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Mixed bag o’ update stuff

June 4, 2011

In which I discuss retirement, Area 51, stupid Congress tricks, Sarah Palin, SpaceX and NASA, and why NASA’s new heavy-lift launch vehicle should say MOPAR on the side.

Let’s see, what’s been going on…

I’ll be “officially retired” from school teaching at the end of next week. I think I’m mentally ready for doing some new stuff. There are things I’ll miss (and a lot of things I won’t), but I find I’m looking forward to the change more all the time. A quick little vacation after I’m done, then starting the “new life” in earnest…

And that’s about all there is to say about that, except that the kids, and the parents, at school have been truly excellent about saying nice things and doing some pretty nice things along the way as well. This has been a pleasant last couple of months working with them. I’m very glad for that – it could have been, well, not so pleasant, let’s say.

I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, by Annie Jacobsen. Ms. Jacobsen also narrates. Her voice isn’t irritating, exactly; you just can’t listen to her for hours on end. I listen about an hour at a time. That’s enough.

The book is very interesting, though. She’s interviewed several folks who worked there, and has apparently dug through many, many declassified documents. So far (about halfway through) it’s something I can recommend to not only conspiracy theorists – she will ultimately debunk most of those, I think – but also anyone interested in the post-WW II/Cold War development of US weapons systems.

I don't think this is in the book anywhere, though...

I’ve decided to wait until I’m back from vacation to see if I can make sense of (a) the monumental stupidity of Congress, on both sides, in the face of mind-numbing debt; (b) the playboy President, who plays more golf than freaking Eisenhower did; and (c) the Republican Presidential hopefuls, the media’s attempts to manipulate them, and Sarah Palin’s incredible knack for driving all of them nuts. (Even though  yesterday she said some stupid stuff about Paul Revere’s ride. Aw…come on, Sarah…if you don’t know, don’t show it and try to dig yourself out. You kinda did a Biden, there. Although, remember, readers, most of us have our facts about Paul Revere’s ride incorrect as well. She was accidentally a bit closer to the truth than she intended to be, I think.)

Don't warn the British, Paul!

Next topic: I read it in Aviation Week to begin with. An analysis done by NASA (why are they doing this stuff instead of flying stuff?) shows that SpaceX spent $ 90 million to develop the Falcon 1 launch vehicle and another $ 300 million to develop the Falcon 9, for a total of under $ 400 million…but depending on the prediction methodology, under NASA’s old-school contracting methods it would have cost

$ 1.7 to 4 billion!

Yeah. TEN PER CENT of what it would cost if the gummint did it. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say TWENTY FIVE PER CENT, using the lowball number.

The mind…it boggles.

And now the Congresscritters want NASA to develop a heavy-lift launch vehicle from a clean sheet of paper. Except that all the right Congresscritters better have subcontractors in their districts or states, of course. And it has to take long enough to be a Federal jobs program they can point to when they need to get re-elected.

SpaceX Falcon 9

A new theory of mine: one of the reasons for the demise of the space program in the US has been the southward political shift of Republicans. When there were lots of southern Democrats and they held the purse strings, they were happy to spend Federal dollars in Alabama, Florida and even Texas. California? It was rapidly going Democratic during that time. Now, with all those dang conservative Republican rednecks, the liberal Democrats have to find other good causes to spend the money on. They can’t spend it on stuff that might help college-educated people in Texas or Florida, when they can manipulate illegal immigrants into becoming Democrat voters.

Is that too snarky? Naw.

I propose a fixed-price heavy lifter contract: bid the thing out. No development money, no nothing. We need X number of flights per year at X number of dollars per flight, each to handle a payload of a certain size and weight to a certain orbit. If there hasn’t been enough R&D in Boeing and LockMart by now, tough shit. Pay for it yourselves. If you lose the contract you can bid for Ariane 5 contracts in Europe, or India, or the Pacific Rim, or write it off. If you don’t have the confidence you can build it, don’t bid. Let ArianeSpace in on the bidding. Let everybody in on the bidding. None of this Request for Proposals stuff. Don’t you have smart guys who can tell the bidders exactly what they need? (Not what the rocket needs to look like…but what it needs to do. Tell them your requirements. Let them decide how. Look at the Soviet/Russian R-7 variants, used since the 1950s. Von Braun decided we needed to use “step rockets,” because that was his thinking back since the mid-1930s and no one argued with him. Sergi Korolev and the the other Russian designers (not German designers) started with a V-2/A-4 and placed the boosters on the sides as strap-ons.)

The contractor’s-hand-in-the-pocket has to stop. We have plenty of R&D. If everybody says it can’t be done, find an old set of  plans for a Saturn V, and call up Chrysler. They designed and built the first stage in the sixties. (As well as Jupiters, Redstones, and the Saturn Ib. And the cars they built at the time had bigger fins!)

Chrysler's Saturn I

In fact, Chrysler built the Saturn Ib at a plant in Warren, Michigan! When the Chrysler leadership were asked to build the much larger first stage of the Saturn V, they turned to a tank plant they had shuttered in 1954 in Michoud, Louisiana.

Michoud plant when Chrylser was building Saturn rockets there

The F-1 engine, still the largest ever used, was developed by Rocketdyne for the US Air Force, not for NASA…in 1955! (Does that mean we could have lifted a space station into orbit by 1960, if we had the will and financing?) It’s a simpler design than the nearest competitor, the RD-170, with a single combustion chamber and nozzle, can be built with 1960s technology and materials, and burnes LOX and kerosene. No need for liquid hydrogen like the shuttle.

I guess what I’m arguing for is a 21st Century uprated version of the Saturn V. Today’s CAD design techniques, robot-assisted assembly and fabrication, computer controls, materials improvements…it should be stronger, lighter, and cheaper than the 1967 version and not even need a significant redesign. The Ares I suffered huge delays while engineers worked out the problems with the pogoing of the stack. There were similar problems with the Saturn V stack, but they are known issues, there are reams of flight data on the 100 per cent success rate of that booster, and these problems were solved two generations ago.

Testing an F-1 engine back in the day

$4 billion, or a tenth the price? Call Chrysler and ask them for a quote. Don’t call Boeing…they know better when the caller ID says NASA and they will mess with you. Chrysler needs the work. Wouldn’t it be cool, too? Detroit is revitalized as the homeof the builders of the next generation of rockets…taking us to the Moon and Mars!

I'd like to see this on the side of a rocket...

By the way, Rocketdyne is a division of Pratt and Whitney, which builds about half the jet and propeller-aircraft engines in the world. They also built the space shuttle main engines, the engines used for the Centaur upper stage used for the last 40 years, the Delta IV first-stage RS-68, and the upgraded J-2 used for the Ares 1. They kinda know rocket engines. If you need a rocket engine, they probably still have some plans someplace!

Even better on the side of a rocket, for old-school race fans!

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