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Bernard Schriever's Stifling Shadow

'Schriever's management techniques have stood the test of time while von Braun's have proven a dismal failure'.
by Jeffrey F. Bell
Honolulu HI (SPX) Sep 28, 2004
With the launch of the 476th and last example of the Atlas booster family, it's time to take a look back at this vehicle, its siblings Thor/Delta and Titan, and its father, USAF Lt. Gen. Bernard Schriever.

If you just said "Who?", you aren't alone. Most Space Cadets can rattle off biographical details of dozens of astronauts, but few have ever heard of the man who supervised the development of the three most successful American launch vehicles.

Bernard Schriever is practically unknown, while the leader of the competing US Army rocket program (Wernher von Braun) is practically a cult figure.

But it was Schriever who was the "American Korolev" the real brain behind US rocketry in the early Cold War years. His Atlas, Titan, and Thor rockets were all retired as weapons by 1965, but they have enjoyed 45-year careers as the main American space launch vehicles.

Even Ariane and H-2 are based on Atlas technology transferred to Britain and Japan. Despite his fame, von Braun's Redstone, Jupiter, and Saturn families are all long extinct, and have no descendants flying today. More importantly, Schriever's management techniques have stood the test of time while von Braun's have proven a dismal failure.

The Air Force system of using private enterprise for hardware development has just produced a second generation of launch vehicles which perpetuate the Atlas and Delta (ex-Thor) names for marketing reasons, but are actually new and much superior designs.

Von Braun's team of government employees at Marshall Space Flight Center has given us the disastrously flawed Space Shuttle external tank, its dangerous SRBs, and a long series of failed Shuttle replacement projects. Cynics sometimes refer to MSFC as "NASA's spleen" a major organ that does nothing important.

It is ironic that Schriever's boosters defeated von Braun's in the marketplace, since von Braun and most of his team were veteran Space Cadets from the old German Rocket Society who openly regarded their military rocket work as only a stepping stone to genuine spaceships.

Schriever and his team were narrowly focused on the top-priority military requirement of shooting a thermonuclear bomb from cattle ranches in Wyoming into Red Square.

But somehow, it is the purely military rockets which became the core of American spaceflight, while the ones designed by the greatest space travel advocate of all time were abandoned.

I think the reason for this anomaly is that von Braun and his team had no financial interest in developing their Redstone and Jupiter into lightsat boosters, once they became NASA employees. Jupiter actually was used for a few space launches under the name Juno, then just faded away for no particular reason.

Saturn I and IB seem to have been regarded only as test vehicles for the Saturn V. Convair, Martin, and Douglas, as commercial firms that had to make a profit, were driven to profit from their investment in Atlas, Titan, and Thor by developing and marketing them as boosters after their short military lives were over.

Of course the Saturn V is the von Braun booster that we Space Cadets really miss these days. Its fatal defect was that it was just too big for any military or commercial payload.

As a strictly NASA booster, it had to die in 1971 to pay for Shuttle development and was hopelessly gone by 1986 when NASA might logically have decided to bring it back to life to lift the Space Station.

Delta, Atlas, and Titan only survived the Shuttle Purge because they were lifting vital military payloads, and had to be kept alive until the Shuttle was actually flying 24 times a year and taking over all the load.

Had the Challenger accident happened a few years later, Delta and Atlas might have been hopelessly dead too and the US would have been stuck with the super-expensive Titan IV as its only expendable. It shouldn't be any surprise that private firms defeated a government bureau in America's internal Space Race. Even at the start of the ICBM program in 1954, anyone could have gone to a library and read a new book called SLIDE RULE, the fascinating autobiography of British engineer-novelist Nevil Shute.

His inside account of the Empire Airship Programme is probably the clearest available explanation of why government bureaus consistently fail at development of high-tech hardware. With good reason this book is required reading at some firms today.

In the USA, there was already a long history of government design teams producing aircraft which invariably proved inferior to private designs.

The Army Engineering Division at Dayton was closed down soon after WWI, and the Naval Aircraft Factory at Philadelphia was kept alive only by an idiotic law of 1934 that required the USN to build %10 of its airframes and engines in-house "as a check on the costs of the private builders".

In its dotage, the NAF even managed to spin off an equally incompetent private firm called Brewster Aeronautics which achieved the extraordinary feat of going out of business in the middle of WWII.

Even communist Russia was forced to establish "Special Aircraft Design Bureaus" that for all practical purposes were private firms competing for government contracts. These bureaus even came to be named after the bourgeois individualists who ran them with iron fists, just like capitalist industrial empires.

The only difference in working for Tupolev or Myashischev from working for Boeing or Curtiss was that the penalty for bad engineering was a boxcar trip to Siberia instead of a pink slip.

But the most relevant example comes from a little-known episode in the tangled history of von Braun's own research group in Nazi Germany.

Originally, the Peenemunde space center was manned by a mixture of civil service employees, uniformed military men, and slave labourers from the conquered nations of Europe. This system kept salaries low, but by the middle of WWII it was proving extremely cumbersome.

