Tag Archives: competition

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.

Iran tests short range missile

Does this make you feel safer? Iran today launched a short range Mersad surface-to-air missile on a 35 mile test flight.

The launch took place on the same launchpad where earlier in the week they had placed and then removed an orbital Safir rocket, designed to put satellites into orbit. Why they removed it and launched the short range missile instead remains unknown

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.

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.

UAE considers initiating its own manned space program

The competition heats up: At a space conference this week in Abu Dhabi, a UAE official said that his country might begin work on a manned space program.

He also said that they plan a follow-up to their Hope Mars mission, which now has a July 2020 launch date.

The UAE’s prime goal right now with their space effort is to promote the development of a new aerospace industry. Thus, I do not expect them to accomplish much in the near future. Even their Mars mission is I think mostly being built and launched by others (India is helping with the spacecraft and Japan is launching it). In the long term, however, this effort is wise, and will eventually produce for them a real industry.

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.

Russian prosecutors indict four rocket engineers for Proton failure

This won’t solve Russia’s problems: Russian prosecutors have recommended criminal charges against four rocket engineers for failing to properly calculate the right amount of fuel, resulting in a Proton launch failure.

According to the spokesman, Energiya department head Balakin, section head Martynov and his deputy Lomtev responsible for asdeveloping operational documentation failed to ensure that their subordinate, engineer Bolshigin, should timely adjust the calculation formula for resetting the fuel control system. “The document on the need for such adjustment was submitted to the organization’s relevant department but was written off by the engineer as fulfilled. As a result, the calculation formula remained unadjusted,” the spokesman said. “Subsequently, Balakin, Martynov, Lomtev and Bolshigin who knew for sure that the formula for the calculation of the fueling level contained incorrect data that could not be used during a rocket launch agreed operational documentation without pointing to a mistake in calculations,” the spokesman for the Prosecutor General’s Office said.

Putting these guys in prison is probably the worst thing the Russians can do. It will strike fear throughout their entire aerospace industry, causing all other engineers to take as few risks as possible, or leave the industry entirely. What the Russians should do is simply fire them, and reward those that noted the problem with promotions and increased pay.

In a truly competitive free market such a response will work, because even if the companies don’t reform themselves new companies will step forward to replace them. Russia however does not have a truly competitive free market, and so their only recourse is top-down bullying and threats. “Do it right or we will jail you!”

I should add that the company involved, Energia, has nothing to do with the recent corruption discovered in the construction of the upper stage engines for both Proton and Soyuz. That involved a different Russian company entirely.

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.

Government-owned Alaska Aerospace considers second spaceport

The competition heats up: State-owned Alaska Aerospace is considering opening a second spaceport outside the state and closer to the equator.

Alaska Aerospace operates the Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska. The Kodiak Island complex is capable of polar, sun-synchronous and high-inclination orbits, but does not support the equatorial launches that make up most of the industry demand. With the new launch facility, Campbell said having equatorial launches will give the corporation a competitive advantage and also bring more customers to Kodiak.

The state no longer funds the corporation, which has never made money. Still, it now has contracts with Rocket Lab and Vector Space Systems and this new move is an obvious effort to make itself more viable.

Recovered Falcon 9 first stage prepped for launch

The competition heats up: SpaceX on Tuesday revealed that last week it has completed the standard static fire testing of the recovered Falcon 9 first stage that it plans to relaunch in March.

A March launch would mean an 11-month turnaround, which is far from optimal, but understandable for the first time. SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, Elon Musk, has acknowledged the company must do better in the future if resuable flight is to become economically viable. He says the next—and likely final—iteration of the Falcon 9 rocket will be optimized for reuse. “Block 5 is the final upgrade of the Falcon architecture,” he tweeted earlier this year. “Significantly improves performance & ease of reusability. Flies end of year.”

It now seems likely that SpaceX will fly the landed boosters it currently has, at most once or twice, before retiring them, instead of multiple times. Although the company hasn’t elaborated on the problems with the engines, booster structure, or composite materials that have shown wear and tear after their orbital launches and returns, Musk is confident that changes to the Block 5 version of the rocket will solve the problem. “I think the F9 boosters could be used almost indefinitely, so long as there is scheduled maintenance and careful inspections,” he has said.

In other words, SpaceX has had — for the first time in history — the opportunity to inspect a number of used first stage rockets, and that precious knowledge is making it possible for them to upgrade the stage design to make future stages more hardy. In fact, those future stages won’t be stages, but reusable vessels that SpaceX could even name if it wished.

