Tag Archives: shuttle

Coming Soon

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Shortly after the Bush administration decided to end the shuttle program (no later than 2010), we decided that it would be a good idea to have the people who actually worked in the shuttle program write a book detailing our shared experience.  Heaven knows that there are enough books on the shuttle already, and no doubt more to come.  But by and large these books have been written by people who are external to the program:  historians, journalists, and the like.  Several individuals, most of them former astronauts, have written books, but they are necessarily the point of view of a single individual, and therefore can tell only part of the story.

So we decided to write a book on the breadth of the shuttle program, from beginning to end, the good, the bad, and the ugly, with only a couple of rules:  (1) it had to be totally honest, (2) it had to be technically accurate, (3) it had to fit in one volume, and (4) it had to be written by insiders.

Tuesday we had the final editorial board meeting which put a seal on the contents.  From this point on the book is in the hands of the proof readers, the indexers, the graphics designers, and the printer.  We expect the Government Printing Office to have copies on the shelf for sale in January 2011.  Sections will subsequently be posted on the NASA web pages, including any updates from the last couple of flights which exceeded the Bush closing date by maybe as much as a year.

The toughest part of the job was cutting material.  Once our folks got started writing, they couldn’t hold back.  We could have written a 5 volume mini-encyclopedia; or probably a 30 volume real encyclopedia.  But we stuck with our rule to have one volume, approximately 700 pages.

So what is in there?  We tried to tell the “so what” of the shuttle.  What did it accomplish, what did it fail to do, why was it so complex, and why did it cost so much.  Future spacecraft designers may find some instruction here; both what to do and what not to do.

About one third of the book is devoted to the engineering innovations that were required to bring this unique vehicle – and its support systems – into being.  Some of those innovations have now pervaded aerospace engineering as new standards.  About a third of the book is the province of the scientists who used the shuttle to study the universe and smaller things as well.  And the remaining third of the book is all the other stuff; history of the development and operations of the shuttle, a long description of the accidents, an obligatory description of the shuttle and its systems, and some contemplation of the social impact that the shuttle program had on America and the world.

We have quotations or sections written by over 30 astronauts, Presidents, Nobel Prize winners, scientists, program managers, NASA administrators, and flight directors.  More importantly, the vast majority of the book was written by over 100 of the folks who actually did the work: designed, built, maintained, and operated the space shuttle; civil servants and contractors alike.

I think you will find it interesting.  Some of the engineers cannot write coherently but we hired a few English majors to try to translate their jargon into something understandable by non-experts.  We tried to hit the level of Scientific American or National Geographic text, so this is not going to be very simplistic, but perhaps thought provoking.  The illustrations are outstanding.  And there will be a comprehensive appendix for all those who desire statistics and details.

There should be something for everybody interested in the shuttle.  I hope you like it.  We’ve been working on it in our spare time for over four years now.  Or maybe that should really say we’ve been working on it for our whole careers.

Information on how to pre-order the book will appear on the NASA web page in a month or so.

Ave Atque Vale

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I was invited to speak to the assembled folks out in Utah who have just cast the last shuttle solid rocket segment.  A few retirees and spouses made the event, but the crowd of over 2,000 was mostly active workers. 



Over a year ago in this blog space I told you that the horse has left the barn and the shuttle was shutting down.  Now we are seeing evidence every day. However you feel about that, the direction has not changed. 


If there is anyone out there who thinks otherwise, . . . well.


For 30 years, the United States and its international partners have relied on the space shuttle:  costly, not as safe as we need, sometimes not very reliable, and now that is coming to an end. 


Four years ago, we had terminated contracts with 95% of the suppliers for parts for the external tanks.  This has continued apace.  For example, last week the contract was terminated for the suppliers of the specialized chemicals to make the black coating of the shuttle thermal insulation tiles. Also being shut down is the production of reinforced carbon-carbon wing leading edge panels.  The folks up in the Dallas area are getting ready to take apart the one-of-a-kind jigs that are used in that process and clearing out the factory.  Any museums want this thing?


The external tank folks reported this week that the last ET has moved out of yet another workstation which is now surplus and ready for removal.  Welding has been complete for some time, cleaning, painting, and foam application are still active.  The MAF workforce is down to about half of what it was a few years ago.



