the title “real engineer”.  If it doesn’t fly or move or compute or generate power, or do some concrete something, you haven’t built something real and without building something real, you are never going to be a “real engineer.”  And the thing has to work; if it flops, then you are merely a tinkerer, not a “real engineer”.

Thirdly, “real engineers” are mild mannered; never needing to raise their voices, not loquacious, not given to long and convoluted discussions.  No, real engineers are soft spoken and terse; they are recognized by their brevity and the ability to concisely summarize a technical point in a way that admits to no further discussion.

NASA is full of “real engineers”. 

So us poor ops guys, who never had a drafting table, who never went into the machine shop to hand blueprints to a tech, who never got to blow up anything on the test stand; we failed miserably on the standard of being a “real engineer”.  We merely operated the stuff that the real engineers built.

Along the same lines . . . .

I have been privileged to watch the advanced concept boys at work.  They are marvelous.  Through the study of all past and current rockets they have developed a number of “empirical models” — rules of thumb if you will — that can help in the initial ideas about building spacecraft.  If you want to lift a certain number of metric tonnes to low earth orbit, given a particular rocket type (solid, liquid, hypergolic, cryogenic, hydrogen, kerosene, etc.) the advanced concept boys can give you a variety of options based on known ratios of structure weight to propellant weight, burn out mass, etc.  And they can give you a rough guess at the cost.  And they can evaluate multiple options and compare them one to another in very short order. 

In the summer of 2002, I got to participate in an exercise for about two months of possible design options of manned missions to Mars.  The advanced concept boys generated a new heavy lift launch vehicle about every other day and could compare all the designs against each other on a number of figures of merit.  Its heady work to invent new Saturn V class rockets in the computer lab.  Taller, shorter, with solid boosters or not, using kerosene or hydrogen or whatever.  One engine, two engines, five engines, twenty engines; two stages, three stages, four.  Whew.  At the end of two months the team had a great list of options and the pros and cons for every launcher.  And I found out that the advanced concept boys have been studying this problem for 40 years!  They have evaluated hundreds, thousands of various options.  Then they refined their studies, re-examined the basis for their methodologies and started in again. 

But you know what?  Advanced concept folks, even with all their knowledge of engineering principles, they are not “real engineers”. 

Real engineering starts after the viewgraphs stop.  Real engineers take the concept — boiled down as it may have been from hundreds of starting options — they take the concept and start making it real.  When you have to really design and build the rocket in its detailed glory; when you have to take the subsystems out to the test stand and start them up and see if they hang together; when you go from weight estimates to actual plans and find out what the gizmo really does weigh — that is real engineering. 

That is where you find out if the concept really will work or not; what the real problems are and how to solve them. 

When the rocket really flies you have proof positive of the real stuff of engineering — and whether you have it or not.

That is what real engineering is all about.


Answering the mail

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I have been very heartened by the considerable number and thoughtful nature of the comments received to my blog here.  It is really good to know that so many people care so much about space exploration and are willing to think hard and share their ideas with all of us here on what I truly believe is a worthy and noble endeavor.

To all those folks who love the shuttle as I do and have written in to say keep flying the old bird:  my heart is with you but my mind says otherwise.  If I had a magic wand I would wish to keep flying an upgraded, safer shuttle at the same time we build the moon rocket, and hand out multiple incentives to private industry to develop a robust, economical, and efficient space transportation system.  But I don’t have that magic wand and don’t know anybody that does.  (I also have a personal plan to put my big lottery prize to work; but I am not counting on winning as a realistic strategy).

