NASA worried FAA launch permit delays to Starship/Superheavy will delay first lunar landing

During a public meeting on June 7, 2023, a NASA official expressed concerns that the FAA’s slow launch permit process for SpaceX’s test program for developing Starship/Superheavy will end up seriously delaying the first Artemis manned lunar landing, presently targeting a December 2025 launch date.

The official, Jim Free, was very careful how he worded his comments, but the FAA issue loomed large in his mind.

Free said NASA met with the Federal Aviation Administration recently to discuss the importance of the Starship rocket to the space agency’s moon exploration plans. The FAA is overseeing SpaceX’s investigation into the problems encountered on the April 20 test launch, when the flight termination system took longer to destroy the rocket than expected. The destruct system is designed to terminate the flight before an errant rocket threatens populated areas.

The FAA is not expected to grant SpaceX another Starship launch license until the investigation is complete, and federal regulators are satisfied with changes to the rocket to address any public safety concerns. “They just have to get flying,” Free said of SpaceX. “When you step back and you look at (it), that’s a lot of launches to get those missions done, so our FAA partners are critical to that.”

For the FAA to treat SpaceX’s test program like ordinary launches, requiring a detailed investigation by it after every test flight, will likely delay the development of Starship/Superheavy by years.

Following the early suborbital tests of Starship, the FAA did not “oversee” the investigations. The FAA merely observed closely SpaceX’s investigation, and let it move forward when SpaceX was satisfied. Now the FAA wants to determine for itself when each launch will occur, even though there is no one at the FAA truly qualified to do that. The result will be endless delays and paperwork, and many fewer flights spaced many more months apart, none of which will do anything to aid the development.

NASA is obviously trying to get the FAA to see this, but we must remember that the change in policy at the FAA almost certainly came from the Biden administration, which doesn’t care as much for getting to the Moon as it does wielding its power to hurt Elon Musk, whom it now sees as a political opponent. Expect NASA’s pleas to fall on deaf ears.

NASA inspector general finds more cost overruns in the agency’s SLS rocket program

Surprise! Surprise! A new NASA inspector general report [pdf] has found that the agency’s SLS rocket program is continuing to experience cost overruns and mismanagement that are “obscene”, as noted in this news report.

An independent report published Thursday contained troubling findings about the money spent by the agency on propulsion for the Space Launch System rocket. Moreover, the report by NASA Inspector General Paul Martin warns that if these costs are not controlled, it could jeopardize plans to return to the Moon.

Bluntly, Martin wrote that if the agency does not rein in spending, “NASA and its contracts will continue to exceed planned cost and schedule, resulting in a reduced availability of funds, delayed launches, and the erosion of the public’s trust in the agency’s ability to responsibly spend taxpayer money and meet mission goals and objectives—including returning humans safely to the Moon.”

Things are really much worse than this, mostly because it appears the Marshall Space Flight Center that runs the SLS program for NASA uses cost-plus contracts, which are essentially a blank check for contractors to run up costs endlessly, all of which the government must cover, and allows the process to go over-schedule against its own regulations. Furthermore, the cost overruns are for rockets and engines that are not newly developed, but in use for decades by Northrop Grumman and Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Note that this really isn’t news. Anyone with any intellectual honesty at all will know that every aspect of SLS and Orion is mismanaged and will go over budget and behind schedule endlessly. These problems are not a bug, however, but a feature of the system. The goals of SLS and Orion are not really to build a rocket to explore the solar system but to create an endless jobs program in congressional districts here on Earth. This misguided approach meanwhile robs America of a viable space effort because the money wasted could have actually been used to jumpstart a viable and competitive space-faring economy that actually achieves something.

NASA picks Blue Origin’s partnership for building second manned lunar lander

Artist's concept of Blue Moon
An artist’s concept of Blue Moon

NASA today announced that it has chosen the partnership led by Blue Origin to build a second manned lunar lander for its Artemis program.

Blue Origin will design, develop, test, and verify its Blue Moon lander to meet NASA’s human landing system requirements for recurring astronaut expeditions to the lunar surface, including docking with Gateway, a space station where crew transfer in lunar orbit. In addition to design and development work, the contract includes one uncrewed demonstration mission to the lunar surface before a crewed demo on the Artemis V mission in 2029. The total award value of the firm-fixed price contract is $3.4 billion.

The other partners in the contract are Draper, Astrobotic, and Honeybee Robotics.

