Tag Archives: Dragon

Rather than use American manned capsules, NASA is considering buying more Soyuz astronaut flights

Because of the delays imposed by its safety panel in the development of two American-made manned capsules, NASA is now considering buying more Soyuz astronaut flights from Russia.

Past experience has shown the difficulties associated with achieving first flights on time in the final year of development. Typically, problems will be discovered during these test flights. The consequences of no US crew on ISS warrant protection by acquiring additional seats. The absence of U.S. crewmembers at any point would diminish ISS operations to an inoperable state,” noted a procurement document published on February 13.

NASA is considering contracting with the State Space Corporation “Roscosmos” for these services on a sole source basis for two (2) Soyuz seats and associated services to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft vehicle. This transportation would be for one crewmember in the Fall of 2019 and one crewmember in the Spring of 2020.

Remind me again: What country does NASA work for? From this I think it is Russia, not the United States. The agency has no problem putting its astronauts on a Soyuz rocket, even though Russia has had chronic quality control problems that not only caused a Soyuz launch abort last year but also had someone drill a hole in a manned capsule, an act of sabotage that Russia has still not explained or solved.

Meanwhile, it slow-walks and delays in any manner it can the manned efforts of two American companies, so that it is forced to use Russian rockets. This is unconscionable. Where is Trump, the “America-First” guy? Why isn’t he stepping in and putting an end to this political gamesmanship that clearly favors a foreign power over American companies?

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NASA’s political and corrupt safety panel

After spending the last few years complaining about certain specific issues with the manned capsule efforts of SpaceX and Boeing, NASA’s safety panel this past weekend released its annual 2018 report. (You can download the report here [pdf].) Its position now on those certain specific issues can now be summarized as follows:

They make no mention of the parachute issues that forced Boeing to do numerous extra tests, causing probably a year delay in the program, though Boeing has had decades of experience with capsule parachutes and the entire American aerospace industry has never had a parachute failure.

The panel also admits that their concerns about SpaceX’s rocket fueling procedures is really not an issue.

The NESC [NASA Engineering and Safety Center] has independently studied the load and go procedure and provided a thorough report that identifies the hazards and available controls. Based on the NESC report, the CCP [Commercial Crew Program] has decided that the load and go concept is viable if subsequent analysis is adequate and if verifiable controls are identified and implemented for all the credible hazard causes that could potentially result in an emergency situation or worse.

As Emily Litela said, “Never mind!” Their concerns were never credible, as it really doesn’t matter if you fuel the rocket before or after the astronauts board, because in either case they are there when a lot of fuel is present. All the panel did was delay the first Dragon launch by at least a year by pushing this issue.

The panel is still holding onto its concerns about the installation blankets (COPV) used in SpaceX’s internal helium tanks, the location of the problem that caused the September 2016 launchpad explosion. Despite SpaceX’s apparent fixing of this problem, with 40 successful launches since that failure, they are listing further vague requirements:
» Read more

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NASA to avoid SLS delays should another shutdown occur

Faced with an impending second government shutdown mere days away, NASA has been moving to avoid any delays in an upcoming planned Orion/SLS launch abort test should another shutdown occur.

What I find most fascinating about this article is how different the attitude seems to be at NASA between this SLS/Orion test flight and SpaceX’s Dragon test flight. With SpaceX, NASA has apparently made no effort to figure out ways for the test to go forward during the shutdown, even though the launch would be run by SpaceX employees on a SpaceX launchpad, and would only require NASA employees who are all considered essential.

With this Orion abort test, however, they have been and are planning to do everything they can to bypass the shutdown. Like SpaceX, the Air Force was free to operate during the shutdown, because its budget had already been approved.

“Then the shutdown kept going so I said ‘boy, let me see what I can do with these Air Force pieces.’ And it was very interesting, I had to work with lawyers here at Kennedy and Johnson [Space Center],” explained [Mark Kirasich, NASA Orion Program Manager.]

“The Air Force was not shut down, it was only NASA. So you had to write the legal justification — ‘hey the Air Force is not shut down, this is important work to do in this building’ and we were eventually able to allow the Air Force to get access to the buildings, if that makes sense.”

“And then the very last piece which was the NASA piece,” he continued. “Now of course NASA was shut down, that was the hardest thing to get exempted and I was working on that piece right when the government on that Friday night signed that continuing resolution, but I was confident I would get that piece going again had the shutdown continued.”

The contrast is most striking. It almost makes you think that NASA is purposely using any excuse to slow-walk SpaceX’s effort.

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A look at SpaceX’s upcoming launch schedule

Link here. It appears that the launch dates for both Falcon Heavy launches depend entirely on when the first Falcon 9 manned Dragon test flight takes place.

