Tag Archives: NASA

Software issues threaten Orion/SLS schedule

Despite having more than a decade to develop the software for SLS and Orion, NASA now faces the possibility that the rocket’s first test flight in 2018 might be delayed because that software is not ready.

Specifically, a NASA advisory board has revealed that Orion’s flight software is behind schedule and might not be ready in time. This, combined with schedule problems for the capsule’s service module, being built by the European Space Agency, threatens the 2018 launch date.

Orion faces more delays

Faced with looming schedule problems for Europe’s effort to build the service module for the Orion capsule, NASA has created a working group to attack the problem.

The European Service Module (ESM) element of Orion has been classed as a major schedule driver for the program for some time. The Service Module for Orion was originally going to be an all-American system, under the control of Lockheed Martin. However, a deal back in 2012 resulted in an alliance with the European Space Agency (ESA) to utilize hardware associated with its Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV).

The deal made sense. NASA’s goal of international collaboration is deemed to be an essential formula for spreading the costs and increasing the viability of NASA’s exploration goals, building on the success of the partnerships that built the International Space Station. Also, the ATV is proven technology, having already proved its worth via a string of successful resupply missions to the orbital outpost.

However, the challenge of combining the technology into what is essentially an American vehicle has resulted in schedule pressures.

Let me once again point out that Orion was first proposed by President George Bush in 2004. Its first official flight, with service module, is now scheduled for 2018. That means it took NASA 14 years to build and launch a unmanned single complete capsule, assuming they can get the service module built in time. That it took that long to build this is shameful. That there is even the slightest possibility that 14 years won’t be enough time to build the service module is downright disgusting, and is another illustration of the complete failure of the federal government.

Note that the previous unmanned Orion test flight in 2014 really doesn’t count. That capsule was a engineering test capsule, designed to test the capsule’s heat shield, even though NASA had already decided before the flight to abandon that heat shield design. In other words, it was a complete waste of money.

SLS schedule changes impending

NASA’s refurbishment plans for the mobile launcher and SLS launchpad suggest that the first manned flight of SLS is increasingly likely to be delayed from its present 2021 launch date.

The situation is complicated. The SLS configuration that will launch an unmanned capsule in December 2018 will use a Delta rocket upper stage, and will only have the capability of launching about 70 metric tons into low Earth orbit. After this one flight NASA wants to begin using SLS’s own upper stage, which it calls the Exploration Upper Stage and which will raise the rocket’s payload capacity to 105 metric tons. Because these changes will make SLS taller, however, they have to refurbish both the mobile launcher that brings the rocket to the launchpad as well as the launch tower used to fuel the rocket during countdown. These changes, now scheduled, will shut down the launchpad from January 2019 until the end of 2020.

The problem with doing this is that SLS’s second flight, presently scheduled in 2021, is supposed to be manned. To use the Exploration Upper Stage untested on this manned flight is something NASA doesn’t really want to do. Flying another unmanned flight to test that upper stage however will require NASA to delay the first manned flight again, probably to 2023.

Based on the article at the link above, those delays now seem almost certain. Because NASA is moving to refurbish the launchpad right after that first unmanned flight in December 2018, this means all later SLS launches will use the Exploration Upper Stage. Since Congress has also ordered NASA to fly its upcoming Europa orbiter mission on SLS, it seems to me that NASA is now quietly moving to add a second unmanned SLS test flight between the rocket’s first flight in 2018 and the first manned flight and will use it to launch the Europa orbiter some time in 2021. This will in turn delay the launch of that first manned flight, probably until 2023, a date that is presently listed in many NASA documents as the latest SLS’s first manned mission will fly.

If this is the case, it means that it will have literally taken NASA two decades to build and fly a single manned Orion capsule, beginning when George Bush ordered the construction of the Crew Exploration Vehicle in January 2004.

Does no one but me see something wrong here?

Clinton campaign outlines its space priorities

In an op-ed today, an adviser to the Hillary Clinton campaign outlined the space policy priorities that her administration would focus upon should she win the election.

Despite attempts to suggest these policies would be significantly different than the policies of Donald Trump, it seems to me that her focus would be quite similar to Trump’s. While the announcements from the Trump campaign have suggested his administration would consider more changes to space policy than Clinton, both candidates appear to be proposing only minor changes. With both, the private-public partnership of commercial space would be continued. With both, SLS/Orion will be reconsidered, and changed depending on the demands of Congress.

