Tag Archives: ISS

Updates on Russian investigation of Soyuz launch failure

Three stories from Russia today on the investigation into last week’s launch failure during a Soyuz launch to ISS.

The first two simply outline additional changes in the Russian upcoming Soyuz launch forced upon them by the failure. It is already clear that the December launch of a new crew will be delayed also.

The third story has one piece of information that I think is intriguing:

The emergency commission looks into the Baikonur spaceport staff who worked on the Soyuz-FG carrier rocket preparing it for the launch with the manned capsule Soyuz MS-10 atop, but the liftoff ended up in a failure, a source said.

“Some members of the emergency commission are staying at the Baikonur Cosmodrome to investigate the circumstances of the failure of the Soyuz-FG rocket. They will have to check all the employees who were working on the rocket,” he said.

That they specifically mention the investigation of the employees who worked on both the rocket and the capsule suggests that they are seriously considering the possibility that one of those individuals might be the cause of both this failure as well as the drill hole in the Soyuz capsule now at ISS.

Nor can anyone blame them. The evidence so far surrounding the drill hole suggests it was done when the capsule was being prepared for launch at Baikonur. If there is an individual working there with an animus toward the Russian government or its space program, they might have possibility done something to this rocket as well.

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Updates on yesterday’s Soyuz failure

The Russian investigation into yesterday’s Soyuz launch failure has tentatively identified a malfunctioning valve as a possible source of the failure.

“The state commission has tentatively established a malfunction of the fuel dump valve of the rocket’s oxidizer tank:exhaust gas coming from the valve pushes a side section away from the center section. The valve appeared to be defective and failed to function,” the source said.

The valve passed the preflight check, he said. “It was opened before the launch, and closed afterwards consistent with the procedure,” the source said.

Once the rocket is fueled, the valve dumps redundant oxygen. “It is closed several minutes before the launch. It is supposed to open after the side section separates from the central section, but that did not happen,” the source said.

The “side section” refers to the Soyuz’s strap-on boosters. The “central section” refers to its core stage. From this report it appears the failure of the valve has been linked to a collision between the stages at separation.

“There are no final versions but the primary cause is understandable and is related to the collision of a side element making part of the first stage. A collision occurred during the separation of the first and second stages,” the Roscosmos official said.

“A deviation from the standard trajectory occurred and apparently the lower part of the second stage disintegrated. The rocket stopped its normal flight and after that the automatic system did its work,” Krikalyov said.

An element of the booster’s first stage collided with the second stage, Krikalyov said. “This could have been caused by the failure of the system of the normal separation, which should have been activated. We will analyze the causes in detail,” the Roscosmos official said.

This is obviously only a preliminary result, and should be treated with caution. Meanwhile, the investigation has also launched a criminal investigation. This doesn’t surprise me, as the Russians will sometimes consider some things, such as incompetence, as falling under criminal statutes. Considering the discovery of a drilled hole on a launched Soyuz capsule only a few weeks ago, however, I think they are probably even more paranoid than normal.

Update: Russia has decided they will launch a unmanned Soyuz mission before resuming manned flights.

This is definitely going to impact ISS operations, and cancels a December manned Soyuz launch.

The Soyuz capsules attached to ISS have a 200 day lifespan in space. Thus, the crews on board cannot stay past those dates, which means if launches get delayed for a significant period the station might end up without a crew. NASA has said ISS can be operated in this manner, but I also know they want to avoid this if at all possible.

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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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ISS’s international partners express interest in extending station’s life

While NASA has been considering the end of ISS, this week its international partners all expressed interest this week in extending its life beyond 2024.

During an Oct. 1 press conference at the 69th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here, representatives of three ISS partner agencies said they were open to extending the station’s operations to 2028 or 2030 in order to maximize the investment they’ve made in the facility as a platform for research and preparation for exploration activities beyond Earth orbit.

Jan Woerner, director general of the European Space Agency, said the issue could come up at the next triennial meeting of the ministers of ESA’s member nations, scheduled for late 2019. “At the ministerial meeting next year, the ministerial council, I will propose to go on with ISS as well as the lunar Gateway,” he said. “I believe that we will go on.”