With Demo-1 having priority, the final preparations for Arabsat [using Falcon Heavy] will not be able to begin until the Demo-1 launch has occurred as there is only so much space in the Pad 39A hangar. With that in mind, Arabsat 6A will likely occur in the second half of March at the earliest, as NASA announced on Wednesday that Demo-1 is now targeting no earlier than March 2nd, 2019.

While the March 2nd launch date for Demo-1 is still tentative, it is understood that the Space Station’s Visiting Vehicle Schedule does have availability for a launch on that date should the NASA and SpaceX teams be ready.

Once Demo-1 and Arabsat are out of the way, Pad 39A will not be done supporting high profile missions. SpaceX will work to quickly turnaround the first stage boosters from the Arabsat 6A flight in order to reuse them for the STP-2 mission – the second Falcon Heavy launch of the year. STP-2 is a mission for the U.S. Air Force which will feature several technology demonstration payloads. According to FCC filings, the launch is currently scheduled for no earlier than April 30th, 2019. However, since this mission requires boosters from the Arabsat 6A launch, SpaceX will require several weeks between the two flights to refurbish the cores.

Therefore, STP-2 is directly connected to the launch schedule for Arabsat 6A which is in turn connected to Demo-1’s schedule. Consequently, the odds of a slip with STP-2’s date are high, as two major dominos currently stand in front of it.

In addition, the date for SpaceX’s launch abort test of Dragon depends entirely on the completion of the Demo-1 flight, since they plan to use that same capsule in the abort test.

Though there are a handful of other launches described in the article through April, but much of SpaceX’s schedule for the spring depends entirely on whether NASA can get off its duff and allow the Dragon test mission to fly. If NASA continues to drag its feet, everything else will get delayed. It would seem that at some point SpaceX might even have the right to demand financial compensation from NASA for the loss of income NASA is causing it. They don’t get paid for any of these launches until they fly, and thus NASA is preventing them from earning money from other customers.

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NASA confirms new Dragon launch date

Confirmed: NASA today announced a new launch date, March 2, for the first unmanned test flight of SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule.

The agency now is targeting March 2 for launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon on its uncrewed Demo-1 test flight. Boeing’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test is targeted for launch no earlier than April.

These adjustments allow for completion of necessary hardware testing, data verification, remaining NASA and provider reviews, as well as training of flight controllers and mission managers.

This is actually the first time that NASA itself has specified a launch date, which suggests to me that they finally have admitted that they cannot hold things up any longer. Based on this announcement and assuming the weather and everything else cooperates, the launch will likely happen then, which will also allow time for SpaceX to get the launchpad reconfigured for its Falcon Heavy launch a week later.

The announcement also listed the remaining test schedule for commercial crew, as it stands now:

  • SpaceX Demo-1 (uncrewed): March 2, 2019
  • Boeing Orbital Flight Test (uncrewed): NET April 2019
  • Boeing Pad Abort Test: NET May 2019
  • SpaceX In-Flight Abort Test: June 2019
  • SpaceX Demo-2 (crewed): July 2019
  • Boeing Crew Flight Test (crewed): NET August 2019

The manned flights have not been pushed back significantly from the dates that NASA announced in October, June for SpaceX and August for Boeing. I would expect that the delays now will force these dates to get delayed as well.

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NASA delays unmanned test of manned Dragon again

While not yet confirmed, industry rumors for the past twenty-four hours are saying that NASA has once again forced a delay in the launch of SpaceX’s unmanned test of manned Dragon, pushing it back into March.

I have linked to one article, but I have been hearing these rumors from a number of sources.

This delay, if true, will cause SpaceX scheduling problems in numerous ways. First, it will conflict with the second Falcon Heavy launch, presently planned for March using the same launchpad. Second, it forces a pushback on the manned Dragon launch. Because SpaceX will use this capsule to fly its launch abort mission, it needs at least three months to prep this capsule for its reuse. Assuming that is a success, it will then need three more months to assess that launch abort flight and prepare for the manned flight. This means the manned flight cannot happen prior to October.

Why the delays? Nowhere in this article or in any of the rumors I have heard has any real reason been given. The article says the following, with the important words highlighted:

As of the first week of December 2018, SpaceX was reportedly planning towards a mid-January 2019 launch debut for Crew Dragon. By the end of December, DM-1 was no earlier than the end of January. By the end of January, DM-1 had slipped to from late-February to NET March 2019. Put in slightly different terms, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launch debut has been more or less indefinitely postponed for the last two months, with planning dates being pushed back at roughly the same pace as the passage of time (i.e. a day’s delay every day).

