Tag Archives: NASA

Test cubesat to launch to Gateway lunar orbit

NASA has awarded a $13.7 million contract to Advanced Systems to build a cubesat to test placement and operation in the orbit the agency wishes to place its Lunar Gateway space station.

The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) is expected to be the first spacecraft to operate in a near rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon. In this unique orbit, the CubeSat will rotate together with the Moon as it orbits Earth and will pass as close as 1,000 miles and as far as 43,500 miles from the lunar surface.

The pathfinder mission represents a rapid lunar flight demonstration and could launch as early as December 2020. CAPSTONE will demonstrate how to enter into and operate in this orbit as well as test a new navigation capability. This information will help reduce logistical uncertainty for Gateway, as NASA and international partners work to ensure astronauts have safe access to the Moon’s surface. It will also provide a platform for science and technology demonstrations.

While proving the capability of cubesats for these unmanned planetary probes is all to the good, I must once again point out that making this orbit a way station on the way to the Moon actually makes it more difficult to get there. More fuel and equipment is required to transfer to the Moon once you are in Gateway’s planned orbit.

Based on our past experience with NASA boondoggles like this, Gateway will therefore act as a drag on future American lunar exploration. While other nations (China, India) will be landing on the surface, we will repeatedly find that our surface missions are delayed because of the added complexity of going from Earth to Gateway and then to the surface.

Share

Charles Walker: the first commercial astronaut

Charles Walker on the Space Shuttle in November 1985

Last night I attended another one of the monthly Arizona Space Business Roundtable events held here in Tucson to bring together the business-oriented space community of this city.

The speaker was Charles Walker, who had flown three shuttle missions in 1984 and 1985, but not as a NASA-employed astronaut but as an employee of McDonnell-Douglas, making him the first astronaut to fly in space under the employ of a private commercial company.

Walker’s job then was to monitor and maintain a drug-processing unit designed to produce large quantities of pure biological hormones that on Earth were simply not possible. Gravity polluted the process, while weightlessness acted to purify things. If successful the hormone produced could be sold to fight anemia, especially in individuals taking radiation treatments. The image on the right shows him on his third and last shuttle mission, launched November 26, 1985. He is working with a handheld protein crystal growth experiment, with the larger hormone purifying experiment on the wall behind this.

According to Walker’s presentation yesterday, this third flight in November 1985 demonstrated the process worked and could produce as much as one liter of hormone, enough to easily make back the cost of the project and leave room for an acceptable profit. They were thus ready for fullscale production on future shuttle flights, only to have the entire project die when the Challenger shuttle was lost on January 28, 1986. With that failure President Reagan declared that the shuttle would no longer be used for commercial flights.

Their business plan had been dependent on the artificially low launch prices NASA had been charging them for shuttle flights. Without the shuttle there was then no affordable alternative for getting into orbit.

The process is still viable, and the need for these drugs still exists. Whether they could now be flown on the new cheaper private rockets, on board future private space stations like Bigelow’s B330, remains unknown. A new company would have to pick up the pieces, as McDonnell-Douglas no longer exists, having been absorbed into Boeing.

I personally suspect there is real money to be made here, should someone decide to go for it.

What struck me most while watching Walker speak was the same thing that has struck me whenever I have seen or interviewed any astronaut: He appeared to be such an ordinary down-to-earth human being. He could have been anyone you meet anywhere.

What made him stand out, as he described his upbringing and how he became an astronaut, was not his intelligence or any physical attribute, but his clear willingness to stay focused on his goals, to work has hard as possible to make them come true. What made him succeed was an unwavering commitment. He wanted to get to space, and by gum he was going to do it!

Charles Walker on first flight, August 1984
Walker on his first flight in 1984.

For example, he was too young to fly in the initial space race in the 1960s. When he finally was old enough and ready in the 1970s, NASA’s space program was being shut down. That option seemed dead. So instead, he began looking for another route into space, and found it with private industry and possibility of making money by using weightlessness to produce medicines in space that could not be produced on Earth.

Obviously, luck is always a factor. Had his project been a little delayed, only a year, it would have never flown, and he would never have gone into space. Similarly, he needed to be in the right place at the right time to get this particularly job in the first place.

