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Launch schedules impacted by shortages and delivery delays of oxygen/nitrogen

The launch dates of several upcoming launches have been pushed back because of a shortage of liquid oxygen, needed instead for medical purposes, which in turn has slowed deliveries of liquid nitrogen because trucks have been reassigned to delivering oxygen to hospitals..

The effects of a nationwide liquid oxygen shortage caused by the recent spike in hospitalized coronavirus patients has already delayed the launch of a Landsat imaging satellite by a week, and threatens to impact more missions from launch sites in Florida and California.

NASA said last week that the launch of the Landsat 9 satellite aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California would be delayed one week until no earlier than Sept. 23 due to a lack of liquid nitrogen at the military base. ULA uses gaseous nitrogen, which is converted from liquid nitrogen, for purges during testing and countdown operations.

The space agency said pandemic demands for medical liquid oxygen impacted the delivery of liquid nitrogen to Vandenberg.

SpaceX officials have also indicated that their launch schedule may be effected as well.

While the Wuhan flu is being blamed for this shortage, I think it is possibly more related to the rise in launches themselves. Such flu epidemics have happened in the past, causing similar spikes in hospitals, without causing delays in rocket launches. However, the U.S. this year has already almost doubled the number of yearly launches as had occurred during most of the 21st century. In addition, there are now numerous companies building and testing new rockets, all of which require liquid oxygen. The demand by rocket companies for such fuels is thus far higher than it has been for decades.

So, what is the solution? I just described it. The high demand will force the price up for liquid oxygen, which in turn will make it profitable for new providers to enter the market producing liquid oxygen to meet the new demand. It simply appears that at this moment the industry that produces these gases has been slow in reacting to its new demand.

We need only give the situation time and freedom to get solved and, most important, stay out of the way. Freedom and capitalism will solve the problem, as it always does.

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On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

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  • John

    Has LO2 production dropped from paying workers not to work, or covid shutdowns, or other supply chain problems induced by pandemic response?

    Exactly how much extra demand have hospitals required, and how does that compare to the giant tanks of the rocket industry?

    The article was clear that hospitals are overwhelmed and needing oxygen. We’ve heard the overwhelmed hospital narrative a lot. Be interesting to see the numbers.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “It simply appears that at this moment the industry that produces these gases has been slow in reacting to its new demand.

    Since the report also says that other trucks have been reassigned to deliver cryogenic gasses other than their usual deliveries, it suggests that the problem is also one of distribution and delivery. Not only do the manufacturers need to increase their production, they also need to increase their fleets of trucks.

  • Mike Borgelt

    How hard is it to build a LOx/LN2 plant near a company’s launch site?

  • Concerned

    I was also suspicious of the WuFlu excuse for the LOX shortages. Bob’s explanation makes much more sense.

  • commodude

    We must have a government solution to this problem. After all, we can’t have greedy capitalists gobbling up all the much needed oxygen and burning it, destroying it and denying its availability to those who truly need the life giving gas.

    I DEMAND Congressional action on this travesty immediately. A 5 year plan with a Hero project to ensure the needed supplies of oxygen for the masses needs to be implemented ASAP.

  • commodude




  • D. Messier

    Coronavirus is not the flu. It’s worse. The supply problems are not the result of a higher launch rate. Suppliers have been well aware of the plan to increase launches. Build more capacity and what happens when demand crashes when the pandemic ends? Over supply, low prices.

  • wayne

    I generally agree with Mr. Z., but I have my doubts about how “free” the market actually is.
    That aside, we DO have huge problems in our supply-chain, (for everything) for all the reasons John points out in his first post.
    — I spent the last 18 months up close & personal in the food-retailing business (I help train new-employees., which the Feds and our State fund); people have little idea how tenuous our food-supplies have become. The shelves might look full but your choice of selections has decreased dramatically. And…. price increases are being slowly rolled out across all products.

    India apparently has an oxygen distribution shortage going on as well (for the last 12 months or so), and their government has asked their steel industry, in particular, to limit usage to ensure medical supplies.

