Tag Archives: commercial

Starliner does first splashdown recovery tests

Capitalism in space: Though Boeing intends to bring its manned Starliner capsule down on land, it has begun water recovery tests of the capsule, working in conjunction with Air Force recovery teams, to prepare for the possibility that it might sometimes have to splashdown in the ocean.

While the article reviews the tests, it also contains this interesting piece of information:

While today’s test was the first in-water practice run for Starliner at sea rescue, it represents a much larger DoD commitment to space crew rescue operations – universal procedures that would be followed for Starliner, Dragon, and Orion.

During ascent for Starliner, Dragon, and Orion, the 304th Rescue Squadron will have two teams stationed along the east coast of the United States, one at Patrick Air Force Base (just South of the Cape) and the other in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Patrick team, Rescue 1, will be responsible for on-pad aborts that place a capsule in the water or for aborts in the first couple minutes of flight that place the capsule within a 200 nautical mile zone from the Cape.

After that distance is exceeded, the Charleston crew (Rescue 2) would be responsible for rescue of a launch-aborting crew vehicle anywhere else across the Atlantic.

The third team, stationed in Hawai’i, (also part of Rescue 2) would be responsible for any after-launch immediate landing need or off-nominal Station return contingency that places a Starliner or Dragon in the Pacific.

It appears that the responsibility for water recovery of American manned spacecraft has been taken over by the Air Force. Up until now SpaceX has performed its own water recovery for its unmanned cargo Dragon capsules.

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Relativity gets a second launch contract

Capitalism in space: The startup rocket company Relativity today announced the signing of a second launch contract for its as-yet untested Terran 1 rocket.

Relativity, the world’s first autonomous rocket factory and launch services leader for satellite constellations, today announced a partnership with mu Space, the innovative Thai satellite and space technology company, to launch a satellite to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) on Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket, the world’s first and only 3D printed rocket.

The first contract was with the well-established satellite company Telesat. The rocket, Terran 1, is scheduled for its first orbital test flight at the end of 2020.

So, where does Relativity stand among the leaders in the new smallsat commercial rocket industry? Let’s do a quick review.

Rocket Lab is of course far in the lead. It has launched four times, and its Electron rocket is now operational.

Second in this race is probably Virgin Orbit. The company has won several launch contracts, and says it will begin launch tests momentarily of its LauncherOne air-launched rocket.

Next comes Vector Launch, though some might argue it is ahead of Virgin Orbit. This company has obtained a large amount of investment capital, has completed two test suborbital launches, has a number of launch contractsl, and hopes to do its first orbital launch later this year.

After these three companies there is a pack of rocket companies, all with investment capital, tentative launch contracts, and rockets that are only in the development stages. These include Exos Aerospace, Relativity, and Firefly, with Exos probably in the lead as it has already test flown its reusable SARGE suborbital rocket.

This list does not include the pseudo-private Chinese rocket companies, OneSpace, ISpace, LinkSpace, Landspace, and ExSpace, all of whom are independently developing smallsat rockets using Chinese investment capital but working under the supervision of the Chinese government. Several of these companies have attempted orbital launches. As yet none have succeeded.

Nor have I included India, which has announced it is going to build its own smallsat rocket to supplement its larger PSLV rocket in order to maintain its market share in this new smallsat industry. I also have left out a number of European companies, all of whom are far behind but nonetheless exist and are beginning development.

Other then the already-operating Rocket Lab, all of these companies are predicting their first rocket launches within the next three years. Some will succeed. Some will not. Nonetheless, the launch pace as we move into the 2020s is likely to get quite interesting.

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Dragon capsule suffers problem during engine test

Bad news: A SpaceX man-rated Dragon capsule suffered an “anomaly” during an engine test today.

“Earlier today, SpaceX conducted a series of engine tests on a Crew Dragon test vehicle on our test stand at Landing Zone 1 in Cape Canaveral, Florida,” a company spokesperson told Space.com in a statement. “The initial tests completed successfully but the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand.”

