Saturday, January 17, 2015

Stagnation In Space?

Has anybody noticed that NASA has sent men nowhere off-world to explore,  in over 4 decades?  NASA is about much more than manned spaceflight,  but that is its “front-burner” mission,  its reason-for-being,  and has been,  since it was created in 1958. 

NASA was originally formed to put man in orbit,  and carry out science and aeronautics,  too.  But the “prime show” or “front-burner project” was manned spaceflight.  3 years later,  that mission got upgraded to the far more demanding man-on-the-moon,  which really energized the little agency.

In those days,  NASA was rather small,  very heavy on engineering talent,  had a definite front-burner mission,  money was no object,  and no one told them how to do their jobs.  They got to figure that all out themselves.  And,  miss-steps notwithstanding,  it worked quite well.  It was only 8 years from assigning the moon-as-mission to the agency,  until two men first walked there. 

It might have taken perhaps 5 extra years to do this,  had budgets been a problem,  but that basic approach of assigning the mission and then “stand back and let them do it” works really well either way. 

In those days,  there were dozens of prime contractors to let contracts to,  competitively.  Cost-plus is quite appropriate when doing things never before done.  Fixed-price would have been egregious mismanagement.  

All that changed in the middle of the moon landings in 1972 (there should have been missions through Apollo 22,  not 17),  when Apollo got cancelled early and all manned flight outside Earth orbit forbidden by presidential order.  NASA has never had a front-burner mission,  an agency reason-to-be,  ever since.  They have only had major projects mandated upon them mostly by Congress,  with some from the various presidents.  Projects like Space Shuttle,  like ISS,  like X-30,  like X-33,  etc. 

Science and aeronautics are still small-time background,  but by dint of the successes of the probes (which derives mostly from being left alone by Congress),  the planetary probe program kind-of falls in-between,  in that spectrum.  Some of these projects,  like the Mars landers and Hubble,  turn out to be quite popular with the public,  too popular to kill,  even though Congress often tries. 

Two of these mandated projects flew men in space (Shuttle and ISS),  the rest didn’t.  There were some tests (like X-43A) that never led anywhere.  But,  none of these were actually managed in an overall sense by the agency.  Instead,  the project,  its detailed objectives,  how it would be done,  and where things would be built (by that I mean in whose districts) were all mandated by Congress.  That’s exactly what Constellation was,  and what its resurrected form Orion/SLS is.  There is no one in Congress at all competent to do any of this work,  which is precisely why their mandated project plans are so egregiously ineffective and nonsensical. 

Meanwhile the agency has grown to enormous size,  trying to be “everything to everybody” in lieu of a front-burner mission / reason-to-be.  Once an organization gets too large,  it gets very inefficient,  worrying more about preserving departments,  people,  and budgets than actually doing anything real anymore.  NASA is no exception.  There’s more managers and support functions at NASA these days than there are real engineers.  That’s not a good recipe to get anything major,  actually done.  Not in industry,  not in government. 

When you add bureaucratic inertia to mandated-but-nonsensical-projects to be done,  you have what we see now:  no man has flown beyond Earth orbit,  or explored anything off-world,  in person,  since 1972.  And with the mandated projects they have to do sopping-up most of the available money,  we’re having a hard time not spending trillions just to go back to moon,   the same moon that we visited over 4 decades ago!  None of the stuff they are doing now (with the serious money) can take a crew to Mars alive,  much less land there. 

I’m talking about Orion/SLS as a “Mars rocket”,  of course.   The PR about that is nothing but lies.  And everybody who knows much at all about these things knows it.  Most within the agency are too afraid to “tell the emperor that he has no clothes”,  though.  And as an agency,  NASA is afraid to tell Congress that it,  too,  has no clothes. 

Meanwhile,  Congress and the various presidents have let the available contractors "consolidate" into a monopoly supplier.  With only a monopoly available,  the distinction between fixed price and cost plus is functionally irrelevant.  With only a monopoly available,  the incentive to actually do something never done before is greatly reduced.  Recently,  upstarts like Spacex have attempted to break these monopolies,  but with limited success.  This basic situation is not NASA's fault,  but their rules are rigged to favor the monopoly.  

