Tag Archives: Air Force

Congress gets first organizational plan for Space Force

The Air Force has delivered to Congress the first of a regularly required series of reports on its organizational plans for creating the Space Force.

At first glance, the article makes it appear that both Congress and the Air Force under Trump are making an attempt to avoid the birth of a new bureaucracy that will coast billions of additional dollars. The following quotes highlight this:

The report delivered Feb. 3, a copy of which was obtained by SpaceNews, stresses that the Space Force will not have the traditional layers of bureaucracy that Congress cautioned it did not want to see in the new service.

…The Space Force in fiscal year 2020 is allotted a total of 200 people. The plan is to grow the staff over the next five years “within existing DoD resources,” says the report.

The article also outlines how the bulk of the Space Force’s staff will be taken from the Air Force.

One would think therefore that the overall military budget would not rise significantly. Hah! Fooled you!

The report says in the future the new service will not require more than $500 million annually over and above what DoD spends currently on space organizations. Total additional costs would not exceed $2 billion over the next five years, says the report.

Only in the government would spending an extra $500 million annually for an office operation taken from other parts of a company be considered inexpensive. For example, the initial capital funding for almost every single one of the new private smallsat rocket companies has generally been under $100 million, total. Later rounds of funding have generally only doubled or tripled that. The extra $500 million the military wants for the Space Force is actually a lot of money, and indicates that the Pentagon is definitely trying to pad the budget.

Our incompetent federal government grows again, and I guarantee we are getting less for our money than we should.

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First head of Space Force to be officially sworn in

First head of Space Force, General John Raymond of the Air Force, will be officially sworn in today at the White House.

Raymond assumed the duties of the first head of the Space Force on December 20, 2019, when U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act that officially launched the new force. “The Space Force will help us deter aggression and control the ultimate high ground,” Trump said at the NDAA signing last month. Officials say the Space Force will organize, train and equip military personnel who primarily focus on space operations.

Raymond was named commander of the new United States Space Command upon its creation in August of last year. That command, which sought to better organize the U.S. military’s space assets and operations, is being phased out as personnel are transferred to the Space Force.

Not surprisingly, a twitter mob immediately formed to protest the fact that a bible, officially blessed by religious leaders at the Washington National Cathedral, will be used during the swearing in. I especially like the over-the-top outrage expressed by the childish leader of this twitter mob:

Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said Sunday’s ceremony displayed overtones of “Christian privilege” within the Defense Department. “The MRFF condemns, in as full-throated a manner as is humanly possible, the shocking and repulsive display of only the most vile, exclusivist, fundamentalist Christian supremacy, dominance, triumphalism and exceptionalism which occurred at yesterday’s ‘blessing’ at the Washington National Cathedral,” he told Military.com on Monday.

My response to Mikey-boy: You are a very bigoted, very anti-Christian, and a very hateful person. You should get a life.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, it remains to be seen whether the establishment of a separate organization for handling the space-related military needs of the U.S. will do more harm than good. The idea makes sense, as the military for the past two decades has had a problem giving priority to space matters because of in-house turf wars between the various military branches, and thus the U.S. effort has stagnated somewhat.

The track record of Washington in the past half century when such things are attempted however is not good. Instead of getting more focused and accomplishing more, Washington has instead consistently grown a bloated bureaucracy that actually gets less done for more money. And in this case, it appears that might be what will happen here, as the giant budgets for the Space Force put forth by the Pentagon have suggested they are aiming to use it to build new empires rather than streamline and focus operations.

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Trump signs defense bill which includes Space Force

It’s official: Trump today signed the annual NDAA defense authorization bill which also includes the creation of a new military branch dubbed the Space Force.

Whether this new branch will function to make the U.S.’s space military more effective, or merely act as a foundation for a bureaucracy in Washington requiring lots of useless jobs and lots of wasteful spending remains at this moment an unknown.

My instincts favor the latter, based on a lifetime of watching how Washington operates. Every time in the past half century Congress has created a new agency that was supposed to make the federal government more efficient it has instead accomplished the exact opposite. I see no reason at this moment to expect otherwise.

Note that for the immediate future not much is going to change, as this new branch will be operating initially from within the Air Force, where space operations have been based for decades anyway.

