Space Race

Lessons in adversity from NASA and from the space tourism industry.

In 1942, Joseph Schumpeter wrote that creative destruction "is the essential fact about capitalism." Innovations destroy old monopolies, and powerful companies collapse even if they have done nothing out of the ordinary. This is what drives growth. It is the possibility of new, entrepreneurial entrants into the marketplace—what Schumpeter called "the perennial gale of creative destruction"—that keeps market ventures lively, even as bureaucracies ossify and government projects drag on for decades, unfinished.

A liberal, and literal, interpretation of the phrase sheds some light on the two challenges that have faced the world of space flight in recent days, and the risks faced by private space ventures versus those of NASA.

All week, NASA has been tearing out its collective hair deliberating over the problem of a three-inch gouge in the protective foam on the bottom of the shuttle Endeavour. The injury exposed a small slice of felt, the heat barrier of last resort for the shuttle's aluminum frame. The team finally decided against repair efforts late yesterday night, because of the risks of a space walk and the possibility of doing more damage while attempting the repair.The gouge is unlikely to cause fatal problems when the shuttle heats up on reentry, but it might damage the underlying structure enough to require repairs once back on Earth, as well as a delay until the next launch.

Meanwhile, a July 26 accident at Mojave Spaceport in California was more prosaic, and more deadly, than Endeavour's gouge in the vacuum of space. Several engineers working for spaceship builder Scaled Composites were administering a routine test to check the flow of nitrous oxide through an opening when an explosion occurred, according to company CEO Burt Rutan. Three people died, and several more were hospitalized. There were no rockets fired at the time, and no one was in zero-g.

The reactions to the two accidents offer a quick primer on what it's like to operate on the government's time and dime, versus operating in a competitive market. Both accidents have brought out the best in the major players, who have reacted calmly and competently. But there are subtle, fundamental differences in their respective aftermaths.

Statements, official and unofficial, about the shuttle problem were phrased in terms of sunk costs, established hierarchies, and contingency plans. "We have really prepared for exactly this case, since Columbia," said John Shannon, chairman of Endeavour's mission management team, "We have spent a lot of money in the program and a lot of time and a lot of people's efforts to be ready to handle exactly this case."

For days, astronauts in the Endeavour waited for pronouncements from the corps of engineers and decision-makers at mission control, who have the spectre of congressional fury hanging over their heads.

On Wednesday, Shuttle Commander Scott Kelly was wondering what the decision might be from the geeks on the ground:

"And, ah, no indication of which way they are leaning?" Kelly radioed Mission Control.

The response from Mission Control was less than informative: "Unfortunately, we have no idea which way the wind is blowing at the moment."

The gouge was caused by falling foam, the problem that resulted in the explosion of the shuttle Columbia in 2003. The falling foam issue has plagued many previous shuttle launches as well, but flights were still given the go-ahead.

Congress has actually been more attentive to NASA since the Democrats took power, and lawmakers were already somewhat peeved before the most recent falling-of-the-foam. A report last month from the Government Accountability Office cited $94 million in misplaced equipment [PDF] over the last ten years, with unsatisfactory explanations like this one:

This computer, although assigned to me, was being used on board the International Space Station. I was informed that it was tossed overboard to be burned up in the atmosphere when it failed.

In contrast, the Mojave accident prompted a rash of speculation about the viability of the private space industry, and whether the accident would result in the collapse of Scaled Composites, the company also providing hardware for bad boy billionaire and entrepreneur Richard Branson's venture, Virgin Galactic. But it's the very possibility of failure, the possibility that the industry, or this company, or this technique might have to be scrapped altogether, that it might be destroyed by events or competitors, is what gives the private space industry strength and flexibility.

But even in acknowledging that possibility, industry watchers and participants seem confident the accident won't derail the space tourism industry. Michael Belfiore, author of a new book about the industry called Rocketeers, said: "Since it wasn't actually in flight, it's hard to see it as a strike against space technology as a whole....It's tragic and very sad, but I don't know if it's going to have a chilling effect on the industry."

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  • ||

    The institutional problems with NASA were made explicit 20 years ago. In two decades NASA hasn't leaned a goddamned thing. The same way the invisible hand of the market exterminates incompetently, the dead hand of bureaucracy perpetuates it.

  • ||

    ...problem of a three-inch gouge in the protective foam on the bottom...

    Nope.

  • ||

    Agree with parents. NASA has become a bloated, inefficient, government monster.

    Our space industry would be revitalized greatly if NASA was cut down to nothing more than enforcing (safety) regulations, data storage (they have massive amounts of data.. we gotta do something with it), and maybe act as a space emergency service.

    The rest of NASA's budget should be diverted directly to space startup companies.

