Sunday, 15 January 2017

Books review: 'The Space Shuttle Decision' and 'Development of the Space Shuttle' by T.A. Heppenheimer

The Space Shuttle Decision 1965-1972, by T.A. Heppenheimer.
Development of the Space Shuttle 1972-1981, by T.A. Heppenheimer.

These books are a two-volume history of the Space Shuttle program, written before the Columbia disaster in 2003. The first volume covers the decision to make the Shuttle; how it turned from being a small part of a comprehensive space program into the only part of a much reduced system. The second volume covers the design and development of the Shuttle, ending at its first launch.

As can be seen from the dates, the first book spans a period from shortly after the start of manned space flight, up to nine years before the shuttle's first flight. Mr Heppenheimer does an excellent job of examining all the precursors to the Shuttle to show how the decision to build the shuttle occurred.

And this is vital information, as the Shuttle program was a glorious failure. It was meant to fly 60 times a year, yet only managed 135 flights in 30 years, with two of those resulting in total losses of vehicle and crew. The Shuttle did not reach its schedule, performance or cost-per-flight projections. Yet despite this, it kept the US in the space race.

So what went wrong? Back in the 1960s, at the height of the Apollo program, NASA wanted a small, cheap shuttle that would service orbiting space stations and a manned mission to Mars that was planned for the 1980s. As politicians refused funding for the Mars landings and the space station, NASA was left with plans for a shuttle that had no mission.

To give it a reason to exist (and to keep NASA in the manned spaceflight business), they allied with the air force, who required a much larger spaceplane with superior glide characteristics. This was more expensive, so they had to take all the payloads launched by the US government to make it cost-effective, along with a large proportion of the civilian satellites. This meant that all the US eggs would be in one launch basket, which proved to be a problem when that basket was grounded for three years after the Challenger disaster.

Because the new system was heavier, the costs were much larger. Under the watchful eyes of a budget organisation, the OMB, NASA changed the Shuttle from a fully-reusable system to a partly-reusable one. A move that was meant to save money during development actually made the system more expensive to operate per flight. It also led to critical design decisions that helped doom both Challenger and Columbia.

Although the first book ends years before the Shuttle first flew, it covers the period where the decisions that shaped and doomed the project were made. As such, it is vital reading for anyone interested in that program.

In the second volume, Mr Heppenheimer does a good job of detailing the tasks and problems facing NASA in developing the Shuttle, from obvious big-ticket items such as the main engines to smaller yet critical ones, such as life support and orbital manoeuvring systems.

The development was beset by problems, and the first flight was two or three years later than scheduled (although some of the delays were caused by budgetary rather than developmental problems). American industry worked hard to deliver a working Shuttle, albeit one that was doomed not to meet its targets due to the decisions outlined in the first volume.

Whilst the first volume might best be targeted at economists, political theorists and project managers, the second goes into much greater depth into the Shuttle's hardware. As such, it is of much more interest to the general space buff. It is far less helpful in discovering what went wrong with the program and why the Shuttle was an expensive failure, even if a glorious one.

These books are crying out for a third volume covering the operations of the Shuttle, and the missions it undertook. But despite this missing third volume, these books are a fascinating insight into the entire program. Mr Heppenheimer turns complex, dry topics into a readable history.

Although I ordered hard copies, the first volume is also available in HTML from the NASA website:

The Space Shuttle Decision 1965-1972

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Books read in 2016

Below is a list of books that I read in 2016. A fairly short list due to illness and lack of time but I am fairly happy with the mix between fiction and non-fiction.

01/01/2016: (started in 2015)
Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil, by James Runcie

Thomas Telford's Temptation, by Charles Hadfield.

A twist of the knife by Peter James

Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

Tank Rider, into the Reich with the red army, by Evgeni Bessonov

Big Blue, by ??? (Annoyingly, I did not write down the authors of this rather ancient (1980s) book.

Rebus: Black Book, by Ian Rankin

The White Umbrella, by Brian Sewell

The Making of the English Landscape, by W.G. Hoskins.

