NASA to scientists: Don’t expect to use SLS for science missions for at least a decade

In a briefing held by the planetary science community to propose its future missions for the next decade, a NASA official explained that there will likely be no available launches on NASA’s SLS rocket for planetary missions until the late 2020s, and more likely not until the next decade.

While NASA has a goal of being able to launch three SLS missions in a 24-month period, and two in 12 months, the supply chain is currently limited to one SLS per year. That will change by the early 2030s, [the official] said, growing to two per year and thus creating opportunities for additional SLS missions beyond the Artemis program. That will be enabled by changes to at the Michoud Assembly Facility to increase core stage production and a “block upgrade” to the RS-25 engine used on that core stage that will be cheaper and faster to produce.

The official also claimed that the cost of buying a launch on SLS is at best going to be $800 million, but that price won’t be available until the ’30s when SLS’s are launching more frequently. Until then, it appears NASA will charge one billion per launch.

All of this is pure fantasy on NASA’s part. Once cheaper and more usable private commercial rockets come on line, such as SpaceX’s Starship, SLS will go the way of the horse buggy. And this is likely to happen much sooner than 2030, more likely in the next three years.

Moreover, for both cost and practical reasons I cannot see any planetary scientist planning a mission on SLS, ever. There are now much cheaper options that are actually flying, such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which costs about $100 million per launch. Moreover, SLS’s slow and cumbersome launch pace should scare any planetary scientist away, as such missions must launch on time, and SLS might easily miss their launch windows. In fact, this has already happened. For years Congress mandated that Europa Clipper launch on SLS. When it became clear that SLS would not be available for that mission’s launch window, Congress finally relented and allowed NASA to buy the launch from a commercial company.

Brazil signs Artemis Accords

Brazil on June 15th became the first South American country to sign the Artemis Accords, designed to bypass the limitations placed on property rights created by the Outer Space Treaty.

U.S. policy requires any nation that wishes to participate in its Artemis program to go back to the Moon to agree to the accords. Brazil is now the eleventh country to sign, joining Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand, South Korea, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, and the United States.

Russia and China oppose the accords, which causes a problem for Russia as it desperately needs to partner with someone because it can’t on its own afford to build much. It is negotiating possible partnerships with China at its new space station as well as building a base on the Moon, but those agreements are not firm. And continues to send out feelers, including statements by Putin, calling for continuing cooperation with the U.S. in space.

Whether the Biden administration will make an exception for Russia in regards to the Artemis Accords remains unclear. That twelve countries have agreed to the accords however gives the U.S. greater leverage with those countries that have not yet signed.

New Zealand signs Artemis Accords

On May 31st New Zealand became the 11th country to sign the Artemis Accords, designed to bypass the Outer Space Treaty’s limitations on property rights in space.

The full list, according to the NASA press release, now includes Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, South Korea, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, and the United States.

China and Russia have both said they oppose the accords. That such European nations as Germany and France have not joined in suggests their governments have not yet decided what direction they wish to go. Since U.S. policy now requires partners in the Artemis program to sign the accords, one would think that Germany and France and the European Space Agency (ESA) would certainly sign.

They have not, however. Instead, ESA has been in negotiations with China on the subject of space cooperation. If it signs a deal with China it could then become very difficult for it to partner with the U.S.

We might therefore be seeing here the first signs of a true and permanent political split in the alliance between mainland Europe and the United States.

Note too that these political winds signal bad news for Orion. The spacecraft relies on the ESA’s service module for its in-space journeys. If Europe does not sign the accords and instead partners with China, the U.S. will then be faced with either abandoning Orion or finding someone else to build its service module. I suspect that with the coming of cheap, affordable, and efficient private spacecraft, Orion will then die.

Canada to build a Moon rover for NASA

Canada has signed an agreement with NASA to build an unmanned lunar rover to launch in 2026.

Like NASA,the Canadian government isn’t going to build the rover but will select private companies to design and build for it.

To get the ball rolling on the project, which will explore a lunar polar region, the CSA will soon select two Canadian companies to develop concepts for the rover and its instruments, agency officials added.

Other Canadian gear will reach the moon in the coming years as well, if all goes according to plan. For example, three commercial technologies funded by the CSA’s Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program are scheduled to get a lunar-surface test in 2022 — an artificial intelligence flight computer from Mission Control Space Services; lightweight panoramic cameras built by Canadensys; and a new planetary navigation system developed by NGC Aerospace Ltd.

All three will travel on the first moon mission of the HAKUTO-R lander, which is built by Tokyo-based company ispace, it was announced on Wednesday.

No word on who will launch this new rover, but then it is probably too early for such a decision.

South Korea signs the Artemis Accords

On May 24 South Korea officially signed the Artemis Accords, joining nine other countries in the agreement designed as a work around of the Outer Space Treaty’s provisions in order to protect property rights in space.

By my count, that makes eight signatories, including Japan, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates and Italy.

Essentially, the space-faring nations of the world are splitting into two groups, those who will follow these accords, and those who won’t, led by China and Russia. In a sense, we are seeing a renewal of the Cold War in space, with the western powers that believe in private enterprise and freedom aligned against those whose cultures are authoritarian and ruled from above.

Lockheed Martin and General Motors partner to design manned lunar rover

Capitalism in space: Lockheed Martin and General Motors announced yesterday that they are partnering to design a manned lunar rover, intended for sale to NASA’s Artemis program as well as any other manned lunar missions anyone else should decide to fly.

