Tag Archives: commercial

Capitalism in Space to be released early next week

After several months of delay for a variety of reasons that I do not need to go into, my policy paper for the Center of New American Security has gone to the printers will be released to the public early next week. The title: Capitalism in Space: Private Enterprise and Competition Reshape the Global Aerospace Launch Industry.

I will have the pdf of this paper available here on Behind the Black the instant it is available. To give everyone a taste, here are my concluding words:

A close look at these recommendations will reveal one common thread. Each is focused on shifting power and regulatory authority away from the federal government and increasing the freedom of American companies to act as they see fit to meet the demands of the market. The key word that defines this common thread is freedom, a fundamental principle that has been aspired to since the nation’s founding. Political leaders from both parties have made the concept a central core tenet of American policy. Democrat John Kennedy stated that his commitment to go to the Moon was a “stand for freedom” in the Cold War. Republican Ronald Reagan proposed “Freedom” as the name for the new space station, and viewed it as a platform for promoting private enterprise in space.

Freedom is actually a very simple idea. Give people and companies the freedom to act, in a competitive environment that encourages intelligent and wise action, and they will respond intelligently and wisely.

The United States’ history proves that freedom can work. It is time that it prove it again, in space.

India launches record 104 satellites at one go

The competition heats up: India today successfully used its PSLV rocket to launch a record 104 satellites.

I can’t quote the description of the 104 satellites as it is too long. The bottom line however is that India has demonstrated that it is now a major player in the space launch industry.

The international government effort to come up with a cis-lunar ISS

The competition heats up: In the past five years the various international partners and their space agencies have been conducting studies for developing a new international space station, this time based not in Earth orbit but located near the Moon.

Following initial approval in the fall of 2014, the five space agencies formed the ISS Exploration Capabilities Study Team, IECST, which was tasked with reviewing how the ISS experience could be used to build the cis-lunar infrastructure, with determining its possible architecture and with drafting its flight plan and possible mission. Specialists also had the task of looking at all the necessary technologies, logistics and maintenance which would be required for building and operating a small habitat near the Moon. This man-tended outpost could serve as a way station to the lunar surface and as a springboard for the exploration of the Solar System, including asteroids, Mars and its moons. In fact, the outpost itself could eventually embark on a journey toward a deep-space destination. Representatives of the various space agencies also tried to see what contributions each country could make, based on their technical capabilities and realistic budgets.

All the work was conducted within the ISS program and covered by its budget.

Initially, the IECST group included representatives from space agencies only, for the exception of Russia, with Roskosmos officials needed help from the nation’s prime contractor in human space flight — RKK Energia. For the final few meetings in 2016, ESA also brought representatives from the European space industry. However NASA did not directly involve its key human space flight contractors into the IECST activities. (Instead, the US aerospace companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin continued parallel studies in cooperation with RKK Energia in Russia, EADS Astrium in Europe and Mitsubishi in Japan.) [emphasis mine]

Read the whole article. Lots of interesting details.

In a sense, this international effort is a political lobbying effort by these space agencies to come up with a single project to follow ISS that will continue the funneling of government money to them all. It is also an effort by them to structure future space exploration so all efforts will be contained within this single program, rather than allowing for many different competing efforts, both private and public. In addition, it is an attempt by NASA to come up with some long-term mission for SLS/Orion, which at present has no operational purpose and no funding beyond its first manned flight in 2021.

Finally, note the highlighted sentence above. This effort — which will benefit not just NASA but the space agencies of Russia, Europe, and Japan as well as the old big space companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Mitsubishi — is been paid entirely by American tax dollars. Something about this to me seems wrong. Shouldn’t the cost here be shared? And doesn’t it seem inappropriate for NASA to be picking the companies it wants to work with, without open bidding?