The only significant difference, based on today’s op-ed, is that a Hillary Clinton administration will likely devote significant NASA resources to the study of global warming, while Trump appears quite willing to slash this research, based on what appears to be data tampering for political reasons in both NASA and NOAA.

Two Trump advisers push for National Space Council

In a somewhat vague op-ed today, two Trump space policy advisers, former Congressman Robert Walker and University of California-Irvine professor Peter Navarro, recommend the re-establishment of the National Space Council to coordinate the U.S.’s civilian space effort.

Despite its importance in our economic and security calculations, space policy is uncoordinated within the federal government. A Trump administration would end the lack of proper coordination by reinstituting a national space policy council headed by the vice president. The mission of this council would be to assure that each space sector is playing its proper role in advancing U.S. interests. Key goals would be to would create lower costs through greater efficiencies. As just one example, a Trump administration will insist that space products developed for one sector, but applicable to another, be fully shared.

Here, it makes little sense for numerous launch vehicles to be developed at taxpayer cost, all with essentially the same technology and payload capacity. Coordinated policy would end such duplication of effort and quickly determine where there are private sector solutions that do not necessarily require government investment. [emphasis mine]

This analysis of the op-ed at SpacePolicyOnline.com gives some history of the National Space Council, as well as range of opinions about its usefulness.

Opinions in the space policy community about the value of such a Council run the gamut. Opponents argue it is just one more White House entity that can say “no” to any idea, but without the clout to say “yes” and make something happen. Supporters insist that a top-level mechanism is needed not only to effectively coordinate government civil and national security space programs, but to bring in the commercial sector and develop a holistic approach to space.

Walker and Navarro clearly share the latter opinion. They say the Council would “end the lack of proper coordination” and “assure that each space sector is playing its proper role in advancing U.S. interests.”

I however want to focus on the highlighted text above from the op-ed. This language appears to suggest that these advisers do not think it efficient for NASA to buy rockets and spacecraft from competing private companies, as it is doing with its cargo and crew ferries to ISS. If so, their advice will mean that a Trump administration will eliminate the competition that has been so successful in the past decade in lowering NASA’S costs and getting so much more done.

Yet, in the very next paragraphs Walker and Navarro say this:
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No more manned Soyuz purchased by NASA after 2019

The competition heats up: Both Boeing and SpaceX better get their manned capsules working by 2019, because NASA at this point has no plans to buy more seats on Russian Soyuz capsules after the present contract runs out.

Even as the commercial crew schedules move later into 2018, NASA officials say they are not considering extending the contract with Roscosmos — the Russian space agency — for more launches in 2019. The last Soyuz launch seats reserved for U.S. astronauts are at the end of 2018.

It takes more than two years to procure components and assemble new Soyuz capsules, so Russia needed to receive new Soyuz orders from NASA by some time this fall to ensure the spacecraft would be ready for liftoff in early 2019.

The second paragraph above notes that even if NASA decided it needed more Soyuz launches, it is probably too late to buy them and have them available by 2019.

NASA to offer port on ISS for private modules

The competition heats up: NASA to offer port on ISS for private modules.

Several companies have previously expressed an interest in adding a module to the ISS for commercial or NASA use. In April, Bigelow Aerospace said it had made an unsolicited proposal to NASA to add one of its B330 modules under development to the ISS. In August, the company received an award from NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) to study that concept in more detail.

Axiom Space, a company led by former NASA station program manager Mike Suffredini, announced in June plans to develop a commercial module that could be added to the station as a precursor to a standalone commercial space station. Suffredini said in July that his company planned to respond to the NASA RFI.

Another venture that received a NASA NextSTEP award in August was a consortium called Ixion, which includes NanoRacks, Space Systems Loral and United Launch Alliance. Ixion will study converting a Centaur upper stage into a commercial ISS module.

This confirms my belief that ISS will not be retired in 2024, but will slowly transition to private hands and will be steadily replaced by new private modules as old ones wear out.

Obama makes another empty space commitment

In an op-ed today, President Barack Obama made another one of those Presidential Kennedy-like space commitments, this time proposing that the U.S. send humans to Mars.

We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time. Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators, and we’re already well on our way. Within the next two years, private companies will for the first time send astronauts to the International Space Station.

Obama in his op-ed spends a lot of time claiming credit for the recent resurgence in the American space industry. Though his administration does deserve some of the credit, in that they continued and expanded the commercial space initiative first started in the Bush administration, the bulk of the credit here really must be given to the private companies that did the actual work. SpaceX and Orbital ATK took enormous financial risks to make their rockets and capsules fly. They made it happen, proving at last to a generation that had lost faith in private enterprise and freedom that relying on private enterprise and freedom really is the best way to do things.

