Having regained communications with CAPSTONE, engineers prepare for first mid-course burn

Engineers are now preparing CAPSTONE for its first first mid-course engine burn, slightly late due to a loss of communications during the past two days.

The spacecraft is in good health and functioning properly.

The CAPSTONE team is still actively working to fully establish the root cause of the issue. Ground-based testing suggests the issue was triggered during commissioning activities of the communications system. The team will continue to evaluate the data leading up to the communications issue and monitor CAPSTONE’s status.

If all goes well, that engine burn will occur as early as 11:30 am (Eastern) on July 7th.

SLS dress rehearsal countdown ends at T-29 seconds

NASA’s fourth attempt to complete a full dress rehearsal countdown of its giant SLS rocket today ended at T-29 seconds, just short of the complete countdown.

It appears the countdown had one issue — a hydrogen fuel leak at the point where the umbilical fuel line attaches to the rocket — that mission control decided to ignore (or “mask” to use their word) so that they could proceed into the count as far as possible. It was this decision however that caused the two-hour delay in the countdown. They then resumed the countdown at T-10 minutes, the beginning of terminal count.

During the terminal count, the teams performed several critical operations that must be accomplished for launch including switching control from the ground launch sequencer to the automated launch sequencer controlled by the rocket’s flight software, and important step that the team wanted to accomplish.

NASA will hold a press conference tomorrow at 11 am (Eastern) to discuss the results of this dress rehearsal. While the leak is concerning, I expect NASA to decide that this dress rehearsal was a success, that they will roll the rocket back to the vehicle assembly building where they will fix this problem, after which the agency will declare the rocket ready to launch by the end of August.

While risky, doing otherwise likely raises other risks. If they decide to do another dress rehearsal the launch faces more delays. And waiting much longer continues to increase the danger that the solid rocket side boosters will not function as intended because they have been stacked almost a year longer than their accepted use-by date.

If this turns out to be the plan, expect the actual launch countdown to be as plagued with issues and delays and scrubs. NASA has yet to demonstrate it can do this smoothly with no problems. Worse, this level of mediocre performance has been par for the course for this entire SLS program.

If that launch should go smoothly it will be a welcome and unprecedented event.

SLS dress rehearsal countdown continues, though T-0 delayed two hours

The SLS dress rehearsal countdown is proceeding today as planned, though the countdown’s end at T-0 is now 4:38 pm (eastern), two hours later than previously announced.

Apparently they have delayed T-0 from the beginning of the two-hour simulated launch window to its end. This decision so early in the count suggests the launch team wants to give itself extra time either to deal with some issue that has come up that they haven’t told us about yet, or to give themselves more time in case some issue should come up.

SLS dress rehearsal countdown begins

NASA engineers began their fourth attempt to complete a full dress rehearsal countdown of the SLS rocket yesterday, with everything proceeding so far as planned.

Overnight, engineers powered up the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System’s core stage. Teams also configured several systems on the ground, rocket, and spacecraft and performed activities to prepare umbilicals that connect the rocket and spacecraft to the mobile launcher and are used to provide power, communications, coolant, and propellant.

Actual fueling begins tomorrow, when the countdown is supposed to conclude at T-0 at 2:40 pm (Eastern).

NASA live stream is available here.

SLS dress rehearsal countdown set for June 20th with launch delayed again

According to NASA officials, the next attempt to complete a dress rehearsal countdown for its SLS rocket will take place on June 20, 2022, with the earliest date an actual launch can occur delayed again, and now set at best for an August 23 to September 6 window.

The article also notes that during a different press conference, NASA administrator Bill Nelson hinted that “there could be slips” in the present target date of ‘2025 for landing humans on the Moon.

Ya think? I guarantee that NASA will not land humans on the Moon in ’25, at least not using SLS. Based on all the issues confronting SLS, as well as NASA’s normal way of doing things, this mission will certainly slip at least one to two more years. And I am being very very very very optimistic.

We must also note that when first proposed by Bush Jr. in 2004, he predicted a NASA manned lunar landing by 2015, which means this launch will be at least one decade behind schedule, with it more likely being later than that.

But then, I can hear our glorious president yelling at me for complaining. “C’mon man! What’s a decade or two when you’re scheduling something important?”

NASA awards Axiom & Collins Aerospace contracts to build spacesuits

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday awarded separate contracts to two different companies, Axiom and Collins Aerospace, to build spacesuits for its astronauts, either when they do spacewalks in space or when they are exploring the lunar surface.

