Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Response to a Response about SFF – Part 1

The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do. ~B.F. Skinner

Mr. Benigno Muniz Jr., Chief Technical Officer of CSI, whose owner is a member of the Space Frontier Foundation's board, has penned a lengthy but thoughtful comment to my rant about the SFF and private enterprise space efforts in general. His post deserves a response, and I'm going to give it my best effort, but before I do, you might want to take a moment and read Mr. Muniz's comments in full.

Done? Okay, here goes.

Mr. Muniz quotes my comment about the group wanting a law passed to force NASA to buy services from private companies and offers a statement that this has been done in the past, including a law that prohibited NASA from launching commercial satellites. From his link, we get the following quote:
“So, why aren't we all flying in space today, as a result of this work? The immediate answer is that markets take time to impact the supply chain, and with the enormous investment required to build new space launchers, the full effects of market forces will not be seen for some time. Still,the progress since 1990 has been considerable. At least one should think about the reality that - without the Launch Services Purchase Act - that NASA may have elected to *manage* the X-Prize."
Mr. Muniz, we're talking 16 years of minimal progress. The so-called “considerable” progress involves the use of technology Robert Goddard would recognize. The idea was for NASA to work on the new and innovative while letting private enterprise use the government-provided technologies to do the routine work.

As it turns out, neither private enterprise nor NASA have been particularly innovative.

He next refers to Energia, which is, of course, a spinoff of the former Soviet space program (it traces it's history back to 1948; Stalin was not a big proponent of private enterprise). It's been such a rousing success that MIR had to be decommissioned because Energia could not support both ISS and MIR. In fact, Energia cannot supply a fully crewed ISS, as witnessed by the reduction of crew from three to two while the shuttle was grounded.

The most successful and consistent launch vehicles out there are the Arianne rockets, run by the European Space Agency, which (and I may be mistaken here) is not private enterprise. My point that I make over and over (but evidently not clearly) is that privately funded space efforts do not involve innovation or improved methods. NASA has been guilty of this as well, but taking funding away from research to give it to private groups, few of whom are actually doing anything that will prove to be useful to humanity in the long or short run, isn't going to promote innovation.

Mr. Muniz takes exception to my remarks about “under-engineered” private efforts. His argument revolves around a)the use of old technology (in other words, we're using stuff that government money engineered) and b) CSI and others used to be government contractors who used our tax dollars to do their engineering. His only statement of current engineering efforts is “ Subsequently, CSI's designs have undergone further privately-funded development to a greater level of detail.” He then lists his COTS team, notes that CSI has all sorts of former aerospace people, and asks me to explain “what we under engineered.”

Well, I didn't specifically cite CSI as a source of under-engineering because I don't know of any case where the term would be applied to them. But, how's this for examples about others? Ares, the launch vehicle for the CEV, is going to be covered by – are you ready for this? -- the same foam that comes off the shuttle tank in chunks. Under-engineering? I call that no engineering. And please don't tell me that it's okay because all the junk will fall behind the CEV. I'd suggest that very little engineering effort has gone into determining what the effects of using this failed methodology are going to be.

Mr. Muniz lists a laundry list of good ole methods that commercial space flight is hanging its hat on, including Delta rockets (46 years old) and Soyuz technology (35 years old). I hear the Chinese were big in rocketry a few thousand years ago. Should we be using gunpowder to launch our space ships? Of course not, but then why should we be using 30+ year old methods. Because they're proven? When automobiles first appeared there were many arguments against such progress, insisting on staying with the "proven technology" of the horse-and-buggy.

Mr. Muniz says, “Your subsequent discussion [about private sector space flight] does not cover either the commercial launch or satellite industry, and so is very incomplete.” A valid statement on his part, since commercial satellite launches have been going on, using government-funded technologies, for some years. My thoughts were about manned efforts, but I didn't make that clear. I did mention a couple of rather poor commercial efforts launching satellites, but that was mixing topics on my part.

He chides my comments about Bigelow's space hotel. I'm sorry, Mr. Muniz, I've yet to read anything about it that indicates that it marks any major step forward from the Echo launches to which you refer. Yes, Echo had no internal structures or subsystems. As far as I know, neither does Bigelow's balloon. There was some mention of a camera system, but I have yet to see any pictures. Beyond that, there are apparently no major internal operating systems.

There is more to Mr. Muniz's post, and I want to answer it as well as I can, so part 2 will appear on Thursday. And, thanks to continued interest in the topic from both Mr. Muniz and Dr. Alfred Differ, a part 3 will follow on Saturday.

Boy, two against one. And I'll bet they're twenty years younger than I am, too.

3 comments:

adiffer said...

I'm a 44 year old software engineer by day. I've been working on designs and tests for high altitude platforms and airships for a number of years now. 30km isn't space but the airship/rocket hybrid we have in the plans won't be a blast to the past.

Ben has even better credentials for our industry. 8)

The Gog said...

I knew you were just a kid. You should be ashamed picking on an old guy like me. ;-)

I would be curious, in all seriousness, to know the answer to one question. What is the timeframe for implementation of your hybrid (figured both with and without federal funding)?

Benigno Muniz Jr. said...

"The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do. ~BF Skinner"

vs.

"I do not foresee 'spaceships' to the moon or Mars. Mortals must live and die on Earth or within its atmosphere!"
-- Dr. Lee De Forest (1873-1961), American radio pioneer and inventor of the vacuum tube, "Dawn of the Electronic Age", Popular Mechanics, January, 1952

John, or Mr. Goff, whichever you prefer,

Thanks for pointing your readers toward my earlier response. Having seen over the years where many of these space policy debates end up in endless circles, I'm going to try to keep this focused on the facts that address the issues at hand. I do apologize in advance for the length of this, but we seem to view the arena of space from 2 entirely different perspectives.

In talking about commercial space and the LSPA, you say "we're talking 16 years of minimal progress."

In order to understand where we are and were we're going in the commercial space launch industry, it helps to know were we've been:

For an overview of the history here, I would suggest reading Chapter Three “Commercializing Space Transportation,” of NASA SP-4407 "Exploring the Unknown", which says in part: "In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration, strongly encouraged by NASA, had established the policy that all government payloads would be launched on the Shuttle and that the Delta, Atlas, and Titan expendable launch vehicles (ELVs) would be phased out. NASA ordered no more Delta or Atlas ELVs after 1982. Their manufacturers moved to shut down production lines."
http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4407/vol4/cover.pdf

In very brief summary, the evolution of the commercial launch industry goes back to the Commercial Space Act of 1984, the Aug 1986 initial statement and Dec 1986 policy by the Reagan Administration that stated the Shuttle would no longer be used to launch commercial communications satellites, the Launch Services Purchase Act of 1990, and the Commercial Space Act of 1998.

In 1986, the US launch industry was dead -- zero launches and assembly lines shut down in the face of competition from the Shuttle. After removing that barrier, the result is that since 1989 there have been 178 FAA licensed commercial launches, by numerous US providers.

I would hardly call that "minimal progress."

The core of the issue I keep bringing up is whether current laws should be extended to cover cargo & crew services to ISS, which you seem to oppose.

You seem to be against that, and your argument seemed to be focused on new technology as the figure of merit here, when you say: "The so-called “considerable” progress involves the use of technology Robert Goddard would recognize."

I believe the main difference between where you and I stand on this general issue is that -- ironically for an engineer -- I'm more interested in getting actual payloads to orbit than the technology that's used to get them there . When FedEx comes to my door, I'm far more interested in the package it's bringing me than whether their truck uses hybrid electric diesel engine or technology that Henry Ford and Nicholas Otto would recognize. If and when space elevators, mass drivers, skyhooks, and other new methods of getting into orbit are developed they will radically change the landscape, but until then there is much that can be accomplished using methods based on Tsiolkovsky's rocket equation.

You also say "As it turns out, neither private enterprise nor NASA have been particularly innovative."

One can argue about whether innovation should come from the government or the private sector (or both), but you're right to some extent about NASA's recent history. The Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on VA/HUD/and Independent Agencies (James Walsh, R-NY) once asked NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe: "X-33, X-34, SLI, NGLT, OSP all have been funded at NASA’s request - billions of dollars for what?" Walsh forgot to add the 2nd Gen RLV program to that list of programs, none of which resulted in flying hardware. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then why is it a bad thing to look at ways in which the private sector might be able to contribute here?

Your comment "He next refers to Energia, which is, of course, a spinoff of the former Soviet space program (it traces it's history back to 1948; Stalin was not a big proponent of private enterprise)."

Ironically, the U.S. Apollo program was more "socialist" than the Russian program. Unlike the US, they had not only one manned Moon program but two competing ones run by different design bureaus. Until Dan Goldin forced the Russian to create a federal space agency with real bureaucratic control, companies like RSC Energia worked fairly independently of each other, under general orders from the Kremlin that set overall goals but did not get involved in the technical details of things like propellant selection or levels of system redundancy. Meanwhile, NASA spec'd out the Apollo hardware to the nth degree. For more info, I would suggest any one of the histories that have come out in the last few years that shed light on the Soviet efforts. The truth isn't what I learned in school, that's for sure.

When the current structure of RSC-E was set up in 1994, the Russian government retained 38% of the stock, essentially the same the as the 37% share the French government held at the start of the Airbus consortium set up to build commercial airliners. While the RSC-E privatization process has had some problems, I'll ask a rhetorical questions: what % of private ownership is there in NASA? How many shares outstanding?

"It's been such a rousing success that MIR had to be decommissioned because Energia could not support both ISS and MIR."

Whether RSC-E *could not* or *was not allowed* to support both ISS and MIR was a story that was little covered by the space media (like the real reasons for the demise of the ISF), but maybe someday historians will dig into things like this:

"Top NASA officials in part were responsible for Mir's demise. For example, behind the scenes they pressured Energia to abandon Mir so it could devote more resources to fulfilling International Space Station (ISS) commitments. Also MirCorp wanted to pay for the use of several Russian "Progress" supply rockets that were sitting unused but on which NASA had first call. Even though they could have been replaced before NASA would need them, NASA would not let MirCorp purchase them. Finally, MirCorp wanted to export a tether needed to supply energy to Mir from the United States to Russia for launch. The U.S. State Department, under pressure from NASA, delayed the export license for 10 months, until after the Russians decided to abandon Mir." (Statement of Edward L. Hudgins, Ph.D, Director, Regulatory Studies, The Cato Institute,
On Space Policy and Space Tourism, before the Subcommittee on Space & Aeronautics, Committee on Science, United States House of Representatives, Space Policy and Space Tourism, June 26, 2001)
http://www.cato.org/testimony/ct-eh062601.html

You said "In fact, Energia cannot supply a fully crewed ISS, as witnessed by the reduction of crew from three to two while the shuttle was grounded." The full web of international agreements and barter arrangements that govern the ISS program is Byzantine at best, so let's just say the opposite is also true: had the Progress stood down for the same period as the Shuttle, then ISS might have reentered (Shuttle cannot bring propellant to ISS, and its ISS Prop Module was cancelled years ago).

But I don't understand what either of those issues have to do with commercial resupply of ISS, as you said "This group wants a law passed to force NASA to buy ISS support services from private companies," which was the original subject. Are you saying that RSC-E cannot support western commercial ventures?

Next you say "The most successful and consistent launch vehicles out there are the Arianne rockets, run by the European Space Agency, which (and I may be mistaken here) is not private enterprise."

You are indeed mistaken. Leaving aside an entire other debate on what a "private company" means in Europe vs. the U.S., Ariane rockets are launched by Arianespace, not ESA: "In 1980, ESA entrusted the production, marketing and operation of the Ariane launchers to a ***private industrial company*** [emphasis mine. BM], Arianespace."
http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Launchers_Europe_s_Spaceport/ASE7EOI4HNC_0.html

You say "My point that I make over and over (but evidently not clearly) is that privately funded space efforts do not involve innovation or improved methods."

