Experts on the Internet, X-33, Gigaprograms and Real Progress

Experts on the Internet

A lot of internet discussion is ignorant speculation, rumor spreading, ranting and flaming. But that’s not all. The freedom and self-organizing nature of enables massive diversity. Newsgroups, mailing lists, IRC, forums, Twitter – and sometimes there’s something there.

Michael Tobis comments on his experience of reading about the Iranian riots on Twitter – way before anything was said in the printing press. Being his usual self, it acts as a motivation for a longer article about the resignation of reporting on important issues (global warming changing earth significantly being Michael’s issue because of his expertise in that).

I’ve long been saying related things  in relation to space issues.  Now, the traditional media defends its views and sheepish forwarding of NASA public facade material as the right way. Maybe some examples are necessary. The aerospace developments of national agencies are full of failures. All ventures have failures. It’s just that aerospace has so few successes – especially rocketry.

What if had existed during X-33? NASP is moot here since it was a secretive military project – hence no insight possible there.

Would X-33:s failures and their reasons have been predicted much earlier? Ares I and V had their critics from before day one. Technical critics. Budgetary. Industrial ones.

What is important and makes things different from mere ranting, or “armchair generals”, is that the NASA and ULA engineers provide, on their free time, insight into engineering matters. Instead of the public affairs that the rest of the media reports on. They have a passion for what they do and want to succeed and advance. If they see hopeless technical incompetence at the top level, they will voice their objections – it is practically their duty as citizens.

X-33 – Marching Towards Certain Failure

X-33:s first failure was trying to use very unproven technology (composite multi-lobed cryogenic tanks) in a billion dollar magnitude program. The technology could have easily been proven on a much smaller scale, very cheaply and fast, before starting the whole X-33 project. Competent engineers should have seen that one as a real high risk with easy reduction possibilities. You don’t risk billions just for fun, if you can easily avoid it! You risk it for politics though.


The table above is from NASA’s tank report (pdf in references), with tests done on tank samples done after the failure, revealing the gross inadequacy of the material for the intended purpose

If, on the other hand, the composite tank was seen as a high risk but not necessary technology for reaching X-33:s goals, then X-33 should have proceeded with the metal tank. In other words, if the composite tank was an optional “nice to have” component. But NASA:s Ivan Bekey testified otherwise – that X-33 had no use without the carbon fiber tank.

All around the X-33 seemed quite big and hugely ambitious on multiple fronts for an experimental vehicle anyway. What were the other objectives besides composite tanks? Could they have been tested in a faster and less expensive vehicle? The metal TPS comes to mind as one. Did it have even the inadequate bench background of the tank? There were military programs from the fifties to the eighties that had developed such things in labs – maybe there was something there.

What about the lifting body shape? The successing Venturestar kept changing shape constantly in simulations and grew big wings. It could very well be that Lockheed Martin and NASA simply didn’t know what they were doing, on any level really, and should not have started building X-33 in the first place. The knowledge base was not at the level to justify going that far yet. The close to existing J-2 derived aerospike engine was perhaps the biggest justification for the size and shape of X-33. But the potential reward of finally getting an aerospike engine flight tested just made the fall that much heavier – the large vehicle necessitated by this turned out to be unworkable. A failure on a lesser scale would not have been as hard. Close to ten years later, no aerospike has yet flown. There have been spike nozzles in hybrids and solids but no aerospikes, where the physical spike is cut off and replaced by a gas jet.

What should have been done to enable the X-33 building?

  • Bench tests of composite tanks (basic, room temp, progressing to multi-lobe, cryogenic). Test cryopumping as well (this has been done somewhat since).
  • Possibly aerodynamic tests with a much smaller vehicle (or generations) as a glider, first released from a helicopter, then an airplane and finally with a sounding rocket. Alternatively with conventional engines. Possibly horizontal takeoff to reduce test costs.
  • Aerospike engine small scale tests. Perhaps contract a smaller company for that, like Armadillo and XCOR have done tests cheaply for NASA methane engines.

If any of these solutions proved unfeasible, then no reason to build the Lockeed style X-33.

