Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Georgia (Tech) on my Mind

Barring thunderstorm or maintenance problems, I'll be setting down tomorrow evening in Atlanta, on my way to visit Georgia Tech for the weekend. Georgia Tech is one of the five places I've applied to grad school. From west to east, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Texas A&M, Purdue, and MIT round out the pack.

The offers are already coming in, giving the prospect of grad school a giddy sense of reality. It feels a little bit awkward, after the years of climbing step by step, one homework problem, one lab report, one staff meeting at a time, toward the nebulous goal of understanding how to make an impact in this field, to suddenly be courted by these institutions. I suppose that was the payoff I was looking for this whole time. Still, the feeling of suddenly being wanted at places where I've never even set foot is a little bit disorienting.

My choice really comes down to this: do I stay at A&M or depart for one of the other schools? The fernweh that drove me to Texas from Arizona is still alive there down in my heart, but it's sedated by the fact that I've really grown to like College Station over the last four years. I'm keenly aware of all the faults and flaws of this little town, but all the little nice things about staying are also vivid in my mind. If nothing else, this jaunt to Atlanta should help give me a baseline with which to compare College Station to my other options. For that, and because I like flying in general, I'm looking forward to this weekend.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Politics of Design

The entries are in for the second round of NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. Years from now, if this program is adequately funded and pursued, it will no doubt go on to produce some of the most cost-effective investments in NASA's history. CCDev's aim is to nurture a private-sector human spaceflight industry capable of delivering safe and inexpensive (well, relatively inexpensive, anyway) travel to Earth orbit to anyone interested. If we're serious about developing an enduring human presence in space (and I am), this is the road that will take us there, and Barack Obama has been the best president for NASA since Kennedy for kick-starting this development.

Like any good private-sector competition, bidding is open to just about anyone. There were some predictable entries like SpaceX's proposal to accelerate crewed Dragon development, and some less orthodox ones as well. By far the biggest oddball was ATK and Astrium's proposal for a mash-up of the Ares I and Ariane V first stages. I allow the following video to explain the concept as generously as possible:

There are a number of odd things, inaccuracies, and bogus claims in that video that should be addressed:

-Why is the International Space Station shown thousands of miles away from the Earth? Look at any picture of the ISS ever taken. Seriously. Any picture ever taken. See how big Earth is? That's where the ISS lives. ATK is an aerospace company that works with NASA every day, and goofing a visual like this is unprofessional in a bizarre way.

-ATK and Astrium have a long track record of successful missions. Fair enough. But the stages they're proposing for Liberty are radically different beasts than the Space Shuttle SRB and the Ariane V core stage. The four-segment Space Shuttle SRB has virtually nothing to do with the five-segment SRB developed for Ares I, since the geometry of the motor case is completely changed and the load paths are so different. Liberty's upper stage would have to be air-started and survive the punishing vibration and bending loads applied by the first stage, requiring enough analysis and redesign from the stock Ariane V first stage that it would be practically a new vehicle. To imply that the flight heritage of the shuttle and Ariane have a one-to-one mapping with Liberty reliability (as the animation showing shuttle and Ariane components morphing into Liberty does) is at best overoptimistic.

-We are told that the Liberty configuration is the safest and most reliable orbital launch vehicle design available, since it has two engines with one engine per stage. So do Atlas V and Delta IVFalcon 9 has nine engines on the first stage, but I'm not convinced this automatically makes it less reliable. A nine-engined vehicle can lose one or two and still make it to orbit, and engine-out capability has mattered in the past. Regardless, the specifics of the design and its flight history are probably more important to reliability and crew safety than the high-level configuration, so this is a bit of a stretch to label it "safest and most reliable" on such loose grounds.

-Including the chart of launch abort effectiveness was a terrible decision. This is just wrong. There has been much debate about this at the NASA Spaceflight forum, and credible sources there have said in no uncertain terms that Ares I (and by extension Liberty) would have a less forgiving abort environment than a current launch vehicle like Atlas V or Delta IV. The blackout zones shown on the chart for "other vehicles" can be closed with a minimal loss of payload, and a liquid-fueled rocket engine can be shut down benignly before a problem becomes catastrophic. Since solid-fueled engines can't be shut down once ignited, an abort requires detonating the first stage explosively, and the launch abort system has to outrun the many heavy flaming pieces of metal capable of burning through crew capsule parachutes that result from such an event. The notion that solids are more inherently crew-safe than liquids is a myth that just needs to die. All else equal, you're safer flying on a liquid-fueled vehicle, full stop.

