Starship prototype #8 on launchpad

Capitalism in space: The eighth Starship prototype, with landing flaps (looking just like fins) has now been moved to its launchpad in preparation for static fire tests followed by a 50,000 foot or nine mile hop.

According to Elon Musk, SpaceX will static fire SN8 twice before attempting its 15 km (~50,000 ft) launch debut. More likely than not, SpaceX will attempt a triple-engine static fire with the Starship as-is, install SN8’s nosecone and forward flaps, and attempt a second static fire while only drawing propellant from tbe rocket’s smaller header tanks (one of which is located in the tip of its nose).

Previously the hop was supposed to go to 60,000 feet, or 11 miles. It appears they’ve scaled it back slightly.

If all these tests go well, the company’s license for the flight opens as soon as October 11th, though it is likely it will not happen quite that soon. More likely by the end of the month, or early in November. Regardless, the prototype looks quite impressive with its flaps, and in fact is now beginning to resemble a spaceship, not a silo.

Crew for next Dragon manned flight name capsule “Resilience”

Capitalism in space: The crew for next Dragon manned flight, scheduled now for October 31st, have given the capsule the name “Resilience.”

Before arriving at Resilience, Hopkins and his crewmates filled a whiteboard with a long list of “good ideas” for their spacecraft’s name and then narrowed down their choices, he said.

“We wanted to make sure that the name fit,” Hopkins said in an interview with collectSPACE, following Tuesday’s press conference. “We got it down to two or three names and they were all very close in terms of that we liked them and could have been really happy with them, [but] at the end of the day, it was the one that just felt right.”

The crew of the first Dragon manned capsule named it Endeavour, to honor the shuttle spacecraft they had both flown in. The names of these capsules is not merely symbolic. Both capsules will be reused, like the shuttles, and thus deserve names to mark them when they fly again.

What is not clear yet is exactly how many capsules SpaceX will build, nor exactly how many times each capsule will be reused. The latter will of course help determine the former. It will take a few years and multiple flights to find out. Eventually however SpaceX will have its own fleet of manned spaceships, available not only to NASA but to private customers.

Firefly completes static fire test of its Alpha first stage

Capitalism in space: Firefly Aerospace today released video footage showing the first successful static fire test of the first stage of its Alpha rocket.

I have embedded one of the videos, showing the test from multiple camera angles, below the fold.

The test is very impressive, and suggests strongly that they are on schedule to meet their target launch date for their first orbital test flight sometime between November ’20 and May ’21. It also suggests that this dark horse smallsat rocket company, once considered dead after filing for bankruptcy, might actually beat to orbit its closest competitors, Virgin Orbit and Astra. The latter two have already completed their first launch attempts, but both ended in failure.

Regardless, it appears the race between these three rocket companies is tightening. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if all three achieve their first orbital launches in the six to eight months.
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SpaceX launch aborts at T-18 seconds

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s attempt to launch another 60 Starlink satellites today aborted at T-18 seconds due to what they called “out-of-family ground sensor reading.”

They have not announced a new launch date as yet.

The U.S. has had little luck getting any of its launches off in the past month. Many have been delayed or scrubbed, for either technical reasons or weather. Hopefully tonight’s launch of Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo freighter to ISS will avoid these issues and get off the ground.

Endless technical issues force Delta 4 Heavy launch scrubs

BUMPED and revised to include the September 30th launch abort.

Can we count the ways? For what has become a string of seemingly endless technical issues, ULA on September 29th was forced to once again scrub the launch of a military reconnaissance satellite because of a technical issue with its Delta 4 Heavy rocket and launchpad.

Apparently when they tried to move the launchpad’s mobile gantry away from the rocket they discovered “a hydraulic leak in the ground system.”

On the evening of September 30th (tonight) they tried again, only to have an abort at T-7 seconds, just as the engines were to ignite as planned.

They have been trying to get this bird off the ground now for more than a month. Here is a chronology of the launch scrubs, with all the various technical issues described.

August 26: Scrub because of “several problems,” the primary cause being a “pneumatics system issue.” This same countdown also had a long hold because of two blown fuses in a launchpad heater.