At a separate briefing Oct. 2, Woerner emphasized the use of the station as a research platform and encouraged greater commercial activities there. “I believe we should use the ISS as long as feasible,” he said. “I always thought 2024 was the end, but now I learned it is 2028, and yesterday I learned it’s 2030. So, I will try to convince the ESA member states that ESA should be a partner in the future.” However, he noted that ESA could defer the decision on a post-2024 ISS extension until its following ministerial meeting in 2022.

Hiroshi Yamakawa, president of the Japanese space agency JAXA, also emphasized the importance of making the most of the station. “I’d like to make the most of the present ISS,” he said. “We have to maximize the output of the ISS. Whenever the deadline comes to the ISS, we would like to participate in the ISS and maximize output.” He added, though, that there was not a pressing need for Japan to decide on an ISS extension. “JAXA is requesting budgets annually, so I think in that sense JAXA is quite flexible.”

Dmitry Loskutov, head of international relations at the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, said Russia already expected an extension. “We anticipate the continued functioning until 2028 or 2030,” he said.

While I can see many benefits for extending ISS, leaving it as a wholly government-run operation will reduce its effectiveness while increasing its cost. I also suspect all these agencies are lobbying for funding. If they can get money for both ISS and Gateway, it will increase their footprint in space significantly.

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Japan successfully launches unmanned cargo ship to ISS

Japan today used a Mitsubishi H-2B rocket to successfully launch an unmanned cargo ship to ISS.

The cargo ship will take five days to rendezvous and dock with ISS. Its most interesting piece of cargo is a small capsule with a heat shield, designed to return experiment samples to Earth.

JAXA says the the capsule has an internal volume of about 30 liters, and astronauts could load up to 44 pounds (20 kilograms) of specimens inside the landing craft, which features a thermos-like container to store refrigerated biological samples. That is a fraction of the carrying capacity of the Dragon capsule, but the new HTV Small Return Capsule will offer station managers a new way to make sure time-critical items can return to Earth for analysis.

Astronauts will assemble the return capsule after the HTV arrives at the station, and mount it into position over the HTV’s forward hatch for deployment once the supply ship leaves the station.

The capsule, which carries no engines of its own, will jettison after the HTV completes its deorbit burn. The re-entry craft will deploy a parachute and splash down in the Pacific Ocean, where recovery teams will retrieve it and bring it back to Japan for inspections.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

25 China
16 SpaceX
8 Russia
7 ULA
5 Europe (Arianespace)
5 Japan

For Japan to be tied with Europe this late in the year either indicates that Europe is sagging, or Japan is growing. I suspect it is partly both. In the national rankings China still leads the U.S. 25 to 24.

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Update on SpaceX and Boeing’s private commercial crew capsules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Russians considering spacewalk as part of airleak investigation

The Russians are now considering having their astronauts on ISS do a spacewalk to inspect the outside of the Soyuz capsule for evidence of sealant work at the location of the drill hole that caused the airleak.

If the spacewalk is attempted, the cosmonauts would have to get to the Habitation Module, peel off soft thermal layers blanketing the spacecraft and then cut through the meteoroid shielding bordering this section of the spacecraft at a distance of around 1.5 centimeters from its pressurized hull.

To access the area of the hole on the exterior of the Soyuz, Russian officials are developing a spacewalk scenario relying on the available Strela boom, GStM. The telescopic device can be used to carry a cosmonaut secured to a special anchor at the end of the boom to a location aboard the station otherwise inaccessible to spacewalkers due to lack of railings.

The spacewalk would take place sometime in November or December. The goal is to help confirm that the sealant work was done on the ground, as well as help pinpoint when.

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Soyuz capsule was drilled after it was fully assembled

The investigation into the drillhole leak in the Soyuz capsule docked to ISS has revealed that it had to have been done after the capsule was fully assembled.

“During the analysis of those images, traces of drilling were found on the anti-meteorite shield,” the source said, adding that “the top of the drill came through the pressure hull and hit the non-gastight outer shell.”

According to another industry source, the non-gastight anti-meteorite protection is installed right before the spacecraft is taken to the final assembly workshop. “When Soyuz MS-09 has just arrived to the final assembly workshop, it was photographed in details. No hole and no signs of drilling… were found. The spacecraft was drilled later, when it was fully assembled,” the source said. He added that the anti-meteorite shield was also photographed before being installed, and no traces on it were found as well.

