Tag Archives: SpaceX

Update on the Falcon 9 launchpad explosion investigation

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article today describing the investigation into last week’s Falcon 9 launchpad explosion, noting especially how — despite participation by the FAA, NASA, and the Air Force — SpaceX will be entirely in charge of the investigation, in accordance with present law.

The article is clearly lobbying for a change, whereby the government would have more power in these investigations. I personally think a change would be a mistake, that the law as it is now is how it should be. It was their rocket that exploded. Their business model depends on their rockets not exploding. Thus, they have the greatest self-interest in fixing the problem. The other outside players might be helpful, but their presence can only in the long run make things more difficult and slow things down, without making anything better.

Arianespace offers to pick up SpaceX business

The competition heats up: In an effort to gain more business, Arianespace is offering to add an additional launch to its 2017 schedule for any satellite companies whose payload launch is being delayed by both SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launchpad explosion as well as a delay in Russian Proton launches due to its own technical issues.

In his remarks it seemed to me that the CEO of Arianespace was almost gloating.

In a Sept. 7 interview with France Info radio, Israel reiterated his confidence in what he portrayed as Arianespace’s more plodding, deliberative — and higher-cost — approach to launches when compared to SpaceX.

Arianespace does not want a reusable rocket for the moment, he said, because it’s not certain that reusability can reduce costs and maintain reliability. The Ariane 6 rocket, to operate starting in 2020, will not be reusable. The company also is wary of the Silicon Valley ethos that champions constant iteration, which he said has been a feature of Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX as well. “We think that the more a launch resembles the preceding launch, the better we are for our customers because we remain in the ‘explored domain’ where everything is understood,” Israel said.

In the short run he and Arianespace might benefit by this situation, but in the long run they will face a shrinking market share if they cannot lower the price of their rockets.

Update on Falcon 9 explosion

NASA and SpaceX have released detailed statements about Thursday’s Falcon 9 launchpad explosion, summarizing what is known at the moment as well as the state of the investigation.

Not surprisingly, the failure will cause delays in SpaceX’s upcoming plans as well as force the company to shift launches to a different launchpad that will not be ready until November.

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.

Falcon 9 explodes on launchpad

During a standard prelaunch static test firing today a Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launchpad.

Obviously, this will put a hold on all of SpaceX’s upcoming efforts.

  • Falcon Heavy: Since the explosion was almost certainly caused by a failure in the first stage, they will have to hold off that first Falcon Heavy demo launch scheduled for this fall, since it uses three first stages strapped together.
  • Reused Falcon 9: Similarly, the first launch of a recovered Falcon 9 first stage, also set for the fall, will likely have to be delayed until they determine what went wrong today.
  • Reused Dragon: NASA had indicated that one of the cargo missions to ISS next year would reuse a previously flown Dragon. Though this explosion has nothing to do specifically with Dragon, the capsule is launched with a Falcon 9, and thus cannot fly until this investigation is over.
  • Falcon 9: SpaceX had been attempting this year to up its launch rate to more than one per month. That will now not happen.
  • Red Dragon: SpaceX has said it plans to fly a test Dragon to Mars in 2018, the next launch window. While this explosion will delay the company’s plans over the next year, I expect SpaceX will not cancel that 2018 launch. They have enough time to investigate this failure and fix the cause without missing that window.
  • Elon Musk’s Mars speech: Finally, Musk is scheduled to make a major speech on September 26 at the International Aeronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico, outlining his company’s future plans to fly to Mars. He almost certainly will have to rewrite that speech.

This launchpad explosion is bad news for SpaceX but it is also very puzzling. I cannot remember the last time a rocket exploded on the launchpad during a static fire test. Failures have in recent years always occurred during the actual launch, when the rocket is flying and is thus exposed to large dynamic forces which can cause the engineering to go screwy. For a rocket to explode at the moment it ignites its engines suggests a very fundamental design fault, which seems unlikely considering the number of launches and static fires SpaceX has completed with the Falcon 9, including numerous prelaunch tests of the rocket’s first stage, both on the launchpad and at the company’s test facility in Texas prior to shipment to the launchpad.