August 29: Aborted at T-3 seconds, due to “a torn diaphragm in one of three pressure regulators” in the launchpad. During the countdown they also had holds to deal with a fuel valve issue, a fuel sensor issue, and a temperature payload issue.

September 26: Scrubbed because of issue with the launchpad “swing arm retraction system.”

September 27: Scrubbed because of a continuing issue with the launchpad “swing arm retraction system.”

September 29 (just after midnight): A lightning strike forced a scrub. This was the only scrub not caused by technical issues.

September 29 (just before midnight): Scrubbed because of a hydraulic leak in the ground system.

September 30: Aborted at T-7 seconds. Under investigation. No new launch date yet announced.

This string of seemingly minor and apparently easy-to-fix problems does not reflect well on the quality control systems at ULA. I understand that this is rocket science, and thus difficult. At the same time engineers have now been doing launches for more than a half century, and this tale of woe above is more reminiscent of the early days of rocketry in the 1960s, when you might have a dozen or more scrubs because of these kinds of technical issues. You’d think by now ULA’s launch engineers would have worked these kinks out.

From a customer perspective this list of issues is also troubling, considering that the Delta 4 Heavy costs the customer more than any other commercial rocket. Granted it can put up a lot of payload, but the Falcon Heavy can put up more, and do it for less than half the cost and far more reliably. If I was ULA’s customer I would not be very satisfied with the product I am getting, even if the launch turns out to be a complete success.

The delays are also impacting other launches. SpaceX has had to repeatedly delay the launch of a GPS satellite on its Falcon 9 because for scheduling reasons the ULA launch must come first.

Changes in engineering and procedures for next manned Dragon flight

SpaceX is making several engineering and operational changes involving flights of its manned Dragon capsule, based on the company’s experience during the first manned flight several months ago.

First, they are reinforcing the heat shield in one area.

After a successful test flight that ended when NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 2, the company noticed “a little more erosion than we wanted to see” in a few areas of the capsule’s heat shield, Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability, said during a press call this week. He said there “was nothing to be concerned with at all times. The astronauts were safe, and the vehicle was working perfectly.”

Second, they are revising the software used to determine the altitude when the capsule’s drogue parachute is released.

Koenigsmann said the company is refining how it measures the capsule’s altitude as it returns to Earth. During the August test flight, the drogue parachutes deployed at a slightly lower altitude than the company expected, but still well within safety parameters, he said.

Finally, they are going to more strictly enforce a 10-mile “keep-out zone” in the ocean where the capsule splashes down. They do not want to see another crowd of recreational boats swarming the landing zone, as happened when the capsule returned to Earth in August.

NASA & SpaceX set Oct 31st for next manned Dragon mission

Capitalism in space: NASA and SpaceX have now scheduled Oct 31st as the target launch date for the first operational manned Dragon mission to ISS, the second manned Dragon mission overall.

This new date delays the launch a week from the previous announced schedule, and was done to give some space between its launch and the launch of a manned Soyuz on October 14th and the return of a different Soyuz with the present ISS crew on October 21st.

China and Russia launch a bunch of satellites

Russia today used its Soyuz-2 rocket to launch three communication satellites plus 19 commercial smallsats.

This was the first time Russia used the Soyuz-2 for these particular small communications satellites, as previously they had been launched by a variety of smaller rockets.

China in turn today used its Long March 4B to place two Earth resource satellites into orbit.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

25 China
15 SpaceX
10 Russia
4 ULA
4 Europe (Arianespace)

China has moved ahead of the U.S. 25 to 24 in the national rankings.

These numbers should change again in the next few days. The U.S. has had a number of scrubs and launch delays in the past few days. ULA has been repeatedly pushing back the previously delayed launch of a National Security Agency reconnaissance satellite due to a variety of problems related to its Delta 4 Heavy rocket. The launch is now set for just after midnight tonight (Monday night). [UPDATE: Launch scrubbed due to lightning and poor weather. Tentatively rescheduled for 11:58 pm (Eastern) on September 29.]

SpaceX meanwhile had to scrub a launch this morning (September 28) of another 60 Starlink satellites due to weather. No new launch date has yet been announced.

