Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Burt Rutan Comes to Moontown

I've been reading the umpteenth web discussion of 'simple systems are better and innovation as disruption occurs using simple systems (concat with) early vs late adopters' and reflecting on what Burt Rutan, designer of the winner of the Ansari X-prize has to say on the subject.

Rutan recently visited a local private airport called Moontown. Moontown is a grass strip. We stood just outside a hanger packed with pilots and kids. While rain dripped on us through a crack in the hangar door, Burt talked long into the night on the 'leave out the unnecessary' and how 'simpler systems are better'. He asked why the space shuttle was developed without exploiting the early systems that were simpler and reliable. He asked why NASA did not fly more civilians and failed to use the simpler systems for that as the Russians have. He didn't like the answer that those who signed the checks didn't want to pay for that. He said 'it's your money, so what's the disconnect in interest?" I told him, "There is no disconnect. We're here aren't we?"

His charts that show the reliability of the simpler systems are factually correct. His interpretations are historically inaccurate.

1) Mercury capsules never killed a pilot. Sounds good. Fact: the second manned flight almost killed Gus Grissom by sinking when the hatch door blew unexpectedly. The Apollo 1 capsule killed him on the pad. Scott Carpenter missed his landing target by hundreds of miles. The Faith 7 flight of Gordon Cooper of 22 orbits had almost every onboard system fail. He lined up the vehicle using his window on the horizon and manually reentered. The magnetosphere is quite a test of 50's simple technologies. We all know what happened to Apollo 13, and yes, it was the complexity of the redundant systems that enabled that crew to come home combined with the real time ingenuity of very smart people.

2) While devoting a lot of his speech to kicking NASA in the butt (he calls them Nay Say) and lauding his simpler system, he neglected to mention the composites that made his craft orders of magnitude lighter than the X-15 were developed by ... NASA. High performance materials require substantial investments before they can used on simple systems.

3) The checks for launch vehicles used in the manned space program with the sole exception of the Saturn series were signed by the United States Department of Defense who, while they were happy to see them used for manned flight, were mainly interested in delivering weighty bundles of thermonuclear destruction with them. Nuclear weapons and spy satellites don't weigh enough to rate a Saturn V, so they were happy to have the civilians sign those checks.

You see, the mission determines the necessary complexity and the acceptable risks.

Simple systems in the hands of very skilled and intelligent people can do a good job. Complex systems are often designed for the less skillful. Early adopters pay the price for becoming skillful enough to make a system good enough to make a late adopter successful at a tenth of the cost. So the rule of thumb for early adopters is: only if you absolutely need it now or are getting into the core business of the technology. As for why NASA did not go forward except into the shuttle program:

1) The shuttle design requirements are for... ta da... the delivery of military hardware to low Earth orbit.

2) The designers of the early 'simpler systems' were gutted from NASA when it was determined that the next American space program should not be tainted by "ex NAZI rocket scientists'. So the accomplished teams and visionaries were sent packing. Oddly enough, Rutan comes to our city because he wants to rub elbows with the remaining living members of that team. When your main financiers are a Microsoft manager made good and a British knight, it might be bad salesmanship to mention the history of that team although he says up front that Werhner Von Braun is his top hero. Tom Hanks, Phillip Kaufmann and Tom Wolfe did a good job of minimizing Von Braun's role, perhaps it is acceptable for Rutan to say that.

While he is right that it is impossible to prove that a system is safe, it is possible to test one long enough to rid oneself of most of the bugs as long as the bugs manifest in the time and environment given to testing. He did talk a lot about the fact that more regulators from the Office of Commercial Space Launch monitored his work than there are members of his team doing the work. I have to agree with assessment of that situation. It sucks.

As to buying a ticket, given that he has yet to ride SpaceShipOne himself and doesn't intend to (I asked), and he is busily selling his concept for Sir Richard Branson's space line, I think I will be a late purchaser of a Virgin Galactic ticket. Rutan never mentioned the effects of radiation through composites in sub-orbital flights. Early adopters often pay the price not only for the ticket, but for the tests. Thrill or no, I'd like to keep the tan I have free of splotches.

1 comment:

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