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starship-design: FW: SSRT: Space Access Update no. 71, part 2

Long experience has taught me not to believe in the limitations indicated by purely theoretical considerations. These - as we well know - are based on insufficient knowledge of all the relevant factors." 

Guglielmo Marconi

-----Original Message-----
From:	Chris W. Johnson [SMTP:chrisj@mail.utexas.edu]
Sent:	Wednesday, May 07, 1997 4:39 PM
To:	Single Stage Rocket Technology News
Subject:	SSRT: Space Access Update no. 71, part 2

Date: Tue, 6 May 1997 23:16:55 -0700 (MST)
From: Donald Doughty <doughtd@pr.erau.edu>
To: delta-clipper@world.std.com
Subject: Space Access Update #71, part 2 5/6/97 (fwd)
Reply-To: delta-clipper@europe.std.com

>Subject: Space Access Update #71, part 2 5/6/97

                Space Access Update #71, part 2 - 5/6/97
                 Copyright 1997 by Space Access Society

Yes, it's been six months since we put out one of these.  This is part 2
of an Update dedicated to what's been happening with X-33 this last
year.  Look for SAU #72 with broader coverage, RSN - because there are a
whole lot of things happening besides X-33.

                     X-33 Organization and Politics

NASA has problems.  As far as they're concerned, X-33 is far from the
largest of these - between Station and Shuttle, they have bigger fish to
fry, with troubles far more obvious and a whole lot more funding at
stake.  We take a somewhat different view, but then we would - we think
cheap reliable transport is fundamental.  Station in particular we see
as massively transportation-constrained...

X-33 we see as in real danger of failing - failing first flight, or
turning into a "NASP II" technology playpen and never flying at all - in
part because it was poorly-conceived (too many new bleeding-edge
technologies included, too many Shuttle-replacement expectations tacked
on, more a premature operational prototype "Y" vehicle than an
experimental "X" ship) and in part because as best we can tell, the
contractor top management has no urgent incentive to ensure that X-33
succeeds.  Make no mistake, we'd like to see X-33 succeed.  But if it
does fail, we don't want to be hearing any nonsense about the failure
proving SSTO can't work.

Meanwhile, reforming NASA is not our job - our sole purpose is promoting
affordable reliable access to space for all, ASAP, by whatever means
will still let us sleep at night.  But NASA's institutional problems do
have a lot to do with what we see gone wrong with X-33.  So, for that
matter, do the institutional tendencies of the US aerospace industry in
general and of Lockheed-Martin Corporation in particular.

So we'll talk about these for a bit.

                  Background: NASA and the Contractors

Organizations are like people, in that they have histories, tendencies,
habits, quirks - reasons for doing the things they do.

NASA is a functionally and geographically diverse collection of "mature"
government bureaucracies, warring with each other over turf and budget,
reluctantly travelling in loose formation and paying attention to NASA
HQ in Washington whenever they absolutely have to.  (With the notable
exception of Johnson Space Center (JSC), NASA's 800-pound manned-space
gorilla, most of them have ended up paying considerably more attention
to HQ since Dan Goldin took over.)

Lockheed-Martin is a major government aerospace contractor, one of the
final survivors of forty years of Cold War followed by eight years of
"defense consolidation", operating in a current business climate where
the stockmarket instantly punishes the slightest lapse of attention to
next quarter's bottom line.

Both organizations are pretty well set in their ways by now.  Both do
have a lot of good people doing the best jobs they can.  Both also have
some very predictable collective tendencies, tendencies that make sense
in terms of institutional self-preservation but that, uh, aren't always
in the best interests of the US taxpayers who foot the bills.

 - The Greying of NASA

Aging bureaucracies are marked by a tendency to divert ever more of
their resources into organizational structure and ever more of their
efforts into defending their bureaucratic turf, to the detriment of
whatever the nominal mission is supposed to be - in NASA's case,
advanced space and aeronautical R&D, plus advanced space exploration.