There are small groups within NASA that are working on the right kinds of things for men to go beyond Earth orbit again.  But these are not funded with any serious money.  Some of these groups are better managed than others.  Some of these groups have better talent than others.  So,  their ideas and plans vary considerably in practicality and feasibility.  That should not be unexpected,  given the situation.  But until these things get the money and attention to perfect them,  they will take no one anywhere.  That,  you can count on.

And in conclusion,  that complicated description is fundamentally why what is funded seriously at NASA often makes no sense.  A lot of you may have noticed that,  or at least know that something is wrong.  Nothing about that situation will change,  until the operating model for NASA-as-an-agency goes back to that 1958 version.  They need a front burner mission as a reason-to-be,  and they need to be left alone to accomplish it.  Period. That mission has been known for at least 2 centuries:  Mars.   

Unfortunately,  Congress craves ever-more control,  not less.  Ergo,  no change is forseeable.  So,  no Mars.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Kactus Kicker Development

This article recounting progress with Kactus Kicker models is the latest among a series of earlier articles posted on this website.  That list is as follows (the date is highlighted on this one).  Watch for an update to this article giving links to a new website dedicated to these tools. 

Updates 7-30-15 in red below.  The new website is fully operational.  It has all the information,  photos,  and videos anyone could ever need.  It is a turnkey site for selecting,  customizing,  and purchasing a production tool.  Shipping is available,  so sales of plans have been discontinued.  Some additional parts and labor have been farmed out to appropriate vendors,  to adjust to higher production rates,  so prices posted previously are now obsolete.  Go to

Update 3-1-18:  the killyourcactusnow site has been shut down in favor of a new and improved site,  with even better information,  photos,  and videos.  

2-9-17....Time Lapse Proof It Works cactus being crushed and composted
7-30-15......New Cactus Tool Website
...................turnkey site for info,  photos,  videos,  purchases
1-8-15……Kactus Kicker Development
………………production prototype & 1st production article
1-8-14……Kactus Kicker: Recent Progress
…………..….testing a revised wheeled design (experimental)
10-12-13..Construction of the Tool
………………building a “Kactus Kicker” (plain tool)
5-19-13…….Loading Steel Safely
……………….transport and storage of materials
12-19-12…Using the Cactus Tool or Tools
…………… the tool is employed (applies to any model)
11-1-12….About the Kactus Kicker
..…………….painting and rigging finished tools (plain tool)
12-28-11..Latest Production Version
………………new bigger snout and barge front (plain tool)

General Background

A little over 10 years ago,  I accidentally figured out how to permanently kill prickly pear cactus out of farm and ranch pastures.  I built myself an experimental tool and a couple of early production prototypes,  and I started building and selling these things to people who need them.  I have done this ever since then,  and steadily improved the design of the tools. 

My good friend Dave Gross of Oglesby,  Texas,  was impressed enough with this tool to want to do cactus eradication for hire as a service.  He’s retired now,  but for over the decade that he did this,  we built him a series of heavy-duty tools,  to which we added transport wheels.  His “commercial” tool became the genesis of the hydraulic tool I now offer in addition to the plain tool.  What I had to address was supplying the same strength and utility,  but with greatly-improved producibility. 

Recent History

The second article in the list above (Kactus Kicker:  Recent Progress,  1-8-14) describes my work up through last winter on an experimental wheeled prototype,  including field testing.  That experimental prototype proved to need some design changes,  beyond just the narrow stance corrected to wide stance as described in an update to that earlier article.  The towbar option I put on it wasn’t very good,  for one thing.  The wheelbarrow wheels I used weren’t tough enough,  for another. 

But,  that experience led to a real production prototype,  which is insignificantly different from the actual production models.  I did add rain drain holes to both (and to the production hydraulic design).  From that production prototype result,  I revised my experimental prototype to the production configuration,  except for its hydraulic pressure rating and its wheels.  Both are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 – Experimental Prototype (near) and Production Prototype (far) Hydraulic Tools

Figure 2 shows a close-up of the production prototype from its right side.  The longer hydraulic snout has 3 plates instead of two as on the plain tool.  On the plain tool,  one is a mini-“barge front” for wedging over obstructions,  the other is the ground-contact “slider”.  On the hydraulic tool,  two slider plates are needed,  mounted at slight angles.  One is for cactus-killing with the wheels raised,  the other (in the middle) is for smooth sliding with the wheels down for transport or “stepping-over” obstructions. 

