Tag Archives: competition

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

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

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

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

Share

Bezos sells another $1.8 billion in Amazon stock

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

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

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

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

Share

Momentus announces new customer for its cubesat upper stage services

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

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

SteamJet also is most intriguing along these same lines.

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

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

Share

SpaceX wins another NASA launch contract

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

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

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

Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share

Rocket Lab successfully launches U.S. reconnaissance satellite

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

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

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

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

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

Share

You Use a Cartridge Razor? Dump it!

An evening pause: Recently my cousin Ken Kueny, a former software manager at Orbital ATK and now the owner of Karn Custom Woodwork, a major carpentry company in Virginia, made me aware of a new example in the movement to buy dumb (rejecting modern hi-tech for older technology developed in the 20th century), this time related to shaving utensils. Apparently, men appear to be abandoning the modern expensive cartridge multi-blade razors for old-fashioned safety razors and double-edged blades.

I, who hate shaving and have a beard partly so that I only have to do a trimming about twice a week, was astonished. The video below gives a quick lesson on how to shave with a safety razor, for those too young to remember these tools. It also gives a sense of why it is better to do it this way. This video shows just a sampling of the many different types of available safety razors, and the engineering differences for each. Do a search on youtube and you will see numerous similar videos touting the advantages of going retro when shaving. All are quite convincing.

This new trend won’t make me shave my beard, as I also like it very much, but it does illustrate once again that while new designs can certainly improve things, newer is not always better.

Share

NASA signs agreement with private company to train private astronauts

Capitalism in space: A private company based in Houston, KBR, has signed an agreement with NASA to train private astronauts for flights to and from ISS.

It appears that KBR has been providing NASA support services for quite awhile, such as some ISS command and control operations. This agreement appears to give them some NASA support, such as access to NASA training facilities, as they start offering their astronaut training services to private customers.

Share

Why Bigelow passed on NASA bid for new ISS module

Capitalism in space: In an interview this week, Robert Bigelow provided his reasons for not bidding on the NASA agreement to build additional modules for ISS, won by passed on NASA bid for new ISS module, won by Axiom this week.

In a Jan. 28 interview, Robert Bigelow said his company decided not to bid on a NASA competition for access to an ISS docking port for a commercial module because the funding NASA offered for doing so was too low. NASA announced Jan. 27 it selected Axiom Space to use the port through its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program.

When NASA issued the request for proposal in June for the docking port, NASA said it projected making $561 million available for both the docking port solicitation and a separate one to support development of a free-flying commercial facility. “That was asking just too much” of the company, Bigelow said. “So we told NASA we had to bow out.”

NASA now appears willing to separate the free flyer from the program, meaning that it wishes to make more money available to both, something Bigelow says is necessary because at the moment he believes there are not enough customers outside NASA for any orbital space business to make a profit.

On this last point I think Bigelow might be wrong. I also think it will be a mistake for NASA to provide these companies too much money. Keep them on a tight lease, force them to work efficiently so that they lower costs. This will make it easier for them to charge less to outside customers, thus widening their customer base more quickly.

If NASA gives them a blank check, it will remain the only customer, as the companies will then end up spending too much building their facilities, making it impossible for any other private customer to afford using it.

Share

Boeing budgets for extra unmanned Starliner test

Capitalism in space: Boeing has put aside $410 million in its next budget to pay for a possible second unmanned Starliner test, just in case NASA demands it.

The company said in its fourth quarter earnings release Jan. 29 that it was taking the charge “primarily to provision for an additional uncrewed mission for the Commercial Crew program, performance and mix.” It noted that NASA was still reviewing data from the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) mission in December that was cut short, without a docking at the International Space Station, by a timer problem.

“NASA is in the process of reviewing the data from our December 2019 mission,” Greg Smith, chief financial officer at Boeing, said in an earnings call. “NASA’s approval is required to proceed with a flight test with astronauts on board. Given this obligation, we are provisioned for another uncrewed mission.” Neither he nor Boeing’s new chief executive, David Calhoun, elaborated on that during the call, which was devoted primarily to issues related to the company’s 737 MAX airliner.

