Tag Archives: NASA

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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Instrument on GRACE-FO fails

The U.S/German science two-satellite constellation, launched in May, has not gathered any science data since July because one instrument on one satellite has shut down.

It appears the problem is related to an electrical problem. The article provides little information, though they say they will switch to a back up system later this month. I wonder why this has taken so long.

The article at the link calls this “a glitch.” That is a lie and bad journalism. Any failure that shuts down a spacecraft for months and requires the use of a back up is a major failure, not a mere “glitch.” I wish news organizations would stop using that word, as it only exists to help minimize the seriousness of a problem.

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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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More suborbital private rockets in the news

Two news stories today about two different suborbital rockets built by private companies:

The first story outlines the results from the August 25 test flight of SARGE.

The rocket reached an altitude of approximately 28 km. Launch and recovery took place at Spaceport America on August 25th, 2018. The rocket carried nine payloads. The flight demonstrated the SARGE system’s reusability when the vehicle was recovered with damage only to sacrificial components. The test also demonstrated the capability of the autonomous control system and validated the preflight vehicle integration process.

They have designed SARGE to fly up to 200 times, and then plan to sell it to the military which will use it as a target in its own tests.

The second story describes a suborbital launch yesterday at Spaceport America. This suborbital rocket carried three NASA experiments, the most interesting of which was the first test of a heat shield designed to open like an umbrella.

Made out of thickly woven and highly heat-resistant carbon fibers, supported by semi-rigid ribs, the ADEPT system fits into existing vehicle launch systems, but expands when separated from the rocket into a configuration that allows it to perform its mission.

The ADEPT model tested Wednesday spread to 30 inches in diameter after separation. Venkatapathy said a diameter of 75 to 80 feet would be required to deliver a crew of seven or so human explorers safely onto the surface of Mars, which has a lower gravity pull than Earth.

He said a thicker carbon weave and different dimensions would be needed to deliver scientific equipment to the surface of Venus, a planet with a gravity pull nearly as great as Earth’s, making approaches hotter and faster.

Even if neither of these companies ever scale up to orbital rockets, they signal the change in how NASA does things. In the past NASA built its own suborbital rockets. Now, they are using privately-built rockets, which allows for competition and more innovation.

This is basically the same transition NASA is undergoing in its commercial manned program, going from being the sole builder and designer of spacecraft, enforced by a government-imposed monopoly, to merely a customer buying spacecraft from many private builders. It is a transition that can only generate good results in the future.

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NASA resets listening plan for Opportunity

NASA has rearranged its listening plans for the rover Opportunity so that it will extend into the dust devil season beginning in November.

The science team is also sending a command three times a week to elicit a beep if the rover happens to be awake, and will soon be expanding the commanding to include “sweep and beeps” to address a possible complexity with certain conditions within the mission clock fault. These will continue through January of 2019.

The dust storm on Mars continues its decay with atmospheric opacity (tau) over the rover site continuing to decrease. Once the tau has fallen below an estimated measurement of 1.5 twice – with one week apart between measurements – a period of 45 days will begin representing the best time for us to hear from the rover.

This also represents the best time to attempt active commanding during a specific mission clock fault condition. Back during the attempted recovery of the Spirit rover, a technical issue required the team to actively command the rover to communicate. Opportunity has no such issue; if we hear from it, it will likely be from listening passively as we have been, and as we will continue to do through January.

We will also actively attempt to command the rover to communicate during the 45-day listening period to cover the clock fault condition. After that, we will report to NASA on our efforts.

In other words, the final 45 day listening period will not officially begin until the Martian atmosphere has cleared more, rather than begin about now and thus end about the middle of November, before the dust devil season begins.

The reasons they want to listen through the dust devil season is that they believe it likely that the rover’s solar panels have been covered with dust, and will need a nearby dust devil to blow this away. This might sound unlikely, but it has happened several times with both Spirit and Opportunity during both of their spectacularly extended missions.

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Orion test vehicle completes last parachute test

NASA today successfully completed the last parachute test using an Orion test vehicle.

Two quotes tell us all we need to know:

“Orion is our new human exploration spacecraft, and this is a spacecraft that will take people farther in space than we’ve ever gone before,” said [Orion project manager Mark Kirasich].

…This parachute test is the last one for Orion after a decade of development, Kirasich said.

