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Utah congressmen won't let NASA consider using anything other than SRBs

Looks like if any rocket motors are going to be used by NASA, they're going to be made in Utah, by God! Don't even think about investigating other options, we gotcha by the exhaust nozzle, buddy!

Disclosure: a friend works for another division of the company that makes the boosters, and I very much hope he will respond here.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 23rd, 2010 03:03 pm (UTC)
The military-industrial complex is very successful, so it seems. So successful, that even when the military (and related entities, like NASA) say they want something different, they are forced to buy what the companies want them to.
Nov. 23rd, 2010 05:12 pm (UTC)
Happens all the time. Every year, the COngressional budget is stuffed with items for military radios and equipment and vehicles that the military wants to get rid of, but are manufactured in the home district of someone who called in a favor.

That's why Johnson Space Flight Center is in Houston, a thousand miles away from Cape Canaveral: Lyndon Johnson needed to bring something home to get his state's support for the moon program.
Nov. 23rd, 2010 04:34 pm (UTC)
No one is more interested in the space program than lunatics.
Nov. 23rd, 2010 05:08 pm (UTC)
The boys are out of line. Yes, reps are supposed to bring home dollars to their own state, but not at the expense of the national good. I say send'em home.
Nov. 23rd, 2010 10:38 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure what I can add
There will always be people arguing for jobs within their own state.

But as to the technical aspect of it, covered in the linked article about the survival of the Orion capsule, I really don't see that liquid fuel does away with the problems they talk about for solid fuels.

They talk about the debris cloud of a solid fueled rocket being full of burning chunks of propellant, and that would be a danger to a capsule suspended from a nylon parachute. But, surely, the terminal velocity of the burning chunks of propellant will be higher than that of the capsule on it's parachute.

I don't see how decending by parachute through a cloud of liquid fuel is going to be any safer.

One thing they DON'T say in either article is this:
We've got a lot of experience with that particular solid fuel booster configuration. 30 years of experience is hard to beat.

Strap on solid rocket boosters are very commonly used for the initial kick to get off the pad. Getting the system Man-Rated for another type of strap on booster would take time and money.
(And it's certainly not going to come with 30 years worth of statistical data collection!)

Believe me, I would like to see the best launch system possible put together. But, I don't see what alternatives they're talking about. Perhaps if we had more information on those, we could make a better informed judgement. But, as it is, all I can do is to defend the shuttle style SRBs.

Anyway, I'm afraid I have little to no connection with the guys at Promentory Point, Utah, though I would LOVE to go there on travel, if I can ever get an excuse to do so. The most experienced Radiation Safety Officer in ATK works there, and I would like to spend some time picking his brains and getting to know him before he retires.

I have almost nothing to do with the production of solid rockets. My only connection is through radiation safety on the X-ray machines we use for quality checks, so I'm no authority in any way shape or form. I'm just an educated observer on this point. Most of what I know serves as background, under the hood information for the comic strip.

(I hope this all makes sence, I'm afraid I'm not feeling well. Coming down with a bug or something.)
Nov. 25th, 2010 01:50 am (UTC)
Re: I'm not sure what I can add

We've got a lot of experience with that particular solid fuel booster configuration. 30 years of experience is hard to beat.

That's the argument Detroit used against electric vehicles for a long time, too.

The thing is, if I read it right, the Congrsspeople won't even allow NASA to investigate other ways of doing business. It has to be rocket motors from thirty years ago, or nothing. Would you still want to be using OS/360 mainframes or cassette tapes? Defending today's jobs by killing tomorrow's innovation is stupid. They should be going to ATK and saying, OK, you know rockets, why don't you try to get the contract for the next propulsion system?

I didn't think you had had much to do with the solid rocket division, but I did want you to know I hadn't forgotten you :)
Nov. 25th, 2010 02:10 pm (UTC)
Re: I'm not sure what I can add
I'm not sure what it is you want me to say?
Are you expecting me to defend politicians?
I'm certainly not going to do that, and I can't.

