Tag Archives: Northrop Grumman

NASA awards Northrop Grumman contract for more SLS solid rocket boosters

NASA today awarded Northrop Grumman a $49.5 million contract to begin work on twelve more SLS solid rocket boosters, enough for six more SLS flights.

Under this letter contract, with a potential value of $49.5 million, NASA will provide initial funding and authorization to Northrop Grumman to order long-lead items to support building the twin boosters for the next six SLS flights. Northrop Grumman will be able to make purchases as the details of the full contract are finalized within the next year. The full Boosters Production and Operations Contract is expected to support booster production and operations for SLS flights 4-9. The period of performance for the letter contract is 150 days; the definitized contract will extend through Dec. 31, 2030.

I especially like the headline Doug Messier used today in his post of NASA’s press release of this award at Parabolic Arc: “NASA Sinks More Money into SLS.” An apt description, since the odds of this program continuing to 2030 as described is quite low. The cost is too high, and other more capable and less expensive rockets will be available in the next few years, making SLS the equivalent of the buggy whip. Any money NASA spends on it now is essentially cash the agency is wasting.

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Northrop Grumman wins contract to build Gateway habitation module

Capitalism in space: NASA on June 5 awarded Northrop Grumman the contract to design and build the habitation module for the agency’s proposed Lunar Gateway space station.

NASA said it issued a contract to Northrop Grumman valued at $187 million for the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module, which will serve as an initial habitat for crews visiting the lunar Gateway. The module, described by NASA as the size of a small studio apartment, will be able to support short stays by crews arriving on Orion spacecraft.

The contract does not cover all the work needed for HALO. Instead, the award announced June 5 funds design of the module through a preliminary design review late this year. The contract also allows Northrop Grumman to issue subcontracts for hardware with long lead times. A contract modification will come later to fund full development and testing of HALO.

And why might that contract only award “design” money? It is because the Lunar Gateway, as far as I know, has still never been approved by Congress. It remains still the dream of NASA and its bureaucrats, now with the political support of the Trump administration (who have fortunately revised and de-emphasized its place within the agency’s entire manned lunar program).

In the end I suspect NASA will get that Congressional approval, but when it does it will signal once again how political power in the U.S. has devolved from elected officials, put their by the citizens of the country to be in charge, to unelected bureaucrats within the military-industrial complex in DC. And I say this recognizing that as revised by the Trump administration, Gateway might actually make some sense now.

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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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DARPA finally picks Northrop Grumman for satellite servicing

Capitalism in space: Following the successful docking of Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV) to a decommissioned commercial communications satellite on February 27, 2020, DARPA has finally selected that company as its partner in its government-funded satellite servicing program.

For reasons that have been puzzling, DARPA previously rejected the MEV and chose in 2017 as its partner what was then a mostly Canadian company, causing legal protests. That company however backed out of the program in January, and with the success of MEV, DARPA could no longer justify its strange aversion to Northrop Grumman.

Northrop Grumman had planned to market MEV to commercial companies. The infusion of support from DARPA will accelerate that process.

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Photos prior to MEV-1 docking to Intelsat 901 satellite

Northrop Grumman has released photos taken by its Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1) as it approached the decommissioned geosynchronous communications satellite Intelsat 901, just prior to docking.

As this was the first ever rendezvous and docking with a geosynchronous satellite, these are the first photos ever of such a spacecraft in that orbit. It was also the first docking with a spacecraft not designed for docking. MEV-1 managed it by using the satellite’s engine nozzle as a docking port.

Intelsat 901 has been in orbit for 18 years, and was only decommissioned because it had run out of fuel. From the pictures it looked solid and undamaged, ready to go again.

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Northrop Grumman completes test of Omega rocket 2nd stage

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman yesterday successfully executed a static fire test of the second stage of its OmegA rocket, set for first launch next year.

The first two stages are solid rockets, based on the solid rockets used by the space shuttle. They still have to test the liquid-fueled third stage.

The rocket’s development has essentially been funded by the military, and will thus be used mostly by them to launch national security payloads.

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Northrop Grumman completes first robotic docking to a satellite

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) on February 25, 2020 completed first robotic docking to a satellite for the express goal of extending that satellite’s life.

This was the first time ever that a commercial robotic satellite docked with a second commercial satellite for such a purpose. It was also the first time such a docking has been done using no government funds.

More information here.

