Marshall wins Artemis manned Moon lander pork

As expected and despite opposition from some Texas lawmakers, NASA yesterday announced that it has given the bulk of the management of its Artemis manned lunar lander project to the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Marshall will be in charge of two of the contractors who will build what NASA conceives as three components for the lander: the transfer vehicle, the descent module, and the upper ascent stage:

The lunar lander, consisting of three components, also will be launched atop commercial rockets and docked at the Gateway before any astronauts arrive. One component, a sort of carrier craft known as a transfer vehicle, would take the lander from Gateway down to a lower orbit. From there, the lander’s descent module will make a rocket-powered landing on the moon, initially carrying two astronauts.

The astronauts would ride down to the surface in the pressurized cabin of an upper ascent stage. That stage will use the descent module as a launching pad, much like the Apollo astronauts did 50 years ago, to climb back up to the transfer vehicle and then on to Gateway.

Marshall will supervise construction of the transfer vehicle and the descent module, while the Johnson Space Center in Texas will manage construction of the upper ascent stage.

Does no one in NASA or the Trump administration see the stupidity of this? It is as if Ford decided that the interior and exterior sections of its cars will be assembled in two different factories, and only combined after they are assembled. The logistics of making sure they will fit and work together during final assembly could only increase costs, delay assembly, and almost guarantee engineering issues. No intelligently run business would do such a thing.

Government however is not an intelligently run business. It is run by politicians, whom we the public have not held to any kind of quality standard for the past half century. Thus, NASA is forced to spread this pork around because politicians in Alabama (Senator Richard Shelby) and Texas (Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn) demand it do so.

Texas and Alabama fight over space pork

Turf war: Several powerful Texas lawmakers announced yesterday their opposition to NASA’s decision to give the lead management for the next lunar lander to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

The question is which Center will manage development of the landers, a plum assignment. NASA plans to procure them through public-private partnerships rather than traditional contracts. The actual design will be determined by whatever companies win the contracts, but NASA’s concept is for a trilogy of vehicles: a transfer vehicle to take the crew from the Gateway to a lower lunar orbit, then a descent vehicle to take them to the surface and an ascent vehicle to return them to Gateway.

…According to Ars Technica, … NASA is assigning overall responsibility for the lunar lander program to Marshall, which will also oversee acquisition of the transfer and descent vehicles. JSC will oversee the ascent vehicle.

In a letter to Bridenstine today, Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and Rep. Brian Babin, all Republicans, expressed surprise and asked Bridenstine to reconsider. They argue that JSC should be in charge of the entire program, not just one of the three vehicles. Marshall’s expertise is in rocketry while JSC is “ground zero for human space exploration.”

They also disagree with splitting the work between two Centers, “an unnecessary and counterproductive departure from the unquestionable success” of the lander for the Apollo program.

This fight is not over who will actually build anything, but how to distribute the pork. In truth, the NASA agency that does this “management” does almost nothing. It is the contractor that builds the spacecraft. You could condense the management into a team of less two dozen (and that’s probably high). Instead, NASA and these politicians use the contractors to justify the existence of whole departments and hundreds of employees and large facilities, all of which are mostly irrelevant, especially if the Trump administration is serious about letting private industry do the job.

Worse, this fight — and NASA’s need to make these politicians happy — is forcing the agency to turn the work once again into a Frankenstein monster, distributing responsibility in absurd ways. I guarantee that in the end the management will not all go to Texas, meaning that the management of the different contractors will be split to different agencies, making for a very inefficient and badly managed program.

The result is going to be, as always, delays, cost overruns, bad designs, a lot of wasted money, and little accomplished.

I want to make special note of Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in this affair. He ran for president as a new conservative, out to drain the swamp of Washington. Now, as senator, he is increasingly becoming captured by that swamp, participating in all the same corruption he railed against during his presidential run.

If he was really serious about draining the swamp, he would be pushing to trim NASA’s management, both in Alabama and in Texas. Instead he is fighting to build it up.