The Competitors

Rockwell had a shuttle shaped cylindrical tank vehicle with wings, which seemed pretty simple on the outside. McD had the DC-X growth model. At least both had some heritage in working hardware. There is very little engineering information available about the competitors so if anyone wants to help, drop me a note. Would they have succeeded?

Probably both would have failed as well, in the role of traditional X vehicles of developing new capabilities, mainly because of being too large. Both of the other potential X-33:s would have had a composite hydrogen tank as well (though possibly axisymmetric, even conical or cylindrical), so they could have had similar failure possibilities, though perhaps they would have had a different (sensible) development approach. As is evident from lab tests in the references, cryogenics and composites are hard to fit together.

The Shuttle thermal protection system  is notoriously work intensive, and as far as I know, the Rockwell proposal had quite similar tiles in its proposal. On the other hand, surface loading could have been less since the vehicle had its own tanks and high mass ratio. Also the SSME:s are very work intensive when reused. It was partly more of a rehash of existing technologies, which would perhaps have had moderate chance of success. If it worked, maybe one could try different technologies in it, if it was cheap to fly and could do incremental envelope expansion, while still having high enough performance to really stress test things like TPS or vacuum test less maintenance intensive engines. Heat loads on the composite structure would have been an interesting problem area as well.

McD’s precursor for their X-33 design, the small flying DC-XA program was cut prematurely (after having survived agency changes and funding problems) after a crash from a trivial easily avoidable failure, an unsecured hose. It could have made sense to do DC-XA again, to try the high speed properties, flying at different angles of attack and test the turnaround maneuver that it should perform after re-entry for landing. It would also have made sense to keep in the DC-XA scale and try lots of other solutions in the same vehicle (or fleet). It’s cheaper to test when at small scale. Only when the low capabilities of the vehicle would have been exhausted and good enough solutions found, would it have made sense to move to a bigger vehicle.


All  in all, space is no different from other fields, that rationality is the most effective way to reach sustained progress. It is obvious to any engineer worth their salt that one should retire as much risk as possible, as cheaply and as fast as possible before moving to the big bucks and long development time game.

Sadly, aerospace seems like a hopelessly irrational field in this regard. There are historical reasons for that attitude. Crash programs like Apollo or military ones have left their mark too deep – the field is unable to grow to a rational mature one. It is evident when looking at NASA’s troubled history with manned spaceflight. Since Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, it has not been able to build much incremental progress. STS was a partial success in capability – but it has stifled progress. Everything must always be started over, and at giant scale – making the unavoidable multiple tries very costly, both in time and money, and even utterly shameful in case of failures. A gigaprogram with failure as no option is a recipe, not for sustained progress, but for either a great disaster, or stagnation. A gigaprogram with failure inevitable is waste incredible.

So, the media of today should examine the world in such a perspective. Simplistic “against NASA / for NASA” analysis serves no one. There have been such incredibly farces lately that I’ve had to double check I wasn’t reading the Onion.

I speak for many, when I say, we don’t want delusional Programs, we want rational Progress!

Some sources:

1 Final Report of the X-33 Liquid Hydrogen Tank Test Investigation Team, NASA Marshall

2 Cryopumping in Cryogenic insulations for a Reusable Launch Vehicle, Johnson et al., NASA Langley

3 Proceedings of the RAND Project AIR FORCE Workshop on Transatmospheric Vehicles, Chapter 3: Design Option and Issues, containing X-33 general overview and info about the competitors, Gonzales et al, RAND Corporation

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9 Responses to Experts on the Internet, X-33, Gigaprograms and Real Progress

  1. Henry Vanderbilt says:

    Keep in mind that much of the insight on X-33 currently available only definitively came out after the fact. Information on the actual status and progress of the program was damned hard to come by while it was actually underway. What truth did come out about project problems was ignored, obfuscated, or occasionally outright denied by project management.

    Some of us were nevertheless at the time pointing out the very issues you raise, and pushing for alternate approaches. (See archived “Space Access Updates” from the period at It did no good – X-33 staggered on to its end, undeflected.