    Private industry (guided by a few safety regulations) will always be better than a government program.

    We are at a turning point. Our generation could turn spaceflight into the next automobile.

  • ||

    What an offensively stupid post. Trying to romanticize the deaths of three workers in an industrial accident and compare that to the work needed from afar to model what happens when the shuttle reenters the atmosphere.

    These two incidents had nothing to do with each other and the accident at Scaled Composites says more about OSHA's future than about government or commercial space .

    I suspect though that Mangu-Ward doesn't care for OSHA since as a so-called libertarian author her biggest risk of work injury is carpal tunnel or a broken nail.

  • Episiarch||

    jerry is just shilling for Big NASA.

  • ||

    ...problem of a three-inch gouge in the protective foam on the bottom...

    Thanks to Mr. F. Le Mur for pointing this out. Mangu-Ward is an editor of Reason and was a researcher for John Tierney?

    Jesus, is this the sort of editing and fact checking we should expect from Reason?

  • ||

    No, actually I am a big supporter of Burt Rutan, starting before I met him more than 20 years ago at Mojave. I am a big supporter of commercial space efforts.

    But when Rutan gets his space shuttle equivalent in space, with seven on board, and they discover some sort of problem that could be minor or serious, you tell me they will not be taking their time to figure it out. You tell me they will be making seat of the pants judgments.

    How on earth (or off earth) is an accident that HAS happened comparable to the effort to analyze an accident that might happen and could be avoided?

    What I am not a supporter of is seeing liberal arts majors with no technical background suddenly claiming to have some expertise to pontificate on technical matters.

    All Mangu-Ward has done here is drag in the Ghost of Schumpeter to romanticize the deaths of three. And I suspect that if she were to follow up with Burt Rutan, she would find that they have undertaken a review of what happened and established procedures to make sure it doesn't happen again.

  • ||

    What I am not a supporter of is seeing liberal arts majors with no technical background suddenly claiming to have some expertise to pontificate on technical matters.

    Agreed.

  • ||

    The Shuttle repair question was rather iffy -- as best I understand it, they were balancing two specific future risks, not the immediate "can it land" risk.

    That seems the sort of call you might want to mull -- a very small chance of a serious screw-up during a minor repair causing enough damage to threaten the orbiter versus doing nothing and possibly causing enough damage on reentry to force a several month slip in the schedule as you repair it on the ground.

    Those tiles are amazing pieces of work, given the temperature ranges and vibration they endure throughout the whole launch-orbit-land process, and the fact that they're designed for repeat use.

    Nonetheless, they're brittle and reuseability is not worth the risks, which is why the next-gen launcher under design is going to use ablative shields.

    NASA's Ares program is rather interesting -- they seem to be trying to take tried, tested, and understood components (Shuttle stack, Saturn V second stage, ablative shields) and creating a simpler and safer system out of it rather than go for a pie-in-the-sky "Brand spanking new paradigm busting approach".

    They seem to have an eye towards the mistakes they made when designing the Shuttle, since it's flaws and overambitious design have haunted them for 25 years now.

    Not that it has anything to do with Mangu-Ward's article, which seems kind of bizarre.

  • Edward Wright||

    > the corps of engineers and decision-makers at mission control, who have
    > the spectre of congressional fury hanging over their heads.

    These sort of statements are made every time NASA runs into safety problems but they have no basis in reality.

    NASA has never been punished by the vengeful spectre of congressional fury. No NASA manager has ever been fired because of an accident nor has any program every been cancelled. Instead, the so-called "spectre of congressional fury" has given NASA increased appropriations following the accident.

  • Edward Wright||

    > NASA's Ares program is rather interesting -- they seem to be trying to take
    > tried, tested, and understood components (Shuttle stack, Saturn V second
    > stage, ablative shields) and creating a simpler and safer system out of
    > it rather than go for a pie-in-the-sky "Brand spanking new paradigm busting approach".

    Sigh. Here we go again. :-(

    It was the "tried, tested, and understood" Shuttle stack that killed Challenger. Solid rocket motors are inherently dangerous. Even Von Braun understood that and said they should never be used for manned vehicles.

    Calling expendable missiles and capsules a "a simpler and safer system" ignores reality. Even a flawed attempt to build a partly reusable vehicle (the Shuttle) had a better safety record than Apollo and Soyuz.

    The missile/capsule approach has killed fewer people than the Shuttle not because it is safer but because there have been far fewer launches. As a percentage of the number of flights, capsules have a worse safety record than the Shuttle.

