SpaceX wins contract to launch Europa Clipper to Jupiter

Capitalism in space: NASA today awarded SpaceX a $178 million contract to use its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch Europa Clipper to Jupiter.

If all goes according to plan, Clipper will lift off in October 2024 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and arrive in orbit around Jupiter in April 2030. The probe will then study Europa in depth during nearly 50 close flybys of the moon over the course of about four Earth years, mission team members have said.

The award is not really a surprise. Falcon Heavy is really the only operational rocket with the power capable of launching this mission. Because for years Congress had mandated Europa Clipper be launched on SLS, it was designed with more mass than normal for such planetary missions. Delays in the SLS program however finally forced Congress to relax that mandate, but that left NASA with a payload too heavy for all operational rockets except Falcon Heavy, and even that requires this six year flight, with flybys of the Earth and Mars to get it to Jupiter.

The price for the launch is significantly greater than SpaceX normally charges for its Falcon Heavy, but since it was the only game in town, I suspect SpaceX drove a hard bargain.

Court rejects Viasat’s effort to stop SpaceX Starlink launches

Capitalism in space? A three-judge panel on July 20, 2021 rejected Viasat’s request for a temporary injunction that would have stopped all SpaceX Starlink launches until Viasat’s lawsuit against that constellation is settled.

While this decision does not settle the lawsuit, it allows SpaceX launches to continue, and likely cause the case to be expedited in the courts. The decision also suggests that the court does not favor Viasat’s claims, which are somewhat dubious on their face, and appear designed merely to shut down a successful competitor through the use of the courts.

Viasat alleged that the FCC did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it approved SpaceX satellite launches because the commission “refused to conduct any environmental assessment.” Viasat told the DC Circuit court that SpaceX launches should be halted because of potential environmental harms when satellites are taken out of orbit; light pollution that alters the night sky; orbital debris; collision risks that may affect Viasat; and because “Viasat will suffer unwarranted competitive injury.”

The FCC by the way disputes Viasat’s claims, and filed its own brief defending SpaceX.

Viasat’s real concern is that its satellite internet service will be considered inferior to SpaceX’s and will thus lose customers to it. Too bad. Competition means you step up your game and do better, not go to court to try to shut down your opposition.

July 21, 2021 Zimmerman podcast interview on Pratt on Texas

Today Robert Pratt made available an hourlong podcast interview I did with him earlier this week, devoted entirely to discussing my new book, Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and for our future in outer space.

The podcast is available here.

This was my first long interview discussing this book. It is also the first where you can hear the detailed impressions of it from someone else. Robert Pratt is a very educated radio host, with deep knowledge of western history and culture. That he repeatedly noted how Conscous Choice surprised him by teaching him things he hadn’t known and hadn’t even thought of I found very gratifying. I’ll let his closing words in the interview sum up his opinion of my book:

I really do believe that everybody needs to get a copy of Conscious Choice. It is that important a book. It is one of the most important books given today’s social upheaval.

There are lot of good histories out there, but they are mostly just retreads of the primary documents that we’ve read before. I get bored with them.

This book is new. This book is primary source history that will enlighten you and give you knowledge.

If you listen you will find out that I am not spinning his words. Nor is he merely providing a plug for a guest. This is his honest appraisal of Conscious Choice, after reading it.

NASA funds hopper to jump into shadowed lunar craters and find ice

Capitalism in space: NASA has awarded a $41.6 million contract to Arizona State University and the private company Intuitive Machines to build a tiny hopper that will be used to explore the permanently shadowed craters near the Moon’s south pole, looking for water ice.

Micro-Nova can carry a 1-kilogram payload more than 2.5 kilometers to access lunar craters and enable high-resolution surveying of the lunar surface under the flight path. Intuitive Machines’ Micro-Nova, a lunar hopper that will explore permanently shaded regions of the moon.

…“Intuitive Machines’ Micro-Nova is our first-ever chance to explore from within a lunar permanently shaded region (PSR),” said the mission science lead Mark Robinson, of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “We will be able to take very high resolution color images near the hopper and black and white images of about half the PSR. What will we see, that is the question!”

This tiny hopper, only 30 inches square, will be built by ASU and launched on Intuitive Machines’ first Moon lander, Nova-C, presently scheduled for launch in December 2022.

Rocket Lab identifies cause of May launch failure; ready to launch again

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab announced yesterday that it has identified and corrected the cause of a May 15 launch failure and is now ready to resume launches, as early as before the end of July.

Rocket Lab said an investigation by the company traced the root cause to the rocket’s second stage engine igniter system. A problem with the igniter corrupted signals in the computer on the stage, which in turn caused the thrust vector control system to “deviate outside nominal parameters.” The engine computer then shut down the Rutherford engine.

The igniter problem, the company said, resulted from “a previously undetectable failure mode within the ignition system that occurs under a unique set of environmental pressures and conditions” not noticed in previous testing of the engine or on previous Electron launches. Engineers have replicated the problem in the lab and created what Rocket Lab called “redundancies” in the ignition system, including changes to the design of the igniter and how it is manufactured, to prevent the problem from happening again.