At the same time, “Luck is a residue of design,” as said by Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodges in the 1950s. Walker didn’t give up when the Apollo program died in the 1970s, and thus he put himself in the right place at McDonnell-Douglas when this opportunity arose.

We should all pay close attention. If you have a dream, you need to follow it, with a fearless wholehearted commitment. If you do, you still might not get it as you dreamed, but you will increase your chances, and regardless, you will end up doing far better for yourself and everyone around you.

And you still might end up like Walker, bouncing around in weightlessness out in the vast reaches of outer space.

Share

Kennedy Space Center prepares for hurricane

In preparation for the possibility of Hurricane Dorian’s arrival next week, the Kennedy Space Center is shutting down, including moving the giant mobile launcher vehicle, with the SLS launch tower on it, indoors to protect both.

The agency on Wednesday moved its hulking Apollo-era crawler-transporter out to Launch Complex 39B in order to bring the massive Mobile Launcher inside for the storm. That deployment must be made promptly because the crawler-transporter travels at just 1 mph (1.6 km/h).

The launch tower itself is 400 feet (122 meters) tall, which makes it a clear hazard in the high winds of a hurricane. NASA decided today (Aug. 29) that Dorian is threatening enough to merit moving the launch tower into Kennedy’s cavernous 52-story Vehicle Assembly Building for safety.

Their caution makes sense. Expect NASA to also announce that this two week delay in work will cause them several months more in delays to the SLS program. That has been their pattern over the years.

Share

NASA Inspector General to Congress: Free Europa Clipper from SLS

In a letter to Congress on August 27, 2019, NASA’s inspector general has called for Congress to immediately abandon the legal requirement it imposed on Europa Clipper to fly on NASA’s SLS rocket, thereby allowing NASA to choose any commercial rocket to launch the spacecraft.

The letter [pdf] is amazingly blunt.

[W]e write to highlight an issue at NASA that we believe requires immediate action by Congress. Language in NASA’s appropriation legislation requires the Agency to launch a satellite to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, in 2023 on the yet-to-be-completed Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. However, because of developmental delays and, more significantly, NASA’s plans to use the first three SLS rockets produced for its Artemis lunar program, an SLS will not be available until 2025 at the earliest. Consequently, if completed on its projected schedule, the approximately $3 billion dollar Europa spacecraft (known as “Europa Clipper”) will need to be stored for at least 2 years at a cost of $3 to $5 million per month until an SLS becomes available. NASA recently added $250 million in Headquarters-held reserves to the project to address these storage and related personnel costs.

Congress could reduce risks to both the Europa mission and Artemis program while potentially saving taxpayers up to $1 billion by providing NASA the flexibility in forthcoming fiscal year (FY) 2020 appropriations legislation to determine the most cost effective and timely vehicle to launch the Europa Clipper mission in 2023 or whenever the satellite is completed.

As blunt as the letter is, the wording above is also very careful to hide the fact that the $1 billion savings will come, not from avoiding the launch delay, but from buying a private commercial launch vehicle (estimated launch cost about $100 million) versus using SLS (estimated launch cost of $1 billion to $4 billion).

Will Congress take this advice? It should, though I am pessimistic. Our Congress has not shown much interest in doing the smart thing when it comes to SLS for about a decade. Why should things change now?

Share

Elementary students to name NASA’s 2020 Mars rover

NASA announced today a contest among the nation’s elementary students to find a name for its Mars 2020 rover.

Starting Tuesday, Aug. 27, K-12 students in U.S. public, private and home schools can enter the Mars 2020 Name the Rover essay contest. One grand prize winner will name the rover and be invited to see the spacecraft launch in July 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

To enter the contest, students must submit by Nov. 1 their proposed rover name and a short essay, no more than 150 words, explaining why their proposed name should be chosen. The essays will be divided into three groups, by grade level – K-4, 5-8, and 9-12 – and judged on the appropriateness, significance and originality of their proposed name, and the originality and quality of their essay, and/or finalist interview presentation.

Fifty-two semifinalists will be selected per group, each representing their respective state or U.S. territory. Three finalists then will be selected from each group to advance to the final round.