In the 1990s, almost 25,000 people worked for shuttle:  civil servants and prime contractors.  (This does not include subcontractors and vendors).  By 2002, only about 16,000 folks worked on shuttle.  There was a little peak for return to flight, but by 2006, the headcount was down to 16,000 again.  Now there are about 12,000.  And the number will decrease precipitously over the next year.


This is not to make you feel good or bad or whatever, just a status report. 


Working in America’s space program is a privilege.  Change is coming every day, and however you feel about the change, a wise person will be ready for it.



Hochstein’s Law

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Alan Hockstein was the man most feared by pilot astronauts.  Well, except maybe for George Abbey.  Let me explain why.


The shuttle is the world’s largest glider.   The pilot has one and only one chance to make a landing; there is no “go-around” capability.  Obviously, good piloting techniques are studied exhaustively.  Much analysis and simulation has been completed to maximize the chance for a successful landing.


Alan was the senior landing analyst.  That means he studied more and worked harder than anyone to understand how the shuttle flies – especially in the final approach and landing phase.  One part of Alan’s job was to analyze the telemetry from each shuttle landing and see how that compared to the “ideal” landing.  So in a quiet office environment over a couple of weeks, Alan and his team would look at each telemetry point, every sample (up to 125 per second for some parameters) and compute how each one affected the landing. 


Every shuttle commander dreaded the day of the Entry, Descent, and Landing Debriefing.  Standing in front of a projection screen filled with data curves in the presence of a room full of folks, Alan would ask the commander something like:  “why did you deflect the hand controller here” pointing at a squiggle on the screen.  “That input caused a deviation of 12 feet high above the flight path which correlates to a 273 foot miss distance at the touchdown point.”  The commander would squirm in his seat and say “we had a wind gust” or some such.  Alan would point to another squiggly line on the plot and say “the accelerometer data doesn’t show a wind gust at that point.”  The poor pilot would then have to come up with some other lame excuse: “the visual scene was obscured by some wispy clouds.”  Alan would pull out the meteorological report “the lowest observed clouds were at 25,000 feet”  And so it would go.  Excruciating for the veteran test pilots who pride themselves on their steely nerved stick and rudder reactions.


Why did we go through this ritual?  One reason only: to learn what we could about flying techniques, how they affected the landing, what might work better.  All of this so that the next pilot would have a better idea of how to maximize the chance “for a happy outcome.”


At our Flight Techniques meetings, Alan was a frequent presenter showing what had been learned, advising of the best techniques.  At one period we experienced a number of landings that were shorter than desirable – still on the runway, but consistently closer to the threshold than comfortable.  Alan analyzed hundreds of combinations of factors over a several dozen landings looking for correlations.  Nothing seemed to correlate, except one:  “If you cross the threshold low, you are likely to touch down short.” 


Now that may seem obvious in retrospect.  If a glider comes in low, any pilot would intuitively expect a short touchdown.  But it was only obvious in retrospect.  And any number of other correlations that common sense might have suggested were simply not borne out by the data.  So we called this “Hockstein’s Law”:  If you cross the threshold low, you will touch down short.  The entire community worked very hard with the pilots to improve techniques to be higher at threshold crossing and thereby the incidence of short touchdowns was significantly reduced.  Well, that is the very short summary anyway.


Nowadays, I don’t spend my time studying shuttle landings like I used to.  Recently I’ve been a data gatherer and logistics helper to the Augustine Committee.  That group has been getting a lot of data and, among other things, looking at the cost estimates of various options for space flight.  I’m not well suited to work in that ethereal regime; nuts and bolts are more my specialty.   But it occurs to me that we need an Alan Hockstein to look at project development budgets for clues of how to improve the performance of future work.


Somebody who will look at each data point in depth, spend the time to think about it, calculate the consequences of each movement, and then provide those of us who may have to execute a project in the future with some guidelines that might lead to a better likelihood of a “happy outcome”.


Some of my experience suggests possible correlations between different events and poor program performance.  For example, continuing resolutions on the budget cause disruptions and delay planned activities.  It would seem that there might be a high correlation between lack of a firm budget (e.g., a continuing resolution) and poor program performance.  Then again, Norm Augustine himself kept saying that the secret to successful project management is reserves.  Perhaps the congressional prohibition against budgeting reserves for projects plays a role in poor program performance.  Then there is something called a “rescission.”  I never knew what a rescission was until I got into program management.  A rescission basically prevents a program from spending all the money budgeted for it.  I’m no analyst but it may be that rescissions play a role in poor program performance.