At the moment we do not have much information. We do not know if this capsule was the one that flew in March and was going to be used in the launch abort test prior to the manned mission, or whether it was another capsule planned for the manned mission itself.

Nor do we know what the problem was, or if it was a SuperDraco thruster that failed.

Regardless, this is going to cause a significant delay in SpaceX’s flight schedule. While they might be able to complete an investigation and resume flying within months, NASA will insist on a NASA-type investigation, drawn out for far longer, possibly years.

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Independent study finds NASA’s Mars plans infeasible

Surprise, surprise! An independent study, ordered by Congress, has determined that NASA’s Mars exploration plans are infeasible and cannot get the U.S. to the red planet in 2033 as NASA claims.

STPI, at NASA’s direction, used the strategy the agency had laid out in its “Exploration Campaign” report, which projects the continued use of the Space Launch System and Orion and development of the lunar Gateway in the 2020s. That would be followed by the Deep Space Transport (DST), a crewed spacecraft that would travel from cislunar space to Mars and back. NASA would also develop lunar landers are related system to support crewed missions to the lunar surface, while also working on systems for later missions to the surface of Mars.

That work, the STPI report concluded, will take too long to complete in time to support a 2033 mission. “We find that even without budget constraints, a Mars 2033 orbital mission cannot be realistically scheduled under NASA’s current and notional plans,” the report states. “Our analysis suggests that a Mars orbital mission could be carried out no earlier than the 2037 orbital window without accepting large technology development, schedule delay, cost overrun, and budget shortfall risks.”

I guarantee that even if NASA got a blank check from Congress it could not make the 2037 date above either, not if they intend to use SLS, Orion, and Gateway.

This report was ordered by Congress as part of the building political desire in Washington to shift gears away from SLS and to the private sector. SLS has too many vested interests, both in and out of Congress, for the cowards in Washington to just shut it down. In order to do so, they need ammunition they can use against those vested interests. This report, though stating the obvious, gives them that ammunition, as it carries an official think tank stamp, something the mediocre minds in DC require for them to take any forthright action.

At the same time, I can see the corrupt porkmeisters in Congress, such as Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), drooling over this report. They see the gigantic budget and endless time it estimates NASA will need to go to Mars with SLS, Orion, and Gateway as a feature, not a bug.

“As such,” the report concludes, “a mission to Mars orbit in 2033 is infeasible from a technology development and schedule perspective.” The next launch window, in 2035, was also deemed infeasible because of technology development work, pushing the earliest possible date for flying the mission to the following launch window in 2037.

STPI also estimated the cost of carrying out this first Mars mission in 2037. The report estimated the total cost of just those elements needed for the Mars mission, including SLS, Orion, Gateway, DST and other logistics, at $120.6 billion through fiscal year 2037. Of that total, $33.7 billion has been spent to date on SLS and Orion development and associated ground systems.

Another $90 billion in pork, spread over twenty years! Wow, that’s exactly what many of the thieves in Washington like. This wasteful spending won’t serve the nation’s needs by making us a competitive space-faring nation, but it will distribute a lot of money to the people who donate campaign dollars to these politicians.

Which way will we go? I have no idea right now. The voters could make a difference, if the voters finally decided to clean out Congress. I see no evidence of them doing so, however, so expect bad things for the future.

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ESA agrees to subsidize Ariane 6 should it fail to sell

The European Space Agency (ESA) has signed an agreement with ArianeGroup, the private company building its next generation rocket Ariane 6, to provide subsidizes to the company should the rocket’s inability to get launch contracts continue.

The problem is that ESA had promised ArianeGroup seven launch contracts from its various governments during the rocket’s development, but only three so far have been signed. Ariane 6, though less expensive than Ariane 5, still costs too much (it is not going to be usable), and it appears that too many member nations in ESA don’t want to pay the extra bucks when they can get the same service cheaper from SpaceX.

This lack of contracts has caused ArianeGroup to slow development.

The new agreement gives the company a financial guarantee should the additional four launch contracts not materialize.

