SpaceX & NASA agree to better coordinate their satellite constellations to avoid collisions

NASA announced yesterday that it has signed an agreement with SpaceX to better coordinate and share information about their their satellite constellations in order to avoid collisions and launch conflicts.

SpaceX has agreed its Starlink satellites will autonomously or manually maneuver to ensure the missions of NASA science satellites and other assets can operate uninterrupted from a collision avoidance perspective. Unless otherwise informed by SpaceX, NASA has agreed to not maneuver its assets in the event of a potential conjunction to ensure the parties do not inadvertently maneuver into one another.

Makes great sense. Not only will this help avoid damage to satellites from both entities, it commits NASA’s support of SpaceX’s Starlink.

SpaceX narrows Mars landing site for Starship to four prime locations

The prime and secondary Martian landing sites for Starship

Capitalism in space: During this week’s 52nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, one poster [pdf] caught my eye as something significant. It was titled “SpaceX Starship Landing Sites on Mars.” The map to the right is figure 1 from that poster, annotated slightly by me based my earlier stories about SpaceX’s use of the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to research potential Martian landing sites for its Starship spacecraft. The stars indicate MRO images, most of which were described and linked to in my last major post about this SpaceX effort in November 2019.

The red spots covering some stars are the big story: SpaceX has narrowed its choice for its Starship landing site to four prime locations (indicated by the bright red spots) and three backup locations (indicated by the dark red spots). The images under the red spots numbered 2, 4, and 6 were linked to in my November 2019 post. The images under red spots marked by a “D” are earlier images taken by MRO when SpaceX was researching a potential Dragon landing site. The images under red spots labeled 1P and MRO are subsequent images taken by MRO since November 2019, with the 1P image previously linked to in a post in April 2020 entitled “The icy Phlegra Mountains: Mars’ future second city.”

The poster outlined why the prime candidate sites — PM1, EM16, AP1, and AP9 — were favored. For example, PM-1 in the Phlegra Mountains “…has the lowest latitude and elevation of the group, a clear association with LDAs [lobate debris aprons that resemble glacial features], well developed polygons, and has the highest SWIM [Subsurface Water Ice Mapping] score for geomorphic indicators of ice.”

EM 16 “…has a clear association with an LDA with nearby brain terrain and the strongest radar return for shallow ice and the highest combined SWIM score.”

AP1 “…appears to be the safest site and has a moderate combined SWIM score for ice.”

AP9 “…has the thickest ice from radar returns and geomorphology indicating shallow ice. It has the highest combined SWIM score for ice, but appears slightly rocky and rough.”

Below the fold are images, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, of the four primary landing sites, as well as links to the full images of all four plus the three back-up sites (AP8, EM15, and PM7).
» Read more

Musk confirms goal of orbital Starship flight this year

Capitalism in space: Musk today confirmed the stories published earlier this week that SpaceX has a target goal of completing the first test orbital flight of Starship before the end of this year, possibly as early as July.

The only new news in the article is Musk’s confirmation. It does outline again the challenges SpaceX faces to meet this goal, recognizing that these dates are thus merely targets that almost certainly will not be met. It also recognizes that the targets tell us that development will continue to move forward swiftly, and that an orbital test flight is also likely not that far in the future.

Who wants to bet that a Starship/Super Heavy rocket reaches orbit before SLS? Right now the odds I’d say are about 50-50.

Starship update: Prototype #11 could fly tomorrow

Capitalism in space: According to this Starship update, the 11th Starship prototype is scheduled for its static fire dress rehearsal countdown today, with the possibility of its first flight as early as tomorrow.

This paragraph about SpaceX’s overall Starship program however is more significant:

Following SN11’s flight, SpaceX will move on to SN15, 16, and 17, alongside testing with Super Heavy prototypes BN1 and BN2, before shooting for an orbital launch with SN20 and BN3. In typical SpaceX-style, that orbital launch has an astonishing – and unlikely – “by July 1” target. At the very least, this target portrays SpaceX’s Starship drive to push the vehicle into operation.

The reason they are going directly from prototype #11 to #15 is because they scrapped #s 12, 13, and 14 after the flights of #9 and #10. They had learned enough, and those scrapped prototypes would not have taught them anything. Instead, they incorporated the learned changes to #15 and will fly that next.

The July 1st launch date is certainly overly optimistic. It also signals the company’s determination to try to get that first orbital flight off this year. Based on their pace, it would be foolish to dismiss this as a possibility.

