Saturday, October 24, 2009

space crises now and in the past

I have heard a lot of people trying, and failing, to "sell space" this past month.
In situations where even if they "succeeded," they would have failed to really advance the cause of human
settlement of space. This reminds me of another life story. Ken Cox has urged me to write up
at least a few of the wild personal experiences which have influenced my life and plans... so OK..
maybe just one more. It's just my point of view of what I experienced.... and then I'll mention
how it shapes my views of where we are today. Please forgive if your experience has been different.


What I tell children...

(1): NASA once decided it would build the fastest airplane ever in history -- Mach 6 in
a true airplane. But how? One man, who ran an engine department, proposed that we build an engine without a body.
A woman, who ran a body department, proposed that we build a body without an engine. A friend of mine,
whom many called "the last technical guy in NASA headquarters," suggested the esoteric idea that maybe we need an engine and a body both.
Congress chewed him out for trying to micromanage the fine people in the NASA labs, and had him purged.
Then the woman with the body won, and....

(2) At the big AIAA conference on hypersonics, in Chattanooga that year, there was a large but closed meeting
in which the leaders of all the world's hypersonic development programs presented their progress. Most of the national representatives,
like the Germans and French, were very upset that all they had to offer were paper studies or limited experiments; no one had funding still to
actually build an airplane. The great exceptions were the US and Japan. Representing the US was a small local company which
had got started on funding from me at NSF, which had a flyable Mach 6 body -- but no engine. Representing Japan was the "Atrex" engine,
designed by a visiting Russian guy to go from Mach 0 to Mach 6 IN ONE ENGINE. The Japanese in their talk stated that their number
one problem now was: "How to test the engine. Do we put on top of a railroad car, or shoot it out somehow, or put it on a fast moving string?
If anyone has ideas, please tell us; it is a big problem." The US team said: "We have a real problem here with how to test this Mach 6 airframe.
We have found a place in Oshkosh which makes small engines for lawn mowers and model aircraft. We can use it to test stability
and control at low speeds, which is really a central issue with this kind of body, but the special Mach 6 capability is hard to test right now."

So -- sitting in the back of the room, I summoned up the courage to raise my hand: "Please excuse me... I am not an aerospace engineer, but I have a question.
If YOUR big problem (pointing to Japanese) is how to test your engine, and YOUR biggest problem is how to test your body at Mach 6... has anyone
considered putting the engine in the body to test them both?" What a breakthrough! What out of the box thinking! Great excitement in the room.
Everyone adjourns, with some joy, to the restaurant, where members of the Japanese and US teams and I sat in the tables in the front area...
But then, the lead public relations guy for the (then defunct) NASP program strode in with a military bearing and looked down on us all and said...
"You all have been engaging in SPECULATION." (People started visibly squirming and twitching. It reminded me of the Congressman who won an election once by
accusing his opponent of matriculation.) "How do you even know whether this engine would even fit in that body? Until that issue
has been proven, anyone who even talks about this is engaging in SPECULATION, and you know what happens to people who do that..."
(People started looking really terrified, and edged away from me, and looked at me with expressions saying: "Why did you do this to us? We are in trouble...")
Since people were looking at me, I replied: "There is no real need for you to just speculate about this. You say you want to know whether the engine
fits in the body or not. Didn't I just see some exact blueprints, showing just how big the airframe and the engine are supposed to be? Wouldn't it
be posisble just to compare the blueprints, to see if there would be a fit? Don't you have them right here?" Wow -- another breakthrough, and
more excitement. Especially more excitement when it turned out that it would be an exact fit, between the full-scale 23 foot version of the body
and the engine. It would take maybe $3 million, they said, to make the full-scale 23 foot metal version of the airframe (I can't help thinking $30 million
really) ... and then we could have real flights at Mach 6, maybe within a year or two... still in the twentieth century. The Japanese and the SAir Force started to discuss scheduling details to
get this started.

