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Faster, cheaper, better - How did they do it?

Posted by: Electrolyte - Thu Jun 24, 2004 10:18 pm
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Faster, cheaper, better - How did they do it? 
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Post Faster, cheaper, better - How did they do it?   Posted on: Thu Jun 24, 2004 10:18 pm
NASA's budjet is massive. By contrast, all the companies competing in this have very small budgets. And yet, the headway they're making is amazing, both in the financial aspects and the speed at which they are coming along. Some may say even in the quality of the results thus far.
So..
How is private industry doing what NASA can't? What reasons are there that NASA's immense budget can't accomplish what SpaceShipOne did, at the same price/speed of development/quality?


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Post    Posted on: Thu Jun 24, 2004 11:11 pm
Small teams with little or no middle management. This is very much how Kelly Johnson used to run the Lockheed Skunk Works. If you want a really good insight on that read 'Skunk Works' by Ben Rich. Personally after the debacle of the X-33 being associated with Skunk Works I suspect you would see the ground above Kelly Johnsons grave to be glowing red due to his spinning and fury.

Another thing most of the X-prize teams have the advantage over NASA and even Kelly's Skunk Works is that many of them are using off the shelf parts and proven technology. Space Rated hardware is amoung the most expensive stuff you can buy and is built with a lot of overkill that is needed mainly for satellite stuff due to the high costs of losing a sat to some silly malfunction. Losing a 100 million dollar satellite because someone used a cheaper part is not as acceptable as losing something like an X-Prize craft that cost a few hundred thousand, as long as no people are lost with it. Most of the teams seem to be relying on redundent systems. Basically trading off using a couple of $50 parts that would be replaced by $5,000 parts if they were the same things only 'space rated', those numbers are purely hypothetical, it may not be that bad but I suspect it could be worse.

Teams like Armadillo are also saving a lot of money in the salary department since they're all doing their work without a paycheck or benefits package, try getting that to fly with NASA managers, at least with those managers paychecks :wink:


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Post    Posted on: Fri Jun 25, 2004 12:27 pm
Wow, good answer, thank you that explains quite a bit. Both in terms of my own question, and in that commission's findings that much of NASA ought to be privatized. However, if privatization were to occur in most of NASA's projects, I wonder whether these advantages would be lost or not. Government contracts call for certification programs and such, cutting into the bottom line somewhat, don't they?


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Post    Posted on: Mon Jun 28, 2004 2:50 am
TJ wrote:
Teams like Armadillo are also saving a lot of money in the salary department since they're all doing their work without a paycheck or benefits package, try getting that to fly with NASA managers, at least with those managers paychecks :wink:


I find it hard to believe that many of the people at Armadillo work for free. Do they starve at night and sleep on the cold desert floor? Everybody needs to be compensated somehow.


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Post    Posted on: Tue Jul 06, 2004 5:54 am
Remember NASA spent and still spends a heck of a lot of money in research, which these smaller companies dont have to bother with... as someone else is doing it allready ;)


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Post    Posted on: Tue Jul 06, 2004 9:11 pm
jasohill wrote:
I find it hard to believe that many of the people at Armadillo work for free. Do they starve at night and sleep on the cold desert floor? Everybody needs to be compensated somehow.


I couldn't find it on the website doing a quick search but you have to remember nobody (except widget probably) works at Armadillo full time. Even though John Carmack puts in roughly 40 hours a week into Armadillo, thats really part time for him since he's also putting in 40 hours at ID. There's only 7 people on the entire team (plus widget) and I'm pretty sure that each of them has a seperate full time job that is unrelated to Armadillo. Not getting any salary might change once Armadillo starts making a profit on tourism flights but I wouldn't be surprised if they all just decide to roll the money into getting to orbit. I've gotten the impression (from where I can't remember) that they're all financially secure enough that their work at Armadillo doesn't effect them financially. Besides how many people can say that they have a side job building rockets.


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Post    Posted on: Wed Jul 14, 2004 4:38 pm
Dawa wrote:
Remember NASA spent and still spends a heck of a lot of money in research, which these smaller companies dont have to bother with... as someone else is doing it allready ;)


And that's precisely what NASA's good at: research. Give them a small, elite team, a small, somewhat constricted budget, and fire/assassinate everybody in a management position higher than Project Leader. Then NASA will be back to NACA (pre-Eisenhower period), and will be back to making research progress.