All of those things are just guesses on my part.  I’m no analyst.  But it seems like a good study if we want to have successful projects in the future. 


Now, where is Alan when we need him?

Lucky Tie

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Even though I’m far from home and even farther from LC-39, I’ll be wearing my lucky shuttle tie tomorrow.  That is a particularly silly thing to do since the tie isn’t even very lucky.  We had plenty of launch scrubs when I wore that tie on launch day in either Mission Control or Launch Control.

But its what I can do to show my solidarity with the team these days.  NASA is one of the few organizations that puts it all on the line in public.  Most organizations have some kind of cover, but when the launch doesn’t go right, there is no cover.  The OCO boys sweated over a great spacecraft but some glitch in the fairing separation circuit got them.  That hurts. 

Tomorrow evening we’ll try to launch seven folks into low earth orbit.  That may not sound like much of an achievement, but it is far from a guaranteed success.  So cross your fingers, get out your four leaf clover, or whatever it takes, and lets hope for success.  One more time.

I’m out in Utah doing some management work for the agency, looking at the facilities which might be used for the next human carrying rocket.  It was particularly exciting because I got to walk right up to the first Orion Launch Escape rocket.  This beast will burn several thousand pounds of solid propellant in less than four seconds to get a crew out of trouble in a hurry.  Rocket serial number 00001 is out there on the factory floor ready to ship to White Sands Missile Range where it will be tested later this year. 

Overall, I saw lots of Ares 1 hardware.  The DM-1 (development motor) is a five segment giant that will be tested in late summer.  Everywhere I went we saw lots of new hardware coming together for the first time.  Progress is being made.

Sadly, I was in the refurbishment shop where they are working on the last set of shuttle booster hardware.  The old bird will be retired at the end of next year and any future refurbishments, if any, will be to make hardware available for the new Ares birds.

It has been particularly busy in space; a spacewalk today at the International Space Station was fully successful; the new Kepler telescope is being checked out after a successful delivery to space.   A few days ago there was a successful parachute test for the Constellation program.  Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is in final checkout on the ground.  Everywhere I go there is progress being made! 

But lets all watch tomorrow, because as we all know, its far from a sure thing.

Ghosts in the OPF

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I had several meetings this afternoon at the Kennedy Space Center.  As the hour grew late, most office folks left, and it was time for me to leave, too.  But before I did, I engaged in one of my favorite activities; visiting the Orbiter Processing Facility.  Now there are three OPF bays, one for each orbiter.  Today I visited the folks working second shift on the good ship Endeavour.  That is always a great treat.  All the folks are so proud of what they are doing and they can almost always take a break to explain what they are working on.  It is really a neat experience and I wish everybody could join in. 

But it was somewhat subdued on 2nd shift, and there were a lot of quiet pockets.  Nobody was around the front of the bird, for example, and its always a little spooky when you are by yourself.

A couple of years ago, I was at KSC on a holiday weekend.  Having gotten bored with the beach and other touristy occupations, I wandered up to the OPFs and carded in. 

And there I found myself alone with an orbiter.  Wow.  Even the Ops Desk at the front was empty.  All the lights were on, the airconditioning running, but nobody was there.  Just me and the orbiter.  I guess that the door to the white room and the crew module was locked up; and I wouldn’t try that by myself anyway (getting into a bunnie suit is an art).  I know enough NOT TO TOUCH ANYTHING and of course, not to cross any “clears” or restricted areas. 

But it is really an interesting experience to be with a living breathing orbiter, all by yourself.  Thinking of all the places it has been; all the people it has carried, and all the thousands of folks who have worked on her, getting the ship ready to fly.  All in dead silence. 

And it always makes me think of all the people who wanted to go, some of them in the worst way.  People who have never had their chance to fly in space; at least not yet. 

Maybe someday.

Well, tonight I got to look at tiles being densified and applied around the nose landing gear door; SMTCH harnesses being connected in the mid body; valve and plumbing tests being run on the OMS.  The tires and wheels are off and I got a good look at the brakes, something you don’t normally get to see.  No access to the aft, so I couldn’t trace out the pressurization plumbing to see where the flow control valves, those little rascals, are hiding. 

I hope you all get the opportunity to do that some day — before we’re through.