Countdown begins on India’s record-setting launch of 104 satellites

The competition heats up: ISRO has begun the countdown for Wednesday’s launch of India’s PSLV rocket, carrying a record-setting 104 satellites.

he Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle would be carrying a 714 kilogram main satellite for earth observation and 103 smaller “nano satellites” which would weigh a combined 664 kilograms. Nearly all of the nano satellites are from other countries, including Israel, Kazakhstan, The Netherlands, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and 96 from United States, said the state-run ISRO.

If successful, India will set a world record as the first country to launch the most satellites in one go, surpassing Russia which launched 39 satellites in a single mission in June 2014.

Obviously, all these different satellites got a cut-rate launch deal by sharing the launch, which helps make their launch affordable. The disadvantage here is that they do not have much flexibility in choosing their orbits, which is why there is also a market now for small rockets aimed at launching single smallsats, such as Rocket Lab’s Electron.

A glimpse at China’s unmanned cargo freighter

The competition heats up: A Chinese state media report just released included footage showing China’s unmanned cargo freighter, Tianzhou-1, as engineers prepare it for its April launch to their test space station module, Tiangong-2.

Two important take-aways from this report. First, note in the simulation showing the docking of the freighter to Tiangong-2 the size comparison. The two craft are almost the same size, showing that Tiangong-2 really is nothing more than a test module, not large enough for long sustained space station operations. The freighter meanwhile is quite substantial.

Second, the report says they are aiming for a 2018 launch of the first module of their full size station.

Japan to try another launch of low-cost mini-rocket

The competition heats up: Japan has decided, following a January launch failure, to try another launch attempt in 2017 of a test of low-cost mini-rocket.

Participating businesses will likely bear the brunt of the 300 million yen to 500 million yen ($2.64 million to $4.4 million) launch cost, though the government will likely allocate funds as well. JAXA aims to have the rocket finished by autumn. It will soon plan out how to procure needed parts and build the vehicle in time for a 2017 launch, then submit the plan to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology. The ministry will secure a launch site accordingly, and a safety and inspections committee of its space division will review the plan.

January’s rocket was a three-stage version of the existing two-stage SS-520, modified to carry a miniature satellite. Off-the-shelf consumer product technology was incorporated to keep costs down. The rocket blasted off successfully. But during the first stage of the launch sequence, transmission of such critical data as its temperature and position ceased. The agency aborted the second stage, letting the vehicle fall into the ocean.

This second attempt, and the speed in which they appear to be gearing up to launch it, suggests that Japan might finally be recognizing that it has been failing badly in its efforts to participate in the new commercial launch market, and needs to energize its launch industry if it wants to participate in the exploration of the solar system.

Orbital ATK prepares Cape Canaveral launchpad for July Minotaur launch

The competition heats up: Orbital ATK crews on Sunday practiced stacking stages on a Cape Canaveral launchpad in preparation for a July Minotaur 4 launch of an Air Force surveillance satellite.

Teams this weekend stacked three inert Peacekeeper missiles stages on a launch stand similar to those that will make up the Minotaur IV rocket’s first three stages. Two more Orion 38 stages will fill out the rocket. On Sunday, the first three stages standing more than 50 feet tall were surrounded by puffy white covers that will keep the right temperature during the launch campaign’s summer heat.

Plans called for the mobile gantry to be rolled back on rails to its launch position before the stages are taken down on Monday.

Orbital ATK has been prevented from expanding its Minotaur 4 market beyond military launches because the rocket uses these available but now unused Peacekeeper missiles and is thus very inexpensive. Their competitors have been their influence in Congress to forbid their use commercially.

SpaceX successfully completes Falcon 9 static fire test

SpaceX on Sunday successfully completed the launch dress rehearsal countdown and static fire test for its next Falcon 9 launch, which will loft a Dragon capsule to ISS and is set now for February 18.

The article at the link as well as a lot of other news organizations are making a big deal about the fact that this launch is taking place at the LC-39A launchpad, used during the Apollo program as well as by the shuttle. While the historic background is interesting, of more significance to me is that this test brings SpaceX closer to having two operational pads in Florida, one of which (LC-39A) is configured for Falcon Heavy launches.