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Congress approves establishment of Space Force

In a deal where the Trump administration agreed to a Democratic Party demand that all military personnel be given twelve weeks of paid parental leave, Congress has approved the formation of a new branch of the military dubbed the U.S. Space Force.

In a Dec. 6 deal, the White House agreed to grant 12 weeks of paid parental leave to all federal workers in exchange for the Space Force authorization. The parental leave provision was a top priority for Democrats while the White House has been insistent that any deal should include language to authorize the Space Force.

The House is expected to vote on the compromise bill on Dec. 11. The Senate will take it up at a later date.

The NDAA provides the Secretary of the Air Force with the authority to transfer Air Force personnel to the newly established Space Force. But it does not approve the hiring of new people. The Air Force Space Command is redesignated as the U.S. Space Force. “To minimize cost and bureaucracy, the Space Force will require no additional billets and remains with the President’s budget request,” says the report. The request includes $72.4 million to stand up the headquarters. [emphasis mine]

It appears that initially the Space Force will operate under the auspices of the Air Force, but only during a transitional period.

The highlighted words suggest that Congress has managed, at least so far, in making this new agency mostly a rearrangement of personnel, something that makes sense. Military space operations need to be consolidated into one command structure.

We shall see however if Congress (and future presidents) can resist allowing this new bureaucracy to grow. I have my doubts, which if proven true will defeat the entire purpose for doing this. For example, while generally avoiding the hiring of many new people, the legislation also creates three new administrative posts, all of which I guarantee will eventually demand their own bureaucracies.

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Air Force to still limit launch contractors to two

The bureaucracy wins again! Though Blue Origin’s protest of the Air Force’s planned launch contract rules was sustained, and the Air Force plans to revise its contracting rules accordingly, the Air Force today announced that because the ruling itself was somewhat limited, it will still be able to limit future bidding for launches to only two contractors, through 2026.

[T]he Air Force intends to award in mid-2020 five-year contracts to two providers. Four companies submitted proposals: Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.

Although Blue Origin challenged the Air Force’s decision to pick two providers as harmful to the industrial base, GAO had no objections to that approach. “On the whole, we are pleased that the GAO upheld the major components of the National Security Space Launch competition, especially award timelines, quantities, and period of performance,” said [Air Force acquisition executive Will] Roper.

If you read the article, you will discover why the Air Force still wants to limit to two the number of contractors who can bid on launches. Its rules and methods, as described, are so tortuousness and complex that I suspect even the Air Force doesn’t completely understand them. Thus, to deal with more than two bids individually for each launch is beyond the comprehension or ability of these military bureaucrats. Rather streamline their bidding rules, they have decided it is better to put limits on American private enterprise, raise costs for the taxpayer, and squelch innovation and fast development within the military space effort.

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ULA backing off from reuseablity and Vulcan upgrades?

Capitalism in space: According to this Space News story today, it appears that ULA is shifting away from building a major upgrade to the upper stage of its Vulcan rocket, even as it also appears to be backing off from pushing plans to recover and reuse its first stage engines.

ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye told SpaceNews by email that the company still plans to introduce an “advanced upper stage,” but only after Vulcan flies. Rye also declined to provide a specific timeline.

Similarly, ULA officials also refused to give a timeline for when they will begin recovering Vulcan’s first stage engines and reusing them.

Right now the company expects to launch the first iteration of Vulcan, using as Atlas 5 Centaur upper stage, sometime in 2021. It also appears that those first launches will not recover the first stage Blue Origin BE-4 engines.

In the long run, I do not see how ULA can compete. They certainly appear hesitant about introducing any new innovations or upgrades to Vulcan, which will result in an expendable rocket that costs far too much.

In fact, the arrival of this apparent timidity seems to have occurred almost to the day the company accepted a development contract for Vulcan from the Air Force. Thus, it increasingly appears that it is our federal government that is squelching the company’s creativity.

Why am I not surprised?

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Blue Origin wins protest against Air Force

Capitalism in space: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has sustained Blue Origin’s protest against the Air Force’s launch procurement rules that would have limited bidding on all launch contracts for the first half of the 2020s to only two companies.

