Status Report

A Word from the Know-Nothing Bureaucrats – LESA BULLETIN 2004-002: IFPTE LOCAL 28

By SpaceRef Editor
March 19, 2004
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Virginia A. Cantwell, President

March 2004

A Word from the Know-Nothing Bureaucrats
By Dr. William Henry Jones

Space is easy. So says the alternative, private-sector space crowd momentarily being led into that glorious blackness by Burt Rutan and his SpaceShipOne. The bureaucracy just makes it “hard” to protect their jobs, their budgets, and their little political niche in life. Yeah.

As Mr. Rutan is about to find out (and is perhaps already finding out) space, even the little toe-hold he is trying to gain, is hard – in fact, space is very hard. I will admit that bureaucracy doesn’t make space any easier, as witness the tangled management and cultural mess the Columbia Accident Investigation Board uncovered, but taking away the bureaucracy won’t magically make space flight something your granny can do with her Oldsmobile. Space is a hard, dangerous, demanding, expensive, and unforgiving world to fly in.

While the anti-government crowd cheers on Mr. Rutan, we should be clear about what he is trying to do: he is trying to take people 100 kilometers up twice in two weeks. While, technically, 100 kilometers is “space” and, technically, his ship will be “flying”, this is a long, long way from the spaceflight that the bureaucracy takes on. There is no actual speed requirement in Mr. Rutan’s goal; I understand he intends to reach his goal in a near-vertical ascent, giving him a horizontal speed of essentially zero. This is well short of the 17,500 mph that low earth orbit involves and this net energy difference makes Mr. Rutan’s task significantly easier. An altitude of 100 kilometers is also significantly easier than the 300 kilometers or so of low earth orbit – more energy SpaceShipOne won’t have to deal with. Somewhere I got the impression that Mr. Rutan expected to reach velocities in the neighborhood of Mach 3, again something well short of the Mach 25 or so that vehicles returning from bureaucratic spaceflight encounter.

The fact of the matter is that the bureaucracy in the form of NASA (pronounced “nay-say” in Mr. Rutan’s opinion) flew “spaceflight” profiles approximating Mr. Rutan’s expected achievements some 40 years ago with the X-15 program it inherited from its forerunner, NACA. They were stunning achievements then, they will be stunning achievements again when Mr. Rutan succeeds, but they are not yet the path to spaceflight as the bureaucracy practices it. NASA didn’t go to the spam-in-a-can approach because they couldn’t make the X-15 expensive enough; they went to spam-in-a-can because the X-15 just could not get to where they needed to go: orbital space flight. An X-15 couldn’t pack in enough energy to accelerate from the 3,000 mph it achieved to the 17,500 mph that physics dictates for orbit, and the materials available to the X-15 simply would not have been able to take the heat of returning from success, had it been achieved.

It should also be noted that Mr. Rutan enjoys the luxury in his efforts of being an experimentalist, a visionary, a ground breaker, an engineer pushing the edge. Others verify this by citing the fact that, of his hundreds of aircraft designs, only one – the Beech Aircraft Starship – has ever been certificated at any level beyond experimental. Mr. Rutan attributes this to the “know-nothing” bureaucracy that, presumably, can’t understand the genius of his designs. Mr. Rutan’s designs may well be genius, but the problem isn’t that the bureaucracy knows nothing; it is that the bureaucracy, and the larger engineering and science community it draws upon, don’t have enough validated knowledge of Mr. Rutan’s materials to tell the public with a straight face that they have a reasonable expectation of safety in them, and neither does Mr. Rutan. This is what led to the great difficulties and ultimate demise of the Beech Aircraft Starship: it was just too expensive to prove that it was safe in design, production, and service. The bureaucracy, even NASA, is bound by a certain public expectation of reliability and trust in its efforts. There are sometimes regrettable failures and tragedies, which the public accepts with good grace, that result from actually being beyond the edge in some way; but habitually-wild experimentalism is ground that does not look well in a Senate hearing, a place that Mr. Rutan, as a private citizen, will probably never be on the wrong end of.

Another point that must be made about Mr. Rutan’s SpaceShipOne is that its most immediate application will be the production of joy-rides for millionaires. That is well and good; there is a market with cash customers lined up and a private sector effort is entirely suited to meeting that demand. The crowds cheer this as a private-sector triumph; but imagine the sound were the bureaucracy to devote its efforts to providing joy-rides for the very rich. There wouldn’t be enough tar and feathers to go around! There are, of course, other applications expected for Mr. Rutan’s technology – continental and inter-continental package delivery for one – but these must be considered more remote than the line for the thrill of a lifetime.

Does all this mean that Mr. Rutan’s efforts are a waste, that they should just be dropped as old feats repeated? No, of course not – they will be a step, a contribution to what we know, they will fill in an area skipped over by the bureaucracy; what Mr. Rutan learns will have its applications. Does the bureaucracy need to squash Mr. Rutan to protect its turf? No. Mr. Rutan is going to find the same physics the bureaucracy has been dealing with for decades and he is going to find out the same truths. There is nothing to fear in that.

Finally, are Mr. Rutan’s efforts and expected success proof that the bureaucracy is just stupid and wasteful, unwilling to see true genius simplifying the problem to an easy and safe adventure? Again, no – a resounding no! By grouping these two areas of achievement under the single term “spaceflight”, we fool the crowd into the idiotic falsehood that 100 kilometers straight up is essentially the same as low earth orbit and do a grave disservice to the bureaucracy that has taken us to the moon. When the bureaucracy returns to Tranquility Base to stay, I very much doubt that Mr. Rutan and his SpaceShipOne or Two or Three will be waiting there to greet us. If he is, though, I hope he remembers the donuts.

Dr. Jones is available through e-mail at and also reads the newsgroup regularly; however, he reserves the right to say nothing at his convenience.

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SpaceRef staff editor.