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Airpork; the National Aero-Space plane is too fast to live, too hyped to die.

A week after the Challenger exploded in 1986, Ronald Reagan introduced the country to the hydrogen-powered National Aero-Space Plane (NASP), "a new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take off from Dulles Airport and accelerate up to 25 times the speed of sound, attaining low Earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within two hours." The same plane, or a close relative, would deliver bombs from Montana to Moscow in one hour; it would make regular freight deliveries into space from the runways of America.

By November 1989, after the Bush administration managed to renew funding for the project, William Safire had caught the fever, waxing rhapsodic in The New York Times over the way "the Underestimated Man," Dan Quayle, chairman of the National Space Council, "got down there in that hydrogen slush and rescued the spaceplane from oblivion." This "4,000 mile-an-hour NASP," Safire explained, "will zip past the French-British Concorde the way a souped-up Corvette passes an antique tin lizzie." It will be "a made-in-America aircraft capable of taking off from any major airport, zooming out into space and reentering the atmosphere to land at any other airport in less than three hours."

Sounds pretty neat. But you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that these claims don't add up. You just have to get down in that hydrogen slush, ignore Dan Quayle, and apply a little common sense.

Take the "any-major-airport" line. Among scores of articles in everything from Aviation Week to The New York Times, I have yet to find one that questions this crucial selling point. But a little curiosity would quickly lead you to two aviation rules of thumb: 1) fast airplanes aren't much good at flying slow; and 2) minimum runway length increases in proportion to the square of takeoff and landing speed-two times the speed, four times the runway. This should set off a mental alarm-after all, we're talking about flying up to 30 times faster than a normal airliner. In mid 1989, Aviation Week & Space Technology put NASP takeoff speed at 450 mph. Well, the Concorde supersonic transport lifts off at 220 mph, and the two-and-a-quarter mile Dulles airport runway is its minimum. The "spaceplane" would need at least nine miles of concrete. No airport on the planet could accommodate it. Maybe we could find enough cheap real estate to build nine-mile runways-but not near New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, or Hong Kong. And it's not likely that the neighbors, who have already demanded quieter aircraft, will put up with the infernal racket of the noisiest one ever built; the Concorde is more than loud enough.

Then there's the matter of heat: air friction would raise the surface temperature of this plane above that found inside a blast furnace; and the matter of cost: a little figuring shows that one flight on the Orient Express would wipe out most people's life savings. You get the idea. Orient excess

Problem is, Congress doesn't. We've already spent more than a billion dollars on the NASP, and the meter is starting to run faster: Congress plans to spend $305 million on this funding pipeline dream next year, up from this year's $258 million. Given enough time and money, engineers might eventually overcome the major obstacles and build some sort of spaceplane. But the briefest consideration reveals that the contractors' claims for how long that will take (four years), how much it will cost ($10 billion), and what the plane's spinoffs will do (everything) are absurd. And while we throw money at the spaceplane, more useful, if less sexy, projects-like slow, unmanned, super-high-altitude research planes that would track changes in the environment-go begging.

The spaceplane program is flourishing not on its merits but because of skillful contractor packaging-a slick sales job that combines geographic placement of plants for maximum pork-barrel effect with seeming openness toward journalists, who, like Safire, tend to rewrite press releases instead of rethinking premises when it comes to big science projects. This uncritical acceptance of the contractors' claims is a sin few congressmen or journalists would commit if the expensive new program were, say, a welfare initiative or a tax proposal. But our watchdogs in Congress and the press always slip up a bit when the hydrogen slush begins to flow.

By 1989, some members of the consortium of contractors working on the spaceplane had begun backing away from Reagan's hype of the commercial aviation spin-offs. In Aviation Week, James B. Fyfe, deputy NASP program manager for Pratt & Whitney, said, "The idea that it's an Orient Express-a rich man's toy-is very damaging to the program."

But Reagan got his ideas somewhere, and this one didn't come from a mystery movie. As the prominent contractor in the consortium during the late eighties, McDonnell Douglas Corporation (or MACDAC, in the biz) cranked out a series of full-page magazine ads, brochures, and official-looking reports about its proposed "X-30" experimental plane-"forerunner of the Orient Express."