Admittedly, DM’s apparently indefinite postponement may well be – and probably is – more of an artifact than a sign of any monolithic cause. While the US government’s longest-ever shutdown (35 days) undoubtedly delayed a major proportion of mission-critical work having to do with extensive NASA reviews of SpaceX and Crew Dragon’s launch readiness (known as Readiness Reviews), much of the 60+ day DM-1 delay can probably be attributed to the complexity of the tasks at hand. Being as it is the first time SpaceX has ever attempted a launch directly related to human spaceflight, as well as the first time NASA has been back at the helm (more or less) of US astronaut launch endeavors in more than 7.5 years, significant delays should come as no surprise regardless of how disappointing they may be. [emphasis mine]

The first paragraph above outlines the endless delays that appear to me to be entirely caused by NASA’s endless review process, much of it designed solely to delay things, for political reasons. SpaceX has clearly been ready to launch since December. Moreover, NASA is somewhat irrelevant to this launch, as it is run by a SpaceX launch team on a SpaceX-run launchpad. The delays are all paperwork related, imposed by NASA bureaucrats hostile to this commercial private spacecraft because it is showing the world NASA’s own inability to build its own manned rocket and spacecraft, SLS/Orion.

These NASA bureaucrats are clearly putting their own interests ahead of the interests of the nation. While they play petty political games with this launch, their delays risk putting us in the position next year of having no way to ferry our own astronauts to and from our own space station. The contract with Russia runs out this year, and Russia has said that it would be very difficult for them to quickly schedule more flights beyond that.

Meanwhile, what is Trump doing? Nothing. He is allowing this, even though he has the power to prevent it.

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Unmanned test flight of manned Dragon delayed again?

SpaceX has applied for a new launch license from the FAA for its unmanned test flight of its manned Dragion capsule that sets the launch date as no earlier than March 2nd.

This does not necessarily mean the launch is delayed until then. As noted by commenter Kirk Hilliard here at Behind the Black, “their previous license was valid through 1 March, so they may just be covering their bases here while still planning on launching under the authority of their previous license.”

Regardless, I have seen nothing to change my opinion about the cause of these delays: the NASA bureaucracy. SpaceX has been ready to do this launch since December. It has already done two successful launch rehearsals, one in which they did a successful static fire test, as is standard for the company. Both illustrate their readiness. The launch would use their leased launchpad using their launch crew. There has been no indication of any technical reason for the delays, other than a demand that SpaceX complete paperwork for NASA and the government shutdown (which has not prevented other launches from government facilities).

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First unmanned test flight of manned Dragon now set for Feb 9

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s first unmanned test launch of its manned Dragon capsule, delayed repeated in recent months, has now been scheduled for no early than Feb 9, with its dress rehearsal countdown static fire test set for January 23.

It appears that this scheduled date is more firm than the previous ones, as it was announced as part of the upcoming schedule of the Eastern Range’s planning schedule.

The article provides some interesting details about the effect (or non-effect) the government shutdown on this launch. Bottom line: It should not prevent it, in the slightest. It must be repeatedly noted that the launch will use a SpaceX launch team on a SpaceX run launchpad, and will only require NASA participation during docking procedures, procedures that require NASA employees who have been deemed essential and thus are working (even if unpaid at the moment).

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Unmanned test flight of manned Dragon delayed again

Elon Musk has now confirmed that the first unmanned test flight of the manned Dragon capsule has been delayed, and is now scheduled for sometime next month.

SpaceX is about a month away from launching its first commercial crew mission, the company’s founder, Elon Musk, tweeted this weekend. This will be a demonstration flight, without humans on board.

Officially, NASA had been holding to a January 17 launch date, but that has become untenable due to ongoing work to resolve technical issues, two sources said, as well as the partial government shutdown. More than 90 percent of the space agency’s employees are presently furloughed during the shutdown, which is affecting the agency’s ability to make final approvals for the launch. Some key government officials are continuing to work on the program without pay.

As far as I can tell, the “technical issues” are bureaucratic maneuvers by NASA designed solely to delay the launch. The article makes a big deal about the risks of this first test flight, as if none of its systems have ever flown before. That is absurd, While Dragon has been significantly modified, this can hardly be called a first flight for this capsule or rocket.

I repeat: The launch will occur on a SpaceX launchpad, run entirely by SpaceX employees. The only time NASA employees need get involved is during the docking procedures, and right now those employees at mission control and on ISS have been deemed essential and are working. If Trump ordered it, this mission could fly, even during this partial government shutdown.

