NASA awards SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch contract for Roman Space Telescope

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday awarded a contract to SpaceX to use its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch the Roman Space Telescope in October 2026.

. The total cost for NASA to launch the Roman telescope is approximately $255 million, which includes the launch service and other mission related costs. The telescope’s mission currently is targeted to launch in October 2026, as specified in the contract, on a Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

SpaceX’s normal launch price for the Falcon Heavy is $100 million. This higher price in probably because NASA has imposed additional requirements. It is also likely because SpaceX has no comparable competitor, and can raise its price in certain situations — such as when the government is buying — because no one can undercut it.

That launch by the way will not happen in ’26. Roman is certain to be delayed further. It was proposed in 2011 as a major astronomy project for that decade. Instead, as expected it has become a two-decade long jobs program like Webb.

Delay in Psyche launch wrecks smallsat asteroid mission

The two month delay in the launch of NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission because of software issues has apparently wrecked a smallsat asteroid mission that was to launch as a secondary payload on the Falcon Heavy rocket.

Janus, a NASA smallsat mission selected in 2019, will launch two identical spacecraft as secondary payloads on the Falcon Heavy rocket whose primary payload is Psyche. After a series of Earth flybys, each Janus spacecraft was to fly by different binary asteroids, designated 1996 FG3 and 1991 VH.

However, the mission’s principal investigator said June 8 that mission plan is no longer possible. Speaking at a meeting of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG), Dan Scheeres of the University of Colorado noted that mission plan assumed Psyche launched in August of this year as previously planned. NASA announced May 23 that the mission’s launch had been delayed to no earlier than Sept. 20 to provide more time for testing the spacecraft’s software.

With the revised launch date, he said it’s no longer possible for the spacecraft to perform those Earth flybys with the existing spacecraft design. “Those flybys were essential for setting up our flybys of our target binaries, 1991 VH and 1996 FG3,” he said.

The Janus team are right now scrambling to see if they can find other asteroids the spacecraft can reach, based on the new launch date. Their work however is badly hampered by the uncertainty of that date, which could still change for many reasons.

The heart of the problem, as Scheeres notes, is its status as a secondary payload.

“We have no ability to influence the launch dates or the targeting of the launch vehicle, and that arises from our status as a rideshare,” he said.

The article also describes two other NASA interplanetary smallsat missions that have been badly hindered because of their status as secondary payloads. All three stories strongly suggest that in the future it will make much more sense to put such missions on its own rocket, as the primary payload. This is what NASA did with its CAPSTONE smallsat mission to the Moon, which will launch on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket sometime before the end of the month.

Software issues delay Psyche launch seven weeks

Engineers preparing to stack the Psyche probe on top of its Falcon Heavy rocket for an August 1, 2022 launch have been forced to delay that launch at least seven weeks until September 20th at the earliest because of a software issue.

Technicians unboxed the Psyche spacecraft and moved it to a handling fixture for a series of hardware and software tests to make sure the probe survived the cross-country trip from California.

But a technical issue interrupted the test campaign, and will delay the launch of the Psyche mission at least seven weeks.

“An issue is preventing confirmation that the software controlling the spacecraft is functioning as planned,” NASA said in a written statement, responding to questions from Spaceflight Now. “The team is working to identify and correct the issue.”

Assuming no further delays, the spacecraft will still reach Psyche in January 2026.

SpaceX proposes new launchpads for Starship at Kennedy

Long term Land Use map for Kennedy Space Center
From NASA’s long term road map for Kennedy,

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has submitted a new proposal for building several launchpads at the Kennedy Space Center for its Starship heavy lift rocket, including rebuilding one old pad (LC-39A) and building another at a new site (the never used LC-49).

The project for LC-49 comes in addition to the previously announced work that SpaceX began within the perimeter of Launch Complex 39A, the K Environmental Program Office said. In September 2019, an environmental assessment was completed and a finding of “no significant impact” was issued.

Musk confirmed via Twitter on Dec. 3 that construction of SpaceX’s Starship orbital launch pad at LC-39A was underway. “Construction of Starship orbital launch pad at the Cape has begun”.

The KEP [Kennedy Environmental Program] office noted that this new proposed expansion would allow for not only redundancy with launches of Starship, but also “allow SpaceX to increase the flight rate of Starship and minimize potential disruptions to Falcon, Falcon Heavy and Dragon missions at LC-39A.”