Coincidentally, "Orient Express" is also the title of McDonnell Douglas's technical and economic report on high-speed commercial transports. Hypersonic transports, which would travel five times the speed of sound, have been crucial to selling the spaceplane program, since we might hope to cover the extremely high development costs and get into mass production if a profitable airliner were a relatively cheap spin-off.

And, boy, do we ever need a hypersonic transport! Or do we? According to the McDonnell Douglas analysis, the only trips that would benefit from a super-fast plane are the trans-Pacific routes of more than 5,000 miles. Between 1975 and 1984, the report points out, traffic over those routes increased at 11 percent per year, to 6.4 million passenger flights. McDonnell Douglas projects a 10 percent growth rate to the year 2020, for a traffic figure of 188 million. This projected traffic increase is the core of the contractors' case that we need a hypersonic transport-and if we need a hypersonic transport, they reason, we need the NASP, so we should hire MACDAC and friends to build the X-30. Unfortunately, McDonnell Douglas's methodology is akin to taking the rate of emigration of Kuwaitis last August and using it to predict an exodus over the next decade.

As any student of statistics and damned lies knows, projections based on a present trend are notoriously unreliable-and even worse when they assume exponential growth or extend beyond a year or two. The recent growth in travel came from a combination of airfare deregulation, fewer empty seats, and rapid economic growth in East Asia-trends that cannot continue for 40 years. And most of the new demand has been for the cheap seats. While conventional carriers worldwide dramatically increased their ticket sales, the extravagant Mach 1.8 Concorde has been unable to expand its operating fleet beyond a dozen 100-passenger planes-with an average of one out of three seats vacant. Indeed, the financial failure of the Concorde shot down the notion that many people will pay 10 times more to cross oceans a few hours faster. Now, it's possible that someone will build a cheaper supersonic plane-Boeing is spending its own money to develop one-but a hypersonic that would be remotely competitive with conventional airliners is a long, long way off.

Why is hypersonic so pricey? The first reason comes from the basic physics of flight. When speed goes up, fuel efficiency goes down. The sharp, pointy shape necessary for flying faster than a speeding bullet, along with losses in engine efficiency, will give the plane dismal gas mileage. That lowers payload and raises ticket prices. And remember, as McDonnell Douglas concedes, such an airliner could be plausible only for long-range flights. But since any aircraft has strict weight and volume limits, the extra fuel required for long trips will displace passengers-so there will be fewer of them to share the costs of crew, maintenance, and the plane itself. As spin-offs go, the new Orient Express promises to be about as big a commercial hit as "Joanie Loves Chachi."

In worrying whether there'd be a market for a hypersonic transport, of course, we're assuming that such a plane could spin off from the NASP program. McDonnell Douglas's own promotional literature shows why it can't. In the late eighties the company touted a Mach 5 (3,400 mph) transport, fueled with liquid natural gas and carrying 305 passengers from D.C. to Beijing in 2.5 hours. At the same time it bragged that the X-30 spaceplane would run on liquid hydrogen and fly into orbit at Mach 25. Sound like similar planes to you? Credible engineering estimates place the common technology in NASP and the hypersonic plane at a piddling 5 percent. To boldly snow

And, of course, in worrying whether an Orient Express could help defray the price of a spaceplane, we're supposing that a spaceplane is worth building in the first place. Don't forget the hype: The goal "is a spaceplane that could take off and land from virtually any airport in the world, carry satellites and other space cargo into orbit cheaply, or carry a load of bombs deep into enemy territory as fast as an intercontinental missile," as Carl Lavin reported in The New York Times in 1989. We've already seen that the only thing conventional about a spaceplane runway is that it would be horizontal.