Rocket Lab has had two launch failures in the past year, so getting back flying as quickly as possible is critical for them, especially because a lot of new smallsat launch companies are coming up from behind. Virgin Orbit initiated commercial launches this year, having already completed two, and Astra and Firefly both seem ready, based on recent announcements, to make their first orbital launches before the end of this year.

SpaceX completes first static fire test of Superheavy prototype #3

Superheavy booster #3 fires
Superheavy booster #3 fires.

Capitalism in space: SpaceX yesterday successfully completed the first static fire test of the third Superheavy prototype, firing up three Raptor engines for about two seconds.

I have embedded the live stream from NASASpaceflight.com below the fold, cued to just before the engines fire. Because there was a delay of a few minutes from when the static fire was expected and when it actually happened, the announcers had began talking and were caught off guard by the burn.

Next up:

Booster 3 provides a first-time operation for fueling the huge booster with Liquid Oxygen (LOX) and Liquid Methane (CH4) during the test. How much propellant will be loaded, and the schedule for the sequence was unknown. However, NSF’s Adrian Beil wrote a feature on the expectations based on previous experiences with Starship being applied to Super Heavy.

Based on those evaluations, it was expected that Super Heavy would also undergo a Starship-like countdown of 45-60 minutes, with fueling beginning in the 30-40 minute range. Engine chill would then follow at T-12 minutes, ahead of the firing. As with previous Static Fires, the T-10 minute siren sounded, as per the alert notice to local residents. However, as with Starship, mini-holds can be expected, pushing the ignition time to the right. This proved to be the case on Monday.

The booster fired up all three engines for the expected duration, confirmed by Musk before he noted that “depending on progress with Booster 4, we might try a 9 engine firing on Booster 3.”

Booster #4 will be put on the orbital launchpad rather than the test pad, and is likely the booster to be used for the first orbital test flight of Starship, likely to be launched before the end of summer.
» Read more

Blue Origin completes first commercial suborbital flight

New Shepard just prior to landing
New Shepard just prior to landing.

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin this morning successfully flew its first commercial suborbital flight using its New Shepard spacecraft, taking Jeff Bezos and four other passengers, one paying, to an altitude of 66.5 miles.

The flight lasted just over ten minutes.

I have embedded the video of the flight, cued to just before launch, below the fold. Try to ignore the blather of Blue Origin’s announcer, which fortunately mostly stops once the spacecraft passes 62 miles and enters space. At that point microphones from inside the capsule take over, and you get to hear the reaction of the passengers themselves.

A grand success for Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos. And another grand success for freedom and private enterprise.

Next up, the beginning of regular commercial orbital manned tourist flights, starting in September. Here is the present flight manifest:

  • September 2021: SpaceX’s Dragon capsule flies four private citizens on a three day orbital flight
  • October 2021: The Russians will fly two passengers to ISS to shoot a movie
  • December 2021: The Russians will fly billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his assistant to ISS for 12 days
  • cDecember 2021: Space Adventures, using a Dragon capsule, will fly four in orbit for five days
  • January 2022: Axiom, using a Dragon capsule, will fly four tourists to ISS
  • 2022-2024: Three more Axiom tourist flights on Dragon to ISS
  • 2024: Axiom begins launching its own modules to ISS, starting construction of its own private space station
  • c2024: SpaceX’s Starship takes Yusaku Maezawa and several others on a journey around the Moon.

» Read more

Musk donates more big money to revitalizing downtown Brownsville

It appears that a charitable foundation established by Elon Musk has recently decided to up its donations to the Brownsville Community Improvements Corporation by an extra $1 million, the money aimed at helping to revitalized the downtown of Brownsville, the nearest large city to SpaceX’s Boca Chica spaceport.

The donation was revealed during remarks by Josh Mejia, executive director of the Brownsville Community Improvements Corporation, during a Brownsville developers luncheon .

In his remarks, Mejia, pictured above, gave an update on the e-Bridge Center and other quality of life improvements coming to Brownsville. But, he received the biggest applause when he mentioned inward investment by Elon Musk. “I was texting back and forth with my board members and about 45 minutes ago I receive an email from the Musk Foundation. It is like perfect timing. It is like they know we are here. Well, they just mentioned they donated another million (dollars) towards this program. So, now we have $2 million,” Mejia said. The audience cheered.

This donation is all part of the modern game that requires big business enterprises to make payoffs to local and national politicians and “community activists.” Both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos know this, and are playing the game to hilt. Both know that the politicians and “community activists” have been telling them, “Nice business you got here, shame if something happened to it.” Bezos responded by donating big to DC’s Air & Space museum, while spreading the wealth to many space advocacy groups.

Musk is instead focusing his payoffs to the local community, where it might do the most good for both him and the locals that his business affects. This donation is not the first he has made to Boca Chica, Brownsville, and south Texas. His foundation has also donated $20 million to the county schools, and another $8 million for other downtown Brownsville projects. The results, obviously helped by the business SpaceX is also bringing to the town, have been noticeable.

