Virgin Galactic delays its next suborbital flight again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All well and good, but maybe before Ellis brags about his next generation rocket he might be better served to focus on getting that first rocket successfully off the ground later this year. It is a good thing his company is thinking of making its rockets reusable, but right now he is overselling while under-performing, a very bad sales technique. Better to do what Scotty of Star Trek did routinely, undersell while over-performing.
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Starship #10 completes another static fire test after quick engine swap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starship #10 completes launch dress rehearsal & static fire test

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rumors: Biden considering former Senator Bill Nelson for NASA administrator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SpaceX delays all launches while it investigates failed booster landing

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

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

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

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

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

Firefly gets another launch contract

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

The other contracts:

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

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

Second passenger chosen for private manned SpaceX mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The most significant tidbit to me was this:

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

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

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

Roscosmos head: Russia to launch 29 rockets in ’21

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

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

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

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

Bloomberg editorial: Scrap SLS!

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

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

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

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

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

Texas power outages delay Starliner but not Starship

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

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

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

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

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

Hungarian company awarded NASA contract to develop Moon mini-rover

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

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

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

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

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

SpaceX raises another $850 million in investment capital

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

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

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

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

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

Momentus signs deal to deliver two private cubesats to lunar orbit

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

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

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

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

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

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

Axiom raises $130 million in investment capital

Capitalism in space: The private space station company Axiom announced today that it has obtained $130 million in investment capital during its most recent round of fund-raising.

The funding will allow the company to expand, including doubling its current workforce of about 110 people this year, Michael Suffredini, president and chief executive of Axiom, said in an interview. It will also support quarterly payments to Thales Alenia Space, which is building the pressurized elements of the first modules. The company recently moved into a two-story building in Houston and is buying a new test facility, with plans to establish a campus at Spaceport Houston, also known as Ellington Airport.

“This is a really the major step for us,” he said. “The B round is typically where you get your first large investment, but more importantly than the money is the community of investors that you put together, so that future rounds are largely from those investors.” That group of investors, he said, was “a perfect fit for us and puts us in a good position, however we want to go forward.”

Suffredini also admitted that while helps get those first modules built for launch to ISS in ’24, they will still need “probably between half a billion and a billion dollars” to build their full private space station.

Sounds like a lot, eh? ISS cost about $100 billion, but that is not including the contributions of the U.S.’s international partners. It is also likely a conservative estimate, as it likely does not include any of NASA’s overhead in connection with the station. Construction officially began in 1994, but actually started a decade earlier when President Reagan first proposed its predecessor, the Freedom station, and those costs are not included as well.

So Axiom will build its private station for about a billion, and get it done in about five years. NASA spent anywhere from $100 to $200 billion, and took more than three decades to get it launched and built.

Which product would you buy?

SpaceX launches sixty more Starlink satellites; plus an installation report from one customer

Capitalism in space: SpaceX tonight successfully launched another 60 Starlink satellites, using its Falcon 9 rocket.

The first stage on its sixth flight however failed to land successfully. It is amazing that we now expect these landings to succeed, proving how reliable we now expect SpaceX’s rocket to be.

The 2021 launch race:

5 SpaceX
3 China
2 Russia
1 Rocket Lab
1 Virgin Orbit

The U.S. now leads China 7 to 3 in the national rankings. Another SpaceX launch is scheduled for tomorrow, followed by a Rocket Lab launch a little more than 24 hours later.

A report from one Starlink customer on his installation experience

The sixty new Starlink satellites bring the constellation to more than 1,100 satellites, allowing SpaceX to continue expanding regions where it is offering the service. Below the fold is an update from reader Steve Golson on his experience installing his own Starlink dish and service in Maine, now running for several days. Rather than cut and past sections, I think it best to quote his email to me in its entirety, including some of the images he sent. The opinions expressed are Steve’s alone, but they are coming from a customer who appears very satisfied with the product, up to now.
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1st Vulcan test core stage arrives at Kennedy

Capitalism in space: ULA’s first complete Vulcan core stage, meant at this point only for testing launch procedures, has arrived at Cape Canaveral.

After connecting the launch platform and the rocket to gas and electrical systems at the pad, ULA engineers will run the Vulcan booster and the ground infrastructure through a series of exercises, culminating in loading of thousands of gallons of cryogenic liquid methane and liquid oxygen into the rocket.