    Mike B–
    -two methods to industrially produce oxygen; air liquefaction and pressure-swing absorption (something like that) utilizing a catalyst. Both are electricity intensive, and both produce oxygen & nitrogen in the same ratio it occurs in the atmosphere.
    (Home-based oxygen concentrators mainly utilize an oxygen permeable membrane.)
    Companies that use a lot of oxygen face the classic “buy or build” equation.” The technology is well understood, and oxygen generating units are available in a wide range of production capabilities. It would be ‘easy’ to build a dedicated plant, but it wouldn’t necessarily be economical to do so.

    D. Messier–
    IIRC the current crisi is caused by coronavirus-19 (and its mutations) so… what about coronavirus’s 1 through 18?
    (Not being a jerk, I tried to look this up but that was useless. I am under the impression all flu viruses are coronaviruses but not all coronaviruses are flu, or vice versa.??)

  • wayne

    ah, here we go….

    Lex Fridman Podcast (September 1, 2021)
    Vincent Racaniello: Viruses and Vaccines
    (3:28:40 total)

  • Jeff Wright

    Commodude…that’s how we used to get license plates. Now power plants are close to water….so there is the TVAnswer. I have heard it is lack of truckers…and many of them are clueless foreigners I don’t want on our roads.

    Robert- it is the Just-in-time forget warehousing business model that is behind this shortage…just as the suits caused Boeing’s problems-and you want to trust those same suits now? No thanks.

    I’ll say this again: libertarianism like enviromentalism is the problem with crumbling infrastructure as proved by the Flint water crisis.

  • Mike Borgelt

    SpaceX is very vertically integrated. Producing their own on site LOx would seem to be a good investment to prevent shortages. If they have a natural gas well at Boca Chica they can run some of the gaseous methane through a gas turbine to produce the electricity to make the Lox and liquid methane . What’s not to like? Think of it as In Situ Resource Utilization. They are going to have to do it on Mars.

  • 10x25mm

    The space industry’s supply of LOX has traditionally been skimmed off of output destined for the steel industry. Most medical oxygen comes from membrane separators, not the cryogenic facilities which supply the steel industry.

    The destruction of BOF steelmaking capacity is the proximate cause of the oxygen shortage, not COVID-19 treatment.

    The space industry cannot use separator oxygen, due to argon contamination.

  • D. Messier

    There are no COVID 1-18, Wayne. 19 stands for 2019, the year it was identified. Don’t feel bad; Kellyanne whatshername thought the same thing. She was a top advisor to Trump.

  • wayne

    D. Messier-
    Thanks for that factoid, sans the trump attack

    Q: SARS-CoV-2 = “Covid-19.” What are the other SARS variants?
    Could you address this:
    “I am under the impression all flu viruses are coronaviruses but not all coronaviruses are flu, or vice versa.??”

  • A. Nonymous

    I’d like to second the call for SpaceX to produce fuel and oxidizer in-house. They’re going to have to do it anyways on Mars; it’s just a different set of chemical reactions when your feedstocks are methane piped in from Midland and O2 from an oxygen-rich atmosphere instead of mining ice or brine and sucking trace amounts of CO2 out of a thin atmosphere. They really need to learn the logistics, if for no other reason than because returning Starships to Earth allows them to be resupplied and sent back to Mars with a fresh load of colonists and cargo.

    The other difference is scale; on Mars, you only need enough fuel to fill the ship once every ~2 years, rather than multiple times per week. Of course, in the absence of small modular (and spaceworthy) reactors, your power budget is also limited to a few acres of solar panels…

  • We Are Borg

    Just a theory, but I think there’s something more insidious going on here.; let’s look at this problem from a different perspective.
    Imagine some nefarious dark force out there (won’t mention any names) trying to cripple, slow down, or even stop America’s growing private space enterprise, especially Space-X. How would they go about it? What’s the ONE key commodity everyone needs to push tin off the ground? Liquid oxygen.