In the months since Musk pledged his $10 million, at least 10 downtown properties have gone under contract with interested buyers, said real estate broker Bob Torres Jr. Buildings that used to lease for 25 cents a square foot are now leasing for $1 to $1.50 per square foot.

Home prices have increased nationwide due to the pandemic and low inventory. In Brownsville, this trend has been exacerbated by SpaceX. “People are buying houses sight unseen from Washington state, Portland, Oregon,” Torres said. “They’re going above the asking price, which hardly ever happens.” Real estate broker Bruno Zavaleta III had a client drive from Atlanta and buy three houses.

According to the Brownsville/South Padre Island Board of Realtors, the median price for a home in Brownsville was $212,900 in June, up 47 percent from June 2020. To help with inventory, Esperanza Homes is building 675 houses in northern Brownsville. It will develop this master-planned community over the next six to eight years with a nonprofit community housing development organization called “come dream. come build.”

This pumping of donations by Musk to the local community however will not sell well with the mafia in Washington. The money isn’t going to them, and bullies don’t like that, even if the money is really doing good. Bezos understands this. It doesn’t really matter if the money he donates accomplishes anything real. What matters is that he has paid off the thugs who could make big trouble for him in the future.

Right now it is unclear who’s strategy will work best for protecting each company’s interests. Much will hinge on what each company actually accomplishes in the next few years. SpaceX is clearly ahead in this area, but Blue Origin can certainly catch up.

Hat tip Robert Pratt of Pratt on Texas.

Maezawa reveals status of competition to join him on a private Starship mission to Moon

Capitalism in space: In a video released yesterday Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa provided an update on his Dear Moon competition for choosing the eight individuals who will join him on his private Starship mission around the Moon.

The mission has changed a lot since it was first announced in 2018. Maezawa had planned to invite artists onboard the Starship and venture with them on a circuit around Earth’s only natural satellite. But earlier this year, he changed the process and opened up spots to practically everyone, calling on budding lunar explorers to register for a ticket aboard the Starship and then produce videos on why they want to go to space.

I have embedded the video below. In it Maezawa reveals that he received more than a million applications from every single country on Earth, with many sending short videos describing why they should be chosen. The video provides a sampling of clips from those videos.

What struck me most while watching the video is how completely confident all the applicants were that this private mission on Starship will fly. Even though this is a manned mission around the Moon, something that has only been done nine times, and not for a half century, all seemed entirely sure Maezawa’s mission would happen, and wanted to be on it. I was also struck by the variety of applicants from many places.

Capitalism and freedom is opening the heavens for all humans. And it is about time.

» Read more

NASA pushing for an SLS launch before the end of the year

According to a statement by NASA administrator Bill Nelson earlier this week, the agency is working hard in its stacking of the SLS rocket in Florida, with the goal of launching before the end of the year.

That statement was revealed in the last sentence of this article describing the work on getting SLS ready, work that appears to be moving along briskly with few surprises.

The present official targeted launch date is set for November. The agency had said it would take between six to ten months to get the rocket ready after the core stage arrived at Kennedy in May. This pointed to a launch sometime between November and March. Right now it appears that NASA is trying very hard to meet that earlier date.

This aggressive effort to launch on schedule is behavior quite out of character for the NASA of the past three decades. In the past, the agency would have moved leisurely along, so that those four months of margin would have almost certainly been used and the launch would have been delayed until March.

I suspect this push now to launch on time is partly generated by a fear that SpaceX’s Starship will reach orbit before SLS. If that happens it will be a major embarrassment to NASA, considering that the agency has spent about three times longer and ten times more money on its rocket than SpaceX.

Isn’t competition wonderful? It even makes government work more efficiently.

Stay tuned. There is still a lot of time between now and November. This race between comparable rockets being built by the government and a private company appears to be neck and neck as we head down the stretch.

Thales Alenia to build first two modules of Axiom’s commercial space station

Capitalism in space: The Italian company Thales Alenia today announced it has finalized the contract to build the first two modules of Axiom’s private commercial space station, set to be docked to ISS initially but eventually to fly independent once ISS is decommissioned.

Total price for the contract is 110 million euros. According to the press release, they are targeting 2024 and 2025 for launching these modules, which will be able to house as many as eight residents.

Based on its past successful experience in building modules for the International Space Station, Thales Alenia Space is responsible for the design, development, assembly and test of the primary structure and the Micrometeoroid & Debris Protection System for the two Axiom modules.

The welding activities of the primary structure of the first module will start in September 2021, with the assembly process concluding in 2022. The first module will arrive at Axiom facilities in Houston in July 2023, where Axiom will integrate and outfit the core systems and certify it for flight prior to shipping to the launch facility.

With the launch of this station, human spaceflight in the United States will become completely independent of the federal government. Private companies will own the rockets, spacecraft, and stations, and the government will no longer have a major say on what goes on in space. The NASA bureaucracy that makes getting an experiment onto ISS cumbersome, difficult, and discouraging will be out of a job. (An example: In the 2000s American scientists studying plant growth in weightlessness ended up launching their experiments with the Russians because getting NASA approval turned out to be too difficult.)

