Tag Archives: NASA

SpaceX successfully completes static fire dress rehearsal of manned Dragon Falcon 9

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully completed its standard static fire dress rehearsal prior to launch of the Falcon 9 rocket that will place the first manned Dragon capsule, carrying two astronauts, into space on May 27th.

Today NASA also gave its final okay for the launch. It is now set to happen.

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NASA names WFIRST after its first head of astronomy, Nancy Roman

NASA today announced that it has renamed the proposed Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope in honor of the agency’s first head of astronomy.

Considered the “mother” of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which launched 30 years ago, Roman tirelessly advocated for new tools that would allow scientists to study the broader universe from space. She left behind a tremendous legacy in the scientific community when she died in 2018.

…When she arrived at NASA, astronomers could obtain data from balloons, sounding rockets and airplanes, but they could not measure all the wavelengths of light. Earth’s atmosphere blocks out much of the radiation that comes from the distant universe. What’s more, only a telescope in space has the luxury of perpetual nighttime and doesn’t have to shut down during the day. Roman knew that to see the universe through more powerful, unblinking eyes, NASA would have to send telescopes to space.

Through Roman’s leadership, NASA launched four Orbiting Astronomical Observatories between 1966 and 1972. While only two of the four were successful, they demonstrated the value of space-based astrophysics and represented the precursors to Hubble. She also championed the International Ultraviolet Explorer, which was built in the 1970s as a joint project between NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the United Kingdom, as well as the Cosmic Background Explorer, which measured the leftover radiation from the big bang and led to two of its leading scientists receiving the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Above all, Roman is credited with making the Hubble Space Telescope a reality. In the mid-1960s, she set up a committee of astronomers and engineers to envision a telescope that could accomplish important scientific goals. She convinced NASA and Congress that it was a priority to launch the most powerful space telescope the world had ever seen.

This is a nice and very fitting gesture to honor one of the many unsung heroes who were important in the history of space astronomy. I just hope that Roman’s telescope doesn’t end up like James Webb’s, so over budget and behind schedule that it destroys all other NASA space telescope projects. Sadly, its track record so far suggests this is what will happen, which is why the Trump administration has been trying to get it canceled.

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NASA head of manned space abruptly resigns

Turf war? Doug Loverro, the head of NASA’s manned spaceflight program who was brought in seven months ago to replace the fired William Gerstenmaier, has abruptly resigned.

Loverro, who previously worked at the super-secret National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and launches military satellites, said he was leaving the agency “with a very, very heavy heart” after making some “mistake” during his tenure, according to a letter to the workforce obtained by POLITICO.

“Throughout my long government career of over four and a half decades I have always found it to be true that we are sometimes, as leaders, called on to take risks,” Loverro wrote. “The risks we take, whether technical, political, or personal, all have potential consequences if we judge them incorrectly. I took such a risk earlier in the year because I judged it necessary to fulfill our mission. Now, over the balance of time, it is clear that I made a mistake in that choice for which I alone must bear the consequences. ”

“My leaving is because of my personal actions, not anything we accomplished together,” he continued.

Reached by phone, Loverro declined to offer specifics about his “mistake,” but said his departure is not due to a disagreement with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine or any safety concerns about next week’s launch.

You can read Loverro’s resignation letter here.

This is very strange. Loverro was clearly ruffling feathers in the big space contractor world with his increasing effort to reduce NASA’s reliance on its SLS rocket for its deep space manned program. I can’t help but wonder, in this brutal Washington culture we live in today that is willing to frame people for sometimes the most petty reasons, if some blackmail was involved here.

I doubt his resignation will change much. NASA will continue to reduce its reliance on SLS, simply because the rocket is a very expensive, over-priced, behind-schedule lemon that will never get us anywhere.

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NASA signs deal with Russians for one Soyuz seat to ISS

Citing a need to provide some back-up in case there are more delays getting the American manned capsules being built by SpaceX and Boeing into operation, NASA yesterday announced that it has signed a deal with Roscosmos to buy one seat on the October Soyuz launch to ISS.

The statement did not disclose the value of the deal, but NASA spokesman Josh Finch told SpaceNews the agreement is valued at $90.25 million. That includes the seat on the Soyuz spacecraft and various training, pre-launch and post-landing services. In addition, Finch said that NASA will compensate Roscosmos for bumping a Russian cosmonaut off that Soyuz mission by flying an unspecified amount of Russian cargo to the station on NASA commercial cargo spacecraft.

I wonder if there are other political reasons behind this deal, besides insuring American access to ISS. $90 million is a lot of money to the Russians, and considering their impending loss of income from NASA (with us no longer buying Soyuz seats in the future) as well as their loss of most of their commercial launch business, it could be that NASA managers wanted to shore up Roscosmos’s financial situation. Remember, at NASA there are many who swear a greater loyalty to space operations from all countries, even at the expense of the United States.

