Tag Archives: Falcon 9

Israeli private Moon mission delayed by SpaceX

Because of a launch delay announced by SpaceX, the launch of a private Israeli Moon lander has been delayed from December until early 2019.

SpaceIL said Elon Musk’s SpaceX firm, whose rockets are set to carry the unmanned probe into space, had informed it of “a delay of a number of weeks to the beginning of 2019.”

SpaceIL stressed that the delay was SpaceX’s decision, noting in a statement that tests on their craft, shaped like a pod and weighing some 585 kilograms (1,300 pounds), were proceeding successfully.

As a secondary payload, the SpaceIL mission is at the mercy of SpaceX’s primary mission. It is unclear why SpaceX delayed the launch.

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Update on SpaceX’s effort to recover/reuse its rocket fairings

Link here. Key paragraph:

SpaceX recently began seriously attempting to recover Falcon 9 payload fairings, albeit almost exclusively during West Coast launches in order to let Mr. Steven attempt to catch the parasailing halves in the Pacific Ocean. Thus far, SpaceX engineers and technicians have not yet solved the challenging problems, although fairing halves have reportedly landed as few as 50 meters from Mr. Steven’s grasp and at least five have been recovered intact after landing gently on the ocean surface. On the East Coast, Falcon fairings are not nearly as lucky, typically alternating between smashing directly into the ocean and landing gently upon it, depending SpaceX’s need for experimental recovery data.

The article outlines some of the technical issues they have been facing, as well as how pieces of some fairings have been recovered many hundreds of miles away by fishermen.

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SpaceX successfully launches Argentinian radar satellite

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully launched an Argentinian radar satellite, while also achieving the first on-land first stage recovery at Vandenberg.

The first stage was a Block 5 that was used and landed on a barge in July, meaning they turned it around in about two months, the fastest turn-around on the West Coast. With this successful landing on land at Vandenberg, they will able to speed up that turn-around time considerably in the future.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

26 China
17 SpaceX
8 Russia
7 ULA
6 Europe (Arianespace)

China remains the leader in the national rankings, 26 to 25, over the United States.

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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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SpaceX turned down government money to build Falcon Heavy

Capitalism in space: In a presentation yesterday in Europe, one of SpaceX’s executives, Hans Koenigsmann, made it clear that SpaceX paid entirely for the development of Falcon Heavy, and in fact turned down an offer of government funding.

According to the SpaceX executive, the company was actually approached by “the government”, with the unknown agency or agencies stating – in Hans’ words – that they wanted to be a part of the rocket’s development. According to Hans, SpaceX responded in an extremely unorthodox fashion: “we said, ‘Nope! We just wanna build it, you can buy it when it’s ready and we’ll charge you for the service.’” He noted in the next sentence that funding was the primary lever on the table: “It’s a great position to do this, you gotta find the money, you gotta know people that have money and are willing to invest in your company, and [SpaceX has] been lucky enough to know some of those people.”

In other words, when given an opportunity to either rely on government funding or some other source of capital for a given R&D project, SpaceX – or at least Hans Koenigsmann, VP of Reliability – would apparently recommend the latter option in almost all cases. Again, without being prompted, he elaborated on his feelings about funding sources, culminating in a statement that is simply profound coming from an executive in the aerospace industry. The following quote is unabridged and straight from Hans himself:

“You need to [try to not] get money from the government, otherwise the government will tell you what to build and how to build it… they will tell you how to build this and that’s just not always – I mean for some things it’s the best to do, but in others it’s actually not.”

In other words, don’t let the government run your business. Use the government as an eventual customer, but build your product in a way that will not make them your only customer.

You can watch his entire presentation in the embedded video below the fold. Koenigsmann also noted that this Sunday’s first attempt to land a first stage at Vandenberg will likely produce a spectacular show for anyone who watches.
» Read more

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Roscosmos cuts price for Soyuz rocket launch

Russia has announced it is now charging only $48.5 million for a Soyuz-2/Freget launch, a significant reduction in its previous launch prices.

The basic price to launch Russia’s Soyuz-2.1 carrier rocket with the Fregat booster will stand at about $48.5 million, the Russian launch service provider, Glavkosmos Launch Services, has said. “On the first day of the International Astronautical Congress in Bremen, our team announced the basic price to launch a Soyuz-2.1 carrier rocket with the Fregat booster. It comes to $48.5 million,” the company said in a statement, posted on Facebook.

The launch of the Soyuz-2.1 without the Fregat booster would cost about $35 million. “Therefore, the delivery of 1 kg of cargo by a Soyuz-2 rocket will cost $20,000-30,000… which is below the average market price,” the statement reads.

This makes the rocket competitive with SpaceX’s Falcon 9, though (I think) it cannot place as much payload into orbit. This price drop also proves that SpaceX’s low prices are not merely “dumping,” as claimed by Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin. The Russians have now shown that they can launch at this price, just as SpaceX has. It merely took the competition from SpaceX to force them to cut costs for their customers.

