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space (spās) n. 1. space beyond the atmosphere of the earth.

prag·ma·tism (prgm-tzm) n. A way of approaching situations or solving problems that emphasizes practical applications and consequences.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Editorial: What is Really Imporant in Space

Clark Lindsey made a comment this morning about NASA and cost:


Cost is the great and overriding barrier both to space development and to renewed public interest in space. The growing interest and excitement about the nascent commercial spaceflight industry is based on its promise of significantly lower costs and in giving the public a chance to participate in spaceflight, or at least allowing them to identify with those who do. As long as NASA refuses to make reduction of the cost of spaceflight its primary goal, the agency's hyper-expensive programs will continue to be ignored by most of the public.

I think I know why NASA doesn't work on cost. Go with me for a moment.

In my day job as a software engineer for the Army, I work to integrate new products into Army air and missile defense systems. Each system is made up of functional and non-functional requirements. Functional requirements are the core job of the product. Non-functional requirements are physical realities, such as bandwidth, memory, size, weight, etc...

Engineers don't generally like non-functional requirements. They aren't fun. It was the nitty-gritty of the problem that drew them to be engineers in the first place. Reality isn’t sexy. So product teams continue on, making better algorithms and data structures, pushing off the inconvenient truths of the environment their product will have to operate in.

For instance, algorithms for integrating air tracks have been around for years. We can do SIAP (single integrated air picture) as long as we ignore reality (e.g. limited bandwidth in the field). The irony is whichever group solves SIAP over radios will win in the end. But that isn't sexy. So they continue on with better algorithms and unlimited bandwidth and zero latency. But when the rubber meets the road, there is no real product.

Okay, so what does that have to do with NASA? Non-functional requirements, while never sexy, are usually at least as important as functional requirements and harder to solve. Cost is a non-functional requirement for NASA.

Making space crafts cheaper isn't what engineers at NASA want to do. That isn’t why they went to school. They want to make new spacecraft with new materials and propulsion systems. And in the world of non-functional requirements that rarely translates to cheaper.

What makes spaceflight cheaper is reuse of existing products as much as possible and putting the engineering effort into the infrastructure in space. Fuel depots, for instance, could result in a long term reduction in the cost for Lunar trips. Even ignoring “New Space” ideas, believe it would have been cheaper for NASA to adapt the existing EELVs to use to go back to the Moon.

None of this is as sexy as designing a new rocket, though. But consider how much money Boeing would make if every time they got a new order for a jet, they designed and built a brand-new airplane. It wouldn’t be very cost effective. Instead, they continuously look for ways to improve their existing aircraft, opting to design a new model when the market requires it.

If NASA is going to ever reduce the price of their space activities, they are going to have to use what they have first. I do not believe the current goal of NASA requires a new series of rockets and spacecrafts.

But what do I know, I am just an engineer.

1 comment:

Darnell Clayton said...

I think the real reason NASA is doing this is to keep jobs on the table.

Firing people can make one unpopular with those who survive, and Griffen seems intent on keeping as many friends at the table as possible--even at the expense of "moving forward."

I commend him for keeping these jobs (as everyone has to eat) but I wish he could simply find another way to insure that everyone was simply retrained in a new area in order to accomplish both.