February 8, 2011

Fly Me To The Moon

Remember the movie "Space Cowboys" with Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and James Garner? How old fashioned ingenuity, improvisation and guts triumphed over bureaucratic grandstanding and civil service entitlement mentality? Granted it was a work of fiction, but on April 4, 2010, NASA terminated the space shuttle flight programs and all satellite launches have been contracted out to private corporations.

Let's not stop there. It is time to tell NASA and it's bloated, bumbling bureaucracy that the gravy train has been derailed. They are incapable of responding to 21st century technology initiatives without robbing the treasury. Let private industry have a go at this. If there's a buck to be made, someone will develop the needed technology at a fraction of the cost.

NASA says its pockets not deep enough for new rocket (CNN) -- The marching orders from Congress and the White House to NASA were pretty straightforward. Go out and build a new big rocket to replace the retiring space shuttle fleet.

Unlike the shuttle, the new rocket has to be powerful enough to get out of low Earth orbit and carry humans to an asteroid and eventually Mars, perhaps even the moon.

There must also be a test flight by 2016. But at this point, NASA officials are warning of a potentially devastating setback to future space exploration.

Its first new rocket in 40 years may not happen because the agency doesn't think the $8 billion budgeted over the next three years is enough.

First things first, NASA may have rockets but it doesn't have pockets. We, the tax payers, have the pockets and NASA wants to boldly go where so many other government agencies have gone before them - into the vastly diminished reaches of our finite wallets.

"We have done calculations with current models and approaches to doing this type of development and it doesn't work with funding constraints combined with schedules that were laid out in the Authorization Act," Doug Cooke, NASA's associate administrator for exploration systems, told CNN.

Unfortunately NASA's calculations do not always swell one's breast with confidence. Let's visit a few NASA blunders that cost the American people tens of billions in blown projects.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) Satellite
The Mission: NASA intended the OCO to provide an orbiting platform from which scientists would be able to look at how carbon dioxide moved through the atmosphere. Hyped as a space-down look at global warming, the OCO was supposed to help researchers figure out climate change.

The Problem: Sadly, the OCO never made it into orbit, as the case containing the satellite failed to separate from the rocket during launch, leading the whole assembly to crash into the ocean 17 minutes after lift off.

Demonstration for Autonomous Rendezvous Technology (DART) Spacecraft
The Mission: Upset with the expense and risk of launching the shuttle every time a satellite needed maintenance, NASA created the DART to show that a robotic satellite could dock with other satellites. DART was supposed to autonomously navigate towards, and then rendezvous with, an existing communications satellite.

The Problem: And did it ever rendezvous! The computer controlling DART incorrectly estimated the distance between the two satellites, causing DART to bump right into the other satellite! DART then used up all of its fuel, eventually crashing into the ocean.

The Hubble Space Telescope
The Mission: The first in a series of space telescopes, the Hubble would allow astronomers to look at the stars without atmospheric interference. This would, and eventually did, provide the most detailed images of the distant universe ever produced.

The Problem: Much like the nerds who designed the telescope, Hubble had a vision problem. When grinding the original camera lens, engineers failed to compensate for the minute shape change the lens would undergo when moved into a zero gravity environment. The solution? Glasses. Once a corrective lens was added, the Hubble was able to look deep into the universe.

Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS)
The Mission: A series of classified surveillance satellites, SBIRS was supposed to answer the Air Force’s need for tracking ballistic missile launches. Consisting of high and low orbit satellites, SBIRS is scheduled to go on line next year.

The Problem: Ignoring the $10 billion cost overrun for the project, and the possibility that it won’t work at all, one of the first SBIRS satellites shutdown only seven seconds after reaching Earth Orbit. The satellite’s safety mechanism malfunctioned, putting the satellite into safe mode, and reducing it to what the then Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force called a “useless ice cube.”

