Momentus losing contracts due to security concerns

Capitalism in space: The orbit tug company Momentus appears to be losing some of its contracts because of security concerns that have delayed FAA approvals of its launch licenses and forced the cancellation of flights.

The company delayed the launch of its first Vigoride vehicle, which was to fly on a SpaceX rideshare mission in January, because it could not complete a payload review by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation in time. Momentus said that the FAA could not approve the payload “due to national security and foreign ownership concerns regarding Momentus raised by the DoD during an interagency review.”

Momentus now hopes to launch that first Vigoride mission on another Falcon 9 rideshare mission in June. The company said the FAA is still working on that interagency review that is being held open by the Defense Department. The review needs to be completed by the end of May for the company to keep its slot on that June launch.

The company has also lost a contract with Lockheed Martin, which though the reasons have not been stated probably relates to the same issue.

That issue apparently is the company’s former chief executive Mikhail Kokorich and its co-founder Lev Khasis and his wife. To address these concerns, Kokorich has stepped down, and the Khasis have put their shares in the company in a voting trust and will divest them within three years.

All does not appear lost however. Momentus Vigoride tug is presently the only option available for cubesats that need an upper stage to move them to different orbits, and it appears that neither Lockheed Martin nor its other customers are entirely abandoning it. They are simply playing safe, standing back, and waiting until the security issues are resolved and the FAA gives its approval.

Weather delays next manned flight on Endeavour capsule one day

NASA and SpaceX have chosen to delay tomorrow’s second manned flight on SpaceX’s Endeavour capsule one day because of “unfavorable weather conditions forecast along the flight path for Thursday.”

The launch is now scheduled for 5:49 am (Eastern) on April 23rd. NASA of course will live stream it, though you will have to listen to a lot of pro-NASA propaganda, even though this flight is almost entirely run by SpaceX using a SpaceX rocket, a SpaceX capsule, and SpaceX launch and landing crews. NASA’s real involvement is as a very interested and involved customer during launch and recovery, and then in charge while the crew is docking or is on board ISS.

This will be the first time astronauts will fly on a reused SpaceX capsule. Endeavour was used for the first manned test flight last spring. That earlier flight also creates an interesting human interest side story on this flight. Of the four person crew, pilot Megan McArthur also happens to be the wife of Bob Behnken, who flew on Endeavour last year.

Amazon signs ULA’s Atlas 5 for first 9 Kuiper satellite launches

Capitalism in space: Amazon today announced that it has signed a launch contract with ULA to use its Atlas 5 rocket for the first 9 Kuiper satellite launches.

The announcement did not say when these flights will take place, nor how many Kuiper satellites will be on each. Amazon’s license with the FAA requires that it launch half its 3,200 satellite constellation by ’26. Also ULA intends to retire the Atlas 5 in only a few years, replacing it with its Vulcan rocket. This suggests that the launches will occur in the next three years.

They better. Starlink is already going operational, and OneWeb is about to. Plus several other internet constellations are in the pipeline. If Amazon wishes to compete it needs to get those satellites in orbit as quickly as possible. Internet customers don’t generally change their servers easily, tending to stick with whom they’ve got. If Starlink and OneWeb scoop up all the best low-hanging internet fruit Amazon will find itself facing an uphill battle getting customers.

The article revealed one tidbit of interest. Rajeev Badyal, Amazon’s VP of technology for the Kuiper project, was one of the managers Elon Musk fired from his Starlink project in 2018 after realizing that that management team was moving far too slowly for his tastes. It appears Jeff Bezos then hired Badyal to run Kuiper.

Mask madness even as scientists confirm once again their uselessness

Even as a just published new study has shown once again the utter uselessness of masks to limit the spread of respiratory diseases like COVID-19, the control freaks of our now largely oppressive society are clamping down with new totalitarian rules requiring masks to be worn at all times, no matter what.

First let ‘s look at the study, which was published by the National Center for Biotechnological Information government website, a branch of the National Institute for Health. From the paper:

The physical properties of medical and non-medical facemasks suggest that facemasks are ineffective to block viral particles due to their difference in scales. According to the current knowledge, the virus SARS-CoV-2 has a diameter of 60 nm to 140 nm [nanometers (billionth of a meter)], while medical and non-medical facemasks’ thread diameter ranges from 55 µm to 440 µm [micrometers (one millionth of a meter), which is more than 1000 times larger. Due to the difference in sizes between SARS-CoV-2 diameter and facemasks thread diameter (the virus is 1000 times smaller), SARS-CoV-2 can easily pass through any facemask. In addition, the efficiency filtration rate of facemasks is poor, ranging from 0.7% in non-surgical, cotton-gauze woven mask to 26% in cotton sweeter material. With respect to surgical and N95 medical facemasks, the efficiency filtration rate falls to 15% and 58%, respectively when even small gap between the mask and the face exists.