Update: SpaceX has now said that the problem occurred near the rocket’s upper stage during fueling, prior to the actual ignition of the engines.

This news is both good and bad. The good news: It means that the failure had nothing to do with the much tested Merlin engines, which would have suggested a fundamental design flaw previously unseen. That is now clearly not the case. The bad news: The update suggests that the problem might be related to SpaceX’s high density, high pressure fueling, which by lowering the temperature of the tanks allows them to load more fuel and oxidizer. This novel approach, only introduced last year in order to give the rocket greater fuel capacity, might have a design problem that they had not anticipated.

First relaunch of Falcon 9 1st stage announced

The competition heats up: SpaceX and the Luxembourg satellite company SES today announced that the of SES 10 this fall will use one of the Falcon 9 first stages that has flown previously and been recovered. From the SES press release:

“Having been the first commercial satellite operator to launch with SpaceX back in 2013, we are excited to once again be the first customer to launch on SpaceX’s first ever mission using a flight-proven rocket. We believe reusable rockets will open up a new era of spaceflight, and make access to space more efficient in terms of cost and manifest management,” said Martin Halliwell, Chief Technology Officer at SES. “This new agreement reached with SpaceX once again illustrates the faith we have in their technical and operational expertise. The due diligence the SpaceX team has demonstrated throughout the design and testing of the SES-10 mission launch vehicle gives us full confidence that SpaceX is capable of launching our first SES satellite dedicated to Latin America into space.”

I also like how they call the used first stage “flight-proven.” This story notes that the insurance cost for the launch weren’t raised either.

The exact date has not yet been set, but it will be in the fourth quarter of 2016.

Dragon splashes down

The competition heats up: SpaceX’s most recently launched Dragon capsule today returned to Earth and was successfully recovered.

The Dragon is the only spacecraft flying today that can return large amounts of cargo to Earth.

Among the cargo brought back from space Friday were a dozen mice from a Japanese science experiment — the first brought home alive in a Dragon. Samples from mice euthanized as part of an experiment by pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly also were on board. Results were returned from an experiment that studied the behavior of heart cells in microgravity, and from research into the composition of microbes in the human digestive system, NASA said. Findings from both could help keep astronauts healthy during deep space exploration missions.

SpaceX to up its purchase of carbon fiber?

The competition heats up: A Japanese supplier of carbon fiber materials has announced that it and SpaceX are negotiating a multi-year deal worth possibly as much as $3 billion.

The multiyear deal with Tesla founder Elon Musk’s 14-year-old venture is estimated to be worth 200 billion yen to 300 billion yen ($1.99 billion to $2.98 billion) in total. The two sides are aiming to finalize the agreement this fall after hammering out prices, time frames and other terms. SpaceX aims to hold down expenses by re-using rockets and spacecraft. Originally, the company made rockets mostly out of aluminum to keep costs low, using carbon fiber only for a few parts, such as connecting joints.

The U.S. company said in a statement, “Toray is one of a number of suppliers we work with to meet our carbon fiber needs for Falcon rocket and Dragon spacecraft production, and we haven’t announced any new agreements at this time. As our business continues to grow, the amount of carbon fiber we use may continue to grow.”[emphasis mine]

The deal is not yet final, but the highlighted language above suggests to me that, based on SpaceX’s engineering tests of its recovered first stages, it has decided it is worthwhile replacing aluminum with carbon fiber for many more of its rocket parts. The fiber might cost more, but if the first stage is going to be reused, the cost can be distributed over several launches. And because carbon fiber is lighter than aluminum, it will allow their rockets to launch a larger payload.

