Posted by: crudbasher | March 31, 2011

Education Lessons: When Congress Designs A Rocket

Endeavour In Orbit (cc) Top Tech Writer

I am a big fan of spaceflight. In a few weeks I will go to watch the last launch of Endeavour with a sense of sadness, firstly because she will be retired, but also because there really isn’t anything replacing the shuttles. There are some commercial developments certainly and I am all for them, but there is no real national space policy anymore. Instead you have the latest four year NASA authorization. Basically it tells NASA how to make a rocket. So instead of actual, you know, rocket scientists developing a rocket, the staffers for Congress dictated how to do it. Does this sound like a good idea to anyone? Let’s break it down a bit and then we will see how this relates to Education.

In late September of last year (2010), Congress passed a four-year authorization for NASA which, among other things, stipulated that the agency must build a heavy-lift launch vehicle by 2016, though it did not authorize sufficient funding with which to do so, at least if done in the manner that Congress demanded, basing it on existing and expensive Space Shuttle components.

Saturn V (cc) chrislrmo

What this law did is specify that NASA should develop a heavy lift rocket (which is very, very expensive). The last one of these we did was the Saturn V in the 60s that went to the moon. While very capable, the Saturn V was hugely expensive. It was only because we were in a Space Race with the Soviets that we were able to spend that. As soon as we won, the last 3 Apollo missions were canceled and the rocket was scrapped. Although the Space Shuttle is an amazing machine, it’s big flaw is it costs so much to operate. You see, when you develop a rocket you can either A) pay a lot up front for development in exchange for lower operating costs, or B) you can do development on the cheap and then pay a lot to operate. After Apollo, NASA got it’s budget slashed and were told to develop the shuttle. They really didn’t have enough money to do this right so they had to choose option B. This means there was a huge army of people necessary to keep the shuttles flying. If you read the NASA four year authorization there is some language in there to develop a heavy lift rocket (but NASA says the funding won’t be enough to do it). The next section makes the problem worse.

It is simply not possible to engage in a “timely and cost-effective development” of SLS and MPCV using legacy infrastructure and contracts. Constellation was overrunning by billions, and slipping more than a year per year in schedule, and insistence on simply extending existing (and in many cases sole-source, without competition) contracts will fail just as surely.

Basically Congress told NASA to use existing contracts as much as possible. So rather than design the vehicle first, they have designed the costs first by specifying NASA to use the existing army of shuttle workers. This only makes sense if you realize that Congress doesn’t care at all what NASA actually does, they just want to keep the jobs and companies in business that are donating to their campaigns. The author of the article Rand Simberg states this beautifully in this last paragraph.

All of these requirements, from specifying vehicle size and MPCV functions, to how they should do it, and with what infrastructure and contractors, are far below the pay grade or competence of congresspeople and their staff. They may have many skills and talents, but they are not rocket scientists. Such requirements should be the result of engineering trade studies performed by NASA with the aid and input of the commercial contractor community. But, because our actual progress in space is not nationally important, what should be technical decisions have become raw political ones.

So how does this relate to Education? Simple. These same people are designing the reforms for the education system, and have exactly the same concerns in mind. I submit they don’t really care about if children are learning, they just care about keeping the existing system contributing to their campaigns.

This is not about Education, it’s about politics, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.

Feel free to read the original article linked below, it’s fascinating!

  • Good breakdown of law specifying a new launch system for NASA

    tags: technology space

    • In late September of last year (2010), Congress passed a four-year authorization for NASA which, among other things, stipulated that the agency must build a heavy-lift launch vehicle by 2016, though it did not authorize sufficient funding with which to do so, at least if done in the manner that Congress demanded, basing it on existing and expensive Space Shuttle components.
    • we should be seeking a variety of vehicles that can replicate and extend the individual functions of what the Shuttle does, in a cost-effective and redundant manner. As we’ll see below, however, this was not their apparent goal, and they are apparently insisting on a single vehicle type that can serve a variety of functions.
    • The Congress is assuming, in the face of numerous studies indicating otherwise, that the lowest-cost approach for the future is to continue the high-cost approach in which we’ve been engaged for the past half century. Note also that there are many heavy-lift concepts that do not employ solid rocket motors, and that the only thing for which they are “critical” is the maintenance of a jobs base in the state of Utah.
    • Note that every credible cost analysis indicates that this vehicle will cost over a billion dollars per flight, when taking into account amortization of development and fixed costs. If the MPCV can carry six persons per mission, that comes out to a cost of almost two-hundred million per person
    • Basically, the Congress is demanding that NASA continue the Orion crew module, originally designed as a lunar excursion vehicle, under a different name, and once again, they complicate the design by imposing additional requirements on it, all while providing less money than Orion was going to cost.
    • It is an even more blatant violation of the 1998 Commercial Space Act, whose specific purpose was the promotion of commercial space activities, particularly with regard to the International Space Station.
    • There is nothing that I’m aware of in last year’s authorization declaring this law null and void, so as it stands, the two laws are in conflict.
    • But all of this language to date is really an excuse for what it really desired, which is stated explicitly in the next section, 304
    • It is simply not possible to engage in a “timely and cost-effective development” of SLS and MPCV using legacy infrastructure and contracts. Constellation was overrunning by billions, and slipping more than a year per year in schedule, and insistence on simply extending existing (and in many cases sole-source, without competition) contracts will fail just as surely.
    • It was pointed out by the General Accountability Office, the Aerospace Corporation, and the Augustine Panel, and these issues won’t go away just because Congress passes a law dictating that they must, anymore than Congress can mandate a different value of gravity.
    • All of these requirements, from specifying vehicle size and MPCV functions, to how they should do it, and with what infrastructure and contractors, are far below the pay grade or competence of congresspeople and their staff. They may have many skills and talents, but they are not rocket scientists. Such requirements should be the result of engineering trade studies performed by NASA with the aid and input of the commercial contractor community. But, because our actual progress in space is not nationally important, what should be technical decisions have become raw political ones.

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

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