Tag Archives: NASA

NASA admits that 1st SLS launch likely to be delayed to 2021

In testimony yesterday at a House hearing NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine twice hinted that SLS’s first launch will not occur as scheduled in 2020, but will be delayed until 2021.

Twice during testimony before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Bridenstine referenced 2021 as the expected launch date for Artemis-1. “I think 2021 is definitely achievable for the Artemis-1 launch vehicle,” Bridenstine said in response to a question from Sen. Roger Wicker, the Mississippi Republican who chairs the committee.

However, Bridenstine said he would not set a new date for the mission yet.

Meanwhile, internal NASA sources say the launch can’t happen earlier than late 2021, and then only if the agency gets a lot more money, over and above the more than $25 billion that Congress has alocated.

Falcon Heavy was developed for $500 million. It took seven years, and is now operational, having flown three times. If the first launch of SLS does not occur until 2021 it will have taken NASA seventeen years to make that flight, for fifty times the money.

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SpaceX pinpoints cause of Dragon explosion during test

SpaceX today revealed that it has pinpointed the cause of the explosion that destroyed a Dragon manned capsule during an engine test in April.

The company believes that the problem originated with the Crew Dragon’s emergency abort system, which consists of a series of small thrusters embedded within the capsule. If all goes well during a mission, these tiny thrusters are never really meant to be used. But if there is some kind of failure during a future launch, the thrusters can ignite and carry the Crew Dragon safely away from a disintegrating rocket.

SpaceX says that a leaky valve caused the propellant needed for these thrusters to cross into another system — one of really high pressure. When this contamination occurred, the high forces slammed the liquid around, causing valuable components to fail and leading to the ultimate loss of the capsule.

Koenigsman said that this contamination definitely was not anticipated, though the kind of valve that leaked has been known to have some internal leakage problem. Ultimately, he acknowledged that, to some extent, this was a design issue. “It’s something that the components should not have done,” Koenigsman said. “But at the same time, we learned a very valuable lesson on something going forward, one that makes the Crew Dragon a safer vehicle.”
““it was a huge gift for us.” ”

SpaceX will replace all of these types of valves with another component known as a burst disk, which is supposed to be much more reliable, according to Koenigsman.

The company is still hoping to fly before the end of the year, but admits that this may not be possible. Right now they have a tentative launch date in November.

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Major management shake-up at NASA’s manned program

NASA today did a major shake-up in its manned program, most specifically relating to the management of its SLS/Orion program.

In a major shakeup at NASA Headquarters, agency Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Wednesday that Bill Gerstenmaier, the widely respected director of human spaceflight, has been replaced in the midst of an ambitious push to meet the Trump administration’s directive to send astronauts back to the moon within five years.

Effective immediately, Bridenstine wrote in a letter to agency employees, Ken Bowersox, a five-flight shuttle veteran, space station astronaut and Gerstenmaier’s deputy, will take over on an acting basis while Gerstenmaier serves as “special advisor” to NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard.

…Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development within HEO also has been replaced. A long-time NASA veteran, Hill helped manage development of the agency’s new heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System, or SLS, needed to carry astronauts back to the moon.

While the long delays and cost overruns at both SLS and Orion can partly be blamed on micromanagement by Congress and a lack of interest by the previous Obama administration, the internal management by Gersternmaier and Hill during this time is also at fault. They have allowed these programs to drag on, and were in charge when numerous major screw ups occurred, from badly built test stands that went overbudget to dishonest budget manipulations to cracks in the first Orion capsule to contamination in SLS’s rocket engines to the dropping of an SLS oxygen tank to brittle and weak welds in those tanks to establishing an overall slow motion pace for construction of the entire project.

I suspect that this shake-up is linked to the story earlier this week where NASA hinted it was going to have to delay the first SLS launch for another year.

I wrote then that the Trump administration would not take kindly to such a new delay, even if it was justified so the agency could do a required full stack static fire test of SLS’s core stage. I am willing to bet that this shake-up occurred because Gertenmaier and Hill had finally revealed the need for this delay, and the shake-up was the Trump administration’s response.

This doesn’t mean that SLS won’t be delayed. It just means the Trump administration has decided it was time to put new people in charge.

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Wheel update on Curiosity

Periodically, the Curiosity science team stops from its research to reassess the condition of the rover’s wheels. To do this they use the rover’s color camera, dubbed the Mast Camera (Mastcam), taking close-up pictures of the wheels to compare those with earlier photographs see if there has been any additional damage and deterioration over time.

Yesterday Mastcam took a new series of images of the rover’s wheels. Below are two pictures, the left taken on August 27, 2017, the right taken on July 7, 2019. I have annotated the images to help indicate where they match.
» Read more

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NASA begins the slow leak process prior to announcing new SLS delays

As it has been doing for the past half decade, NASA has now begun the process of issuing hints about a future announcement of more SLS launch delays, in order to prepare the public and neuter any possible negative news coverage.