This prototype is fitted with the optional towbar hitch,  providing a standard trailer-ball hook-up for faster transport across the pasture behind the tractor.  This is not intended for towing while killing cactus,  because the forces are too high,  and the leading edge gap under the tool deck is too large to efficiently break up plants.  The real advantage of the towbar hitch option is being able to back the tool up,  something not possible when towing only on the chain.  

The hitch tongue extends by sliding,  and is secured with a hitch pin in either position.  The upside-down cross-mounted channel is a jack point,  with which one uses the hydraulic bottle jack (resting on the tool deck).  This raises the trailer hitch up over the ball for connection and disconnection.  I supply the bottle jack with the towbar option.  It outlives most crank-type trailer jacks. 

The towbar hitch is an option,  because the tool can be transported on its wheels sliding on the snout plate,  simply towing with the tow chain bridle.  Transport speed is a little slower this way,  but still faster than towing the tool with the wheels up.  Things bounce when you tow too fast,  in any case.

 Figure 2 – Close-Up of Production Prototype Showing Hydraulic Snout and Towbar Option

Figures 3 and 4 show the production prototype hitched-up for chain tow to kill cactus.  The big triangular tow chain bridle flips over any trailer ball or tow hook on the drawbar assembly of any tractor.  Figure 3 shows the wheels-up/tool-down-on-the-ground configuration for killing prickly pear cactus.  Like the plain tool,  at the recommended tow speed of no more than 3 mph,  tow loads are usually around half a ton,  for a drawbar horsepower figure in the 10-12 HP range (8-10 for the lighter plain tool).  The left side chain helps guide and support the hydraulic hoses that extend forward to the tractor.  

You can see the cross-chain that runs from one side to the other,  through the snout assembly.  This cross chain helps limit pitching motions on rough ground,  but more importantly,  it forms the lift sling.  If you pull the tow chains together over the cylinder and deck behind the snout,  the two tow chains form two legs of a 3-way sling to pick up the tool.  The cross chain forms the third leg of that 3-way sling,  holding up the snout. 

One single bolt (which I supply) is all that is needed to pin the chains together to form this lift sling.  With it,  the hydraulic digging bucket (that most modern tractors have) can be used to pick the tool up and set it anywhere you want,  such as on a flatbed farm trailer. 

The center chain is a safety chain,  exactly like that on a trailer.  It will take tow tension if your tow bridle should break,  preventing the hoses from being damaged.  The tool tows unstably from its snout,  so you will notice if this happens.  This gives you time to stop and make a minor repair instead of a major one.

 Figure 3 – Production Prototype Hitched Up for Chain Tow,  Wheels-Up for Killing Cactus

In Figure 4,  the tool has been raised by putting its wheels down.  You can see how it now rests on the center snout slider plate,  instead of the aft one.  That way,  the snout does not “dig into” the dirt and damage your pasture.  This is what you do (1) to transport the tool from one place to another in the pasture,  (2) to “step-over” obstructions,  or (3) to “step off of” debris bales that sometimes form underneath the tool deck. 

The “barge front” on the hydraulic tool is exactly the same as the one on the plain tool.  It will wedge either tool over any obstructions (like outcrops or small stumps) that are shorter in height than the barge front top edge:  6 inches maxAnything taller than that,  you must go around

You are towing on a chain with no “give” to it.  If you hang up on something solid,  a piece of steel somewhere is going to break,  faster than you can be aware that it is happening.  I tried to make that the easily-fixed chain,  but there can be no guarantees about that;  every place’s hazards are different.  

 Figure 4 – Production Prototype Hitched-Up for Chain Tow,  Wheels-Down for “Step-Overs”

In Figure 5,  the production prototype hydraulic tool is in the foreground at my shop,  and two production plain tools in the background,  tipped on edge for storage.  As can be seen by close inspection,  these two versions share exactly the same deck,  crush rail,  ballast bar,  and barge front.  The plain tool has a slightly-shorter two-plate snout.  You can’t really tell from the photos,  but both versions use exactly the same chain towers,  skids,  and snout attachment brackets now.  I have discontinued the older brackets made of angle stock,  in favor of triangular flat-plate brackets with shear tabs.  These are just as strong,  and far more producible. 

