The Wrong Stuff

February 27, 2011 - Reading time: 3 minutes

I just saw this article discussing the challenges of returning from Mars.

Returning from Mars is a large engineering problem that's independent from most (not all) aspects of getting there, and it's a good idea to start pondering the problem even though a specific mission architecture hasn't been agreed on.

What's sad is that ATK, Lockheed, and Grumman were NASA's choices.  This is the root of many of NASA's problems: an inability to divorce itself from the lumbering herbivores that have grown (over the last 5 decades) to define the agency.  Corporate behemoths like the ones named here (and several others) are where good ideas and creative thinkers go to die.  Tiny organizations have great ideas and accomplish amazing things with limited resources - this is the essence of engineering, and that type of thinking and motivation is what got us to the moon originally (yes, I realize that it was the same contractors back then.  That was 40 years ago).  Now, NASA meets its small business goals by having large contractors subcontract work to small companies. 

How does this manifest itself?  A couple of examples:

  1. I work on a NASA contract that is run by a very large contractor.  When said large contractor bid on the contract, they made small businesses an integral part of the contract by getting half a dozen small companies to be "teammates."  These teammates don't contribute their small corporate culture to the contract; in some cases I would say that their corporate culture has been killed by the relationship.  Instead, new employees are assigned to either the large contractor or one of the smaller ones when they are hired.  The only difference between a project engineer employed by contractor A or B is what company writes the paycheck, and a couple of layers of management.  Every day, I have to complete 2 timesheets - one for the prime contractor, and one for my teammate.  If I want to take a day off, I have to alert my project manager and section manager (prime contractor), local manager and teammate principal (my teammate), and my NASA customer.  Yes, 5 bosses.
  2. If I want to buy a widget from a large company, I submit an order to the purchasing people.  They see that the order is to a large company, so they instead submit the order to a small/disadvantaged/minority or woman-owned company that exists solely to place my order, add a markup, and then sell it to my contractor.  I get the part I asked for, but a couple of days later and 15% more expensive.

This is how the large contractors think, and they are consistently rewarded for these inefficiencies and the hundred other examples of syphilitic idiocy they dream up each day.  One lesson presented by the Orion program (I no longer refer to "lessons learned" because it's clear that we learn nothing) is that the large contractors preserve their profit margins by re-using as much of their aging junk as possible, because innovation takes time and energy.  Thus the "high-tech" glass cockpit of Orion was going to use LCD displays that were obsolete before PDR, because that's what the large contractor tasked with making them had lying around.

I'm sure that given enough time and money, this set of contractors could make a functional crew return vehicle for a Mars mission.  But what are the odds that they can make an excellent crew return vehicle?

Trying this again

February 22, 2011 - Reading time: ~1 minute

I'm leaving for Florida in the morning to watch STS-133.  I've got a good feeling about it this time ...

Right, the 2012 budget.

February 15, 2011 - Reading time: ~1 minute

Not that we've gotten a 2011 budget.  So business as usual at NASA, including those whose projects got dumped at the end of last fiscal year (I hope you're still with us!).

Engineers at NASA: hang in there.  Reversal of fortunes is an everyday occurrence around here; engineers and scientists who work for the government make progress long term by making sure that good ideas remain in a state of viable dormancy during periods of starvation.  It works for bacterial spores, and it seems to work for us.

We live in interesting times

February 13, 2011 - Reading time: ~1 minute

Consecutive posts on NASA Watch: House Appropriators Pull Out The Knives, then Just When You Thought No One At NASA Was Thinking Ahead.


There's really no shortage of smart people and great ideas at NASA.  Some ideas are small in scope; they may result in better efficiency, higher reliability, or more convenience (many have much larger potential in the realm of technology spinoffs).  These get lost in the depths of the shortsighted and risk-averse management structure of any given center.  Bigger ideas die because big ideas require funding from congress, which is clearly not going to happen.

It would be nice to live in a world where public policy was actually set with the public's interests in mind.  Maybe someday Kepler will find one.

NASA needs more idealists

February 5, 2011 - Reading time: 7 minutes

It's fair to say that I'm full of ideas.  They aren't all good, and they aren't all original, but I like to think ahead and imagine possibilities.  It's why I enjoy science fiction, and it's why I wanted to work at NASA.  I always assumed that at NASA, I would be less likely to be told that my ideas were too "out there," since "out there" is NASA's business.

