Tag Archives: NASA

Orion faces more budget and schedule delays

A new inspector general report of NASA’s Orion has found that the program still faces significant budget and technical problems in meeting the planned August 2021 launch date for its first manned mission.

The report makes it clear that this launch will almost certainly be delayed until 2023, meaning that from the date President George Bush proposed Orion in 2004, it will have taken NASA a full two decades to launch the first manned Orion capsule.

Let me repeat that: Two decades to build and launch a single manned mission. Does anyone see something wrong here?

As for what will happen after that first flight, the report itself [pdf] makes it pretty clear that not much is likely. From page 11:

For Orion missions after 2023, NASA has adopted an incremental development approach. According to the Program Plan, the approach is cost-driven and will provide a core vehicle the Agency can upgrade to provide additional capabilities for missions beyond cis-lunar space. Each incremental upgrade will build on flight experience to ensure the vehicle’s design is based on viable technology and capabilities. Consistent with this incremental approach, NASA has not committed to specific missions after 2023 and therefore has not developed detailed plans, requirements, or costs for such missions. According to NASA officials, the Agency will instead focus on building capabilities through defined roadmaps that identify technology development paths and capability requirements for deep space exploration missions. Officials explained the Agency will fund basic research, pursue development of the technologies that appear most viable, and build capabilities based on available funding. Missions will be selected based on the progress and maturity of the developed technology.

A translation of this gobbly-gook into plain English can be summed up as follows: Congress has given us no money for future missions, so we can’t plan anything.

Considering the cost and the ungodly amount of time it took NASA to get to this one flight, and considering how badly this record compares with the numerous flights that private commercial space will achieve prior to this single flight, don’t expect Congress to fork up more money after 2023. SLS and Orion are going to die. Unfortunately, their slow death will have cost the American taxpayer billions of wasted dollars that NASA could have been better spent on other things.

Want to buy a used NASA robot? You can!

Link here. The robot was developed in the 1960s to test spacesuits, though because it leaked oil it was never used.

In fact, this particular 1960s NASA project appears to be a perfect example of “engineers gone wild!” The website explains that the robot was an attempt to replace human test volunteers.

Unfortunately, pressure suits aren’t like coveralls. They’re complex pieces of engineering. A human can provide qualitative information about how (un)comfortable a suit is, but cannot gauge the forces involved with the precision and accuracy that an an engineer needs. In addition, testing pressure suits with volunteers can be grueling, unpleasant and even painful.

In the end, however, the robot didn’t work and the testing was done by humans, probably for a lot less than the $175,000 they spent (in 1960s dollars) to build two of these robots. One however is now being auctioned off, and could serve wonderfully as a great piece of interesting artwork in someone’s home.

Budget constraints and technical challenges delay commercial crew

A NASA inspector general report released today cites both budget constraints imposed by Congress as well as technical challenges that will delay the first commercial manned mission to ISS until 2018.

When the commercial crew program began, NASA hoped to have routine flights by 2015, but that slipped in large part due to congressional underfunding in the early years. OIG noted today that its 2013 report found that adequate funding was the major challenge for the program. Congress has warmed up to the program, however, and now is approving the full President’s request so funding is not the issue it once was. Technical challenges now are the major hurdle according to today’s report.

The companies’ systems must be certified by NASA before beginning routine flights to ISS. Boeing anticipates receiving certification in January 2018 with its first certified flight in spring 2018, and SpaceX is working toward late 2017 for its first certified mission, the OIG report says. But it is skeptical: “Notwithstanding the contractors’ optimism, based on the information we gathered during our audit, we believe it unlikely that either Boeing or SpaceX will achieve certified, crewed flight to the ISS until late 2018.”

The report has been written prior to yesterday’s Falcon 9 launchpad failure, which will certainly impact the schedule negatively.

Essentially, the report claims that the program was delayed initially by about two to three years because of the refusal of Congress to fund it fully. The delays to come will be instead because of the technical challenges. While I tend to agree with this assessment, I also note that government reports like this are often designed to generate more funds for the agencies involved, not find a better way to do things. If we are not diligent and hard-nosed about how we fund this program I worry that with time commercial crew will become corrupted by the government’s sloppy and inefficient way of doing things, and become as bloated as Orion and SLS. This is one of the reasons I never complained when Congress short funded the program previously, as it forced the companies involved to keep their costs down.

