The future of SLS?

In this long NASASpaceflight.com article describing the building the second core stage for NASA’s SLS rocket (the stage scheduled to take astronauts around the Moon in September 2023) was also additional information about the status of later core stages, still not entirely funded.

The key tidbit of information is this:

Core Stage-3 is the first build under the new “Stages Production and Evolution Contract” that was initiated in 2019; the contract is not yet completely finalized, with the latest estimate for definitization being early in Fiscal Year 2022 (which begins on October 1st, 2021).

Both NASA and Boeing are proceeding under the assumption that this Congress will approve full funding for later SLS rockets after flights one and two. While the signs strongly suggest that funding for at least two more rockets will arrive, that funding still depends largely on the success of the first unmanned SLS test flight, tentatively scheduled for November-December 2021.

It also depends on the political winds, and when Starship starts reaching orbit somewhat regularly (and cheaply). When that happens, all bets are off on the future of SLS. At some point it will become obvious that it can’t compete against that SpaceX rocket, and Congress will shift its funding appropriately.

Sadly, knowing Congress and the corrupt DC culture, this change will likely only happen after a lot of taxpayer money is wasted on a rocket that is simply too expensive and too cumbersome, and thus not practical for making space exploration possible.

Astronauts complete installation of 1st set of new solar panels on ISS

Astronauts yesterday successfully completed the installation of the first set of new solar panels on ISS, completing the work they could not do on a first spacewalk because of issues with one of the astronaut’s spacesuits.

The new panels are deployed on top of the old panels. Though smaller, they are more efficient, so they actually produce more energy total.

The IROSAs [acronym for the new panels] will be installed on top of six of the station’s existing solar arrays, which will allow the IROSAs to utilize the same sun-tracking motors and be connected into the same electrical system as the current arrays.

With the IROSAs being around 30% efficient, compared to the 14% efficiency of the original arrays, the IROSAs will generate roughly the same amount of power as the originals despite being only half their size. Each IROSA will produce 20kW of additional power, for a total of 120kW across all six arrays.

However, because the IROSAs are smaller, they will not completely cover the half of the six [old panels] they’ll be installed over. Instead, portions of the original arrays will still be power positive. The unshadowed portions of the original arrays will continue to produce 95kW as a result, making for a combined total of 215kW of power available to the ISS — an increase of nearly a third compared with the outpost’s current levels.

The set installed yesterday was the first of six new panels to be installed, replacing all of the old panels.

United Airlines buys 15 Boom Supersonic airplanes

United Airlines today announced that it has signed a deal with Boom Supersonic to buy fifteen of its supersonic Overture airplanes.

Under the terms of the agreement, United will purchase 15 of Boom’s ‘Overture’ airliners, once Overture meets United’s demanding safety, operating and sustainability requirements, with an option for an additional 35 aircraft. The companies will work together on meeting those requirements before delivery. Once operational, Overture is expected to be the first large commercial aircraft to be net-zero carbon from day one, optimized to run on 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). It is slated to roll out in 2025, fly in 2026 and expected to carry passengers by 2029.

Boom has been developing this supersonic passenger plane since 2016, though little progress has appeared to take place during most of the last five years. This contract appears to be the company’s first real sale. It also appears that it makes United a partner in the plane’s development.

Meanwhile, another company, Aerion, is developing its own supersonic passenger jet, in partnership with Boeing and scheduled for launch in 2023.

We shall have to wait to see which company wins the race to begin commercial flights.

Boeing and NASA set July 30th for 2nd unmanned Starliner demo mission

Capitalism in space: Boeing and NASA today announced that they have now scheduled the second unmanned Starliner demo mission to ISS for July 30th.

In separate statements, the agency and the company said they were planning to launch the Starliner on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 at 2:53 p.m. Eastern July 30 on the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2 mission. A launch that day would allow the spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station on the evening of July 31.

The new launch date comes after NASA and Boeing completed an “integrated mission dress rehearsal” for the mission using a simulator at a Boeing facility in Houston. The five-day simulation covered activities starting 26 hours before launch and going through landing, including docking and undocking from the station.

Both Boeing and NASA are still hopeful that the first manned flight of Starliner can still take place before the end of this year. Whether it does or not will largely depend on how well things go on this unmanned demo flight.

