Sign the LunarCOTS petition.

Do you think the commercial space program led by SpaceX is the fastest and cheapest way for the U.S. to get humans back into low Earth orbit? Then why not do it for missions beyond Earth orbit?

The LunarCOTS petition is a campaign to have NASA subsidize private companies to design and build the United States’ future interplanetary missions rather than have NASA do it in big government programs like SLS. Makes sense to me, and so I signed the petition immediately.

SpaceX has delayed the launch of its Dragon test mission to ISS, with the launch now scheduled sometime between May 3 and May 7.

SpaceX has delayed the launch of its Dragon test mission to ISS, with the launch now scheduled sometime between May 3 and May 7.

“After reviewing our recent progress, it was clear that we needed more time to finish hardware-in-the-loop testing and properly review and follow up on all data,” SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Brost Grantham wrote in an email. “While it is still possible that we could launch on May 3rd, it would be wise to add a few more days of margin in case things take longer than expected. As a result, our launch is likely to be pushed back by one week, pending coordination with NASA.”

Seven Republicans demand increased NASA supervision of the new commercial launch companies.

Seven Republicans demand increased NASA supervision of the new commercial launch companies.

This is what I call shooting yourself in the foot. One reason the tea party movement started is because Republicans during the Bush years had sometimes become as unreliable as Democrats when it came to some basic political issues. If we want private enterprise and the free market to rule, then the last thing a bunch of Republicans should be doing is demanding greater supervision by government agencies.

Space exploration and the unexpected consequences of government decisions

On Thursday, December 15, 2011, NASA management announced what seemed at first glance to be a very boring managerial decision. Future contracts with any aerospace company to launch astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) will follow the same contractual arrangements used by NASA and SpaceX and Orbital Sciences for supplying cargo to the space station.

As boring that sounds, this is probably the most important decision NASA managers have made since the 1960s. Not only will this contractual approach lower the cost and accelerate the speed of developing a new generation of manned spaceships, it will transfer control of space exploration from NASA — an overweight and bloated government agency — to the free and competitive open market.

To me, however, the decision illustrates a number of unexpected consequences, none of which have been noted by anyone in the discussions that followed NASA’s announcement back in mid-December.
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Alan Boyle describes the details behind NASA’s decision to go with simpler contracting for future commercial rocket contracts

Alan Boyle describes the details behind NASA’s decision to go with simpler contracting for future commercial rocket contracts.

If you read the article, you’ll notice that the opposition to this decision comes from a Congressman and the GAO. In both cases they cite safety as an issue, as is by some magic giving NASA a lot of bureaucratic approval rights on every design is going to make the rockets or capsules safer. All this will really do is slow things down, increase costs, and possibly increase risks as the companies will no longer have as many resources to focus on design issues. Instead, they will have to spend a fortune pleasing NASA bureaucrats.

And yes, I call them bureaucrats. Any NASA engineer who spends his or her time looking over the shoulder of another engineer — who is doing the real design work — is nothing more than a bureaucrat. Better to quit NASA and get a job with one of these new companies where you can do some real work.

NASA has decided to stick with the same contracting arrangement it used for the COTS contracts

Good news: NASA has decided to stick with essentially the same contracting arrangement it used for the SpaceX and Orbital Sciences cargo deals to ISS in its future commercial crew and cargo contracts.

This suggests that the NASA bureaucracy, which had wanted more control of the new commercial companies by using a more restrictive contract arrangement, has lost. However, we don’t yet have the details on how the new contracts will be administrated, and as always, the devil is in the details.

Orbital Sciences has renamed its Taurus II rocket the Antares rocket

Orbital Sciences has renamed its Taurus II rocket the Antares rocket.

To clear up any marketplace confusion and provide clear differentiation between this new launch vehicle and our Taurus XL rocket. Antares is significantly different – it serves the medium-class space launch market and its liquid fuel first stage technology is major departure from previous Orbital space launch vehicles. In addition, a project of this scale and significance deserves its own name like Orbital’s Pegasus®, Taurus® and Minotaur rocket programs that have come before it.

I think they have also realized they needed to distinguish Antares from the Taurus XL rocket’s recent problems, failing twice to put NASA climate satellites into orbit.

Tea Party in Space argues for more money for commercial space

Andrew Gasser at the Tea Party in Space website today argues strongly for Congress to fully fund the new commercial space program at the $850 million amount requested by the Obama administration.

As much as I am for these new commercial companies, I do not think it a good idea to fund them at these high levels.

For one thing, the government is still broke. It can’t afford to spend that much money. It is therefore unseemly for a website that uses the “tea party” label to advocate more spending at this time.

For another, the more money the government commits to these companies, the more control the government is going to demand from them. Far better to keep the government participation as small as possible. Make it just enough to allow the companies to succeed but not enough so as to make the whole effort a government program.

Orbital announces revised schedule for its initial Taurus 2 and Cygnus flights

Orbital Sciences has announced its revised schedule for the initial Taurus 2 and Cygnus flights.

Orbital will conduct a test of the Taurus 2’s first stage on the launch pad in late January [2012], and the inaugural Taurus 2 flight in late February or early March. This will be followed, in early May, by a Taurus 2 flight carrying the Cygnus station cargo vehicle, a flight during which Cygnus is expected to demonstrate its ability to berth with the station. The first operational space station cargo-delivery mission for Taurus 2 and Cygnus will occur in late August or early September under this revised schedule, Orbital officials said.

Based on conversations I’ve had with people at Orbital, this delay was expected, and is a good thing. The company was under incredible time pressure to get ready for a December launch. Given that this will be the first test flight of Taurus 2, and it must work for the Cygnus cargo flights to follow, better they give themselves some working room to get it right.

The new commercial space companies question NASA contracting policies

The new commercial space companies are challenging NASA’s new contracting policy.

The article covers the conflict that I described in this post, whereby NASA is abandoning the more flexible contracting approach used for the commercial cargo contracts of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences and going instead with the contracting system it used for all past NASA subcontracts.

The article is errs badly when it calls the new contracting approach that NASA wants to use “non-traditional.” It is instead the way NASA has been doing things for decades, whereby the agency takes full control of everything and requires contractors to fill out so much paperwork that the costs double and triple.

Orbital Science rocket engine sustains damage in test

One of the rocket engines for Orbital Science’s Taurus rocket, to be used to supply cargo to ISS, was badly damaged in a fuel fire June 9.

The results of the investigation and prognosis for the engine and the Taurus II should come together by the end of this week or early next week, Beneski says. Two other AJ26 engines have completed hot-fire acceptance testing without mishap, according to the Aerojet website. Beneski said the engine mishap potentially affects the testing planned to get the Taurus II ready for operational missions to resupply the ISS.

The costs of space cargo

This week there was a bit of a political kerfuffle during House hearings over a House report [pdf] that stated that the cost per pound for launching cargo to ISS was much cheaper using the shuttle versus the new commercial companies under the COTS program. This is shown in this table from page 5 of the report:

House charter graph

The problem is that these numbers are a complete lie, as they are based on a yearly cost of $3 billion to operate the shuttle (highlighted in yellow). I have been following NASA budget battles now for decades, and the shuttle operational budget has never, ever been that low. Routinely, NASA figures the cost to operate the shuttle per year, regardless of number of flights, to be about $4 billion per year.
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