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European Space Industry and the future


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Greetings all fellow space nerds and Kerbonauts,

I am a passionate lover of all space related topics. From Astronomy of our local group of stars, until deep space Cosmology, since I was a kid I dreamed of participating in this amazing field of science. For that regard, I have dived into an Engineering career, specifically in electronics, having one year ago relocated myself to Belgium to work for a French aerospace company. Finally achieving my long-lasting goal, I feel now professionally fulfilled.

But... (there is always a but...) Since now I have been integrated in the European space industry, instead of just being a spectator from the outside, I have come to understand a few issues with it.

My background

I am currently a Power Electronics design engineer and my responsibilities are to design analog and power electronic circuits to be used in space. For those not familiar with electronic design for space I can summarize it in four main activities:

1) Conceptualize a circuit given a certain set of specifications (not space specific);

2) Perform all kinds of analysis (Failure Mode and Effects Analysis, Part Stress Analysis, Reliability Analysis, Worst Case Analysis, Corner Analysis, and the list goes on and on) (space specific)

3) Writing a plethora documentation that justifies every design decision taken (space specific)

4) Build, test and qualify your electronic module (not space specific)

You probably begin to imagine that 2) and 3) takes up most of my time. For example, in the Failure Modes and Effects Analysis, given a circuit with thousands of components, I am in charge of analyzing the effect of a failure of one of those components in the whole circuit. And yes, this is done component-by-component. Of course, I don't mind doing this, as I am so in love with my job that time does really fly.

The reputation

However, even though all this analyzing effort, in the end we can still watch multiple times European made satellites and space probes fail, like for example:

- Ariane 5 maiden flight, guidance software failure due to reuse of Ariane 4 design;

- Beagle 2, failed to deploy solar panels;

- Schiaparelli, failed to land;

- Philae, landing harpoons failed and the thruster designed to keep it on the comet's surface failed to fire;

- Galileo, multiple clock failures.

You name it...

To the point

My point is: even though most of the time of a designer's job is to write justification documents - that few people read, and performing many detailed analysis - that no one will review, stuff still fails.

I don't judge failures! Not at all. I admire and applaud Elon Musk and SpaceX, for going all-in with their launchers and trying things that many said were impossible. But looking at Europe what I am skeptic about is the over bureaucratization and conservationism of the European space industry. While SpaceX is taking huge risks, yet showing amazing progress, in the old continent I feel that space is a decaying over expensive failure fest, with no incredible life changing achievements. Ariane 6, for example, a rocket in development by Airbus was this week made redundant by the reusable Falcon 9 first stage.

The pillars of the problem

I have come to think of the problem more deeply and I have come to realize four factors that are slowing down space development in Europe:

1) Bureaucratic culture. Too much documentation and paper work. Designers should spend more time testing and trying new stuff, rather than writing boring documents and thinking about every possible failure, when in practice the failure will happen from something that theoretically is not predictable.

2) Conservative approach. Any reuse of an already used design in the past is broadly well received. Innovation is repressed and slowed down in order for the progress steps to be as small but "controllable" as possible.

3) Lack of Entrepreneurial mindset. For the general public and politicians, space is seen as a money sink and not as an opportunity to grow, explore and innovate.

4) Outdated standardization. Yes, I am looking at you “ECSS”.

The consequences

The consequences are obvious:

-          The technology used in space is largely outdated when compared to ground applications. This disincentives engineers to work in space due to the feeling of “working in the past”.

-          Some engineers frustrated with the innovation repressing culture do not feel motivated to have a career in the sector.

-          The bureaucratic nature of the performed work drives away the smartest engineers out of the sector.

-          With each failure, the credibility of the industry is little by little being degraded. Even if the culture of the industry would change, public and political opinion is still remarkably indifferent regarding space.

Solutions

Now the question must be asked: what can Europe, ESA and to a further extent the EU, should do to reverse this trend?

 

TLDR

Europe has endured a lot of failures despite efforts to standardize space design. Bureaucratic and conservative culture is repressing innovation in the sector and disincentivizing engineers to dedicate their careers. Politicians and the general public are indifferent to space. What should be done to reverse this trend

Edited by goncaloeaguiar
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I can relate. I was once a developer of real time embedded operating systems for military and rocket systems. 

On the road now, but will post a longer reply later. You make some interesting points. NASA is suffering the same, and Russia most popular spacecraft is the Soyuz.

 

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3 minutes ago, radonek said:

Philae? Schiaparelli? Beagle? Do you realize you are talking of "failures" that got farther and did more than anything SpaceX ever produced?

Let's not compare apples and oranges here. You cannot reasonably compare exploration probes with orbital launch vehicles. If you want compare SpaceX directly you'll have it to compare Ariane.

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To OP :

I think you missed something.

