Monthly Archives: April 2019

Trump & Democrats work out $2 trillion spending deal

The coming dark age: President Donald Trump and Congressional Democrats have come to a preliminary deal for spending an additional $2 trillion for “infrastructure.”

The dozen Democratic lawmakers in the meeting with the president called it a constructive start. They said Trump agreed that infrastructure investments should go beyond roads and bridges and include broadband, water systems, and enhancements to the electrical grid.

Democrats also put the onus on Trump to come up with a funding source, and said they would meet again in three weeks, when the president will present his ideas. The nation’s top business groups and labor unions support increasing the federal gasoline tax, currently 18.3 cents a gallon. It was last raised in 1993. [emphasis mine]

Everything about this deal illustrates the corruption and bankruptcy in Washington. They all think money falls from the sky like rain, and can be spent freely without any thought or discipline. Instead of looking for available cash to pay for this work, they will make a deal to spend the money, and hope new gas taxes will pay for it. They won’t, not by a long shot, and we will fall deeper into debt, even as we cripple the already handicapped citizenry with more taxes.

Worse, most of this spending is for local projects that should be paid for by local governments, as had once been the tradition. Now every Senator and Congressperson is making deals to bring federal cash back to their state or district, even if the federal government doesn’t have the money. And Trump is joining in the game, to win votes and claim he helped rebuild the country! No one mentions that we are going bankrupt, including the bankrupt press which joins the politicians in playing this gamel.

The politics of this deal also illustrate the corruption that is rotting the heart of the country. Too many voters cheer this wild spending on, voting for these very politicians because they bring home this bacon, even though it is bacon no one can afford. It is why the politicians spend the money. They benefit from it at the voting booth.

A dark age is coming. Be aware.

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SpaceX successfully tests core stage for June Falcon Heavy launch

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has successfully completed a static fire test of the core stage that it will use in its next Falcon Heavy commercial launch, now set for June.

This launch will be for the Air Force, and will place 23 satellites into a variety of different orbits. It will also help the Air Force certify the Falcon Heavy for future military launches.

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Firefly completes full duration test of second stage engine

Capitalism in space: Firefly Aerospace has successfully completed a full duration static test fire of the second stage engine of its Alpha rocket.

During the test, all of the second stage’s flight avionics, structures, and propulsion systems were subjected to a sustained firing consistent with a normal flight mission. According to Firefly, preliminary analysis of data from the test show that all of the rocket’s systems performed nominally, and a post-test inspection revealed no observable degradation of the stage systems.

Firefly is attempting to complete development of its Alpha rocket, which has a capacity of up to 1 ton to low-Earth orbit, for a launch by the end of this year from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The company could reach another milestone as early as August, when Firefly anticipates performing the first long-duration test of the Alpha rocket’s first stage.

If the company succeeds in completing an orbital launch by the end of 2019, they will have leaped from the back of the pack to become one of the leaders in the smallsat rocket industry, in an incredibly short time. The company was thought dead in 2016 after a lawsuit appeared to bankrupt it. Since then it obtained significant new capital and has risen from the ashes, at a speed that appears astonishing.

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Partial power outage on ISS today delays Dragon cargo mission

A partial power failure on the International Space Station has forced NASA to delay for at least two days the Dragon cargo mission that had been scheduled to launch early tomorrow morning.

The delay will allow time for NASA flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to continue troubleshooting an issue with a distribution box in the space station’s electrical power system. Engineers detected an issue with the Main Bus Switching Unit on Monday morning, and ground teams plan to replace the component later this week, ahead of the SpaceX cargo launch. “Teams are working on a plan to robotically replace the failed unit and restore full power to the station system,” NASA said in a statement Tuesday. “The earliest possible launch opportunity is no earlier than Friday, May 3.”

