Tag Archives: NASA

NASA pulls astronaut for medical reasons from Boeing manned flight

NASA has switched one member of the planned astronaut crew for the first manned Boeing Starliner mission presently scheduled in August because of medical reasons.

Eric Boe, one of three astronauts assigned to the first piloted test flight of a Boeing CST-100 Starliner commercial crew ship later this year has been removed from the mission due to unspecified medical issues, NASA announced Tuesday. He will be replaced by veteran astronaut Mike Fincke.

Boe will take over Fincke’s role as assistant to the chief for commercial crew operations in the astronaut office at the Johnson Space Center. In keeping with long-standing NASA policy regarding medical privacy, no details about the reason for Boe’s reassignment were provided.

The article notes that this is only the sixth time in the entire history of American manned space that such a switch was necessary. I hope Boe’s medical issue is not serious, and wish him well with the hope he will be flying on another Boeing or SpaceX flight quite soon.

Though not directly related to this story, to my mind the real question remains: Will NASA’s bureaucracy let this flight happen in 2019? I think it will have no choice, but it will be dragged kicking and screaming to the launchpad.

Share

First unmanned test flight of manned Dragon now set for Feb 9

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s first unmanned test launch of its manned Dragon capsule, delayed repeated in recent months, has now been scheduled for no early than Feb 9, with its dress rehearsal countdown static fire test set for January 23.

It appears that this scheduled date is more firm than the previous ones, as it was announced as part of the upcoming schedule of the Eastern Range’s planning schedule.

The article provides some interesting details about the effect (or non-effect) the government shutdown on this launch. Bottom line: It should not prevent it, in the slightest. It must be repeatedly noted that the launch will use a SpaceX launch team on a SpaceX run launchpad, and will only require NASA participation during docking procedures, procedures that require NASA employees who have been deemed essential and thus are working (even if unpaid at the moment).

Share

Hubble’s main camera in safe mode

The coming dark age: The Wide Field Camera on the Hubble Space Telescope has experienced “an anomaly” that has forced its shut down.

The announcement is a mere one paragraph long, and provides no further information.

This camera was installed on the space telescope during the last shuttle mission in 2009. It is now almost a decade since that mission, which was expected to extend Hubble’s life for at least five years. It is therefore not surprising that things are beginning to fail. In October they had a serious gyroscope problem when a gyroscope failed and they had problems getting their last back-up gyroscope to work. They got it working, but this has left us with a telescope with no gyroscope backups. With the next failure they will have to shift to one gyroscope mode, meaning sharp images will no longer be possible. Now the main camera has shut down.

Unfortunately, it appears that we are reaching the end of Hubble’s life span. The sad thing is that this shouldn’t be necessary. It can be repaired, but this would require a robot mission, something that would have been very difficult a decade ago but is quite doable at a reasonable cost today. No such mission is being considered however.

Even worse, the bad planning that is routine for our modern intellectual class has left us with no replacement, for the foreseeable future. In the late 1990s the astronomy community chose this path, deciding to replace Hubble with an infrared space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope. They and NASA also decided to push the limits of engineering with Webb, resulting in a project that is about a decade behind schedule with a budget that has ballooned from $1 billion to $9 billion. Meanwhile, there has been no money for any other major space telescopes. And the one the astronomy community proposed in 2011, WFIRST, is already over budget and behind schedule, in its design phase.

The astronomy community has also decided in the past two decades that it could replace Hubble with giant ground-based telescopes, a decision that has so far proven to be problematic. Though adaptive optics can eliminate some of the fuzziness caused by the atmosphere, it limits observations to very narrow fields of view, meaning it cannot obtain large mosaics of big objects, such as this Hubble release earlier this week of an image of the nearby Triangulum Galaxy. Moreover, almost all of the giant ground-based telescopes built so far have struggled with many engineering issues.

In terms of astronomy, we are thus about to go blind, returning to the days prior to the space age when our view of the heavens was fuzzy and out of focus.

