Tag Archives: commercial

Boeing looking to borrow up to $10 billion because of 737-Max problems

Boeing apparently is in discussions with several banks in an effort to secure a $10 billion loan to help it deal with the costs related to the suspension of production of the 737-Max airplane after two fatal crashes.

Boeing is in talks with banks to secure a loan of $10 billion or more, according to people familiar with the matter, as the company faces rising costs stemming from two fatal crashes of its 737 Max planes. The company has secured at least $6 billion from banks so far, the people said, and is talking to other lenders for more contributions. The total amount could rise if there is additional demand from banks, one person familiar with the matter said.

Liquidity isn’t an immediate concern, analysts have said, but the new debt shows Boeing is shoring up its finances amid the cash-sapping fallout of the two crashes — one in Indonesia in October 2018 and another in Ethiopia in March last year — that killed all 346 people aboard the two flights.

The amount Boeing is seeking to borrow is more than what some analysts were expecting. For example, Jefferies earlier this month forecast Boeing would issue $5 billion in debt this quarter.

I must emphasize that this story relies on anonymous sources, and is reported by CNBC, a division of NBC, one of today’s least reliable news sources.

More trustworthy information should become available on January 29, when Boeing makes its next earnings report.

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The long term ramifications of SpaceX’s crew Dragon on the future of the human race

Crew Dragon's parachutes deployed
Crew Dragon soon after its parachutes had deployed
during the launch abort test.

The successful unmanned launch abort test by SpaceX of its crew Dragon capsule today means that the first manned flight of American astronauts on an American rocket in an American spacecraft from American soil in almost a decade will happen in the very near future. According to Elon Musk during the press conference following the test, that manned mission should occur sometime in the second quarter of 2020.

The ramifications of this manned mission however far exceed its success in returning Americans to space on our own spacecraft. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine touched upon this larger context with his own remarks during the press conference:

We are doing this differently. NASA is going to be customer, one of many customers. I want SpaceX to have lots of customers.

Bridenstine is underlining the real significance of the entire commercial program at NASA. Unlike every previous manned space project at the space agency, NASA is not doing the building. Instead, as Bridenstine notes (and I recommended in my 2017 policy paper Capitalism in Space), it is merely a customer, buying a product built entirely by a private company. And while NASA is involving itself very closely with that construction, it is doing so only as a customer, making sure it is satisfied with the product before putting its own astronauts on it.

NASA also does not own this product. As Bridenstine also notes (and I also recommended in Capitalism in Space), SpaceX owns the product, and once operational will be free to sell seats on crew Dragon to private citizens or other nations.

This different approach also means that NASA is not dependent on one product. From the beginning its commercial crew program has insisted on having at least two companies building capsules — Dragon by SpaceX and Starliner by Boeing — so that if there is a launch failure with one, the second will provide the agency with redundancy.

Bridenstine was very clear about these points. He wants multiple manned spacecraft built by competing American capsules, both to provide the government with redundancy but also to drive innovation and lower costs.

SpaceX of course is the quintessential example of how to lower costs.
» Read more

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Crew Dragon unmanned launch abort a success

Crew Dragon's parachutes deployed

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has successfully completed an unmanned launch abort test of its crew Dragon spacecraft.

Everything took place exactly as planned. The image to the right is a screen capture shortly after the main chutes had become fully deployed. The recovery of the capsule is still ongoing, and will take a bit more than an hour. A press conference has been scheduled at 11:30 eastern, viewable on NASA-TV.

Based on what was seen, it appears that SpaceX is ready to put astronauts on this capsule. It is time to do so.

I have embedded a replay of the entire test, below the fold.
» Read more

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NASA: first manned Dragon flight could occur in March 2020

A NASA official today finally admitted that, assuming the launch abort test tomorrow goes well, that first manned Dragon flight to ISS could occur as early as March 2020.

Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s commercial crew program, told reporters Friday that the Crew Dragon capsule slated to carry Hurley and Behnken into orbit on the so-called “Demo-2” mission could be ready for for flight within a couple of months. “The vehicle will be all ready at the end of February,” Lueders said. “We’re kind of shooting for early March, right now, from a planning perspective. That would be the earliest.”

For years NASA has been reluctant to allow SpaceX to fly at the pace it wishes. Instead, NASA has consistently called for delays and further testing, almost ad infinitum. This admission by Lueders is the first by anyone at NASA that this launch can occur quickly, should tomorrow’s test flight succeed.

There are of course other considerations, such as scheduling the mission at ISS. Regardless, if tomorrow’s flight is a success there will be no justification for any long delays before the manned mission. It will be time to light that candle!

