Inspiration4 passengers scheduled for return to Earth tonight

The first entirely private manned orbital mission to space is now scheduled to return to Earth tonight, with splashdown set for 7:06 pm (eastern).

The SpaceX live stream of the landing will begin approximately 4:30 pm (eastern).

Yesterday the passengers released some videos, including a conversation with children who are cancer patients at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. They also provided a video update to the general public.

As I noted yesterday, the primary goal of this flight is to raise money for St. Jude. If you wish to send a donation to St. Jude as part of the Inspiration4 spaceflight, you can do so here. You can donate cash directly, or you can bid to win one or more of a variety of items that are on the flight now.

FAA now taking public comments on the licensing of SpaceX to launch Starship/Superheavy from Boca Chica

Capitalism in space: The FAA today announced by email that it is now taking public comments on the “Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA)” it requires from SpaceX before it can issue a launch license at Boca Chica, Texas for Starship/Superheavy orbital launches.

From the email:

The FAA invites interested agencies, organizations, Native American tribes, and members of the public to submit comments on all aspects of the Draft PEA. Public comments are due on Monday, October 18, 2021. Comments or questions on the Draft PEA can be addressed to Ms. Stacey Zee, SpaceX PEA, c/o ICF, 9300 Lee Highway, Fairfax, VA 22031. Comments may also be submitted by email to SpaceXBocaChica@icf.com. Before including your address, phone number, e-mail address, or other personal identifying information in your comment, be advised that your entire comment – including your personal identifying information – may be made publicly available at any time. While you can ask us in your comment to withhold from public review your personal identifying information, we cannot guarantee that we will be able to do so.

The FAA will also hold two public hearings on October 6th and 7th, though it provided no information yet on where those hearings will be held.

This announcement means that the Starship/Superheavy orbital test flight cannot occur any earlier than October 18, 2021, and will actually occur at least several weeks or months later, based on the schedule outlined on slide 32 of this FAA presentation [pdf]. Once the 30-day public comment period ends the FAA must then hold “an industry workshop” reviewing the comments and then issue an update of the PEA, or a rejection of it.

Though the chances of the FAA rejecting SpaceX’s permit are practically nil, I fully expect this process to be slow-walked by the FAA under orders of the Biden administration in order to do whatever it can to prevent this orbital flight occurring before SLS’s first launch, now expected in early ’22.

I hope I am wrong, and that the FAA surprises me. We can only wait and see.

Update: If you think I am crazy thinking that the politics of the Biden administration will cause a slowdown in the FAA’s process, just read this story about the FAA suddenly imposing flight restrictions at the southern border to block drone flights by media outlets that show the illegal immigrant crisis there.

“We’ve learned that the FAA just implemented a two week TFR (Temporary Flight Restrictions) over the international bridge in Del Rio, TX, meaning we can no longer fly our FOX drone over it to show images of the thousands of migrants,” Fox News reporter Bill Melugin tweeted. “FAA says ‘special security reason.’”

Fox’s report resulted in a quick lifting of this flight restriction on their drone, but the action by the Biden administration shows that it is quite willing to interfere with normal aviation regulations for its own political reasons.

India signs deal with private rocket startup

Capitalism in space: India’s new Department of Space, dedicated to encouraging the growth of a private commercial and independent Indian space industry, has signed a deal with the private rocket startup, Agnikul Cosmos, to give it access to government space facilities as it develops its own smallsat rocket.

Indian startup Agnikul Cosmos signed a framework memorandum of understanding (MOU) with India’s Department of Space on Friday for access to ISRO facilities and expertise for the development of its two-stage small-satellite Agnibaan launch vehicle.

“The Framework MoU…will enable the company for undertaking multiple tests and access facilities at various ISRO centers for testing and qualification of their single piece 3D printed Semi Cryo engine and other systems. The MoU also enable Agnikul to avail technical expertise of ISRO for testing and qualifying their space launch vehicle systems and subsystems,” ISRO said in a press release.

The company has raised more than $14.1 million in investment capital, and hopes to complete the first launch of its Agnibaan rocket by ’22.

Inspiration4 has raised $130 million so far for St. Jude out of $200 million goal

Capitalism in space: Inspiration4, the first privately launched manned orbital mission has so far raised about $130 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, still short of the $200 million goal that Jared Isaacman had set when he bought the flight from SpaceX.