Red Storm Rising, by Tom Clancy

That Close, by Suggs

Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance

The Space Shuttle Decision 1965-1972, by T.A. Heppenheimer.

Development of the Space Shuttle 1972-1981, by T.A. Heppenheimer.

Wild: a journey from Lost to Found, by Cheryl Strayed

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson

Runaway, by Peter May

The awards of the George Cross, 1940-1009 by John Frayn Turner.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

My ten political predictions for 2017

1) There will not be a General Election.
2) Corbyn will still be Labour leader.
3) The Conservatives will be having regular polling leads (see point 2).
4) Article 50 will have been triggered.
5) UKIP will be struggling to find a new policy position.
6) Lib Dems will rise in the polls and continue to win locals, but will have more trouble in any parliamentary by-elections.
7) The SNP will start to suffer electorally from its years in power.
8) At least two MPs will resign from the government over Brexit: one from leave, and one more from remain.
9) Trump and Putin will have a falling out.
10) House of Lords reform will continue to be talked about, but will not be progressed (this one is a banker).

Of these 1, 3, and 4 are the ones that most match my own wishes.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Another coastal walker

It has been some time since I last updated my page on coastal walkers, so here are the latest additions:

Adam Short set off from Southampton in 2014, and is doing what must be a first: not only is he camping wild whilst walking the coast, but he is also using a pack raft to cross rivers. He has a website at, with regular updates taking place on his Facebook page

On the 1st May 2015 Steve Cook set off from East Grinstead, walking down to the coast at Brighton to start his anti-clockwise walk around the coast. So far he has reached Dunbar in Scotland. He has a blog at, and is walking in aid of the Drug Free Kids program.

A lady named Melita is currently walking the coast in sections. She set off from London Bridge in January 2013 and has walked the south coast as far as Plymouth in Devon, and the east coast as far as Hedon. She has a blog at .

Jimmy Hudson is currently walking the coastline of Scotland in sections; he started from Brewick-on-Tweed on the 3rd August 2011, and he is currently in Drimnin. He has a blog at

Rosemary Fretwell and another person are walking the coast in sections. They set off from Bognor in 1998 and are currently on the west coast of England. Their blog is at

A group of men are walking Scotland's coast in sections: details of their endeavour can be seen at They have currently reached Armadale.

If you know of anyone else who has done, or is doing, the walk, please let me know.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Railway planning chaos

So the much-vaunted plans to upgrade many of Britain's railway lines have hit the buffers hard. What has happened?


Network Rail (NR) divides its agreed work into five-year control periods. The current period is known as CP5, which runs from April 2014 to March 2019. NR has been told it can spend £38.5 billion on its work during that period, a figure which includes: (1)

  • capital expenditure (£13 billion); this covers improvements to lines and stations, and new lines such as Crossrail or Thameslink.
  • replacing and renewing older parts of the network (£12 billion)
  • day-to-day maintenance and operating costs (£13 billion). 
It should be noted that three-fifths of this money comes from the government's Network Grant, whilst most of the rest comes from the passengers and freight operators who use the railways. (2)

Much of the work to keep the existing network running is self-financed by NR itself, using money it receives from the train operators in the form of Track Access Charges; last year NR actually made a profit. However new projects - such as electrification - costs more than NR can afford, and the government loans them the money as part of a Network Grant. As such, this work needs to be agreed with the government. In 2013-14, the Network Grant was £3.7 billion (1).

The program to electrify these lines came not from the government, but from Network Rail and the train operating companies, who persuaded the Department for Transport and the Treasury that it was the right thing to do.

The decision:

Yesterday it was announced that some of the capital expenditure on the Midland Main Line (MML) and Trans-Pennine Express (TPE) electrifications were to be postponed. This does not necessarily mean NR is spending less; they will still be spending £38.5 billion during CP5, just on fewer projects. In the autumn a review will state what should happen to these other projects.

What went wrong:

The first stage of the work on the Great Western Main Line (GWML) has turned out to be much more expensive than planned, and is behind schedule. Rather than progress work on the other schemes, the pause may allow NR to work out what went wrong and apply lessons learned to the other schemes. Alternatively, such recalculations might push the cost-benefit ratio to such a level that the schemes are not worth continuing.