“If seven launch service contracts are not signed by the ministerial at the end of November, then the ESA DG [Director General Jan Woerner] will propose for decision to member states to complement the revenues needed for the first Ariane 64,” said [Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of space transportation].

In other words, Ariane 6 is going to turn out just like Ariane 5, an expensive rocket that never makes a profit. Moreover, if ESA requires its members to use its cost will handicap Europe’s future space efforts.

This isn’t a surprise. I predicted this likelihood back in September 2017 when ArianeGroup first announced the prices it planned to charge for Ariane 6 launches. Those prices, for launches in the 2020s, were higher than what SpaceX charges now, and were certainly going to be more uncompetitive in the future.

It seems that Europe’s aerospace industry, both in and out of government, can’t seem to understand these basics of the free market. You have to be competitive, and if you are not, the worst way to fix the problem is pour more money into an uncompetitive product. From the get-go they designed Ariane 6 as if it was 1990, when the industry said reusable rockets were impossible. The result is a rocket no one wants to buy, because everyone knows that by the mid-2020s they will have many inexpensive reusable rockets to choose from. Why buy an overpriced dinosaur?

So, instead of pouring subsidies into Ariane 6, as designed, ESA should be demanding for its money new designs from ArianeGroup that make the rocket cheaper to launch.

Europe does not appear to be doing this, however, so expect Europe to be badly crippled in the upcoming 21st century space race.

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Blue Origin leases old unused NASA engine test stand

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin has finalized a lease agreement with NASA to refurbish and use one of its old engine test stands, sitting idle since 1998.

Under a Commercial Space Launch Act agreement, Blue Origin will upgrade and refurbish Test Stand 4670, at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to support testing of their BE-3U and BE-4 rocket engines. The BE-4 engine was selected to power United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch vehicle – both being developed to serve the expanding civil, commercial and national security space markets.

“This test stand once helped power NASA’s first launches to the Moon, which eventually led to the emergence of an entirely new economic sector – commercial space,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard. “Now, it will have a role in our ongoing commitment to facilitate growth in this sector.”

Constructed in 1965, Test Stand 4670 served as the backbone for Saturn V propulsion testing for the Apollo program, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Later, it was modified to support testing of the space shuttle external tank and main engine systems. The facility has been inactive since 1998.

According to the press release, Blue Origin gets this stand essentially for cost. It will pay for the refurbishment and any costs incurred by NASA, but other than that NASA is not charging them a fee.

While I strongly support the concept of the government helping private enterprise, this deal has some aspects that concern me. Is Blue Origin going to be the only one allowed to use this test stand? If so, it appears that NASA is favoring Blue Origin over all other private companies, something it should not do. If Blue Origin’s work will make this stand useful again for everyone else, great. If instead NASA is essentially giving it its own private test stand for practically free, then not so great.

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U.S. experiment on Beresheet might have survived crash

Scientists for Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) have revealed that the small U.S. experiment on Beresheet might have survived the spacecraft’s crash onto the lunar surface.

The NASA payload, known as the Lunar Retroreflector Array (LRA), is a technology demonstration composed of eight mirrors made of quartz cube corners that are set into a dome-shaped aluminum frame. These mirrors are intended to serve as markers for other spacecraft, which can use them to orient themselves for precision landings. The entire instrument is smaller than a computer mouse and lightweight. But it’s tough, radiation-hardened and designed to be long-lived, so the LRA may not have been destroyed by Beresheet’s hard landing.

“Yes, we believe the laser reflector array would have survived the crash, although it may have separated from the main spacecraft body,” said David Smith of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, principal investigator of the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) instrument aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft.

“Of course, we do not know the orientation of the array,” Smith, who’s also an emeritus researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, told Inside Outer Space. “It could be upside down, but it has a 120-degree angle of reception, and we only need 1 of the 0.5-inch cubes for detection. But it has certainly not made it any easier.”

They are going to use LOLA to try to find LRA. If they get a reflection, that experiment will essentially be a success, despite Beresheet’s failure.