Lockheed and GM don’t have a NASA contract to build the LTV [Lunar Terrain Vehicle]; the agency hasn’t awarded any such deals yet. But the companies are positioning themselves to be in the driver’s seat when such decisions are made — and when other customers may come along as well.

Obviously the first customer for this moon buggy would be NASA for Artemis. Nor is this the only manned rover being planned. Toyota and Japan’s space agency JAXA are also partnering to build one.

The decision by NASA to use Starship as its lunar lander however has made such a project much more viable. Unlike the lunar landers proposed by Blue Origin and Dynectics, Starship has the payload capacity to carry such things to the Moon, right off the bat. Thus it makes sense now to start designing them and offering them for sale. We should not be surprised if other car manufacturers start proposing their own manned rovers.

Moreover, Starship’s potential also means these rovers could be purchased by others for work on the Moon. If anyone besides NASA decides to hire SpaceX and Starship for their own lunar missions, the Lockheed Martin/GM LTV can also be sold to them. So can the Toyota rover. So could one built by Ford or Mazarati.

Isn’t freedom and capitalism wonderful? Instead of a half century of the nothing that international cooperation and government control brought us in space, private enterprise is suddenly in a burst opening the entire solar system to the world. And don’t expect the pace to slow.

Blue Origin protests Starship contract award for lunar lander

Blue Origin today filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) of NASA’s decision to award SpaceX’s Starship the sole contract for building a manned lunar lander, claiming the agency “moved the goalposts” during the award process.

Blue Origin says in the GAO protest that its “National Team,” which included Draper, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, bid $5.99 billion for the HLS [Human Landing System] award, slightly more than double SpaceX’s bid. However, it argues that it was not given the opportunity to revise that bid when NASA concluded that the funding available would not allow it to select two bidders, as originally anticipated. NASA requested $3.3 billion for HLS in its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal but received only $850 million in an omnibus appropriations bill passed in December 2020. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words kind of say it all. Blue Origin’s National Team put in a very high bid. Why should they have any expectation of winning?

Moreover, their track record, especially Blue Origin’s (the leader of the team), pales in comparison to SpaceX.
» Read more

SpaceX wins competition to build Artemis manned lunar lander, using Starship

Starship prototype #8 on first flight test
Starship prototype #8 on its first flight test,
December 2020

Capitalism in space: NASA has just announced that it has chosen SpaceX to build the Artemis manned lunar lander, using Starship.

The award, a $2.9 billion fixed price contract, also requires SpaceX to complete an unmanned demo lunar landing with Starship that also returns to Earth, before it lands NASA astronauts on the Moon. The contract also still retains the goal to get this to happen by 2024, though NASA official emphasized that they will only launch when ready.

After these flights the agency says it will open bidding again to the entire industry, which means that others are now being challenged to come up with something that can beat SpaceX in the future.

Nonetheless, the contract award was a surprise, as NASA originally intended to pick two teams to provide redundancy and encourage competition. Instead, the agency completely bypassed lunar landers proposed by Dynetics and a team led by Blue Origin that included Lockheed Martin and Draper.

Even more significantly, though NASA explained in the telecon that they still plan to use SLS and Orion to bring astronauts to Gateway, who will then be picked up by Starship for the landing, this decision is a major rejection of the Space Launch System (SLS), since Starship will not use it to get to the Moon, while the other two landers required it.

In fact, this decision practically makes SLS unnecessary in the Artemis program, as NASA has also awarded SpaceX the contract for supplying cargo to the Lunar Gateway station as well as launching its first two modules, using Dragon capsules and Falcon Heavy. SLS is still slated to launch Orion to Gateway, but Starship can replace Orion as well, since Starship is being designed to carry people from Earth to the Moon. This makes SLS and Orion essentially unneeded, easily abandoned once Starship starts flying.

NASA’s decision also means the Biden administration is willing to use its clout to push for Starship over SLS in Congress, which has favored SLS for years because of the pork it brings to their states and congressional districts. They apparently think that Congress is now ready to risk the end of SLS if it comes with a new program that actually accomplishes something. These developments firmly confirm my sense from February that the political winds are bending away from SLS.

This decision is also a major blow to Blue Origin and the older big space companies that Jeff Bezos’ company partnered with. Their dependence on the very costly and cumbersome SLS rocket meant that their ability to launch on a schedule and cost desired by NASA was severely limited. NASA looked at the numbers, and decided the time was right to go with a more radical system. As was noted by one NASA official during the press teleconference, “NASA is now more open to innovation.”

Based on the details announced during the announcement, NASA was especially drawn to Starship’s payload capability to bring a large payload to the Moon, at the same time it brings humans there as well. It also appears SpaceX’s recent track record of success also added weight to their bid.

NASA sets March 18th for next SLS static fire test

NASA has now scheduled the next static fire test of the core stage of its SLS rocket for March 18th.

The background:

NASA attempted the hot fire test on January 16, but computers terminated the test after 67 seconds instead of 485 seconds because of the conservative test parameters that were set. This is not a test vehicle, but the actual core stage that will be used for the first SLS launch. NASA needs to ensure the testing does not damage it.

NASA decided to redo the test and scheduled it for February 25, but a problem with a pre-valve forced another delay.

