Monday, February 16, 2009

A Little Here and There

In an effort to not let this blog stagnate during slow news times, I guess I'll comment on a few things of mild interest to me. It's just that over the past few days, nothing had jumped out at me as a WOW event.


Two satellites crash - Okay, so a dead Russian satellite and a U.S. Commsat got a little too friendly a few days ago. Great! More debris to worry about. More space junk. You know this was bound to happen. My concern is the chain reaction effect due to random debris now flying in all kinds of interesting orbits. Every satellite should be made with de-orbit capability. The fact that this dead Russian satellite was up there in the first place is a red flag. Sooner or later, we are going to start looking like the Earth depicted in Wall-E.


Axel, the Marsupial Martian Rover - Okay, so it's not Axel Rose (but that would be one hell of a GnR concert right?), but basically it's a baby rover on a tether, connected to the main rover of the mission. Since driving down into craters is risky for primary mission rovers, Axel is the attachment that you can let go down into the danger zone and gather science for you, while the primary rover sits up top safe and sound. When Axel is done, it's brought back up via the tethered wench system. Sounds like a fairly non-complex, suitable way to gather crater samples to me.


NASA vs. Rebel Insiders - This is a no brainer. NASA squashes them, threatens them with their jobs, and basically forces everyone to accept what management decides without question. That's the way to foster a productive work environment; remove the ability of anyone to question the current plan, reduce their ability to imagine better options, and insult their innovative ideas. And if you don't think that happens, you're a dumbass.

Just have a look at a video made by a NASA insider, depicting how this occurs. Now the acting is horrible, no Oscars here that's for sure, but the message is what's important.

Another case in point, Ares I vs. Jupiter Direct. When a significant number of seasoned veteran engineers join together and call Ares I bunk, they propose a more cost effective and better performing alternative. The problem is, they have to do it in secret, like some covert black ops mission, because NASA is so narrowly focused on former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin's pet project that all other options are void.

Ares sucks. I can't stand the project. It's a new design being played off of an old design. So many things had to be redone to make the system work that it might as well be labeled as a brand new system. The Jupiter Direct system, on the other hand, requires no major adjustments or new design. Argh, you can read the article to get the details.

Here are my thoughts. NASA gets funding no matter what, so I honestly believe they don't care about better ideas. They only care about the ones they've got funding for now. If this were a private company, every new and better idea would be seriously entertained, because in the end, the profit margin is what matters. The only way to maximize your profit margin is to foster an environment of thinking and innovation, where you allow everyone to always think of a better way to do things. Better generally means cheaper in the long run.

The problem is that NASA never seems to think for the long run and they aren't concerned with making a profit. Faults that the private space companies cannot afford to have, which is why the future of space lies with them.


Anonymous said...

"Faults that the private space companies cannot afford to have, which is why the future of space lies with them."

Oh, except the whole, it costs a lot of money to develop and send shit into space. I don't see walmart investing anytime soon into this.

Monsal Varga said...

I like the Axel concept, even considering it for manned missions: wherever an astronaut feels unsafe to go down a slope, a canyon wall or some other natural barrier, Axel could ease the mission and help to decide if further efforts are merited. Good ideas are often simple concepts.

As for Nasa and business as usual... it's Nasa and business as usual. Long gone the days where merit and vision were encouraged and rewarded. It is just one big, fat, lazy agency. It's not he only one and surely not an exclusive of your country. Unfortunately for us all...

As for the comment above mine (from an anonymous poster) I think that if "anytime soon" means 10 years, then you'll probably wrong, pal. You'll see :)

Douglas said...

Anonymous Person - I'm tempted to delete your comment for 2 reasons:

1. You cussed, which is uncalled for.
2. You posted as anonymous, which shows me you don't have the courage to really claim ownership of your comment.

However, I will keep your comment so that I can reply to it.

It costs a lot of money you say? Maybe for NASA is does, but tell that to SpaceX, who have developed a solid rocket program for a fraction of what NASA spends, and they'll make a profit.

Tell that to Armadillo Aerospace, who are also developing cheaper and unique methods of sub orbital launch capabilities and they'll make a profit.

Tell that to Virgin Galactic, who have also developed a significantly cheaper space program than NASA, and they'll definitely make a profit. I don't see Richard Branson as the kind of billionaire who invests in losing prospects.

Oh, and all of these companies had to develop some of their own technologies as well to accomplish what they're doing. And the costs drop when you build reusable, multi-platform systems. NASA's "one task only" mantra keeps the costs high because you can't mass produce anything.

Innovative, private businesses with passionate people, imaginative minds and intergalactic aspirations will be the strength of humanity to propel us to the next level.

Francisco Mancebo said...

It was neat of you to point out that commercial companies are trying to do stuff, so let's look at them.

SpaceX -- Started by pay-pal billionare (lookie here, money). Oh, and how have they stayed afloat...NASA money, and using the Cape. Add to it that more of their rockets have failed than survived.

Arm Aero -- Started by very wealthy game designer. Actually doesn't have a paid staff, its volunteer work. Nothing they have tried in any of the competitions was successful. Um, yeah, I see them making a profit real soon.

Virgin -- Another billionare owner, and get this, SIX minutes of weightlessness. Only 200K. This definitely is the future

Douglas Mallette said...

