NASA's Achilles Heel


Political Index

The Shocking Truth About NASA, and Other Large Organizations
    I was associated with two $1,000,000,000+ programs that were cancelled. One was Aquila, one of the U. S. military's attempts to acquire unmanned aerial vehicles (the kind that are now getting a lot of press). 
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
    Remotely controlled aerial vehicles have been around for decades. Conventional fighter planes were equipped for remote operation and used during the Viet Nam War. The Israelis have fielded the "Pioneer" since the 1973 Yom Kipper War, and has offered them for (restricted) sale since that time.
    The United states decided that it wanted its own UAV, and gave Lockheed a contract to develop it under contract to the U. S. Army. In order to establish a clientele for the Aquila, the Army "staffed it" throughout the rest of the Army and the other U. S. services. It became a horse designed by a committee. Each organization prepared its wish list of requirements. (One or more organizations sought to use it to justify the inclusion of a Humvee (super-jeep) for the outfit that would use Aquila. Bear in mind that Aquila had only to carry a TV camera over enemy lines and transmit its pictures back to the ground. Even then, that could have been accomplished with a very small model aircraft. Some engineers at the U. S. Army Missile Command (and no doubt at other Army engineering centers) built radio-controlled model airplanes after work and demonstrated the feasibility of the technology. But in the meantime, Aquila had become an object lesson in what can happen when bureaucracy gets its hands on a lucrative opportunity. The Aquila management tried to please everybody who had sent in their requirements. After, all, the challenge wasn't technical but political:  getting other men to use something they didn't invent. Aquila grew and grew, until finally, it required 73 men to operate it. There was a logistics supply chain that had to be established, adding parts to the inventory, together with all the usual details about where spare parts will be stocked, how much labor will be required to keep them in stock, and so forth. In the meantime, adding manpower has a cumulative effect. The cost of an individual Aquila became so high that the armed services couldn't afford more than a few of them, both in terms of dollars and manpower. Finally, in the late 80's, after investing more than a billion dollars in Aquila, the Army cancelled the program.
    In the meantime, the U. S. Marine Corps, watching the "requirements creep" that was strangling Aquila, developed a little backpack-able oversized model airplane called Pointer. Pointer has a range of only three-miles, and an endurance of only one hour, but it works, and is still in use.
    While the U. S. was fumbling the ball, other nations developed and deployed their own UAV's. Britain developed its "Hunter" UAV with no obvious problems.
The UAV Joint Program Office
    After the cancellation of Aquila, a Joint Services Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Program Office was established in Washington, D. C. (actually in Crystal City) in 1988 to develop specifications for off-the-shelf UAVs that would be designed and built by industry. These have evidently now evolved into the UAVs that the U. S. is fielding. (See Predator or Prey? "Noah Shachtman dispels the hype surrounding unmanned aerial vehicles, arguing that the current generation is 'so slow, dumb, noisy, and near-sighted that almost anything stronger than a peashooter could take them down.'" See also, The war after next
    Well! It doesn't sound as though things have changed much yet, does it?
Sergeant York
    The other $1,000,000,000+ program on which I worked was Sergeant York. Sergeant York was a huge anti-aircraft tank. But like Aquila, it became a victim of requirements creep. In the meantime, industry had had developed their own anti-aircraft tanks, probably for sale to foreign governments. General Electric had created a system called, "Blazer", and Martin-Marietta had produced ADATS ("Anti-Aircraft Defense Against Tank Systems"). During the summer of 1985, I and several other representatives of the U. S. Army Missile Command were tasked with monitoring tests of these three anti-aircraft systems at Redstone Arsenal. No, they didn't prove their prowess by actually shooting down aircraft  They bagged their prey with video cameras. When the tests were over, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger cancelled the Sergeant York program, and the Army moved to buy Martin-Marietta's ADATS.
     I realize that these programs only cost a billion+ dollars apiece, but as the late, great Senator Everett Dirkson said,
    "A billion here, a billion there, and the first thing you know, you're talking about real money!"
Why are major programs cancelled?
    So why does this happen? How come we waste such astronomical amounts of money?
    One observation that jumped out at me has to do with the rapid rotation of assignments of military officers. The military officers whom I observed at the helms of joint services project offices were usually colonels on the last two-or-three-year assignments of their careers. They knew from the time they arrived that in two or three years, they would have to go into the outside world for the first time, and find employment to support themselves and their families. This imperative was clearly and understandably on their minds. 
    Every two or three years, the military management would be completely replaced. The civilians and the contractors provided whatever continuity there was, but they weren't in charge of these projects, and these projects were, after all, aimed at supporting the military requirements of their armed forces customers.
NASA's Problems
    One of NASA's major problems is that the actual work is conducted by a prime contractor. During the early days of the space program, the development of the launch vehicles, satellites, and all other aspects of the space program were carried out in-house by the German-American team at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (later the Marshall Space Flight Center). Consequently, the government owned the technical expertise that made it possible. Also, the Peenemünde team was dedicated to making space flight a reality, rather to sculpting their own careers. Later, though, industry was able to lobby, through campaign contributions and political connections at the highest levels of government, to insure that U. S. industry was able to snare the technical and manufacturing work, and remove it from government laboratories. (There may have been additional reasons for favoring this approach, since it meant that the U. S. would grow rocket expertise among younger and native-born citizens. Also, manufacturing was the proper province of industry, once rockets had been brought to the production phase.
    When I joined Georgia Tech, which supported the U. S. Army Missile Command (MICOM), I was surprised at the high caliber and the extensive in-house technical work that took place at MICOM, compared with NASA.