Boeing confirms next Starliner unmanned demo flight delayed until August

Capitalism in space: Boeing on April 17th confirmed what had already been rumored, that the second unmanned demo flight to ISS of Starliner, its manned capsule, has been delayed until August.

In a statement, Boeing said that the company and NASA are projecting the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2 mission will take place in August or September. That date is “supported by a space station docking opportunity and the availability of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and Eastern Range.”

Boeing had been working toward a launch of OFT-2 in late March or early April. However, by early March, NASA officials acknowledged that was no longer likely because of delays from the replacement of avionics units on the spacecraft that were damaged by a power surge during ground tests, as well as power outages in the Houston area caused by a winter storm in February that interrupted software testing.

They still hope to make the first manned demo flight before the end of the year, assuming the summer unmanned flight goes as planned.

For Boeing, the sooner they get this capsule operational, the sooner it can start earning money by flying commercial flights. At the moment the delays have meant that SpaceX is getting all that business, with two private flights already scheduled and rumors that it will win a flight from the UAE as well. Furthermore, other commercial competitors are on the horizon, including both China and India.

More delays to Boeing’s Starliner manned capsule schedule

Capitalism in space: Though no new launch date has been announced, both NASA and Boeing are now likely aiming for a summer launch of the second unmanned Starliner demo mission to ISS.

This is largely due to traffic at the International Space Station rather than the readiness of Starliner itself. Two NASA sources said the vehicle is “close” to being ready, with only a few small tests to certify the spacecraft for flight remaining. Starliner is therefore expected to be ready to fly by early summer.

The primary issue is the availability of space station docking ports fitted with an “international docking adapter,” which are used by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Cargo Dragon 2, and Starliner vehicles. There are presently two such ports on the station, and for NASA, the priority for access to these ports are crew rotations followed by supply missions. So the question becomes when the Starliner test flight can find an open slot on station.

It appears that they are now targeting the window of availability for either of those ports in the late July into August time period.

While this might be the main reason for this new delay, it also appears that there might be technical issues as well. In early March Boeing and NASA had announced that they were delaying this demo mission for the same scheduling reasons, but then they said they were targeting a May launch date, during a period after one manned Dragon mission had left in late April and before the next Dragon cargo mission arrived in June.

It now appears they cannot meet that window any longer, and are therefore aiming for the next, in July.

Meanwhile, the first manned Starliner demo mission appears to have also pushed back, from late this year to early next year.

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.

Scheduling conflicts at ISS delay Starliner unmanned demo flight till May

NASA and Boeing have been forced to again delay the second unmanned Starliner demo mission to ISS due to scheduling conflicts with Soyuz and Dragon missions in April, forcing the flight to slip to May.

A Russian Soyuz capsule is set for launch April 9 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with two Russian cosmonauts and a U.S. astronaut. The Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft will dock with the space station about three hours after launch, and an outgoing three-person crew will depart and return to Earth on April 17.

SpaceX’s next Crew Dragon flight to the space station is set for launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida around April 20 with astronauts Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, Akihiko Hoshide, and Thomas Pesquet. Their mission, known as Crew-2, will last about six months.

The four astronauts who flew to the station last November on the Crew-1 mission — aboard the Crew Dragon “Resilience” spacecraft — will return to Earth in late April or early May. Both docking ports capable of receiving the Boeing Starliner capsule will be occupied during the crew handover in late April.

They had hoped to launch on April 2nd, but I suspect strongly that Boeing and NASA are glad to have this extra time.

Biden fires Boeing on SLS; gives job to Acme

In an interesting announcement today, the Biden administration fired Boeing as the prime contractor for SLS and gave the job to a well-known southwest company dubbed Acme.

Anticipating critical comment, White House spokesmen pointed out that Acme had a long history of use of solid-fuel rockets for crewed applications, “without loss of human life or serious injury” despite some less-than-fatal mishaps.

…The spokesperson also added, “It should be noted that Acme’s products have never killed anybody. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Boeing.”

Before you comment, make sure you read the article at the link closely, and also click on the two links in the article to get some detailed background on Acme, from some original sources.

NASA postpones second SLS static fire test

NASA today announced that it was postponing the second SLS static fire test of the rocket’s core stage due to a valve issue in its main engines.