The contract enables selected vendors to compete for task orders for missions that will provide a full suite of capabilities for NASA’s spacewalking needs during the period of performance through 2034. The indefinite delivery and indefinite quantity, milestone-based xEVAS contract has a combined maximum potential value of $3.5 billion for all task order awards. The first task orders to be competed under the contract will include the development and services for the first demonstration outside the space station in low-Earth orbit and for the Artemis III lunar landing.

Each partner has invested a significant amount of its own money into development. Partners will own the spacesuits and are encouraged to explore other non-NASA commercial applications for data and technologies they co-develop with NASA.

More information can be found in each companies’ press release, located here (Axiom) and here (Collins).

These commercial contracts replace NASA’s own failed effort to make its own Artemis spacesuits, which spent fourteen years and more than a billion dollars before being abandoned by the agency because wouldn’t be able to deliver anything on time.

The contracts also continue NASA’S transition — as recommended in my 2017 policy paper Capitalism in Space [pdf] — from a failed space contractor to merely being the customer buying products from the commercial sector. The result is we now have a vibrant and ever growing private space sector with products available quickly and cheaply not only for NASA, but for others. The Axiom press release illustrates these facts with this quote:

The Axiom spacesuit is key to the company’s commercial space services. This new NASA contract enables Axiom to build spacesuits that serve the company’s commercial customers and future space station goals while meeting NASA’s ISS and exploration needs.

SLS next dress rehearsal countdown scheduled for June 19th

NASA has now scheduled the next dress rehearsal countdown for its SLS rocket for around June 19th, with the rocket beginning its trip to the launch site on June 6th.

It appears the issues that prevented the completion of the dress rehearsal in April have all been addressed:

While inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), teams completed several major objectives, including assessing the liquid hydrogen system leak at the tail service mast umbilical, replacing the interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) gaseous helium system check valve and support hardware, and modifying the ICPS umbilical purge boots. The addition of hazardous gas detectors above the upper stage allows for additional visibility into any potential leaks during cryogenic operations.

Other than the rollout on June 6th, all future dates remain flexible, depending on what happens step-by-step.

U.S. and Japan agree to send Japanese astronaut to Gateway and the Moon

In a deal negotiated for signing this week while President Biden was in Japan, the United States and Japan have agreed to send a Japanese astronaut on a mission to the Lunar Gateway station, as well as begin planning for a Japanese astronaut to land on the Moon, all part of the Artemis program.

The agreement also confirmed the exchange of material from the countries’ two sample return asteroid missions, Hayabusa-2 and OSIRIS-REx.

None of this is a surprise. Not only was Japan one of the first to sign the Artemis Accords, Japanese subcontractors are already providing some of the life support equipment for Gateway.

NASA announces new possible launch dates for first SLS launch

NASA on May 16th announced the new possible launch dates for first SLS launch, outlining potential launch windows through the first half of 2023, with the first at the end of July 2022.

The calendar of launch windows through June of ’23 can be viewed here [pdf].

The July 26th to August 10th window is the one the agency is clearly targeting for that first launch, but it will not confirm this until after SLS successfully completes the next dress rehearsal countdown attempt in June. That the agency is now showing us potential launch dates in ’23 also suggests it is anticipating the possibility the launch could be delayed that much, especially if it determines it must replace the SLS’s two solid rocket boosters because they have been stacked unused for too long.

SLS was initially planned for a launch in 2015. It is now seven-plus years behind schedule, which is how long it took SpaceX to go from a blank sheet of paper to launching its Falcon Heavy for the first time.

SLS launch delayed until August, at the earliest

In describing its plans for doing a second dress rehearsal countdown of its SLS rocket in June, NASA officials yesterday noted that they have delayed the actual launch until an August launch window so they will have time to do a third dress rehearsal before that launch.

But Free warned the issues are complex and it’s possible more than one tanking test will be required to thoroughly test the complex systems in the SLS rocket and their interaction with the ground systems that provide propellants, power and other critical elements. He said the August launch windows would “allow us to do two wet dress rehearsal attempts if we need them.”

“We are optimistic that we only need one more based on everything we’ve been able to do thus far to fine tune our tanking procedures,” he said. “But we also want to be realistic and upfront with you that it may take more than one attempt to get the procedures where we need them.”

According to this SpacePolicyOnline report, NASA has also mapped out additional launch windows for September through December.