Adjusting Our Thinking

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Tomorrow marks the 5th anniversary of a fundamental change in national direction for space exploration.  You can look up that text at


This came at an interesting time in my life.  Reflecting on that direction and the other turbulent events of those days, I wrote an email to my space shuttle team members as I often did in those days.  Looking back, I think it was one of the best things I ever wrote.  I have re-read it and still agree with every single sentence.  I hope you won’t mind if I recycle this essay for your consideration on this anniversary:


Sent: Tuesday, January 27, 2004 5:25 PM
Subject: Adjusting Our Thinking

To the Space Shuttle Team:

I have been doing a lot of thinking lately: the approaching anniversary of the Columbia accident, reading the new book on the accident, the incessant questions from the press, the opportunity to observer our JPL colleagues in their time of testing, and most importantly thinking about the new policy and direction from our leaders. Like many of you I have had some mixed emotions from all of this. I would like to share some of my thoughts with you.

The vision of future space exploration existed long before we came to work here. It is a natural continuation of the American dream. The vision has shown up over the years in dozens of NASA strategic planning documents, reports from special commissions, and the like. I signed onto the vision as a schoolboy, long before I came to work here. Many of you did the same. The vision has variations in detail and timetable, but the central theme has not varied for decades. Explore the solar system; first by sending robots and then with people establishing outposts, then base camps, and eventually colonies.

In my mind’s eye our progress is like the Olympic torch relay: each person and each program holds the flame of exploration and progress high for an allotted portion of the route, and then the torch is passed to the next runner in the relay. Sometimes we run alone and sometimes we run together with others, but the goal is to move the flame forward, to illuminate the darkness, to allow the next generation to start just a little closer to the goal. The goal of exploring and settling the solar system will not be completed in our lifetime or our children’s lifetime. But we – here and now – are called to run our lap with skill, dedication, vigilance, hard work, and pride.

It sometimes seems that there is never enough commitment or enough money to accelerate the vision into fast forward. The march to the future moves with fits and starts. Sometimes we have had to compromise for what we could get, accept the part of the dream could be sold at any given time. This is what happens in so much of real life: doing the best we can with what we have. In spite of this, this generation has done great things in low earth orbit and our colleges have made tremendous strides exploring ahead of us with robots.

The steady grind and necessary constant attention to the daily tasks has shifted our gaze from the higher vision. We have become accustomed to putting the vision off, waiting for the day – long to come – when we could take the next step into the cosmos. Every year we have tried to be more efficient than the year before in the hopes that we could sock away enough money to build the future, to prove to our national leaders that we were fit to be given the permission to take the next bold step. Our attention shifted from the vision to the next flight. We came to accept the status quo as the best that could be. We became complacent in more than our technical abilities. We became complacent about the vision. It became enough for us to do great things in low earth orbit. And in that day to day grind our hearts have come to believe the vision is something far off, something for the distant future.

The shuttle is a marvelous and revolutionary machine. You, the people that make her fly, are incredible in your dedication and attention to detail. The achievements that the shuttle has produced will be heralded in the history books of future years. A short list hardly covers all the shuttle’s achievements: first and only reusable spacecraft, heavy lift launch vehicle, heavy cargo return vehicle, delivering three times more people to orbit than all other space vehicles to date combined, the most successful launch vehicle in the world, the most efficient engines ever made; the list could go on for many pages. Don’t believe the critics when they sell her short.

But those of us who know her best know her shortcomings. She is terribly complex; she is extraordinarily difficult to prepare for flight, she is too expensive to operate, and frankly, she is not as safe as we need our human transport vehicle to be.

The shuttle is an amazing machine, but like every other machine ever built, she is the result of a series of compromises, built within financial constraints, a product of the state of the art of technology when she was designed.

So too will be the next space vehicle we build.

The shuttle was supposed to be the DC-3 of space travel; the DC-3 became the first economically successful airliner; safer than anything flying at the time – not perfect, but just what was needed to cause air travel to become commonplace. Yet the analogy falls apart when we remember that in the 31 years between the Wright flier and the DC-3 ten thousand different aircraft types were designed and build. Designs and technologies were tried, tested, evaluated, and either discarded or incorporated into future, better aircraft. In the 42 years of human space flight, there have been exactly 9 different model spacecraft built by all the nations of the world. Without similar experience of trial and evaluation building multiple space vehicles, the wonder is that we came so close, not that we fell short. The real truth is, the shuttle does her job too well. She has never been quite bad enough to motivate the nation to build the next and better spacecraft. If the shuttle was not the DC-3 of the space age, the fact remains that the shuttle remains a huge advance in capability, technology, and even safety over all other spacecraft.

