Tag Archives: Boeing

Inspector general slams NASA’s management for bonus payments to Boeing

In a report [pdf] issued yesterday, NASA’s inspector general blasted the agency’s manned commercial space management for issuing a $287 million bonus payment to Boeing to help it avoid delays in developing its Starliner capsule — which would have caused gaps in future American flights to ISS — even though the cost to use Russian Soyuz capsules would have been far less.

Worse, the agency never even allowed SpaceX to make its own competitive offer.

NASA agreed to pay Boeing Co (BA.N) a $287 million premium for “additional flexibilities” to accelerate production of the company’s Starliner crew vehicle and avoid an 18-month gap in flights to the International Space Station. NASA’s inspector general called it an “unreasonable” boost to Boeing’s fixed-priced $4.2 billion dollar contract.

Instead, the inspector general said the space agency could have saved $144 million by making “simple changes” to Starliner’s planned launch schedule, including buying additional seats from Russia’s space agency, which the United States has been reliant on since the 2011 retirement of its space shuttle program.

…NASA justified the additional funds to avoid a gap in space station operations. But SpaceX, the other provider, “was not provided an opportunity to propose a solution, even though the company previously offered shorter production lead times than Boeing,” the report said. [emphasis mine]

I’ve read the report, and from it the impression is clear that when NASA management discovered that Boeing was facing delays in Starliner and needed extra cash, it decided to funnel that cash to it, irrespective of cost. While it is likely that the agency did so because it did not wish to buy more Russian Soyuz seats, it makes no sense that it didn’t ask SpaceX for its own competitive bid. By not doing so the management’s foolish bias towards Boeing is starkly illustrated

Eric Berger at Ars Technica also notes that the report makes clear how Boeing’s prices for Starliner are 60% higher than SpaceX’s Crew Dragon prices, further illustrating how the agency favors Boeing over SpaceX.

Boeing’s per-seat price already seemed like it would cost more than SpaceX. The company has received a total of $4.82 billion from NASA over the lifetime of the commercial crew program, compared to $3.14 billion for SpaceX. However, for the first time the government has published a per-seat price: $90 million for Starliner and $55 million for Dragon. Each capsule is expected to carry four astronauts to the space station during a nominal mission.

What is notable about Boeing’s price is that it is also higher than what NASA has paid the Russian space corporation, Roscosmos, for Soyuz spacecraft seats to fly US and partner-nation astronauts to the space station. Overall, NASA paid Russia an average cost per seat of $55.4 million for the 70 completed and planned missions from 2006 through 2020. Since 2017, NASA has paid an average of $79.7 million.

I don’t have a problem with NASA favoring Boeing over Russia, considering the national priorities. I can also understand the agency’s willingness to keep buying some Starliner seats in order to guarantee an American launch redundancy. However, giving Boeing even more money to keep its schedule going, when SpaceX is available to fill the gaps, demonstrates the corruption in the agency’s management. They haven’t the slightest understanding of how private enterprise and competition works.

The report is also filled with the same tiresome complaints about the on-going delays to the manned commercial program, focusing greatly on past technical issues (now mostly solved) while hiding in obscure language how it is NASA’s paperwork that is likely to cause all further delays.

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More detail on pad abort test parachute issue

At a press telecon yesterday Boeing outlined in more detail the cause of the failure of one main parachute to deploy during its November 4 Starliner pad abort test.

In a call with reporters, John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial crew at Boeing, said an investigation after the Nov. 4 test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico led the company to conclude that a “lack of secure connection” between a pilot parachute and the main parachute prevented that main parachute, one of three, from deploying.

The pilot parachute is designed to deploy first, and pull out the main parachute. However, Mulholland said that hardware inspections and photographs taken during “closeout” of the vehicle prior to the test showed that a pin that links the pilot and main parachutes was not inserted properly.

“It’s very difficult, when you’re connecting that, to verify visually that it’s secured properly,” he said, in part because that portion of the parachute system is enclosed in a “protective sheath” intended to limit abrasion but which also makes it difficult to visually confirm the pin is in place. “In this particular case that pin wasn’t through the loop, but it wasn’t discovered in initial visual inspections because of that protective sheath.”

Mulholland said Boeing is modifying assembly procedures through what he called “fairly easy steps,” such as pull tests, to ensure those pins are properly installed. Technicians have already confirmed that the same parachute linkages are properly installed on the three parachutes on the Starliner that will launch in December on an orbital flight test to the International Space Station. [emphasis mine]

That a hardware inspection and photos taken before launch revealed this issue and resulted in nothing being done should rise serious questions at Boeing about its quality control processes. Based on the press telecon, however, it does not appear that Boeing is asking those questions. From a different report:

[John Mulholland, Boeing’s Starliner program manager] praised the rigging team, saying “even before we got eyes on the hardware, that team on their own initiative (was) reviewing the close-out photos and the processes, and they identified the potential issue that was subsequently validated by hardware inspection.”