LC-49 is a 175 acre area just north of LC-39B, the launchpad NASA plans to use for its SLS rocket.

It also appears that SpaceX plans on creating a new Starship orbital launchpad at LC-39A that will not impact the use of that site by Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, though in the long run launches of those latter rockets will decrease as Starship becomes operational.

All these plans will need a full environmental assessment, but according to the article at the link, the process will be different than at Boca Chica in Texas.

The [environmental assessment]process likely won’t involve live discussions with the public, according to [Don Dankert, the technical lead for the Kennedy Environmental Planning Office], but the public will get comparable information, like with an EIS [Environmental Impact Statement]. “We will put out the same information,” Dankert said. “We’ll put out an informational packet with a .PDF chart, a description of the project and instructions on how to provide comments back to us and SpaceX.”

Engler said there may also be some lessons learned from the process of getting the launch facilities at Starbase approved for an orbital launch, but how that crossover would work has yet to be determined.

Sounds to me that this is all a pointless paperwork dance. The construction will be approved, no matter what, because Florida and Cape Canaveral desperately wants this new business and the jobs and tax dollars it will bring to the state.

SpaceX begins construction of Starship launchpad in Florida

Capitalism in space: Elon Musk yesterday announced that SpaceX has begun the construction of a Starship launchpad at its facility at Cape Canaveral, though no launch scheduled was revealed.

Musk implied that the Starship orbital launchpad is being built at Launch complex 39A. If so, it will pose some scheduling issues for SpaceX, as the company also uses that site for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches. In fact, it is the only one it uses for Falcon Heavy.

Falcon Heavy gets another contract

Capitalism in space: With the announcement on October 30th that the Space Force has added a third military Falcon Heavy launch for ’22, the rocket is now scheduled to fly five times next year.

The addition of a third national security mission for Falcon Heavy will make for quite a scheduling challenge for SpaceX’s three-core rocket that also is projected to launch in 2022 a Viasat-3 commercial broadband satellite with an Astranis communications satellite as a secondary payload, as well as NASA’s Psyche planetary science mission.

The Space Force missions USSF-44 and USSF-52 both were scheduled to fly in 2021 but have been delayed by payload readiness and range scheduling issues. No target launch dates have been announced yet although the Space Force said they would happen in 2022. Falcon Heavy rockets lift off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

It increasingly looks like 2022 will be a major record-setting year for rocketry.

Hubble data detects persistent water vapor on one of Europa’s hemispheres

Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope spanning sixteen Earth years, scientists have detected the presence of water vapor on Europa, but strangely spread only across one of the moon’s hemispheres.

Previous observations of water vapor on Europa have been associated with plumes erupting through the ice, as photographed by Hubble in 2013. They are analogous to geysers on Earth, but extend more than 60 miles high. They produce transient blobs of water vapor in the moon’s atmosphere, which is only one-billionth the surface pressure of Earth’s atmosphere.

The new results, however, show similar amounts of water vapor spread over a larger area of Europa in Hubble observations spanning from 1999 to 2015. This suggests a long-term presence of a water vapor atmosphere only in Europa’s trailing hemisphere – that portion of the moon that is always opposite its direction of motion along its orbit. The cause of this asymmetry between the leading and trailing hemisphere is not fully understood.

First, it must be emphasized that the amounts of atmospheric water being discussed are tiny, so tiny that on Earth we might consider this a vacuum.

Second, that the water vapor is only seen on the trailing hemisphere suggests there is some sort of orbital influence involved, though what that influence is remains unknown.

Hopefully when Europa Clipper finally arrives in orbit around Jupiter in 2030, with a path that will fly past Europa fifty times, we will some clarity on these questions.

Space Force payload problems force delay until ’22 of next Falcon Heavy launch

Capitalism in space: The Space Force has announced that because more time is needed to prepare its military payload, the next Falcon Heavy launch, scheduled later this month, will be delayed until ’22.

This is not the first time payload issues have delayed the launch, which had been previously scheduled for July. The Space Force has not announced a new launch date, nor was it very specific in describing the issues that has forced this delay.

As for the Falcon Heavy, though there has been a long delay since its last flight in June 2019, it appears that SpaceX has four launches scheduled for ’22, with another six already contracted and scheduled for later.

SpaceX wins contract to launch Europa Clipper to Jupiter

Capitalism in space: NASA today awarded SpaceX a $178 million contract to use its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch Europa Clipper to Jupiter.

