SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX last night successfully launched sixty more Starlink satellites, while also recovering the first stage during its eighth flight.

This is the second booster that has successfully completed eight flights. Its flight back to the drone ship appeared entirely routine, though SpaceX provided no footage of that return.

The 2021 launch race:

6 SpaceX
4 China
3 Russia
1 Rocket Lab
1 Virgin Orbit
1 Northrop Grumman
1 India

The U.S. now leads China 9 to 4 in the national rankings.

The Starship has landed!

Starship #10 on the ground safely after its flight
After the flight.

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully completed the first test flight of Starship prototype #10, not only completing the launch and descent manuevers but also successfully landing the prototype vertically on the landing pad.

The flight was similar to the previous two in that the spacecraft rose very slowly, hovered at about 6 miles, and then did a flip to place itself horizontal for its descent. Then as it approached the ground it righted itself as it fired up three engines (to make sure at least one worked), and then shut down two so that one engine brought the spacecraft down smoothly.

Next comes prototype #11. Its flight should occur with only a matter of weeks.

Starship #10 exploding
Starship #10 on its way down after exploding.

UPDATE: A few minutes after landing the prototype exploded, flinging itself off the launchpad. No word yet on why this happened, but I wonder if maybe this was a planned self-destruction. They don’t plan to fly this bird again, and it takes up a lot of storage space. Blowing it up saves space, though it does destroy material that could be salvaged for other uses.

To the right is a screen capture from one of LabPadre’s live streams, shortly after the ship launched itself from the pad and was on its way down. It only went up about two hundred feet.

If this wasn’t planned, SpaceX needs to figure out why this happened. Either way, we shall certainly find out in the coming days.

Below is SpaceX’s video of the entire flight. Enjoy!

Starship #10 aborts at launch

Today’s first attempt by SpaceX to complete a 6-mile flight of its tenth Starship prototype ended when the rocket’s computers shut the engines down at T-0, just after they had ignited.

At this time they are assessing the situation to see if they have time to try again today. The SpaceX live feed is there still active, and viewable in my previous post today.

UPDATE: They will try again in about two hours.

Maezawa looking for volunteers for his Starship flight around Moon

Capitalism in space:
Yusaku Maezawa, the Japanese billionaire who has purchased a flight on SpaceX’s Starship to fly around the Moon, is now looking for volunteers to join him.

The Japanese entrepreneur said applicants would need to fulfill just two criteria: being ready to “push the envelope” creatively, and being willing to help other crew members do the same. In all, he said around 10 to 12 people will be on board the spaceship, which is expected to loop around the moon before returning to Earth.

The application timeline for spots on the trip calls for would-be space travellers to pre-register by 14 March, with initial screening carried out by 21 March. No deadlines are given for the next stages – an “assignment” and an online interview – but final interviews and medical checkups are currently scheduled for late May 2021, according to Maezawa’s website.

Both he and SpaceX are still aiming for a 2023 flight, though that date is likely optimistic.

To apply, go here.

SpaceX to build Starlink factory in Austin, Texas

Capitalism in space: According to a job posting from SpaceX, it now plans to build a factory in Austin, Texas, to build its Starlink satellites.

The listing also noted that Musk, in a tweet, is suggesting the town of Boca Chica in Texas be renamed Starbase, Texas. According to this article, such a change will not be simple.

“Creating the city of Starbase, Texas,” Musk tweeted Tuesday. “From thence to Mars, And hence the Stars.”

A SpaceX representative made a “casual inquiry” recently about requirements to incorporate Boca Chica and rename it the City of Starbase, said Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino. In a statement, he said county commissioners have been notified of the discussions about Boca Chica, a small burg near the Mexican border where SpaceX’s new Starship prototypes dominate the seaside skyline. “Sending a tweet doesn’t make it so,” Trevino said in an interview. “They have a lot of hoops and hurdles to go through before they can make it so.”

I think Musk will be making a mistake to do this. Even if all the locals have moved out, there is history behind the Boca Chica name. He should keep it and simply give his facilities their own name.