In a “pre-award” protest, Blue Origin challenged the terms of a request for proposals (RFP) issued by the Air Force earlier this year for the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement, which aims to award two contracts next year expected to cover 30 or more medium- and heavy-lift satellite launches the Air Force plans to conduct between 2022 and 2026.

Blue Origin, owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, is one of four companies that submitted bids for the contracts by the Air Force’s Aug. 1 proposal deadline. The other three companies bidding for the contracts are Northrop Grumman and incumbents United Launch Alliance and SpaceX.

After submitting its bid, Blue Origin filed a formal protest with the GAO arguing that several terms of the RFP unduly restrict competition, are ambiguous, or are inconsistent with customary commercial practice.

The GAO agreed.“GAO sustained the protest, finding that the RFP’s basis for award is inconsistent with applicable procurement law and regulation, and otherwise unreasonable,” Patton said in the statement.

The Air Force’s plan here never made any sense at all. Why put a limit now on the companies that can bid on launches as far in the future as 2026? Why not instead allow all the launch companies, already certified by the Air Force, to bid when the time comes, thus increasing competition while providing the Air Force the most options?

This is good news for the entire American launch industry. It means they will all have the Air Force as a potential customer. It is also good news for the taxpayer, as the competition for business will certainly drive innovation and the lowering of launch prices.

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No manned New Shepard flights in 2019

In an interview with CNBC, Bob Smith, the CEO of Blue Origin, revealed that the first manned flights of New Shepard will not take place in 2019, as previously predicted.

Smith: We were planning on this year; unfortunately, it’s very unlikely we’re going to get in this year. We need a few more flights to make sure that we’re all comfortable with the verification. We hold ourselves to very, very high standards here, we’re never going to fly until we’re absolutely ready. I think we have a very, very good amount of confidence around the system itself, I think it is working very, very well. But we have to go look at all the analysis, and then convince ourselves that we’re ready to go. … So it probably will be next year.

This statement confirms what Smith said in late September. However, though he says they need to do a few more unmanned test flights, they have not done one since May, suggesting there was some issue during that last flight that they aren’t telling us about.

The interview overall contains little concrete information, and in fact suggests that the company’s orbital rocket, New Glenn, is likely not going to meet its 2021 launch target. When asked when he expects their rocket factory in Huntsville to begin building 40 engines a year, he said, “when we are at-rate and flying, so in ’22 and ’23. We are opening the factory there this coming first quarter.”

That 2021 date was a delay of a year from the original goal of 2020. That they won’t be opening their rocket factory until 2020, and won’t be operational until 2022 or 2023, suggests this entire schedule is out the window. I will not be surprised if there are no New Glenn flights before 2023.

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X-37B lands after completing record mission

One of the Air Force’s two X-37B reusable mini-shuttle’s has landed, completing a 780-day record mission.

This was the fifth mission of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. It flew for 780 days during this mission, breaking its own record by being in orbit for more than two years. As of today, the total number of days spent on-orbit for the entire test vehicle program is 2,865 days, the Air Force said. The spaceplane originally was designed to fly for just 270 days.

The mission had launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on September 7, 2017, in a deal that had been worked out with the Air Force in June under relatively short notice.

Not surprisingly, there is no word when the next X-37B mission will fly, likely using the Air Force’s other spacecraft.

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Congressman questions Northrop Grumman-Air Force ICBM deal

The head of the House Armed Services committee yesterday questioned the appropriateness of the Air Force awarding Northrop Grumman an ICBM contract without any competition.

[House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Washington.)] said he is troubled that only one company, Northrop Grumman, will be bidding for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, a program to replace the Minuteman 3 ICBMs that make up the ground-based portion of the nation’s nuclear forces.

Northrop Grumman and Boeing were expected to compete head to head to be GBSD prime contractors but Boeing decided in July it would not submit a proposal because of Northrop’s overwhelming advantage as the nation’s largest manufacturer of solid rocket motors.

Northrop Grumman’s advantage here comes from its purchase of Orbital ATK last year, which provided the company this solid rocket launch capability that apparently no one else has.

Smith’s complaints here also extend to the Air Force’s plans to pick only two companies in the next year to launch all of its satellites for the next half decade, rather than leave the bidding open to all. As Smith noted,

“I have worked with them [the Air Force] on launch and other things and it strikes me that they are way too close to the contractors that they’re working with,” he said. “They seem to show bias,” Smith added. “It could be incompetence. But I think it is more likely that they like their historical partners. This is really, really bad because competition is a good thing.”

