December 27, 2003

"Men of iron, ships of aluminum"

at Spacedaily I found this article comparing the problems of space vehicles like the Shuttle with the problems of Zeppelins and other rigid airships.

...the great rigid airships have a lot of lessons to teach us about how technologies rise and fall. In particular, the problems that eventually killed the large airship are almost exactly the same as the ones that currently bedevil our space launch vehicles -- especially the Shuttle...

...High Unit Cost -- The low lift/volume ratio of hydrogen and helium meant that airship designers had to make their craft very large to get useful amounts of lift. Even an X-zeppelin had to be large and expensive. In sharp contrast, the winged aircraft of the same era were so cheap that X-planes were thrown together by bicycle mechanics in barns and garages...

Narrow Design Base -- There were never more than four independent airship design teams active at one time, and most of them were heavily dependent on Zeppelin Corporation design data acquired by purchase, espionage, or reverse-engineering of crash wreckage. (During this Golden Age of Aviation, there were dozens of airplane design teams at work, exploring every possible idea for improved performance.) The USA is now down to two major players in the launch vehicle market, with the Ariane team the only active overseas group not dependent on old US or Soviet technology transferred during the Cold War.

Among the other similarities: Narrow Contractor Base, Mammoth Ground Support Equipment, Safety Trade-Offs, Low Flight Rate, Publicity Spotlight, Fanatical Promoters...

And the one that really made me both smile and wince: Inappropriate Traditions. (read it)

Posted by John Weidner at December 27, 2003 8:46 PM
Weblog by John Weidner