What I found when I got here is that "out there" is indeed a problem: NASA's business is in satisficing.  It's an underfunded federal jobs program meant to keep huge government contractors in business, not the bastion of high-risk, high-yield research and development that I had envisioned.

This comes up because of a conversation I had the other day with an "old timer" civil servant (he's not that old, but he has been at NASA for much longer than me).  I went to him seeking some advice on a politically expedient way of pitching a proposal that might be construed as stepping on someone's toes.  What I was proposing would replace a system that we're about to fly with something that's best described as TRL 4, 5 tops.  It's something that a few people were having great success with at Ames Research Center about a decade ago, until a budget cut killed the project; it has languished since then.  My idea involved taking the research from Ames and applying it to our project in a much more elegant and useful way than what we're flying.

The outcome of the conversation was twofold:

  1. "Working with Ames" is out of the question; they're already trying (with some success) to take control of this project from JSC; we recently got "screwed" by them and the project managers here would probably laugh at me if I proposed working with Ames.  It would be much more productive to just do the work on our own, reinventing the wheel as necessary, and leaving the outcome as a surprise lest Ames take more of our project (and budget).
  2. What we have is Good Enough.  "Better is often the enemy of good."  It's been said before, and in many cases I agree.  In this case I don't.  But he brought up a good point that's valid at NASA, even though it shouldn't be: if you want to replace something that works (to some degree), you've got to convince someone with resources why it's bad.  You have to have a Wrong that needs to be Righted, and management has to agree with your Wrongs.  If you can't convince the right people that it's Wrong, then either it isn't Wrong, or this isn't the time to change it (I would have to wait until different people, who can be convinced, are in charge).

On the surface, #1 is appalling and #2 is reasonable.  But if you think for a bit about where we are, #1 is even more appalling, and #2 becomes pathetic.  I won't address #1 because it speaks for itself.

#2 comes back to satisficing.  What I was told by my elder (whom I'm supposed to respect) is that it's proper to settle for "good enough."  His point was that good ideas abound, but personal interests and politics will always prevail so you have to work within the system, because radical change only has a chance in the face of abject failure.  As unpleasant as the thought may sound to a budding engineer, it is exactly how we work at NASA.  ISS crews are faced with a staggering array of workarounds, "known bugs," and poor designs that are flown to the station because they meet a schedule, not because they are good.  And once hardware has flown, it becomes even harder to make drastic changes, because so many resources were already expended to get the existing stuff up to the Station.  What I'm doing now is no different - I'm working to fly hardware and software, purchased or developed at taxpayer expense, that will probably never work well, but will probably be in use for a decade or more because it's "good enough."  The alternative - a year or two of R&D into a technology that has profound spinoff potential [1] - is a good idea, but there aren't enough Wrongs to justify pushing it now.

America chose to go to the moon not because it was easy, but because it was hard.  Today, we choose NOT to go to the moon, because it's too hard.  We choose to go to Mars, maybe, but using the architecture of the Apollo program because new ideas are too hard.  We choose workarounds over rework for the ISS program; not because rework is more expensive but because workarounds are easier politically (and - on a cost-plus contract - more profitable).

This is the attitude that must change for us to progress.  NASA is full of bright people who are in tune with the political realities of "how things work" at NASA.  It's easy to find someone who will explain that each center competes against all others, which is why we can't cooperate with them.  What we need instead is a NASA full of idealists, people who are impractical and who reject political expedience in favor of radical ideas and the high-risk, high-reward research that will lift humanity from this fragile oasis.  NASA is full of people who are more than happy to tell a young engineer why "you can't do that."  But humanity is most successful when it decides to challenge the odds and tackle the insurmountable - there should be no place for naysayers at NASA.

Progress has never been easy.  The preface to The Modern System of Naval Architecture, published in the late 1800s, reads:

We the passing generation have had to grope our way out of the dark slowly and painfully, with trial and error.  But what has to be pardoned to us can no longer be pardoned to our successors, to whom we bequeath the costly knowledge and painful experiences that have cost us so dear, but which we have gladly earned, and now painstakingly contribute for their instruction, and the advancement of their future.