Share

Unmanned test flight of manned Dragon delayed again

Elon Musk has now confirmed that the first unmanned test flight of the manned Dragon capsule has been delayed, and is now scheduled for sometime next month.

SpaceX is about a month away from launching its first commercial crew mission, the company’s founder, Elon Musk, tweeted this weekend. This will be a demonstration flight, without humans on board.

Officially, NASA had been holding to a January 17 launch date, but that has become untenable due to ongoing work to resolve technical issues, two sources said, as well as the partial government shutdown. More than 90 percent of the space agency’s employees are presently furloughed during the shutdown, which is affecting the agency’s ability to make final approvals for the launch. Some key government officials are continuing to work on the program without pay.

As far as I can tell, the “technical issues” are bureaucratic maneuvers by NASA designed solely to delay the launch. The article makes a big deal about the risks of this first test flight, as if none of its systems have ever flown before. That is absurd, While Dragon has been significantly modified, this can hardly be called a first flight for this capsule or rocket.

I repeat: The launch will occur on a SpaceX launchpad, run entirely by SpaceX employees. The only time NASA employees need get involved is during the docking procedures, and right now those employees at mission control and on ISS have been deemed essential and are working. If Trump ordered it, this mission could fly, even during this partial government shutdown.

Share

SpaceX rolls manned Dragon/Falcon 9 to launchpad

Capitalism in space: This week SpaceX rolled to the launchpad the stacked manned Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket that will fly the first unmanned test flight no early than January 17, 2019.

it is understood that the rollout is a dry simulation and thus will not include any propellant. However, a static fire test including propellant load and a short burn of the first stage’s nine Merlin engines will occur at a later date.

While this week’s rollout and subsequent fit checks do not seem to have been impacted by the ongoing U.S. government shutdown, other aspects of the launch campaign will be delayed.

The launch is expected to slip past the latest official no-earlier than launch date of January 17th. Many aspects of the launch campaign require NASA oversight and thus cannot proceed without NASA’s approval. It is understood that each additional day of the government shutdown translates into about a one day delay with the launch.

The irony here is that there are really no NASA employees required for SpaceX to do the launch. It is occurring on their leased property using their equipment and their launch team. Only when the capsule arrives at ISS will NASA employees be required, and those slots have been deemed “essential” in this government shutdown and are still operating on ISS and at mission control in Houston.

If Trump ordered it, this flight could happen. SpaceX is clearly ready. It is only NASA and its bureaucracy that stands in the way.

Share

Nancy Roman passes away at 93

R.I.P. Nancy Roman, NASA’s first chief astronomer, died on Christmas at the age of 93.

Her name is largely forgotten, but her support for building the Hubble Space Telescope in the 1960s and the 1970s was critical in getting it done. As important, her support for all in-space astronomy in these early years eventually made it possible. During her term NASA built and launched the first space telescopes. Some were duds. Some were incredible successes. Regardless, her leadership proved that astronomy in space made sense, leading to the achievements that have followed in the half century that has followed.

God speed, Nancy Roman.

Share

NASA approves Dream Chaser design

Capitalism in space? Sierra Nevada has, after several years of work, obtained NASA’s approval of the design of its Dream Chaser mini-shuttle, and will now begin construction.

I put a question mark in the header above because I am no longer sure Sierra Nevada is building a privately designed and privately owned spacecraft for the launch market. It seems that they have been captured entirely by NASA, and will instead be building the spacecraft NASA wants, which might raise costs enough to make this vehicle unaffordable for other customers.

The situation is understandable. Sierra Nevada does not have the independent capital that gives SpaceX its independence. It needs NASA to get this ship built, and thus will do whatever NASA demands. I just worry that NASA, unconcerned about cost (as is every agency in the federal government today), will spoil Dream Chaser’s viability in the commercial market.

Share

Rocket Lab completes its third successful launch in 2018

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today (Sunday) successfully launched thirteen cubesats using its Electron rocket.