“Most importantly, they raised their hand and and let us know what they believe the problem was,” he said. “It’s really a testament to the transparency of that team. The speak-up culture that we have, that is what we need on this program.”

While it is good that the rigging team was willing to speak up afterward, it is very bad that their procedures allowed the launch to go forward. The company says it has now changed its rigging procedures, but I don’t sense any effort on Boeing’s part to find out why its so-called “speak-up culture” failed to have these engineers speak-up, before launch.

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New video of Starliner pad abort test

Boeing has released a new video of the Starliner pad abort test on November 4th, showing the full flight.

I have embedded the footage below the fold. The one aspect of this test that I have as yet not seen any explanation for is the red cloud to the left of the capsule’s touch down spot. It surely looks like the kind of smoke one sees from the release of certain toxic fuels. It was also something that the live stream video focused on, suggesting the possibility that its existence was important and needed to be recorded for engineering reasons.

Regardless, the fact that any onboard astronauts would have been safely returned to Earth, based on this test, should mean Boeing’s abort system is functioning properly. They note that they have pinpointed the reason one parachute did not deploy (“attributed to the lack of a secure connection between the pilot chute and one of the main chutes”), a problem that is probably quite simple to fix. Hopefully that one failure will not cause any significant delays in their future flights, including the first manned flight next year.
» Read more

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NASA rejects Blue Origin’s proposed SLS upper stage

After considering an alternative bid by Blue Origin to build a less expensive upper stage for NASA’s SLS rocket, replacing the stage that Boeing is building, NASA has decided to reject that bid and stick with Boeing.

NASA sets out three reasons for not opening the competition to Blue Origin. In the document, signed by various agency officials including the acting director for human spaceflight, Ken Bowersox, NASA says Blue Origin’s “alternate” stage cannot fly 10 tons of cargo along with the Orion spacecraft.

Moreover, NASA says, the total height of the SLS rocket’s core stage with Blue Origin’s upper stage exceeds the height of the Vertical Assembly Building’s door, resulting in “modifications to the VAB building height and substantial cost and schedule delays.” Finally, the agency says the BE-3U engine’s higher stage thrust would result in an increase to the end-of-life acceleration of the Orion spacecraft and a significant impact to the Orion solar array design.

The article notes that there were also significant political reasons as well that pushed NASA to favor Boeing.

The article also states that SLS’s cost per launch will be about $2 billion. Though I think that number is probably low because it does not include any of the $25 billion spent for development, it does compare badly with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which costs about $100 million per launch.

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Boeing proposes manned lunar lander that bypasses Gateway

Capitalism in space: Boeing today announced its bid to build a manned lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis program, with its lander launched to go directly to the Moon rather than stopping at the proposed Lunar Gateway lunar space station.

The company said its “Fewest Steps to the Moon” proposal, submitted for NASA’s Human Landing Services program, minimized the number of launches and other “mission critical events” needed to get astronauts to the surface of the moon. “Using the lift capability of NASA’s Space Launch System Block 1B, we have developed a ‘Fewest Steps to the Moon’ approach that minimizes mission complexity, while offering the safest and most direct path to the lunar surface,” Jim Chilton, senior vice president for space and launch at Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said in a company statement.

The two-stage launched would launch on the enhanced Block 1B version of the rocket, which uses the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), and go into lunar orbit. It would either rendezvous with the lunar Gateway or directly with an Orion spacecraft, where astronauts would board it for a trip to the lunar surface. The lander is designed to be launched as a single unit, rather than in separate modules that would be aggregated at the Gateway. The lander also doesn’t require a separate transfer stage to maneuver from a near-rectilinear halo orbit to low lunar orbit, as some other designs have proposed.

This approach, the company said in a statement, reduces the number of mission critical events, such as launches and dockings, to as few as five. Alternative approaches, Boeing claims, require 11 or more such events. [emphasis mine]

Boeing is essentially proposing a plan that makes Gateway unnecessary, a bidding ploy that very well might work with the Trump administration, which has already reduced Gateway’s initial construction to speed up its attempt to get to the Moon by 2024.

More important, Boeing’s proposal makes it very clear how unnecessary Gateway is, and how that boondoggle actually slows down our effort to return to the Moon. This is great news, for several reasons. First it shows that Boeing, one of the old big contractors that historically has depended on government dollars, is now publicly stating that it is not in favor of Gateway. This in turn makes it more politically acceptable for politicians to take this position. Expect more public advocacy against building Gateway.