NASA said it was postponing the Green Run static-fire test, which had been scheduled for Feb. 25, after discovering a problem with one of eight valves called “prevalves” associated with the stage’s four RS-25 main engines. The valve, which supplies liquid oxygen, was “not working properly,” NASA said in a statement, but didn’t elaborate on the problem.

Engineers identified the problem during preparations over the weekend for the test. NASA said it will work with Boeing, the prime contractor for the core stage, to “identify a path forward in the days ahead and reschedule the hot fire test” but did not set a new date for the test.

This was not the first time Boeing and NASA has had valve problems with the rocket, though this problem appears unrelated to the previous issue.

Either way, the continuing technical problems — such as the two previous aborts during testing — does not build confidence in the rocket. First, the schedule is very tight, and is getting tighter. Its first unmanned test flight was supposed to happen by the end of this year, and right now that looks very unlikely. Yet, it must happen within the next twelve months because they have begun stacking the strap-on solid rocket boosters, and those have a sell-by date.

More important, these issues raise big red flags as to the overall trustworthiness of the rocket. I certainly would not want to fly on it, at least not until I see it fly at least a half dozen times successfully. The problems however suggest that achieving such a track record is going to be quite difficult.

And if SLS has any major failures during any launch, be prepared for Congress’s support to finally collapse, especially with the on-going spectacular progress being achieved by SpaceX with Starship along with two Falcon Heavy launches planned for this year.

Texas power outages delay Starliner but not Starship

Boeing announced yesterday that due to the winter storms and power outages in Texas it has delayed the second unmanned demo flight of its Starliner manned capsule from March 25 to no earlier than April 2nd.

Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Starship operation in Boca Chica, Texas has been proceeding practically unaffected by the power outages.

At the southernmost fringes of Texas, SpaceX’s Boca Chica Starship factory hasn’t been insulated from the chaos, though a large Tesla Solar and Energy installation has almost certainly lessened the blow. Highly cognizant of Boca Chica’s shortcomings for industrial-grade power needs, SpaceX installed that solar array and Tesla-made Powerpacks almost three years ago and substantially expanded it in 2020.

As a result, despite major issues posed by freezing weather and power grid instability, SpaceX has managed to keep the lights on and continue work at its Starship factory, while also slowly but surely preparing Starship serial number 10 (SN10) for its first static fire and high-altitude launch.

The weather is clearly slowing the Starship test schedule, but at least the work seems insulated from loss of power.

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.

SLS core stage static fire test aborts after only one minute

During the crucial first static fire test of SLS’s core stage yesterday — meant to last a full eight minutes — the booster aborted the test after only one minute.

It’s still too early to know exactly what caused the early shutdown in Saturday’s engine test.

Flight controllers could be heard during the test referring to an “MCF” (a major component failure) apparently related to engine No. 4 on the SLS booster. John Honeycutt, NASA’s SLS program manager, added that at about the 60-second mark, cameras caught a flash in a protective thermal blanket on the engine, though its cause and significance remain to be determined.

Honeycutt said it’s too early to know if a second hot-fire test will be required at Stennis, or if it can be done later at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the SLS is scheduled to launch the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission around the moon by the end of this year. Similarly, it’s too early to know if Artemis 1 will still be able to launch this year. “I think it’s still too early to tell,” Bridenstine said of whether a 2021 launch for Artemis 1 is still in the cards. “As we figure out what went wrong, we’re going to know kind of what the future holds.” [emphasis mine]

If this engine abort had occurred during a launch, with the two strap-on solid rocket boosters still firing (and no way to turn them off), the entire rocket would have been lost. Thus, for NASA to even consider shipping this core stage to Florida before figuring out the problem and fixing it is downright insane.

They need to figure out what went wrong, fix it, and then test again, even if if means the first unmanned Artemis flight experiences a serious delay. If they don’t then this whole program is proved to be an idiotic sham (something I have believed for about a decade), and should be shut down by Congress and the new President, immediately.

I am reporting this late because this weekend I was out in the country on a caving trip, taking a very much needed break from the truly horrible news of modern America.

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.

Boeing and NASA delay again the 2nd unmanned demo flight of Starliner

Boeing and NASA yesterday announced that they now plan to fly the second unmanned demo flight of Starliner in late March, rather in January as last scheduled.

Though there have been hints for awhile that a launch close to the start of the new year was no longer likely, this announcement confirms those hints. This means that it will have taken Boeing more than a year to fix the software issues that forced the first demo mission to abort its docking with ISS and come back early.