As part of the final selection process, the public will have an opportunity to vote online on the nine finalists in January 2020. NASA plans to announce the selected name on Feb. 18, 2020 – exactly one year before the rover will land on the surface of Mars.

Obviously, there is a bit of hokum in this contest. The kids will make suggestions, the public will vote, but in the end NASA will make the selection. Requiring them to write short essays justifying their suggestion however is an excellent educational idea, and for this kudos to NASA.

Share

Webb assembled for the first time

Northrop Grumman engineers have successfully completed, for the first time, the full assembly of the James Webb Space Telescope.

To combine both halves of Webb, engineers carefully lifted the Webb telescope (which includes the mirrors and science instruments) above the already-combined sunshield and spacecraft using a crane. Team members slowly guided the telescope into place, ensuring that all primary points of contact were perfectly aligned and seated properly. The observatory has been mechanically connected; next steps will be to electrically connect the halves, and then test the electrical connections.

…Next up for Webb testing, engineers will fully deploy the intricate five-layer sunshield, which is designed to keep Webb’s mirrors and scientific instruments cold by blocking infrared light from the Earth, Moon and Sun. The ability of the sunshield to deploy to its correct shape is critical to mission success.

Only a decade late and nine times over budget ($1 billion vs $9 billion). Let us all pray that when this spacecraft finally reaches its operational location a million miles from Earth it operates as designed.

Share

Arecibo gets $19 million NASA research/education grant

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico was today awarded an $19 million NASA research/education grant for studying near Earth asteroids.

NASA awarded the University of Central Florida (which manages the site on behalf of National Science Foundation) the four-year grant to observe and characterize near-Earth objects (NEO) that pose a potential hazard to Earth or that could be candidates for future space missions.

…The award also includes money to support STEM education among high school students in Puerto Rico. The Science, Technology And Research (STAR) Academy brings together 30 local high-school students per semester once a week for 16 classes to learn about science and research at the observatory.

This, plus the recent NSF grant, will keep the telescope operating for at least the next few years.

Share

August 22, 2019 Zimmerman/Batchelor podcast

Embedded below the fold in two parts. As John Batchelor would say, I was especially “grumpy” in the first segment, blasting our dysfunctional and very corrupt federal government for its dishonest misuse of taxpayer money, designed specifically to create failure rather than achieve anything.
» Read more

Share

The first crime in space?

In a dispute between a divorced lesbian couple, a NASA astronaut has now been accused of illegally accessing the bank account of her wife during a tour on ISS.

Nasa is reported to be investigating a claim that an astronaut accessed the bank account of her estranged spouse from the International Space Station, in what may be the first allegation of a crime committed in space.

Anne McClain acknowledges accessing the account from the ISS but denies any wrongdoing, the New York Times reports. Her estranged spouse, Summer Worden, reportedly filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

Ms McClain has since returned to Earth.

The astronaut told the New York Times through a lawyer that she was merely making sure that the family’s finances were in order and there was enough money to pay bills and care for Ms Worden’s son – who they had been raising together prior to the split. “She strenuously denies that she did anything improper,” said her lawyer, Rusty Hardin, adding that Ms McClain was “totally co-operating”.

And who is the victim here? The boy, who it appears has been subjected to two divorces, an unnatural parentage arrangement, and finally a fight over care and custody, all simply because he had he temerity to be born and thus interfere with the selfish interests of all the adults around him.

Meanwhile, if it is determined and then proven in court that McClain did access that bank account illegally while on ISS this would make it the first crime ever committed in space.

Share

Sierra Nevada unveils full scale Gateway habitat module prototype

Capitalism in space: Sierra Nevada yesterday unveiled a full scale prototype of a habitable module that it developed under a NASA contract for the agency’s proposed Lunar Gateway space station.

[The module] measures more than 8 meters long, and with a diameter of 8 meters has an internal volume of 300 cubic meters, which is about one-third the size of the International Space Station.

Sierra Nevada developed this full-scale prototype under a NASA program that funded several companies to develop habitats that could be used for a space station in orbit around the Moon, as well as potentially serving as living quarters for a long-duration transit to and from Mars. As part of the program, NASA astronauts have, or will, spend three days living in and evaluating the prototypes built by Sierra Nevada, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Bigelow Aerospace.