The Main Bus Distribution Unit is one of several that routes power from the space station’s U.S. solar arrays to the research outpost’s electrical channels. The suspect unit distributes power to two of the eight electrical channels on the station, including a power supply for the space station’s robotic arm, which the station astronauts will use to capture the Dragon cargo craft as it approaches the complex.

While the robotic arm remains powered through a separate channel, NASA flight rules require redundant power supplies for the arm during critical operations, such as the grapple of a free-flying spacecraft.

Since the cargo Dragon freighter is berthed to the station using the robot arm, they want to get this fixed before launching Dragon. Right now the new launch date will occur no earlier than the wee hours of Friday, May 3.

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Lunar eclipse meteorite hit the Moon at almost 38,000 mph

By analyzing the data obtained of the meteorite impact that hit the Moon during the January 21 lunar eclipse, astronomers now estimate it crashed into the surface at almost 38,000 miles per hour and would have produced a crater about 50 feet across.

They also estimate that the meteorite itself had a mass of about 100 pounds with a diameter of between one to two feet.

The new crater itself has not yet been spotted, and probably can only be photographed with the high resolution camera on Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). I expect the LRO science team has already scheduled observations for this location. It will be interesting to see if the actual crater corresponds to the estimates of these astronomers.

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A stellar interloper in the Milky Way?

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers have identified a star inside the Milky Way whose chemical compositions suggests it was formed and originally came from a nearby dwarf galaxy.

This is the first discovery of a star having such extreme abundance ratios among Milky Way stars. On the other hand, several examples of stars having similar abundance ratios are known in dwarf galaxies. This result suggests that this star has formed in a dwarf galaxy, and has accreted onto the Milky Way in the process of galaxy formation. The abundance ratios of this star provide the clearest signature of merger events of dwarf galaxies in stellar chemical abundances known to date.

Though presently unique, this star probably is not the only such interloper in the Milky Way. It is believed by astronomers that our galaxy has absorbed a number of dwarf galaxies as it formed and grew, so we should expect more such stars to be discovered with time.

At the same time, we also must exercise some skepticism. Our understanding of galaxy formation is very preliminary, and thus the astronomers might be assuming too much about the chemical composition of dwarf galaxies in coming to this conclusion.

Posted at Los Angeles Airport on my way to Cannon Beach, Oregon, for a short vacation with friends.

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Barry Humphries – Dame Edna Everage

An evening pause: Hat tip Jim Mallamace, who explains, “Australian comedian, Barry Humphries, is Dame Edna Everage.” This appearance was on the Michael Parkinson Show in Australian in 2004, and included actors Judi Dench and Sharon Osborne.

This is what great comedy is. Many of the lines really make no sense, or are dated about things you might not know anything about, but you laugh anyway because Humphries is just plain funny, and has magnificent timing.

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Curiosity second drill hole in clay formation a success

two drill holes in clay formation
Click for full image.

The Curiosity science team has confirmed that their second drill hole in the clay formation that the rover is presently exploring was a success.

They have confirmed that enough material from the drill hole has been deposited in their chemical analysis hopper.

The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows both drill holes on the two different flat sections of bedrock near the top.

It seems that the science team wants to spend a lot of time in this location, as described in my last rover update. It is therefore unclear when they will move south to follow their long term travel plans.

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Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 awaken for fifth lunar day

The new colonial movement: China’s lunar lander Chang’e-4 and rover Yutu-2 have been awakened to begin work for their fifth lunar day on the far side of the Moon.

According to the report from this official Chinese government news source, Yutu-2 has now traveled just under 600 feet from the lander. We know from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) images taken during the rover’s second lunar day of travel that it had moved to the west, but we don’t really know much else beyond that. LRO has not released any new images, and the Chinese have not told us.

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Settlement reached in lawsuit about private lunar mission

A lawsuit filed in 2017 by a man who had paid Space Adventures a $7 million deposit for a ticket to fly on a Soyuz rocket around the Moon has now been settled

McPike, an Austrian businessman and adventurer who lives in the Bahamas, filed the original suit in May 2017, seeking the return of a $7 million deposit he paid to Space Adventures for a $150 million seat on a Soyuz mission that would go around the moon, and additional damages. The defendants in the suit included Space Adventures; Tom Shelley, the company’s president; and Eric Anderson, the company’s chairman and chief executive.