With this third launch, Rocket Lab now has more launches than Northrop Grumman (formerly Orbital ATK), a launch operation that has been around since the 1980s.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race remain unchanged:

35 China
20 SpaceX
13 Russia
10 Europe (Arianespace)
8 ULA

China still leads the U.S. 35 to 33 in the national rankings.

Share

NASA’s warped measure of safety

In posting an invitation to social media users to attend the launch of the first unmanned test flight of SpaceX’s man-rated Dragon capsule on January 17, 2019, NASA’s public relations department added the following warning:

NASA has a series of reviews before the uncrewed test flight, and the outcome of these reviews, including the Flight Readiness Review, will ultimately determine the Demo-1 launch date.

For months I have reported numerous examples of NASA’s safety panel acting to create fake problems that will force a delay in this launch. First it was the fueling method. Then it was the insulation on the helium tanks. Then there was the need for SpaceX to fill out all the paperwork. Now it is the parachute system and worries about the safety culture at SpaceX.

I might take these concerns seriously, except that NASA’s safety panel seems to be so sanguine about far more serious safety issues with NASA’s SLS rocket and Orion capsule. This double standard is starkly illustrated once again in this NASASpaceflight.com article about NASA’s plans for the very first manned Orion/SLS mission.

On that manned mission, NASA will fly a host of new equipment for the first time. For example, the capsule’s “Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), crew displays, and other crew systems will be making their debut in Orion.” Anything else that has flown previously will essentially have done so only once, during the first unmanned test flight of SLS/Orion.

It gets worse. While NASA has demanded SpaceX fly the final manned version of its Falcon 9 rocket seven times before it will allow its astronauts on board, the agency plans to launch humans on SLS on only its second launch. More astonishing, that second launch will include a mission taking those astronauts on a loop around the Moon.

During the Apollo missions in the 1960s, NASA had a policy that no mission would head to the Moon without carrying a lunar module (LM). The logic was that the LM would act as a lifeboat should something go wrong with the Apollo capsule, a logic that was actually proven during Apollo 13.

NASA did send Apollo 8 to the Moon without the LM, but it did so in the context of a Cold War space race and an end-of-the-decade commitment by an assassinated president. The agency then knew the risks were high, but it decided the situation justified those risks.

NASA is not faced with a Cold War space race today. Instead, it has a grossly over-budget and long delayed boondoggle called SLS/Orion, increasingly embarrassed by the quick and efficient achievements of private space companies. In a desperate effort to keep that boondoggle alive, the agency is apparently pushing it to fly it too soon and with inadequate development. In fact, it appears to me that the safety culture at NASA that caused both shuttle accidents (a desire to favor frequent launches while ignoring safety analysis) has returned at NASA, and it has done so with a vengeance.

Meanwhile, the contrast with how the agency’s safety panel treats SpaceX versus SLS/Orion demonstrates how corrupt and unreliable that safety panel has become. They no longer really work to reduce risk. Their goal appears to promote government-built rocket systems over those manufactured by the private sector.

Hat tip to Kirk Hilliard for pointing out the language in the NASA pr invite to the SpaceX launch.

Share

NASA commits $2.6 billion for commercial lunar exploration

NASA today announced that it has committed $2.6 billion over the next ten years to buy delivery services to the Moon for its unmanned scientific missions, provided from nine different private companies.

The companies selected — Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Draper, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin Space, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express, Orbit Beyond — cover a range of companies from the well established to new companies not yet proven. This announcement essentially permits them all to bid on providing NASA delivery services to the moon for small unmanned probes. The press release states that:

These companies will be able to bid on delivering science and technology payloads for NASA, including payload integration and operations, launching from Earth and landing on the surface of the Moon. NASA expects to be one of many customers that will use these commercial landing services.

More information here. UPDATE: Doug Messier has published the press releases from most of the above companies, describing their individual projects, and I have added links to each.

