Tag Archives: commercial

Blue Origin opens rocket engine factory

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin yesterday cut the ribbon on its main rocket engine factory in Huntsville, Alabama, while also announcing that production of their BE-4 engine for both ULA’s new Vulcan rocket and their own New Glenn rocket will begin in a few months.

In the meantime, made-in-Kent engines are being tested at Blue Origin’s West Texas site. Smith said two flight readiness engines will be delivered in May to United Launch Alliance. They’ll be used for integrated tests of ULA’s Vulcan first-stage booster, which is taking shape not far from Huntsville in Decatur, Ala.

This is excellent news. For the past year and a half the company has released little information about their progress with the BE-4 engine, suggesting that they might be experiencing issues. Yesterday’s news bursts that pessimistic balloon, indicating that both the Vulcan and New Glenn rockets will be flying, maybe as soon as next year.

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America’s modern rocket industry illustrates the power of freedom

SpaceX's first Starship prototype
SpaceX’s first Starship prototype

Capitalism in space: Today’s launch by SpaceX of another sixty Starlink satellites in its planned constellation of thousands of satellites, designed to provide worldwide internet access, was significant in a way that is actually not obvious at first glance. To understand its significance, it is necessary to look at the launch in a wider context.

Below is the list of launches that have so far occurred in 2020. I keep track of this, and post an update here on Behind the Black after each new launch:

3 China
3 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia
1 Japan
1 ULA
1 Northrop Grumman

Notice anything? While the launches of every other nation in the world are centralized under one rocket company or agency, the United States has many different and independent companies competing for this business. Right now the U.S. has four different companies on this list, with one (SpaceX) now tied after today’s launch with China for the overall lead, and three (Rocket Lab, ULA, and Northrop Grumman) tied with Europe, Russia, and Japan for second place.

Only in America can you have individual private rocket companies competing head-to-head with whole nations, and beating them. (Some might argue that China’s rocket industry is also made up of competing companies, but that is a lie. While those companies might function somewhat independently, they are all under the strict supervision of the central communist government. They are not functioning as free and privately-owned companies.)

Nor is this pattern seen only in the launch market. Among airline companies it has been the norm since the beginnings of cheap passenger flight after World War II. While most other nations have a single national airline (British Airways, Aeroflot, El Al, Air Canada, Korean Air, Saudi Arabian Airlines, to name a few), the U.S. has a plethora of competing independent companies, with many flying many more passengers than these national airlines, sometimes even to their own countries.

How is this possible? Why does the U.S. so often dominate so many industries in this way?
» Read more

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SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites; 1st stage landing fails

Capitalism in space: SpaceX this morning successfully launched sixty more Starlink satellites, raising the number in the constellation to 300.

However, though the launch was successful, the first stage, on its fourth flight, failed to land successfully on the drone ship in the Atlantic. Watching the live stream, it appeared from a whiff of smoke on the edge of the screen that the booster missed the target by only a short distance. This is the first time this has happened since 2015 2018 (correction from reader).

That this first stage landing failure is the news story illustrates how far they have come..

The standings in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
3 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia
1 Japan
1 ULA
1 Northrop Grumman

In the national rankings the U.S. now leads China 6 to 3.

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Successful launch today of Cygnus freighter to ISS

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket today successfully launched it Cygnus unmanned cargo capsule on a supply mission to ISS.

This was Northrop Grumman’s first flight in 2020. The standings in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
2 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia
1 Japan
1 ULA
1 Northrop Grumman

The U.S. now leads China 5 to 3 in the national rankings. The U.S. will likely add to that lead with the planned SpaceX launch of another 60 Starlink satellites Monday.

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Rocket Lab gets launch contract for lunar cubesat

Capitalism in space: NASA has awarded Rocket Lab the contract to launch the privately-built, for NASA, lunar orbiting cubesat CAPSTONE, designed to test technologies and the orbital mechanics required to build its Gateway lunar space station.

This quote says it all:

The firm-fixed-price launch contract is valued at $9.95 million. In September, NASA awarded a $13.7 million contract to Advanced Space of Boulder, Colorado, to develop and operate the CubeSat.