The selling point for Sierra Nevada’s habitat is its size, which is possible because the multi-layered fabric material can be compressed for launch, then expanded and outfitted as a habitat once in space. It can fit within a standard payload fairing used for launch vehicles such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan booster, or NASA’s Space Launch System. It is light enough for any of those rockets to launch to the Moon.

What we are seeing here is the unfolding of the Washington lobbying game to guarantee Gateway gets funded and built. NASA is spreading its available Gateway cash around to multiple companies, who will now have a vested interest in lobbying Congress to get this lunar space station funded and built.

The one very good component of this lobbying process is that NASA is not doing the building or the designing. It is hiring private companies, which means the project will act to stimulate the American aerospace industry. Moreover, it is leaving the ownership of the spacecraft and the decision on what launch vehicle to use to the companies, which means this cannot be used as a lever to fund the SLS boondoggle. Under this arrangement more will get done faster for less.

Even so, Lunar Gateway will mostly act to slow the United States’ effort to colonize the solar system. We will be spending our government space dollars on an orbiting lunar space station, thus generally trapping us in orbit, as we watch China, India, Russia and others land and explore the surface.

There is only one way Gateway could possibly be beneficial to the United States. NASA gets it built fast and cheaply, so that it then can be used as a jumping off point for further exploration. This would give the U.S. capabilities in space that far exceed other countries.

My fear is that NASA has a terrible track record in the past half century of doing anything fast or cheaply. Instead, NASA projects like Gateway end up taking forever and costing many times their initial proposed budget. SLS is a perfect poster child for this. Its goal is not so much to launch as to provide Congress endless pork.

Share

Washington’s spectacular effort to crush the American space effort

Three stories today illustrate once again the incompetence, idiocy, and inability of practically anyone in our federal government to get anything done sanely and efficiently and with success.

In the past half century that federal government has saddled the American people with a debt that is crushing. In that time it has also failed to do its job of properly enforcing the law to control the borders. It has spent trillions on social problems, only to have those social problems worsen exponentially.

I could go on. The problems imposed on American society by our failed ruling class in Washington since the 1960s is myriad. In the area of aerospace and space exploration, my specialty, the following three stories today alone demonstrate again that continuing track record, with no sign that anyone in Washington recognizes how bad a job they are doing.

First we have incompetence and idiocy by Congress. The first story outlines how our sainted lawmakers have mandated by law that the Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter’s moon must fly on NASA’s SLS rocket and “launch no later than 2023.”

This legal requirement, written into the appropriations bill, was imposed because the SLS project is being managed from Alabama, and Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) wants that rocket to get some work to justify this pork to his state. The requirement was further pushed by former Texas Congressman John Culbertson, who has a special place in his heart for Europa, and has specifically imposed that mission on NASA.

Shelby’s demand is especially egregious and makes little sense. First, even after twenty years of effort, NASA will likely not have that rocket available in 2023. Second, the cost to use SLS is about $4 billion per launch (not the fake $1 billion number cited in the article). A Falcon Heavy rocket could do the job for $100 million, which would more than pay for the extra operating costs incurred because it will take the three more years to get to Jupiter.

To deal with this conflict, NASA is presently doing as much lobbying as it can to get Congress to change the time limit, or to allow them to fly the spacecraft on a Falcon Heavy. Not surprisingly, Congress is resisting, even though their position makes no sense and will likely cost the taxpayer billions unnecessarily while likely delaying or even impeding the mission itself.

The article as usual for the mainstream press is filled with misconceptions and errors that are all designed to make any change in this Congressional act seem a mistake. These mistakes were all fed to the reporter by the powers in and out of Congress who oppose changing things, and the reporter sadly was not informed enough to realize this.

Next we have the incompetent and power-hungry federal bureaucracy, as described in the second article.
» Read more

Share

Marshall wins Artemis manned Moon lander pork

As expected and despite opposition from some Texas lawmakers, NASA yesterday announced that it has given the bulk of the management of its Artemis manned lunar lander project to the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Marshall will be in charge of two of the contractors who will build what NASA conceives as three components for the lander: the transfer vehicle, the descent module, and the upper ascent stage:

The lunar lander, consisting of three components, also will be launched atop commercial rockets and docked at the Gateway before any astronauts arrive. One component, a sort of carrier craft known as a transfer vehicle, would take the lander from Gateway down to a lower orbit. From there, the lander’s descent module will make a rocket-powered landing on the moon, initially carrying two astronauts.