I'm an engineer. I can only give you the analysis of an engineer.

I believe I said originally that I very much want to see innovation put forward, but I can see the wisdom of continuing to use a tool that's proven and works.
(The Russians have been using the same launch system since Sputnik.)

Some background I have to remind you of:
I started out in the same industry you're in. That's why Joe Maus is a semiconductor process engineer. I was rather surprised when I switched to my current line of work that we're still using things like gunpowder and nitroglycerine for explosives.

I'm not sure what we do use for solid rocket fuel, but I am under the impression that a lot of the motors we make are refinements of the rocket motors first used for air to ground rockets fired from WWII fighters.

Now, here's where I go out on a limb and expose just how little I know about solid rocket motors.

The purpose of a strap on booster is to get the vehicle away from the pad and out of the atmosphere as fast as possible. Now, the only thing that I've heard of that's truely innovative in solid rocket motor design was what they used for Space Ship One, where you have a hybrid motor. Solid rocket fuel, but the oxidizer is injected into the core of the rocket so that you can throttle the engine somewhat.

A throttleable engine is not what you want in the first few seconds of liftoff. You want as much thrust as possible to make the boost phase as short as possible to minimize the danger posed to the passengers & cargo. Having the fuel and oxidizer together in the material that make up the rocket motor is going to give you a more efficient and energetic burn. The oxidizer is right there mixed in with the fuel. It doesn't have to flow down and mix over the surface of the fuel.

Therefore, as ignorant as I am, I expect that any solid rocket booster made is likely to have the same propellant mix as what the SRB's use now.

Now, if that sounds too conservative, maybe it is, but on the other hand, remember this is a Chemistry problem. Chemical engineering problems are fundamentally different from engineering problems that Moore's law apply to. There are infinite ways to put together the design of a CPU. There are only 102 chemical elements.

-- To be continued (I didn't know there was a maximum length to comments?)
Nov. 25th, 2010 02:10 pm (UTC)
-- Continued

As far as I know The BEST rocket fuel in existence is still hydrogen and oxygen, and they've pretty much known that and have been experimenting with that since Robert Goddard.

Are there better rocket solid rocket fuels out there that we could use? Quite possibly. But, this isn't a computer program where you can optimize it with tweaks back and forth. It's chemistry. If you go to a new formula, you've fundamentally changed the properties. I would assume that anything more energetic than what we're using now, would also be less stable, and more likely to go Kaboom when you don't want it to.

Just off the top of my head, here are the things I imagine that will be good for a new rocket fuel:

Energetic: How much specific impulse you get.
Stability: How easy is it to keep from going Boom.
Cost: How much is it going to cost to manufacture.

What am I missing...? Availability? Safety...? I think those are covered above.

Not being a chemical engineer, I can only guess at what sort of compromises are available with the three factors. I would tend to assume that someone's done those calculations and has found a workable balanced equation in the above with the SRBs.

I really hope you won't think I'm being condesending, but one thing I have found is that the rocket fuel industry is a very conservative one by nature. We had an entire building disappear in a fraction of a second a few months back. One prayer I have for this Thanksgiving is that no one was killed. I drove past that building 20 minutes before it went up.

Now, are you ready for the silly argument?
(Remember that we're discussing choice of materials)

"Would you still want to be using OS/360 mainframes or cassette tapes?"

Hey! What gives! you guys are still using Silicon CMOS Technology! Where's the innovation! Where's the Gallium Arsenide CPUs? What about Silicon Carbide and Diamond thin film based architecture?!? ;)

Anyway, I hope to give you a call later today. I have an idea for the CTC I'd like to bounce off of you. I think it would be fun. With your fertile imagination set on the problem, I think it could be brilliant. :)

But, if I don't get to say it in person: Have a Happy Thanksgiving!
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