UK commits £10 million to space development

The competition heats up: The United Kingdom’s space agency yesterday announced that it is making available £10 million in grants for projects that develop and improve the country’s launch capabilities.

Organisations expected to bid for a share of the funding are likely to be joint enterprises of launch vehicle operators and potential launch sites. The funding must be used to develop spaceflight capabilities, such as building spaceport infrastructure or adapting launch vehicle technology for use in the UK. The aim is to establish a commercial spaceflight market to capture a share of the emerging global market from 2020.

The government also announced today that it is preparing legislation to develop a safe and competitive regulatory environment for spaceflight. This work goes hand-in-hand with government’s work internationally to achieve the technical, trade and policy agreements necessary for UK based launch services and developing interest from launch customers and operators from around the world.

It is interesting to me that the UK’s effort to prepare a better regulatory environment for private space is happening parallel to the similar recently-announced regulartory efforts in Luxembourg, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates, just to name a few. It seems that the nations that wish to compete in the new colonial movement in space are all discovering that the Outer Space Treaty is a problem, and they are all searching for ways to legally bypass it, without abandoning it.

Trump to the Moon!

Two stories in the past two days strongly suggest that the Trump administration is planning a two-pronged space policy approach, with the long-term goal of shifting most of space to private operations.

From the first link:

The more ambitious administration vision could include new moon landings that “see private American astronauts, on private space ships, circling the Moon by 2020; and private lunar landers staking out de facto ‘property rights’ for American on the Moon, by 2020 as well,” according to a summary of an “agency action plan” that the transition drew up for NASA late last month. Such missions would be selected through an “internal competition” between what the summary calls Old Space, or NASA’s traditional contractors, and New Space characterized by SpaceX and Blue Origin. But the summary also suggests a strong predilection toward New Space. “We have to be seen giving ‘Old Space’ a fair and balanced shot at proving they are better and cheaper than commercial,” it says.

Another thrust of the new space effort would be to privatize low-Earth orbit, where most satellites and the International Space Station operate — or a “seamless low-risk transition from government-owned and operated stations to privately-owned and operated stations.” “This may be the biggest and most public privatization effort America has ever conducted,” it says.

Essentially, they are going to do exactly what I suggested back in late December, give SLS/Orion a short-term realistic goal of going to the Moon. This is what it was originally designed for, and it is the only technology presently available that has even the slightest chance of meeting the three year deadline outlined above. More important, this will give Congress something in the negotiations, as SLS/Orion has been Congress’s baby — pushed and funded by Congress over the objections of the previous administration and without a clear mission to go anywhere — in order to keep the money stream flowing to the big “Old Space” companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Obama tried to simply cancel its predecessor, Constellation, and that did not sit well with Congress. Trump however understands negotiation and how to play the game. In order to eventually eliminate SLS Trump is going to provide Congress some short term excitement and some viable long term alternatives.

The long term alternatives will be private enterprise. Even as they send SLS/Orion on its grand finale to the Moon, the Trump administration will accelerate the restructuring of NASA to make the agency less of a design and construction operation and more a mere customer of private space. All non-military Earth orbital operations will be shifted to the private sector over time, so that once SLS/Orion has achieved that goal of completing a lunar mission there will be a strong enough private space sector to replace it, allowing Congress to let it go the way of Apollo and the space shuttle.

Orbital ATK sues DARPA over its satellite repair program

Orbital ATK has filed a lawsuit against the Defense Department’s DARPA division over its satellite repair program that is apparently going to award a contract to a Canadian company to develop a system for using robots to repair orbiting satellites.

Orbital argues that the federal program, called the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites, would unfairly compete with its own privately funded effort, a system called the Mission Extension Vehicle 1, backed by at least $200 million from investors. The company has set up at a production facility in Northern Virginia, with a launch planned for next year.