According to McPike’s suit, he contacted Space Adventures in July 2012 about the possibility of flying on a mission around the moon that the company had been promoting for several years. In March 2013, he signed an agreement committing to participate in such a mission, and paid an initial deposit of $7 million towards the $150 million total price with the expectation that the mission would take place within six years.

McPike was scheduled to make a second deposit of $8 million one year after contract signing, but he postponed that because of concerns he had regarding the limited progress on developing the mission, including lack of information from the Russian companies and agencies that would carry out it. Space Adventures terminated the agreement in March 2015 after McPike failed to make that payment and retained his $7 million deposit.

According to his suit, McPike later contacted the Russian space agency Roscosmos directly, and was informed that, contrary to the contract he signed, there was no formal relationship between the agency and Space Adventures for a circumlunar mission, that that the proposed mission was only in the “preliminary planning phase” along with several other future projects.

The details of the settlement were not released.

The article also provides near the end a nice summary of all recent private attempts to fly humans around the Moon, including SpaceX’s now ongoing plan to fly a Japanese businessman in 2023 using its Starship upper stage.

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FCC approves SpaceX’s Starlink constellation

Capitalism in space: The FCC has approved SpaceX’s revised plan for its Starlink satellite constellation designed to provide global internet access.

SpaceX already had authorization for 4,425 Starlink satellites that would use Ku- and Ka-band radio spectrum to beam internet data, but last November, the company asked the FCC to sign off on a plan that would put more than a third of the satellites in 550-kilometer-high (340-mile-high) orbits rather than the previously approved 1,150-kilometer (715-mile) orbits.

Eventually, SpaceX plans to add another wave of more than 7,500 satellites in even lower orbits to enhance the constellation’s coverage.

They hope to begin launching their first set of satellites by May, and begin commercial operations as early as 2021.

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Two Chinese companies test reusable rocket technology

Link here.

One company, Space Transportation, tested on April 22 a design for launching its first stage vertically and then landinf it on a runway.

The joint flight was to test the performance of the dual waverider forebody configuration designed by Xiamen University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and to verify the rocket recovery and reuse technology, according to Xinhua. The 8.7-meter-long Jiageng-1 has a wingspan of 2.5 meters and part of development of the larger, future Tianxing-I-1 vertical takeoff, horizontal landing reusable launch vehicle.

Beijing-based Space Transportation, founded in August 2018 and also known as Lingkong Tianxing, received backing worth several million U.S. dollars from Source Code Capital earlier this year. [emphasis mine]

The second company, Linkspace, did on April 19th a untethered vertical take off and landing of a small prototype first stage, getting about 130 feet off the ground.

The highlighted words above are intriguing. I did not think it was legal for American investors to invest in Chinese rocket companies.

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NASA safety panel on SLS schedule, Dragon explosion

NASA’s safety panel held a long scheduled meeting to review NASA’s on-going manned projects, and had the following to say:

The first story describes very little new information about the explosion on April 20th that destroyed the Dragon crew capsule during engine tests, other than it occurred in connection with the firing of the Dragon’s eight SuperDraco engines. I am being vague because they were.

The second story describes the panel’s strong objection to any effort by NASA to trim the test program for SLS in order to meet the Trump administration’s 2024 deadline for returning to the Moon. It also confirms officially for the first time that NASA will not be able to fly the first unmanned mission of SLS in 2020. That flight is now expected in 2021, a decade after NASA began development of SLS, and seventeen years after George Bush Jr first proposed NASA build this heavy-lift rocket.

That’s practically one person’s entire career at NASA. Seems pretty shameful to me.

