If It’s Boeing, It Ain’t Going

It pains me to say that. I spent a lot of time in their performance engineering school in Seattle, and after every course I came home feeling like a rocket scientist.

CST-100 Starliner passing by Charleston on its way to (the wrong) orbit.

After today I wonder if their rocket scientists feel like rocket scientists:

For most space launches, a rocket will take its payload all the way to Earth orbit — but that wasn’t the case for this mission. The Atlas V deployed the Starliner into a suborbital path around Earth, a trajectory that would not keep the capsule lapping around Earth indefinitely. Unless it ignited its own engines boosting itself into an actual orbit, the Starliner would eventually fall back into the ocean. This plan was a conscious decision made by the Starliner team. The idea was to drop the capsule off closer to Earth — a safety measure added just in case there ever was an emergency on future flights with passengers on board. That would make it easier for the crew to abort the launch and come home more easily and more comfortably.
Of course, getting Starliner to orbit meant the capsule absolutely had to ignite its own engines in order to climb higher into space. Initially, NASA and Boeing said the ignition had been delayed, and for a while it was uncertain if it occurred at all. Now, it seems that some kind of ignition did occur, but whatever happened did not put the Starliner on the path it was supposed to reach.

Well then.

I don’t pretend to have a clue what happened. Hopefully it’s easily understood and a quick fix–but in space program terms, “quick” is relative. At this rate, who knows when we’ll see a crewed Starliner flight?

Between this and the MCAS debacle, one rightly wonders what the actual &#$%@! is going on at the world’s leading aerospace manufacturer. It’s fair to wonder if this points to bigger problems, the rumblings of which I began to hear about 10-15 years ago after the McDonnell/Douglas merger. The engineers I got to know in Seattle were almost to a man concerned with the new management culture being imposed on them. They were afraid Boeing was becoming less of an engineering concern and more of a “business.”

That might have sounded like frightened old-timers protecting their rice bowls, but it looks like they knew what they were talking about. The bean counters took over, much to Boeing’s detriment. Moving the headquarters out of Seattle to Chicago certainly didn’t help. The 787 was a slow-motion fiasco, with supply chain and certification problems that delayed its entry to service by years, but at least the thing’s flying and hasn’t killed anybody yet. If only we could say the same thing for the 737 Max.

Safety and quality are always a balancing act: if you park all of your airplanes, you’ll never have an accident. You’ll also be out of business. You can likewise implement quality systems which are so onerous that nothing gets done. The opposite is to ignore safety and quality in the chase for dollars, and it can be surprisingly easy to rationalize cutting corners for the sake of “accomplishing the mission.”

By striving to improve their bottom line through questionable business decisions, this company has created some very expensive problems for itself. I just hope they’re not fatal, as I don’t want to see Airbus become a de facto monopoly. Despite their current issues, I think Boeing has always built a better product and I want to see that continue into the future.

It takes decades to build your reputation and seconds to squander it.





Perlan II Sets World Record 

This project has been fascinating to watch. While the rest of us spent Labor Day weekend kicking back and grilling brats, these guys were riding the Andes’ mountain wave to 52,000 feet and a new world record.

In a glider. Worth noting that the previous record holder is Perlan I, which now resides in Seattle’s superlative Museum of Flight.

And they’re not done yet. 52K is only a little more than halfway to their real goal: 90,000′. They’re hoping to scrape 100,000′.

Again, in a glider.

Read all about it here.

Here Comes the Boom

Credit: Boom Aerospace
Credit: Boom Aerospace

Good interview with Boom Aerospace CEO Blake Scholl at RealClearFuture:

Ultimately, we would like the ability to go anywhere in the world in five hours for a hundred bucks.

Yeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt. But then I read this:

That’s the long-term mission. That’s our equivalent of going to Mars.

Okay then. I’m guessing he’s counting on Jet-A prices remaining stable. If I sound cynical, well it doesn’t take much time in the aviation business to become hopelessly so. Having said that, I really hope they can pull this off.

(H/T: Instapundit)

UPDATE 2/14: Forgot to link this background story from Air & Space.