The source suggested that the spacecraft could be damaged either during the very last stage of works or during its 90-day stay in the checkout stand, adding that it was highly unlikely that the damage occurred during the transportation to the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan or at the launch facility.

This narrowing of the time frame for the drilling will increase the chances that the Russians will be able to identify who did.

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NASA & Roscosmos heads to meet

After their teleconference to discuss the status of Russia’s investigation into the airleak on ISS, the heads of NASA and Roscosmos agreed to their first face-to-face meeting on October 10 at the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan.

Part of the reason for the teleconference and this announcement to try to stem the wild rumors about the leak, including the accusation that it was done by an American astronaut.

I also expect them to discuss how they can jointly lobby the American Congress to fund the Gateway boondoggle, formerly (F)LOP-G.

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Japan to launch space elevator experiment to ISS

When Japan launches its unmanned freighter to ISS on September 10, it will carry a two-cubesat engineering test of some of the concepts required to build a space elevator.

In the experiment, which will be the first of its kind in space, two ultrasmall cubic satellites, or “cubesats,” will be released into space from the station. They will be connected by a steel cable, where a small container — acting like an elevator car — will move along the cable using its own motor. A camera attached to the satellites will record the movements of the container in space, according to the Japanese newspaper The Mainichi.

Each cubesat measures just under 4 inches (10 centimeters) on each side. The cubesats will be connected by a 33-foot-long (10 meters) steel cable for the “elevator car” to move along, according to the report.

I wonder if this experiment will also test some of the technology needed for generating electricity using a tether. Over the decades there have been a number of experimental attempts in space of this concept, all of which have failed for a variety of reasons, all unrelated to the concept itself.

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“Unsteady hand” drilled hole in Soyuz

According to reports in Russia today, Roscosmos head Dmitri Rogozin suggested earlier this week that an “unsteady hand” had made several attempts to drill a hole in the Soyuz capsule.

“There is another version that we are not ruling out; that this was done deliberately in space,” Russian news agency RIA Novosti quoted Rogozin saying.

He indicated there were “several attempts to use a drill” by an “unsteady hand,” scraping the metal areas surrounding the hole, according to RIA Novosti. “We can cut short the idea that this was a technological mistake made by some specialist or other,” he added.

The vision that immediately came to my mind was that of a drunk technician, unhappy about pay, bad living conditions, and corruption, stumbling into the capsule, drilling the hole. Later, after he sobered up he realized the disaster he had created for himself and tried to fix it secretly.

Then again, it is dangerous to take seriously anything Dmitri Rogozin says. He could be trying to spin the situation to his advantage.

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First private patents filed for manufacturing materials on ISS

Capitalism in space: Two private companies, Proctor & Gamble and Made in Space, have filed the first private patents for the manufacture of either materials or supplies on the International Space Station.

These patents are very important, as they specifically describe doing manufacturing in space of objects that can be used in space. There have been many previous patents for research in space, but all have usually related to research for use on Earth.

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Air leak on ISS

An air leak on ISS was detected yesterday, and pinpointed to cracks found in the spherical habitation module of one of the Soyuz capsule’s docked to the station.

According to Russian sources, the problem was found in the Habitation Module of the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft, where the crew detected two small cracks, reaching 1.5 millimeters in size. Alexander Gerst apparently first discovered the leak.

The cosmonauts photographed the affected area and sent it to mission control for analysis. The first estimates indicated that the holes could be caused by meteor or debris strikes which punctured the hull of the spacecraft. Head of the Roskosmos State Corporation Dmitry Rogozin confirmed the incident but said that the problem had been resolved. According to Rogozin, the crew had to close off various sections of the station to isolate the leak.

According to ESA sources, the area of the leak was temporarily sealed with tape, while Russian cosmonauts were working on a permanent sealing patch. After some drop during the night, the air pressure inside the ISS was reported as stable near sea level. In the meantime, mission control informed the crew that all scheduled activities for August 30 had been cancelled.

The cracks do not pose a problem for using the Soyuz for returning to Earth, as the habitation module is discarded before de-orbit. The descent module appears unharmed.

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Russian medics have approved UAE’s astronaut candidates

The new colonial movement: Russian medics have now narrowed the candidates for the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) first spaceflight.