A similar situation occurred at Cape Canaveral in Florida. After President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 the federal government renamed it Cape Kennedy, a name that never took with locals. The name was eventually changed back to its historic one.

Watching Starship prototype #10’s test flight

Starship #10 on launchpad, March 4, 2021
Screen capture from LabPadre Nerdle camera live stream.

It appears that SpaceX is going to attempt the first test flight of its tenth Starship prototype today. The roads are closed and the pad has been cleared. Below is a list of some of the independent live streams. I will also embed below the fold SpaceX’s live stream when they finally activate it shortly before launch. That live stream will provide the best video coverage.

UPDATE: SpaceX live stream is now embedded below.

In the comments are links to more live streams, if you want to try them out.

What I am doing is using keeping one of the live streams above active to get updates. I will then switch to SpaceX’s live feed when it goes live.
» Read more

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.

What is wrong at Blue Origin?

Link here. The article by Eric Berger depends on many anonymous sources at Blue Origin, and suggests that the central reason the first launch of the company’s orbital New Glenn rocket has been delayed until 2022 at the earliest is because Jeff Bezos decided to have them build its biggest iteration first, rather than take smaller steps upward to that version.

[I]nstead of offering a waypoint between New Shepard and a massive orbital rocket, Bezos ultimately opted to jump right to the massive, 313-foot-tall version. “It’s like if NASA had gone straight from Alan Shepard to the Saturn V rocket, but then also had to make the Saturn V reusable,” one former Blue Origin employee said.

Instead of crawl-walk-run, Bezos asked his engineering team to begin sprinting toward the launch pad. The engineering challenges of building such a large rocket are big enough. But because New Glenn is so expensive to build, the company needs to recover it from the outset. SpaceX enjoyed a learning curve with the Falcon 9, only successfully recovering the first stage on the rocket’s 20th launch. Blue Origin engineers will be expected to bring New Glenn back safely on its very first mission.

The decision to skip the “walk” part of the company’s development has cost Blue Origin dearly, sources say. The company’s engineering teams, composed of smart and talented people, are struggling with mighty technical challenges. And there are only so many lessons that can be learned from New Shepard—the smaller rocket has 110,000 pounds of thrust, and New Glenn will have very nearly 4 million.

While I am certain there is some truth to this, the article also appears to me to be a sales job for Bob Smith, the CEO that Bezos hired in 2017 to run Blue Origin. There have been many rumors that he takes a more traditional approach to rocket development, which means no failures can be allowed and must be designed out from the beginning. In fact, the article hints at this, but then spins it to Smith’s favor.

Since Smith arrived in the fall of 2017, some employees have struggled with his leadership style and complained that he has acted too slowly, pushing Blue Origin to become more like a traditional aerospace company than a nimble new-space startup. But from Smith’s perspective, he’s trying to implement a culture transformation, from a hobby-shop atmosphere to that of a major aerospace contractor that can go out and win major NASA and Defense Department contracts.

The history of the past five years confirms the employees’ perspective, not Smith’s. Before he arrived Blue Origin was getting things built and launched, at a fast pace. After he took over that pace slowed to crawl, in all its projects.

In fact, I would say that Blue Origin’s problems really come as much from Smith as Bezos. When Bezos might have pushed to go big with New Glenn, Smith should have pushed back, and insisted they build the smaller version first. Instead, he went ahead, while also apparently changing the company so that it functioned more like the older big space contractors (Boeing, Lockheed Martin) that can’t get anything built quickly for a reasonable cost.

None of this bodes well for Blue Origin or New Glenn. Unless a massive management change is instituted, the company’s future does not look as bright as it should, considering the amount of money (billions) that Bezos is committing to it. All the money in the world will do you nothing if what you want to do is poorly planned and badly executed.

Rocket Lab to build new bigger rocket

Capitalism in space: As part of its announcement yesterday that Rocket Lab is going to become a publicly traded stock, the company also announced it is going to develop a new larger rocket, dubbed Neutron, to supplement its smaller Electron rocket.

The second link provides some additional details about Neutron.