We cannot let the familiarity of long years and the investment of our personal time and energy in any one program or any one vehicle confuse that program or that vehicle with the vision. The shuttle has its place and time in the great relay but it is not an end in itself. Those of us in the shuttle program need to take care lest we become the battleship admirals of the new century; failing to understand when times have changed and in which direction progress is marching toward. We must move out of what is comfortable and familiar.

It is time to adjust our thinking.

In a virtual reality age, spaceflight is profoundly real. Surrounded by imitations of real life on computers, at the movies, on television, our work has real consequences. Every time we light the SRBs, the stakes are high. First of all the lives of the crew are on the line. Next, a great investment of our nation’s treasure in the form of the vehicle itself and the facilities that support and surround it are at risk. They are at real risk, not theoretical or philosophical or virtual risk, but risk of life and limb and physical destruction. There is more. You must understand that every time the countdown clock reaches T=0, we bet the future, and we do it with the whole world watching. Not only are we wagering the program; we lay the agency on the line. Not only is the agency at risk, but national pride and esteem are in question. Not only national pride is at stake, but we place the human exploration of the cosmos for a generation on the table. Until the wheels safely kiss the runway, everything is in play. I don’t know any other agency or any other organization where that is so completely and thoroughly true. With all of that at stake, the very best of our abilities and efforts is required.

When we build the new human space launch vehicle and count the clock down to T=0, we will make same gamble. It is the only way to get to the universe; bet everything on every single step forward.

Last year we dropped the torch through our complacency, our arrogance, self-assurance, shear stupidity, and through continuing attempt to please everyone. Seven of our friends and colleagues paid the ultimate price for our failure.

Yet, the nation is giving us another chance. Not just to fly the shuttle again, but to continue to explore the universe in our generation. A year ago it was my firm belief that a second fatal accident in the shuttle program would result in the lights being turned out at NASA, the vision would go into hiatus for a generation, and we – all of us in the agency – would be through. Instead, the nation has told us to get up, fix our shortcomings, fly again – and make sure it doesn’t happen again. That is the goal to which we are all working now.

No matter how hard we worked before, now is time to redouble our efforts. The vision runs right through the next launch of the shuttle. We cannot be found wanting again. The future steps depend on flying the shuttle safely and building the space station. These accomplishments are the necessary requirement to go on to the future.

Now we have been asked to raise our eyes to the bigger vision again. We are asked to look at what and who will run the next leg of the relay. Our lap may come to an end sooner that we had come to believe but the distance we have yet to run ahead is longer than it rightfully should be for those who have dropped the torch. We must not fail. It will demand constant attention in the face of many many many distractions, doubts, and critics. The task ahead is not easy. But then, it never has been easy. We just understand better what is required.

Therefore, do not worry about the future. We have work to do today. If we do it well, there will be even more work for us to do in the very near future. The foundation for that work is to fly the shuttle safely. We have been given a great mandate. Those of us who are in the shuttle program now will be required to help the next generation succeed. Write down what you have learned; pass it on to those who are starting to consider future designs. Many of you will be called on to lead that effort. Eventually, all of us will be called. But until then, stay focused on the task at hand. We must make sure that the next launch – and landing – and those that follow are safe and successful. That will be our finest contribution to the future, carrying the torch ahead.

P. S. A final, personal note: a worker at KSC told me that they haven’t heard any NASA managers admit to being at fault for the loss of Columbia. I cannot speak for others but let me set my record straight: I am at fault. If you need a scapegoat, start with me. I had the opportunity and the information and I failed to make use of it. I don’t know what an inquest or a court of law would say, but I stand condemned in the court of my own conscience to be guilty of not preventing the Columbia disaster. We could discuss the particulars: inattention, incompetence, distraction, lack of conviction, lack of understanding, a lack of backbone, laziness. The bottom line is that I failed to understand what I was being told; I failed to stand up and be counted. Therefore look no further; I am guilty of allowing Columbia to crash.

As you consider continuing in this program, or any other high risk program, weigh the cost. You, too, could be convicted in the court of your conscience if you are ever party to cutting corners, believing something life and death is not your responsibility, or simply not paying attention. The penalty is heavy; you can never completely repay it.