Peenemunde was falling far behind schedule on the V-2 and also the Wasserfall and Taifun anti-aircraft missiles which the Third Reich desperately needed. The mid-level non-Space-Cadet engineers and technicians who did the actual missile development work were being pirated away by private firms that could pay much higher salaries.

The response of the Nazi regime to this problem sounds quite familiar to modern ears: they proposed to privatize their rocket research program by selling Peenemunde off to a big arms firm like Krupp or Junkers. When no buyers appeared, they cut the asking price to a small fraction of the facilities' replacement value.

Finally they gave up trying to find anyone dumb enough to think that von Braun's sprawling empire could ever show a profit. Peenemunde was transformed from an Army base into a %100 government-owned corporation called "Electro-Mechanical Works Ltd." just in time for the final collapse of the National Socialist system.

When von Braun and his fellow Paperclips arrived in the USA after their short adventure in the pseudo-private sector, they found themselves once again government employees, this time of the US Army Ordnance Department.

This agency had a long history of designing weapons in government arsenals. The dismal results of this can be seen even today: after many failed attempts by Ordnance engineers to replace it, American troops are still equipped with Eugene Stoner's private-venture M-16 rifle - along with Belgian machine guns, British mortars, German tank guns, and Canadian artillery.

Von Braun's heritage of in-house development by government employees proved extremely awkward when his Army team was transferred to the new NASA.

It is well known that von Braun was overruled on every key technical decision in the Apollo program (LH2 fuel vs. RP-1, LOR vs. EOR) but probably more important was the decision to take detail design of the Saturn rocket stages away from Huntsville and farm them out to the private design teams that Schriever had developed in the USAF missile program.

If this radical step hadn't been taken, the USA would certainly have lost the Moon Race. There simply wasn't enough engineering talent at Huntsville or even NASA to have done the detailed design in time.

If the management methods of Schriever's program have proven a vital heritage, the actual rocket designs themselves have been a more dubious legacy.

Atlas, Titan, and Thor were all designed around strictly military requirements, and even at the start were regarded as temporary expedients to close the imaginary "Missile Gap" with the USSR. Nobody imagined in 1954 that these missiles would still be in use in 2004.

Anybody who might have suggested such a thing would have been carted off in a straightjacket. Everybody in1954 knew that in 2004 we would be flying all around the Solar System in big nuclear-powered spaceships supported by huge space stations and sleek Earth-to-orbit spaceplanes. Your could read it right there in Arthur C. Clarke's books!

The inflexible requirements that Schriever and his contractors had to meet were extremely onerous:

The program could not fail. Atlas and Titan I were developed in parallel by independent contractors using very different design concepts simply to insure that one would work.

The program could not fall behind schedule. Any time there was a quick and dirty way to solve a development problem, it was adopted, even if it would run up cost or complexity. There just was no time to investigate elegant solutions.

This bad practice of the 1950s Missile Race was carried over into the 1960s Space Race which also had an immovable deadline.

A nuclear warhead of fixed weight had to be thrown at least 5500nm. When it looked as though Atlas and Titan might not meet this range, the IRBM Thor was spun off from Atlas, and von Braun's team allowed to develop Jupiter as a second Europe-based missile.

This "2 belts plus 4 suspenders" approach was typical of the massive redundancy of the ballistic missile program, which itself was backed up by Snark, Navajo, Regulus II, A5J, P6M, B-58, and B-70 all expensive H-bomb delivery systems that were cancelled in development or retired early.

At this range, the guidance systems had to achieve a CEP of only ~1km. In the days before microchips, this required a huge inertial guidance package which was actually larger than the warhead. Early Atlas D and Titan I missiles avoided this problem by putting most of the guidance electronics on the ground and steering the missile by radio command.

When Atlas E/F shifted over to pure inertial guidance, there was no room for the stable platform inside the missile, so it was grafted on outside in an unsightly bulge.

In order to reach their remote launch sites, all missiles had to fit the C-133B (the largest transport aircraft of the time), and also the limitations of US backcountry roads.

Ground support and check-out facilities had to be extremely limited. When Thor was operational with RAF Bomber Command in eastern England, each base had only six technicians.

This tiny crew had to erect three missiles onto their pads from horizontal storage, pump in RP-1 and LOX, check them out, align their guidance systems, and launch them - within 15 minutes!

Accidental explosions of the missiles had to be rare, and accidental explosions of the warheads impossible. The rush to deploy Atlas and Titan I seems to have led to some short-cuts in this area.

The Atlas F squadron at Roswell NM lost 3 of its 12 operational missiles in fuel explosions during its first year on alert. It's hard to imagine the public reaction if this happened today.

Meeting all these requirements on a crash basis meant that all other issues had to be ignored. Areas in which the 1st-generation missiles fell short are numerous:

  • Cost. During the 1950s US military spending was an extraordinary %12-15 of the Gross National Product, the highest it has ever been in "peacetime". There was money to burn, and whenever Schriever or von Braun ran over budget, some lower-priority program would get the chop.