The program appears modeled after NASA commercial cargo and crew programs, whereby the companies will own and control the orbiters, landers, and rovers they build, allowing them to market them to others for profit. It also appears designed to keep costs low, as did commercial cargo program. NASA is merely the customer.

This is good news. It suggests that the American space industry is continuing to transition away from big government programs, controlling everything, to a robust private industry that is in charge with the government merely one out of many customers.

Share

Date set for first unmanned launch of manned Dragon

Capitalism in space: NASA announced today that SpaceX has set January 7, 2019 as the launch date for its first unmanned test flight of its manned Dragon capsule.

SpaceX is targeting Jan. 7 for launch of its first Crew Dragon commercial ferry ship on an unpiloted test flight to the International Space Station, NASA announced Wednesday, a major milestone in the agency’s drive to end its sole reliance on Russian Soyuz crew ships for carrying astronauts to orbit.

If the shakedown flight goes smoothly — and if a NASA safety probe unveiled Tuesday doesn’t turn up any show stoppers — SpaceX could be ready to launch the first piloted Crew Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket in the June timeframe, carrying veteran NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the space station. [emphasis mine]

As I said during a taping today for my appearance on WCCO radio tomorrow at 11:10 am (Central), the only thing standing in the way of SpaceX getting its manned capsule off the ground is NASA. June is a long time from now, and the agency, egged on by corrupt politicians, could easily find ways to delay that first manned launch in that time. Nor would I put it past the corrupt Washington in-crowd, led by Senator Richard Shelby (R- Alabama), having no interest in the national interest, to do what they can to sabotage that flight. What they care about is diverting tax dollars to either their own pockets or to the pockets of their allies (which also helps bring them pay-offs campaign contributions as well).

Still, it is encouraging that SpaceX is pushing forward, and that there appear to be strong elements in NASA supporting them. Keep your fingers crossed.

Share

NASA opens safety review of Boeing and SpaceX

Turf war! Prompted by Elon Musk’s single hit of marijuana during a podcast interview, NASA has begun a detailed safety review of both SpaceX and Boeing.

[William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration,] said the review would focus not on the technical details of developing rockets and spacecraft but rather the companies’ safety culture — encompassing the number of hours employees work, drug policies, leadership and management styles, whether employees’ safety concerns are taken seriously, and more.

“Is the culture reflective of an environment that builds quality spacecraft,” Gerstenmaier said. The review would be led by NASA’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, which has conducted similar probes inside NASA. Gerstenmaier said the process would be “pretty invasive,” involving hundreds of interviews with employees at every level of the companies and at multiple work locations.

This is a power-play, pure and simple. NASA might claim it cares about safety, but its track record suggests instead that its real motive is to prove to SpaceX that it is in charge, not SpaceX. It rankles NASA’s bureaucracy that they cannot call the shots at SpaceX, and have found themselves embarrassed by its success, compared to the agency’s continuing failures with SLS. Moreover, considering the space shuttle’s unsafe history, NASA’s safety track record and the workplace culture that produced that history is nothing to brag about.

These “invasive” interviews are guaranteed to find workplace issues that NASA will then use as a hammer to take further control SpaceX’s operations, making it less innovative, more expensive, and more bureaucratic. And I see no one in the Trump administration, including Trump, very interested in reining NASA in on these matters.

Share

NASA to hire private lunar probes for future missions

Capitalism in space: Rather than build its own future lunar landers and rovers, NASA is now planning to hire these services from private companies, with missions flying as soon as 2021.

Under a program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), NASA would buy space aboard a couple of launches a year, starting in 2021. The effort is similar to an agency program that paid private space companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). “This a new way of doing business,” says Sarah Noble, a planetary scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., who is leading the science side of NASA’s lunar plans.

Scientists are lining up for a ride. “It really feels like the future of lunar exploration,” says Erica Jawin, a planetary scientist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. She and other attendees at the annual meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group in Columbia, Maryland, last week were eager to show NASA why their small experiments would be worthy hitchhikers on the landers.