Using two different private companies, one to build the satellite and the other to launch it, NASA will get a lunar orbiter for just over $23 million. That total equals the rounding error for almost all NASA-built projects.

The launch is set for early 2021.

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Engine failure during test for startup rocket engine company

Capitalism in space: The rocket engine startup Rocket Crafters experienced what the company called “an anomaly” during an engine test yesterday, requiring the local fire department to put out brush fires surrounding the test site.

The company is trying to use 3D printing to build its engines, but appears to have had a string of engine failures, none quite so spectacular, during previous tests.

According to an earlier post about Rocket Crafters in 2018, they had hoped to launch a rocket in 2020. It does not appear they will. Moreover, they are testing the use of hybrid fuels in a somewhat radical design.

[T]he rocket fuel consisted of plastic tubes made from the same base materials as Legos, measuring two feet long and weighing about five pounds, that were stacked on shelves and safe to touch. Combined with nitrous oxide — commonly known as “laughing gas” — the small-scale test engine on Monday generated about 200 pounds of thrust firing at half-power.

They are not the first to try hybrids and have issues. Virgin Galactic has tried it to, and suffered probably a decade delay in development and a spaceship that does not have as much thrust as they would like.

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Virgin Galactic relocates SpaceShipTwo Unity to New Mexico

Capitalism in space: In what appears to be preparation for the final tests before beginning commercial flights, Virgin Galactic yesterday used its carrier airplane WhiteKnightTwo to transport SpaceShipTwo Unity to New Mexico.

The relocation of VSS Unity to Spaceport America enables the Company to engage in the final stages of its flight test program. This will begin with a number of initial captive carry and glide flights from the new operating base in New Mexico, allowing the spaceflight operations team to familiarize themselves with the airspace and ground control. Once these tests are complete, the team will carry out a number of rocket-powered test flights from Spaceport America to continue the evaluation of VSS Unity’s performance. During this phase, the final spaceship cabin and customer experience evaluations will also be concluded in preparation for the start of commercial spaceflight operations.

They are aiming for a July 18, 2020 first flight, carrying Richard Branson on his 70th birthday. Whether they can meet that date remains open. Based on the company’s track record, don’t bet on it.

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Dragon capsule for first manned mission shipped to Florida

Capitalism in space: SpaceX yesterday shipped to Florida the Dragon capsule it will use for its first manned mission, now set for sometime between April and June.

No official word yet on any specific launch date, though there are reports that they are targeting May 7.

In that same story at the second link a NASA official admitted that one of the big issues is filling out the paperwork.

“Even though it sounds mundane, there is a load of paper that has to be verified, and signed off, and checked to make sure we’ve got everything closed out,” [said chief of human spaceflight Doug Loverro.] “It is probably one of the longest things in the tent to go ahead and do. It’s underappreciated but critically important. You’ve got to make sure you’ve done everything you need to do along the way.”

Properly documenting what you are doing is always essential, but if you over do it you raise costs unnecessarily while simultaneously delaying things. And isn’t it interesting that both of these issues — budget overruns and scheduling delays — have been systemic on all of NASA’s projects for decades?

Furthermore, while good documentation can help prevent problems and help you figure out what went wrong, when things go wrong, doing more of it will not further reduce problems or failures. If anything, too much paperwork will likely increase mistakes by focusing workers on the wrong things. This seems to be one of NASA’s problems in recent years.

Regardless, it does look like that first privately built launch will happen in mere months. The one decision remaining that could legitimately delay it would be if NASA decides to make it a longer mission, requiring more training for its astronauts.

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SpaceX hires Bill Gerstenmaier as consultant

SpaceX has hired NASA’s former manager of its human exploration program, Bill Gerstenmaier, as a consultant working with their “reliability team.”.

It appears that SpaceX wants to take advantage of Gerstenmaier’s expertise on human spaceflight as it is about to begin manned Dragon flights. It also appears that Musk wants to return a favor as well, as Gerstenmaier was likely the main person behind the decision to award SpaceX its initial Dragon cargo contract in December 2008. Musk has said repeatedly that this decision in many ways saved his company.