It also signals what I think is an internal unstated goal within SpaceX to have Starship beat SLS into orbit. Nor would anyone be wise to consider that impossible. In fact, I consider it quite likely.

SpaceX launches another 60 Starlink satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX early this morning successfully launched another 60 Starlink satellites into orbit using its Falcon 9 rocket.

The company also successfully used a first stage for a record ninth time, landing it on its drone ship in the Atlantic. The booster did all nine flights in just over two years.

The 2021 launch race:

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

The U.S. now leads China 11 to 6 in the national rankings.

Space Force awards launch contracts (two each) to ULA and SpaceX

Capitalism in space: On March 9th the Space Force announced that it has awarded four new launch contracts, two each to ULA and SpaceX, for a total cost of just under $400 million, all to launch in ’23.

Under the task orders issued March 9, ULA and SpaceX will each launch two missions. ULA was awarded $225 million to launch and integrate the USSF-112 and USSF-87 missions on its Vulcan Centaur rockets while SpaceX was awarded $160 million to launch and integrate USSF-36 and launch NROL-69 on its Falcon 9 rockets.

Based on these numbers it appears ULA is charging about $113 million per launch for its new Vulcan Centaur rocket, while SpaceX is charging about $80 million using its Falcon 9.

For ULA, that is less that what it would charge using its Atlas 5 rocket, but not by much. For SpaceX this price is high, probably because the military might be demanding the company use new boosters for its launches.

These high prices for both are to me a sign of how little our federal government cares about saving any money for the taxpayer. While the competition brought on by SpaceX’s arrival is saving the military money, the way these contract awards are structured, with both ULA and SpaceX guaranteed to win them, neither company has an incentive to reduce its prices. Instead, they can overcharge and the military can do nothing about it.

In a more sane world the military would use the competition in the launch market to get an ever better deal. Instead, our federal government sees its budget as a blank check, and they are using it.

MEV-2 about to dock with communications satellite to extend its life

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman’s second Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-2) is presently doing the last rendezvous maneuvers in the vicinity of one of Intelsat’s operating geosynchronous communications satellites in anticipation to its docking, when it will extend that satellite’s life by up to five years.

This is the second MEV to fly. The first successfully docked with a defunct 19-year-old satellite and brought it back into operation.

Meanwhile, in the Ukraine a new startup is proposing to use an upgrade of the automatic rendezvous and docking system once used by Progress and Soyuz capsules to create its own variation of MEV.

Kurs Orbital is raising $6.5 million in its first investment round this summer to start the demonstration vehicle that will rendezvous with an uncooperative object in low Earth orbit, he said. “I think that we will be on schedule for 2023 with a demonstration mission.”

The company plans to raise more money over the next few years to build a fleet of four vehicles to start offering de-orbiting services by 2025. Usov said de-orbiting is the low hanging fruit because it is a way to immediately help satellite operators make money.

Operators currently take geostationary satellites out of service to a graveyard orbit six to eight months before they are out of fuel. De-orbiting services would allow operators to keep the satellites in operation for several additional months and continue to generate revenues, Usov said. Those extra revenues would more than pay for the $10 million to $15 million de-orbiting service.

If successful, this company will be the third attempting to enter the robotic satellite serving business, with a number of others also aiming to make money removing space junk.

SpaceX successfully launches 60 more Starlink satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX last night successfully launched another sixty Starlink satellites, raising the total launched to 1,265, with more than a thousand operating.

The company also landed the Falcon 9’s first stage for the sixth time while reusing both fairings.

The 2021 launch race:

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

The U.S. now leads China 10 to 4 in the national rankings. In fact, SpaceX alone has as many launches as China and Russia combined.

NASA forges deal with private company to put American on Russian Soyuz

Capitalism in space: It appears NASA used the private company Axiom as its go-between to obtain a seat for an American astronaut on the next Soyuz launch to ISS in April.

The deal is very complex.

Based on the initial partnership arrangement between the Russians and NASA, astronauts for both countries would fly in equal numbers on each other’s spacecraft in a barter arrangement that involved no exchange of funds. Russia however has been balking at flying its astronauts on Dragon, claiming it does not yet meet their standards for a manned spacecraft. Thus, they have been demanding that NASA pay them to fly an American on Soyuz.

NASA meanwhile doesn’t have the funds, but it still wants to make sure there is always an American on board ISS, and to do that requires a second ferry besides Dragon to provide redundancy. With Boeing’s Starliner delayed, they have been trying to get a seat on Soyuz as part of that barter deal, to no avail.

