Griffin on "Man-Rating"

I just noticed an interesting point brought up in the comments section of a recent post on Jeff Foust’s Space Politics blog. The commenter linked to article with an old quote (emphasis mine) by Mike Griffin on human rating:

In other testimony, Griffin has made it clear that he is not opposed to using EELV vehicles effectively unmodified from their current versions to launch crewed vehicles. In a May 2003 hearing by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee on NASA’s Orbital Space Plane (OSP) program—a short-lived effort to develop a manned spacecraft that was superseded by the CEV—Griffin noted that the term “man rating” dated back to efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to modify ICBMs to carry capsules. “This involved a number of factors such as pogo suppression, structural stiffening, and other details not particularly germane to today’s expendable vehicles. The concept of ‘man rating’ in this sense is, I believe, no longer very relevant.

He argued that EELVs and other expendable vehicles are already called upon to launch high-value unmanned payloads. “What, precisely, are the precautions that we would take to safeguard a human crew that we would deliberately omit when launching, say, a billion-dollar Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission?” he asked. “The answer is, of course, ‘none’. While we appropriately value human life very highly, the investment we make in most unmanned missions is quite sufficient to capture our full attention.”

The Atlas 5 and Delta 4 EELVs, he noted, have a specified design reliability of 98 percent, in line with experience with the premier expendable vehicles to date. If such a vehicle was used to launch a crewed spacecraft equipped with an escape system of just 90 percent reliability, he noted, the combined system would have a 1-in-500 chance of a fatal accident, “substantially better than for the Shuttle.”

So, here Griffin is more or less saying that the Delta IV and Atlas V could be used pretty much as is for launching people. However, not too much later, when he started getting into full swing with his pitch of The Stick, and the in-line SDV (now apparently dubbed the “ILV” by NASA), he completely switched tunes, as can be seen from this article. Once again, quoting Griffin:

[T]here would be a bunch of changes that would have to be put into the EELV to human rate it, and I don’t know that that’s the most fiscally sound path for NASA to go down. And frankly, I don’t know that the EELV community would welcome us getting into their production lines in order to make those kinds of modifications.

I’m confused now. Which is it? Are Delta IV and Atlas V good to go right out of
the box? Is man-rating an antequated concept that mostly dealt with converting old ICBMs into launch vehicles? Or is man-rating a launcher a process so onerous and difficult that the costs justify a $5B launcher development project instead?

Realistically speaking, the main add-ons that have been suggested were engine health monitoring systems. These let you know if something is going wrong with the engine, so you can shut it down, and in this case eject the capsule. Usually engines don’t fail instantly, there is often tell-tale signs that something is going awry long before a catastrophic failure can occur (even for engines designed at the bleeding edge of technology with razor thin margins like the SSME). One suggested system uses spectroscopy on the engine plume to detect problems, such as if the mixture ratio is shifting from what the vehicle thinks its delivering to the engines. This might be indicative of a chamber burn through that is now leaking extra propellant into the chamber. The problem is that doing this doesn’t require billions of dollars, thousands of pounds, or tons of modifications to the launch vehicle. When the DC-X program was moved to NASA and they upgraded it to its DC-XA configuration, they added several of these sensor systems for a trivial cost and time expenditure. We’re talking low millions, and a couple dozen pounds. All you’re doing is mounting another sensor or two or three, and some wiring to send that data up to the payload fairing. This isn’t something that should take billions of dollars or require subtantial rework. Basically, this argument is bogus.

The real answer to why Griffin is changing his tune may have come out in his next sentance (emphasis again mine):

Right now the path we think is the most favorable is the shuttle-derived, in part because that gives us the best work force transition issues.

Basically, the real reason why the VSE architecture is being diverted into a shuttle-derived direction is entirely due to jobs issues. In order to maintain support, NASA needs to keep people employed in key congressional districts. It isn’t the difficulty of earth orbit rendezvous, it isn’t the difficulty or cost of man-rating, it isn’t even the “unreliability” of private enterprise. It’s entirely about making sure that enough pork is distributed to the right places.

We should support this why?

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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.
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

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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9 Responses to Griffin on "Man-Rating"

  1. Michael Mealling says:

    “We should support this why?”

    Because its the political price that has to be paid in order for the Innovative Programs office to get its funding.

  2. Jon Goff says:

    Michael,

    Because its the political price that has to be paid in order for the Innovative Programs office to get its funding.

    While that may be true, focusing on an expensive new architecture like NASA is doing is likely to soak up enough of their money that they don’t have anything for Innovative Programs. Look at what has happened during the Shuttle RTF. As cost overruns mounted, everything else got shafted a bit. How much funding is Innovative Programs really going to get when ATK starts having cost overruns on their Stick or ILV?

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, just warning that accepting a politically motivated system in hopes of piggybacking something better is fraught with risks.