Overall, a wise decision by SpaceX. In his later years at NASA, Gerstenmaier lost sight of the importance of budget and schedule in his management of SLS and Orion, leading to his ouster. However, his knowledge of human spaceflight and the political mechanics needed to do it with NASA is unsurpassed. SpaceX will definitely benefit from this hire.

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ULA’s Atlas 5 launches Solar Orbiter

Capitalism in space: ULA tonight successfully launched a new solar science spacecraft Solar Orbiter.

For more information about Solar Orbiter, which will take the first high resolution images of the Sun’s poles, see the link above or video I’ve embedded below the fold.

Earlier today Northrop Grumman aborted the launch of its Cygnus cargo freighter to ISS only three minutes before launch because of an issue with a ground support sensor. Right now they are are targeting a new launch date of February 13, 2020.

The status in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
2 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia
1 Japan
1 ULA

In the national ranking, the U.S. now leads China 4-3. If Northrop Grumman had launched, that lead would have been 5-3, and the U.S. total would have been comprised of four different and completely independent competing launch companies, all capable of topping the efforts of entire nations. If that doesn’t illustrate the power of freedom, capitalism, competition, and private ownership, I don’t know what does. Moreover, this is only the start. The U.S. right now has numerous other new launch companies rushing to join the competition.

Even more startling, the way we do things is freely available to every other nation in the world. All they have to do is to embrace freedom and the reduction of control and power by their governments. Sadly, very few in these times are willing to do this. In fact, even the U.S. resisted this concept for the entire last half of the 20th century. Only in the past decade have we returned to our roots, and that decision is now beginning to bear abundant fruit.
» Read more

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NASA confirms seriousness of 2nd Starliner software issue

At a press conference today, NASA and Boeing officials confirmed the rumors that there was a second software error during Starliner’s unmanned demo mission in December that might have caused a serious failure had it not been caught on time.

[After the first software error], engineers began reviewing other critical software sequences as a precaution and discovered yet another problem. Software used to control thruster firings needed to safely jettison the Starliner’s service module just before re-entry was mis-configured, set for the wrong phase of flight.

Had the problem not been found and corrected, the cylindrical service module’s thrusters could have fired in the wrong sequence, driving it back into the crew module and possibly triggering a tumble or even damaging the ship’s protective heat shield.

While a detailed analysis was not carried out at the time, “nothing good can come from those two spacecraft bumping back into one another,” said Jim Chilton, a senior vice president for Boeing Space and Launch.

That two different software errors were not caught prior to flight has NASA demanding a complete review of Boeing’s quality control systems. And NASA here is correct. Boeing as a company appears to have fundamental quality control issues up and down the line, in all its projects. A complete review appears warranted.

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NASA delays commercial bidding process for its unmanned lunar landers

Capitalsm in space: NASA has postponed the bidding process for both the commercially-built lander that will bring its its VIPER lunar rover as well as the smaller landers that will bring simpler science packages to the Moon.

In the first case, it appears that the commercial companies wanted more time because VIPER is a heavier and bigger payload than their landers are currently designed for. In the second case, the reasons for the postponement are less clear, leaving the companies involved somewhat puzzled and in the dark.

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SpaceX might spin off Starlink with stock offering

Capitalism in space: Comments by SpaceX’s CEO suggest the company is considering spinning off its Starlink internet operation, with the additional possibility that spin-off would go public.

SpaceX President & COO Gwynne Shotwell told a group of investors that the company may spin off its Starlink internet satellite business, possibly as a public company. “Starlink is the right kind of business that we can go ahead and take public,” Shotwell said, according to a report from Bloomberg.

…There’s no time frame yet disclosed for a potential IPO of the Starlink side of SpaceX, and the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It’s unlikely the whole company would go public. Elon Musk has said for years that he wouldn’t take SpaceX public until the company has been regularly launching to Mars.

Don’t start counting your chickens. While there might be good reasons for SpaceX to do this, I suspect there are other good reasons for not doing it. They will likely make the decision once the Starlink constellation is operational and they have begun providing service to customers. At that point they will see what the demand will bring, and will have a better idea what’s the best course to take.

