2. Engineers shall perform services only in areas of their competence
– ASME Code of Ethics
During the summer of 2002, I was assigned to Jay Greene’s multi-center task group to study how to get back to the Moon and on to Mars. For several years, NASA had been prohibited by congressional report language from even discussing possible manned Mars missions. That prohibition had been cracked open during the spring of 2002.
My expertise, and still my favorite job, was in space flight operations. We ran the Shuttle, controlled the ISS, worked with the tracking and data relay network, and had operational interfaces in a hundred different organizations. I had never worked on a Mars mission study group before.
It turns out that there are pockets of people at NASA who have studied that problem for the last 40 or 50 years. The advanced planning groups existed at every NASA center and even during “prohibition” had clandestinely worked on human missions to . . . someplace.
They studied logistics and supplies, how to keep people alive in really really remote places; how much food and water, how much clothes and towels, what kind of local transportation supplies, scientific logistics, etc. Then they studied in-space propulsion, celestial mechanics, deep space environments. Finally, they had a huge data base on launch vehicles; how much they cost, how much they weighed, how long it took to build them. From this basis, for half a century, serious and thoughtful people had devoted themselves to considering how best to get to . . . any place in the solar system.
The MSFC guys worked really well on this inter-center team. As the surface ops team asked for more and more mass thrown into orbit, the MSFC guys invented rocket after rocket. Sometimes a new rocket twice a week. They could tell you GLOW, ISP, bending moment, and whether the crawler could get it to the pad or not. What do you want? They could invent it with reasonable engineering background and empirically derived basis. It seemed that the only real constraint was the size of the VAB doors.
Do you want a huge rocket that was optimized for the engineering elegant solution and minimized life cycle costs? Then pick model 22.214.171.124.3.5.a. Did you want a huge rocket that was quick to build with off the shelf components that does not require much development time or cost? Then pick model 126.96.36.199.12.c. And so it went.
The surface guys would debate size of the expedition and length of planetary surface stay, the celestial mechanics guys would debate the use of ion engines versus planetary gravity assist to cut transit time.
And the rocket boys would debate LOX-Hydrogen versus LOX-Kerosene, the diameter of the core stage, and the use of solids versus fly-back liquid boosters.
I was lost in space.
It turned out that the team had been put together out of a miscommunication. After about six weeks’ worth of intensive work, the team was shut down and disbanded. Somebody wrote up notes from the effort and that constituted some sort of report which was filed somewhere. Just another team study in 40+ years of study efforts on how to get off planet Earth.
I am not an advanced planning kind of guy. My experience is in operations, and after that in running an established program where fixes and improvements are the order of the day. I am bewildered by the intense and emotional debates over the various options. This is not my area of expertise. So the Code says I should keep quiet. Except that an operator needs something to operate; a program manager needs something to manage.
I even get the idea of turning LEO transportation over to commercial entities. But transportation to go beyond low earth orbit? What are we going to do about that?
Please don’t put me on your space architecture team. I just can’t stand it. After you have finalized your plan, call me; I have some expertise on how to build a rocket from a set of blueprints. Or operate the rocket. But not to trade off “figures of merit between competing designs.” Bless their hearts, other people are good at that; not me.
I wish we could pick a plan and stick to it long enough to get it to work. Orbital Space Plane was a good plan, it could have worked. X-33/Venture Star was a good plan, it could have worked. X-38 was a GREAT idea that was just on the cusp of working. Even Constellation was a good plan, it could have worked.
OK, I expect a lot of email over that last one. SLI, NASP, they all had technical merit and given the right kind of management and support they could have become viable flying vehicles. Don’t write me any emails saying that they were unsustainable from the political/economic viewpoint. I get that. I’m speaking as an operator, an engineer, a manager. Those programs, those vehicles, could have worked. Any one of them. And we would be years down the road, and money ahead.
But we always stop.
Meanwhile, I have noticed that there is a debate going on about what kind of big rocket to build. There are a lot of bewildering and emotionally intense discussion about the use of solids, hydrogen versus kerosene, and the diameter of the core vehicle stage. I tell you at this point, I don’t care. I don’t have an opinion.
Just pick one. And see it through.
Decide whether you want elegant with minimal life cycle expense, or if you want quick and cheap to develop and who cares how ugly it looks. I don’t care. I don’t have an opinion.
Just pick one. And see it through.
There are a lot of things we could do with a big rocket. Technology may improve with time if we invest appropriately; but that is no reason to wait now. Maybe we will invent warp drive in the next decade, but I doubt it. We will need that big rocket to do big things beyond low earth orbit. Meanwhile, could we please quit cancelling rocket projects before they get off the drawing board?
Reminds me of another quotation:
“the previous attempts to develop a replacement vehicle for the aging Shuttle represent a failure of national leadership” – CAIB pg. 211