Tag Archives: commercial

SpaceX extends Boca Chica purchase deadline, will do new appraisals

SpaceX has agreed to do new appraisals on the private homesites in Boca Chica that it wishes to purchase, while also agreeing to extend the deadline for owners to accept their offer.

It appears that Musk invited the owners to his Starship presentation on September 28, and then met with some of them afterward to discuss the situation face to face.

Musk met with seven villagers following the presentation, though others … gave up waiting for him to show.

Cheryl Stevens, who owns a house down the street from the Heatons, did stick around. The meeting was “sort of testy” at first, as the owners confronted Musk with their concerns after waiting a long time, though the mood eventually lightened, she said. “We all had things we wanted to say,” Stevens said. “He was good about listening to what we said, then referring to what we said. … I left there feeling OK. Overall it was fairly cordial, just testy at the beginning. At least we felt like we were heard.”

At the same time, she said, “I’m not interested in giving my house away.”

This is the kind of thing that Musk does very well. Rather than stay in his ivory tower, as most modern big corporate heads, he talks with people directly. I expect SpaceX will end up offering these people deals where they can buy homes relatively comparable to what they have now, in a similar location. This will engender good will, and good press for the company.

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New owners for Stratolaunch

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch announced today that it is now under new ownership, without identifying who that new owner is.

The company offered few other details in a statement released to media Friday. It was the first official update on the status of Stratolaunch since its huge rocket carrier aircraft completed its first — and so far only — test flight in April. “Stratolaunch LLC has transitioned ownership and is continuing regular operations,” the company said in a statement. “Our near-term launch vehicle development strategy focuses on providing customizable, reusable, and affordable rocket-powered testbed vehicles and associated flight services.

Stratolaunch did not identify its new owner Friday, or details on the type of launch vehicle it seeks to develop.

It would be a massive understatement to say their announcement is vague and lacking in details.

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Air Force selects 8 launch companies for future contracts

Capitalism in space: The Air Force yesterday announced that it has selected eight launch companies as part of a program allowing it to order future launch contracts quickly.

SpaceX, Xbow Launch Systems, Northrop Grumman, Firefly Aerospace, United Launch Alliance, Aevum, Vox Space and Rocket Lab have been selected to provide launch services in the Orbital Services Program-4 [OSP-4] — a $986 million procurement of launch services over nine years. The Air Force announced the winners Oct. 10.

OSP-4 is designed to accommodate small and medium payloads greater than 400 lbs. and providers have to be able to deliver these payloads to orbit within 12 to 24 months after receiving an order. The program is managed by the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise Small Launch and Targets Division at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.

…The OSP-4 multi-vendor deal is known as a “multiple-award, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity” contract. The eight companies will be awarded $50,000 as the contract’s minimum guarantee. Under [this arrangement], the Air Force will compete as many as 20 missions among the awardees.

The company list includes every operational rocket company (SpaceX, Northrop Grumann, ULA, Rocket Lab), as well as several in development (Xbow, Firefly, Aevum, Vox). It is interesting that several other developing rocket companies are not included (Blue Origin, Relativity, Vector). Vector has suspended operations because of financial issues, but Relativity and Blue Origin both appear to be moving forward with full financing. Meanwhile, I have until now never heard of Xbow, Aevum, and Vox. One wonders the reasoning behind their selection.

This selection is separate from the Air Force’s big rocket contracting process, where the military says it will very soon pick two companies to launch its big satellites for the next decade.

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FAA gives Rocket Lab an umbrella 5-year launch license

Capitalism in space: The FAA has awarded the smallsat launch company Rocket Lab a 5-year launch license, allowing it to streamline its regulatory process so that it can up its launch pace.

Rocket Lab has received a new five-year Launch Operator License from the Federal Aviation Administration, which grants it permission to do multiple launches of its Electron rocket from its LC-1 launch site in New Zealand without having to seek individual clearance for each one. While not the only limiting factor, this should help Rocket Lab increase the frequency of its launches from LC-1, servicing more customers more often for commercial small satellite customers.

While Rocket Lab has yet to achieve its goal of launches every two weeks, or even one per month, this license should at least remove one obstacle.

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Northrop Grumman buys back Pegasus rockets from Stratolaunch

Northrop Grumman announced this week that it has bought back from Stratolaunch the two Pegasus rockets that company had bought for the purpose of launch from its giant Roc airplane.

Phil Joyce, vice president of space launch programs at Northrop Grumman, said this week that the company is trying to sell the launches using the two remaining Pegasus XL rockets, and officials plan to keep the Pegasus rocket’s L-1011 carrier jet flying for at least five or 10 more years.