This is NASA’s second contract for a lunar lander, with SpaceX’s Starship the first. The idea is to have two landers available from competing companies for both competition and redundancy, similar to the approach the agency has used for its manned ferry service to ISS, using SpaceX and Boeing. I wonder if NASA’s experience on the Moon will be similar to that ferry service, whereby only SpaceX so far has been able to deliver. The track record of Blue Origin suggests it will do about as poorly as Boeing has with Starliner.

Aerojet Rocketdyne wins contract from Lockheed Martin to build more Orion engines

Aerojet Rocketdyne announced yesterday that it has been awarded a new $67 million contract from Lockheed Martin to build the Orion propulsion engines for Artemis missions six though eight.

This contract option includes delivery of three additional sets of Orion’s service module auxiliary engines and three additional jettison motors. The eight auxiliary engines each produce 105 pounds of thrust to help maintain Orion’s in-space trajectory and position, and supplement the Orion Main Engine. The jettison motor, located on Orion’s Launch Abort System (LAS), generates 40,000 pounds of thrust to separate the LAS from the crew module during both nominal operations and abort scenarios, allowing the spacecraft to continue on its journey. The jettison motor is the only motor on the LAS that fires during every mission.

These Artemis missions are not expected to occur until very late in this decade, by which time Starship will likely be making regular commercial trips to the Moon. At that time Orion will look increasingly ridiculous next to Starship, and will demonstrate starkly the difference in what government can do versus a free private sector.

NASA names four astronauts to fly on first manned Artemis mission around Moon

NASA today named the four astronauts who will fly on its Artemis-2 in a 10-day mission around the Moon, launched on SLS’s second launch in an Orion capsule and tentatively scheduled for late 2024.

The crew assignments are as follows: Commander Reid Wiseman, Pilot Victor Glover, Mission Specialist 1 Christina Hammock Koch, and Mission Specialist 2 Jeremy Hansen. They will work as a team to execute an ambitious set of demonstrations during the flight test.

The approximately 10-day Artemis II flight test will launch on the agency’s powerful Space Launch System rocket, prove the Orion spacecraft’s life-support systems, and validate the capabilities and techniques needed for humans to live and work in deep space.

The flight, set to build upon the successful uncrewed Artemis I mission completed in December, will set the stage for the first woman and first person of color on the Moon through the Artemis program, paving the way for future for long-term human exploration missions to the Moon, and eventually Mars. This is the agency’s Moon to Mars exploration approach. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words illustrate some important facts. First, this first manned flight of Orion will also be the first that will use the capsule’s life-support systems, which were not included the first flight around the Moon in December. Thus, these four humans are essentially guinea pigs for this engineering. Seems such a plan should have been questioned by NASA’S corrupt safety panel, but then, it is corrupt, and never seems to have much problem with unsafe practices done by NASA itself. Instead, it spends a lot of time making up problems for SpaceX and missing problems at Boeing and NASA.

Second, note NASA’s emphasis on race and sex for the first landing on the Artemis-3 mission. Note too that Artemis-2 crew also includes a black and a woman. Though the press release wisely and correctly makes no mention of race when describing the four astronauts, it does tout the achievements of Christina Koch as a woman, not as a person.

Don’t get me wrong. It is good that a black and a woman are flying to the Moon. It just appears very clear that NASA now has a firm quota system, requiring one of each for every mission.

Finally, there is something not mentioned in the press release or on the Artemis-2 webpage that is very telling. Neither says anything about a launch date, which NASA had previously announced as November 2024. I have been predicting from the beginning that this date is a fantasy. It now appears NASA realizes it but is not yet ready to admit it publicly.

Lunar rover startup signs deal to send rover to the Moon using Starship

The lunar rover startup Astrolab has signed a deal with SpaceX to send its FLEX rover to the Moon’s south pole region using a lunar lander version of Starship.

Jaret Matthews, founder and chief executive of Astrolab, said in an interview that the mission, which will include 1,000 kilograms of customer payloads, will be the first flight of the FLEX rover. It will be a rideshare payload on a Starship mission landing somewhere in the south polar region of the moon.

“Because our rover can traverse up to a couple thousand kilometers in a given year, we’re less sensitive to exactly where we land,” he said. “’It is definitely optimized for the south polar region because that’s fundamentally where we think that the bulk of the activity is going to be.”