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NASA considering consolidating two Gateway launches into one

Capitalism in space: NASA’s Artemis program is now considering using a single launch to place two different Gateway modules into space, rather than two separate launches.

Originally, NASA wanted to launch the PPE and HALO modules – together representing the absolute bare minimum needed to build a functional Gateway – on separate commercial rockets in 2022 and 2023, respectively. Now, according to NASA associate administrator Doug Loverro, the space agency has made the decision to launch both modules simultaneously on the same commercial rocket.

This decision was made in large part because it makes sense from a technical simplicity and overall efficiency standpoint but also because several commercial launch vehicles – either currently operational or soon to be – are set to debut extremely large payload fairings. As a combined payload, the Gateway PPE and HALO modules would be too big for just about any existing launch vehicle, while the tiny handful it might fit in lack the performance needed to send such a heavy payload to the Moon.

Falcon Heavy apparently has the performance needed, as NASA used the rocket and a new stretched fairing developed by SpaceX for military customers as a baseline to determine whether PPE and HALO could launch together. Given that NASA could have technically used any of the vehicles expected to have large payload fairings for that analysis, the explicit use and mention of Falcon Heavy rather strongly suggests that the SpaceX rocket is a front runner for the new combined launch contract. This isn’t exactly surprising, given that the massive rocket has already completed three successful launches and will attempt at least another four missions between now and 2023.

Note the rocket that is not mentioned: SLS.

My regular readers know my consistent opposition to Gateway. That opposition was based on its initial design, depending for launch and operations entirely on NASA’s SLS rocket, and requiring it to be built before we landed on the Moon. Based on the SLS program’s track record, I believed Gateway would become, like SLS, nothing more than a pork barrel project accomplishing nothing but funneling government payroll to congressional districts while failing to launch any missions into space.

If NASA however is shifting gears, and aiming to allow private enterprise to build, launch, and operate Gateway, for considerably less cost and time, than Gateway might actually be of some value, mostly because there is actually a chance it might really be built, within a few short years.

I remain skeptical however. I still have questions about this lunar station’s utility, at this time. We might be spending a lot of money for a space station that won’t get us anywhere. Or maybe if NASA rethinks it properly it could provide us the real opportunity to test construction of an interplanetary spaceship, in lunar orbit.

We will have to see how this plays out. This story does appear encouraging however.

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SpaceX successfully completes Dragon parachute tests

Capitalism in space: SpaceX successfully completed the last planned parachute test yesterday for its manned Dragon spacecraft, clearing the way for its first manned launch on May 27th.

NASA also said that it has closed its investigation into the Merlin engine issue from a March Falcon 9 launch, leaving nothing but the weather in the way for that May manned flight.

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NASA delays 1st SLS launch again

NASA has now made official what had been expected for months, announcing a new delay of the first unmanned test flight of its SLS rocket from March 2021 to November 2021.

The article tries to put a lot of the blame for this new delay on the shut down over the Wuhan panic, but that shut down will only stop work for at most two months. The new delay however adds eight months to the schedule, showing that they probably were never going to meet that March 2021 deadline, and are using COVID-19 as a cover for the program’s continuing problems, delays, and cost overruns.

Should this unmanned flight take place in November 2021, it will have taken NASA about seventeen years and about $60 billion to get to that first flight. They say the first manned mission is scheduled in late 2022 or early 2023. If true would mean it took NASA about two decades to achieve a single manned flight since Bush Jr. proposed it.

Of course, that is making the very unlikely assumption that there will be no further delays before that first manned flight. I personally am very confident there will be.

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Funding breakdown for three lunar landing contracts

Capitalism in space: The contracts awarded by NASA yesterday to build manned lunar landers totaled almost a billion dollars, distributed as follows:

  • Blue Origin: $579 million
  • Dynetics: $253 million
  • SpaceX: $135 million

That Blue Origin got the biggest amount might have to do with the bid’s subcontractors, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. This gives these traditional big space partners, who normally rely on these kinds of government contracts and have little ability to make money outside them, some financing. This will also please their political backers in Congress.

For SpaceX, this is the first time they have taken any government money in connection with Starship. It also appears that NASA is going to stay back and generally let SpaceX develop it without undue interference.

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Curiosity and other Mars orbiters threatened by budget cuts

The proposed budget for NASA in the Trump administrations 2021 budget request to Congress includes significant budget cuts to both Curiosity and several Mars orbiters needed to act as relay communications satellites.

The White House’s 2021 federal budget request allocates just $40 million to the mission, a decrease of 20% from the rover’s current funding. And that current funding is 13% less than Curiosity got in the previous year, said Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

If the 2021 request is passed by Congress as-is, Curiosity’s operations would have to be scaled back considerably. Running the mission with just $40 million in 2021 would leave unused about 40% of the science team’s capability and 40% of the rover’s power output, which comes from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), Vasavada said.