    Which is not to say there was anything unusual about X-33 – this is typical of government space-launch megaprojects over the years. Once some group has succeeded in getting all our national space-launch eggs committed to one very expensive basket, they tend to be reticent about discussing flaws in their basket. NASP, “Shuttle II”, X-33, Space Launch Initiative, X-38 – each in turn has spent billions and returned nothing of use, and each was “doing just fine” according to its managers pretty much up to the point of cancellation. (Ares I looks like it’s following the classic pattern, fwiw.) (The political reasons megaprojects keep happening are fascinating, but they’d take a small book to cover. Some other time.)

    The real issue here is why so many space-launch megaprojects in a row have failed, and what to do about it. The last total success was Saturn 5 in the sixties, the last partial success Shuttle in the seventies. It’s thirty years with zero successes since Shuttle. Why?

    The theory I subscribe to is that the organizations tasked with government space-launch megaprojects at some point passed below a critical ratio of competent engineers to time-serving bureaucrats, below which competent large launch systems development simply can’t overcome the bureaucratic friction to succeed.

    I’d pinpont this as having happened in the early eighties, sometime between Shuttle starting to fly and the loss of Challenger. Ever since, money shovelled into the government launch-development bureaucracies has produced much ritualistic following of the old development process that used to work, but with insufficient competence in the mix to get useful product out despite the bureaucrats.

    Chances are, explaining how to do the next megaproject right won’t do any good, so long as it’s the same petrified bureaucracies tasked with carrying it out. It’s a worthwhile exercise, mind – tell the truth and shame the devil – but don’t get too emotionally involved in things being different next time or it’ll just break your heart.

    Absent a political upheaval large enough to get government launch development totally reorganized from scratch (you’d think it would happen after enough failures, but the evidence says don’t hold your breath) the ones to watch are the small entrepreneurial outfits. As long as government (or the economy) doesn’t stomp them flat, they’re our main hope for affordable space transportation in our lifetimes.

    Henry Vanderbilt

  2. gravityloss says:

    Yes, I agree entirely!

    I actually did read that Space Access Society newsletter about X-33 – and the alternative / concurrent effort with the DC-X as well as cynical remarks from some members about how Lockheed could have more corporate interest in what would later become Atlas 5, I presume, and would hence allow X-33 to fail.

    All in all, most people, even space enthusiasts, are totally in the dark about this whole thing that there’s something wrong with NASA starting a megaprogram after another.

    This very important idea about real space progress needs much wider circulation.

    NASA is great in many ways, but they should not build rockets – they should have stopped trying a long time ago.

  3. gravityloss says:

    Even if someone wrote a letter to a widely read magazine or newspaper, it would be easy to dismiss as just the opinion of one person. (Especially if that person was working for a small rocket company.)

    There would need to be a concerted attention gathering effort on multiple fronts at the same time, by multiple people from different points of view.

  4. Henry Vanderbilt says:

    Lockheed-Martin’s existing major launch interests at the time were, IIRC, their half of the USA Shuttle-ops consortium, plus the Atlas launcher program they’d recently picked up in the General Dynamics firesale (Atlas 5 was years away, but earlier versions were still selling) plus the Titan 4 program.

    The theory at the time was that by capturing X-33, Lockheed-Martin could protect these existing programs, with their multiple billions in reliable annual cashflow, against the danger of a successful Mac-Dac or Rockwell X-33 program cutting off the money a few years down the line.

    This theory was never proven, mind, but it did fit the facts remarkably well, including the considerable evidence that L-M, once they’d won the X-33 contract, didn’t care all that strongly about actually flying a useful vehicle for the money. In combination with the NASA preference for maximum new bleeding-edge technology regardless of program risk that you point out, the result was probably inevitable.

    I’m not sure what it would take to actually educate enough of the interested parties about how NOT to develop a new launcher. As you say, it would require a fairly concerted effort across multiple fronts to have any chance at all. And even then the political/institutional inertia to overcome would be huge. Color me pessimistic for now.

    Henry Vanderbilt

  5. kert says:

    Part of the related problem, to me, seems to be simply a lack of competition in the industry. Boeing and LM have aggregated a lot of smaller aerospace companies. To expect radical new approaches on a field with basically only three big players, each with fat military and civil government contracts is unrealistic.