Clinical scientific evidence challenges further the efficacy of facemasks to block human-to-human transmission or infectivity. A randomized controlled trial (RCT) of 246 participants [123 (50%) symptomatic)] who were allocated to either wearing or not wearing surgical facemask, assessing viruses transmission including coronavirus. The results of this study showed that among symptomatic individuals (those with fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose etc…) there was no difference between wearing and not wearing facemask for coronavirus droplets transmission of particles of >5 µm. Among asymptomatic individuals, there was no droplets or aerosols coronavirus detected from any participant with or without the mask, suggesting that asymptomatic individuals do not transmit or infect other people. This was further supported by a study on infectivity where 445 asymptomatic individuals were exposed to asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 carrier (been positive for SARS-CoV-2) using close contact (shared quarantine space) for a median of 4 to 5 days. The study found that none of the 445 individuals was infected with SARS-CoV-2 confirmed by real-time reverse transcription polymerase.

There is a lot more in the study. Read it all. It shows, based on extensive research, that even when worn properly masks are relatively useless in stopping viral diseases. And since as mandated no one ever uses them properly, they end up becoming likely collectors of pathogens instead, at the very spot where people breath, thus contributing to the spread of infection.

The study also documented the numerous physiological and psychological costs caused by the forced continuous use of masks, from restricting oxygen to causing people to become socially isolated.

The paper’s conclusion:
» Read more

Boeing confirms next Starliner unmanned demo flight delayed until August

Capitalism in space: Boeing on April 17th confirmed what had already been rumored, that the second unmanned demo flight to ISS of Starliner, its manned capsule, has been delayed until August.

In a statement, Boeing said that the company and NASA are projecting the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2 mission will take place in August or September. That date is “supported by a space station docking opportunity and the availability of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and Eastern Range.”

Boeing had been working toward a launch of OFT-2 in late March or early April. However, by early March, NASA officials acknowledged that was no longer likely because of delays from the replacement of avionics units on the spacecraft that were damaged by a power surge during ground tests, as well as power outages in the Houston area caused by a winter storm in February that interrupted software testing.

They still hope to make the first manned demo flight before the end of the year, assuming the summer unmanned flight goes as planned.

For Boeing, the sooner they get this capsule operational, the sooner it can start earning money by flying commercial flights. At the moment the delays have meant that SpaceX is getting all that business, with two private flights already scheduled and rumors that it will win a flight from the UAE as well. Furthermore, other commercial competitors are on the horizon, including both China and India.

Starship prototype #15 readying for flight, possibly tomorrow

Starship #15 on launchpad
Screen capture from Labpadre launchpad live stream.

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s 15th prototype of its Starship upper stage, is preparing to do a static fire test today, with its first test flight possibly as soon as tomorrow, though at present the FAA has not given its approval.

They have done tank tests already, and installed three upgraded Raptor engines yesterday. This spacecraft is a major upgrade from the previous prototypes, and SpaceX probably plans to eventually fly it higher and farther than the previous prototypes. Though no details about those flight plans has yet been released, the first flight will almost certainly repeat the previous flights, going up about ten miles, flipping sideways to simulate a controlled atmospheric descent, and then uprighting itself and landing vertical on the landing pad. Hopefully the upgrades will result in the first truly clean landing with this prototype.

Though the FAA under the Biden administration has seemed eager to flex its bureaucratic muscles and slow development, that NASA has chosen this vehicle as the one that will take astronauts to and from the Moon will put pressure on it to not slow things down too much.

Sierra Nevada to make its space operations a separate company

Capitalism in space: Sierra Nevada has decided to spin off its space operations involving Dream Chaser and its proposed private space station into a separate company called Sierra Space.

In a message to employees April 14, SNC [Sierra Nevada] Chairwoman and President Eren Ozmen said the company’s Space Systems division will become a standalone company, called Sierra Space, although remain a subsidiary of SNC.

…Ozmen provided few details about how the transition of SNC’s space business to Sierra Space would unfold, but she said it would take several months to complete. Even after the transition, Sierra Space will “continue deep cooperation and synergy” with SNC’s other business areas in aviation and defense.