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SpaceX rolls manned Dragon/Falcon 9 to launchpad

Capitalism in space: This week SpaceX rolled to the launchpad the stacked manned Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket that will fly the first unmanned test flight no early than January 17, 2019.

it is understood that the rollout is a dry simulation and thus will not include any propellant. However, a static fire test including propellant load and a short burn of the first stage’s nine Merlin engines will occur at a later date.

While this week’s rollout and subsequent fit checks do not seem to have been impacted by the ongoing U.S. government shutdown, other aspects of the launch campaign will be delayed.

The launch is expected to slip past the latest official no-earlier than launch date of January 17th. Many aspects of the launch campaign require NASA oversight and thus cannot proceed without NASA’s approval. It is understood that each additional day of the government shutdown translates into about a one day delay with the launch.

The irony here is that there are really no NASA employees required for SpaceX to do the launch. It is occurring on their leased property using their equipment and their launch team. Only when the capsule arrives at ISS will NASA employees be required, and those slots have been deemed “essential” in this government shutdown and are still operating on ISS and at mission control in Houston.

If Trump ordered it, this flight could happen. SpaceX is clearly ready. It is only NASA and its bureaucracy that stands in the way.

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First test flight of Dragon manned capsule delayed ten days

In order to avoid a conflict at ISS with the Dragon cargo freighter that just docked there, SpaceX has now delayed the unmanned test launch of its first Dragon manned capsule by ten days, to no earlier than January 17, 2019.

The article at the link is mostly focused on describing the experiments and cargo that the cargo freighter just brought to ISS, but it includes these scheduling details involving the unmanned test flight:

The cargo Dragon is the only vehicle currently capable of returning experiments from the International Space Station and is in relatively high demand. Thus, the worms will either return aboard this CRS-16 Dragon or wait until spring when the CRS-17 Dragon departs the orbital outpost. Regardless, once the newly delivered science experiments and cargo are removed from Dragon, the International Space Station crew will pack the craft full of return cargo before closing Dragon’s hatch and releasing it from the Station in mid-January 2019 for return to Earth.

Presently, CRS-16’s unberth and landing date is set for 13 January 2019, which at the time of the mission’s launch set up a potential overlap between CRS-16 and SpaceX’s Demonstration Mission -1 (DM-1) for the Commercial Crew Program.

At the time of CRS-16’s launch, the uncrewed DM-1 test flight had been targeting a No Earlier Than (NET) launch date of 7 January 2019 from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center, with a docking to the International Space Station to follow on 10 January. That NET 7 January launch date officially slipped on Friday to NET 17 January.

I once again want to emphasize that the only thing that I see that might delay this launch is NASA’s effort to slow it down.

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Date set for first unmanned launch of manned Dragon

Capitalism in space: NASA announced today that SpaceX has set January 7, 2019 as the launch date for its first unmanned test flight of its manned Dragon capsule.

SpaceX is targeting Jan. 7 for launch of its first Crew Dragon commercial ferry ship on an unpiloted test flight to the International Space Station, NASA announced Wednesday, a major milestone in the agency’s drive to end its sole reliance on Russian Soyuz crew ships for carrying astronauts to orbit.

If the shakedown flight goes smoothly — and if a NASA safety probe unveiled Tuesday doesn’t turn up any show stoppers — SpaceX could be ready to launch the first piloted Crew Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket in the June timeframe, carrying veteran NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the space station. [emphasis mine]

As I said during a taping today for my appearance on WCCO radio tomorrow at 11:10 am (Central), the only thing standing in the way of SpaceX getting its manned capsule off the ground is NASA. June is a long time from now, and the agency, egged on by corrupt politicians, could easily find ways to delay that first manned launch in that time. Nor would I put it past the corrupt Washington in-crowd, led by Senator Richard Shelby (R- Alabama), having no interest in the national interest, to do what they can to sabotage that flight. What they care about is diverting tax dollars to either their own pockets or to the pockets of their allies (which also helps bring them pay-offs campaign contributions as well).

Still, it is encouraging that SpaceX is pushing forward, and that there appear to be strong elements in NASA supporting them. Keep your fingers crossed.

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Final 2018 SpaceX launch schedule

Link here. The article describes in detail SpaceX’s schedule of launches through the end of 2018, which appears now to be firming up. Several take-aways:

  • They are going to attempt for the first time the third launch of first stage booster.
  • In one of these launches, the first stage will not be recovered, even though it is a block 5.
  • The second Falcon Heavy launch has now been definitely delayed to early 2019.

A look at the overall launch schedule shows that the two Falcon Heavy launches that have been pending and were originally set for the last quarter of 2018 are now set for “early 2019.” This full schedule also lists the first unmanned flight of the Dragon manned capsule for January.

