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)


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