    ~Jon

  3. kert says:

    One thing that i never understood about the jobs argument is .. why cant the jobs be retained doing something useful instead ?
    Like actually working on various lunar equipment to be used in future. There’s that lunar base that supposeldy will be built, right ?
    Well, this one could use a lot of extensive work by highly paid engineers in NASA workforces, thats their job, isnt it, to work on the frontier ?
    There’s tons of useful stuff that could be implemented by NASA, like protype power beaming systems for lunar base, all sorts of ISRU equipment, different on-site construction techniques etc etc.
    Instead, all this workforce will continue to do what basically is line production of 20-years old launch system components.

  4. PhysBrain says:

    Although I have no idea what man-rating a launch system entails, I’m forced to wonder if the STS ever underwent any such rating. Since none of STS launch stack was derived from ICBM technology, would the man-rating procedures have even applied? Still, I’ve got to think that the EELV’s and Falcon’s are at least as reliable as the STS stack. With the addition of vehicle health monitoring systems and an adequate escape system, I wouldn’t have any trouble climbing on top of one of those vehicles.

    The private sector seems to be perfectly willing and able to provide crew launch capability, especially if NASA declares that it will pay well for such services. It would then make sense for NASA to allow the EELV’s, Falcon V’s and Sticks to compete for NASA’s business on an even playing field. NASA can then focus its R&D dollars on developing the ILV (if it so desires) which is something the private sector will be unable or unwilling to provide for some time.

  5. Norden says:

    Has a valuable unmanned payload ever been launched with an escape rocket system?

  6. Kelly Starks says:

    the best work force transition issues

    Thats much more upfrount then I’ld expect. In English, the new systems wouldn’t need the 10’s of thousands of folks we trained for shuttle.

    kert said…

    One thing that i never understood about the jobs argument is .. why cant the jobs be retained doing something useful instead ?

    Not really. NASAs gets funds for given missions – if they don’t consume as much labor hours or money they can’t retask it. Also theirs the issue of what congressional district the jobs are lost or gained in.

    Past that, its virtually impossible to think of anything that could legitimatly require that huge a ground support force! Were telking 10’s of thousands of folks for a shuttle that reasonably should only need hundreds.

  7. SpikeAr says:

    And here’s an example of Nasa district $$/jobs:

    Crew Exploration Vehicle could be next challenge for Michoud

    BY GEOFFREY SHANNON
    SLIDELL SENTRY-NEWS

    SLIDELL-Following last week’s space shuttle Discovery launch, Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans East found itself under the national media spotlight.

    Over the past 2 1/2 years NASA spent over $2 billion attempting to stop foam debris from breaking off the space shuttle’s external fuel tank, a problem that caused the crash of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. However, during the July 26th launch a 1-pound chunk of foam insulation fell from the tank, triggering an investigation to help solve the problem. Attention turned to Michoud, and several workers went on record asking about potential job loss.

    Any loss of jobs at Michoud would hurt the New Orleans region, including St. Tammany Parish. The facility, owned by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, averages about $130 million a year in payroll and spends $22.9 million with subcontractors in Louisiana each year. Average salary for Michoud employees is $65,000.

    Roughly 40 percent of Michoud’s 2,083 employees live in St. Tammany Parish. Add to that the roughly 1,000 residents working at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and the roll that NASA plays in the local economy becomes increasingly visible.

    “They (NASA) really are an important part of our economy,” said Brenda Reine, St. Tammany Parish Economic Develop-ment Foundation Director.

    [from HobbySpace newssite link]
    SpikeAr

  8. kert says:

    ..its virtually impossible to think of anything that could legitimatly require that huge a ground support force! Were telking 10’s of thousands of folks for a shuttle that reasonably should only need hundreds.
    Why simply a “support force” ? Are you saying that these people are not capable of anything more than doing a routine job that they have done for past twenty years ?
    Why not plan thousands of different projects, employing a hundred of former shuttle workers each. Im sure the issues of living off earth for the first time are technically challenging enough that all of these people will find something worthwhile and interesting to do.

  9. Kelly Starks says:

    Why simply a “support force” ? Are you saying that these people are not capable of anything more than doing a routine job that they have done for past twenty years ?

    They are shuttle mechanics, flight planers, etc – not scientists or engineers. If you don’t fly shuttles, or something equally badly designed, they have nothing to rebuild.

    You really don’t NEED more tehn a tiny fraction of those folks to do what we’ld want to in space.

    Why not plan thousands of different projects, employing a hundred of former shuttle workers each. Im sure the issues of living off earth for the first time are technically challenging enough that all of these people will find something worthwhile and interesting to do.

    Such other thousands of programs would be to small to get the votes for funding aproval. Ignoring that, we’ve had folks living in stations for decades, and very advanced commercial R&D programs, so I don’t see what those thousands of programs would be?.

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