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SpaceX is shifting all Starship design work to Boca Chica

Capitalism in space: In a change in plans, SpaceX is no longer having two competitng Starship design teams working in both Florida and Boca Chica, and is now in the process of moving all hardware to Boca Chica.

Though the article is mostly about SpaceX’s fleet of ships, it notes this change in Starship development plans.

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A detailed look at Boeing’s recent aircraft problems

Link here. The article is entirely focused at reviewing only Boeing’s recent aircraft projects (Boeing 787, Boeing 747-8, Boeing KC-46A, Boeing 777X and Boeing 737 MAX), all of which appear to have had a lot of development issues.

The worst of the lot was the KC-46A, with many of the problems shared by our incompetent federal government. Initially proposed in 2001 (that is not a typo), the contract award did not occur until 2010, with delivery of the first 18 planes set for August 2017. The GAO predicted this delivery would be late, and the GAO was right.

Worse, Boeing has had cost overruns on the tanker totaling $3.4 billion above the initial fixed cost development contract of $4.9 billion (that is also not a typo).

The article also cites far too many examples of where Boeing requested waivers in order to meet schedule, even though the waiver allowed serious safety issues to linger, a behavior that reminded me strongly of NASA’s management during the shuttle program, resulting in the loss of two shuttles because the agency preferred to push its schedule rather than deal with serious engineering problems.

When you add the delays, cost overruns, and sometimes absurd mistakes that have occurred during Boeing’s development of SLS, this article is far more disturbing. It gets worse when you consider the issues that have delayed the launch of Starliner, some of which (the parachutes) should not have been an issue considering Boeing’s half century of experience.

All told, these problems portray a company that is akin to our federal government, badly managed and ripe for disaster. While the U.S. aerospace industry would take a deep hit if Boeing went under, that hit however would likely be temporary, especially considering the problems Boeing is having.

Freedom must allow bad businesses to fail so that fresh faces not bogged down by old problems can come to the fore and replace them. If Boeing collapsed I suspect a host of new companies would quickly appear, all likely more capable of producing what the nation’s aerospace industry needs. Because right now, Boeing is certainly not doing the job.

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Watching SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launch abort

The launch abort test flight of SpaceX’s crew Dragon capsule remains on schedule for launch at 8 am (eastern) on Saturday, January 18, 2020.

NASA has announced that it will provide live coverage. I would assume SpaceX will as well, but there is no indication of that at the NASA announcement or at SpaceX’s website.

I will admit that though I very much would like to watch this live, it will go off at 6 am in Tucson, a bit early for this night owl writer.

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Boeing releases video of Starliner’s first orbital demo flight

Capitalism in space: Boeing has released a video showing what it was like to be on its Starliner capsule during its first orbital demo flight on December 20, 2019.

Flying alongside the uncrewed Starliner’s only official passenger — a spacesuit-clad, instrumented dummy (or anthropometric test device) named “Rosie” (after the World War II icon Rosie the Riveter), Snoopy, in plush doll form, served as the vehicle’s “zero-g indicator.” The video shows the doll floating weightless at the end of its “leash” after the Starliner entered Earth orbit.

The video is embedded below the fold. It is relatively boring, which actually is a good thing. The interior of the capsule does not seem much disturbed during each phase of the flight, from launch, separation from launch vehicle, and touchdown.
» Read more

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Farmers swarming to buy used 40-year-old tractors

Buy dumb! The market for used 40-year-old tractors is booming, due to the “smart” but expensive-to-repair designs of modern computer-based tractors.

Tractors manufactured in the late 1970s and 1980s are some of the hottest items in farm auctions across the Midwest these days — and it’s not because they’re antiques. Cost-conscious farmers are looking for bargains, and tractors from that era are well-built and totally functional, and aren’t as complicated or expensive to repair as more recent models that run on sophisticated software.

“It’s a trend that’s been building. It’s been interesting in the last couple years, which have been difficult for ag, to see the trend accelerate,” said Greg Peterson, the founder of Machinery Pete, a farm equipment data company in Rochester with a website and TV show. “There’s an affinity factor if you grew up around these tractors, but it goes way beyond that,” Peterson said. “These things, they’re basically bulletproof. You can put 15,000 hours on it and if something breaks you can just replace it.”

Because of the computer software built into the new machines, a farmer can no longer fix it himself. He must call in a service truck, at high cost with long wait times. This extra cost is on top of the high cost to buy the new tractor, which cost a lot more than the used machines.