Meanwhile, I would not take Obama’s proposal very seriously. We will have a new president in just a matter of a few months, and that president will make his or her own decisions. Moreover, it really won’t matter that much what that next president proposes anyway. The real story will be with private individuals and private companies, forging their own dreams as they search for ways to get into space in a profitable manner.

Suspicious climate data manipulation at NASA

The uncertainty of modern climate science isn’t merely because of the overall complexity of the data and the climate. Though there are numerous factors that contribute to the long term fluctuations of the climate that we do not yet completely understand or can quantify with any precision (the sun, dust, soot, volcanoes, carbon dioxide increase, to name just a few), there is a more tragic uncertainty that global warming scientists at NASA and NOAA have added to the mix, one that is entirely unjustified and harmful to the field of science and the questions that it is trying to answer.

In the case of this post, that tragic uncertainty has to do with sea level rise and the “adjustments,” without explanation, that NASA is making to its sea level data. Below is a graph taken from the link, showing the changes that have been made to published data from 1982 in order to eliminate a long period of almost no sea level rise from the mid 1950s through 1980.
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New NASA authorization bill introduced in Senate

A new NASA authorization bill was introduced in the Senate on September 15, calling for NASA to rethink its asteroid redirect mission as well as begin the process of shifting the operation of ISS from government to private enterprise.

Among [the bill’s policy provisions] is language regarding ARM, a mission that involves sending a robotic spacecraft to retrieve a boulder from a near Earth asteroid and place it in lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts. “It is the sense of Congress that the technological and scientific goals of the Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission may not be commensurate with the cost,” the bill states, referring to the robotic portion of ARM. Alternative missions, it says, “may provide a more cost effective and scientifically beneficial means to demonstrate the technologies needed for a human mission to Mars.” The bill directs NASA to evaluate alternative mission concepts to compare their scientific, technical and commercial benefits, as well as their costs, with ARM. That study would be due to Congress 180 days after the bill’s enactment.

The bill also addresses planning for the eventual end of the ISS in the 2020s, stating that there is a need for an “orderly transition” from the current NASA-led management of the station to “a regime where NASA is one of many customers of a low Earth orbit commercial human space flight enterprise.” That provision would require NASA to assess its needs for continued research in low Earth orbit after the ISS is retired, the existing and projected commercial capabilities to meet those needs, and steps NASA can take to stimulate both the supply of commercial facilities and demand for their use. The bill also calls on NASA to study an extension of the ISS “through at least 2028” to identify the technical issues, scientific benefits, and costs of such an extension.

The authorization also endorses SLS and Orion, which isn’t surprising considering that most of the Senators proposing this authorization come from states with big contracts for that boondoggle.

In recent years authorization bills have not meant that much. While they express the desires of some members of Congress, which does influence policy, their specifics are usually ignored in subsequent years. Nonetheless, the new focus here on private space suggests that the advantages of competition and private enterprise is finally beginning to leak into the tiny little brains of our elected officials. That they are still pushing SLS and Orion, however, shows that the leak is still tiny, and somewhat limited.

Give it time, however. Give it time. When private companies have begun regular launches of their big rockets, well before SLS completes its first manned flight, these legislators should finally realize what most people already know, that SLS and Orion is a complete waste of money.

Charles Bolden poo-poos private space

In remarks at a conference yesterday NASA administrator Charles Bolden expressed his distrust and lack of confidence in the ability of private companies to build large heavy lift rockets.

“If you talk about launch vehicles, we believe our responsibility to the nation is to take care of things that normal people cannot do, or don’t want to do, like large launch vehicles,” Bolden said. “I’m not a big fan of commercial investment in large launch vehicles just yet.”

…Despite the demonstrable efforts by both SpaceX and Blue Origin, Bolden nonetheless said that “normal people” cannot, or do not want to, develop large launch vehicles. What the administrator appears to be asserting here is that NASA is more special, or better, than those in the private sector when it comes to building rockets.

The article at the link notes the strangeness of Bolden’s remarks, especially since NASA itself has failed, despite repeated efforts, to build its own new rocket since the 1970s. The author also notes the high cost of SLS, though the numbers he cites — $13 billion to develop and build SLS — is actually about half the real cost, which will be about $25 billion to build two SLS rockets.

Bolden here illustrates the old way of doing things. He will be gone soon, however, and a new way will replace him, private, competitive, innovative, and fast moving, everything that NASA has not been in the past four decades.

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.
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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.

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