Northrop Grumman also has had to scrub tomorrow’s Antares launch of a Cygnus cargo freighter because of poor weather at Wallops Island. It is now set for the evening of October 1st.

SpaceX also has a scheduled launch tomorrow morning of a GPS satellite on its Falcon 9 rocket. This is also threatened by weather. There is also no word whether the ULA launch scrub will cause this launch to be delayed.

SpaceX destroys Starship prototype #7, as planned

Capitalism in space: SpaceX last night successfully pressurized its seventh Starship prototype to failure, as planned.

The culmination of three nights and more than 20 hours of concerted effort, SpaceX was finally able to fill Starship test tank SN7.1 with several hundred tons of liquid nitrogen before dawn on September 23rd. With just an hour left in the day’s test window, SpaceX closed the tank’s vents, allowing its cryogenic contents to boil into gas and expand with no outlet. At 4:57 am CDT, SN7.1 burst, bringing its lengthy test campaign to a decisive end.

I have embedded video of the test below the fold.

With the completion of this test the way is now clear for the 60,000 foot hop of Starship prototype #8, no earlier than October 11th.
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Axiom, SpaceX, and NASA finalizing first wholly private manned mission

Capitalism in space: Axiom, SpaceX, and NASA are close to finalizing the deal for the first wholly private manned mission to ISS, tentatively set for October 2021.

One of the topics Axiom is negotiating with NASA involves how much insight the space agency will have into the private astronaut mission. While the Axiom missions will be managed by commercial companies, the AX-1 flight will fly with a reusable Crew Dragon spacecraft that will carry NASA astronauts on other missions. “There’s a certain amount of insight (NASA) would like on our flight, on a commercial flight,” [Axiom official] Suffredini said Friday. “So that is one aspect of that process. We’re using a vehicle that is going to be re-flown, and NASA will certify the re-flights because they want to do re-flights.”

Axiom and SpaceX will also have to confirm a schedule with NASA for the AX-1 mission to dock with the space station. The orbiting research complex has a busy schedule of arriving and departing crew and cargo vehicles, and managers also have slot in spacecraft dockings amid spacewalks, experiments, and other critical operations.

NASA also oversees safety of the space station with the program’s international partners.

The private companies however will in the end be responsible for the flight.

There have been rumors that the passengers on this flight will be Tom Cruise and his film director, though this is not confirmed. Also, these same arrangements will be used for the tentative 2023 private flight of the winner of a proposed reality television show dubbed Space Hero.

Blue Origin scrubs New Shepard flight today

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin today scrubbed the first New Shepard flight in ten months.

From the company:

We’ve detected a potential issue with the power supply to the experiments. Launch is scrubbed for today. New launch target forthcoming.

Ten months since their last flight, and the power supply to the experiments has a problem the day of the launch? Sorry if I sound harsh, but that does not speak well for the company’s quality control systems.

The first Starlink user test results

Capitalism in space: The first Starlink test results by actual users are finally coming out, and they suggest that the constellation will deliver very fast internet speeds indeed.

The article however reveals this tidbit that up until now SpaceX has managed to keep nicely obscured:

While Starlink will provide the kind of speeds and latency that should work for many services and games, Musk said the company simply won’t have the capacity to compete in major metro markets—a caveat often left unmentioned in Starlink coverage. “It’s not good for high-density situations,” Musk said. “We’ll have some small number of customers in LA. But we can’t do a lot of customers in LA because the bandwidth per cell is simply not high enough.”

As a result, Starlink won’t do much for the estimated 83 million Americans stuck under a broadband monopoly (usually Comcast), or the millions more whose only options are a duopoly; usually either the cable company or a sluggish DSL line from the local phone company.

In other words, the service will likely not be made available in dense urban areas, at least not initially.

New Shepard test flight set for tomorrow

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin has scheduled a New Shepard test flight set for tomorrow morning at 10 am (Central), the first test flight in ten months.

This will be the seventh flight of this particular New Shepard spacecraft, the thirteenth overall for the program.

In March the company’s CEO had promised three flights by the end of 2020, with the last manned. The press release above howeveronly mentions that tomorrow’s test flight is the first of two, both now emphasizing how they will be flying payloads testing technology for lunar landings. No mention is made of a later manned mission.

