Aerospace Shame on NASA

1. Jan 4, 2005

Ivan Seeking

Staff Emeritus
On the Science Channel's review of Science 2004, one science journalist commented that Burt Rutan et al have shamed NASA with the design used to win the X prize. I think he makes a really good point. Rutan did for $30 million what NASA has never managed with Billions. Even though the Mars landers have performed so fantastically, beyond all hopes, the NASA record in recent years is filled with failures and even a few embarrassments. I have heard for years that many aerospace engineers view the shuttle as a big, fat, pig. The entire concept was flawed from the start and it has never performed as promised. I was also struck by the squabble over the Billionaire, I forget his name, who had to go to space with the Russians because NASA refused to institute a commercial program for civilians. He was treated like an enemy of the US, according to him. What irony that a US citizen was forced to hitch a ride on a Russian craft! Who would have predicted that one thirty years ago? I have always been a huge, huge fan of NASA, but now I am beginning to doubt these loyalties. Is NASA really just arm of the military that happens to do science? Last edited: Jan 4, 2005 2. Jan 4, 2005 cronxeh I actually watched that program and I found the speakers to be pretty incompetent. 3. Jan 4, 2005 Ivan Seeking Staff Emeritus On that, I agree completely. 4. Jan 4, 2005 Quantum_Prodegy I would like to watch the show before replying with an answer...do you know which stations aired it? 5. Jan 4, 2005 Ivan Seeking Staff Emeritus As an aside and FYI, according to interviews on PBS [NOVA] with rover specialists at JLP, ice cream is the primary food consumed at mission control. One guy had an entire box at his station! 6. Jan 4, 2005 Ivan Seeking Staff Emeritus It was on the Science Channel but they didn't really get into it much. The comment was made that Rutan shamed NASA, they all smirked a little, agreed, and carried on. 7. Jan 5, 2005 Q_Goest I think the biggest disjoint between the Rutan development and NASA development is in expertise. NASA doesn't develop much of anything. All the rockets, the shuttle, satallites, they're all developed by contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing. These companies hire thousands of engineers, most straight from college, to work on massive projects such as these. We used to joke that it was all "middle class welfare". They get led by the engineers who didn't get laid off and didn't quit the last time there was a major project winding down. The cycles of hiring and firing these companies go through is hidious. I'd assume Burt Rutan had a small group of top engineers. Guys with experience who quite the dead end world of aerospace to do something with their talent. Any time you get that much expertise focused on a specific issue, you're going to get it done much more quickly and cost effectively than otherwise. Problem with this is you're generally not training others, getting the newbies experience. There are plenty of other reasons Rutan might do it relatively cheaply, such as overhead, and codes things might need to be built to, government work processes, etc... There's a whole slew of regulations a shuttle, rocket or satallite must be built to, and they can cost big bucks. NASA is an oversight agency, and must enforce good engineering practice, and the only way to ensure this is to micromanage the contractors doing the work. Rutan had none of that. I really don't think it's fair to compare Rutan to NASA. The problems NASA has to deal with are enormous when dealing with development projects. Rutan on the other hand, had a self-propelled project team by comparison. 8. Jan 5, 2005 cronxeh Well I dont want to belittle Burt Rutan's accomplishment, by all means he did a marvelous engineering job, but there is no new science here - just a good combination of lightweight materials with engineering techniques 9. Jan 5, 2005 Clausius2 And I will never travel in a jet constructed by Rutan by the way. Nasa seems to design with more guarantee than that. 10. Jan 5, 2005 russ_watters Staff: Mentor That's a little misleading: NASA has never tried what Rutan did (*caveat* below) - with billions, trillions, or dozens of dollars. If NASA wanted to, they could spend$10 million of their own money and throw another $10 million at Lockheed and end up with the same thing. *Caveat*: How is this Rutan plane different from an X-15 (or an X-1, for that matter) besides in passenger capacity? Both are launched from another plane, both are winged-rockets, and their performance is virtually identical - SpaceShipOne went higher, the X-15 faster. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_X-15 While its neat to see the civilian sector finally do this, technically, its not new, unique, or envelope-pushing. Last edited: Jan 5, 2005 11. Jan 5, 2005 FredGarvin Good points all. I agree totally with Q_Goest. The "overhead" that encumbers NASA is absolutely mind boggling. We deal with NASA development folks quite often and a test we would run in our facility would take 3 people and a couple of weeks to do. Do that same test in a NASA facility and the time and manpower quadruples. In a lot of cases I can see where it comes from. The scrutiny that NASA gets is a lot more than my small company has to deal with. Our screw ups don't end up on national TV and in front of some congressional committee. Rutan has done a great thing. I think NASA needs that kind of kick in the butt to get moving again. People who can work outside of the bureaucracies of our government can get those developmental steps accomplished that in the end will help NASA (imo). "Is NASA really just arm of the military that happens to do science?" Personally, I think the Air Force is the major stock holder in NASA. Just my opinion. 12. Jan 5, 2005 Q_Goest Interesting point there, Fred. One thing most people don't realize is that there are 3 major launch facilities in the US, run by two different branches of the government. 1. Kennedy Space Center - Run by NASA, launches the Shuttle 2. Cape Canaveral Air Force Station - Run by the USAF, launches commercial and military satellites using expendable vehicles. CCAFS borders KSC, and are often confused. 3. Vandenburg AFB in California - Run by the USAF, also launches commercial and military satellites using expendable launch vehicles. So yea, the Air Force is definitely a big player in the space game, and they work hand-in-hand with NASA all the time. 13. Jan 5, 2005 Francis M You have to remember that NASA is funded by the Federal government. As such it is in competition for funding with other federal agencies and it's budget is subject to the fiscal and political whims of the different administrations that occupy and have occupied the White House, and Capitol Hill since NASA was started. You can't blame NASA wholly or completely for how the shuttle or other projects have turned out. Blame enough can be put on the administrations that cut science and space explorations budget because they can't or refuse to see a benefit from it. I've heard that the shuttle design used today was not how it was originally concieved. 