In reviewing every news story about yesterday’s press conference, I could not find any that asked the agency about the status of SLS’s two solid rocket strap-on boosters. Both have now been stacked for more than seventeen months, and by August will have been stacked for twenty months, eight months past NASA’s use-by rule of one year. Either the past rules were too conservative, or NASA is simply ignoring the possibility that those boosters might no longer be viable. In either case, it is disappointing no reporter asked about this.

NASA to conduct second SLS launch dress rehearsal in June

In announcing a press conference later today about the status of NASA’s SLS rocket, the agency revealed it now plans to conduct a second SLS launch dress rehearsal in June.

NASA’s SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft arrived back at Kennedy’s Vehicle Assembly Building April 26 after a 10-hour journey from launch pad 39B. Since their arrival, teams have worked to replace a faulty upper stage check valve and repair a small leak within the tail service mast umbilical ground plate housing. The teams also have been performing additional checkouts while the spaceport’s supplier of gaseous nitrogen makes upgrades to their pipeline configuration to support Artemis I activities.

We will likely find out NASA’s new launch schedule for the rocket today.

SLS rocket rolled back to VAB

NASA’s SLS rocket has now been rolled back to the vehicle assembly building (VAB) so that engineers can assess the various problems that prevented the agency from completing a full dress rehearsal countdown last week.

Over the next several days, the team will extend the work platforms to allow access to SLS and Orion. In the coming weeks, teams will work on replacing a faulty upper stage check valve and a small leak within the tail service mast umbilical ground plate housing, and perform additional checkouts before returning to the launch pad for the next wet dress rehearsal attempt.

More details about these problems can be found here.

The bottom line is that these engineering fixes are certain to take at least two months to fix. Then NASA must decide what next to do. If it decides to redo the dress rehearsal countdown, then an actual launch cannot happen sooner than July, and only if they proceed directly to launch after completing the rehearsal. If the rocket is rolled back to the VAB after the next rehearsal the launch will be delayed further, into August or September.

And all that assumes the next rehearsal goes perfect, something that seems unlikely based on what has happened so far.

The delays are a problem because the first stage’s two strap-on solid rocket boosters are already well past their “use-by” date of January ’22. The possibility that NASA will have to unstack this rocket and replace these boosters is growing. If that happens the launch cannot occur sooner than early ’23, if then.

Worse, these delays cause all other subsequent SLS launches to be delayed as well. Right now the manned mission to the Moon, presently scheduled for ’25, is likely going to be pushed back to ’26.

The most valuable real estate on the Moon

The most valuable real estate on the Moon
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, reduced and annotated to post here, is an oblique view of the terrain near Shackelton Crater and the Moon’s south pole, taken by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and released today.

Shackleton-de Gerlache ridge, about 9 miles long, is considered one of the prime landing sites for both a manned Artemis mission as well as the unmanned Nova-C lander from the commercial company Intuitive Machines. To facilitate planning, scientists have created a very detailed geomorphic map [pdf] of this region. As explained at the first link above,

Going back to time-proven traditions of the Apollo missions, geomorphic maps at a very large scale are needed to effectively guide and inform landing site selection, traverse planning, and in-situ landscape interpretation by rovers and astronauts. We assembled a geomorphic map covering a candidate landing site on the Shackleton-de Gerlache-ridge and the adjacent rim of Shackleton crater. The map was derived from one meter per pixel NAC image mosaics and five meters per pixel digital elevation models (DEM) from Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) ranging measurements.

Such geology maps guide planning and exploration, but actual images tell us what the first explorers will see. Below is a close-up overhead view of small area at the intersection of the ridge and the rim of Shackleton.
» Read more

Former NASA insiders form commercial company to launch satellites to lunar orbit

Capitalism in space: Two former NASA managers have teamed up with two commercial businessman to form a startup, dubbed Quantum Space, to launch an unmanned platform to lunar space to provide support for NASA’s Artemis program.

The team includes Steve Jurczyk, who spent thirty years at NASA and finished his career there before retiring serving as acting NASA administrator for the first three months of the Biden administration.

Jurczyk is one of the three co-founders of Quantum Space. Another is Ben Reed, former division chief of exploration and in-space services at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and who worked on satellite servicing projects there. He is the chief technology officer of Quantum Space. The third co-founder is Kam Ghaffarian, who also helped start commercial space station company Axiom Space and lunar lander developer Intuitive Machines after selling Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies. They’re joined by Kerry Wisnosky, the co-founder and former principal owner of Millennium Engineering and Integration, who is the chief operating officer of Quantum Space.