Worse is the fact that NR is also failing on their bread-and-butter work: the track renewals and resignalling schemes that are done all the time as systems age. According to Rail magazine, in the first year of CP5, they have overspent by £230 million and are 77% behind schedule on overhead line renewals (that is replacing exiting lines, not creating new ones), 63% behind in signalling renewals, and 7% in track renewals. These are no-brainer schemes that they have wide experience of and should be getting correct.

It is clear that there is little chance of getting the other new work done within NR's £38.5 billion budget over the five years, and therefore a pause, whilst unfortunate, is probably wise.

Whose fault is it?

Network Rail's. They decide on the work that needs to be done, and produce a budget for that work that gets approval from the government. They have singularly failed to meet the monetary or temporal budgets they set, even if those were somewhat woolly in the first place (as mentioned by the Transport Select Committee in January (2) ).

Network Rail have some valid excuses. The sustained, vast increase in traffic (67.3 million more journey over the past year alone) has put pressure on the network and reduced the time available for maintenance works. But this cannot fully explain the delays.

The problem is that it is very difficult to work on lines that are in operation. An example of this was the vastly expensive WCML upgrade; planned at about £1 billion, it came out at £10 billion, over time and did not deliver everything planned. Often they only have lines between one in the morning and six the next morning; in those five hours they need to make the worksite safe, move equipment in and out, and do the work. Often this means that only two or three hours is work done a night, whilst the staff are paid time-and-a-half or double-time for the full shift. It is a very uneconomical way of working, and is getting more expensive as manpower and equipment costs increase, and the netwrok gets busier.

There is also a little fault on the part of the government, who from experience should not have trusted Network Rail's costings and should perhaps have slowed some of the work into CP6 (2019 to 2024) or later

The politics:

This is a major embarrassment for the government. Since they went into the election less than two months ago proclaiming these projects, they should answer when they knew this decision was a possibility, especially as there have been signs that the GWML upgrade has not been going well. However the ORR's report into the first year of CP5 which highlighted these failures was only released on June 12th, so alternatively the government might be congratulated for reacting quickly and trying to get things back in order.

There is another issue: rolling stock orders have been placed for new trains to run on the upgraded lines, and some of these may have nowhere to run. Whilst orders can be cancelled or postponed, perhaps at a cost, there is also a problem in that many of the trains that were due to be replaced were going to be cascaded down to other lines. This entire process will have to be rethought, and will leave people in old, out-dated trains for longer.

It has left a great number of unhappy MPs, mostly Conservatives, who were looking forward to upgrades to existing lines as much as other Conservative MPs opposed HS2. This may well have long-term knock-on effects for the government.

What about HS2? Politically, it makes the project harder; already anti-HS2 groups are using it as a sign that the project's costs will not be kept under control. But as detailed above, building a new line is in many ways simpler than updating an existing one that carries trains. As the disastrous £10 billion WCML upgrade shows, it is very hard to get a handle on the costs of such upgrades. So if you believe that more capacity is needed, this news strengthens the case for HS2, even if politically it is weakened.


As a side issue, the TPE is being paused for another reason: some of the work might be replicated by HS3, which is part of George Osborne's plans for a 'Northern Powerhouse'. Whilst it makes sense to ensure that work is not wasted, passengers in the north deserve help now.

For another view, see Paul Bigland's excellent blog.


Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Some thoughts after the election aftermath: final thoughts

So that is my view of the current situation. The impetus lies with the Conservatives and the SNP, and politics over the next five years may well be defined by the relationship between those two parties.

I expected the result of this election to be a mess, and even considered another election in November as being likely. I was wrong, and I take little condolence from the fact that nearly everyone else was wrong as well.

This is how I rate the position of the political parties:

  • Conservatives are undoubtedly in the best position.
  • SNP have done a stellar job, and are in a prime position for the negotiation about the future of the UK.
  • UKIP have built a very firm base, but must be slightly disappointed they did not get more MPs.
  • Greens have made solid progress, but again they deserved more MPs.
  • Labour have lost an election they should have won, and also lost much of their intellectual heart.
  • Liberal Democrats are suffering. There is a way back for them, but it will be a long process.