Second, it shows that Boeing is trying to sell SLS. It wants Congress to appropriate more launches, and by showing Congress a cheaper way to use it the company is hoping legislators will buy into their proposal. SLS might be an exceedingly expensive rocket, but Gateway only makes it worse. Boeing is showing the world that there is a better and cheaper way to do things.

This also suggests that Boeing is recognizing the competition coming from SpaceX and others that might kill SLS, and is now trying to make SLS more competitive. While I am not a fan of SLS, if this proposal indicates an effort by Boeing is finally to make SLS more efficient and affordable I can only celebrate. The rocket has capabilities that are unique, and if its cost can be reduced in any way that can only benefit the U.S. effort to compete in the exploration and settlement of the solar system.

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Boeing & NASA declare pad abort test a success

According to the NASA press release for yesterday pad abort test of Boeing’s Starliner capsule, the test was a success even though one of three main parachutes did not deploy successfully.

A pitcharound maneuver rotated the spacecraft into position for landing as it neared its peak altitude of approximately 4,500 feet. Two of three Starliner’s main parachutes deployed just under half a minute into the test, and the service module separated from the crew module a few seconds later. Although designed with three parachutes, two opening successfully is acceptable for the test parameters and crew safety. After one minute, the heat shield was released and airbags inflated, and the Starliner eased to the ground beneath its parachutes.

All reports say that this parachute issue will not effect the December 17 planned launch of the first unmanned orbital flight to ISS.

I find NASA’s reaction to this anomaly fascinating. Previously the agency repeatedly made a very big deal about the slightest anomaly by both Boeing and SpaceX on any test or procedure. While the agency’s response to these problems could have been reasonably justified, the caution it sometimes exhibited, often causing significant delays that might have been avoidable, was somewhat disturbing, especially when contrasted with the agency’s willingness to accept far more serious issues in connection with SLS and Orion.

Now however, the agency has no problem with the failure of one parachute to deploy during this test. While I actually agree with this response, the contrast is interesting and suggests to me that politics and deadlines (with the Russian Soyuz contract running out) are finally exerting some influence over NASA’s safety people. I suspect it has been made clear to them that unless something really seriously goes wrong, as long as the tests would have resulted in living astronauts, the safety bureaucrats had better not stand in the way of progress.

If so, this is very good news. It means that, assuming nothing really goes wrong with the remaining tests, the first manned missions are finally going to occur next year, relatively early in the year.

Posted at the Hayabusa-2/OSIRIS-REx asteroid conference in Tucson this week.

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Boeing completes Starliner pad abort test

Embedded below the fold is the video of today’s Starliner pad abort test, cued up to just before launch. While the capsule landed safely, it appears that one of it’s parachutes deploy improperly. If so, this probably means Boeing will not be able to launch the unmanned demo flight to ISS on December 17.

No one during the podcast mentioned this fact, so it could mean that they considered the landing a success regardless. It is even possible that they planned it with only two chutes. Or it could be the corporate culture at Boeing, similar to the culture in the Soviet Union, to avoid mentioning non-obvious problems to the public in order to make believe all is well. We will have to wait and see.

UPDATE: More information here on the failure of one chute:

Video of the test appeared to show all three chutes deploy, but only two remained attached to Starliner – a significant issue that will have to be investigated and evaluated.

Hat tip to reader Col. Beausabre for the link to the video.
» Read more

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How to watch Boeing’s Starliner pad abort

Link here.

It is presently scheduled for 9 am (Eastern) on November 4, with a three hour window. The live stream on NASA television will go up about ten minutes before. Anyone watching should be prepared for long waits of nothing happening, followed by a very quick event over in mere minutes.

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December 17 officially set for Starliner unmanned orbital launch

Capitalsm in space: NASA and Boeing have now officially scheduled the launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule on its first unmanned demo flight to ISS for December 17.

Boeing had announced this date earlier, but it is now official.

The next two months will be a very busy period for tests of the two privately built manned capsules being built by Boeing and SpaceX. Not only will Boeing fly Starliner on its first unmanned orbital mission, the company will also do a pad abort test of Starliner on November 4. SpaceX in turn will be doing a major parachute test campaign for Dragon, as well as a launch abort test, right now roughly scheduled for late November.

If all go well, both companies will be ready for the first manned flights of both capsules in the first quarter of 2020.

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NASA to give Boeing cost-plus contract for 10 more SLS rockets

The boondoggle never ends! NASA is now planning to purchase ten more SLS rockets from Boeing, but it appears it plans to do so under a cost-plus contract, where the prices will never be fixed and the agency, not Boeing, will pay for any cost increases, plus 10 percent.