The limiting case for bureaucratic "maturity" is when output drops to
the point where the bureaucracy is in danger of losing its funding.  In
NASA's defense, they're far from the worst mature federal bureaucracy in
the US - the nature of NASA's missions are such that they attract a lot
of talented people who get useful work done despite all the obstacles,
and NASA's job is too high-profile for them to ever get away with zero
(or even negative) output.  Unlike some... But nevertheless, there's a
lot of friction to overcome anytime something needs doing in NASA.  Much
of the agency, alas, is mainly concerned with making sure the paperwork
proves nothing was anyone's fault, while marking time till retirement
rolls around - totally averse to allowing anything risky (like flying
real X-vehicles) anywhere nearby.

 - Turf Defense

Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) work at NASA treads on all sorts of
existing bureaucratic turf - Marshall and Stennis on engines, Michoud on
tankage, Langley on vehicle configuration and aerodynamics... Most of
these overlaps have been resolved, generally by farming out part of X-33
to the affected center - this has had its effect on the shape of the
program, in general spreading it thinner and increasing costs.  Shrug.
This was likely inevitable once SSTO was assigned to NASA.

The main conflict that hasn't been (and likely won't be) resolved is
X-33's overlap with NASA's 800-pound manned-space gorilla's toes.

Johnson Space Center in Houston is the center for manned space in NASA.
Between Shuttle and Station, JSC at this point controls around a third
of NASA's total budget.  X-33 the way we originally envisioned it, as
a harbinger of radically cheaper more frequent more widely available
spaceflight, endangers JSC's entire way of life, built as it is around
scarce, expensive, exclusive space access.  The JSC manned-space mafia
(by far the most powerful faction within NASA's Old Boy net) has reacted
predictably, with a two-pronged effort to either capture X-33 and fit it
into their existing structure, or to render it ineffectual.

NASA HQ thus far has resisted outright JSC capture of X-33 - it
continues to be run out of HQ and NASA Marshall, with JSC involved only
in an advisory capacity.  In particular, JSC's "man-rating" bureaucracy
has been kept away from X-33, lest they triple the time and increase
costs ten-fold - "man-rating" is the 1960-vintage process of ex post
facto inspecting in quality to bring inherently 90% reliable artillery
rockets up to 99% reliability so astronauts can ride them.  A major
point of X-33 is to bring inherent, by-design reliability up to several
nines beyond 99%, rendering the whole "man-rating" process obsolete.

The manned-space Mafia has had its effect, though, notably in the
insertion of Shuttle-replacement prototype requirements into the X-33
CAN, trying to force-fit X-33 into their world.  They're largely
responsible too for the erroneous public impression that X-33 will lead
directly to a Shuttle II, via repeated statements to that effect in the
media, despite Administrator Goldin's repeated assurances to the

There have also been a number of instances of what look like outright
sabotage attempts against X-33 - statements to the media that flying
X-33 over land is far too risky and the program should be converted to a
series of ground technology demonstrations, press releases faxed (with a
JSC fax number still listed on top, tsk tsk) to towns where X-33
environmental impact hearings were due, telling those towns X-33 would
surely rain flaming death down on them...  Naughty naughty, boys.

 - On to the Contractors

US government aerospace contractors, meanwhile, have spent fifty years
getting far too used to catering to a single customer with finicky
tastes and bottomless pockets.  Guessing what this customer really
wants, promising it in spades regardless of actual current capabilities,
then spending whatever it takes in money time and talent to deliver
something more or less resembling what was promised - this has been a
way of life for generations of executives and engineers.  The corporate
culture that has resulted is not well attuned to anything resembling an
open commercial market.  (It's not at all clear that any of the current
major aerospace outfits will end up being major players in the 21st
century spaceliner market.  How many buggy manufacturers survived the
jump to automobiles?)

We'll digress for a moment to express our opinion of "defense
consolidation".  The US government, post-Cold War, has been pursuing the
appallingly stupid policy of not only waiving antitrust, but actually
twisting arms and paying cash to the former half-dozen or so major
aerospace contractors, to encourage them to merge into two mega-
contractors, on the dubious theory that this would encourage efficiency
and save the government money.