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NASA safety panel raises more questions about Boeing and Starliner

In its quarterly meeting yesterday, NASA’s safety panel raised more questions about the software problems during the unmanned demo mission of Boeing’s Starliner manned capsule in December.

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) revealed today that a second software error was discovered during the uncrewed Boeing Starliner flight test in December. Had it gone undetected during the flight, it had the potential to cause “catastrophic spacecraft failure” during reentry. The panel wants a complete review of Boeing’s software verification processes before NASA decides whether a second uncrewed flight test is needed. In an email this evening, Boeing said it appreciates the input and is working on a plan with NASA to address all the issues and decide what comes next.

In that Boeing email it noted that it was “unclear” what the consequences would have been if this second software issue had not been fixed.

The safety panel also called for an overall organizational review of the entire Boeing company, similar to the review done to SpaceX after Elon Musk was videoed taking a toke on a joint during a podcast interview.

The decision on whether Boeing will be required to fly another unmanned demo mission is targeted for before the end of February.

One comment: While there is clear evidence here that Boeing had issues on that demo flight that must be resolved before humans fly on Starliner, we must also recognize that NASA’s safety panel has an unfortunate tendency to overstate risk, demanding margins of safety that are frequently unrealistic for an endeavor pushing the envelope of exploration. That panel has also exhibited an almost corrupt bias against private commercial space, while looking past much more serious safety issues in the NASA-built SLS and Orion programs.

At the same time, the larger corporate issues here with Boeing do appear far more systemic and concerning that those that occurred with SpaceX. A cold independent audit of the company by NASA could actually do Boeing a lot of good.

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Russian Soyuz launches 34 OneWeb satellites

Capitalism in space: Russia’s Soyuz rocket, launching from Russia, today successfully placed 34 OneWeb satellites into orbit.

This is the first of 20 launches over the next two years to build OneWeb’s satellite constellation. A previous Soyuz launch put up six demonstration satellites.

This was also Russia’s first launch in 2020. The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
2 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia

China leads the U.S. 3 to 2 in the national rankings.

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First Virgin Orbit launch pending?

Capitalism in space: According to their CEO, the first launch of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket is expected to occur in the “coming weeks.”

“We are positioned at the end of the runway in Mojave. Our rocket is married to our 747,” he said. “We’re going through launch rehearsals.”

In an interview after the panel, Hart said that the company was ready to move into operations quickly should that test launch be a success. “If we have a great day, we’re poised to go forward pretty much immediately,” he said. The next LauncherOne rocket is currently “well along” in assembly at the company’s Long Beach, California, factory.

He also admitted that as a demo test flight, that first launch could go sour, and they were prepared for that.

The development of LauncherOne slowed appreciably in the past two years. In July 2018 got their first launch license, and said they would do this launch late that year. It did not happen. Then, in November 2018 they began capture-carry flights, with the expectation they would fly this first launch in 2019. This did not happen either. Worse, in August 2019 it was revealed that the company had lost a major launch contract, the lose of which might explain the slowdown in development.

Despite this slow down, my 2016 prediction that LauncherOne will complete its first commercial flight before Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, still looks good, even though SpaceShipTwo began development more than a decade before LauncherOne.

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SpaceX’s next Starship test flight will go almost eight miles high

Capitalism in space: In its licensing request to the FCC SpaceX has revealed that its next Starship test flight, set to take off sometime between March and September of this year, will take off and land in its space facility in Boca Chica, Texas, and go almost eight miles high.

The filing also indicates the test could possibly go as high as twelve miles.

In related news, the company has announced a job fair this week, aimed at hiring people to work on Starship at Boca Chica. Want to help build the first totally reusable rocket? Here’s your chance.

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Bezos sells another $1.8 billion in Amazon stock

Capitalism in space: This past week Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sold more than $1.8 billion of his Amazon stock, apparently as part of his continuing effort to fund his space company Blue Origin in the development of its suborbital New Shepard spacecraft, its New Glenn orbital rocket, and its Blue Moon lunar lander.