On Wednesday, NASA announced that it is negotiating a contract with Boeing to purchase up to 10 SLS core stages. The news release does not mention costs—NASA and Boeing have never been transparent about costs, but certainly production and operations cost for a single SLS launch will be well north of $1 billion. It also does not mention the mechanism of the contract.

A spokesperson for the agency, Kathryn Hambleton, told Ars that terms of the contract were not finalized yet. “NASA anticipates the contract will be a hybrid of cost-plus-incentive-fee and cost-plus-award-fee, potentially transitioning to firm-fixed-price,” she said. “The cost incentives are designed to reduce costs during early production to enable the lowest possible unit prices for the later fixed-price missions.” [emphasis mine]

If anything provides us a perfect example of the utter corruption and waste inherent in the present leadership within NASA and Congress, it is this deal. Cost-plus contracts were created in the 1960s to allow companies to build new and revolutionary things for the government, such as the missiles and capsules it needed then for the cold war and the space race. Today, rockets like SLS are hardly revolutionary or new, and to give Boeing a cost-plus contract to buy ten more rockets, essentially a blank check for the company, is unconscionable.

While I personally think all cost-plus contracts are corrupt, I can understand the arguemnet for them for the first development contract. This contract however is for the purchase of ten more rockets that Boeing has supposedly already figured out how to build. In essence NASA is just buying some rockets off the shelf. Cost-plus is entirely inappropriate for this purchase.

Worse, this announcement also illustrates the dishonest partnership between NASA, Boeing, and Congress. It is a maneuver by NASA and Boeing to force Congress to fund these extra rockets. At this moment Congress has not yet appropriated this money for more SLS rockets. The contract is basically NASA and Boeing’s fantasy of what they want to happen. This announcement thus signals to Congress where they want the pork spent, and our corrupt lawmakers, from both parties, are going to read that signal and are going to quickly follow through with the cash.

Sadly, I now fully expect Congress to go along. Welcome to the lumbering wasteful modern American empire, corrupt to the core.

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Unexplained issues with assembling SLS’s core stage?

It appears that in its effort to finally assembly SLS’s core stage so that it can be tested prior to its first launch, probably in 2021, NASA and Boeing recently experienced an issue that required “corrective action.”

Neither NASA nor Boeing have provided any detailed explanation for what the issue was, but according to the story at the link,

…one source suggested to Ars that Boeing technicians are having difficulty attaching the large rocket engines in a horizontal configuration rather than a vertical position. NASA and Boeing made a late change to the final assembly process, deciding to mate pieces of the core stage horizontally rather than vertically to save time. However, this source said horizontal mating of the engines has created problems.

Despite this, NASA officials said progress is being made. “NASA and Boeing are expected to have the first engine soft mated to the core stage next week,” Tracy McMahan, a spokesperson for Marshall Space Flight Center, said on Saturday. “However, there are many steps in engine installation that have to occur before the installation is complete.”

I applaud them for finally trying to “save time,” a concept that up until now the entire SLS project has never had much interest in. That this effort ended up causing a delay however is symptomatic of the design of the project, which remains cumbersome and inefficient, a fault not of the engineering but of some fundamental decisions at the top by Congress and NASA’s management.

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Bridenstine’s visit to SpaceX a non-story

Link here. Essentially he just reiterated his desire to have the private capsules being built by SpaceX and Boeing flying by early next year.

Essentially, the announcements in the last few days by Musk and Boeing about their upcoming testing and launch schedule for both Dragon and Starliner respectively took the steam out of his SpaceX visit.

In fact, I wonder what the politics were behind this. It is almost as if both companies wanted to take the steam out of his appearance here. Most intriguing.

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Boeing sets Dec 17 for launch of unmanned Starliner

Capitalism in space: Boeing officials today announced that they are targeting December 17 as the date they will launch their Starliner capsule to ISS for its first unmanned demo flight.

The article also says they are have set November 4 for their pad abort test of the capsule.

If both are completed successfully they will be ready for their manned demo launch to ISS.

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Boeing to buy $20 million minority stake in Virgin Galactic

HorizonX, a venture capital division of Boeing, today announced that it will purchase a $20 million minority stake in Virgini Galactic once the company goes public later this year.

Boeing’s venture arm HorizonX announced on Tuesday it will invest $20 million in Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic to help develop the technologies needed to make hypersonic air travel possible one day.

All I can say is I do not understand how Richard Branson can fool so many people for so long for so much, while delivering practically nothing.

Hat tip Robert Pratt of Pratt on Texas.