Francisco - I see your theme. Really rich people started these businesses, sometimes with governmental support. Shame on them.

Of course, the exact same thing can be said about the commercial ocean liner industry when it started in the 1800's, or the commercial airline industry in the 1900's. The time adjusted equivalent of billionaires started these industries too, and they all had troubles at the beginning.

Read some history Francisco, or is that asking too much of you?

What, do you think a guy in a garage can start an entire industry? No way! The wealthy people have the money to risk such a venture, and no, not all of them succeed, but they do make advances or get bought out and absorbed into larger industries. Just follow what happened to Howard Hughes.

So I guess it's safe to assume you would have also complained about the rich people who gave us cruise ships, air travel and railroads. Way to support progress Francisco, you're a winner in my book. ;)

Jonathan Koren said...

"Tell that to Virgin Galactic, who have also developed a significantly cheaper space program than NASA"

They have? In what way? Do they carry 30,000 lb payloads to the space station? Do they deliver vast space telescopes into orbit?

I'm thinking they haven't done a damn thing, yet.

Douglas Mallette said...

Jonathan - They don't, but SpaceX will. Virgin is not going into the cargo hauling business, their going into the space recreation and tourism business. Totally different business plan.

Plus they just started. Give them time and they will do many things, extremely cheaper than NASA ever has.

Francisco Mancebo said...

Look like you forgot the basis of this discussion. None of these private companies (using govt money, so wait, are they private?) have anything remotely was US or Russia did in the 50's, or china or these other countries are doing now.

Yes, they are failing way cheaper than NASA succeeds. Good call.

Douglas Mallette said...

Francisco - First, I started this discussion, so I'm pretty sure I know the basis of it. After all, this is MY blog.

Now, are you really this stupid, or do you just like to argue to hear yourself argue?

Of course governments are going to develop a space program bigger and faster than private enterprise. They're GOVERNMENTS! They print the money, they set the laws, so they can develop as fast, and as expensive, as they want.

You cannot compare private industry to government. And yes, they are private companies. They are not owned by the government, at least not yet, but who knows how long that will last with the way Obama is going.

Anyway, the government is their customer. It's called a contract. Do you know what a contract is? It's a deal you set up with your customer to get paid for a service. By your (il)logic, Boeing, Lockheed, Orbital Sciences, USA, etc. are all government entities. Um, no, they aren't, but they are government contractors.

In this case, for SpaceX, the service happens to be launching cargo to the ISS, and eventually crew rotation.

And your little play on words at the end of your post is cute, but only if I actually typed that and didn't fix the typo. Nice try though.

For God's sake, if you're going to debate me on this blog, I'm all for it, but at least show up armed with more brain cells than this. And join (follow) the blog. :)

Francisco said...

"You cannot compare private industry to government."

Wow, and you are calling me stupid. Isn't this what you have been complaining about, private industry can do it better than nasa.

Yup, that is a comparison.

Douglas Mallette said...

Francisco - Oh I see, you want to battle semantics. Okay, so let's clarify.

Yes, this topic is a comparison of the private industry and NASA. The difference is that I'm comparing investment based returns and you're comparing business practices.

In your case, the government will always win, because they control the national purse strings and the legislation. This also makes them highly inefficient and frequently over budget because of the governmental bureaucracy and lack of fiscal accountability.

Private companies will work with less dollars and, compared to NASA over just the past 10 years, produce an equal too or better than product.

And no, I did not call you stupid. I asked if you were stupid, which is a question, not an assertion. Also, don't think I didn't notice that you provided absolutely no legitimate counter argument to my last post. This debate is over.

Corwin Olsen said...

Maybe you don't understand the role of NASA. No private company can afford the risk that exploring the unknown involves. NASA spends the money and resources figuring out how to do it, then the doors can open for private industry to follow.

SpaceX isn't doing anything new. They are riding NASA's coat-tails (as they should) by building a vehicle that benefits from the investment/research/testing/experience that NASA and the international partners have.

Therefore, you have no basis to say that any of the companies you have mentioned are proven to be able to do anything cheaper or better than NASA.

Douglas Mallette said...

Corwin - Thanks for the comment.

Actually, I completely agree with you. And I kind of do understand the role of NASA, I work with NASA frequently. I wish I could find the debate I had on with someone a few months ago, but in effect I said that NASA should be the "Lewis and Clark" of space. They cut down the brush, expand the frontier and take the high level risks. Then private industry comes behind and paves the roads and builds the town.

But this has nothing to do with my argument. My argument in the post has to do with how NASA's current project is more of a pet project than anything else, it's already over budget, and although they say they looked at ALL options, I personally know people at KSC and here at JSC where I work that don't share that sentiment.

Hell, I just spoke with a veteran astronaut yesterday about how he dislikes the Ares I program and he wouldn't be surprised if the new NASA Admin. cancels it for something else.

My comparison between NASA and the up and coming private sector is about cost benefit, not exploration and development. There are cheaper and better ways than Ares I, but for whatever reason, they didn't go that way. I just don't believe that private industry would have handled this the same way.

As far as your last statement, the jury is out on that. Once space becomes profitable, just wait and see how more technologically advanced the private companies will be over NASA. I have a feeling it will be obvious.