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Ares 1-X launch
While initial results from the Ares 1-X test flight appear promising, the vehicle is still subject to misunderstanding or misrepresention by the media and space advocates. (credit: NASa/KSC)

Ares 1, the space advocacy community, and the media

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A lot of incorrect and misleading information about Ares 1 has been floating around the space advocacy community. Jeff Foust recently commented about space advocacy dysfunction (see “Dysfunctional space advocacy”, The Space Review, November 23, 2009). My comments are primarily directed to both of these issues.

The commentary I have encountered, covers a spectrum of opinion and intensity from outright attacks all the way to raising reasonable questions that deserve answers and discussion.

That misinformation about Ares 1 has contributed to incredible vitriol and incivility directed toward people connected with the program. For example, Harrison (Jack) Schmitt has exchanged communications with various space advocates about the Ares program that is characterized by insults, questioning of motivations, and agendas of its proponents by some advocates, and basic courtesy and civility on Jack’s side. I will comment further about this divisiveness near the end of this article.

I discussed a few of my observations about the Ares 1 first stage static test in a previous article (see “Taming the fire: the Ares 1 first stage development test”, The Space Review, September 14, 2009). I will follow up by mentioning some of the inaccuracies and misleading information being discussed about the recent Ares 1-X flight test.

First of all, it was a test, not a demonstration of a full-up Ares 1. As such, some test parameters were deliberately exaggerated in order to collect useful information that would have been impossible to obtain in an actual Ares I flight. Remember, one purpose of a test is to exercise the operational envelopes beyond operational requirements.

Second, the natural frequencies of the fundamental vibrational modes of the simulated first and second stages were very close together—much more so than in an actual Ares vehicle. This allowed collection of significant and useful data about potential vibrational coupling and the results were directly relevant to assuring crew function and safety.

Third, combination of the five-segment vibroacoustic data from the static test and the flight data will allow validation of the vehicle models used to determine the magnitude of the problem (significantly less than some have feared; see below). This process of model validation is directly analogous to the approach I used decades ago when using NASTRAN to simulate the vibrational properties of human bones as part of a project to develop noninvasive methods of testing human bone strength.

Fourth, the flight data showed that the first thrust oscillation longitudinal mode, about 15 hertz, was approximately one third as large as predicted at maximum, which occurred at about 77 to 79 seconds. The second longitudinal mode, about 29 hertz, was about one half as large as predicted and maximal at 75 to 85 seconds. There is a substantial margin between the observed and anticipated peak pressures.

Fifth, some of the rabid advocates in the blogosphere were sermonizing about the “collision” between the first and second stages. Less than optimal camera angles and perspective on the flight test gave these people some ammunition and they proceeded to happily fire it off in all directions. There was no evidence of contact between the stages after separation.

Sixth, the pitchover of the simulated first stage occurred well after separation and was not unexpected. In fact, it was initiated by tumble motors and occurred as planned three seconds after separation. This planned tumble was intended to slow the booster stage prior to parachute deployment.

Seventh, the simulated second stage was unpowered. Furthermore, its aerodynamic center of pressure was ahead of its center of mass. That means that it was dynamically unstable and any separation force asymmetries and no active attitude control would cause it to tumble—which it did.

Eighth, the dynamic pressure at stage separation was approximately ten times that which would occur during separation on an orbital launch trajectory. That exaggerated the aerodynamic forces and allowed further verification of the dynamic models that would not have been possible in an actual orbital launch and also accentuated the tumbling of the simulated second stage after separation.

Ninth, the first stage bending behavior was as expected. A lot of ill-informed speculation in the blogosphere centered around the lack of bending stiffness of the first stage.

Tenth, the failure of one of the parachutes during booster recovery allowed evaluation of an unexpected failure mode and will enable correction prior to design finalization.

These are all issues relevant to the first stage of the Ares 1-X along with a bit of background to explain the rationale of testing to nontechnical people who apparently feel free to opine while devoid of actual knowledge. Issues related to the first stage recovery may be discussed in a later article. Discovery and correction of unexpected anomalies and failures is the fundamental reason for a test program, including flight testing.

The Augustine Committee addressed what kind of rockets and associated hardware should be developed and used, but never questioned whether NASA and the government should even be making rockets in the first place.

When I mentioned some of the technical issues in my previous article, I was actually accused of either actively misrepresenting reality or being duped by my own ignorance and by ATK people lying to me. My biomedical training causes me to wonder about those relatively few but excessively loud space advocates who resort to blatant incivility more than I wonder about the technical issues. I have talked to multiple engineering personnel at ATK on multiple occasions and have not detected any signs of misrepresentation or deceit with any of them. Could I be duped? It is possible, but I consider it unlikely in this instance. As far as any deliberate misrepresentation on my part, why should I bother? I neither consult for ATK nor have I ever received anything of value from them.