NASA is once again lying about Orion’s capabilities. It will not “take people farther in space than we’ve ever gone before.” It will be able to take humans to the Moon, which is somewhere Americans have been (just in case Kirasich has forgotten.) Beyond that it is totally insufficient for interplanetary flight. It will, on its own, never take anyone anywhere beyond that, and even if it does go beyond lunar orbit, it will do so merely as the return capsule that is part of a much larger vessel.

Secondly, that it took ten years to complete the parachute system for this capsule is truly a joke. The Dragon cargo capsule was built by SpaceX in less than four years. Its manned version could have launched after only two years of work had NASA bureaucrats and Congressional cheapness not gotten in the way. Boeing’s Starliner parachute system was also built in about half that time, and would have been finished sooner had not NASA bureaucrats demanded extra tests, for reasons that have never been made clear.

NASA says it will be launching the first Orion mission to the Moon in 2022, followed by the first Gateway mission in 2024. I am predicting that while the first date might be met (only seven years behind schedule), the second will not. Do not expect the first module to head for the Moon for at least a decade.

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Gateway fantasies from NASA

NASA has released an updated plan for building FLOP-G, now officially dubbed “The Gateway.”

The article provides a bunch of NASA’s typical powerpoint slides, detailing when they want to do what, with the first Gateway module launched in 2022 and the first manned mission to it in 2024.

None of this will happen as they wish, however, because NASA can’t build anything on schedule or on time. Also, there is this key detail, mentioned merely as an aside in the article: “A commitment of funding for the gateway project is still forthcoming.”

Congress has not yet funded this. Unfortunately, I expect them to do so, but I also expect that none of the funds will ever be sufficient, and that the project will drag on and on, for years on end, with little accomplished, at least by NASA.

The plan as outlined does incorporate the use of commercial vendors to supply cargo. In the end, I expect this component to be the only thing ready and able to fly, when needed.

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Some debate at NASA over Opportunity

This story yesterday had the following interesting paragraph:

Members of Opportunity’s engineering team recommended a different plan, the person close to the mission says. Their idea was to actively try to communicate with Opportunity until the end of January 2019 — the end of the seasonal cleaning period. After that, they suggested passive listening until the end of 2019. But these recommendations were ignored by management in order to save money, this person says, meaning the agency could be risking abandoning a still-functioning rover. The Opportunity team reportedly didn’t receive formal notice of the plan until “minutes before JPL published its press release,” according to The Atlantic.

It appears that some on the science team do not feel that the present plan to listen closely for only 45 days, through mid-October, is sufficient, as it will likely require a dust devil to clear Opportunity’s solar panels, and dust devil season will not begin until November.

However, it is very likely wrong to blame the resistance by NASA management to this plan solely to a desire to save money. There are other considerations, such as tying up the Deep Space Network for this one rover when, as I noted yesterday, the October to January time period will be a very very very busy time for that network, with many important new planetary probe events. Seven different spacecraft will either be landing or doing fly-bys on four different solar system targets during that time. Tying the network up to listen for Opportunity will likely not work.

It seems to me that Opportunity should be recovered, if possible, but it also must receive a lower priority during this time period. After New Horizons’ January 1st fly-by of Ultima Thule it might be possible to devote more time then to listening, but I can see the logic, at least in this context, for reducing the listening time from October to January.

Hat tip Kirk Hilliard.

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Dragon/Starliner schedules firming up

At a meeting at NASA this week a status update of SpaceX’s manned Dragon and Boeing’s manned Starliner capsules indicated that their proposed flight schedules, with the first manned flights occurring next year, are increasingly firm.

Overall, the updates were quite positive with most of the flight hardware nearing completion. The two companies must each execute two test flights to the International Space Station (ISS) in order to be certified to perform operational crew rotation missions.

On the SpaceX side, the company will first execute an uncrewed test flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft called Demonstration Mission 1 (DM-1) – currently scheduled for this coming November. It will then be followed by a crewed test flight designated Demonstration Mission 2 (DM-2). In between the two missions, SpaceX will also execute an in-flight abort test.

In terms of Boeing, they will perform an uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) with the CST-100 Starliner followed by a Crewed Flight Test (CFT). A pad abort test will be also conducted between the two missions.

While Boeing’s schedule for these flights is somewhat uncertain as they investigate the recent failure of several valves to close during an engine test, SpaceX’s schedule has become very solid. Assuming nothing goes wrong on the unmanned test flight in November and the in-flight abort test, they will fly humans in April, 2019.