    Programs that got cut or terminated to fund nuclear missile programs included promising VTOL aircraft, the Navy's seaplanes and blimps, the Air Force's own Tactical Air Command, and most of the Army except for von Braun's missile programs and the Nike anti-bomber missiles. Every problem was solved by throwing bales of money at it.

  • Simplicity. In order to reach the necessary performance levels within the limited volume available, extraordinary measures were taken to reduce airframe weight. The most famous of these was the inflated balloon fuel tanks of Atlas, but all these missiles used complex and labor-intensive fabrication techniques such as chemical milling.

    All of Rocketdyne's engines adopted the bundle-of-tubes nozzle to allow regenerative cooling, even though this configuration is very difficult to manufacture. Since total production of the "interim" ICBMs was originally envisioned as about 100, there was no thought of engineering them for cheap mass production.

  • Fuel supply. When Rocketdyne encountered problems with JP-4 fuel depositing coke in the engine cooling jackets, their response was to dump the problem onto the broad shoulders of the oil industry.

    They crafted a tight specification for a semi-synthetic fuel called RP-1 which could only be made from selected California crude oils, and required many stages of purification. Again, the justification was that this super-expensive fuel would be a limited-production item in use for only a few years.

  • Reliability. The original requirement for Atlas was only %60 overall system reliability. It is really quite amazing that the same basic stage was later brought up to %99 reliability. But this feat was only achieved by deploying massive ground support teams at launch complexes far more expensive than the simple combat launch sites these military missiles were designed for.

    A major upgrade in the Ariane and EELV programs has been to cut back ground support requirements without reducing reliability.

  • Reusability. This wasn't a factor in the context of thermonuclear war. The French, with impeccable Cartesian logic, designed their MANNED Mirage IV A-bomber for a one-way trip from Bordeaux to Moscow, on the assumption that France wouldn't be around to fly back to.

    The USAF briefly considered a once-around but in their adopted role of space booster, expendability is probably the single worst defect of the old Cold War missiles.

    Both the USAF and Army teams produced designs that are far too expensive to be thrown away after a single use. Von Braun's 1952 plan for space operations envisioned a booster that was mostly reusable, with the lower stages parachuting into the ocean for recovery by ships.

    Had anyone known that 476 Atlases with their complicated 5-engine power plants and guidance electronics would eventually fall onto the ocean floor, they surely would have incorporated some simple recovery system. In fact, at least one Titan II first stage was found floating mostly intact in the ocean and can still be seen today.

    This episode suggests that minor modifications to Schriever's boosters would have allowed regular reuse of the first stages.

    Today some of the more intelligent firms are finally going back to square one and designing space boosters that don't perpetuate these bad features of the old military missiles. Several teams are designing liquid engines around commercial jet fuels very similar to the old JP-4, and attacking the problems that Rocketdyne evaded by inventing RP-1.

    SpaceX has revived von Braun's idea of the float-back liquid booster in its Falcon family, and is developing the ablative nozzle as a cheap alternative to Rocketdyne's bundle-of-tubes.

    But over at the US government's centrally planned space program, the unlimited-funding mentality of the 1950s is alive and well.

    After wasting billions of dollars on fantastic projects for fly-back and SSTO boosters that were impossible with existing physics and technology, the NASA pendulum has swung wildly back to the other extreme.

    All the options being considered for the Project Constellation moon booster (Shuttle-C, Super-EELV, Saturn V Mk.2) appear to be fully expendable vehicles, rooted in the technology developed for the Navajo and Atlas missiles fully 50 years ago!

    If one had to pick one reason why the manned part of the new Vision for Space Exploration won't work, this is the one. It is simply not possible to carry out a useful manned space program within the current NASA budget without a major reduction in launch costs.

    And there is no way that launch costs can be significantly reduced as long as we build vehicles as complex and expensive as a jumbo airliner and dump them in the ocean after one flight like an empty pistol cartridge.

    Until we get away from this obsolete paradigm derived from 1950s nuclear war planning, we are going nowhere in space.

    There are only two ways to make space flight affordable in the near term: A) make boosters truly reusable without the expensive factory rebuilds needed by the Shuttle's Orbiters and SRBs; B) make expendable boosters as simple and cheap as a pistol cartridge.

    NASA has chosen to reject both of these options in favor of its traditional retro fantasy of a replay of the 1960s Space Race, and most of the Space Cadet community is still seduced by high-tech fantasies like the Space Elevator and winged SSTO vehicles.

    Both NASA and the Space Cadets are pursuing hopeless romantic dreams; one 50 years behind the times, the other 50 years ahead of its time.

    Only a few firms are even trying one of the two sensible approaches to a sustained manned presence in space, and of those few, only Elon Musk's SpaceX seems to have its head screwed on straight. Bernard Schriever still casts a long, stifling shadow. Will we ever escape it?

    Jeffrey F. Bell is a retired space scientist and recovering pro-space activist.

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