A portion of the money came from 72,000 entrants in a sweepstakes that offered the chance to win a seat on the flight. Entrants were encouraged, but not required, to donate to St. Jude, according to the contest rules, which estimated the retail value of the space flight at $2.21 million.

Crew member Chris Sembroski, a 42-year-old data engineer and U.S. Air Force veteran from Everett, Wash., entered the lottery by donating. He didn’t win, but a friend did and gave him the slot, according to the Associated Press.

If you wish to send a donation to St. Jude as part of the Inspiration4 spaceflight, you can do so here. You can donate cash directly, or you can bid to win one or more of a variety of items that are on the flight now.

China’s three astronauts land safely

The new colonial movement: China’s three astronauts safely returned to Earth today after spending 91 days in space and 90 days on China’s new space station.

During their stay they did two spacewalks preparing the station for additional modules and later missions.

China is expected to send the robotic Tianzhou 3 cargo spacecraft toward Tianhe around Sept. 20. And the next crewed mission to the module, the six-month-long Shenzhou 13, is apparently scheduled to launch in mid-October. (Exact target dates are hard to come by with Chinese missions, because the nation tends not to announce many details of its spaceflight plans in advance.)

China will also in the next year launch two more large modules to attach to the station, using its Long March 5B rocket. Assuming they have not redesigned that rocket, expect the very large upper stage on both launches to once again crash out-of-control somewhere on the Earth, possibly in habitable areas.

SpaceX leases several large facilities in Brownsville, Texas

Capitalism in space: In a clear sign that SpaceX plans to expand its Starship/Superheavy operations in Boca Chica, Texas, it has now leased several large facilities in nearby Brownsville.

Earlier this month, the company signed leases with the Brownsville South Padre Island Airport (BRO) for 46,000 square feet of warehouse space and a neighboring private industrial park owned by PacVentures for 60,000 square feet of warehouse space. Francisco Partida, the airport’s special projects manager, said talks with SpaceX about leasing the former Taylorcraft building at 2100 Les Mauldin Road began in mid-July.

The company was looking for 100,000 square feet of warehouse, which the airport couldn’t supply, though SpaceX found the additional square footage it needed in the privately owned industrial park at 1900 Billy Mitchell Blvd., he said.

SpaceX has also committed about a half million dollars to repairing and refurbishing the airport warehouse.

The real human exploration of the solar system began on September 15, 2021

Falcon 9 at T+13 seconds

Capitalism in space: First the news: On September 15, 2021 SpaceX successfully placed four civilians into orbit using its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule.

Thus began the first private manned orbital mission in space, planned to last three days and reach an altitude of 595 kilometers or 370 miles, the highest any person has flown in space in decades.

The first stage, on its third flight, successfully landed for reuse. The Dragon capsule, Resilience, was on its second manned flight. The leaders in the 2021 launch race:

31 China
23 SpaceX
15 Russia
4 Northrop Grumman

The U.S. now leads China 34 to 31 in the national rankings.

Now the significance: There was one moment about five minutes after lift off that revealed the fundamental difference between this real flight into space and the short suborbital hops that Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic did in July.

The three most critical moments of any launch had just been completed. The first stage engines had cut off, the first stage had separated successfully, and the single upper stage engine had ignited. It was now lifting the capsule towards orbit, with the only major technical task left were its engine cut off and the separation of the Dragon capsule.

At that moment John Insprucker, principal integretion engineer for SpaceX and frequent host during its launch live streams, made a quick comment that was clearly meant to illustrate the vast difference in achievement between this flight and those two July suborbital flights. He said,
» Read more

Watching the first all-private commercial manned orbital spaceflight

Liberty and freedom enlightening the world
Liberty and freedom enlightening not only the world,
but the entire solar system.

Bumped: I will be out on a cave trip for most of today, September 15, 2021, so I’ve moved this post to the top of the page, as it clearly will be the most important space news today. I should be back before launch, but if not, enjoy!

Original post:
————————
Capitalism in space: Let’s begin by underlining one fundamental fact about the Inspiration4 manned Dragon orbital space mission, targeted for a September 15th launch tomorrow evening, that makes it different from every other orbital space mission ever flown since Yuri Gagarin completed the first manned mission in 1961:

The government has nothing to do with it.

The launch facilities, the rocket, the capsule, the drone ship where the rocket’s first stage will land, and the entire recovery operation in the ocean are all controlled and owned by SpaceX. The passengers are private citizens, one of whom purchased the flight directly from SpaceX.