MEV-1 will stay docked to this satellite for about five years, providing it attitude control and guidance. The robot will then move the satellite into a safe graveyard orbit, detach, and be then capable of docking with a second satellite to extend its life as well. Moreover, Northrop Grumman is building a second MEV, with the hope it will be hired to save other satellites.

This achievement lays the foundation for a new stage in commercial space. It proves that unmanned robots can dock with objects in space, both to repair them and extend their life, but also to remove them from orbit and thus reduce the quantity of space junk.

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Successful launch today of Cygnus freighter to ISS

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket today successfully launched it Cygnus unmanned cargo capsule on a supply mission to ISS.

This was Northrop Grumman’s first flight in 2020. The standings in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
2 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia
1 Japan
1 ULA
1 Northrop Grumman

The U.S. now leads China 5 to 3 in the national rankings. The U.S. will likely add to that lead with the planned SpaceX launch of another 60 Starlink satellites Monday.

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Cygnus successfully launched by Antares

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman today successfully launched its Cygnus unmanned cargo freighter to ISS, using its Antares rocket.

This was only the third launch for Northrop Grumman this year, which matches its total last year and has been its typical count for the past decade and a half. Previously that number was mostly Pegasus launches. Now it is the Antares/Cygnus launches to ISS, as Pegasus has lost most of its business.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

20 China
17 Russia
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 ULA
4 India

The U.S. now leads China 22 to 20 in the national rankings.

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Congressman questions Northrop Grumman-Air Force ICBM deal

The head of the House Armed Services committee yesterday questioned the appropriateness of the Air Force awarding Northrop Grumman an ICBM contract without any competition.

[House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Washington.)] said he is troubled that only one company, Northrop Grumman, will be bidding for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, a program to replace the Minuteman 3 ICBMs that make up the ground-based portion of the nation’s nuclear forces.

Northrop Grumman and Boeing were expected to compete head to head to be GBSD prime contractors but Boeing decided in July it would not submit a proposal because of Northrop’s overwhelming advantage as the nation’s largest manufacturer of solid rocket motors.

Northrop Grumman’s advantage here comes from its purchase of Orbital ATK last year, which provided the company this solid rocket launch capability that apparently no one else has.

Smith’s complaints here also extend to the Air Force’s plans to pick only two companies in the next year to launch all of its satellites for the next half decade, rather than leave the bidding open to all. As Smith noted,

“I have worked with them [the Air Force] on launch and other things and it strikes me that they are way too close to the contractors that they’re working with,” he said. “They seem to show bias,” Smith added. “It could be incompetence. But I think it is more likely that they like their historical partners. This is really, really bad because competition is a good thing.”

Smith appears generally correct. The Air Force made a sweet non-competitive launch deal with ULA back in the early 2000s that cost the taxpayer billions. Now it seems it is doing the same with its ICBM replacement contractor, and also wants to do the same with its satellite launch contracts. I hope Smith is successful in changing the Air Force approach.

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Blue Origin partners with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Draper to build lunar lander

At a science conference yesterday Jeff Bezos announced that Blue Origin has formed a partnership with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper to propose building a manned lunar lander for NASA.

In the first major update on the company’s lander program since May, Bezos said Blue Origin has assembled a “national team” of aerospace contractors to develop, build and fly the three-stage spacecraft, which is based on Blue Origin’s previous work on the Blue Moon landing system.

“Blue Origin is the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin is building the ascent stage, Northrop Grumman is building the transfer element and Draper is doing the GNC (guidance, navigation and control),” Bezos said Tuesday at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington. “We could not ask for better partners. Blue Origin, in addition to being the prime, is going to build the descent element.”

Blue Origin is competing for a NASA contract to develop a crewed lunar lander, or Human Landing System, for the Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the surface of the moon by the end of 2024.

This partnership reminds me of the way the aerospace industry functioned before the arrival of SpaceX. No one would compete. Instead, they would meet like a cartel and divvy up the work so that everyone had a share. The result was that very little new stuff got built, and over time the entire industry began to die.

The goal of this partnership now seems aimed at Congress and convincing legislators (especially the Democrats who control the House) to drop their opposition to Trump’s 2024 Moon proposal and fund it. Whether this will work remains unknown, and will likely have to wait until after the results of the 2020 election.