The practical result is that the US will very shortly be reduced to a
grand total of two design bureaus capable of dealing with large complex
aerospace systems.  This is more massively monopolistically inefficient
than the Soviets at their worst, and we're already reaping the harvest,
with one of the soon-to-be-two remaining majors declining to bid on a
multi-billion dollar NASA space operations contract.  Rotsa ruck driving
a hard bargain with the other one, guys.

Where were we...  Right.  Meanwhile, Lockheed-Martin is, like most such
organizations, sharply stratified into two layers - more than a little
schizophrenic.  At the top is the political-management level, VP's and
up, of necessity obsessively concerned with "stockholder value", in turn
closely linked to the coming quarter's profits.  The carrot is the
market value of their stock-options; the stick is that the big
institutional stockholders, the huge pension and mutual fund managers,
will turf their butts out if they don't deliver strong stock prices.

The legendary Norm Augustine said a couple years back that if (then)
Martin-Marietta could get a better return for investing in gravel pits
than in space-launch vehicles (Martin had a construction materials
subsidiary) he'd damn well invest in gravel pits.  People at this level
have no choice but to be "stockholder value" nuts - that's just the way
it is in US business these days.  Rocket nuts need not apply.

The other, far larger, corporate level is the grunts, the troops, the
hire-and-fire interchangeable cannon-fodder - the people who spend a lot
of their lives doing viewgraph design studies for, say, rockets, who
eventually, if they're very good and very lucky, get funding, get some
semblance of a chance to actually build and fly something.

Grunts, of course, have to work with whatever resources the political-
management types will give them plus whatever they can scrounge - grunts
who assume that management will as a matter of course back them with
whatever they need tend to aquire ulcers and permanent puzzled
expressions.  Management has its own priorities, up to and including
assigning grunts to projects that management in its heart does not give
a damn about the success or failure of.  Grunts have even been known to
be fired for succeeding at projects management wanted to fail...  But a
true grunt says, screw management, flying rockets is what really counts,
and runs for daylight if ever he is fortunate enough to glimpse it.

                            The X-33 CAN

We bitched about various things as NASA went though drafts of its
proposed X-33 "Cooperative Agreement Notice".  Some they acknowledged,
some they didn't.  In 20-20 hindsight, the most important points we made
were these:  Throwing in all the Shuttle II prototype requirements would
drive up costs and risks; it was too soon for a prototype - what was
needed was an X-vehicle.  Insisting bidders cough up a share of the
expenses for what was nominally an X-vehicle would inevitably drive them
to figure out how to earn a near-term return from the project, given the
profits-now orientation of today's corporate culture.

And earning a near-term return is largely incompatible with the basic
concept of an X-vehicle.  The point of an X-vehicle project is to gather
data as quickly and cheaply as possible on what happens when a given set
of technologies are pushed to new limits.  X-vehicles should have no
mission but expanding the envelope and no payload but pilots and
instruments.  X-vehicles are essentially disposable; you build three
because you expect to break one or two as you fly them and learn from
them.  AFTER you've built and flown an X-vehicle, THEN you know how to
build and fly a prototype of something that will make money.

But that takes too long for the market to wait for, typically three
years for the X-vehicle and another three to five for the operational
"Y-vehicle" prototype to follow.  That's why we think the government has
a legitimate role building X-vehicles - they're an investment that
benefits the whole country, but the payoff takes too long for commercial
financing in this impatient age.  After X-vehicles have shown the way,
then the commercial sector knows what it takes to build commercial

(And in case you're still wondering, no, X-33 is not a genuine X
vehicle.  It's a bastardized X-Y hybrid with a lot of marginally related
ground technology projects grafted on.  We hope a useful X-vehicle plus
some useful new technology developments can still be salvaged.)

NASA needs to keep this X-Y distinction carefully in mind in the future,
in order among other reasons to avoid competing with private commercial
efforts.  A good rule of thumb: If it can be flying missions and making
money in three years, it probably isn't "X" and NASA probably shouldn't
be doing it.