This doesn’t mean that it will be easy to get a payload or experiment onto Axiom’s station. The demand will be quite high. It just means that the decision will no longer reside with the government, but with the private companies and citizens of the United States.

As it always should have been.

Furthermore, that the demand is going to exceed the supply will mean that additional stations will be built, and quickly, because the lure of profit will be there. For example, many of the commercial medical experiments that were on the verge of paying off but were shut down after the Challenger accident in 1986 could very well be brought back to life.

Winner of Blue Origin auction for suborbital flight will not fly on July 20th

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin today announced that the $28 million winner of the auction to buy a seat on the first commercial flight of its suborbital spacecraft New Shepard on July 20th will not be on board, and will instead be replaced by an 18-year-old.

Blue Origin announced Thursday that instead of a $28 million auction winner launching with founder Jeff Bezos on Tuesday, Dutch runner-up Oliver Daemen will be on board. The company said he’ll be the first paying customer, but did not disclose the price of his ticket. …According to Blue Origin, Daemen took a year off after graduating from high school last year to obtain his private pilot’s license. He’ll attend the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands in September. His father is Joes Daemen, founder and CEO of Somerset Capital Partners, a private equity firm in Oisterwijk, Netherlands. Both father and son are already in the U.S. preparing for the launch, according to a company representative.

…Blue Origin said the yet-to-be-identified winner of the charity auction is stepping aside because of a scheduling conflict and will catch a future flight. Daemen was going to be on the second launch for paying customers.

The company has yet to open ticket sales or disclose its prices to the public. That’s expected following Bezos’ flight.

There are some puzzles here. Did Daemen bid during the auction? Was his bid second? If not, why has he been pushed to the head of the line, even before Blue Origin has opened ticket sales or announced its prices?

Moreover, much of this does seem to be hype and pr, rather than real achievement. More important would be an announcement saying that the BE-4 engine is finally ready, making possible orbital flights on New Glenn and ULA’s Vulcan rocket.

Nonetheless, it is nice that Bezos is taking this teenager into space, as is his decision to also give a seat to 82-year-old Wally Funk, one of the women who applied to fly during the Mercury program in the 1960s but was rejected.

FAA threatens shutdown of SpaceX’s Starship program at Boca Chica

Banned by the FAA?
Starship banned by the FAA?

They’re coming for you next: An FAA official revealed yesterday that the agency has not approved the launch tower that SpaceX is building for its Starship/Superheavy rocket in Boca Chica, Texas, and threatened that if disapproved the government would force the company to tear it down.

The Federal Aviation Administration warned Elon Musk’s SpaceX in a letter two months ago that the company’s work on a launch tower for future Starship rocket launches is yet unapproved, and will be included in the agency’s ongoing environmental review of the facility in Boca Chica, Texas. “The company is building the tower at its own risk,” an FAA spokesperson told CNBC on Wednesday, noting that the environmental review could recommend taking down the launch tower.

The FAA last year began an environmental review of SpaceX’s Starship development facility, as Musk’s company said it planned to apply for licenses to launch the next-generation rocket prototypes from Boca Chica. While the FAA completed an environmental assessment of the area in 2014, that review was specific to SpaceX’s much-smaller Falcon series of rockets.

This revelation from FAA officials is most interestingly timed, coming on the same day as this garbage article about the terrible environmental damages some activists imagine SpaceX’s launch facility might someday cause. As is usual for a mainstream news source, the article makes no reference to the wildlife preserve that surrounds the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where we have empirical proof for more than a half century that a spaceport does no harm to the environment and actually acts to protect it from development.

Nor was this the only such attack article in the past two days. Here is just a sampling:
» Read more

Blue Origin distributes $19 million of the $28 million earned for its July 20th suborbital flight

Blue Origin today announced the nineteen non-profits that will receive $1 million each, taken from the $28 million that a single as-yet unnamed person is paying to fly with Jeff Bezos on the first commercial suborbital manned flight of New Shepard on July 20, 2021.

All of the organizations are advocates for space exploration. A majority foster education for the young. Two are pro-women, pushing gender politics in space.

The remaining $9 million will be used by Blue Origin’s non-profit to encourage space-focused curriculum and its project to encourage people to send postcards into suborbital space on its New Shepard spacecraft.

All in all the list of recipients surprised me. I had expected this money to go to many of the very leftist environmental groups that Jeff Bezos loves. Instead, the list is entirely space-focused, though it does tend to favor organizations that mostly aim to maintain the status quo of a big government space program or push for gender or racial politics. That there is a large variety of organizations that push many different approaches to encouraging space exploration however is refreshing.

Nonetheless, except for a few that actually educate children, most are advocacy groups. Compare that to the charity being produced by SpaceX’s first manned commercial flight in September, dubbed Inspiration4. That flight is pumping big bucks directly into St. Jude’s Research Hospital to help it cure children from cancer.

Which do you think is doing more for the world?

NASA awards three contracts to develop nuclear propulsion concepts

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday awarded three different contracts to three different corporation partnerships to develop new nuclear propulsion concepts for use in space.