Meanwhile, it is very interesting that Blue Origin is the prime contractor, considering how very very little Blue Origin has so far achieved in space. I wonder if Bezos has committed some of his personal capital to this venture (more than $2.8 billion cash intended for his space ventures), and doled it out to Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper as an incentive to become subcontractors.

Bezos’ presentation also provided an update on Blue Origin’s BE-7 engine, designed as part of this lunar lander. It appears however that he said nothing about the BE-4 engine that the company is building for both ULA’s Vulcan rocket and its own New Glenn rocket. Except for one update in August, there has been little said about this engine in about a year and a half. As this engine is key to the entire company’s financial future, this silence makes me continue to wonder if it has issues.

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Northrop Grumman buys back Pegasus rockets from Stratolaunch

Northrop Grumman announced this week that it has bought back from Stratolaunch the two Pegasus rockets that company had bought for the purpose of launch from its giant Roc airplane.

Phil Joyce, vice president of space launch programs at Northrop Grumman, said this week that the company is trying to sell the launches using the two remaining Pegasus XL rockets, and officials plan to keep the Pegasus rocket’s L-1011 carrier jet flying for at least five or 10 more years.

The airborne launch of NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, scientific satellite Thursday night off Florida’s east coast is the final scheduled flight of a Pegasus XL rocket. Variants of the solid-fueled Pegasus rocket have flown on 43 satellite delivery missions since 1990.

“We actually purchased those back (from Stratolaunch),” Joyce said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “So they’re in a very advanced state of integration, which means they’re available for a very rapid response launch. We could launch one of those in six months, the second one probably in eight (months).

This buy back tells us two things, both negative, about both companies. With Stratolaunch, it means they have abandoned entirely the idea of launching satellites using a combination of Roc and Pegasus. The reasons are unclear, but I would guess that they have either discovered the engineering didn’t work, or the economics made the combination unprofitable, being too expensive.

As for Pegasus, it appears the rocket has no further contracts, and has had so much trouble drumming up business that they have decided not to build more. Instead, they are going to try to get contracts for these already built Pegasuses, and are likely going to offer lower prices for them. Even if this works, it does appear that we are about to see the end of the Pegasus rocket.

Created in the early 1980s by Orbital Sciences (later Orbital ATK) as a cheaper alternative to the expensive big rockets of the time, Pegasus had a viable business model for years. Slowly over time however its launch price rose, until it was no longer very cheap. And when SpaceX and other new cheaper alternatives arrived in the past six years, the company, eventually absorbed by Northrop Grumman, was unable to remain competitive.

The irony here is that Northrop Grumman purchased Orbital ATK expressly to allow it to enter the launch market, using both Pegasus and Antares. With Pegasus gone, and Antares still failing to find any customers other than NASA, it doesn’t look like the merger is paying off well for the company.

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Proton flies last commercial mission

Scheduled for retirement by Russia and having its entire commercial business taken by SpaceX, Russia’s Proton rocket today successfully launched its last commercial mission.

The primary payload was a European communications satellite. The secondary payload is more significant as it is Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1), designed to grab defunct satellites that are out of fuel and bring them back to life using its own fuel and engines.

The docking mechanism of the MEV spacecraft allows it to link up with a spacecraft which carries no specialized rendezvous and docking hardware. According to Northrop Grumman, MEV, can use its proximity sensors and docking hardware to reliably attach itself to 80 percent of typical satellites deployed in geostationary orbit. The developer also said that after completing the work assisting the first spacecraft, the MEV vehicle could be undocked and moved multiple times during its more than 15-year operational life span to support satellites from other customers.

They plan to revive one of Intelsat’s satellites and operate it for five years.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

19 China
17 Russia
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)

The U.S. and China remain tied at 19 in the national rankings.

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Northrop Grumman leases part of VAB for assembling Omega rocket

Northrop Grumman has become the first private company to lease a bay of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, where it will its new OmegA rocket.

Northrop Grumman will assemble and test its new OmegA rocket inside the massive facility’s High Bay 2, one of four high bays in the building. … The company also is modifying mobile launcher platform-3 (MLP-3) to serve as the launch vehicle’s assembly and launch platform. Both the VAB and MLP-3 were originally built for the Apollo Program and went on to enable the three-decade Space Shuttle Program.

OmegA’s development is being funded by an $800 million contract with the Air Force.