Like a Virgin

“Lock S-foils in hype position!” Credit: Virgin Galactic

I’d started noodling on this a couple of months ago, then things happened fast: Blue Origin made a third suborbital flight of New Shepard and lifted the curtains at their Kent, WA headquarters, while SpaceX finally landed a Falcon first stage on a barge at sea and plans to seriously step up their ops tempo.

And Virgin Galactic continues to, well…I’m not sure what they’re doing. I used to be a lot more enthusiastic about their potential, but ten years’ worth of empty hype tends to take the shine off things. That, and the body count. Continue reading “Like a Virgin”

Stuck the Landing!

True to form, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin pulled off something spectacular yesterday in near-total secrecy:

That crashing sound you hear are the “OldSpace” business models collapsing from California to Florida.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Elon Musk didn’t take it all that gracefully. I’m actually a little disappointed in him as this shouldn’t take away from anything he’s done with SpaceX. Pro tip: don’t let it get under your skin. You’re building bigger rockets that are coming back from space even faster, so quit measuring dongs (then again, maybe all this really is a phallic hangup. I mean, just look at the thing).

A full-up test of their New Shepard suborbital passenger rocket is pretty impressive, given they’ve only flown it once before. Getting the passenger capsule into space and back is also cool. Two for two.

But flying the booster back from space and landing it? PRICELESS.

Virgin Territory

His name was Mike Alsbury, may the Lord rest his soul. Not yet forty years old, with a family, and no doubt with the future literally in his hands.

I spent much of the weekend scouring the space blogs for this news, as I served in the Marines with one of Virgin Galactic’s pilots and feared it might have been him (it wasn’t). It’s not like we were great friends, but like a good teacher he was one of those officers who left a lasting good impression.

This had to happen eventually, just as airline accidents are going to happen. Flying is inherently risky, something too many people lose sight of thanks to decades of learning how to mitigate those risks. Every now and then, the holes in the swiss cheese line up and something nasty falls through.

Spaceflight is even riskier and less forgiving. Machines are often performing at the edge of their capabilities, both the craft which have to withstand tremendous aerodynamic and gravitational forces, and their motors which contain (and release) enormous amounts of energy.

The nexus of these forces is something called Maximum Dynamic Pressure, or “Max Q,” a function of air density and velocity. If you’ve watched any space launches, you’ve probably heard this term. Put simply, it’s the point at which an aircraft or rocket experiences the greatest aerodynamic stress. Think of it as the normal static air pressure being amplified around a speeding vehicle; the air squeezes harder as the vehicle accelerates.

This generally happens around Mach 1, the transsonic flight regime. This is also the speed at which SpaceShip Two’s reentry feather was deployed, according to NTSB. They say it’s normally supposed to be unlocked at M 1.4, which makes sense. Standing shock waves and related compression drag are Max Q’s ugly sisters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if NTSB finds the tail booms were overwhelmed by them once unlocked.

Tail booms feathered for re-entry. This is not supposed to happen at Max Q.

It frankly doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how that would be very bad thing at Mach 1 while still down in the relatively thick air at 50,000′.

I’m alternately relieved and concerned that they’ve already figured this out. To be released this soon, it must have been face-poundingly obvious. While this is currently a “finding of fact” and not a “cause” there’s plenty of reason to think it’ll eventually end up that way. “Root cause” is a whole other matter, something that could easily take a year to determine. Ignore the credentialed talking heads on TV, as they’re certain to be talking out of their collective ass.

There was an awful lot of early speculation that this had something to do with the already-troublesome hybrid motor, but the oxidizer tank and solid fuel core were both found largely intact and appear to have functioned as expected. That’s only a partially good thing, as hybrids are reputedly difficult to scale up in size and this motor has a lot of development work left in it. I’ve seen them used frequently at amateur/high-power rocket launches, but am told that N2O starts to behave in strange ways when it’s pressurized at the kinds of volumes SS2 needs to use. Then there’s the fear that a chunk of solid fuel breaks off during the burn and clogs the nozzle. So yes, there’s lots of ways for a supposedly “safe” rocket to go boom (back to my point about containing enormous amounts of energy).