No matter what mission, every single space exploration is an experiment. You never know what to come, you never know what to expect. It doesn't mean that there are no rubbish things at all, but not everything is to be expected. ISRO, running on vastly cheaper budget, has actually kept it's only spacecraft alive for years - but that's all they get. ESA ? They've sent probes to comets (albeit a close one) and other bodies more than one. And a significant amount succeeded.

Failures are to be expected. James May (famously of Top Gear, but ofc he have other shows himself) once said the rationale for, say, a Satun V : even at 99% reliability, you can expect 1% to fail - at that scale that meant about 1000 parts or so. The same applies to every other thing - from probes to launch vehicles. That's probably why organizations low on budget prefer to do things simple - again, ISRO comes to mind with the PSLV they have and the simplistic probes they have. The beagle was far beyond what Chandrayaan tried to achieve. So does Ariane V compared to PSLV. And, if luck was to seem always with you, be aware - that fortune may end anytime (Falcon 9 comes to mind).

ESA is also more successful in Earth observation - a lot of weather sats and environtmental sats are of ESA.

EDIT : Given your background... Hats off :) May insight solves it all...

Edited by YNM
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You mentioned the ariane maiden flight failure. But afterwards they did pretty well: a little advertisement.

The insider-effect: you mainly see the failures because you work on correcting or avoiding them. See it that way: you'll form part of the future. I appreciate your work ;-)

Edited by Green Baron
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While I've barely touched the surface from the US side (testing power supplies bound for civilian jetliners), the analysis and justification appear the same (possibly since they need to sell to EU buyers, but I suspect that much of the process came from the US due to shear spacing of our cities makes us prefer air travel to rail).

One thing you don't mention is the "system effect".  Systems of other systems get complicated quickly, and if you don't know *exactly* what each system does things can go badly quickly.  Having multiple systems made by people with different cultures is going to make understanding each others systems that much harder (not that this doesn't happen in the US, most famously for Lockheed using US measurements and feeding them to a NASA designed system expecting metric).  US spacewatchers are familiar with the effects of Congress "spreading the pork" around, thus forcing yankees, southerners, texans and californians to work together.  I suspect that EU money gets spread around just as far, with considerably more cultural differences (especially if Turkey and Ukraine get involved).

This isn't a call for a "monoculture" so much as a reinforcement of the adage "be liberal in your reading of the input specs and conservative on your reading of the output specs".

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What some people call "bureaucracy" is what other people call "traceability" and "quality". We do things a lot differently today than we did several decades ago. Most of the design work is done through iterations of specifications, iterations of CAD designs, and iterations of simulation.

Much of the paperwork is because systems are far more complex, components are sourced from different suppliers, and everything has to work together straight away. Each component has to rely on an approved interface with the other components. The only way to agree on specifications is to write them down.

For example:

  • To design Concorde, there was a team of a few dozen engineers. The team had a global view of the entire plane, so they could easily communicate with each other and perform changes in their area of expertise without impacting other parts of the design. The majority of the workforce was an army draftsmen to iterate the drawings, carpenters who built several iterations of wood mockups and die-cast models for wind tunnel testing, and factory workers who built 4 prototypes and 2 test aircraft (that's 50% of the total number of actual production aircraft). The result was a great design, but no market.
  • To design the A350, there was an army of engineers, market studies, purchase commitments, lots of specification documents and computer simulation, supplier selection and certification. Most of the construction work is down to contractors who don't necessarily have direct communication with R&D. So the documentation is the only way for different teams to communicate with each other.

The development cost of the A350 was probably much higher than the cost of the Concorde and yet there was hardly any prototyping involved. The first A350 flew exactly as planned. The only reason it wasn't sold to a customer was because certification requires destructive testing. The second one was delivered to a customer. The reason there was no prototyping was because all that paperwork had certified pretty much every component beforehand.

And because the costs are so high, organizations require risk mitigation. The regulatory and legal pressure is much higher today, and the paper trail is a requirement. There are probably more lawyers working at Airbus today than there were R&D engineers back in 1960s.

As for probes like Beagle 2, Philae, or Schiaparelli, they actually are prototypes. They are special cases where there is very little data to perform proper simulation, so every science mission is a test to see if it can be done. The chances are high that something doesn't work as planned, and the only way to find out exactly what went wrong is to follow the paper trail back to each component. It's the only way to learn from your mistakes.

Edited by Nibb31
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1 hour ago, Nibb31 said:

And because the costs are so high, organizations require risk mitigation. The regulatory and legal pressure is much higher today, and the paper trail is a requirement. There are probably more lawyers working at Airbus today than there were R&D engineers back in 1960s.

I just finished reading this for the second time: https://www.amazon.com/Packing-Mars-Curious-Science-Life/dp/1469235919

There's a quote from someone who worked on Apollo, "If we'd had more people working on it, we'd never have gotten it done." (I'm paraphrasing)

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In this post I use we as the Europeans citizens

 

Your 2) point is precisely the job of an engineer. I worked only doing the 1) and 4) , and trust me, when things go wrong is a lot worse, and with the years "the nobody knows why this component was selected instead of this other" is terrible.