One last note of warning about the leadership elections that face Labour, the Liberal Democrats and possibly UKIP. An orderly changeover to a competent person can play wonders for a party. A disorderly, argumentative changeover to a competent person can irrecoverably harm the new leader. As an example, Ed Miliband never fully recovered from his somewhat disruptive election as leader. The candidates would be wise to remember that as they fight amongst themselves.

Another last note: it is odd to think that the leaders of the main UK parties - Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and perhaps UKIP - might well all be different at the 2020 general election when compared to this one. I've a good feeling that that is (yes, you've guessed) unprecedented.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Some thoughts after the election aftermath: the Conservatives

Finally there are the Conservatives. What happened last week was unprecedented (yes, that word again), and it will be hard to repeat it in 2020, especially in the face of further unpopular austerity. But the are lucky in their enemies: Labour and the Lib Dems are in chaos, both in terms of leadership and strategic direction. UKIP are a threat, but they are currently riven by infighting and may not be able to keep facing both left and right for much longer.

A key issue for the Conservatives is that Cameron has admitted that he will not contest a third general election. This means that some time in the next five years there will be a new Conservative leader. I'm guessing that this changeover will occur after the 2017 EU referendum, whether he wins or loses. Therefore their success in the 2020 general election will depend on who is appointed as Cameron's successor. Boris Johnson is the media's favourite, and someone like Michael Gove is also likely to throw his hat into the ring. However my favourite is currently Rory Stewart, the MP for Penrith and the Border since 2010. He has a true boy's own backstory, including helping to run two Iraqi provinces. Even better, he is young and his constituency is in the north, a factor I will address below.

The party's positioning will be vital. Some of the elements that led them to be labelled 'the nasty party' have moved over to UKIP. Despite this, the Conservative vote share remained more or less static: those voters who moved to UKIP were offset by new Conservative voters from the Lib Dems and elsewhere. As such, Cameron's centrist approach has been vindicated. If the new Labour leader lurches to the left, as is entirely possible, then  the political centre ground may be left to the Conservatives. If Labour tries to be centrist, they will find the Conservatives already there.

There can be little doubt that the thin Conservative majority will decrease over this term through natural wastage: by-elections are always difficult for sitting governments to win. For this reason the Conservatives need to take an aggressive approach to 2020 and try to take more marginal seats. Experts were expecting them to take a defensive approach this year but they did the opposite, and actually attacked Labour marginals, of which they won enough to more than compensate for those they lost to Labour.

A key factor for the Conservatives will be the boundary changes they tried to pass in the last parliament, and which were somewhat controversially blocked by the Liberal Democrats. The changes were of two types: the equalisation of seat sizes in terms of populations, and the reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Combined, these moves would reduce Labour's built-in electoral advantage which means the Conservatives need to get a significantly greater vote to win the same number of seats as Labour. This is true if they keep the seat equalisation measures and remove the more controversial reduction in the number of seats. Expect this measure to be back in parliament this term.

If you look at the electoral map, it is clear the Conservatives powerbase is in the south and rural areas. Where they lack seats is in London, the urban north, and Scotland. London will prove a hard nut for them to crack, especially in the face of demographic changes and the mayoral elections which are almost certain to go to Labour. Scotland would also be difficult, but it would be sensible for them to target the seven second-places they achieved in Scotland this time. They might even gain one or two.

The real opportunity for the Conservatives lie in the urban north. It is telling that the third tweet George Osborne sent out after the election victory was about the 'northern powerhouse'. There can be little doubt that successive governments have treated the urban north poorly; the powerhouse of London has attracted more than its fair share of both government attention and finance.

There are many northern constituencies that might turn blue if the Conservatives gave them a little love; there can be little doubt that such attention would also be to the advantage of the country's finances as well: north versus south does not have to be a zero-sum gain. It would be easy to give the northern towns (and the north in general) some love whilst not spurning the south. The key to a third Conservative term in power may just lie in Osborne's 'northern powerhouse'. And he knows it.