These are profound words from an intense era of discovery and invention, and I think that the engineers who created the Apollo spacecraft would agree with the sentiment.  What we must do now is demonstrate that we carry their banner in good faith: we do not rest on our laurels and wallow in the ease of precedent; we build on their successes, learn from their failures and ours, and our achievements are beyond their wildest imaginations.  We must measure by reward, not just risk, and act accordingly.  To do less is to resign ourselves to mediocrity - and that is not acceptable.

[1] What are the spinoffs?  Prosthetic limbs that work like real ones.  More responsive controls for cars, control rooms, airplanes, and spacecraft.  Improved medical monitoring.  Probably more.

Why STS-133 was scrubbed

November 9, 2010 - Reading time: 2 minutes

Historical note: all of this. I still agree with this 100%, inside NASA and also basically everywhere.

We know the official reasons for the series of STS-133 launch scrubs last week.  Weather, anomalous readings, and finally the hydrogen leak and subsequently noticed foam/ice issue.

Those things seem pretty familiar.  On the surface, they're reasonable.  Funny electrical readings - certainly a problem.  A leaking hydrogen valve - certainly a problem.  And we all know what foam and ice can do to an Orbiter.

What's not mentioned is why those problems occur.  Sure, there will be investigations and "root cause" analysis (a ridiculous pursuit with a worthless conclusion) but I think a lot of people miss the deeper issues at hand.

The Shuttle fleet has been flying for almost 30 years.  In that time, the STS has undergone a couple of major overhauls, with weight reductions and technology improvements.  But something has been missed in the 3 decades of operation: continuous, incremental improvements.

Shall I be charitable?  Fine.  There have been some incremental technology improvements and there have been some process improvements.  But not really to the degree there should have been.  The reason is simple and not uncommon in big organizations, but disappointing nonetheless: the Shuttle program suffers from a shortsighted institutional inertia. 

The inertia manifests itself in a simple way: when people find small problems, inefficiencies, or parts that could be improved, there is generally no action taken.  People can submit various types of requests, e-mail their managers, and so on, but the end result tends to be the same - you can't just make changes; the certification process is too expensive and time consuming, the risks are too high, the problems aren't bad enough to justify the expenditures.  Operational workarounds are always viewed as cheaper than actually fixing problems.  The result is a state of perpetual glitch - known problems, huge binders full of procedures and workarounds, an over-reliance on collegial knowledge.  Because change is difficult, maybe even a bit scary, it is not undertaken.  Changes that could result in workforce reductions are especially scary and unusual.  When looking at an individual improvement, it's not such a big deal.  A penny here, a penny there.  We can't do them all.  But en masse, the missed opportunities represent a significant cost to the program.

The result is a spacecraft and program that despite being fantastic, earn their reputations as unreliable, expensive, and inefficient.

Smart people at NASA are thwarted by layers of management who are afraid to take risks, unwilling to defend good ideas, and unable to drive improvements.  This is why STS-133 was scrubbed.

JSC's biggest metaphor is engulfed in flames

October 16, 2010 - Reading time: 6 minutes

Historical note: I was very proud of this post.  I remember writing it while under the influence of being annoyed by work, and distinctly recall that this was around the time that my view of NASA turned from one of hope and inspiration to one of disappointment.

The Outpost tavern apparently burned down tonight.

Let me rephrase that.

The remains of the Outpost tavern, which had been balanced precariously on cinder blocks and scrap lumber for the last several months, apparently burned down tonight.

Let me rephrase further.

Another aging NASA institution died tonight.

Rest In Peace, The Outpost.  Does this mean we can we get on with exploring?

Here's what I mean.  The Outpost was an icon of the previous generation of NASA - test pilots, rough-and-tumble guys who blazed trails into outer space with their grit and determination.  Or so the story went - when you delve deeper into the details, you find out that really it wasn't their grit at all - the Right Stuff that we all know so much about really had very little to do with humanity reaching space.  The world, America, even NASA allowed the myth to continue because it made much better press - some superhuman beings stretched us from the ordinary to the extraordinary.  To glamorize the engineers who actually made it happen: how boring!

Unfortunately, that view was allowed to persist long after it was useful.  Today's NASA is hampered by many forces; one of the most detrimental is the crew office.  The crew office is the greatest bastion of the Space Ego, where test pilots, sports heroes, and other mythical creatures can take refuge in perceived greatness.  As we look beyond the moon for space missions, we are forced to accommodate "pilots" in our spacecraft, even though very little piloting is required - otherwise the crew is reduced to "Spam in a can."