The astronauts would ride down to the surface in the pressurized cabin of an upper ascent stage. That stage will use the descent module as a launching pad, much like the Apollo astronauts did 50 years ago, to climb back up to the transfer vehicle and then on to Gateway.

Marshall will supervise construction of the transfer vehicle and the descent module, while the Johnson Space Center in Texas will manage construction of the upper ascent stage.

Does no one in NASA or the Trump administration see the stupidity of this? It is as if Ford decided that the interior and exterior sections of its cars will be assembled in two different factories, and only combined after they are assembled. The logistics of making sure they will fit and work together during final assembly could only increase costs, delay assembly, and almost guarantee engineering issues. No intelligently run business would do such a thing.

Government however is not an intelligently run business. It is run by politicians, whom we the public have not held to any kind of quality standard for the past half century. Thus, NASA is forced to spread this pork around because politicians in Alabama (Senator Richard Shelby) and Texas (Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn) demand it do so.

Share

Protest filed against NASA contract awards for unmanned lunar landers

Deep Space Systems, one of the private companies that bid for a NASA contract to build a private lunar lander to carry NASA instruments to the moon, and did not get the contract, has filed a protest against that decision.

I found out about this through my industry sources. I have no further information about the protest itself.

The timeline however is intriguing. The contracts were awarded to three different companies on May 31, 2019. Deep Space Systems’ protest was filed on June 24, 2019.

On July 30, 2019 one of contract winners, Orbit Beyond, backed out of the deal. Whether the protest or Orbit Beyond’s exit are related is at present unknown, though I wonder if they might be connected.

Either way, the question now arises: Who will replace Orbit Beyond? I also wonder if this protest gives Deep Space Systems an advantage for getting that replacement contract. This last thought is pure speculation and very unlikely. There are several other companies that are more well known and might be better qualified, and it would be inappropriate for NASA to allow its decision-making process to be pressured because of this protest.

Regardless, stay tuned for more information. This story is going to get more interesting.

Share

Texas and Alabama fight over space pork

Turf war: Several powerful Texas lawmakers announced yesterday their opposition to NASA’s decision to give the lead management for the next lunar lander to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

The question is which Center will manage development of the landers, a plum assignment. NASA plans to procure them through public-private partnerships rather than traditional contracts. The actual design will be determined by whatever companies win the contracts, but NASA’s concept is for a trilogy of vehicles: a transfer vehicle to take the crew from the Gateway to a lower lunar orbit, then a descent vehicle to take them to the surface and an ascent vehicle to return them to Gateway.

…According to Ars Technica, … NASA is assigning overall responsibility for the lunar lander program to Marshall, which will also oversee acquisition of the transfer and descent vehicles. JSC will oversee the ascent vehicle.

In a letter to Bridenstine today, Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and Rep. Brian Babin, all Republicans, expressed surprise and asked Bridenstine to reconsider. They argue that JSC should be in charge of the entire program, not just one of the three vehicles. Marshall’s expertise is in rocketry while JSC is “ground zero for human space exploration.”

They also disagree with splitting the work between two Centers, “an unnecessary and counterproductive departure from the unquestionable success” of the lander for the Apollo program.

This fight is not over who will actually build anything, but how to distribute the pork. In truth, the NASA agency that does this “management” does almost nothing. It is the contractor that builds the spacecraft. You could condense the management into a team of less two dozen (and that’s probably high). Instead, NASA and these politicians use the contractors to justify the existence of whole departments and hundreds of employees and large facilities, all of which are mostly irrelevant, especially if the Trump administration is serious about letting private industry do the job.

Worse, this fight — and NASA’s need to make these politicians happy — is forcing the agency to turn the work once again into a Frankenstein monster, distributing responsibility in absurd ways. I guarantee that in the end the management will not all go to Texas, meaning that the management of the different contractors will be split to different agencies, making for a very inefficient and badly managed program.

The result is going to be, as always, delays, cost overruns, bad designs, a lot of wasted money, and little accomplished.