In addition, the proposed budget will require a 50% reduction in imaging by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the end to the Mars Odyssey orbiter, and a significant but unspecified reduction in the use of the MAVEN orbiter.

I reported these facts back in March but there is no harm in noting them again.

The question is not whether there should be cuts at NASA. Considering the overall federal debt and annual budget deficit, NASA’s budget should be cut. The question is what to cut. The planetary program, probably NASA’s most successful program, is certainly not the program to cut. Instead, the Trump administration should be cutting the waste and badly run programs, like SLS, that spend billions and accomplish nothing.

If Congress and Trump did this, they could cut NASA’s total budget and still have plenty left over for the commercial manned program — including going to the Moon — and also increase the budget to the planetary program. I’ve been saying this since 2011, and nothing has happened in the past decade to change that conclusion.

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NASA contract award for manned lunar landers rejects SLS

Capitalism in space: NASA today announced the award of contracts to three different private companies to develop manned lunar landers for the 2024 Artemis Moon mission, all of which will not use the SLS rocket to get to the Moon.

The press release described the awards as follows:

  • Blue Origin of Kent, Washington, is developing the Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV) – a three-stage lander to be launched on its own New Glenn Rocket System and ULA Vulcan launch system.
  • Dynetics (a Leidos company) of Huntsville, Alabama, is developing the Dynetics Human Landing System (DHLS) – a single structure providing the ascent and descent capabilities that will launch on the ULA Vulcan launch system.
  • SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, is developing the Starship – a fully integrated lander that will use the SpaceX Super Heavy rocket.

All, including NASA and the Trump administration, are aiming to get these landers built and launched by the Trump administration’s 2024 deadline.

The first thing that stands out like a beacon is the exclusion of SLS as the rocket to launch any of these landers. Instead, the aim is to use the cheaper privately built rockets of either SpaceX, ULA, or Blue Origin.

The second thing that stands out is the commitment by SpaceX to use its Super Heavy/Starship rocket, not its Falcon Heavy. This means they are directly telling the world that they expect this rocket to be in operation much sooner than most expect. It also suggests that they hope this rocket will supplant SLS as the main rocket to get to the Moon. The award also means that NASA is agreeable to this.

The third thing that stands out is the exclusion of Boeing, which submitted a bid but did not win. Not only does this exclusion reinforce the sense gotten from an earlier report that NASA was very dissatisfied with Boeing and was thus going to rank it very low in future bidding considerations, it also indicates once again that NASA is seriously looking at other options to SLS. Boeing’s rejected bid was apparently the only one linked to SLS, and was rejected.

In fact, that SLS was not mentioned as the rocket for any of these landers strongly indicates that NASA and the Trump administration is finally abandoning SLS as the rocket to get Americans to the Moon.

Which immediately raises the question: Why the hell are we spending any money building it? It no longer has any purpose at all.

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New technical problems for SLS?

A new GAO report [pdf] issued yesterday has revealed that SLS engineers are concerned that the rocket’s core stage will develop leaks during its first full test, hopefully scheduled for this year.

[T]he new “Assessments of Major NASA Projects” report released on Wednesday contains what seems to be an entirely new bit of information about the Space Launch System rocket NASA is developing for deep space exploration. The report asserts that engineers at NASA and the SLS rocket’s core-stage contractor, Boeing, are concerned about fuel leaks.

Earlier this year, NASA moved the big rocket’s core stage to a test site at Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi. Before the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily halted work, NASA and Boeing teams were working toward a critical summer exercise. During this “green run” test, the clamped-down rocket will ignite its engines and burn for about eight minutes to simulate an ascent into orbit.

“Program officials indicated that one of the top remaining technical risks to the green run test is that the core stage may develop leaks when it is filled with fuel,” the report states on page 82. “According to these officials, they have conducted extensive scaled testing of the gaskets and seals used in the core stage; however, it is difficult to precisely predict how this large volume of liquid hydrogen will affect the stage.”

My god, for them to think that the core stage might leak when it is filled with fuel for the first time illustrates the entire bankrupt nature of this entire project. This is why you do tank tests early in the process (as SpaceX has been doing with Starship), so that you don’t get surprised late in the game.

The report also notes further issues with the Orion capsule.

The Orion program plans to reduce the 7-month-long pre-launch processing period by 1.5 months. The program plans to use a mass simulator—instead of the Orion spacecraft—to conduct some prelaunch tests that would otherwise be done after integrating Orion with SLS—providing the program with extra time to complete work before delivering Orion for integration and further testing according to officials. With this shortened process, the program has only 1 week of schedule reserve remaining to the November 2020 launch date, and program officials have said this date will likely be delayed

I must remind everyone that Lockheed Martin got the contract to build Orion in 2005. They have had fifteen years to build this one capsule, and will still deliver it late.