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NASA in negotiations to buy more Russian Soyuz astronaut seats

Collusion with Russia discovered! NASA has begun negotiations with Russia’s Roscosmos space agency to buy more astronaut flights to ISS using Russia’s Soyuz rocket and capsule.

According to the story at the link, NASA’s last purchased ticket will fly in March of 2020, and these negotiations would buy flights beginning in the fall of 2020 and beyond into 2021. The story also cites statements by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine to CNN, confirming these negotiations.

Apparently NASA thinks the manned capsules being built by Boeing and SpaceX will not be ready by the fall of 2020, and needs to buy tickets from Russia because of this.

However, the only reason those American capsules will not have been approved and flown by then will be because NASA’s timidity in approving their launch. The agency’s safety panel as well as its management have repeatedly delayed these private American capsules, sometimes for very strange reasons, including a demand that lots of paperwork be filled out, and what I consider to be an unjustified demand for perfect safety.

Had NASA adopted a reasonable criteria for launch, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule could have flown three years ago.

Meanwhile, NASA seems quite willing to put Americans on a Soyuz rocket, launched by a foreign power whose safety record in the past half decade has been spotty, at best. In that time Russia has experienced numerous quality control problems, including mistakes that led to an Soyuz abort during a launch and a Soyuz parachute failure during a landing, corruption that forced them to recall all rocket engines and freeze launches for almost a year, and sabotage where someone drilled a hole in a Soyuz capsule prior to launch, a sabotage that Russia still refuses to explain.

It is unconscionable for NASA to favor putting Americans on a Soyuz with many documented safety issues, but block the launch of Americans on American-made capsules, for imagined safety issues that have mostly made no sense. In fact, the contrast makes me wonder about the loyalty of NASA’s bureaucracy. They certainly seem to favor Russia and Roscosmos over private American companies.

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Boeing pushing to kill Gateway for more SLS funds?

Turf war! According to Eric Berger at Ars Technica today, the House hearings yesterday about Gateway and the Trump effort to complete a manned mission to the Moon by 2024 suggest that Boeing is lobbying to kill both Gateway as well as NASA’s effort to use multiple commercial rockets, in order to get its SLS rocket more funding.

Essentially, Boeing is getting almost no contracts in connection to Gateway. Furthermore, the much cheaper commercial rockets are a serious competitive threat to its SLS rocket. However, if Gateway was dropped and the money instead committed to building a more powerful upper stage for SLS, which is Boeing’s baby, the money would go to them. Moreover, doing this would make it unnecessary for NASA to use other commercial rockets, since SLS could do it all.

Berger’s analysis seems right on target. While Gateway is a bad idea, what Boeing proposes instead would be no better. As Berger notes,

What was surprising is that [lawmakers] at the hearing also appeared to be swayed by [Boeing’s] view that bypassing commercial rockets and the Gateway would lead to a simpler and faster lunar mission. “I believe there is value in developing commercial capabilities,” [one lawmaker] said toward the end of the hearing. However, she added, “I am concerned that the decisions are not being driven by what is most efficient or effective and what is most cost efficient.”

This is an interesting viewpoint given that commercial rockets cost $100 to $200 million, at most, versus the $1 billion to $2 billion cost of a single SLS rocket—not including the hundreds of millions of dollars, at a minimum, the agency would have to invest in Exploration Upper Stage development contracts with Boeing. Moreover, one of the commercial rockets—the Falcon Heavy—already exists and has flown three successful missions. Other boosters, including Blue Origin’s powerful New Glenn rocket, should be ready to fly in two or three years. An SLS rocket with the better upper stage almost certainly wouldn’t be ready by 2024, and NASA knows this.

“At this point, there is no path by which the Exploration Upper Stage will be ready for Artemis 3 in 2024,” the NASA administration source told Ars. “Hence, it is not in the critical path (for the Moon landing).”

This lobbying effort provides us a perfect illustration of the overall incompetence and corruption that permeates our government in Washington. No one there appears the slightest bit interested in serving the national interest. Instead, the focus is on how they can get politicians to give them money.

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X-37B photographed in orbit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Schedule for Dragon/Starliner manned flights revised

Capitalism in space: NASA has released a new updated planning schedule for the manned flights of both SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner manned capsules.

Boeing’s first unmanned demo flight of Starliner is now set for September 17, 2019. This will be followed by SpaceX’s first manned Dragon flight, scheduled for November 15, 2019. Boeing will then follow with its first manned Starliner flight on November 30, 2019.

These are considered target dates. I have great doubts that the Starliner schedule will proceed as described, while SpaceX’s schedule is more likely.