It seems increasingly that Blue Origin is abandoning its suborbital space tourism business. If not, they sure don’t seem very enthusiastic about it any longer. Instead, they appear to be hyping New Shepard as a testbed for their effort to develop the manned lunar lander for NASA.

That same March update from the CEO had also said they would be initiating commercial production of their BE-4 rocket engine this year. All we have had so far is delivery of one testbed engine — not flightworthy — to ULA. ULA soon revealed there are problems with the engine.

All in all, Blue Origin is becoming less and less impressive, as time passes. Their suborbital tourism project appears to be abandoned. Their rocket engine has problems. And their New Glenn orbital rocket appears stalled.

All they have right now is their development contract with NASA to build a manned lunar lander, and in that case Blue Origin is only a minor player, even if the company is listed as the lead contractor. Their big partners (Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper) will build the bulk of the lander, should NASA finally get the project financed by Congress.

The company’s failure to deliver so far is a true shame, as the company has ample finances, backed by Jeff Bezos’ billions.

OneWeb announces new launch schedule, cancels Ariane 6 launch

Capitalism in space: OneWeb, as it restructures itself after its purchase by a partnership of an Indian company and the UK government, has announced a new launch schedule for completing its satellite communications constellation by 2022, with the first launch in December.

The key change is that they have cancelled their deal to fly OneWeb satellites on the first launch of Arianespace’s Ariane 6 rocket. From the first link:

Arianespace will conduct 16 Soyuz launches for OneWeb, each carrying 34-36 satellites, to complete OneWeb’s internet megaconstellation by the end of 2022. The revised contract canceled two Soyuz launches, and removed OneWeb as the customer for the inaugural Ariane 6 launch, an Arianespace spokesperson told SpaceNews.

The Ariane 6 cancellation is bad news for Arianespace’s new rocket, which has had trouble garnering customers. I am sure OneWeb was offered a great price to launch some satellites on that inaugural flight, and still OneWeb backed out.

For Russia this announcement is good news, even if they have lost two Soyuz launches. It means the bulk of their Soyuz launches will go forward, pumping money into the Russia’s starving commercial launch industry. This launch contract is essentially the only Russian commercial contract, with SpaceX stealing all of Russia’s former customers, and the bankruptcy had threatened it.

Finally, this announcement shows that OneWeb’s new owners have recognized that they have to get their satellites launched as fast as possible if they are going to compete with SpaceX’s Starlink constellation.

Members-only resort club teams up with Space Perspective for stratospheric balloon rides

Capitalism in space: Space Perspectives, which hopes to fly commercial tourist balloon flights to the stratosphere has teamed up with the members-only resort club Exclusive Resorts for future flights.

Space Perspective is partnering with the members-only vacation club Exclusive Resorts, which will become the first privately chartered travel group to fly aboard Spaceship Neptune, a pressurized capsule carried by a massive balloon, representatives of both outfits announced Wednesday (Sept. 16).

“The club has always sought ways to give members once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to see and explore the world in transformational, meaningful ways,” Exclusive Resorts CEO James Henderson said in a statement. “Our partnership with Space Perspective will offer our members a unique view of our planet that only a few people have ever had the opportunity to experience.”

No ticket price has yet been announced. They hope to do the first commercial flights by 2024.

Les Paul & Mary Ford – There’s no place like home

An evening pause: From the youtube page:

Les and Mary perform “There’s No Place Like Home” with some classic add libbing, especially from Les. Mary Ford was a fine guitarist in her own right and that fact is ably demonstrated here. Watch for when Les goes wild and breaks his high E string. Mary is about to punish him when… Well, watch the video. And, dig those gorgeous 1952 Gibson Les Paul guitars, heavily customized by the master himself. Trivia: Les shattered and almost lost his right arm in a 1948 car crash. Les had the doctors set his elbow at an angle so he could still play guitar but he could never again fully extend his right arm.

Hat tip Wayne DeVette.

SpaceX raises Falcon Heavy launch price for U.S. military

Capitalism in space: It now appears that SpaceX has significantly raised the price it is charging the U.S. military for its Falcon Heavy rocket

In winning the military’s new long term launch contracts, awarded to both SpaceX and ULA through 2026, SpaceX apparently doubled the Falcon Heavy price.