It is was organized by 38-year-old billionaire and entrepreneur Jared Isaacman, who is also a highly-capable jet warbird aircraft pilot. When he found out from SpaceX he could be the first to fly an all-commercial mission in Crew Dragon, he fronted $100 million to $200 million required and partnered with St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in a campaign to give away two of the missions seats and raise $200 Million for children’s cancer research.

Every person you will see in mission control, at the launchpad, and on the recovery ships are also private citizens, working for a private company that just happens to be in the business of flying rockets, spaceships, and humans into space. None are government employees, and I would suspect that most don’t want to be.

Not only is this mission privately run, its goals are completely different. While all past space launches were flown for purposes decided by the government, this mission’s goals have been determined by the free participants themselves. SpaceX is making money on the flight, Isaacman and his passengers are getting the chance to fulfill their long-held personal dream of going into space, and Isaacman is also using this flight to raise money for cancer research, a personal passion of his.

The flight itself will be unusual. It will be the first manned mission in more than a decade, since the last shuttle repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, to not go to an orbiting space station. Instead, the capsule will spend three days free-flying in orbit around the Earth. To enhance the flight for the passengers, SpaceX removed the docking port on Resilience (the capsule) and replaced it with a viewing port with large windows.

The orbit itself will in a sense push the envelope, as SpaceX plans to loft the capsule to an altitude of about 370 miles, considerably higher than ISS’s orbit of about 260 miles and about 35 miles higher than the mission to Hubble. In fact, the Inspiration4 crew will be the farthest from the Earth’s surface than any human in decades, possibly going back as far as the Apollo era.

For watching this flight I have embedded SpaceX’s live stream below, which you can also find here. You will also be able to find that stream at SpaceX’s YouTube page, where the company is also airing preflight videos.

This mission illustrates the fundamentals that built the United States of America. Give humans freedom, don’t try to tell them what to do, and they will do astonishing and magnificent things, on their own.
» Read more

Russia launches another set of OneWeb satellites

Using its Soyuz-2 rocket Russia today successfully launched another 34 OneWeb satellites, launching from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

At the time of publication about half the satellites have successfully deployed. The rest should be released within the next hour or so.

The leaders in the 2021 launch race:

31 China
22 SpaceX
15 Russia
4 Northrop Grumman

With this launch Russia has now matched its total launches from last year, with three months still to go and a number of launches in ’21 on its manifest. For Russia’s launch industry, 2021 looks like it will be a good year.

The U.S. continues to lead China 33 to 31 in the national rankings.

Utilizing a commercial lunar probe to reach geosynchronous orbit around the Earth

Capitalism in space: The commercial startup SpaceFlight Inc has purchased payload space on Intuitive Machines’ second lunar landing mission to the Moon late in ’22 in order to test its Sherpa Escape space tug’s ability to use that flight path to place a satellite into geosynchronous orbit around the Earth.

The tug will also carry the payload of another company, GeoJump, which will test in-space fueling technology developed by another company, Orbit Fab.

Sounds complicated, eh? It isn’t when you think about it. When NASA gave up ownership and design of its lunar landers and instead began buying such products from the private sector, it freed up that private sector to sell its spare payload capacity to anyone who wanted it. On this particular flight Intuitive Machines sold that spare capacity to SpaceFlight, which in turn provided GeoJump and Orbit Fab the space tug for getting their experimental payloads to geosynchronous orbit.

This is a win-win for everyone. Not only are two companies (Intuitive Machines and Spaceflight) making money by selling their capabilities to others, two other companies (GeoJump and Orbit Fab) are now able to test their own space innovations at a much lower cost, and much more quickly than had they depended on a government launch from NASA.

SpaceX successfully launches another 51 Starlink satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX tonight successfully used its Falcon 9 rocket to launch another 51 Starlink satellites into orbit.

At publication, the deployment of the satellites is still about 25 minutes away. [Update: deployment successful.] SpaceX now has about 1,500 working Starlink satellites in orbit.

The Falcon 9’s first stage successfully landed on its drone ship, the tenth flight of this stage, tying the record for the most reuses. Both fairings were also reused. This was also the first Starlink launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base. SpaceX intends to do monthly Starlink launches from Vandenberg for the rest of the year.

The leaders in the 2021 launch race:

31 China
22 SpaceX
14 Russia
4 Northrop Grumman

The U.S. now leads China 33 to 31 in the national rankings.