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NASA considering purchase of communications services

Capitalism in space: Rather than build its own communications satellites, as it has done in the past, NASA is now considering purchasing these services from private communications satellite companies.

NASA had been studying a next-generation communications system that would ultimately replace the current generation of Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) spacecraft in Earth orbit, as well as support missions beyond Earth orbit. That included the possibility of partnerships with the private sector.

“Past networks have been expensive to operate and maintain because they were designed to only serve government customers, which has limited their ability to leverage commercial partnerships,” the agency said in its fiscal year 2019 budget proposal released in February. “The next generation project will engage with commercial industry through mechanisms such as services contracts, hosted payloads, and other public-private-partnerships to allow multiple commercial entities to partner with the Government in order to significantly reduce and eventually eliminate reliance on NASA or NASA contractor run ground systems.”

In a paper presented last year by several NASA officials at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, the agency said working with both commercial and international partners would be among the elements of its next-generation architecture. “Using open, commercial, and international standards will enable the use of commercial services by specifying required performance and interfaces without specifying provider-specific capabilities,” the paper stated. “Commercial entities will compete based on price, quality, timeliness, support and other factors that maintain a competitive environment.”

That desire to work with the commercial sector, along with harnessing new technologies like optical communications, was a reason cited by NASA a year ago for not exercising an option for an additional TDRS satellite under a contract NASA awarded to Boeing in 2007. The last satellite built under that contract, TDRS-M, launched in August 2017.

Using commercial communications satellites makes perfect sense. It will be faster, provide more redundancy, and will save the taxpayer a lot of money.

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NASA officially approves SpaceX’s fueling system

Surprise, surprise! NASA on August 17 officially approved SpaceX’s fueling system where the astronauts would enter the Dragon capsule before the Falcon 9 rocket would fueled.

In a statement published late Aug. 17, the agency said that it was allowing SpaceX to move ahead with plans to use what’s colloquially known as “load-and-go,” where the Falcon 9 launch vehicle is filled with liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants after astronauts board the Crew Dragon spacecraft on top of the rocket.

“To make this decision, our teams conducted an extensive review of the SpaceX ground operations, launch vehicle design, escape systems and operational history,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said in the statement. “Safety for our personnel was the driver for this analysis, and the team’s assessment was that this plan presents the least risk.”

Blah, blah, blah. They had made it clear they were going to approve SpaceX’s fueling approach last week. NASA safety bureaucrats have been whining about SpaceX’s fueling approach for more than a year and a half, for no logical reason, and for what I surmised were purely political reasons having zero to do with safety. At times I have stated that when SpaceX was getting close to actually flying, NASA would back down. And I also expected SpaceX to push its launch dates to force NASA to back down, in contrast to the old-time big space contractors who routinely would kowtow to NASA in these matters and allow its bureaucracy to push them around.

These events are more evidence that the April 2019 manned Dragon launch is on schedule.

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SpaceX unveils access arm jetway astronauts will use to board Dragon

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has begun installing its airport-jetway-like access arm that astronauts will use to board Dragon at Launchpad 39A in anticipation of the first manned flight in April 2019.

They were originally going to install the jetway after the first unmanned demo flight, which they hoped to fly this month. That plan has now changed.

Prior to the visual milestone this week of the Crew Access Arm, or CAA, being moved to the pad surface and the base of the Fixed Service Structure (launch tower), previous information from SpaceX and NASA indicated that the arm would be installed after the Dragon’s uncrewed demo flight.

However, that schedule was based around a launch of the uncrewed Dragon flight, DM-1, in August 2018.

With NASA announcing a 3-month slip to the DM-1 flight (largely due to ISS scheduling and crew reduction aboard the International Space Station in the coming months), SpaceX found itself with an unanticipated delay to the DM-1 flight – which in turn opened up a possibility that didn’t exist before to install the CAA in August.

…But now that DM-1 is NET (No Earlier Than) November – a date Gwynne Shotwell is confident the company will meet, SpaceX is forging ahead with CAA installation because, quite simply, there is no reason to wait, at this point, to install the arm after DM-1.

Making the crew access arm resemble an airport jetway is a fine example of the pizazz that helps sell SpaceX. It also helps make space operations appear more like an ordinary transportation option, something that is necessary if the human race is ever going to become truly spacefaring.