In many ways, I could ask the exact same question here as I just did in the post below about the Chinese government’s pseudo private launch industry: From an American private enterprise perspective, this Air Force attempt to create a commercial launch industry using government funds but tight government supervision and control is very puzzling. OmegA will be competing directly with other American launch companies that are privately funded, owned, and run by private corporations (though also getting significant government contracts for their already operational products). How the federal government prevents its government agencies (NASA, the Air Force) from putting their thumbs on the scale to favor one over the other I do not understand.

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Cygnus undocks from ISS, will remain in orbit for five more months

Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo capsule has undocked from ISS, but will remain in orbit until December.

First, the capsule, dubbed the S.S. Roger Chaffee, will deploy a bunch of cubesats and nanosats. Then,

Northrop Grumman plans several months of long-duration spaceflight experiments using the Cygnus spacecraft after release of the CubeSats. Four miniaturized control moment gyroscopes are flying on the cargo freighter for the first time, and engineers will assess their performance in controlling the spacecraft’s pointing without consuming rocket fuel.

Ground teams also want to evaluate how the Cygnus spacecraft’s avionics function on a long-duration mission, and Northrop Grumman plans to demonstrate dual Cygnus operations for the first time after the launch of the company’s next resupply mission — NG-12 — in October.

Northrop Grumman has gotten a NASA contract to use Cygnus as the basis for the habitable module of NASA’s Lunar Gateway project, and this extended flight is a way to test the engineering for that module now during operations.

Though I continue to have many doubts about Gateway, I laud Northrop Grumman for this approach. It speeds things up and saves money.

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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.

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Reused Falcon 9 wins NASA launch contract instead of Pegasus

Captalism in space: NASA has awarded SpaceX a Falcon 9 launch contract using a reused first stage for its next X-ray telescope, the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE)..

SpaceX will charge NASA just over $50 million, its normal price for a reused Falcon 9 and significantly less than NASA has previously paid for this kind of launch. More important, the telescope had been designed with the expectation that it would be launched using Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rocket. It appears NASA had instead decided to bypass Pegasus, partly because it probably costs more, and partly because there is some issue with Pegasus that has delayed the launch of NASA’s ICON since 2017.

In fact, that ICON launch is the only contract that Pegasus presently has, and it is charging NASA $56 million for that launch, with NASA also having to bear the additional costs associated with the delays caused by Pegasus. All these issues, plus the loss of the IXPE launch, strongly suggests that Pegasus is in big trouble. It does not appear that, as it is presently being marketed, it is able to garner any business.

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Anomaly during static fire test of Northrop Grumman OmegaA rocket motor

Capitalism in space: During a static fire test of the first stage solid rocket motor for Northrop Grumman’s OmegaA rocket, the rocket’s nozzle suddenly broke apart two minutes into the firing.

I have embedded video of the test below the fold. The anomaly occurs about 2:11 into the video.

OmegA is being developed as part of a contract awarded to Northrop Grumman by the Air Force:

After the end of the Ares 1 and Liberty launch vehicle projects, Orbital ATK developed a next generation launch vehicle concept to compete for future US Air Force and NASA launches, and won a rocket propulsion system (RPS) contract in January 2016 as part of the Air Force’s effort to end its dependence on Russian RD-180 engine imports, due to increased geopolitical tensions between the West and Russia.

The contract enabled Orbital ATK to keep working on the next generation launch system, which was later named OmegA, with the first and last letters capitalized to incorporate the company’s initials.

In June 2018 Orbital ATK was acquired by Northrop Grumman to become Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (NGIS), and in October of that year the US Air Force awarded NGIS a launch service agreement (LSA) contract initially worth $181 million for the first 18 months, and ultimately worth $792 million, to develop, build, and test the OmegA rocket, culminating in four test flights of two configurations starting in 2021.

» Read more

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Antares launches Cygnus freighter to ISS

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket today successfully launched a Cygnus freighter to ISS.

This was Northrop Grumman’s first launch in 2019. The company hopes to complete 4 launches this year.

Meanwhile the leaders in the 2019 launch race remain unchanged:

4 SpaceX
4 China
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 Russia

The U.S. however has widened its lead in the national rankings, 8 to 4.

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Air Force’s launch contracting plans under scrutiny

It appears the Air Force wants to decide now which two rocket companies it will use for its launch needs in the 2022 to 2026 time period, and this desire is raising hackles among those companies.