If this March test is successful, it will take a month to prep the core stage for shipment by barge to Florida, where it will take several months to prep it for launch linked to its two solid rocket boosters now stacked and ready for launch. If that schedule moves fast, NASA is still aiming for a late ’21 launch, though most industry experts expect that date to shift into early ’22.

If the March test has any problems however this schedule goes out the window. Worse, it increases the chance that the two boosters will have reached the end of their 12-month use-by date (approximately December ’21), and will have to be dissembled and inspected. If that happens the launch will certainly be delayed by many months.

There is another possibility. NASA might waive that 12-month use-by date requirement for the boosters. If the agency does this, however, it will be another example of the same management mistakes that caused both the Challenger and Columbia shuttle failures, a desire to put aside proper engineering to meet a schedule.

One more thought: That it takes about four months to assemble the solid rocket boosters for SLS illustrates well the cumbersome and inefficient nature of this rocket. Launches not only cannot happen within days, they really cannot happen for months. Depending on such a rocket with such a low launch cadence will make the exploration of the solar system practically impossible.

NASA completes assembly of SLS’s first two solid rocket boosters

The stacking and assembly of the first two solid rocket boosters for the first launch of SLS has been completed at Cape Canaveral.

The boosters, built by Northrop Grumman, now only wait for the arrival of Boeing’s core stage, which is still awaiting the successful completion of its final static test, now tentatively set for sometime in the next week or so.

Stacking of the boosters began in November 2020, which means that the first SLS launch must happen by November ’21 because the boosters have a limited life span of about a year. To make that November launch happen on time however is becoming increasingly difficult. Assuming the mid-March core static static fire test in Mississippi is successful, NASA will have to then ship the stage to Florida and get it assembled with those two boosters. NASA has previously said it will take about six months to do this. Their margin between now and November is thus getting quite tight.

The coming death of NASA’s Space Launch System

SLS about to be cancelled?

In the past week there have been a slew of stories that all suggest strongly that the political support for the NASA-built rocket dubbed the Space Launch System (SLS) is fading very quickly, and might soon be weak enough that the political class in Washington might finally have the courage to cancel it.

First, a group of eleven Democratic Party senators on February 3rd wrote a letter [pdf] to the Biden administration, begging it to continue the manned lunar program dubbed Artemis that the Trump administration had instigated.

What made that letter remarkable was that it made no mention of SLS at all. Instead, its focus was to encourage Biden to not abandon construction of the Artemis manned lunar lander, what NASA dubs the Human Landing System (HLS).

Until that moment it had always been assumed in political circles that if you continue Artemis it means you continue SLS. Artemis itself was conceived as a program to give that heavy-lift rocket a purpose. SLS had been mandated by Congress a decade ago when Obama cancelled Bush’s Ares heavy-lift rocket. The problem was that Congress had not proposed any mission for SLS, and thus Artemis was born to give it that mission.

That these Democrats were pushing Artemis but not SLS was politically significant. It meant that they no longer considered Artemis synonymous with SLS. The former could exist without the latter.
» Read more

Falcon Heavy wins contract to launch 1st two Gateway modules

NASA today awarded SpaceX a $331 million contract to launch the first two components of the Lunar Gateway space station, using its Falcon Heavy rocket.

The Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element and Habitation and Logistics Outpost will launch in tandem no earlier than May 2024 aboard the Falcon Heavy rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The $331.8 million launch services contract, awarded by NASA’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy, includes the Falcon Heavy launch and “other mission-related costs,” the agency said in a statement. The $331 million contract value is nearly three times the price NASA is paying for a Falcon Heavy launch in July 2022 with the Psyche asteroid probe.

What is significant about this contract is what it does not mention: SLS. Gateway was originally conceived by NASA as a project that would give purpose to the SLS rocket, a rocket that Congress required NASA to build without giving it any mission. Now it appears NASA is looking to build Gateway without SLS, at least on this first launch.

I would throw this news item in the bin containing an number of recent stories, all of which signal that SLS is on increasingly thin ice.

ESA contracts Airbus to build three more Orion service modules

The European Space Agency (ESA) late last week announced that it has awarded Airbus a contract to build three more service modules for NASA’s Orion capsule.

This new contract supplements the existing contract that already has Airbus building three service modules. With six service modules in the pipeline, the ESA is signaling that it is very confident the Artemis program will continue.

The key question remains: Will it continue with SLS as the rocket of choice? Right now there simply aren’t the funds to build six SLS rockets. Congress has only funded two. Moreover, the pace of construction for SLS means that, if funded, it will likely take a decade at least for it to launch these six capsule/service modules. Since SpaceX’s Starship/Super Heavy will likely be operational in about half that time, and will also be capable of much more for far less, I suspect that if these additional Orion capsules get launched, they will do so on something other than SLS.

SLS-backer Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) to retire

Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), long time firm supporter of the very expensive and long-delayed Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, has announced that he will not run for office again when his term expires in ’22.

The 86-year-old Shelby was first elected to the Senate in 1986 after eight years in the House. Shelby served in the House, and the first eight years in the Senate, as a Democrat, switching to the Republican party in 1994.

Shelby is best known in the space community for his role shaping NASA programs as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. That has included stints as chairman of the commerce, justice and science subcommittee, whose jurisdiction includes NASA, as well as of the full committee. With Democrats in control of the Senate, he is currently the ranking member of the full committee.