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NASA announces ISS manned launch schedule through February 2020

In announcing its planned ISS manned launch schedule through February 2020, NASA revealed a schedule that calls for one female astronaut to spend almost eleven months in orbit, a new record, but no planned commercial manned launches during that period.

The planned record-setting mission would have Christina Koch spend 328 days in space.

Koch, who arrived at the space station March 14, and now is scheduled to remain in orbit until February 2020, will set a record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman, eclipsing the record of 288 days set by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson in 2016-17. She will be part of three expeditions – 59, 60 and 61 – during her current first spaceflight. Her mission is planned to be just shy of the longest single spaceflight by a NASA astronaut – 340 days, set by former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly during his one-year mission in 2015-16.

Part of the reason that NASA will do this is to gather more data on the long-term effects of weightlessness. Much of this research is repeating and confirming what the Russians already did on Mir more than two decades ago, but with today’s more sophisticated knowledge. It is also exactly what we should be doing on ISS, from the beginning. That NASA has only started to do it now, two decades after ISS’s launch, is somewhat frustrating.

NASA is also extended Koch’s stay to give itself breathing room should the first manned flights of its commercial manned capsules, Dragon from SpaceX and Starliner from Boeing, get delayed. This schedule does not include manned missions from either, but that only illustrates the difference between NASA’s operational and test schedules. I expect that the first manned Dragon flight will occur in 2019, and that SpaceX will be able to begin manned operations before Koch returns.

Boeing is farther behind. It is unclear right now when it will do its first manned launch.

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Antares launches Cygnus freighter to ISS

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket today successfully launched a Cygnus freighter to ISS.

This was Northrop Grumman’s first launch in 2019. The company hopes to complete 4 launches this year.

Meanwhile the leaders in the 2019 launch race remain unchanged:

4 SpaceX
4 China
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 Russia

The U.S. however has widened its lead in the national rankings, 8 to 4.

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SpaceX booster damaged on barge but not lost

According to an Associated Press report today, the Falcon Heavy core stage was damaged when it toppled over in heavy seas, but was not entirely lost.

The company confirmed Tuesday that the unsecured core booster toppled onto the platform over the weekend, as waves reached 8 to 10 feet. SpaceX chief Elon Musk says the engines seem OK. There’s no immediate word on how many of the booster pieces remain on board.

Musk says custom devices to secure the booster weren’t ready in time for this second flight of the Falcon Heavy.

From this report it sounds like the engine part of the stage remained on the barge. We shall see. Also, this report might explain the lack of a robot to secure the stage. The robot wasn’t ready, but rather than delay the launch for this reason they went ahead.

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Beresheet failure linked to ground command

SpaceIL’s investigation into the landing failure of its Beresheet lunar spacecraft now suggests that a ground command to reactivate a balky inertial measurement unit (IMU) might have caused the main engine to shut down.

A command intended to correct a malfunction in one of the Beresheet spacecraft’s inertial measurement unit (IMUs) led to a chain of events which turned off its main engine during landing, according to a preliminary investigation conducted by SpaceIL.

…A chain of events caused by a command sent from the SpaceIL control room turned off the spacecraft’s main engine and prevented proper engine activation, Anteby said, rendering a crash-landing on the Moon inevitable.

It is still unclear how a command to one shut down the other, but the investigation is still on going. I suspect they will pin this down to a software design issue.

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SpaceX loses Falcon Heavy core stage in rough seas

SpaceX announced today that it lost the Falcon Heavy core stage in rough seas on its way back to port.

“Over the weekend, due to rough sea conditions, SpaceX’s recovery team was unable to secure the center core booster for its return trip to Port Canaveral,” SpaceX spokesman James Gleeson told FLORIDA TODAY. “As conditions worsened with eight- to ten-foot swells, the booster began to shift and ultimately was unable to remain upright.” “While we had hoped to bring the booster back intact, the safety of our team always takes precedence. We do not expect future missions to be impacted,” he said.

