Saturday, July 21, 2007

What's wrong with NASA

It's interesting how they are going back asking for help.

My perspective on the space program is a bit different than most peoples. Here's my perspective. After WWII America quickly nabbed all the rocket scientist in Germany, which at the time had all the expertise in the world, and made a special town for them in America. This town had newly built houses for them and their families. Everything they needed and all in German. Surprisingly though this town had a fence around it keeping the town separated from the rest of the world. The husbands all worked for what is today NASA. When kennedy wanted to go to the moon the slave labor, mental labor, all came from this town of Germans.

Well we had to transistion out of it eventually. The idea was that we could drop the old Germans with the space shuttle. The space shuttles were built by Americans who would do it right. These Americans sold the shuttle as being a magnitude cheaper and safer than the rockets the Germans designed and built. Unfortunately this didn't happen. The price per pound increased by a magnitude and we all know how infrequently the shuttles operate. While America has been dicking about with it's pathetic engineers the rest of the world has pretty much left us behind. So much so that when our Military wants to launch they use other countries.

Pretty pathetic. Why so pathetic you might ask? What is it about America that lowers everything to the level of a slum? Basically it's our two party political system. It can be bought out too easily by lobbyists who are working for coporations controlled by Wall Street analysts who only care about quartely gains instead of the big pictures. If we had a multiparty system like most other countries do we might not be doing fantastically but we certainly would be part of the pack rather than slipping on every front...

NASA asks Apollo engineers for help with Moon plans

* 19:52 20 July 2007
* news service
* Ivan Semeniuk

On Friday, the 38th anniversary of the first manned Moon landing, NASA called in a group of retired engineers who had worked on the Apollo lunar programme in the 1960s and 70s. They were there to share their "lessons learned" with those now engaged in NASA's effort to return Americans to the Moon by 2020.

The veterans had worked as testers for the Grumman Corporation, the contractor that built the lunar module that took astronauts down to the Moon's surface. Before the meeting, Ivan Semeniuk asked two of the former Grumman engineers, Gerald Sandler and Joe Mule, for a taste of 1960s space expertise.

How closely did you work with the Apollo astronauts?

GS: Very closely. They would continually come into Grumman and they were on the inspection teams for the vehicles. Everyone who was working on the lunar module saw them personally and recognised that their lives depended on what we were doing. Having the astronauts involved and very visible played a key part in ensuring that people felt personally responsible. That was one of the reasons why the quality levels were so high.

JM: Whenever a problem wasn't getting attention I had a guy working in my group who used to say: "Are you going to tell the widows?" It was something we always kept in mind.

The lunar module had to perform in conditions that no one on Earth had experienced directly. How did you deal with the unknowns?

GS: We did a great deal of testing before we went to the Moon, to weed out problems. We still had problems when we got there, but what's interesting is that by the time we landed Apollo 17 - the last lunar landing - there were no more anomalies to report.

JM: We were gaining a great deal of knowledge as we went along. Another thing you have to keep in mind is that there was really no limit to the funding.

GS: We worried about the technical programme rather than how much it was going to cost. We wanted to make sure everything was done right from a success and safety standpoint.

You worked for the reliability team. What does "reliability" mean to an aerospace engineer?

GS: We used to call it the ability of something to perform its function. If it didn't do this, it was a failure.

Can you give me an example of a reliability failure you had to deal with on Apollo?

GS: Sure. On Apollo 14, the abort switch failed. It had a short circuit that put the lunar module in abort mode while the spacecraft was descending towards the Moon. Mission control had to rewrite the software in mid-flight and then relay it up to the module in time for engine ignition - which was done with minutes to spare. All of that got traced back to a particular switch. The switch was soldered in, but vibrations had shaken it loose, and while it was drifting around it caused the short circuit. That was a reliability problem. When it happened, the NASA programme manager and I X-rayed all the switches of a similar type that we could find in the remaining lunar modules and looked for loose solder.

JM: A great deal of the failures had to do with workmanship in connections, in solder joints, in crimps - in all of the mechanical fastening methods. They seemed to be quite vulnerable.

NASA is hoping you can pass on some lessons to the engineers working on the next lunar lander. What is the most important lesson you have to share?

GS: It's really the logic behind how you run the programme. One of the key features of the lunar module programme was that we had a very open environment; everybody could talk to everybody else. We had a multidisciplinary approach because the interfaces of all the systems - environmental control, propulsion, and so on - are pretty critical. The second thing is that we were encouraged to challenge each other, and not just accept what we were told. There was a big emphasis on looking at alternatives, and all the trade-offs that were associated with those alternatives.

What did you gain by working that way?

GS: One of the critical things was the trade-off between weight and reliability. Because weight was so critical, you had to make sure that every time you were trying to save a pound you weren't hurting reliability. We were always making these trades between weight, reliability and performance. One of the best decisions we made was putting more weight into the size of the lunar module's fuel tanks, for just the kind of situation that happened in Apollo 13, when the module was used as a lifeboat to bring the crew back. The ability to challenge each other had a lot to do with getting that right.

How did you create that kind of working environment?

JM: One way was by mastering the art of the "stand up" meeting. Every morning at 8.30 the managers of every department would have to attend this meeting to review the status of the entire programme, including failures, design problems and so on.

Space technology has changed a lot since Apollo. Are there technical factors that you think the engineers of the next lander should keep in mind?

GS: The thing that I'd be thinking about the most is software. As long as there's a weight problem - which there has to be - more and more functions will want to be put into software rather than into hardware. Software is a more difficult problem for reliability, because you can't test it the same way you test hardware. Debugging the software and simulating what it's doing during flight is going to be a real challenge, I think.

What do you think we will gain by sending humans back to the Moon?

GS: Human experience breeds new technology. I don't think you can foresee what's going to happen when you start out on these kinds of explorations, but history tells us that good things happen.

JM: Keep in mind that we were in the thick of the cold war last time. That was a huge national motivation. This time around, I think the scientific and technical spin-off will be the motivation.

Do you think that most Americans are motivated by the plans to go back to the Moon?

JM: Not in the same way. My concern about this present programme is that the public isn't aware of it. I am a little bit more than a casual observer of the space programme and I haven't heard a lot of information about the new programme.

GS: The national will is not evident yet.

Gerald Sandler joined the Grumman Corporation (now Northrup Grumman) in 1963, shortly after NASA awarded it the contract to build the Apollo lunar modules. He was group leader of system reliability before moving on to other space-related jobs within Grumman, eventually becoming deputy director of the company's Apollo effort. He now lives in Westbury, New York, not far from the Long Island plant where the lunar modules were built.

Joe Mule also joined Grumman in 1963. He began as a reliability engineer and became assistant manager for reliability. He lives in Delaware. Both men are now retired.

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