Today, Monday, 1 March, the company revealed its “Neutron” rocket, a medium-class launch vehicle that can lift up to 8,000 kilograms (eight tonnes) into orbit, comparable to Russia’s Soyuz rocket. The two-stage vehicle will be 40 meters (131 feet) tall, more than double the company’s existing Electron rocket, which measures 18 meters (60 feet) tall and has so far flown 97 satellites across 18 launches.

They will design it to be human-rated from the start, and will also have the first stage land vertically using its engines so it can be reused. According to video from the company, they are aiming for a ’24 launch date.

Booster landing failure on Feb 15 Falcon 9 launch began with engine issue during lift-off

SpaceX revealed today that the failure on February 15th of the 1st stage of the Falcon 9 rocket to land successfully first appeared during liftoff.

During a NASA press conference March 1 about the upcoming Crew-2 commercial crew flight, Benji Reed, senior director for human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said that while the booster used on that Feb. 15 launch was making its sixth flight, some components on it were “life leaders” that had flown more often than any other in the Falcon 9 fleet. That included “boots,” or covers around parts of the Merlin engines in the first stage. “This was the highest count number of flights that this particular boot design had seen,” he said.

However, one of those boots had a “little bit of a hole” that allowed hot gas to get into parts of the engine during flight, he said. “A little bit of hot gas got to where it’s not supposed to be, and it caused that engine to shut down,” he said. Reed didn’t mention at what point in the launch the engine shut down, but he suggested it took place during ascent.

…The shutdown of the engine, though, kept the first stage from landing. “When that booster came to return home, because of the problem with that particular engine, we didn’t have enough thrust to get back to where we needed to be, and didn’t land where we wanted to be,” he said.

These facts help explain why SpaceX paused all its subsequent flights. An issue during liftoff is more serious than one that occurs during the return to Earth, as it suggests a problem that could impact future launches and the ability of the rocket to deliver its payload, its primary task.

SpaceX: No 1st stage footage on tonight’s Starlink launch

During last night’s short broadcast leading to the abort at T-1:24 seconds of a launch of another 60 Starlink satellites, the company announced that it would not show the video feed from the reused first stage booster as it returned to Earth.

[A] SpaceX engineer revealed that the company would not be broadcasting live feeds from Falcon 9 B1049’s onboard cameras during the launch. The ambiguity of the comment made it impossible to determine if SpaceX was simply choosing to not show those views or if something was wrong with the camera downlink system, while the same engineer-turned-host did go on to state that “all systems are green” moments later.

No explanation for the sudden change – possibly the first webcast in years without live views from booster cameras – was given. Starlink-17 serves as a return-to-flight mission for SpaceX after Starlink-19’s failed landing, during which the rocket’s onboard cameras streamed what appeared to be clearly unusual and possibly off-nominal behavior early on in the landing process.

The article at the link then speculates that maybe SpaceX was worried about that booster’s ability to land (it will be flying its eighth time, same as the booster that failed on the earlier flight).

I am very skeptical of that theory, especially because SpaceX has never shown a reluctance to show the public its failures. Instead, I think SpaceX has decided to do an engineering test of that booster during its return, and for propriety reasons wants to keep this from public eyes. If so, the test itself might also mean they are willing to lose this booster during that test.

During the early days of their program to reuse boosters, they sometimes had the returning 1st stage do some very stressful maneuvers, producing very spectacular light shows when launched from Vandenberg on the California coast. It could be they want to test this older booster on its eighth flight in a similar manner, in order to reassess their engineering and thus make it possible to upgrade and extend the re-usability of later boosters.

Rocket Lab about to go public

Capitalism in space: According to news reports today, the smallsat rocket company Rocket Lab is about to sign a deal that will make it a publicly traded stock in a merger with a venture capital company.

The Wall Street Journal reported today talks between the company and Vector Acquisitions Corp were nearing completion and could be finalised with 24 hours, and was expected to see Rocket Lab raise another $650 million in cash from other private investors.