The linked article above outlines in great detail the present status of SLS and the assembly of its core stage. The main decision the agency now faces is whether it will do what it calls an “SLS Green Run,” where they assemble that core stage on a test stand at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and fire it for a full duration static test. Such a test is necessary to validate the engineering models that were used to build the rocket. Without it no one will know if they have modeled the design correctly, meaning that during the first real launch they might find the rocket does not perform as predicted and could even fail.

Doing this test however will guarantee that the first SLS launch, Artemis 1, will not occur in June 2020 as presently scheduled, and will likely be delayed for another year.

The Trump administration has already made it clear it will not take kindly to more SLS delays. It has also made it clear that it will consider already available commercial options, such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, if NASA cannot deliver SLS as promised.

This puts NASA in a quandary.
» Read more

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The Greatest Scientific Fraud Of All Time — Part XXIII

Link here. The author continues a long running series outlining the data manipulation and tampering that has been going on at NOAA and NASA to distort the global temperature record so it will confirm the theories of global warming activists. As he notes,

Sure enough, there have been additional adjustments, as always in the same direction — older down, and newer up. But those adjustments between v.3 and v.4 have been relatively minor. More significantly, Kirye discovered a different maneuver which is even more incredible, and which he proves by direct links back to NASA’s own website: In the v.4 graphs that it provides, NASA has relabeled the hugely-adjusted v.3 data as “unadjusted.”

He pinpoints how NASA is now taking its adjusted data and labeling them unadjusted, so that it can justify even more adjustments, all always cooling the past and warming the present. As he adds,

Funny that once again, each one of the adjustments somehow enhances the warming trend. Is it really possible that never once does any new data, or adjustment to data, lead to a change in the other direction?

This is political hackwork disguised as science. Until the climate science community does something to stop this and clean up the mess in its global temperature data, they will find themselves unable to convince anyone of their scientific credibility. Which by the way is generally in the sewer.

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DSCOVR in safe mode

The solar wind monitoring satellite DSCOVR has gone into safe mode.

It is at present unclear what the problem is, or whether they can recover the spacecraft.

DSCOVR’s history is packed with political shenanigans. It was first proposed by Gore as Triana, with its only purpose to take global pictures of the Earth so Gore and the left could use these images for environmental propaganda. Bush canceled it, partly because it really had no legitimate scientific purpose and partly to prevent the left this propaganda tool. It was resurrected during the Obama administration but with a more useful purpose, providing early solar wind data so that Earth-based power grids could get prepared should a major solar storm be incoming. NASA’s other solar wind monitors ACE and SOHO, were already decades beyond their planned lifespan, and the space agency, the solar weather community, and especially the world’s electrical power industry, was desperate to get a new satellite in space.

Ironically, with DSCOVR’s shutdown we are still dependent on ACE and SOHO. Nor is there any replacement satellite anywhere close to launch.

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Apollo landing tapes for sale

An intern who in 1976 purchased more than a thousand surplus 2-inch videotapes from NASA for $218 is now going to auction off three of those reels that show the Apollo 11 moon walk.

Back in 1976, NASA gave 1,150 reels of 2-inch Quadruplex videotape to a government surplus auction. Gary George, a former intern at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, snapped up the lot of them for $218, in the hopes of selling them to news stations to record over for $50 a pop. He never watched them, but because his dad was a space buff, kept three of the tapes marked as “Apollo 11 EVA” (aka Extravehicular Activity, better known as a spacewalk). When he eventually watched the tapes, he realized that he had one of three surviving copies of one of the greatest feats of human ingenuity, the July 20, 1969 Moon landing. Now, those videotapes will be auctioned off to the highest bidder when Sotheby’s will mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing by putting the tapes up for sale on July 20th, at a starting bid of $700,000.

“I had no idea there was anything of value on them,” George said in an interview with Reuters. He started to get suspicious in 2006, after NASA admitted they had lost the tapes, and believed they could have been in the 2,614 boxes of Apollo mission tapes that were sent to a storage facility in late 1969. George got in touch with video archivist David Crosthwait in California, who had the necessary equipment to view the vintage tapes. In December 2008, George played the reels and quickly realized what he had been storing over the last few decades. He contacted NASA about the reels but “an agreement could not be reached,” according to the auction listing, and off to the auction block they go as part of an auction dedicated to Space Exploration.

The saddest part of this story are the tapes George sold to television stations to use to back-up their daily broadcasts. Some of those tapes probably contained historical recordings of the Apollo missions. While I suspect these tapes were not NASA’s only copies, I cannot be sure, which means some of the source material for the Apollo missions was likely lost.

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SLS abort test for Orion successful

The second launch abort test of NASA’s SLS/Orion rocket/capsule was successfully completed today.

I have embedded video of the test below the fold. The goal was to test the system that will safely separate the capsule from a failing rocket, which is why no parachutes released to gently bring the capsule back to Earth.

Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) intentionally runs that emergency abort sequence. Three motors in the LAS fired in that short sequence of a few seconds and then the test was essentially over before the three minutes was up while the hardware was airborne.

NASA and its Orion contractor team recorded test data from real-time telemetry and in onboard data recorders, but the major hardware for the test fell into the ocean. A set of a dozen data recorders were ejected from the Crew Module test article for recovery before it hit the water and sunk.

Why they couldn’t also test the parachutes the same time illustrates the wasteful manner in which SLS/Orion is managed. Moreover, this test was the second for this rocket/capsule, with the first occurring nine years ago, in May 2010. As I have noted,

We fought and won World War II in about a third of that amount of time. The Civil War took about half that time. In fact, it took SpaceX less time to conceive, design, and launch the Falcon Heavy.

Any project that takes this long to accomplish anything is a fraud. It indicates that the goal of SLS/Orion is not to build and fly a manned capsule, but to suck money from the taxpayer for as long as possible.

» Read more

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NASA announces mission to Titan

NASA today announced that it has approved a new mission to Titan, called Dragonfly, that will be a rotorcraft able to fly from place to place.

Dragonfly will launch in 2026 as part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, and is expected to arrive at Titan in 2034. ‘Dragonfly is a bold, game-changing way to explore the solar system,’ said APL Director Ralph Semmel. ‘This mission is a visionary combination of creativity and technical risk-taking that will help us unravel some of the most critical mysteries of the universe — including, possibly, the keys to our origins.’

Initially, Dragonfly will carry out a 2.7-year mission to explore different sites across Titan, including dunes and impact craters. Observations from the Cassini mission indicate these areas once held liquid water and complex organic materials. The dual quadcopter will sample these organic surface materials and measure their composition in effort to characterize the large moon’s habitability.

Dragonfly will first touchdown in an equatorial area known as the ‘Shangri-La’ dune fields, which have been compared to the Namibian dunes in southern Africa.

It will then complete ‘leapfrog’ flights of around 5 miles (8km) each to hop to other areas, stopping to take samples from each site.

I hate to throw cold water on this magnificent and ambitious mission, but I will not be at all surprised if it ends up costing more than expected and ends up getting delayed. NASA’s track record in the past decade with big projects on the cutting edge, as this appears to be, has been abysmal. Worse, I have seen little at NASA to make me thing any of this has changed enough to ease my mind for the next decade.

I hope I am wrong, because the concept is wonderful, and the target, Titan, is a critical solar system location that must be explored.

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The Whirlpool Galaxy across many wavelengths

The Whirlpool Galaxy
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The sequence of images above, reduced to post here, were taken in multiple wavelengths by the 2.1 meter Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona and the Spitzer Space Telescope in orbit.

The Whirlpool galaxy, also known as Messier 51 and NGC 5194/5195, is actually a pair of galaxies that are tugging and distorting each other through their mutual gravitational attraction. Located approximately 23 million light-years away, it resides in the constellation Canes Venatici.

The leftmost panel shows the Whirlpool in visible light, much as our eye might see it through a powerful telescope. In fact, this image comes from the Kitt Peak National Observatory 2.1-meter (6.8-foot) telescope. The spiraling arms are laced with dark threads of dust that radiate little visible light and obscure stars positioned within or behind them.

The second panel from the left includes two visible-light wavelengths (in blue and green) from Kitt Peak but adds Spitzer’s infrared data in red. This emphasizes how the dark dust veins that block our view in visible light begin to light up at these longer, infrared wavelengths.

Spitzer’s full infrared view can be seen in the right two panels, which cover slightly different ranges of infrared light.

The infrared views of the Whirlpool galaxy also show how dramatically different its two component parts are: The smaller companion galaxy at the top of the image has been stripped nearly clean of dust features that stand out so brilliantly in the lower spiral galaxy. The faint bluish haze seen around the upper galaxy is likely the blended light from stars thrown out of the galaxies as these two objects pull at each other during their close approach.

The Spitzer images above are likely among the last we shall see from that telescope, which has been in orbit since 2003 with a planned mission of only 2.5 years. As its cryogenic coolant became depleted in 2009, it has been functioning in a somewhat limited phase since. NASA will officially end the mission on January 30, 2020, more than thirteen years beyond that initial lifespan.

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Elementary students to compete to name 2020 Mars rover

NASA has initiated a project to have the nation’s K-12 elementary school children compete to name the 2020 Mars rover.

NASA has selected two partner organizations to run a nationwide contest giving K-12 students in U.S. schools a chance to make history by naming the Mars 2020 rover. An application to become contest judge also is now available online.

Battelle Education, of Columbus, Ohio, and Future Engineers, of Burbank, California, will collaborate with NASA on the Mars 2020 “Name the Rover” contest, which will be open to students in the fall of 2019. The student contest is part of NASA’s efforts to engage the public in its missions to the Moon and Mars.

They are also looking for people to judge the contest.

