Shuttle Thoughts: The Continuing Series…Continues

With yet another episode of “let’s-just-quote-Jorge-Frank-because-he-puts-it-so-much-better-than-I-could”.  In response to a comment about how the problem with Shuttle was that it tried to be everything to everyone, Jorge said:

That was an effect, not a cause. The cause was the decision to make the shuttle an operational, rather than an experimental vehicle. This was key. An experimental vehicle would have been much smaller and would have had a cockpit and an instrument bay rather than a crew cabin and a payload bay.

The decision to concentrate on existing governmental (civilian and military) and commercial customer requirements was subsequent to that. At the time, the entire US launch market was around 50 per year. So in order to be economical, the shuttle had to be capable of meeting the requirements of all those customers. That led to the “too many cooks” problem you mention. But note that the problem could have been averted at *two* prior points: the decision for an operational vehicle (rather than experimental) and the decision to target existing markets (rather than postulate that the presence of an ultra-low-cost launcher on the market, even if that launcher could only carry small payloads, might drive the market toward smaller payloads).

Monte Davis, and several others, have made the first point–that the shuttle should’ve been an experimental vehicle, not an operational one.  But I think Jorge’s second point is even more interesting–that even though they made that first mistake, that they didn’t have to compound it by going for something at the first try that could meet all the nation’s *existing* launch needs.  Even if that would’ve meant a lot less political support (and hence money for development), if they had gone with something small, and focused on trying to enable new markets instead of trying to replace existing ones, I think things could’ve turned out a lot differently.  If they had only had 1/4 the development budget, but build a vehicle 1/10th as big, I think they could’ve actually delivered a fully reusable vehicle.  And even if it was a crappy, first generation reusable vehicle, that had lots of flaws, there’s still a good chance it would have been good enough to make a huge difference.

The DC-3 was revolutionary for its time even though it is far inferior to modern jet liners.  Even a Falcon-1 class RLV that could only fly twice a month per airframe would revolutionize the industry.

Just a thought.

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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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18 Responses to Shuttle Thoughts: The Continuing Series…Continues

  1. Dave Salt says:

    I think you need to appreciate the situation the Shuttle architects faced back in the late-60’s, when much of the conceptual work was done. They needed something to maintain the programme momentum that Apollo had established (the Government/Industry complex) but they also knew that the funding was likely to get tighter, so they needed a launch system that would cut launch costs sooner rather than later.

    In hind-sight, they clearly made a major miscalculation. However, at the time, I suspect even the most pessimistic would have never imagined things could deteriorate in the way they have.


  2. Rand Simberg says:

    Extraordinary vehicles require extraordinary markets.

  3. Dart says:

    The situation of the Shuttle is dramatically different depending on the perspective you choose. In my view the overarching problem of the day was the dramatic overestimation of what technology was or would be available. The metalurgy and so many other technologies did not support SSMEs, SRB’s or most any other system that could function at the level of performance and reliability needed for human space activities. This is a lesson that too many people have still not learned.

    Look at the community pushing NASA to go straight to Mars with technology that can be developed in the next 10 years. We are no where near where we need to be in so many areas. Can we put together a rocket that can deliver a million pounds or whatever to Mars? Probably. Can we develop the rest of the system needed to get humans there and back with a reasonable level of confidence? Not likely in less than 30 or 40 years.

    Space exploration with humans is exceedingly difficult. Developing and exploiting low earth orbit is within reach if people make the right decisions, but that decision making is still imperfect. Everyone, from SpaceX to NASA has made silly mistakes. Lets keep flying, keep practicing, keep LEARNING. And lets stop worrying about the timeline and just keep going at a sustainable, responsible pace. We will get there unless we let our enthusiasm get us into trouble.

  4. I agree with Dart’s comments and overall philosophy.

    Jon’s “might have been” can be a blueprint for “what could be.”

    As to the future of RLVs, what will the technological drivers that make them more attractive to build? The economic drivers (which are the most significant ones) are a different issue, and technological solutions that make an RLV more feasible to build and operate may come from unexpected areas. I believe material science will play a bigger role in pushing RLV development than propulsion advances. I say this because material science has a broader commercial base and many attractive markets for its products, whereas propulsion advances for launch vehicles are almost moribund.