Whether this will delay the manned mission, which they are still targeting for as early as the summer of ’21, remains unclear. I think it will all depend on how well that the demo mission goes.

1st countdown dress rehearsal of SLS core stage scrubbed

The attempt by NASA to conduct a full countdown dress rehearsal of the SLS core stage, including loading its tanks, was scrubbed early in the countdown yesterday when engineers encountered problems loading oxygen into the rocket’s tanks.

An issue with the LOX chilldown process run on Monday meant that the LOX propellant tank couldn’t be filled, which meant that the full WDR test wasn’t possible.

NASA’s post-scrub statement indicated the vehicle systems performed well and that the Core Stage engineering community and the test team at Stennis were working on fixes and determining when the tanking and countdown demonstration parts of the WDR test can be retried.

This dress rehearsal is intended to preparatory to what NASA dubs the Green Run test static fire of the core stage, set to last for the full 500 seconds the core stage would fire during an actual launch. Whether this scrub will prevent that Green Run test from occurring before the end of the year remains unclear. Either way it must happen soon if NASA is to maintain its schedule for the long frequently delayed launch of SLS, now scheduled for November ’21.

Boeing hires former SpaceX software engineer

Capitalism in space: Boeing has hired a former SpaceX software engineer to head software development for the company.

Boeing on Friday announced it hired Jinnah Hosein as vice president of software engineering, a new role at the aerospace giant. The job will lead a centralized organization of engineers developing software across Boeing’s portfolio of products. Hosein will report to Greg Hyslop, Boeing chief engineer and senior vice president of engineering, test and technology.

…Hosein’s resume reads like a defense industry wish list of Silicon Valley stops. He worked as Google’s director of software engineering for cloud networking, helped design Tesla’s autopilot software and most recently worked as software lead for self-driving startup Aurora.

But it’s his experiences at SpaceX — where he was key to software development for the Falcon, Falcon Heavy, Dragon and Crew Dragon vehicles — that Boeing may look to draw from the most. Boeing and SpaceX have fiercely competed over NASA’s manned space programs, and SpaceX is a competitor for military space launches against the United Launch Alliance, which is co-owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Since software was the main issue that grounded Boeing’s 737-Max airplane as well as caused the serious problems on the first unmanned demo flight of the company’s Starliner capsule, this hire appears to be aimed at fixing these software issues. In both cases the management philosophy behind developing and testing software was very flawed, leaving the product saddled with software that either didn’t work properly or was not tested properly in development.

I imagine Boeing’s top management is hoping Hosein can bring to Boeing some of the agile, focused, and very successful management style found at SpaceX.

Europa Clipper to be delayed because of SLS bottleneck

Because Boeing will be unable to provide an SLS rocket in time for the planned 2024 launch of Europa Clipper, once the probe is completed NASA will be forced to put it in storage.

The problem is that Congress has mandated that the Jupiter probe be launched on SLS, but has only funded the first two Artemis launches to the Moon. Boeing will also need at least three years to build it, meaning that even if the money from Congress appeared today, it would likely not be ready for its ’24 launch date.

In terms of rocket science, right now, Europa Clipper can launch on a commercial vehicle, like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or United Launch Alliance’s Delta-IV Heavy rocket, although the mission would then need a longer cruise time to reach its destination.

But in terms of the law, NASA’s hands are tied.

“Because of that, we’re planning to build the Europa Clipper and then put it into storage, because we’re not going to have an SLS rocket available until 2025,” Bridenstine said. “That’s the current plan. I don’t think that’s the right plan, but we’re going to follow the law.”

Though the common sense thing for Congress to do would be to release NASA from this mandate and allow the agency to pick the launch rocket, do not expect that to happen. Congress wants SLS because of all the pork it produces. They will not allow NASA to reduce its reliance on SLS one iota, if they can. Unless pressured publicly (which I think is NASA’s goal with this announcement), Congress will let Europa Clipper sit in a warehouse for years, at a cost of between $36 to $60 million per year, waiting for SLS.

Starliner Commander steps down from first manned mission

Capitalism in space: Boeing’s company astronaut chosen to command the first manned mission of its Starliner capsule has stepped down because the flight would prevent him from attending his daughter’s wedding next year.

