Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Two strikes.

Following up on yesterday's article on the problems with Armadillo and Space Transport's tests over the weekend, I came across an even more chilling report. According to an article on MSNBC, Space Transport also launched with a known anomalous condition.

To quote from the article:

Back at the launch site, Storm said the malfunction appeared to have been caused by a manufacturing flaw in the errant engine. Even before blastoff, he could feel a "bubble," or imperfection, in the shape of the solid propellant packed within the engine tube. Both of the engines were manufactured at Space Transport's shop in Forks, Wash., up the road from Queets.

"I had identified this problem before the launch," he said. "We were somewhat sure that it was going to work well, but it turns out that we need to isolate that problem and fix it."

Huh? I thought it was basic rocketeering that a 'funny' in a solid fuel grain was a warning not to launch.


At 10:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not quite the way we'd like to get such perspective, of course, but I think this throws a bit of light on NASA's problems with Challenger and Columbia. There isn't some unique-to-NASA "managerial culture" that creates disasters -- there's a AMERICAN (or maybe WORLD-WIDE) managerial mindset which convinces decision-makers at all levels that Pushing On despite all visible obstacles invariably leads to Success. Technical problems, budget problems, schedule problems -- all can be surmounted by a Truly Determined Leader.

Unfortunately, it ain't true. Just as unfortunately, blind optimism and self-assurance are precisely the traits generally used for selecting managers. (Think about it: would you hire or promote as a manager someone who otherwise appeared qualified but who refused to predict delivery dates and costs for his projects?)

I don't think there's any quick fix for this ...

-- mike shupp

At 5:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think there are significant differences between the two cases. Anomalies in solid rockets are much more serious than anomalies in liquid propellant engines. Solids basically either work or blow up (yes, it's an oversimplification, but it's an accurate oversimplification :-), but liquids have a much wider range of failure modes. In the Armadillo case, they'd run successfully with that engine with similar symptoms before (and in fact, the engine did not fail - they ran out of propellant). Armadillo's problem could have been prevented with a fuel gauge, even with the anomalous engine symptoms.

In the end of the day, both teams took calculated risks that the test results were worth the risk of a loss of vehicle accident. Every test involves calculated risks, and it's appropriate that risks be taken in testing or nothing will ever get done. The rules for operational flights are different, and had either of these flights been intended as operational (or all but operational) flights I'd join in condemning the decision to launch. As is, it's bad luck, and maybe a more cautious approach might have been appropriate, but that's a judgement call that rests firmly with the developers. Neither test posed a threat to third parties, either personnel or property, and neither test posed a threat to the participants. That's a damn good thing, and we should should acknowledge that the teams for taking appropriate precautions.

--Andrew Case

At 5:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That last line should read: "We should acknowledge that the teams took appropriate precautions."



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