While I actually agree with the panel’s advice in both of these stories, both stories however do reflect the overall culture of this safety panel: Go slow, take no risks, be patient. This culture is in fact so cautious that it has served to practically make impossible any American exploration of space, on our own rockets.

Based on what I expect now during the investigation of the Dragon explosion, I would not be surprised if the panel successfully delays the first manned Dragon launch another year or two or three.

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ISRO delays Chandrayaan-2 to July

An unnamed official at India’s space agency ISRO has revealed that they have decided to further delay its lunar lander/rover Chandrayaan-2 until July following the landing failure of SpaceIL’s Beresheet on the Moon.

“We saw Israel’s example and we don’t want to take any risk. Despite Israel being such a technologically advanced country, the mission failed. We want the mission to be a success,” he said.

The launch of India’s Moon mission was scheduled in April but it was postponed after Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft crashed during moon landing early this month. The ambitious mission was a first for a private effort.

“Landing on the Moon is a very complex mission and all the exigencies have to be factored in,” the official added.

No reason was given for the delay, other than a desire to be cautious. While caution is often a wise thing in experimental engineering, too much caution can be a fatal flaw. Chandrayaan-2 was originally scheduled for launch in the first quarter of 2018. It has now been delayed repeatedly since then, with the only hint of a reason being an unconfirmed story suggesting it was damaged during ground tests.

If this damage is the reason, then ISRO should tell us. Otherwise, the agency is beginning to look like it is afraid to fly.

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The new man-made crater on Ryugu

Man-made crater on Ryugu

The Hayabusa-2 science team has released before and after images of the spot on Ryugu where the spacecraft’s explosive projectile caused the creation of a small crater.

On the left above is the before, with the new crater indicated by the circle on the right. Note the rocks in both pictures, some now partly covered with debris. They did not give a scale, but this is a very small area, probably less than a few feet across.

They now need to analyze whether they can safely touchdown at this spot and grab a sample.

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New Hubble data baffles cosmologists about universe’s expansion rate

The uncertainty of science: New and very firm data from the Hubble Space Telescope on the universe’s expansion rate conflicts with just-as-firm data obtained by Europe’s Planck astronomical probe.

According to Planck, the present universe should be expanding at a rate of 67 kilometers per second per megaparsec. According to Hubble, the actual expansion rate is 74 kilometers per second per megaparsec.

And according to the scientists involved, both data sets are reliable and trustworthy, leaving them baffled at the difference.

“This is not just two experiments disagreeing,” explained [lead researcher and Nobel laureate Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland.] “We are measuring something fundamentally different. One is a measurement of how fast the universe is expanding today, as we see it. The other is a prediction based on the physics of the early universe and on measurements of how fast it ought to be expanding. If these values don’t agree, there becomes a very strong likelihood that we’re missing something in the cosmological model that connects the two eras.”

Ya think? Any cosmologist who claims we really understand what is going on, based on our present fragile and very limited knowledge, is either fooling him or herself or is trying to fool us.

I should note that there seems to be an effort, based on the press release above as well as this second one, to downplay the amount of uncertainties that exist in this cosmological work. Both releases fail to note that when scientists announced their first expansion rate estimate from Hubble’s first data back in 1995, those scientists claimed with absolute certainty that the expansion rate was 80 kilometers per second per megaparsec. At the time some scientists, led by the late Allan Sandage of the Carnegie Observatory, disputed this high number, claiming the number could be as low as 50. Some even said it could be as low as 30 kilometers. Sandage especially found himself poo-pooed by the cosmological community for disputing that the 80 number pushed by Hubble’s scientists in 1995.

In the end, the Hubble scientists in 1995 were closer to today’s Hubble number than Sandage, but his estimate was not wrong by that much more, and he was right when he said the number had to be lower. Either way, Hubble’s modern estimate of 74 for the present expansion rate is very well constrained, and is a far more trustworthy number than previous estimates.