14. Jan 5, 2005 Ivan Seeking Staff Emeritus What about his solution to re-entry? I'm sorry, IMHO, it's pathetic that NASA has never even come close to such an elegant solution to this most signficant problem. This is what really jumped off the board for me. Rutan made it look so damned easy. 15. Jan 5, 2005 BobG You left out Kodiak Island in Alaska, which is entirely commercial (okay, it hasn't really made the big time yet, but it should compete favorably with Vandenberg for polar orbiters). I wouldn't consider NASA an arm of the military even though they often do work together. NASA is science and R&D. On the R&D side, NASA is the seed program for both military and civilian technology - a role that doesn't have quite the importance it did in the earlier days when space operations were less mature. That leaves more emphasis on pure science missions that wouldn't get funded without the government. NASA hasn't really figured out what role it should play in a more mature space environment. The military is more similar to the civilian space industry, even if the missions are different. Both are more interested in operational technology rather than science or R&D. That doesn't mean there's not a lot of overlap - with launch costs so high, a lot of R&D stuff goes up as a passenger for even operationally oriented satellites. 16. Jan 5, 2005 Q_Goest er... what was the elegent solution? I'm curious now... Are you refering to the heat of re-entry? If so, I don't think Rutan's vehicle was going very fast, not compared to the shuttle or other re-entry vehicles. Or was it something else entirely? I guess I missed it. 17. Jan 5, 2005 Astronuc Staff: Mentor I can appreciate the criticism, skepticism and even cynicism with respect to NASA - however - First of all, Rutan has not come close to anything like Space Shuttle or X-15. While the SS1 eclipsed X-15's altitude record (well I think Shuttle did that too - in a big way), remember the same X-15 aircraft was designed for high speed as well. X-15 set a speed record for aircraft back then - 4520 mph (7273 km/h) or Mach 6.7. I don't think SS1 will be doing that! In fact SS1 acheives a maximum speed of ~2186 mph (3520 km/h) or ~3.09 Mach at altitude (SS1 experienced a roll at Mach 2.7). According to an article by MSNBC, "Rutan’s engineers predict maximum temperatures of 1,000°F (537°C), with small enough exposed areas that only about 20 percent of the ship’s external shell needs thermal protection." See SS1 flight test info at - http://www.scaled.com/projects/tierone/logs-WK-SS1.htm SS2 did not re-enter the atmosphere, because it never left. Space Shuttle has to decelerate from 17,000 mph (27,350 km/h) using aerobraking - and therefore requires an elaborate thermal protection system to withstand temperatures that will melt most metals. SS1's lifting capacity is a minute fraction of Shuttle. Certainly something in between is needed. Secondly, in addition to 'regulations', the aerospace industry also has a huge number of standards set by various engineering socities as well as the miliary, e.g. SAE (for AMS standards), ASTM (ASTM standards), and MIL - standards. Finally, I definitely agree, NASA must improve. Losses of two shuttles, even one shuttle, is unacceptable. I strongly recommend those who are planning a career in Aerospace Engineering to read the following three books. It will give you important insight into the US aerospace industry as it relates to NASA and the US Air Force. Both are large bureaucracies with sometimes parallel trajectories, yet both are independent of each other. Also, NASA's trajectory is perhaps more susceptible to the changing whims in the Administration and Congress, the latter holding the purse strings. The book about Boyd will give you insight into the Air Force and Pentagon (not NASA). I wholeheartedly agree with the publisher's statments. Boyd's work is brilliant, and has far reaching influence in other areas, and it has yet to be effectively applied to spacecraft. The second and third books are strongly recommended for those going into space exploration, especially if one pursues a career with NASA or a NASA contractor. Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War Author: Robert Coram Pub. Date: November 2002 Publisher: Little, Brown & Company FROM THE PUBLISHER "John Boyd may be the most remarkable unsung hero in all of American military history. Some remember him as the greatest U.S. fighter pilot ever - the man who, in simulated air-to-air combat, defeated every challenger in less than forty seconds. Some recall him as the father of our country's most legendary fighter aircraft - the F-15 and F-16. Still others think of Boyd as the most influential military theorist since Sun Tzu." To the End of the Solar System: The Story of the Nuclear Rocket Authror: James A. Dewar, Foreword by Ken Hechler Pub. Date: July 2003 Publisher: University Press of Kentucky FROM THE PUBLISHER "Despite Advances in Recent Decades, space exploration remains constrained by the laws of physics. Chemically propelled rockets have allowed moon landings and brought us images from across the solar system, but they have reached the technological limits; hence, any space program using them likewise will be limited. In 1955, however, the United States initiated an effort to increase the speed and power of rocket engines by the use of atomic energy, which promised an expansive, perhaps unlimited, space program. For nearly two decades, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) worked together to develop nuclear rocket engines -- Project Rover/NERVA. After years of successful reactor development, the program ended in 1973. To the End of the Solar System narrates this political and technical story in plain English, with a minimum of bureaucratic and technical jargon. James A. Dewar explains the significance of the reactor tests and analyzes the program's scientific and economic consequences. He outlines many mission applications for nuclear rockets, challenging the current myth that they are only for manned missions to Mars." "Dewar gives an insider's view of Washington politics, detailing the cynical maneuvering, vicious attacks, and double-crossing that characterized the conflict between and within the executive and legislative branches." New Moon Rising: The Making of America's New Space Vision and the Remaking of NASA Authors: Frank Sietzen, Keith L. Cowing Pub. Date: July 2004 Publisher: Collector's Guide Publishing The title speaks for itself. Good insight into the current NASA under Sean O'Keefe. A good compliment to Dewar's book. 18. Jan 5, 2005 russ_watters Staff: Mentor That is the most unique thing about it, though I wouldn't necessarily consider that the most significant problem. It may well have been for SpaceShipOne, but for the X-15, just getting to that speed and altitude, while staying under control was the biggest issue (since it had never been done before). Rutan wanted to keep it simple to keep it cheap and opted for manual, aerodynamic only (no RCS) controls, against the argument of his pilots. That's why it went out of control on its first flight and almost had to abort (the ground controllers recommended it and the pilot ignored them). That, to me, highlights how ununique the accomplishment is and how unsophisticated the aircraft was. Still, in the abstract, its great that they were able to get a craft up to mach 3 and 62 miles for such a low pricetag. NASA, with more money to throw at the X-15, in addition to superior controls, picked a simpler, but more expensive solution to the re-entry problem: the made it out of nickel, chrome, and titanium. Still, the three X-15s flew 200 missions in 8 years for a total project cost of$300 million in 1969 dollars. That's not bad at all.