Nine candidates were sent to Russia for testing. The article does not say how many candidates were given medical clearance. Further training in September will narrow the choices further, followed by a final decision by the UAE naming the one person who will fly to ISS.

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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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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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Russian astronauts complete 8 hour spacewalk

Link here. Besides doing some basic maintenance work as well as literally tossing four cubesats into independent orbit, the most intriguing work was the installation of a German/Russian antenna designed to track animals.

Icarus is a collaborative environmental experiment between the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and Roscosmos to study the migratory patterns of small animals on Earth. It consists of an antenna and GPS hardware to track the movements of animals that have been tagged with small GPS receivers.

The experiment may provide data about how animals move from one location to another, how animal population density shifts over time, and how diseases spread.

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Scientists create coldest spot ever on ISS

Using a compact lab called the Cold Atom Lab and launched to ISS in a Cygnus freighter in May, scientists have now successfully created coldest spot ever.

The government agency created atoms known as Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) for the first time in orbit to focus on their unusual quantum behavior. A team of astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) was able to take the Cold Atom Lab (CAL), which was loaded with lasers and a vacuum chamber, to understand how BECs interact with gravity.

…The scientists produced the BECs with temperatures as “as low as 100 nanoKelvin, or one ten-millionth of one Kelvin above absolute zero,” NASA added, in the statement. Zero Kelvin, also known as absolute zero, is the equivalent of minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit. The average temperature of space is approximately 3 Kelvin or minus 454 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a sense, they didn’t so much create a cold spot as create conditions that allowed the Bose-Einstein condensates to form so that they could study them. The article provides some background about this research, which is focused mostly on trying to figure out how to unify quantum mechanics (which explains the interactions at the atomic level) with general relativity (which explains the actions of matter and energy at large scales). Physicists have been trying unify both for decades, with little success.

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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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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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Nine finalists for UAE’s astronaut corps of four

The new colonial movement: The United Arab Emirates has reduced its astronaut candidate pool to nine in preparation for choosing the person who will fly on a Russian Soyuz to ISS.

These finalists will now undergo training and assessment by the Russians. The actual flight is presently set for April 2019.

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Cygnus fires engine to test reboost of ISS

The Cygnus freighter presently berthed to ISS yesterday did a successful test engine firing to see if it could raise the orbit of ISS.

The cargo resupply vehicle provided a reboost to the Station at 4:25 pm Eastern, with a short 50 second burn of its main engine on the aft of the vehicle, raising the Station’s altitude by 295 feet. This test will pave the way for future, longer burns, removing some of the orbital stationkeeping strain from the Russian assets.

This was the first time since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in July 2011, a US spacecraft had performed a reboost of the ISS.

Northrop Grumman proposed the idea, considering it a way to enhance the value of Cygnus for future NASA contracts. It also appears that NASA is looking to see if the Dragon and Starliner capsule can do this. If so, it will free the U.S. from another dependency it presently has with Russia, who today has the only approved ability to raise the station’s orbit, using Progress and Soyuz capsules and sometimes the engine on its Zvezda module.

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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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UAE signs deal with Russia for UAE astronaut flight

The new colonial movement: The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia signed an agreement this week to fly an UAE astronaut on a Russian Soyuz capsule to ISS in April 2019.

The mission will be a standard 10-day tourist mission, though of course they are not describing it like that. The announcement also does not state if the UAE paid Russia for this flight, but I expect so, just like any tourist flight. The price however was likely a lot less than Russia has been squeezing from the U.S. for its astronaut flights. UAE had also been discussing this with China, and the competition probably forced Russia to lower its price.

I had been hoping that one of the U.S.’s commercial capsules could have gotten this business, but because of the delays NASA has imposed on their initial launches, they haven’t yet flown, so they lost the chance to compete for this.

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Private company to offer tourist trips to its own facility on ISS

Capitalism in space: The private company Axiom has announced that it will offer tourist trips to its own facility it will add to ISS, and then eventually detach when the station is retired.

Axiom’s timeline has some flex, because it’s not yet clear how long the larger station will keep going, or what the assembly schedule will be for the company’s custom-built habitation module. But a weekend feature about the project in The New York Times cited 2022 as the supposed opening date.

In addition to the 10-day orbital stay, the $55 million would cover a 15-week training experience on Earth. Axiom is targeting space tourists as well as researchers and entrepreneurs who want to develop in-space manufacturing facilities.