The company unveiled a full scale prototype of its rover one year ago, when it made it clear it intended to compete for the rover contract in NASA’s Artemis program, competing against several big established players. Since then there has been little news. The story today sadly reeks to me of a lot of blarney. For example, the company has only 20 employees. Astrolab might have signed this deal, but I suspect it is a very tentative deal, easily canceled by either party at no cost.

Potential Artemis-3 landing site on the Moon

The landing zone for the Artemis-3 mission to the Moon

Overview map

The panorama above was released today by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team, and shows one of the candidate landing sites (arrow) where Starship could land as part of the Artemis-3 mission to the Moon.

The map of the south pole to the right, created from LRO images and annotated by me, gives the context. The yellow lines indicate the approximate area covered by the panorama. The terrain here is rugged, to put it mildly. As the science team notes,

Imagine the view from the summit; it rises more than 5000 meters (16,400 feet) above its base. Off in the distance, you could see a 3500 meter (11,480 feet) tall cliff. One could argue that the sheer grandeur of this region makes it a prime candidate. But then again, a landing here might be too exciting?

That 11,480-foot-high cliff is the crater wall to the right of the arrow. Make sure you go to the link to view the original image. This will be a spectacular place to visit. Whether the astronauts however will be able to find out anything about ice in the shadowed crater floor thousands of feet below them remains questionable.

Artemis-3 is presently scheduled for 2025 but no one should be surprised if it is delayed.

ESA invites private companies to build lunar satellites for communications and navigation

Capitalism in space: The European Space Agency (ESA) has now invited European and Canadian companies to build the lunar communications and navigation satellites that will be needed to serve the many future manned and unmanned missions presently being planned by the U.S. and Europe.

Under its Moonlight programme, ESA is inviting space companies to create these lunar services.

By acting as an anchor customer, ESA is enabling space companies involved in Moonlight to create a telecommunication and navigation service for the agency, while being free to sell lunar services and solutions to other agencies and commercial ventures.

Once Moonlight is in place, companies could create new applications in areas such as education, media and entertainment – as well as inspiring young people to study science, technology, engineering and maths, which creates a highly qualified future workforce.

According to the press release, almost 100 companies have already expressed interest.

It is however unclear how much freedom the companies will have in designing and creating these satellites, based on ESA’s own descriptions of the project. It appears that ESA wants to design them, and is simply looking for private companies to build them. Under this arrangement, ownership will not belong to the companies, even if they are given the freedom to make money selling the capability to others. In fact, past history suggests that in the end, ESA will eventually retract this part of the deal, because of its desire to fully control the satellites it designed.

Orion successfully splashes down in the Pacific

NASA’s Orion capsule today successfully returned from a three week trip around the Moon, splashing down in the Pacific where it was successfully recovered.

The next Artemis flight will be a manned one, using SLS and Orion to fly around the Moon. It will also be the first time Orion will use its full environmental system, with humans on board. Though presently scheduled for May 2024, it is almost certainly not going to fly before 2025.

The actual Artemis manned lunar landing will follow, no sooner than two years after that. As presently designed, that mission requires the establishment of the Lunar Gateway station — astronauts can be transferred from Orion to Starship and back again, and that station is likely not going to be ready in this time frame.

As I said yesterday, I predict the two already purchased private Starship missions around the Moon, paid for by Yusaku Maezawa and Jared Isaacman, will happen first. Both will certainly beat NASA’s planned landing on the Moon. I also expect both to beat that Orion manned fly-around in ’24-’25. And each will cost pennies compared to the entire SLS/Orion program, while actually making a profit that will be used to further development and more manned private flights.

NASA extends Boeing’s contract to produce more SLS rockets

NASA yesterday announced that it will pay Boeing $3.2 billion for two more SLS rockets.

NASA has finalized its contract with Boeing of Huntsville, Alabama, for approximately $3.2 billion to continue manufacturing core and upper stages for future Space Launch System (SLS) rockets for Artemis missions to the Moon and beyond.

Under the SLS Stages Production and Evolution Contract action, Boeing will produce SLS core stages for Artemis III and IV, procure critical and long-lead material for the core stages for Artemis V and VI, provide the exploration upper stages (EUS) for Artemis V and VI, as well as tooling and related support and engineering services.

All this really means is that NASA is going depend on SLS and Orion to fly its astronauts to and from the Moon, and because of that its pace of flight will be — at best — slow and long-drawn out. For example, this new order extends the contract out to 2028. It will thus leave plenty of time for SpaceX and other nations to get there first.