    Carbon nanotube-derived structural materials would enable robust RLV fuselages that are substantially lighter than existing materials, while not sacrificing robustness.

  5. MG says:

    I suspect lightweight, tough, low-maintenance TPS is a bigger challenge than comparable quality structures.

  6. Nels Anderson says:

    Regarding the mistake of trying to build an operational vehicle without having built an experimental one, could we characterize the actual Shuttle as being effectively an oversized experimental vehicle? If so, is there anything positive that we’ve learned from it (there seem to be lots of obvious negative lessons–how *not* to do things)? Aside from being smaller, how would the Shuttle have been different had it been intended as an experiment?

  7. mike shupp says:

    This misses some stuff. Basically, in the 1970’s it simply WAS NOT POSSIBLE for NASA to build “experimental” rockets of sufficient size to get human beings into orbit. Many many people wanted to kill off manned space flight — a third of the US, by my rough estimate. Many others — another third, roughly — thought of manned space flight as something sort of nice, but quite deferable. Most of those folks, of course, saw unmanned planetary projects as equally postponeable. And by 1972 or so, quite a lot of space projects — NERVA, the Apollo Applications Project, MOL, for example — had been killed, with absolutely no public protest.

    If NASA had announced something like “We want to play around experimental concepts and see what emerges over a decade or so,” NASA would gotten its wish very likely — at about a quarter of its alreadly shrinking budget. There wouldn’t have been any return to the Moon with an Experimental NASA; there wouldn’t have been human space light; there wouldn’t have been Galileo and Cassini and flights to the asteroid belt.

    At best, an Experimental NASA would have become a sort of space-based ARPA — without ARPA’s Gold Seal of military significance. At worst, NASA would have faded away into a sort of Coast and Geodetic Survey existence. You all know about the C&GS right? Small but proud government agency, does really nifty science. You probably exchanged some chit-chat with your wife or husband this morning, talking about magnetic reversals in the ocean floor plotted by C&GS over the decades. You placed some small bets at the water cooler this afternoon, guessing what significance geologists and anthropologists might read in teeny-tiny reversals 16 thousand and 12 thousand years. Sure you did. And in any sensible world, NASA would have settled happily for that degree of relevance and importance. Instead, to our infinite regret, NASA thought keeping a space program with fairly large capability was worth doing … and been proven tragically wrong.

  8. David Summers says:

    Personally, I think that the real issue was to build an operational vehicle using an experimental approach. Think about it – if they really wanted an operational vehicle (a truck), why would you use 1) new engines, 2) new reentry mode, 3) new heat shield, 4) new side by side structure, etc. A truck just doesn’t/shouldn’t push the envelope.

    You push the envelope with the smallest possible vehicle. You make a cargo carrier with the lowest possible technology.

  9. mike shupp says:

    David Summers —

    Pushing the envelope maybe a wonderful engineering strategy, if you have a budget and time, but for NASA that simply was not possible. The people there had to come up with Something Wonderful That Was Not Apollo, and they had to do it PDQ. Or they could simply threaten to close the doors and send everyone home.

    In retrospect, NASA might have been better off to threaten just that — to close down the agency unless Congress a/o the White House came through with sensible funding. But again, it wasn’t possible. No one in the ferslugginer world expected the USA to spend another 40-50 years limited to LEO; what people in NASA thought — and outside contractors such as me believed– was that the post Apollo drop in NASA funding was a temporary thing, due to some transitory politics, and that in five or six years space spending would start ramping up again. We’d get a space station going at last AND a second generation shuttle AND a proper Lunar base AND start planning for a Mars expedition….

    Building a not-so wonderful version of the space shuttle in that era while proclaiming it WAS wonderful was just politics — it was the price NASA had to pay to continue in existence. So the cost savings were bogus? The cost savings were given away by OMB decree everytime the shuttle development program got cut. (Don’t believe me — go to a library and read back issues of Aviation Week — we’re not dealing in secrets here.) So the figures promised to Congress in the end were fraudulent? Big deal — LOTS of federal programs are funded with fraudulent hopes of payoffs. Congressmen know that, and …

    This is getting too long. What I’m trying to say, gently, is that NASA has never had the option of operating by elementary engineering principles. It couldn’t “push the envelope” — it had to bust the envelope or die. Or be reduced to an agency which could only dream of pushing envelopes.