In a video posted to his Twitter account, Ferguson said it was a difficult decision, but “next year is very important for my family.” He said he has several commitments “which I simply cannot risk missing.” A Boeing spokeswoman confirmed one is his daughter’s wedding. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m just not going into space next year,” Ferguson said. He stressed that he remains committed to the Starliner program and will continue to work for Boeing.

This is the second crew change for this mission. Earlier NASA astronaut Eric Boe had had to back out due to medical reasons.

Assuming the second unmanned Starliner demo mission scheduled for the December-January timeframe succeeds, the first manned mission will happen in June ’21, and last anywhere from two weeks to six months.

Next Starship test flight to go to 60,000 feet

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has decided, after two successful 500 foot hops using its fifth and sixth Starship prototypes, to forego further hops with those prototypes and instead test fly prototype number eight to a height of 60,000 feet, about 11 miles.

Starship SN5 and SN6 were set to become a tag-team, flying 150-meter hops to refine the launch and landing techniques that SpaceX has pioneered with its Falcon 9 rocket. However, with SN5’s hop proving to be a success, followed by a notable improvement with SN6’s leap to 150 meters a few weeks later, it’s likely SpaceX is now confident of advancing to the next milestone.

The company has applied for an FCC license to do the flight anytime from Oct ’20 to April ’21, with October 11th being the first available date.

In the meantime the company plans a pressure tank test to failure of prototype #7, probably later this week.

In other related news at the second link, Boeing and Firefly have also applied for FCC licenses, the former for a Starliner demo mission from November ’20 to May ’21, the latter for its first launch of its smallsat Alpha rocket, also from November ’20 to May ’21.

Boeing strikes deal to avoid harsher ethics probe in NASA’s lunar lander scandal

Boeing has struck a deal with both NASA and the Air Force in order to avoid a harsher and more extensive ethics probe into its part in the NASA lunar lander contract bidding scandal.

The agreement, signed in August, comes as federal prosecutors continue a criminal investigation into whether NASA’s former human exploration chief, Doug Loverro, improperly guided Boeing space executive Jim Chilton during the contract bidding process.

By agreeing to the “Compliance Program Enhancements”, the aerospace heavyweight staves off harsher consequences from NASA and the Air Force – its space division’s top customers – such as being suspended or debarred from bidding on future space contracts. The agreement calls for Boeing to pay a “third party expert” to assess its ethics and compliance programs and review training procedures for executives who liaise with government officials, citing “concerns related to procurement integrity” during NASA’s Human Landing System competition.

Since Loverro resigned in May, Boeing has fired one company attorney and a group of mid-level employees, three people familiar with the actions told Reuters.

The deal seems like a bureaucratic whitewash, designed to take the heat off the company. And since Boeing as a company has many problems, I remain skeptical that any of this will make a difference in getting things fixed.

Boeing’s CEO vows to hire based on race, not qualifications

The coming dark age: Boeing’s CEO today vowed to raise the number of blacks working at the company by 20%, apparently with no regard to qualifications.

Boeing is seeking to increase black US employees throughout the company by 20 percent and mandate benchmarks for hiring people of color, Chief Executive Dave Calhoun told employees in a memo on Friday reviewed by Reuters.

…The changes at Boeing, a stalwart defense contractor with its corporate headquarters in Chicago and largest factories in Washington state and South Carolina, appeared to mark the first concrete steps by the planemaker to address the issue. “We understand we have work to do,” Calhoun said in the memo, which was released on the 57th anniversary of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech and included references to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin on Sunday.

Boeing declined to provide its current number of black employees or a timeline for the new target.

The planemaker separately has had to lay off thousands of workers as it grapples with the financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the 17-month-old grounding of the 737 MAX after two fatal crashes.

In the memo, Calhoun said the company would establish an internal Racial Justice think-tank to guide its policies.

As a company, Boeing’s bad performance in almost every area in the last year is bad enough. If they are going to lay off thousands and then replace some with workers based merely on racial quotas the company’s future will be worse, since their ability to produce quality airplanes and spacecraft is certain to go down.

And for those hate-mongers who will immediately try to accuse me of saying blacks are not as smart, go to hell. The goal should be to hire the best, instead of members of a specific race. If you favor one race over another you simply prove yourself to be a bigot, as this company’s CEO is now amply doing.