Their plan is to launch their platform and robots to the Earth-Moon L1 point, the spot where the gravitational spheres of influence of the Earth and Moon meet, about 40,000 miles from the Moon.

The outpost … would consist of two components. One is a spacecraft bus that serves as a platform for hosting payloads, using modular “plug-and-play” interfaces. The other is a spacecraft that would deliver payloads to the platform and install them using robotic manipulators.

Those payloads could include communications, navigation, remote sensing, space domain awareness and space weather sensors, Jurczyk said. Those payloads would primarily come from customers, but he said the company is looking at developing its own payloads, particularly for imaging of the Earth and moon.

They hope to launch their first satellite by ’25.

Like the insiders who run Axiom, these guys are taking advantage of their experience at NASA to build a private space company that will serve NASA’s needs. They are also recognizing that in the coming years, everything NASA “does” will be done by private companies. This company is their effort to jump on that bandwagon.

Update on SLS: Still aiming for very unlikely March launch

A detailed update on the work being done by NASA and Boeing engineers to prepare SLS for its first unmanned test launch suggests that though a March launch is still the target, it is likely to be delayed.

The update at the link is very thorough, and outlines a large number of tests that need to be done to get this very cumbersome and complicated rocket ready for launch. They are just about done with the prep work for the core stage, and are now shifting to final testing of the upper stage, followed by some countdown sequence testing and a test of the flight termination system. In addition there are a number of other tests they wish to perform, all of which will take time.

Once these are done they will be ready to roll the rocket out to the launchpad for a final dress rehearsal countdown — dubbed the Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR), now scheduled for mid- to late-February.

NASA will not set a launch date until after the WDR is completed and they can factor in any additional tasks with already-known work. “We’ve continually said that until we get through WDR we won’t set a launch date, so us getting out in mid-February for WDR allows them to look at March and April as opportunities,” Lanham said.

“I really can’t put my finger on it again until we come back from WDR and see if we have any issues there that we’ve got to go correct.” After the WDR test, the vehicle and Mobile Launcher will be rolled back to the VAB for final pre-launch maintenance and servicing.

Some have said the earliest realistic launch date is May, with the mid-summer more likely. We shall have to wait and see.

SLS likely facing another launch delay

Engineers for NASA’s SLS rocket have determined that they need to replace the flight controller on one of the engines in the rocket’s core stage, an action that will likely force a delay from the presently scheduled February launch date.

After performing a series of inspections and troubleshooting, engineers determined the best course of action is to replace the engine controller, returning the rocket to full functionality and redundancy while continuing to investigate and identify a root cause. NASA is developing a plan and updated schedule to replace the engine controller while continuing integrated testing and reviewing launch opportunities in March and April.

It appears they hope to make this change-out quickly and only have to delay one or two months, though at the moment it is also unclear this will be possible.

NASA IG: Artemis manned lunar landing will likely not happen in ’25

IG's estimate of SLS's per launch cost

According to a new NASA inspector general report released today [pdf], because of numerous technical, budgetary, and management issues, the planned Artemis manned lunar landing now set for 2025 is likely to be delayed several years beyond that date. From the report’s summary:

NASA’s three initial Artemis missions, designed to culminate in a crewed lunar landing, face varying degrees of technical difficulties and delays heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic and weather events that will push launch schedules from months to years past the Agency’s current goals. With Artemis I mission elements now being integrated and tested at Kennedy Space Center, we estimate NASA will be ready to launch by summer 2022 rather than November 2021 as planned. Although Artemis II is scheduled to launch in late 2023, we project that it will be delayed until at least mid-2024 due to the mission’s reuse of Orion components from Artemis I. … Given the time needed to develop and fully test [SpaceX’s Starship lunar lander] and new spacesuits, we project NASA will exceed its current timetable for landing humans on the Moon in late 2024 by several years. [emphasis mine]

Gosh, it sure didn’t long for my prediction from last week — that the new target date of ’25 was garbage — to come true.

Today’s report also states that it does not expect the first test launch of SLS to occur in February ’22, as NASA presently predicts, but later, in the summer of ’22. It then notes that the next SLS launch, meant to be the first manned launch of SLS and Orion and presently scheduled for late ’23, will almost certainly be delayed to mid-’24. And that’s assuming all goes well on the first unmanned test flight.