I predict that the private Starship missions paid for by Yusaku Maezawa and Jared Isaacman will both fly before these two new Artemis missions. You heard it here first.

Orion completes burn to send spacecraft back to Earth

NASA’s Orion capsule yesterday successfully fired its engines as it zipped past the Moon to send it on a trajectory back to Earth, with splashdown in the Pacific off the coast of California scheduled for December 11, 2022.

Not all was hunky-dory, however. Prior to the burn a power unit shut down unexpectedly.

A power unit on board the Orion spacecraft turned off four devices “responsible for downstream power” that connect to the Artemis 1 vehicle’s propulsion and heating subsystems, NASA officials wrote in a statement. But mission personnel swiftly put a fix in place and the mission is carrying on, the statement emphasized. “Teams confirmed the system was healthy and successfully repowered the downstream components,” agency officials wrote in the statement, released late on Sunday. “There was no interruption of power to any critical systems, and there were no adverse effects to Orion’s navigation or communication.”

Engineers think the shut down was related to a test performed in connection with an earlier incident.

Regardless, all now appears well for that December 11nd splashdown.

Orion fires engine, leaves lunar orbit

After firing its engines yesterday, NASA’s Orion spacecraft has left lunar orbit and begun a long looping route that will zip past the Moon and then head back to Earth.

The burn changed Orion’s velocity by about 454 feet per second and was performed using the Orion main engine on the European Service Module. The engine is an orbital maneuvering system engine modified for use on Orion and built by Aerojet Rocketdyne. The engine has the ability to provide 6,000 pounds of thrust. The proven engine flying on Artemis I flew on 19 space shuttle flights, beginning with STS-41G in October 1984 and ending with STS-112 in October 2002.

The burn is one of two maneuvers required ahead of Orion’s splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11. The second will occur on Monday, Dec. 5, when the spacecraft will fly 79.2 miles above the lunar surface and perform the return powered flyby burn, which will commit Orion on its course toward Earth.

The spacecraft will splashdown on December 11, 2022, if all goes right.

Orion enters retrograde lunar orbit

Engineers today successfully completed an engine burn that put Orion into the retrograde lunar orbit in which it will remain for the next week.

Due to the distance of the orbit, it will take Orion nearly a week to complete half an orbit around the Moon, where it will exit the orbit for the return journey home. About four days later, the spacecraft will harness the Moon’s gravitational force once again, combined with a precisely timed lunar flyby burn to slingshot Orion onto its return course to Earth ahead of splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Sunday, Dec. 11.

As of now all systems seem to be working as intended.

Controllers lose contact with Orion for almost an hour

NASA engineers unexpectedly lost all contact with Orion for 47 minutes just after midnight last night.

NASA’s Mission Control Center at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston unexpectedly lost data to and from the spacecraft at 12:09 a.m. CST for 47 minutes while reconfiguring the communication link between Orion and Deep Space Network overnight. The reconfiguration has been conducted successfully several times in the last few days, and the team is investigating the cause of the loss of signal. The team resolved the issue with a reconfiguration on the ground side.

At present the loss of signal caused no issues with the spacecraft. However, its cause has not yet been pinpointed.

Ten cubesats released by SLS on way to Moon; one has problems

Shortly after SLS’s upper stage completed its engine burn to send Orion to the Moon, it separated and then successfully released ten cubesats on their own deep space missions.

These CubeSats will fly to various destinations including the Moon, asteroids, and interplanetary space. They will study various facets of the Moon and interplanetary travel, ranging from navigation techniques to radiation and biology. One of them is even planned to conduct a soft landing on the lunar surface.

Because of SLS’s numerous delays, there was a chance that many of these cubesats would lose the charges on their batteries and not function after launch. According to the article at the link, communications with six of these cubesats has been established.

The last cubesat above, from Japan and dubbed Omotenashi, was designed as a demonstration test. According to Japan’s space agency, JAXA, however, communications with the spacecraft are “unstable.”

Japan’s space agency said Thursday it has been unable to establish stable communication with the country’s mini moon lander launched on a U.S. rocket the previous day along with a mini satellite. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said it is now trying to control the position of the Omotenashi lander, adding its system of automatically turning to the Sun to gain solar power appears to be not functioning.

Before launch JAXA had rated the mission’s chances of success at 60%, but that mostly referred to the lunar landing. Though intended as a demo mission, it will be unfortunate if it fails for these reasons this early in the mission.