However, do we know with any reliability what the expansion rate was billions of years ago? No. Cosmologists think it was faster, based on supernovae data, which is where the theory of dark energy comes from. It is also where Planck’s predictions come from.

That early expansion rate, however, is based on such tentative data, containing so many assumptions and such large margins of error, that no serious scientist should take it too seriously. It suggests things, but it certainly doesn’t confirm them.

This is why their faith in the numbers derived from Planck puzzles me. It is based on a “prediction,” as Riess admits in the quote above, which means it is based on a theoretical model. It is also based on that very tentative early supernovae data, which makes it very suspect to me.

The Hubble data is real data, obtained by looking at nearby stars in a very precise matter. Its margin of error is very small. It contains only a few assumptions, mostly involving our understanding of the Cepheid variable stars that Hubble observed. While skepticism is always called for, trusting this new Hubble data more is perfectly reasonable.

In the end, to really solve this conflict will require better data from the early universe. Unfortunately, that is not something that will be easy to get.

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DOJ settles with company that faked tests which caused two Taurus launch failures

The Justice Department has reached a settlement with the company that had faked test results which caused faulty components to be installed on Orbital ATK’s Taurus rocket, eventually causing two consecutive launch failures.

SPI agreed to plead guilty to one count of mail fraud while SEI entered into a deferred prosecution agreement. SPI will pay $34.1 million in combined restitution to NASA, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and commercial customers, and forfeit $1.8 million in “ill-gotten gains.” The company will also pay an additional $6 million to NASA and $5 million to MDA as part of a separate civil settlement.

The companies acknowledged that SPI altered test results for nearly two decades, starting in the mid-1990s, such that aluminum extrusions that had failed mechanical properties testing instead appeared to have passed. Dennis Balius, a testing lab supervisor at SPI who led the effort to falsify test results for a number of years, pled guilty on separate charges in 2017 and was sentenced to three years in prison.

Those aluminum components were sold to a number of companies, including those who had contracts with NASA and MDA. The Justice Department statement noted that the components were used in frangible joints in launch vehicles and missiles. Such joints are used in vehicle separation systems.

“NASA maintains that SPI’s manufacturing processes lacked sufficient controls and produced extrusions unable to pass mechanical properties testing,” the Justice Department stated. “NASA further maintains that it identified SPI’s out-of-specification extrusions as the cause of two failed rocket launches, which resulted in the loss of important scientific missions.” SPI disputed those claims, although NASA has barred the company from contracting.

The worst part of this story is that it likely ended up destroying Orbital ATK, an innocent party to this fraud. Though the company lives on now as a division within Northrop Grumman, it never quite recovered from the two Taurus launch failures in 2009 and 2011. Customers went elsewhere, and the company’s launch business dried up. The only customer Orbital ATK was able to muster afterward was NASA, and the number of launches this provided was not enough, causing company’s eventual absorption by Northrop Grumman.

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Hayabusa-2 confirms man-made crater on Ryugu

In a planned fly-over of Ryugu yesterday Hayabusa-2 took its first direct images of the location where it had fired an explosive projectile and thus confirmed the creation of a man-made crater by that projectile.

“The asteroid’s terrain has clearly been altered,” said Yuichi Tsuda, an associate professor at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Hayabusa2, which began its descent toward the asteroid Wednesday afternoon, captured images of its surface to determine the existence of the crater after it successfully shot a metal projectile at Ryugu on April 5 in an experiment deemed the first of its kind.

According to the JAXA, the probe photographed the area hit by the projectile from a distance of 1.7 km. The agency compared images of the asteroid’s surface before and after the shooting of the projectile to determine the presence of a man-made crater.

They have not yet released any of these images. They will use them however for planning a touchdown and sample grab within this crater in next few months.

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Another spectacular landslide found on Mars

Landslide in Hydraotes Chaos
Click for full image.