Personally, I hope SLS leaks. If it does, it will force a very long new delay to the program, and very well might finally force Congress and the Trump administration to face reality and cancel it.

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NASA’s safety panel rubberstamps May 27 manned Dragon launch

NASA’s safety panel has apparently reluctantly given its “okay” for the launch of the first manned Dragon launch on May 27th.

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), meeting by teleconference April 23, said it was unable to talk with NASA’s commercial crew program during its quarterly meeting, which was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. The panel’s chair, Patricia Sanders, said that scheduling issues prevented a meeting, but that her committee planned to hold a “part 2” of their quarterly meeting in early May to discuss commercial crew and other topics not taken up this week.

Sanders said the panel has been kept up to date by NASA about commercial crew activities, including plans for SpaceX’s Demo-2 crewed test flight scheduled for May 27. “We are aware of a few technical items that remain to be more fully understood,” she said, “but the path forward appears feasible.”

In other words, it appears that NASA’s management might have taken advantage of the Wuhan panic to cut the panel off from the decision-making process, possibly because this panel has acted now for years to slow progress and in fact discourage any American manned launches at all, out of an almost irrational fear of any failure.

Their recommendations have sometimes verged on the ludicrous, such as an insistence that no manned launch be scheduled until a lot of paperwork was filled out.

It could also be that the panel has recognized at last (or maybe NASA management told them in no uncertain words) that we now have to proceed with American manned missions, since with the expiration of our contract with the Russians we have no other options.

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First manned Dragon flight scheduled for May 27th

Capitalism in space: NASA today officially announced May 27, 2020 as the scheduled launch date for the first manned Dragon flight to ISS, the first time American astronauts will fly from American soil on an American rocket in an American spacecraft since the shuttle was retired almost a decade ago.

The launch is set for 4:32 pm (Eastern), and I am sure will be live streams by both NASA and SpaceX.

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Space radiation may increase risk of cancer

Using mice and models, scientists have concluded that humans who spend long periods in space, exposed to its radiation, will have a 3% higher risk for cancer.

A team led by researchers at Colorado State University and Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, which is part of the National Institutes for Health, used a novel approach to test assumptions in a model used by NASA to predict these health risks. Based on the NASA model, the team found that astronauts will have more than a three percent risk of dying of cancer from the radiation exposures they will receive on a Mars mission. That level of risk exceeds what is considered acceptable. [emphasis mine]

And how did they come to this conclusion?

…For the study, Weil and first author Dr. Elijah Edmondson, a veterinary pathologist and researcher based at the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research in Maryland, used a unique stock of genetically diverse mice, mimicking a human population. Mice were divided into three groups with the first group receiving no radiation exposure and the other two receiving varying levels of exposure.

Edmondson, who conducted the research while completing a veterinary residency in pathology at CSU, said that for this type of research project, genetic variability is crucial. “Humans are very genetically diverse,” he explained. “You want to model that when it’s appropriate and feasible to do so.”

Weil said although the research team saw different tumor types, similar to humans, but the heavy ions did not cause any unique types of cancer. They also saw differences by sex. In humans, women are more susceptible to radiation-induced cancers than men; one of the main reasons is that women live longer, allowing sufficient time for cancer to develop. In assessing the cancer risk between male and female mice in the study, scientists said the findings parallel human data.

Edmondson said the study validates the NASA model to measure cancer risks for humans from space radiation.

In a sense, this study is junk. First, it discovers the obvious (radiation increases your chances of getting cancer). Second, it is too model-dependent, so assigning any precise percentage to that increase in humans is absurd, especially when based on a sample comprised of mice.

Third, and most important, it completely forgets the reality that life is risk, exploration is dangerous, and to do great things you need to take greater chances. That NASA concludes these questionable numbers are unacceptable means that NASA will never send humans anywhere beyond Earth orbit. Ever.

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Intuitive Machines reveals details of lunar landing mission

Capitalism in space: Intuitive Machines (IM), one of a handful of private companies that NASA has awarded contracts to build lunar landers of the agency’s science instruments, yesterday revealed the landing site and launch date of its first mission to the Moon.

IM will launch the Nova-C lander in October 2021 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The target landing site is Vallis Schröteri (Schröter’s Valley) in the Moon’s Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms). The company said the site is “flat, free of craters and rocks, and has abundant sunlight” throughout the 14-day mission.

Five NASA payloads and others from commercial customers will be aboard, but IM did not specify what they are. Nova-C can take 100 kilograms to the lunar surface and provide 200 watts of power. Nova-C is based on NASA’s Project M lunar lander and Project Morpheus, which were designed, developed and tested by Johnson Space Center to demonstrate planetary landing technologies. The core team that developed Morpheus left government and founded IM.