    Aircraft are made safe by incremental testing, starting with low-speed taxi tests, high-speed taxi tests, low-speed flights, gradually working their way up. If something breaks on a test flight, the pilot can fly back to base and engineers can examine the defective part. Finally, when the design is completely wrung out (which sometimes takes hundreds of flights), the plane is put into production, but still, each individual "tail number" is flown by factory test pilots before it's delivered to the customer.

    None of those things can be done with expendable vehicles. Instead, a design is declared "operational" after a handful of test flights (sometimes only one) and every operational mission uses a brand new untested "tail number."

    The only way to achieve safety in spaceflight is with the same "pie-in-the-sky 'Brand spanking new paradigm busting approach'" that has been used in aircraft since the days of Orville and Wilbur and in rocketships since the days of the X-15.

    There is nothing "new" in this approach. Its success has been proven in many thousands of aircraft projects over the last 103 years. It has produced aircraft that fly safely over 99.999% of the time. By contrast, the so-called "simpler and safer" missile and capsule approach kills its occupants about 1% of the time. It is orders of magnitude more dangerous.

  • ||

    It was the "tried, tested, and understood" Shuttle stack that killed Challenger. Solid rocket motors are inherently dangerous. Even Von Braun understood that and said they should never be used for manned vehicles.

    Which will be used for the cargo lifter, not the manned segment.

    The manned segment will be lofted on a modified SRB, with an additional stage modified off a 2nd or 3rd stage Saturn V. There has been one mishap with an SRB, and it should be noted that it didn't blow up -- it blew up the giant container of explosives next to it.

    Calling expendable missiles and capsules a "a simpler and safer system" ignores reality. Even a flawed attempt to build a partly reusable vehicle (the Shuttle) had a better safety record than Apollo and Soyuz.

    In bizarro land. Apollo I caught fire on the pad during routine testing. Apollo 13 had an in-flight mishap.

    On the other hand, we've lost two shuttles. 14 dead in flight versus 3 on the ground. Hmm.

    They're moving back to ablative heat shielding and capsules for simple reasons -- capsules don't worry about falling debris (a pretty large problem), capsules have much simpler escape vectors, and ablative shielding is damned hard to screw up whereas tiles break easily, and despite that they remain the best solution found for reentry heat if you want "reusability".

    There is nothing "new" in this approach. Its success has been proven in many thousands of aircraft projects over the last 103 years. It has produced aircraft that fly safely over 99.999% of the time. By contrast, the so-called "simpler and safer" missile and capsule approach kills its occupants about 1% of the time. It is orders of magnitude more dangerous
    Maybe that's because -- and I'm just spitballing here -- space flight and atmospheric flight are entirely different things?

    I mean, last I checked most planes don't fly at Mach 25, experience 3k degree heat, or ride 6 million + pounds of thrust.

    The shuttle is a dead design. It requires materials technology that simply doesn't exist as of yet. Capsules and rockets are simpler, avoid the problems of finding suitable substances to deal with reentry heat and falling debris.

    That NASA is changing to a safer, simpler, and ultimately cheaper design -- and doing so by adapting technology whose limitations and benefits are well-known -- is to their credit.

  • ||

    KM-W: NASA suffers from being locked into certain suppliers and techniques (like the troublesome foam insulation...

    This implies that there are other, proven forms of insulation for the external tank -- with the right combination of insulation, adherence, and light weight but with greater mechanical strength -- that NASA is somehow barred from using or unwilling to use.

    I'd love to hear more about them. I'll bet NASA would, too.

    Of course, if it's just a free-floating cheap shot, no need to bother. Carry on.

  • Edward Wright||

    > Solid rocket motors are inherently dangerous. Even Von Braun
    > understood that and said they should never be used for manned vehicles.

    > Which will be used for the cargo lifter, not the manned segment.

    You are misinformed. The manned segment (called "Ares I") uses a solid rocket motor for the first stage.

    > In bizarro land. Apollo I caught fire on the pad during routine testing. Apollo
    > 13 had an in-flight mishap.

    > On the other hand, we've lost two shuttles. 14 dead in flight versus 3 on
    > the ground. Hmm.

    Yes, "hm." The total number of accidents or fatalities is meaningless. Airplane accidents kill a lot more important. So do cars. Even horses.

    The relevant number ("figure of merit," in engineering terms) is the accident *rate*. That was higher for Apollo (two accidents out of 16 flights) than Shuttle (two accidents out of 100+ flights).

    Accident rates matter.

    So do accidents on the ground.

    > They're moving back to ablative heat shielding and capsules for
    > simple reasons -- capsules don't worry about falling debris (a pretty
    > large problem), capsules have much simpler escape vectors,

    That's a common layman's fallacy. The Air Force stopped using escape capsules for one simple reason -- capsules had a very poor safety record compared to ejection seats. Not that ejection seats are particularly safe or ever trusted. Pilots consider ejection "attempted suicide to avoid certain death." It's the last resort when all else fails.