“I have worked to enhance Alabama’s role in space exploration and the security of our nation,” Shelby said in the statement announcing his decision not to run for reelection. That’s included support for programs based at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, such as the Space Launch System. “As chairman of the appropriations committee, I have more than a passing interest in what NASA does. And I have a little parochial interest, too, in what they do in Huntsville, Alabama,” he said at a March 2019 industry event

As the article makes clear, Shelby used his clout unceasingly to keep SLS funded. When NASA simply hinted in 2019 that it might switch to another rocket to launch Orion he made his displeasure known, and NASA immediately backed down.

His resignation now, at the same time that other members of Congress as well as the Biden administration appear to be separating the Artemis lunar program from SLS, is a strong signal that the political winds are blowing badly against SLS. Shelby has probably realized that he no longer has the same support for SLS in the rest of Congress that he once had, and knows there is a good chance it will go away, along with much of the pork he has been funneling to Alabama with it. When that happens, his chances of getting reelected drop precipitously. He probably doesn’t have to inclination to fight what might be a losing battle, especially at the age of 86.

The second static fire test of SLS’s core stage is presently scheduled for the fourth week in February. All had better go well, as time is running out in getting the rocket’s first launch off in ’21. Right now that schedule is very iffy. Further problems will make it impossible.

And any major failures would probably lead to the entire program’s cancellation. It would take years for SLS to recover the loss of the core stage, time the program does not have.

Biden administration endorses Artemis program

During a press conference yesterday Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki stated that the Biden administration plans to continue the Artemis manned lunar program that was initiated by the Trump administration.

“Through the Artemis program, the United States government will work with industry and international partners to send astronauts to the surface of the moon — another man and a woman to the moon,” Psaki told reporters in a White House press briefing Thursday. “Certainly, we support this effort and endeavor,” she added.

The Biden administration was under pressure to endorse Artemis, coming from its own party. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress want the pork it represents to them. This statement now aligns Biden with Congress. The American effort to return to the Moon, established by Trump, is now practically engraved in stone.

What the statement that Psaki read did not detail is whether that support will include the SLS rocket or the Orion capsule. Nor did her statement indicate any time schedule for a landing, which adds weight to the supposition that they are going to abandon the Trump’s effort to push for a 2024 manned landing on the Moon.

Moreover, the letter sent to the White House on February 3rd by eleven Democrats endorsing Artemis (available here [pdf]), also said nothing about SLS or Orion. Instead, it was more intent on encouraging the White House to award contracts to the private sector to build the manned lunar lander. NASA had announced on February 1st that it was delaying its decision on who should build it, and those Democrats did not want that delay to result in the contracts getting killed.

Both statements tell us is that SLS itself is presently on very thin ice. Congress wants Artemis, but Artemis is no longer synonymous with SLS. For the past two years the Trump administration had been awarding contracts to numerous private companies to design and build many components of Artemis, rather than have NASA do the designing and building (as it had with SLS). Those contracts have created a cohort of new vested interests that rely on Artemis, all of which I am sure are screaming at their representatives in Congress to keep their work funded.

Furthermore, SpaceX’s development of Starship is clearly showing everyone that an alternative to SLS does exist, and could be operational for much less and much sooner.

To my mind, all this evidence suggests that the Washington political world is getting itself ready for the possibility of abandoning SLS. They don’t want to, but if alternatives to its pork are available that are also more productive, they are steeling themselves for making the difficult political decision of switching.

This evidence also suggests that the Biden administration will continue the policies I outlined in my 2017 policy paper Capitalism in Space (available as a free download here [pdf]) and adopted by the Trump administration. I had recommended that all design and construction should be taken from NASA and given to many different private companies, with that private sector also owning what they build while competing for those government dollars. NASA would outline the project’s goals and concept, and then act merely as a customer which would find others to execute those goals and concepts, as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

If the Biden administration is embracing these recommendations, this is very good news. While the motives of these corrupt politicians might be bad, the result could be very good for the U.S. Allowing the private sector to do the job means it might actually get done, rapidly and for much less. It will also help fuel the growth of a very robust American space industry, which once established will soon no longer depend solely on the government for its business. The lower cost required by the competition to get NASA business will encourage others to buy the products, and soon thereafter the government will become irrelevant to this industry’s success.

This is the model used in the early 20th century to jump start the airline industry. It worked. It now looks like NASA and the govenment will do it in space.

NASA to do another static fire test of SLS’s core stage

NASA has now scheduled a second static fire test of the core stage of its SLS rocket, tentatively scheduled for the fourth week in February.

The first test, planned to last eight minutes, shut down after only one minute when the stage’s computers decided the parameters on engine #2 were outside their conservative margins. That burn also had a sensor issue with its fourth engine.

Conducting a second hot fire test will allow the team to repeat operations from the first hot fire test and obtain data on how the core stage and the engines perform over a longer period that simulates more activities during the rocket’s launch and ascent. To prepare for the second hot fire test, the team is continuing to analyze data from the first test, drying and refurbishing the engines, and making minor thermal protection system repairs. They are also updating conservative control logic parameters that resulted in the flight computer ending the first hot fire test earlier than planned. The team has already repaired the faulty electrical harness which resulted in a notification of a Major Component Failure on Engine 4. This instrumentation issue did not affect the engine’s performance and did not contribute to ending the first test early.