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Hacker steals JPL data

A hacker last year was successfully able to hack into the computer system at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California and steal 500MB of data.

Who did the hacking is not revealed in the inspector general report [pdf], but the report lists six different hacks of JPL’s computers going back to 2009, two of which were linked to China. It is therefore reasonable to assume that China, which routinely steals new ground-breaking technology rather than develop it itself, was the likely culprit. In addition, the timing of these hacks, from 2009 to 2017, fits well with the steady growth of China’s lunar program. If you wanted to find out how to build an unmanned probe to go to the Moon, JPL would be the ideal facility to steal the technology from.

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SpaceX reschedules manned Dragon demo flight to November

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has now apparently rescheduled its first manned Dragon demo flight to ISS to no earlier than November 1, 2019.

The information comes from a SpaceX application with the FCC, listing the launch window as sometime between November 1, 2019 and April 30, 2020.

This now gives us the time frame when both NASA and SpaceX expect to complete their investigation into the Dragon test explosion in March as well as institute changes as a result. It also suggests they now have a much better idea what happened and what they need to do, thus allowing them to create this time frame.

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GAO: More delays and cost overruns for SLS/Orion

Surprise, surprise! A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that NASA’s SLS and Orion programs are even more behind schedule and over budget than NASA has been revealing.

Instead of launching in 2020, the Artemis-1 mission that will see a Space Launch System rocket boost an uncrewed Orion spacecraft around the Moon will instead launch as late as June 2021, the GAO report finds. NASA also appears to have been obscuring the true cost of its development programs, particularly with the large SLS rocket, which has Boeing as its prime contractor.

“While NASA acknowledges about $1 billion in cost growth for the SLS program, it is understated,” the report found. “This is because NASA shifted some planned SLS scope to future missions but did not reduce the program’s cost baseline accordingly. When GAO reduced the baseline to account for the reduced scope, the cost growth is about $1.8 billion.”

You can read the full report here [pdf].

The GAO June 2021 launch date will mean that the first manned mission using Orion/SLS cannot happen before 2024. This also means that NASA will take 20 years to get off one manned mission with this project.

There’s more. NASA awarded both Boeing and Lockheed Martin significant award fees totaling almost a quarter of a billion dollars, despite their inability to meet any cost and scheduling targets.

The conclusion of the report is quite damning:

NASA…has been unable to achieve agreed-to cost and schedule performance. NASA acknowledges that future delays to the June 2020 launch date are likely, but the agency’s approach in estimating cost growth for the SLS and Orion programs is misleading. And it does not provide decision makers, including the Administrator, complete cost data with which to assess whether Congress needs to be notified of a cost increase, pursuant to law. By not using a similar set of assumptions regarding what costs are included in the SLS baseline and updated SLS cost estimates, NASA is underreporting the magnitude of the program’s cost growth. Similarly, NASA is underreporting the Orion program’s cost performance by measuring cost growth to an earlier-than-agreed-to schedule date. As a result, Congress and the public continue to accept further delays to the launch of the first mission without a clear understanding of the costs associated with those delays. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted text is to emphasize NASA’s dishonesty here. This program has been badly managed and out of control for the better part of the last decade, and NASA, rather than fix it, has been aggressively hiding this fact in every way it can,

If the GAO is right, SLS/Orion is finally in very serious political trouble. The Trump administration has made it clear that it wants it to meet that June 2020 launch date, and if it fails the administration will then look to private launch providers to get the job done.

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Some fake space news

Fake news permeates our modern news sources, but today we have two space-related stories that make me shake my head.

The first comes from Newsweek (which supposedly died years ago): Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins Shares Unseen NASA Photo of Moon Landing Crew

Standard Apollo 11 press image

Michael Collins—one of the three crew members of the historic Apollo 11 moon mission—has posted a previously unreleased NASA photo on Twitter of himself, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, which he discovered by chance in a box. The photo—taken in 1969—shows the trio, decked out in full astronaut gear, standing next to a moon prop with Aldrin and Armstrong on one side and Collins on the other. The picture also features Collins’ autograph scrawled over the top in black ink.

“The crew. Found this at the bottom a box. Don’t think it was ever used by @NASA. #TBT @TheRealBuzz,” Collins tweeted.

The release of the photo is a fitting tribute to the mission in the year of its 50th anniversary, especially because it has likely not been seen by human eyes for five decades.

Florida news outlet The Orlando Sentinel—which is about to publish a commemorative book on the 1969 mission—reported that no staff members could remember seeing the photo before either in the NASA archives or the paper’s own records.

I’m sorry, but that photo is hardly news. Nor has it been lost until now. I know I’ve seen it myself at least a few times over the years, though not recently. It was one of dozens of standard public relations photographs taken by NASA leading up to the launch.

Collins himself himself should know better than to suggest this was never used. He doesn’t know that, and in fact is certainly wrong. Worse, neither Newsweek nor the Orlando Sentinel should not expand upon Collins’ statement for the sake of creating clickbait.