Smith appears generally correct. The Air Force made a sweet non-competitive launch deal with ULA back in the early 2000s that cost the taxpayer billions. Now it seems it is doing the same with its ICBM replacement contractor, and also wants to do the same with its satellite launch contracts. I hope Smith is successful in changing the Air Force approach.

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Air Force selects 8 launch companies for future contracts

Capitalism in space: The Air Force yesterday announced that it has selected eight launch companies as part of a program allowing it to order future launch contracts quickly.

SpaceX, Xbow Launch Systems, Northrop Grumman, Firefly Aerospace, United Launch Alliance, Aevum, Vox Space and Rocket Lab have been selected to provide launch services in the Orbital Services Program-4 [OSP-4] — a $986 million procurement of launch services over nine years. The Air Force announced the winners Oct. 10.

OSP-4 is designed to accommodate small and medium payloads greater than 400 lbs. and providers have to be able to deliver these payloads to orbit within 12 to 24 months after receiving an order. The program is managed by the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise Small Launch and Targets Division at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.

…The OSP-4 multi-vendor deal is known as a “multiple-award, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity” contract. The eight companies will be awarded $50,000 as the contract’s minimum guarantee. Under [this arrangement], the Air Force will compete as many as 20 missions among the awardees.

The company list includes every operational rocket company (SpaceX, Northrop Grumann, ULA, Rocket Lab), as well as several in development (Xbow, Firefly, Aevum, Vox). It is interesting that several other developing rocket companies are not included (Blue Origin, Relativity, Vector). Vector has suspended operations because of financial issues, but Relativity and Blue Origin both appear to be moving forward with full financing. Meanwhile, I have until now never heard of Xbow, Aevum, and Vox. One wonders the reasoning behind their selection.

This selection is separate from the Air Force’s big rocket contracting process, where the military says it will very soon pick two companies to launch its big satellites for the next decade.

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Orbiting X-37B breaks record for longest mission

The Air Force’s X-37B presently in orbit has now broken the record set by the other X-37B for the longest mission, with 717 days in orbit and now indication when it will return.

The previous mission had broken the earlier record by a little more than a month. How long the X-37B that is in space now will extend this new record is as yet unknown.

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Washington’s spectacular effort to crush the American space effort

Three stories today illustrate once again the incompetence, idiocy, and inability of practically anyone in our federal government to get anything done sanely and efficiently and with success.

In the past half century that federal government has saddled the American people with a debt that is crushing. In that time it has also failed to do its job of properly enforcing the law to control the borders. It has spent trillions on social problems, only to have those social problems worsen exponentially.

I could go on. The problems imposed on American society by our failed ruling class in Washington since the 1960s is myriad. In the area of aerospace and space exploration, my specialty, the following three stories today alone demonstrate again that continuing track record, with no sign that anyone in Washington recognizes how bad a job they are doing.

First we have incompetence and idiocy by Congress. The first story outlines how our sainted lawmakers have mandated by law that the Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter’s moon must fly on NASA’s SLS rocket and “launch no later than 2023.”

This legal requirement, written into the appropriations bill, was imposed because the SLS project is being managed from Alabama, and Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) wants that rocket to get some work to justify this pork to his state. The requirement was further pushed by former Texas Congressman John Culbertson, who has a special place in his heart for Europa, and has specifically imposed that mission on NASA.

Shelby’s demand is especially egregious and makes little sense. First, even after twenty years of effort, NASA will likely not have that rocket available in 2023. Second, the cost to use SLS is about $4 billion per launch (not the fake $1 billion number cited in the article). A Falcon Heavy rocket could do the job for $100 million, which would more than pay for the extra operating costs incurred because it will take the three more years to get to Jupiter.

To deal with this conflict, NASA is presently doing as much lobbying as it can to get Congress to change the time limit, or to allow them to fly the spacecraft on a Falcon Heavy. Not surprisingly, Congress is resisting, even though their position makes no sense and will likely cost the taxpayer billions unnecessarily while likely delaying or even impeding the mission itself.