Assuming this test is successful, they will then need a month to get the stage ready for shipment by barge to Cape Canaveral, where it will take several more months to get it assembled with its two strap-on solid rocket boosters, its upper stage, and the Orion capsule on top.

Right now the unmanned test flight into orbit of this entire rocket and Orion is set for November ’21. While NASA has not announced a delay, this additional static fire test puts significant pressure on that schedule.

New Democrat head of House subcommittee covering NASA says he supports Artemis

The new Democrat head of the House appropriations subcommittee that covers NASA funding, Matt Cartwright (D-Pennsylvania), appears to support the Artemis program established during the Trump administration, though he has also indicated that he does not favor the timeline imposed by Trump to land a manned mission on the Moon by ’24.

Cartwright’s embrace of Artemis during [a] July 2020 webinar was a change from 2019 when he was one of several members reacting skeptically to a supplemental budget request from the Trump Administration after it unexpectedly accelerated the timeline for putting people back on the Moon from 2028 to 2024. He complained NASA did not even have a cost estimate for the entire effort, yet expected Congress to embrace it.

In 2018, he expressed concern about proposed cuts by the Trump Administration to NASA’s earth and space science activities especially climate programs and WFIRST (now the Roman Space Telescope). He urged NASA to follow the Decadal Surveys produced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

What his prior views presage now that he chairs the subcommittee remains to be seen. It is widely expected the 2024 deadline will be pushed back, perhaps to the 2028 date NASA originally planned, but Cartwright appears favorably disposed towards the agency overall.

Delaying the Moon landing by SLS forever is the real goal, so the jobs program can be extended without any risks. To actually fly might result in a failure, something that no politician wants.

In the end it will not be SLS anyway that gets Americans back to the Moon. It costs too much and is badly designed. It might fly once or twice, but after that Congress will drop it while keeping Artemis, albeit in a very different form. Instead of having NASA design and build things, the new Artemis will be built by the many companies who were awarded fixed priced contracts during the Trump administration to develop their own hardware as fast as possible and as inexpensively as possible.

The distinction is important, because the latter is more likely to succeed in a reasonable amount of time.

At the same time, with Congress on board and a Democrat in the White House, it is not surprising that the policy is immediately shifting to a slower timeline. Can’t get this done too fast! I must also add that 2028 was not NASA’s original date for its return to the Moon. Before the Trump administration took control of Artemis, NASA had wanted to complete Gateway first, which based on all of NASA’s previous schedules would have pushed a lunar landing into the 2030s. Do not be surprised if this sluggish schedule is reinstated.

In fact, with the present incompetents in charge in Washington, I fully expect China to own the Moon, while U.S. politicians brainlessly dither on how to spend pork.

Another SLS core stage abort during dress rehearsal

NASA today revealed that engineers were forced on December 20th to abort at about T-5 minutes their second attempt to do a fueled dress rehearsal countdown in preparation for the full core stage static fire test.

[S]ources said the terminal countdown started at T-10 minutes and counting and ran down to T-4 minutes and 40 seconds where an unplanned hold occurred. … The criteria for how long it should take for a liquid hydrogen replenish valve to close was violated at that point in the countdown when the valve was commanded to the close position as a part of the process to pressurize the liquid hydrogen tank for engine firing. After holding at the T-4:40 point for a few minutes, teams decided the terminal countdown test couldn’t continue.

Vehicle safing and recycle sequences were then executed.

Although the countdown ran for over half of its intended duration, the early cutoff left several major milestones untested. With the countdown aborted at that point, the stage’s propellant tanks weren’t fully pressurized, the hydraulic Core Stage Auxiliary Power Units (CAPUs) were never started, the final RS-25 engine purge sequence was never run, and the vehicle power transfer didn’t occur.

NASA management is debating now whether they can proceed directly to the full core stage static fire test, where the core stage engine will fire for the full duration of a normal launch. It could be that they will decide to waive testing what was not tested on this last dress rehearsal.

If they delay the full test to do another dress rehearsal, they risk causing a delay in the fall launch of SLS, as they need a lot of time to disassemble, ship, and reassembly the stage in Florida. If they don’t delay, they risk either a failure during the full static fire test, or (even worse) a failure during that first launch.

Considering the number of nagging problems that have plagued this test program, it seems foolish to me to bypass any testing. They not only do not have enough data to really understand how to fuel the core stage reliably, they don’t even have a lot of practice doing the countdown itself. All this bodes ill when they try to launch later this year, especially if they decide to not work the kinks out now.

NASA budget passed by Congress rejects ’24 lunar landing

No surprise: The NASA budget that was passed by Congress this week as part of a giant omnibus bill only gave NASA 25% of the requested funds the agency says it needs to develop a human lander required for an Artemis manned mission to the Moon by ’24.

Overall, NASA will receive $23.271 billion, almost $2 billion less than requested. Importantly for the Trump Administration’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024, it provides only $850 million instead of $3.4 billion for Human Landing Systems.

…The Trump Administration requested a 12 percent increase for NASA in order to fund the Artemis program: $25.2 billion for FY2021 compared to the $22.9 billion it received in FY2020. While the goal of returning astronauts to the Moon has broad bipartisan support in Congress, the Trump deadline of 2024 — set because it would have been the end of his second term if he had been reelected — won lukewarm support at best from Republicans and none from Democrats who pointed to both budgetary and technical hurdles.