ULA wins contract to launch 2020 NASA Mars rover

NASA today awarded ULA the contract to launch in 2020 its next Martian rover.

The contract is for $243 million, which isn’t cheap, but I think NASA decided to pay the extra money because they used an Atlas 5 to launch Curiosity, and they have been attempting to simplify the 2020 mission by duplicating Curiosity as much as possible.

A visit to OSIRIS-Rex clean room

NASA recently gave a press tour of the clean room where the asteroid probe OSIRIS-Rex is being prepped for its September 8 launch, and one reporter from that tour wrote a very nice description of what it was like.

After such a tour, most reporters write up stories that describe the spaceship, its mission, and its status. This reporter however did something better. He wrote up what it’s like to enter a clean room for a mission only weeks from launch.

Our belongings have been lined up in a row alongside us. And then the dog arrives.

It’s a beautiful specimen of a german shepherd, long and enthusiastic, being led by a sturdy military-type with a buzzcut wearing what looks like mercenary gear. The dog is led down the row of belongings once. Then twice. Then he and his owner head back to their truck and drive off. We have passed. We are free to go into the blessed blast of cool air on the bus that’s been idling alongside us for what seems like hours, but has really only been about 15 minutes.

And that’s only the start. Read it all. Quite fascinating.

Contact re-established with dead solar satellite

Good news! After almost two years since contact was lost, NASA has re-established communications with Stereo-B, one of two solar research satellites designed to study the hemisphere of the Sun that does not face the Earth.

NASA re-established contact with a wayward sun-watching science satellite Sunday nearly two years after the spacecraft suddenly dropped off line during a test, the agency said in a statement Monday. NASA’s Deep Space Network, or DSN, “established a lock on the STEREO-B (spacecraft’s) downlink carrier at 6:27 p.m. EDT,” NASA said in a statement. “The downlink signal was monitored by the Mission Operations team over several hours to characterize the attitude of the spacecraft and then transmitter high voltage was powered down to save battery power. “The STEREO Missions Operations team plans further recovery processes to assess observatory health, re-establish attitude control and evaluate all subsystems and instruments.”

This is a big deal. Not only is it a testament to the spacecraft’s good design, it demonstrates the skill of the engineers at NASA who have regained contact.

Costs rise on Obama’s asteroid mission

The year delay in Obama’s as yet unfunded unmanned asteroid mission, a preliminary to a proposed manned asteroid mission, has caused its budget to grow from $1.25 billion to $1.4 billion.

More significantly,

NASA’s cost estimate for [the unmanned] ARRM excludes launch and operations. In a March 2016 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of NASA’s major programs showed a cost of $1.72 billion. Gates explained that the $1.72 billion includes the launch vehicle cost, set at approximately $500 million as a placeholder since NASA has not determined which of three launch vehicles will be used (Delta IV Heavy, Falcon Heavy, or the Space Launch System).

…The next administration will have to decide if the costs are worth the benefits. Although NASA has decided they are, the House Appropriations Committee disagrees. It denied funding for the program in its report on the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which funds NASA. The bill has not passed the House yet, however, and there is no similar language in the Senate version, so NASA is not currently prohibited from spending money on the project.

So far, NASA has been funding this Obama project by stealing money from other projects in NASA, since Congress has consistently refused to appropriate extra money for it. This approach has worked up until now, as they are only funding initial design work. Where they think they will get the money for a full mission however remains a complete mystery to me.

The status of SLS for its first launch in 2018

Link here. The article gives an excellent and detailed overview of where construction of SLS presently sits, what the problems are that still remain, and what they have done to overcome them.

What struck me most however in reading the article was how long it takes them to do anything. For example, it appears they will assemble the rocket in the spring of 2018 for a December launch. In fact, the description of this assembly in this article partly explains to me why SLS will have the ungodly slow launch rate of at best once every two years.