Several companies, including Astrobotic, Moon Express, and iSpace, are vying to establish a commercial moon market. Buying rides to the moon from launch providers like Rocket Lab, each firm hopes to become the go-to carrier for other companies seeking to prospect the moon for rocket fuel ingredients, or to gather rocks to sell for study. But a contract with NASA is the real prize. Moon Express, for example, has designed the MX-1, a lander roughly the size and shape of Star Wars’s R2-D2. But, “We won’t pull the trigger until we know we have a CLPS award,” says Moon Express CEO Robert Richards in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The companies selected for CLPS must deliver at least 10 kilograms of payload by the end of 2021, NASA says. It is scrambling to find instruments that are ready to fly. “What do you have sitting on shelf now that you can throw onto the mission immediately?” Noble says. “We’re looking for flight spares, engineering models, student-built projects. It’s a little bit of a weird call for us.” The agency is planning to pay up to $36 million to adapt eight to 12 existing scientific instruments to the initial small landers; by the middle of next decade it aims to build a pipeline of instruments for bigger landers that might also carry rovers.

These are going to small missions with limited lifespans and limited abilities. They will however be cheap, fast, and many. In the end I am certain NASA (and the taxpayer) will get far more bang for the buck.

Share

NASA suggests retirement of SLS when BFR and New Glenn fly

Capitalism in space: During an interview at a November 1st conference, a NASA official mentioned that if SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) and Blue Origin’s New Glenn begin flying successfully the agency will seriously consider retiring SLS.

“I think our view is that if those commercial capabilities come online, we will eventually retire the government system, and just move to a buying launch capacity on those [rockets],” Stephen Jurczyk, NASA’s associate administrator, told Business Insider at The Economist Space Summit on November 1.

However, NASA may soon find itself in a strange position, since the two private launch systems may beat SLS back to the moon – and one might be the first to send people to Mars.

I have been saying that this should happen since almost the first day this website was started in 2011. To quote from a September 14, 2011 post:

To be really blunt, this new rocket, like all its predecessors, will never fly either. It costs too much, will take too long to build, and will certainly be canceled by a future administration before it is finished. It is therefore a complete waste of money, and any Congress that approves it will demonstrate how utterly insincere they are about controlling spending.

It appears that I was wrong with this prediction on one count. SLS might actually fly a few times, but only to allow its supporters in Congress and NASA to justify that support. When the private rockets come on line in the early 2020s, cheaper, faster, and better designed (with re-usability), NASA and Congress will then finally say that these rockets are better and that SLS will die, and they will also both make believe they were saying that from the very beginning.

Share

Advisory panel to Space Council pans Gateway

The advisory panel to the Space Council gave NASA’s Gateway lunar orbiting platform low marks in a meeting in Washington yesterday.

NASA’s plan for returning to the Moon met with opposition today at a meeting of the National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group (UAG). Not only members of the UAG, but former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, who was there as a guest speaker on other topics, offered his personal view that NASA is moving too slowly and the lunar orbiting Gateway is unnecessary.

Makes sense to me, especially based on the description of Gateway put forth by NASA at the meeting:

In the first part of the 2020s, NASA plans to launch series of very small and later mid-sized robotic landers and rovers, while at the same time building a small space station, currently called the Gateway, in lunar orbit. The Gateway is much smaller than the International Space Station (ISS) and would not be permanently occupied. Crews would be aboard only three months a year and eventually the Gateway would be a transit point for humans travelling between Earth and the lunar surface or Mars.

The presentation also said under this plan that Americans would not land on the Moon until 2028.

It is all fantasy. I guarantee if the government goes with Gateway it will not land on the Moon before 2035, and that is optimistic. Tied as it is to very expensive SLS and the government way of building anything, Gateway will likely see at least five years of delays, at a minimum. Remember also that the first manned launch of SLS is not expected now before 2024, and will likely have a launch cadence of less than one launch per year. How NASA expects to complete Gateway and then land on the Moon only four years later, using this rocket, seems very unrealistic to me.