Vector is a special-purpose acquisition company, a vehicle that recruits investors and lists before pursuing a business to buy. Vector, backed by tech private equity firm Vector Capital, raised $400m on launch in September.

Rocket Lab is one of a cluster of spaceflight operators jostling for global market share in the smaller-launch market, where the focus is on achieving reliable delivery of small cargoes to lower earth orbits. Any listing would catapult Rocket Lab – whose Mahia spaceport has delivered nearly 100 satellites into orbit – into the top rank of New Zealand companies, and represents a huge blow for the local NZX. With a valuation of $5.7b, it would have ranked as one the 10 largest companies on the national exchange.

According to Rocket Lab, it is not a New Zealand company but based in the U.S., despite the bulk of its operations being in New Zealand.

I will not be surprised it Rocket Lab’s stock price quickly rises once available for purchase. Unlike Virgin Galactic, this is a real company with a real product producing real profits. It is also very well placed to garner a healthy share in the emerging launch market of smallsats that is now arriving on the scene. The company is about to initiate launches from its second launchpad at Wallops Island in the U.S., which will also allow it to finally accelerate its launch pace to the promised twice a month pace it has been promising for the last two years.

Astra wins three-launch contract from NASA

Capitalism in space: Astra, which as yet not achieved its first orbital launch, has won a three-launch contract from NASA valued at just under $8 million.

Astra, the Alameda-based space launch startup that recently announced its intent to go public via a SPAC merger, has secured a contract to deliver six cube satellites to space on behalf of NASA. Astra stands to be paid $7.95 million by the agency for fulfilment of the contract. This will be a key test of Astra’s responsive rocket capabilities, with a planned three-launch mission profile spanning up to four months, currently targeting sometime between January 8 and July 31 of 2022.

There is no word on when the first flight of its rocket, dubbed Rocket, will occur. The company has completed two test launches, with the second nearly making orbit.

Virgin Galactic delays its next suborbital flight again

Capitalism in space: Virgin Galactic announced yesterday that it is now delaying the next manned flight of its suborbital Unity spaceship in order to address what appear to be still unresolved technical problems that almost caused the last manned flight to crash.

In an earnings call Feb. 25 timed to the release of its fourth quarter and full year 2020 financial results, company executives blamed an aborted test flight of SpaceShipTwo Dec. 12 on electromagnetic interference (EMI) that caused a flight computer to reboot just as the vehicle ignited its hybrid rocket engine. The vehicle glided to a safe landing at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Mike Moses, president of Virgin Galactic, said a new flight control computer system is the likely source of increased levels of EMI. The company took steps to shield components from that interference to avoid a similar reboot and prepared to make a powered test flight as soon as Feb. 13. But in the final days of preparations, technicians noted continued EMI issues with vehicle systems.

The flight they had hoped to do this month has now been pushed back to May. They have also announced that then devote the rest of this year doing more test flights and will hold off any tourist flights until ’22.

Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said the company is sticking to the flight test program it announced last fall. The May flight will be followed by two more: one with two pilots and a “full cabin” of company employees to test the passenger cabin of the vehicle, followed by one with company founder Richard Branson on board. Colglazier said the company isn’t yet announcing specific dates for those flights, but expects both to take place this summer.

That will be followed by a flight for the Italian Air Force, confirming an agreement signed in October 2019. That flight will carry a set of research payloads and three Italian payload specialists, and generate revenue for the company. Colglazier said that flight would likely take place in late summer or early fall and generate revenue for the company, “and will conclude our product test program.”

The company also claims that its second SpaceShipTwo spacecraft will begin testing this summer.

We shall see. The track record of this company has been abysmal, and its been that way for almost two decades of non-achievement.

Relativity touts next generation rocket before its first generation rocket has even launched

Capitalism in space: In an interview with CNBC the CEO of Relativity Space, Tim Ellis, pushed his company’s plans to develop a completely reusable rocket, dubbed the Terran-R, even though they have as yet completed even one test launch of their first rocket, the Terran-1.