SpaceX launches another satellite and recovers another Falcon 9 first stage

The competition heats up: SpaceX this morning successfully put another satellite in orbit while also recovering another Falcon 9 first stage.

Posted from the south rim of the Grand Canyon, after hiking out today. More on that later, when I am not so beat and have the energy to write.

SpaceX prepares to test its next generation rocket engine

The competition heats up: SpaceX’s first Raptor rocket engine has now been built and has been shipped to the company’s test facility in Texas to begin testing.

The Raptor is SpaceX’s next generation of rocket engine. It may be as much as three times more powerful than the Merlin engines that power its Falcon 9 rocket and will also be used in the Falcon Heavy rocket that may fly in late 2016 or early 2017. The Raptor will power SpaceX’s next generation of rocket after the Falcon Heavy, the so-called Mars Colonial Transporter.

Although official details regarding the Raptor engine remain scarce, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has suggested the engine will have a thrust of about 500,000 pounds, roughly the same power as a space shuttle’s main engines. Whereas the shuttle was powered by three main engines and two booster rockets, however, it is believed the large rocket SpaceX uses to colonize Mars would likely be powered by a cluster of nine Raptor engines.

Like I said in my previous post, the rest of this decade should be very exciting in space, and that excitement will have be because of private enterprise and freedom, not NASA’s fake mission to Mars, with Orion.

ULA and SpaceX to compete for GPS launch

The competition heats up: ULA and SpaceX will likely face-off for the right to launch the Air Force’s next GPS satellite.

SpaceX won the last GPS launch with an unopposed bid of $83 million. ULA has said that their average price for an Air Force launch under the EELV program has been $225 million. I suspect that their bid here will be significantly less than that.

SpaceX test fires one of its recovered first stages

The competition heats up: SpaceX has completed a full duration test firing of one of its recovered first stages.

The JCSAT-14 stage [which was the third recovered stage and the second to land on a barge] isn’t expected to fly again due to the initial evaluations into damage received via its high-velocity return. However, it will still provide useful test data. “Most recent rocket took max damage, due to very high entry velocity,” noted Elon Musk. “Will be our life leader for ground tests to confirm others are good.”

That testing on the JCSAT-14 booster began on Thursday, with the stage placed on the test stand at McGregor – ironically after the stand was vacated by the JCSAT-16 first stage – which recently completed testing and has since been shipped to Florida for its launch next month. The returned stage is also sported a new cap, which may be providing some simulated weight to aid the required data gathering during the test firing.

The booster conducted a long firing of 2 minutes 30 seconds (the duration of first stage flight), that began around 7pm local time on Thursday (per L2 McGregor), which will provide vital data on the returned stage as SpaceX continue preparations for validating one of its recovered booster for a re-launch later this year.

It is once again important to point out that SpaceX’s engineers here have an enormous advantage over every other rocket engineer who has ever lived. They have in hand a recovered first stage that was actually used to launch a satellite into orbit, giving them the ability to test it and find out precisely how such equipment fares during launch. This will give them the ability, unavailable to others, to make engineering improvements that will make future first stages even more reliable and reusable.

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.

New rocket company raising investment capital

The competition heats up: Two former employees of SpaceX and Blue Origin have teamed up to start their own rocket company, aimed at using 3D printing technology to build rockets “with zero human labor.”

The funding rounds are described in two documents filed in May and this month with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The first filing reports that $1.1 million in equity was sold to investors. The second filing serves as a new notice of $8.4 million in equity sold, out of a $9.6 million offering.

The filings indicate that Relativity Space is based in Seattle, but in response to an email inquiry, the company declined to say anything further about its location, its business plan or its investors. “We are entirely in stealth mode and will comment more when we are ready,” the company said.

New companies come and go, but the fact that the guys in charge of this come from these two companies, and have already raised significant investment capital, suggests attention should be paid.

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.

SpaceX seeks two more pads for returning 1st stages

The competition heats up: SpaceX is asking for permission to establish two more landing pads so that it will have the capability of landing three first stages all within minutes of each other.