    You don’t believe me, I’m sure. Ask your parents or grandparents. You had to be a adult living through that period to understand it.

    And if it still seems too bizarre, think a bit about why NASA has refused to act as sensibly and intelligently as you think it should during the last 10 years or so. Was it just some strange moral flaws in Mike Grifin, Sean O’Keefe, and Dan Goldin that kept them from deciding that NASA should concentrate on “pushing the envelope with the smallest possible vehicle … with the lowest possible technology”?

  10. I understand why the decisions were made, Mike. It just wasn’t a good decision, like most political decisions. I guess to put it another way, since NASA is required to bust the envelope or die they should not be creating large cargo carriers at all. You burst the envelope with small vehicles, not large ones. Conversely, if you are making a large vehicle you should not push the envelope.

  11. Mike,
    In current year dollars, NASA has been given almost half a trillion dollars during my lifetime. Exactly how much closer are we to being a spacefaring society today than we were then? Would we really be that much further from that goal if NASA had lost 90% of it’s manned spaceflight budget over the past 30 years?


  12. Monte Davis says:

    The DC-3 was “revolutionary for its time” not by virtue of a first- (or tenth-) of-its-kind design, but by putting together a “sweet spot” combination of advances pioneered in many earlier aircraft, most of which had themselves been operational.

    Operational, but not in many cases profitable: what was really revolutionary about the DC-3 was, as American’s C.R. Smith (the first buyer) said, that it was the first aircraft that could make money in pure passenger service without government subsidy. (Yes, children, there was lots of ongoing subsidy for infant airlines in the free-market USA as well as socialistic Old Europe, and even after the Kelly Act of 1925.)

    The DC-3 (1936) sets too high a bar for now. I’d be ecstatic to see spacecraft reach a cost/performance level comparable to the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” of 1915.

  13. Monte,
    The DC-3 (1936) sets too high a bar for now. I’d be ecstatic to see spacecraft reach a cost/performance level comparable to the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” of 1915.

    Indeed. Because as I see it, even a “Jenny” level RLV could drastically change the way people view things. Right now, the bulk of people think RLVs are impossible without magic new technologies like nuclear rockets or nanotube-reinforced Unobtanium Wishalloy X composites. Even a modest RLV that was tiny, but was fully reusable would make such a huge difference in changing opinions. Even if it’s cost per pound were on par with Russian ELVs, I think it could still revolutionize things (and really start opening up some major new markets).


  14. Andrew Swallow says:

    Capsules cost more than launch vehicles. Try building a reusable capsule such as the silver dart in “2001 A Space Odyssey”. The J-130 could lift that to LEO.

    The same launch vehicle that lifts 6 people is now lifting 35 people, so the launch cost per person is 1/5.

  15. mike shupp says:

    JON GOFF — “In current year dollars, NASA has been given almost half a trillion dollars during my lifetime. Exactly how much closer are we to being a spacefaring society today than we were then? Would we really be that much further from that goal if NASA had lost 90% of it’s manned spaceflight budget over the past 30 years?”


    Interesting questions. Answers: (1) Not much, and (2) No.

    Now, some questions of my own. (1) Creating reasonably self sustaining colonies or industrial enterprises on the moon, on other planets, at L-5 colonies, or whatever is likely to be extremely expensive by current standards. The economic payoff is likely to be small for many years to come. Considering manned spaceflight simply as a possible business investment, should US taxpayers be asked to pay the bill?

    (2) If the answer is No, should we mind if other nations with less perfect political and economic institutions take our place in conquering the solar system? Or, trying to look backward from centuries in the future, would it make sense for the US to explore and exploit the planets, preempting manned space programs by say China, Japan, and India, even if such schemes look very silly in AD 2009? (2a) If the US government is unwilling to exploit/colonize the solar system, should American businessmen take on the job? For our future well being, if not their own? (2b) If American businessmen won’t exploit/colonize the solar system (without some extraordinary inducement) even though this looks desirable in the long term, should the American government take over the task? (2c) If business and government can’t afford space programs of such magnitude or such dubious future value, should they attempt to keep the possibility open for the future, say by — let’s be imaginative! — running a taxpayer-funded $17 billion dollar civilian space program, about one third of which keeps alive an undemanding space station construction program and rockets which suffice to push people into low earth orbit? (2d) Is there any sane world in which one can imagine such an LEO-based based program lasting for over 40 years? With what drugs should we treat people with such illusions?