NASA’s SLS rocket successfully launches Orion toward the Moon

After almost eighteen years of development and almost sixty billion dollars, NASA tonight finally completed the first unmanned test launch of its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, lifting off at 1:41 am (Eastern).

The two solid rocket boosters functioned as planned, separating from the core stage with no problem. Then core stage and its four former shuttle engines completed its burn, putting the capsule and its upper stage into Earth orbit, and then separated cleanly. At about 30 minutes after launch the service module’s solar arrays completed their deployment. At 53 minutes after launch a 30 second burn circularized the orbit in preparation for the trans-lunar-injection (TLI) burn that will send Orion to the Moon. TLI occurred about 90 minutes after launch, after a period of check-out in orbit.

Orion will spend 26 days in space, about a week of which will be in a wide lunar orbit, testing its systems. If all goes right it will splashdown on around December 11th.

As this was the first U.S. government launch in more than a decade, since 2011 when the space shuttle was retired, the leader board for the 2022 launch race remains unchanged:

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

52 SpaceX
51 China
19 Russia
9 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 76 to 51 in the national rankings, and trails the rest of the world combined 79 to 76.

Watching the first SLS launch tonight

At this moment, with weather 90% favorable and the countdown underway, the first launch of NASA’s SLS rocket appears go for a 1:04 AM (Eastern) launch tonight.

You can watch the live stream on NASA TV here, which will begin at 3:30 pm today and mostly be NASA propaganda intermixed with descriptions of the rocket, its payloads, its full mission, and updates on the launch countdown.

NASA’s live stream is now embedded below, beginning at 10:30 PM (Eastern) when actual coverage of the final countdown begins. I would still suggest that you wait until at least 12:30 AM (Eastern) before watching, as those first two hours will still be filled with a lot of NASA propaganda blather.
» Read more

NASA managers okay SLS launch attempt November 16th

NASA managers have given the go-ahead to the scheduled launch of the agency’s SLS rocket for 1:04 am (Eastern) on November 16, 2022, despite the existence of some detached caulking that Hurricane Nicole had pulled free.

Engineers examined detailed analysis of caulk on a seam between an ogive on Orion’s launch abort system and the crew module adapter and potential risks if it were to detach during launch. The mission management team determined there is a low likelihood that if additional material tears off it would pose a critical risk to the flight.

Technicians also completed replacing a component of an electrical connector on the hydrogen tail service mast umbilical. While swapping the component did not fully fix the issue, engineers have redundant sources of information supplied through the connector.

The launch window is two hours long. As this is a night launch, it will be quite spectacular, no matter what happens. I will embed the live stream tomorrow in the early evening, for those who wish to watch NASA’s multi-hour propaganda stream. My suggestion would be to find a better use of your time until around 12:50 am (Eastern). Then would be a good time to tune in.

SLS launch early on November 16th remains uncertain

Despite repeated assurances that the November 16, 2022 1:04 am (Eastern) launch of NASA’s SLS rocket remains on target, managers have also noted that damage to a small piece of caulking at the base of the shroud protecting the Orion capsule remains an issue that could cause a scrub.

But high winds from Nicole caused a thin strip of caulk-like material known as RTV to delaminate and pull away from the base of the Orion crew capsule’s protective nose cone at the top of the rocket. The material is used to fill in a slight indentation where the fairing attaches to the capsule, minimizing aerodynamic heating during ascent. The fairing fits over the Orion capsule and is jettisoned once the rocket is out of the dense lower atmosphere. “It was an area that was about 10 feet in length (on the) windward side where the storm blew through,” said mission manager Mike Sarafin. “It is a very, very thin layer of RTV, it’s about .2 inches or less … in thickness.”

Engineers do not have access for repairs at the pad and must develop “flight rationale,” that is, a justification for flying despite the delaminated RTV, in order to proceed with the launch. Managers want to make sure any additional material that pulls away in flight will not impact and damage downstream components.

In plain language, NASA managers would either have to issue a waiver that says this small piece of caulking poses no risk, or scrub and roll the rocket back to the assembly building to fix it. The second option would delay the launch another month, at a minimum.

A waiver however would continue NASA’s pattern with the shuttle (and continuing with SLS) to dismiss potential engineering problems simply to avoid schedule delays. With the shuttle, this pattern twice caused the loss of a shuttle and crew. With SLS, NASA has already waived by more than a year its rules concerning the stacked life of the rocket’s solid-fueled boosters. Agency managers have also waived the full test requirements from the dress rehearsal countdown, so that this test did not test everything it should.

