06 April 2009

A rocket's not an easy thing to make

Well these last two weeks were pretty busy for yours truly. This past week was especially so because not only was work pretty hectic but I also had some friends in town from Wednesday to Saturday. This, of course, was occasion to drink. A lot. And I also got a girl's number on Friday night who I've kinda been crushin' on for a bit. Good times! Things should settle back down this week, though. That should give me more time to attend to my bloggin'. I'm almost done with Heather's awesome mix. It's been a fun challenge and it's pretty dern good if I do say so myself. I'm hoping to have the tracklist up here for y'all tomorrow.

Okay so I don't know how many of you have been following the trials and tribulations of NASA's Ares program. I'm pretty sure I've blogged about this before but it's starting to come up in the news again so I thought I should revisit it. Ares is the name of the rocket that's meant to replace the Space Shuttle for the U.S.'s future human space exploration. The Space Shuttle is (as of now) retiring late next year. It's been used now for almost 30 years and is getting a little too risky to operate without major, expensive upkeep and changes. So NASA decided about 5 years ago to go with a design that looks like this:

The Ares I is on the right in that picture and is meant to be used primarily for human transport to the moon and, eventually, Mars. Hence the name. The one on the left is the Ares V and is being designed as a 'heavy lifter'. In other words it'll be taking on the Space Shuttle's cargo-carrying duties. The main reason the Space Shuttle is still in use today is that nothing else available can carry large cargo (like Colbert, the new module for the International Space Station). I'm working on a part of the Ares I project that keeps it steady during launch and ascent.

There has been a lot of to-do about the problems and delays with the Ares I program. It is, per NASA's own schedule, already at least a year and a half past it's initial launch target of 2014. Some people are saying that it's more like 3 years behind schedule. It's hard for me to say. It's such a massive undertaking that trying to make it adhere to some schedule seems to me like a fool's errand. Lot's of people are calling for a complete cancellation of the Ares I program. That, to me, seems like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Yes, there are lots of problems with the Ares program, but so much time and money has been invested in its development that it would be a travesty just to abandon it. And it would probably completely kill NASA in the court of public opinion. That is the absolute last thing we need. I'm saying this not as an aerospace engineer but rather as a person who has watched science, mathematics, and engineering take a backseat in this nation's mind and its education systems. LadyGlutter recently spoke to this on her blog. It's all a big mess. To be honest I've never really been a fan of the Ares I design. It seemed too derivative of the Apollo program to me. I don't think it's a design that spurs a lot of innovation. That being said I will stick behind this design because it's the one that we've been working so diligently on. I'm not really worried about my job security, though maybe I should be. I just think that backing out of the Ares program this far into development would be devastating to the U.S. space program. Plus, without going into a lot of detail, most of the proposed alternatives aren't so hot themselves.

I hope I'm making my point clear. It's hard for me to elucidate how I feel about the current direction of the space program because I'm embroiled in it. That's kind of why I started this blog entry -- to clear up in my head what I think about all of this. Feel free to ask me any questions you have about this whole mess. It may even help me understand. I think this song (by one of my favorite bands EVER) may well sum it up:

In other news, SPACE ROBOTS.


LadyGlutter said...

As a teenager, I had always intended to go into the space program. It wasn't a passing thing like my kids are going through now, when they say they want to bake chocolate and go to the moon and be a ninja-pirate when they grow up, but I really was on the math and science track and intended fully to become an aerospace engineer. Some weird stuff happened in my life in high school, and I got utterly and totally derailed, but (as my mom would say) I've always had stars in my eyes.

I would hate for the Ares program to be scrapped, too. The shuttle has been used for so long, that people just take it for granted. That dumbfounds me. When I hear people say things about what a waste the space program (in general) is, I inevitably hear how the money could be put to better use back home. I don't think it could. NASA is really an excellent bargain in terms of money, and one of the best returns on our investment, but until people start seeing real results they can identify with -- and somehow television, cell phones, and computers aren't it. Somehow those everyday things are too commonplace to capture the public's imagination. I really have been hoping, at least, that Ares is a key to reigniting public opinion, so I cringe at the thoughts of just starting over.

Apollo said...

It's not a passing thing, LG. I still want to be a ninja-pirate. Only now I'm making enough money to afford the necessary classes. But enough about that.

My biggest worry with the idea of scrapping Ares is just that NASA would lose any faith the public ever had in it. All these critics have other plans for our space program but seem to disregard the fact that they, too, will cost a shitload of money and that the public might be a little hesitant to hand it over after we've thrown out all the money and progress made thus far with Ares. You're right about a lot of people overlooking the technological advances, but I doubt we'll ever be able to do anything about that short of putting a NASA logo on every cellphone, microwave, and Tempurpedic® mattress in production. Oh, and Tang.