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Commercial crew test flights delayed again

NASA today released an updated schedule for the Dragon and Starliner test flights, indicating the first Dragon flight has been pushed to January 2019.

  • SpaceX Demo-1 uncrewed flight test: January 2019 (delayed from November 2018)
  • Boeing uncrewed Orbital Flight Test: March 2019 (delayed from late 2018/early 2019)
  • SpaceX Demo-2 crewed flight test: June 2019 (delayed from April 2019)
  • Boeing Crew Flight Test: August 2019 (nominally still in mid-2019 as earlier stated)

It appears from the article that SpaceX was prepared to fly its first flight in December, meaning only a one month delay, but scheduling conflicts at ISS forced them to push it to January.

With the Boeing flights, the scheduling has less to do with delays and more do to do with setting more precise launch dates.

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Update on SpaceX and Boeing’s private commercial crew capsules

Link here. The key piece of news is that both companies now believe they meet NASA’s safety requirements.

[D]uring a panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space Forum here Sept. 18, executives of the two companies said they now believed their vehicles met that and related safety requirements.

John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for the commercial crew program at Boeing, said the company was assessing three separate requirements, including the overall loss of crew as well as ascent and entry risks and loss of mission. “Our teams have been working that for a number of years,” he said, noting those analyses have driven changes to the vehicle design, such as increased micrometeoroid and orbital debris protection. “Where we are now is that our analysis shows we can exceed the NASA requirements for all three of those criteria,” he said.

Benjamin Reed, director of commercial crew mission management at SpaceX, said his company was in a similar situation. “We’re looking right now to be meeting the requirements,” he said.

Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, didn’t confirm that the companies have, in fact, met those safety requirements. “We’re learning from a NASA perspective about how to understand the assessments that we’re getting from each of the contractors and how to apply it,” she said. “We at the NASA team are assessing the modeling that each of the providers has done.”

It should be understood that the requirements being discussed here really have nothing to do with actual engineering, but are based on a statistical analysis that estimates the risk to any passenger. In other words, it is a pure guess, and can be manipulated any way anyone wants. This is why NASA’s manager above is so vague. What she is really saying is that NASA is slowly being forced to accept the analysis of the contractors.

The article at the link also details the present schedule, which appears mostly unchanged (though Musk indicated there might be a slight delay in Dragon during his BFR presentation earlier this week), and the efforts by both companies to make their capsules reusable.

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Launch schedule shuffles for SpaceX

Link here. A combination of payload issues, scheduling conflicts, and rocket refurbishment demands has forced SpaceX to shuffle and delay many of its remaining launches scheduled for the rest of 2018.

The biggest conflict appears to be between the first manned Dragon test flight, and the second Falcon Heavy flight, both of which are now listed for a November launch. Since both will use the same launchpad, there must be some space between them.

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Dragon/Starliner schedules firming up

At a meeting at NASA this week a status update of SpaceX’s manned Dragon and Boeing’s manned Starliner capsules indicated that their proposed flight schedules, with the first manned flights occurring next year, are increasingly firm.

Overall, the updates were quite positive with most of the flight hardware nearing completion. The two companies must each execute two test flights to the International Space Station (ISS) in order to be certified to perform operational crew rotation missions.

On the SpaceX side, the company will first execute an uncrewed test flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft called Demonstration Mission 1 (DM-1) – currently scheduled for this coming November. It will then be followed by a crewed test flight designated Demonstration Mission 2 (DM-2). In between the two missions, SpaceX will also execute an in-flight abort test.

In terms of Boeing, they will perform an uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) with the CST-100 Starliner followed by a Crewed Flight Test (CFT). A pad abort test will be also conducted between the two missions.

While Boeing’s schedule for these flights is somewhat uncertain as they investigate the recent failure of several valves to close during an engine test, SpaceX’s schedule has become very solid. Assuming nothing goes wrong on the unmanned test flight in November and the in-flight abort test, they will fly humans in April, 2019.

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NASA officially approves SpaceX’s fueling system

Surprise, surprise! NASA on August 17 officially approved SpaceX’s fueling system where the astronauts would enter the Dragon capsule before the Falcon 9 rocket would fueled.

In a statement published late Aug. 17, the agency said that it was allowing SpaceX to move ahead with plans to use what’s colloquially known as “load-and-go,” where the Falcon 9 launch vehicle is filled with liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants after astronauts board the Crew Dragon spacecraft on top of the rocket.

“To make this decision, our teams conducted an extensive review of the SpaceX ground operations, launch vehicle design, escape systems and operational history,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said in the statement. “Safety for our personnel was the driver for this analysis, and the team’s assessment was that this plan presents the least risk.”