Called Terran R, the reusable rocket is “really an obvious evolution” from the company’s Terran 1 rocket, Relativity CEO Tim Ellis told CNBC – the latter of which Relativity expects to launch for the first time later in 2021. “It’s the same architecture, the same propellant, the same factory, the same 3D printers, the same avionics and the same team,” Ellis said. “I’ve always been a huge fan of reusability. No matter how you look at it – even with 3D printing, and dropping the cost, and [increasing the] automation of a launch vehicle – making it reusable has got to be part of that future,” Ellis added.

Terran R is the first of several new initiatives that Ellis expects Relativity to unveil in the year ahead, with the company having raised more than $680 million since its founding five years ago. Just like Terran 1, Relativity will build Terran R with more than 90% of the parts through additive manufacturing – utilizing the world’s largest 3D printers as what Ellis calls “the factory of the future.”

Relativity, valued at $2.3 billion, ranks as one of the most valuable private space companies in the world. Its investors include Tiger Global Management, Fidelity, Baillie Gifford, Mark Cuban and more.

All well and good, but maybe before Ellis brags about his next generation rocket he might be better served to focus on getting that first rocket successfully off the ground later this year. It is a good thing his company is thinking of making its rockets reusable, but right now he is overselling while under-performing, a very bad sales technique. Better to do what Scotty of Star Trek did routinely, undersell while over-performing.
» Read more

Starship #10 completes another static fire test after quick engine swap

Starship #10 at 2nd static fire test
Screen capture from LabPadre live stream.

Capitalism in space: In what to me appears a remarkable tour de force, SpaceX today completed the second dress rehearsal countdown and static fire test of its tenth Starship prototype.

What made this a tour de force is that the previous test, only two days before, had found issues with one of the prototype’s three Raptor engines. In less than two days, SpaceX engineers were able to replace that engine and fire up the rocket again.

Compare that to the operations of Boeing and NASA in trying to do a single static fire test of SLS’s core stage. Preparations for the first test took months, and when this had an issue it is now going to take at least a month (if not more) before they can attempt a second test.

If today’s Starship static fire test came up clean with no problems, a test flight to about 30 to 40,000 feet could come as early as tomorrow.

First launch of Blue Origin’s orbital rocket delayed to ’22

Capitalism in space: In what had increasingly appeared likely in recent months, Blue Origin today announced that it is delaying the first launch of its orbital New Glenn rocket from late this year to sometime in ’22.

Blue Origin noted that the updated timeline follows the U.S. Space Force to stop its support for the New Glenn development effort as part of its procurement program for national security launches. That support, which could have added up to $500 million, was closed out at the end of last year.

The Space Force ended up choosing United Launch Alliance and SpaceX for the next round of national security launches. Jarrett Jones, Blue Origin’s senior vice president for New Glenn, told Space News that losing out on that round of launch contracts represented a $3 billion hit to anticipated revenue, and forced the company to “re-baseline” its development plans.

Personally I think this excuse is absurd. Jeff Bezos has been investing about $1 billion per year in Blue Origin. Moreover, in its announcement the company claimed it has invested $2.5 billion of that money in developing New Glenn. This is almost as much as SpaceX has raised to build Starship/Super Heavy, which is in development and in only about two years has already produced multiple prototypes and two test flights. Moreover, SpaceX developed Falcon Heavy for about a half billion dollars, and did it in less than seven years.

New Glenn has been in development for more than four years, and we have yet to even see it assembled in any form at all. The loss of that government military contract should have made no difference if Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin were really serious about building this rocket. He has given the company more than enough investment capital to get it done. They have just not delivered so far.

If I was Bezos, I would be taking a very hard look at the management at Blue Origin, with the intent to make some significant changes.

Starship #10 completes launch dress rehearsal & static fire test

Starship #10 at static fire test
Screen capture from LabPadre live stream.

Capitalism in space: Starship #10 today successfully completed a launch dress rehearsal and static fire test in preparation for a planned 30 to 40 thousand foot test flight, possibly as soon as February 25th.