If all goes according to plan, Clipper will lift off in October 2024 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and arrive in orbit around Jupiter in April 2030. The probe will then study Europa in depth during nearly 50 close flybys of the moon over the course of about four Earth years, mission team members have said.

The award is not really a surprise. Falcon Heavy is really the only operational rocket with the power capable of launching this mission. Because for years Congress had mandated Europa Clipper be launched on SLS, it was designed with more mass than normal for such planetary missions. Delays in the SLS program however finally forced Congress to relax that mandate, but that left NASA with a payload too heavy for all operational rockets except Falcon Heavy, and even that requires this six year flight, with flybys of the Earth and Mars to get it to Jupiter.

The price for the launch is significantly greater than SpaceX normally charges for its Falcon Heavy, but since it was the only game in town, I suspect SpaceX drove a hard bargain.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy wins launch contract for VIPER lunar rover

Capitalism in space: Astrobotic, the company building the lander to place NASA’s VIPER lunar rover on the Moon, has picked SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy as the rocket to launch the package.

This mission is part of a fleet of landers being sent to the Moon in the next two years, as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program to hire private companies to do this rather than NASA.

Intuitive Machines, which won CLPS task orders for two lander missions, will launch each on Falcon 9 vehicles late this year and in 2022. Masten Space Systems selected SpaceX to provide launch services for its XL-1 lander mission, which won a CLPS award for a late 2022 mission.

Astrobotic will launch its first CLPS mission, a smaller lunar lander called Peregrine, on the inaugural launch of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur currently scheduled for late this year. Firefly Aerospace, which won the most recent CLPS award in January, has not selected a launch provider yet for its Blue Ghost lander, but noted the lander is too large to launch on the company’s own Alpha rocket.

That’s five American lunar missions, all built and owned by private companies. Nor will these be the only unmanned lunar missions, when you include the UAE rover targeted for a ’22 launch, along with additional planned Indian, Chinese, and Russian missions. Almost all are aimed at the Moon’s south polar regions.

It is going to get both crowded and busy on the Moon in the next few years.

Europa Clipper to fly on commercial rocket, not SLS

NASA managers have now decided unequivocally to not use SLS to launch Europa Clipper, and will instead choose a commercial rocket in about a year.

During a Feb. 10 presentation at a meeting of NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG), leaders of the Europa Clipper project said the agency recently decided to consider only commercial launch vehicles for the mission, and no longer support a launch of the spacecraft on the SLS.

“We now have clarity on the launch vehicle path and launch date,” Robert Pappalardo, project scientist for Europa Clipper at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said. That clarity came in the form of a Jan. 25 memo from NASA’s Planetary Missions Program Office to “immediately cease efforts to maintain SLS compatibility” and move forward with a commercial launch vehicle, or CLV, he said.

Though this decision was expected following the approval of the most recent congressional budget for NASA, which contained language allowing NASA to abandon SLS if it thought it wise, this decision continues the string of recent stories that all point toward the eventually abandonment of SLS itself.

At the moment the rocket most likely to win the contract is the Falcon Heavy.

Starship prototype #8 passes tank tests; engine installation next

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s eighth Starship prototype has passed its tank, thruster, and even fin tests, setting it up for the installation of its three Raptor engines.

Once installed, they will perform several static fire tests, on the launchpad. If those tests are successful, the company will then proceed with a full 50,000 foot test flight. Based on the pace of operations, my guess is that this hop will occur in about two to four weeks.

I’ve embedded one of the videos at the link below the fold, showing a variety of activity at the site.

In other SpaceX news, the Tesla that was put in solar orbit on the first Falcon Heavy test launch has just made its first “fly-by” of Mars, getting to within 5 million miles of the red planet. At that distance the planet really isn’t very close, which is why I put the word fly-by in quotes. That Tesla’s future:

The Roadster will eventually barrel into either Venus or Earth, likely within the next few tens of millions of years, a 2018 orbit-modeling study determined . But the chances of an Earth or Venus impact in the next million years are just 6% and 2.5%, respectively.

» Read more

NASA considering consolidating two Gateway launches into one

Capitalism in space: NASA’s Artemis program is now considering using a single launch to place two different Gateway modules into space, rather than two separate launches.