My guess is that Ozmen does not want the risks of its space-related projects to impact its more reliable aviation and defense holdings. By separating it out, she can better isolate the success or failure of each. This does not necessarily mean that the space holdings are failing, only that they carry a greater financial risk.

Sierra Space’s future strongly hinges on the success of the first Dream Chaser cargo shuttle, Tenacity, whose inaugural flight has been delayed from ’21 to ’22. If that fails, all the other plans of this space division will likely fail as well. If it succeeds however the company’s financial future will be quite promising.

Phantom Space raises $5 million in investment capital

Rising from the ashes: Phantom Space, the new startup smallsat rocket company created by Jim Cantrell, the former CEO of the smallsat rocket company Vector, has now successfully raised $5 million in seed money to begin development of its rocket, dubbed Daytona.

The expendable Daytona will be powered by eight Hadley engines — seven on the first stage and one on the upper stage. The engines are an example of Phantom Space’s strategy of leveraging externally developed tech; Hadleys are built by Denver-based company Ursa Major Technologies.

According to my sources, the reason Vector never flew and Cantrell and the company parted ways was that the engines they were building for the rocket ended up under-powered. It seems Cantrell has taken a different approach with his new startup by buying engines from an outside source instead of building them in house.

SpaceX raises another $1.16 billion in private capital

Capitalism in space: In a regulatory filing yesterday SpaceX revealed that it raised another $1.16 billion in private investment capital in just the past two months.

This follows two other recent financing rounds since August of last year in which SpaceX raised almost $3 billion. That makes $4 billion raised in eight months. All told, I think this brings the total private investment capital SpaceX has raised in the past two years to approximately $6 billion, all for building both the Starlink satellite constellation and the Starship/Superheavy rocket.

Not only does this give SpaceX ample cash to build both, it signals the growing faith big money investors have in the company’s plans. They have bought into Elon Musk’s dreams because he has proven that his dreams deliver, not only in exciting space ventures but in profits.

This fund-raising success also tells us that even if Starship does not reach orbit before SLS, it will very soon eclipse it entirely. It has the money now to get built, and the way SpaceX builds things, it will get built fast.

Blue Origin completes another unmanned suborbital test flight of New Shepard

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin today successfully completed another unmanned suborbital test flight of New Shepard, and in doing so also rehearsed the boarding and disembarking procedures they will use when they finally fly this craft with people on board.

Blue Origin personnel rehearsed how customers will board the six-seat crew capsule before Wednesday’s launch. Four employees stood in as astronauts and rode to the launch pad inside a Ford SUV with two support crew members.

After arriving at the pad, the astronaut stand-ins climbed stairs up the launch pad tower and walked across an access gantry leading to the spacecraft sitting atop the already-fueled New Shepard booster. Two employees — Gary Lai, Blue Origin’s New Shepard designer, and Audrey Powers, the company’s vice president of legal and compliance — entered the capsule through the hatch and strapped into seats. … After a few minutes, Lai and Powers exited the spacecraft and the crew evacuated the launch pad before liftoff.

…Blue Origin crews at the West Texas test site also practiced how they will help passengers out of the capsule after landing. Recovery teams quickly converged on the spacecraft after touchdown in the desert, and approached the capsule with mobile stairs and other equipment.

While rehearsing these procedures seems a good idea, there appears to be a bit of blarney in this whole show. Considering that this was their 15th New Shepard flight and the second for this spacecraft, it seems to me that these procedures could have rehearsed during one of those earlier flights, or even during any one of many dress rehearsal countdowns that they should have done previously, not on a flight itself.

Blue Origin has not announced when the first manned suborbital flight will be. In their last prediction in January they had said the first manned flight would happen in April, something that has now clearly not happened.

That flight is now more than five years behind schedule, based on the company’s promises back in 2016. when they flew New Shepard almost every other month and predicted the first manned flights in 2017. Then, Jeff Bezos hired Bob Smith to be Blue Origin’s CEO, and the company’s progress on New Shepard crawled to a stop.

It is now questionable whether this company will even get its first suborbital tourist flight launched before SpaceX completes its first orbital tourist flight in September. At that point why should anyone who can afford to pay for a space flight choose New Shepard and its mere five minutes of weightlessness when they go to orbit with SpaceX and spend days there? It might cost less, but it will still cost a lot, and the cost-benefit analysis sure doesn’t favor Blue Origin’s business model any more.