The commentary I have encountered, including e-mails, covers a spectrum of opinion and intensity from outright attacks on ATK, NASA, and even personal attacks on Charlie Precourt as an ATK vice president, all the way to raising reasonable questions that deserve answers and discussion. I am concentrating this discussion on the misinformation, misinterpretation, and vitriol.

David Livingston and I interviewed Precourt on August 10 for The Space Show. Feedback from that interview is illustrative. The volume of email received from people critical of Ares I and who had not even bothered to actually listen to the interview was surprising to both of us. Not that the interview would necessarily change people’s opinions, but that is not the point of my observation. Many commenters were pontificating on Ares 1 based on what they had read in news report or blogs, or heard from others. The commenters who actually listened to the Precourt interview dismissed or challenged the discussion. When offered the opportunity to have ATK respond to the challenges, permission to forward the e-mails was denied, even when Dr. Livingston offered to edit them to remove overtly hostile comments. Why not have a frank exchange about serious issues, programs, and challenges rather than mean-spirited agenda-driven attacks?

We in the space community are debating in order to determine the best way to move forward with space development, human and uncrewed spaceflight, development costs, and economics. Yet, much of the serious discussion is drowned out by acrimonious and unproductive ad hominem attacks.

The recent Augustine Committee report has played into this vitriolic behavior because of an omission. The Augustine Committee addressed what kind of rockets and associated hardware should be developed and used, but never questioned whether NASA and the government should even be making rockets in the first place. This is a fair and fundamental question to be asked by reasonable people. It is unfortunate that it was not addressed by Augustine.

Numerous space advocates believe that the commercial sector (usually meaning NewSpace) should develop and fly launch vehicles. The track record of ULA having more than 100 successful launches is a tough nut to crack, especially with existing insurance mechanisms. Other than SpaceX and Orbital, what NewSpace companies are sufficiently far along to provide assurance of US crewed launch capability in a reasonable time frame?

There is a meme floating around the blogosphere that solid rockets are more dangerous than liquids. Ask the people who ride them about their perception of reliability. I have. Although it is simplistic, never forget that every ejection seat in a high-performance aircraft includes a solid rocket rather than a liquid as did the capsule escape systems in Mercury and Apollo. A related meme is that solids provide a very rough ride. I have asked several Apollo astronauts about the relative roughness of the ride on a Saturn. It is reported as quite rough, especially during first stage burns. One astronaut characterized the first stage ride as extremely rough: “like riding a train with square wheels.”

I don’t know if Ares 1, Constellation, returning to the Moon, heavy lift, or any of that is the best answer to furthering our collective goals, but one thing is certain. The answer does not lie in minds of bitter, angry, close-minded people, bent on attack and not dialogue.

Another point worth raising from this entire experience focuses on the quality of journalism and the basic knowledge of rocketry and space technology. More directly, why did national media reporters who were totally ignorant of the basics of rocketry and the Constellation program get assigned to covering the Ares 1 first stage static test, subsequent NASA and ATK press conferences, and be allowed to report back to their respective audiences? David Livingston and I both attended the press conference following the aborted first static firing test of the five-segment motor. If readers listen to the archived press conference on The Space Show web site, they will gain a clearer picture of how it is possible to be misled, be given bad information, or otherwise learn that news stories may not be what they appear to be in the title, lead paragraph, or the bulk of the report. The press conference following the successful Ares 1 first stage test in September is also archived, so readers can gain a broader understanding of news filtration by our public media if they choose to listen critically. I hope that the NASA press conference held December 3rd helps to put some of the misinformation about the Ares 1-X flight test to rest.

I don’t know if Ares 1, Constellation, returning to the Moon, heavy lift, or any of that is the best answer to furthering our collective goals, but one thing is certain. The answer does not lie in minds of bitter, angry, close-minded people, bent on attack and not dialogue. Making decisions, reaching conclusions, and doing analysis when some if not much of the underlying information is suspect at best and bogus at worst does not lead to productive discourse.

We must find ways to do better to enlarge our discussion and to garner real support for our passion because of the positive benefits that can come from what we talk about and do in space. My comprehensive experience related to Ares 1, visits to ATK, seeing the five-segment static test, attending joint NASA and ATK press conferences, and following the 1-X flight test has been instructive, that’s for sure.

In order to close on a positive note, I suggest that the various space advocacy groups and individuals work harder to combine their efforts in a productive fashion. Once the leadership of an advocacy group decides on support of a given concept, the membership should seriously attempt to support that concept and argue differences in private. Individuals need to stop the public sniping. That includes blogs. Acting like politicians will not be very productive even though it may be cathartic. Balkanization of our efforts to convince the public of the value of space exploration is counterproductive. Insults, either veiled or overt, do nothing to further our agenda. Unfortunately, they have the opposite effect and marginalize space advocacy.

I ask for a return of civility to the discussions and incorporation of more critical thinking and analysis instead of jumping to conclusions based on misleading or misinterpreted technical information from the mass media.