DARPA wants to build out a government-funded program of its own, and is close to awarding a contract to a company that Orbital views as a competitor. In a contract announcement briefly posted on the agency’s website, DARPA said it is awarding a $15 million contract to Space Systems/Loral (SSL), a U.S. subsidiary of Canadian aerospace firm MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates. DARPA spokesman Jared B. Adams said the contract award was posted in error and elements of the deal are still being worked on.

In its lawsuit, Orbital alleges that the contract violates federal policy against creating government space programs that compete with existing commercial ones. “The U.S. National Space Policy explicitly directs government agencies to avoid funding activities that are already in development in the commercial marketplace,” the company said in a statement. “Orbital ATK will continue to pursue all available options to oppose DARPA from moving forward with this illegal and wasteful use of U.S. taxpayer dollars.”

DARPA normally pushes projects that no one is doing, either because the work is too experimental or can’t yet make a profit. In this case however it appears that this is not the case. Worse (from a political perspective), they are awarding the contract to a non-American company. I would not be surprised if Congress soon steps in and shuts this particular DARPA project down.

Democrats in Pima County vote to appeal World View court decision

The Pima County Board of Supervisors in Arizona has voted 3-2 on a party-line vote to appeal a judge’s decision that canceled the county’s deal with the space tourism balloon company World View because it violated state law.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to appeal a Superior Court decision which concluded the county violated state law when it signed an agreement and lease with World View, a space exploration company located near the Tucson International Airport.

The vote was along party lines, with the three Democrats voting for the appeal and the two Republicans voting against it.

The court ruled the county did not comply with a law which requires the county to appraise the property, hold a public auction, and negotiate a fair rental price before it agreed to build a $15 million complex for the company.

It seems to me that — rather than fight this in court — the smart thing to do here is to work out a new agreement that does not violate the law, something that the county was able to do with its lease agreements with Vector Space Systems. This apparently was what the Republicans on the board were proposing. Instead, the Democrats have chosen to fight, even though that will delay things further and is likely to fail in court anyway.

NanoRacks and Boeing to build private airlock on ISS

The competition heats up: NASA has signed an agreement with NanoRacks and Boeing to build private commercial airlock to attach to ISS in 2019 and be used for commercial operations.

Commercial opportunities through Airlock begin with cubesat and small satellite deployment from station and include a full range of additional services to meet customer needs from NASA and the growing commercial sector. Currently, cubesats and small satellites are deployed through the government-operated Japanese Kibo Airlock. Additionally, the crew on board may now assemble payloads typically flown in soft-stowage ISS Cargo Transfer Bags into larger items that currently cannot be handled by the existing Kibo Airlock. “We are very pleased to have Boeing joining with us to develop the Airlock Module,” says NanoRacks CEO Jeffrey Manber. “This is a huge step for NASA and the U.S. space program, to leverage the commercial marketplace for low-Earth orbit, on Space Station and beyond, and NanoRacks is proud to be taking the lead in this prestigious venture.”

Beyond station, the Airlock could at some future time, be detached and placed onto another on-orbit platform.

This is part of the overall transition at NASA from government-built and -run to privately-built and -run.

Jean Redpath – How Can I Keep from Singing

A evening pause: Performed live June 13, 1987. I think of these words whenever I am in a truly glorious place underground:

My life goes on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it’s music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness ’round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

ULA to trim workforce again

The competition heats up: In another effort to cut costs, ULA is planning to trim its workforce again in 2017.

In 2016 they cut 350 jobs. They haven’t specified a number this time, as they hope to initially eliminate jobs through voluntary buyouts and layoffs. Regardless, this is a good sign, as it indicates that the company remains serious about being competitive in the launch market.

Judge strikes down Tucson/Worldview spaceport deal

A deal between Pima County in Tucson Arizona and the space tourism balloon company World View has been struck down.