While SpaceX does have hardware on its drone ship designed to secure first stages – often referred to as a flat “robot” that holds them in place – it was not used for this mission, which successfully took an Arabsat satellite to orbit last Thursday. The connections between the robot and center core aren’t compatible like they would be with a standard Falcon 9 booster, but SpaceX is expected to upgrade both in the future.

This is unfortunate. At the same time, it illustrates how far ahead of its competitors SpaceX is. While others throw their first stages away, SpaceX is disappointed when it loses one.

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Video shows sudden satellite failure

Video of an Intelsat geosynchronous satellite that was having problems that suddenly worsened this week suggests the worsening was sudden and maybe catastrophic.

[N]ew data from ExoAnalytic Solutions, which has a network of 300 telescopes around the planet to track satellite movements in geostationary space, shows the situation has gotten markedly worse.

Since being alerted to the anomaly on Sunday, the company has been tracking Intelsat 29e with at least two telescopes at all time, the company’s chief executive, Doug Hendrix, told Ars. On Thursday, one of those telescopes captured the video embedded below, which shows a continued splintering of the satellite over a period of four hours. The ball of light at center is Intelsat 29e, and the streaks are background stars. First, there is a series of anomalous out-gassing events from the spacecraft, after which a persistent halo remains. As the halo dissipates, there are several pieces of debris that are continued to be tracked.

The video at the link is quite dramatic. Whether this failure was initially caused an internal failure or by an impact is presently unknown.

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The story behind the computer that made IBM, and computers

Link here. The introduction:

A short list of the most transformative products of the past century and a half would include the lightbulb, Ford’s Model T—and the IBM System/360. This mainframe series forever changed the computer industry and revolutionized how businesses and governments worked, enhancing productivity and making countless new tasks possible.

In the years leading up to its 7 April 1964 launch, however, the 360 was one of the scariest dramas in American business. It took a nearly fanatical commitment at all levels of IBM to bring forth this remarkable collection of machines and software. While the technological innovations that went into the S/360 were important, how they were created and deployed bordered on disaster. The company experienced what science policy expert Keith Pavitt called “tribal warfare”: people clashing and collaborating in a rapidly growing company with unstable, and in some instances unknown, technologies, as uncertainty and ambiguity dogged all the protagonists.

Ultimately, IBM was big and diverse enough in talent, staffing, financing, and materiel to succeed. In an almost entrepreneurial fashion, it took advantage of emerging technologies, no matter where they were located within the enterprise. In hindsight, it seemed a sloppy and ill-advised endeavor, chaotic in execution and yet brilliantly successful. We live in an age that celebrates innovation, so examining cases of how innovation is done can only illuminate our understanding of the process.

Read it all. The story is fascinating, especially in how intellectual honesty made it a success. In one case two computer managers were competing directly against each other for the lead in how the product would be developed. The man that was picked immediately asked the loser to help him build his proposal, a level of honesty that certainly made this company work in the 1960s.

The story also has one bit of real irony. The 360 was a big success because it was compatible with IBM’s previous computer line, and was designed to be compatible across the board.

In the 1980s, IBM lost its entire dominance in the personal computer field when it introduced its second generation PC, the PS/2, which was NOT compatible with their first PC line. Customers fled to independent companies making computers compatible to IBMs first PC, and this loss of business ended up killing IBM entirely.

You would have thought they would have known better.

Hat tip Thomas Biggar.

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Spanish company completes parachute drop test of reusable first stage

The new colonial movement: A Spanish company funded by the European Space Agency (ESA) has successfully completed a drop parachute test for recovering the first stage of their smallsat rocket from the ocean.

A Chinook CH-47 helicopter lifted the 15 m long 1.4 m diameter Miura 5 demonstration first stage to an altitude of 5 km then dropped it over a controlled area of the Atlantic Ocean, 6 km off the coast of Huelva in southern Spain.

During the descent, electronic systems inside the demonstrator controlled a carefully timed release of three parachutes to slow it down until its splashdown at a speed of about 10 m/s.

