Disaster in Mojave

It’s been a tragic week for the commercial space industry. With the media primed from the spectacular fireball of the unmanned space station resupply mission ORB-3, tragedy struck in Mojave with the in-flight breakup of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo on its third powered flight, killing one test pilot. This marks the first in-flight fatality of the burgeoning space tourism industry, though not the only fatality in the SpaceShipTwo program – an explosion during engine testing on the ground killed three test engineers in 2007.

Initial reports from the NTSB indicate the feather locking mechanism was moved by the pilot from “lock” to “unlock” prematurely. The mechanism was unlocked in a region of high aerodynamic loading and two seconds later the vehicle was destroyed by aerodynamic forces. By my back-of-the-envelope calculation, the operator unlocked the feathering mechanism about five seconds before called in the procedure. The unlock mechanism, pilot, and procedures are now the focus of the NTSB investigation.

The NTSB findings were a shock to the amateur space community who assumed the accident was caused by the rocket engine – the long awaited first test flight of the vehicle with an upgraded rocket engine. The engine has had a dubious development history and has been a constant source of external ridicule for Virgin. Pilot error championed the news outlets for obvious reasons – a simple, superficial explanation for the public and partial exoneration of design flaws in Virgin’s vehicle. Richard Branson, the figurehead and bankroller, spouted the all-too-common space industry platitude: “Space is Hard”.

Well, space IS hard. Development and operations is hugely capital intensive, the operation environments are extreme, and things generally have to work right the first time. But these are financial and engineering challenges bounded by interest rates and physics – comforting to an engineer.

Virgin states “safety is our guiding principle and the North Star for all programmatic decisions,” and while this sounds reassuring, it is not a tenable requirement to design a vehicle. This “North Star” needs to be assessed as an engineering risk, and the results fed back to design. The risk assessment process has once (Challenger) again (Colombia) proven to be broken. Perhaps it’s because the answers don’t lie in integrals and probability distributions, but in the ego of the human mind.

NASA is committing suicide

And I can only stand around and watch. If you’re up on the space industry, the Space Launch System (SLS) is the latest debacle that Congress has served up to NASA.

The SLS is a very large rocket intended to replace the retired shuttle fleet. Before we get too nostalgic about the Shuttle, let me say that it was canceled by the Bush administration for good reasons. It was expensive, unsafe, and mission limited.

The SLS is bigger and even more expensive (marginal cost per flight expected to be at least a BILLION dollars) and so large, there’s nothing to do with it. If we get what Obama wants, a few asteroid missions, the SLS might launch a few times. But without a sustained need for such a large rocket (read no budget and no direction from NASA management) the project is doomed to economic failure. At least the shuttle had the space station to build.

So why would NASA propose such a silly design? They really didn’t. Congress defines NASA’s budget, even micromanaging the main programs to fit their goals – more money and jobs in their states. It’s no surprise the SLS uses shuttle derived parts. It’s certainly not because this is cheaper (the failed Orion V, the original successor to shuttle and similar to the SLS proved the shuttle derived cost saving fallacy). It’s simply to keep the standing army of engineers and technicians with a salary, spinning their well tuned wheels developing a rocket that everyone (NASA management, engineers and congress) knows will never fly more than a handful of times, if that. Methods proposed to reduce cost through commercial partnership, suggested by SLS prime contractor big-Boeing, are laughably preposterous.

The most likely scenario is actually for the plan to go off without a hitch. People remain employed, the rocket is successful, some missions are flying every few years, and congress is happy. If this happens, it’s clear that NASA has truly changed to a welfare for engineers agency and will start to attract the not-so-best-and-brightest. A smart combination of commercial crew, upgrading of the existing expendable launch vehicles, and coherent long term planning from NASA is one way out of this mess.

However, this requires NASA management to drink a cup of cement and harden the fuck up (a kiwi expression?).