The second bit of fake space news today is buried in a news piece from Reuters.
» Read more

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NASA releases draft commercial Gateway resupply plan

Capitalism in space? NASA today released a draft document outlining its plan for having commercial companies provide cargo to its Lunar Gateway station.

NASA is creating the Gateway Logistics Services (GLS) arena that will oversee supply delivery efforts to the lunar outpost. The draft Request For Proposals document, released by NASA last Friday, will form the basis for the formal Request For Proposals that companies will use later this summer to submit their bids for selection as part of the GLS program.

The draft document will be reviewed by commercial industry providers who will then submit feedback for NASA to consider as the agency formalizes the document.

While not official in its entirety, large portions of the document will remain unchanged or only undergo minor tweaks/clarifications at this point. Thus, the draft provides excellent insight into services, pricing, and timelines that commercial companies will have to meet if selected to participate in the GLS offerings. Of note, any company selected to fly GLS missions would receive a guarantee of two missions, minimum, and each awarded contract would not exceed $7 billion (USD). The total number of contracts NASA can award is not constrained via the language in the draft GLS solicitation document.

The reason I question above whether this will be capitalism in space is because of one new rule NASA wants to impose on its commercial vendors:

Unlike the [ISS cargo] contracts which did not carry a “one successful flight” requirement if changes to the launch vehicle were made after initial certification (both the Falcon 9 and the Antares underwent significant design changes after their [cargo] flights began – with some of those changes debuting on [later cargo] flights), the draft GLS language seems to indicate that NASA would seek to prohibit launch vehicle design changes debuting on GLS contract flights.

If the draft language becomes formal, the GLS contracts would require a launch vehicle that undergoes a design change to complete one successful flight of those changes before its next GLS mission is allowed to proceed.

I can see no reason for this rule other than to prevent private companies from making NASA’s own slow development process look bad. Or to put it another way, NASA wants to prevent the U.S. from getting things done fast in space, because that will prevent the agency from stretching out development endlessly, as it routinely does.

The GLS plan does propose one very good change in NASA policy. It proposes to break the SLS monopoly on launching Gateway components. For years NASA has said that only SLS could launch Gateway components, something that is patently absurd. The Trump administration has been pushing against that shortsighted position, and this plan accelerates that push. It will instead allow commercial companies to compete for those launches, which puts more pressure on SLS to deliver or die.

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Bridenstine: Artemis to cost $4-$6 billion per year

According to several reports this past weekend, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine is now estimating the cost for the Trump administration’s Artemis lunar program at $20 to $30 billion, or $4 to $6 billion per year.

This has not been officially confirmed. Either way, I am not sure how Bridenstine will get this approved in the House, where the Democrats now have a policy to oppose any Trump proposal 100%. And if it doesn’t get approved, SLS will die after its second launch, as the bulk of this budget is to pay for its future flights to the Moon.

If a lower figure gets approved, that might force NASA to buy private rockets almost exclusively to get back to the Moon, rather than the mix of private and SLS as now proposed.

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New Zimmerman op-ed at The Federalist

In the piece, Trump’s Promising New Space Plan Won’t Work Without Cutting The Pork, I take a close look at Trump’s Moon plan and actually come away somewhat encouraged.

For one, it is pretty clear that Gateway has been dumped, or at least deemphasized significantly. Second, the plan shifts the focus from NASA being the builder of the program to NASA being a customer of the private sector.

Read it all. There’s a lot more.

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NASA selects three companies to provide lunar landers for its science instruments

Captalism in space: NASA today announced the selection of three new companies to provide the agency lunar landers on which to fly its science instruments to the Moon.

The companies chosen:

  • Astrobotic of Pittsburgh has been awarded $79.5 million and has proposed to fly as many as 14 payloads to Lacus Mortis, a large crater on the near side of the Moon, by July 2021.
  • Intuitive Machines of Houston has been awarded $77 million. The company has proposed to fly as many as five payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, a scientifically intriguing dark spot on the Moon, by July 2021.
  • Orbit Beyond of Edison, New Jersey, has been awarded $97 million and has proposed to fly as many as four payloads to Mare Imbrium, a lava plain in one of the Moon’s craters, by September 2020.

If successful as awarded, the cost for these spacecraft will be minuscule compared to what NASA normally spends for its own planetary probes.

These contract awards are puzzling however in one way. All three companies are relatively unknown. None competed in the Google Lunar X-Prize, as did the American company Moon Express, which at one time was thought to be very close to launching. That Moon Express is not one of the winners here is mysterious. The only explanation I can come up with is the lawsuit that Intuitive Machines won from Moon Express in January 2018. Maybe that suit killed Moon Express, and made Intuitive Machines the winner today.

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GAO finds continuing budget and scheduling problems for NASA’s big projects

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released yesterday revealed that the ongoing budget overruns and scheduling delays for NASA’s big projects have continued, and in some cases worsened in the past year.