SpaceX will also launch in two days the first ever entirely private orbital mission to space, whereby it has been hired to carry four private astronauts for three days on the highest orbit since the 2009 last shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.

That flight will inaugurate a schedule of almost monthly private manned commercial missions to orbit, extending into next year and possibly forever. The present schedule:

  • September 15, 2021: SpaceX’s Dragon capsule flies four private citizens on a three day orbital flight
  • October 2021: The Russians will fly two passengers to ISS for 10 days to shoot a movie
  • December 2021: The Russians will fly billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his assistant to ISS for 12 days
  • cDecember 2021: Space Adventures, using a Dragon capsule, will fly four in orbit for five days
  • January 2022: Axiom, using a Dragon capsule, will fly four tourists to ISS
  • 2022-2024: Three more Axiom tourist flights on Dragon to ISS
  • 2024: Axiom begins launching its own modules to ISS, starting construction of its own private space station
  • c2024: SpaceX’s Starship takes Yusaku Maezawa and several others on a journey around the Moon.

DC swamp moving to cancel Trump effort to cut red tape at FAA?

The inspector general of the Department of Transportation has instigated an investigation into the FAA’s recent effort, inaugurated during the Trump administration, to reduce the air space shuttered during launch operations in order to allow more launches with less interference with commercial air traffic.

“Over the past 5 years, FAA has gone from licensing about one commercial space launch per month to now licensing more than one launch every week,” Matthew Hampton, the assistant inspector general for aviation audits, said Wednesday in a memo announcing the probe.

The audit was requested by the ranking members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and its Subcommittee on Aviation, Hampton said in the memo. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words are important. The “ranking members” in the House are Republicans. It appears members of the party supposedly in favor of free enterprise have decided to panic after the relatively minor flight deviation due to high winds that occurred during the Virgin Galactic suborbital flight in July, and are now working to shut down the FAA’s effort to launch more rockets while keeping commercial aviation functioning.

The recent decision to begin shrinking the restricted air space around launches results from the increasing sophistication of rockets. Though new rockets — such as the recent launch failures of Astra’s Rocket-3 and Firefly’s Alpha — do fail and require self-destruction during launch, the launch and flight termination technology today works quite well in better controlling the rocket. When something went wrong during both of these recent launches, the rockets compensated so that they were able to continue to fly to a much higher altitude, where the range officer could more safely destroy them. In the past, failing rockets such as these would have gone out of control, threatening a larger area both in the air and on the ground.

Thus, there now is less need to restrict as much space, unless you have the fantasy that you must rig things so that nothing can ever go wrong.

This fantasy has fueled the entire Wuhan flu panic. It rules the minds of many Washington bureaucrats and politicians, from both parties, who repeatedly declare that “If we can save one life, we must!” Meanwhile this vain effort fails in its main task, since things still go wrong, and the overwrought effort to overly protect people ends up doing more harm than good by squelching all achievement.

It now appears there are Republicans on both the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and its Subcommittee on Aviation who believe in this fantasy. No wonder the Democrats always win in legislative battles. They have many hidden Republican allies.

Another technical problem identified in Virgin Galactic spaceship

Capitalism in space: Virgin Galactic announced late Friday, when few would notice it, that a new technical problem has been identified with its Virgin Galactic spaceship.

In a statement issued late Sept. 10, Virgin Galactic said a third-party supplier, which it did not identify, notified the company of a potential manufacturing defect in a flight control actuation system component. Virgin said it is conducting inspections with the vendor to determine if the suspect component needs to be repaired or replaced.

Because of the inspections, Virgin Galactic said the earliest it would perform the next SpaceShipTwo mission, called Unity 23, is the middle of October. The company had previously stated the mission would take place in late September or early October.

This issue is completely independent from the flight path anomaly that occurred during the July suborbital flight that has caused the FAA to ground Virgin Galactic.

Facebook and Ray-Ban selling sunglasses able to take pictures also

Your privacy belongs to us! Facebook and Ray-Ban have teamed up to create sunglasses that the wearer can use to discreetly to take pictures of their surroundings.

The Ray-Ban Stories eyewear features two 5-MP front-facing cameras for 2,592 x 1,944-pixel photos or 1,184 x 1,184-pixel videos at 30 frames per second.