It is expected that NASA managers will announce the waiver today on this problem. Whether it matters when the rocket goes through maximum dynamic pressure shortly after lift-off will likely determine the future of SLS.

SLS rides out hurricane; engineers now assessing damage

NASA’s SLS rocket has apparently successfully survived on the launchpad the hurricane-force winds from Nicole, though engineers will need to inspect the rocket to see if there is any less obvious damage that might delay the now scheduled November 16th launch.

With blastoff on a long-delayed maiden flight on tap next week, sensors at pad 39B recorded gusts as high as 100 mph atop a 467-foot-tall lightning tower near the rocket. But winds at the 60-foot-level, which are part of the booster’s structural certification, peaked at 82 mph, just below the 85 mph limit.

The observed winds were “within the rocket’s capability,” said Jim Free, manager of exploration systems at NASA headquarters. “We anticipate clearing the vehicle for those conditions shortly.”

“Our team is conducting initial visual check outs of the rocket, spacecraft and ground system equipment with the cameras at the launch pad,” he tweeted. “Camera inspections show very minor damage such as loose caulk and tears in weather coverings. The team will conduct additional on-site walk down inspections of the vehicle soon.”

If no issues are found, the countdown will begin on November 14th.

NASA sets November 14th as next SLS launch date

NASA today announced that it will make its next attempt to launch its SLS rocket just past midnight on November 14, 2022.

NASA is targeting the next launch attempt of the Artemis I mission for Monday, Nov. 14 with liftoff of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket carrying the Orion spacecraft planned during a 69-minute launch window that opens at 12:07 a.m. EST. Artemis I is an uncrewed flight test to launch SLS and send Orion around the Moon and back to Earth to thoroughly test its system before flights with astronauts.

This is the second launch opportunity in the November launch window, as shown in this graph [pdf]. It will result in a 26-day mission for the Orion capsule to and from lunar orbit, returning on December 9th.

NASA now aiming for SLS launch in November

In finding that Hurricane Ian caused little damage at its vehicle assembly building at Kennedy, NASA managers have decided to target the the November 12 to 27 launch window for the first launch of its SLS rocket.

According to this graph [pdf], November 27th is the only date that will provide NASA with the longest mission for Orion (38 to 42 days). Furthermore, the mission precludes launches on November 13, 20-21, and 26.

Expect them to aim for November 12th, even though that will result in an Orion mission only 26 to 28 days long.

NASA and ESA sign simple lunar exploration agreement

In what appears to be an attempt by both to maintain their working relationship, even though several major European nations have not yet signed the Artemis Accords, last week NASA and ESA signed a simple agreement reaffirming their desire to work together in exploring the Moon.

Neither ESA nor NASA published the agreement, which in a photograph appeared to be little more than one page. In a Sept. 23 statement, NASA described the agreement as a “non-binding joint statement” about current and prospective future cooperation in Artemis.

Of ESA’s members, only France, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, and the United Kingdom have signed the Artemis Accords. Thus, ESA and NASA face a conundrum. According to the accords and the NASA policy established by the Trump administration and supposedly continued under Biden, only signatories can participate in the Artemis program. Yet, most of the members of ESA have not signed, and ESA has no authority to make them do so. ESA however is building the service module for the Orion capsule — as well as other major components of Artemis — which NASA must have.

I suspect this short one page agreement is the Biden administration’s under-handed admission that — when it comes to Europe — the Artemis Accords will no longer be required.

NASA managers decide finally to roll SLS back to assembly building

NASA managers this morning finally gave up on launching their SLS rocket in an early October launch window and scheduled rolling back the rocket to the assembly building tonight.

NASA will roll the Artemis I Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft back to the Vehicle Assembly Building on Monday, Sept. 26. First motion is targeted for 11 p.m. EDT.

Managers met Monday morning and made the decision based on the latest weather predictions associated with Hurricane Ian, after additional data gathered overnight did not show improving expected conditions for the Kennedy Space Center area. The decision allows time for employees to address the needs of their families and protect the integrated rocket and spacecraft system. The time of first motion also is based on the best predicted conditions for rollback to meet weather criteria for the move.

