Tag Archives: SpaceX

Dragon successfully splashes down in Atlantic

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule has successfully returned to Earth, splashing down in the Atlantic this morning.

There is a short video at the link showing the splashdown.

As far as I can tell, this test mission went 100% right. They now have the capsule they will use for the launch abort flight, which they hope to do by June, if not sooner. Assuming that goes well, they will be ready to do the manned flight by July, as planned.

The only thing I can see preventing this would be elements in NASA’s bureaucracy, Congress, and the federal government that are hostile to SpaceX and the concept of independent free Americans doing great things. These elements prefer giving power and control to their big bloated government, even if it can’t accomplish anything and that failure gives aide and comfort to hostile foreign powers.

We shall see if those elements move to block this mission in the coming months.

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Air Force awards ULA and SpaceX three launch contracts each

Capitalism in space: The Air Force this week released more details about the new launch contracts for both ULA and SpaceX worth just under three quarters of a billion dollars.

The contracts announced in February by the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center were split between ULA and SpaceX, rivals in the U.S. launch industry. ULA won deals for up to three launches worth $441.76 million, and the Air Force awarded SpaceX contracts worth $297 million, also for three missions.

I had reported this back in February when it was first announced, but it was not then revealed that one of the SpaceX launches would be with the Falcon Heavy, the second such Air Force launch planned. That the Air Force awarded this contract prior to its first launch, now scheduled for no earlier than June 2019, is somewhat surprising. I would have expected them to wait to first see if that launch, only the second Falcon Heavy launch, was successful.

The article also notes a minor change by the Air Force in its launch program.

The Air Force has also given a new name to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, a multibillion initiative begun in the 1990s to fund and oversee the development and operations of the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets now owned by ULA.

The Space and Missile Systems Center announced March 1 that the EELV program’s new name is the National Security Space Launch program, in response to language in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.

They really needed to eliminate “Expendable” from the name, since the first stage of SpaceX’s rockets are not expendable, and it is expected that future rockets will be reusable as well. Moreover, EELV was created in the 1990s to create a launch monopoly for Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which then merged to create ULA. That monopoly no longer exists, and the military is now aiming to widen the competition, opening it up to more companies.

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Increased isopropyl alcohol detected at ISS following Dragon docking

The Russian press today announced that there was a significant increase in the amount of isopropyl alcohol detected in the atmosphere of ISS following docking and opening of the hatch of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.

While obviously this needs to be investigated, there are several details the Russian press leaves out. First, what normally happens when a manned capsule or new module arrives and the hatch opens? I suspect we always see a jump in readings for a wide range of atmospheric components. Second, what harm does this increase in ispropyl alcohol have to the station, its experiments, or its occupants? I suspect none, though obviously if it could be avoided that would be better.

Once again, we need to be aware that the Russians motives here might not be entirely pure. They have political and economic reasons to work against a success by SpaceX, and articles such as this reflect that. Issues like this of course need to be checked out and fixed if possible or necessary, but the goal of this article might not be that at all.

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Dragon successfully docks with ISS

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, designed to carry humans to space, has successfully docked for the first time at ISS.

The flight really has only one major task left, which it to return safely to Earth, which presently is scheduled for 8:45 am (eastern) on March 7. I expect that to go smoothly as well.

NASA and SpaceX will of course need to review all the test data from this unmanned test flight before okaying a manned flight. SpaceX also needs to first do a launch abort test, using this capsule. However, I do not expect either to result in any issues that should prevent a manned launch in July, as SpaceX presently plans.

NASA however might think differently. There have been strong factions within its management and bureaucracy that are hostile to this effort, and have been working to stall or stop it.

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Dragon successfully launched on its first unmanned test flight to ISS

Capitalism in space: SpaceX tonight successfully launched its manned Dragon capsule on its first unmanned test flight to ISS.

They also successfully landed the first stage. I have embedded below the fold the video of the launch. Dragon will dock with ISS in about a day.

The leaders in the 2019:

3 SpaceX
2 China
2 Europe (Arianespace)

The U.S. now leads China and Europe 4 to 2 in national rankings.
» Read more

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Europe to build reusable first stage

Capitalism in space: Even as Europe works to develop Ariane 6, their non-reusable next generation rocket, Ariane Group and the French are now considering replacing it with a different rocket with a reusable first stage.

Late last week, the European rocket maker Ariane Group and the French space agency CNES announced the creation of an “acceleration platform” to speed development of future launch vehicles. The initiative, called ArianeWorks, would be a place where “teams work together in a highly flexible environment, open to new players and internationally.”

“In this era of NewSpace and in the context of fierce competition, ArianeWorks will accelerate innovation at grassroots level, in favor of mid-tier firms and start-ups, with commitment to reducing costs a major priority,” a news release sent to Ars states.

As part of the announcement, the organizations released a promotional video for the group’s first step—a so-called Themis demonstrator. The goal of this project is to build a multiple-engine first-stage rocket that launches vertically and lands near the launch site. The rocket will be powered by Europe’s Prometheus engine, a reusable liquid oxygen and methane engine that may cost as little as $1 million to build.