    The private space industry didn’t just pop up overnight, we never had this problem before. True, there are more companies performing more launches, especially over the past year; but that really shouldn’t strain the LOX supply chain to the point of these kinds of shortages. Granted, there could be supply issues for a few weeks, maybe even one or two months, but this appears to be a prolonged systemic issue not all that different what we’re STILL seeing in the retail grocery sector.

    No, I believe there’s something ELSE at work here; as the great Steven K. Bannon always says, “There may be no conspiracies, but neither are there any coincidences.” Can’t quite put my finger on it, but I can just about guarantee China is involved one way or another. Here are some areas I think require further investigation:

    Is there a sudden unexplained surge of LOX demand from the Govt.?

    What about LOX storage capacity vs. supply? Is this strictly a supply chain, JIT-related issue (like they had with retail food)?

    Are there supply issues with other industrial gases? If not, that would seem odd that LOX would be the only one.

    The surge in demand from hospitals due to CV-19 seems suspicious given that O2 is only used in large amounts on patients with serious respiratory issues, basically only those in ICU’s. Why wasn’t there a LOX shortage in 2020? I reviewed some articles from last year and it was pointed out that some hospitals were struggling to get extra supply, but there was no national shortage per se., seemed more like a transportation / storage issue. Here’s an analysis published back in April, 2020. No one seemed to be ringing alarms back then as industry reps felt they could easily deal with the medical demand.

  • Jeff Wright

    Just for engineering reasons-you really need LOX generation at powerplants due to low transmission losses and off-peak utility. The is a man named Gordon who found a way to produce ammonia cheaply with air and water…and UNIST’s Guntae Kim and others who can get hydrogen out of that with far less energy than electrolysis of water…so you burn that to make the oxygen without as much of a hit. Free Trade killed steel…and commodudes sarcasm aside…there are technical reasons for centrilization here. Here you could have perhaps excess LOX for steel/power gen or to supply hospitals at no charge…a Christian thing to do.

  • John E Bowen

    @ A nonymous
    “I’d like to second the call for SpaceX to produce fuel and oxidizer in-house. They’re going to have to do it anyways on Mars”

    Absolutely. That’s a key point, giving some insight into some of the decisions Elon makes. There may be other areas where a company, not just SpaceX, does some process in a way that flexes their muscles in preparation to doing something similar off-world. I’d like to say this is a guiding principle, but that may just be my wishful thinking.

    I have heard some admittedly extreme examples. So, you be the judge, but I feel the topic is worth pursuing. In a win-win scenario, technology gains in purely terrestrial industries would also apply to space industries. I call these “spin-ins” after the opposite phenomenon of “spin-offs” touted so often by NASA.

    1. Earth moving, digging, scraping, tunneling equipment should be run on electricity. Why? Because this is how we’ll do it on Mars, and the Moon, etc. I know it’s possible to use a methane fuel cell, or a methane-based gas turbine (with oxygen supply needed, of course), but on Mars, electric motors are the low hanging fruit, the obvious choice. On Earth? Well, Caterpillar isn’t replacing diesel bulldozers with electric models any time soon. However, companies making mining equipment look carefully at the issues around providing battery or other electrically powered equipment, vs. issues around providing a heck of a lot of ventilation, deep underground.

    2. Aerial vehicles should be run on electricity, because we need to get used it. Every thinks of “drones” as battery powered, as in small quad copters. At the high end, military unwomanned aerial vehicles are likely to have aviation fuel engines. So, the good news is that there is a middle ground, where significant work and investment is happening with midsize aircraft. The important parts are the battery technology, kinds of motors, and power train. I mean, a good propeller for Earth is probably not much help for Mars.

    So that’s a couple of examples, and I don’t think it’s as easy as just shipping Cybertruck to Mars, along with Prufrock tunnel-boring machines from The Boring Company. But it’s doable.

  • D. Messier


    You can look those questions up online. Google is your friend.

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