Originally, NASA wanted to launch the PPE and HALO modules – together representing the absolute bare minimum needed to build a functional Gateway – on separate commercial rockets in 2022 and 2023, respectively. Now, according to NASA associate administrator Doug Loverro, the space agency has made the decision to launch both modules simultaneously on the same commercial rocket.

This decision was made in large part because it makes sense from a technical simplicity and overall efficiency standpoint but also because several commercial launch vehicles – either currently operational or soon to be – are set to debut extremely large payload fairings. As a combined payload, the Gateway PPE and HALO modules would be too big for just about any existing launch vehicle, while the tiny handful it might fit in lack the performance needed to send such a heavy payload to the Moon.

Falcon Heavy apparently has the performance needed, as NASA used the rocket and a new stretched fairing developed by SpaceX for military customers as a baseline to determine whether PPE and HALO could launch together. Given that NASA could have technically used any of the vehicles expected to have large payload fairings for that analysis, the explicit use and mention of Falcon Heavy rather strongly suggests that the SpaceX rocket is a front runner for the new combined launch contract. This isn’t exactly surprising, given that the massive rocket has already completed three successful launches and will attempt at least another four missions between now and 2023.

Note the rocket that is not mentioned: SLS.

My regular readers know my consistent opposition to Gateway. That opposition was based on its initial design, depending for launch and operations entirely on NASA’s SLS rocket, and requiring it to be built before we landed on the Moon. Based on the SLS program’s track record, I believed Gateway would become, like SLS, nothing more than a pork barrel project accomplishing nothing but funneling government payroll to congressional districts while failing to launch any missions into space.

If NASA however is shifting gears, and aiming to allow private enterprise to build, launch, and operate Gateway, for considerably less cost and time, than Gateway might actually be of some value, mostly because there is actually a chance it might really be built, within a few short years.

I remain skeptical however. I still have questions about this lunar station’s utility, at this time. We might be spending a lot of money for a space station that won’t get us anywhere. Or maybe if NASA rethinks it properly it could provide us the real opportunity to test construction of an interplanetary spaceship, in lunar orbit.

We will have to see how this plays out. This story does appear encouraging however.

NASA awards SpaceX deal to provide cargo to Gateway

Capitalism in space: Should NASA ever decide to build its proposed Gateway space station in orbit around the Moon (the odds of which have gone down recently), it announced today that it has signed a deal with SpaceX to use its Falcon Heavy rocket and an upgraded larger version of its Dragon capsule to ship cargo to that station.

The deal calls for at least two missions, and is SpaceX’s first deal in NASA’s Artemis program.

This deal is a major blow to SLS and Boeing, which up to now had a monopoly on all launches to supply and launch Gateway. In fact, Gateway was invented by Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and NASA (not Congress) in order to justify SLS’s existence. That NASA has now decided it is better off using the much cheaper and already operational Falcon Heavy for some Gateway missions suggests that SLS is increasingly vulnerable to cancellation. NASA is making it obvious that other commercial options exist. No need to wait years and spend billions for SLS, when they can go now, for much less.

Falcon Heavy wins launch contract for NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission

Capitalism in space: NASA today awarded the launch contract for its Psyche asteroid mission, set to launch in July 2022, to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.

The total bid price was $117 million, which according to the release includes “the launch service and other mission related costs.” Though this is higher than the normal price SpaceX charges for a Falcon Heavy launch ($100 million), it is far lower than the typical price of a ULA launch. Furthermore, Falcon Heavy has more power, so it can get the spacecraft to the asteroid faster.

SpaceX proposing big launch rate increase in Florida

Capitalism in space: According to documents filed with the FCC, SpaceX is planning a big increase in the number of launches from its two launchpads in Florida in the next few years.

SpaceX projects performing 38 launches from Florida in 2020, 30 from SLC-40 and eight from LC-39A. By 2023, the company projects as many as 70 launches, 50 from SLC-40 and 20 from LC-39A, an annual rate that holds steady through 2025. The vast majority would be Falcon 9 launches, although it expects as many as 10 Falcon Heavy launches a year, all from LC-39A.

These numbers include both Dragon cargo and crew launches, Starlink satellite launches, and a variety of other commercial customers, including launches into polar orbits, something that in the past was reserved for Vandenberg on the west coast, not Florida. The launch estimates are also likely high, as they come from an environmental assessment. SpaceX probably wants to get clearance for this many launches, just in case things go far better than expected. They will likely do less, though I would not be surprised if the numbers are still record-setting.