Based on this graph [pdf] provided by NASA earlier this year, the next launch window is from October 17 to October 31, followed by another from November 12 to November 27. It is unclear whether they can meet that first window, even if all engineers do is check and recharge the flight termination system batteries.

The question of the rocket’s two solid-fueled boosters however looms. Both are now one year past NASA’s use-by date, and it appears somewhat unknown what the risks are using them. Replacing them however will entail a significant delay, from three to six months.

As I said this weekend, NASA managers face no good choice, because of the impractical and inefficient design of this rocket.

NASA managers might forego SLS rollback and aim for Oct 2nd launch

Based on the present hurricane track, NASA managers are considering the possibility of leaving SLS on the launchpad so that they can go for a launch on October 2, 2022.

NASA managers will meet this evening to evaluate whether to roll back or remain at the launch pad to preserve an opportunity for a launch attempt on Oct. 2. The exact time of a potential rollback will depend on future weather predictions throughout the day and could occur Monday or very early Tuesday morning.

If they stay on the launchpad, it means the flight termination system is questionable at launch. If the rocket goes out of control during its first test launch — a not-unreasonable possibility for a new rocket — there is a chance the range officer will not be able to destroy it.

If they roll back to the assembly building, it means the rocket’s two solid strap-on boosters will either have to be replaced, delaying the launch months more, or the rocket will launch with two boosters that are questionable.

Every choice they face is a bad one, simply because this rocket is really not well designed for practical use.

NASA managers scrub September 27th SLS launch

NASA managers today decided that they had to scrub their attempt to launch SLS on September 27, 2022 due to a hurricane threatening Florida, and are instead preparing to roll the rocket back to the assembly building to protect it.

During a meeting Saturday morning, teams decided to stand down on preparing for the Tuesday launch date to allow them to configure systems for rolling back the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft to the Vehicle Assembly Building. Engineers deferred a final decision about the roll to Sunday, Sept. 25, to allow for additional data gathering and analysis. If Artemis I managers elect to roll back, it would begin late Sunday night or early Monday morning.

This will likely delay the launch until the late October launch window, or the mid-November window, as shown in this graph [pdf]. During this time engineers will certainly test and recharge the batteries that run the rocket’s flight termination system so that there will be no question they will work should the Space Force safety range officer need to destroy the rocket during launch.

NASA however now faces another quandary it has been avoiding for the past year. The stacking of the five segments of SLS’s two solid rocket strap-on boosters began in November 2020, two years ago. During the shuttle era and until last year, NASA had a rule that said a booster must launch within a year of stacking. The fear was that the weight of the solid rocket fuel could distort it over time, and possibly cause it to burn improperly once ignited. As these boosters are the equivalent of firecrackers — once you light them you can’t turn them off — NASA had chosen, until last year, to have a use-by date of one year for the boosters.

Now however NASA has abandoned that rule. The boosters have been stacked for twice that time, and the agency has to ask if it will be safe to use them. To change them out however will take at least three months, if not longer. The present set of boosters would have to be removed, and a new set stacked and installed.

I fully expect NASA to stay with these boosters, despite their age, once again violating its own safety rules, as it did routinely during the shuttle era (resulting in the loss of two shuttles and the death of fourteen astronauts). Though no humans will be on this test flight, this sloppy engineering culture clearly threatens the lives of the astronauts who will fly on the second Artemis SLS mission, around the Moon.

Range gives NASA waiver to launch SLS on September 27th, despite a questionable flight termination system

In a briefing today, NASA officials confirmed that they are proceeding with their September 27, 2022 first launch of the SLS rocket, having obtained a waiver from the Space Force’s range office on testing the batteries for the flight termination system that would destroy the rocket should it begin flying out of control.

During a Sept. 23 teleconference, NASA announced an extension for the flight termination system battery certification, which expired after 25 days on Sept. 6. Now the Space Force’s Eastern Range has granted a waiver to allow the rocket to launch as late as Oct. 2 before needing to be returned to the Vehicle Assembly building to recertify the batteries.

The flight termination system is only used in the event the rocket veers off course during a launch anomaly.

Note that the 25 day use-by limit was actually an extension itself, as these batteries had been previously required testing every 20 days. Now the range is willing to let them go for as long about 50 days without testing, a two and half times increase.

If the rules before — based on engineering — said the batteries were not reliable after 20 days, why are those batteries now considered reliable up to 50 days? What facts or data does NASA or the Space Force have to allow this waiver? And if they have no data, it seems almost criminal to allow the go-ahead of this launch of a giant untested rocket on its first lift-off. Should something go seriously wrong — which is not that unlikely — and the flight termination system fails to work, we could see a very big rocket careening out-of-control into populated areas.