More delays to Boeing’s Starliner manned capsule schedule

Capitalism in space: Though no new launch date has been announced, both NASA and Boeing are now likely aiming for a summer launch of the second unmanned Starliner demo mission to ISS.

This is largely due to traffic at the International Space Station rather than the readiness of Starliner itself. Two NASA sources said the vehicle is “close” to being ready, with only a few small tests to certify the spacecraft for flight remaining. Starliner is therefore expected to be ready to fly by early summer.

The primary issue is the availability of space station docking ports fitted with an “international docking adapter,” which are used by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Cargo Dragon 2, and Starliner vehicles. There are presently two such ports on the station, and for NASA, the priority for access to these ports are crew rotations followed by supply missions. So the question becomes when the Starliner test flight can find an open slot on station.

It appears that they are now targeting the window of availability for either of those ports in the late July into August time period.

While this might be the main reason for this new delay, it also appears that there might be technical issues as well. In early March Boeing and NASA had announced that they were delaying this demo mission for the same scheduling reasons, but then they said they were targeting a May launch date, during a period after one manned Dragon mission had left in late April and before the next Dragon cargo mission arrived in June.

It now appears they cannot meet that window any longer, and are therefore aiming for the next, in July.

Meanwhile, the first manned Starliner demo mission appears to have also pushed back, from late this year to early next year.

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.

New calls for reworking or replacing Outer Space Treaty

Yesterday there were two different public statements calling for the international community to either amend or replace the Outer Space Treaty, one an op-ed in the U.S. and the other a statement by the head of Russia’s space agency.

At first glance these announcements seemed hopeful, especially because the op-ed, written by one of the authors of a just released new study [pdf] by a defense-oriented Washington think tank, made part of its focus the need to encourage commercial activities in space.
» Read more

Commerce increases sanctions on Russia impacting space commerce and trade

The Commerce Department last month announced that is increasing the level of sanctions against trade with Russia because it had determined that country had violated international law by using chemical weapons against specific dissidents both in and out of Russia.

On March 4, 2018, the Russia Government deployed a Novichok nerve agent in an attack against former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal in the United Kingdom. In response, the U.S. Government imposed two sets of sanctions against Russia pursuant to the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991 (CBW Act) in August 2018 and August 2019.

On August 20, 2020, the Russian Government again deployed a Novichok nerve agent, this time against Russian opposition figure Aleksey Navalny, warranting a new determination by the Secretary of State and additional sanctions under the CBW Act.

While this ruling will have a negative impact on any space-related U.S./Russian activities, the full ruling specifically included these waivers:
» Read more

Northrop Grumman’s MEV-2 successfully completes docking to commercial satellite

MEV-2 about 50 feet away from satellite

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman today announced that its second Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-2) has successfully docked with an Intelsat geosynchronous communications satellite.

Northrop Grumman is the only provider of flight-proven life extension services for satellites, and this is the second time the company has docked two commercial spacecraft in orbit. The company’s MEV-1 made history when it successfully docked to the Intelsat 901 (IS-901) satellite in February 2020. Unlike MEV-1, which docked above the GEO orbit before moving IS-901 back into service, MEV-2 docked with IS-10-02 directly in its operational GEO orbital location.

…Under the terms of Intelsat’s satellite life-extension servicing contract, MEV-2 will provide five years of service to IS-10-02 before undocking and moving on to provide services for a new mission.

The image, provided by Northrop Grumman, was taken by MEV-2’s infrared wide field of view camera when it was still about 50 feet away from the Intelsat satellite. You can see the Earth in the background. As I understand it, MEV-2 uses the satellite’s own engine nozzle as a docking port, which is the smallest circular feature in the center of the satellite. If you look close you can see the nozzle’s shadow on the right.

Biden administration’s proposed ’22 NASA budget boosts spending in all programs

The just released summary budget by the Biden administration for 2022 includes a $1.5 billion increase in NASA’s budget, with increases for every NASA project across the board.

Maybe the only part of this that is surprising is the $325 million increase to the manned Artemis project to return to the Moon. Democrats have traditionally tried to cut such programs, even as they increased the spending in NASA’s climate budget. Though the Biden administration has shown that its priorities remain in line with this by increasing NASA’s climate budget by a hefty $2.3 billion, it did not cut Artemis but increased its budget also.

This budget proposal is also in line with the general trend in Washington, which is to spend money as if it grows on trees. Trump had also increased NASA’s budget, but tried to counter those increases with cuts in other areas, both in NASA and elsewhere. None of his proposed cuts however were ever really approved, as Congress has no interest in cutting anything.