Hat tip to reader Kirk.

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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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NASA safety panel reviews commercial crew, tries to justify its paperwork demands

Link here. The article describes the results from the quarterly meeting of NASA’s safety panel, which occurred last week, including its concerns about the recent test problems during a launch abort test of Boeing’s Starliner capsule. It also describes the panel’s general satisfaction at the status of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.

The article however ends with a long screed by one panel member, explaining that the heavy paperwork requirements they are imposing on the two companies is not really paperwork.

“It needs to be noted by everyone, and we’re especially interested in making sure that all of the external stakeholders realize this, that while the concluding process of certification has sometimes been described as a paper process, that is really just a shorthand clarification and in reality it could not be further from the truth,” noted Dr. McErlean.

In reality, the process is as follows. “In a certified design, the design agent – the contractor or partner in this case – performs the design and in the certification plan, the design agent and the certification agency (NASA) agree on the submittal of certification evidence.

“This could be measurements, it can be test data, it can be analysis, but it almost always involves the submittal of detailed technical data, not simply paper descriptions or forms. Sometimes it involves witness testing and sometimes it involves physical inspection. But it almost always wraps around important technical submittals.

Can I translate? The safety panel requires a lot of testing so that a lot of paperwork can be filled out. And while much of this testing is likely to help make the capsule’s safer, most of it seems to me to be make-work, and designed to justify the existence of NASA and its safety panel.

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NASA rubberstamps Russian engines in Atlas 5 for manned flights

Surprise surprise! NASA has certified the Russian engines used in the Atlas 5 as safe for manned flights.

NASA had been claiming that, because it cannot observe every detail in how Russia builds the engines, it cannot certify them as safe for manned flight. This is, and has been, crap. The Atlas 5, with this engine, has been one of the most reliable rockets ever built.

In truth, what NASA’s bureaucracy was really doing was using these Russian engines as a wedge to slow down Boeing’s first manned flight, mainly because the commercial crew program is threatening NASA past monopoly on U.S. manned flight. Once privately built rockets and manned spacecraft fly, people are suddenly going to realize we don’t really need NASA.

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NASA wants to delay WFIRST to pay for Webb overruns

In testimony to Congress yesterday NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said that the agency wants to delay the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope to pay for the new cost overruns of the James Webb Space Telescope.

Bridenstine said during the hearing that no decisions had been made on how to cover those additional JWST costs. “By the 2020 timeframe is when we’re going to need to have additional funds. So between now and then we’re going to have to make determinations,” he said. “Right now that process is underway.”

He said those decisions would consider the guidance from decadal surveys and a desire to maintain a balanced portfolio of programs. He specifically assured one member, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), that the extra funding would not come out of human spaceflight programs, particularly the Space Launch System. “This is relevant to the Science Mission Directorate exclusively, and that’s where, at this point, we’ve had discussions about what are the options going forward,” Bridenstine said.

Committee members used the two-and-a-half-hour hearing to express their frustrations with this latest delay, noting that the original concept for the mission [Webb] called for it to cost $500 million and launch in 2007, versus a current lifecycle cost of $9.6 billion and launch in 2021. “This is 19 times the original cost and a delay of 14 years,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the committee. “It doesn’t get much worse than that.” [emphasis mine]

Only yesterday I speculated that the cuts to WFIRST were related to Webb. It turns out I was right.

I have highlighted above one detail revealed at the hearing. I have always though Webb’s initial budget was $1 billion with a launch date of 2011. It appears it was less, by half, and it was supposed to launch four years sooner. Makes this boondoggle even more of an embarrassment for NASA and the astrophysics community. And for the astrophysics community it is also a disaster, because Webb’s overruns for the past two decades essentially wiped out what had been a very vibrant space astronomy program at NASA.

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Changes to big August 3 commercial crew announcement do not bode well

On August 3 NASA is planning on making a big announcement concerning its commercial crew program. Yesterday the agency revealed that the NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, will reveal the names of the crew for the first commercial crew flight.

The changes in how that announcement will be made however suggest that they had hoped to make a bigger announcement and have been forced to back off. Initially, vice president Mike Pence was to have made the announcement. He has now canceled his participation. Also, there had previously been rumors that the announcement would have included the launch dates for both SpaceX’s and Boeing’s first flights. That the new press release makes no mention of dates suggests the dates have been delayed.