Blah, blah, blah. They had made it clear they were going to approve SpaceX’s fueling approach last week. NASA safety bureaucrats have been whining about SpaceX’s fueling approach for more than a year and a half, for no logical reason, and for what I surmised were purely political reasons having zero to do with safety. At times I have stated that when SpaceX was getting close to actually flying, NASA would back down. And I also expected SpaceX to push its launch dates to force NASA to back down, in contrast to the old-time big space contractors who routinely would kowtow to NASA in these matters and allow its bureaucracy to push them around.

These events are more evidence that the April 2019 manned Dragon launch is on schedule.

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SpaceX unveils access arm jetway astronauts will use to board Dragon

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has begun installing its airport-jetway-like access arm that astronauts will use to board Dragon at Launchpad 39A in anticipation of the first manned flight in April 2019.

They were originally going to install the jetway after the first unmanned demo flight, which they hoped to fly this month. That plan has now changed.

Prior to the visual milestone this week of the Crew Access Arm, or CAA, being moved to the pad surface and the base of the Fixed Service Structure (launch tower), previous information from SpaceX and NASA indicated that the arm would be installed after the Dragon’s uncrewed demo flight.

However, that schedule was based around a launch of the uncrewed Dragon flight, DM-1, in August 2018.

With NASA announcing a 3-month slip to the DM-1 flight (largely due to ISS scheduling and crew reduction aboard the International Space Station in the coming months), SpaceX found itself with an unanticipated delay to the DM-1 flight – which in turn opened up a possibility that didn’t exist before to install the CAA in August.

…But now that DM-1 is NET (No Earlier Than) November – a date Gwynne Shotwell is confident the company will meet, SpaceX is forging ahead with CAA installation because, quite simply, there is no reason to wait, at this point, to install the arm after DM-1.

Making the crew access arm resemble an airport jetway is a fine example of the pizazz that helps sell SpaceX. It also helps make space operations appear more like an ordinary transportation option, something that is necessary if the human race is ever going to become truly spacefaring.

Hat tip to reader Kirk.

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SpaceX unveils interior of manned Dragon

Capitalism in space: Earlier this week SpaceX unveiled the interior of its Dragon capsule, along with the suits and other details, to reporters in California.

The article at the link has some good videos showing the capsule interior as well as its touchscreen control panel. It also includes quotes from SpaceX’s president Gwynne Shotwell repeating their intention to launch the manned mission by April 2019.

“Whenever we talk about dates we’re always confident and then something crops up,” Shotwell said. “Predicting launch dates can make a liar out of the best of us. I hope I am not proven to be a liar on this one. We are targeting November for Demo 1 and April for Demo 2.”

“I would love to say that this mission is going to be like every other mission, because I want every rocket and every capsule to be reliable, but I can tell you there will be about 7000 extra sets of eyes on the build of this system, the testing of this system and all the interfaces,” Shotwell added.

I would not be surprised if there was a few months slip in that schedule. I will be surprised if it slips more than that.

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The two things SpaceX must do for NASA to okay the first manned Dragon mission

Link here.

First, they must successfully recover the Dragon capsule from the first unmanned test flight in November so that they can use it in a launch abort test to follow.

Second, they must demonstrate seven successful flights of the Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 rocket.

Right now it appears that, though the schedule is very very tight, it is possible that SpaceX will be able to accomplish these tasks in time to do its manned flight in April 2019, as presently scheduled. At the moment SpaceX’s launch schedule calls for 11 Falcon 9 launches between now and April. Getting seven Block 5 launches should therefore be likely, though not certain, since some of those launches will probably not use the final full Block 5 configuration.

I notice that the article makes no mention of the massive paperwork that the GAO says must be done before a manned flight. No surprise. In the end the paperwork will not delay this mission, despite what the GAO and NASA’s bureaucracy says.

UPDATE: NASA has now withdrawn its objections to SpaceX’s fueling plans. This is also no surprise, as their objections to fueling the rocket while astronauts were on board were always bogus. The risks are essentially the same whether you fuel before boarding or after. Either way, there is a lot of very explosive fuel present. To say NASA’s way, fueling first, is the only way never made sense.

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NASA announces crews for first commercial manned launches

NASA has announced the crews for the first commercial manned launches.

Boeing’s crew flight test aboard its Starliner spacecraft, which is targeted to launch in mid-2019, will have Eric Boe, Chris Ferguson and Nicole Mann on board. Boeing’s first post-certification mission will have Josh Cassada and Suni Williams aboard.

SpaceX’s demo mission 2 aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which is targeted to launch in April 2019, will have Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley aboard. The first post-certification mission will be crewed by Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins.