[T]he Air Force will choose only two companies to meet its launch needs from 2022 to 2026, with one provider winning 60 percent of the contracts and the other taking 40 percent. There is no provision to on-ramp other companies during the time frame.

This sets up a rather frantic competition between the incumbents, ULA and SpaceX, and newcomers Blue Origin (with its New Glenn booster) and Northrop Grumman (with its Omega rocket). Moreover, the timing appears to prejudice the competition in favor of the incumbents, which already have existing launch systems the government can assess.

Something is really fishy here. Why does the Air Force need to limit its services to only two companies? And why do they have to make this decision now, three to seven years before the launches will occur? Common sense says you instead issue specific contract bids, for each launch, as they are needed, thus allowing as many companies as possible to compete for the business.

In fact, this policy seems to directly contradict the Air Force’s stated goal, repeated many times in the past few years, to widen competition in the launch industry, both to lower cost and to give the military strategic redundancy in its needed launch services.

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DARPA’s satellite servicing mission adrift

Capitalism in space? DARPA’s program to test a satellite servicing mission appears in serious and complex trouble with the termination by Maxar (previously called SSL) of its contract to build the structure, or “bus”, of the robot.

What makes this more complicated is that the company building the actual servicing payload is continuing its work.

While Maxar will no longer be providing the satellite bus, work on the servicing payload continues. Among the companies involved in that effort is Praxis, a company handling planning for mission operations of the RSGS servicing system, such as how the system will safely grapple the target satellite. “For our day-to-day operations, that hasn’t really affected us. We’re pretty far along on the payload development,” said Tony Marzi, general manager of Praxis, during a presentation at the MIT New Space Age Conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology here March 15.

DARPA is thus calling for proposals to launch this payload.

The irony here is that this DARPA project was under criticism from the start, even to the point that a competing satellite servicing company, Orbital ATK, sued the agency. That company, now part of Northrop Grumman, was building its own privately funded servicing robot, and considered DARPA’s effort to be unfair in that it provided direct government subsidies to its competitors.

While Orbital ATK lost its suit, it now appears it has won the competition — assuming it eventually launches its own mission.

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Pegasus problems continue

Capitalism in space: The much-delayed launch of a NASA science satellite by Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rocket continues to slip, with the unstated technical issues that caused several earlier launch dates to be cancelled lingering.

NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) mission was scheduled to launch in late 2017 on a Pegasus XL rocket based out of Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific. That launch was delayed to June 2018 because of an issue with the rocket’s separation system, then delayed again when engineers detected “off-nominal” data from the rocket during a ferry flight from California ahead of the June launch attempt.

That problem was linked to a faulty sensor that was replaced, with the launch eventually rescheduled for Nov. 7, this time flying out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. However, after the rocket’s L-1011 aircraft took off for the Nov. 7 launch attempt, engineers again detected off-nominal data from the rocket and scrubbed the launch.

Neither NASA nor Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, which builds the Pegasus, have provided additional details about the problem, but at a December meeting of an advisory committee, Nicky Fox, director of NASA’s heliophysics division, said engineers were examining the control system of the rocket’s fins.

Fox, speaking at a Feb. 25 meeting of a National Academies committee here, said the launch was now scheduled for no earlier than the second quarter. “Northrop Grumman is still working extremely hard to analyze what is causing these anomalies during the ferry flight,” she said. “They’re working extremely hard to try and get ICON up as soon as possible.”

The article notes that Pegasus has only had three launches in the past decade. It was originally designed to provide a low cost option for smaller satellites, but over the decades did not fulfill that goal. It is now much more expensive than the many smallsat rockets coming on line. With these unexplained issues preventing this launch as well, its future appears dim at best

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Military inspector general to review SpaceX’s launch certification

The swamp attacks! The inspector general for the Defense Department has begun a review of the process the Air Force used to certify SpaceX as a qualified military launch provider.

“Our objective is to determine whether the U.S. Air Force complied with the Launch Services New Entrant Certification Guide when certifying the launch system design for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-class SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles,” the inspector general said in a memo to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson sent on Monday.

The only reason I can see for this investigation is that the launch companies that have development contracts with the military — ULA, Northrop Grumman, and Blue Origin — are applying pressure to get SpaceX eliminated as a competitor. And since there are many in the government aerospace bureaucracy who are in bed with these companies and are also hostile to SpaceX, that pressure has succeeded in getting this investigation started.