The article as usual for the mainstream press is filled with misconceptions and errors that are all designed to make any change in this Congressional act seem a mistake. These mistakes were all fed to the reporter by the powers in and out of Congress who oppose changing things, and the reporter sadly was not informed enough to realize this.

Next we have the incompetent and power-hungry federal bureaucracy, as described in the second article.
» Read more

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Northrop Grumman leases part of VAB for assembling Omega rocket

Northrop Grumman has become the first private company to lease a bay of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, where it will its new OmegA rocket.

Northrop Grumman will assemble and test its new OmegA rocket inside the massive facility’s High Bay 2, one of four high bays in the building. … The company also is modifying mobile launcher platform-3 (MLP-3) to serve as the launch vehicle’s assembly and launch platform. Both the VAB and MLP-3 were originally built for the Apollo Program and went on to enable the three-decade Space Shuttle Program.

OmegA’s development is being funded by an $800 million contract with the Air Force.

In many ways, I could ask the exact same question here as I just did in the post below about the Chinese government’s pseudo private launch industry: From an American private enterprise perspective, this Air Force attempt to create a commercial launch industry using government funds but tight government supervision and control is very puzzling. OmegA will be competing directly with other American launch companies that are privately funded, owned, and run by private corporations (though also getting significant government contracts for their already operational products). How the federal government prevents its government agencies (NASA, the Air Force) from putting their thumbs on the scale to favor one over the other I do not understand.

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Blue Origin protests Air Force launch procurement process

Blue Origin has submitted a protest to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) yesterday about the Air Force plan to pick two launch providers now for all its satellite launches after 2026.

According to a copy of the protest obtained by FLORIDA TODAY, the ordering period for the launches would run from 2020 to 2024 and ultimately select two contractors for flights beginning in 2026.

“The most recent market research, however, indicates the total global addressable space launch market, including NSSL launches, could support three or even four U.S. launch companies,” the protest reads. “Even the Agency’s own LSP source selection support contractor – the Aerospace Corporation – predicts that the space launch market has significant potential to suffer from a launch capacity shortfall because U.S. and foreign government launches will require most of the available launch capacity.”

I couldn’t agree with Blue Origin more. The Air Force wants to limit competition in the 2020s to only two companies, which will almost certainly be ULA and SpaceX since they are the only two presently flying, when by the 2020s there might be several more companies available providing competition that can lower the price.

There is no reason for the Air Force to make this decision now. None. When they need to order these launches in the early 2020s they should open that bidding process to all comers, and pick appropriately, then. Everything about this Pentagon plan stinks, reeking of the corruption that permeates Washington. I even wonder if some people have gotten pay-offs in connection with the decision to favor only two companies. It wouldn’t surprise me. (I myself have been offered money to let military lobbying companies ghostwrite op-eds using my name, supporting this Air Force plan, offers that I very bluntly turned down.)

Also, even if Blue Origin’s protest now fails, expect whoever doesn’t get picked by the Air Force now to file lawsuits in the 2020s when they are denied the right to bid on those future launches. And expect the Air Force to then back down, as it was forced to do when SpaceX was denied the right to bid on Air Force contracts early in this decade.

One more thought: This protest suggests Blue Origin already expects to not get picked. This expectation might also explain why Jeff Bezos decided to sell more Amazon stock last week, raising almost $3 billion in capital. He might be anticipating that Blue Origin will be cut out of those Air Force contracts, and so needs more of his own money to develop its New Glenn rocket.

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Vector gets Air Force launch contract

Capitalism in space: Vector has signed its first Air Force launch contract for an orbital cubesat launch in 2021.

The Air Force must know something about Vector’s rocket development that we don’t. The company had planned a suborbital test launch for March/April, delayed it until June, and has still not flown it. These delays put the company behind its original launch schedule by a considerable amount, which originally had called for its first orbital launch in 2018.

Hopefully we shall soon see some actually progress from Vector. At the moment however their lack of launches has allowed a number of other smallsat rocket companies to gain on them from behind.

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ULA’s Atlas 5 launches military communications satellite

Early this morning ULA used its Atlas 5 rocket to successfully launch an Air Force military communications satellite.

This was the third ULA launch this year, which means they remain off the leader board below. This number of launches is also below the pace set the last two years, where they completed eight launches per year.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

12 Russia
11 China
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 India

The U.S. now leads in the national rankings 17 to 12.