I predict that the cost for used tractors is going to continue to rise, until some smart entrepreneur realizes the market possibilities, and begins making new tractors without the bells and whistles.

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More problems at Boeing, this time with military aircraft

In this article about Israel’s desire to obtain the new KC-46A airplane tankers being built by Boeing for the Air Force, it is revealed that Boeing has had numerous disturbing manufacturing problems on this particular plane.

Earlier in 2019 the U.S. air force resumed, after a two-month delay, accepting new KC-46As. That two-month delay was because of FOD (Foreign Object Debris), including tools and other metal objects, still showing up in various parts of the aircraft. This indicated a serious lapse in the management of assembly and quality control while producing these aircraft. By March, after nearly a month of effort to check out aircraft nearly ready for delivery as well as factory inspection procedures, the air force agreed to begin accepting KC-46s once more. Deliveries continued despite the recently discovered cargo lock (unreliable cargo tie down latches) problem. The Americans are now concerned about Boeing, the manufacturer while also needing the KC-46As as soon as possible. This is the same firm that is having worse problems with its new 737 Max commercial airliner.

In mid-2019 Boeing planned to deliver 36 KC-46As by the end of 2019 and later expected to meet that goal even though only 19 had been delivered by early September. At the end of the year the goal of 36 was missed but Boeing did fix the cargo lock problem and this allowed cargo to again be carried. There is one problem left with the accuracy of the remote viewing system used by the 46A boom operator. That does not prevent operation of the aircraft, just slows down refueling in some cases.

Boeing has had problems with its 737-Max commercial jet (now grounded), with the construction of the Space Launch System (SLS) for NASA (a decade behind schedule and billions over budget), and with its manned Starliner space capsule. The list of issues above for the KC-46A is equally troubling, and indicates that the management and quality control problems indicated by the other projects might very well be systemic to the entire company. Not good, not good at all.

Hat tip to reader Norm Donovan.

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Update on Dream Chaser

Link here. According to Sierra Nevada, the company that is building this mini-shuttle cargo ship, they are on track to launch next year. They are also aggressively working on a Dream Chaser version that would be able to transport humans to space.

SNC has “never stopped working” on the crewed version of Dream Chaser, Lindsey said. While the company’s focus right now is getting the cargo version ready for its first flight on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan-Centaur rocket next year, the first crewed flight “absolutely” will take place within 5 years.

“There’s interest, not necessarily from NASA, but other customers” that Lindsey expects to grow once the cargo version is flying. SNC will offer either a “taxi model” where it supplies the crew to fly it, or a “rental car model” where the customer provides the crew. It will be up to the customer to decide.

If they can get this spacecraft operational, they will join SpaceX as a leader in the reusability market, having built a ship that can be flown repeatedly on profit-making missions. In fact, it appears that the entire private American effort to get humans into space is aggressively shifting towards full reusability. SpaceX has got the first stage solved, and is also now routinely reusing its cargo Dragon capsules. It is also working to make both the upper stage (Starship) and manned capsules (crew Dragon) reusable. Sierra Nevada is in turn working on the manned spacecraft with Dream Chaser. Similarly, Blue Origin says the first stage of its New Glenn rocket will be reusable.

Those companies and nations that ignore this development (such as the Europeans Space Agency and Russia) will find themselves left far behind. Reusablity of rockets has been proven, and it lowers the cost to get to space so radically that without it you cannot compete.

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House committee approves bill coordinating the government’s space weather work

The House science, space, and technology committee has approved a new bill that establishes a coordinating structure for the many government agencies involved in observing and research space weather, the material that the Sun throws at us that can affect electrical grids and communications.

A similar bill has been approved by the Senate commerce committee, but with several important differences, the most important of which is likely this provision in the House bill:

The provision requires NOAA to establish a commercial space weather data pilot program within one year of the bill’s enactment. Through that program, NOAA is to offer to enter into contracts with “one or more entities in the commercial space weather sector” to provide data that meets standards and specifications that NOAA, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense, must publish within 18 months of enactment. The data may be ground-based, ocean-based, air-based, or space-based. NOAA “may offer” to award “at least one” competitively-bid contract within 12 months of when the Integrated Strategy required in the bill, as reviewed by the National Academies, is transmitted to Congress. “If” one or more contract is awarded, NOAA is to assess the value of the pilot program and report to Congress within 4 years of enactment.

The goal of this provision is to shift construction of new space weather facilities, including satellites, from the government to private industry. Like NASA and the Defense Department, NOAA in recent decades has generally done a poor job of building satellites cheaply and quickly to maintain its in-space monitoring network. The hope is that by depending on the growing private sector, the agency can get its satellites replaced more effectively, while also energizing the space private sector.