The Starship SN10 (“Serial No. 10”) vehicle performed its first “static fire” test on Tuesday (Feb. 23), lighting up its three Raptor engines for a few seconds at 6:03 p.m. EST (2303 GMT) at SpaceX’s South Texas site, near the Gulf Coast settlement of Boca Chica Village.

Static fires, in which engines briefly ignite while a rocket stays anchored to the ground, are a common preflight checkout for SpaceX. If all went well with today’s test, SN10 remains on track to launch soon — perhaps as early as Thursday (Feb. 25) — on a 6-mile-high (10 kilometers) demonstration flight into the South Texas skies.

I personally think it would be quite ironic if this Starship flies on the same day the second SLS static fire test had been originally scheduled but postponed. The contrast between the two development programs continues to be stark and astonishing. While one program has been flying test articles repeatedly as well as doing numerous engine and tank tests, the other has had trouble getting one static fire test completed without a hitch.

UPDATE: Apparently they have decided to swap out one Raptor engine based on the results of the static fire test, and thus will not do a flight tomorrow.

Rumors: Biden considering former Senator Bill Nelson for NASA administrator

According to leaks to the press yesterday, the Biden administration is considering hiring former Florida senator Bill Nelson to become NASA’s administrator.

That the DC rumor mill is abuzz with this story suggests that the White House is putting out a trial balloon to see the reaction to such a choice. At first glance Nelson appears a good pick. Before he was defeated in his last election by Republican Rick Scott (R-Florida), he had been one of Congress’s biggest advocates for space exploration and NASA. He had even flown as an astronaut on the shuttle back in 1986, just weeks before Challenger broke up during launch.

However, there are several issues that would make this a very poor choice. First, Nelson’s advocacy for NASA was centered on funding big space, not private enterprise. Nelson was one of those legislators who mandated the construction of SLS, and resisted for years NASA’s new commercial space effort.

Second, Nelson’s last years in Congress revealed that he had lost touch with some of the basic concepts of freedom and property rights that founded the United States. For example, he was one of a group of bi-partisan senators that in 2018 proposed a law that would have denied Americans their second, fifth, sixth, and seventh amendment rights by proactively forbidding them the right to buy firearms merely because a Washington bureaucrat decided to put them on a no-fly list. The law was a mindless emotional response to a terrible school shooting that killed a lot of children, and its proposal illustrated that its sponsors were no longer thinking, but emoting blindly.

That Nelson joined in and was willing to give the government so much power does not make him the best choice to lead NASA as it tries to become just another customer being served by an independent robust and free market of space companies.

Finally, and maybe most important, Nelson is 78 years old. In his last years in office he showed his age. I watched him struggle as both a speaker and legislator during hearings in 2017. His enthusiasm for space was unchecked, but his sharpness was gone.

If chosen to run NASA he will make a good bookend for his president, who has also shown clear signs of failing mental health. Under such weak leadership, it will be the bureaucracy that will rule, and the track record of NASA’s bureaucracy has not been good. It resisted for decades ceding power to the private sector, wanting instead to maintain control over all rocket and spacecraft development, including what those rockets and spacecraft would do. Only in the past decade has that power been wrested from its grasp.

Given power again I expect it to use that power to return to its old ways and squelch the emerging free and competitive aerospace market. This will not be good for either the exploration of space, or for America itself.

SpaceX delays all launches while it investigates failed booster landing

Capitalism in space: In order to investigate the failure of the first stage to land successfully during the last Starlink satellite launch on February 15th, SpaceX has paused all further launches, with an expected delay overall of one to two weeks before launches resume.

Analysis by Scott Manley suggests during the re-entry burn (as the 1st stage re-entered the atmosphere) one of the engines had issues, causing the booster to break-up shortly before it hit the ocean.

When SpaceX was first attempting to land its first stages, the boosters would routinely crash, and the company would not slow its launch schedule because the boosters had still functioned as expected during launch. Nor was anyone disturbed by those failures nor did anyone expect SpaceX to pause further launches.

Things are different now. We have a high expectation that a Falcon 9 engine will relight and work every time, all the way back to its landing pad. Any failure later in the flight, even if the rocket got the payload into orbit, raises questions that must be answered. Hence the delay in further launches.