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White House objects to House language on military space

The White House today released a detailed statement listing its objections to the House language on the upcoming military space authorization bill and threatening a veto if the Senate version is not passed.

Their objection seem to center on two issues. First, while the administration has accepted the idea of a space corp within the Air Force rather than a separate new military branch, they appear prefer the Senate language for this change. This disagreement appears relatively minor in the entire scheme of things.

Second, and more significantly, the White House has objections to the planned launch contract set up the Air Force has been pushing that would have them pick two launch providers now for all their launches through 2024, rather than allow all comers to bid on those launches as they came up.

On the National Security Space Launch program, the administration “strongly objects” to HASC [House Armed Services Committee] Chairman Adam Smith’s Section 1601 language “as it would increase mission risk for the nation’s national security satellites.”

Section 1601 would mandate that the Air Force compete contracts for any launches beyond 29 launches during the period from fiscal year 2020 to fiscal year 2024. This section would also mandate that the Air Force provide up to $500 million to launch companies that either win a Phase 2 contract after fiscal year 2022 or win a Phase 2 contract but are not part of a Launch Service Agreement, in order to meet national security-unique infrastructure and certification requirements for a Phase 2 contract. This section also require a notification of the selection in fiscal year 2020 of the two providers for Phase 2 launches.

The administration opposes these provisions. “After careful and considered study, DoD determined that a contract for national security space launch requirements over the course of five years would optimize warfighter flexibility, minimizes mission risk, and provides exceptional value to the taxpayer,” says the White House statement. “Confining Phase 2 to fewer missions would increase per-launch cost while simultaneously introducing risk and costs for some intelligence payloads. Finally, notifying Congress prior to a contract would be a departure from long-standing tradition and might put DoD at a greater risk of a protest.”

To put this in simple terms, the House language was an attempt to open up the bidding, while also offering $500 million development money to any company who missed out initially. The White House, and the Air Force, wish to restrict the bidding process, and don’t want to pay that extra $500 million.

All of this I think will become irrelevant the first time the Air Force issues a bid offer for a launch contract but restricts bidding to only two launch companies, even if a third or fourth is available and capable of fulfilling the contract. The excluded launch companies will sue for the right to bid, and they will win.

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X-37B photographed in orbit

X-37B as seen by telescope
Click for full image.

An amateur astronomer this week was able to get a photograph of the X-37B presently in orbit about 200 miles high.

The [X-37B] is a small version of the classic Space Shuttle, it is really a small object, even at only 300 km altitude, so dont expect the detail level of ground based images of the real Space Shuttle. Considering this, the attached images succeeded beyond expectations. We can recognize a bit of the nose, Payload Bay and tail of this mini-shuttle with even a sign of some smaller detail.

The image on the right, reduced and cropped to post here, shows the image with a graphic of the spacecraft in comparison.

The graphic assumes the X-37B’s cargo door is open, but the actual image does not match this, to my eye. Instead, it appears partly open, with some kind of large object protruding from the cargo bay.

This X-37B spacecraft, one of two the Air Force flies, was launched by SpaceX in September 2017 and has now been in space more than 664 days, with no indication yet when it will return to Earth. The present record is 718 days for the longest X-37B flight, set by the Air Force’s other X-37B. It appears likely that this spacecraft will exceed that record.

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Falcon Heavy launches successfully

Capitalism in space: The Falcon Heavy successfully launched tonight, and is presently deploying the 24 satellites on board.

They successfully landed the two first stage side boosters, but the core stage apparently just missed hitting the drone ship in the Atlantic. You could see it come down, but not on the pad. While SpaceX has now successfully recovered all six side boosters on all three Falcon Heavy launches, they have not yet succeeded in recovering the core stage.

The mission’s full success will not be known for several hours, as the satellite deployments unfold. So far the first two satellites have been deployed successfully.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

8 China
8 SpaceX
5 Russia
5 Europe (Arianespace)
3 India

The U.S. has now widened its lead over China in the national rankings, 13 to 8.

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Falcon Heavy launch a go for 2:30 am (Eastern) tonight

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s third Falcon Heavy launch is now a go for launch at 2:30 am (Eastern) tonight.