I hope I am wrong.

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NASA considering more cuts to WFIRST

NASA is considering more cuts to the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), presently budgeted at $3.2 billion.

I suspect a contributing factor for these cuts are the problems with the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA has to pay for its new cost overruns and delays, and the fairest place to find those cuts would be from within the astrophysics division.

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Starliner has propellant leak during launch abort test

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

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

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

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

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

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On the radio

Tonight I will have two radio appearances. First my normal twenty minute John Batchelor Show appearance will be structured somewhat differently. Instead of reviewing the space news for the past few days, we will be focused entirely on reviewing NASA’s seeming effort to slow commercial space down, so as to reduce the embarrassment to SLS as well as benefit Boeing.

The idea will be that we will make believe that I am giving a briefing to Mike Pence and the National Space Council, explaining in detail why NASA actually seems hostile to getting anything done. It is our hope that maybe someone in the administration might hear it, and rethink the Trump space policy.

Then, beginning at 7 pm (Pacific), I will be doing another live two hour appearance on The Space Show with David Livingston. I am sure the same subject will come up, along with other things. Feel free to call in to ask questions. David does not screen his calls, so this is your opportunity to ask me anything.

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SpaceX’s first test crew Dragon capsule arrives in Florida

Capitalism in space: The first man-rated Dragon capsule set to fly has arrived in Florida to be prepped for launch.

Even though the vehicle is called a “Crew Dragon,” this Dragon won’t carry crew on its first flight. Instead, it’s due to make an uncrewed practice run to the space station during what’s known as Demonstration Mission 1, or DM-1.

Before this week’s shipment to Florida, the Dragon underwent thermal vacuum tests as well as acoustic tests at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio. Today SpaceX showed off a picture of the Crew Dragon, which is a redesigned, beefed-up version of its robotic cargo-carrying Dragon, via Twitter and Instagram.

NASA’s current schedule calls for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch the DM-1 mission next month from Kennedy Space Center. However, that schedule is dependent not only on the pace of preparations, but also on the timetable for station arrivals and departures.

SpaceX is clearly on schedule to fly the first unmanned test flight in September, and the first manned flight in January 2019. And once that manned flight take place, I can see no reason why operational flights shouldn’t follow soon thereafter.

Yet, NASA said earlier this week that those operational flights will almost certainly be delayed until 2020, mainly because SpaceX might not be able to get the paperwork filled out fast enough.

Here’s my prediction: If SpaceX flies that manned mission in early 2019, expect their operational flights to begin soon thereafter, not in 2020. NASA will have no choice but to accept the capsule and begin flights.

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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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James Webb Space Telescope delayed again, with budget rising

Based the conclusions [pdf] of an Independent Review Board (IRB), NASA has once again delayed the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, now set for 2021, while increasing its construction budget from $8 billion to almost $9 billion.

In its report, the IRB found that technical issues, including human errors, have greatly impacted the development schedule.

The agency previously had estimated an earlier launch date, but awaited findings from the IRB before making a final determination and considered data from Webb’s Standing Review Board. The agency established the new launch date estimate [March 30, 2021] to accommodate changes in the schedule due to environmental testing and work performance challenges by Northrop Grumman on the spacecraft’s sunshield and propulsion system. The telescope’s new total lifecycle cost, to support the revised launch date, is estimated at $9.66 billion; its new development cost estimate is $8.8 billion.

It is important to remember that Webb was originally supposed to cost $1 billion, and launch in 2011. It is now a decade behind schedule, with a cost almost ten times higher.

It really does appear like SLS and Webb are in a race to see who can get launched last. And right now, the race is neck and neck.

I should add that if the launch gets delayed much more, NASA will have further problems with the launch rocket. The Ariane 5 rocket, designated as the launch vehicle, is being retired around 2021. Beyond that date there might be problems using one.

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Dragon cargo fees to rise, due to NASA demands

A government audit has found that the fees that SpaceX charges for its Dragon cargo missions to ISS will rise as much as 50%, and the cause of that price rise is almost entirely due to NASA redesign demands.

[T]he auditors pinned much of the blame on NASA for the increase. They also emphasized that the program still seems like a good deal for lowering launch costs. Auditors cited NASA for missing opportunities to cut redundancies and bargain on pricing, and noted that the agency forced SpaceX to (expensively) redesign its Dragon spaceship from the bottom up.