22 hours ago, goncaloeaguiar said:

3) Lack of Entrepreneurial mindset. For the general public and politicians, space is seen as a money sink and not as an opportunity to grow, explore and innovate.

WUT? I'm nowadays working for a space startup, with politicians involved, and there is lots of them.

22 hours ago, goncaloeaguiar said:

I don't judge failures! Not at all. I admire and applaud Elon Musk and SpaceX, for going all-in with their launchers and trying things that many said were impossible. But looking at Europe what I am skeptic about is the over bureaucratization and conservationism of the European space industry. While SpaceX is taking huge risks, yet showing amazing progress, in the old continent I feel that space is a decaying over expensive failure fest, with no incredible life changing achievements.

Can I suggest that you have a very biased view of what is a life changing achievement? In the practice nothing has changed since the apparition of SpaceX, only a cheaper orbit delivery service, and that's only a money problem, it isn't changing anything in any other aspect, even the dragon is redundant with other manned spacecrafts. How is that more life changing that Rosetta and Philae? What about Mars and Venus express? What about the Sentinel program?

Have you read about the internal organization of SpaceX? Because you may be surprised.

One thing that we should start is stopping spreading the SpaceX's propaganda, and remarking only ours failures, that is exactly what you did (no offense intended), your post is exactly an example of the problem. But I think that this week this would be impossible.

22 hours ago, goncaloeaguiar said:

Ariane 6, for example, a rocket in development by Airbus was this week made redundant by the reusable Falcon 9 first stage.

This is simply not true. Even if reusing Falcon9 is really profitable, thing still not guaranteed, we need to have rockets, we can't depend of how good we are with usa, russia, or whatever. We have enough problems with the Soyuz.

And Arianne 5 is probably the most advanced and most reliable rocket currently, with lots of developments. If we ever do the Arianne 6 or Arianespace rocket reusable it will be better than the Falcon9 because we have better tech, SpaceX is not developing new techs only improving the transferred techs of NASA. We have currently re utilization programs http://www.pldspace.com/blog/en/2016/11/07/pld-space-esa-support-reusable-launch-vehicle-europe/. And this is again a startup with public investment.

Edited by kunok
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I would say that the "new space" companies are really driving the most visible innovation. They tend to publicize their activities, hence the visibility. The "old space" companies in the US, plus NASA sound not dissimilar to your own experience. ULA is sometimes attacked by new space fans, but they are incredibly reliable. Not "exciting," but they get the job done (pretty much always). They make advancements, but tend to be less "visible" about what they are doing.

I would say that the entrepreneurial sensibility is indeed entirely lacking from national space programs, and/or their primary contractors. It's inherent in the very definition of the word. National programs are not interested in taking risks for profit. Existing "old space" companies have far less incentive towards risk for reward, because they already have reward, and their primary customer has zero interest in risk, and since they are the customer, their "reward" is not losing an expensive space probe, crew vehicle, etc.

So the risk-taking companies might succeed amazingly, or they could crash and burn (literally and figuratively). They have different incentives.

Edited by tater
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On 4/1/2017 at 2:36 PM, goncaloeaguiar said:

While SpaceX is taking huge risks, yet showing amazing progress, in the old continent I feel that space is a decaying over expensive failure fest, with no incredible life changing achievements.

Huh.

I was in elementary school during the Challenger disaster. We were all watching the launch on live TV and. . .well, that was my introduction to space flight.

My great uncle worked at Grumman when they were building the lunar modules, and every year at Christmas time there would be new books and NASA VHS tapes on all the old missions. I burned out at least one VCR watching them, over and over. I remember the Voyager 2 flyby of Neptune, but for the most part the shuttles went up and they came back down, and those old VHS tapes seemed more exciting than anything we were doing at the time. 

The Spirit and Opportunity Mars landings were pretty neat, but my Holy Crap We're Living in the Future! moment came when Huygens landed on Titan. Titan! Pictures of the surface of Titan! Pictures from the surface of Titan! If I live to be a hundred, I don't think anything is going to hit me quite the same way Huygens did. 

Everybody screws up. From the Bell X-1, to the Mars Polar Lander. . .from Russian Glonass launches to American GPS launches, and even on the ISS, everyone makes mistakes. Some are due to "unknown unknowns", others are due to simple human error, but they happen to everyone. 

And SpaceX is certainly not immune.

The only certain way to avoid failure is to never try. The Philae lander didn't work exactly as hoped-- but it did work. It was audacious, and it was bold and it did land and it did return data. We were all cheering on my end when those pictures came back. I mean, it wasn't Titan. . .but it sure was something. :)

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