You can watch it live at SpaceX’s website here or at the embedded video below the fold.

This launch should be especially spectacular, as it will be at night, and the sky is clear. Moreover, they will once again be trying to land all three first stage boosters, with the side boosters flying for the second time only two months after their first flight on the last Falcon Heavy launch.
» Read more

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Update on development status of ULA’s Vulcan rocket

Link here. Overall the rocket seems to be on track for its planned April 2021 launch, except it appears ULA has decided to do that launch without two new components of the rocket that previously were planned, delaying their implementation.

First, it appears that Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine might not power the rocket’s first stage in its initial flights. It seems that both companies want that engine to first fly on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, whose first launch is not set until 2021 as well.

This delay in the engine’s use has me wondering whether ULA has gotten cold feet about Blue Origin and its engine. It certainly seems to me that progress at Blue Origin has slowed considerably in the past year. For example, they promised manned flights of New Shepard that did not happen, and testing on the BE-4 seems to have gone underground.

In fact, the combination of increased hype and lack of progress has made Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos remind me increasingly of Virgin Galactic and Richard Branson, that team of endless unmet promises.

Second, it appears ULA has given the recovery and reuse of Vulcan’s first stage engines a very low priority. The technique they had chosen was to have the engines separate from the tanks and return to Earth by parafoil, protected by an inflatable heat shield. However,

A technology demonstration payload for the inflatable heat shield, which could also be used to deliver payloads to the surface of Mars, is slated to fly as a rideshare payload with NOAA’s JPSS-2 satellite aboard an Atlas V launch no earlier than 2022. [emphasis mine]

In other words, that reusable technology probably won’t be operational until well into the 2020s. Vulcan will likely be completely expendable for at least the first five years of its use.

ULA apparently has decided to take the safe technology route. Financially secure because of a $1 billion Air Force development contract to pay for Vulcan, combined with the military’s obvious desire to favor them in the awarding of future launch contracts, the company doesn’t have any incentive to innovate in any way to lower costs.

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SpaceX suing Air Force due to exclusion from development contracts

SpaceX has initiated a lawsuit against the Air Force for excluding the company from the rocket development contracts totaling $2.3 billion that it issued last year to ULA, Blue Origin, and Northrop Grumman.

The full SpaceX complaint alleges that the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center “wrongly awarded” the funds “to a portfolio of three unproven rockets based on unstated metrics.” Under the Launch Service Agreement (LSA) program, the Air Force awarded three SpaceX competitors funding to develop new launch systems. The LSA awards granted $500 million to Blue Origin for its New Glenn rocket, $792 million to Northrop Grumman for its OmegA rocket and $967 million to ULA for the Vulcan Centaur rocket.

“By any reasonable measure, SpaceX earned a place in the LSA portfolio,” the complaint said.

I had guessed last year that SpaceX had decided not to bid for this money because of the strings the Air Force would attach to the development of Super Heavy/Starship. According to this lawsuit, that guess was wrong. SpaceX wanted its own share in this government cash, and didn’t get it.

Considering how Air Force requirements appeared to immediately slow down the development for ULA and Blue Origin, I still think SpaceX is better off without the cash. They have had to raise money from the private sector, and so far appear to have been successful in doing so, without those strings attached.

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X-37B passes 600 days in orbit

One of the Air Force’s two X-37B reusable mini-shuttles has now passed 600 days in orbit.

At this moment this is third longest X-37B mission. However, if the mission lasts four more months it will become the longest.

The article states that it is “unclear” what the mission’s overall purpose is, though we do know that some onboard experiments are testing the ability of some technology to function for long periods in space. I suspect that the spacecraft itself is testing this. When it returns they will look at it closely to see if its design was sufficient for it to do long multi-year missions and then go back to do it again. Moreover, knowing how to build such a craft is essential for building interplanetary spaceship that carry humans to and from the planets.

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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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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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Air Force confirms more Rocket Lab launches

Capitalism in space:: With the successful launch of a DARPA satellite by Rocket Lab last week, the Air Force yesterday confirmed the purchase of several more launches on the company’s Electron Rocket.

Three satellites will be launched to low Earth orbit later this month from Mahia, New Zealand, using Rocket Lab USA’s Electron rocket.