Now that Biden and the bureaucracy is in power the money to them is going to flow like water from a burst dam. Whether the American people actually benefit from this spending remains to be seen. In general, since the 1960s the payoff from increased federal spending has been poor to terrible. I don’t see any reason to expect otherwise, even if the support of manned space exploration by the Biden administration helps fuel a new commercial renaissance in space. That renaissance cannot last if the country that supports it goes bankrupt.

Starship #11 debris fuels environmentalist opposition

They’re coming for you next: The debris that fell as far as five and a half miles away when SpaceX’s Starship #11 prototype exploded just before landing on March 30th has increased the already vocal opposition from various environmentalist activists of the space project.

Environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, the Friends of Wildlife Corridor, and concerned citizens in the environmental research field have expressed their dissent about the SpaceX activities at Boca Chica.

Chris Sandoval, a science teacher in Brownsville with degrees in Wildlife and Fisheries and Ecotoxicology, has put forth a research paper explaining the possible effects of SpaceX activity in the surrounding natural habitats and economic consequences as a result of their expansion in the region.

Sandoval says research would show that contamination from rocket fluids would harm wildlife in the surrounding area. “Contaminants such as those of hydrocarbons are able to kill aquatic life, both vertebrate and invertebrate, at very low concentrations, especially when it’s in a semi-enclosed area as the Lagunas are,” explained Sandoval.

And yet, none of these claims seem to apply to the government-run spaceports in Florida and California, both of which are also surrounded by wildlife refuges. Why is that? Why do these environmentalists have a particular opposition to the spaceport of this private company, but none or little opposition to the government’s? Could it be that what they really oppose is private enterprise, and are using the environment as a tool to destroy it?

I should add, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that manages this refuge, SpaceX has been working closely with them on mitigating the damage, which in the end I suspect will be quite minimal. The ecology is far stronger than these environmentalist like to portray it. What SpaceX did hardly compares to the damage a hurricane would cause, and that is not an unusual event at this Gulf coast location.

Whether this environmental opposition to SpaceX will result in any major delays or obstacles remains to be seen. Under a Trump administration I would not be too concerned. Under today’s Democratic Party Biden administration, who knows? The tendency of Democrats is to regulate, and to use their power to squeeze others. So far that has not yet happened aggressively in connection to SpaceX, though there have been signs that the Biden administration is interested in increasing the regulatory roadblocks SpaceX must face. We will only have to wait and see.

Above all this increases the urgency for SpaceX to shift as soon as possible its Starship and Super Heavy test flights to the two oil-rigs it purchased and are refitting as floating launch and landing platforms. Once the bulk of those test flights are far away, out in the ocean, the political clout of these protesters will be minimized.

Starship and Super Heavy update

Link here. The fifteenth Starship prototype has now been moved to its launchpad, which you can see here, while further work continues on Starship prototypes #16-20, the first Super Heavy prototypes, #1 and #2, and the orbital launchpad.

Starship #15 sports many changes in design from #11, and is expected to do its first test flight sometime in the coming weeks. As for the first Super Heavy prototype, it will be used to test some ground operations as well as the prototype itself, on the ground. Prototype #2 will hopefully make the first Super Heavy hop.

The construction of a full orbital launchpad lends great weight to SpaceX’s goal of making the first orbital flight before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has likely tightened security at this Boca Chica facility after a youtuber sneaked onto the site recently and posted video of himself wandering around the base of Starship #11, unmolested. He has since removed that video, but another youtuber grabbed it and has re-posted it for you to watch.

Commercial Japanese company about to test orbital space junk removal

Capitalism in space: The private Japanese company Astroscale has placed in orbit a satellite dubbed ELSA-d to test the use of magnets for capturing and removing space junk from orbit.

ELSA-d was launched March 22nd as part of a Soyuz commercial launch.

The ELSA-d mission will test new technology developed by Astroscale, which consists of two satellites stacked together: a 385-lb. (175 kilograms) “servicer” and a 37-lb. (17 kg) “client.” The servicer is designed to safely remove debris from orbit, while the client spacecraft will serve during the demonstration as a piece of debris to be cleaned up. Once the two satellites separate, they will perform a cosmic game of cat and mouse over the next six months.