In addition, the documents outline SpaceX’s plans to build a mobile launch tower to accommodate national security payloads that must be installed on their rocket vertically. Falcon Heavy could provide this service, but right now its payloads get installed horizontally.

Europa Clipper faces budget overruns

NASA’s $4.25 billion dollar mission to orbit the Jupiter moon Europa now faces cost overruns that threaten its launch in 2023.

The management of NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, facing dwindling cost reserves while still years away from launch, is looking at cost saving options that would preserve the mission’s science.

In a Feb. 3 presentation at a meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group in Houston, Jan Chodas, project manager for Europa Clipper at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said she was looking for ways to restore cost reserves that had declined precipitously in the last year.

Chodas said that Europa Clipper had met a JPL recommendation of 25% cost reserves, known at the lab as unallocated future expenses (UFE), when it completed a final “delta” preliminary design review in June 2019. By November, though, those reserves had fallen to just 12%, a level deemed “unacceptably low” for a mission not scheduled for launch until at least 2023.

To save money, they are “streamlining hardware testing and scaling back work on flight spare hardware. The project has also reduced the frequency of meetings of the mission’s science team.”

When the reserves in a government budget get this low, it almost always guarantees that the budget will go over. When the reserves get this low this early in the project, it almost always guarantees that the budget will go over, by a lot.

There have been other indications that Europa Clipper’s budget is in trouble. In March NASA canceled one science instrument to save money.

Making matter worse has been our lovely Congress, which has required this mission fly on its bloated, over-budget, and behind schedule SLS rocket, a mandate that is also costing the project an additional $1.5 billion (for the launch) while threatening its launch date (because of SLS delays). NASA would rather have the option to launch Clipper on the more reliable commercial and already operational Falcon Heavy, for about $100 million, thereby saving more than a billion dollars while guaranteeing its launch date. Congress so far has refused to budge, and has in fact insisted that the mission be delayed several years if necessary for getting it on SLS.

Meanwhile, Clipper itself is doing what too many big NASA projects routinely do, go overbudget.

Our federal government. Doesn’t its management skills just warm your heart?

SpaceX wins first new launch contract in 2020

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

This was SpaceX’s first contract award in 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

Satellite company switches from Falcon Heavy to Ariane 5

Capitalism in space: The communications satellite company Ovzon has switched from SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy to Arianespace’s Ariane 5 for the launch of its first wholly owned satellite in 2021.

In an interview Aug. 24, Ovzon CEO Magnus René told SpaceNews the company received a more appealing launch offer from Arianespace. “It’s nothing political or anything like that, it’s not that we don’t trust SpaceX — it’s just that we could get a better deal in cost and time and so on from Ariane at this time,” René said.

SpaceX charges $100 million for a Falcon Heavy launch, about the same as Arianespace charges for one of the two berths on its Ariane 5. Arianespace must have therefore cut its standard price to make it more attractive, and win the deal.

Ain’t competition wonderful? Governments have been trying (and failing) to get us into space for half a century, using the model of international cooperation. Introduce some competition and suddenly it becomes both easier and cheaper to do it. Who woulda thunk it?

SpaceX’s Tesla has completed its first solar orbit

Capitalism in space: The first privately launched car, a Tesla placed in solar orbit on SpaceX’s first launch of its Falcon Heavy, has now completed its first orbit around the sun.

Its future?

Car and driver will probably make many more laps around our star. Last year, an orbit-modeling study calculated that the Roadster will eventually slam into either Venus or Earth, likely within the next few tens of millions of years. But there’s just a 6 percent chance of an Earth impact, and a 2.5 percent chance of a Venus impact, within the next million years, the study’s authors found.

SpaceX to launch Super Heavy/Starship from Florida

Capitalism in space: According to a SpaceX environmental report submitted to NASA, the company now plans to launch Super Heavy/Starship missions from Florida, and only Florida.

The report details the work they want to do at launch complex 39A, where they presently launch both Falcon 9s and Falcon Heavies.

The facilities will be able to support up to 24 Starship/Super Heavy launches a year, the company said in the report, with a corresponding decline in Falcon launches from the complex. “Due to the higher lift capability, Starship/Super Heavy could launch more payloads and reduce the overall launch cadence when compared to Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy,” the report states.