-I thought it was interesting that SpaceX's Dragon wasn't included in the compatible spacecraft. Clearly Liberty would have enough lift capacity to launch it, but it seems like ATK just doesn't want to talk about smaller space companies like SpaceX, instead focusing on Boeing and Orbital Sciences. Also, I don't know what they're getting at with Orion. Ares I was designed to launch Orion, but continually failed to meet its design targets for launch weight, requiring weight-loss programs to make Orion launchable by Ares. Liberty has less lift capacity than Ares. Are they talking about a trimmed-down, orbit-only version of Orion? It would be nice to have some clarity...

-The video makes the case that development costs can be reduced by using NASA facilities at the Kennedy Space Center. Very well, but who will pay for the facilities? Will ATK pay to rent out the parts of KSC necessary to launch Liberty? That would be prohibitively expensive. Will these operations be paid for out of NASA's operating budget? That would be an unfair subsidy to ATK and would obfuscate the real cost of operating Liberty. This is not a convincing selling point, to say the least.

-The go-fast stripes on the first stage look very pretty. I have no rebuttal to this fact.

Outside of the video, ATK claims that Liberty could be ready for its first launch by 2013 and will cost about $180 million per launch. This is incredible. Ares I has already spent four years in development the earliest it could realistically fly according to the Augustine Committee was 2015. It was unlikely, according to the committee, to ever be more cost-effective than the Atlas V. Liberty is, for all intents and purposes, a brand new vehicle, requiring many man-hours of redesign, development, and testing. If ATK and Astrium want to sell this vehicle for $180 million per launch and take a loss, that's their business choice, but I can't imagine any world in which Liberty would be profitable flying at that price.

The reason this proposal exists, then, is not because of the technical or business merits of the concept, but because of the politics surrounding ATK, NASA, and the entire aerospace industry right now. ATK runs a very profitable business assembling solid rocket segments into SRBs for the Space Shuttle program. This is good for the company, good for the state of Utah (where ATK is based), and good for NASA since it spreads the political footprint of its contractor base a little more. While Ares I was in development, it looked like this business could continue by transitioning to the assembly of solid rocket segments for the Ares I first stage. When Ares I was effectively given a vote of no confidence by the Obama administration last February, much rage ensued. Liberty is ATK's last punch in the fight to keep Ares I and its orbital solid rocket business alive.

One of the great things about going to school in Texas is that you're never far from the resources and experience of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. I've had the chance to talk to a number of people at JSC about Ares I and the design choices behind it, and I have yet to meet anyone who's actually worked on a project related to the rocket and come away thinking it was the best technical solution to problem of sending people to the Moon safely and reliably. It's first and foremost a politics machine, not a a physics machine or an economics machine.

Ultimately Ares I, and its Liberty echo, are solutions looking for a problem. CCDev is about spacecraft, capsules and spaceplanes to get people to their destinations in orbit and down to the ground in an orderly fashion. We have launch vehicles already, wonderfully reliable ones with proven track records in the form of Atlas V and Delta IV. I'm sure Falcon 9 will join their ranks soon once it has a dozen or so cargo transport flights under its belt. On a level playing field, Liberty will lose this competition because it doesn't address what NASA and private human spaceflight need. I hope the playing field really is level.

It brings me no joy to attack a new idea about crew transport to low Earth orbit. Rockets are just really cool and a robust human spaceflight industry is something I desperately want to see become reality. But I don't see this ATK proposal fitting into that reality. There have been many bad ideas in the history of human flight, and some of them sank billions of dollars and many years of precious engineering time before fizzling out. Liberty is a bad idea and the CCDev money belongs to ideas with more promise.

Friday, February 4, 2011

High Flight

Some news is best put bluntly. My grandfather, Obbie Atkinson, died earlier tonight from injuries sustained in a plane crash yesterday morning in San Luis Obispo, California. He was 86 years old.

He was born in 1924. That year Calvin Coolidge was elected president, Stalin came to power in the newly-formed Soviet Union, and George Mallory went missing pushing for the summit of Mt. Everest. The small Illinois town of Mount Vernon, where he was born and lived most of his life, was a primitive farm town by today's standards, and he was the only one of his many siblings to graduate from high school.