The contracts, to be awarded through the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL), are each valued at approximately $5 million. They fund the development of various design strategies for the specified performance requirements that could aid in deep space exploration.

Nuclear propulsion provides greater propellant efficiency as compared with chemical rockets. It’s a potential technology for crew and cargo missions to Mars and science missions to the outer solar system, enabling faster and more robust missions in many cases.

The contracts went to these partnerships:

  • Lockheed Martin and BWX Technologies
  • Aerojet Rocketdyne, General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems, and X-energy
  • Blue Origin, Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies, Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation, General Electric Hitachi Nuclear Energy, General Electric Research, Framatome, and Materion

Once the concepts are put forth at the end of the 12-month contracts, the DOE’s laboratory will review them and make recommendations to NASA for further work.

This contract, along with other NASA contracts to develop nuclear power for use on planetary surfaces, strongly suggests that the fear of using nuclear power in space is receding. If so, the capabilities in space will increase significantly in the coming years.

Facebook gets out of satellite business; “sells” its employees to Amazon

Capitalism in space: Facebook has now apparently abandoned a project to launch its own communications satellites and instead has made a deal with Amazon whereby it sold its satellite division to the Bezos-founded company, where they joined Amazon’s Kuiper communications satellite project.

Over the past year, Amazon has revealed details about Project Kuiper’s antenna design, selected United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket for the initial satellite launches, and acquired still more office space for Kuiper employees in Redmond.

According to The Information, the employees who came to Kuiper from Facebook in April are based in the Los Angeles area. They are said to include physicists as well as optical, prototyping, mechanical and software engineers who have worked on aeronautical systems and wireless networks. One of the employees, Jin Bains, was formerly Facebook’s head of Southern California connectivity and is now described on his LinkedIn page as a director on the Project Kuiper team.

The Information reported that Amazon paid Facebook as part of the deal for the employee switchover, but did not provide further details. “It’s not unheard of for big companies to buy groups of employees from one another, just as they often buy small startups to beef up staff in various parts of their business,” The Information’s Sarah Krouse and Sylvia Varnham O’Regan explained. [emphasis mine]

This deal reveals a number of immediate facts, as well as one long term troubling one. First, it indicates as mentioned Facebook’s abandonment of its space ambitions.

Second, it suggests that Amazon might finally be recognizing that the people running its Kuiper satellite project are taking far too long to get it off the ground. Though proposed approximately the same time as SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, Kuiper remains unlaunched with no launches even scheduled, while SpaceX has more than 1,500 satellites in orbit, has been providing test service to customers in selected areas, and is about to become operational globally. This difference is achievement might be explained by this fact: The person Amazon hired to run its Kuiper project was someone Elon Musk fired in 2018 from his Starlink project because that person was taking too long to get it built and launched.

The new hires suggest that Amazon might have finally recognized this issue.

Finally, the long term troubling fact.
» Read more

SpaceX unveils third drone ship for landing Falcon 9 boosters

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk yesterday unveiled the completion of its third drone ship for landing Falcon 9 boosters in the ocean and returning them to port.

The new ship will be put in place in Florida to support Atlantic launches of Falcon Heavy and the flagship rocket of SpaceX, the Falcon 9, that regularly sends Starlink broadband satellites to orbit and NASA astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, among other customer requests.

This will give the company two drone ships in Florida and one in California, allowing them to do launches at an even faster pace than the one launch every 2 weeks or so since the beginning of the year. The ship also is designed to be more efficient than the older ships, no longer requiring a tug to take it out into the Atlantic.

Superheavy passes first tank test

Superheavy after tank test, July 12, 2021
Screen capture from NASASpaceflight.com live stream,
shortly after tank test of Superheavy

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s first fullscale complete Superheavy prototype, dubbed #3, passed its first tank test yesterday.

Booster 3 was likely filled with a few hundred tons of liquid nitrogen relative to the more than 3000 tons its tanks could easily hold and the fraction of that total capacity SpaceX’s suborbital launch site can actually supply. Teams have been working around the clock for months to outfit Starship’s first orbital launch site with enough propellant storage for at least one or two back to back orbital launches – on the order of 10,000 tons (~22M lb) – but the nascent tank farm is far from even partially operational. That’s left SpaceX with its ground testing and suborbital Starship launch facilities, which appear to be able to store around 1200 tons of propellant.

Assuming the suborbital pad’s main liquid oxygen and methane tanks can also both store and distribute liquid nitrogen, which isn’t guaranteed, SpaceX thus has the ability to fill approximately 30-40% of Super Heavy B3’s usable volume. Frost lines aren’t always a guaranteed sign of fill level but if they’re close, SpaceX likely filled Booster 3’s tanks just 5-10% of the way during the rocket’s first cryoproof.

While the company still says it is aiming for a July orbital launch, that seems highly unlikely. They still have to do a Superheavy tank test with full tanks, plus static fire tests. They also need to get the orbital launchpad finished, with a full tank farm.