…Using a series of maneuvers, Astroscale will test the satellite’s ability to snatch debris and bring it down toward the Earth’s atmosphere, where both servicer and debris will burn up. The servicer is equipped with a magnetic docking plate, as well as GPS technology to estimate the exact position and motion of its target. This debris removal demonstration project is the first of its kind by a commercial satellite operator, according to the statement.

During the trial mission, the company will test whether the servicer can catch the client satellite in three separate demonstrations.

The company’s goal is to convince satellite companies to place its client component on their satellites so that when it comes time to decommission the satellite Astroscale’s servicer can be sent up to remove it.

SpaceX successfully launches another sixty Starlink satellites

Falcon 9 today, with booster on 7th flight

SpaceX this morning successfully launched another 60 Starlink satellites, bringing the total number in orbit to more than 1,500.

The first stage, on its seventh flight, successfully landed on the drone ship. During SpaceX’s live stream they noted that every launch by the company this year has used a previously flown first stage. Both fairings on this flight were also reused.

The leaders in the 2021 launch race:

10 SpaceX
7 China
5 Russia
2 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 14 to 7 in the national rankings.

I have embedded SpaceX’s live stream below the fold. Because of the clear weather this was a particularly beautiful launch. The video during the landing of the first stage was especially spectacular, with the camera on the booster showing the entire landing.
» Read more

SpaceX’s decision to build launchpad with Starship tanks proves the rocket will be cheapest ever built

Capitalism in space: The decision by SpaceX’s to build the tank farm for its Starship/Super Heavy launchpad at Boca Chica using Starship tanks, rather than inexpensive off-the-shelf storage tanks, strongly suggests that the company’s manufacturing facility for building those tanks makes them very inexpensive, and also suggests that the final rocket will be as cheap to launch as SpaceX has promised.

SpaceX is effectively taking identical rocket parts, slightly tweaking a handful of those parts, and turning what could have been a rocket into a propellant storage tank. This is significant because relative to all other rockets in history, even including SpaceX’s own Falcon 9 and Heavy, building storage tanks with unchanged rocket parts on a rocket assembly line would be roughly akin to hiring Vincent van Gogh to paint lane lines.

Ever since Elon Musk made the radical decision to switch from composite structures to stainless steel, Starship has always aimed to be radically different than any large rocket before it. Crucially, by using commodity steel, the CEO imagined SpaceX would be able to build Starships fairly easily and for pennies on the dollar next to even SpaceX’s exceptionally affordable Falcon 9. In the last 18 months, it’s become apparent that SpaceX has built a factory capable of churning out one or two massive steel rockets per month and is willing to consign at least four or five of those Starship prototypes to all-but-guaranteed failures for the sake of data-gathering and iterative improvement.

Technically, the most logical conclusion would be that Musk was right and that SpaceX has quickly developed the ability to build steel rockets larger than any other launch vehicle on Earth for perhaps just $5M or less apiece.

The analysis at the link is detailed and worth reading. If correct, this decision by SpaceX proves that Starship and Super Heavy will be the cheapest rocket ever flown, even though it will be the largest ever flown, and also completely reusable.

Rocket startup ABL Space gets giant Lockheed Martin launch contract

Capitalism in space: Smallsat rocket startup ABL Space, which has yet to launch its first test rocket, has won a gigantic launch contract from Lockheed Martin for as many as 58 launches through 2029.

Under terms of the block-buy agreement between ABL Space Systems and Lockheed, the aerospace giant will purchase “up to” 26 launches through 2026 and as many as 32 additional launches through 2029. If the terms are fulfilled, this would come to 58 launches over the next eight years for ABL Space. In an industry where even a single launch contract often produces a news release, a contract for five dozen launches is unprecedented for a private company.

…The partnership will allow Lockheed, which builds large numbers of satellites for commercial customers, frequent and low-cost access to space. It is perhaps not a surprise that Lockheed selected ABL Space for its small launch needs, as Lockhead was an early investor in the launch company during a seed phase in 2019 and has continued to participate in additional rounds of fundraising. ABL has raised a total of $219 million to date.

Though Lockheed Martin is not ABL’s biggest investor, by being an early investor it has been involved in the development of ABL’s RS1 rocket from the start, which also means that Lockheed Martin was essentially buying its own rocket company to place the satellites it makes into orbit.

In fact, this decision falls into line with what appears to be Lockheed Martin’s long term corporate strategy. In 2017 the company opened its satellite-making factory with the satellites designed with standardized structures so that customers could pick and choose the design of their liking.