The article also had this interesting tidbit about the upcoming launch schedule of Sierra Nevada’s unmanned reusable cargo ship Dream Chaser:

According to the document, the first flight of Dream Chaser will take place in a planned September 2021 timeframe and will see the vehicle remain berthed to the International Space Station for up to 75 days before returning to Earth to land on a runway for reuse.

There are clearly issues with all these commercial projects. For example, the GAO today released a new report citing the numerous delays in this commercial manned program and calling for NASA to come up with a more complete back-up plan.

Nonetheless, the 2020s have the potential to be the most exciting decade in space exploration since the 1960s. If all goes even close to these plans, the U.S. will have three operating manned spacecraft (Dragon, Starliner, Orion), two reusable cargo spacecraft (Dragon, Dream Chaser), one non-reusable (Cygnus), and a plethora of launch companies putting up payloads of all kinds, from planetary missions to basic commercial satellites numbering in the thousands.

Much could happen to prevent all this. Keep your fingers crossed that nothing will.

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Boeing shifts space headquarters from DC area to Florida

Capitalism in space: Boeing today announced that it is moving the headquarters for its space operations from Arlington, Virginia, to Titusville, Florida, just outside Cape Canaveral.

From an operations point of view this move makes sense. The timing of this announcement suggests to me that they are trying to put a PR band-aid over yesterday’s damning GAO report about the endless cost overruns and schedule delays of their SLS rocket.

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Boeing completes Starliner thruster tests

Capitalism in space: Almost a year after the company experienced a fuel leak during thruster tests of its Starliner manned capsule, Boeing announced this week that those tests have now been completed successfully.

In a statement, Boeing said it completed hot-fire testing May 23 of the spacecraft’s entire propulsion system, including various thrusters, fuel tanks and related systems within a “flight-like” service module of the spacecraft. Those tests took place at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico.

A series of tests demonstrated thruster firings for in-space maneuvers, high-altitude aborts and low-altitude aborts. The company said the tests were all successful.

They now plan their launchpad abort test this summer.

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Are Boeing and SpaceX having parachute issues with their manned capsules?

There appears to be a significant conflict between what NASA has been saying about the parachute development tests for both SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Boeing’s Starliner capsule and what the companies have reported.

The head of NASA’s manned program, Bill Gerstenmaier, has said that both programs have had “anomalies” during their tests. Both companies have said otherwise, with both companies claiming that all their parachutes have been successful. The article looks into this, and what it finds tends to support the companies over Gerstenmaier. There have been issues, but not as terrible as implied by Gerstenmaier.

So what is going on? I suspect that Gerstenmaier is overstating these issues as part NASA’s game to slow-walk the private capsules in order to make SLS not look so bad. He would of course deny this, but that denial won’t change my suspicions, in the slightest. I’ve seen NASA’s bureaucracy play too many games in connection with getting these capsules approved for flight to be generous to Gertenmaier or NASA. I don’t trust them. I’ve seen them make dishonest accusations against SpaceX and Boeing too many times already.

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Russia to launch two more American astronauts on Soyuz

A news report from Russia today announced that NASA has extended its contract with Roscosmos so that two more American astronauts will fly to ISS using a Soyuz rocket and capsule.

Russia and the United States have agreed on two additional places on board of Soyuz carrier rockets for journeys of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), Roscosmos Executive Director for Manned Programs Sergei Krikalyov told TASS. “The documents have been approved,” Krikalyov said adding that it the procedure to sign the papers took place before a recently reported incident with Crew Dragon spacecraft.

According to Krikalyov, there was no new draft of the document as it was “Simply an update to the previously signed contract, everything was in work order and there was no solemn ceremony to mark the signing of the documents.”

This agreement practically guarantees that there will be no Americans flying on American-built spacecraft in 2019. Rather than push SpaceX and Boeing to get their technical problems solved quickly so they can start flying, NASA can continue to slow-walk their development by going to the Russians. For NASA bureaucrats, using the Russians is to their advantage. Any failures can be blamed on the Russians, not NASA due diligence, which would be the case if an American privately-built capsule failed.

Moreover, slow-walking the American spacecraft helps NASA avoid further embarrassment with its own manned system, SLS/Orion, which is years behind schedule. By slowing the private capsules, the delays with SLS/Orion won’t seem so bad.

In other words, NASA’s approach here favors itself and the Russians over the interests of our country and American private companies. It is too bad no one in the Trump administration notices, or cares.

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X-37B passes 600 days in orbit

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

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

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

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Starliner does first splashdown recovery tests

Capitalism in space: Though Boeing intends to bring its manned Starliner capsule down on land, it has begun water recovery tests of the capsule, working in conjunction with Air Force recovery teams, to prepare for the possibility that it might sometimes have to splashdown in the ocean.