Do good work. Pay attention. Question everything. Be thorough. Don’t end up with regrets.


Black Zones – Part 3

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The basic assumption for the shuttle design is that the shuttle would be like an airliner: no ejection seats, no parachutes (except for the first test flights) — crew safety consisted in total vehicle safety and the crew riding the vehicle down to a runway.

In retrospect that was a very poor assumption.

Adding crew escape to the space shuttle has received tremendous attention over the years and there are actually some methods that might work.  Not to put too short a discussion on it, the problem with all of the best methods is the additional weight.  After adding the crew escape system (capsules, rockets, whatever) and ballast to get the center of gravity right, there is no payload capacity left.  The shuttle would become a huge crew transportation device with no capability to carry much of anything else up or down. Not to mention  the pricetag to develop some of these devices!  Wow.  So, in the final analysis, the best way to make the shuttle safer is to retire her as soon as possible and go to a different type of vehicle.  Sorry but there it is.

Actually, the shuttle does have a minimal crew escape capability.  If the shuttle gets to a straight and level glide (actually not very level since the shuttle glides mostly like a rock), then down at 30,000 feet or less the the crew can jettison the side hatch and bail out with parachutes like some WWII bomber crew.  This is better than ditching in the ocean or rough terrain.  All studies show touchdown “off-runway” would not be survivable.  So the subsonic, aircraft-in-control, bailout is all there is.  And in most cases the crew probably winds up sitting in a tiny inflatable rubber raft in the middle of the North Atlantic waiting for somebody to pick them up.  Not a lot of fun.

But the shuttle does have a remarkable capability that most other rockets do not.  In virtually all expendable rockets, if any one of the booster engines shut down prematurely — even if that shutdown is benign — the mission is over, the payload is going into the ocean somewhere, and the Flight Control Officer is going to “send functions”.  On the other hand, the shuttle is designed — required — to be able to safely return the orbiter, crew, and payload to a runway landing following the benign shutdown of any one of the three SSMEs.

A word about “benign”.  High performance liquid rocket engines have a tendency to come apart in a hurry if something goes wrong.  The SSMEs have been extensively instrumented and tested.  Their computer control brain has a number of ways to detect an impending failure and turn the engine off before it comes apart.  The system is not completely foolproof, but should prevent an explosive catastrophe in most cases.  The only SSME premature shutdown in flight history occurred in 1985 on STS-51F when faulty temperature sensors erroneously indicated a problem with the engine and the computer shut that engine down.  This occurred late enough during the boost phase that the mission continued to a completely successful conclusion.  After that flight we spent a lot of time building more reliable temperature sensors.

So if any single SSME shuts down prematurely at any point in the launch phase, a safe return of the shuttle and crew will result.  All the various options have been examined, simulated, and verified by computer analysis, wind tunnel testing, etc., etc., etc. 

From launch to about 4 minutes into flight the shuttle can perform the scariest type of abort – a Return to Launch Site abort (RTLS).  Prior to the first shuttle flight, somebody proposed that we do an RTLS on purpose as a test — they called it the “Sub-Orbital Flight Test (SOFT).  Capt. John Young, the chief of the astronaut office and the commander of STS-1 was noted for his colorful memos that he would regularly send on topics of the day.  The SOFT proposal drew a classic response:  “RTLS requires continuous miracles interspersed by Acts of God to be successful” John wrote in 1980.  And in fact, on STS-1, a trajectory bug lofted the shuttle trajectory higher than expected and an RTLS probably would not have been successful. 

Since those days, RTLS has been significantly improved and would most likely work — but I’d just as soon not find out.  In particular the separation from the External Tank is very tricky.  ‘Nuff said on that subject.

From about 2 1/2 minutes into flight until almost orbital insertion loss of an SSME could result in a Trans-Atlantic Landing abort (TAL).  The shuttle keeps going forward but aims for Europe rather than orbit.  The entry is very similar to a normal end-of-mission entry and the landing would occur at a prepared runway in Spain or France (in the early days we also had landing sites in west Africa).

Later in flight, from about 4 1/2 minutes on, loss of an SSME would result in an Abort To Orbit (ATO) where the shuttle presses forward and we try to scavenge out all the propellant in the External Tank to go on to orbit.  Sometimes a dump of propellant from the Orbital Maneuvering System is required, sometimes other adjustments to the trajectory are required, but ATOs can range from landing after a few orbits on launch day to having a fully successful mission depending on many variables.  The longer the main engines run, the closer to normal the shuttle can get.