“SpaceX expects to fly Falcon Heavy for the first time later this year,” the company said in a statement responding to questions. “We are also seeking regulatory approval to build two additional landing pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. We hope to recover all three Falcon Heavy rockets, though initially we may attempt drone ship landings” at sea.

This news suggests two things: 1. The first Falcon Heavy launch is definitely coming soon. 2. They are going to try to return all three 1st stages during that first launch.

Another successful Falcon 9 launch

The competition heats up: SpaceX has successfully launched a Dragon freighter to ISS.

As importantly, they have also landed the first stage successfully in Florida. At this point, they are demonstrating that they have the basics of this task down pat, and can now reliably return that first stage on practically every mission.

Next step: Reuse a first stage, coming later this year.

SpaceX chooses recovered first stage to reuse

The competition heats up: SpaceX has chosen as the first Falcon 9 first stage to reuse the one that was the first to land successfully on a barge on April 8.

Though they have not announced the mission it will fly, I strongly suspect it will be one of the two SES communications satellites scheduled to launch in the fall. SES has already said they want to buy a launch using a re-used first stage, and the two SES satellites scheduled for the fall have some redundancy between them.

Iridium’s next generation constellation of satellites

The competition heats up: Iridium prepares the first 10 of a total of 81 new satellites for launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in September.

The Iridium Next program is a $3 billion investment by Iridium, according to Matt Desch, Iridium’s chief executive officer. Iridium’s purchase of 81 satellites represents approximately $2.2 billion of that cost, Desch said, and the company’s launch contract with SpaceX for seven Falcon 9 flights was valued at $492 million when the parties signed it in 2010. That was the largest commercial launch contract in history until last year’s 21-launch order by satellite Internet provider OneWeb with Arianespace.

The first 10 Iridium Next satellites will fly on a Falcon 9 rocket in September, followed by a second launch as soon as December with the next batch. Iridium managers will give the go-ahead for the second launch once the first 10 satellites finish initial in-orbit tests, Desch said. The other five launches should occur about once every two months next year to fill out the Iridium Next fleet 485 miles (780 kilometers) above Earth. Iridium’s contract with SpaceX calls for all the missions to fly on newly-built Falcon 9s, a situation unlikely to change any time soon since insurance arrangements for the initial launches have been finalized.

But Desch said he is open to purchasing reused Falcon 9 boosters in the future “if they’re the right price.”

To meet this schedule SpaceX’s launch schedule will have to ramp up considerably from its present rate of one launch about every three weeks.

Airbus Safran merger completed

The competition heats up: The expected merger of Airbus and Safran to create a rocket company called Airbus Safran Launchers is expected to be finalized today, allowing the new company to move forward in its construction of Ariane 6, designed to compete with SpaceX’s lower cost rockets.

SpaceX’s first stage teaches them how to land on Mars

The competition heats up: This update on the status of SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule also provides this interesting detail about the engineering knowledge gained from the company’s effort to vertically land its Falcon 9 first stages:

The company is also using the propulsive landings as a way to practically and physically test landing systems in a near-Mars atmospheric environment. “Earth’s upper atmosphere is also a really good analogue for Mars’ atmosphere,” noted [Garrett Reisman, Director of Space Operations]. “When you get up high enough, the density and consistency of the atmosphere is very similar to what you face during Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) on Mars. So every time we land, we take one of these rockets and we perform hypersonic retrograde propulsion, the data from which we’re sharing with JPL because it’s the first time this has ever been demonstrated on a major scale.”

To this end, Reisman pointed out that the Falcon 9 first stage landings are really serving as test beds for the EDL systems of eventual Mars missions. “Every time you see one of those rockets coming back, not only is it enabling a whole new paradigm for launching things into space, but it’s also bringing us one step closer to Mars.