The Senate and House bills both have only passed through committee. We shall see if the Senate agrees to add this provision to its version of the bill.

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SpaceX crew Dragon launch abort test delayed another week

NASA and SpaceX have delayed the launch abort test flight of the company’s crew Dragon capsule one week, to January 18, in order to allow “additional time for spacecraft processing.”

SpaceX has made it clear for the past month that their hardware is ready to go and that they could have launched by the end of December. That makes me suspect that the processing delay relates to NASA’s bureaucracy and paperwork requirements.

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Dragon returns to Earth with mice and cookies baked in space

After several months docked to ISS SpaceX’s cargo Dragon returned to Earth today, bringing back forty mice send up in December for research and some cookies that were baked in space.

Researchers want to inspect the handful of chocolate chip cookies baked by astronauts in a special Zero G oven just in time for Christmas. The oven launched to the space station in November, so astronauts could pop in pre-made cookie dough provided by DoubleTree. A spokesman for the hotel chain said five cookies were baked up there, one at a time. The company plans to share details of this first-of-its-kind experiment in the coming weeks. “We made space cookies and milk for Santa this year,” NASA astronaut Christina Koch tweeted late last month from the space station, posing with one of the individually wrapped cookies.

Scientists also are getting back 40 mice that flew up in early December, including eight genetically engineered to have twice the normal muscle mass. Some of the non-mighty mice bulked up in orbit for the muscle study; others will pack it on once they’re back in the lab.

At the moment the only way to get experiments like this back from ISS is with cargo Dragon. Hopefully that will change when Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser mini-shuttle finally flies in the next few years.

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Firefly reschedules first rocket launch for April

Capitalism in space: Due to a number of engineering issues, Firefly Aerospace has pushed back the first launch of its Alpha rocket from March to April, 2020.

In particular, figuring out the two-stage rocket’s avionics system “gave us fits,” Firefly CEO Tom Markusic told Space.com in a recent interview. That’s because the company was originally hoping to make Alpha’s flight-termination system fully autonomous, he explained.

When the vendor couldn’t qualify that advanced system in time, the vendor switched to the usual “human in the loop” system. But waiting for parts pushed back Firefly’s December 2019 launch time frame to something closer to March 2020. Firefly then chose to take a little more time for further refinements and is now aiming for April 2020 for the first launch of the 95-foot-tall (29 meters) rocket, Markusic said.

According to the article at the link, the company plans two other launches in 2020. We shall see if that pans out.

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Tonight’s SpaceX launch

Capitalism in space: Tonight SpaceX is hoping to launch another 60 Starlink smallsats as part of its planned huge constellation aimed at providing internet access worldwide.

The launch is scheduled for 9:19 pm Eastern, with a 20 minute launch window. I have embedded the live stream below the fold if you wish to watch, beginning fifteen minutes before launch. Or you can go to SpaceX’s own website instead.

The launch has some significance. First, with this launch SpaceX will leap-frog a number of other satellite companies attempting to accomplish the same thing. Though it only began pursuing this project about two years ago, with this launch SpaceX will have the largest satellite constellation of any company in orbit.

Second, the first stage will be flying for the fourth time, a record, and all flown since September 2018, a mere sixteen months. That’s once every four months, a pace that far exceeds anything the space shuttle ever accomplished. Moreover, SpaceX intends to land it and reuse it again. The launch savings from this reuse guarantees that they will be able to undercut those other satellite companies when they begin offering services on the Starlink constellation. [Note: My readers corrected me: SpaceX has already launched a first stage four times.]

The company will also make another attempt to recover one fairing half.

UPDATE: The launch appears successful, including a successful landing of the first stage.

SpaceX right now is the leader in the 2020 launch race, as they are the only one to have completed a launch in 2020.
» Read more

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The state of the global rocket industry in 2019

With 2019 ending, it is time once again (as I did for 2016, 2017, and 2018) to review the trends in the global launch industry for the past year.

Below is my updated graph, showing the launch numbers for 2019 as well as for every year going back to 1990, just before the fall of the Soviet Union. That range I think covers all recent trends, while also giving some perspective on what happened in 2019.

The graph is worth reviewing at length, as it not only gives a sense of recent trends, it also summarizes well the history of the entire global space industry during the past thirty years. For example, it shows the transition in the U.S. in the past two decades from government-owned launchers to private rockets, a change that has revitalized the American space industry in more ways than be counted.
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