We've all seen House of Cards
There'll be no investigation.
Brett Tobey, vice president of engineering at the United Launch Alliance, has resigned after he spilled the beans on ULA's feud with SpaceX. He made the remarks to students at his alma mater in a speech that was recorded and then put online. ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin that lofts US military …
I expect that you will make a full investigation into these statements and take action wherever appropriate...
Key phrase being take action wherever appropriate: that does not imply "no" action; rather it means, redouble the effort to plug leaks, stifle whisteblowers, and vet all idiot executives before they're allowed to make speeches in public. Refer to Classified Report Addendum to this Committee's Public Report.
I think there will be an investigation, and it will have an effect. IMHO it's unlikely that anyone at USAF actually went outside the bounds of ethics, but it's quite common for government agencies to 'tilt' the RFQs one way or another to make it easier for a preferred provider to win. And in this case, USAF sees on one hand, ULA's perfect military launch record with the most recent version of a rocket design that has been around for 50 plus years, and on the other hand, an upstart company with zero military launches, with a rocket that has started well but hasn't been perfect, that has little experience doing things the USAF way (which could mean they mistakenly left out a crucial cost item, or even just underestimated the additional labor and other costs inherent in delivering under a military contract.)
So a combination of preferring to work with known quantities, with people who you are used to working with, and with an RFQ that is tuned a bit toward a ULA vehicle, doesn't amount to anything more unethical than tuning a fleet contract more toward Ford than to Tesla.
I think the main thrust of the investigation will be whether ULA has been highballing their costs above what they should have been all this time. One thing the government really hates is paying more for something than a commercial entity. IIRC it's actually a federal crime to charge the feds more for the same package as anyone else - they are entitled to the same discount as your best customer by law. They can at least come after you for a refund later.
Seems a bit ill advised...To talk about your firm's strategy so candidly with outsiders,
If your talk is only existing officially stamped, widely known public domain knowledge, it makes for very boring listening. I often attend industry shindigs, where competitors give presentations on their business that are so dull and devoid of content that I could do far better speaking about their business.
Where Tobey fucked up was that all external speeches should be checked by the PR and/or legal team. Yes, that'll slow things up, and they'll take stuff out, but better safe than sorry. My employers learned this the hard way when a mid-level company representative at a conference was quoted all over the next day's press. That offending quote was in a response to a panel Q&A session, and what this bloke said was absolutely accurate, but quoted out of context it sounded awful, and was national headline material on a slow news day.
ULA's forthcoming Vulcan rocket will be much more practical, since the first stage of the rocket will parachute down to earth and be caught mid-air by a helicopter.
That must be one big helicopter then. I remember development done along that line using a C-130. It turned out to be very impractical and I don't know if it was actually ever tested.
I came here to post something similar. I mean, he does know how helicopters work, right, with those big blades on them, in close proximity to parachute lines, etc....
I might be wrong - and lets face it, I'm some bum on the internet, so it's highly probable that I am wrong - but that sounds hilariously impractical, and significantly more dangerous (in terms of potential risks to life - do you want to play catchies with what amounts to a slow burning bomb with a vent at the bottom in a massive, ungainly helicopter?) and probably not much less expensive than just limiting your peak insertion height by burning some fuel on return.
I mean, rule of cool denotes I'd like to see it tried - as per the SpaceX strategy of doing 50's sci-fo for realzies - but damn, that sounds like one hell of a stretch to pull off.
Mid air retrieval has worked before. I could not find the mass of the film bucket from the Corona missions, but judging from the size, I would guess under 100kg. The plan for Vulcan is to separate the engines from the rocket (explosive bolts?) and just catch the engines. I could not find the mass of the engines, but about 2000kg each is a reasonable guess.
A Soyuz re-entry module is 2500kg, so a parachute is feasible. A CH-54B helicopter can carry 9000kg, so carrying both engines at once should be fine. Early designs of SpaceShipOne (1200kg) included mid-air recovery but that was considered too risky.
