There has been a recent renewal of interest in a post I made five years ago
“The Coming Train Wreck for Commercial Human Spaceflight” https://waynehale.wordpress.com/2010/11/14/the-coming-train-wreck-for-commercial-human-spaceflight/
If you find that interesting perhaps you should read my post on Standards from just four years ago https://waynehale.wordpress.com/tag/standards/
Some people have called those posts prophetic. Not really. I don’t have all the answers. Just sad, tough experience from the inside out.
So how can we avoid a train wreck, not just in commercial human spaceflight but with the NASA exploration systems as well.
Spaceflight is exacting and very hard; the environments are tough, the energy levels are extreme, and the margin between success and failure is very slim. All of this is said so often that is sounds like a trite cliché. But no matter how trite it sounds, it is true. In the 21st century, still true.
We know a lot about launching satellites and people into low earth orbit – it has been done for decades. If you grew up with the Space Age, as I did, you got very accustomed to pictures and videos of rockets blowing up. Nowadays, rockets seldom blow up. I think the recent Atlas launch was the 100th success in a row. How did that occur?
Digging through the debris from failure after failure, engineers learned a little at a time about the complex and exacting process necessary to improve the chance of success in rocketry. No secrets anymore, nowadays those processes are well understood, well documented. And mostly followed.
To cite a couple of recent incidents; it is well know that a new heavy payload on the top of a new and spindly rocket (they are all spindly) it is imperative that the springy interaction be analyzed. If you don’t do that, well, you run the risk of failure like 59P last April.
Or if you try to lower the cost of your rocket by purchasing non-aerospace-standard parts, and don’t test each and every one of those parts, you run the risk of something breaking like it did on Spx-7 last June.
Or if you use really old rocket engines, you really should . . . well, enough recent history.
The point is, success in spaceflight is not easy and comes at a high price because the work is exacting and unforgiving. But we know how to do it well. Just follow the process.
But there is a rub, because the process, the standards, are not static. They are always being improved. Added to. Never reduced, unfortunately.
After Columbia, part of what we did was over the top. In order to satisfy all the critics, we did everything anybody asked for. Much of it was necessary, most of it was good, some of it was no value added bureaucracy to scratch some independent reviewer’s itch. All of it got codified as ‘lessons learned’ and added to the process.
The James Webb Space Telescope is a ‘must work’ project for the agency. There have been serious challenges, both technical and management. NASA has learned a lot about how NOT to manage a complex development project in the JWST experience. Much of that has been codified into new and ‘improved’ processes. Added processes. Always more, never less.
I have a cheap seat view of the Orion/SLS development. My basic observation: those efforts are drowning in ‘process’. The biggest threat to their success is not technical; it is schedule and cost. If the design and development processes drag the projects out too far, Congress or a new Administration will throw up their hands and call a halt to the whole thing. They did once before; my intuition is that they will again unless something significant happens.
The secret of a good program – as a very senior spacecraft designer once told me – is knowing how much is enough and then not doing anything more.
Right now, inside NASA, we have trained our workforce to do it perfectly. And perfection is very costly and takes a long time. Over in the Commercial Crew Program, the senior leadership is making some progress in toning down the drive for perfection. It is a slow effort and uphill at all times. Over in the Exploration systems area, it all seems to be going the other way. Whatever anybody calls necessary for safety or improvement – without evaluating the real cost or schedule or other impact – seems to be adopted.
So I am guardedly optimistic about the commercial teams actually succeeding in flying humans in space in the next couple of years.
Not so much optimism for the exploration systems, drowning in ‘process’.
Most engineering problems have an optimum solution, a point where doing more actually results in less performance. This situation is not an exception.
Somebody needs to be able to just say no. In order to succeed.
It’s not really rocket science, it’s just good engineering.
Everybody in the policy world and the blogosphere wants to debate destinations – Moon, Mars, Asteroids – or the shape and size of the rocket. All interesting but not really relevant. Pick a place. Make a design. If it’s going to actually fly, do what is necessary – and not one thing more.
That’s what real rocket builders need to focus on.
IndependenceThis blog represents the personal opinions of Wayne Hale only. It does not represent the opinions of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or Special Aerospace Services, or their clients.
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