But let's say you could find a nine-mile runway or a nice dry lake bed to touch down on. Don't plan to lift off again anytime soon. The world's fastest aircraft, the Mach 3 SR-71 "Blackbird" spyplane, cruises with a 550-degree surface temperature. As it rolls to a halt, its skin can still fry eggs. A Mach 5 aircraft will run 470 degrees hotter. Mach 25? Up to 5,000 degrees at the leading edges. This is why we can see bits of gravel at night-50 miles away-when they enter the atmosphere at similar speeds. It's also why most meteors never reach the ground.

McDonnell Douglas claims its Mach 25 plane "will need only minimal maintenance and refueling-only hours or perhaps even minutes-before it is ready for another flight." Only minutes to tank up a red-hot plane with 250,000 pounds of -450 degree hydrogen? For perspective on the problem, imagine a whole airplane skin as hot as a toaster coil. Even a slower airliner would be too hot to handle. Ben Rich of Lockheed's secret Skunk Works, which built the Blackbird, said in Interavia, "I can turn around an SR-71, maybe, under a surge condition, in two hours if everyone wears gloves. But a Mach 5 airliner in two hours? Bullsauce!" That's the word from the Blackbird's main architect, who still works for a major government contractor. By the way, the Blackbird was so temperamental that, according to one pilot cited by Air & Space, it required 40 hours of maintenance for each hour in the air.

The reason turnaround time is so important is that the NASP will have to make an awful lot of flights in order to spread out the costs of building it. Reagan administration officials claimed that the price tag for putting a pound of freight into orbit via the spaceplane will run between $20 and $400. Scott Crossfield, former test pilot turned spaceplane advocate on the House Space and Technology Committee staff, suggests a range of $14 to $140. But let's take a quick cruise through the numbers. The optimists claim they can develop and build two X-30s for $10 billion. (The B-2 bomber, a far less ambitious venture, cost more than twice as much before the first prototype flew.) Assume, generously, that a fleet of five operational spaceplanes can be built for another $10 billion.

With an impossibly low $20 billion total cost and an officially estimated 30,000-pound payload, to reach $20 per pound those five spaceplanes would have to make 33,000 fully loaded flights-one every day for 90 years-and haul 500,000 tons of freight. (What on Earth would we do with all that space junk?) And I've made some hidden assumptions: free fuel, free airport, volunteer pilots, no failures of any kind, zero maintenance, and no-interest financing.

I've also assumed (as have the contractors and Congress) that we'll find a cheap, quick way to build the miracle engines this plane will need to fly. Aside from the any-major-airport line, the other big selling feature of the spaceplane is that it will be an "airbreather"-that is, capable of gathering oxygen from the air to feed the engines. Rockets, on the other hand, have to carry their oxygen with them, which NASP groupies claim is like a fish lugging a canteen. That's a real problem for rockets, but the spaceplane would solve it by acting like a freshwater trout dragging a desalination plant through the ocean. To get from a standing start to orbit, the NASP will need at least three different engine systems, including turbojets to allow the plane to fly at low speeds; an as-yet-theoretical ramjet/scramjet combination, which will take the plane from supersonic to hypersonic speeds; and rockets to accelerate the plane to and from orbital velocity. Each system must be capable of propelling the entire plane, so in order to carry the extra sets of engines each must be more powerful than otherwise. And heavier. So the engines need more fuel, which means more weight, which requires yet more thrust. . . . Before long, carrying your own canteen doesn't seem like such a bad idea.

Those are a few of the problems with the NASP that one can anticipate. But no matter how many supercomputers are put to the task, some glitches are sure to come as costly surprises. One small example: It cost $1 million in the sixties just to develop Air Force insignia that would not burn off the Blackbird's hot skin. The space shuttle already pushes the edge of the human capability envelope, and it has thin safety margins-sometimes too thin, as we all know. At best, NASP will trim those margins further. For one thing, its behavior above Mach 8 is open to speculation-no wind tunnel can sustain higher speeds. Kelly Johnson, legendary chief engineer of the Blackbird program, recently said: "It was proven, once again, that it is absolutely impossible to foresee all the problems in advance when making large steps forward in speed and altitude." The "large step" he made was from Mach 2 to Mach 3. Tools on the Hill