This does not mean Americans won’t get to the Moon sooner however. I fully expect private enterprise to do it in less than a decade, and for far cheaper. Eventually the dunderheads in government will realize this, but we must give them time to realize it. Their brains work slowly.

Share

NASA approves Falcon 9 for all science missions

NASA today announced that it has certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket as qualified to launch all of its science missions.

With only one mission out of 61 flights of the Falcon 9 ending in failure, the rocket appears to have met the high standards NASA demands from all of the rockets it uses. Two of those successful missions include other flights under the LSP: Jason-3 and TESS.

With the addition of this latest notch on its belt, SpaceX is poised to conduct the most sensitive, in terms of cargo, flights that the agency has—those of astronauts to the International Space Station.

As noted in the quote, this certification makes it certain that NASA will allow its astronauts to fly on the Falcon 9, even if its own safety panel continues posing its bureaucratic demands.

Share

NASA completes final parachute test for 2020 Mars rover mission

NASA has completed the third and final parachute test for its as yet unnamed 2020 Mars rover mission.

Three separate test launches (one Oct. 9, 2017, April 20, 2018, and Sept. 7, 2018) determined which parachute design would be used for the Mars 2020 mission. In 2012, a similar parachute concept was used for the Curiosity rover mission.

For this test, NASA said the parachute, which was made of nylon, Kevlar and Technora fibers, was packed into a “small drum-sized bag” before being launched to an altitude of about 23 miles (37 kilometers) and a speed of about Mach 1.8. Then, within less than a half-second, the 180-pound parachute was deployed and fully inflated with a volume of “a large house.”

Though doing engineering tests to prove your concept always makes sense, didn’t NASA do this for Curiosity, which then proved its parachute concept further by actually landing on Mars successfully? The 2020 rover is supposed to be saving money by using the Curiosity design. Why were these tests necessary?

Share

Head of Webb investigation: Webb was “a step too far”

The head of an investigation panel into the James Webb Space Telescope admitted this week that, though he and the panel fully support the telescope’s completion and launch, he also believes the telescope was too ambitious and “a step too far.”

Speaking at a meeting of the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board Oct. 29, Tom Young said that while the mission may ultimately be a success, its difficulties provide lessons as NASA considers future large astronomy missions in the next decadal survey.

“I, personally, have come to the conclusion that JWST had too many inventions, too much risk, and was a step too far,” he said at the end of a presentation about the review board’s work.

Young emphasized that he was neither opposed to JWST being completed nor had doubts it could be done successfully. “There are a group people who are diehard supporters of JWST, and there are others who support it, but they’re really angry at the cost growth and the schedule delays,” he said.

You think? Webb was supposed to cost about $500 million, and launch in 2007. Its budget is now almost $10 billion, and it will not launch before 2021. In the process it has destroyed the entire astronomy program at NASA, preventing the construction of any other space telescopes.

The key question is whether the astronomy community or NASA has learned anything from this disaster. I personally am doubtful, since they are still pushing for WFIRST, a similar big boondoggle that will cost billions and is already overbudget and behind schedule, though it is only in its design stage.

Share

Chandra goes into safe mode

When it rains it pours: The Chandra X-ray Observatory went into into safe mode on October 10 for reasons that are either not yet understood or have not yet been revealed.

Chandra, Spitzer, and Hubble are the three remaining of the original four great observatories proposed in the late 1980s, with the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory the fourth. Compton was de-orbited in 2000. Spitzer’s infrared observational capabilities became limited when its cryogenic cooling gas became exhaused in 2009.

Hubble and now Chandra are both in safe mode, leaving astronomy badly crippled.

This situation is actually the fault of the astronomical community, which in the early 2000s put all its money behind the James Webb Space Telescope, leaving little for the construction of replacement space telescopes for either Hubble or Chandra. In addition, the astronomical community has continued to put is money behind similar big, expensive, and giant projects like Webb, pushing for WFIRST with its 2011 decadal survey. Like Webb, WFIRST will cost billions and take almost a decade to build and launch, assuming there are no delays.