Plain tools readily store tipped-up like that.  You should support them for safety,  with a 26 inch piece of any size angle iron,  under one of the skids.  This does require a stout 6-foot prybar.  It is also how you clear debris bales from underneath the plain tool.  

 Figure 5 – Production Prototype Hydraulic Tool with Two Plain Tools at My Shop

The Production Hydraulic Version of the Tool

Actual production hydraulic tools differ very little from production prototype pictured here.  I did change the angle slightly between the two snout slider plates,  as it was “close” but not quite right on the prototype.  I have since built jigs for assembling plain and hydraulic snouts rapidly,  and in exactly the right geometry,  every time.  

The cross-over valve in the deck-mounted hydraulic plumbing is backwards on the production prototype.  In the closed position,  its handle points forward,  vulnerable to hanging-up in low-hanging brush.  In Figure 6,  you can see the production prototype in the foreground,  and the first production hydraulic tool in the background.  The yellow valve handles point in opposite directions,  as you can see.  The correct installation is on the first production article.  That way,  the handle points rearward with the valve closed.

The weight of the wheels when raised,  or the weight of the tool standing on its wheels,  acts to pressurize the main hydraulic hoses.  You relieve this by opening the cross-over valve,  so that the hoses may be connected or disconnected.  When you store the tool,  with the valve open,  the wheels rest freely upon the ground behind the tool.  Coil the hoses on the deck.  

 Figure 6 – Hydraulic Tools:  Production Prototype (near) and First Production Article (far)

Also in Figure 6,  you can see an old cat litter bucket on the deck of the production prototype.  I use this to store my bottle jack,  its handle,  spare hydraulic fittings,  and any tools,  out of the weather.  I have taken to spray-painting these plastic buckets to extend their useful life in this kind of service (sunlight destroys plastics).  A “cheapie” storage bucket like this turns out to be a really handy item.

The rain drain holes do tend to get clogged with pasture debris.  One of the “tools” I keep in my storage bucket is an old nail,  perfect for clearing those drain holes.  Otherwise,  rain water puddles-up on the deck behind the barge front. 

The two main hydraulic hoses are manufactured with half-inch male pipe thread connections.  My “stock” fittings are Pioneer 4000-series quick-disconnects,  but John Deere fittings are also available (same idea as the Pioneer,  but a tapered geometry instead of straight).  I keep some plugged-up male fittings in my storage bucket along with some rags or paper towels.  I keep the fittings cleaned with the towels,  and the female fittings plugged with those extra plugged-up male fittings,  as dust covers.  It’s a very practical solution.  I use a universal hydraulic oil that is compatible with both John Deere and everybody else.  It takes about 3-quarts-to-a-gallon to fill a tool and its hoses. 

The hydraulic cylinder was carefully chosen,  and its installation geometry carefully designed,  so that no physical stops were needed in the hydraulic wheel assembly,  and so that any tractor hydraulic system,  even antique low-pressure ones,  could power the wheels. 

The motion stops are the inherent stroke limits of the cylinder itself,  so the wheel assembly sees no end-of-travel overloads,  in either direction.  The cylinder stroke and wheel structure gives me 100 degrees of wheel strut rotation.  This allows a 10-degree “up-sweep” of the raised wheels,  providing much better clearance going over rough ground and obstructions. 

The maximum hydraulic pressure that this system is rated for is 2500 psig.  All the components are good for that or slightly higher.  However,  the cylinder size is such that it will work acceptably well even at only 300 psig.  My antique Farmall-H had a one-way hydraulic system that I converted to two-way with a log-splitter valve and a return line down the oil fill pipe.  At low rpm it operates at about 300-400 psig,  and at higher rpm near 600-800 psig.  These tools work just fine with it.  I see more influence of lower pump flow rate at low rpm than I do pressure. 