In addition, the article describes how NASA has handled a number of engineering issues that have come up, and for each the approach seems to me to be more complicated than necessary. However, I am not an engineer and have never been part of this kind of work. Maybe everyone does it this way.

Aerojet Rocketdyne gets NASA contract for cubesat engine

The competition heats up: Aerojet Rocketdyne has signed a contract with NASA to develop a small thruster engine for use on cubesats.

The MPS-130 green propulsion system will allow CubeSats and SmallSats to increase their capabilities, such as extending mission life, increasing architecture resiliency, maneuvering to higher and lower orbits, and performing complex proximity operations and formation flying. The use of additive manufacturing also reduces the number of parts and amount of time required to fabricate and assemble the modular propulsion system, lowering the cost of small satellites for private and public operators. Under the contract, Aerojet Rocketdyne will deliver a fully-integrated MPS-130 green modular propulsion system for flight demonstration, as well as conduct development and validation testing.

The press release does not say how much money NASA is providing. Regardless, this is a great opportunity for Aerojet Rocketdyne, because the smallsat industry is I think about to take off, and at the moment these tiny satellites lack any useful technology for maneuvering. Up until now they were mostly designed as temporary short term satellites built mostly to teach students. Soon, however, there will be a lot of privately-built commercial smallsats launched, designed to make money. Being able to sell their builders a thruster that could prolong their life and make them more capable will give Aerojet Rocketdyne a product that will certainly sell like hotcakes.

Cruz visits NASA

In taking his family on a tour of the Johnson Space Center, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) also met with some local industry businessmen where he expressed support for NASA as well as a desire to get ISS extended to 2028.

Cruz did not take questions from the media, though they were present during the meeting with businessmen. In reviewing the local press reports of that meeting (of which the above link is the most detailed), it appears that Cruz was mostly there to firm up his local constituent support by mouthing vague but strong support for NASA. It also appears that he as yet does not have a clear understanding of NASA’s full circumstances, or if he does he is leaning down the pork road to gain votes.

When my policy paper appears I intend to make sure his office gets it. By his actions after that we shall then see how sincere Ted Cruz really is about fiscal responsibility and private enterprise.

NASA finalizes more cubesat deals for first SLS launch

Lockheed Martin and NASA have signed a deal to put a science cubesat on the first SLS rocket, planned for an unmanned launch of Orion in 2018.

The adapter ring that connects Orion to the rocket will include 13 bays for CubeSats, shoe-box sized payloads that until now haven’t been delivered in significant numbers into deep space. Each of those payload operators is working to finalize contracts with NASA for the ride into space, and on Monday, Lockheed Martin announced a few details of its 6U CubeSat, called SkyFire. Lockheed’s payload will capture high-quality images of the Moon. And in exchange for the ride into deep space, NASA will receive data from the mission.

“The CubeSat will look for specific lunar characteristics like solar illumination areas,” James Russell, Lockheed Martin SkyFire principal investigator, said in a news release. “We’ll be able to see new things with sensors that are less costly to make and send to space.”

This is without doubt a great opportunity for Lockheed Martin and others to test the use of a cubesat in interplanetary space. Whether it makes sense to use SLS to launch them is another matter entirely.

NASA delays asteroid redirect mission one year

NASA has decided to delay by one year the planned launch dates for both its unmanned and manned missions to an asteroid.

And why might you ask?

Mr. Gerstenmaier further stated that “We had trouble getting the funding together for this thing. So this slip of the one year that you see wasn’t caused by technical. It was really caused by budget availability. We just didn’t have the budget available to go do this.”

Also, the article notes that the launch rocket for the unmanned mission, now set for 2021, will be one of three possible rockets.

No elaboration was given as to what those “three rockets” are, though SLS, one of SpaceX’s Falcon family of rockets, and Atlas V are understood to be the prime contenders at this time.

The unmanned mission might happen (though I wouldn’t bet on it). As for the manned mission, there is a reason NASA has had trouble getting funding. SLS/Orion cost too much. Congress simply doesn’t want to spend that much for the actual missions. They will dole out a lot of cash for development (and the pork that goes with it), but even they can’t afford the gigantic budgets NASA needs to actually fly real missions.