I would call mid air recovery of a pair of BE-4 engines at least as impressive as landing a Falcon 9 on an ocean barge, but not impossible.
It is one thing to be able to carry that sort of payload, it is another to safely CATCH said payload whilst moving. 9 tons of payload being lifted from stationary is a whole different ballgame to suddenly having 9 tons of payload to deal with (whilst dealing with gravity trying its best to stop you being airborne).
If you could use parachutes to slow the engine down sufficiently to catch it, and you have the logistics to pinpoint exactly the trajectory (said helicopters are not the most agile of beasts) then why bother catching it at all? Surely a large net/collapsible canopy/bowl of jelly would be cheaper and less problematic?
"Explosive bolts near the engines - very dashing!"
Explosive bolts are fairly unreliable (and stating the obvious: individually untestable)
There have been a number of launches using hydraulic or pneumatic actuators instead. These can be tested before launch and there have been zero inflight failures.
He said ULA's forthcoming Vulcan rocket will be much more practical, since the first stage of the rocket will parachute down to earth and be caught mid-air by a helicopter.
Yes. Practical. That was the first word I thought of when I head "First Stage" and "caught mid-air by helicopter" in the same sentence.
EDIT: Appears ULA's idea is to jettison the lower half of the First Stage and snatch the (expensive) engines of out mid-air, letting the fuel tank go. I was wondering how else they'd support that much weight.
So it's significantly more hazardous (regular sorties by heli crews to snag mid-air targets) and doesn't return the entire first stage...
"You guys lack imagination. You have four choppers with a giant net strung between them. The rocket just falls into the net. No mess. No risk. No danger."
I've perhaps seen too many episodes of "Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner", but the snag in that is the bit where the rocket hits the net and the helicopters get abruptly pulled towards each other,
"You have four choppers with a giant net strung between them."
I'm put in mind of this thing:
It was an airship with four Sikorsky helicopters - the original version of the Westland Wessex - attached at the four corners with a metal frame. Surprisingly, it flew; surprisingly it only killed one person; unsurprisingly it was cancelled.
Never heard of it, thanks for bringing the PA-97 to my attention. I kinda have a thing for weird contraptions. And airships/blimps.
I was somewhat surprised this was done in the 1980ies - the whole thing has a 1950ies feel about it, if you know what I mean. You'd think in the mid 1980ies they would have been able to rig a control system to synchronise the choppers and steer them from a single cockpit in the blimp (or one of the Sikorskys). Or even by remote control from the ground. You'd also think they'd put a little more thought in the structural engineering of that thing.
Maybe the concept should be revisited - after all it's quite a lot like a very large quadcopter, there should be suitable control systems to work from now.
Reminds me of the Cargolifter desaster. Which only cost loads of money*, but didn't kill anyone. And they converted the hangar into a lovely Tropical Islands Resort. Any plans for Lakehurst along those lines?
*Thought about investing, but deceided to buy a motorcycle instead. And got a very good ROI indeed...
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They're another incumbent reliant mostly on government contracts - just like ULA - so this might be a case of pot, kettle, black.
Their finances are in the shitter for the same reason, as NASA doesn't have money, and DoD money's now going to SpaceX.
Every single NASA engine development contract (where AR might partner) has been canceled by Congress, leading to the current sitation of relying on Russian engines. That's pretty much killed AR's R&D.
It's sad, because AR is the descendent of some very proud and important rocketry companies.
Musk may well have a physics background, but he always panders to the masses' in all things practical - e.g. the laws of thermodynamics.
The idea of using precious fuel that was in orbit to land a spacecraft on an ocean-rig is as daft as they come. The weight of that fuel is equivalent to the payload that has been forsaken. At least the Space Shuttles did glide some of the way back to earth and used a heat-shield to brake the craft.
Is it dumb to try and recover 75% of the LV for re-use? (It has been stated that the 1st stage makes up 75% of the hardware costs of a F9).