Overall, this higher expectation of success is a good thing. It says that we now expect rockets to be able to land successfully. And getting this problem fixed will only increase the chances that they will do so more reliably in the future.

Firefly gets another launch contract

Capitalism in space: Firefly Aerospace, which hopes to do the first launch of its new Alpha rocket sometime this spring, has won another launch contract, this time with General Atomics to put an Earth science satellite in orbit in ’22.

The other contracts:

In December, the company won a NASA Venture Class Launch Services launch contract valued at $9.8 million to launch two sets of cubesats into polar orbits. It won a $93.3 million contract from NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program Feb. 4 for the 2023 launch of the company’s Blue Ghost lander carrying NASA payloads. That lander will be launched on another company’s rocket rather than Alpha.

Like all new rockets, the first launch will be highly risky. If successful however it will add one more launch company to the smallsat market, and encourage a further drop in the cost of getting such smallsats into orbit.

Second passenger chosen for private manned SpaceX mission

Capitalism in space: Jared Isaacman, who has purchased an entire Dragon/Falcon 9 flight for the first private commercial manned mission scheduled for later this year, has picked the flight’s second passenger.

The second member of a four-person crew for what’s likely to be the first privately funded orbital space tour has been identified: She’s Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant who works at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. — and was successfully treated for bone cancer at St. Jude almost two decades ago.

Arceneaux was invited to be part of the Inspiration4 mission weeks ago by its commander and principal funder, Shift4 Payments CEO and founder Jared Isaacman — but her identity was kept secret until today.

This choice fits Isaacman’s main goal, which is to use the publicity of the flight in raise money for St. Jude’s. So far almost $10 million has been raised.

Two more passengers need to be chosen. One will be picked from a lottery of people who donate to St. Jude’s, with the second being an entrepreneur picked by a panel of judges. The deadline to enter both slots closes on February 28th.

As for the flight itself, it will spend two to four days in orbit.

Update on Starship: Flight of prototype #10 possible this week

Link here. Lots of stuff going on, with Starship prototypes 15 through 19 being assembled and waiting n the wings. Crews have also repaved and expanded the landing pad at Boca Chica, and begun assembling the first Super Heavy prototype.

The most significant tidbit to me was this:

One section inside a production tent appears to be undergoing preparations to cover the entire windward side in [thermal patches].

This unnamed section could indicate a vehicle that will be taken to an altitude that would test its heat shield under re-entry conditions. Current [thermal] patches are mostly being tested to see how they perform during the stresses of cryogenic propellant loading and launch and landing vibrations.

It is not known yet to which prototype this section belongs to, but that it is being prepared means that SpaceX is moving relentless towards that first orbital flight.

Roscosmos head: Russia to launch 29 rockets in ’21

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, announced yesterday that they expect to complete 29 launches in 2021.

These numbers include all Russia’s launches, including the ones done for Arianespace in French Guiana. In my regular launch updates I don’t count those as Russian launches, as they are run and controlled by Arianespace, under Arianespace contracts.

Nonetheless, there should be an increase in the number of Russian launches in ’21, as they should resume OneWeb launches that were halted last year due to that company going into bankruptcy and then recovering. That bankruptcy meant that Russia’s total launches last year were less than half what they predicted.

The increase in ’21 does not mean Russia will successfully complete 29 launches. Rogozin and Roscosmos have for years routinely overstated their goals, and I think they are doing so again. I expect Russia to complete around 20-25 launches by the end of the year. If they top 25 it would make ’21 their best year since ’15.

Bloomberg editorial: Scrap SLS!

I wonder who has said this before? In a scathing Bloomberg editorial yesterday, the news service called for President Biden to scrap the Space Launch System (SLS) and let private enterprise do the job instead.

The editorial’s opening sentence will sound very familiar to regular readers at this website:

Why is the U.S. government building a space rocket? In particular, why is it building a space rocket that has cost nearly $20 billion and counting, is years behind schedule, relies on outdated technology, suffers by comparison to private-sector alternatives, and has little justification to begin with?