The report did hint, however, that SpaceX has done some reckoning as the startup has matured. “[SpaceX] also indicated that their CRS-2 pricing reflected a better understanding of the costs involved after several years of experience with cargo resupply missions,” the auditors wrote. (A SpaceX representative declined to comment on the report.)

None of this is a surprise. There are factions in NASA that have been working for the past decade to stymie or defeat the arrival of privately built and owned spacecraft like Dragon, as it makes the NASA-built spacecraft like Orion look bad. By demanding redesigns that raise the cost for Dragon, these factions gain ammunition to attack it. I guarantee we will see op-eds doing exactly that in the next year.

No matter. In the end the private market still does it better and cheaper than the government, as the audit found.

Despite the cost increases, the report ultimately called the CRS contracts with private companies “positive steps” for NASA — especially since the agency could find discounts by launching cargo on used SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boosters. “NASA’s continued commitment to the commercial space industry also helps spur innovations in the commercial launch vehicle market,” the auditors said.

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Woman sues NASA to keep possession of moon dust

A Tennessee woman is proactively suing NASA in order to guarantee the agency will not try to steal a vial of moon dust that Neil Armstrong gave to her in the early 1970s.

Murray Cicco received the small glass vial full of gray moon dust in the early 1970s. The vial came with a note: “To Laura Ann Murray — Best of luck — Neil Armstron Apollo 11.” …Armstrong’s note and signature have been verified and testing has confirmed the contents in the vial he gifted her do include dust from the moon.

Decades after receiving the glass vial of moon dust, Murray Cicco is moving forward with her federal court case in Wichita, even though she lives in Tennessee. The reason for filing the case in Kansas goes back to a previous case in 2016 where a U.S. District Court judge in Wichita ruled in favor of a collector who bought a bag containing moon dust that was mistakenly placed in an online government auction. In that case, the bag was then sold at auction last year for $1.8 million.

While NASA hasn’t demanded Murray Cicco give up the vial of moon dust, Murray Cicco’s attorney has requested a jury trial in Wichita to stay ahead. “There is no law against private persons owning lunar material. Lunar material is not contraband. It is not illegal to own or possess,” the court document detailing the case says. “Therefore, she requests judgment declaring her the rightful and legal owner of the vial and its contents, and vesting title in her name.”

This is a very wise move on her part. NASA has for years made it clear that it thinks it owns all moon material brought back by the Apollo missions, and has had the arrogant policy of demanding the return of any moon dust or rocks that it discovered was in the possession of any private citizen, no matter how small, or how well documented the ownership. This court case acts to block such actions, before NASA can even think of them.

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Rigged poll claims Americans want NASA to do climate research

A new Pew Research Center poll, that is getting lots of play in the press today and claims that Americans want climate research to be NASA’s number one purpose, appears very rigged to me.

First their main conclusion:

NASA oversees a diverse portfolio of space-related missions, from sending robotic probes to explore distant planets to launching satellites that study Earth’s atmosphere and oceans.

When asked to rate the importance of nine of these missions, majorities of Americans say a top priority for NASA should be monitoring key parts of the Earth’s climate system (63%) or monitoring asteroids and other objects that could potentially collide with the Earth (62%).

Slightly fewer than half of Americans (47%) believe that conducting basic scientific research to increase knowledge and understanding of space should be a top priority, with 40% saying such research is an important but lower priority.

…Missions for human astronauts to explore Mars and return to the moon are among NASA’s most high-profile programs. The Trump administration has expressed strong support for these initiatives, saying that exploring the solar system should be NASA’s core mission, beginning with a return of astronauts to the moon.

However, compared with other NASA programs, fewer Americans say such space exploration should be a top priority. Just 18% and 13%, respectively, say that sending astronauts to Mars or back to the moon should be a top priority; 37% and 44%, respectively, express the view that these missions are not too important or that NASA shouldn’t undertake these missions. [emphasis mine]

You can download the full report here [pdf].

While it is very possible that the high numbers for NASA climate research and low numbers for a NASA mission to the Moon or Mars reflect a growing skepticism about NASA’s ability to do space work, the poll itself simply isn’t trustworthy. Buried deep in Pew’s press announcement (three webpages down) was a graph that showed that, while the sample population surveyed was distributed reasonably in most ways, the numbers Republicans and Democrats polled was very skewed, 981 Republicans to 1,483 Democrats.