As I said earlier, almost anything is possible giving enough money and time.  We had a really good example of that over the weekend as we all watched Hurricane Gustav come ashore near New Orleans.  Watching those waves splashing over the levee walls was terrifying.  Today we know that the levees protecting New Orleans are good for a category 2 hurricane that comes ashore 50 miles west of there.  Is that good enough?  Not really.  Technically it is possible to devise and implement a defense that would keep New Orleans safe agains a category 5 hurricane — the worst we can imagine.  The question is how much will it cost, how long will it take, and will the country commit the resources to do it?  That’s all.  So vote on your choice:  (a) leave it alone and keep our fingers crossed, (b) raise taxes to pay for improved levees, (c) take the money from some other government spending and send it to New Orleans instead.  That’s about all the choices you get.  Simple, really.

Space exploration is like that.  There are a lot of competing ideas out there.  The leadership of our country has given us a mandate and provided a certain amount of money to get the job done.   We could wish for more resources, more money, but where will that come from.  See above!

If you are concerned about our Russian friends and don’t want to rely on the Soyuz, sorry.  Even if we kept flying the shuttle for an extended period, we would still have to rely on the Soyuz as a lifeboat.  The shuttle does not have the capability to remain at the station for extended periods of time and we really must have a lifeboat.  Wish we had finished the Crew Rescue Vehicle (aka X-38) but the national leadership cancelled that program for budgetary reasons and almost 10 years ago now we knew that we would rely on the Soyuz for the lifetime of the station.  And don’t even think about operating the station without all our international partners.  We are all in this together.  In fact, it is a source of pride and wonder that International Space Station is the largest cooperative program ever undertaken by a large group of international partners.  Wish we could take the lessons learned at ISS on how to work together and get them to apply to other areas!

I am a big fan of all the folks working on commercial, private enterprize solutions to space travel.  The Falcon team especially has earned my respect for their accomplishments.  Those accomplishments have come at a high cost both in financially and in the hours of hard work and stress that team has put in place.  I really hope that their next launch is a total success and the Falcon 9 and the proposed Dragon spacecraft come to fruition.  But I have had a long experience of various proposed spacecraft that never made it, for all too many reasons.  The  bottom line:  somebody somewhere somehow needs to perfect a reliable, economical, reasonably safe way to get people to low earth orbit, where, as Robert Heinlein famously wrote, “in low earth orbit you are half way to anywhere in the universe”.    The Orion and Aries 1 is NASA’s plan, there needs to be others, and there are others in the works.  Just money and time.

If we do decide to fly the shuttle longer — and hopefully that comes with the monetary resources so that our march back to the moon is not delayed — my biggest regret will be the loss of all the safety upgrades we had for the shuttle.  In January 2004 we had a number of projects underway to make the shuttle safer.  When the decision came down to retire the shuttle by 2010, we evaluated all those changes and anything that could not be developed, proven, and implemented in the fleet by 2010 was terminated.  It just didn’t make sense to spend the tax payer’s money on something that would not fly.  My personal favorite was channel wall nozzles for the space shuttle main engines.  If you haven’t seen a slow motion video of those engines starting up you probably sleep better at night.  1060 thin tubes are braze welded together to form the nozzle and it flexes and bends during engine startup.  If the nozzle comes apart, well . . . it would be a bad day.  Channel wall nozzles are much more robust; we had the plan in place to implement them in the fleet by 2011, but not any more.  And if you turn that project back on today, it will be five years later . . .

So I am frankly ambivalent about the retirement of the shuttle.  After working on it for 30 years, I love that old bird and admire its accomplishments and capabilities.  But I also know too well its weaknesses and flaws.  And I came to work at NASA to explore the solar system, not just exploit low earth orbit.  So its time to go on from here. 

But, as always, we can talk about.


I do have one final personal note.  In one of the comments, somebody said I was being “disingenuous”.  Thats a big word but one of the things it means is that I lied.  Actually it means to make a false or hypocritical statement.  Now folks, I take extreme umbrage (another big word) at that.   I can be wrong – and I frequently am.  And my logic may not be sound – guilty on numerous occasions.  And I cannot express my thoughts as coherently as I wish.  But I am not into “spin” and the one thing I will not do is lie to you.  Here or anywhere.  So please don’t call me “disingenuous”.