A lot of missions do not require the LV's full performance, so use the spare fuel to recover the 1st stage. SpaceX has always said that if the mission requires the LV's full performance, then they do not fit the legs and the 1st stage is expended.
I don't agree. Having options is rarely "dumb". At the moment*, Space X is giving itself those options. I don't see the basic principle as being different from trying to catch rocket engines in mid-air with a helicopter**, actually.
* Of course, the barge-landings might yet have to be lost because they can't be done reliably.
** A plane, possibly, but not a helicopter (for the reasons given above relating to rotors and shrouds/lines).
"don't forget that you had to make some extra more-precious rocket in order to hold that less-precious fuel."
You have to make some extra tankage - which costs virtually nothing.
Most of the value of the rocket is in the engines and the manufacturing process. Making them 2% larger doesn't add 2% to the total launch cost (and even if it did, that would a positive cost-benefit, so worth doing)
The fuel you need to land is heavy, true. However, if you land with wings like the shuttle, they are heavy too. You also need landing gear, and probably a parachute. Since wings don't work above the atmosphere, you need a heat shield to make re-entry and that too is heavy. Not just heavy: all these systems are complex and potential points of failure. For example, the shuttle's heat shield comprised 10,000 tiles, and the failure of any of one of them could doom the vessel. And that happened. Even after a successful launch and landing, you need to refurbish all these systems before you can reuse them.
Landing with the same engine you launched with means you have only one thing that can go wrong, one thing to refurbish. You can use the same engine to slow down before re-entry so you don't need such a good heat-shield. You need to keep some fuel, but not as much as you might think because by the time you are landing, you no longer have the second stage or the payload, and most of the fuel got used up during launch, so the vehicle is much, much lighter.
Landing on a barge in the ocean isn't much harder than landing on land. All of the barge failures so far would also have failed on land. Using the barge saves even more fuel, because it avoids having to reverse the vehicle's velocity to return to base, and then reverse that again to get to zero. Instead you just figure out where the rocket will come down and then place the barge to catch it.
Not as dumb as you may think...
1. The fuel and other consumables only account for ~0.3% of the launch cost ($200k/$60m)
2. The Falcon 9 has a designed 30% margin over the sold mass-to-orbit spec - for many flights the extra required fuel weight is easily accommodated.
3. The rockets don't fire at anything like full thrust all the way down, they just have stop the now much lighter first stage (much less fuel, no 2nd stage/payload) falling too fast. Only on landing approach do they throttle up.
As has been pointed out repeatedly:
1: First stage doesn't go anywhere near orbital velocities (and it only goes 30-70 miles downrange)
2: The cost of the fuel is virtually nothing compared to the cost of the first stage.
3: First stage makes up the bulk of the stack's cost.
4: The amount of fuel needed to bring the thing back is 1-2% of the total tankage
5: All you need to do is slow the things down to zero horizontal velocity. Earth's rotation will bring the landing point to the rocket and heating effects from falling straight down are negligable.
Therefore if the engines are reusable, it makes financial sense to lose a few points off launch capability to get the thing back.
Back in Shuttle days when Nasa was looking at liquid fuelled boosters they intended to fly them back to Florida for horizontal landing. Congressional pork didcated that they use solids - and solids built so far from Florida that their capacity was dictated by the railroad tunnels which they needed to fit through. (Yes, I know Elon's doing the same thing right now, but bigger rockets built in California can be shipped via the Panama Canal.)
I thought ULA was supposed to be a launch vehicle manufacturer? Why are they outsourcing production of their next generation engines? That suggests they have no confidence in their own ability.
Every time anyone from ULA opens their mouth, it just reinforces the impression that they are a bunch of lazy and entitled obstructionists.
Big corporate mentality. Get smaller, more controllable entities to do the work for you and then take all the credit and profit if it works. If it don't, blame the subcontractor in an expensive legal case.
They're far from unique - how many western IT hardware manufacturers make all of their kit in their own factories? Many even outsource much of the design too.