I also hope a lot of fired Boeing employees sue Boeing for racial discrimination.

NASA/Boeing set summer ’21 for first manned Starliner mission

Capitalism in space: NASA and Boeing have tentatively scheduled the launch of the first manned Starliner mission to ISS for the summer of 2021.

Boeing Co said on Tuesday it aims to redo its unmanned Starliner crew capsule flight test to the International Space Station (ISS) in December or January, depending on when it completes software and test hardware production development.

If the test mission is successful, Boeing and NASA will fly Starliner’s first crewed mission in summer 2021, with a post-certification mission roughly scheduled for the following winter, the company added.

Everything of course depends on the success of the unmanned demo flight. If the capsule has any further problems, as it did on its first unmanned demo flight, the manned flight will likely be delayed again.

Criminal investigation begun against former NASA manned program head

The U.S. Attorney’s office for DC has opened a criminal investigation into actions taken by Doug Loverro, the former head of NASA’s manned program, during contract bidding for a NASA lunar lander project.

The grand jury investigation concerns communications between Doug Loverro, then the chief of human spaceflight for NASA, and Jim Chilton, senior vice president of Boeing’s space and launch division. These discussions occurred early this year, during a blackout period when NASA was taking bids to construct a Human Landing System for the Artemis Moon Program. It is not permissible to interfere with a competition for government contracts.

“Mr. Loverro, who wasn’t part of NASA’s official contracting staff, informed Mr.Chilton that the Chicago aerospace giant was about to be eliminated from the competition based on cost and technical evaluations,” the report states, citing unidentified sources. “Within days, Boeing submitted a revised proposal.”

The analysis at the link is excellent. Read it all.

British Airways retires 747 fleet

Because of the crash in customer demand due to the Wuhan virus panic, British Airways has abruptly retired its entire fleet of 747s.

This retirement had been planned, as the 747 is expensive to operate. The airline had planned however to phase them out over several years. Now they simply don’t need them, as they are flying so few passengers.

I am fortunate that I got to fly on one in 2019, in a vacation trip to Wales with Diane. This might have been the only time I ever flew on a 747, and it was a remarkably smooth flight, both during take-off and landing. It is sad to see this magnificent American achievement finally leave us.

NASA completes Starliner review, finds more issues

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday released the results of its investigation into the issues that prevented Boeing’s manned Starliner capsule from successfully completing its unmanned demo flight to ISS in December, finding an additional 20 issues over the 61 initially identified shortly after the mission.

In closing out the seven-month investigation, NASA officials said Tuesday they have now identified 80 corrective actions, mostly involving software and testing, that must be done before the Starliner capsule launches again. The previous count was 61.

NASA officials also admitted that they had been so focused on making sure SpaceX’s Dragon capsule was going to work that they became lax in reviewing Boeing’s work. Now they not only are going to focus more on Boeing, they actually want to use SpaceX’s approach to software development throughout NASA.

NASA is also borrowing SpaceX’s “robust” approach to software, which involves going back to the designers following testing for feedback, said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s new human spaceflight chief who until a month ago managed commercial crew. She wants to see more of that type of approach across other NASA programs.

Though it seems absurd and incredible that NASA has not been consulting with its designers after testing, it is also not surprising. When it comes to designing and building anything at NASA the management processes there have routinely done a bad job for many years.

As for Starliner, it is expected it will take a few more months to fix these issues, which means the next unmanned test flight is likely still set for sometime in the fall, with the manned mission to follow next spring.

Boeing’s Starliner aces parachute test

Capitalism in space: Boeing last week successfully completed a Starliner parachute test designed to simulate the return of a capsule after a launch abort.

This is good news for the capsule and Boeing, but I am a bit puzzled why this test, to be followed by a second similar test, was done. These parachutes were supposedly tested thoroughly already, proven, and ready for use for manned missions. Part of that proof was an earlier launch abort test as well as Boeing’s unmanned orbital demo flight that failed to dock with ISS. Both returned to Earth safely using these parachutes. I wonder if during those latter flights they found issues with the parachutes that needed smoothing out by even more tests.

Either way, this success improves the chances that Starliner will finally fly manned early next year, giving the U.S. two different operational manned capsules for getting humans into space.

New technical problems for SLS?