    Mike Griffin's belief that NASA can ignore safety just because they've got an ejection capsule shows lack of aviation knowledge and flight experience.

    > That NASA is changing to a safer, simpler, and ultimately cheaper design --

    Less expensive? Not even NASA is making that claim.

    At its height, the Shuttle flew 9 missions in one year and carried 54 people. At its height, Ares will fly two or three times a year, carrying 8 or 12. The annual operating cost cannot be less than the Shuttle's, though, because NASA does not want to lay off any of the Shuttle workforce.

    Per mission, Ares will cost more than the Shuttle. Per astronaut, it will cost much more. Even after all of the up-front development costs, which are estimated at $105 billion. $20 billion for Ares I and Orion alone.

    That's a high price to pay just to deploy another National Socialist Space Transportation System. When private enterprise is working to make human spaceflight cheaper and safer, there's no reason why the taxpayers should spend that kind of money to make it more expensive and more dangerous.

  • ||

    This computer, although assigned to me, was being used on board the International Space Station. I was informed that it was tossed overboard to be burned up in the atmosphere when it failed.

    BWAHAHAHAHAHA

    I don't know why Mangu-Ward found this unsatisfying...I could not be more satisfied.

  • ||

    You are misinformed. The manned segment (called "Ares I") uses a solid rocket motor for the first stage.

    No, you can't read. The shuttle stack -- tank + twin SRB's -- will be used for the cargo lifter.

    You are correct that the manned segment uses a modified SRB, but as I noted -- and you must have skipped in your eagerness to miss the point -- was that the SRB's proper have an excellent record. In Challenger, the SRB didn't blow up -- the External tank did. Admittedly, because the right SRB was venting sideways into the tank -- but as I noted, escape options for a capsule are considerably simpler than a shuttle (Which effectively has none).

    The Air Force stopped using escape capsules for one simple reason -- capsules had a very poor safety record compared to ejection seats
    WTF? Seriously, man, do you have any fucking clue what you're talking about?

    Why on earth are you comparing rockets and airplanes? That's like comparing the fucking safety features on a tricycle with one of a NASCAR racer.

    its height, Ares will fly two or three times a year, carrying 8 or 12.

    And, no, you don't have a clue. Ares is planned for 2 or 3 moon-flights -- which require the use of the cargo lifter in conjuction for the moon vehicle.

    It is planned for numerous flights to and from the space station per year -- considerably more than NASA's current rate of perhaps 5 manned flights per year.

  • Edward Wright||

    > No, you can't read. The shuttle stack -- tank + twin SRB's -- will be used for the cargo lifter.

    I can read fine, Mr. Morat. A derivative of the Shuttle SRB will be used for both the cargo lifter (Atlas V) and the personnel lifter (Atlas I). The external tank will not be used for either vehicle. Some of the tooling will be used to build tanks for Ares V. That might be the source of your confusion.

    > In Challenger, the SRB didn't blow up -- the External tank did. Admittedly, because the right SRB was
    > venting sideways into the tank

    That's not what happened. The SRB burned through, and the burn-through caused the SRB to break partially free of its mount and crash into the external tank. The tank broke up, causing a release of LH2 and LOX, which produced a fireball. There was no explosion, although the fireball gave many observers that impression. The orbiter flew through the fireball but broke up due to aerodynamic forces.

    > Why on earth are you comparing rockets and airplanes? That's like comparing the fucking safety features
    > on a tricycle with one of a NASCAR racer.

    Because I have some understanding of the systems involved. I have been involved in aerospace and I've lost enough friends to have some respect for the safety problems. If that makes you angry and causes you swear at me, so be it.

    "Rockets" are not synonymous with missiles. We can, and will, develop rockets that operate like aircraft, with aircraft-like reliability, safety, and economics. The national security and economic prosperity of the United States require it.

    > And, no, you don't have a clue. Ares is planned for 2 or 3 moon-flights -- which require the use of
    > the cargo lifter in conjuction for the moon vehicle.

    > It is planned for numerous flights to and from the space station per year -- considerably more than NASA's
    > current rate of perhaps 5 manned flights per year.

    NASA does not plan to use Ares and Orion for any flights to ISS. It plans to use private launch services and foreign partners for that. The versions of Orion that were designed to dock with the space station were recently cancelled.

    NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told Congress that if he had to fall back on using Orion and Ares to resupply the space station, he would have to cancel the Moon program to pay for it.

    You can say that Mike Griffin doesn't have a clue, if you like, but that will not change the facts.

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