July 29, 2016 Zimmerman/Batchelor podcast

The podcast is now fixed and available! John Batchelor thanks Willi for spotting the problem.

Embedded below the fold. John Batchelor titled this appearance very accurately: “Condemning Orion.” He likes to say that I am sometimes cranky. I was especially cranky tonight in reviewing why I think the way NASA is selling Orion is an outright lie.
» Read more

Sierra Nevada preps for Dream Chaser glide tests

The competition heats up: In preparing its Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle for glide tests in California this fall, Sierra Nevada unveiled it to the press yesterday.

This is essentially the test vehicle’s first public viewing since its one glide test, when the front landing gear did not deploy correctly and the vehicle was damaged during landing. Since the landing gears were not the gears being developed for the flight craft, and since the glide test itself went well, both the company and NASA considered that glide test to be a success.

It has now been refurbished for new tests in conjunction with the company’s contract to use Dream Chaser as a cargo ship for NASA.

GAO warns of more cost overruns for SLS/Orion

The Government Accountability Office today issued two reports, both of which said that the SLS and Orion programs are faced with more cost overruns and schedule delays.

The GAO found that cost overruns for Orion could be as high as $707 million and that work is “not being accomplished as scheduled.” It also found challenges with the capsule’s software and heat shield, and said that the space capsule’s cost and schedule “estimates are not reliable.”

Other than that, everything is peachy keen! These reports, (the Orion report is found here [pdf] and the SLS report here [pdf], especially the Orion one, also suggest that the first manned Orion mission, now scheduled for 2021, stands a good chance of being delayed again, possibly for two more years.

This just confirms what I have written in my soon-to-be published policy paper, Exploring Space in the 21st Century. In fact, I need to add these GAO reports to my sources!

NASA guesses SpaceX’s Dragon-Mars mission will cost $300 million

At a meeting of NASA’s Advisory Council yesterday a NASA official estimated that SpaceX will probably spend about $300 million on its Dragon mission to Mars.

Asked by the committee how much SpaceX was spending, Reuter indicated that the company’s investment was 10 times that of NASA. “They did talk to us about a 10-to-1 arrangement in terms of cost: theirs 10, ours 1,” he said. “I think that’s in the ballpark.” Given NASA’s investment, that implies SpaceX is spending around $300 million on Red Dragon.

SpaceX has not disclosed its estimated cost of the mission, or how it will pay for it. “I have no knowledge” of how the company is financing the mission, Reuter said when asked by the committee.

I suspect that the guess is significantly wrong. NASA is providing $32 million. SpaceX plans to charge customers $90 million for a single Falcon Heavy launch, which means its cost for that launch is likely half that, say $45 million. That adds up to $77 million. The cost for a Dragon capsule is not even close to $223 million, which is what remains if NASA’s guess is right, which based on this rough estimate I seriously doubt. I would bet that a single Dragon probably costs far less than $20 million. Remember, they are nothing more than basic manned capsules, and SpaceX is building enough of them to almost have an assembly line going.

So, let’s round up and say that the cost for the mission is really about $100 million (including NASA’s contribution). Other costs, such as the staff to run the mission for at least a year, will increase this cost, but not enough to bring the total to NASA’s guess of $300 million. I suspect that SpaceX will not spend anything close to $100 million of its own money for this Dragon mission to Mars.

All in all, this amount of investment seems reasonable, based on the scale of costs in the launch industry. And SpaceX’s willingness to invest some of its own money for this mission is probably wise. In publicity alone it is priceless.

The Lie that is Orion

Several weeks ago NASA put out one of its periodic press releases touting the wonders of the engineering the agency is doing to prepare for its future missions to Mars. In this case the press release described a new exercise device, dubbed ROCKY (for Resistive Overload Combined with Kinetic Yo-Yo), for use in the Orion capsule.

“ROCKY is an ultra-compact, lightweight exercise device that meets the exercise and medical requirements that we have for Orion missions,” said Gail Perusek, deputy project manager for NASA’s Human Research Program’s Exploration Exercise Equipment project. “The International Space Station’s exercise devices are effective but are too big for Orion, so we had to find a way to make exercising in Orion feasible.