Do you grow all your own food? Make your own beer? I imagine you might do your taxes, but still. How about making all your own engine parts and body work from the raw materials? Major home additions? If you truthfully can answer yes to all of those you are a true renaissance man.
If any of them is no, the next question for yourself is "Why not?" Warning: there's a high chance of you being a bloody hypocrite.
Blue Origin has all the equipment, the people, and are 3 years into the development and testing of their BE-4, probably about to put together a full scale model for firings. ULA is contributing a good whack of development funding and likely expertise as well, since they have a lot of data on what rockets need and how they can go wrong.
Or would you like ULA to start buying even more manufacturing machines and be years behind the curve?
Being a rather naive right-pondian, it amazes me that you Americans accept as business-as-usual what I would consider to be the height of amoral and corrupt practices in your local and national politics.
I don't think I view the world through rose-tinted glasses, and I know that British MPs are not paragons of virtue, but I find it hard to believe that the sort of bribery and political influence that is described in this article would ever be condoned in the UK.
Really? I'm also from the UK. How do you think BAE end up with the contracts for almost all our naval vessels, even though they have a track record for delivering them over budget and late?
Because the shipyards concerned sit in an influential seat, and they always pull the job loss card. The Type 45's are a perfect example. When they were delivered, the missile system didn't work. So we had to pay extra to cover the costs of finishing that. Then when that was finished, the ships are unreliable because they don't have enough power generation capacity. So now they are having to pay to fix that (I believe the current plan is to cut the hull and weld in an extra section so they have space for the increased power gen capacity, but I could be wrong. It's not as drastic as it sounds at least since the ships are modular). There was a nearly 29% cost overrun on the project, and the first ship entered service 3 years late...
And yet after that fiasco, the same company became prime contractor for the new aircraft carriers. And the Astute class submarines. And the new replacement frigates. And they are one of the lead contractors for the F35 and Typhoon. In fact the majority of UK large defence projects are BAE/Rolls Royce.
Of course this is the same BAE Systems that was at the centre of a corruption scandal, and into whom the SFO investigation was terminated following political pressure...
Honestly, it's just how things are. Business is dirty. Politics is dirty. And high profile, high value military contracts are always going to be a vested interest for politicians. That will never change. But it's a fool indeed who assumes that we're cleaner than anyone else. The worlds a dirty place and we're all the same underneath!
The ones supposed to have been designed with eventual EMALS fitting, but at a 2bn cost for a 3bn ship?
And with cancelling penalties more expensive than the cost of the carrier itself?
Yeah, a very funny joke. As long as you're not an UK taxpayer.
"The ones supposed to have been designed with eventual EMALS fitting, but at a 2bn cost for a 3bn ship?"
Which by some coincidence happened to be the amount BAE would lose if it didn't have the contract for F35s on the top deck. The actual cost of the EMALS was estimated by the USA at 100-150 million
Much as I like SpaceX's innovation and Musk's vision, I think I can relate to how the air force guys must be feeling about this. This is basically like being told by the beancounters that you can't get more of these shiny 100%-reliable Unix/Mac workstations that you are used to, and have to make do with virtualized Windows clients, because while slightly inferior, their three times lower price more than makes up for it. Atlas V that ULA uses to launch military payloads has literally never failed in its 61 launches, uses more fancy (ie. more efficient) propulsion - a staged combustion first stage, and a hydrogen-fueled second stage, and I would argue also looks more shiny. Once you disregard the price, Atlas V is clearly the superior product. It's just that its price per tonne in orbit is so much higher that no kind of superiority could ever justify it.
Much as I like SpaceX's innovation and Musk's vision, I think I can relate to how the air force guys must be feeling about this. This is basically like being told by the beancounters that you can't get more of these shiny 100%-reliable Unix/Mac workstations that you are used to, and have to make do with virtualized Windows clients, because while slightly inferior, their three times lower price more than makes up for it.
Welcome to the commodisation of Space.