…The upcoming Rocket Lab launch is one of five planned in 2019. … Five small launches will send 21 experimental satellites to space by the end of December, said Lt. Col. Andrew Anderson, chief of the DoD Space Test Program Branch.

One of the five will be by Vox Space later this year. The company will use Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket that is air launched from a Boeing 747 mothership.

Anderson said there is possibly another vendor in the mix but only Rocket Lab and Vox Space so far can be identified.

I suspect that the unnamed vendor is Vector, but the Air Force is likely not going commit to this until Vector gets farther along in its test program.

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Air Force’s launch contracting plans under scrutiny

It appears the Air Force wants to decide now which two rocket companies it will use for its launch needs in the 2022 to 2026 time period, and this desire is raising hackles among those companies.

[T]he Air Force will choose only two companies to meet its launch needs from 2022 to 2026, with one provider winning 60 percent of the contracts and the other taking 40 percent. There is no provision to on-ramp other companies during the time frame.

This sets up a rather frantic competition between the incumbents, ULA and SpaceX, and newcomers Blue Origin (with its New Glenn booster) and Northrop Grumman (with its Omega rocket). Moreover, the timing appears to prejudice the competition in favor of the incumbents, which already have existing launch systems the government can assess.

Something is really fishy here. Why does the Air Force need to limit its services to only two companies? And why do they have to make this decision now, three to seven years before the launches will occur? Common sense says you instead issue specific contract bids, for each launch, as they are needed, thus allowing as many companies as possible to compete for the business.

In fact, this policy seems to directly contradict the Air Force’s stated goal, repeated many times in the past few years, to widen competition in the launch industry, both to lower cost and to give the military strategic redundancy in its needed launch services.

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Air Force awards ULA and SpaceX three launch contracts each

Capitalism in space: The Air Force this week released more details about the new launch contracts for both ULA and SpaceX worth just under three quarters of a billion dollars.

The contracts announced in February by the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center were split between ULA and SpaceX, rivals in the U.S. launch industry. ULA won deals for up to three launches worth $441.76 million, and the Air Force awarded SpaceX contracts worth $297 million, also for three missions.

I had reported this back in February when it was first announced, but it was not then revealed that one of the SpaceX launches would be with the Falcon Heavy, the second such Air Force launch planned. That the Air Force awarded this contract prior to its first launch, now scheduled for no earlier than June 2019, is somewhat surprising. I would have expected them to wait to first see if that launch, only the second Falcon Heavy launch, was successful.

The article also notes a minor change by the Air Force in its launch program.

The Air Force has also given a new name to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, a multibillion initiative begun in the 1990s to fund and oversee the development and operations of the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets now owned by ULA.

The Space and Missile Systems Center announced March 1 that the EELV program’s new name is the National Security Space Launch program, in response to language in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.

They really needed to eliminate “Expendable” from the name, since the first stage of SpaceX’s rockets are not expendable, and it is expected that future rockets will be reusable as well. Moreover, EELV was created in the 1990s to create a launch monopoly for Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which then merged to create ULA. That monopoly no longer exists, and the military is now aiming to widen the competition, opening it up to more companies.

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Air Force awards launch contracts (3 each) to ULA and SpaceX

Capitalism in space: The Air Force yesterday announced the awarding of launch contracts to both SpaceX and ULA, giving each company three launches.

ULA will receive $441.76 million under a fixed-price contract to launch SBIRS GEO-5, SBIRS GEO-6 and Silent Barker, a classified space situational awareness mission.

SpaceX will receive $297 million to launch AFSPC-44, NROL-85, and NROL-87.

Note the difference in price. While the specific missions might have requirements that make the ULA launches more expensive, I suspect that most of the difference has to do with SpaceX’s ability to simply do it cheaper. The Air Force however did not give all the contracts to SpaceX because it has strategic reasons to have two independent launch companies. It also faces political pressure to support both companies, regardless of cost, as illustrated by recent stories about the political gamesmanship between SpaceX and ULA.

This story does illustrate however how the competition from SpaceX has forced ULA to lower its prices. For these three launches they are charging an average of about $147 million. Before SpaceX’s competition, their price per launch generally averaged more than $225 million. Isn’t competition wonderful?

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