The solution? Private enterprise! To get that Soyuz seat at no cost it appears NASA made a barter deal with the private space company Axiom. Axiom is apparently paying the Russians for a seat on next month’s Soyuz flight, which will be filled by a NASA astronaut, and gets in return from NASA a free spare seat on a later American capsule.

The result? NASA pays nothing to the Russians, and still gets its seat on Soyuz. Where Axiom is getting the financing for its purchase is unclear, but because it is getting an extra seat at no cost that it can sell later for a big profit, I suspect that financing was not difficult to obtain.

The details for Axiom’s deal with Roscosmos have not as yet been revealed, though I am sure the Russians charged Axiom plenty for the seat on Soyuz. I also suspect that amount was far less then what the Russians would have charged NASA directly.

Once Starliner finally becomes operational NASA will have enough redundancy for getting Americans to ISS it will no longer need the Russians. Hopefully that will happen by the end of this year. If so, such shenanigans will no longer be required.

Starship #11 moves to launchpad

Capitalism in space: Less than a week since the flight and destruction of Starship prototype #10 post flight, SpaceX has now moved Starship #11 to the launchpad.

There is no firm word on when they will attempt to fly this prototype, but based on past history, they will likely do at least one static fire test this week and schedule the flight for next week. All will depend of course on weather and on the results of the static fire test. For example, with #10 they found they needed to replace one engine after the first static fire test.

China and Russia sign partnership agreement for lunar exploration

The new colonial movement: China and Russia today signed an agreement outlining a partnership to jointly build a base and orbiting station on and around the Moon.

The International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) is described as a comprehensive scientific experiment base built on the lunar surface or on the lunar orbit that can carry out multi-disciplinary and multi-objective scientific research activities including exploration and utilization, lunar-based observation, basic scientific experiment and technical verification, and long-term autonomous operation. Statements from Roscosmos and CNSA underline that the project will be “open to all interested countries and international partners.”

Though not explicitly stated it is understood that the ILRS would be constructed at the lunar south pole.

Russia is slowly breaking off its partnership with the U.S. because the U.S. is insisting it sign the Artemis Accords, which require all signatories to honor property rights in space. Neither Russian nor China wish to do that, instead reserving those rights wholly to their own governments, their citizens be damned.

Thus, we have a deal for Russia and China to work together. China actually doesn’t need Russia, as it has clearly shown in the past five years that its space capabilities are quite sufficient and well funded. Russia however needs China, as its capabilities have been declining in recent years due to corruption within its aerospace industry as well as a shortage of funds caused by a poor economy and the drop in oil prices.

Working together however could help speed what they achieve while simultaneously fueling the growing international competition in space. In the end this will benefit everyone, as more will get done faster.

How we shall settle the disagreement over property rights and government power in space is a entirely different question, one that I address at great length in my next soon-to-be published book, entitled Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and into the future. Stay tuned!

SpaceX requests FCC permission to expand Starlink service to trucks, ships, & planes

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has submitted a request to the FCC to expand its Starlink customer base by providing the service not only to rural areas but to large moving vehicles, such as trucks, ships, & planes.

In its application to the FCC, filed on Friday, SpaceX said expanding Starlink availability to moving vehicles throughout the U.S. and to moving vessels and aircraft worldwide would serve the public interest. “The urgency to provide broadband service to unserved and underserved areas has never been clearer,” David Goldman, SpaceX’s director of satellite policy, said in the filing.

Goldman said SpaceX’s “Earth Stations in Motion,” or ESIMs, would be “electrically identical” versions of the $499 antenna systems that are already being sold to beta customers. He suggested that they’d be counted among the million end-user stations that have already been authorized by the FCC.

…SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a tweet that Starlink’s ESIM terminals would be “much too big” to mount on cars — such as the electric cars that are made by Tesla, the other company that Musk heads — but would be suitable for large trucks and RVs.

The article at the link notes in detail how this request poses a serious competitive threat to two of SpaceX’s biggest rivals, Klymeta and Amazon’s Kuiper constellation. This is true, but it is so mostly because SpaceX has already launched more than a thousand satellites in its constellation, and is simply taking advantage of its advanced position to undercut its rivals.

For example, though Klymeta might be using already orbiting satellites put up by different companies, it is also charging twice what SpaceX wants to charge for its antenna system, making Starlink a more attractive product. Amazon meanwhile appears years away from launching its first satellite. It might have a better design, but such things are worthless if they aren’t built and operational.

These companies have no one to blame but themselves if Starlink grabs their hope-for market share. And the FCC should not block SpaceX just to protect them.