 - X-33 Proprietary Rights: Results for One

Meanwhile, NASA seems to have handed Lockheed-Martin far more in the way
of X-33 proprietary rights than they should have, given that X-projects
are supposed to benefit US industry in general and that we taxpayers are
covering 80% of the tab.  We hear conflicting reports on this, but the
ones we trust most say that Lockheed-Martin has exclusive rights to much
of the X-33 technology for several years after project completion.  It's
hard to say for sure though, since out of seventy or so pages in the
actual signed X-33 cooperative agreement, NASA has only released about
twenty.  The rest is allegedly "proprietary" and hasn't been released.
Including the progress payment and tech milestones schedule... (FOIA,

This makes it rather difficult for Congress to oversee the project, for
one thing.  For another, it seems likely that even if L-M succeeds with
X-33, they could sit on the data until the government offers them a
really favorable deal to build a followon.

 - The Contractor Contribution CAN-Can

As we alluded to above, there was a provision of the X-33 CAN
(Cooperative Agreement Notice, the document outlining competition
requirements) that in hindsight is a classic example of The Law Of
Unintended Consequences.  We groused at the time about a major part of
the competition being how deep each bidder would dig into their own
pocket to build X-33 - we assumed that in the current US stockholder-
value-uber-alles business climate, this would drive bidders to figure
out how to show a near-term return on their X-33 investment, lest their
boards fire them for incompetence.

We lacked imagination - we assumed the bidders would do this by grafting
a payload bay onto X-33 and use it, post-test, for popup launch of upper
stage plus smallsat payloads.  We worried that superimposing this
operational requirement would complicate the program, increasing cost
and time.  And in fact all three X-33 bids did have some level of
provision for a small payload bay...

 - Investing In The Future or Protecting The Present?

What we overlooked was that X-33 was both a medium-term threat to
existing corporate space-launch cashflows via its notional commercial
followon, and also a big enough project that it was very likely to (and
in fact did) soak up almost all available government RLV research money
for an indefinite period.  (We also assumed that the X-33 technology
would be made available to US industry in general.  The degree of
proprietary rights L-M seems to have negotiated for their 20% of the
cost astonishes us.)

In other words, a clever bidder CEO could show his board a relatively
near-term payoff from investing in X-33 even if it never flew a
commercial payload, indeed even if that X-33 crashed on the first flight
and never led to a commercial RLV followon.  The near-term payoff for
winning X-33?  Protecting the winner's existing space-launch business
against any low-cost RLV competition for a decade or more, by preventing
any competitor taking X-33 and leveraging it into an eventual successful
commercial RLV.

The X-33 bidder contributions proposed were in fact roughly proportional
to each bidder's existing annual space-launch cashflow.  Lockheed-Martin
has half of the United Space Alliance Shuttle consortium, plus Titan 4,
Commercial Atlas, LMLV, their Russian Proton marketing partnership -
something over three billion dollars of annual cashflow.  Lockheed-
Martin put up about $250 million toward X-33.  Rockwell had the other
half of Shuttle plus Rocketdyne's expendable engine business, something
over one billion a year, about a third of Lockheed-Martin's launch
cashflow, and we understand that Rockwell bid a bit over one-third what
Lockheed-Martin did as their proposed share of X-33.

 - Mac-Dac Folds

McDonnell-Douglas meanwhile had about 3/4 billion a year cashflow from
their Delta II operation, but put up essentially nothing in their X-33
bid.  This looked like overconfidence at the time - they did have the
best proposal technically, operationally, and in terms of development
team experience - but in hindsight it was probably another symptom of
Mac-Dac top management's since-apparent fixation on cashing out their
company ASAP at the highest possible price. This also explains our (and
others) ongoing frustration with Mac-Dac top management: It was clear to
us that with DC-X/Delta Clipper they had the inside track on becoming
the Boeing of next decade's commercial spaceliner business - but they
repeatedly ignored opportunities to strengthen their position, and
ultimately blew themselves out of the race.  Apparently they simply
didn't care about the company's long term future.

 - And the Winner Is...

Anyway, one of the things this extra available money let Lockheed-Martin
do was include significantly more new technology work in their bid than
their competitors, notably including flightworthy aerospike engines for
their X-33, plus a promise of ground tests of a boilerplate version of
the larger engine for their proposed Venture Star commercial RLV.  NASA
loves new advanced technology development, and they're inclined to see
more as better even in a project that doesn't really call for it.  We'd
thought X-33 was supposed to be a reusable rocket fast-turnaround
operations demonstrator, not a new technology driver...  Oh well.  At
least we're supposed to get useful new engines out of this.