A capture button is pushed to snap photo memories of what you see on your stroll through the city on a hot and sunny day, or record 30-second video clips to post online to such platforms as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok via a new Facebook View app for iOS and Android. The app also allows content to be edited or enhanced before upload, and saved to the phone’s memory, though the smart glasses do have enough built-in storage for more than 500 photos or 30 video clips. Or users can opt to for hands-free operation via Facebook Assistant voice commands.

The article describes several features that supposedly address the questions of privacy, such as led lights that glow when a picture is taken, but in the end these glasses are essentially a voyeur’s dream.

Without question such products have their legitimate uses, such as by undercover journalists or criminal investigators. To market them to the general public however means that both Facebook and Ray-Ban are willing to ignore concerns of right and wrong and the likelihood that their product will be badly misused for entire immoral reasons. All they care about is profit.

Or maybe the two companies are really developing this product to sell a more secretive version to their allies in the government. One does wonder.

Questions raised about Branson’s most recent Virgin Galactic stock sale

It appears that both Virgin Galactic and Richard Branson might have violated SEC regulations when they sold more than $800 million in stock this summer without notifying buyers of the FAA investigation into the anomaly on Branson’s July 11th suborbital flight that has now grounded all SpaceShipTwo flights.

On July 12, Virgin Galactic announced in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that it was selling $500 million worth of common stock. The filing did not mention that during its edge-of-space flight the day before, its aircraft deviated from its air-traffic-control clearance, a mishap that would ultimately trigger a Federal Aviation Administration investigation and lead to the indefinite grounding of its space-tourism operation.

The FAA began investigating on July 23, a spokesperson told Insider. On August 11, the agency grounded Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane.

In an August 13 SEC filing, Richard Branson, the English billionaire who founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, said that in the previous three days, he had sold roughly 10.5 million personal shares, a stake worth about $300 million.

Let’s review the timeline.

July 11: The flight occurs, with high winds forcing it outside its planned flight path.
July 12: Virgin Galactic sells $500 million in stock, without mentioning the anomaly.
July 16: By this date the company was required to inform the FAA of any anomalies during the flight.
July 23: The FAA initiates its investigation..
August 11: The FAA grounds Virgin Galactic.
August 13: SEC filing reveals Branson had sold $300 million in stock without mentioning the anomaly.
September 1: New Yorker article reveals investigation of anomaly.

Though no investigation had been started, Virgin Galactic must have known about the flight anomaly when it sold its $500 million in shares on July 12, right after the flight.. By August, when Branson sold his $300 million in shares, that investigation was on-going. Yet he also failed to mention the anomaly.

As I have said before, Branson has all the markings of a conman. He has very carefully been selling stock, reducing his share in the company in the past two years from 51% to 18%, with each stock sale carefully timed to take advantage of some event that pumped up the stock’s price.

All in all, the pattern by Branson suggests he really does not have much faith in Virgin Galactic’s future.

Rocket Lab negatively impacted by New Zealand’s Wuhan panic lockdowns

Capitalism in space? Rocket Lab reported this week that not only has its income been slashed because of New Zealand’s draconian lockdowns in fear of COVID-19, the company has had to cut its planned launches for the fourth quarter of 2021 by more than half.

“Operations have experienced disruptions due to some of the most restrictive COVID-19 measures globally, including current stay-at-home orders which prevent launch operations from taking place,” said Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, of New Zealand’s current restrictions. “Indications are that the current lockdown restrictions may ease by the end of September with the delta cases dropping in New Zealand, but this, of course, is subject to change.”

Those restrictions have delayed plans by Rocket Lab to perform three dedicated Electron launches of BlackSky satellites that had been scheduled to begin in late August. It could also affect the launch of NASA’s CAPSTONE lunar cubesat, which had been scheduled for no earlier than late October on another Electron from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.

Adam Spice, chief financial officer, said that the company has five Electron launches manifested for the fourth quarter of the year, but is assuming only two launches in its financial projections. While those five launches would produce more than $40 million in revenue, the company is forecasting only $17-20 million in revenue for the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, the company has not been able to launch from its new launchpad at Wallops Island in Virginia because NASA — after almost two years! — has apparently still not approved the company’s flight termination system, used to destroy a rocket that has gone out of control. NASA’s refusal to approve this system is very puzzling and very suspicious, especially because Rocket Lab has launched 21 times with it from New Zealand, and even used it several times to successfully destroy failing rockets.

Launches by China and Russia

Both Russia and China successfully completed launches yesterday. Russia launched a military reconnaissance satellite using its Soyuz-2 rocket. China in turn launched a communications satellite using its Long March 3B rocket.