Nonetheless, SpaceX is moving fast towards flight of this heavy lift reusable rocket. I still think the odds are 50-50 it will complete its first orbital flight before SLS, even though its development began more than a decade later and has cost a tenth of the money ($6 billion vs $60 billion).

FAA approves Blue Origin’s license for commercial suborbital passenger flights

Capitalism in space: The FAA has approved the launch license for Blue Origin, allowing it to fly a commercial suborbital passenger flight using its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft later this month.

The company, founded by the former Amazon.com chief, is approved to conduct space flight missions from its Launch Site One facility in West Texas. The license is valid through August. “To gain license approval to carry humans, Blue Origin was required to verify that its launch vehicle’s hardware and software worked safely and as intended during a test flight,” the FAA said in a statement to FOX Business.

Bezos is scheduled to fly into space on July 20 on New Shepard’s 16th flight. Liftoff is targeted for 8 p.m. CDT, the company said. … The launch date marks the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Bezos assigned himself to the flight just a month ago and asked his brother, Mark, to join him. Accompanying them will be a $28 million auction winner and Wally Funk, one of the last surviving members of the Mercury 13 who was chosen as an “honored guest.”

Expect the same kind of hype surrounding this short suborbital flight that accompanied Richard Branson’s flight this past weekend. The real big deal however will begin in September, when regular orbital tourist flights begin, with one almost every month for the rest of the year.

Virgin Galactic shares crash after Branson flight

Capitalism in space: The price of the stock for Virgin Galactic plummeted 17% shortly after Richard Branson’s flight on July 11th, experiencing its worst day in more than a year.

The drop occurred shortly after the company announced it was going to sell an additional $500 million in new shares.

Virgin Galactic, which trades under the ticker SPCE, fell 17.3% after it filed notice of its stock sale offering with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Trading in Virgin Galactic was briefly halted Monday morning due to volatility.

The drop in price is likely a reflection of several things, none of which reflects negatively on the overall bright picture for commercial space. First, the release of new stock meant the supply was greater than demand, and thus the price dropped. Second, Branson’s flight, while grand, also highlighted its limitations. While there certainly appears to be a market for suborbital tourism, I suspect the arrival of regular and likely increasingly cheaper orbital flights will cut into this market. In comparison, a short five minutes of weightlessness cannot compare with spending a week in orbit.

Third, Virgin Galactic as a company has nowhere to go. The rocket is essentially an engineering dead end. It can do suborbital flights relatively cheaply and quickly, but the demand for such flights is limited, especially with the arrival of relatively cheaper orbital access.

The bell of freedom rings in space

The Liberty Bell
“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and the
inhabitants thereof.” Photo credit: William Zhang

Not surprisingly the mainstream press today was agog with hundreds of stories about Richard Branson’s suborbital space flight yesterday on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceplane.

The excitement and joy over this success is certainly warranted. Back in 2004 Branson set himself the task of creating a reusable suborbital space plane he dubbed SpaceShipTwo, modeled after the suborbital plane that had won the Ansari X-Prize and intended to sell tickets so that private citizens would have the ability to go into space.

His flight yesterday completed that journey. The company he founded and is slowly selling off so that he is only a minority owner now has a vehicle that for a fee can take anyone up to heights ranging from 50 to 60 miles, well within the U.S. definition of space.

Nonetheless, if you rely on the media frenzy about this particular flight to inform you about the state of commercial space you end up having a very distorted picture of this new blossoming industry. Branson’s achievement, as great as it is, has come far too late. Had he done it a decade ago, as he had promised, he would have achieved something historic, proving what was then considered impossible, that private enterprise, using no government resources, could make space travel easy and common.

Now, however, he merely joins the many other private enterprises that are about to fly into space, with most doing it more frequently and with far greater skill and at a much grander scale than Virgin Galactic. His flight is no longer historic. It is merely one of many that is about to reshape space exploration forever.

Consider the upcoming schedule of already paid for commercial manned flights:
» Read more

Israeli nonprofit that built Beresheet-1 raises $70 million for Beresheet-2

SpaceIL, the Israeli nonprofit company that built the Beresheet-1 lunar lander/rover that crashed just before landing in 2019 has now raised $70 million of the $100 million it needs to build Beresheet-2.

SpaceIL said the new pledges means that it has raised almost all of the $100 million it estimates is needed for the mission to meet its 2024 launch target. SpaceIL said the funding would come from South African-Israeli billionaire Morris Kahn, who bankrolled much of the first mission, French-Israeli billionaire Patrick Drahi and South African philanthropist Martin Moshal, co-founder of venture capital firm Entree Capital.

A number of the engineers who helped build the first Beresheet have since moved on, forming their own company as well as getting hired by the American startup rocket company Firefly. Still, there is no reason Beresheet-2 cannot be built and flown, especially if SpaceIL focuses on rebuilding it rather than redesigning something new. They came very close to a success, and probably only need some tweaking to make the next attempt succeed.

Virgin Galactic finally flies Richard Branson on its reusable suborbital Unity spacecraft

Capitalism in space: After almost two decades of development and almost as many false promises by Richard Branson, Branson today finally flew on his SpaceShipTwo ship dubbed VSS Unity.