Because the lander belongs to Intuitive Machines, not NASA, they have the right to sell their spare payload space to others, increasing their profits above what NASA will pay them. This shifts control of the mission from NASA to the private company, and in the long run will encourage the development of a private unmanned lunar landing industry.

Nor is IM alone in this. NASA has purchased landers from Astrobotics and Masten, with Astrobotics aiming for a 2021 landing and Masten in 2022. Both also have spare payload space, and are offering this to others.

I expect at a minimum some universities will make a deal. Rather than have their students build an orbiting cubesat for training and education, now they can have them build a science instrument that will land on the Moon.

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First manned Dragon mission slips to end of May

Capitalism in space: According to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, the first manned flight of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule will now occur at the end of May, not mid-May, and will last two or three months.

“I think we’re really good shape,” Bridenstine said in an interview Thursday. “I’m fairly confident that we can launch at the end of May. If we do slip, it’ll probably be into June. It won’t be much.”

The article at the link also reveals that the two astronauts will spend between two to three months on board ISS, not two weeks as originally planned.

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Boeing’s fall from grace at NASA

Eric Berger at Ars Technica yesterday uncovered a NASA report that outlined its selection process for awarding a contract for providing cargo to the agency’s proposed Lunar Gateway space station — eventually won by SpaceX — that gave Boeing’s proposal a terrible ranking.

Of the four contenders, [Boeing] had the lowest overall technical and mission suitability scores. In addition, Boeing’s proposal was characterized as “inaccurate” and possessing no “significant strengths.” Boeing also was cited with a “significant weakness” in its proposal for pushing back on providing its software source code.

Due to its high price and ill-suited proposal for the lunar cargo contract, NASA didn’t even consider the proposal among the final bidders. In his assessment late last year, NASA’s acting chief of human spaceflight, Ken Bowersox, wrote, “Since Boeing’s proposal was the highest priced and the lowest rated under the Mission Suitability factor, while additionally providing a conditional fixed price, I have decided to eliminate Boeing from further award consideration.” [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words could possibly be a death sentence for Boeing. The company has numerous other serious problems, including its commercial 737-Max airplane, its KC-46 Pegasus tanker for the Air Force, and of course its SLS rocket for NASA. For NASA to say that it will no longer consider Boeing in future contract bidding, especially since NASA has been one of Boeing’s biggest customers for decades, cannot be good for the company’s already badly suffering bottom line.

Berger also notes how much NASA’s attitude toward Boeing has changed since the agency removed Bill Gerstenmaier as head of its manned space operations. Gerstenmaier had apparently given Boeing the highest marks routinely, and appeared to have lost his ability to look at the company objectively. Moreover, his (and NASA’s) kid-glove treatment of Boeing for decades probably contributed to that company’s sloppy bid on the Lunar Gateway cargo contract. They were likely not used to tough questioning, and didn’t put the proper effort into writing their bid.

For the taxpayer and the American space effort, however, this report is wonderful news. It appears that NASA is breaking its tight and blind partnership with the big space contractors that has for decades handicapped the nation’s ability to get things built in space. These contractors have not been able to deliver, but because of their powerful allies on Congress, NASA has for years kowtowed to them in contract awards.

Now however it appears NASA’s management has become quite willing to reject these powerful companies, despite Congressional backing, in order to get the best deal and the best product, for the nation.

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Masten’s lunar lander wins NASA contract

Capitalism in space: Masten’s XL-1 lunar lander has won a NASA contract to bring a suite of science instruments to the Moon’s south polar regions, the launch targeted for December 2022.

The company also hopes to sell payload space on the lander to other customers.

Masten won a task order for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program valued at $75.9 million. Masten will deliver nine science and technology demonstration payloads to the lunar surface near the south pole by December 2022 on the company’s XL-1 lander.

The CLPS payloads, with a mass of about 80 kilograms, will serve as the initial, anchor customer for that mission, Sean Mahoney, chief executive of Masten, said in an interview. He said there are “hundreds” of kilograms of additional payload space available on the lander, and that the company is working to line up additional customers.

Masten is now the third private company with an active contract with NASA to land science payloads on the Moon. Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines are the others, with their missions targeting 2021 for launch.

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NASA selects full crew for first operational Dragon mission

Even though SpaceX’s first demonstration manned mission to ISS has not yet occurred, NASA yesterday announced the selection of the full four person crew for the second flight, set for later this year and intended as the first operational mission to ISS, lasting six months.

This announcement tells us several things, all good. First, it appears NASA has now definitely decided that the demo mission, presently scheduled for mid-May, will be a short-term mission. They had considered making it a six-month mission, but it now appears they have concluded doing so will delay the demo launch too much.

Second, that NASA is solidifying its plans for that operational flight, the second for Dragon, including a tentative launch date later in 2020, is further evidence that they intend to go through with the demo mission in mid-May.