In 2018 he said the rocket would cost no more than $150 million to loft heavy payloads into orbit. But the award SpaceX received for a single mission in the first year of Phase Two was $316 million. That’s quite an increase.

The article is clearly one of those industry hit pieces against SpaceX. At the same time, I completely accept what it has found to be true. SpaceX no longer needs to undercut ULA by gigantic amounts to gain military contracts. Moreover, since the military decided to restrict bidding for all launches for the next five years to just these two companies, SpaceX has no reason to offer the same low prices it has in the past. All it needs to do is undercut ULA’s high prices by a little, and get the deal.

In a sense, it isn’t SpaceX’s fault the military will now have to pay so much. Blame our vaunted military bureaucracy, which choose to limit the competition to just two companies for the next five years. They are getting what they wanted, even if it ends up screwing the taxpayer.

Reality show to fly contestant to ISS

Capitalism in space: A new reality show, dubbed Space Hero, will have audiences watch contestants compete to be a passenger on a private capsule, likely SpaceX’s Dragon, and fly to ISS for ten days.

The selected group of contestants will undergo extensive training and face challenges testing their physical, mental and emotional strength, qualities that are essential for an astronaut in space. I hear the idea is for the culmination of the competition to be in a an episode broadcast live around the world where viewers from different countries can vote for the contestant they want to see going to space. The show will then chronicle the winner’s takeoff; their stay at the ISS for 10 days alongside professional astronauts traveling at 17,000 mph, orbiting the Earth 16 times a day; and end with their return to Earth. The Space Hero company is currently in discussions with NASA for a potential partnership on STEM initiatives onboard the ISS.

The trip of the Space Hero winner is expected be on a SpaceX Dragon rocket though a launch provider is yet to be officially selected. Space Hero, billed as the first space media company, is working with Axiom Space, manufacturer of the world’s first privately funded commercial space station — a module for the ISS where the private astronauts can stay — and full-service human spaceflight mission provider.

The project seems more viable and realistic than previous such attempts, aided by the fact that tickets can now be purchased on a private and operational manned capsule.

Rocket Lab completes first full launch dress rehearsal at Wallops

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab announced yesterday that it had successfully completed its first full dress rehearsal of an Electron rocket launch from its new launchpad on Wallops Island, Virginia.

This clears the way for that first launch, though the actual launch date is not yet set.

Before a launch window can be set, NASA is conducting the final development and certification of its Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) software for the mission. This flight will be the first time an AFTS has been has flown from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport and represents a valuable new capability for the spaceport.

The company has said it wishes to launch before the end of September, so expect an announcement momentarily. Once achieved Rocket Lab will have two launch sites, in New Zealand and the U.S., and will be able to double its launch rate.

Dynetics’ manned lunar lander requires multiple launches and in-space refueling

According to company officials, the manned lunar lander being developed by Dynetics — one of three under NASA contract — will require three quick ULA Vulcan launches and in-space refueling before it will be capable of landing humans on the Moon.

Dynetics’ proposed Human Landing System (HLS) depends upon fuel depots and multiple rocket launches to achieve NASA’s goal of landing two astronauts on the moon in 2024, officials said during a webinar earlier this week. “Our lander is unique in that we need lunar fueling to accomplish our mission. In the next couple years, we will take in-space cryogenic propellant refueling technologies from the lab to [technology readiness level] 10 and operational,” said Kathy Laurini, payloads and commercialization lead for Dynetics’ HLS program.

The lander would launch on one Vulcan rocket, with the next two launches bringing the additional fuel.

More details here.

While it is good that this design does not require the long delayed and likely not-ready SLS rocket, it appears to require in-space capabilities that will not be ready by 2024, the Trump administration’s target date for its manned lunar landing. Instead, this design seems more aimed at subsequent operations in later years.

Since Congress has not yet funded the 2024 mission, though both parties seem interested in later manned lunar operations, this design seems cleverly aimed at that reality, designed to encourage long term government funding.

Regardless, everything hangs on the November elections, and who ends up in charge, both in the White House and in Congress. We presently have really have no way of predicting what will happen, until we know those election results.

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