It was always clear that the Democrats were not going to cooperate with Trump to could get that lunar landing during his second term. Moreover, the real goal of Artemis is not space exploration, but distributing pork. Stretching out these missions so that they take many many years achieves that goal far better than a tight competitive schedule that gets things done. This is why SLS and Orion have been under construction, with no flights, for decades, even as SpaceX moves forward with Starship/Super Heavy in only a few years.

A Biden presidency actually increases the changes that Artemis will get better funding, but that funding will always be designed to stretch out the program for as long as possible. Our policymakers in Washington really do not care much for the interest of the nation. What they care about is their own power and aggrandizement.

An update on the testing of SLS’s core stage

Link here. The article provides more information on the temperature issue that caused the seventh of eight fueling tests of the core stage to abort early.

The temperature issue arose when NASA transferred superchilled liquid oxygen, to fuel the rocket, from a holding facility to the core stage of the SLS. This procedure has been modeled and verified before, Julie Bassler, SLS stages manager at Marshall, told reporters during the same teleconference. But this was the first time the transfer actually took place.

“We were actually just a few degrees different than what we wanted to see coming in,” she continued, but said the temperature must be precise during the initial phases of filling the tank. The requirement is minus 290.57 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 179.21 degrees Celsius.) But the liquid oxygen was slightly cooler, at minus 296.67 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 182.59 degrees Celsius).

“We filled up [the tank] just enough to pass the phase where we knew we weren’t going to be able to get the temperature to a level that was going to be acceptable to meet the requirement, and that’s when they caught us … in the testing,” Bassler continued.

Despite this issue, NASA still hopes to do the last core stage test, dubbed the Green Run, in the last week in December. During that static fire test they will fuel the core stage entirely and then fire its engines for the full duration of an actual launch — almost ten minutes. If all goes well they will then pack up the stage and ship it to Florida for the planned November unmanned test mission sending Orion around the Moon.

They have no schedule margins, however, because all the components of this very expensive and complex rocket need a lot of time to get anything done. The two solid rocket boosters that will be attached to the sides of the core stage only have a twelve month lifespan once assembled, and they are holding off assembling them pending this test. The core stage itself needs two months to be disassembled, and then two months to be reassembled in Florida. And there remain the issue of a failed power unit in the Orion capsule that could take four to twelve months to repair.

The article however had this telling quote, based on comments from a NASA official, about future launch procedures, that sent a chill up my spine:
» Read more

NASA fixes SLS issue, prepares for full hot fire engine test of core stage

My heart be still! NASA engineers have successfully fixed a valve on the inside of the core stage of the agency’s SLS rocket, making it possible for the continuation of the ongoing test program leading up to its first and only full static fire test on December 21st of the rocket’s core stage, prior to the rocket’s first launch.

Over the weekend, engineers at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, successfully repaired a valve inside the core stage of the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. The team designed an innovative tool to remove and replace the valve’s faulty clutch while the core stage remained in the B-2 test stand, and without removing the entire valve. Subsequent testing of the repaired valve confirmed that the system is operating as intended.

If that static fire test fails for any reason, it will likely delay the first Artemis launch by at least a year, if not longer. Right now there is a slim chance that SpaceX’s Starship will complete its first orbital launch before SLS (which NASA has been developing for only seventeen years). Further delays would almost guarantee it.

Such an event will make the entire SLS program appear kind of stupid, irrelevant, and an utter waste of money. But then, SLS is exactly that, a wasteful boondoggle designed not to get American astronauts into space but to spend money in Congressional districts and states. These corrupt legislators actually like the delay and failure, because it extends the contracts and funnels more money to their constituents over a longer period of time. Who cares if anything ever really gets accomplished, or the interests of the U.S. are advanced? What really matters is making sure Congressmen get photo ops, and their big space backers get contracts so they can continue to make campaign contributions.

Ukraine signs Artemis Accords

Ukraine has becomed the ninth nation to sign the Artemis Accords, designed to encourage private enterprise in space.

The article at the link provides little information, other than claiming that ” Ukraine has all the scientific and technical capabilities and experience that allow it to become one of NASA’s important partners in the implementation of the Artemis program.”

Russia and the Ukraine are on opposite sides of a war, with Russia attempting to steal territory, with some success. Russia has also boycotted all Ukrainian space technology, ending a half century of business dealings.

It seems that the Ukrainian government looked at this political landscape, and decided to align itself with the United States. By signing the accords, it now has the opportunity to sell its space technology to NASA, as well as participate in any American effort to get to the Moon and elsewhere. That it chose to pick an ally halfway around the world instead of its big and powerful neighbor, tells us a great deal about the Ukrainian’s opinion of Russia.

I expect there will be a NASA press release in the next day or so that will provide us additional information.

Senate fails to fully fund manned lander for Trump’s 2024 lunar mission

The Senate appropriations committee’s budget recommendations for NASA, released yesterday, has refused to fully fund the development of the manned lander needed for Trump’s 2024 lunar mission.