Other factors contributed to Lockheed-Martin's win - they played the
NASA selection process like a violin, with a bid carefully tailored to
match NASA's Shuttle-shaped vision of the notional future X-33 derived
RLV, with CAN details fortuitously changing to better match their bid,
with a corporate head of RLV who just happened to be the former Shuttle
mission commander of NASA's RLV boss.  Lockheed-Martin won 67% of the
government projects they bid on in 1996, and we're told over 80% by
contract value. They're *good* at the bidding game.  Maybe not so good
at delivering the goods on cost and on time afterwards - F-22, THAAD,
LMLV.... but they do win bids.

But the largest single factor in their winning X-33, in our estimate,
was that they could justify to their directors bringing more money to
the table in order to protect their existing space-launch cashflow -
purely an unintended consequence of X-33's bidder-contribution
requirement and its sole-major-RLV-project monopoly status.

Live and learn - and we hope NASA does learn.  "Future X" should be set
up so there's never just one project eating most of the funding.  Or if
that's completely unavoidable, at least set up the bidding so track
record and technical preparation count for more than ready cash.

 - ...Lockheed-Martin, By A Split Decision

Meanwhile, last July, Lockheed-Martin had just been announced as the
surprise winner of X-33.  The surprise winner, for a couple of reasons:
One, Lockheed-Martin's configuration was probably the least suitable of
the three for future fast-turnaround flexible-basing commercial
operations, what we'd thought X-33 was supposed to demonstrate.
Rockwell demonstrated considerably more effort toward minimizing the
ground establishment required for their (much simpler) VTHL vehicle,
while Mac-Dac led the field, having concentrated on these qualities from
the start.

L-M's however was best suited of the three to drop into the current
Shuttle operation with minimal layoffs, in our cynical opinion.  It was
heavily sold that way; the promo graphics always showed it docking with
Station, for instance - but then if NASA allowed that to affect their
selection process, it's NASA's fault, not Lockheed-Martin's.  (We
strongly recommend NASA take a serious look at recruiting source
selection board members from outside the NASA-Academia Old Boy Net.)

 - Not Ready For Prime Time

Two, Lockheed-Martin was as best we can tell the least prepared of the
three bidders to go ahead and actually build an X-33.  You'll recall
that by our analysis Lockheed-Martin's main reason to put significant
funds into X-33 was to protect their existing launch business - we have
strong indications Dan Tellep and Norm Augustine were actually thinking
along those lines, by the way - and thus could reach a major (if not the
major) goal just by winning the bid then sitting on it.

If true, this just might adversely affect the quantity, quality, and
timeliness of corporate resources available to the actual X-33 team
within Lockheed-Martin - the company has plenty of other projects, most
where they're not already locked into a win-win setup and many where
they can make actual profits.  Why give X-33 one bit more access to
finite corporate resources than required to keep NASA from firing
Lockheed-Martin and starting over fresh?

Numerous indications we've gotten since the X-33 downselect support this
hypothesis.  Both before and after the downselect, Lockheed-Martin seems
to have been allocating the bare minimum resources necessary to win and
then to keep the project.

One example: The LASRE SR-71 borne 1/10th scale transonic-airflow
aerospike-rocket efficiency tests.  This project was touted as part of
L-M's bid, as providing essential performance data for aerospike engines
operating at low supersonic airspeeds, data not currently known to any
great precision.  LASRE was originally supposed to fly before the
downselect.  Last fall, NASA informed Lockheed-Martin that A: NASA still
expected LASRE results, but B: not one more cent of NASA money was going
into it.  A year late now, LASRE is still ticking over, still not due to
fly till months from now - if ever.

As best we can tell what happened to LASRE, L-M assigned people to it
who had to learn on the job how to build a complex rocket combustor test
rig reliable enough to bolt onto the back of an irreplaceable Mach 3
aircraft, and apparently has since put the minimum necessary resources
into LASRE to avoid the embarrassment of formally shutting it down.
Mind, there's nothing wrong with on-the-job training for engineers - but
it shouldn't be misrepresented as a tight-schedule sure thing.