SpaceShipOne and Rutan score high on coolness factor, but that's the main reason I think Rutan is overrated: "cooler" doesn't necessarily equal better. For example, rather than build a ferry-plane, why couldn't he lease and modify an airliner? Probably would have been cheaper - just wouldn't have been as cool.

Regarding the AirForce-NASA relationship, saying NASA is military and saying the Air-Force and NASA have a close relationship are two entirely different things. NASA is not military, its civilian. Saying 2 of 3 launch facilities are Air Force doesn't make NASA a branch of the Air Force, it means the Air Force has its own space program and NASA is still a separate civilan entity. The Air Force (or DoD) builds the spy and GPS satellites, not NASA, and the Air Force launches most of their own satellites. When they use the Space Shuttle, they do it because they have to: the space shuttle has the highest payload capacity of any launch platform. In those cases, NASA is basically being used as a taxi service (though I don't know who pays the fare, I suspect the handful of completely classified shuttle launches were funded by the DoD). At about \$10 billion, NASA simply doesn't have the budget to be an arm of the military.

Last edited: Jan 5, 2005
19. Jan 5, 2005

Staff: Mentor

At mach3, spaceshipone traveled about as fast as the SR-71, though not for as long. Still, at that speed and even high-up where the atmosphere is thin, frictional heating is an issue for the passengers and the airframe. To keep the plane from barrelling back down through the atmosphere at mach3, the wing flips up like the tailgate on a pickup-truck, keeping the plane from accelerating too much as it comes back down.

The Space Shuttle and other lifting bodies do something very similar, except they pitch the whole craft up and fly at extremely high angles of attack. SpaceShipOne is essentially in uncontrolled ballistic flight near the top of its arc and doesn't have that capability.

20. Jan 6, 2005

FredGarvin

For the record, I don't "dis" NASA for it's work, especially on the Space Shuttle. I'm not a huge space flight follower, so I can't claim extensive knowledge in the area. However, I see it as a one of a kind vehicle that is still the only vehicle that does what it does. I think most people are so used to it now that we have become numbed to it's achievements.

I liken it to the Concorde in a way...a technological success, but not an economical one.

On another note, I think it's a bit unfair to make a comparrison between SS1 and the X-15. The X-15 was hugely successful but for differing reasons. High altitude, high speed research was not Rutan's goal. He had altitude, cost and a turnaround time goals. That's it. I give him credit because he had greatly fewer resources available to him than NASA and the Air Force with the X-15.