The airborne launch of NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, scientific satellite Thursday night off Florida’s east coast is the final scheduled flight of a Pegasus XL rocket. Variants of the solid-fueled Pegasus rocket have flown on 43 satellite delivery missions since 1990.

“We actually purchased those back (from Stratolaunch),” Joyce said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “So they’re in a very advanced state of integration, which means they’re available for a very rapid response launch. We could launch one of those in six months, the second one probably in eight (months).

This buy back tells us two things, both negative, about both companies. With Stratolaunch, it means they have abandoned entirely the idea of launching satellites using a combination of Roc and Pegasus. The reasons are unclear, but I would guess that they have either discovered the engineering didn’t work, or the economics made the combination unprofitable, being too expensive.

As for Pegasus, it appears the rocket has no further contracts, and has had so much trouble drumming up business that they have decided not to build more. Instead, they are going to try to get contracts for these already built Pegasuses, and are likely going to offer lower prices for them. Even if this works, it does appear that we are about to see the end of the Pegasus rocket.

Created in the early 1980s by Orbital Sciences (later Orbital ATK) as a cheaper alternative to the expensive big rockets of the time, Pegasus had a viable business model for years. Slowly over time however its launch price rose, until it was no longer very cheap. And when SpaceX and other new cheaper alternatives arrived in the past six years, the company, eventually absorbed by Northrop Grumman, was unable to remain competitive.

The irony here is that Northrop Grumman purchased Orbital ATK expressly to allow it to enter the launch market, using both Pegasus and Antares. With Pegasus gone, and Antares still failing to find any customers other than NASA, it doesn’t look like the merger is paying off well for the company.

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Bridenstine’s visit to SpaceX a non-story

Link here. Essentially he just reiterated his desire to have the private capsules being built by SpaceX and Boeing flying by early next year.

Essentially, the announcements in the last few days by Musk and Boeing about their upcoming testing and launch schedule for both Dragon and Starliner respectively took the steam out of his SpaceX visit.

In fact, I wonder what the politics were behind this. It is almost as if both companies wanted to take the steam out of his appearance here. Most intriguing.

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Boeing sets Dec 17 for launch of unmanned Starliner

Capitalism in space: Boeing officials today announced that they are targeting December 17 as the date they will launch their Starliner capsule to ISS for its first unmanned demo flight.

The article also says they are have set November 4 for their pad abort test of the capsule.

If both are completed successfully they will be ready for their manned demo launch to ISS.

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Buddy Ebsen – I’m nuts about you

An evening pause: Ebsen is joined by Eleanor Powell, Jimmy Stewart, Una Merkel and Sid Silvers in this dance number from the 1936 film, Born to Dance.

Ebsen is remembered most for playing Jed Clampett in the tv comedy series, The Beverley Hillbillies, but he started out as a dancer in movies.

Hat tip Phill Oltmann.

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Musk confirms: Dragon launch abort test in about 10 weeks

Captalism in space: According to a series of tweets by SpaceX head Elon Musk today, the company now expects they will be ready to fly their launch abort test of their Dragon capsule in about ten weeks, about the third week in December.

Musk noted that they need only do a static fire test and then “reconfigure for flight.”

Expect more detailed information at tomorrow’s press event at SpaceX in California with both Musk and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.

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Proton flies last commercial mission

Scheduled for retirement by Russia and having its entire commercial business taken by SpaceX, Russia’s Proton rocket today successfully launched its last commercial mission.

The primary payload was a European communications satellite. The secondary payload is more significant as it is Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1), designed to grab defunct satellites that are out of fuel and bring them back to life using its own fuel and engines.

The docking mechanism of the MEV spacecraft allows it to link up with a spacecraft which carries no specialized rendezvous and docking hardware. According to Northrop Grumman, MEV, can use its proximity sensors and docking hardware to reliably attach itself to 80 percent of typical satellites deployed in geostationary orbit. The developer also said that after completing the work assisting the first spacecraft, the MEV vehicle could be undocked and moved multiple times during its more than 15-year operational life span to support satellites from other customers.

They plan to revive one of Intelsat’s satellites and operate it for five years.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

19 China
17 Russia
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)

The U.S. and China remain tied at 19 in the national rankings.

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Boeing to buy $20 million minority stake in Virgin Galactic

HorizonX, a venture capital division of Boeing, today announced that it will purchase a $20 million minority stake in Virgini Galactic once the company goes public later this year.