Another example is flight control software.  McDonnell-Douglas as we
understand it had 80% of their X-33 software already running, with a
proven fast and reliable development setup already in place, using a
high-level language the flight control engineers could work with
directly - a result of their DC-X experience.  Rockwell showed us what
they described as a prototype of their flight control software hooked
into a mission simulator at their X-33 bid open house last spring.

Lockheed-Martin seems to have started hiring on programmers after
winning the bid last July...  We heard stories of programmers looking to
bail back out of the project shortly thereafter, for what it's worth -
we have no confirmation on that story.  But it is true that top
programmers these days can afford to be picky about what projects they
stay involved in.

More serious (if true) are the recent rumors coming out of L-M that the
flight control software could be a year or more late.  Again, we don't
have hard confirmation of this - but it fits with what we know about
software development in general and Lockheed-Martin's X-33 flight
control software setup in particular.

 - Dat Organization, Dis Organization

We pointed out last year that Lockheed-Martin was touting their X-33 bid
as a "Skunk Works" project, but had meanwhile spread the project out all
over the map, to gain support for the bid within the newly-merged
Lockheed and Martin corporations, to gain support within NASA, and also
presumably to get closer to the "contractor in every congressional
district" ideal for a high-profile federally funded program.

Mac-Dac and Rockwell both seemed to be operating closer to the old all-
key-people-under-one-roof Skunkworks paradigm.  Mac-Dac in particular
had already proven they had a tightly integrated fast-moving
"skunkworks" design shop via the DC-X and DC-XA efforts.

We've been assured that all the various X-33 contractor divisions and
NASA shops are working together in one harmonious "skunky" whole.  We
remain skeptical, given the hints that has come out of the program so
far.  Ultimately, of course, results are what count.  We'll see.

 - Summing up

We're reasonably sure Lockheed-Martin wasn't all that well prepared when
they won X-33.  They showed signs of scrambling to hire enough pegs to
fill the holes right through last fall.  Their project organization
still looks more widely dispersed than optimal.  And their design shows
signs of not having been as refined as it should have been at the time
of the downselect.

In our experience, two things can happen to a project with this sort of
start.  The confusion can settle down into order and converge on a
workable design.  Or it can bog down and diverge into chaotic thrashing,
with results at best a crude and unwieldy approximation of the original

We thing the thing to do about X-33 for now is to wait on the results of
the CDR's, the Critical Design Reviews.  The project is looking for a
little extra time to get their act together; within reason they should
get it.  We don't expect X-33 on time or on budget at this point anyway.

We do expect that X-33 will fly in 1999.  We also expect that if it runs
over budget, the overage will come out of Lockheed-Martin's collective
pocket, in cash, in reversion of proprietary rights to the government,
or both.  We also expect that Lockheed-Martin will deliver on the
various new technologies they promised to win the bid, or pay for the

If the CDR's don't clearly show convergence on a workable design, if the
project runs significantly over budget and Lockheed-Martin refuses to
pay in cash or kind, if Lockheed-Martin tries to renege on any of the
major elements of their bid - we say kill the project and start it over
as a genuine X-vehicle project.  We've spent a long time working on
this.  A few more years to get things right won't kill us.

Meanwhile we recommend axe-poised NASA oversight plus strong external
competition (more on that in SAU #72) to concentrate minds in Lockheed-
Martin's top management on ensuring X-33 success, by removing their win-
by-failing option.

X-33 at best will still be more an overpriced premature prototype than a
genuine affordable-risk X-vehicle, but it's currently the only project
we've got, and it could still be pretty useful.  The industry as a whole
could still get major chunks of useful new technology, and Lockheed-
Martin could end up with a design team that's learned how to do it right
next time.  Despite the current "management" fad for treating the
techies as disposable interchangeable parts, a proven experienced design
team is a valuable commodity, a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Spending what it takes to make X-33 fly could yet turn out to be the
best investment Lockheed-Martin could make for the coming century.

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