The leaders in the 2021 launch race:

31 China
21 SpaceX
14 Russia
4 Northrop Grumman

The U.S. still leads China 32 to 31 in the national rankings.

Roscosmos declares film crew fit for launch to ISS

Capitalism in space: Roscosmos last week announced that the actress and director who plan to fly to ISS in October to film scenes for a science fiction movie are fit to fly.

Director Klim Shipenko and actor Yulia Peresild got the thumbs-up after a meeting of the Chief Medical Commission at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center near Moscow, Russia’s federal space agency Roscosmos announced last week.

Cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, who is scheduled to launch toward the orbiting lab with Shipenko and Peresild aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on Oct. 5, also got final medical clearance. So did the backups for the mission: cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev, director Alexey Dudin and actor Alena Mordovina.

The movie script itself, about an astronaut who gets a heart attack while on a spacewalk and then has to have surgery in space before returning to Earth, actually sounds quite good and — most refreshing — well grounded in reality. American space films tend to go in absurd directions, often because the filmmakers are ignorant and have no interest in learning anything about the subject they are writing about.

So far, the schedule of upcoming space tourist flights appears on track to happen, as announced:

  • September 15, 2021: SpaceX’s Dragon capsule flies four private citizens on a three day orbital flight
  • October 2021: The Russians will fly two passengers to ISS for 10 days to shoot a movie
  • December 2021: The Russians will fly billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his assistant to ISS for 12 days
  • cDecember 2021: Space Adventures, using a Dragon capsule, will fly four in orbit for five days
  • January 2022: Axiom, using a Dragon capsule, will fly four tourists to ISS
  • 2022-2024: Three more Axiom tourist flights on Dragon to ISS
  • 2024: Axiom begins launching its own modules to ISS, starting construction of its own private space station
  • c2024: SpaceX’s Starship takes Yusaku Maezawa and several others on a journey around the Moon.

The boom in commercial space continues

Starship on an early test flight
Modern rocketry soaring under freedom

Capitalism in space: In the last two days there have been so many stories about different space companies winning new contracts I think it is important to illustrate this in one essay, rather than in multiple posts. Below is the list:

The last two stories are possibly the most significant, because both show that the shift in space from government-built to privately-built, as I advocated in my 2017 policy paper, Capitalism in Space, is spreading to other countries. » Read more

Update on status of first orbital Starship/Superheavy

Capitalism in space: The first planned orbital Superheavy booster, prototype #4, has been moved back to the orbital launch site, this time with all of its 29 engines fully installed.

It appears SpaceX engineers are about to begin an extensive test campaign of this booster and its engines. They need to test the fueling of all 29 engines. They need to test fire the engines as a unit. And they need to do a full static fire of them all to see if they will work together as planned.

All these tests, which based on SpaceX’s past pace, will likely take about three to four weeks, which means that the orbital test flight cannot occurr before the end of September, as previously guessed. More likely they will not be ready to fly before the end of October, at the soonest.

That schedule is also impacted by the FAA’s bureaucracy, which still needs to approve the environmental assessment required before any Starship orbital flight. That approval process has been ongoing, but could still take several more months, especially if the effort by some fearful environmentalists to stop the flight gains political momentum.

Firefly confirms launch failure due to the premature shutdown of one engine

Capitalism in space: Firefly this past weekend confirmed that its September 2nd launch failure was caused when one of the Alpha rocket’s first stage engines shut down almost immediately after liftoff.

On Sunday (Sept. 5), the company announced the proximate cause of the failure: One of Alpha’s four first-stage Reaver engines shut down unexpectedly about 15 seconds after liftoff. “The vehicle continued to climb and maintain control for a total of about 145 seconds, whereas nominal first-stage burn duration is about 165 seconds. However, due to missing the thrust of 1 of 4 engines, the climb rate was slow, and the vehicle was challenged to maintain control without the thrust vectoring of engine 2,” Alpha representatives wrote in a Twitter thread on Sunday.

“Alpha was able to compensate at subsonic speeds, but as it moved through transonic and into supersonic flight, where control is most challenging, the three-engine thrust vector control was insufficient and the vehicle tumbled out of control. The range terminated the flight using the explosive Flight Termination System (FTS). The rocket did not explode on its own,” they added.