In 2017 Bezos had said he would sell off about a billion dollars per year to fund Blue Origin. However, a survey of these stock sales suggests he has upped that figured considerably, with higher sales more frequently. His first big stock sale was in May 2017 for $1 billion. The second was in November 2017 for another billion. Then in August 2018 Bezos did two stock sell-offs within a week of each other, totaling $2.8 billion.

Now, in February 2020, he has raised another $1.8 billion by selling his Amazon stock. All told, he has raised $6.6 billion in cash in just three years. According to him, all of it is supposedly for Blue Origin, though there is no public information to confirm this.

With that much cash, Bezos’s Blue Origin is likely the best funded space company in the world, and should have enough capital to build almost anything it wants.

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Momentus announces new customer for its cubesat upper stage services

Capitalism in space: Momentus, an company that is offering an upper stage to move tiny cubesats into higher orbits after launch, has announced that the United Kingdom cubesat company SteamJet has purchased that upper stage for use when its next satellite is launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket later this year.

Momentus’s approach signals a fundamental change that commercial space is now undergoing. Traditionally the launch company would provide this kind of service, but for cubesats flying as secondary payloads that isn’t possible. Momentus is thus taking it on as an independent secondary launch service for cubesats alone. With this announcement the company already has five customers, with launches scheduled for the next two years.

SteamJet also is most intriguing along these same lines.

Once in orbit, SteamJet intends to demonstrate a propulsion system that uses water or another low pressure, non-toxic, non-corrosive fluid propellant to create thrust. SteamJet houses its propulsion system in a module shaped like a tuna can that attaches to the exterior of a cubesat.

A lot of exciting things are going to be happening in space in this coming decade, and almost all will be because of private enterprise, freedom, and competition, fueled by profit.

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SpaceX wins another NASA launch contract

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday awarded SpaceX the launch contract, estimated to cost about $80 million, to launch its Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) climate mission.

That cost number seems high for a SpaceX launch, especially because, according to this Space News article, the launch will be using a reused first stage. For such launches SpaceX has generally been charging less than its standard $67 million, usually about $50 million. The press release says the contract covers both the launch and “other mission related services” but I cannot see how those additional services could raise the price almost 40%.

Unless someone at NASA is willing to prove me wrong, I suspect this is merely the case of our vaunted federal government overpaying for a service, simply because it isn’t their money and they are willing to spend extra for no reason other than it makes their job easier. Or possibly they are now playing favorites, and throwing extra money SpaceX’s way to help the company in its other endeavors, a method of funding that is really inappropriate.

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Maxar wins NASA contract to build robot for assembling test large antenna dishes in orbit

NASA has awarded the private company Maxar a contract to build a robot that will assemble a test large antenna dish in orbit.

The robot will fly as part of the Restore-L mission, whose primary robotic mission goal will be to refuel Landsat-7, originally launched in 1999.

Al Tadros, Maxar’s vice president of space infrastructure and civil space, said the NASA contract funds SPIDER through completion. It also funds a SPIDER demonstration with Tethers Unlimited’s MakerSat to build a 10-meter boom in space and attach it to Restore-L, he said.

Maxar’s demonstration contract calls for the in-orbit assembly of multiple antenna reflector dishes into one single reflector. Communications satellites use reflectors to beam television channels and internet connectivity to users. Maxar said SPIDER’s demonstration could show how commercial satellites and telescopes could carry fixtures currently too large to fit inside rocket payload fairings.

Restore-L was originally targeted for a 2022 launch, but this new contract implies that it might launch later to include this additional test.

The decision by the Trump administration to go all-in with the use of private space to get things done is bearing fruit. In the past, when NASA insisted that it build everything, it didn’t have the resources to do very much. Now that it is harnessing the skills of many independent companies to build many different things (from launchers to landers to rovers), suddenly more is getting done for less in less time. For example, Restore-L is a NASA built project that has taken more than a decade to reach orbit. NASA has now added a private component that it intends to fly in five years.

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Rocket Lab successfully launches U.S. reconnaissance satellite

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today successfully launched a U.S. reconnaissance satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office.

They also had the first stage do a guided re-entry after stage separation, continuing their testing which they hope will eventually lead to the recovery and reuse of these stages.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
2 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab

The U.S. and China are now tied 3-3 in the national rankings.

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