In 2018 it was revealed that the company was a key investor in Rocket Lab, while also participating in the creation of the United Kingdom’s first spaceport in Sutherland, Scotland.

It then decided to become a major investor in ABL, probably taking advantage of what it learned from Rocket Lab to improve the design. Now it plans to use that new rocket to launch a large number of the smallsats it is building in its factory.

Lockheed Martin is essentially copying SpaceX’s vertical integration strategy, whereby it owns or builds all aspects of its launch business. This allows it to reduce costs while controlling construction entirely. You cut out the middle man, and make your satellites cheaper to sell to others.

The first launch of ABL’s RS1 rocket was originally scheduled for the first half of this year, but has now been pushed back to the third quarter. If successful the company says it will follow it with two more launches before the end of the year, and very ambitious schedule.

Methane tank leak caused Starship #11 failure

Capitalism in space: According to Elon Musk, a small leak of methane from one tank caused the failure of the eleventh Starship prototype. From Musk’s tweet:

Ascent phase, transition to horizontal & control during free fall were good.

A (relatively) small CH4 leak led to fire on engine 2 & fried part of avionics, causing hard start attempting landing burn in CH4 turbopump.

This is getting fixed 6 ways to Sunday.

Meanwhile, prototype #15 is getting prepped for rollout to the launchpad (Numbers 12-14 were scrapped), and the first prototype of first stage Super Heavy is being assembled to testing. It is presently unclear when either will take place, though the company still has a target date of July for its first orbital launch. According to Musk, the first orbital prototypes of Starship will be those numbered 20 or higher.

“Those ships will be orbit-capable with heat shield & stage separation system,” Musk tweeted. “Ascent success probability is high. However, SN20+ vehicles will probably need many flight attempts to survive Mach 25 entry heating & land intact.”

Knowing those first orbital ships will likely not land properly raises the question as to where they will be aimed to come down. SpaceX now owns two retired floating oil platforms, and is preparing them for use by Starship/Super Heavy. It could very well be that test flights of prototype #20+ will take place to and from those pads, out in the ocean, so as to minimize any risk to populated areas. Doing so will also allow SpaceX to hone its procedures for moving these big spaceships to and from the platforms.

Resilience successfully moves from one ISS docking port to another

With four astronauts on board the Dragon capsule Resilience tonight successfully undocked from one docking port on ISS and redocked to a different port.

This was the first time an American spacecraft had accomplished this task. It was necessary to clear the docking port that the next Dragon capsule, Endeavour, will use to bring its crew to ISS, presently set for launch on April 22nd.

Russian astronauts have piloted Soyuz spacecraft between different ports numerous times, both on ISS and on Russia’s earlier space stations. Tonight’s transfer by Resilience however was done entirely on autopilot. The American astronauts could have taken over manually at any time, but the spacecraft did the entire maneuver on its own.

There is a certain irony in how the Russians have always done this maneuver, manually, and how Resilience did this, without any human intervention. From the 1960s through the entire space shuttle program Americans and all its astronauts strongly demanded that their spacecraft be piloted, by the humans on board, rather than being controlled by software or ground control. The Russians instead insisted, at least initially, that while their astronauts had the capability of doing all maneuvers manually, their software or mission control should run things. This difference seemed to nicely symbolize the down-up nature of America versus the top-down culture of Russia.

Things are now reversed. I wonder if that tells us anything about the two cultures today.

Falcon 9 upper stage debris lands on Washington farm

Falcon 9 helium pressure tank
Click for full image.

When a Falcon 9 upper stage broke up over the Pacific northwest last week apparently one of its interior helium pressure tanks, used to help push the fuel or oxidizer from the larger tank during launch, fell on a Washington farm and has since been recovered.

The image to the right is that tank, in what appears to be remarkable shape. From the article:

Composite-overwrapped pressure vessels, or COPVs, are standard components in Falcon 9 rockets. They’re designed to hold the helium gas that’s used to pressurize propellant tanks. COPVs are likely candidates to survive re-entry because they’re relatively lightweight and heat-resistant.

The tank has been returned to SpaceX, which I am sure is going to be very interested in studying its condition very thoroughly.

Sierra Nevada will build space stations and a manned version of Dream Chaser

Sierra Nevada's proposed LIFE space station
Artist conception of Sierra Nevada’s LIFE space station

Capitalism in space: Sierra Nevada announced today that it will not only build a manned version of its Dream Chaser reusable mini-shuttle, it now intends to use that shuttle as a ferry to its own space station, made up of inflatable modules.