While the report lauds SpaceX’s fast development pace, it also does not have strong confidence in SpaceX’s ability to get its Starship lunar lander ready on time, and believes that NASA could see its completion occurring from three to four years later than planned.

The report also confirms an August 2021 inspector general report about NASA’s failed program to develop lunar spacesuits, stating that its delays make a ’24 lunar landing impossible.

The report states that Gateway is well behind schedule, and will likely not be operational until ’26, at the earliest. While the present plan for that first manned lunar landing does not require Gateway, Gateway’s delays and cost overruns impact the overall program.

Finally, the report firmly states that the per launch cost of SLS is $4.1 billion, a price that will make any robust lunar exploration program utterly unsustainable.

Before the arrival of Trump, NASA’s original plan for SLS and Gateway called for a manned lunar landing in 2028. The Trump administration attempted to push NASA to get it done by ’24. This inspector general report suggests to me that this push effort was largely wasted, that NASA’s Artemis program will likely continue to have repeated delays, announced piecemeal in small chunks. This has been the public relations strategy of NASA throughout its entire SLS program. They announce a target date and then slowly over time delay it in small amounts to hide the fact that the real delay is many years.

Expect this same pattern with the manned lunar landing mission. They announce a delay of one year from ’24 to ’25. After a year they will then announce another delay to ’26. A year later another delay to ’27. And so forth.

NASA admits manned lunar landing can’t happen before ’25

NASA administrator Bill Nelson admitted today that the goal of landing Americans back on the Moon by 2024 was impossible, and that the agency has now delayed that target date one year to 2025.

Nelson attempted to blame the delay on Blue Origin’s lawsuit against NASA for its award of the manned lunar lander contract to SpaceX.

He blamed the shifting timeline on a lawsuit over the agency’s moon lander, to be built by SpaceX, and delays with NASA’s Orion capsule, which is to fly astronauts to lunar orbit. “We’ve lost nearly seven months in litigation, and that likely has pushed the first human landing likely to no earlier than 2025,” Mr. Nelson said, adding that NASA will need to have more detailed discussions with SpaceX to set a more specific timeline.

This however is a bald-faced lie. The Trump 2024 deadline was never realistic. Moreover, delays in SLS and Orion have been continuous and ongoing for years, all of which made a ’24 landing quite difficult and if attempted extremely unsafe. Even as it is, trying this mission by ’25 is risky, especially if it depends on SLS. Moreover, as the article notes, how SLS, Orion, and SpaceX’s Starship will team up to get this mission — designed by a committee — to and from the Moon remains exceedingly unclear.

With great confidence I predict that if the lunar mission depends on SLS in any manner, it will not launch in ’25 either.

NASA issues request for commercially-built spacesuits for its Artemis program

Capitalism in space: After more than a decade of delays in building its own in-house next generation spacesuits, NASA this week issued a request for proposals from the commercial space industry for new spacesuits for its Artemis program.

Bidders can use the technology NASA developed for [its unfinished upgraded spacesuits] in its proposals, or they can use their own designs, the document states. The suits must be able to meet a variety of requirements, including up to six spacewalks on the lunar surface during initial Artemis Moon missions. They must also be made of materials such that less than 100 grams of lunar regolith is brought back into the “cabin environment” after each spacewalk on the Moon. NASA plans to award a contract by next April.

The plan is comparable to what NASA has been doing across the board now for the last three years, buy the product from the commercial sector in a fixed price contract. The company that builds the suits will retain ownership of the design, and can make money selling its use to others.

This policy approach continues the agency’s acceptance of almost all the recommendations put forth in my 2017 policy paper, Capitalism in Space, a free pdf download.

It also likely means NASA might finally get the spacesuits it needs for future lunar missions quickly and at a reasonable cost, something the agency itself has been unable to do.

NASA awards Aerojet Rocketdyne contract to build 20 Orion main engines

NASA announced yesterday that it has awarded Aerojet Rocketdyne the contract to build twenty Orion main engines for capsules on missions running through 2032, with the first to be used on the seventh Artemis launch..

This engine is the one that Orion will use to enter and leave lunar orbit.

Based on the pace that NASA expects to launch SLS, once per year, I expect the last engine in this contract will fly in 2048, not 2032, since it will take about 27 years to put that many Orions into space after SLS’s first launch, expected sometime in the next five months.