Unity was taken to about 45,000 feet by the carrier airplane WhiteKnightTwo, where it was released and its engines fired.

Once VSS Unity’s rocket engine cut off, the spacecraft’s momentum took it to an altitude of around 90 kilometers. This is above the minimum altitude of 80 kilometers required by the US Air Force, NASA, and the FAA to grant astronaut wings, and is above the discernible atmosphere. This apogee, or maximum altitude, is below the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) recognized boundary of space at 100 kilometers, which SpaceShipOne crossed twice to claim the X-Prize in 2004.

The craft spent around five minutes in weightlessness, with the crew evaluating the experience and looking at Earth and space from 17 windows on the craft, before they strapped back into their seats for reentry.

I have embedded below the fold the NASASpaceflight.com live feed, cued to just before Unity was dropped from WhiteKnightTwo. The commentary is far less offensive than the blather on the official live feed, but they end up losing the view from their live feed and switched to the Virgin Galactic live feed, rewinding it to pick it up just before the drop. You then see that feed, with good images and with all the blather, but no interior video during the weightless period. I suspect they want to edit that footage before releasing it, just in case anyone had vomited or Branson looked uncomfortable in any way.

Overall, Virgin Galactic deserves congratulations for finally accomplishing this flight. That it took so long and occurred just before the start of commercial manned orbital flights unfortunately pops the balloon on this achievement. The flight was so short that it now seems somewhat disappointing compared to the upcoming orbital tourist flights.

The next suborbital flight by Blue Origin on July 20th, and unlike today’s Virgin Galactic flight, will carry the first paying passenger, making it the first wholly financed and built private commercial space flight.
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Northrop Grumman wins contract to build Lunar Gateway’s habitable module

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday announced that it has awarded Northrop Grumman the construction contract for building HALO, (Habitation and Logistics Outpost), the module where astronauts will live and work on its Lunar Gateway space station.

Combined with earlier development contracts this contract, worth $935 million, brings the total fixed-price cost to about $1.1 billion.

[HALO], one of the first for the Gateway, will serve as a habitat for visiting astronauts and a command post for the lunar orbiting facility. It will have docking ports for Orion spacecraft, cargo vehicles like SpaceX’s Dragon XL and lunar landers, as well as for later modules to be added by international partners. HALO is based on the Cygnus spacecraft that Northrop Grumman uses to transport cargo to the International Space Station, but extensively modified with docking ports, enhanced life support and other new subsystems.

This module is not expected to launch before 2024. Moreover, it is supposed to work in conjunction with what NASA calls its Artemis 3 mission, the third launch of SLS and the first to dock with Gateway. SLS however is so far only funded through its first two flights, and has a schedule that is presently highly uncertain.

There is great irony here. HALO, based on the Cygnus cargo freighter, will be about that size. If the present schedule for SpaceX’s Starship continues as expected, it will be flying to the Moon at about the same time, and will have a cargo bay big enough to store several Cygnus freighters inside. And though no work has yet been done to make that cargo bay habitable, Starship’s cost per launch, about $2 million, is so far below the $1.1 billion cost for HALO that it will certainly cost much less than HALO to make it a habitable station. And it will be gigantic in comparison.

Watching Virgin Galactic’s suborbital flight on July 11th

Capitalism in space: Virgin Galactic has now made available the live stream for its planned suborbital flight on July 11th that will also carry the company’s founder, Richard Branson.

I have embedded the live stream below the fold. Though the company has not announced an actual launch time, according to that stream the broadcast is now scheduled to begin at about 9 am (Eastern). The flight itself should last about ninety minutes total, from takeoff of the carrier airplane to landing of both it and the suborbital spacecraft, VSS Unity.

The weightless portion of the flight will last about four minutes or so. Unity will get to more than 50 miles altitude, which meets the American definition of space but not the international standard of 67 miles. For more details about the flight, see this Space.com article.

Expect the broadcast to be filled with endless hype and blather about how “spectacular” and “amazing” and “wonderful” Virgin Galactic is. And yes, what the company is doing is very cool, a privately financed manned spacecraft capable of reaching space, returning to Earth, and then flying again. Unfortunately, both suborbital companies (Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin) seem to think they have to convince people of this obvious fact on their broadcasts, and scream it at the viewers endlessly. They would be wiser to take SpaceX’s soft-sell approach: State once what they are accomplishing and then simply report on what actually happens, with no breathless commentary.

I don’t expect that to happen however. Thus, I’m not sure I can stomach hours on end of Virgin Galactic PR hype on Sunday, especially considering that this spaceflight by Branson is more than a decade late. His own endless hype for the last fifteen years, promising over and over again that he would be flying in mere months, has soured me from any desire to listen to more. Maybe I’ll go on a hike instead.
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British startup rocket company wants to recover only satellite launched by UK

Capitalism in space: Skyrora, a British startup rocket company which is attempting to build the first rocket using hypersonic technology, has now issued a challenge to the commercial space industry to come up with a plan to snatch from orbit the only satellite ever launched by a rocket built by the United Kingdom and bring it back safely to Earth.