The Tucson judge sided with the libertarian Goldwater group, which argued Pima County ran afoul of state rules governing subsidies and incentives to businesses. “Judge Woods’ ruling protects Pima County taxpayers from having to foot the bill for World View’s untested business model,” said Jim Manley, senior attorney at the Goldwater Institute. “Instead of relying on a sweetheart deal from taxpayers, World View will need to pay market rates to lease its building, just like every other business in Pima County.”

Goldwater attorneys didn’t like that Pima County approved the deal without a popular ballot measure and that the deal was done without an appraisal. Goldwater also argued the lease deal was for less than market rates for a custom building. “The county is free to renegotiate the lease,” said Manley, “but only after they appraise the building, hold a public auction, and lease the building to the highest bidder. All of that will protect taxpayers from illegally subsidizing a private business.”

As much as I want this business to thrive, I think the Goldwater Institute was right. Pima County violated numerous laws and even some parts of the state constitution putting together this deal. Even if there was no corruption here, it opened the door to future backroom corruption if the deal was allowed. Now, I expect World View and the county will have to renegotiate.

Congressional report worries over Falcon 9 engine cracks

A forthcoming congressional report, reported by the Wall Street Journal, reveals that NASA is concerned about cracks that occur in the turbopumps of SpaceX’s Merlin engines.

The newspaper says the report has found a “pattern of problems” with the turbine blades within the turbopumps, which deliver rocket fuel into the combustion chamber of the Merlin rocket engine. Some of the components used in the turbopumps are prone to cracks, the government investigators say, and may require a redesign before NASA allows the Falcon 9 booster to be used for crewed flights. NASA has been briefed on the report’s findings, and the agency’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, told the newspaper that he thinks “we know how to fix them.”

A spokesman for SpaceX, John Taylor, said the company already has a plan in place to fix the potential cracking issue. “We have qualified our engines to be robust to turbine wheel cracks,” Taylor said. “However, we are modifying the design to avoid them altogether. This will be part of the final design iteration on Falcon 9.” This final variant of the Falcon 9 booster, named Block 5, is being designed for optimal safety and easier return for potential reuse. According to company founder Elon Musk, it could fly by the end of this year.

Here’s the real scoop: SpaceX initially built the engines to fly once, just as every single rocket company has done in the entire history of space, excluding the space shuttle. Under these conditions, the cracks could be considered an acceptable issue, which is what they mean when they say “We have qualified our engines to be robust to turbine wheel cracks.” My guess is that they tested the engines, found that the cracks were not a significant problem for a single flight, especially because the Falcon 9 rocket uses nine Merlin engines on the first stage and thus has some redundancy should one fail. And based on SpaceX’s flight record — no launch failures due to failed engines — that conclusion seems reasonable.

SpaceX is now redesigning to eliminate the cracks, however, because such cracks are not acceptable for engines that will fly multiple times on reused first stages.

Thus, this story, as leaked, appears to me to be a hit job by powers in Congress who dislike the competition that SpaceX poses to big government rockets like SLS. SLS will use salvaged shuttle engines, designed initially for many reuses, and thus are superior in this manner to SpaceX’s Merlin engines. The shuttle engines however were also built by the government, which didn’t care very much about the cost of development, or making any profits. The comparison thus is somewhat bogus. Moreover, I suspect these cracks were only discovered after SpaceX successfully landed and recovered some first stages. To put them on trial in the press now for doing good engineering research and redevelopment seems somewhat inappropriate.

The report itself has not yet been released, though it does also note lingering issues with the parachutes being developed for Boeing’s Starliner capsule.

Overall, both companies are struggling to start their operational flights by 2019. For Congress or NASA to try to put more roadblocks up in that development seems most counterproductive.

More new robots from Boston Dynamics

The video at the link shows off SpotMini, of video of which I posted previously. However, the first robot shown is one they have named Handle and is something they admit could be “nightmare-inducing.” It walks upright on two legs, but instead of feetpods it has wheels, giving it the ability to move very fast. And for some reason, they put its arms on backwards so that the elbows bend inward instead of outward.