Cool image time! In perusing the April image release from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I came across the image above, cropped and reduced to post here, of the discovery of another landslide within Hydraotes Chaos, one of the largest regions of chaos terrain on Mars. The image above was taken on February 9, 2019, and has since been followed up with a second image to create a stereo pair.

This is not the first landslide found in Hydraotes Chaos. I highlighted a similar slide on March 11. Both today’s landslide as well as the previous one likely represent examples of gravitational collapses as shown in this science paper about Martian ground water. Some scientists have proposed that Hydraotes Chaos was once an inland sea, and as the water drained away the loss of its buoyancy is thought to cause this kind of landslide at the base of cliffs and crater rims.

The past presence of water also helps explain the soft muddy look of this landslide. When this collapse occurred the material was likely saturated with water. Today it is most likely quite dry and hardened, but when it flowed it flowed like wet mud. Its size, almost a mile long and a quarter mile across, speaks to Mars’s low gravity, which would allow for large singular collapses like this.

Hydraotes Chaos itself is probably one of the more spectacular places on Mars. It sits at the outlet to Marineris Valles, shown in the image below. This gigantic canyon, which would easily cover the entire U.S. if placed on Earth, was the largest drainage from the large volcanic Tharsis Bulge to the west, where Mars’s largest volcanoes are located.
» Read more

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Hayabusa-2 has begun close fly-in of man-made crater

Hayabusa-2 has begun its fly-in of Ryugu to make its first close observation of the man-made crater it created on the asteroid’s surface on April 4.

The link takes you to the images downloaded in real time from the spacecraft’s navigation camera. New images appear approximately every thirty minutes. The approach has only just begun, so Ryugu remains somewhat small in the images. This will change as the day proceeds.

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Long March 5B to launch first Chinese station module in 2020

The new colonial movement: China today announced that the launch of the first module for its space station will take place in the first half of 2020 on the maiden flight of its Long March 5B rocket.

China also announced today that they will launch Chang’e-5, their lunar sample return mission, by the end of this year, followed in 2020 by a Mars probe. Both launches will require use of the Long March 5.

The 5B appears to be a redesigned version of the 5, which has launched twice but failed on its second launch in 2017. Since then all launches of the Long March 5 ceased, with hints in the press that the failure occurred because the rocket’s first stage engines had badly underperformed and required a complete redesign. This redesign caused significant delays in the launch of Chang’e-5, China’s space station, and its Mars probe.

Today’s announcements suggest that that engine redesign is probably complete, and that they are now ready to resume Long March 5 launches, including the upgraded and revised 5B.

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Starliner does first splashdown recovery tests

Capitalism in space: Though Boeing intends to bring its manned Starliner capsule down on land, it has begun water recovery tests of the capsule, working in conjunction with Air Force recovery teams, to prepare for the possibility that it might sometimes have to splashdown in the ocean.

While the article reviews the tests, it also contains this interesting piece of information:

While today’s test was the first in-water practice run for Starliner at sea rescue, it represents a much larger DoD commitment to space crew rescue operations – universal procedures that would be followed for Starliner, Dragon, and Orion.

During ascent for Starliner, Dragon, and Orion, the 304th Rescue Squadron will have two teams stationed along the east coast of the United States, one at Patrick Air Force Base (just South of the Cape) and the other in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Patrick team, Rescue 1, will be responsible for on-pad aborts that place a capsule in the water or for aborts in the first couple minutes of flight that place the capsule within a 200 nautical mile zone from the Cape.

After that distance is exceeded, the Charleston crew (Rescue 2) would be responsible for rescue of a launch-aborting crew vehicle anywhere else across the Atlantic.

The third team, stationed in Hawai’i, (also part of Rescue 2) would be responsible for any after-launch immediate landing need or off-nominal Station return contingency that places a Starliner or Dragon in the Pacific.

It appears that the responsibility for water recovery of American manned spacecraft has been taken over by the Air Force. Up until now SpaceX has performed its own water recovery for its unmanned cargo Dragon capsules.

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