Once these tests are complete, the stage will be returned to ULA’s facility in Alabama to be refitted with flight worthy BE-4 engines so it can fly on a later mission. The engines presently attached are test engines.

ULA expects the first flightworthy BE-4 engines to be delivered by Blue Origin by the summer. These will then be incorporated into the first Vulcan to fly (hopefully before the end of the year) and carrying Astrobotic’s unmanned Peregrine lunar lander.

That rocket, as will all Vulcan rockets for the foreseeable future, will be entirely expendable. Though ULA says it intends at some point to recover for reuse the engines of the core stage, they have not delineated a time schedule for when that will happen.

At this point the only customer ULA has for this rocket is the government — especially the military. Vulcan cannot compete in price with SpaceX’s rockets, so I doubt any commercial satellite company will be much interested in it. The military will pay the extra bucks, because it wants more than one launch company for redundancy, and it has already committed to buying Vulcans for the next five years.

Of course, that long term commitment to Vulcan by the military will likely change if other cheaper rockets enter the market. At the present the military is limiting bidding on future launches to just SpaceX and ULA. That cannot hold up in court if other viable rocket companies wish to bid. Expect those new companies to do what SpaceX did when the Air Force refused to let it bid on military launches about five years ago, sue, and win in court.

At that point ULA’s an entirely expendable Vulcan will be very vulnerable to losing its last customer. ULA must make this rocket reusable or it will die as a company.

Europa Clipper to fly on commercial rocket, not SLS

NASA managers have now decided unequivocally to not use SLS to launch Europa Clipper, and will instead choose a commercial rocket in about a year.

During a Feb. 10 presentation at a meeting of NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG), leaders of the Europa Clipper project said the agency recently decided to consider only commercial launch vehicles for the mission, and no longer support a launch of the spacecraft on the SLS.

“We now have clarity on the launch vehicle path and launch date,” Robert Pappalardo, project scientist for Europa Clipper at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said. That clarity came in the form of a Jan. 25 memo from NASA’s Planetary Missions Program Office to “immediately cease efforts to maintain SLS compatibility” and move forward with a commercial launch vehicle, or CLV, he said.

Though this decision was expected following the approval of the most recent congressional budget for NASA, which contained language allowing NASA to abandon SLS if it thought it wise, this decision continues the string of recent stories that all point toward the eventually abandonment of SLS itself.

At the moment the rocket most likely to win the contract is the Falcon Heavy.

Falcon Heavy wins contract to launch 1st two Gateway modules

NASA today awarded SpaceX a $331 million contract to launch the first two components of the Lunar Gateway space station, using its Falcon Heavy rocket.

The Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element and Habitation and Logistics Outpost will launch in tandem no earlier than May 2024 aboard the Falcon Heavy rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The $331.8 million launch services contract, awarded by NASA’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy, includes the Falcon Heavy launch and “other mission-related costs,” the agency said in a statement. The $331 million contract value is nearly three times the price NASA is paying for a Falcon Heavy launch in July 2022 with the Psyche asteroid probe.

What is significant about this contract is what it does not mention: SLS. Gateway was originally conceived by NASA as a project that would give purpose to the SLS rocket, a rocket that Congress required NASA to build without giving it any mission. Now it appears NASA is looking to build Gateway without SLS, at least on this first launch.

I would throw this news item in the bin containing an number of recent stories, all of which signal that SLS is on increasingly thin ice.

Musk: Starlink to go public once operational

Capitalism in space: According to a tweet by SpaceX founder Elon Musk, once the Starlink internet satellite constellation is operational and has a “reasonable well” cash flow it will issue and IPO and become a publicly traded stock.

“SpaceX needs to pass through a deep chasm of negative cash flow over the next year or so to make Starlink financially viable,” Musk wrote in another tweet. “Every new satellite constellation in history has gone bankrupt. We hope to be the first that does not.”

Based on the company’s pace of launching satellites and rolling out service, this moment could occur as early as late this year. More likely it will occur in mid-22.

I would also expect that stock to quickly rise in value, and based on the history of all of Musk’s companies, will continue to rise thereafter. Expect also that a significant portion of the investment capital that Starlink will raise will be used to finance the development of Starship and Super Heavy, because Starlink will need that larger rocket to maintain its satellite constellation.