Finally, it appears that NASA has decided that it will not buy more seats on Russian Soyuz capsules, something that they had previously hinted they needed to do because the agency was worried the American capsules would not be ready this year. The article describes the negotiations on-going with the Russians about the use of Dragon, as well as the future use by Americans of Soyuz. NASA wishes to have astronauts from both countries fly on both spacecraft (Starliner too, once operational), but Russia is as yet reluctant to fly its astronauts on Dragon. They want to see that spacecraft complete more missions successfully.

Regardless, future flights of Americans on Soyuz will cost NASA nothing, as the agency wishes to trade the seats on the U.S. capsules one-for-one for the seats on Soyuz. It also means that NASA has decided it doesn’t need to buy Soyuz flights anymore, as it now expects Dragon to become operational this year.

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NASA awards SpaceX deal to provide cargo to Gateway

Capitalism in space: Should NASA ever decide to build its proposed Gateway space station in orbit around the Moon (the odds of which have gone down recently), it announced today that it has signed a deal with SpaceX to use its Falcon Heavy rocket and an upgraded larger version of its Dragon capsule to ship cargo to that station.

The deal calls for at least two missions, and is SpaceX’s first deal in NASA’s Artemis program.

This deal is a major blow to SLS and Boeing, which up to now had a monopoly on all launches to supply and launch Gateway. In fact, Gateway was invented by Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and NASA (not Congress) in order to justify SLS’s existence. That NASA has now decided it is better off using the much cheaper and already operational Falcon Heavy for some Gateway missions suggests that SLS is increasingly vulnerable to cancellation. NASA is making it obvious that other commercial options exist. No need to wait years and spend billions for SLS, when they can go now, for much less.

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Dragon parachute test aborted

Because of the failure of the equipment unrelated to the parachutes, the helicopter pilot for a drop test of SpaceX’s crew Dragon parachutes on March 24, 2020 was forced to release the dummy capsule early, causing its loss.

“During a planned parachute drop test today, the test article suspended underneath the helicopter became unstable,” SpaceX said Tuesday in an emailed statement. “Out of an abundance of caution and to keep the helicopter crew safe, the pilot pulled the emergency release,” the statement added. “As the helicopter was not yet at target conditions, the test article was not armed, and as such, the parachute system did not initiate the parachute deployment sequence. While the test article was lost, this was not a failure of the parachute system, and most importantly, no one was injured. NASA and SpaceX are working together to determine the testing plan going forward in advance of Crew Dragon’s second demonstration mission.”

This issue, combined with the loss of a Falcon 9 first stage (on its fifth flight) during re-entry, because one engine failed to function properly, is making some news sources suggest that NASA will delay the planned May launch of Dragon’s first manned mission to ISS.

If NASA demands a delay of that May manned mission because of these two issues, it will demonstrate how truly insane our society has become. While the issue prevented the drop test, it involved the equipment that suspended the dummy capsule below the helicopter, not the parachute system. Furthermore, this test was one of the very last tests of the parachute system, following a test campaign during the past few months that has worked repeatedly on numerous tests.

As for the first stage loss, do I have to repeat again that it occurred on the stage’s fifth reuse, and after it had successfully launched its payload into orbit? SpaceX will be using a new first stage for the manned mission, and they have experienced no failures on a new first stage like this for literally years.

In a sane society, NASA would look at the overall context, and put aside these issues as irrelevant to their launch schedule. They, and SpaceX, will want to figure out what happened, but they should insist on proceeding on schedule for the May launch.

We are no longer sane however. I will not be surprised if they announce a further launch delay.

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NASA to use private enterprise for space communications

Capitalism in space: NASA is now in the process of shifting from building its own communications satellites to communicate with ISS as well as many other Earth-orbiting NASA satellites to buying those services from the private sector, much as the agency has done with is cargo and crew ferrying service to the station.

This involves ground stations as well as upgrading its fleet of geosynchronous NASA-built TDRS satellites.

In addition, NASA is seeking industry assistance in replacing the Space Network, which provides communications for more than 40 missions including the International Space Station through government-owned Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) and associated ground stations. “While the TDRS System is a fine investment that the government has made, for the future we are looking at commercial alternatives,” said Ted Sobchak, NASA Space Network project manager.

NASA plans a multistep campaign to encourage development of commercial space-based relay networks before the current TDRS spacecraft reach the end of their lives. “Based on past spacecraft performance, the newest generation of TDRS will remain operational well into the 2030s,” Younes said.

The original TDRS constellation of satellites, launched from 1983 to 1995, were actually built for a reasonable cost. At the time NASA did not try to put every bell and whistle on them, but focused instead on their basic mission and getting it launched for a reasonable cost. The management at NASA today almost certainly could not do this. Getting new satellites from competitive private companies will therefore save NASA money, and get the job done faster.