As for Dragon, it now appears the company wants to do a full unmanned demo flight to and from ISS before it performs its launch abort test. They will then follow this with a manned demo mission to ISS. All three flights are planned for 2017.

Damaged Falcon 9 first stage returns to port

The remains of the damaged Falcon 9 first stage that tipped over during its barge landing last week returned to port this past weekend.

Video and images of it can be seen at the link, all of which suggest that there is a slight chance the engines might be salvageable. Regardless, SpaceX once again has valuable used space hardware that no one else has ever had which it can study to improve its future rocket designs.

Florida demands $15K port fee from SpaceX

Nice first stage you got there, be a shame if something happened to it: The Florida port where SpaceX has been offloading its recovered first stages from its barge has announced that it wants to charge the company $15,000 each time.

“We view their cargo passing over our dock just like any other cargo passing our dock,” Port Canaveral Chief Executive Officer John Murray said. “We’re not looking at this as an adversarial relationship. It’s no different than anything else coming across the dock. You have to pay for use of port facilities. That’s how a port makes its money.”

“The proposed wharfage fee is 14 times higher than what any other business is being charged for using port facilities,” SpaceX spokesman John Taylor said in an email to FLORIDA TODAY. “Port Canaveral is an important partner in our recovery operations. But we expect fees to be fair and reflect our actual use of the port. We’re looking forward to participating in the meeting later this week.”

The port notes that the size and the weight of the first stages cause significant wear and tear to the port, and thus should pay more. They have a point, but this still looks like they have noticed they have a customer with deep pockets that they now are trying to pick.

Posted from Linthicum, Maryland.

Exploring Space in the 21st Century

For the past two months I have been very focused on writing what I hope will be a somewhat influential space policy paper for the Center for New American Security, comparing the different approaches the federal government has taken in the past fifteen years toward encouraging a robust launch industry in the United States. Essentially the policy paper, Exploring Space in the 21st Century: How the American space effort since 2000, both private and public, is changing the global aerospace industry, compares the big government rocket launch programs like Orion/SLS and the Air Force’s EELV/ULA with the commercial rocket launch contracts that NASA has signed with companies like SpaceX, Orbital ATK, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada to get cargo and crews up and down from ISS.

The comparison is profound, and is devastating to the supporters of big government programs. Commercial space has literally accomplished ten times more in a third the time for a tenth the cost.

That bears repeating: Commercial space ($4 billion) cost one tenth that of Orion/SLS ($43 billion), took one third the time to go from concept to launch (5 years versus 15 years), and accomplished ten times more (22 rockets/capsules versus 2.5 rockets/capsules). In analyzing these numbers, I also took a close look at why the differences are so profound. Surprisingly, the high cost of Orion/SLS has little to do with its engineering challenges, nor is it caused by any significant overcharges by the contractors. The problem is more fundamental.

The paper also reviews the effect the competition introduced by SpaceX has had on the entire launch industry. Launch costs are dropping and innovation is increasing. This, combined with the lessons learned by NASA in commercial space, suggests that the future of getting into space looks quite bright indeed.

This policy paper should be ready for publication sometime in the next two months. On Monday, however, I will be part of a space policy panel at the Center for New American Security’s annual conference in Washington, DC., where I will give a short overview of my findings to a lot of major players in the upper echelons of the Washington elite community. Their response should be quite interesting.

Thus, I will be traveling to DC this weekend, and am not sure if I will be able to post much on Monday, since I very much wish to attend the entire day’s conference and listen to the other speakers, including Vice President Joe Biden. It is my plan to write about what I see once I get back.

Another successful Falcon 9 launch

The competition heats up: SpaceX has successfully put two commecial satellites in orbit. The first stage hit the barge, but the landing was unsuccessful. More details to come.

The full video of the entire launch is embedded below the fold. One interesting part includes a view from inside the first stage looking back at the second stage at separate, followed with images from the first stage on its way back to Earth..

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