The problem is the airframe was designed around the shape and mass properties of the motor, so it’s not like they could just walk over to XCOR’s hangar and buy a couple of their liquid bi-prop rockets (or substitute the liquid motor Virgin’s working on separately, either). It’s created a pretty nasty sunk-cost trap, and this accident may be the only way VG can break free of it.

What little solace there may be here is found in the knowledge that it happened during testing and not on a revenue flight with paying passengers. One can only imagine how infamous (especially considering their clientele) that would be. What frightens me for the industry is that it almost certainly will happen at some unknown point in the future – the question is whether space tourism is far enough along that it can recover. Think about it: how many ocean-crossing passenger blimps have there been since the Hindenburg? A similar horrific accident during the early stages of passenger spaceflight might doom this new industry in the same way.

I’ve been to the NTSB Academy and seen their reconstruction of TWA 800, the 747 that exploded off of Long Island several years ago. It is a creepy thing to stand in front of that big open nose, stare down the empty rows of shredded passenger seats, and contemplate what those people went through as they continued to climb before falling out of the sky with the entire front end of the airplane blown off. I don’t envy the go-team that has to pick through this, but in the long run I have high hopes that whatever they find will benefit the whole industry.

Some investors and ticket holders are predictably starting to bail, and we can only hope Mr. Branson’s commitment to the project is enough to see it through this tragedy. It took the Apollo 1 fire to uncover latent problems with the program, and one can make a pretty good argument that we might not ever have made it to the moon without it.

Here’s hoping Mr. Alsbury is remembered with the long list of other test pilots who have given their lives to open up previously-unknown frontiers for the rest of us.

What I Did On Summer Vacation

2014-06-15 11.23.21

Flew a Stearman. Not just rode in it, mind you, I flew that sucker. With what looked like a hefty butter churn for a control stick, it was incredibly well-balanced and responsive (especially compared to the mushy Cessnas and Pipers I cut my teeth on). One should expect no less from a bird that took grand champion at Oshkosh, beechez.

Went whitewater rafting with the family through the New River Gorge. Highly recommended.

Spent a lovely afternoon and evening boating on a stunning mountain lake. More than two hundred feet deep in spots and surrounded by Appalachian cliffs, it’s the clearest inland water I’ve ever seen. Interesting side note: the dam which formed the lake would’ve normally been named for the town it was situated nearest, which in this case was Gad, WV. But since the locals didn’t care for naming their new landmark “Gad Dam,” they were content with letting the Corps of Engineers slide up the map and pick the next town in line, Summersville.

Again, all highly recommended. We’ve traveled through West Virginia countless times but this was our first visit as a destination, and our first real family vacation in far too long.

By now you’re probably wondering (at least I hope you are), “that’s nice, but when’s the next book coming out, slacker?”

Funny you should ask. Or that I should presume you’re asking. Whatev.

I’ll be blunt: the Perigee sequel is on hiatus because it’s a hot mess. It has the seeds of awesomeness, but the words just aren’t flowing like they should be. At this point, I’m just flailing around within the story instead of it carrying me along. A good story does that: even when you’re the one writing, it’ll surprise you. Bottom line is if I’m not happy with it, you guys certainly won’t be. Just know that it’s not dead, it’s resting.

This doesn’t mean I’m sitting idly about with a broomstick between my knees pretending it’s that gorgeous Stearman (here’s the WWI flying ace on dawn patrol, searching for the Red Baron). People often ask (not necessarily of me, but I’m sure they ask it of somebody), “where do your ideas come from?”

The answer is, they just happen. It’s the curse of a too-vivid imagination. Bottom line is I write because it’s the only way to make the voices in my head shut up. Sometimes the ideas hit you so powerfully that you have to drop whatever you’re doing and write it all down before they fly back to whatever mental crevice they came from.

Happily enough, that happened a few weeks ago. The story concept had formed much earlier, but I couldn’t think of a compelling way to connect the dots and close the circle, so to speak. It was just an idea…a really freaking cool one, but still just an idea. Without a “why should we care?” ribbon to tie the whole package together, it wouldn’t matter.