As is their habit these days in their effort to drum up support for funding for SLS and Orion, the press release was filled with phrases and statements that implied or claimed that Orion was going to be the spacecraft that Americans will use to explore the solar system.

…engineers across NASA and industry are working to build the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket that will venture to deep space for the first time together…

…Over the next several years, NASA’s Human Research Program will be refining the device to optimize it not only for near-term Orion missions with crew, but for potential uses on future long-duration missions in Orion…

These are only two examples. I have clipped them because both were very carefully phrased to allow NASA deniablity should anyone question these claims. For example, in the first quote they qualify “deep space” as specifically the 2018 unmanned lunar test flight. And the second quote is qualified as referring to missions to lunar space. Nonetheless, the implied intent of this wording is to sell Orion as America’s interplanetary spaceship, destined to take us to the stars!

Don’t believe me? Then take a look at NASA’s own Orion webpages, starting with the very first words on their Orion Overivew page.
» Read more

Democrats add space language to platform

The Democrats have added language to their party platform that expresses support for NASA and continuing its funding.

It’s only a single paragraph filled with the typical blather we see in both parties’ platforms: We support it! It’s great! It’s for the children!. The last line however gives a sense of where they’d like to focus their funding:

We will strengthen support for NASA and work in partnership with the international scientific community to launch new missions to space.

Not surprisingly, if compelled to support space the Democrats see it mostly as a vehicle for increased international cooperation.

Despite my cynical analysis above, the fact that both parties feel compelled right now to express positions supporting the exploration of space is a sign indicating where the political winds are blowing. The excitement created by SpaceX’s low prices and successful vertical first stage landings has even reached into the thick skulls of politicians from both parties. Rather than mouth the Democratic half-century-old mantra that “We should solve our problems here on Earth before spending it in space” (first pushed hard by Ted Kennedy in a speech the night before Apollo 11 was launched to the Moon), Democrats have not only apparently concluded that this won’t sell anymore, they now feel it necessary to express support for space funding.

Now, if only we can convince them to stop wasting it on SLS we might actually build a thriving and competitive space industry, capable of doing it all.

Astronaut touts space at Republican convention

American astronaut Eileen Collins spoke last night at the Republican convention, calling for a renewal of the American space effort.

Her remarks were very short, essentially calling for an end to the American reliance on the Russians to get our astronauts into space. Her speech also differed from her prepared remarks in that she left out the part where she specifically endorsed Donald Trump.

According to a transcript of her prepared remarks provided by the GOP Convention to Syracuse University (her alma mater) and posted on the university’s website, however, the ending was supposed to be “We need leadership that will make America first again. That leader is Donald Trump. Thank you and God bless the United States of America.” Thus, although she did not read the line endorsing Trump, she did use his slogan “make America great again” instead of “make America first again” as in the prepared remarks.

The press will make a big deal about this, but I suspect that when it came time to say the words, Collins’ decades of training at NASA, where astronauts as government workers are specifically forbidden by the Hatch Act from lobbying for specific political candidates, took over. She clearly was supporting Trump. Habits just made it hard for her to become political, even though she is now retired from NASA.

What is important is that both she and Ted Cruz in their convention remarks both invoked the need for a vibrant American space effort, but both were vague about how to do it. Combining that with Trump’s already noted position, that we need a space effort but we also have to find ways to do this efficiently because the government has bigger priorities, suggests to me once again that, should Trump win, SLS and Orion will die quickly while commercial space will get a boost.

On a personal note, I am hoping that my policy paper, Exploring Space in the 21st Century, due out in about a month and focused very much on this precise issue, will land on these politicians’ desks at exactly the right moment, and help convince them to make what I think are the right decisions.

Reused Dragon cargo capsule to ISS within a year

The competition heats up: SpaceX hopes to launch a previously flown Dragon capsule to ISS sometime with the next year.

