NASA: The Iron Law Strikes Again

View 692 Friday, September 16, 2011

If you ever doubted the truth of the Iron Law of Bureaucracy, perhaps this will make you believe.

NASA revealed its new design for its next-generation heavy-lift rocket today (Sept. 14), unveiling a giant booster that will eventually carry astronauts on future deep space missions.

The new rocket, called the Space Launch System (SLS), will include hardware and technology that are legacies from the space shuttle and now-defunct Constellation programs. The $10 billion booster will use liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel, and will have solid rocket boosters for initial tests flights, agency officials said.

"The next chapter of America’s space exploration story is being written today," NASA administrator and former space shuttle astronaut Charles Bolden said during a news briefing held today in Washington to unveil the new rocket design. "In combination with the crew capsule already in development, extension of activities on the International Space Station, fresh focus on new technologies, the new Space Launch System is key to implementing the plan laid out by President Obama and Congress in the bipartisan 2010 NASA Authorization Act."

It proves that NASA has learned nothing and forgotten nothing, and the purpose of NASA is to provide work for NASA employees. Given the task of coming up with a new national space program now that the Shuttle has eaten much of the dream, NASA comes up with a giant expendable that uses hydrogen fuel, Shuttle Recoverable (Solid Fuel) Boosters – SEGMENTED Shuttle Recoverable Boosters – monopropellant boosters on a giant expendable rocket. This bird is optimized for employing the NASA standing army.

The Shuttle was enormously successful. I think of no other large project that so thoroughly did the work it was designed to do – which was to employ a large standing army of development scientists, engineers, and technicians, and give them plenty of meaningful work to do.

Now the poor design of Shuttle wasn’t all NASA’s fault. A misconceived idea of making Shuttle relevant to the military got the Air Force involved, and the Air Force mission given for Shuttle was one that caused an enormous complication in the system design and was ultimately responsible for the Columbia disaster. There was also the political requirement that the Shuttle use solid boosters built in Utah, which required that the SRB be segmented, which was responsible for the Challenger disaster. NASA didn’t choose those primary hampers. Even so, the whole purpose of Shuttle was to employ the oversize crew of development scientists, engineers, and technicians brought about by Apollo. Apollo was run in the military manner like D-Day. It was a Cold War operation. Of course we had won the race to the Moon by 1967, but no one knew that yet, and by then it was too late anyway. We had created the standing army that needed employment after Apollo. They designed Shuttle to keep that standing army employed. The fact that the basic design was fatally compromised did not keep Shuttle from completing that primary mission.

The Standing Army Full Employment Program

The SLS rocket will incorporate technological investments from the Space Shuttle Program and the Constellation Program in order to take advantage of proven hardware and cutting-edge tooling and manufacturing technology that will significantly reduce development and operations costs. It will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system, which will include the RS-25D/E from the Space Shuttle Program for the core stage and the J-2X engine for the upper stage. SLS will also use solid rocket boosters for the initial development flights, while follow-on boosters will be competed based on performance requirements and affordability considerations. The SLS will have an initial lift capacity of 70 metric tons. That’s more than 154,000 pounds, or 77 tons, roughly the weight of 40 sport utility vehicles. The lift capacity will be evolvable to 130 metric tons — more than 286,000 pounds, or 143 tons — enough to lift 75 SUVs. The first developmental flight, or mission, is targeted for the end of 2017.

This specific architecture was selected, largely because it utilizes an evolvable development approach, which allows NASA to address high-cost development activities early on in the program and take advantage of higher buying power before inflation erodes the available funding of a fixed budget. This architecture also enables NASA to leverage existing capabilities and lower development costs by using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for both the core and upper stages. Additionally, this architecture provides a modular launch vehicle that can be configured for specific mission needs using a variation of common elements. NASA may not need to lift 130 metric tons for each mission and the flexibility of this modular architecture allows the agency to use different core stage, upper stage, and first-stage booster combinations to achieve the most efficient launch vehicle for the desired mission.

Now what’s wrong with this picture?

First, there’s not even a discussion of an alternative to developing a large expendable booster. There is not even a hint that reusable spacecraft would work better. OK, concede that we need a huge expendable. There is no reason for this one. It makes use of Shuttle Main Engines. Those were developed to be reusable, and they are expensive because of that. They are in fact magnificent engines and thoroughly reusable if operated at 90-95% of rated capacity; it’s not their fault that they had to be run at 103% and above to fly Shuttle. But they were developed to be reusable, and that adds greatly to their cost.