Until one day last month as I was driving home from work…it seems like the best ideas either come while I’m driving or sleeping. Either way, inconvenient. But the missing why should we care element, the keystone, all of a sudden exploded in my head. It was so compelling that I had to find a place to pull over and write it all down. After scribbling several pages, the story arc blew me away. I hadn’t been this excited about something in a long time, so when I got home I opened up a new file and banged out the first chapter that night.

It’s been like that ever since. At the rate it’s going, it’ll be a readable draft in a matter of weeks. The working title is Frozen Orbit, and I think ya’ll are gonna like this one. It’s straight-up science fiction (grounded in the present) and hopefully like nothing anyone’s done before. And I promise you won’t realize that until the end; not if I do my job right.

The idea came from a couple of “what if” questions (as all good stories ought to); one clearly fantasy, the other philosophical. I’ll share the fantasy one and keep the philosophy to myself, as this is a spoiler-free zone.

This time next year, a piano-sized probe called New Horizons will fly by Pluto on its way to the Kuiper Belt (which is where a lot of comets are thought to come from). How the mission came to be is interesting enough; there was a time crunch that not many people appreciate. Because of its eccentric orbit, it’s believed that Pluto’s thin atmosphere will freeze and collapse around the planet* within the next few years. Once that happens, it’ll remain that way for the next two hundred years. So you can understand the urgency: this will be our first opportunity to get close-up, high-def imagery of the tiny planet and our only opportunity for about ten generations to study its atmosphere.

The pictures alone will be enormously interesting. If you’re old enough to remember the first close-ups of the gas giants and outer planets from Voyagers 1 & 2, this will be our chance to relive that excitement.

What might make that even more interesting? What if New Horizons spies something that shouldn’t be there? Perhaps something artificial, hiding in orbit among Pluto’s tiny moons?

Cool as that idea may sound, it’s not even the one that blew up in my head and made me pull over and hack off all those drivers behind me last month. That one’s saved for the book.

*At least it was a planet when they launched the probe. Still is, far as I’m concerned.




Strangling the Baby

Why are the Feds so afraid to let humanity out of its crib?



The above links are not entirely unrelated. While the flight crew experience minimums came down from on high (or wherever it is Congress resides), the sudden reversal on regulating spaceflight perfectly illustrates how our government looks at us lately. The FAA is just the branch I have the most personal experience with and they’ve been getting decidedly too big for their britches lately: Weight & Balance rules that will grind airline ops to a screeching halt, directing AMEs to assume anyone over a certain BMI needs a CPAP machine, classifying off-the-shelf R/C models fitted with GoPro cameras as “drones” to be regulated.

Deciding it’s time to regulate in-development spacecraft and orbital operations tells me the Feds have decided that literally nothing is beyond their reach. Pardon me, Mr. Nield, but you have not the slightest damned idea what you’re talking about. Assuming the past 50 years of NASA-centric spaceflight experience puts you in a position to dictate standards to companies who’ve set out to break that mold is the worst kind of hidebound bureaucratic “thinking.”

Over the last fifty years, how much demonstrable progress has been made on reusable launchers? If your answer is “space shuttle” then you’re missing my point. Each orbiter had to go through the rough equivalent of an airline heavy-check every single time they flew. If we did that, we’d be out of business just as surely as if we threw away our airplanes after each trip.

Did anyone anticipate SpaceX would be able to create a reusable first stage that lands on its tail like something from a 1950’s sci-fi movie? Or XCOR’s runway-to-suborbit spaceplane? How would either of those fit into standards that by Nield’s logic should be based on NASA legacy systems?

Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t even manage that, regulate.

Get out of our way.

I Told Orville and I Told Wilbur…

“…that thing will never fly.”

Behold the Sky Whale:

I’m not sure how this thing found its way onto a “serious” news organization’s website, but apparently CNN is easily fooled. Which we already knew. Just remember this is an artistic concept that would be a better fit for Deviant Art instead of a major news outlet. But io9 is a whole other kettle of fish…frankly I expected more informed commentary from their readers, or at least not trashing of commenters who do in fact know what they’re talking about.