The cost and schedule performance of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) portfolio of major projects continues to deteriorate. For this review, cost growth was 27.6 percent over the baselines and the average launch delay was approximately 13 months, the largest schedule delay since GAO began annual reporting on NASA’s major projects in 2009.

This deterioration in cost and schedule performance is largely due to integration and test challenges on the James Webb Space Telescope (see GAO-19-189 for more information). The Space Launch System program also experienced significant cost growth due to continued production challenges. Further, additional delays are likely for the Space Launch System and its associated ground systems. Senior NASA officials stated that it is unlikely these programs will meet the launch date of June 2020, which already reflects 19 months of delays. These officials told GAO that there are 6 to 12 months of risk associated with that launch date. [emphasis mine]

The Trump administration has made it clear to NASA’s bureaucracy that it expects SLS to meet the June 2020 deadline, or it will begin the process of ending the program and replacing it with private rockets. This GAO report suggests that this threat is almost certain to be carried out.

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NASA IG finds both Europa missions a mess

Our incompetent federal government: A report released today [pdf] by NASA’s inspector general has found that the management of the Europa Clipper orbiter and the later Europa lander missions, both mandated by Congress, are facing serious budget and schedule risks, despite being given more than three-quarters of a billion dollars more than requested.

Congress has taken a strong interest in the project and since fiscal year (FY) 2013 has appropriated about $2.04 billion to NASA for a Europa mission—$1.26 billion more than the Agency requested.

…Despite [this] robust early-stage funding, a series of significant developmental and personnel resource challenges place the Clipper’s current mission cost estimates and planned 2023 target launch at risk. In addition, although Congress directed NASA to use the SLS to launch the Clipper, it is unlikely to be available by the congressionally mandated 2023 date and therefore the Agency continues to maintain spacecraft capabilities to accommodate both the SLS and two commercial launch vehicles, the Delta IV Heavy and Falcon Heavy. [emphasis mine]

The lander meanwhile is in even worse shape, especially because its congressionally-mandated launch date on SLS in 2025 seems impossible.

It seems to me that this entire project could be the poster boy for the overall incompetence of our so-called “betters” in Washington, who in the past three decades have failed spectacularly in practically every major project they have undertaken. The project was mandated on NASA by Congress, led by former congressman John Culberson (R-Texas), who was then the chairman of the House subcommittee that was in charge of funding the agency. It was his pet project. Though the planetary science community were glad to have this mission, it was listed as their second priority in their 2011 decadal survey. Culberson made it first, and also made sure it got a lot of money, far more than NASA ever requested.

Despite this strong support, the inspector general has now found that the project is being badly mismanaged and faces budget overruns and scheduling problems. The scheduling problems partly result from the project’s bad management, but mostly because of Congress’s demand that the spacecraft fly on SLS. Our vaunted elected officials wanted to give that boondoggle (they own pet project) a mission, something it didn’t have, and Europa Clipper and Lander were therefore given that task.

The problem, as I have documented endlessly, is that SLS is woefully behind schedule. It appears it will likely not be ready for Europa Clipper’s launch window in 2023.

But hey, let’s give our federal government more responsibility and power! Let’s go socialist!

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SpaceX investigation into test explosion ongoing

A NASA update yesterday into SpaceX’s investigation into the test explosion that destroyed a manned Dragon capsule revealed that while the company is still working to launch humans by the end of the year, this schedule remains tentative until the investigation is completed.

The update included two important details. First, SpaceX is going to use for its launch abort test the Dragon capsule it had previously planned to fly on its first manned demo mission, and for that mission will use the capsule intended for the first operational manned flight. That first operational flight will then use a new capsule from their assembly line.

Second, the update confirmed that the anomaly that caused the explosion occurred as they were activating the SuperDraco thruster system, but prior to the firing of the thrusters. While this suggests once again that the failure might have not have involved the capsule but the test procedures, we will not know for sure until they release their investigation conclusions.

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NASA awards Maxar Gateway power/communications contract

The never-ending boondoggle: NASA this week awarded the company Maxar its first official Lunar Gateway contract to develop the power, propulsion, and communications systems for the station.

Interestingly, the contract is structured somewhat similar to the commercial contracts for ISS cargo and crew.

This firm-fixed price award includes an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity portion and carries a maximum total value of $375 million. The contract begins with a 12-month base period of performance and is followed by a 26-month option, a 14-month option and two 12-month options.

Spacecraft design will be completed during the base period, after which the exercise of options will provide for the development, launch, and in-space flight demonstration. The flight demonstration will last as long as one year, during which the spacecraft will be fully owned and operated by Maxar. Following a successful demonstration, NASA will have the option to acquire the spacecraft for use as the first element of the Gateway. NASA is targeting launch of the power and propulsion element on a commercial rocket in late 2022. [emphasis mine]

It is fixed-price, and Maxar will own the design with the ability to sell it to others as well as NASA.