A new GAO report [pdf] issued yesterday has revealed that SLS engineers are concerned that the rocket’s core stage will develop leaks during its first full test, hopefully scheduled for this year.

[T]he new “Assessments of Major NASA Projects” report released on Wednesday contains what seems to be an entirely new bit of information about the Space Launch System rocket NASA is developing for deep space exploration. The report asserts that engineers at NASA and the SLS rocket’s core-stage contractor, Boeing, are concerned about fuel leaks.

Earlier this year, NASA moved the big rocket’s core stage to a test site at Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi. Before the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily halted work, NASA and Boeing teams were working toward a critical summer exercise. During this “green run” test, the clamped-down rocket will ignite its engines and burn for about eight minutes to simulate an ascent into orbit.

“Program officials indicated that one of the top remaining technical risks to the green run test is that the core stage may develop leaks when it is filled with fuel,” the report states on page 82. “According to these officials, they have conducted extensive scaled testing of the gaskets and seals used in the core stage; however, it is difficult to precisely predict how this large volume of liquid hydrogen will affect the stage.”

My god, for them to think that the core stage might leak when it is filled with fuel for the first time illustrates the entire bankrupt nature of this entire project. This is why you do tank tests early in the process (as SpaceX has been doing with Starship), so that you don’t get surprised late in the game.

The report also notes further issues with the Orion capsule.

The Orion program plans to reduce the 7-month-long pre-launch processing period by 1.5 months. The program plans to use a mass simulator—instead of the Orion spacecraft—to conduct some prelaunch tests that would otherwise be done after integrating Orion with SLS—providing the program with extra time to complete work before delivering Orion for integration and further testing according to officials. With this shortened process, the program has only 1 week of schedule reserve remaining to the November 2020 launch date, and program officials have said this date will likely be delayed

I must remind everyone that Lockheed Martin got the contract to build Orion in 2005. They have had fifteen years to build this one capsule, and will still deliver it late.

Personally, I hope SLS leaks. If it does, it will force a very long new delay to the program, and very well might finally force Congress and the Trump administration to face reality and cancel it.

Boeing’s fall from grace at NASA

Eric Berger at Ars Technica yesterday uncovered a NASA report that outlined its selection process for awarding a contract for providing cargo to the agency’s proposed Lunar Gateway space station — eventually won by SpaceX — that gave Boeing’s proposal a terrible ranking.

Of the four contenders, [Boeing] had the lowest overall technical and mission suitability scores. In addition, Boeing’s proposal was characterized as “inaccurate” and possessing no “significant strengths.” Boeing also was cited with a “significant weakness” in its proposal for pushing back on providing its software source code.

Due to its high price and ill-suited proposal for the lunar cargo contract, NASA didn’t even consider the proposal among the final bidders. In his assessment late last year, NASA’s acting chief of human spaceflight, Ken Bowersox, wrote, “Since Boeing’s proposal was the highest priced and the lowest rated under the Mission Suitability factor, while additionally providing a conditional fixed price, I have decided to eliminate Boeing from further award consideration.” [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words could possibly be a death sentence for Boeing. The company has numerous other serious problems, including its commercial 737-Max airplane, its KC-46 Pegasus tanker for the Air Force, and of course its SLS rocket for NASA. For NASA to say that it will no longer consider Boeing in future contract bidding, especially since NASA has been one of Boeing’s biggest customers for decades, cannot be good for the company’s already badly suffering bottom line.

Berger also notes how much NASA’s attitude toward Boeing has changed since the agency removed Bill Gerstenmaier as head of its manned space operations. Gerstenmaier had apparently given Boeing the highest marks routinely, and appeared to have lost his ability to look at the company objectively. Moreover, his (and NASA’s) kid-glove treatment of Boeing for decades probably contributed to that company’s sloppy bid on the Lunar Gateway cargo contract. They were likely not used to tough questioning, and didn’t put the proper effort into writing their bid.

For the taxpayer and the American space effort, however, this report is wonderful news. It appears that NASA is breaking its tight and blind partnership with the big space contractors that has for decades handicapped the nation’s ability to get things built in space. These contractors have not been able to deliver, but because of their powerful allies on Congress, NASA has for years kowtowed to them in contract awards.

Now however it appears NASA’s management has become quite willing to reject these powerful companies, despite Congressional backing, in order to get the best deal and the best product, for the nation.

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