Consider that phrase.  It's used up by many astronauts who resent the idea of being a passenger in a vehicle being launched from Earth to Earth Orbit - after all, what is an Astronaut if He is not In Charge?  An automated vehicle that deposits its crew and cargo into space is hardly worth the Bucks that Buck Rogers requires - Bucks must be spent to allow Buck to maintain his control!

But that's a waste.  Any military aviator will tell you that modern military jets are not controlled by pilots - pilots merely suggest direction for the aircraft, and the aircraft does what it must.  "Lieutenant Proof," they call them - aircraft so much smarter than their pilots that they can please all parties: they can correct for human hubris while still exciting their human cargo (excuse me: pilots).

The Outpost Tavern was an icon of 1970s and 1980s NASA.  It was an Astronaut hangout; a place where the ordinary engineers who worked at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX could rub elbows with the elite of the elite - the ones who enabled the Space Age by actually going into space.  Those extraordinary men (so few women) went to space riding the contrails of the mighty Space Shuttle (recently fallen out of favor, sometimes) into the vast unknown void of ... Earth orbit. The GPS satellites that allow Google to tell us so much about ourselves and our destinies are at a higher orbit than most of the Shuttle missions reached.  We omit that part from the epic stories we leave behind, because it fails to do justice to the heroism of our sainted ... pilots.

I work at NASA.  I've wanted to work at NASA since I was in elementary school.  It wasn't because I wanted to be an astronaut - I did, of course, and I still do, but there was something different - I wanted to be an Engineer at NASA.  It was a weird quirk for a weird kid, I guess.

Yet here I am.  After a quick period of disillusionment I've become some sort of cognitive module here, a real-life Sam Beckett: bouncing from project to project, hoping that the next one will be an inspired, useful bit of engineering that helps humanity both in space and on Earth.

That moment hasn't come yet, and I don't think it will until people let the past die the dignified death that it deserves.  Yes, we did amazing things in the past.  Yes, we went to the moon, and our ancestors deserve our respect and admiration for it.

Now it's 40 years later.  Our cell phones have more computing power than the Apollo moon landers, yet the Space Shuttle's proposed successor has barely more computing power than the one on the desk in front of me.  Why?  Not because it's hard to put electronics into space, or because spacecraft design somehow excludes modern technology - it's because small-minded people won't let science fiction become reality.

Those are the people who I think will most lament the passing of The Outpost.  Those are the people who bow to the supposed wisdom of yesterday's paper heroes - Shuttle astronauts who can't bear to just be scientists or engineers because scientists and engineers aren't viewed as heroes.

The leaders at JSC - the ones charged with moving the center towards its supposed Core Ideology of advancing human space exploration - cower in the darkness of the past; shortsighted and outmoded ideas that will doom the future America to mediocrity.  Their unwillingness to seek out the new ideas within their organizations, to lead the future's charge with their as-yet untapped resources, hampers not only NASA's immediate goals, but America's (and our world's) future.

America already has the resources to achieve greatness in the future.  We already have the knowledge and power to go to the Moon, Mars, and Beyond.  It doesn't require additional support from the President or senators or congressmen or contractors.  All it requires is that we learn from the past without being bound by it - that we respect the heroes of our youth without requiring all future heroes to be the same.  My children should aspire to be astronauts not through feats of strength or military training, but through preparation, knowledge, and ability - the strengths that make humanity most unique and powerful and able to deal with the unknown.

Let The Outpost rest in peace; with it, let our past heroes rest in peace.  Let new heroes arise from the ashes: the engineers and scientists who can actually perform the technical miracles we expect from NASA.

Photos: broken

September 21, 2010 - Reading time: ~1 minute

Historical note: this is no longer a thing; any references to photos in the blog here are going to be broken.

I was poking around my own web site today (it's worth doing every once in a while, I guess) and realized that I never got around to fixing the Photos section.  Which is a shame, because I had lots of cool photos there.  When I went from running my own web server to having the web site hosted at site5, the PHP I wrote to upload images stopped working, and I never got around to fixing it.

So there are no photos.  I considered just removing that section altogether, but I have links to it from various old posts, and really I'd like to make it work again.  I'm guessing it's something simple.  Worst case, I'll just dump everything on Flickr or something.  Until then, you'll just have to use your imagination.  Sorry!