It might be too early to say, but my instincts are telling me that this decision, made very quickly, is a very good sign for Boeing. It suggests that Calhoun doesn’t fool around, that he takes very seriously the need for Boeing to serve its customers. In the past Boeing would have lobbied NASA, its customer, to pay for a possible additional flight (something NASA is not required to do according to the contract). Now Boeing instead makes it clear that it has accepted the responsibility of that additional flight, right off the bat, something that any good and healthy company should do.

Share

SpaceX launches another 60 Starlink satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully launched another 60 Starlink satellites, bringing the size of the constellation to 240 satellites.

They also successfully recovered the first stage, which was making its third flight. They also caught one of the two fairing halves in the ship net, recovering the second half out of the ocean.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
2 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)

The launch replay is embedded below the fold.
» Read more

Share

More evidence Iran is about to launch a satellite

Images from space of Iran’s rocket launch site appear to confirm their recent claims that they are about to launch a satellite, showing the kind of activity that usually presages a launch.

Satellite photos taken on January 26 by the San Francisco-based commercial company Planet Labs Inc. and shared via the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey show work at a launchpad at the Imam Khomeini Space Center.

The images also show more cars and activity at a facility at the space center, located about 230 kilometers southeast of Tehran. “It looks pretty clearly to us like Iran is going to try and put a satellite into space,” Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute who tracks Iran’s space program.

If they do launch and successfully get their satellite into orbit, it will be their first such success since 2015.

Share

NASA picks Axiom to build three private commercial modules on ISS

Capitalism in space: NASA today picked the new space station company Axiom to build three modules to ISS, designed to operate as a private commercial operation.

The first segment launch is targeted for 2024. The three segments will include a node with multi-ports, a crew module, and a research module, and will be the “hotel” for private tourists that Axiom hopes to send to ISS two or three times per year. The entire section will also be designed to eventually separate from ISS when that station is retired and operate, with more additions, as an independent station.

This decision did not include the actual contract, only the choice of company to build this new section of ISS. Later negotiations will determine the fixed price amount that NASA will pay.

Why did NASA pick Axiom, which has not yet launched anything, and bypass Bigelow, which has launched two independent test modules and one that has been attached to ISS and working successfully now for several years? This quote explains:

Although Axiom is a relatively young company, having been formed only four years ago in 2016, there is no lack of experience within the company’s ranks.

Axiom’s Co-founder and CEO is Micheal Suffredini, who formerly worked at the Johnson Space Centre (JSC) as the program manager for the International Space Station project.

The Axiom team also includes Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut who flew on the space shuttle three times and commanded the 14th Expedition to the ISS, as well as former shuttle commanders Brent Jett and Charles Bolden, the latter of whom served as NASA’s 12th administrator from 2009 to 2017.

Axiom is also working alongside several companies with extensive experience with the ISS program, this includes Boeing, who has made several of the modules that make up the US Segment, including Node 1 and the US Laboratory Module. Axiom is also working alongside Thales Alenia Space, Maxar Technologies and Intuitive Machines to get this project off the ground. [emphasis mine]

In other words, it appears it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. This is not to say that the individuals and companies listed above do not know much, but that the company’s real experience with building private modules is lacking. Boeing has built NASA’s modules, but those were for the government and were therefore costly. I have grave doubts they could do this inexpensively, though I could be wrong.

The key will be whether they aim to make their profits from their commercial customers, or use NASA (and the federal government) as their cash cow. The track record of most of Axiom’s partners suggests the latter. For example, Bigelow built and launched its BEAM module to ISS for $17 million, and got it done in three years. We don’t yet know the cost of Axiom’s modules, but their target build-time is already longer, at four to five years

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud NASA’s approach here. They are ceding ownership and construction to a private company, and allowing its work to be commercialized for profit, something that NASA routinely opposed for decades. I just worry that the company it has chosen will be not up to the task, and is not focused on making those profits.