The Abort Once Around (AOA) mission – which is exactly what it sounds like – is basically not used these days except for problems like a big air leak from the crew cabin.

Now all of that is fine as long as two of the three SSMEs continue to operate and the shuttle remains under control.  If control is lost, then all is lost since the shuttle does not fly sideways very well.  A capsule might right itself, but the shuttle will break up.

If two of the SSMEs quit but one remains running, there are some options to steer toward the east coast of the United States and land at an emergency airfield somewhere on the Atlantic Coast of North America.  However, many of these trajectories result in entry conditions that exceed the capability of the shuttle orbiter either thermally or structurally:  black zones.  The possibility of executing a successful East Coast Abort Landing (ECAL) is far from guaranteed, but in that situation it is worth a try.  What is the other choice?  If the shuttle doesn’t break up or burn up on the steep ballistic trajectory for an ECAL there is every reason to believe that a safe landing will occur.  That is sort of a big “if”, however.

If three SSMEs quit all at once, there is real trouble.  There is little to no way to control trajectory and the black zones get immense.  In some lucky cases a successful ECAL might result but then you are not really having a lucky day if all three engines quit, are you?

My least favorite abort is a low alpha (low angle of attack) stretch to try to cross the Atlantic and make it to Ireland or someplace.  These multiple-engine-out aborts result in extreme heating on the wing leading edge and the RCC panels are likely to fail.  Another thing to try if there are no other options.

And of course, if the whole stack comes apart, its game over. Don’t even talk about a failure of a Solid Rocket Booster, either. 

So the shuttle has a lot of capability compared with other rockets — and a lot less capability than any capsules.

More black zone discussions tomorrow.


Old sailors never die,they just fade away

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During the Korean conflict, my dad was an airman in the US Navy flying on antisubmarine patrols over the Pacific ocean.  In those days they flew P2V Neptune aircraft.  Only a few of those old birds are still flying as water tankers in the war with forest fires every summer.  The P2V’s have all been replaced long ago with P-3 Orions and those planes are slated for replacement in the near future with something called a P-8 which may not even have a name yet.

But I digress.  The point I was going to make is that there are a whole bunch of web pages, blogs, and other internet space taken up by veterans of these old naval squadrons.  And they seem to agree on just one point:  the P2V was the very best airplane ever built and the men that crewed her were the very manliest of men.

Now this may come as a shock to you since the P2V is not the most notable aircraft that you probably have never heard of.  Never mind, it has to do with the folks who worked day in and day out in dangerous conditions on those old birds.  However, if you look around on the internet you may find folks from other squadrons that flew other planes that happen to think that their plane was the best ever . . or ship . . . or tank . . .

So I imagine that from the old folks home I will be doing whatever is the equivalent of blogging in those days (maybe sooner than I think) about why the space shuttle was the best ever spacecraft.

But you know, something better may just come along.  I really hope it does.  Because we need to get past just low earth orbit.  And we need to do it soon.

Flying the shuttle longer came up again today.  I think you know where I stand on that.  We need to move on because it is really past time to do so.  And you know what?  I am OK with that.

I am feeling very positive today because I have been in a two day meeting where the focus is on the moon; robotic missions in the near term, human sorties later, then outposts and settlements.  And after that . . . Mars.

There are many ways to get there, lots of possible alternatives in the architecture.  But we need to get there.  And stay.  And go on. 

With all the excitement of the young people (and the young at heart people) at the lunar exploration meetings this week, I am sure we can do this.  There is enough energy and creativity to see it through.  Not just flags and footprints this time; going back to stay and work.

Last week I got to get up close and personal with the lunar lander competitors at Las Cruces airport.  There is a lot of good innovation there and these amateurs may be the source of our best ideas for real lunar landers in the not-very-distant future. 

I haven’t looked, but I bet those guys have a web page too.  And I bet their web page says they have the best spaceship ever. 

If you are not part of this — I mean of really doing something — then you are missing out. Whether you are with NASA or Armadillo or SpaceX or Virgin, we are all really pursuing the same goal.  Making dreams come true.  Advancing the human spirit by moving human bodies further into the universe. 

Its really great.  These are the very best of times. You should be part of it too.

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. 




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