These crews cover the first two manned missions for each spacecraft.

Hat tip Kirk Hilliard.

More information here.

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New launch dates for commercial crew posted by NASA

NASA has now released an updated schedule for the first test flights of Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon manned capsules:

In chronological order:

SpaceX Demo-1 (uncrewed): November 2018
Boeing Orbital Flight Test (uncrewed): late 2018 / early 2019
SpaceX Demo-2 (crewed): April 2019
Boeing Crew Flight Test (crewed): mid-2019

Note once again that this schedule bears no resemblance to the pessimistic schedule put forth by the GAO. That schedule indicated that significant delays could be expected because of NASA’s heavy paperwork requirements.

I fully expect that political needs will force that paperwork to be done much faster than the GAO, or NASA, expects, or even wants. And the increased speed will have little to do with reducing safety.

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NASA safety panel reviews commercial crew, tries to justify its paperwork demands

Link here. The article describes the results from the quarterly meeting of NASA’s safety panel, which occurred last week, including its concerns about the recent test problems during a launch abort test of Boeing’s Starliner capsule. It also describes the panel’s general satisfaction at the status of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.

The article however ends with a long screed by one panel member, explaining that the heavy paperwork requirements they are imposing on the two companies is not really paperwork.

“It needs to be noted by everyone, and we’re especially interested in making sure that all of the external stakeholders realize this, that while the concluding process of certification has sometimes been described as a paper process, that is really just a shorthand clarification and in reality it could not be further from the truth,” noted Dr. McErlean.

In reality, the process is as follows. “In a certified design, the design agent – the contractor or partner in this case – performs the design and in the certification plan, the design agent and the certification agency (NASA) agree on the submittal of certification evidence.

“This could be measurements, it can be test data, it can be analysis, but it almost always involves the submittal of detailed technical data, not simply paper descriptions or forms. Sometimes it involves witness testing and sometimes it involves physical inspection. But it almost always wraps around important technical submittals.

Can I translate? The safety panel requires a lot of testing so that a lot of paperwork can be filled out. And while much of this testing is likely to help make the capsule’s safer, most of it seems to me to be make-work, and designed to justify the existence of NASA and its safety panel.

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Changes to big August 3 commercial crew announcement do not bode well

On August 3 NASA is planning on making a big announcement concerning its commercial crew program. Yesterday the agency revealed that the NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, will reveal the names of the crew for the first commercial crew flight.

The changes in how that announcement will be made however suggest that they had hoped to make a bigger announcement and have been forced to back off. Initially, vice president Mike Pence was to have made the announcement. He has now canceled his participation. Also, there had previously been rumors that the announcement would have included the launch dates for both SpaceX’s and Boeing’s first flights. That the new press release makes no mention of dates suggests the dates have been delayed.

I hope I am wrong.

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SpaceX’s first test crew Dragon capsule arrives in Florida

Capitalism in space: The first man-rated Dragon capsule set to fly has arrived in Florida to be prepped for launch.

Even though the vehicle is called a “Crew Dragon,” this Dragon won’t carry crew on its first flight. Instead, it’s due to make an uncrewed practice run to the space station during what’s known as Demonstration Mission 1, or DM-1.

Before this week’s shipment to Florida, the Dragon underwent thermal vacuum tests as well as acoustic tests at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio. Today SpaceX showed off a picture of the Crew Dragon, which is a redesigned, beefed-up version of its robotic cargo-carrying Dragon, via Twitter and Instagram.

NASA’s current schedule calls for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch the DM-1 mission next month from Kennedy Space Center. However, that schedule is dependent not only on the pace of preparations, but also on the timetable for station arrivals and departures.

SpaceX is clearly on schedule to fly the first unmanned test flight in September, and the first manned flight in January 2019. And once that manned flight take place, I can see no reason why operational flights shouldn’t follow soon thereafter.

Yet, NASA said earlier this week that those operational flights will almost certainly be delayed until 2020, mainly because SpaceX might not be able to get the paperwork filled out fast enough.

Here’s my prediction: If SpaceX flies that manned mission in early 2019, expect their operational flights to begin soon thereafter, not in 2020. NASA will have no choice but to accept the capsule and begin flights.

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GAO report indicates NASA forcing more delays in commercial crew

A Government Accountability Office report released today suggests that NASA’s complex certification requirements will cause further delays in first operational missions of the commercial crew capsules of Boeing and SpaceX.

The report shows when NASA believes Boeing and SpaceX will each have completed a single non-crewed test flight, a test flight with crew, and then undergo a certification process to become ready for operational flights. This is known as the “certification milestone.”