Lockheed Martin picks ABL’s rocket to make its first UK launch

Capitalism in space: Lockheed Martin has chosen the smallsat rocket company ABL Space Systems to launch its first UK satellite payload from Shetland.

Lockheed said Feb. 7 that ABL will perform a launch of its RS1 rocket from the Shetland Space Centre, a spaceport to be developed on the island of Unst in the Shetlands, in 2022. The rocket, on a mission called the UK Pathfinder launch, will place into orbit a tug developed by Moog in the UK that will then deploy six 6U cubesats.

The launch will fulfill an award made by the British government in 2018 to support development of a domestic launch capability. The $31 million contract to Lockheed Martin covered a launch, then planned for a spaceport at Sutherland in northern Scotland, as well as Moog’s orbital maneuvering vehicle.

Lockheed did not disclose at the time, though, which vehicle it would use for the launch. The company does not have a small launch vehicle of its own compatible with the spaceport, but has invested in companies working on such vehicles, including ABL Space Systems and Rocket Lab.

It appears Lockheed choose ABL over Rocket Lab because of its mobile launch capability. As designed, its RS1 rocket needs no permanent infrastructure at the launch site. All they need is a concrete pad.

This decision also heightens the competition between the two presently proposed UK spaceports in Sutherland, Scotland, and Unst, Shetland. While planning at Sutherland started earlier, local opposition appears to be slowing it down.

ABL is one of six smallsat rocket companies planning a first orbital launch in 2021. While it is unlikely all will do so, the likelihood is increasing that several will, which will make things very busy in the rocket industry.

Starship update: Prototype #10 being readied for launch

Link here. Not only have the engines been installed on the tenth Starship prototype, the static fire test is set for this week, maybe as early as today. It appears they are trying to launch the next test flight before the end of February.

At landing they will now fire all three engines, in case one or more fail to light (as happened with prototype #9), and then shut down all but one immediately and let that do the landing burn. This adds redundancy and increases the odds of a successful landing.

The article also provides a detailed update on the status of future Starship and Super Heavy test articles. While #11 is being readied for launch, it appears that, based on what has been learned from #8 and #9, they are dismantling prototypes #12-14 and incorporating changes to #15, which will likely fly after #11.

One aspect of this development program struck me today. These prototypes are essentially expendable rockets. Like it did with its early expendable Falcon 9, SpaceX is using these throw-away prototypes to test ways to make them more reusable and reliable. Unlike the Falcon 9s, however, the company isn’t using these prototypes to launch payloads, at least not at this stage. It isn’t good enough that these prototypes can successfully launch. They must be able to land as well.

I suspect that once during this test program the full rocket begins to reach orbit SpaceX will add payloads, even as they continue to test re-entry and landing. The early flights might produce rockets that successfully bring satellites into space but end up getting destroyed upon return. Those loses will then be used to make later ships better and more likely to return intact.

Eventually, we will have a rocket entirely reusable and flying multiple times, just like the Falcon 9 first stage.

ULA’s CEO advocates old way of doing things

In a webinar yesterday the CEO of ULA, Tory Bruno, argued that there is too much money being invested in new rocket companies and the money would be better spent developing in-space activities instead.

To be attractive to investors, these new space activities should be dual-use with both commercial and national security applications, Bruno said.

The launch market is becoming dangerously “overheated” for a couple of reasons. One is simply that there are too many launch companies chasing a “more or less fixed size” pool of customers, Bruno said. In the large rocket market, he said, prices are falling and the demand for satellite launches “has remained stubbornly inelastic.”

“It’s down to a third or even a fourth of the cost of what access to space was just a handful of years ago,” Bruno said. “Yet we have seen no increase in the overall size of the launch market nor have we seen a corresponding tripling or quadrupling of space activity.”

While Bruno is correct when he says that there are likely too many new launch companies, he is so wrong about his belief that the customer base “has remained stubbornly inelastic” that he is practically in the wrong galaxy. The lower costs he complains about are exactly why there is so much investment capital being poured into the new launch companies, because those investors see those lower costs attracting many new customers, something that is demonstrated by the growth of the launch rate in the past few years (something that I expect will explode in the next two years).

Many of these new companies will fail, for any number of reasons. No matter. A large number will succeed, and attract more than enough customers to make a profit.