The engine apparently did not fail or explode, it merely closed its main propellant valves so the engine was no longer being fed fuel. Though they obviously they need to find out why this happened, the nature of the failure is actually encouraging. It suggests a relatively easy fix (with a strong emphasis on the word “relatively”).

China’s Chang’e-5 orbiter returning to lunar space

The new colonial movement: In a somewhat bold move, Chinese engineers appear to now be shifting the Chang’e-5 orbiter so that it will be able to return to lunar space to fly past the Moon.

The orbiter, one of four distinct Chang’e-5 mission spacecraft, delivered a return module containing 1.731 kilograms of lunar samples to Earth Dec. 16 before firing its engines to deep space for an extended mission.

The Chang’e-5 orbiter later successfully entered an intended orbit around Sun-Earth Lagrange point 1, roughly 1.5 million kilometers, in March. There it carried out tests related to orbit control and observations of the Earth and Sun.

New data from satellite trackers now suggests Chang’e-5 has left its orbit around Sun-Earth L1 and is destined for a lunar flyby early September 9 Eastern time.

This data comes not from China but from amateur astronomers who specialize in tracking satellites.

The fly-by could provide the spacecraft the velocity it needs to reach near Earth asteroid Kamo’oalewa, which China has said it is targeting for a 2024 sample return mission. Such a reconnaissance will help them design the sample return mission.

China Long March 4C rocket launches satellite

According to China’s state-run press, the country launched an “earth observation” satellite today using its Long March 4C rocket.

The satellite is part of a series of similar satellites launched by civilian agencies ostensibly for civilian use. The rocket was launched from an interior spaceport. No word on whether its first stage carried grid fins or parachutes to control its landing in the interior of China, or whether it crashed near habitable areas.

The leaders in the 2021 launch race:

30 China
21 SpaceX
13 Russia
4 Northrop Grumman

The U.S. lead over China in the national rankings has now narrowed to 32 to 30.

FAA grounds Virgin Galactic pending investigationn

Probably in response to the revelation of the flight issue, not an actual safety issue, the FAA has grounded Virgin Galactic from any further flights pending the resolution of the investigation of the July flight, which drifted out of its planned flight path due to high winds.

This will likely delay their planned next manned flight, which had been tentatively scheduled for September-October.

Posted on the way to Nevada.

The problem Starship poses to NASA and Congress

An interesting essay published earlier this week in The Space Review raises the coming dilemma that both NASA and Congress will soon have to face once Starship is operational and launching large cargoes and crews to orbit, both near Earth and to the Moon.

That dilemma: What do about SLS and Lunar Gateway once it becomes ridiculously obvious that they are inferior vessels for future space travel?

I think this quote from the article more than any illustrates the reality that these government officials will soon have to deal with in some manner:

[When] the Lunar Starship ever docks with Gateway, the size comparison with Gateway will appear silly and beg the question as to whether Gateway is actually necessary. Does this even make sense? Couldn’t two Starships simply dock with each other and transfer propellant from one to another. Is there really a need for a middleman?

The author, Doug Plata, also notes other contrasts that will make SLS and Lunar Gateway look absurd, such as when two Starships begin transferring fuel in orbit or when a Starship launches 400 satellites in one go, or when a private Starship mission circles the Moon and returns to Earth for later reuse.

All of these scenarios are actually being planned, with the first something NASA itself is paying for, since the lunar landing Starship will dock with Lunar Gateway to pick up and drop off its passengers for the Moon.

The bottom line for Plata is that the federal government needs to stop wasting money on bad programs like SLS and Lunar Gateway and switch its focus to buying products from commercial sources like SpaceX. They will get far more bang for the buck, while actually getting something accomplished in space.

Though he uses different words, and has the advantage of recent events to reference, Plata is essentially repeating my recommendations from my 2017 policy paper, Capitalism in Space [free pdf]. Plata draws as his proof for his argument the recent developments with Starship. I drew as my proof a comparison between SLS and what private commercial space was doing for NASA, as starkly illustrated by this one table:

The cost difference between SLS and private space

The government has got to stop trying to build things, as it does an abysmal job. It instead must buy what it needs from private commercial vendors who know how to do it and have proven they can do it well.

If the government does this, will not only save money, it will fuel an American renaissance in space. As we see already beginning to see happen now in rocketry and the unmanned lunar landing business.

Firefly first launch attempt fails after liftoff, shortly before stage separation

Alpha rocket exploding
Screen capture from Everyday Astronaut live stream.