We all hope SLS launches with no problem on September 27th. We now have a really serious reason for that desire.

Regardless, the launch is now scheduled for a 70-minute launch window that opens at 11:37 am (Eastern) on September 27th, with a back-up launch window on October 2nd of 102 minutes beginning at 2:52 pm (Eastern).

Meanwhile, a developing tropical storm could put a kabosh on all these plans, forcing NASA to roll SLS back to the assembly building anyway. NASA managers plan to meet again before launch to make a decision.

SLS fueling test completed

NASA engineers today successfully completed the tanking test of the agency’s SLS rocket, completing all objectives after successfully dealing with a hydrogen fuel leak at the beginning of fueling.

The four main objectives for the demonstration included assessing the repair to address the hydrogen leak identified on the previous launch attempt, loading propellants into the rocket’s tanks using new procedures, conducting the kick-start bleed, and performing a pre-pressurization test. The new cryogenic loading procedures and ground automation were designed to transition temperature and pressures slowly during tanking to reduce the likelihood of leaks that could be caused by rapid changes in temperature or pressure. After encountering the leak early in the operation, teams further reduced loading pressures to troubleshoot the issue and proceed with the demonstration test. The pre-pressurization test enabled engineers to calibrate the settings used for conditioning the engines during the terminal count and validate timelines before launch day to reduce schedule risk during the countdown on launch day.

Teams will evaluate the data from the test, along with weather and other factors, before confirming readiness to proceed into the next launch opportunity. The rocket remains in a safe configuration as teams assess next steps. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words are key. NASA has proposed a September 27, 2022 launch date. For that launch to occur, the rocket must remain on the launchpad, where it is impossible to check the batteries for operating the flight termination system used by the military range office to destroy the rocket should it go wildly out of control during launch. To check the batteries they need to roll it back to the assembly building, and one week is simply not enough time.

The vagueness of the highlighted language suggests that NASA has not yet gotten a waiver from the range for that date. Nor should it. Those batteries normally have a 20-day limit. On September 27th they will been unchecked for about 42 days, well past their use-by date.

This will be the first test launch of this rocket. Such first launches very frequently go wrong, and if SLS goes wrong, it would go wrong in a very big way, considering the size of the rocket. To do such a risky launch with a questionable flight termination system would not simply be improper it would be downright criminal.

Hydrogen leak detected during today’s SLS tank test

Though engineers have apparently overcome the issue so that today’s tank test of NASA’s SLS rocket can continue, a hydrogen leak was nonetheless detected during fueling.

The fueling tank test is not yet complete.

At this moment I cannot imagine the military’s range office will allow NASA to launch on September 27th, as the agency has requested. To do so will require the range to ignore the possibility that the flight termination is inoperable, as its batteries are past their use-by date by almost a month. Combined with these ongoing leak issues, it would be irresponsible to do otherwise.

NASA issues call for new manned lunar lander proposals

NASA yesterday announced a solicitation for proposals for new manned lunar lander proposals, aimed at obtaining services long term, rather than the initial contract it has awarded SpaceX which only covered the first few Artemis lunar missions.

This solicitation is essentially being offered so that Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Origin will have a second chance to win such a contract, having lost out to SpaceX initially. It also is NASA’s effort to get Congress to give it a bigger budget so that it can pay for two different lunar lander contracts.

Having two competing lunar landers is not a bad thing. Giving a second contract however simply because the company (Blue Origin) exerts political clout is not. Right now it is unclear whether this solicitation is the former or the later.

The announcement also included what has become boilerplate in all NASA announcements about its Artemis lunar missions:

Through Artemis missions, NASA is preparing to return humans to the Moon, including the first woman and first person of color, for long-term scientific discovery and exploration. [emphasis mine]

It is very clear that the number one criteria that NASA has established, under the Biden administration, for picking the crew on that first Artemis lunar landing mission is race and gender, not talent, skill, or ability. While it will be a great thing when the first woman and black steps on the Moon, their skin color or sex should not be the reason they got to go. If it is, it will be incredibly insulting to their talent, skill, and ability. In fact, by making race or gender the only qualification that NASA cares about, it puts an asterisk on those qualifications. Forever people will wonder if these individuals really deserved the honor.

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