Is this doable? Axiom isn’t yet laying out the complete logistical details, but the company will almost certainly rely on the likes of SpaceX and Boeing, which are developing space taxis for NASA’s use. Once those spaceships go into operation, sometime in the 2018-2019 period, there’s likely to be excess transportation capacity that Axiom could buy into.

This is the future of ISS, a privately run hotel. The Russians have announced a similar plan, attaching a module to ISS that will be designed as a hotel room for tourists. I expect others will eventually do the same. Once these profitable operations take hold, I guarantee that ISS will not be retired. There will be vested interests who will apply the right political pressure to keep it in orbit.

Will that be a good thing? It depends. From a taxpayer perspective, it might not be. ISS is very expensive to operate. Privately built and independent stations would be much cheaper, and would not involve any federal subsidy. At the same time, these private stations might not be doable at affordable prices in the near term. Maintaining ISS for these private companies might in this case be a very reasonably use of federal funds. As the profits rise, the companies will eventually be able to afford building their own stations that will serve their needs better than ISS. That will then be the time to retire ISS, when other private and profitable stations are there, ready to replace it.

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Russia launches new crew to ISS

Russia’s Soyuz rocket this morning successfully launched a new crew to ISS.

They are using the traditional two-day rendezvous route to ISS this time.

The present leaders in the 2018 launch race:

17 China
11 SpaceX
6 Russia
5 ULA

Bonus: This launch Roscosmos added an on-board camera with views of stage separations. Video below the fold:
» Read more

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NASA administrator in talks about commercializing ISS

In a wide-ranging news article today, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine revealed that the agency is in discussions with many private corporations about the possibility of privatizing ISS.

Bridenstine declined to name the companies that have expressed interest in managing the station, and said he was aware that companies may find it “hard to close the business case.” But he said there was still seven years to plan for the future of the station, and with the White House’s budget request “we have forced the conversation.”

Bridenstine’s approach to ISS’s future seems reasonable to me. At some point the federal government needs to face the station’s future, and now is a better time to do it then later.

The article however confirmed my generally meh opinion of Bridenstine. First, he reiterated his born-again new belief in human-caused global warming, a belief that seemed to arrive solely for him to gain the votes to get him confirmed in the Senate.

Second, he said this about LOP-G, NASA’s proposed international space station that would fly in lunar space.

Known as the Lunar Orbiting Platform Gateway, the system would be built by NASA in partnership with industry and its international partners, he said.

“I’ve met with a lot of leaders of space agencies from around the world,” he said. “There is a lot of interest in the Gateway in the lunar outpost because a lot of countries want to have access to the surface of the moon. And this can help them as well and they can help us. It helps expand the partnership that we’ve seen in low Earth orbit with the International Space Station.”

But the first element of the system wouldn’t be launched until 2021 or 2022, he said. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words illustrate why Bridenstine seems like a lightweight to me. LOP-G might be flying near the Moon, but nothing about it will provide anyone any access to the lunar surface. Not only will it not be operational in any manner for more than a decade, at the soonest, but it doesn’t appear designed to make reaching the lunar surface any easier. Instead, it mostly seems designed to justify SLS and Orion, and provide that boondoggle a mission.

Still, Bridenstine has in the past been generally in favor of commercial space, and that position appears to be benefiting NASA’s commercial crew partners. Prior to Bridenstine’s arrival the decisions of NASA’s safety panel acted to repeatedly delay the launch of the manned capsules being built by SpaceX and Boeing. Now that safety panel seems to have seen the light, and is suddenly more confident in these capsules. I suspect Bridenstine might have had some influence here.

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UAE astronaut to fly to ISS on Soyuz?

According to a story in the Russian press a tourist on a flight planned for 2019 could be replaced by an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The Russians and the UAE have signed a cooperative agreement, so this is possible. It could also be that the UAE has offered more money and thus moved up the queue. It could also be that this is premature. There have been many such stories in the past decade, but the Russians have not flown a tourist to ISS since 2009.

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NASA inspector general weighs in on ISS’s future

The inspector general for NASA, Paul Martin, is testifying today before Congress on ISS. His prepared statement [pdf] includes several blunt assessements concerning the station’s future.

First and most important, he has doubts that transitioning the station to private ownership will work.
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