NASA is not good at any project over a billion dollars. Why? Because too many bureaucrats have a desire to be re-elected. And NASA programs don't produce enough money, jobs, or publicity in their state. Also, consider that NASA is still tied down to the Space Shuttle which, while it possesses a certain sort of beauty, is regardless a 30-year-old vehicle, made with technology that was outmoded when it was in production, and more inefficient per payload pound than a Saturn V rocket (not sure of the exact figures there).

The biggest problem with NASA is that it gained too much attention for its own good during the Cold War Space Race, and thus attracted too many bureaucrats who inflated the organization beyond necessity.

The X-Prize teams, on the other hand, are working with a minimalistic attitude: how do I get this thing up to 100km, bring it back down in roughly the same spot, and not have to throw away 9/10 of the vehicle on the way there (as we did with Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo)?

Remember, Electrolyte, the maxim of "Faster/Cheaper/Better: Pick Any Two" applies strictly to engineering. Once people attempt to manage it, get PR points out of it, convince people that they need to be reelected with it, or otherwise usurp the engineer's authority over his design, it goes out the window.

Example: the Space Shuttle uses over 31,000 handmade, hand-applied ceramic heat shield tiles. There are six different finishes and five different epoxy adhesives that are used, depending upon how much heat each tile is expected to withstand. No two tiles are identical. Now, go back and re-read that last sentence. That's right, out of over thirty-one THOUSAND individual hand-machined tiles, ground to within a thousandth of an inch, no two are the same. The cost of the tiles alone ran into the millions. Why? Because the Project Managers said so.

When Columbia was originally carried from California (where the tiles were manufactured and originally applied) to the Cape, about half the tiles fell off. They weren't knocked off, they just fell off. THEY JUST FELL OFF. Why? The adhesive the Project Managers had chosen had failed.

On the other hand, what did Burt Rutan use for heat shielding? Paint. Ceramic, heat-resistant paint. Not more than $100k for the whole job. And then he painted over that so SSO would look better. Oh, and did I mention that Mike Melville didn't need a spacesuit? And one more thing: the entire White Knight/SpaceShipOne project, from start to finish cost a bit over $20M -- one tenth the cost of the movie Spiderman 2.

The Space Shuttle is not an engineer's vehicle; it's the bastard child of a convoluted bureaucracy. SpaceShipOne, The Black Armadillo, and others: those are the products of talented and skilled design engineers.

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Post    Posted on: Thu Jul 15, 2004 3:33 am
Why would a manager have any say whatsoever in such technical aspects? I assumed that the role of management is to delegate responsibility, not make engineering decisions.


Nasa has had some success with bloated projects; Cassini. I know that particular one could have been done cheaper, but could it have been done better?


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Post    Posted on: Fri Jul 16, 2004 5:40 pm
Electrolyte wrote:
Why would a manager have any say whatsoever in such technical aspects? I assumed that the role of management is to delegate responsibility, not make engineering decisions.


My point exactly: management isn't supposed to interfere with the engineers, but it does. Especially when a politician gets wind of some minor detail that he or she doesn't like.

Electrolyte wrote:
Nasa has had some success with bloated projects; Cassini. I know that particular one could have been done cheaper, but could it have been done better?


Some. Give a truly talented design engineer about ten or twenty billion dollars and the said engineer will be able to build you a probe that will not only examine the planet in question, but bring back samples from the atmosphere of the mother planet and from the surface of each moon.

The biggest problem is that corporations are not interested in research for the sake thereof, they want to turn a profit -- as big as possible and as soon as possible. Pure scientific research does not directly further the profit margin, and thus is mostly ignored. (At least, this is the current economic theory. As a true capitalism has never existed, we cannot be sure this is true.) The government, however, is able to institute long-standing programs that are dedicated to research.

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Post    Posted on: Fri Jul 16, 2004 8:08 pm
spacecowboy wrote:
Some. Give a truly talented design engineer about ten or twenty billion dollars and the said engineer will be able to build you a probe that will not only examine the planet in question, but bring back samples from the atmosphere of the mother planet and from the surface of each moon.


He may indeed be able to build one, but it won't work! As loathe as these huge budgets and overmanagement are, they come with the territory. The Beagle2 project is a good example of very smart people working without enough management and capital.

Furthermore, look at the software industry. Most software projects fail, not because the people working on them aren't smart, hard-working, and dedicated, and not because the projects are anywhere near as complex as anything NASA does, but because the management structure isn't mature enough in the field, too many companies believe a lot of good engineers and a little management is enough, it's not.

NASA have their problems, but I don't think for a second any other corporation could pull off what they do with that budget, nor do I think putting control in the hands of grass roots engineers would get you very far.


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