In other words, this is a contract to keep the jobs at Aerojet Rocketdyne in existence for the next three decades, even if that company’s engineers build little and accomplish less. Nice welfare work I must say.

The problem Starship poses to NASA and Congress

An interesting essay published earlier this week in The Space Review raises the coming dilemma that both NASA and Congress will soon have to face once Starship is operational and launching large cargoes and crews to orbit, both near Earth and to the Moon.

That dilemma: What do about SLS and Lunar Gateway once it becomes ridiculously obvious that they are inferior vessels for future space travel?

I think this quote from the article more than any illustrates the reality that these government officials will soon have to deal with in some manner:

[When] the Lunar Starship ever docks with Gateway, the size comparison with Gateway will appear silly and beg the question as to whether Gateway is actually necessary. Does this even make sense? Couldn’t two Starships simply dock with each other and transfer propellant from one to another. Is there really a need for a middleman?

The author, Doug Plata, also notes other contrasts that will make SLS and Lunar Gateway look absurd, such as when two Starships begin transferring fuel in orbit or when a Starship launches 400 satellites in one go, or when a private Starship mission circles the Moon and returns to Earth for later reuse.

All of these scenarios are actually being planned, with the first something NASA itself is paying for, since the lunar landing Starship will dock with Lunar Gateway to pick up and drop off its passengers for the Moon.

The bottom line for Plata is that the federal government needs to stop wasting money on bad programs like SLS and Lunar Gateway and switch its focus to buying products from commercial sources like SpaceX. They will get far more bang for the buck, while actually getting something accomplished in space.

Though he uses different words, and has the advantage of recent events to reference, Plata is essentially repeating my recommendations from my 2017 policy paper, Capitalism in Space [free pdf]. Plata draws as his proof for his argument the recent developments with Starship. I drew as my proof a comparison between SLS and what private commercial space was doing for NASA, as starkly illustrated by this one table:

The cost difference between SLS and private space

The government has got to stop trying to build things, as it does an abysmal job. It instead must buy what it needs from private commercial vendors who know how to do it and have proven they can do it well.

If the government does this, will not only save money, it will fuel an American renaissance in space. As we see already beginning to see happen now in rocketry and the unmanned lunar landing business.

Inspector general slams NASA spacesuit program

NASA's failed spacesuit
NASA’s failed spacesuit

A NASA inspector general report released today [pdf] bluntly slammed NASA endless and much delayed project to develop a new spacesuit for its Artemis program.

After noting that the project has been ongoing at NASA for fourteen years, the summary then blasts the program hard:

NASA’s current schedule is to produce the first two flight-ready xEMUs [NASA acronym for spacesuits] by November 2024, but the Agency faces significant challenges in meeting this goal. This schedule includes approximately a 20-month delay in delivery for the planned design, verification, and testing suit, two qualification suits, an ISS Demo suit, and two lunar flight suits. These delays—attributable to funding shortfalls, COVID-19 impacts, and technical challenges—have left no schedule margin for delivery of the two flight-ready xEMUs. Given the integration requirements, the suits would not be ready for flight until April 2025 at the earliest. Moreover, by the time two flight-ready xEMUs are available, NASA will have spent over a billion dollars on the development and assembly of its next-generation spacesuits.

Given these anticipated delays in spacesuit development, a lunar landing in late 2024 as NASA currently plans is not feasible. [emphasis mine]

This bears repeating: NASA will spent more than a billion dollars and fourteen years to build two spacesuits. What a bargain! Imagine if we have to pay a tailor for fitting!

And yet, despite this incredibly inefficient use of money, the report also finds that NASA doesn’t have enough to get the suits made on time!

Besides the endless managerial incompetencies noted in the report, it also notes several technical issues contributing to the problems, including one case where “staff used the wrong specifications” causing a unit’s failure.

Overall, the entire management of this program by NASA and the government appears to have been confused, incoherent, wasteful, and unable to get the job done, a pattern quite typical of almost every government project for the past four decades. Yet, though the report notes that in October 2019 the agency had finally decided to dump this failed program entirely and instead hire private companies to build the suits, the report criticizes this change, noting that the commercial contractors will not be required to use NASA designs, meaning the $420 million NASA has spent will literally be wasted.

So what? That money has been wasted already. I am quite willing to bet that for no more than a quarter of that cost, two private companies could get new spacesuits ready, and do it quickly, as long as our entirely incompetent government gets out of their way.

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.

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