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Webb telescope further delayed by COVID-19

As part of its decision to shut down most of the agency’s operations due to fear of the COVID-19 virus, NASA’s has suspended all work on the James Webb Telescope, further delaying this much delayed space telescope.

The follow-on to the popular Hubble Space Telescope [Ed: a NASA lie that is not true], years late and billions over budget, it was on track for launch in March 2021, though some NASA officials were hinting there might be another delay. Today’s action almost certainly assures it. “The James Webb Space Telescope team … is suspending integration and testing operations. Decisions could be adjusted as the situation continues to unfold over the weekend and into next week. The decision was made to ensure the safety of the workforce. The observatory remains safe in its cleanroom environment.” — NASA

I must repeat this incessantly, as it appears too many modern space reporters are very ignorant about their own field. Webb is not a” follow-on to Hubble.” Astronomers made the decision in the late 1990s to build an infrared space telescope instead, which is what Webb is. For more than a decade they, and NASA, lied to the public about this, claiming Webb was a better version of Hubble, in order to garner support for building Webb.

I have been calling NASA on lie this since 2008, when I wrote The Universe in a Mirror, which I think eventually forced the agency to stop doing it. It is shameful however for a reporter now, in 2020, to still spread it.

As for Webb, this decision by NASA will certainly delay it again. The project is already fourteen years behind schedule, with its budget ballooning from $500 million to about $10 billion. All told, a perfect example of government in action.

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NASA considering shutting down Curiosity in 2021

Even as the space agency is about to launch a new rover to Mars, it is considering cutting operations for the rover Curiosity as well as considering shutting down its operation as soon as 2021.

Other ongoing missions are threatened by the administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal. “The FY21 budget that the president just recently submitted overall is extremely favorable for the Mars program, but available funding for extended mission longevity is limited,” [said Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars exploration program].

That request would effectively end operations of the Mars Odyssey orbiter, launched in 2001, and reduce the budget for Curiosity from $51.1 million in 2019 to $40 million in 2021, with no funding projected for that rover mission beyond 2021.

The penny-wise-pound-foolish nature of such a decision is breath-taking. Rather than continue, for relatively little cost, running a rover already in place on Mars, the agency will shut it down. And why? So they can initiate other Mars missions costing millions several times more money.

Some of the proposed cuts, such as ending the U.S. funding for Europe’s Mars Express orbiter, make sense. That orbiter has accomplished relatively little, and Europe should be paying for it anyway.

These decisions were announced during a live-stream NASA townhall that was originally to have occurred live at the cancelled Lunar & Planetary Science conference. I suspect its real goal is to garner support for more funding so that the agency will not only get funds for the new missions, it will be able to fund the functioning old ones as well.

Sadly, there would be plenty of money for NASA’s well-run planetary program if our Congress and NASA would stop wasting money on failed projects like Artemis.

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NASA shuts down all in-house work, suspending SLS/Orion testing

In its panicky response to COVID-19, NASA is now requiring all workers to work from home, forcing the agency to suspend all in-house testing of SLS and Orion hardware.

NASA will temporarily suspend production and testing of Space Launch System and Orion hardware. The NASA and contractors teams will complete an orderly shutdown that puts all hardware in a safe condition until work can resume. Once this is complete, personnel allowed onsite will be limited to those needed to protect life and critical infrastructure.

We realize there will be impacts to NASA missions, but as our teams work to analyze the full picture and reduce risks we understand that our top priority is the health and safety of the NASA workforce.

This guarantees further delays to the first Artemis unmanned launch sometime in 2021. It also is par for the course for NASA’s entire effort to build this rocket. In just the past two weeks three different blistering inspector general reports have blasted different components of this project at NASA (overall management, construction of the launch systems, and development of software), proving that out-of-control cost overruns and endless delays in building SLS and Orion have been systemic throughout the agency.

Now they have shut down testing, even though the Wuhan virus is probably going to end up no more dangerous than the flu (now that treatment options exist).

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NASA’s inspector general finds more budget overruns at Artemis

A new report [pdf] released today from NASA’s inspector general has found more budget overruns and managerial issues relating to developing the ground software required by both Orion and SLS.

There are two software components involved, called SCCS and GFAS for brevity. This report focuses on the latter. A previous report found that “SCCS had significantly exceeded its initial cost and schedule estimates with development costs increasing approximately 77 percent and release of a fully operational version of the software slipping 14 months.” According to that previous report [pdf], that increase went from $117 million to $207 million.

As for GFAS:

Overall, as of October 2019 GFAS development has cost $51 million, about $14 million more than originally planned.

This report, as well as yesterday’s, are quite damning to the previous management of NASA’s manned program under Bill Gerstenmaier. It appears they could not get anything done on time and even close to their budget.