Items Now Available For Sale

My son and I are currently trying to expand this cactus tool business (the new website is now operational,  and I have the outside vendors lined-up for higher production rates and deliveries).  A brand new website is under development,  watch for an update,  here and at the TXIDEAFARM site,  for links to it.  Hopefully it will be up-and-running in February 2015,  but no guarantees! 

Up to now,  I have sold plain tool plans for very distant customers,  and also up to now I have built plain tools built speculatively.  With delivery now available,  I no longer offer plans at all.  The greater expenses of the hydraulic tool require me to demand half the money up front,  and I build-to-specific-order only.  I have custom-shipped one plain tool to a customer in Florida. I have built and delivered one hydraulic tool.  

Plans for an older model of the plain tool will continue to be available only until the last of the shipping issues are resolved.  No plans are available for the hydraulic tool.  Once shipping is resolved,  I will literally be able to ship anywhere.  This will be part of the total package pricing on the new website.  Once it is operational,  I will no longer offer any plans at all. 

What I currently offer for hardware is two basic models now built with a common chassis when they were not before (plain tool and hydraulic tool).  Prices are always subject to some change,  especially so as I will have to contract-out more of the fabrication labor,  so do please check with me for current prices,  until the new website is operational.  What will be is posted there will be is current. That site is "".

Update 3-1-18:  the killyourcactusnow site has been shut down in favor of a new and improved site,  with even better information,  photos,  and videos.  

Some options are available at extra cost right now.  More will become available soon.  The towbar hitch (only on the hydraulic tool) is one.  Adding trailer ball mounts to tow other things behind either model is another.  An added fence at the left and right edges is a third,  that helps keep items stowed on the tool deck from rattling off when operating on rough ground;  this is available on both models. We also have an option for a "real" tool box that secures to the deck,  doing what the scrap cat litter bucket did,  just better.  Soon there will be an option for a remote-viewing camera.  

The very oldest form of my plain tool predates the addition of the “barge front” for wedging over obstructions.  There are photos of these on the TXIDEAFARM site,  at least right now.  I had few-to-no obstructions on my place;  however most places have outcrops and stumps.  That’s why the two standard models today both have “barge fronts”.  I no longer offer plain tools without “barge fronts”.  I have never offered any hydraulic tools without “barge fronts”. 

For a list of current offerings,  which models they fit,  and current prices as of this writing,  see Figure 7.  See "" for current prices and prices and options.  The site is designed for direct on-line customization and secure purchase.  

Update 3-1-18:  the killyourcactusnow site has been shut down in favor of a new and improved site,  with even better information,  photos,  and videos.  

(Fig 7 deleted)

As for effectiveness,  see the earlier articles here on “exrocketman” per the article list above,  at the beginning of this article,  and the write-ups on “TXIDEAFARM”.  The fun photo in Figure 8 is overstated,  of course.  But what I say about the effectiveness of these tools in those articles is not! 

Update with links to new website

This new website is currently still under construction.  But watch for it.  An update with those links will be posted here and on “TXIDEAFARM”.  Everything you need to choose,  customize,  and buy a tool will be is there.  

Update 6-21-15:

The new website is not quite operational yet,  but will be found very soon as  as".  Everything you need to select and customize a tool with options will be is there.  Everything you need to place an order will be is there.  Even the estimates for shipping to distant locations will be are there.  

Update 3-1-18:  the killyourcactusnow site has been shut down in favor of a new and improved site,  with even better information,  photos,  and videos.  

My son and I anticipate higher production rates once this website goes operational.  Accordingly,  I am lining-up parts manufacturing vendors to make the parts for these tools,  additional welders,  and workers to paint and rig these tools.  The job has already gotten far bigger than I alone can handle,  and we anticipate bigger still.  We have established a relationship with YRC (formerly Yellow Freight) to ship tools to distant customers on a routine basis.  

With more outside vendors and activities,  prices will be substantially higher than were quoted here until today.  Freight charges are not cheap either,  a couple of years ago it cost me about a $1000 to ship a plain tool to Florida.  So,  contact me (or consult the new website once it's "up") to get current prices.  

With shipping to distant customers in place,  I no longer offer plans.  That was how I serviced distant customers before.  (I still do rentals for folks close enough to me to come pick up a tool at my shop.)

Figure 8 – Don’t We All Wish ………