You might have plug-and-play appliances in your office providing local storage, VPN services or edge filing, you might even get some shiny Apple Macs for specific workloads. But your datacentre is going to be full of disposable whitebox servers because going hyperscale with HPE or Dell isn't necessary or affordable for your run-of-the-mill heavy lifting. It's cheaper to have spare boxes to spin up whilst you repair/replace failed servers than to pay for a branded box with additional redundancy.
Shiny branded boxes with expensive software licenses and lovely management tools become relegated to special workloads which can't be spun out to a cloudy cluster.
And so it is with space. For small satellites, anything that you're serially producing and can afford to stuff "+1" on the end of the production run because you lost a launch, you go with the ludicrously cheap option.
Consider - if you're at NASA building a one-off probe or bespoke bit of kit, you need to know that it's going up because you only get one shot. Likewise if it's a uniquely huge bit of kit that needs a heavy launcher. You pay the premium.
If you're building a dozen identical commsats, a string of common-framework surveillance sats or a global positioning constellation, you've got a production line going, and if you lose a launch, you just get the insurance and add one or two more satellites to your order, which is more than covered by the fact you're paying 1/3 on the launch.
Sure, it's nice to have the fancy workstation, but the world moves on...
Thank you for stating the obvious. My point was that when you are using some hardware without personally paying for it, you are going to resist the move towards inferior products, regardless of how much cheaper they are, because you don't "feel" the price, while you do witness all the irritating imperfections in person.
On the other hand, when you are responsible for paying for hardware that you won't end up personally using, and have little idea about how it is used (ie. if you are an accountant), your decisions are likely to be perceived as misguided attempts at excessive savings by the people actually using the stuff, whether or not they are justified.
And this "I use it but don't pay for it, while the guys who pay for it don't use it" arrangement happens to be the situation that both the airforce guys and most of IT professionals are in, so the latter should be able to relate, hence my comment.
All this about a senator or a government agency favored a company who hired lobbyist from the government-private sector revolving door is hardly news. By Musk's own admission he was preparing for bankruptcy the night NASA called and awarded him a space exploration contract. Many of these companies have private stock offerings that by Securities and Exchange Commission rules do not have to publish the identity of large stock purchases in contrast to public stock offerings. Doubt if any investigation delves into that. But, of greater concern is who would want to tape a lecture and then repost it to a public venue? Was this VP of engineering speaking off the cuff, responding to questions or was it a prepared speech? There was a time such public speeches had to be cleared by censors for security purposes and rules had to be followed. As for technology, seems the government is paying for what is already in their files. Midair retrieval was extensively studied in the '60s. The old workhorse C-119 with a winch retrieval system retrieved every thing from people on the ground, weather balloons and returning space capsules. USAF done extensive studies on VTOL(Vertical Takeoff and Landing craft. Companies comprising ULA were in on those studies as well as the studies for piggyback or slingshot launches. Nothing like getting paid multiple times for the same work. But if today's research can't understand Fortran maybe they don't know how to interpret all the reams of early data.
I believe the challenging bit with the engines is engineering them so that they separate in a controlled fashion at the right time (and not before!), properly enter their retrieval orientation and deploy chute(s) in good order. Since such hasn't been done before with the new engines being developed, it's not really being paid multiple times for the same work. Time will tell if they have to re-engineer the retrieval hooks or not. I imagine the mass is different, as is the moment arm and center of gravity and the like.
But that would involve actual engineering.
We are going about this space business entirely the wrong way. The key to opening up space is cheap launches, and rockets (even reusable ones) don't cut it - only two technologies do: StarTram and Skylon. Once up there, the DEEP-IN system will allow us to weave a web of light around the solar system for almost-fuelless propulsion around the place in record time. That is the vision to which we should aspire.
There, now you have three new terms to Google.
"Blue Origin is a super-rich girl, and then there is this poor girl over here, Aerojet Rocketdyne," he said."
Super-rich and temperamental or poor but dependable. I'd use the same criteria for choosing women and rockets. It's not rocket science, but, women are inherently more complex, and just as expensive to maintain
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