This is absurd. Every recent election has shown that the nation is very evenly split between these two parties. If anything, the results of the 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections would suggest there are more Republicans than Democrats. To favor Democrats by one third is simply dishonest and inaccurate. Even if they claim that they are merely polling Americans, not voters, the split shouldn’t be weighed that much in favor of Democrats.

Moreover, the poll shows how this skew warps the results, as it also admits that 78 percent of the Democrats polled love NASA’s climate research, while only 44 percent of Republicans do. The poll did find that both Democrats and Republicans had no interest in NASA’s deep space exploration plans, but once again, the poll did not ask why. I strongly suspect that NASA’s inability to get SLS launched explains this. No one believes the agency will ever do it.

With climate research the agency has an easier job, and has done better, but even here many Republicans have strong doubts, and would rather give the job to someone else.

It seems to me that the time has come to completely ignore political polling operations like Pew. They really have only one goal, and that is to push the Democratic Party’s political agenda.

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Juno mission extended

NASA has extended the Juno mission through 2022 in order to complete its planned science.

NASA has approved an update to Juno’s science operations until July 2021. This provides for an additional 41 months in orbit around Jupiter and will enable Juno to achieve its primary science objectives.Juno is in 53-day orbits rather than 14-day orbits as initially planned because of a concern about valves on the spacecraft’s fuel system. This longer orbit means that it will take more time to collect the needed science data.

An independent panel of experts confirmed in April that Juno is on track to achieve its science objectives and is already returning spectacular results.The Juno spacecraft and all instruments are healthy and operating nominally.

NASA has now funded Juno through FY 2022. The end of prime operations is now expected in July 2021, with data analysis and mission close-out activities continuing into 2022.

I will admit that though Juno is clearly learning a great deal about Jupiter, such as this story about lightning there, its larger orbit makes it difficult to track the gas giant cloud structures as they evolve. This is unfortunate.

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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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Canada exits WFIRST project

Like rats fleeing a sinking ship: The Canadian government has decided not to fund that country’s contribution to NASA’s WFIRST space telescope project, presently expected to cost $3.2 billion total (already over-budget in the design phase) and set to launch sometime in the 2020s (don’t bet on it).

The Canadian instrument would have been focused on studying dark energy, the mysterious force that is theorized to cause the universe’s expansion rate to accelerate over vast distances.

I can understand the skepticism of the Canadian government. Why commit anything to a project that is already over-budget and has unreliable support in the U.S. (Trump tried to ax it, Congress restored it, for now)? The project is also so far in the future it makes more sense to spend this money on astronomy projects that could be built and used now.

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NASA reconfiguring future SLS planning

Link here. This is a long (4 parts) and detailed overview of the changing state of the SLS system and its future missions. As it notes right at the start,

NASA has started updating plans and schedules for additional SLS Block 1 launches in the early 2020s after Washington added federal budget money for a second Mobile Launcher (ML) platform and umbilical tower in late March.

Construction of a new Mobile Launcher frees the first ML from a three-year long downtime for teardown and reassembly after the first SLS launch of Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), currently projected for mid-2020. Instead of being retired after one launch, the Block 1 configuration could fly multiple times.

With two mobile launches (costing almost a billion to build), NASA has more flexibility (assuming it gets full funding). It can now fly both the smaller Block 1 configuration of SLS multiple times without delaying the first launch of the planned more powerful Block 2 version expected to come later.

The article discusses in great detail the possible variations in design and scheduling for the first unmanned mission, the Europa mission, the first manned mission, and possible missions beyond, all of which are based on Congress’s continued blank check support for this very expensive and very questionable program.

Sadly, it increasingly appears that Congress is going to throw a lot of money at this program. SLS looks like it is going to fly several times, and maybe more. It will likely send Europa Clipper to Jupiter, and later astronauts on a stunt mission around the Moon. Later, the Washington cartel of big aerospace companies, NASA, Congress, and our international partners in Europe and Russia are gearing up to get LOP-G funded as well, with SLS the vehicle to launch and supply it.

All of this will cost a lot, take forever, and not make the future exploration of the solar system possible in the slightest. None of that matters however. Congress wants it, and Congress being corrupt and irresponsible is going to get it.

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