I want to make special note of Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in this affair. He ran for president as a new conservative, out to drain the swamp of Washington. Now, as senator, he is increasingly becoming captured by that swamp, participating in all the same corruption he railed against during his presidential run.

If he was really serious about draining the swamp, he would be pushing to trim NASA’s management, both in Alabama and in Texas. Instead he is fighting to build it up.

Share

NASA extends life of private BEAM module

Capitalism in space: Having found that Bigelow’s privately built ISS module BEAM has exceeded its design capabilities, NASA has now decided to leave it docked to ISS for at least five more years, using it as a storage bin.

BEAM cost NASA a whopping $17 million, considerably less than it has traditionally spent (a billion-plus) for its previous ISS modules, designed and built under full NASA supervision.

Share

NASA/NOAA failure report for GOES-17: The government screwed up

A joint investigation by NASA and NOAA into the failure issues on the GOES-17 weather satellite, launched in March 2018, have determined that the problem with the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), the satellite’s main instrument, was caused by

a blockage in the instrument’s loop heat pipes, which transfer heat from the ABI electronics to its radiator. The blockage restricted the flow of coolant in the loop heat pipes, causing the ABI to overheat and reducing the sensitivity of infrared sensors.

You can read the short full report here [pdf].

My immediate thought in reading the press release above was: So a blockage caused the problem. What caused the blockage? Was it a design failure or a construction mistake? Or what? The answer to this question is even more critical in that the same issues have been identified in GOES-16, though not as serious.

Moreover, GOES-16 and GOES-17 are the first two satellites in a planned new weather constellation of four satellites. Knowing who or what caused this blockage prior to construction and launch of the two later satellites is critical.

I immediately downloaded the report and read it, thinking it would name the contractor and the cause of the blockage.

Nope. The report is remarkably vague about these details, which the report justifies as follows:

The report is NASA sensitive, but unclassified (SBU), because it contains company proprietary information. The report also contains information restricted by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and/or the Export Administration Regulations (EAR). This summary report provides an overview of publicly releasable information contained in the full report.

In other words, this report is an abridged version of the full report, which is being kept classified because it contains both commercial proprietary information and information that if released would violate ITAR regulations designed to keep U.S. technology from reaching foreign hands.

What this public report does imply in its recommendations, in a remarkable vague way, is that the problem occurred because the government had demanded changes during construction that forced significant redesigns by the contractor, none of which were then given sufficient review.

Or to put it more bluntly, NOAA and NASA, the lead agencies in the GOES project, screwed up. They forced the contractor to make changes, probably very late in the process, resulting in inadequate review of those changes.

The recommendations put forth many suggestions to institute a more detailed review process, should late changes in the construction of the next two GOES satellites be required or demanded. Such recommendations however will only further delay and increase the costs for building those satellites. Since the entire constellation went overbudget significantly (from $7 billion initially to $11 billion), and has also been very late (see this GAO report [pdf]), this means that the next two satellites will be even later and more expensive.

For NASA and NOAA this is just fine, pumping more money into each agency. For the taxpayer it is terrible.

The whole process should be dumped. Give the job of building these satellites to the private sector, entirely. Get these agencies out of the construction business. The only contribution they are presently adding is more cost and delays, while also causing satellite failures.

Share

New NASA development contracts include refueling work by SpaceX

Capitalism in space: Yesterday NASA announced a bunch of partnership agreements with thirteen companies, where those companies will get NASA assistance at no cost to help them develop new engineering that would aid future solar system exploration.

The partnerships covered everything from helping small companies develop new space electronics, heat shields, and new types of thrusters to helping Blue Origin develop the technology for for landing on the Moon.

An article at Ars Technica today about this NASA announcement focused specifically on the SpaceX deal, mainly for its important political implications.

The partnership will have two different NASA agencies helping SpaceX develop the refueling technology it needs for Starship to reach Mars. The key is that this deal has NASA openly supporting technologies that are in direct competition with its own SLS rocket. When such research work was proposed back in 2010, it was opposed quite strongly by past agency officials as well as powerful politicians in Congress, for exactly that reason.