But then another guy stood up... not so military, cooler and suaver, with darker flashing eyes... "Hold on a minute here. You guys are engaging
in international negotiations on a matter of top level importance. You know what that means, don't you? As it happens, I am a Friend of Bill.
The White House is very, very concerned about making sure that we don't just sell our shirt in deals with Japan. In any case, you wouldn't want
to be caught making deals with Japan that haven't gone through White House approval, would you? Before you do anything at all
related to this, you need to wait until we have a meeting at OSTP. And no one (he looks at me) will be invited except at White House choice."
(No red herrings like this to be introduced from outsiders like me. No out of the box thinking allowed.) Out of the closed door
meeting came the verdict -- to use a Japanese engine would be an insult to the fine aerospace companies we have in the US. We will do the project, eventually...
but we will wait for the US companies to develop their own Mach 6 engine. And of course we are basically still waiting....
we successfully defended ourselves against the threat from Japan (??)...

Children wonder: "How could grown adults think it's weird or complicated to put an engine into a body? How could
they miss something so obvious?" Well, folks, I don't see that adults are any more sane today than they were then.


Of course, I have left out a lot of details and names here. I don't want to cause more
embarrassment than necessary, and I don't want to bore you with a huge volume of details.
I should note that the Japanese did not have enough knowledge of advanced control to be able to
actually run the Russian design beyond Mach 4; using our technology, we could have run it at Mach 6, but instead they
redesigned it (after the Russian guy left) to run at Mach 4, with their technology. DARPA did have a program to try to get to Mach 6 another way,
but recently cancelled it. The airframe did perform well at low speeds; the control demo was a kind of landmark,
and key technologies developed by that company are playing a major role, quietly, in some operational missions.
The researcher we funded who developed the ideas behind the airframe has done quite well in the meantime -- but more
so last year than this year. The guy who got purged may have been the only front-line serious engineer in HIS DIRECTORATE
at NASA HQ; he still has a job, hundreds of miles away... migrating from bodies to engines...

Earlier, in the early 1990's, I had a lot of contact with the NASP people, and the people working on NASP.
For example, the Handbook of Intelligent Control was edited by two people working at McDonnell Douglas;
see I couldn't post their chapters, by copyright law. One of the areas they studied
was Thermal Protection Systems (TPS). If NASP had lived up to initial hopes, it would have been been a real breakthrough in the cost of access to earth orbit;
however, it never "worked" even in simulation. It failed to "close on mass" because of realistic assessments of the weight of active thermal protection systems.
(NASP planned to use TPS to keep the craft from melting at Mach 20 -- a key issue.)
My friends, White and Sofge, quietly showed how they could solve this problem, by using intelligent control to manage
a lighter weight TPS, with more advanced valves. But the program got cancelled before it was possible to really explore such things,
and White found a better paying job in the microchip industry. Lightweight TPS remains an unproven idea, beyond the reach of the more usual technologies,
and would have posed problems with robustness in any case.

At the two AIAA hypersonics meetings I went to, I also did what I could to scout out who knows what. (For NSF, it is especially important
to know who would be a truly expert reviewer... and of course, it's nice to know where the new ideas can be trusted. And to inform people
of funding opportunities.) At one of these meetings, I met Ramon Chase, who emerged as perhaps the very top thinker in the network
of really serious thinkers... connected, of course, to friends who themselves are important thought-leaders and creative real-world engineers.
Ironically, at our first meeting, he warned me to be on guard with respect to women like a certain woman I was then beginning to
get close to... who is now my wife. That's a fun story too, but neither here nor there. It reminds me that we can disagree with someone on one issue,
without losing general respect or respect for their skills in other areas. (By the way, the Friend of Bill warned me too. "You could have a great job
in our White House group, if you would just give up on her." They even introduced me to a certain beautiful conservative woman in Alaska...)


We are still stuck with "engines without bodies" and "bodies without engines" even today. Short of hope for "divine intervention," it now looks
more than 90% likely to me now that humans will never be able to settle any part of space because of what this does to us.

Bernard Shaw once said: "The reasonable man adapts to his environment. The unreasonable man adapts his environment to him. Therefore, all progress depends
on the unreasonable men." Our best remaining hope for humans to ever settle space lies in that small minority who would be willing to buck the
flow of local social pressures (pressures WITHIN the space community) to try to sell engines without bodies and so on. The rational man, unlike the reasonable man,
maximizes the probability that we get where we really need to go, even though it's a lot easier, socially, to join the lemmings headed over the cliff..

Ironically, the real problem is with the bodies.