NASA Inspector General blasts agency construction of SLS test stands

The hits keep coming! A report [pdf] issued today by NASA’s Inspector General strongly criticizes the construction by NASA of two SLS test stands at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

This is going to sound familiar, but the report found that the construction of both test stands took much longer than scheduled and went significantly over budget, almost doubling. Worse, this was caused by some basic managerial decisions that should not have happened. From the report’s conclusion:

To meet its ambitious schedule of an initial SLS launch in December 2017, NASA designed and initiated construction on Test Stands 4693 and 4697 based on preliminary testing specifications and before test stand requirements and capabilities were fully understood. As a result, the cost of the stands increased by $35.5 million from an original estimated cost of $40.5 million. …Finally, NASA failed to establish adequate funding reserves to cover anticipated contract and requirement changes or adequately document consideration of alternative sites for the testing. In short, rushing the decision regarding the test stands to support a December 2017 first flight raised the cost of constructing the stands by tens of millions of dollars.[emphasis mine]

Marshall vs Stennis

The report strongly criticized the agency for deciding to build the stands at the Marshall Space Flight Center. NASA could have chosen to build them at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, but did not consider that location in its decision.

Similarly, of three possible construction sites – one at Stennis and two at Marshall – NASA officially considered only the two Marshall locations for testing the structural integrity of the SLS’s liquid hydrogen tank. Although teams from both Marshall and Stennis proposed designs for possible test stands, only the Marshall designs were reviewed and listed as possible alternatives at the final decision review. [emphasis mine]

The map on the right is figure 6 on page 16 of the IG report, and shows the absurdity of choosing Marshall over Stennis. As the report continued,

As a result, we question whether such costs as transporting the tanks to Marshall from Michoud were adequately considered as part of the Agency’s analysis. This approximately 1,240-mile trip will entail shipment by barge along the Mississippi River, the Ohio River, and finally the Tennessee River; take about 2 weeks; and cost approximately $500,000 per tank (see Figure 6 below). Because each tank will need to be transported separately and the barge will need to return to Michoud between loads, the total transportation time for both tanks is 6 weeks. In contrast, transporting a tank from Michoud to Stennis would take less than one week and cost approximately $200,000.

You can wonder whether the influence of porkmaster Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) had anything to do with NASA’s decision to favor Marshall but I personally have no doubt.

Overall, this IG report, as well as yesterday’s GAO audit, show us a government agency that has no idea how do to things in an efficient and expedient manner.

The timing of the release of these reports is interesting. They describe bad managerial decisions made during the Obama administration. Yet, during that administration it had been my impression that audits by GAO and NASA’s IG tended to pussy-foot around NASA’s problems. Their reports noted delays and cost issues, but always couched their criticisms with care. Now that Obama has left office, however, it appears they feel free to state their conclusions more bluntly, which is that none of the upper management in the Obama administration, either at NASA or at the White House, was ever willing to take a hard look at how NASA was doing things.

However, this isn’t just the Obama administration. These kinds of bad managerial decisions in the federal government have been going on now for decades. This has been a clearly bi-partisan failure, by presidents from both parties in Washington. Based on these reports, a lot of heads should roll, throughout the executive branch. The question remains whether there is anyone in Washington, including the present president, willing to do this.

Moreover, the problems are not just in the executive branch. Elected officials, such as Shelby, have been micromanaging NASA’s effort foolishly now for decades. Worse, their micromanagement has done little to serve the needs of the nation, and in fact, has done us great harm. For example, for the past decade Congress has squeezed commercial space in order to throw more money to SLS, and as a result the country’s inability to launch its own astronauts into space has stretched out far longer than necessary, the longest ever since the dawn of the space age.

The last few elections have suggested that the public recognizes this, and wants Congress to change. Unfortunately, I see little indication so far that Congress recognizes this.