It was a contentious time in space policy, as the White House was pushing for more funding for new space companies—and new space ideas such as fuel-storage depots—while Congress wanted to keep NASA in the rocket-building business.

Eventually, Congress got the upper hand, putting NASA on track to build the large SLS rocket at a development cost of more than $2 billion a year. The rocket program mostly benefited the Alabama space center and was championed by Alabama State Senator Richard Shelby. The potential of in-space fuel storage and transfer threatened the SLS rocket because it would allow NASA to do some exploration missions with smaller and cheaper rockets. As one source explained at the time, “Senator Shelby called NASA and said if he hears one more word about propellant depots he’s going to cancel the Space Technology program.”

The line from other NASA officials was that as a technology, propellant depots were not ready for prime time. In 2011, former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and current Executive Secretary of the National Space Council Scott Pace—both SLS advocates—wrote a withering criticism of the technology for Space News.

Now however the Trump administration is helping SpaceX develop refueling for Starship, which if successful will help make SLS irrelevant. This is more evidence that the Trump administration is laying the political groundwork that will allow it to shut SLS down, actions that were impossible in the political culture of Washington only two years ago.

This quote in the article is probably the most startling of all:

“Administrator Bridenstine is clearly executing on President’s Trump’s guidance to increase commercial public-private-partnerships at NASA,” Miller, now chief executive of UbiquitiLink, told Ars. “The game-changing technology that NASA has discovered is capitalism. This program proves NASA leadership has figured out the future is reusability mixed with commercial public-private-partnerships.” [emphasis mine]

Imagine that. An American government agency has learned that capitalism is the way to go. Will wonders never cease?

Update: See this related Ars Technica article: The SLS rocket may have curbed development of on-orbit refueling for a decade (Hat tip reader Calvin Dodge.)

Share

Private lunar landing company backs out of NASA contract

Capitalism in space: The commercial lunar landing company, OrbitBeyond, has told NASA that it cannot fulfill its $97 million contract, only two months after that contract was announced.

NASA announced July 29 that OrbitBeyond informed the agency that “internal corporate challenges” will prevent it from carrying out a task order that NASA awarded the company May 31 as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. The company asked to be released from that contract, and NASA agreed.

NASA didn’t elaborate on what specific issues caused OrbitBeyond to scrap its contract with NASA, and the company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. At the May 31 event where NASA announced the contracts, Siba Padhi, chief executive of OrbitBeyond, said the company was still in the process of closing a round of funding. The company has not subsequently announced a funding round.

Considering its receipt of a $97 million NASA contract, it would be very puzzlingly for the company to be unable to obtain further investment capital. If anything, that contract should have encouraged funding. If the lack of funding is the cause of this termination then it also suggests the company had other problems.

This leaves NASA with two private lunar lander companies. I expect NASA will look to award the contract to a third company. The company Firefly and its team of Israeli Beresheet engineers comes immediately to mind.

Share

NASA to do full engine test of SLS first stage

NASA confirmed yesterday that it will do a full engine test of its SLS first stage, what it calls the Green Run test.

This decision makes sense. SpaceX for example routinely does a static fire test of its first stages before every flight. NASA however had hesitated doing this test because it will likely force a delay in the first launch of SLS. Unlike a commercial company like SpaceX, NASA is incapable of doing this test and then proceeding to flight quickly, mostly because the size of SLS (it is very large) and its design (very cumbersome) makes such quick action difficult.

This decision however means that it is almost certain that SLS’s first unmanned test launch cannot happen in 2020. For NASA to make Trump’s commitment to fly a lunar landing by 2024 means that NASA must compress SLS’s schedule to one flight per year. First the unmanned test flight would occur, probably in 2021. Then the first manned test flight around the Moon would follow, in 2022 or 2023. Finally the landing mission would take place in 2024.

Can NASA do this? I have many doubts. The agency’s biggest obstacle would be getting their lunar lander built in time, which by the way is not yet even designed. This isn’t the only problem. NASA for years has said that they will need from one to three years between SLS flights. This schedule demands more from them.

Meanwhile, there is a good possibility that SpaceX will beat them to the Moon. If that happens, then expect SLS to die, either before or after its first or second flight.

