Monday, November 27, 2006


I've been following the ongoing debate about the ARES 1 rocket combined with the overall ESAS defined architecture for the Orion project with considerable interest. My interest lies in a slightly different direction than most of the other bloggers. Not being a US resident none of my salary goes toward paying for NASA's various projects and ambitions. Nevertheless, I would like to see them succeed and get to the Moon again, at least so they can shut up the 'Moon landings were faked' idiots.

It has occurred to me that this situation may be a first of its kind. Since when has any large organization committed to a publicly funded, massive engineering project with very specific goals laid out, while all the time being subject to continuous scrutiny and second guessing by large numbers of interested and, occasionally, well qualified onlookers? The original Apollo program may have had some elements of that, but I doubt there was nearly the level of criticism being levelled against that project at a technical level as there is with Orion. For one thing, at that time there probably wasn't any other architecture capable of succeeding. As for the Space Shuttle project, certainly over its lifetime the voices of the critics have become progressively louder. But at its inception, there again I doubt there was much (or nearly enough) critical analysis by members of the public. Maybe I'm wrong but that's my strong impression.

If so, and this situation is a first, it becomes an interesting test of modern systems engineering methods. Consider this: A senior project manager has claimed publically that the project is on track and that none of the problems encountered so far are unexpected for a project of this scale. Meanwhile the critics are claiming that there is a grass roots feeling at NASA that the project is fundamentally flawed and there are doubts that the system will be capable of the required performance for it to carry out its job properly without major design changes accompanied by a budget blowout and severe schedule slippage.

The great thing about all this is that, if the project is continued in it's current form, all these claims will be verifiable within a decade. The system is required to be operational by 2014. (Eight years should be plenty of time so it's hard to see how they could stuff so that badly that they miss this deadline.) The entire CEV project was supposed to cost $15 billion (I am assuming that the budget for CEV included funding for the Crew Launch Vehicle and was the equivalent term for the Constellation project before the project was given a name, but I'm not absolutely sure about this.) and I haven't heard of NASA revising that estimate yet. Of that, the stick is supposed to cost about $3 billion according to an unsourced statement in a Wikipedia entry. (I've done quite a bit of online searching but wasn't able to find an authoritative statement on the actual projected cost of the Ares vehicles!) This is a figure that, given NASA's propensity to spend big, could easily blow out in the near future.

So personally I would rather like to see the Ares I project continued to the bitter end. If they manage to get the vehicle operational within the mandated timeframe, without the budget blowing out by more than 20%, and without it killing any crewmembers in the first 100 flights, I would definitely call it a success. It will show that NASA, while expensive, slow and bureaucratic still has the right stuff to conduct a manned space program. On the other hand, if it fails on one of the above criteria, the implications are significant. First it implies that NASA's culture is still basically disfunctional, with senior management totally out of touch with the real engineering issues as recognised by their own people and outside experts. Also by implication, the entire systems engineering process followed by NASA is suspect. Since a similar approach is used on numerous other large projects by other organizations around the world, as I can personally attest to, there will be a flow on effect into other projects and organizations that may or may not cause a major paradigm shift in engineering management methods to completely different models such as rapid prototyping.

That's in the ideal world. In the real world usually politics intervenes to mangle the original project goals and requirements enough to disguise the project crash and burn process, or sometimes to break a well functioning development program.

We'll see.

(Except for the Wiki reference I used Hobbyspace and NASA Watch to find the pages I linked to)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

CSI gets write up on Rockets Away website

A few days ago Greg Trotti from Rockets Away Media, the publisher of Launch magazine, asked us some questions about CSI (or C&Space) and what we're trying to accomplish. He has now put a short descriptive piece about CSI on the Rockets Away website.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Korean Space Launch Vehicle (KSLV) News

I have been reliably informed that the amount the Korean government are contracted to pay the Krunichev Center in Russia for KSLV development is around US $200 Million. Here in Korea it has been generally expected that this money would pay for extensive technology transfer of large scale rocket engine and launch vehicle know-how to Korea. Now it seems that the technology transfer aspect of the agreement has, to say the least been greatly exaggerated. Recently I obtained a copy of a brief news item from the Digital Times, an online news service in Korean. (I tracked down the link to the original article in Korean.)

Here is my rough translation. (disclaimer - don't use this translation for serious journalism. Get a qualified translator to to a proper job.)

On the 23rd (October), Vladimir Nesterov, manager of the Krunichev Center in Russia, informed (us) that the Krunichev Center intends to perform the design and manufacture work for the KSLV first stage propulsion system. However he also revealed that transfer of detailed technology will likely not happen.

Nesterov said that Korea and Russia had (already) entered a contract for development of the propulsion system manufacturing technology. "We have obtained a contract to develop a first stage propulsion system for a launch vehicle capable of launching a 100kg satellite. We will supply components/materials needed for manufacture without transferring technology." Nesterov said.

In 2004 the Krunichev Space Center with three other Russian aerospace organizations, and the Korean Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) entered into an agreement to develop a two stage launch vehicle with Russia developing the first stage and Korea the second stage.

According to the contract, Russia will provide help to Korea to perform two launches.

This may not seem like a big deal to US readers, but certainly a lot of people here will be annoyed at the decision to give the Russians so much money to basically help them fund their own launch vehicle. The Ministry of Science and Technology has already been asking questions. My wife (ok I admit she helped me with the hard bits) when she read the article, straight away got the impression that Korea is getting a raw deal and I think her reaction would be typical.

Another odd thing: There is nowhere in Korea that a satellite can be safely launched into equatorial orbit! Japan is directly to the east, and only the North Koreans would be rude enough to launch right over the top of them.