10 June 2011

"A Rocket To Nowhere"

I came across a great essay at Idle Words that was written about five years ago about the Space Shuttle. Fantastic stuff. You should read the whole thing, but I can not resist posting several highlights:
In a pattern that would recur repeatedly in the years to come, NASA managers decided that they were better off making spending cuts on initial design even if they resulted in much higher operating costs over the lifetime of the program.
Sounds like every mass transit project I can think of. Not a coincidence really, since the incentives of a bureaucrat should expect us to anticipate this outcome.
Having failed at its stated goal, the Shuttle program proved adept at finding changing rationales for its existence. It was, after all, an awfully large spacecraft, and it was a bird in the hand, giving it an enormous advantage over any suggested replacement.
Again: standard institutional incentives at work.  White elephants should be the mascot of the bureaucracy.
In a narrow sense, they succeeded [in predicting, simulating, and designing for high reliability]. In both cases where a shuttle was lost, NASA had extensive warning of the failure mode in question, and had not addressed it for systemic and organizational reasons. But those organizational failures themselves represent a point of failure, one that lies outside the scope of an engineering analysis, which has to assume that procedures for checking critical components will work as reliably as the components whose reliability the procedures are supposed to safeguard.
I wish I had written that paragraph in my Engineering Risk Analysis course. It is perfect.

All engineers should meditate on this passage.  Actually, financiers should as well.  Your model can be flawless, but if the organizational structure causes it to be misused, misinterpreted or ignored it would be better if it did not exist.
Along with these craggy summits of basic research, the astronauts performed a raft of prepared experiments in metallurgy, medicine, fluid mechanics, embryology, and solar wind detection, all of which had one thing in common - they were designed to minimize crew interaction, in most cases requiring the astronauts to do little more than flip a switch.*

(*The experiments could not be made fully automatic because NASA policy requires that experiments on manned missions involve the crew)

This brings up a delicate point about justifying manned missions with science. In order to make any straight-faced claims about being cost effective, you have to cart an awful lot of science with you into orbit, which in turns means you need to make the experiments as easy to operate as possible. But if the experiments are all automated, you remove the rationale for sending a manned mission in the first place. Apart from question-begging experiments on the physiology of space flight, there is little you can do to resolve this dilemma. In essence, each 'pure science' Shuttle science mission consists of several dozen automated experiments alongside an enormous, irrelevant, repeated experiment in keeping a group of primates alive and healthy outside the atmosphere.
Someone used "beg the question" correctly! There is hope for the English language yet! Civilization lives!

NASA does not exist to operate the shuttle. The shuttle exists to give NASA something to do.

The superfluity of the men in manned space flight is a repeated theme.  Check out this footnote:
The landing gear switch on the Shuttle is not connected to the flight computer by special request of the astronauts. This is the only impediment to fully automated landing
Just like the shuttle generally, the astronauts are not there to operate the shuttle or perform missions. The missions and shuttle only exist to allow astronauts to exist.

I am reminded of the circular reasoning for using SWAT raids for non-violent offenders: you need to use military tactics to keep officers safe; officers aren't safe because military-style raids are dangerous.
Launched in an oblique, low orbit that guarantees its permanent uselessness, [The ISS] serves as yin to the shuttle's yang, justifying an endless stream of future Shuttle missions through the simple stratagem of being too expensive to abandon.
The shuttle is needed to service the ISS, and the ISS is needed to service the shuttle.  Self-reinforcing white elephants!
In the thirty years since the last Moon flight, we have succeeded in creating a perfectly self-contained manned space program, in which the Shuttle goes up to save the Space Station (undermanned, incomplete, breaking down, filled with garbage, and dropping at a hundred meters per day), and the Space Station offers the Shuttle a mission and a destination. The Columbia accident has added a beautiful finishing symmetry - the Shuttle is now required to fly to the ISS, which will serve as an inspection station for the fragile thermal tiles, and a lifeboat in case something goes seriously wrong.

This closed cycle is so perfect that the last NASA administrator even cancelled the only mission in which there was a compelling need for a manned space flight - the Hubble telescope repair and upgrade - on the grounds that it would be too dangerous to fly the Shuttle away from the ISS, thereby detaching the program from its last connection to reason and leaving it free to float off into its current absurdist theater of backflips, gap fillers, Canadarms and heroic expeditions to the bottom of the spacecraft.
Send in the clowns.
The NASA obsession with elementary and middle school participation in space flight is curious, and demonstrates how low a status actual in-flight science has compared with orbital public relations. You are not likely to hear of CERN physicists colliding tin atoms sent to them by a primary school in Toulouse, or the Hubble space being turned around to point at waving middle schoolers on a playground in Texas, yet even the minimal two-man ISS crew - one short of the stated minimum needed to run the station - regularly takes time to talk to schoolchildren.


  1. For some more good commentary on where NASA is and where it should be going, you should check out Jeff Greason's recent presentation.

  2. Thanks for the tip. I'm going to have to check that out.

  3. Thanks for the highlights. I'll have to read the rest a bit later.

    Next time one of my family/friends ask me why, if I'm studying aerospace engineering, I detest NASA, I'll just point them this way. Excellent!

  4. Great post.

    I loved NASA as a kid...now I realize what a horrific wasteful bureaucracy it is.

    GAH. Just think about the good things that could have been done with all of those wasted hundreds of billions.

  5. Same here. When I was younger I used to think NASA was different from the rest of the government because space is cool. (The same way I gave the DOD a pass, because aircraft carriers and tanks are cool.) Now I see there's no reason they'd operate any differently than the ATF or CBP or any other agency or department.