MSFC Competency Bleg

I know this may sound mean-spirited, but I’m genuinely curious: does anyone know of any big projects that MSFC has played a major role in over the last 30 years that were actually successful?  I’ve only been paying attention since the mid-nineties, and almost everything that I’ve seen has been the megaprojects that they’ve run into the ground (NLS, all the late 90s X-vehicles, SLI, OSP, Ares-I, etc).  I’m sure they’ve had some successes over my lifetime (especially on smaller projects), I’m just not aware of them.  Anyone able to enlighten me on this?  I’m trying to figure out how a center with so many competent engineers can struggle so bad on projects–I’m trying to see if there’s any lessons learned about what sort of projects MSFC does best.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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12 Responses to MSFC Competency Bleg

  1. Zach says:

    I’ve closely followed the ups and down of the NASA mega projects throughout my academic life. When I was in first grade I remember going to the Cleveland airshow and seeing a quarter scale mock up of the X-30 and being amazed by it. When I was in middle school I used to watch the webcam Lockheed Martin had set up in the assembly building where they were building the two X-33s. After the X-33 was canceled I read all I could on the three nebulous concepts that came from SLI, and watched that turn into the diminished expectations that was the OSP program. From my point of view, the only thing NASA has ever actual made are the CG posters given out at airshows and open houses.

    That being said, I’m not sure I agree with putting the X-33 in the same boat as the Ares I. After the failure of the composite liquid hydrogen tanks, Michoud built multi-lobe lithium aluminum tanks that were lighter then the composite tanks they were to replace. I’ll grant you that there was simply no way that the X-33 was going to lead to a single stage to orbit vehicle, but it would have provided invaluable data on technologies that might have allowed for a ‘no kidding’ RLV to be made. With it’s innovative pad design, it would have been interesting to see if the X-33 could have been made to fly twice in a week, or twice in two weeks.

    The Ares-I on the other hand, is a bizarre exercise in Rube Goldberg launch vehicle design that in it’s current iteration doesn’t even provide payload performance greater then what is available commercially in the Delta IV heavy.

  2. Ian says:

    Jon, you should ask that in Nasawatch. I think you’ll get responses from NASA people there. I’m serious. Just ask nicely.

  3. Gary C Hudson says:

    I can add to the list: the Advanced Solid Rocket Motor (ARSM) early 1990s, plus the Alternate Access to Station program (early 2000s). The former was mega, the latter not so much (but the impact of MSFC neglect was more substantial to our space effort in general).

  4. MG says:

    Perhaps the problem at MSFC isn’t the quality or number of its engineers. Perhaps (and this relates to my pointed question at the end of conference at ARC) the problem is the center management, especially the barnacle-like civil “servants” who are thoroughly entrenched in their bureaucratic empires.

    I suppose one could also argue that LockMart is more responsible for the X-33’s failure. How much control did NASA have over which LockMart business unit got the project?

    Did I mention they have a cool Saturn 5 display there? That’s gotta count for *something*.

  5. Anonymous says:


    I think that the Bantam Rocket program was run by NASA-Marshal in the 1990’s and led to some contracts and the RS-88 engine and TRW pintle engine developments. I think that the Bantam program died in 1997 after Microcosm protested NASA’s awards going to 4 teams to start building a Bantam vehicle which is basically a duplicate of the SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket. After the Microcosm protest the Bantam program died. The President of SpaceX and the VP in charge of SpaceX’s avionics were Microcosm employees, and TRW’s pintle engine for the Bantam was led by SpaceX’s propulsion lead. I think that Elon Musks’s original core leadership/technical team at SpaceX were almost all Bantam rocket people.

    Gary Hudson and Rotary Rocket at one point in ~ 1999 were looking at using the low performance Fastrac engine on their Roton demonstrator. Gary Hudson probably remembers all of this much better than I do.

    I think that NASA-Marshall also successfully built the ARPO sensor for the Orbital Express mission used by DARPA. NASA-Marshall may have been the lead on the DART mission which failed when using this ARPO sensor, but that mission did not fail due to the ARPO sensor.

    I think that NASA-Marshall gets into trouble when they try to build entire spaceships by themselves, because this is something that may require the coordination of thousands of people, which is probably beyond the capabilities of most government agencies (except for DOD). NASA-Marshall may be competent in running multiple smaller development programs, like DARPA does, but can you fault them for taking the opportunity to spend $100 Billion on a multi-decade vehicle development effort, even if it is probably way beyond their capabilities.

    SpaceX could launch a manned mission to the Moon with a single launch of a Falcon-9 Heavy using 4 strap-on boosters (instead of 2), a Dragon capsule, and a lunar lander. The United States could easily put a man on the moon for under $2 Billion in under 5 years, and all of this talk by the Augustine Panel is to justify Congress spending $100 Billion on the fiction that is going on at the NASA Field Centers.

  6. Eric says:

    MSFC managed the early years of the development of the Hubble Space Telescope. In addition they managed the Chandra X-ray Observatory development. Both of these programs are certainly successful and cost over $1B (making them ‘big projects’ in most people’s opinion).

  7. MSFC is in Sen. Richard Shelby’s pervue. He doesn’r care whether it’s efficient or particularly successful, only that it’s big and in Alabama.

  8. Rand Simberg says:

    Hubble was hardly a paragon of management skill. Recall that the mirror on it was ground precisely wrong, and it required a repair mission and a set of new optics to make it usable.

  9. Markus says:

    Although Hubble’s mirror was flawed there were also a number of design flaws. Such as the whipping solar panels and the tendency of the aperture door to open with excessive force, both of which would cause Hubble to oscillate in a fashion that rendered it unusable. There also seem to have been many problems with quality control and project management. If we want to be charitable the mirror issue is not entirely Marshall’s problem but the others certainly were.

  10. TB says:

    MSFC developed the super-lightweight ET in the 90’s. The standard weight and lightweight ETs were also Marshall products, albeit in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Marshall has managed the SSME from the cradle.
    What’s non-obvious, but certainly non-trivial, is that no two ETs have been manufactured identically. There has been a long series of small- to medium-impact design modifications to ET throughout its history. Additionally, as with all launch systems, non-conformance issues occasionally require MSFC technical workarounds. Taken individually, few of these projects could be called “big” ones, but together they constitute a significant and long-running engineering effort.
    Current engineering work on the Ares I upper stage can fairly be compared to development of the ET and SSME. And since the first stage is being designed and built by ATK (and of course Orion is being engineered by Lockheed and managed from JSC), in that sense, MSFC is neither working outside its skill set nor attempting to “build entire spaceships” alone. Whatever the next-generation launch system turns out to be, propulsion will be managed by Marshall. That skill set simply doesn’t exist in volume elsewhere in the agency.

  11. johnhare john hare says:

    >>>Whatever the next-generation launch system turns out to be, propulsion will be managed by Marshall. That skill set simply doesn’t exist in volume elsewhere in the agency.<<<<

    Fortunately for us, it exists outsice the agency.

  12. chuck2200 says:

    Jon said “I’ve only been paying attention since the mid-nineties, and almost everything that I’ve seen has been the megaprojects that they’ve run into the ground (NLS, all the late 90s X-vehicles, SLI, OSP, Ares-I, etc)”

    Sorry Jon, but NLS does not belong in that list as it was not “run into the ground”. It went all the way thru a successfully completed PDR in the early 90’s and was well on its way to becoming the nation’s operational Shuttle-Derive Heavy Lift system. The only reason it wasn’t actually deployed is that the Congress was unwilling to fund deployment and operations alongside an operational Shuttle. Other that that, NLS was a complete success.

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