Tag Archives: SpaceX

Musk’s Mars plan

Musk's Mars plan

Today Elon Musk gave a speech at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. The speech laid out SpaceX’s proposed architecture for building what he presently calls his interplanetary transport system. The image on the right is one of his talk slides, showing the basic concept, which is built around using the company’s new Raptor engine — still under development — which only got its first test firing this past week.

The plan is ambitious and visionary, which from Musk is not surprising. It is also aimed to be as practical and as cost effective as possible, which also is not surprising coming from Musk. The rocket itself will be larger than both the Saturn 5 and SLS, but not significantly more. Compared to those government rockets however it will be far cheaper and faster to build, though Musk’s hope that they will be launching their first test flights in four years is almost certainly too optimistic. The concept is to use what they have learned with the Falcon 9 to build a bigger rocket with a reusable first stage that launches a large second stage that is either the spaceship taking people to Mars or a giant tanker for refueling that spaceship.

In one of Musk’s early slides he noted something that I have been arguing for decades. “Speading the required lift capacity across multiple launches substantially reduces development costs and compresses schedule.” Though he is still proposing a heavy-lift rocket, he is also following in the footsteps of Wernher Von Braun by proposing that any Mars mission will require some assembly in orbit.

The plan is also aimed at making space travel as affordable as possible. Musk structured the design in as many ways as possible to make it as efficient and as inexpensive as possible. It still won’t be cheap, at about $140K per ton, but at that price it will be affordable to a lot of people. He also mentioned that it include free passage back to Earth.

I doubt we will see this system built as outlined today in the time span predicted by Musk. At the same time, I would not be surprised if we do see some variation of it, and see it built within the near future. In 2011 Musk proposed recovering his Falcon 9 first stages by landing them vertically. The idea seems radical. He got it done in four years. There is every reason to believe he will make this Mars proposal happen as well.

SpaceX update on launchpad explosion investigation

On September 23, SpaceX released an update outlining the status of its investigation into the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion.

The report noted the following:

  • The data points to “a large breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank” as the source of the explosion, though what caused the breach remains as yet unknown.
  • The cause of this failure and the previous launch failure in June 2015 are not related.
  • The report summarized some of the launchpad damage, noting that while the pad itself needs extensive repairs,

    …the Falcon Support Building adjacent to the pad was unaffected, and per standard procedure was unoccupied at the time of the anomaly. The new liquid oxygen farm – e.g. the tanks and plumbing that hold our super-chilled liquid oxygen – was unaffected and remains in good working order. The RP-1 (kerosene) fuel farm was also largely unaffected. The pad’s control systems are also in relatively good condition.

  • The report also noted that, “pending the results of the investigation, we anticipate returning to flight as early as the November timeframe.”

While this report suggests they have made some progress, the fundamental cause of the explosion remains unknown.

Federal agencies question establishment of SpaceX spaceport and three liquefied natural gas plants in Brownsville

Two federal agencies are questioning the safety of establishing three liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants near SpaceX’s new spaceport in Boca Chica, Texas.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is reviewing the applications for the LNG export terminals, which plan to take natural gas from the Eagle Ford south of San Antonio, liquefy it and export the LNG to overseas customers.

The Federal Aviation Administration hosted an Aug. 18 meeting to discuss space launch activities near the proposed LNG facilities, according to a FERC filing released on Thursday. During the meeting, FAA officials discussed their role and regulations regarding commercial space launches, as well as the agency’s licensing and public safety requirements prior to the launch of any future mission.

While it makes perfect sense to keep a rocket launchpad safely away from large amounts of liquefied natural gas, I found the article’s concluding paragraphs to be most revealing:

Meanwhile, environmentalists, who were critical of the SpaceX project and oppose the LNG plants, said the launch site is too close to the proposed export terminals. “This announcement should be a wake-up call and warning that putting LNG terminals within six miles of the SpaceX launch site is a bad idea,” Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club Chair Jim Chapman told the Business Journal. “Furthermore, Annova LNG wants to put its facility within the SpaceX launch closure area. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that idea won’t fly.” [emphasis mine]

Note how the environmentalists are essentially against everything. They really aren’t opposed to having these two facilities being placed too close to each other, what they really want is that nothing gets built at all. Most instructive.

SpaceX explosion will not effect its Air Force certification

The competition heats up: An Air Force official today said that, based on its ongoing experience with SpaceX during the investigation of its September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion, they do not expect any change in SpaceX’s certification that allows it to bid on Air Force satellite contracts.

The Air Force official also noted that the damage to the launchpad was “moderate” and was “definitely repairable.”

ULA announces new plan to speed up launches

The competition heats up: ULA today announced a new system for shortening the time from a customer’s initial launch contract to the actual launch of their payload.

The priorities of all of our customers include ensuring their spacecraft launches on schedule, securing the soonest possible manifest date and completing the mission with 100 percent success,” said Tory Bruno, ULA CEO and president. “To address these priorities, we have been working on this offering for more than a year, which allows our customers to launch in as few as three months from placing their order.”

It is very clear that this new system was inspired by the competition with SpaceX. It is also pretty obvious that they are making the announcement now in the hope they can grab some of SpaceX’s customers who are once again faced with delays because of the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion. It is also likely that SpaceX is pushing to get its next launch off by November in an effort to beat back ULA’s effort here.

Ain’t competition wonderful? It is so good, it will even get us to the stars.

SpaceX aims for November launch

The competition heats up: Despite the admitted difficulty of its investigation into its September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion, SpaceX today said that they are aiming to resume launches as soon as November.

“We’re anticipating getting back to flight — being down for about three months — and getting back to flight in the November time frame,” Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said Tuesday at an event in Paris. “We’ll obviously take another look at the rocket, focus on the ground systems.”

They have not said yet what payload they will launch, though it is clear that first launch will not be the Falcon Heavy demo launch, which has now been rescheduled for the 1st quarter fo 2017.

Some uncomfortable but valid thoughts about SpaceX

In the heat of competition: Doug Messier has written an excellent essay today raising some serious questions about SpaceX and its methods of operation.

The issues he raises go the heart of the company’s future. Moreover, he notes the unusual nature of the September 1 launchpad explosion that, unless explained, threatens the company business model.

The rarity of a satellite launch vehicle exploding during fueling had people racking their brains and scouring the Internet to find out the last time something like this happened. At least in the United States, that turned out to be more than 50 years ago when rocketry was in its infancy and accidents were much more frequent.

The lack of any modern precedents and the speed of the accident — Musk tweeted that engineers were reviewing around 3,000 channels of telemetry and video data that cover only 35-55 milliseconds — are making the investigation challenging. Musk has said it is the most difficult of the six failure investigations the company has conducted since it was founded in 2002.

Messier also takes a close look at SpaceX’s overall approach to innovation and development, and notes its unusual and somewhat risky nature.

Read it all. It provides valuable information for anyone who wants to understand honestly the state of the American launch industry.

Do you have video of the Falcon 9 explosion? SpaceX needs it!

In a series of tweets today Elon Musk put out a call for any videos anyone might have of last week’s Falcon 9 launchpad explosion.

“Still working on the Falcon fireball investigation. Turning out to be the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years,” Musk wrote. “Important to note that this happened during a routine filling operation. Engines were not on, and there was no apparent heat source. Particularly trying to understand the quieter bang sound a few seconds before the fireball goes off. May come from rocket or something else,” he said.

Musk also answered questions and responded to comments from the public. When Twitter user @ashwin7002 tweeted at Musk that “there are some videos on YouTube claiming something hit the rocket. Any reality there?” Musk replied, “We have not ruled that out.”

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.

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