Share

Iran to launch two satellites soon?

According to one Iranian official’s twitter feed, Iran has completed construction on two new satellites, both of which will launch “soon.”

The article also suggests that four more satellites are is being developed.

Such announcements from Iran must be treated with great skepticism, as they have been making them for years with little actual follow-up. In fact, the last time Iran launched a satellite into orbit successfully was 2015.

Share

Boeing flies 777X for the first time

On January 25 Boeing successfully flew its new giant 777X commercial airplane for the first time.

Originally unveiled at the 2013 Dubai Airshow, the 777X is an advance on the engineering and interior innovations of the 777 and 787 Dreamliner. The twin-engine jetliner is available in the 777-8 and 777-9 variants with ranges of up to 8,700 nm (10,012 mi/16,110 km) and seating between 350 and 425 passengers.

The key innovation of the 777X is its lightweight wing design based on a composite spar made from over 400 miles (644 km) of carbon tape cured in a specially-built autoclave. This allows the aircraft to have a wingspan of 235 ft (72 m) – a span so long that the wings have folding sections at their tips so the plane can fit in conventional boarding gates.

The test flight lasted just under four hours. The pictures at the link illustrate clearly emphasize the lightweight wings, which look tiny compared to the two engines.

Boeing desperately needs a success, considering the string of problems almost all of its major projects have been having recently.

Share

Airbus gets ESA as customer for its ISS commercial platform

Capitalism in space: Airbus has signed up the European Space Agency (ESA) to use its as-yet unlaunched ISS Bartolomeo module as an experimental platform.

The Bartolomeo platform – named after Christopher Columbus’ younger brother – is currently in the final stage of launch preparation at Airbus in Bremen and is scheduled for launch to the ISS in March 2020. Bartolomeo is developed on a commercial basis by Airbus using its own investment funds and will be operated in cooperation with ESA.

The platform can accommodate up to 12 different experiment modules, supplying them with power and providing data transmission to Earth. Bartolomeo is suitable for many different experiments. Due to the unique position of the platform with a direct view of Earth from 400 kilometres, Earth observation including trace gas measurements or CO2 monitoring of the atmosphere are possible, with data useful for climate protection or for use by private data service providers.

This is the European effort to duplicate the slow commercialization of ISS that is also taking place in the U.S., with more and more of the payloads and operating platforms on the station being developed, owned, and operated not by NASA but by private companies.

Share

NASA picks science payloads for 1st two unmanned private lunar landers

Capitalism in space: NASA has chosen the science instruments that will be put on the 1st two unmanned privately built lunar landers aimed at arriving on the Moon in 2021.

Two experiments will be flown on both landers. The Astrobotic lander gets an additional nine instruments, while Intuitive Machines gets three.

The most interesting tidbit from the press release is that NASA hopes to make “about two deliveries of scientific and research payloads to the Moon per year starting in 2021.” Seems overly optimistic to me, though in the long run the approach makes sense for NASA. These landers are relatively small and cheap, so the cost to fly a lot of them is not exorbitant. Under this arrangement, if one fails you simply figure out why and quickly fly another.

For this new American industry the approach also works. The companies will own the designs, so soon they will be able to market this technology to other customers, at what is historically record low prices for such a mission. The result is likely going to be the arrival of a swarm of new customers.

Share

SpaceX wins first new launch contract in 2020

Capitalism in space:The Egyptian communcications satellite company Nilsat this week announced that it has awarded SpaceX the launch contract for its next satellite.

This was SpaceX’s first contract award in 2020.

The article goes into great detail about SpaceX’s present launch manifest, which according to the company has contracts for future launches equaling $12 billion.

Based on public info, SpaceX has roughly 55 customer launches on its manifest. The company also intends to launch as many as 24 dedicated Starlink missions this year and will need at least another 40-50 on top of that to complete the first phase of the broadband internet satellite constellation (~4400 spacecraft). Meanwhile, SpaceX has won at least nine separate launch contracts – two Falcon Heavy missions and seven Falcon 9s – in the last 18 months, but has launched 22 customer payloads in the same period.

