Monday, August 18, 2008

The Little Man

So I've been reading, finally, about something called Direct 2.0.

It is not a piece of software. Rather, it is an attempt to re-architect (yes, that is a valid use of the word "architect." I know, even a linguistic curmudgeon like me will accept the verbing of nouns in an appropriately aerospace context) the deeply flawed plan to return people to the moon that NASA has drawn up in the past few years. It was begat by some guys I hang out in newsgroups with. Newsgroups, you know, those internet communities that I usually rail against ("Its all been downhill since AOL gave the hoi polloi access..."). But this one is something special -- nasaspaceflight.com. Together with virtual sister site unmannedspaceflight.com these two are the places I hang out when I want to hear real spaceflight professionals argue and/or get the inside scoop/speculation on what is going on Out There...

DIRECT_CLV_T+091.jpgDirect 2.0 is an interesting plan to take the same basic ground rules that the Constellation office bungled into the Orion capsule and the Aries booster family: re-use hardware, be fast, be cheap, be safe, be political. For some reason, they appear to make work what ATK and the guys at JSC have turned into one of the most profound cases of "throwing good money after bad" that I've seen since Pets.com collapsed. Now granted, when it first showed up on ATK's website, the Aries idea, the stick and the...well...whatever the other thing is called...seemed like potentially elegant approaches to getting people into space. And since the my, oh my, what a pattern of unrelenting growth and going-to-hell-ness. For the big boy, four engines...then five...now six...and ever more segments into the solid rocket motors. For the stick first rampant weight growth, then the oddly Mercury/Redstone like non-sustainable orbit that requires a service module boost almost immediately after separation, and now the crisis of ensuring that the astronauts are not jiggled into jelly by some sort of multi-million dollar paintshaker. Solve by...what...putting the parachutes on springs so they damp out the oscillations? OK, I'm perfectly comfortable with the theory and accept that the paradamper is a better idea that the absurd notion of the highly scarfed OMS engines firing in time to damp the oscillations, but this sort of solution is what I'm using to prevent my washing machine from shaking the house when it hits a spin cycle.

I'd like a little more robust planning going into my rockets, thank you very much!

And all of this -- weight growth. And no margins to begin with, so the moment Orion swelled at all...well...the rest is well documented in the PowerPoints you can download from nasaspaceflight.com. I'll leave it at that.

So some guys on the board got together and tossed out some ideas and did two things: they re-architected the overall plan and then they developed a new vehicle (singular) to support it. The result is, generally, a whole lot more elegant and efficient and cost effective. I'll be cynical enough to say "it'll suffer the same growth and problems as Aries did as it transitioned from ATK paper study to possible flight hardware." And I believe it will -- but the crucial difference is that the guys behind Direct 2.0 actually have enough margin to accommodate the unexpected without the whole thing turning brittle and shattering into a million thrust-oscination-induced pieces.

Direct 2.0 (and I'm intentionally avoiding a long, technical discussion of the designs and their merits) also has the look-and-feel of something well conceived and well planned. It does not have the square-peg-round-hole feel that the Aries rockets do. It smacks of actual synergy in the design.

Now here's the crux of the thing: it doesn't take a genius to see that there are some deep flaws in NASA's current plans. But government agencies are notorious for not wanting to admit that they Had A Bad Idea and then needing to go back and rework things. But we are about to have a presidential election. And those inflection points can be useful. Either of the two incoming presidents has the positioning that they could mandate a re-examination (and in the background mandate the change) of NASA's space exploration architecture. McCain's the rebel (after a career in the Navy?), Obama's the change guy. Either one can pull off a dramatic shift in space strategy (either one is likely to do so, actually, though not necessarily at the level I am advocating) while staying true to image and policy statements. In reality, Direct 2.0 wouldn't really change the suppliers at all, its just a loss of face at NASA.

So whomever you end up being, Mr. President, take advantage of the demise of the Bush regime and among the changes you make in the direction of American space exploration (many of which, whomever you end up being, I fear I will not like). Pick a decent, robust, well planned approach to getting people into space. Even if the whole Moon thing falls apart (as it probably will) or the Mars thing falls apart (as it almost assuredly will), we'll end up with a decent, supportable way to put Things And People Into Space. And I wouldn't like to lose that capability, subcontracting it to other nations and entirely sacrificing an enormous (and hard to recover) body of institutional knowledge.

Regarding institutionalized knowledge -- just look at SpaceX. They can read the same textbooks and technical papers as the guys at Lockheed Martin and end up 0-for-3. That's experience, judgement, and culture talking. That's what you loose when you stop building something for too long.

orion_landing_system.jpgBut above the practical NASA-like issues here, there is a phenomenal message that an official endorsement of Direct 2.0 would send. It would signify, perhaps more than anything, the Coming Of The Internet. The flattening of the world that has been written about so often would splash down in the waters of the American space program. Already us out there on the Internet have helped out those who will listen, starting with the incomparable Alan Stern and his New Horizons team who gratefully accepted the suggestions of several fans as to how to construct the Kodak Moment shots as their little probe sped through the Jovian system.

2216891305_e71caf2ab7.jpgThe science team was understandable busy focusing on the real scientific observations. Knowing this, they listened when folks at home punched the probe's trajectory data into computer simulators and came up with the times and pointing angles necessary to get the spectacular shots of Jupiter and its moons that made the front pages. The tools are no longer beyond the reach of the ordinary, interested, outsider. The interest has always been there. If you will let us in, you'll find that we are not just a nuisance but a powerful, useful force. Welcome us.

New Horizons gave us the tools we needed, we offered suggestions, they listened. The result was synergy -- very happy amateurs (all any of us on that board want to do is to get to do what Alan and his team do!). Great PR photos -- and great PR about the outreach and inclusion.

What kind of an upset would it make, what kind of an "Only In America" free-enterprise message would it send if a few folks using freely available data and commercially available software designed the method that this nation uses to get into space?

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