Boeing’s venture arm HorizonX announced on Tuesday it will invest $20 million in Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic to help develop the technologies needed to make hypersonic air travel possible one day.

All I can say is I do not understand how Richard Branson can fool so many people for so long for so much, while delivering practically nothing.

Hat tip Robert Pratt of Pratt on Texas.

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Roger Hodgson – The Logical Song

An evening pause: Hat tip to Edward Thelen, who continues to be the one evening pause suggester who tries to find sources other than youtube. Competition is a good thing, and Google and youtube need some competition.

Unfortunately, there was no way to embed the video shown at the Brighteon link, so sadly I still had to use youtube.

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Bridenstine to hold press event at SpaceX on Oct 10

NASA yesterday announced that its administrator Jim Bridenstine will hold a press event with Elon Musk at SpaceX headquarters this coming Thursday, October 10.

Also at this event will be the two astronauts who have been assigned to fly on the first demo mission of SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule.

I am speculating, but I suspect that they will be announcing the launch schedule for both this manned mission as well the launch abort test that must precede it.

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Hetty & the Jazzato Band – Tu Vuo’ Fa’ L’Americano

An evening pause: The title means “You Want to Be American”. The song was written in 1956, and is “about an Italian who affects a contemporary American lifestyle, drinking whisky and soda, dancing to rock ‘n roll, playing baseball and smoking Camel cigarettes, but who still depends on his parents for money.”

Hat tip Tom Biggar.

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Capsule and booster for SpaceX launch abort test arrives in Florida

Capitalism in space: The Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 first booster for SpaceX’s launch abort test have both arrived in Florida and are being readied for flight.

SpaceX’s launch license suggests this test will occur no earlier than November 1, so it looks like the company is getting close. However, don’t hold your breath about the manned launch. It appears that NASA is still hassling SpaceX “with certification and safety reviews,” which in plain language is mostly paperwork and filling out forms that NASA’s safety panel can then rubber stamp.

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Italy buys tickets on Virgin Galactic’s suborbital VSS Unity

Capitalism in space: Italy yesterday announced that it has purchased seats on Virgin Galactic’s suborbital VSS Unity for a research flight sometime in 2020.

The deal marks the first time a government has bought a ride on a private, suborbital space mission to conduct any kind of human-led experiments. The first research flight could take place as early as next year, the company said. “We’re delighted to work with the Italian Air Force to further space-based research and technology development through this historic mission,” Virgin’s chief executive, George Whitesides, said in a news release.

The contract announcement, plus the 2020 mission date, both lend some weight to Virgin Galactic’s recent claims that it will begin commercial operations next year. However, forgive me if I remain skeptical. Virgin Galactic and Richard Branson have been making promises like this for more than a decade, with none ever coming true.

Right now I will only believe it when they actually do it.

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Blue Origin hints at the New Shepard ticket price

Capitalism in space: For the first time a Blue Origin official has provided a very rough estimate of what the company will charge per ticket for someone to take a flight in its suborbital New Shepard spacecraft.

But today, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith hinted at a ballpark figure. “It’s going to not be cheap,” Smith said at TechCrunch’s Disrupt SF conference.

Although he stressed that the price for passengers hasn’t yet been published, he indicated that Blue Origin now has a price range in mind. “Any new technology is never cheap, whether you’re talking about the first IBM computers or what we actually see today,” Smith said. “But it’ll be actually in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for people to go, initially.”

Smith added that over time, “we’re going to get this down to the point where middle-class people” can afford a ticket to space. [emphasis mine]

This price sounds somewhat comparable to the prices being offered by Virgin Galactic. For the first people who had been willing to put down a deposit years ago they will pay $250K. Future buyers will pay more, at least at first.

Of course, neither company appears ready to put passengers on board, though both seem finally close and aiming for commercial flights no later than 2021. (Having said that, please don’t quote me, as I don’t really believe it, based on the endless delays coming from both companies.)

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Relativity raises $140 million in third funding round

Capitalism in space: The new smallsat rocket company Relativity announced yesterday that it has raised $140 million in its third funding round, providing it enough funding to complete and launch its Terran 1 rocket.

The new round brings the total raised by the Los Angeles-based company to $185 million. The new funding, Relativity executives said, will be sufficient to complete development of its Terran 1 rocket and begin commercial operations in 2021. It will support expansion of its headquarters and establishment of a factory for rocket production at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where it currently tests its engines.

“That round will carry us past first flight of Terran 1,” said Jordan Noone, co-founder and chief technology officer of Relativity, in an interview. “This round is all the capital required to get to first flight, build out more of the Mississippi test site, Launch Complex 16 in Florida and expand our L.A. headquarters and manufacturing.”

