Tag Archives: logistics

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”. 

Shutting down the shuttle

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I believe it was General Norman Schwartzkopf who said:  “Arm chair generals study tactics; real generals study logistics”. 

One of the first lessons I learned in program and project management is that attention to the details of supplies, vendors, and parts manufacturers will determine success or failure more than anything else that management does.  They are not glamorous, Hollywood does not make movies made about them, but logistics and supply chain are the unsung pillars on which every major project rests.

It is nice to have eloquent oratory and high flown philosophical statements, but the real way that real programs are really controlled is through the money.  When the logistics and supply budget is stopped, the program is over.  Momentum and warehoused supplies can carry on for a short period, but when those are exhausted, its time for the museum.

Starting four years ago, the shuttle program in its various projects made “lifetime buys”.  That is, we bought enough piece parts to fly all the flights on the manifest plus a prudent margin of reserves.  Then we started sending out termination letters.  About two years ago, we terminated 95% of the vendors for parts for the external tank project, for example.  Smaller, but still significant, percentages of vendors for SSME, Orbiter, and RSRB have also been terminated.

A lot of things that go into the shuttle build up are specialty items.  Electronics parts that nobody makes any more (1970’s vintage stuff).  Hey, if it works, why invest money in certifying new parts?  Certifying new ones would be even more costly!  Specialty alloys to meet the extraordinary demands of space flight, parts that are made by Mom and Pop shops mostly in the LA basin are norm rather than the exception.  You might think that simple things like bolts and screws, wire, filters, and gaskets could be bought off the shelf some where, but that thinking would merely prove how little you know about the shuttle.  The huge majority of supplies, consumable items, maintenance items, they are all specially made with unique and stringent processes and standards. 

Our shuttle history tells us that when we try to cut corners, trouble results.  Small, even apparently insignificant changes have caused big problems.  For example, the unheralded end of production of a solvent caused enormous complications for the SRB folks a few years back when things started falling apart unexpectedly.  It took a huge engineering detective effort to determine that small chemical changes in the new solvent were the culprit.  Anything coming apart in the SRB is not good.  There are hundreds of similar examples.

There is a long and arduous process to certify a vendor to produce the logistical parts for the shuttle.  Not many companies do this work.  Almost all of them are extraordinarily proud of the role they play in America’s space program.  A lot of them have been there from the beginnings in the middle 1970s.  So when a Mom and Pop specialty shop gets a termination letter from the shuttle program after 35 years of production and they have other customers, guess what happens?  Mom and Pop decide to close the shop, pension off their highly skilled workers, and then Mom and Pop move out of LA to their retirement cottage in the mountains or at the sea shore.

A lot of this has been happening over the last four years; most of it over two years ago.

So, just for the sake of argument, lets see what would happen if somehow we decided to fly the shuttle some more flights?

From time to time a vendor of specialty parts for the shuttle has gone out of business.  Our experience then is that we have immense problems getting anybody to even bid on making replacement items.  Sometimes, with hat in hand, we have to knock on doors.  Always, we have to offer premium payments to get those exotic, small production run parts made.

Given time and money, anything is possible.  But we are always short on time and money.  Life seems to be like that. 

To take one little example:  if we started today to build another external tank at MAF, there are probably enough parts on the shelf.  But very shortly we would exhaust supplies of some parts.  Maybe on the second tank — which we need to start in 3  months or so — would have to get a new supply of specialty parts.  Sometimes the old vendor is still there and could be persuaded to make more of the old parts.  But in many cases, a new vendor would have to be found.  Since the production run would be small, a premium price would have to be paid; and a certification effort requiring 6 to 12 months would start.  Initial production likely would have a number of rejects as the workers learn the process.  Hmm.  In probably 15 to 18 months would would have the parts to build that second tank — only a year or so later than we needed them.  So a new gap would form.  Not between shuttle and orion but between shuttle and shuttle.

And what would we get:  even higher price per flight of an old technology which is not nearly as safe as we would like . . .

Hey, I am the biggest shuttle hugger there is.  I think it is the best spacecraft ever built.  But I also deal in the real world.

Where does the money come from?  Where do the people — who should be working on the moon rocket — where do they come from?

We started shutting down the shuttle four years ago.  That horse has left the barn.