Edinburgh-based rocket company Skyrora is issuing a challenge to find a way to retrieve the Prospero satellite. The object was the first and only UK spacecraft to be launched on a British rocket, from Australia in 1971. It’s defunct now, obviously, but is still circling the globe on an elliptical orbit some 1,000km up.

Skyrora, who will soon start sending up rockets from Scotland, regards the satellite as an important piece of UK space heritage. The company has already recovered part of the Black Arrow vehicle that placed Prospero in orbit. This fell back to Australia in the course of the mission where it languished for decades in the Outback until the firm had it shipped home and put on display.

Now, Skyrora is looking for ideas as to how best to approach and grab hold of the 66kg satellite, whose original mission was to investigate the space environment.

After that single successful launch of Black Arrow, the British government decided to abandon it, and in fact for the next half century refused to invest any money in space, at all. While the decision was probably economically wise for the government, it also did not do anything to encourage a private space industry, and for the next half century there was none in the UK. This is now finally changing, but fortunately not as a government space program like Black Arrow but as a competitive private launch industry aimed at profit.

Recovering Prospero would be a nice public relations stunt that might help further encourage that private industry.

FAA initiates new prelaunch air space clearance system

FAA has now begun using a new prelaunch air space clearance system that is intended to shorten the time airplane travel is disturbed by the scheduled launch of a rocket.

[The FAA] developed the Space Data Integrator (SDI) tool to reduce how long ATO must close airspace around space launches and reentries. The system is voluntary. SpaceX, Blue Origin, Firefly, and the Alaska Aerospace Corporation are current partners. SDI was first used operationally for SpaceX’s Transporter-2 launch last week and is being used for the SpaceX-22 Cargo Dragon reentry today.

…Space operators now are voluntarily sharing telemetry data including vehicle position, altitude and speed, as well as data if the vehicle deviates from its expected flight path. Asked when additional companies might join, Monteith said he would have to defer to ATO to answer that question.

…Using the automated SDI system coupled with “time-based procedures and dynamic windows,” the FAA expects to be able to shorten airspace closures “from an average of more than four hours per launch to just more than two hours” and eventually less.

The article makes no mention whether this new system will allow the FAA to shrink the closure areas as well, which was Elon Musk’s main complaint after SpaceX’s Transporter-2 launch near the end of June was scrubbed seconds before launch when a helicopter slipped into that airspace. As Musk wrote in a tweet,

Unfortunately, launch is called off for today, as an aircraft entered the “keep out zone”, which is unreasonably gigantic. There is simply no way that humanity can become a spacefaring civilization without major regulatory reform. The current regulatory system is broken.

I suspect there is discussion to reduce the size of the closure areas, but I also suspect that the FAA is resisting industry calls to do so.

Problems with Blue Origin’s engine force more delays of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket

In a detailed and very informative review of the partnership between ULA and Blue Origin yesterday, Eric Berger at Ars Technica noted these unfolding facts:

For years, United Launch Alliance chief executive Tory Bruno had been saying the new Vulcan rocket, powered by two [Blue Origin] BE-4 engines, would launch in 2021. However, he recently told Aviation Week the first launch would slip into 2022. Bruno said this was due primarily to the mission’s customer, Astrobotic, whose Moon lander was not ready. Technically, Bruno said, Vulcan still had a chance to be ready for a 2021 launch.

This seems highly unlikely because it is already July, and United Launch Alliance (ULA) still does not have a pair of flight engines. After receiving the flight engines from Blue Origin, ULA needs to attach them to the Vulcan rocket, roll it to the launch pad, and conduct a lengthy series of tests before a hot-fire ignition. After this hot-fire test, the rocket will be rolled back to the hangar and prepared for an actual launch attempt. As of January, Bruno was saying this hot fire test with the flight engines would take place this summer. That will no longer happen.

In December both companies promised delivery of those flight engines by this summer, but so far nothing has arrived. Moreover, both companies have remained very tight-lipped about the cause of the most recent delays. In October 2020 Bruno said that an issue with the engine’s turbopumps had been identified and fixed, but if so why has the engine not arrived as promised?

A GAO report released last month had described issues with the engine’s “igniter and booster capabilities,” but Bruno himself has denied the igniter was a problem.

Regardless, Blue Origin’s inability to deliver this engine is causing problems at both companies. Both have been forced to delay the launch of their new orbital rockets. Both rockets were initially scheduled to launch in 2020, were delayed to 2021 about two years ago, and now are likely not to launch until 2022.

While ULA can still switch to its Atlas 5 rocket for some planned Vulcan launches (and has already done so), that rocket is more expensive and thus eats into the company’s profit margin. Using the more expensive Atlas 5 in bidding also makes it more difficult for ULA to compete with SpaceX in any head-to-head competition.

Blue Origin does not even have this option. Its proposed New Glenn rocket is grounded until it gets its engine operational.

All told, the failure of Blue Origin to deliver here is essentially grounding all of SpaceX’s potential American competition, a situation that is not healthy for the American rocket industry.

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