Scientists so good they can predict things after it happens

Normally I would post this tidbit when I do my monthly update of the Sun’s solar cycle, due out in sometime in the next week. However, this piece of news is so ridiculous that I have got to post it now, just so everyone can see how far science in the modern world has declined.

For the past three years I have documented the number of times the solar scientists at the Marshall Space Flight Center have changed their prediction for the number of sunspots during this solar maximum. They have revised their prediction so many times with such a large range that it appears that they really don’t have any real system or theory for making this prediction, but are merely guessing based on instinct, opinion, or tea leaves. Moreover, they do not archive their earlier predictions. If I wasn’t documenting them here monthly, there would be no way to know that while today they predict one thing (very close to what is the right number), two years ago their prediction was way off, In recent months, because the changes have become so absurd, I have been making screen captures of each change.

For the past two months they have been stating that the sunspot maximum had occurred during the summer of 2013 with an average daily sunspot number of 65. Below is my screen capture from when they made this change in November.
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Congresswoman Mary Edwards (D-Maryland) has proposed merging two NASA centers to save money.

Congresswoman Mary Edwards (D-Maryland) is proposing a merger of two NASA centers to save money.

The amendment would establish a Center Realignment and Closure Commission that would be given six months to evaluate “[c]onsolidating all rocket development and test activities of the Marshall Space Flight Center and Stennis Space Center in one location” and recommend a location promising the greatest cost savings. The commission would also be asked to look at “[r]elocating all operations of the Marshall Space Flight Center to both the Stennis Space Center and Johnson Space Center.”

Now this is interesting. The Marshall Space Flight Center has been looking for a reason to exist for decades, since the end of the Apollo program. Any smart private company would have shut it down long ago to save money.

But then, this is government. The article, hostile to the idea of eliminating any government facility, describes quite succinctly why NASA can’t build anything cheaply and why nothing in government ever shrinks. Our legislators don’t represent us, they represent the small number of employees at these specific government facilities.

The Sun shows a bit of life

It is that time again, buckos! Yesterday NOAA released its monthly update of the Sun’s sunspot cycle, covering the period of April 2013. As I have done every month for the past three years, I have posted this latest graph, with annotations to give it context, below the fold.

For the second month in a row the Sun’s sunspot output increased. The result is that April 2013 saw the most sunspot activity in more than a year, since December 2011.

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A delayed but higher prediction for the solar maximum?

The uncertainty of science: The solar scientists at the Marshall Spaceflight Center today revised upward their prediction for the upcoming peak of the solar maximum, from a sunspot number of 60 to 76, while simultaneously delaying the arrival of their predicted peak from the spring to the fall of 2013.

Since Marshall does not archive its predictions, I am required to keep track of the revisions they make and note them here. Previously I had outlined the changes in this prediction since January 2011. Here is an updated listing:
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Solar scientists at the Marshall Space Flight Center have once again adjusted their prediction for the upcoming solar maximum.

Solar scientists at the Marshall Space Flight Center have once again adjusted their prediction for the upcoming solar maximum.

The current prediction for Sunspot Cycle 24 gives a smoothed sunspot number maximum of about 70 in May of 2013. We are currently over two and a half years into Cycle 24. Five out of the last six months with average daily sunspot numbers above 40 has raised the predicted maximum above the 64.2 for the Cycle 14 maximum in 1907. This predicted size still make this the smallest sunspot cycle in over 100 years.

This new prediction is slightly higher than their prediction of 63 from two weeks ago. As they note, even this new number leaves us with a very weak solar maximum.

The Sun calms down in December

It’s that time again! As I do every month, it’s time to post Space Weather Prediction Center’s monthly updated graph showing the Sun’s solar cycle sunspot activity. The graph itself can be seen below the fold.

After five months of quickly increasing sunspot activity, the Sun in December finally took a rest, with the sunspot numbers dropping down to almost exactly the solar activity scientists had expected at this time, according to their May 2009 prediction. Interestingly, this might be the first time since I began tracking the solar cycle in 2008 that the prediction actually matched that month’s activity.
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