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SpaceX gets contract to launch private lunar rover missions

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has won a contract for two launches of lunar rovers built by a private Japanese company.

okyo-based lunar-exploration startup Ispace has signed up for launches on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket in 2020 and 2021. The first will carry a lunar lander into orbit around the moon, and the second aims to put one on the moon’s surface so it can deploy a pair of rovers, Ispace said Wednesday. “We share the vision with SpaceX of enabling humans to live in space, so we’re very glad they will join us in this first step of our journey,” Ispace Chief Executive Officer Takeshi Hakamada said in a statement.

SpaceX already has a contract for another private lunar rover, built by the Israeli company SpaceIL, that is set to launch as a secondary payload in December.

Both companies are former competitors in the Google Lunar X-Prize competition. Based on these contracts, as well as the pending launch of Moon Express’s private lunar rover on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket, it appears that private commercial planetary missions are about to become routine.

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SpaceX successfully launches communications satellite

Capitalism in space: SpaceX last night successfully launched a communications satellite as well as recovered the Falcon 9 first stage.

The biggest news here is how routine the landings of the first stage have become, getting its first mention eight paragraphs into the article above, with its landing described almost as an aside. This was a new Block 5 first stage, and it will likely fly again within a relatively short period of time.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

24 China
16 SpaceX
8 Russia
6 ULA
5 Arianespace (Europe)

China still leads the U.S. in the national rankings, 24 to 23.

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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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SpaceX launches commercial satellite with first used Block 5 first stage

Capitalism in space: Last night SpaceX successfully placed a commercial communications satellite into orbit using a previously flown Block 5 first stage.

The turnaround for this first stage was only a little over two months. It successfully landed on the drone ship in the Atlantic, and they plan to fly it a third time later this year. You can watch the launch here.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

22 China
15 SpaceX
8 Russia
5 ULA
4 Japan
4 Europe

China still leads the U.S. 22 to 21 in the national rankings.

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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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Watch SpaceX retract one leg from used Block 5 booster

For geeks only! The video below the fold shows the new equipment that SpaceX has developed to retract the open legs of a used Block 5 booster. This video shows them attaching the booster in a secure vertical position, then attaching cables to the base of the first leg which are then used to retract it back into its launch position against the side of the booster. The design is quite clever.

The design also shows how primitive the art of reusable rockets remains. Though SpaceX has clearly succeeded in simplifying and automating this process, it remains slow and complex. In time this will get easier, but right now, this remains state of the art.

Hat tip Jim Mallamace.
» Read more

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First Block 5 1st stage reflight

Capitalism in space: It appears that SpaceX is planning to do its first reflight of a used Block 5 booster on August 4.

This will be SpaceX’s third Falcon 9 Block 5 launch in less than two weeks if the schedule holds. More important than the schedule, perhaps, is the fact that it would appear that SpaceX intends to reuse the first Block 5 booster (B1046) for this particular launch. To lay out the foundation of this claim, it’s known that SpaceX’s CCAFS Pad 40 integration facilities are only capable of fitting one booster and the strongback (transporter/erector/launcher, TEL) at a time, evidenced both by sourced comments and views inside the hangar.

Meanwhile, an unmistakeable Block 5 booster – with black interstage and octaweb coverings – was spotted being transported through Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) earlier this week, just after Falcon 9 B1047 launched (July 21 EDT) and freed up space for another booster inside the horizontal integration facility (HIF) at Pad 40. Given that only one Block 5 booster has been recovered on the East Coast and that B1047 was still out at sea earlier this week, the sooty booster traveling through CCAFS thus has to have been B1046, and it was making a beeline for LC-40.

SpaceX is once again demonstrating why they have taken over the global launch industry. They are proving that they will be able to routinely reuse a relatively small number of first stage boosters, frequently, and cheaply.

CORRECTION: I initially wrote this post under the mistaken impression that the booster being reflown was going to do so after only fourteen days. This was wrong. The booster was flown two months ago, in May.

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SpaceX and Arianespace both launch multiple satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX and Arianespace both had successful early morning commercial launches today.

The Ariane 5 delivered 4 Galileo GPS satellites, while SpaceX placed in orbit 10 Iridium communications satellites. SpaceX also successfully recovered the first stage.

The leaders in the 2018 launch standings:

20 China
14 SpaceX
8 Russia
5 ULA
4 Japan
4 Arianespace

In the national rankings, the U.S. and China are once again tied, now at 20-20.

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SpaceX successfully launches commercial communications satellite

Capitalism in space: SpaceX last night successfully launched Telstar 19v, a commercial communications satellite.

This was the second Block 5 rocket to fly successfully.

Correction: Previously I had said that these two flights served to satisfy NASA’s demands for seven successful Block 5 launches before they would certify it for commercial crew. It turns out that neither accomplishes this, because the tanks within are not the finalized versions. Thank you readers!

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

20 China
13 SpaceX
8 Russia
5 ULA
4 Japan

In the national standings China is now only one launch ahead of the U.S., 20-19.

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Starliner has propellant leak during launch abort test

Capitalism in space: Boeing’s Starliner capsule experienced a propellant leak near the end of a launch abort test in late June.