They have dubbed their proposed station LIFE, and describe as follows:

The LIFE habitat is a three story, 27-foot large inflatable fabric environment that launches on a conventional rocket and inflates on-orbit. The LIFE habitat is undergoing a NASA soft-goods certification this year and the full size ground prototype developed under NASA’s NextSTEP-2 contract is in the process of being transferred from Johnson Space Center in Texas to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for further testing on short-and long-term habitation. SNC’s Astro Garden® system also provides fresh food within the habitat.

Making a manned version of Dream Chaser was always expected. Adding the company’s own station makes complete sense. Except for the rocket to launch a Dream Chaser spacecraft, Sierra Nevada will be able to provide a full service experience to, in, and from space.

Industry group representing big tech demands Starlink be blocked in India

They’re coming for you next: An industry group representing a number of big tech companies like Amazon and Google has written India’s governmental agencies that regulate broadband and space and demanded that they block SpaceX’s Starlink internet service in India.

An industry body representing the likes of Amazon, Hughes, Google, Microsoft and Facebook has written to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) asking them to stop SpaceX from pre-selling the beta version of its Starlink satellite internet services in India. It claimed SpaceX didn’t have licence or authorisation from the government to offer such services in the country. “We request you to urgently intervene to protect fair competition and adherence to existing policy and regulatory norms,” Broadband India Forum president TV Ramachandran said in the letters, seen by ET.

I could have filed this story under my series, “Today’s Blacklisted Americans”. These big tech companies have made it very clear in numerous earlier stories that they do not believe in competition or free speech. They are now demonstrating it again in India. Both Amazon and Hughes are direct competitors with Starlink. Neither also has a product that can compete with it (Amazon appears years from deploying its system and Hughes’ system has latency issues that make it much slower than Starlink). So, they team up with their leftist buddies Google, Microsoft, and Facebook to demand the Indian government do their dirty work for them, shutting down their competition.

It is unlikely that India’s Modi government, which is very much in favor of private enterprise, will do what these thugs want, but you never know. Politicians are like whores, they do what you pay them. If India does move to block SpaceX however I also expect there to be an outcry in that country, as it has many rural areas that can only be served by the kind of service Starlink is offering.

FAA says it will “lead” investigation into Starship #11 crash yesterday

They’re coming for you next: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced today that it will “oversee” the investigation into the crash at landing yesterday by SpaceX’s eleventh Starship prototype.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which had an inspector at SpaceX’s facilities to observe the test flight, said in a statement that the FAA will oversee the company’s investigation into the “prototype mishap.” The FAA has conducted similar mishap investigations after previous Starship test flights. “The [Starship] vehicle experienced an anomaly during the landing phase of the flight resulting in loss of the vehicle,” an FAA spokesperson said. “The FAA will approve the final mishap investigation report and any corrective actions SpaceX must take before return to flight is authorized.”

The FAA noted that it will also work with SpaceX to identify reports of light debris in the area, saying that there have yet to be any reported injuries or damaged to public property.

What will really go on here is that an FAA official will observe closely as SpaceX conducts the investigation. That official might have some background in space engineering, but he or she will be completely unprepared to actually lead the investigation. Thus in the end the FAA will really only be able to rubber stamp SpaceX’s conclusions, though it might as all governments do, demand its own pound of flesh before issuing that stamp.

Up to now the FAA has tried very hard to work with the new commercial space companies, especially SpaceX, doing as little as it can to impede their progress. There are strong signs however that this might now change with the Democrats in control of the White House and Congress. If so, expect the FAA to cause SpaceX some grief during this investigation, grief that could significantly delay further test flights.

Three new German smallsat startup rocket companies vying for market share

Capitalism in space: Three new German startup companies have joined the race to grab a share in the burgeoning new cubesat/nanosat launch business, with each building their own new rockets.

The companies are dubbed Isar Aerospace, Rocket Factory, and HyImpulse..

Each is developing rockets capable of carrying between 500 and 1,500 kilos (3,300 pounds) into low Earth orbit. While that’s a fraction of the tens of thousands of kilos hauled by the Falcon 9, operated by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., it’s enough to transport the satellites now being deployed for everything from super-fast Internet to autonomous driving.

Isar plans its first launch in ’22, HyImpulse in ’23. The target date of Rocket Factory’s first launch was not revealed.

These European companies join dozens such new smallsat rocket companies that already exist. Which will survive the shake-out that always occurs in such new industries only time will tell.

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