Folks like SpaceX and Kistler (what's left of them) understand that re-usability is essential to whatever hope we have of getting the cost
of access to Low Eearth Orbit (LEO) down to $200 per pound, without which we simply won't have economically sustainable large-scale
energy from space. If we get all excited and psychopathic, and try to sell the lie that Space BS can be a meaningful part of the world energy economy
based on what we can do with heavy lift expendable rockets alone, we won't get anywhere.
Energy economics is not like some kind of Adam and Eve cult.
They know how to do arithmetic. If large parts of the community get great visibility as a kind of Adam and Eve cult... well, I saw what forces led people
to coin the term "space cadet," and it won't do us any good at all to get that term re-invented!!!

But re-usuability and COTs are a great step up from 100% reliance on rockets which have no hope of ever getting us to the price points we need.
George Muller's classic NASA reports from the 1960's remain valid even today... maybe even more valid now than they were then...

The hypersonics community did a whole lot better than the space community in recent years in getting more funding. Mach 6, perhaps a little more
that mach 6, is possible without TPS and without the "hot structures" we need to get to escape velocity (in reusable rockets or airplanes).
But even Mach 6 programs have died ... of political mismanagement and "greedy darts" people outsmarting themselves?
The great white hope and justification for hypersonics remains the hope of really high speeds.. which is impossible without
the advanced type of TPS ('way beyond what they are able to achieve, and risky in any case) or the very best of the old hot structures technology.
In sum -- they are actively selling engines without bodies, and getting away with it in the corrupt world we seem to live in...
even as we are very close to losing BOTH of the two hopes for having the kind of body we would need for fully reusable
airbreathers or rockets.

I am tempted to say more... the present situation also has some comic aspects... but I will refrain at least for now,
until and unless a certain kind of nonconstructive feedback appears...

The weird esoteric concepts we must learn to understand today are just as simple as the idea that we need to
have an engine in the body. We need to understand that energy from space has no hope of being "real" in the mainstream market
if it costs $1 per kilowatt hour. The only halfway serious lifecycle cost estimates say that we can get to the right neighborhood only if access to LKEO
gets to $200 per pound. We need to understand that if we crash out vehicle after just one flight, it can't ever be cheap,
any more than crashing a car after every commuite to work. We need to understand that we can't reuse a rocket or an airplane if it just melts
every time we use it. We need to understand that it WILL melt, if we do not cool it or use a body which can survive at high termpertaure ("hot structures.").

But of course... there are clever industry lobbyists looking for any angle who will try to claim they have it, who don't. The Aerospace Corporation work, for CIA,
which really tested the three leading US candiadtes for full-up hot structures -- in work which Ray Chase had 100% access to --
found that only the Boeing test article really passed all the tests. Ever. And the Wright-Patterson center (the only US place which has full testing
capabilities) confirms what Chase has told me about this. If we lose this Boeing technology -- as we are likely to VERY soon and might have already done --
and if we don't revive the POSSIBILITY of the high-risk advanced lightweight TPS --

then we melt.

And we are already far along with melting... every day that goes by...

If we win the political wars in ten years, and have no physical way to implement what we won in Congress...
we still get nowhere.

All the quantum metallurgy in the world will not help us, if we don't have the structures, and if we lose
the basic foundation which cost us billions upon billions of dollars to get. MANY billions of dollars worth of new 6-1 reserach could get us back..
if the people were honest, competent and motivated enough... but that seems much less likely right now than our remianing hopes
of reviving the Boeing hot structures technology. Not to mention the systems level technology in high-speed aerospace design,
inherited from the successful old black programs, which is also crucial even to reuasble rocketplanes. In my view, reusable
rocketplanes are basically a PREREQUISITE to any hope of reusable airbreathers. (Data and experience turn out to
be important, especially in real-world airfarme design.) And low-cost access to space is probably a prerequisite
to any real hope of (massive) "space elevators" and such.

Best of luck to us all...


Let me add that low-cost responsive space lift requires the same technology...
as does any realistic hope for human activity in space large enough to permit a real economic "takeoff effect." If the US doesn't do it.. India has the most vision of other nations here, but they can't even replicate what White and Sofge did with C-C materials, let alone the advanced Boeing technology

No comments:

Post a Comment