The company said it conducted a hot-fire test of the launch-abort engines on an integrated service module at the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico in June. The engines successfully ignited and ran for the full duration, but during engine shutdown an anomaly occurred that resulted in a propellant leak. “We have been conducting a thorough investigation with assistance from our NASA and industry partners,” the statement said. “We are confident we found the cause and are moving forward with corrective action.”

The capsule being tested is an engineering model, not one that is intended to fly. Boeing also has said that “they believe there is an operational fix to the problem rather than a need to significantly rework the Starliner spacecraft itself.”

This incident however is certain to delay Boeing’s crew launch schedule, especially considering NASA’s own timidity about the privately built space capsules. The agency will insist on a complete review, no matter how long it takes, even if the company has pinpointed the problem already and has instituted corrections.

In a normal world, this event should not effect SpaceX’s schedule. I also expect however that the agency will use this event to slow SpaceX down again, demanding further reviews there as well.

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A detailed look at upcoming SpaceX launch recovery operations

Link here. They are expanding their drone fleet and their capsule recovery fleet. Though we should expect some big developments in the coming year, there was also this tidbit:

Earlier this year, the company’s president Gwynne Shotwell told CNBC that next year will see a decrease in the company’s launch cadence. The slip is due to a decline in the number of large geostationary communications satellites needing a launch.

Missions to a geostationary transfer orbit make up the majority of launches requiring a droneship recovery. Therefore, it is unlikely that two east coast droneships will be needed to support Falcon 9 over the next year or two.

It appears that after five years of effort, SpaceX has finally begun to clean out its backlog of contracted launches, caused by the initial development delays of the Falcon 9 and its two failures.

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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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SpaceX installs much larger arms for net on ship for fairing recapture

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has completed the installation of much larger arms for the net that will be used to try catching rocket fairings.

While it’s difficult to estimate from photos alone, it appears that Mr Steven’s new arms are minimum of roughly 65 meters squared, assuming a square aspect ratio. In other words, the vessel’s next and newest net could have an area as large as 3600 square meters (~40,000 square feet, ~0.85 acres), easily more than quadruple the size of Mr Steven’s previous net. For comparison, the massive autonomous spaceport drone ships (ASDS) SpaceX often recovers its Falcon 9 and Heavy boosters aboard have a usable landing area of roughly 45,000 square feet, a little more than 10% larger than Mr Steven’s new net.

With these vast new arms, struts, and (soon enough) net, SpaceX is likely as close as they have ever been to successfully catching a Falcon 9 fairing, an achievement that would likely allow the company to begin reusing the large carbon fiber-composite shrouds almost immediately. Critically, although SpaceX appears to have begun attaching recovery hardware to both fairing halves in recent West Coast attempts, it remains to be seen whether Mr Steven’s new claw apparatus will be able to catch both halves, thus closing the gap on fairing recovery without necessitating the leasing and modification of perhaps three additional copies of the vessel.

This new net setup is big. We shall see if it works during an Iridium launch later this month.

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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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SpaceX successfully launches Dragon to ISS

Capitalism in space: SpaceX early this morning successfully launched Dragon to ISS using its last Block 4 Falcon 9.

Both the first stage and Dragon were used components. As planned, they did not recover the first stage.

The leaders in the 2018 launch standings:

18 China
12 SpaceX
7 Russia
5 ULA
4 Japan

The U.S. and China are once again tied at 18 in the national standings.

At the moment the 2018 worldwide totals for launches is 54, and this is only for the first half of the year. As I predicted in my January review of 2017’s launch totals, we continue to trend to having more than 100 launches in 2018, the first time this has happened since before the fall of the Soviet Union. Then, the numbers were inflated because the Soviets launched a lot of out-of-date spy satellites more out of habit than practicality, which is why, when the Soviet Union fell, the launch totals dropped precipitously. Now, the numbers reflect the real commercial market in space, and suggest real sustained growth, largely fueled by SpaceX’s forcing of lower launch prices.

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Falcon 9 Dragon launch to set used booster turnaround record

Capitalism in space: The planned launch on June 29th of Dragon to ISS will set a new turnaround record for a used first stage, just over two months.

This first stage is not a Block 5 first stage, it is the last older Block 4. What this quick turnaround means for the upcoming Block 5 launches however is important.

Although CRS-15 will likely see its venerable Block 4 Falcon 9 booster expended in the ocean without a recovery attempt, the speed of Falcon 9 B1045’s refurbishment is thrilling for another, more abstract reason: if the design functions largely as intended, a Falcon 9 Block 5 booster should be able to handily crush that already impressive record with ease, and one will perhaps do just that within a handful of months of this launch.

Currently scheduled for no earlier than (NET) July 19 and late July to early August, the Telstar 19V and 18V communications satellites will require their own Block 5 launches roughly a month from today, and July 20’s Iridium NEXT-7 mission will further require its own Falcon 9 Block 5 booster for a mission from California. It remains to be seen what boosters will launch those three missions, as well as an additional two SpaceX missions tentatively scheduled for August and September.

In other words, there is a very strong likelihood that SpaceX will be reusing its Block 5 boosters almost immediately this summer.

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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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