Starship update: #11 about to roll out; #10 landing analysis

Link here. As has been the case now for almost a year, the cadence at this SpaceX facility continues to be brisk.

Just days after SN10 completed the first – albeit hard – Starship prototype landing, SN11 is set to rollout to the launch site for its own attempt. Incremental progress is being made with the test flights, with another tweak to the landing sequence set to be implemented, based on data gained from SN10. Meanwhile, the first Super Heavy prototype continues stacking operations while parts for up to Starship SN20 are being staged at the Production Site.

The update also includes details about the explosion of prototype #10 — which apparently landed harder than it should have which caused damage to tanks which then caused the explosion — as well as details about future expansion plans at the Boca Chica facility.

NASA increases ISS prices to commercial customers by 700%

On February 25th NASA quietly announced that it was increasing the prices it charges for private commercial payloads to ISS sevenfold, immediately putting some customers out of business.

In the statement, published with little fanfare on the agency’s website, NASA said it was updating that price list “to reflect full reimbursement for the value of NASA resources.” The decision to do so, NASA said, was based on “discussions with stakeholders, the current market growth, and in anticipation of future commercial entities capable of providing similar services.”

By removing the subsidy, the prices of those services went up significantly. The cost to transport one kilogram of cargo up to the station, known as “upmass,” went from $3,000 to $20,000. The cost to bring that one kilogram back down from the station, “downmass,” went from $6,000 to $40,000. One hour of crew member time, previously $17,500, is now $130,000.

The sudden change in prices, which took effect immediately, took some ISS users by surprise. An executive with one company, who spoke on background because that company is still evaluating the impacts of the pricing change, was not aware of NASA’s decision to raise prices until contacted by SpaceNews.

“NASA has not done a good job communicating with the stakeholders,” said Jeffrey Manber, chief executive of Nanoracks. “We are in discussions with customers and suddenly we are being notified of a major increase.” That sudden increase in prices, he said, forced Nanoracks to suspend discussions with two potential customers, who he said were “priced out of their budget” by the increase.

Note that NASA’s statement apparently contained a lie. It claimed the agency talked with “stakeholders,” but apparently those stakeholders knew nothing about it until it happened.

I strongly suspect this is a Biden administration decision, not one from NASA. Democratic Party politicians don’t see government as a servant of the people, but as a tool to rule them. A private industry is beginning to sprout using government resources in space, and rather than encourage its growth they instead want to squeeze as much cash from it as possible.

Moreover, why is NASA charging anything for bringing cargo to ISS? They don’t provide the transportation, launch companies like SpaceX and ULA do. The only appropriate charge NASA should be charging is rental at the station.

If this was a NASA decision solely and Trump was in power, I would expect it to be soon canceled. Under Biden there is no chance. More likely that administration either endorsed it or imposed it.

What this means is that future commercial flights will soon shift away from ISS. I expect Axiom to work hard to get its station modules launched and separated from ISS as quickly as possible. I also expect to see more independent Dragon manned tourist missions, like the one planned for this fall, that do not dock with the station.

In fact, here is a thought that I think has already entered Elon Musk’s brain. In the next year SpaceX is likely going to do its first Starship orbital test flight. Why not put a test habitable module on board that can be used by tourists at a reasonable price? There is money to be made here, especially because NASA is gouging its customers and there is plenty of margin to undercut the agency’s absurd prices.

Virgin Galactic’s chairman sells all of his stock in the company

Getting out when the getting is good: The chairman of Virgin Galactic who was part of the deal that allowed the company to go public has now sold all of his stock in the company.

Billionaire investor Chamath Palihapitiya sold his entire personal stake in Virgin Galactic this week, a regulatory filing revealed on Friday.

The space-tourism company’s chairman cashed out his 6.2 million shares at an average price of $35, netting him around $211 million. Palihapitiya, along with his business partner Ian Osborne, still indirectly own 15.8 million shares via SCH Sponsor Corp, their investment vehicle.

Palihapitiya previously sold 3.8 million Virgin Galactic shares in December, tweeting that he needed to free up cash to fund several new projects this year.

Like Branson, this guy took the company public, made some absurd claims about its future, got several Wall Street analysts to rave about his plans, and then when the stock was high because of these fake promises, got out. He knows, as did Branson, that Virgin Galactic has practically a zero chance of making a dime in the future. He just worked a con to use it to make him some cash on the backs of a lot of other stock buyers who should have known better.

This company might fly a few paying customers on some suborbital flights, but its long term future is very bleak.

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.

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