SpaceX ruled out performing Starship/Super Heavy launches from its other two existing launch sites, Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral and Space Launch Complex 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The company ruled out the sites because they would require more modifications and because the Vandenberg site didn’t support trajectories for the “vast majority” of missions.

Falcon Heavy launches especially will vanish once this new rocket is operational, as it will be cheaper to use and have greater capabilities, should it succeed in being everything SpaceX hopes it to be.

SpaceX catches a fairing

Capitalism in space: During last night’s Falcon Heavy launch SpaceX was for the first time able to catch one of the rocket’s fairings using its ship, GO Ms. Tree (formerly called Mr. Steven).

As noted at the link, SpaceX now has in its hands a fairing untouched by salt water that it can analyze for future reuse, something no other rocket company has been able to do. Moreover, that the ship was able to make the net catch at night bodes well for future fairing recoveries.

Hat tip commenter geoffc.

Falcon Heavy launches successfully

Capitalism in space: The Falcon Heavy successfully launched tonight, and is presently deploying the 24 satellites on board.

They successfully landed the two first stage side boosters, but the core stage apparently just missed hitting the drone ship in the Atlantic. You could see it come down, but not on the pad. While SpaceX has now successfully recovered all six side boosters on all three Falcon Heavy launches, they have not yet succeeded in recovering the core stage.

The mission’s full success will not be known for several hours, as the satellite deployments unfold. So far the first two satellites have been deployed successfully.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

8 China
8 SpaceX
5 Russia
5 Europe (Arianespace)
3 India

The U.S. has now widened its lead over China in the national rankings, 13 to 8.

Falcon Heavy launch a go for 2:30 am (Eastern) tonight

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s third Falcon Heavy launch is now a go for launch at 2:30 am (Eastern) tonight.

You can watch it live at SpaceX’s website here or at the embedded video below the fold.

This launch should be especially spectacular, as it will be at night, and the sky is clear. Moreover, they will once again be trying to land all three first stage boosters, with the side boosters flying for the second time only two months after their first flight on the last Falcon Heavy launch.
» Read more

Justice charges man with falsifying inspection reports for rocket parts

The Justice Department has charged an employee of a company now out of business for falsifying inspection reports of rocket parts intended for use on both the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket.

The complaint states that in January 2018, an internal audit by SQA Services, Inc. (SQA), at the direction of SpaceX, revealed multiple falsified source inspection reports and non-destructive testing (NDT) certifications from PMI Industries, LLC, for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy flight critical parts. SpaceX notified PMI of the anomalies. Source inspections and NDT are key tools used in the aerospace industry to ensure manufactured parts comply with quality and safety standards. Specifically, the signed source inspection report had a forged signature of the SQA inspector. SpaceX and SQA officials believed the signature of the inspector was photocopied and cut and pasted onto the source inspection report with a computer.

On February 16, 2018, the NASA Launch Services Program alerted the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG), and Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Resident Agency, regarding the falsified source inspection reports and false NDT certifications created by PMI. Some of the false source inspection reports and false NDT certifications were related to space launch vehicle components that, at the time of discovery, were to be used for the upcoming Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission, which launched from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on April 18, 2018.

Based on this report, it appears that SpaceX identified the problem before launch and that none of the questionable parts ever flew.

SpaceX booster damaged on barge but not lost

According to an Associated Press report today, the Falcon Heavy core stage was damaged when it toppled over in heavy seas, but was not entirely lost.

The company confirmed Tuesday that the unsecured core booster toppled onto the platform over the weekend, as waves reached 8 to 10 feet. SpaceX chief Elon Musk says the engines seem OK. There’s no immediate word on how many of the booster pieces remain on board.

Musk says custom devices to secure the booster weren’t ready in time for this second flight of the Falcon Heavy.

From this report it sounds like the engine part of the stage remained on the barge. We shall see. Also, this report might explain the lack of a robot to secure the stage. The robot wasn’t ready, but rather than delay the launch for this reason they went ahead.

SpaceX loses Falcon Heavy core stage in rough seas

SpaceX announced today that it lost the Falcon Heavy core stage in rough seas on its way back to port.

“Over the weekend, due to rough sea conditions, SpaceX’s recovery team was unable to secure the center core booster for its return trip to Port Canaveral,” SpaceX spokesman James Gleeson told FLORIDA TODAY. “As conditions worsened with eight- to ten-foot swells, the booster began to shift and ultimately was unable to remain upright.” “While we had hoped to bring the booster back intact, the safety of our team always takes precedence. We do not expect future missions to be impacted,” he said.