The primary goal of the SSX program we proposed to Vice President Quayle in 1988 was not just reusability: it was also SAVABILITY. A properly designed operational ship ought to be savable. After all, the payload (human or instrumental) is worth more than the rocket. The goal ought to get that payload up or get it back. The implications of savable designs reach insurance, operations risks, and a number of other factors. None of these seem to have been considered in the NASA proposal.

The system proposed by NASA uses hydrogen. Hydrogen is an awful fuel. It’s great for exhaust velocity but it has a lot of operational problems, some of which were amply demonstrated in the DC/X program. You don’t want hydrogen. Kerosene and LOX, or propane and LOX are operationally a lot simpler and easier and the performance cost is low compared to the operations gain. Apollo was a single mission, and the goal was to do it before the USSR. If you want to build a spacefaring capability, you need to to pay attention to operations, because you are going to be doing this a lot.

If we need a big expendable there are better models to begin with. Starting with Saturn, which put one whack of a lot into Low Earth Orbit. There are other models to start with. Not that I concede the need for reusable systems as opposed to expendables.

The NASA proposed system uses SEGMENTED Recoverable Boosters. You don’t want recoverable solid rockets in the first place. The operations are a nightmare, and the design has to be compromised so that the impact on the water does not destroy the thing, and it has to float. All that changes the design and affects performance. There is no good reason ever to recover a solid booster, which is, after all, a big sewer pipe stuffed with guncotton and leached with nitroglycerine. It’s a mono-propellant, which is another name for very high explosives, and the operational difficulties of dealing with such stuff are not small.

Even if you want recoverable solid boosters, you sure as heck don’t want SEGMENTED solid boosters. The only reason we ever came up with any notion as mad as a segmented solid booster was that the SRB had to be made in Utah because of political constraints. If you make a booster that size in Utah it has to be segmented because you can’t ship it by rail or on the highway – the curves are too sharp and the tunnels are not big enough. You would have to make it in Michoud Louisiana and ship it by barge to Canaveral. That is possible but Louisiana isn’t Utah. Apparently the new NASA design is worried about the Utah Senatorial votes to this day.

There are other reasons why this is a far cry from an optimum design, but we don’t need any more.

The goal is an operations driven rather than performance driven system for exploring and exploiting the universe. There is no evidence that NASA has any goal in mind other than employing NASA workers.


The best way to get a payload up would be to contract it: you don’t get paid until you deliver the payload. The aviation industry was driven by among other things Air Mail – the government provided a market for air freight service. Private industry did the rest. That’s the way to develop space, too, now that we are not in a Cold War race.

NASA has other ideas.

NASA today told industry partners it would abandon the use of Space Act Agreements in the next phase of the program developing commercial crew taxis, despite many companies’ preference for them.
"We’ve made our decision and we recognize that not everyone will agree with it, but we’re at the point where we had to make one and move forward,” Brent Jett, deputy director of the Commercial Crew Program office, said during a meeting at Kennedy Space Center.
Space Act Agreements have guided the relatively low-cost development of rockets and spacecraft that SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. will use to fly cargo to the International Space Station.
They’ve also been used in the first two rounds of the Commercial Crew Development program, or CCDev, which this year split $270 million among four companies.
But NASA says a more traditional contracting arrangement must be entered into when it awards another round of funding next summer for an "integrated design phase."

It’s the same old Iron Law NASA, and the only cure for this is to declare most of NASA redundant and eliminate it. This is another Full Employment Ploy from the Old NASA.

I will say it one more time: if we want to explore space, determine what we think that’s worth and put up prizes. A $5 Billion prize for a reusable craft that goes to orbit and returns 11 times in 12 months, nothing to be paid until someone does it. A $12 Billion prize for putting up a Lunar Colony of 31 Americans to be kept alive and well on the Lunar surface for three years and a day, again nothing to be paid until the task is accomplished. If no one does it, there is no cost to the taxpayers. If someone claims the prize the world will cheer. But of course neither of those courses will employ the NASA standing army. The Iron Law Prevails.


I have been a bit under the weather for the week and plagued by minor but time consuming dental stuff. I’ll get a new Mail up tonight. Apologies.  If you were thinking of subscribing or renewing, now would be a good time to do it.


The President’s Jobs Program isn’t very interesting, even to him. I note that there has been no rush to have a Democrat (or establishment Republican for that matter) Congressman (it’s a money bill, so it has to originate in the House) introduce it so that it can be voted on. I doubt it is anything but a campaign ploy.

And I note that the President’s approval rating is below the magic 43% everywhere but in California, and it’s below 50% even there.  I told you that despair is a sin.


Those of you interested in what’s happening in the publishing world may find worth reading.




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