That a major leftwing news source is beginning to endorse private enterprise and lambast SLS is a further sign that the political winds are blowing hard against this giant wasteful boondoggle. Should anything at all go wrong in its upcoming test schedule expect to see more such calls, coming from even more unlikely and unexpected places.

The lumbering thick-headed Washington political community is beginning to finally move towards the right conclusion, only a decade late.

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.

Hungarian company awarded NASA contract to develop Moon mini-rover

A Hungarian company has won a NASA contract worth $225K to develop what the company calls its Puli Moon mini-rover.

Named after a Hungarian breed of dog, the Puli rover is a low-cost platform designed to carry different payloads, including the ice water snooper, which won the 2020 “Honey, I Shrunk the NASA Payload” challenge, a competition organised by the U.S. space agency. Weighing less than 400 grammes (14 oz), its purpose is to probe for water ice by identifying and mapping the subsurface hydrogen content of the lunar soil.

The “news article” at the link appears to be a poorly researched article distributed by Reuters that has now been reprinted without changes by such stalwart American mainstream news outlets like the New York Post and MSN.com, to name two. Neither bothered to do any further research.

The article falsely claims that the airplane-based SOFIA telescope recently confirmed there is water on the Moon. It also claims that this rover will be on a lunar mission next year, something that does not seem likely at all.

A look at the company’s website clarifies things. The company competed in a NASA contest offering its design of a very tiny lightweight rover, won, and was then awarded a larger development contract of $225K. No launch is presently set, though if the company is successful in building it for this cost, they will likely get a berth on a later unmanned mission.

SpaceX raises another $850 million in investment capital

Capitalism in space: SpaceX last week successfully raised another $850 million in investment capital in order to fund both its Starlink and Starship projects.

The article does not detail how the company plans to use the money, though it does also indicate this was not all that was raised.

In addition to SpaceX further building a war chest for its ambitious plans, company insiders and existing investors were able to sell an additional $750 million in a secondary transaction, one of the people said.

If I understand this correctly (which I admit I might not), this means SpaceX now has an additional $1.6 billion on hand in addition to the $2 billion it has previously raised.

Even if it only raised $850 million, that gives it a war chest of almost three billion for both Starlink and Starship. With Starlink already bringing in some earnings, the company should have enough to get done what it aims to do.

Momentus signs deal to deliver two private cubesats to lunar orbit

Capitalism in space: Momentus has signed a deal with a Singapore startup to provide the transportation to lunar orbit of two cubesats using its next generation space tug.

Momentus Inc. (“Momentus” or the “Company”), a commercial space company offering in-space infrastructure services, and Qosmosys, a new space venture founded in Singapore last year, announced today a service agreement to deliver two cubesats to low lunar orbit as early as 2024 via Momentus’ inaugural lunar mission.

The new contract builds and expands on the agreement announced in January 2021 for delivery of up to four cubesats in low Earth orbit by Momentus’ Vigoride service vehicle, starting in 2022. Qosmosys will expand its novel business ideas to the Moon using a specific bus named Zeus-MS, a version of its Zeus platform it has been developing in cooperation with NuSpace from Singapore, and made specific for lunar missions. Zeus-MS is the precursor to a series of multi-mission platforms that will allow organizations and businesses to host their payloads, and will offer individuals a bespoke, unprecedented line of services to the Moon on regularly scheduled flights.

“We are excited to partner with Momentus again, now onboard Ardoride’s inaugural lunar mission in 2024,” said Francois Dubrulle, CEO of Qosmosys. “Our vision is to make space accessible to all, and Momentus will help us achieve this goal through their efficient orbital services.”

Ardoride, the next generation service vehicle after Vigoride, will extend the range and capabilities of Momentus’s services beginning in 2023.

It is unclear who Qosmosys’ customers are for their lunar Zeus-MS cubesat platform, but I have no doubt they have plenty, many from the university community. For example, universities fund student-built cubesats for educational purposes. Why not make this a project to the Moon, rather than just in Earth orbti? The cost difference would not be much using these new private companies.

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