Watch the video. The robot design work here is truly breath-taking.

The ships of Hanjin six months after it went bankrupt

Real news: Six months ago the shipping company Hanjin went bankrupt, stranding its 96 container ships worldwide. This article takes a detailed look not only on what happened to those ships since, but also at the state of the entire shipping industry.

There was a time when Hanjin’s collapse in August and this follow-up story would have been major news stories, covered by all the leading mainstream press outlets. No more. Even though it indicates significant financial and economic trends that should concern anyone who is serious about being an educated citizen, the press doesn’t cover it, and the public today really doesn’t care.

Just another indicator that a new dark age is looming.

ESA commits $91 million to reusable rocket engine development

The competition heats up? Despite a general lack of interest in reusability, the ESA has now committed $91 million to develop a new low cost prototype reusable rocket engine.

In an interview with SpaceNews, Airbus Safran Launchers CEO Alain Charmeau said FLPP is allocating 85 million euros ($91 million) to Prometheus to fund research and development leading to a 2020 test firing. Now that Prometheus is an ESA program, Charmeau expects more countries will get involved. “ESA will pay the contract to Airbus Safran Launchers and then Airbus Safran Launchers will cooperate with European industry, of course France and Germany, but we will have also contributions from Italy, Belgium, Sweden and probably a couple of others to a smaller extent,” Charmeau said.

This project reminds me of many NASA development projects. The agency spends the money to do a test firing, but the prototype is never used and gets abandoned as soon as the test is completed.

Things might change, however, come the 2020s. By then I think American companies will be quite successful in their effort to create reusable rockets, and that will leave Europe in the lurch competitively. Their solution at this time for combating that future competition however is not getting more competitive. Instead, as noted in the article at the link, Airbus Safran, the company building Ariane 6, wants the ESA to compel its members to use their rocket, regardless of cost.

The private weather industry moves forward

Link here. Key quote:

Early next month, aerospace start-up Spire Global of Glasgow, UK, will send a mini-satellite into space aboard an Indian government rocket. This ‘cubesat’ will join 16 others that are beaming a new type of atmospheric data back to Earth — and some scientists worry that such efforts are siphoning funding away from efforts to push forward the science of weather forecasting. Spire will begin providing observations to the US government on 30 April.

The probes track delays in radio signals from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites as they pass through the atmosphere — a technique known as radio occultation. Researchers can use the data to create precise temperature profiles of the atmosphere to feed into weather-forecasting models — and eventually, perhaps, climate models.

Spire and its competitor GeoOptics of Pasadena, California, are participating in a pilot project announced in September by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is under pressure from the US Congress to determine whether it can cut costs by using commercial weather data. But scientists worry that such efforts are hampering the development of radio occultation. For years, they have sought federal funding for a project to advance the technique, but Spire and its competitors say they can offer high-quality data for a fraction of the price. [emphasis mine]

The quotes I have highlighted illustrate the hidebound leftist scientific opposition to introducing private enterprise into weather research. The article, published in the journal Nature, never once articulates in any way how these private efforts will hurt scientific research. What it does show is that the private effort will cost a tenth of the government effort while getting launched much faster. The money, however, will go to these private companies, and not the scientific factions that up until now have lived on the government money train.

The complaints here are the same as those I saw in NASA back about a decade ago when NASA first considered hiring private companies to provide it cargo to ISS. This is a turf war. NOAA is now being pressured by Congress to do the same: stop building big expensive weather satellites and buy the service for much less from the private sector. The scientific community sees this as a threat to its funding and is trying to stop it.

With Republicans controlling all three branches of the federal government I think this opposition will be fruitless, and we shall see the shift to private enterprise in weather data-gathering to accelerate.

SpaceX gets an eighth Iridium launch

The competition heats up: SpaceX has won a new launch contract, this time by launching both Iridium’s five satellites as well as the NASA/German Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission.

Both NASA and Iridium will save money by sharing the ride, while SpaceX gets more business.

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