The Mars Polar Lander (MPL)
The Mission: The Mars Polar Lander was part of an extensive 1998 push to study the red planet. The program consisted of a soil probe, a lander, and a satellite. As the lander, the MPL was supposed to study the climate and surface of Mars.

The Problem: No one really knows what happened to the MPL. The spacecraft successfully reached Mars, but NASA never made contact with the MPL. Anything from a faulty transmitter to a complete crash to interference from Marvin could have caused the failure. NASA still hopes to one day find the MPL and figure out what went wrong.

Deep Space 2
The Mission: Sent to Mars on the same spacecraft as the Mars Polar Lander, the Deep Space 2 was a penetrator, designed to burrow into the Martian soil and collect data on water and chemical composition.

The Problem: Much like the MPL, the fate of the Deep Space 2 remains a mystery. Both probes were built under the “faster, better, cheaper” rubric that dominated NASA in the 1990s. Eventually judged as a failure, the ethos tasked NASA with generating a greater number of less expensive projects rather than the small number of large projects that dominated most of the agency’s history. While NASA produced probes that were plenty cheap, many of them weren’t as fast or better as hoped.

The Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) The Mission: The brains of the 1998 Mars Missions, NASA intended the MCO to serve the dual function of studying the Martian atmosphere and relaying radio signals from the two surface probes.

The Problem: In one of the all time great engineering gaffs, NASA subcontractor Lockheed Martin created thruster software that used Imperial units, not the metric units used by NASA. NASA did not know this, never converted from pounds to newtons, and the probe eventually hit the atmosphere at the wrong angle and burned up.

The Mission: NOAA-19 was the last in a series of weather satellites that monitor atmospheric conditions, follow volcanic eruptions and conduct climate research.

The Problem: There have been satellites lost in space, those that have exploded on the runway, and then there’s this. During final servicing at a Lockheed-Martin facility in California, engineers failed to check if the satellite was bolted down before moving it, and accidentally knocked the multi-million dollar piece of equipment onto the ground, breaking a number of components. Whoops!

I think I'd rather have Frank take me there.


LL said...

A lot of the bungled projects can look to the respective political administrations that over-rode scientists and used expediency and the all-critical vote to decide when something was "ready". Additionally, there is the problem of doing something that hasn't been done before "somewhere out there" and ever since the first US rocket failures, we've had unexpected problems. Sometimes in unmanned projects it turns out to be a whimper. At other times it turns out far worse as with the Challenger and Apollo 1 disasters - and almost - with Apollo 13.

Citing the failures of NASA is unfair unless you also cite its MANY successes.

Building one-off spacecraft is very expensive. And with the end of each program, people are fired while they wait for the next belch from Congress. It's not smart to reinvent the wheel, but it is precisely what our elected representatives do.

The "return to the Moon" program is impossibly absurd. Everyone at NASA agreed, but the politicians thought it was a 'safe' move. They started the program, then partially de-funded it, then Obama decided that NASA should have "making Muslims feel good about themselves" as Job One.

Sig94, I usually agree with you, but not this time.

Anonymous said...

My faith in NASA paled as my faith in government waned. It took decades, but my cynicism is now cemented into place.

Anonymous said...

NASA must be pretty darned important if Obama is trying to shrink it.

Wetzy said...

NASA should continue "making Muslims feel good about themselves" while also teaching hamsters to juggle.

Rhod said...

I always wondered how so many uncool guys with short hair; wearing horn-rimmed glasses, white shirts with skinny ties, white socks and high-water pants could take us to the moon.

Woodsterman (Odie) said...

Bureaucracies don't care how they spend our money.

Anonymous said...

You are correct that SBIRS is $10B over cost with a capital B, however, it is not a NASA problem and it hasn't launched. SBIRS is an Air Force development and it is supposed to launch for the first time this Spring, 10 years late!

sig94 said...

Between yesterday and today I have tried to comment twice on this post. Am I locked out as spam now?