Space for change

Rob Coppinger talks to Boeing’s Bill Rothschild, the man overseeing work on North America’s next generation of space launch vehicles and who is at the heart of a new culture emerging at NASA.

These are troubled times for NASA. The space agency finds itself under scrutiny as never before following the publication of the accident investigation report into the Columbia disaster. How the organisation works, how it runs the space shuttle programme and its plans for the future will be subject to microscopic examination by the US House of Representatives over the coming months.

Congress will no doubt demand radical change from the space agency. However, Bill Rothschild, a 34-year veteran of the space programme, has already detected that moves are afoot within NASA to alter the way it operates. Rothschild’s opinions are of far more than academic interest because, as Boeing’s director of space transportation, he oversees the aerospace giant’s work on new launch vehicles as part of its NASA Systems division.

At a critical point in the technological, commercial and political future of the US space programme, Rothschild is near the centre of the action. He leads a Houston-based team of 80 finalising the design for Boeing’s tender for NASA’s Orbital Space Plane (OSP) contract, which will undergo its first major design review during the Congressional hearings on the shuttle disaster.

Rothschild has many years’ experience of the distinctive way in which NASA operates compared to, for example, the military. During a career that began in missile R&D for the US Air Force and later took in civilian technology giants Pratt & Whitney, Rockwell and finally Boeing, he has seen it from all sides.

‘There is a lot of difference between the way NASA and the Air Force actually execute programmes. In the case of military space systems and missile systems there is a very clearly defined threat that is driving the requirements, which tend themselves to be very well defined; whereas when you’re dealing with civil and NASA programmes the requirements tend to evolve somewhat as you proceed.’

These ‘evolving requirements’ have proved a major problem for NASA and its partners in the past, and the agency’s management of projects has come in for severe criticism over the years. In Rothschild’s view, the mistake the organisation has made has been to get too detailed too early, while lacking a rigorous project timetable.

‘There is less of a definitive schedule for many of the NASA programmes. There have been many cases where the specific design approach has been defined by NASA almost to the point of a ‘build-to-drawing’ package.’

But it seems this has changed with OSP. According to Rothschild, contractors now have considerably more freedom for design while simultaneously facing tight deadlines for delivery. ‘The OSP is not following that old mould,’ he said. ‘Schedule does seem to be very important, and in fact may affect the design decisions that are made. They’ve pretty much left the design approach to the contractors. OSP is unique in that regard.’

The impetus behind the new approach seems to have been the decision by Sean O’Keefe, NASA administrator, to speed up the OSP schedule from a 2010 to 2008 launch, which appears to have concentrated the minds of NASA and its contractors.

Another long-standing criticism of NASA within the space community has been that it makes technical decisions based on cultural preferences. This has been an area of debate since Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff exposed the tensions of the early days of the US space programme.

Historically, an astronaut corps dominated by military test pilots has led to a focus on spacecraft with windows, joysticks and pilot control. One example of this is the fact that the SP in OSP stood for ‘space plane’ long before any designs had even been considered.

‘So far the requirements definition process that NASA has used has been very disciplined, and devoid of the emotional preferences that sometimes creep into these things,’ said Rothschild. ‘The design approach that we’re pursuing allows for fully autonomous operation throughout all the flight envelope but the crew will have the ability to override or take over should the situation warrant. The spacecraft will be capable of performing all necessary functions with crew standing by.’

So on OSP the crew will be passengers rather than pilots. And, as The Engineer exclusively revealed (February 21, 2003) Rothschild confirms there is a strong likelihood that it will not be a plane at all, but a capsule. ‘To achieve the 2008 date we’re going to have to simplify this as much as possible. I’d certainly agree that [the capsule] is a simpler design. It’s a leading candidate.’

Boeing’s current thinking is that the vehicle could carry between two and six people (the original Apollo capsule could take six). Rothschild also admitted that the technology to be tested on the X-37 ‘mini shuttle’ – Boeing’s alternate winged design demonstrator – could be applied to the capsule. The X-37 will undergo high-altitude drop tests next year and there is an orbital test scheduled for 2006.

The OSP will piggyback onboard an expendable rocket – either Boeing’s Delta-4 or Lockheed Martin’s Atlas-5. Whichever is chosen will have to be ‘man-rated’ – making it reliable enough for the safe launch of humans. This is because although the OSP will initially act as an emergency return vehicle, it is intended to begin carrying astronauts to the International Space Station from 2012.

So could the OSP eventually take over the duties of the shuttle? Not according to Rothschild, who said it will be complimentary to, rather than a replacement for, its older cousin. ‘The shuttle has a very dramatic lift capability and flexibility that cannot be easily replaced,’ he explained.

However, if there is eventually to be a replacement shuttle, then Rothschild’s department would provide the technologies needed to make it happen. Under NASA’s Integrated Space Transportation Plan – of which OSP is just one part – Boeing has a variety of contracts to look ‘at opportunities for space transportation alternatives’. The studies range from relatively mundane near-term improvements to what Rothschild refers to as the ‘fairly far-fetched long-term, 20 or 30-year, downstream ideas’.

These ‘far-fetched’ ideas are third-generation launch vehicles. According to Rothschild, ‘They would use air breathing systems as a first stage to propel spacecraft, much more affordably [with] much higher reliability.’

Air breathing engines are also known as scramjets, turbo ramjets, and combined cycle engines. Rothschild is happy to admit that these air breathing launch vehicles require some key advanced materials and technologies to mature in order to make the systems work. ‘The fundamental challenge for the past 15 to 20 years has been to create sufficient [propulsion] to ensure net thrust exceeds the net drag.’

Achieving that will need not just time, but money. ‘It’s very much a funding question,’ said Rothschild, bringing us full circle back to Congress. The US government is set to make some fundamental decisions on the future of space exploration, and nobody will be watching them with greater interest than Rothschild.

Like so many Americans who grew up watching the Apollo missions he has no wish to see the endeavour to reach the final frontier end.

‘I certainly hope that the human space flight programme continues, but these are decisions that Congress will make,’ he said.

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