Friday, December 30, 2016

Trump's space policy: making Russia great again and turning US into an ant

Promise Versus Reality in Human Settlement of Space

I still have access to a huge network of technical, economic and human information
regarding space. As of the end of 2016, the information coming back points to a high probability of
a near-term disaster in that sector, where Trump may promise and sincerely try to rise to the level of John Kennedy... but then end up with a fate similar to Richard Nixon – who also had the great thrill of being elected and reelected before reality caught up with him.  My motive in writing this up is a wild hope that someone might be able to prevent disaster in time for the State of the Union speech, or at least in time for when decisions become irrevocable. Small hope? Better than nothing, but Nothing may yet come...

I wish I could explain this in a quick twitter burst. I have tried, and failed, as I will describe later.

A basic problem:  even when your car is urgently about to explode, a quick thrust of the sledge hammer won’t make things better. Here is a RELATIVELY simple picture, unfortunately the minimum needed to avoid disaster... to keep this car from exploding... I will add more detail later... even a bit on methods and sources..

1. Disaster before Trump:

Much of America’s erosion as a real great power has been due to what Trump has called “the swamp,” a system of corruption quite similar to what Ayn Rand depicted in describing Taggart’s DC operation in Atlas Shrugged.
(No, I do not believe everything in that book, and I do not believe everything in the Bible. One would have to be a total fuzzhead or schizo to believe everything in both of THOSE books! But they both have moments of intense clarity and realism. I can’t say that the Catholic Church was totally irrational when it banned public access to the Bible a few centuries ago, or that rulers of Morocco were wrong in saying that certain parts of the Koran should not be discussed with children in general.) When I was in Senator Specter’s office, as the person assigned to handle space policy in 2009, I saw first hand how the swamp creatures’ operation worked to prevent any new wave of US progress in space, getting rid of efforts to develop new high technology to max out our capabilities in space launch  in order to reduce risk, in order to get rid of the painful uncertainties and anxieties for investors which had occurred when there was real competition, and in order to shift jobs to areas of low skill and low understanding of advanced technology; Shelby and Lamar Smith are current centers of the swamp creature movement, in effect, to drown out hopes of humans in the galaxy.  

2. What COULD be done:

Concretely, when I was at NSF, for a few years they let me fund the most advanced serious concepts of hypersonic flight to orbit, and to exploit the full peer review capabilities of NSF, interagency cooperation and workshops to probe what is actually possible.  I learned that “off the shelf” (high technology readiness) technology would allow us to reduce costs to earth orbit by a factor of 10 or 100, beyond anything now in sight realistically from “old space” (Lockheed and Boeing and such) or from new space (like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, XCOR, Blue Origin and many others). World class industrial cost estimators agreed with the realism of a $12 billion total 5-year price tag to get to flying prototypes (already enough to
dramatically increase our space launch capability!)  and, more important, an upgrade of Boeing’s Seattle plant to be able to pump out low-cost spaceplanes as well as they pump out Dreamliners. (It is so hard for me NOT to say anything about important and exciting technical details, right now... but essential as they are they don’t go in the summary section.)
I posted a few more details, as of 2008, in the space part of, but need to update that part...

At one point, I asked the guy running the national security work at the Marshall Institute: “What happens, strategically, when one nation can orbit ten to a hundred times as much into orbit, for ANY purpose? Who really owns the highground of space at that point? Do we really want to relinquish the US fate?” Before that, I had a long friendly meeting with the Major General who ran the National Security Space Office, who gave direct orders in my sight “to get this started yesterday.” But two weeks later, the dinosaurs ate him.

3. Where we are now:

In DC, the term “stakeholder process” has become a euphemism for corruption and corporate welfare, the general system
which Trump has called “the swamp.” For many people embedded in that particular corporate culture... if you can’t turn all decisions over to a coalition of Lockheed and Boeing lobbyists, you need to find another hero in the same kind of PR business. And so, the exciting effort to get out of the swamp and make America great again in the space launch business has been shanghaied by another corporate welfare movement, this being the one to pick SpaceX as a kind of new virtual monopoly. Lots of good intentions, moving towards a disaster. Ironically, I myself did my best (which was relatively effective) to get SpaceX more visibility on Capitol Hill when I worked for Senator Specter, and I really do not want to use harsh language here. But objective reality... nature.. Murphy’s Law can be quite unforgiving, even for the nicest of people with the best of intentions. The current stated Trump space policy is to cut back on stuff like the great space dinosaur called SLS (great!), to rely more heavily across the board in civilian and military space on strong competition for launch services (also great, part of what SpaceX has asked for), and to rely on the private sector for new development of launch technology (OOPS!!).  That new launch technology, well beyond the capabilities now present OR IN SIGHT of the New Space companies, is what offers the 10 to 100 times improvement in launch capability. By analogy... if our lives depended on Elon Musk developing a new unified field theory on his  own, without effective strategic help... well, some of us would be reviewing what we do or do not know about afterlife. That’s where I am right now, at the end of the day (and perhaps of the human species beyond earth).

Still, there is some hope that the EU, India or Russia might fill in, and occupy the high ground. (China’s space programs look as mired as ours.) Wouldn’t that be an interesting end to Trump’s six to eight years, an image of the US as a little old bug overshadowed by a Russian mother ship? Or even a simple coup d’etat as the generals who have the intelligence data decide they just won’t put up with it (egged on by a variety of folks emotional about Russia, some who support democracy less than Netanyahu supports the two-state solution)? This is a serious crossroads folks, and I’m not the only one worried.