Based on NASA’s “schedule risk analysis” from April, the agency estimates that Boeing will reach this milestone sometime between May 1, 2019, and August 30, 2020. For SpaceX, the estimated range is August 1, 2019, and November 30, 2020. The analysis’ average certification date was December, 2019, for Boeing and January, 2020, for SpaceX.

These are obviously razor-thin margins, but the new report also indicates that Boeing is ahead in submitting paperwork needed for approval of its various flight systems and processes. This is consistent with what independent sources have told Ars, that Boeing is more familiar with NASA and better positioned to comply with its complex certification processes. [emphasis mine]

This does not surprise me. From the beginning of commercial crew there have been people at NASA working to slow SpaceX down so as to not embarrass Boeing as well as SLS/Orion. By using the “complex certification process,” which really has little to do with engineering and everything to do with bureaucracy and power politics, NASA has effectively succeeded in preventing SpaceX from getting off the ground. The company could have flown a manned Dragon at least a year ago, if NASA had not stood in the way and imposed numerous safety demands, some of which make no sense.

Meanwhile, NASA’s bureaucracy and certification process has created a situation where neither company might be ready to fly when the ticketed flights on Russian Soyuz capsules end. To solve this gap the agency is actually thinking of stretching out ISS missions so it doesn’t have to fly ferry missions as much. While longer missions to ISS make sense — if your goal is to learn how to get to Mars — this isn’t why NASA is thinking of doing it. Instead, it is doing it so that it can make private space, especially SpaceX, look bad.

All in all, NASA’s management seems entirely uninterested in real space exploration, and the risks it entails. Instead, they are focused on power politics and serving the needs of the big space contractors that they have worked with for decades, accomplishing little while spending a lot of taxpayer dollars.

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First manned Dragon capsule completes thermal vacuum tests

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s first manned Dragon capsule has completed its thermal vacuum tests ahead of its test orbital flight, presently scheduled for September of this year.

There have been hints that this schedule could be further delayed. That neither SpaceX nor NASA were willing to comment about the results of the thermal tests could be a cause for concern, or it could simply be that they have not yet digested the material and wish to do so first before commenting.

I suspect a more firm schedule will be announced before the end of this month.

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Dragon cargo fees to rise, due to NASA demands

A government audit has found that the fees that SpaceX charges for its Dragon cargo missions to ISS will rise as much as 50%, and the cause of that price rise is almost entirely due to NASA redesign demands.

[T]he auditors pinned much of the blame on NASA for the increase. They also emphasized that the program still seems like a good deal for lowering launch costs. Auditors cited NASA for missing opportunities to cut redundancies and bargain on pricing, and noted that the agency forced SpaceX to (expensively) redesign its Dragon spaceship from the bottom up.

The report did hint, however, that SpaceX has done some reckoning as the startup has matured. “[SpaceX] also indicated that their CRS-2 pricing reflected a better understanding of the costs involved after several years of experience with cargo resupply missions,” the auditors wrote. (A SpaceX representative declined to comment on the report.)

None of this is a surprise. There are factions in NASA that have been working for the past decade to stymie or defeat the arrival of privately built and owned spacecraft like Dragon, as it makes the NASA-built spacecraft like Orion look bad. By demanding redesigns that raise the cost for Dragon, these factions gain ammunition to attack it. I guarantee we will see op-eds doing exactly that in the next year.

No matter. In the end the private market still does it better and cheaper than the government, as the audit found.

Despite the cost increases, the report ultimately called the CRS contracts with private companies “positive steps” for NASA — especially since the agency could find discounts by launching cargo on used SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boosters. “NASA’s continued commitment to the commercial space industry also helps spur innovations in the commercial launch vehicle market,” the auditors said.

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A NASA astronaut’s detailed look at Dragon and Starliner

Link here. Lots of interesting details about both spacecraft from an experienced astronaut’s perspective.

The Commercial Crew program will launch uncrewed ships first. SpaceX is aiming to do that in September and Boeing in October. If successful, crewed launches will follow on December 31 (Boeing) and January 17 (SpaceX).

“We’ve gotten into the cockpit in both spacecraft. We’ve run through parts of the profile, from launch to rendezvous docking, un-docking, and [atmospheric] entry. But everything’s not been tied up, not quite yet,” Williams said. She didn’t say which company’s spaceship is her favorite.

In fact, crewed launch dates may slip to mid-2019. Williams said she expects NASA to announce her official mission selection this summer, and from there about a year of more deliberate mission training will follow.

This is a delay from the previously planned summer launches. This had been expected, but it also looks like both companies are trying hard to get things off the ground this year.

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