While SpaceX does have hardware on its drone ship designed to secure first stages – often referred to as a flat “robot” that holds them in place – it was not used for this mission, which successfully took an Arabsat satellite to orbit last Thursday. The connections between the robot and center core aren’t compatible like they would be with a standard Falcon 9 booster, but SpaceX is expected to upgrade both in the future.

This is unfortunate. At the same time, it illustrates how far ahead of its competitors SpaceX is. While others throw their first stages away, SpaceX is disappointed when it loses one.

The Falcon Heavy reported by modern shoddy journalism

Yesterday’s magnificent successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket elicited numerous news stories from the general press, most of which were reasonably accurate if very superficial in their coverage. As a space guy who focuses on this stuff, I find that much of the reporting in the mainstream press reads as if the author has just discovered the subject, and is scrambling to come up to speed quickly.

This CNN article is typical. The journalist gets most of her facts right, but her lack of context because she hasn’t been following the subject closely causes her to not understand the reasons why the Falcon Heavy will fly less than the Falcon 9.

Falcon Heavy is not expected to fly nearly as often as its smaller counterpart, which has completed more than 20 missions since last February. Falcon Heavy only has five missions on its manifest so far.

The basic facts in this quote are entirely true, but it somehow implies that the Falcon Heavy is simply not that much in demand, which isn’t true. The reason Falcon Heavy has approximately one quarter of the missions of the Falcon 9 is because it is still new and it hasn’t yet garnered the customers. Also, as a slightly more expensive rocket than the Falcon 9 ($90 million per launch vs $60 million) fewer customers are going to buy it.

Still, the Falcon Heavy has more than five missions upcoming, with contracts for at least seven launches, by my count, and having this many contracts this quickly is remarkable, considering the rocket’s newness. It is more than the Russians are getting for their Proton rocket, around since the 1960s. And it is almost as many contracts as both Arianespace and ULA are each getting on a yearly basis.

Falcon Heavy is clearly becoming a big financial success, and will in the next few years I think routinely fly three to four times per year. There is a lot of demand for it, which will only grow with time.

This flaw in getting the background right by the CNN reporter is not really a big deal, but it does illustrate why it is better for ordinary citizens to get their news not from generalists in the mainstream press but from specialists in each field (such as myself), who understand the details more closely and can get the context right.

However, every once in awhile the mainstream press publishes a story that is so egregious and badly written that I think it necessary to give it a public pan, if only to make others aware of that this kind of bad journalism is not unusual. I also admit that it can be quite entertaining to highlight this pitifully bad journalism.

Yesterday one of Houston’s local television stations, KPRC-TV, published its own quick report on the Falcon Heavy launch. And boy, was that report a facepalm.
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The second Falcon Heavy launch

I have embedded the live stream of Falcon Heavy launch below the fold. It does not go live until just before launch, which is now scheduled for 6;35 pm (Eastern).

The live stream is now live. I will post updates below, so refresh your screen to see them.

This is not a routine SpaceX launch, where we have become nonchalant about the company’s ability to vertically land a first stage. They admit getting the core stage back will be challenging. They also admit that this is essentially a countdown of three rockets, so they are going to be very conservative. If anything pops up during countdown, they will scrub and try another day.

They have launched.

The side boosters have successfully separated.

The center core stage has successfully separated.

Re-entry burns for the two side boosters has been completed.

Falcon Heavy core stage on drone ship

Re-entry burn on the core stage has been completed.

Both side boosters have landed.

The payload is in orbit.

The core stage has landed successfully on the drone ship.

Though the satellite has not yet been deployed, the rest of this mission is almost certainly going to go as planned, as it is essentially identical to a normal Falcon 9 launch. Update: payload successfully deployed!

Getting all three stages back is a notable achievement. They intend to recycle the two side cores and use them on the very next Falcon Heavy launch in June. The core stage will likely be reused as well but when has not yet been announced.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

4 SpaceX
4 China
4 Europe
3 Russia

The U.S. leads the pack 7 to 4 in the national rankings.

In the heavy lift launch race, SpaceX is by far in the lead in successful launches:

2 SpaceX
1 China
0 SLS (NASA)

I should add that I am being generous to include China’s Long March 5 in this heavy lift list. It really doesn’t qualify, but it remains the only other near competitor.
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