A team of divers recovered the demonstrator and hoisted it onto a tugboat, which returned to the port of Mazagón. The demonstrator looks to be in good shape and will now be transported to PLD Space, in Elche, for inspection and further analysis.

They next say they will develop a vertical landing system, similar to SpaceX’s.

Honestly, this seems like a waste of money and somewhat foolish. SpaceX made it very clear almost a decade ago when they tried to recover first stages out of the ocean after using parachutes to splash down softly that the salt water did too much damage to the engines and made such recovery impractical.

I can’t help asking, why is ESA spending time and money supporting engineering tests of a design that simply won’t work? They should be doing tests now of vertical landing technology, since it does work, and in fact is what they need to compete successfully.

Maybe I am being too harsh. Maybe they want to develop vertical landing technology that will work in conjunction with these parachutes, and this is merely their first step. Maybe. Based on past ESA development projects (which are often as dysfunctional as NASA’s), I think my doubts are not unreasonable.

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SpaceIL to try again to land on Moon

Capitalism in space: The head of the private Israeli company SpaceIL has announced that he has found funding to build a second Beresheet lunar lander, and that they will try again.

How much funding he has gotten is not clear, but I suspect that the success his company had in getting to lunar orbit and almost landing will encourage investment capital.

Hat tip reader Andi.

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Stratolaunch flies!

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch’s giant two fuselage airplane Roc successfully launched on its first flight this morning.

It took off at 10 am Eastern, and as I write this the plane apparently is still in the air. Update: They have landed successfully, completing the first flight..

Below is video of the plane’s take off. This plane, the largest ever to fly, is quite impressive.

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SpaceX recovers Falcon Heavy fairings and will reuse them

Capitalism in space: In a tweet yesterday Elon Musk said that SpaceX had recovered both fairings from the Falcon Heavy launch and plans to reuse them later this year.

It seems that what the company has found is that catching the fairings is not necessary. Providing them parachutes and a guidance system so they land gently with the open half up, so they float literally like a boat, prevents any serious damage. The guidance system also gets them to land close enough for a quick pickup at sea.

Based on this knowledge, recovering and reusing these fairings was probably always a simple and fairly easy thing to do. No one however had had the smarts or open-mindedness to think of doing it. Moreover, from the article:

Musk told reporters last year that the fairing costs around $6 million. He said the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket comprises about 60 percent of the cost of a launch, with the upper stage responsible for 20 percent, and the fairing another 10 percent. The remaining 10 percent of the cost of a Falcon 9 mission come from charges stemming from launch operations, propellant and other processing expenses, Musk said last year.

In other words, by recovering both the first stage and the fairings, SpaceX makes their rockets about 70 percent reusable. That’s actually more reusable than the space shuttle ever was.

I must add that the section of the shuttle that was the most reusable was the section of SpaceX’s rockets that they as yet are not reusing, the upper stage. In other words, we have now tested and proven the technology for making an entire orbital rocket reusable, just never in the same vehicle. SpaceX is taking advantage of this knowledge and clearly applying it to their Super Heavy/Starship next generation rocket, which also means the likelihood of getting that to work is actually quite high and not as radical as many think.

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The Falcon Heavy reported by modern shoddy journalism

Yesterday’s magnificent successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket elicited numerous news stories from the general press, most of which were reasonably accurate if very superficial in their coverage. As a space guy who focuses on this stuff, I find that much of the reporting in the mainstream press reads as if the author has just discovered the subject, and is scrambling to come up to speed quickly.

This CNN article is typical. The journalist gets most of her facts right, but her lack of context because she hasn’t been following the subject closely causes her to not understand the reasons why the Falcon Heavy will fly less than the Falcon 9.

Falcon Heavy is not expected to fly nearly as often as its smaller counterpart, which has completed more than 20 missions since last February. Falcon Heavy only has five missions on its manifest so far.