The real blame for the survival of this turkey rests not with the villains you might suspect-the Pentagon or NASA-but with Congress. For its part, the Pentagon has had a love-hate-love relationship with the NASP. Two-thirds of the program's billion-dollar public tab has been picked up by the Defense Department. General Lawrence A. Skantze, head of the Air Force Systems Command, epitomized the order-every-toy-and-to-hell-with-the-cost attitude of the eighties in comments he made to Air Force magazine in June 1986: "[NASP] responds to a wide range of Strategic Air Command, Tactical Air Command, Military Airlift, and unified Space Command needs. We're talking about the speed of response of an ICBM and the flexibility and reliability of a bomber packaged together

But by 1989, the spending orgy was winding down, and the military's tune changed accordingly. Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney testified that "there is no immediate military application for the program," and tried to cut Pentagon spending on the spaceplane to zero, Secretary of the Air Force Donald Rice recommended a 70 percent cut, and said that NASP "needs a cold bath of reality."

Few warnings could be stronger than an Air Force disavowal of a new wonderplane. But the message was lost on the House of Representatives. Rep. Dave McCurdy talked 18 other House members into signing a letter to Quayle asking that NASP be shoved down Cheney's throat. Which it was.

Some of McCurdy's co-signers mounted their own efforts to save the plane. In a March 1990 Space News op-ed, Rep. Robert Walker blasted "latter-day Luddites" who would relegate NASP "to the black bole that policymakers reserve for unnecessary projects, pipe dreams, and toys for the wealthy." After all, "the businessman who can travel anywhere in the world in two hours reflects the economic and social realities of tomorrow."

In the same trade journal two weeks later, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, whose district is the home of Rockwell International, now the lead NASP contractor, ran his piece, "Get John Q. Public to Demand NASP," goading the contractors to divert more profits from other government projects into tax-deductible efforts to lean on Congress even harder to fund the spaceplane: "The NASP contractors must all start now to work diligently to lock in a positive decision for construction of the prototypes. . . . The aerospace companies, whose very existence as competitive [sic] enterprises hangs in the balance, have a duty .to master the political and budget processes which drive Washington decision-making

How did NASP glide through Congress, and get the entire House to lean on the Air Force, with the strong support of only 4 percent of the members? McCurdy's answer is "quality over quantity"-the other members of Congress, he says, look to members of the Science Committee for "good information on science and technology." How good is that information? When I asked him how much it might cost to buy a working fleet of spaceplanes, McCurdy said he had "No idea. Depends on when the commercial applications drop off-Mach 8 or Mach whatever." As for NASP using normal airports, "I don't know if it would need a special runway length or anything-I expect it would be adaptable to just about any airport."

It didn't hurt the spaceplane's prospects that, under congressional pressure, the administration reversed course on it again. Partly thanks to the PR success of Operation Desert Storm, the administration sniffed a change in the funding breeze, and the program once again became crucial to national survival. In March 1991 John J. Welch Jr., assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, testified before the House that "Air Force interest in hypersonics is higher than ever. The NASP program is our flagship science and technology program."

A full-page NASP ad in a September 1990 Roll Call-the weekly paper circulated on Capitol Hill-illustrates how congressmen developed their addiction to the spaceplane. The ad has a handy map of the U.S. with scores of little circles scattered across it and a caption pointing out that NASP contracts are spread over 44 states. Shooting it down

With the White House and Congress conspiring, only the press was left to blow the whistle on the NASP. Until now, it hasn't. This isn't to say that news accounts of NASP have ignored all the "challenges" to be overcome. They often acknowledge, for example, that no one knows whether we can make lightweight materials that will keep their strength at several thousand degrees on the outside and -450 degrees on the inside while being exposed to the corrosive effects of both hydrogen and oxygen. And a jet engine that can run at more than Mach 8 has yet to be built. These are obstacles, however, that might be overcome with enough sweat, ingenuity, time, and money.