Like most of his generation, the Second World War shaped the transition of his life into adulthood. I can hardly imagine the thoughts and emotions he must have felt enlisting in the Army Air Force once he turned 18. It must have seemed that there was but one righteous path to follow, the path of fighting for freedom, democracy, and America, against the Nazis and Fascists, and the Imperial Japanese. I think I would've decided to follow the same path, or at least I hope I would've. He was disappointed when his service kept him relatively safe within America's borders, never bombed, never fired upon by a foreign enemy. During the war he was an instructor pilot, training those who would fly on to England and the Marianas to pick apart the industry of Germany and Japan. He saw only lands like Texas, Arizona, and California, but these must have been exotic enough for someone raised in rural Illinois. Just days before he was scheduled to ship out to the western Pacific to fly the B-29s he knew so well in combat, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He was younger then than I am now.

It must have seemed like a job out of science fiction. I try to imagine myself now as he was then. Young, inexperienced, and in charge of the most complicated machine yet built by humans. Watching the B-29s roll off their assembly line in Wichita must have felt like seeing spaceships come together. After the war he served in the Strategic Air Command. He flew a little bit in Alaska, a little bit in Bermuda, a little bit in Europe and the Azores. He flew over the north pole several times and through such bitterly cold inversion layers north of Fairbanks that whole mountain ranges seemed flipped upside down in their mirages. St Elmo's fire painted the wingtips and propeller blades neon green while he flew through thunderstorms over the north Atlantic. He almost certainly flew with live nuclear weapons at some point in his career.

The stories from his service are no more spectacular than those of any other flying officer from the time, but are fantastic by any reasoned measure. Once departing fully loaded and fueled from El Paso, an engine failed, crippling the aircraft's rate of climb. Slowly, achingly slowly, he nursed the airplane through a lazy circuit back to the runway, barely clearing the cactus and creosote bushes below. One night on an off-duty ride across the ocean he was awakened from an exhausted sleep high over the Atlantic. The crew was lost, and they were low on fuel. With little margin, he found the nearest land, Bermuda, and the crew made it safely home. He was a farm boy from the Midwest who captained airships. In fiction, his name would be James T. Kirk.

He was much more than a pilot, of course, though flying was his passion all his life. After retiring from the Air Force he worked in Mount Vernon as a car salesman, and he raised my dad and his three siblings. He was gifted at understanding machines, people, and the explanation of the former to the latter, skills he honed as an instructor at Luke Air Force Base, not far from where I grew up. Selling cars is less glamorous than flying airplanes, so unfortunately I didn't get to see this side of my grandpa as I would've liked, but I'm sure he was as talented reading a customer as he was reading a crosswind.

Grandpa never really retired, but he moved to Paso Robles, California around the time I was born to be closer to his family out west and because he'd fallen in love with the area in the decades past. Growing up, he was the California grandpa to me. The family had to sit in the old Cadillac for about ten hours to get there, which was annoying to a young child, but once we were there I loved the cool mountain scenery and walking around the museum he helped assemble. Like him, I was in love with everything flying, everything airplane related, and he was like an oracle of flying. He knew it all, because he'd seen it, and lived through it. What was history to me was life and memory to him.

As he aged, he slowed down a little, but never stopped being the pilot he longed to be on that farm east of St. Louis. It's a risky passion to have, but for those with it, there is no substitute for the roar and rattle of the engine and the tilt of the stomach in a banking turn. He was flying with a friend yesterday, in a little old Aeronca, when the odds caught up with him. I think the forensic details of the accident he was in are beyond the scope of this post, and even if they weren't, I don't know them yet. It would be disingenuous for me to say that I'm at peace with what's happened in the last 36 hours. I'm not. It's impossible to lose someone so close and not feel a bitter sting of loss tinged with unfairness. I'm glad to know, though, that he had the life he did.

My last name, Atkinson, comes from him. For generations before my grandpa, the Atkinsons were humble farmers in and near southern Illinois. For generations before that, they were no doubt the peasants of England and Scotland. In one lifetime he broke from this tradition, worked with the greatest machines yet built by human hands, saw more of the world than the last 500 years of his ancestors combined, and was a mentor to four children, 13 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. His life was astounding in every way possible. This last part will be cliche, but in light of the context of his life, I think the following poem by Gillespie Magee is appropriate:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.