The Senate Appropriations Committee released its recommendations for all 12 FY2021 appropriations bills today. The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill provides NASA with $23.5 billion, $1.75 billion less than requested. The House-passed bill keeps the agency at its current level of $22.6 billion, so the final compromise likely will be somewhere in that range. NASA’s request for Human Landing Systems (HLS) for the Artemis program was particularly hard hit on both sides of Capitol Hill.

NASA had requested $3.4 billion for building the lunar lander in time for 2024. The House appropriated $628 million. Today’s Senate recommendation budgeted $1 billion. This practically guarantees that no manned lunar mission will happen by 2024.

None of this is a surprise. The politicians in Congress from both parties don’t really want to rush this program. For them it is better to stretch it out for as long as possible, spending mucho bucks in their states and districts. Nothing will be accomplished, but they will be able to tell their constituents they brought the jobs home.

Useless and empty jobs, but jobs nonetheless.

NASA and ESA ink Lunar Gateway deal

NASA yesterday announced that it has signed a deal with the European Space Agency (ESA) outlining their partnership in building the Lunar Gateway space station in orbit around the Moon.

Under this agreement, ESA will contribute habitation and refueling modules, along with enhanced lunar communications, to the Gateway. The refueling module also will include crew observation windows. In addition to providing the hardware, ESA will be responsible for operations of the Gateway elements it provides. ESA also provides two additional European Service Modules (ESMs) for NASA’s Orion spacecraft. These ESMs will propel and power Orion in space on future Artemis missions and provide air and water for its crew.

For some reason NASA’s press release makes no mention of what ESA gets from the deal. From this news report:

[ESA] said it will receive “three flight opportunities for European astronauts to travel to and work on the Gateway” as part of the agreement.

I also note that there is no mention of the Artemis Accords in this agreement. As far as I can tell, right now the only ESA member who has signed on is the United Kingdom, and I am not sure of the UK’s status in the ESA considering their exit from the European Union. The two are different political deals, but exiting one might affect the other.

The Trump administration has said repeatedly that it will only partner in its lunar ambitions with countries that sign the accords. However, at this moment Congress has simply not funded those ambitions, so NASA needs partners to get things built. Moreover, Orion is a space capsule (costing about $18 billion and taking 20 years to build) that does not have a service module to provide it air and water. Europe provides that, and had only agreed to build two.

It might be that NASA has traded the accords away to get Europe’s help for both Gateway and Orion. This deal, announced now, might also be an effort by NASA (and Europe) to lobby Congress to fork up the cash.

NASA lays out Artemis budget and plan to get astronauts to Moon

In a obvious lobbying effort to get Congress to fund the Trump administration’s Artemis project to land humans on the Moon by 2024, NASA yesterday released a new updated plan and budget for the program.

More here.

The document [pdf] outlines the specific plans for each of the first three Artemis flights, with the first unmanned, the second manned and designed to fly around the Moon, and the third to land a man and a woman on the Moon. Overall the plan is budgeted at about $28 billion, with $3.2 billion needed immediately to fund construction of the lunar lander. From the second link:

Bridenstine said he remains optimistic Congress will fully fund lander development because of what he described as broad bipartisan support for the Artemis program. He said he’s hopeful an expected continuing resolution that would freeze NASA’s budget at last year’s spending levels will be resolved in an “omnibus” spending bill before Christmas or, if the CR is extended, by early spring. “It is critically important that we get that $3.2 billion,” he said. “And I think that if we can have that done before Christmas, we’re still on track for a 2024 moon landing. … If we go beyond March, and we still don’t have the human landing system funded, it becomes increasingly more difficult.”

And what happens then?

“It’s really simple. If Congress doesn’t fund the moon landing program, then it won’t be achieved (in 2024), I mean it’s really that simple,” Bridenstine said. But he quickly added: “I want to be clear, if they push the funding off, our goal will be to get to the moon at the earliest possible opportunity.”

I remain doubtful the present Congress, with the House controlled by the Democrats, will fund this 2024 lunar landing. Since 2016 the entire political platform of the Democratic Party has been “oppose anything Trump.” They will not fund this project if it means he will get this landing during his second term.

If however Trump loses in November, the lame duck Congress might then go ahead and fund it before December, since the landing in 2024 will then occur during the Biden presidency.

Technically the plan reveals that NASA is trying to accelerate the development of the rendezvous and docking software for Orion. During the second flight, the first manned, the crew will do proximity maneuvers with the upper stage of the rocket. Under previous management NASA had not included this ability, as they had not planned to have Orion do any rendezvouses or dockings. That lack makes it impossible for Orion to fly on any other rocket but SLS. This change means the Trump administration recognizes this is a problem, and wants to fix it, especially because they also recognize that SLS is a poor long term option for future lunar missions.

First manned Artemis Moon mission might not go to south pole

In order to meet the Trump administration’s 2024 deadline for the first Artemis manned lunar landing, NASA is now considering sending that first mission to an equatorial target, rather than the Moon’s south pole.

The Artemis program landing site issue came up at two separate events with agency leaders this week, beginning with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s comments to open a digital meeting held by a NASA advisory group called the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group, on Monday (Sept. 14).

“For the first mission, Artemis 3, our objective is to get to the south pole,” Bridenstine said. “But … it would not surprise me if, for example, if we made a determination that the south pole might be out of reach for Artemis 3, which I’m not saying it is or isn’t,” interest in the Apollo sites may win out.

The engineering to get to the polar regions is more challenging, so rather than delay that first mission they are considering simplifying it instead.