By being "open" about problems that aren't clearly insoluble, NASP promoters have decoyed reporters into missing the real show stoppers-the ones that reveal how far short of its promised mission the spaceplane would fall. To find out how phony the "any-airport-in-the-world" line really is, for instance, a reporter would have to go beyond brochures and briefings and into the realm of investigation, deduction, and independent thought. Scary stuff. When dealing with experts who know much more about the topic than you do and with readers who know even less, it's simple to pass information from one side to the other without thinking in between. But journalists-and voters and lawmakers-can go a long way on a little common sense and the willingness to ask the right people the right questions. The spaceplane points up a few of the red flags journalists should watch for when dealing with big science: * Beware the vaguely stated purpose. Flexibility is a virtue, but when a project changes its mission every time the opinion polls flutter, or if, like the spaceplane, it promises to perform every mission at once, chances are it should be put out of its misery. * Don't trust that the sun'll come out tomorrow. Contractors generally boast-sometimes truthfully-that though their projects may have huge costs up front, the benefits will be even bigger down the road. Don't take this for granted, especially if it means closing down alternative projects. The backers of the space shuttle justified its huge subsidy and launch monopoly on the grounds that the orbiter would be dirt cheap after a few years, a promise based on outlandish predictions about per-pound launch cost (20 times lower than reality), turnaround time (8 times shorter), and trip frequency (15 times higher)-even before Challenger raised all those numbers. As they are beginning to do with the spaceplane, once contractors get their feet in the funding door, they start modifying their claims, trying to lower expectations while keeping the money flowing. * Watch for claims that a project will preserve American "competitiveness." The NASP coalition rides this latest wave of worry by pointing out in its ads that aerospace is "one of the few industries in which America still has a positive trade balance." Sure it is-for now-thanks to massive federal subsidies. But the special protections given the American shuttle program may be starting to hurt, not help, our space industry: American companies have started paying the French, Soviets, and Chinese to carry their satellites into space. And one reason other industries aren't doing so well is that they're helping to pay for the weapons and aerospace business. * An emphasis on "spin-offs" is a tip-off that legitimate rationales have been exhausted. The argument gets thinner, along with the air, as we climb into the stratosphere. In many cases the spin-offs go in the other direction. The space shuttle main engines use computer equipment so primitive it wouldn't be allowed on any self-respecting teenager's desk. In our homes and businesses, we can risk using cheap, high-powered, but slightly unreliable new computers. NASA can't. And the spin-offs that do occur are often of little value. When the GM-Hughes conglomerate put jet-fighter-derived, heads-up displays on Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles, only 1 percent of its customers bought the option. We didn't need to spend billions on aircraft to learn how to project a few gauge readings onto windshields. The device, after all, is no more high-tech than a supermarket laser checkout machine hooked up to a simplified Nintendo game. * Check out the track records of similar programs. For the NASP, the Blackbird and the space shuttle are our best reality checks. Another boondoggle, the B-2 bomber, has an even more obvious predecessor. Last October this magazine asked, in a cover story about the heavily promoted "stealth" F-117: "Will they lie about this plane in the Middle East?" Now we know-from the trade press-that British, French, and Saudi naval radar picked up the F-117 at ranges of 40 miles. This has powerful implications for the much bigger and heavier B-2, which will supposedly penetrate Soviet land-based radar 10 or 20 years from now. But did this news make the cover of Newsweek? I have yet to see the story treated as significant outside Inside the Air Force.

As money for bold initiatives grows scarce, contractors are getting more sophisticated at manipulating the executive and legislative branches to keep the government checks flowing into their accounts. The White House loves sexy high-tech projects (they supply fabulous metaphors for speechwriters), which is why it plans to make NASP a high-priority project and push for an accelerated commitment to build the X-30. Congressmen love anything that employs constituents. Neither, as contractors understand, has much incentive to put a high priority on results down the road. Aggressive, common-sense reporting on big science projects-the kind of analysis that journalists have learned to apply to social programs-is the only way to inject realism about long-term costs and results into politicians' calculations. Without that kind of reporting, all the billions poured into spaceplanes-and nuclear weapons plants, and supercolliders, and space-based missile defense systems-will wind up producing only so much hydrogen slush. Peter Gray is an economist at the Environmental Law Institute.
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Author:Gray, Peter
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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