Meanwhile, the workhorses in orbit are failing one by one.

Share

Update on Hubble: no real news

NASA today released an update on the effort to bring the Hubble Space Telescope out of safe mode and back to full operation.

The only new information they really provide is what they will do, depending on whether they can fix the back up gyroscope or not.

If the team is successful in solving the problem, Hubble will return to normal, three-gyro operations. If it is not, the spacecraft will be configured for one-gyro operations, which will still provide excellent science well into the 2020s, enabling it to work alongside the James Webb Space Telescope and continue groundbreaking science.

In other words, if they cannot find a way to get this third gyro functioning properly, they will shut down one of the two remaining working gyros so that it can operate as a backup, and operate the telescope on one gyroscope.

I find the last section of the quote above very amusing, in a dark sort of way. Not only does NASA rationalize the sad loss of Hubble’s ability to take sharp images, it tries to rationalize the decade-long delays it has experienced building the James Webb Space Telescope. Webb was supposed to have been launched in 2011. It should have been up there already, working alongside Hubble for the past seven years.

Now, the best we can hope for is that Webb will finally reach space while Hubble is still functioning, in a crippled condition. I would not be surprised however if Webb is further delayed, and Hubble is gone before it gets into space.

Share

Audit of SLS predicts more cost overruns and delays

Ever get a feeling of deja vu? A report by NASA’s inspector general yesterday slammed NASA and Boeing for their management of the SLS program, noting that the first unmanned launch will likely be delayed further and the cost for the program will go up another $4 billion.

The much-anticipated premiere of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket will likely see yet another push to the right, this time beyond mid-2020, as the program faces billions in cost overruns, according to a scathing audit released Wednesday by the agency’s Office of Inspector General.

Originally slated to launch from Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39B in December 2017, a 322-foot-tall version of the rocket known as SLS Block 1 will likely still be unprepared for a liftoff on the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 by June 2020, auditors said. Even if teams could technically meet that deadline, NASA would need to offer Boeing, the contractor building the first two core stages, an infusion of $1.2 billion: $800 million to secure first stage delivery to KSC by December 2019 and an additional $400 million to make sure EM-1 launches by June 2020.

“Consequently, in light of the Project’s development delays, we have concluded NASA will be unable to meet its EM-1 launch window currently scheduled between December 2019 and June 2020,” a portion of the 50-page report reads.

The report [pdf] states that Boeing’s budget will have to double to $8 billion to meet these demands. In truth, SLS has cost the taxpayers a lot more than that, probably in the range in excess of $30 billion, if you add up all the yearly appropriations from Congress specifically applied to this rocket project and extend them through the first manned launch, now probably not taking place prior to 2024. (See my policy paper, Capitalism in Space, to see the breakdown.)

If this audit is correct, and I see no reason not to believe it, it will have taken the modern NASA more than twenty years to build and launch a single manned capsule, with a total cost of over $60 billion.

SpaceX built Falcon 1, Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, Dragon cargo, and Dragon manned in about half that time, for a cost of about $2 billion. Falcon Heavy alone cost $500 million, and took only seven years.

From whom would you buy the product?

Share

NASA pushes upgrades to interim and final SLS upper stages

Because of increased funding to SLS from Congress, NASA is now pushing Boeing to do upgrades to the interim SLS upper stage as well as its final full power upper stage, dubbed the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) and originally planned for most SLS missions.

Those changes were prompted by the decision NASA made earlier this year to delay the introduction of the EUS. That stage was originally planned to enter use with the second SLS mission, Exploration Mission (EM) 2. Instead, the first flight of what’s known as the Block 1B configuration of SLS has been delayed to the fourth SLS launch, likely no earlier than 2024.

“That has put a slow down on the Exploration Upper Stage work,” said (John Shannon, vice president and program manager for the Space Launch System at Boeing). “We were rapidly approaching the critical design review.”