While the article reviews the tests, it also contains this interesting piece of information:

While today’s test was the first in-water practice run for Starliner at sea rescue, it represents a much larger DoD commitment to space crew rescue operations – universal procedures that would be followed for Starliner, Dragon, and Orion.

During ascent for Starliner, Dragon, and Orion, the 304th Rescue Squadron will have two teams stationed along the east coast of the United States, one at Patrick Air Force Base (just South of the Cape) and the other in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Patrick team, Rescue 1, will be responsible for on-pad aborts that place a capsule in the water or for aborts in the first couple minutes of flight that place the capsule within a 200 nautical mile zone from the Cape.

After that distance is exceeded, the Charleston crew (Rescue 2) would be responsible for rescue of a launch-aborting crew vehicle anywhere else across the Atlantic.

The third team, stationed in Hawai’i, (also part of Rescue 2) would be responsible for any after-launch immediate landing need or off-nominal Station return contingency that places a Starliner or Dragon in the Pacific.

It appears that the responsibility for water recovery of American manned spacecraft has been taken over by the Air Force. Up until now SpaceX has performed its own water recovery for its unmanned cargo Dragon capsules.

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Boeing confirms delay till August for first unmanned Starliner launch

No surprise here: Boeing today confirmed that it is delaying until August for first unmanned Starliner test launch.

A statement issued by Boeing on Tuesday confirmed previous reports that the company’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, designed and built under a $4.2 billion contract from NASA, would miss its previous target launch date for an unpiloted test flight to the International Space Station in April. NASA and industry sources have said for months that an April launch date was not feasible, but NASA and Boeing had not officially published a revised schedule since early February.

The first Starliner test flight with astronauts on-board was previously scheduled for August. In Boeing’s schedule update released Tuesday, the company only said it expects the Crew Flight Test to occur “later this year,” but sources said the Starliner could fly with astronauts in November, at the earliest.

It appears that the fuel leak during a thruster test in June of last year has been the main cause of the delay.

None of this should effect SpaceX, which is primed to fly its mission during the summer. It does however cause more problems for Boeing, which is now also faced with pressure to finish NASA’s SLS rocket, bogged by years of delays and cost overruns.

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Boeing delays unmanned test flight of manned capsule

According to this story today, Boeing has delayed from April to August its first unmanned test flight of its Starliner manned capsule. It has also delayed the first manned flight from August to November.

NASA refused to comment other to say it would announce new schedules next week. The article also stated this:

The initial April launch was ahead of a United Launch Alliance mission for the Department of Defense in June from the Cape Canaveral launch pad in Florida, so Boeing would have needed to clear the launch pad by the first week in May, one of the sources said, describing the pressure not just on technical issues but also launch schedules at Cape Canaveral.

I suspect the technical issues are related to Boeing’s need to do more tests of the attitude thrusters on Starliner following the leak that occurred in a test last summer.

I also hope that next week’s announcement will reveal a firming up of SpaceX’s schedule. By now they should have a good idea of when they can do their launch abort test reusing the Dragon capsule used during their successful first unmanned test flight in March. That will in turn allow them to firm up the launch date for the first manned flight.

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Even as NASA announces schedule for SpaceX Dragon test flight, anti-American forces at NASA work to block that flight

There were two stories today impacting the future of American manned spaceflight. The first is positive, the second is downright hostile to that effort, and could literally be called treasonous by some.

The first story outlines in detail NASA’s press coverage and schedule leading up to and including the March 2nd SpaceX unmanned Dragon test flight. The key event will be the flight readiness review on February 22nd. NASA will televise a post review press conference no earlier that 6 pm (Eastern) that night. That review will determine whether the flight goes on March 2nd.

That NASA has made this announcement indicates that the agency is slowly being dragged, kicking and screaming, into allowing the test flight to finally happen, after years of bureaucratic delay.

The second story illustrates some of the ongoing kicking and screaming that is still going on inside NASA. It is also more disturbing. As far as I can tell from the story, some of the anti-American forces within NASA’s bureaucracy teamed up with Reuters today to publish this hit piece on the manned capsules of both SpaceX and Boeing.

Two people with direct knowledge of the program told Reuters that the space agency’s concerns go beyond the four items listed, and include a risk ledger that as of early February contained 30 to 35 lingering technical concerns each for SpaceX and Boeing. Reuters could not verify what all of the nearly three dozen items are. But the sources familiar with the matter said the companies must address “most” of those concerns before flying astronauts and, eventually, tourists to space. [emphasis mine]

Note that these are anonymous sources. Note that their attack, a bunch of unsubstantiated leaks, is directly aimed at discrediting the efforts of both companies. Note also that if they succeed the ultimate and only benefactor will be Russia, since NASA will then be forced to buy more Soyuz flights from them, on a rocket that has recently had a launch failure and in a capsule that someone in Russia actually sabotaged during assembly.