The basic facts in this quote are entirely true, but it somehow implies that the Falcon Heavy is simply not that much in demand, which isn’t true. The reason Falcon Heavy has approximately one quarter of the missions of the Falcon 9 is because it is still new and it hasn’t yet garnered the customers. Also, as a slightly more expensive rocket than the Falcon 9 ($90 million per launch vs $60 million) fewer customers are going to buy it.

Still, the Falcon Heavy has more than five missions upcoming, with contracts for at least seven launches, by my count, and having this many contracts this quickly is remarkable, considering the rocket’s newness. It is more than the Russians are getting for their Proton rocket, around since the 1960s. And it is almost as many contracts as both Arianespace and ULA are each getting on a yearly basis.

Falcon Heavy is clearly becoming a big financial success, and will in the next few years I think routinely fly three to four times per year. There is a lot of demand for it, which will only grow with time.

This flaw in getting the background right by the CNN reporter is not really a big deal, but it does illustrate why it is better for ordinary citizens to get their news not from generalists in the mainstream press but from specialists in each field (such as myself), who understand the details more closely and can get the context right.

However, every once in awhile the mainstream press publishes a story that is so egregious and badly written that I think it necessary to give it a public pan, if only to make others aware of that this kind of bad journalism is not unusual. I also admit that it can be quite entertaining to highlight this pitifully bad journalism.

Yesterday one of Houston’s local television stations, KPRC-TV, published its own quick report on the Falcon Heavy launch. And boy, was that report a facepalm.
» Read more

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SpaceIL wins $1 million from X-Prize

Despite the failure of its Beresheet lunar lander to land softly on the Moon yesterday, the private company SpaceIL has been awarded a one million dollar prize by the X-Prize for its success in getting into lunar orbit and coming as close as it did to successfully landing.

“As a testament to the team’s passion and persistence, we are presenting this one million dollar Moonshot Award to the SpaceIL team at our annual Visioneering Summit in October 2019, with the hope that they will use these funds as seed money towards their education outreach or Beresheet 2.0, a second attempt to fulfill the mission,” said XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari.

The article also outlines some details about the failure. The main engine cut off during descent, and though they were able to get it restarted, the spacecraft was now too close to the surface and traveling too fast to slow it down. They are now assessing their data to figure out why the engine cut off as it did.

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Virgin Orbit gets another launch agreement

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has signed an agreement with the European launch services provider Exolaunch to provide launches for it appears as many as 20 smallsats.

Exolaunch, a spinoff of the Technical University of Berlin formerly called ECM-Space, has arranged launches, managed missions and integrated small satellite rideshare clusters for customers in Europe and North America. Exolaunch customers include startups, universities, scientific institutions and space agencies. In 2019, Exolaunch is under contract to send more than 60 small satellites into orbit. Forty of those satellites are scheduled to fly together on a Russian Soyuz rocket this spring or summer.

It appears that this agreement covers those 20 additional satellites, but the announcement is vague, probably because Virgin Orbit has still not completed its first launch. Until it does so, many of its launch contracts will be somewhat tentative, with its customers keeping the option to withdraw.

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SpaceX gets NASA launch contract

Capitalism in space: One week after dropping its protest for losing the bidding competition for the Lucy asteroid mission, SpaceX has been awarded by NASA the launch contract for its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, set for launch in June 2021.

The $61 million launch price is significantly lower than past NASA contracts for Falcon 9 launches. NASA awarded SpaceX a contract for the Sentinel-6A satellite in October 2017 for a November 2020 launch on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg at a total cost of $97 million. The Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite will launch on a Falcon 9 in April 2021 under a contract awarded in November 2016 at a value of $112 million.

This low cost technology test mission, costing a total of $9 million, was initially going to be launch as a secondary payload. That NASA is now going to pay SpaceX for a full launch is most intriguing. It seems to me that there might be a bit of quid pro quo here. NASA wanted that protest dropped, and offered this launch to convince SpaceX to do that, as long as the launch cost was kept low. $60 million is really SpaceX’s standard price for Falcon 9 launch, using new boosters, but for NASA that is the least they’ve paid. How much more this is than what NASA would have paid to launch DART as a secondary payload is the real question.

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