It also appears to me that the Trump administration has removed the reins from its inspector general offices. During the Obama administration I noticed a strong reticence in IG reports to criticize government operations. Problems as outlined in both yesterday’s and today’s reports would have been couched gently, to obscure how bad they were. Now the reports are more blunt, and are more clearly written.

Also, this sudden stream of releases outlining the problems in Artemis might be part of the Trump administration’s effort to shift from this government program to using private commercial companies. To do this however the administration needs Congressional support, which up to now has strongly favored funding SLS and Orion. Having these reports will strengthen the administration’s hand should it propose eliminating these programs, as it is now beginning to do with Gateway.

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Apollo 15 command module pilot Al Worden passes at 88

Their numbers slowly shrink: Al Worden, who orbited the Moon as commander of the Apollo 15 command module, has passed away at the age of 88.

For three days in 1971, Worden circled the moon as Dave Scott and Jim Irwin worked on the lunar surface — including driving a rover for the first time. Being a command module pilot has been called the loneliest job in humanity. In the spacecraft alone, not able to talk to anyone when the capsule was on the back side of the moon. But Worden told NPR in a 2016 interview, “I was pretty comfortable with being by myself.”

After Scott and Irwin returned from the lunar surface and the crew was on its way back home, Worden conducted a spacewalk, the first ever in deep-space. He ventured outside the capsule to retrieve film from the scientific cameras.

The link is to an NPR obituary, so of course it makes a big deal about the effort by the astronauts to make some extra money by selling postage stamp covers that they bought with them post-flight.

Worden remembers it this way, “Jim and I were told that this was something that happened on every flight. No big deal. Well, it turned out to be a huge deal.” Even though previous crews had profited off lunar souvenirs, it became a public relations nightmare for NASA. The three astronauts never flew again. Worden said he regretted what happened: “I think the flight speaks for itself. I think the science that we did on the flight speaks for itself.”

I always thought it was quite offensive that the American government, the press, NASA, and the public took offense then about this. These guys were not paid that much, slightly above an ordinary middle class salary, for doing something totally unique and incredibly dangerous. If they had a chance to make some extra cash on the side, all power to them.

This was just after the 1960s, however, and private enterprise and commercial profit was steadily going out of fashion. We as a culture had bought into the Soviet model of top-down government programs that were centrally controlled. For any of the individuals involved to make some independent cash for themselves was considered crass and corrupt.

Regardless, God speed, Al Worden.

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More overruns in NASA’s SLS program, this time with the mobile launchers

A new inspector general report [pdf] has found massive cost overruns in NASA over the building of the two mobile launch platforms the agency will use to launch its SLS rocket.

The original budget for the first mobile launch was supposed to be $234 million. NASA has now spent $927 million.

Worse, this platform will see limited use, as it was designed for the first smaller iteration of SLS, which NASA hopes to quickly replace with a more powerful version. Afterward it will become obsolete, replaced by the second mobile launch platform, now estimated to cost $486 million.

That’s about $1.5 billion just to build the launch platforms for SLS. That’s only a little less than SpaceX will spend to design, test, build, and launch its new Starship/Super Heavy rocket. And not only will Starship/Super Heavy be completely reusable, it will launch as much if not more payload into orbit as SLS.

But don’t worry. Our geniuses in Congress will continue to support SLS no matter the cost, even if it bankrupts NASA and prevents any real space exploration. They see its cost overruns, long delays, and inability to accomplish anything as a benefit, pumping money into their states and districts in order to buy votes.

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Gateway dropped from NASA lunar landing plans

According to the head of NASA’s manned program, the agency has revised its 2024 lunar landing plans so that the Lunar Gateway space station is no longer needed.

In a conversation with the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee March 13, Doug Loverro, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said he had been working to “de-risk” the Artemis program to focus primarily on the mandatory activities needed to achieve the 2024 landing goal.

…Later in the half-hour session, he said that means taking the lunar Gateway off the critical path for the 2024 landing. That was in part because of what he deemed a “high possibility” of it falling behind schedule since it will use high-power solar electric propulsion in its first module, the Power and Propulsion Element. “From a physics perspective, I can guarantee you we do not need it for this launch,” he said of the Gateway.

Loverro added that he wasn’t cutting Gateway, only pushing it back in order to prioritize their effort in getting to the lunar surface more quickly.

The Trump administration has been slowly easing NASA away from Gateway, probably doing so slowly in order to avoid upsetting some people in Congress (Hi there Senator Shelby!). They have probably looked at the budget numbers, the schedule, and the technical obstacles that are all created by Gateway, and have realized that they either can go to the Moon, or build a dead-end space station in lunar orbit. They have chosen the former.

Someday a Gateway station will be needed and built. This is not the time. I pray the Trump administration can force this decision through Congress.

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