The last highlighted phrase, suggesting that NASA is going to use its power to block the ability of these free American companies from privately selling tourist flights on their capsules, is even more egregious. Once again, the only benefactors of this action would be the Russians, who will then be able to grab that tourist business.

It is for these reasons I call these sources, with the help of Reuters, anti-American.

Moreover, the issues that are outlined in this article are very dubious, to put it mildly. Suddenly, after years of reviews that never mentioned any issues with SpaceX’s parachutes as well as seventeen successful parachute test flights, NASA has suddenly deemed that the parachute design has “some design discrepancies.”

As for Boeing, the article mentions the valve leak failures during a engine test last year. In response Boeing has had the valves redesigned and reordered, but they still need further testing. While this is a legitimate issue, I suspect it is being used here as a sledge hammer against this American company, not as an issue that requires intelligent review.

Where is our “America-First” president in all this? Political forces in Washington and within NASA are actively working to block our country’s effort to fly in space, for the benefit of a foreign power. Why isn’t Trump doing something about this?

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Rather than use American manned capsules, NASA is considering buying more Soyuz astronaut flights

Because of the delays imposed by its safety panel in the development of two American-made manned capsules, NASA is now considering buying more Soyuz astronaut flights from Russia.

Past experience has shown the difficulties associated with achieving first flights on time in the final year of development. Typically, problems will be discovered during these test flights. The consequences of no US crew on ISS warrant protection by acquiring additional seats. The absence of U.S. crewmembers at any point would diminish ISS operations to an inoperable state,” noted a procurement document published on February 13.

NASA is considering contracting with the State Space Corporation “Roscosmos” for these services on a sole source basis for two (2) Soyuz seats and associated services to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft vehicle. This transportation would be for one crewmember in the Fall of 2019 and one crewmember in the Spring of 2020.

Remind me again: What country does NASA work for? From this I think it is Russia, not the United States. The agency has no problem putting its astronauts on a Soyuz rocket, even though Russia has had chronic quality control problems that not only caused a Soyuz launch abort last year but also had someone drill a hole in a manned capsule, an act of sabotage that Russia has still not explained or solved.

Meanwhile, it slow-walks and delays in any manner it can the manned efforts of two American companies, so that it is forced to use Russian rockets. This is unconscionable. Where is Trump, the “America-First” guy? Why isn’t he stepping in and putting an end to this political gamesmanship that clearly favors a foreign power over American companies?

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Boeing partners with commercial supersonic jet startup

Boeing today announced that it is partnering with startup Aerion Corp to build a 12-passenger commercial supersonic jet, dubbed the AS2.

Boeing said it would provide engineering, manufacturing and flight-test resources to bring the AS2 to market. The amount of the investment wasn’t disclosed.

The first flight for the plane — which, at about 1,000 miles per hour, will cruise 70 percent faster than today’s quickest business jets — is scheduled for 2023. Launch customer Flexjet, a fractional aircraft operator, has ordered 20 of the models. The 12-passenger aircraft has a list price of $120 million.

This isn’t the first or only private effort going on right now to develop supersonic jets for commercial travel. Another company, Boom Supersonic, has raised significant capital and already has its own orders for planes, though as far as I can tell it did not fly its initial test flights in 2018, as they had promised.

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NASA pulls astronaut for medical reasons from Boeing manned flight

NASA has switched one member of the planned astronaut crew for the first manned Boeing Starliner mission presently scheduled in August because of medical reasons.

Eric Boe, one of three astronauts assigned to the first piloted test flight of a Boeing CST-100 Starliner commercial crew ship later this year has been removed from the mission due to unspecified medical issues, NASA announced Tuesday. He will be replaced by veteran astronaut Mike Fincke.

Boe will take over Fincke’s role as assistant to the chief for commercial crew operations in the astronaut office at the Johnson Space Center. In keeping with long-standing NASA policy regarding medical privacy, no details about the reason for Boe’s reassignment were provided.

The article notes that this is only the sixth time in the entire history of American manned space that such a switch was necessary. I hope Boe’s medical issue is not serious, and wish him well with the hope he will be flying on another Boeing or SpaceX flight quite soon.

Though not directly related to this story, to my mind the real question remains: Will NASA’s bureaucracy let this flight happen in 2019? I think it will have no choice, but it will be dragged kicking and screaming to the launchpad.

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