What Bruno really is complaining about are the new lower launch costs. ULA can’t match them, and for this reason faces a crisis in that it might not be able to attract any customers at all in the coming years, even with the introduction of its new Vulcan rocket. And though Bruno has done a good job trying to make ULA competitive in this new market, he appears to have generally failed to change the company significantly. For example, why hasn’t ULA tried to market its Atlas 5 and Vulcan rockets for multi-payload smallsat launches, as SpaceX did with the recent launch of 143 smallsats on one Falcon 9? I can’t think of any reason why ULA’s rockets couldn’t do the same. Yet the company has done nothing to try to market itself to this smallsat industry. Instead, they have let Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, and now SpaceX grab it, along with at least four or five new smallsat rocket companies about to do their first launches.

Instead, Bruno advocated during this webinar that the federal government get involved, acting to encourage investors to leave the launch market and instead focus on building companies that only do things in space.

What a deal! The government helps to limit the number of new rocket companies, thus protecting ULA’s market share. ULA in turn can continue to charge its high prices, because the new in-space companies the government subsidized will have few launch options. In fact, the high launch prices that would result from a smaller launch market would likely force the federal government to also subsidize the launch costs for the new in-space companies so they can even afford to get to orbit.

All for the benefit of old big space companies like ULA, who for decades did nothing to innovate or lower the cost to launch.

I think what Bruno is really signaling to us here is that he is not hopeful for the future of his company in today’s present competitive free market, and is thus advocating government intervention to save his company.

Starlink now has over 10,000 users

Capitalism in space: SpaceX revealed yesterday that its Starlink internet constellation now has over 10,000 users in both the U.S. and elsewhere.

The update on Starlink’s customer base came in a petition to the FCC, with SpaceX asking that Starlink be designated an “Eligible Telecommunications Carrier” or ETC. The company noted that receiving this designation is necessary for Starlink to provide service to regions in “Alabama, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.”

SpaceX was awarded access to those regions under the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunities Fund, an auction to bring broadband services to rural areas. The FCC in December awarded SpaceX with nearly $900 million in federal subsidies in the first phase of the auction.

“Designating Starlink Services as an ETC is in the public interest because it will enable the company to receive support that will facilitate rapid deployment of broadband and voice service to the Service Areas at speeds and latency comparable to terrestrial systems in urban locations,” SpaceX wrote in the filing on Thursday.

One of my readers, Steve Golson, emailed me yesterday to tell me he is one of those rural customers, as he is located in Maine.

We are at latitude 43.2°N which was too far south for their early beta program, but they’ve just opened it up to us. I signed up back in June 2020, when the Starlink beta signup first went live. Yesterday I received this email:

“Starlink is now available in limited supply in your service area. … Availability is limited so orders must be completed within 15 minutes of landing on the order page. If you are not able to order at this time, the Starlink team will continue to send updates as more capacity becomes available.”

I ordered right away, and I was notified that the dish shipped today, with delivery late next week by FedEx Ground. Cost is $500 for the dish, WiFi router, power supply, cables, mounting tripod. Monthy cost is $99. That’s the beta cost, but I suspect their final costs will be similar.

Now I’m getting a roof mount ready. You *really* need an unobstructed view of the whole sky. The very cool Starlink app (iOS and Android) shows you how much of your sky needs to be unobstructed.

He promises to give further updates as his service rolls out.

NASA awards Firefly lunar contract

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday announced that it has awarded the new smallsat rocket company Firefly a $93 million contract to build a lunar lander for delivering scientific payloads to the Moon’s surface.

This is the first delivery awarded to Firefly Aerospace, which will provide the lunar delivery service using its Blue Ghost lander, which the company designed and developed at its Cedar Park facility. This facility also will house the integration of NASA and any non-NASA payloads, and also will serve as the company’s mission operations center for the 2023 delivery.

The lander is based on the design of Israel’s Beresheet lunar lander that failed in its landing attempt in 2019. After that failure a group of Israeli engineers from that project formed their own company, and partnered with Firefly to build a new lander, which is now dubbed Blue Ghost.

The NASA contract itself replaces OrbitBeyond, which had won a lunar landing contract initially but had backed out in 2019.

Finally, the timing of this announcement immediately after Firefly had revamped its board of directors to remove its main Ukrainian backer from an obvious management position is most telling. Suggests to me that they did that revamping in direct response to NASA’s concerns, and once done NASA could then move forward with the contract award.