In fewer words, SpaceX is effectively launching its existing commercial missions much faster than it’s receiving new contracts. In 2019, for example, the company launched only 11 commercial missions – 13 total including two internal 60-satellite Starlink launches. SpaceX launched 21 times in 2018, a record the company initially hoped to equal or even beat last year, but – for the first time ever – the launch company was consistently ready before its customers were.

It appears SpaceX intends to pick up any slack in launch contracts with Starlink satellite launches, which once in orbit are another major income source for the company.

Overall, it seems to me that SpaceX is quite awash with capital, which reinforces their decision to not take government money to develop Starship. Using their own capital they are free to build as they see fit, with no one from the government who knows less than they do looking over their shoulder and kibitzing.

Share

Launch abort data suggests Dragon performed “flawlessly”

A preliminary review of the data gathered during SpaceX’s launch abort test on January 19, 2020 suggests the system performed “flawlessly”.

The Crew Dragon began its launch escape maneuver at 10:31:25 a.m. EST (1531:25 GMT) — initiated by a low setting of an on-board acceleration trigger — when the Falcon 9 was traveling at a velocity around 1,200 mph (536 meters per second), according to SpaceX.

Eight SuperDraco thrusters immediately pressurized and ignited as the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage engines were commanded to shut down as part of the abort sequence. The escape engines on the Crew Dragon produced nearly 130,000 pounds of thrust at full power. The SuperDracos performed flawlessly, SpaceX said, accelerating the capsule away from the top of the Falcon 9 at a peak acceleration of 3.3Gs. The SuperDracos accelerated the spacecraft from about 1,200 mph up to more than 1,500 mph (about 675 meters per second) in approximately seven seconds, according to SpaceX.

At this point it appears the only reason the first manned launch might be delayed a bit is if NASA decides to turn it into a long duration mission, requiring new training for the crew.

Share

Russia again delays launch of Nauka module for ISS

Russia yesterday announced that it will once again delay the launch of its Nauka module for ISS due to “additional adjustments that should be carried out due to the use of original propellant tanks.”

The TASS article did not explain what those adjustments will be, though it did outline some of the sad history of Nauka, which Russia had begun construction in 1995, a quarter of a century ago.

Earlier, Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozi said the research module’s original propellant tanks, manufactured about 18 years ago, could be replaced with those from the Fregat booster. However, later it was decided to send the module to the ISS with its original tanks.

The construction of the Nauka module began in 1995. Russia initially planned to launch the Nauka lab to the ISS as a back-up of the Zarya compartment (the station’s first module that continues its flight as part of the orbital outpost) but the launch was numerously delayed. In 2013, the Nauka module was sent to the Khrunichev Space Center after metal chips were found in its fuel system.

Right now they are saying it will probably launch early in 2021, not late in 2020 as previously announced.

Share

Fire during Firefly rocket engine test forces evacuations

A fire during an engine test of Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket yesterday has forced local officials to evacuate nearby residents for a short time.

Earlier Wednesday, Firefly Aerospace tweeted an image of a first stage for the company’s Alpha rocket on a vertical test stand at the Briggs facility. In the tweet, Firefly wrote that teams were loading liquid oxygen into a test version of the company’s Alpha booster in preparation for the first hotfire qualification test of the rocket’s first stage.

Firefly later deleted the tweet after local authorities responded to reports of an “explosion” at the test facility in Central Texas, and ordered the closure of roads in the area and the evacuation of nearby residents.

Officials later clarified that no explosion occurred. Tom Markusic, Firefly’s CEO, told KXAN — the NBC television affiliate in Austin — that a fuel leak resulted in a small fire on the test stand. [emphasis mine]

This is not good for the company’s planned launch schedule, which presently calls for the first operational flight in 2020.

At the same time, the company announced the signing of a contract today with a company that will act as a coordinator scheduling multiple smallsat customers on the rocket.