4. What Could Be Done

Many people resist rational policies because rationality is not exciting to them. But that is the only possible way forward. It can be packaged to be exciting (even scary) at times, but if we fall into “let’s play dress up and pretend Elon Musk is Iron Man or Andrew Carnegie” we lose what hope is left.

At a technical level, when I was in a few inner circle meetings at the international Hypersonics conferences of the AIAA (lead society for real aerospace technology, though IEEE is also big there) ... my entree was control technology and systems technology. But anyone really good in systems engineering knows the importance of fighting the perpetual pitfalls of tribalism, and of working hard to protect and defend other pieces of the puzzle, other specialities which complement one’s own. I have learned that the number one urgent need, to get to orbit at low cost with rockets or airbreathers or more advanced technology from Russia, is now to restore, upgrade, digitize and harden Boeing’s technology for “hot structures.”

Wow is that hard for your garden variety ersatz rocket scientist to understand! Let alone the PR people who really hate being reminded that the used cars they are selling would all lose their tires after just a few trips!

How could nature possibly be so cruel to cancel all the value of huge investments just on the basis of something so mild and petty as the skin of spacecraft melting away as it enters or leaves the atmosphere at high speed? (For rocketplanes, repeated reentry is the challenge, but advanced airbreathers and “Ajax” technology also require skin which is robust when going up.)

DARPA’s little XS program is the closest we now have to developing that technology, but they don’t have enough money.  
Also, they have political oversight. I remember very vividly when Senator Shelby’s person, attending a meeting at the Pentagon with me and Gary Payton (head of USAF space programs), expressed puzzlement about that, and she and other leading authorities said “of course we know how to solve that problem. TPS is the solution..” and the political appointees overseeing DARPA have insisted that TPS be the lead there, as “we know it works.”

Lots of folks know it works, and that’s a key reason why the US and the secret Chinese military space programs are going nowhere. They know it works, and it doesn’t. (Musk by contrast is counting on a combination of older technologies, manna from heaven and incredible expensive wastes of fuel. I do hope we can supply the manna, which neither he nor NASA Ames show any sign of being onto yet. Ames COULD be upgraded, with new money and strong more serious technology

TPS – active cooling of the leading edges – was in fact the technology which the National Aerospace Program of Ronald Reagan relied on. NASP ended up as a great failure for Reagan and for me and for many others, but it was our best try so far, and it did develop some useful technology. I worked very closely with McDonnell Douglas at the height of NASP.
(Just look up The Handbook of Intelligent Control by White and Sofge, and google about it.  Some things in 1992 were ahead of where the industry is today!) When the NASP program office decided it was finally ready to fulfill Reagan’s vision, with enough proven well-tested component technologies to put together to design a vehicle with real data (not Musk data), the net payload worked out to be negative... because of the huge weight of the very best active TPS system which the best people in the US were capable of supplying. (Actually, White and I had an idea for how to cut the TPS weight in half, by really risky new combinations of technology, but from a  systems viewpoint you’d be an idiot to choose that over what Boeing proved out before at Wright Patterson test labs. To do it, you’d also have to give tons of money exactly to me and to White... not a set of technologies they teach even at MIT lately. China and UK are closer to it... but it really is scary.)

A more complete plan for how to fix NASA, with lots of bells and whistles, is posted as an article in:
In a way, this represents a joint viewpoint of IEEE and AIAA, as I was deputy chair of the IEEE Committee on Transportation and Aerospace Policy in 2015, and Ed chaired the AIAA Colonization committee (with tons of access to 
current industry work on such issues). I did not accept to be chair of that committee in 2016 because the previous VP of IEEE-USA for government relations overrode a unanimous vote of the committee to accept this as an official IEEE position. We have reached a point where substantive technical inputs are more and more essential to avoiding disasters in many, many areas of policy! If only professional PR/lobbyist views ever get to the top... well, it all is at risk. 


OK, I am out of time today. You might search this blog for what I learned about NASA from its earlier effort to build a Mach 6 airplane without an engine (keyword: legends), and how the stakeholders got rid of the one guy at NASA headquarters who really tracked and tried to provide technical oversight to prevent that.... Much much more meat for all of this...   

If OSTP lived up to the original vision and scuttled the corruption which has grown there lately, under orders to follow the stakeholder system strictly, disasters like this might be easier to avoid...  well-meaning fuzzy leadership or technically ignorant leadership has been a growing problem.

I vetted this by asking specific technical questions about the SpaceX (and Trump) plans of many people, some very well embedded in the aerospace community. The best that any of the SpaceX crew could come up with was
"well, we have done our own tests, and of course we can't say more to nonmembers." But Dr. Paul at WPAFB assured me that his was the only test facility in America able to test all three kinds of stresses which a reentry vehicle must pass,
and it did not come cheap for the government. When I visited it, it was sobering to see the many hundreds of test articles there at any time... let alone the thousands tested over time.. and I was very pointed in asking: "Is it true as I have heard that only the Boeing article ever passed the whole suite"? Yes, even though every one of those thousands were supposed to be certain to work and well-funded by SOMEONE.  The ((now declassified) TASC evaluation said that all three competitors failed at first, in the most serious test to date, even Boeing's, but they figured out how to change the design and make it work to the full satisfaction of the group paying. (CIA at that time.) 

Many DC salesmen argue we don't NEED reusable rockets, because expensive expendables are cheaper when you orbit just one payload per year. That's greta if our plan is for the US to orbit just one payload per year  (even in event that someone kills a key satellite) and for someone else to be able to orbit thousands efficiently and economically. Any hope of human settlement of space would require the latter.  I really know those DC salesmen... and I remember the DARPA-funded global reach vehicle which melted and exploded not so many years ago (after a valid program was modified by political appointees responding to a guy I actually met in other contexts).  

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