Saturday, June 17, 2006

Better, Faster ... Oops

Things are not as bad as they seem. They are worse. ~Bill Press

The report on the Genesis mission has been released. You remember Genesis, don't you? When last seen, it was, as aeronautical engineers say, “buying the farm”, slamming into the desert because its parachute failed to open. It turns out that the early findings were correct: The parachute didn't open because the sensors that were supposed to tell the satellite that it had entered the atmosphere were installed backwards.

That, however, is the least of what the report reveals.

It seems that the problematic installation wasn't detected because the sensors weren't tested in a centrifuge, which would have revealed the problem. The engineer performed a different test, one that would check that the sensor wouldn't be damaged by atmospheric buffeting. Somehow, mission managers assumed either that this test also checked orientation, or that the orientation test had been run, even though it wasn't. But, it gets worse.

It seems that the sensor was the same type used in the highly successful Stardust mission (in which the parachute did work). But, when the Genesis team used the “heritage” technology (in line with better, faster, cheaper, and do things the same way we did them before), they made a few changes that added considerable complexity to the sensor system. The review of the drawings was done by an electrical engineer who didn't know how to review mechanical drawings.

Frankly, I find this hard to believe, because, as a quality engineer, I was expected to be able to review all the details of a drawing, mechanical, electrical, hydraulic, and so on. If I didn't understand something, I was expected to consult someone who did.

But drawing review has always been a sloppy business. I once received prints from a major manufacturer of batteries which had added metric dimensional equivalents to the english dimensions already on the drawing(this was during the metric push of the 1970's). Some of the metric equivalents were off by a factor of 10, yet the drawing had been reviewed and approved by two people besides the originator. You know, I wonder if that engineer went to work at Lockheed-Martin.

At any rate, here we are again, with another report that say NASA management and contractors don't check their work, don't communicate with each other on possible problems, and cut corners to stay within budget. If, however, a satellite becomes a pile of trash on a desert floor, I'd say that an entire budget has been wasted, which makes coming in under budget prior to launch look kind of stupid.

But there's yet another punchline. Not too long ago, I took NASA to task concerning their requirement that the CEV use “heritage technologies.” The Genesis report has a few things to say about the need to verify that “heritage technology” is properly verified (their redundancy, not mine). In other words, using something you used before doesn't mean it will work elsewhere, especially if it's not used in precisely the same way. Further, just because you used the technology before doesn't mean that you can skip testing and verification steps.

At the bottom, though, is that NASA management has done nothing to correct problems that have been around since Challenger. It doesn't help that NASA is always looking over its shoulder at a Congress that wants to cut its budget and administrations that want to get rid of it altogether. I mean, let's face it, every Republican president since Nixon has tried to slash NASA's budget for science and exploration. And the two Democratic administrations did little more than pay lip service to the mission of the agency. It's been no great secret that the Defense Department wants to control space for weapons, spy satellites, and unfeasible “Star Wars” defense systems. President Bush may talk about going to the Moon and Mars, but his budget says the closest we ever get will be rides at Disney World.

Just to add a little color to all of this, Stephen Hawking has recently said that we need to be getting serious about space colonization, and not just colonizing Mars. He says that if we don't destroy ourselves over the next 100 years, we should be making every effort to find habitable planets and the means to get there. His point is that the possibility is very real of a Chixulub-sized impact, climate change, or some other catastrophe coming along and sending us to the same place that the dinosaurs went.

We're not going to the stars from the ISS or the Moon, and we're not going in chemical-based rockets. We need a launch platform in orbit where we can build ships for the long journey to the stars, perhaps using ion propulsion or some sort of engine that hasn't even been imagined yet. I don't know the answer, but there are minds on this planet now who could figure it out, and the resources are available if we stop trying to kill each other off and begin to work together.

If we don't start thinking less about space tourism and more about technological breakthrough, we're just going to be the fossils below an extinction layer being pondered by the life form that next inherits the Earth.

No comments: