Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Response to a Response about SFF – Part 2

Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons. ~R. Buckminster Fuller

In Part 1, I began my response to Mr. Benigno Muniz Jr., Chief Technical Officer of CSI, whose owner is a member of the Space Frontier Foundation's board, who posted a comment to my rant about the SFF and private enterprise space efforts in general. I'm sorry to take so many words to do this, but his post was not one of those “you're an idiot” sorts of comments that often appear in blogs, so it deserves something more than a “well you're one, too, nyah, nyah, nyah” in return.

He and Dr. Alfred Differ have both posted additional comments since the ones that prompted all this verbiage on my part. Saturday, I hope to do a sort of wrap on this that takes those comments and any others they post in the meanwhile into account.

And thanks to Dr. Differ for putting a link on his blog to Explorations.

I left off at the Bigelow inflatable device, so let's move along.

Mr. Muniz allows that I may have a point when I described the flawed launch of Falcon I, but he goes on to say, “ I imagine the same things were being said as NASA struggled with its Vanguard program.” You bet they did. In fact, “they” (including a young kid in Ohio named Gog who didn't even know good cuss words yet) said much worse things. But, we should clarify something. Vanguard was a Navy project, just as Jupiter and Explorer were Army efforts. In fact, Vanguard was selected as the first U.S. satellite launch attempt in 1955, by the Ad Hoc Committee on Special Capabilities. NASA as NASA didn't yet exist and wasn't formed (from the old NACA) until 1958 by President Eisenhower.

But for a modern rocketry company to make mistakes on a par with the earliest days of space launches is inexcusable.

Mr. Muniz then turns to my concerns about the Russians selling EVA's. He compares it to the risks someone takes scuba diving. I'm sorry, but that's a bit short of the mark. The more apt comparison is to think of someone with minimal training paying to accompany a trained diver to the Andrea Doria wreck. We're not talking about a 20 foot dive in clear waters off Mexico; we're talking about a dangerous situation where a mistake on the part of the novice could kill people.

He then states that my mention of the Russian commercial launch in no way denigrates the Soyuz return capsule. True, although my point was about the trustworthiness of the complete systems, not just the capsule. As to SpaceShipOne, yes, Mr. Muniz, the government did (via the Defense Department) develop the composite materials. As to the wing-tilt mechanism, I'll give Mr. Rutan that, but that's pretty small potatoes compared to all the technology he borrowed.

Ironically, he then agrees with me on the one point I keep driving home. He says, “The US commercial launch vehicle industry that NASA uses today (see link above) got its start with technology developed under govt. contract.” Isn't that what I've been saying?

He takes issue with a few of my comments about CSI board members. No, Mr. Muniz, I didn't mean to imply that you took your name from the TV show; I'm just tired of seeing those initials everywhere I turn. That's no fault of yours, and I apologize if you found that insulting. He also takes exception with some of my snarky comments about the founders and board of SFF, which he is entitled to do. I could answer each of them, but I'd just get snarky again. Suffice it to say that I linked to the SFF site to allow anyone to make up their own mind about whether “these people bring much more to the discussion of space than your brief summary would indicate.” I can't say that I think they do, but that's my opinion.

Mr. Muniz reminds us that the mission of SFF “contains the phrase 'opening the space frontier to human settlement as rapidly as possible'...” Vision statements are lovely. Actions like taking NASA's budget to create space flights for millionaire tourists has little to do with human settlement. He further says, “I believe the emerging private space companies merely want NASA to expand what it already does in commercial launch services. I also know of no space company that is seeking to kill off their customers.”

In other words, SFF wants more money to go to commercial space flight even if it means curtailing scientific research and development of new systems. Intentionally kill off science programs? No. But, the SFF and others supporting the government funding know that it's essentially an either-or situation.

Mr. Muniz, I do believe in free enterprise. But I don't believe in corporate welfare. The American business community which once gave us Bell Labs and Xerox Parc now gives us one money-grabbing scam after another. The great corporate research facilities are essentially dead as our business leaders look only to short-term gain. The long-range thinkers like Henry Ford and Tom Watson (who were certainly no angels) are gone. The SFF seems to represent that part of the current corporate culture that screams about the need for free enterprise and a competitive environment while jumping at federal contracts, begging for corporate welfare, and killing competition wherever possible.

Just to make it abundantly clear, here are my problems with the current approach to space flight, whether based on NASA efforts or commercial efforts.
  1. Reuse of out-of-gate technology is like hitching a horse in front of a Ferrari. It looks pretty, but it doesn't run very well.

  2. All of the grandiose visions all boil down to the same thing: Let's do what we already did the same way we did it. You can attach a Mars mission to it, but it won't succeed using Apollo, Soyuz, or Vanguard methods.

  3. Space flight is too complex and costly to succeed as a private enterprise project at this point. Corporations in competition do not share research and engineering resources, leaving each one to reinvent the wheel (or use old technology).
If groups like SFF were pushing people like George W. Bush to think in terms of saving humanity (by giving us a an alternative future should Earth become endangered) instead of lobbying for their own business interests, they'd be doing a service to all of us (and still making money through government contracts).

Private enterprise can fly us to New York, deliver packages, and sell us all sorts of useful things. But, we have planet-wide problems that need planet-wide cooperation. Exploring the cosmos can be a way of bringing us together to do these things.

Mr. Muniz, we aren't going to agree on much except that NASA's current direction of space flight is to nowhere. Perhaps the SFF and groups like it will manage to make a difference. Frankly, I doubt it, but I would be thrilled to be proved wrong.

Sacrificing my ego would be a minuscule price to pay.

4 comments:

adiffer said...

There comes a point in history where a technology becomes generally available to innovative minds and they don't really have to give credit to the technologies creators. If I use a lathe while machining a new part I can say that I did and all of us old enough to remember the days before lathes can remark on how it would not have been possible before such and such, but in the end the innovation is mine.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants and I won't detract from the miracles wrought by previous generations. However, I won't linger long on them either. That is work for historians. We must make the future.

Carbon composites and other fiber lay-up technologies are now old enough to be part of the economic main stream. I no longer have to spend astronomical sums to or go to specialists for the bulk of what I need for our airship. Several sectors have picked up the good ideas and carried them forward besides aerospace. I can almost pop down to the corner store and buy what I need to manufacture the parts I want. I actually prefer to go online, of course, as I get a better selection and materials designed for what I need.

The world is moving rapidly forward. We all leverage the past and the work of our neighbors. That doesn't diminish our work or make it less capable of making the future we want.

I think it is a mistake to think that the best future will be created by new technology. I have no doubt that some new technology will be needed to open the space frontier, but I'll bet a lot of it will be viewed as old tech. In fact, I'm betting everything on that.

The Gog said...

In my ranting, I've probably given the impression that all old technology is a bad thing. That's not what I meant to imply. Composites are great, and certainly mark an improvement over aluminum or titanium.

But, propulsion systems are still as they were in the V2. By extension, you could argue that the materials that made up the V2 are even more readily available, so why not use them?

Innovation is desperately needed in propulsion, in space station design, in re-entry methods (although one of the few interesting aspects of SpaceShipOne was its re-entry modes, so maybe there's some hope there).

Leveraging the past is good. But abandoning innovation to lean on the past, which has become a common mode of operation over the last twenty years, is a bad omen for our survivability.

I've gone on about this before. For examples, see this
or this.

Most telling of all, last year Jonathon Huebner did a study that indicates that we are in a stagnant period for innovation. His conclusions can be debated, but I find them compelling and worrisome.

I'll try to focus on this in my grand finale on Saturday.

adiffer said...

I know the guy who flew the porta-john. He also has a serious side and tried to fly the first amateur rocket into space (100km). We debate whether he made it on his last flight, but there is no doubt he was serious about it.

My first 10 years doing this stuff was with JP Aerospace. We fashioned our own scratch-built airframe, integrated commercial GPS and amateur radio equipment, and contracted for the 54,000 N-s engines (and larger) that we used. The ML rocket we built was designed for a "P" and would easily pass 200 km in altitude if launched from a balloon platform at about 30 km. There are obvious regulatory issues with that approach, so we began work on a high altitude airship to act as a remote launch pad. Some of what we did used the old technology and some of it fashioned new stuff, so you might see why I don't worry too much about the distinctions.

Nowadays, I am with General Orbital and I'm trying to pursue similar ideas from an entirely commercial perspective. The airships alone should be able to derive enough revenue to finance further work. When that happens, though, we intend to attach the rocket engines to special airships and see how high and how far we can go. My numbers suggest we should be able to put things in orbit with the right engines and the right floating platforms. I like the flying balloon idea for other reasons too, though, because they will slow down much higher up than a conventional capsule shaped like a rock. 8)

Innovation is occuring and I would argue that you may not be in a position to know it. My friends are, though. Some of us have some crazy ideas that are a mix of old and new and we are trying to get them funded. In the end, though, it only works if we have customers. Investors are justifiably wary of 'gee-whiz' ideas when they can't see who would buy them.

Benigno Muniz Jr. said...

A Response to a Response about SFF ­ Part 2

"Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons. ~R. Buckminster Fuller"

vs.

"While civilization is more than a high material living standard it is nevertheless based on material abundance. It does not thrive on abject poverty or in an atmosphere of resignation and hopelessness. Therefore, the end objectives of solar system exploration are social objectives, in the sense that they relate to or are dictated by present and future human needs.” - Lunar colonization visionary Kraft Ehricke in 1970
http://www.sylviaengdahl.com/space/quotes.htm

John, or Mr. Goff, whichever you prefer,

As you said "I doubt that we'll come to a consensus, but a healthy debate never hurt anyone." Perhaps that will be one of the few things we agree about. A good debate is like teaching, forcing one to re-examine their knowledge of a subject to make sure it's as good as they think. But as much as I'm enjoying this, I have to say that it seems you and I are meant to be reasonable people who disagree.

Part of our disagreement may lie in our different understanding of facts. Let me again try to point out some that illuminate rather that just support my position.

You write: "He compares it [EVA] to the risks someone takes scuba diving. I'm sorry, but that's a bit short of the mark. The more apt comparison is to think of someone with minimal training paying to accompany a trained diver to the Andrea Doria wreck. We're not talking about a 20 foot dive in clear waters off Mexico; we're talking about a dangerous situation where a mistake on the part of the novice could kill people."

We both said the same thing. Please re-read what I wrote: ". . . vs. the risks that private individuals undertake daily around the world in the ***technical*** [note that word. BM] scuba diving community. Mistakes in both environments can be fatal." Perhaps you are unaware, but "technical diving" is that community's term for what people do at dive sites like the Andrea Doria, the cenotes of Mexico, the various "Blue Holes," etc. As both a PADI-certified open water diver and aerospace engineer, I would never mistake the risks of recreational scuba with those of EVA. This comparable risk issue goes back to your comment about the astronauts "hoping against hope that he ["some rich dude on a tether"] doesn't break something or get them all killed."

You wrote: "He then states that my mention of the Russian commercial launch in no way denigrates the Soyuz return capsule. True, although my point was about the trustworthiness of the complete systems, not just the capsule."

Again, as I said, when one type of commercial plane crashes it does not ground the entire industry.
http://www.airsafe.com/events/last_15.htm

As a systems engineer, let me say that one has to be careful about where you draw the boundary around the "complete system" being assessed. If you're claiming that Russian systems in general are not "trustworthy", the western commercial satellite industry has launched > $9.7 billion (FY2006 USD) in satellite assets on Russian and/or Ukrainian vehicles since Astra 1F on 9 April 1996 (by my inexact count.)

You wrote "As to SpaceShipOne, yes, Mr. Muniz, the government did (via the Defense Department) develop the composite materials."

Note: I did not say that the govt did not develop some composites -- in fact, I worked on the DARPA/USAF/NASA/Grumman X-29, which made extensive use of composites. But although SS1 used high-temperature composites in the rocket motor, the airframe itself is made of conventional graphite-epoxy composites: http://www.aiaa.org/aerospace/images/articleimages/pdf/sweetmanjanuary04.pdf

Who did what in the history of composite materials is a tangled web between the DoD, NASA, and private sector researchers:
http://www.tms.org/pubs/journals/JOM/9602/Scala-9602.html

But it's pretty clear that composites industry itself has its roots in the private sector: "Although composite materials had been known in various forms throughout the history of mankind, the history of modern composites probably began in 1937 when salesmen from the Owens Corning Fiberglass Company began to sell fiberglass to interested parties around the United States."
http://mlf.byu.edu/pages/papers/viewPaper.php?id=181

Certainly the DoD and NASA did a lot in this field, in fact some real pioneering research:
http://oea.larc.nasa.gov/PAIS/Concept2Reality/composites.html.

But Rutan himself notes that the inspiration for his early work in composites came from the surfboard and small boat communities use of those materials, e.g. http://www.speedace.info/composites.htm.

So unless you can point to the specific government invention of the actual composite materials used on SS1 -- without any other commercial involvement -- then the general history of the technology and the specific history of Scaled Composites suggests otherwise.

Also, the mere existence of a technology does not mean that an engineering team can effectively use it if they are not intimately familiar with it. This is the fallacy about things like "we built the F-1 engine, we can do it again." I have seen personally that the knowledge to build complex systems is never fully captured in process documentation, key experiences on how to really do it and why to do things a certain way always resides in the grey matter. In systems engineering speak, it is not merely the requirements that are important, it is the rationale for that specific set of requirements.

You say "As to the wing-tilt mechanism, I'll give Mr. Rutan that, but that's pretty small potatoes compared to all the technology he borrowed."

"Small potatoes" for solving the reentry heating profile problem so that high-temp composites were not needed on the airframe and simultaneously eliminating the ACS failure mode that resulted in one of the X-15 crashes by applying a technique from free-flight model airplanes to a full-scale manned vehicle? Well engineering is as much art as science, and not everyone appreciates the same artists or musicians. But even though I prefer the Dutch masters myself, but I can acknowledge that many experts in the field appreciate the work of Picasso.

Not counting Rutan's numerous personal awards, SS1 and its team won the 2004 National Aeronautic Association (NAA) Robert J. Collier Trophy "for the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America” for that year, and the National Air and Space Museum Trophy for Current Achievement, the Aviation Week & Space Technology Current Achievement Award, Popular Science 2003 Best Of What's New Grand Award Winner, a California Space Authority 2004 SpotBeam Award, and yes, the Space Frontier Foundation's 2004 "Vision to Reality Award.” It would seem that other people consider SS1 to be "big potatoes."

The simulator is an often-overlooked aspect of the SS1 tech development effort: "... Tighe then wrote his own computer program for use in a special SS1 simulator where the test pilots would train before flying the vehicle for real. Actually, he had to write the program because no commercial program existed."
http://www.designnews.com/article/CA507788.html

With regard to "all the technology he borrowed," Aviation Week said "The rocket engine that powered SpaceShipOne marked the culmination of more than a decade of ***commercial development*** [emphasis mine BM]. It traces its heritage back to the old American Rocket Co. (Amroc), a private firm that tried to build a purely commercial satellite launcher in the early 1990s. That effort ended in bankruptcy, but some of the technology developed by Amroc found its way into SpaceShipOne."
http://aviationnow.com/media/pdf/SSOneCollierSPOT.pdf

One could argue that the development of the propulsion technology was ***the*** key driver in their program, but it was certainly in the top 2 or 3 problems they had to solve.

You write "Ironically, he then agrees with me on the one point I keep driving home. He says, “The US commercial launch vehicle industry that NASA uses today (see link above) got its start with technology developed under govt. contract.” Isn't that what I've been saying?"

I have not advocated the halting of government-funded research. What I have said is that flying cargo to space for NASA is not a technology issue, it's a service issue.

With regards to who the Foundation is, in particular it's Board, I said “these people bring much more to the discussion of space than your brief summary would indicate” to which you replied "I can't say that I think they do, but that's my opinion." I'm not sure what qualifications you think would be valid, but since Jeff has one of the few personal websites directed at this issue, I suggest you peruse http://www.jeffkrukin.com/client_quotes.htm, http://www.jeffkrukin.com/awards.htm, and other pages at his site to get more info on his credentials than just the brief bio on the Foundation's website.

You say "Mr. Muniz reminds us that the mission of SFF “contains the phrase 'opening the space frontier to human settlement as rapidly as possible'...” Vision statements are lovely."

But my comment was in direct response to your statement of "There's no vision beyond tossing people into low orbit for large amounts of money." I could hardly refute your statement about their vision without actually talking about their stated vision, could I?

You write "actions like taking NASA's budget to create space flights for millionaire tourists has little to do with human settlement."

When they traveled across the American prairies, the settlers did not have to buy their Conestoga wagons from the government. Is it reasonable to expect that human settlement of space will rely on government-provided transportation, when everyday life here tells us different? If human settlement of space is to occur, what role do you think that the private sector should actually play?

You write "In other words, SFF wants more money to go to commercial space flight even if it means curtailing scientific research and development of new systems. Intentionally kill off science programs? No. But, the SFF and others supporting the government funding know that it's essentially an either-or situation.

I'll note that NASA's been talking about cutting funding for ISS science in response to their Moon & Mars program development, not because of the multi-year COTS program that's currently given less that 1% of their annual budget. And if private sector initiatives can reduce the cost to NASA, either through innovation or through spreading of costs among multiple customer communities, wouldn't that be a good thing?

You write "Mr. Muniz, I do believe in free enterprise. But I don't believe in corporate welfare."

This is the crux of the issue: is the commercial launch industry that NASA now uses to place their unmanned satellites into space "corporate welfare"? If it is, then what solution do you propose other than socialism? If it is not "corporate welfare," then what is wrong with extending this to NASA's use of other space transportation services?

You write: "The American business community which once gave us Bell Labs and Xerox Parc now gives us one money-grabbing scam after another. The great corporate research facilities are essentially dead as our business leaders look only to short-term gain."

Privately-funded Bell Labs, which won more Nobel Prizes than NASA, was not broken up by their business leaders -- it was broken up by the US govt. I am actually in favor of greatly expanding the incentives for people and businesses to keep their own money so they can use it for the research they want, such as:
http://www.keckobservatory.org/article.php?id=85

BTW, PARC remains "a wholly owned subsidiary of Xerox Corporation" http://www.xerox.com/innovation/parc.shtml, so they are still with us.

You write "The long-range thinkers like Henry Ford and Tom Watson (who were certainly no angels) are gone."

There are quite a few in the emerging space industry. For example, Elon Musk got into the launch business because he wants to fly his own missions to Mars. That seems to me to be a long-range plan.

You write: "Reuse of out-of-gate technology is like hitching a horse in front of a Ferrari. It looks pretty, but it doesn't run very well."

Yet not only does such technology still do the job well enough in the commercial satellite industry, you denigrate those people actually doing new things (ref: your comments about Bigelow & SS1). You can't have it both ways.

You write "Space flight is too complex and costly to succeed as a private enterprise project at this point."

Assuming you mean just human spaceflight, you also seem to be in favor of restricting access to markets that would generate revenue to fund more tech. development. How do you see "too complex ... at this point" becoming "possible today"? What is your plan to reduce the costs of getting to orbit, and how does the philosophy of that plan fit in with what has succeeded here on Earth?

You write "Corporations in competition do not share research and engineering resources, leaving each one to reinvent the wheel (or use old technology)."

As I said earlier, if you'd look around, you'd see that private space has plenty of innovation. In the computer industry, arguably one of the most competitive yet inventive industries in the history of mankind, and from which many of today's space entrepreneurs come from, there was a term called "co-opetition" http://mayet.som.yale.edu/coopetition/index2.html. Many of the players in the "new space" field seem to have embraced aspects of that.

"If groups like SFF were pushing people like George W. Bush to think in terms of saving humanity (by giving us a an alternative future should Earth become endangered) instead of lobbying for their own business interests, they'd be doing a service to all of us (and still making money through government contracts)."

You may disagree with the technologies being proposed, but to say that the Foundation is not "think in terms of saving humanity" is quite uninformed, e.g.:
http://www.space-frontier.org/Projects/spacesolarpower/
&
http://www.space-frontier.org/Projects/TheWatch/
etc.

You write "Private enterprise can fly us to New York, deliver packages, and sell us all sorts of useful things."

It also delivers NASA and commercial satellites to orbit. Can it then can it be allowed to deliver cargo to ISS?

You say "I am not opposed to free enterprise." Yet you seem to be against every example of free enterprise in space, and I have yet to find you support any concrete idea in that area. You seem to be fine with NASA paying contractors to build and fly NASA-designed rockets, but against NASA using commercial ones.

Unfortunately, more mundane tasks, like work, are calling me.

So let me end for now by saying that I was enamored of the space program when I was a child, and my real inspiration for working in this field was learning in college about the ideas put forth by groups like the L-5 Society, the idea of mining asteroids, and the promise of technologies like space solar power. But I have come by my views on commercial space development having spent 24 years professionally in this industry, at both large and small companies, on military, NASA and commercial projects, and seeing what works in the real-world.

I'll leave the debate for now with the following thought:

"Will the drive for space push mankind into a steel trap of regimentation, or will it open up new vistas of creativity and freedom? Will the new, larger world of the future, with its boundaries moving out to the other planets and beyond, be a free world or a regimented world?

The answer to this question, the heritage we leave our children, will be determined to a large degree by how the United States -- the world's leading industrial nation -- goes about the exploration and development of space. If we go at it by the route of regimentation and government enterprise, if we allow the communist powers to establish our course, patterns will be set that will be almost impossible to break. On the other hand, if we use the strength of competitive private enterprise, we will not only develop faster, but will help to assure that the world of our children will be a free world, honoring the dignity and creativity of man."

-- Ralph J. Cordiner, Chairman of the Board, General Electric Company, "Competitive Private Enterprise in Space", lecture given at UCLA, 4 May 1960.

Unfortunately, those patterns were set, but today people are trying to break them. Poor Ralph Cordiner; how much fun he could have had in this emerging space industry.

Ad Astra Per Aspera Nostrum,

Ben