SpaceX to double leased space at Los Angeles port

The competition heats up: SpaceX has requested a doubling of its leased space the port of Los Angeles in order to facilitate the return of first stages launched from Vandenberg.

The Board of Harbor Commissioners will vote at its Thursday morning meeting on a deal to enlarge Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s footprint at San Pedro’s outer harbor. The company hopes to lease 4.6 acres of land and water area along Berths 51 to 53 for $23,735 a month, plus insurance and any incidental costs.

In addition to extra space, the lease agreement allows the company to have berthing rights, install a chain-link fence around the property, build a concrete rocket-support pedestal, and add an office trailer, guard shack and portable restrooms, according to a staff report prepared for the commission.

According to the article, the increased space is needed because of the company’s plans to launch every two weeks from its pads at Kennedy and Vandenberg.

A review of 2016 launches

Link here. The report essentially confirms my own conclusions that I posted several weeks ago. This new report however also looks at total payloads, something I had not done, and finds that though there was a decline in 2016 in the number of satellites launched, they expect that trend to end in 2017 with the continued growth in the smallsat industry.

India to launch spare GPS satellite because of single satellite failure

Because of the failure of the atomic clocks on one of its GPS satellites have failed, India now plans to launch one of their spare satellites to increase the system’s redundancy.

The article does not say whether they will make any changes to the clocks on the spare satellite, which are the same as the failed clocks on the Indian satellite and were all built by the same European company that built the clocks on Europe’s Galileo GPS satellites that are also failing.

Next Falcon 9 launch delayed as SpaceX rearranges manifest

Because the launchpad at Kennedy is not quite ready for the planned February 3 launch of a commercial satellite, SpaceX has rearranged its launch manifest to switch that launch with the next Dragon mission to ISS, essentially delaying their next launch by two weeks.

With [launchpad] 39A still not ready to debut in its new role with SpaceX, the first mission set to launch from this pad – the Falcon 9 launch with EchoStar 23 – was pushed to the right a number of times. Although 39A is very close to being ready to conduct launches, EchoStar 23’s launch date was deemed to be too close to the mid-February target for the CRS-10 Dragon mission.

SpaceX and NASA discussed the situation on Friday night, before deciding it would be prudent to place EchoStar 23’s launch after CRS-10, allowing engineers to finalize modification and checkout work on the famous pad and simultaneously avoid a potential delay to the important Dragon mission to the Station.

The real problem here is that SpaceX had planned to have two working launchpads by this time, but doesn’t because their first pad was damaged in the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion. The consequences is that, for at least the next month, they will not be able to set a pace of a launch every two weeks.

Soyuz launches successfully from French Guiana

A Russian Soyuz rocket, built for Arianespace and launched from French Guiana, successfully placed a commercial satellite in geosynchronous orbit on Friday.

The launch has some significance. First, it was the first time a Soyuz rocket placed a payload into geosynchronous orbit. Second, the payload was the first satellite built by a German company in more than 25 years

Finally, and most important, it demonstrated that at least one configuration of the Soyuz rocket is still operational as Russia investigates the corrupt practices at the company that has been building upper stage engines for both its Soyuz and Proton rockets.

Update: Russia has revealed that this on-going investigation will now delay the next Proton rocket launch for 3.5 months. This means that launch will occur sometime in May, and will occur just weeks short of a full year after the last Proton launch on June 9, 2016.

Making a Linux laptop

Yesterday while I was sitting at my desk working on my Linux desktop computer, I got a phone call from someone from “Windows Technical Support.” The man on the line said to me, quite nicely, that they had noticed a problem with my computer and wanted to help me fix it.

I said, “You are talking about my Windows desktop computer, the one I am working right now, correct?”

The man said sweetly, “Yes, sir. That’s the computer we have seen a problem with.”

I answered sweetly, “I just want to be sure, so let me ask again. You are referring to the Windows computer in front of me, the one on my desk?”

He responded, “Yes sir. Could you press your start menu please and go to settings?”

Unfortunately, I had too much work to do, and couldn’t spend more time with him. I would have liked to have lead him along for as long as possible, but simple didn’t have the time. Instead, I said, “Um, I can’t really go to my Windows settings because my desktop is a Linux computer, and has been for a decade. Have you heard of Linux?”

Instantly the phone went dead.

I tell this tale because it is only one more reason I abandoned Windows back in 2006. With Linux I have no viruses to worry about, and scammers like this can’t do me any harm.

Anyway, this post really isn’t about Windows scammers. Instead, I want to relate my experience this past week in setting up my first Linux laptop, following the step-by-step instructions provided by James Stephens and posted here on Behind the Black last year in the following series:
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