The fact remains that Congress has still not funded any Artemis missions beyond the first unmanned and first manned flights, neither of which will land on the Moon. Whether that money will ever be forthcoming really depends entirely on the November election, as well as the success or failure of the upcoming full-up static fire engine test of the SLS first stage.

Dynetics’ manned lunar lander requires multiple launches and in-space refueling

According to company officials, the manned lunar lander being developed by Dynetics — one of three under NASA contract — will require three quick ULA Vulcan launches and in-space refueling before it will be capable of landing humans on the Moon.

Dynetics’ proposed Human Landing System (HLS) depends upon fuel depots and multiple rocket launches to achieve NASA’s goal of landing two astronauts on the moon in 2024, officials said during a webinar earlier this week. “Our lander is unique in that we need lunar fueling to accomplish our mission. In the next couple years, we will take in-space cryogenic propellant refueling technologies from the lab to [technology readiness level] 10 and operational,” said Kathy Laurini, payloads and commercialization lead for Dynetics’ HLS program.

The lander would launch on one Vulcan rocket, with the next two launches bringing the additional fuel.

More details here.

While it is good that this design does not require the long delayed and likely not-ready SLS rocket, it appears to require in-space capabilities that will not be ready by 2024, the Trump administration’s target date for its manned lunar landing. Instead, this design seems more aimed at subsequent operations in later years.

Since Congress has not yet funded the 2024 mission, though both parties seem interested in later manned lunar operations, this design seems cleverly aimed at that reality, designed to encourage long term government funding.

Regardless, everything hangs on the November elections, and who ends up in charge, both in the White House and in Congress. We presently have really have no way of predicting what will happen, until we know those election results.

Blue Origin-led partnership delivers lunar lander mockup to NASA

Capitalism in space: The Blue Origin-led partnership, which calls itself “the National Team,” has delivered to the Johnson Space Center a full scale mock-up of the manned lunar lander it is building for NASA.

The full-sized, but low-fidelity, mockup includes both the descent element, developed by Blue Origin, and ascent element, built by Lockheed Martin, and stands more than 12 meters high.

The companies developed the mockup to allow NASA astronauts and engineers to study the layout of the vehicle, including positioning of various components, and get feedback while the lander is still in an early stage of development.

While providing this mock-up to NASA for design review makes sense, I must say that I yawned when I saw the string of overly excited new reports about it from almost every mainstream news outlet. It appears that though Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin have become very skilled at delivering nothing but mock-ups and promises over the past few years, both have also become very skilled at getting the press pumped up with each new mock-up and promise.

More and more does Bezos and Blue Origin remind me of Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, making promises and holding spectacular fake press events, but actually achieving little. I could be wrong, but I can’t get that similarity out of my head. Blue Origin was founded in 2000, before SpaceX, and after more than twenty years it has yet to fly anything commercially. Work on its New Shepard reusable suborbital rocket has apparently stalled, without ever flying humans. Its main rocket engine, the BE-4, is taking years to develop, with only test versions built, none flightworthy. And New Glenn, its orbital rocket, remains a fantasy.

I truly hope my cynicism here is unfounded. I want Blue Origin to succeed. I just wish they’d finally do something.

House rejects Artemis; Senate funds Artemis

The Senate gives, the House taketh away: Even as the Democratically-controlled House continues to refuse the Trump administration’s request for $2.6 billion to fund its 2024 manned lunar landing, the Republican-controlled Senate has provided $1.6 billion of those funds in the next COVID-19 stimulus package.

This illustrates why such stimulus packages are utterly corrupt. Much of the money allocated has little to do with helping the country recover from the Wuhan panic, but is instead earmarked for the favorite agencies of the politicians. The Republicans are also trying to use this package to sneak across funding for Artemis without the House Democrats noticing, or being able to object.

It remains to be seen whether that strategy will work. Either way, we continue on the road to bankruptcy and financial collapse, as the federal government is trillions in debt, and simply doesn’t have the money for any of this.

Proposed House NASA budget flat, with some surprising support for Artemis

While the first House proposal for NASA’s 2021 budget has rejected the Trump administration’s request for a total $3 billion increase for the agency to fund Artemis so that it can complete a manned mission to the Moon by 2024, it also provided about 18% of the funds requested for building the manned lunar lander required for that mission.

Back in February, the White House asked for $3.37 billion in fiscal year 2021 to accelerate development of the lander.

Democrats in the House have been skeptical of the 2024 launch date—some see it as political due to the timing of the next presidential election—and so have been slow to fund the lander. In its budget, the House appropriates $1.56 billion for “Exploration Research and Development.” This includes funding for the lander, Lunar Gateway, and other activities related to the Moon’s surface, of which more than $600 million can be used for the lander.

The House also provided a boost of $343 million to SLS.

My guess is that the Democrats in the House are working to keep Artemis going because of the jobs it brings to their districts, but want to slow it down enough so that it cannot succeed while Trump is in office. Thus, the release of some funds for the lunar lander, but not enough to build it, now.

The House proposal also includes a loosening on Congress’s mandate that Europa Clipper must launch on SLS. NASA is now given the option to consider other alternatives if SLS is not avaiable, which means that NASA can now consider using the Falcon Heavy instead.

This proposal must still pass the Republican-controlled Senate, so expect more changes.

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