    (3) The world is filled with people who have a very dim idea of US-Western European technological prowess and economic strength, who think that in a proper world they too would be rich but evial conquistadores and capitalists have unfairly deprived them of the wealth they should enjoy — Chileans who think Chilean copper mines ought to belong to Chile, Mexicans who think Mexican oil fields ought to belong to PetroMex, Indonesians who think rubber trees and orangutans and other natural wonders should belong to (non-Chinese-speaking) Indonesians, etc. etc. (This is not the complete story, of course, but there is a great deal of truth in such claims). These people will not react cheerfully and patiently to the idea that the Wealth of The Solar System belongs to the bold, domineering, venturesome, risk-taking entrepeneurs of the American-Western European-East Asian world. Their representatives will vote against us in the UN, for example, on space issues and others. Explain succinctly how the US government should respond to such issues in the coming centuries. (3a) For extra credit, try running your answer past the crew that currently is in charge of the US State Department. You lose points for bureaucrats who die laughing.

    (4) At any given moment, about one US citizen in three thinks that large scale space flight and colonization is an inevitable part of the human future. Half of these folks think we should work hard and pay taxes to bring on this desirable future. The others think of it something that “They” are going to do in the future, willy nilly, so it requires no further thought. One third of the electorate has no particular about the inevitability of spaceflight, but resents the “fact” that 20-30% of their taxes is used to pay for it. And one third of the electorate is absolutely furious that their hard-earned money is being taxed to pay for something as useless as manned space programs when there are so many unfilled needs here on earth, for health programs, for income maintenance programs, for medical research into “orphan” diseases, for peacekeeping in Darfur, for combatting AIDS, for combatting homophobia, for meeting our energy needs, for bringing peace between Israelis and Palestineans, for saving unwanted kittens from slaughter, for treating autism and mental illness, for …. Mostly. the people in the latter two groups have come to tolerate a space program (manned and unmanned) such as the US rns now, but the thought of change fires up their blood. They write angry blog posts, now and they write angry letters (or e-mail) to their representatives; sometimes they get angry enough to burn down cities. (4a) Describe a US government-run manned space program acceptable to all three groups. (4b) Describe a space program acceptable to all three groups that doesn’t involve massive disinformation or top secret security measures.

    (5) Reconsider your original questions. Didn’t you know the answers in advance? Having answered my questions, do you have other questions to ask?

  16. “”””””nanotube-reinforced Unobtanium Wishalloy X composites.”””””

    Gee, was that a dig at me, Jon?

    Even if it wasn’t, let me explain my rationale for making the point that advances in material sciences will be a game-changer in RLV development. First off, I agree that you don’t need “unobtanium” for a practical RLV, but if nanotube technology and other materials make rapid strides, they are a viable option for use in large portions of an RLV structure. I’m convinced that nanotube-derived structural components will be in use on large portions of some aircraft within a decade. Since I don’t see RLV development moving very fast, such timing will be ideal for would-be RLV developers to seriously consider designing their vehicle with a substantial amount of nanotube or other derived lighter weight structural components. Since it is highly likely that a robust aircraft or launch vehicle could be built beyond a decade from now with substantial, even dramatic, reduction in fuselage weight, then it is very likely that an RLV could be built without pushing the outer envelope for materials technology. In other words, lighter weight nanotube-derived or reinforced materials will be very affordable and the tchnology for manufactuirng large vehicle components will be mature.

  17. Roderick,
    I don’t disagree with you (that improved materials always help). I was just poking fun at the people who really think that with existing materials RLVs are physically impossible. I’m always a fan of technological improvements, but most of what stands in the way of RLVs right now is learning how to practically piece together what we have in a reliable system.


  18. Thanks, Jon. I was actually being facetious, as I do recognize from other forums that there are people who put up the exotic materials/advanced propulsion strawman. You are correct that existing technologies can be used for a viable RLV system — that’s why I’m a big fan of drop tanks, for instance. You can have a “virtual SSTO” with the use of droptanks, and, therefore, a simplified operational profile.

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