That first launch, once scheduled for late 2020, is now planned for February 2021. “That original prediction for when first flight would be was made about four years ago, so moving it two months to the right here is not bad,” he said. Part of the reason for the slip is a decision to develop a larger payload fairing with twice the volume of the original one, based on feedback from prospective customers.

This all sounds very encouraging. The test will be their engineering concept to manufacture their rocket entirely by 3D printing, something no one has ever done before. If they experience any problems with this those launch dates will immediately be threatened.

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Musk on Starship, engineering, and management

Several listeners have sent me the link to a fifteen minute interview with Elon Musk that took place the day of his big Starship speech on September 30.

I have embedded it below. Watch it. It reveals several very important overarching things about SpaceX and Musk.

1. Musk calls himself SpaceX’s chief engineer, and during this interview he demonstrates why. He understands this stuff at more fundamental level that I think most similar big rocket company heads. This gives him the ability to distinguish good engineering from bad, and thus shape the company’s design direction more forcefully. It also makes him more similar to the early owners of American airplane companies (Douglas, Boeing, McDonnell, Northrop, etc), all of whom were engineers first and managers second. Too often today CEOs know little about the engineering behind their company, and therefore can be easily sidetracked by bad ideas.

2. At several points in discussing his management approach, Musk clearly wants to give an example of how bad management leads to bad engineering, but it is clear he censors himself. I suspect he is thinking of SLS, but does not want to say so to avoid a controversy he doesn’t need.

3. Much of the interview revolves around the aerospike nozzle, and why SpaceX hasn’t used it. It appears Musk’s reason is that while it might make the exhaust of a rocket more efficient, it causes a loss of efficiency in combustion, and the trade-off isn’t worth it.

4. Finally, Musk’s openness to new ideas, even if they prove him wrong, is quite obvious. As he says,

If someone could show that we’re wrong, that would be great. If someone can show you a way to make your design better, this is a gift. I would be like, thank you! Wow, this is awesome. The worst thing would be that we want to do a dumb design and stick with our dumb design. That would be insane.

This is one of those moments where I think he is thinking of SLS, but doesn’t come right out and say so.

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Rocket Lab sets next launch date

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab yesterday announced its next launch window, beginning on October 15, while adding that it has switched out the payload planned for that commercial launch.

The launch, scheduled for a two-week window starting October 15, will take a single spacecraft created by Astro to low Earth orbit. Corvus — the genus to which crows and ravens belong — is the name of the series of imaging satellites the company has already put up there; hence the name of the mission.

But this mission wasn’t scheduled to launch for some time yet. October’s launch, the fifth this year from Rocket Lab, was set to be another customer’s, but that customer seems to have needed a bit of extra time to prepare — and simply requested a later launch date.

Rocket Lab correctly touts this late and fast switch as an example of its ability to provide on-demand service to its customers. Making a switch like this is rare in rocketry.

At the same time, Rocket Lab had hoped to launch as many as sixteen times in 2019, with launches occurring monthly beginning in the spring. They have not come close to that pace, and right now it does not look like the company will top ten launches in 2019. and will likely do much less.

Whether this is indicative of problems at Rocket Lab, or with its various customers, is not clear, though I suspect the latter. The rocket has been reliable and operational now for more than a year.

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Retired engineer builds giant and revolutionary train, in his backyard

An evening pause: This story is not simply some cutsy human-interest tale about how some guy makes something cool in his backyard. Max Schlienger built this scale model prototype to demonstrate his concept for better and more efficient type of train.

Hat tip Cotour.

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Musk’s speech: Starship is coming on fast!

Musk standing at base of Starship Mk1

Elon Musk has begun his speech. The image to the right shows him as a tiny figure at the base of the just completed Starship Mk1 prototype. I will be adding details here as the speech proceeds.

First, he wants to inspire and thinks making humanity a multi-world species is the way to do it.
Then, to make us multi-world species requires a completely reusable rocket, what he called “the holy grail of space.”
Next, he goes back to the beginning of SpaceX, the first launch of Falcon 1 on this date years ago. “Getting to orbit is hard. We were very naive.”

From here he discussed Grasshopper, and noted that Starship Mk1 will do the a bigger version of that “in one to two months.” To repeat, they will be doing that quickly, and will be aiming for orbital flights in six months.

He is interspersing the speech with videos, of Falcon 1 launching, of Grasshopper, of Falcon Heavy, I think to illustrate how far SpaceX has come in such a short time. For example, he notes that Falcon Heavy’s first launch was only last February.