    In a different vein...
Anti-Cancer "Nutriceutical" Articles
    On another note, two current articles deal with the cancer-fighting properties of green tea: Anti-Cancer Combo?  - ABC, and TEA: for the health of It  - ABC. The "Anti-Cancer Combo" article is particularly interesting, discussing as it does the synergistic effects of soy protein and green tea in inhibiting prostate cancer. Of particular interest to me is the fact that they seem to block angiogenesis. This would seem to me to suggest that their effects might not be limited to hormonally-dependent prostate tumors.

Chemical, Biological, and Radioactive Attacks Upon the United States
    A handkerchief could make an impromptu mask. A wet handkerchief would work even better.
    The effectiveness of outdoor attacks will depend upon the way the wind is blowing. If the air isn't stirring, then dissemination will take place by diffusion, and will occur somewhat slower. 
    Part of the detection process could involve recognizing what was happening to other people, and then running  away from it and them.
Chemical Attacks
    A chemical attack would blow over relatively quickly. One might hole up in a bedroom in one's house (preferably on the second story), covering the door cracks and window frames with plastic, or even with wet towels. My only concern about that would be the fact that barometric pressure fluctuates by 1% or 2 %, corresponding to changes in pressure of the order of 50 pounds per square foot. Clearly, houses "breathe", but at least the air that seeps in or out is filtered. (Filtration wouldn't help in the event of a chemical attack.) However, chemicals in the atmosphere would probably dissipate rapidly.
Biological Attacks
    A biological attack might lead to everyone "going to ground" in their houses. It might take a while for the attack to run its course. If the agent were highly infectious, like smallpox, then one would have to remain in quarantine until new cases were no longer occurring. For smallpox, it might be feasible to go to the local health department for a vaccination even though it meant running the risk of exposure to the disease. Smallpox vaccinations are still effective given one or two days after exposure to the virus. If the agent were environmental, like anthrax, then the key point would be to avoid breathing unfiltered air, and to wash often with soap and disinfectant (where available).
    Bacteriological attacks would leave an area contaminated for some time. The best defense might be to drive away from the area, but one would have to beware of "choke points"... bridges or tunnels that would cause traffic jams. Driving in a direction where there are no bottlenecks on minor roads would be a wise strategy. One would have to beware of gridlock.
Radiological Attacks
    A radiological attack would indicate blocking radioactive dust. If there were a sufficiently high level of radioactive dust in the area, then it might coat the roofs of houses and irradiate their occupants.
    There is quite a bit to be said for escaping from an area that has been attacked, although the principal danger in such a scenario is that of being trapped on the way out of town in a traffic jam. Back roads and a head start might reduce the likelihood of that happening (but one would have to think about the problem of crossing main traffic arteries jammed bumper-to-bumper with desperate motorists. (It would pay to have local maps in your car(s) that list all the local byroads and country lanes, and to have a prior knowledge of what they are and where they go.)
Disaster Plan     Are You Prepared?

Back    1    2