The problem is that Maxar will not be building something that others might want. Their only customer will be NASA, and the design will be focused entirely to NASA’s needs in building their Gateway boondoggle. I am pessimistic anything productive for the future of space travel will come from this.

Moreover, the highlighted words reveal the corrupt nature of this deal. Development could go on forever, and should it do so, do not be surprised if the contract’s fixed price nature gets changed.

Our federal government, including NASA, is very corrupt. They are not interested in the nation’s interest, only the interests of themselves and the contractors they work hand-in-glove with in DC.

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House ignores request for more NASA money for moon mission

A House committee today approved a NASA budget that ignored the Trump administration’s request for $1.6 billion more money to support its attempt to land a manned mission on the Moon by 2024.

Instead, the committee shifted more money into earth science and Gateway.

Whether this budget is what ends up being enacted remains to be seen. It does appear however that Trump will have great trouble funding his Moon project. Sadly, that lack of funding does not mean the overall federal budget is coming under control. On the contrary, it appears the Democratic-controlled House simply wants to spend lots of money, but on different things.

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New Zimmerman op-ed at American Greatness

Link here. To my readers some of this will seem familiar. To those who listened to my last appearance on the Space Show, it will also seem familiar. I decided what I had written and said in both places needed a more detailed essay. Key quote:

Every single big space project since the founding of NASA has always been proposed and approved by elected officials. NASA officials might have lobbied for one version or another, but always, always, it was understood and accepted that the project did not exist without first getting an enthusiastic and very public authorization from elected officials.

What was understood without question was that the right to make these fundamental policy decisions belonged only to the lawmakers, elected as they were by the citizenry under the Constitution.

NASA’s new Lunar Gateway project, however, is something altogether different. It was conceived, designed, and proposed by the big aerospace companies Lockheed Martin and Boeing as a justification for the continuing construction of SLS and Orion. It was added as a budget line item by NASA bureaucrats who supported it, and it now exists as a growing major space project comparable to Apollo, the Space Shuttle, ISS, and SLS/Orion.

Yet no president has ever officially and publicly proposed the Lunar Gateway. No Congress ever reviewed or endorsed the program. All these elected officials have done is simply to accept the will of NASA bureaucrats and large aerospace contractors, and rubber-stamp that line item in NASA’s budget.

Thus, unlike all past big space projects, Gateway stands alone as the only one to be proposed and approved not by our elected officials, but by the vendors who will build it and by the unelected NASA bureaucrats who will manage it.

Worse, Gateway’s growing year-by-year funding and development is being controlled not by lawmakers or the president but by those very same bureaucrats.

Essentially, this is a coup by NASA’s bureaucracy and the big space contractors over the power of elected officials.

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Trump seeks $1.6 billion more for NASA, cuts money to Gateway

The Trump administration, in order to support its desire to accomplish a lunar landing by 2024, is requesting a $1.6 billion increase in NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2020. The key detail however is this:

NASA shortly thereafter published a summary of its budget amendment, which calls for nearly $1.9 billion in new funding for developing lunar landers and accelerating work on the Space Launch System and Orion. It would also go towards exploration technology development and additional science missions to the moon. That increase would be offset by cutting funding for the lunar Gateway by $321 million, reflecting the agency’s plan for only a “minimal” Gateway needed to support a 2024 landing.

In other words, in total Trump wants $1.6 billion more. The good news: He is de-emphasizing Gateway in his future plans. This might even lead to its cancellation as a project.

The bad news? He is pumping more money into SLS/Orion. However, this might not be that bad, when one considers how our bankrupt Washington government functions. Trump doesn’t have the political backing to cut SLS/Orion outright. Instead this proposal is that project’s Hail Mary pass for a touchdown. While private efforts continue to mature to develop cheaper rockets and manned capsules, SLS/Orion will have this one last chance to finally prove itself. If it finds it can’t get it done, and those private options show that they can, then Trump might finally be able to harness the political will in our dumb Congress to dump SLS/Orion.

And if SLS/Orion does succeed? The victory will likely still be a Pyrrhic one. SLS/Orion will still be too expensive and too slow to do much else but a single lunar landing, a stunt much like Apollo, with far less long term possibilities. Meanwhile, those private efforts will continue to develop. By 2024 a switch by NASA to private enterprise and competition will still make sense anyway, even if SLS/Orion gives the nation a spectacular lunar landing.

This action indicates that the Trump administration is paying attention to these matters. They are creating a situation that will put them in a strong negotiating position to get what they want, for the nation. One way or the other, we will be heading back to the Moon.

One minor detail: NASA has chosen “Artemis” as the name for its project to land on the Moon by 2020.

Bridenstine also … announce[d] that this 2024 lunar landing mission will be named Artemis, after the sister of Apollo and the Greek goddess of the moon. “I think it is very beautiful that, 50 years after Apollo, the Artemis program will carry the next man and the first woman to the moon.”