Share

Northrop Grumman to build Gateway habitation module

The boondoggle never dies! NASA has decided it will give a sole source contract to Northrop Grumman to build the minimal habitation module of its Gateway lunar space station, based on that company’s Cygnus unmanned freighter.

NASA is also bypassing a traditional procurement process for the Minimal Habitation Module. Rather than requesting bids from industry, and then evaluating the responses, NASA plans to fast-track a contract with Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, an operating unit of Northrop Grumman formerly known as Orbital ATK.

The pressurized habitation compartment will be docked with the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element in a stable near-rectilinear halo orbit around the moon. NASA announced in May that Maxar Technologies won a contract worth up to $375 million to build the Power and Propulsion Element, which will provide electricity and maneuvering capability for the Gateway station using high-power plasma thrusters, but does not include any pressurized section.

The Gateway is a mini-space station NASA plans to build in an orbit that swings as close as 2,000 miles from the moon about once per week. The Gateway will act as a stopover and safe haven for astronauts heading for the moon’s surface, NASA is designing the mini-station to accommodate myriad scientific experiments and engineering demonstrations required for more ambitious ventures deeper into the solar system, and eventually Mars.

The Trump administration wants to focus on a lunar landing by 2024, and so it forced NASA to reduce its Gateway boondoggle to the minimum necessary to make that lunar landing possible. This module, with the service module that Maxar is building, is that minimum Gateway.

And why do we even need this? Well, it appears that SLS and Orion and the not-yet-built or even designed lunar lander, by themselves, are not capable of getting astronauts to the Moon. A way station is somehow required.

Note also that the contract amount remains a secret, redacted from the NASA paperwork. Note also that NASA “still plans to add more elements to the Gateway, including contributions from international partners, after accomplishing the human landing on the moon.”

In other words, this is a typical Washington swamp buy-in, connived by the big space contractors and NASA to weasel this boondoggle into existence, even though the Trump administration is not interested. By keeping the cost secret at this point, they avoid some bad press and the possibility of political opposition. Their plan is to get the minimal Gateway funded and launched into space, and then demand more money to pay for the whole thing once the project exists.

This is what NASA does routinely, for all its projects. It lies about the initial cost, low balling it, so as to get the politicians to buy in. The result for the past two decades however is that NASA fails to build much of anything, while wasting gobs of taxpayer dollars on non-productive jobs here on Earth.

Do not be surprised if we see the same with Gateway. In fact, I would bet on it.

Share

Christopher Columbus Kraft, 1924-2019

R.I.P. Christopher Columbus Kraft, the flight director for all the Mercury missions and later head of the Johnson Space Center during the 1960s march to the Moon, passed away today at the age of 95.

The techniques pioneered by Kraft and young flight directors who followed in his footsteps, men like Gene “failure is not an option” Kranz, the urbane Glynn Lunney and more, saved the Apollo 13 crew from the brink of disaster in the aftermath of an explosion on the way to the moon that severely damaged the spacecraft.

Once comparing his complex work as a flight director to a conductor’s, Kraft said, ‘The conductor can’t play all the instruments, he may not even be able to play any one of them,’” Bridenstine said. “‘But, he knows when the first violin should be playing, and he knows when the trumpets should be loud or soft, and when the drummer should be drumming. He mixes all this up and out comes music. That’s what we do here.’”

Kraft was part of the post-World War II can-do generation, a far cry from today’s NASA of schedule delays, bad management, engineering errors, and gigantic budget overruns. Kraft and his generation had “intergrity,” as astronaut Frank Borman once said. They had been given a difficult job and short deadline (the end of the decade). Rather than manipulate Congress and the public to give them more time and money so their jobs would be endlessly safe, they rolled up their sleeves and made it happen as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share

SpaceX pinpoints cause of Dragon explosion during test

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share

Major management shake-up at NASA’s manned program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share

Wheel update on Curiosity

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

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

Share

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

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

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

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

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

This puts NASA in a quandary.
» Read more

Share

The Greatest Scientific Fraud Of All Time — Part XXIII

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

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

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

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

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

Share

DSCOVR in safe mode

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

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

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

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

Share

Apollo landing tapes for sale

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

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

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

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

Share

SLS abort test for Orion successful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

» Read more

Share
1 2 3 40