NASA has asked Boeing to spend some time to try and “optimize” the EUS with the goal of increasing the amount of additional payload it can carry. Such co-manifested payloads, such as modules for NASA’s proposed lunar Gateway, would be carried on the SLS underneath the Orion spacecraft. (emphasis mine)

Shannon also made what might be the biggest understatement I have ever heard when asked about SLS’s endless delays, noting that “We underestimated that somewhat,” referring to the time it has taken to build the rocket.

NASA got Congress to give them extra money to allow more flights of the interim stage, since putting humans on EUS on its first flight was absurdly risky. This way they could also avoid further delays on that first SLS/Orion manned mission, now set for 2023, almost twenty years since it was first proposed. By pushing for more upgrades, they can also justify again stretching the program out longer, thus stretching out the pork without actually flying anything.

The contrast with SpaceX’s development of Falcon Heavy with NASA’s development of SLS continues to be striking. The former was conceived, built, and launched in less than ten years, for a cost of half a billion. The latter remains unflown and unready to fly after fourteen years of development, and likely will not fly for another six years plus. And its development cost will likely top $50 billion by that time.

If I was a customer looking to buy a product, I would laugh NASA out of the room if it tried to sell me its SLS rocket. Unfortunately, the critters in Congress aren’t that smart, and continue to pour money into this dead end project, money that could be much more effectively spent buying rockets from the private sector.

Share

NASA study says deep space will cause cancer and destroy stomachs

We’re all gonna die! A NASA study on rats using simulated space radiation suggests that long duration space missions beyond Earth orbit will cause cancer as well as significant harm to human intestines.

The study, published by cancer researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center, used mice to test exposure to heavy ion radiation, which mimics the galactic cosmic radiation found in deep space. If that sounds complicated, essentially researchers compared “space” radiation to X-ray radiation and found its effects to be much more dangerous.

After long exposures to a low dose of galactic radiation, mice had permanent damage to their gastrointestinal tracts and could no longer absorb nutrients in food. The mice also developed cancerous growths in their intestines — raising concerns that astronauts who venture far into space would face the same deadly health issues. “While short trips, like the times astronauts traveled to the moon, may not expose them to this level of damage, the real concern is lasting injury from a long trip,” said Kamal Datta, head of Georgetown’s NASA Specialized Center of Research, in a press release.

More here.

Must I point out the uncertainties and weaknesses of this study? They did the test on rats. They simulated the radiation. And it appears they simulated the radiation dosages assuming the spacecraft would have little or no shielding, an absurd approach.

Space is dangerous, but there is no reason to exaggerate the dangers wildly, unless you wish to generate fake reasons for additional funding, as NASA is prone to do.

Share

NASA signs agreement to work with SpaceIL’s privately built lunar rover

Capitalism in space: NASA, the Israeli space agency, and the private Israeli space company SpaceIL have signed a cooperative agreement to work together when SpaceIL’s privately built lunar rover is launched to the Moon in December.

NASA will contribute a laser retroreflector array to aid with ground tracking and Deep Space Network support to aid in mission communication. ISA and SpaceIL will share data with NASA from the SpaceIL lunar magnetometer installed aboard the spacecraft. The instrument, which was developed in collaboration with the Weizmann Institute of Science, will measure the magnetic field on and above the landing site. The data will be made publicly available through NASA’s Planetary Data System. In addition, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to take scientific measurements of the SpaceIL lander as it lands on the Moon.

This agreement is the first step in the transition from having the government build planetary probes to it becoming a customer, buying these probes from private companies that build them for profit.

Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share

NASA extends Chandra telescope operation to 2024

NASA has extended its contract with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts to run the Chandra X-ray Observatory through 2024.

In many ways the longevity of both Hubble and Chandra as well as other space telescopes has demonstrated the robustness of much in-space engineering these days. It suggests that when we finally begin building manned interplanetary spaceships we should have confidence they will operate reliably for long periods.

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share
1 2 3 37