No one should be fooled by this. Apollo was a full program, with a well-thought slate of missions designed to get us to the Moon quickly. This SLS/Orion project is still an off the cuff mishmash, with only two or three flights at most, and without much of a plan behind those flights. It has been and continues to be an improvised mess.

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Are Boeing and SpaceX having parachute issues with their manned capsules?

There appears to be a significant conflict between what NASA has been saying about the parachute development tests for both SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Boeing’s Starliner capsule and what the companies have reported.

The head of NASA’s manned program, Bill Gerstenmaier, has said that both programs have had “anomalies” during their tests. Both companies have said otherwise, with both companies claiming that all their parachutes have been successful. The article looks into this, and what it finds tends to support the companies over Gerstenmaier. There have been issues, but not as terrible as implied by Gerstenmaier.

So what is going on? I suspect that Gerstenmaier is overstating these issues as part NASA’s game to slow-walk the private capsules in order to make SLS not look so bad. He would of course deny this, but that denial won’t change my suspicions, in the slightest. I’ve seen NASA’s bureaucracy play too many games in connection with getting these capsules approved for flight to be generous to Gertenmaier or NASA. I don’t trust them. I’ve seen them make dishonest accusations against SpaceX and Boeing too many times already.

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Blue Origin unveils proposed lunar lander

Capitalism in space: Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Blue Origin, today unveiled his company’s proposed lunar lander, dubbed Blue Moon, that Bezos claims will land on the Moon by 2024.

It harnesses many of the same ‘propulsion, precision guidance, vertical landing and landing gear systems’ utilized by New Shepard, Blue Origin’s rocket meant to ferry humans to the moon. The craft is equipped with fuel cells to provide ‘kilowatts of power’ that are capable of lasting for long-distance missions. Once Blue Moon arrives at its destination, it uses machine learning algorithms to land with precision on the lunar surface.

Blue Moon can deliver several metric tons of payload to the moon, thanks to its top deck and lower bays, the latter of which will allow for ‘closer access to the lunar surface and off-loading,’ the firm said.

With this technology, Blue Origin hopes it will prepare us to be able to send humans back to the moon as soon as 2024.

The article also mentions a new rocket engine that Bezos said Blue Origin is developing, called the BE-7, specifically designed for these lunar landers.

Blue Origin is clearly lobbying to get the job of building the lunar landers NASA needs and has said it will buy from the private sector. And its New Shepard reusable suborbital craft, with a booster that has successfully landed vertically now eleven times, shows that it understands this technology.

Nonetheless, I must admit that Bezos is beginning to remind me of Richard Branson, big with promises but late on delivery. New Shepard was going to start flying humans in 2017, then 2018, now this year. New Glenn was supposed to fly by 2020. They have now delayed that until 2021. Development of the BE-4 engine that Blue Origin wants to use in New Glenn and also sell to ULA for its Vulcan rocket seems to have stalled. The last update on its status was more than a year ago, which was also about the time of the last mention of any engine tests. They could be keeping things quiet, but I wonder. At that time they appeared close to certifying the engine for flight. They have never announced that this has happened, though ULA subsequently did choose the engine for Vulcan.

In fact, in writing the last paragraph and reviewing my posts on Behind the Black, I realized that there has been little or no press for the past year on either New Glenn or BE-4. I wonder why. I can’t imagine any reason at all for not announcing the engine’s certification as operational, yet no such announcement has ever been made.

Anyway, if Blue Origin delivers on today’s hyped-up press announcement, it will be very exciting. He definitely is pushing the right buttons for getting the government work from NASA.

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Russia to launch two more American astronauts on Soyuz

A news report from Russia today announced that NASA has extended its contract with Roscosmos so that two more American astronauts will fly to ISS using a Soyuz rocket and capsule.

Russia and the United States have agreed on two additional places on board of Soyuz carrier rockets for journeys of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), Roscosmos Executive Director for Manned Programs Sergei Krikalyov told TASS. “The documents have been approved,” Krikalyov said adding that it the procedure to sign the papers took place before a recently reported incident with Crew Dragon spacecraft.

According to Krikalyov, there was no new draft of the document as it was “Simply an update to the previously signed contract, everything was in work order and there was no solemn ceremony to mark the signing of the documents.”

This agreement practically guarantees that there will be no Americans flying on American-built spacecraft in 2019. Rather than push SpaceX and Boeing to get their technical problems solved quickly so they can start flying, NASA can continue to slow-walk their development by going to the Russians. For NASA bureaucrats, using the Russians is to their advantage. Any failures can be blamed on the Russians, not NASA due diligence, which would be the case if an American privately-built capsule failed.

Moreover, slow-walking the American spacecraft helps NASA avoid further embarrassment with its own manned system, SLS/Orion, which is years behind schedule. By slowing the private capsules, the delays with SLS/Orion won’t seem so bad.

In other words, NASA’s approach here favors itself and the Russians over the interests of our country and American private companies. It is too bad no one in the Trump administration notices, or cares.

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