If you haven’t noticed, this is exactly what I was cranked up about in my last post: people with actual expertise offering informed criticism are ignored (if not outright ridiculed) by those who don’t have a freaking clue. Because they’re a bunch of armchair quarterbacks or unimaginative dullards or have been brainwashed by The Man, or something.

But, but–look at the pretty pictures! Clearly, aerodynamicists and engineers aren’t capable of such out-of-the-box concepts because they’re constrained by the shackles of their corporate overlords. Or maybe physics.




Sweet ride. Somebody should write a book about it…

In the “it’s about @#$&! time” department, Aviation Leak & Classified Technology reminds us that the Skunk Works has still got it:

In a detailed report in the Nov. 4 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Senior Editor Guy Norris lifts the wraps on the SR-72’s cutting-edge design, including a propulsion breakthrough that would allow the aircraft to fly twice as fast as the Blackbird — six times the speed of sound — but still take off from and land on a runway like a conventional aircraft. Lockheed Martin and partner Aerojet-Rocketdyne have been working in secret for seven years on the concept, which centers on integrating an off-the-shelf turbine with a scramjet to power the aircraft from standstill to Mach 6. 

To which I say: AWW YEAH!

It remains to be seen if they can actually get the funding to build this thing. According to the linked article, LockMart has done about all they can do without securing a contract to start cutting metal. Or baking plastic. Whatev…

Now if past history is any indicator, this story could just as easily be a red herring and they’re much further along than indicated. The U-2, SR-71, and F-117 had all been flying for several years before there was any public acknowledgment of their existence.

They also seem to believe we’re at the end of the road for low-observable technology, so “speed is the new stealth.”

There were a lot of rumors about stealth development back in the ’80s and a great deal of speculation as to what a “stealth fighter” might look like. Anybody remember this?

The F-19 “Stealth Fighter”, by the top-secret Testors Skunk Works.

But as is often the case, fantasy looked a lot better than reality:

The real Stealth Fighter, brought to you by the geniuses at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works.

The F-117s became public knowledge after a couple of CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) accidents in the late ’80s. At the time, I remember it being reported that they were part of a test and evaluation squadron of 50 to 60 aircraft. And that’s when I knew they were operational: 50-odd aircraft isn’t a squadron, it’s an air group. Nobody buys that many airplanes for “test and eval.”

My hope (and that’s all it is, blind hope) is that LockMart’s tossing this out there as cover for a more mature program. The real breakthrough for this is the turbine-based combined cycle (TBCC) propulsion, in which a jet turbine and ramjet share common inlets and exhaust. That’s not as simple as it sounds, thanks to the complexities of managing the shockwaves that want to bounce around inside the inlets and the rapidly rising temperatures as it passes Mach 3. Jet engines don’t generally take well to superheated air, and cooling that hot air rapidly enough to feed the compressor stage without icing up at the same time is a real trick. This is the same phenomenon that Reaction Engines UK has been working on for the SABRE rocket-based combined cycle engine. They’ve likewise claimed a major breakthrough recently, but whatever the Skunk Works came up with for heat exchangers, they’re keeping it close.

As to this fantastic machine being flown by an actual person? Sounds like that ship has sailed:

The path to the SR-72 would begin with an optionally piloted flight research vehicle (FRV), measuring around 60 ft. long and powered by a single, but full-scale, propulsion flowpath. “The demonstrator is about the size of the F-22, single-engined and could fly for several minutes at Mach 6,” says Leland. The outline plan for the operational vehicle, the SR-72, is a twin-engine unmanned aircraft over 100 ft. long…

There’s a lot of talk that the next generation of fighters will be essentially be flown by gamers sitting in an air-conditioned van. I can only imagine how the current crop of up-and-coming military pilots feel about that. Even though I’d never have a snowball’s chance in hell of flying it, a part of me shares in their presumed impotent frustration. If I ever have the privilege of seeing such an aircraft in service, it’ll be a lot less exciting knowing that there isn’t someone inside of it experiencing the ride of a lifetime.