From Sea Launch to SpaceShipOne, from HS-702 to AMSAT, privately funded space efforts involve both innovation and improved methods. But since they don't seem to meet your criteria, exactly what specific kinds of innovations are you looking for from the private sector vs. the government?

You say "taking funding away from research to give it to private groups"

It is the contention of groups like the Space Frontier Foundation that one purpose for having NASA buy services for routine operations is in fact to allow them to focus better use of their resources (money, people, etc.) on research, to allow them to go back to the Moon and onto Mars.

You say "few of whom are actually doing anything that will prove to be useful to humanity in the long or short run, isn't going to promote innovation."

I'll leave the value judgement of "useful" aside for perhaps a later comment, but as one example of innovation, in a previous message I said about SpaceShipOne: "As far as I know, the US govt. did not invent the wing/tailboom "feather" maneuver, nor the composite materials of SpaceShipOne, nor the hybrid rocket engines that was used."

There is plenty of innovation out there in the private sector, they just don't have the PR budget of NASA to tout it. Just 2 example are:
http://www.flometrics.com/rockets/rocket_pump/rocketpump.htm
&
http://www.xcor.com/pump.html

As patent disclosures based on previous years of work and other releases of info start surfacing from this community, I believe the level of innovation -- both traditional and "disruptive" -- will become apparent.

Years ago I remember a NASA/JPL press release touting their new "best-dressed" spacecraft and the work going on to put Multi-Layer Insulation (MLI) thermal blankets on it up in Pasadena. Down in El Segundo, I then walked down to the high-bays in S10 at Hughes Space & Comm., and saw several birds being outfitted with the same MLI technology, but with no press release. Did that make the MLI that HSC was using inferior somehow? No, just less well known.

You note "But, how's this for examples about others? Ares, the launch vehicle for the CEV, is going to be covered by – are you ready for this? -- the same foam that comes off the shuttle tank in chunks. Under-engineering? I call that no engineering."

Since the issue was "free enterprise supporters want a pile of taxpayer dollars to kickstart their own underfunded, under-researched, under-engineered abortive efforts", I need to ask: what is the free enterprise participation in Ares? If there is none, then this point is not germane to the discussion.

You say "He chides my comments about Bigelow's space hotel. I'm sorry, Mr. Muniz, I've yet to read anything about it that indicates that it marks any major step forward from the Echo launches to which you refer. Yes, Echo had no internal structures or subsystems. As far as I know, neither does Bigelow's balloon. There was some mention of a camera system, but I have yet to see any pictures. Beyond that, there are apparently no major internal operating systems."

Note especially the interior shots that were released on 07/28/2006:
http://www.bigelowaerospace.com/out_there/index.php

Genesis I is not a simple balloon like Echo.

In fact, by carrying the powered NASA/ARC GeneBox experiment inside, this is a real-world example of a US commercial company using a Russian LV to help NASA in its research:
http://www.astrobiology.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=20368
&
http://www.astrobiology.com/news/viewnews.html?id=1147

Bigelow took NASA-funded inflatable structures technology (although L'Garde http://www.lgarde.com/index.html and ILC Dover http://www.ilcdover.com/products/aerospace_defense/spaceinflatables.htm have also advanced the technology) and put it to their own commercial use.

Based on what I thought I understood about your position, I thought this would in fact be something you would support, not denigrate.

Off-topic, you say "Boy, two against one. And I'll bet they're twenty years younger than I am, too."

I'm not sure if this is just a joke, or a veiled ad hominem attack (http://www.carlsagan.com/revamp/carlsagan/baloney.html) meant to imply that I don't have as much knowledge in this field as you do.

If it's the latter, then you should know that I have been working in the aerospace industry for 24 years, and that per you Blogger bio I'm only 10 years younger than you.

If it's the former, then I'll say that since Al's about my age, then *combined* we're 20 years younger. :-)

Lastly, let me echo one of Al's clarifications and say that while I identified myself in my 1st post as "Chief Technical Officer of CSI, a former member of the Board of the Space Frontier Foundation, and a current Advocate of that group", I am speaking just for myself with my comments, and not for any organization I may be affiliated with.

Ben