Biden administration endorses Artemis program

During a press conference yesterday Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki stated that the Biden administration plans to continue the Artemis manned lunar program that was initiated by the Trump administration.

“Through the Artemis program, the United States government will work with industry and international partners to send astronauts to the surface of the moon — another man and a woman to the moon,” Psaki told reporters in a White House press briefing Thursday. “Certainly, we support this effort and endeavor,” she added.

The Biden administration was under pressure to endorse Artemis, coming from its own party. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress want the pork it represents to them. This statement now aligns Biden with Congress. The American effort to return to the Moon, established by Trump, is now practically engraved in stone.

What the statement that Psaki read did not detail is whether that support will include the SLS rocket or the Orion capsule. Nor did her statement indicate any time schedule for a landing, which adds weight to the supposition that they are going to abandon the Trump’s effort to push for a 2024 manned landing on the Moon.

Moreover, the letter sent to the White House on February 3rd by eleven Democrats endorsing Artemis (available here [pdf]), also said nothing about SLS or Orion. Instead, it was more intent on encouraging the White House to award contracts to the private sector to build the manned lunar lander. NASA had announced on February 1st that it was delaying its decision on who should build it, and those Democrats did not want that delay to result in the contracts getting killed.

Both statements tell us is that SLS itself is presently on very thin ice. Congress wants Artemis, but Artemis is no longer synonymous with SLS. For the past two years the Trump administration had been awarding contracts to numerous private companies to design and build many components of Artemis, rather than have NASA do the designing and building (as it had with SLS). Those contracts have created a cohort of new vested interests that rely on Artemis, all of which I am sure are screaming at their representatives in Congress to keep their work funded.

Furthermore, SpaceX’s development of Starship is clearly showing everyone that an alternative to SLS does exist, and could be operational for much less and much sooner.

To my mind, all this evidence suggests that the Washington political world is getting itself ready for the possibility of abandoning SLS. They don’t want to, but if alternatives to its pork are available that are also more productive, they are steeling themselves for making the difficult political decision of switching.

This evidence also suggests that the Biden administration will continue the policies I outlined in my 2017 policy paper Capitalism in Space (available as a free download here [pdf]) and adopted by the Trump administration. I had recommended that all design and construction should be taken from NASA and given to many different private companies, with that private sector also owning what they build while competing for those government dollars. NASA would outline the project’s goals and concept, and then act merely as a customer which would find others to execute those goals and concepts, as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

If the Biden administration is embracing these recommendations, this is very good news. While the motives of these corrupt politicians might be bad, the result could be very good for the U.S. Allowing the private sector to do the job means it might actually get done, rapidly and for much less. It will also help fuel the growth of a very robust American space industry, which once established will soon no longer depend solely on the government for its business. The lower cost required by the competition to get NASA business will encourage others to buy the products, and soon thereafter the government will become irrelevant to this industry’s success.

This is the model used in the early 20th century to jump start the airline industry. It worked. It now looks like NASA and the govenment will do it in space.

Firefly shakes up board of directors

The smallsat rocket company Firefly, only a month or so from the first orbital test flight of its Alpha rocket, has drastically changed its board of directors, removing its main financial backer from the Ukraine and replacing him with Americans.

Among those no longer on the board is Firefly’s financial savior, Polyakov, who has dual Ukrainian-British citizenship and lives in Edinburgh. This is a substantial change, as it moves the company’s key financial backer from a role as a decision maker to that of a stockholder. Markusic said Polyakov has the rights of a stockholder but that Firefly’s board now directs the company. Polyakov remains Firefly’s largest shareholder.

“These changes are part of the logical growth and development of Firefly,” Polyakov told Ars. “I’m extremely proud of what we have accomplished to date. Moving forward, I have the utmost confidence in Tom, his team, and the new board members.”

Some concerns had previously been raised about Polyakov’s background. This move, however, is more due to having an all-American board of directors, which should bolster Firefly’s efforts to work with the defense community.

Essentially, the company and Polykov have moved Polykov out of a sensitive position so as to make the company seem more palatable to the federal government. His presence on the board would have likely made it difficult to win any government contracts. Making him in name just a stockholder will reduce that issue.

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