Capitalism in space: Firefly’s first attempt to launch its Alpha rocket to orbit failed at T+2:30 minutes, shortly after it went supersonic and just before first stage engine cut-off and stage separation.

The screen capture to the right shows that explosion.

Lift-off procedures went very well, though the rocket itself appeared to reach supersonic speeds later than their timeline predicted, suggesting it was underpowered.

In fact, the whole operation reminded me of SpaceX’s early attempts to launch its Falcon-1 rocket. Just as happened in one of those early SpaceX launches, there was a launch abort at liftoff, the launch team quickly figured out what happened, recycled the rocket, and successfully lifted off an hour later. Kudos to that team!

The failure is unfortunate, but to repeat the cliche, this is rocket science. They will try again.

Firefly set for first orbital launch today

Capitalism in space: If all goes right, Firefly Aerospace will attempt its first orbital launch today from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, using its Alpha rocket to place a test payload of science experiments in space.

The launch window is from 6 pm to 10 pm Pacific.

If you wish to watch, I have embedded the live stream below. That stream however have been very poor. The stream is working better here.

Note: They had a launch abort right at launch, and appear to be recycling to try again.

China building Ingenuity copycat

Ingenuity vs China

China’s space program revealed yesterday that it is designing its own Mars helicopter for future missions to the Red Planet.

The picture to the right shows this Chinese helicopter prototype on the bottom, with Ingenuity on Mars on top.

Notice the similarity? In fact, one could almost say that the Chinese helicopter is an outright steal of the JPL design.

But then, why not? According to an 2019 inspector general report [pdf], China hacked into JPL’s computers twice from 2009 to 2017 and stole 500MB of data. That data almost certainly included the design plans for Ingenuity, under development at the time.

Copying the work of others is expected, especially when that design is found to work. In this case however it almost certainly isn’t copying, but outright theft.

Of course, that has been par for the course for China’s space program. They don’t appear to be capable of innovating on their own. They first must steal someone else’s design, and then revise and upgrade from that. Their final products might be of high quality, but in the end their long term ability to build something new is going to be severely limited, if they cannot start inventing things on their own.

Flight anomalies occurred during Branson’s suborbital flight in July

Capitalism in space: According to a New Yorker story today, the suborbital flight of Richard Branson in July experienced several flight anomalies that the article suggests should have caused it to end early before reaching space.

The rocket motor on Virgin Galactic’s ship is programmed to burn for a minute. On July 11th, it had a few more seconds to go when a red light also appeared on the console: an entry glide-cone warning. This was a big deal. I once sat in on a meeting, in 2015, during which the pilots on the July 11th mission—Dave Mackay, a former Virgin Atlantic pilot and veteran of the U.K.’s Royal Air Force, and Mike Masucci, a retired Air Force pilot—and others discussed procedures for responding to an entry glide-cone warning. C. J. Sturckow, a former marine and nasa astronaut, said that a yellow light should “scare the [“#$%#] out of you,” because “when it turns red it’s gonna be too late”; Masucci was less concerned about the yellow light but said, “Red should scare the crap out of you.” Based on pilot procedures, Mackay and Masucci had basically two options: implement immediate corrective action, or abort the rocket motor. According to multiple sources in the company, the safest way to respond to the warning would have been to abort. (A Virgin Galactic spokesperson disputed this contention.)

Aborting at that moment, however, would have dashed Branson’s hopes of beating his rival Bezos, whose flight was scheduled for later in the month, into space. Mackay and Masucci did not abort.

Virgin Galactic’s response, including the FAA’s statement, can be found here. The company noted that the flight deviation occurred because of unexpected high altitude winds. The FAA’s comment I think provides some reasonably perspective:
» Read more

A Martian sunset in Jezero Crater

Sunset on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, reduced slightly to post here, was taken by the left navigation camera on the Mars rover Perseverance. Looking west to the rim of Jezero Crater, it catches the Sun as it sets behind that rim.

The image was taken on July 20, 2021, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. Seems somehow fitting to catch a sunset on Mars on this date, to illustrate how far we have come in that half century.

To my mind, not enough. Our ability to send robots to other worlds has certainly improved, but in 1969 we were able to put a human on another world. Since 1972 we no longer have had that capability, so that in 2021 all we can do is fly robots elsewhere.

It is time for this to change. I’d much prefer to make believe this photo was a sunrise suggesting a bright future, than the sunset it actually is, indicating a coming dark age.

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