Monday, February 01, 2010

Unlearned lessons of the X-15

I really don't like reading on a computer.  Especially a netbook.  Maybe a e-reader designed for this would be better.  Anyway, I started looking at "X-15: Extending the Frontiers of Flight" by Dennis R. Jenkins. I made it through the Forward, written by X-15 pilot William H. Dana, and the Preface. These are worth reading even if you can't carve out time for the rest of its 644 pages.  The technical achievements of the X-15 program were impressive - velocities over Mach 6 and altitudes over 300,000 feet.  However, what struck me this evening was how it differed from today's government-contracted, manned space projects. 
With 40 years of hindsight, it is apparent that the most important lessons to be learned from the X-15 concern not the hardware, but the culture. [Jenkins, p. 8]
Times were simpler back then.  So, was government contracting.  The space program didn't exist and there were fewer programs competing for funding.  Risk was better understood and accepted by all parties - program management, the test pilots, our legislators and the public.  The author believes that the X-15 program would never be approved in today's climate and if so, would undoubtedly be canceled.

  • The program was funded and operated without congressional oversight.  The program reported progress, but there was little to no oversight. The first article was produced in about 3 years and the first flight was withing about 4.
  • The X-15 was conceived as a pure research test-bed rather than a prototype with a specific operational mission.  The programs researchers later said that this is what made the program so successful - they weren't forced to make the wrong choices up front.
  • There had an understanding that the scope of groundbreaking projects is hard to estimate.  The program absorbed large cost over-runs.  Program changes and production problems increased weight and decreased performance.  The engines were behind schedule.  The program was amazingly successful.
  • Risks were understood and accepted.  When there was a failure, there wasn't a Congressional witch-hunt.  They fixed problems quickly and and pressed on.  The program continued after rough landings, explosions, crashes, and even the loss of pilot. On flight 191, problems in the flight instruments caused Major Michael J. Adams to become disoriented.  As the aircraft reentered from 266,000 feet, it went into a spin and disintegrated. Even the loss of the crew didn't immediately kill the program.  After 4 months, it went on to fly 8 additional missions.
"[T]here is a very fine line between stopping progress and being reckless. That the necessary ingredient in this situation of solving a sticky problem is attitude and approach. The answer, in my opinion, is what I refer to as ʻthoughtful courage.' If you don't have that, you will very easily fall into the habit of ʻfearful safety' and end up with a very long and tedious-type solution at the hands of some committee. This can very well end up giving a test program a disease commonly referred to as ʻcancelitis,' which results in little or no progress." - Harrison Storms as relayed by Scott Crossfield [Jenkins, p. 8]
I offer this merely as food for thought.  Things don't work this way now and it's not given that, in all cases, they should.  .

I wonder about the project's level of funding relative to the entire federal budget or that of the armed forces.  I could be there are equivalently funded DARPA or 'skunkworks' programs running in somewhat the same mode today. I also wonder if the scope the X-15's technical challenges were such that one or a small group of engineers could keep their arms around them.  I think today's big programs are just too big, with too many people working on them for this to be the case.  I bet Space-X runs things a lot more like the X-15 than Constellation.