SpaceX meanwhile has successfully launched one military payload, and has two more military launches scheduled for 2019. Its prices are so low that these other companies cannot presently compete, not without political help. Worse, it appears these other companies, and the Air Force, do not appear interested in reducing the cost of their next generation rockets to become more competitive. Instead, they apparently have decided to turn the screws on SpaceX and get it eliminated as a competitor.

Meanwhile, SpaceX might be doing its own political push back, behind the scenes. At least, why else did two California lawmakers recently demand a review of the Air Force’s rocket development contracts to all of SpaceX’s competitors, but not SpaceX?

All of this has absolutely nothing to do with picking the best and cheapest launch companies to save the taxpayer money. Instead, the entire way our government operates today is completely uninterested in the needs of the nation. The focus of lawmakers and government officials is to play political games in an effort to take out their opponents. And in this battle the country be damned.

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Trump administration moves forward with reorganization of space bureaucracy

The Trump administration is moving ahead with its planned reorganization of the military’s entire space bureaucracy under the rubric of the Space Force.

The Pentagon is moving forward with plans to create a Space Force as a new military branch. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the Space Force will be small in size and its advantage will come in the form of cutting-edge technology.

Shanahan also has concluded that the existing DoD bureaucracies are not equipped to deliver next-generation space technologies quickly enough. He has directed the establishment of a Space Development Agency that would report directly to Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin. Many details are still being worked out about the SDA, but Shanahan said in a memo that he wants it set up by March 29.

Because much of the modern press does such a bad job, working from a general ignorance, I must repeat again that the goal here is not to make a space army, with laser guns and uniforms, but to centralize the various military space departments, scattered across several divisions, into one office that has some clout because it reports directly to the White House. Right now these scattered offices report to different military agencies with different and competing agendas. The result has been a poorly coordinated space policy that has been expensive and also unable to accomplish much in recent years.

Whether this reorganization will streamline things as it is intended remains an open question. The bureaucratic culture in Washington is certainly never interested in streamlining. The usual result of such efforts is a larger bureaucracy that spends even more. We shall see.

This action is also related to another story today: Lawmakers: Air Force launch procurement strategy undermines SpaceX

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) are calling for an independent review of the Air Force’s space launch procurement strategy. They contend that the Air Force, in an effort to broaden the launch playing field, is putting SpaceX at a competitive disadvantage.

In a Feb. 4 letter addressed to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Feinstein and Calvert — both with strong ties to the space industry — argue that the path the Air Force has chosen to select future launch providers creates an unfair playing field. Although SpaceX is not mentioned in the letter by name, it is clear from the lawmakers’ language that they believe the company is getting a raw deal because, unlike its major competitors, it did not receive Air Force funding to modify its commercial rockets so they meet national security mission requirements.

This second story actually illustrates the bureaucratic concerns that the Trump administration is trying to address in the first story. It appears to the elected officials that the military’s award of this contract was not necessarily in the best interests of the military, but instead was designed to help some companies at the expense of others.

The $2.3 billion in funding went to ULA, Blue Origin, and Northrop Grumman to develop their next generation rockets. Why SpaceX, considered a favorite, did not receive any funding remains unclear, though SpaceX officials have indicated that in the past they have refused government development money (for building Falcon Heavy) because of the requirements attached. It could be that SpaceX did the same here, but it is also possible that the military bureaucracy played favorites.

It is this question that the elected officials want clarified.

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Stratolaunch ends plan to build rockets for its giant Roc aircraft

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch has decided to cease work on the family of second stage rockets plus engine, announced in August and September 2018, that would have launched from the bottom of its giant Roc airplane.

Instead, they will only launch Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rockets from Roc.

This does not look good for the company. Roc is vastly oversized for Pegasus, which really doesn’t need it. It also suggests that the death of Paul Allen has had a bad effect on the company.

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Antares rocket launches Cygnus freighter to ISS

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket today successfully launched its Cygnus freighter to ISS.

This was only the second launch this year by the division of Northrop Grumman that used to be Orbital ATK. They have been trying to launch a research satellite using their Pegasus rocket, but have had engineering issues that keep delaying it.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race remain unchanged:

31 China
18 SpaceX
11 Russia
8 ULA
8 Europe (Arianespace)

China continues to lead the U.S. in the national rankings, 31 to 30. The U.S. total now exceeds last year, and is the most this century. We have now had 91 launches this year, the most since 2014. I expect that number to go up significantly, with a real chance it will pass 100 launches for the first time since 1990, just prior to the fall of the Soviet Union.