Share

Boeing abruptly exits DARPA’s experimental spaceplane project

Boeing today announced it is pulling out of DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane Program, cancelling development of its Phantom Express-1 hyposonic plane.

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency says Boeing is dropping out of its Experimental Spaceplane Program immediately, grounding the XS-1 Phantom Express, even though technical tests had shown the hypersonic space plane concept was feasible. “The detailed engineering activities conducted under the Experimental Spaceplane Program affirmed that no technical showstoppers stand in the way of achieving DARPA’s objectives, and that a system such as XSP would bolster national security,” DARPA said in a statement issued today.

Boeing has provided no clear explanation for this exit. I suspect it might have to do with their other problems related to the 737-Max airplane and the costs it is imposing on the company. Also, the program called for the first test flights in 2020, and it might also be that Boeing had doubts about meeting that goal.

Right now I wonder if Boeing will have to return any of the cash DARPA provided it for the work done so far, out of the total $146 million award. Moreover, at least two other companies had bid for this contract, Masten and Northrop Grumman. Will Boeing’s exit now allow them to pick up the pieces? Or has Boeing’s contract win and sudden exit mainly achieved the goal of stymieing their compeition?

Overall, this decision by Boeing is just another black mark on the company, just one of many that has occurred in the past few years.

UPDATE: It appears that Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc suspects the same Machiavellian maneuvers from Boeing as I.

A couple of years ago, a friend made the surprising predication that DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane Program (XSP) — a R&D effort designed to produce a rocket capable of being launched 10 times in 10 days — would never see any hardware built.

The reasoning went like this: the winning bidder, Boeing, really wasn’t interested in the technology. The company was actually interested in government funding and keeping other companies from developing the system.

Messier isn’t sure either, noting that the pull out might also have occurred due to the arrival of Boeing’s new CEO, only a week earlier.

Share

Trunk from Dragon recovered intact

Capitalism in space: In recovering various pieces, including the capsule, dropped in the Atlantic during its January 19 launch abort test, SpaceX (and Elon Musk) were surprised to retrieve the capsule’s trunk section, normally attached below the capsule, largely intact and undamaged.

The recovery does not mean SpaceX will recapture and reuse this component in the future, since on an orbital flight the trunk would go into orbit. What it does suggest strongly is that SpaceX’s engineering is remarkably robust. To quote the old Timex commercial, “Takes a licking, keeps on ticking!” Kudos to them.

Share

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.

Share

Prototypes of China’s core space station module and new manned spacecraft arrive at launch site

The new colonial movement: Prototypes of China’s core space station module and its new upgraded manned capsule have been delivered to the Long March 5B launch site.

The space station module will be used to test the installation and launch procedures for launching the actual module on the Long March 5B rocket. The manned capsule will be sent into orbit unmanned this spring on the Long March 5B to test both the rocket and the capsule, prior to human operations. This detail from the short article however is worth noting:

The new-generation manned spacecraft is 8.8 meters long and has a takeoff weight of 21.6 tonnes. It will be used for transporting crew to the space station and to conduct China’s future manned lunar missions.

Apparently in upgrading its Shenzhou manned spacecraft China has made it 0.3 meters longer and about four tons heavier. In fact, this manned ferry for getting to and from its space station is as heavy as a standard module used on both Mir and ISS. I could be wrong, but if this is the case they will require the Long March 5 or 5B for every manned flight. Since this rocket is large and expensive, it will be difficult to use it for maintaining a frequent launch pace, thus limiting the number of manned missions.

As I said, I could be wrong. Up until now I had assumed that a variant of the Long March 5 would be used to launch the station modules, and the smaller Long March 2F rocket used to ferry astronauts to it (as was done on all previous Chinese manned missions). This could still be the case.

If not, however, China’s space engineers have either put a limit on what they can achieve by overbuilding that manned capsule, or their government has made a major commitment to put a lot of tonnage into orbit. If the latter China’s space program is going to be quite competitive indeed.

Share

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

Share

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

Share

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!

Share

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.

Share
1 2 3 4 144