    Back in the early days of aviation, and at the dawn of the space age there simply were more companies around building hardware, and trying ( or proposing to government procurements ) new things to beat the competition.

    Im just hoping that not too many of the “NewSpace” companies that have gotten into flying stuff wont be gobbled up by the giants too soon.

  6. Henry Vanderbilt says:

    Us venerable types recall that the government policy of forcing “defense consolidation” in the mid-nineties is what led to the current situation with only two or three major aerospace outfits left, none particularly supportive of innovation.

    There are people within these major outfits that’d love to do fast lean innovative projects, mind. I talked to a number of such during my recently-ended three years at a “NewSpace” company. Little came of this, though – the parent organizations in general just aren’t that interested. There are exceptions, but tentative and limited ones so far.

    You might worry about stifled innovation, but what NewSpace really needs at this point is for one or two of of its companies to be bought up by the majors. The reason being that this would do wonders for investment in startup NewSpace outifts, currently hard to come by. And with reason – there is NO proven demonstrated payoff mechanism for NewSpace investors yet. Sarbanes-Oxley has made IPO’s a thing of the past, so the startup being bought up by a larger outfit is pretty much the only hope that the stock will make anyone piles of money anytime soon. And at least a chance of piles of money, soon, is what it takes to generate more than dribs and drabs of investment.

    Henry Vanderbilt

  7. engstudent says:

    Beautiful post. Very interesting.

  8. Retired NASA Engineer. Early Buyout 30 June 2009. NASA Bureaucracy STIFLES ANY unique creativity. ARES 1X/Y with ATK NEW SRB Tallest Widest World’s Largest Development Motor DM-1 (the DUMB ONE) led by Ex-NASA Columbia Manager Ron Dittemore DUMB as Hell. I worked USAF Titan IV CSD and Hercules SRM SRMU including segment 054 and ARES exceeds stupidity and risks 39A/B. USAF EELV Studies Avoid ALL Very Large SRBs for obvious technical reasons. Dittemore needed a high paying job. Ex-NASA KSC William Parsons needed a high paying job as ORION liaison with Space Command Peterson AFB and so he could jog. My NASA RX-88 (SR-71 like spaceplane for astronauts, space suits, airlock interface and that’s it. Best of X-33, Concorde, SR-71, VentureStar to travel like Queen Amadala). Send ALL other logistics in automated pad launched EELVs. Re-Use ISS piece parts in. Derivative Pilgrim Observer – internal gravity section not external – reuseable propellant cartridges. Attach Orion Altair and RX-88 travel to asteroid moon mars in style. Re-Use ISS big enough. Northrop design vice LM BAC OSC Space-X. Current NASA Sucks Big Time. E-Mail me for Resume Background and other details that will open your mind. Chinese will surpass USA. Obama should hand NASA Management their heads & d*cks with $250M urine recycler. Hydroponic garden on Pilgrim Observer derivative. MI8-008 Ed Kachmar 001-407-222-8329 24/7.

    • Burgess Gayheart says:

      Remove the e-mail from Kachmr as it has too many derogatory remarks of frustration watching mega billions go down the drain with Ares & Constellation.

      His ideas are correct as you see a RX-88 taking shape with UK Reaction Engines Skylon & Fluyt at fraction of NASA costs. Add cameras and cockpit to cargo bay and world has a superior shuttle replacement for OPFs. Keep Orion with UK Fluyt and cleanup earth Leo Geo space debris skies and COLA.

      Reuse ISS components, add gravity section, EELV replenish fuel tanks and dormant astronauts can make commercial space grow like Obama’s hidden wish with a Pilgrim Observer derivative (similar not exact). They can fly moon, asteroid, mars, and return refuel safely. Land with Skylon. Healthier with gravity. More experiments. More astronauts USED in space.

      Ed’s ideas are great but someone placed it there attempting to misquote him. So remove certain sentences or it’s entirety.

      The intent and love for a good space program are there.

      Thanx Ed or Whoever…. UK Shows USA Better Designs….
      The ideas will make space engineers more inventive.
      Ares & Constellation are management designed failures which won’t fly. No agreement. Tiny capsule!!!!!!!! WTFO.


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