This fall, SpaceX plans to refly one of its landed Falcon 9 rockets for the first time — and a Dragon capsule should make history by launching on a repeat ISS resupply mission shortly thereafter, a NASA official and a SpaceX representative said during a postlaunch news conference Monday. “I think we’re looking at SpaceX-11,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s deputy manager of ISS utilization, referring to the 11th resupply mission the company will fly with Dragon and the Falcon 9. (Monday’s launch kicked off SpaceX-9.)

I had been wondering when SpaceX would try to reuse a Dragon, and had assumed the reason it hadn’t happened yet was partly because of NASA reluctance combined with the delays connected with the launch failure last year. Either way, it appears that NASA is now on board and that the company is beginning to gear up for that first reflight.

SLS engine shuts down prematurely during test

A static firing test of one SLS’s rocket engines, repurposed from the shuttle, ended prematurely on Thursday.

It appears there was “a minor issue with the test stand” that caused the early shutdown. Some history about the engine itself:

The test involved development Engine 0528, back in the test stand at Stennis for its first test firing in seven years. E0528 was last fired from the nearby A-2 stand on July 1, 2009, in the second-to-last Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) ground test for the Shuttle program. Now out of storage and ready to fire again, the Aerojet Rocketdyne engine is being used in a second series of tests of the RS-25 configuration that will fly on SLS.

This is a test program, so having things go wrong is not necessarily a problem, as the failure teaches you things you need to know. However, they aren’t supposed to be testing the test stand, they are supposed to be testing the engine.

Toilet failure on U.S. segment of ISS

According to this report, the American-built toilet on the U.S. part of ISS has broken down.

The story has few details, and is based on anonymous sources. Nonetheless, I suspect it is true, as the American toilet has had problems in the past, was originally designed for easy transport up and down from ISS on the space shuttle, and is thus difficult to repair in space.

NASA approves robot satellite refueling mission

The competition heats up: NASA has approved plans to launch Restore-L, a robot mission in 2020 to refuel a satellite.

In May, NASA officially moved forward with plans to execute the ambitious, technology-rich Restore-L mission, an endeavor to launch a robotic spacecraft in 2020 to refuel a live satellite. The mission – the first of its kind in low-Earth orbit – will demonstrate that a carefully curated suite of satellite-servicing technologies are fully operational. The current candidate client for this venture is Landsat 7, a government-owned satellite in low-Earth orbit.

This mission is being spear-headed by the division at the Goddard Space Flight Center that ran the repair missions to the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as the recent robotic refueling demonstrations on ISS. With the success of those demonstrations, NASA has obviously decided to move forward with an actual flight.

Video of fire experiment on Cygnus

NASA scientists have released videos of the fire experiment they ran on Orbital ATK’s Cygnus freighter last week after it was unberthed from ISS.

The videos are at the link. They are not as exciting or as interesting as I think everyone imagined. However, they do confirm that the sample burned for 8 minutes.

Europe announces a three month delay for Orion service module

Be still my heart: Delivery of the service module for NASA’s Orion capsule, being built by the European Space Agency, will be three months late due to engineering modifications.

Nico Dettman, head of ESA’s space transportation department, said the delay is partly a result of the fact that several components could not yet be assessed in the full critical design review and need more time to be integrated into the design. Dettman said another issue forcing the delay resulted from a reassessment by NASA of the stresses the service module needs to be capable of handling in orbit. These “in-orbit load” specifications have recently been tightened. But any design modifications will not affect the service module’s core structure, he said. “If it has an impact, it will be limited to the solar array wings, not the structure – nothing where flight hardware has been manufactured that we will have to touch,” Dettman said. “It’s a late modification, but not too late.”

Note that George Bush proposed Orion in January 2004. The first full up test flight, unmanned, is now scheduled for 2018. Thus, they only had 14 years to build this single capsule and service module.

It took NASA less than five years to build the first Apollo capsule and service module, and less than 8 years to fly seven to the Moon. Damn, it took the Allies less than four years to defeat Germany and Japan in World War II. Yet somehow the big government space programs of NASA and ESA can’t build a single manned capsule in less than 14 years.

Doesn’t anyone but me see something wrong with this picture?

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