He is now outlining Starship as planned. Starship is now expected to be at 120 tons in mass, more than first planned. It will be able put 150 tons in orbit with full reuseability.

Next, getting it back to Earth in reusable form: It will return in many ways like the shuttle, but with its own uniqueness. “It will fall like a skydiver, then become vertical, and land.”

Next, the Raptor engines: Starship will have six, three able to adjust their nozzle and three fixed and optimized for efficiency. The Mk1 prototype has the three adjustable, since these will be used for landing. The other three engines will be for getting into orbit.

The heat shield and hull: They are going to use hexagonal ceramic tiles in the thermally critical areas. Everything else will use stainless steel, which he says is actually stronger when hot them some traditional rocket materials. It also has a high melting point. “You don’t need any shielding on the leeward side.” It is also much cheaper than carbon fiber, and much easier to use, shape, weld, install.

Super Heavy booster: Now estimating it will have 37 Raptor engines, but this number will be changeable, even when it is operational. The fins will be legs (just like the 1950s sci-fi movies!).

Final complete stack, both Starship and and Super Heavy, will be 2 1/2 times taller than Starship Mk1, as shown in the image above. They then showed a simulation of a launch, which I am sure will be online very shortly.

To get to either the Moon or Mars Starship will require refueling in orbit. This technology he considers essential. It will require rendezvous and docking, a skill they are learning with their manned Dragon.

He is also outlining the need to go to both the Moon and Mars, and then beyond. However, his first focus is on finding “the fastest path to building a city on Mars.”

His larger focus is making us multi-planetary, in order to preserve both our existence and all life on Earth. “And we should do it now!”

To sum up, the gist of the speech was to outline how far the entire company has come in a very short time, where they think they are going in the near future with Starship — and that’s the very near future — and then to conclude with Musk’s longer term vision for space exploration. Overall, it appears the goal was to once again sell Starship and the magnificent possibilities it might achieve.

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Stratolaunch has begun hiring again

Capitalism in space: After a retrenchment where the company trimmed its staff last year, Stratolaunch has now begun hiring again.

Allen founded the venture in 2011, with the goal of using what is now the world’s largest airplane as a flying launch pad for orbital-class rockets and space planes. But after his death at the age of 65, Stratolaunch trimmed its staff dramatically. Some saw April’s test flight at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port as primarily a tribute to Allen, and as the prelude to either a sale or a shutdown.

Representatives of the Allen family’s Vulcan holding company have insisted that Stratolaunch remains operational. LinkedIn listings indicate that Jean Floyd is still president and CEO, although three company vice presidents left in July.

Now Stratolaunch is posting 11 job openings, including listings for two test pilots. “As a test pilot on the history-making Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft, the world’s largest-wingspan aircraft, you will have the opportunity to accomplish new milestones in aviation,” the company says. The pilot positions are among nine openings in Mojave, with two openings (for a purchasing agent and a contract specialist) based in Seattle.

It however remains unclear the exact manner in which their giant plane Roc will be used. So far there appears little interest in using it, in conjunction with Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rocket, to launch satellites. It could be that the plane might instead be used in connection with ground-based operations.

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More Starship teasers from Musk

Musk continues to tweet out tiny teasers about the construction and design of the first Starship prototype being built at Boca Chica, dubbed Mk1.

[T]his prototype — the second Starship test vehicle, after the single-engine Starhopper, which was retired last month — will stand 165 feet (50 meters) tall and weigh 1,400 tons when fueled up (and 200 tons when “dry”). But that weight should come down in subsequent iterations, Musk added. “Mk1 ship is around 200 tons dry & 1400 tons wet, but aiming for 120 by Mk4 or Mk5. Total stack mass with max payload is 5000 tons,” he said in one of yesterday’s tweets.

In another tweet, Musk revealed the number of landing legs the Mk1 will have: “Six. Two windward, one under each fin & two leeward. Provides redundancy for landing on unimproved surfaces.”

Musk has previously said that the Mk1 and the Mk2 — a similar prototype being built at SpaceX’s Florida facilities — will be powered by at least three of the company’s next-generation Raptor engines. And today (Sept. 26), he tweeted three photos showing what that three-engine alignment looks like.

Both the Mk1 and Mk2 will start out making suborbital flights, but the goal is to get them to orbit eventually, Musk has said.

He will be giving a major speech on Starship tomorrow at Boca Chica. I have not been able to find any information as yet detailing the time and where to watch, but this will come clear I am sure very soon.

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