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Air Force awards contracts to ULA, Northrop Grumman, Blue Origin

The competition heats up: The Air Force today announced contract awards to ULA, Northrop Grumman, and Blue Origin to help further the development of their new rockets.

The award to Blue Origin will be for development of the New Glenn Launch System. The award to Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems is for development of the OmegA Launch System. The award to United Launch Alliance will be for development of the Vulcan Centaur Launch System.

The Launch Service Agreements will facilitate the development of three domestic launch system prototypes and enable the future competitive selection of two National Security Space launch service providers for future procurements, planned for no earlier than fiscal year 2020.

The press release makes no mention of the amount of money being granted to these companies. Personally, I’d rather the government gave nothing until it actually bought real launch services from these companies, but it can only help the Air Force to have four different launch companies (when you include SpaceX) to draw upon. And the competition will force all four to reduce their costs and be creative.

Update: One of my readers in the comments below provided this link outlining the money granted for each contract, with ULA getting just under $1 billion, Northrop Grumman getting just under $800 million, and Blue Origin getting $500 million. This is not chicken-feed, and is in essence a subsidy for all three companies. The large amounts will act to discourage cost-savings, and in my opinion is a mistake. Whenever government bodies provide these kinds of subsidies prior to the deliver of services, the cost for the services inevitably is higher.

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Stratolaunch to build its own upper stages

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch today announced that it is designing and building three differently-sized upper stage rockets to attach to the fuselage of its giant Roc airplane.

Beside the Pegasus rocket, owned by Northrop Grumman, aimed for first flight in 2020, Stratolaunch will build a medium and medium-heavy rockets, with the former set for a 2022 flight, as well as a fully reusable space plane, now in early development.

The space plane concept would apparently be capable of taking payloads up and down from orbit, and could therefore become the first totally reusable launch capability.

Overall, it does appear that the company, unable to find someone else to design its upper stage, has been forced to do it itself.

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Cygnus fires engine to test reboost of ISS

The Cygnus freighter presently berthed to ISS yesterday did a successful test engine firing to see if it could raise the orbit of ISS.

The cargo resupply vehicle provided a reboost to the Station at 4:25 pm Eastern, with a short 50 second burn of its main engine on the aft of the vehicle, raising the Station’s altitude by 295 feet. This test will pave the way for future, longer burns, removing some of the orbital stationkeeping strain from the Russian assets.

This was the first time since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in July 2011, a US spacecraft had performed a reboost of the ISS.

Northrop Grumman proposed the idea, considering it a way to enhance the value of Cygnus for future NASA contracts. It also appears that NASA is looking to see if the Dragon and Starliner capsule can do this. If so, it will free the U.S. from another dependency it presently has with Russia, who today has the only approved ability to raise the station’s orbit, using Progress and Soyuz capsules and sometimes the engine on its Zvezda module.

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Witchhunt against Northrop Grumman employee because of his private opinions

The new blacklist: The modern McCarthyism goes after a Northrop Grumman employee because it doesn’t like his private political opinions.

Aerospace giant Northrop Grumman Corp. said it is taking “immediate action” to look into a report that one of its engineers is part of a white nationalist group and was involved in violent brawls during last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.

Investigative news outlet ProPublica and PBS documentary program “Frontline” identified Michael Miselis, 29, as a member of the Rise Above Movement, which they described as a Southern California group that “expresses contempt for Muslims, Jews and immigrants.” The Southern Poverty Law Center civil rights group describes the Rise Above Movement as a hate group, and categorizes it specifically as a white nationalist group.

Read the article. The attitude of the author will chill you to the bone.

This is not an endorsement of this employee’s political opinions. In fact, a close read of the article suggests that this person might not even be the person with such opinions. Nonetheless, in a free country one should have the right to any opinions, and those opinions, no matter how vile, should not prevent you from earning your living. Furthermore, a free country will allow you to express those opinions, freely, without threat of harm.

It does not appear we live in such a country at this time. This individual has been identified as having opinions the social justice warriors of the left do not like, and thus he must be stoned to death. I am surprised they haven’t yet gotten the pitchforks and torches out and lynched him.

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