Thursday, April 21, 2005

NASA: where it goes

One of the "interesting" things about recent NASA budgets is the very rapid growth in earmark authorization by Congress.
Both the total dollar amount and the number of items are up very sharply in recent years; this is, of course, a long-dishonoured tradition in US politics - Congressional Reps "bringing home the bacon" through line item authorizations for pet projects for their constituents, and used wisely it can be a critical local tipping point, providing infrastructure, opportunity for economic growth or emergency relief.
Most of the time, though, it is gross waste, often egotistical waste, which circumvents the budget process, is out of control and destroys the results of huge amount of time spent publicly debating and setting spending priorities.
It also is enormously destructive, since the money associated is authorized, and line itemed, but usually not appropriated. The actual funding gets taken from projects that are agency or administration priorities, with agency employees given the joyful task of finding which productive projects to cut to fund the pork.

In the 2005 omnibus budget, NASA science had $426 million in 150 or so separate earmarks (the exact numbers depend on how and what you count - eg the Hurricane emergency repairs at KSC are reasonable earmarks). This is a ridicilously large amount of money which is wreaking havoc with the science programs.

It is bad form to pick on other work. I was never a fan of the "Golden Fleece" awards, and there's a reason "proxmiring" is a curse word in some circles. But this is getting ridiculous.

Consider for example the Independent Verification and Validation Facility in Fairmont, West Virginia. Established courtesy of Sen. Byrd, and sustained with the help of Cong. Rep Mollohan (ranking minority member of the ethics committee as I recall). They have 150 employees, nice building, nice hardware and $10+ million per year budget (as far as I can tell, no budget info on their web site I can find). Doing what? Can someone please tell me they have made use of some IV&V software product or heard of a mission critical fault that IV&V caught? I can't find anything substantial on their research product web page, but I confess that I have only casually browsed it. I realise they must primarily deal with flight software, but I can't find anything they did. Well, they seem to award contracts to IV&V software consultant companies.

I would honestly like to be enlightened on this issue. Here we have a large lump of funding going to a center that seems to bounce around as a sub-center for one of the big NASA centers, but I can't find what the actually DID. Like "we verifiied that the following mission critical piece of software works to spec/is mathematically not faulty" - I see a lot of conference papers on methodology, which does not inspire me to confidence.

Ok, found one - they had looked at the MER software, not actually found a flaw, but recommended considerably more software validation - more than the funding and time permitted, based on software complexity and inadequate specs. They also did a post-mortem, but the JPL crew hacked and fixed the problem before there was any formal response if I read it correctly. So IV&V didn't work is my crude inference.

Then there is the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project.
At least they published papers in refereed journals I recognise. I don't think they got any breakthroughs though.
I wonder if the Revolutionary Propulsion Research Project did any better (some of those concepts might jest about be doable sometime this century (as opposed to some others which are unphysical garbage), whether that makes it timely to spend that much money on them is more debatable. Maybe a couple of cases of beer and some peanuts...
Also, to be fair, both were a solicited public RFP if I read it correctly under ASTP program.
So, they solicited some rather speculative physics, at the $10-100k level each; but here is the real problem
from 2001 budget:

PI: Dr. Jim Corum, Inst. for Software Research, WV, NAS3-00124.

BPP Relevance: Directly relevant to a desired effect for BPP Goal 1 (Mass).

Impact: If genuine, this effect may enable thrusting directly against spacetime without propellant.

Progress: From R-3 / SM-1 to R-3 / SM-4 of the BPP Readiness Levels.

Due: June 2001, with public reporting at 2001 JPC, July 2001.

Funds: $915K FY00, via CONGRESSIONAL EARMARK (circumvents BPP selection review)

You have got to be f'ing kidding.

I wonder what the report said... No, unfortunately I don't - it was presented at an AIAA meeting in July 2001:

AIAA-2001-3654, Jim Corum

Corum presented an experimental paper on the use of the Heaviside force in conjunction with a Slepian Antenna as a form of space drive using nothing more than the classical Maxwell stress tensor. Slepian proposed the same thing in 1949, but came to the conclusion that it would not be useful, since the time average of the resultant AC force would be zero. Corum's contribution has thus far been two-fold: (1) In conjunction with Dr. Alan Barnes of WVU he has experimentally shown that the AC version of the Slepian Resonating Antenna does produce a force, and has measured it to within 3.6%, and (2) has designed a way for Hartley's variable capacitor rectification to be used with the Slepian resonator such that the rectification results in a DC force component. The first experiment has already been achieved, the second experiment is the logical next step. If successful, the result would be quite revolutionary: a true space drive.

RESULTS: Experimental - POSITIVE (so far)

That was 4 years ago, I wonder what has taken so long...

Oh, here's another gem, while I'm on a roll. I actually had a conversation with Scott Hughes about this at KITP (over wine), as to whether it was theoretically possible to be unethical enough to propose asymmetric gravity wave propulsion.
Our concept was much better though, it used Black Holes!!!

AIAA-2001-3913, Jeff Cameron

Cameron presented a paper on a proposed Asymmetrical Gravity Wave Propulsion System that has been simulated using computer simulation but has not yet been experimentally verified. The proposed concept uses Weber resonant vibrators as gravity wave radiators, and magnifies the effect by proposing an array of these radiator cells, such that they are phased to constructively interfere with each other to form a tighter gravity wave beam. While he proposed a linear array I see no reason why a 2D array could not be used to further enhance directivity. Aside from the reaction force to the propagation of the gravity wave, which has better per unit area force than a solar sail, there is also the impact of the gravity wave on other masses to be considered. Would pointing the gravity beam at a planet help to "pull" the space vehicle towards that planet? Alternatively, if the reaction mass where attached to a fixed object, would the gravity beam be useful as a "tractor beam" if pointed directly at a non-fixed object? The answers to these questions may be non-intuitive and bear further investigation.

RESULTS: Theoretical - Applied Physics


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