Essentially they are copying SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, except for the fuel. And they admit it. Moreover, this action tells us that the problems Ariane 6 has had getting European contracts has become serious enough that they have finally recognized that it simply cannot compete with the new wave of reusable rockets expected in the next decade. Building a new rocket that does not have a reusable capability is not viable in the coming market.

They should have recognized this four years ago, but better late then never.

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SpaceX first stage for launch abort returns to port

Capitalism in space: The first stage that SpaceX used (for the third time) last week to put three payloads into orbit, including Israel’s privately built lunar lander Beresheet, has returned to port and begun its preparation for its fourth launch, the launch abort test required before the company can fly humans on its Dragon manned capsule.

Musk tweeted that the launch escape test could occur in April. Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of build and flight reliability, said Friday that teams are looking at whether the in-flight abort could be moved forward from June.

SpaceX plans to reuse the Crew Dragon spacecraft slated to fly to the space station this weekend for the in-flight abort. Assuming a March 2 launch, the capsule is scheduled to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean on March 8, where teams will retrieve the spacecraft and bring it back to Cape Canaveral for the abort test.

The timing of the in-flight abort test “depends on when Crew Dragon comes back,” Musk tweeted. “That’s scheduled for launch next Saturday, but (there’s a) lot of new hardware, so time error bars are big.”

Officials do not expect the Falcon 9 booster to survive the abort test, likely ending its lifetime at four launches, and three intact landings. “High probability of this particular rocket getting destroyed by Dragon supersonic abort test,” Musk tweeted. [emphasis mine]

Unless something significant goes wrong during next week’s unmanned Dragon test flight, the only thing that I see preventing a June or earlier launch abort test would be the paperwork NASA demands SpaceX fill out in order for the agency to rubberstamp the flight.

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NASA okays March 2, 2019 Dragon test flight

NASA has finally approved SpaceX’s unmanned test flight on March 2nd of its Dragon capsule.

They completed the last flight readiness review today, and the press conference revealing this decision is going on right now, at the link. They have noted one issue that came from the review today, relating to questions by the Russians about the software used by Dragon as it docks at ISS. It apparently they did not consider this a reason to delay the launch. They must think they can get it dealt with before the docking. (The manned Dragon docks itself directly with the station, rather than being berthed to the station by the robot arm, as is done with the unmanned cargo Dragon capsule.)

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SpaceX successfully launches three satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX tonight used its Falcon 9 rocket, including a first stage that had already flown twice before, to launch an Indonesian communications satellite, an Air Force smallsat, and most importantly, the Israeli-built Beresheet lunar lander, the first planetary mission entirely funded from private sources.

You can get some details about Beresheet here. If all goes as planned, it will land on the Moon on April 11 and operate for two Earth days on the surface.

SpaceX was also able to successfully land that first stage, which I think is the first time they have successfully used and recovered a first stage three times. Look for this first stage to fly a fourth time.

The 2019 launch race:

2 China
2 SpaceX
1 ULA
1 Japan
1 India
1 Europe
1 Russia

The U.S. now leads China in the national rankings, 3-2.

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Even as NASA announces schedule for SpaceX Dragon test flight, anti-American forces at NASA work to block that flight

There were two stories today impacting the future of American manned spaceflight. The first is positive, the second is downright hostile to that effort, and could literally be called treasonous by some.

The first story outlines in detail NASA’s press coverage and schedule leading up to and including the March 2nd SpaceX unmanned Dragon test flight. The key event will be the flight readiness review on February 22nd. NASA will televise a post review press conference no earlier that 6 pm (Eastern) that night. That review will determine whether the flight goes on March 2nd.

That NASA has made this announcement indicates that the agency is slowly being dragged, kicking and screaming, into allowing the test flight to finally happen, after years of bureaucratic delay.

The second story illustrates some of the ongoing kicking and screaming that is still going on inside NASA. It is also more disturbing. As far as I can tell from the story, some of the anti-American forces within NASA’s bureaucracy teamed up with Reuters today to publish this hit piece on the manned capsules of both SpaceX and Boeing.

Two people with direct knowledge of the program told Reuters that the space agency’s concerns go beyond the four items listed, and include a risk ledger that as of early February contained 30 to 35 lingering technical concerns each for SpaceX and Boeing. Reuters could not verify what all of the nearly three dozen items are. But the sources familiar with the matter said the companies must address “most” of those concerns before flying astronauts and, eventually, tourists to space. [emphasis mine]

Note that these are anonymous sources. Note that their attack, a bunch of unsubstantiated leaks, is directly aimed at discrediting the efforts of both companies. Note also that if they succeed the ultimate and only benefactor will be Russia, since NASA will then be forced to buy more Soyuz flights from them, on a rocket that has recently had a launch failure and in a capsule that someone in Russia actually sabotaged during assembly.

The last highlighted phrase, suggesting that NASA is going to use its power to block the ability of these free American companies from privately selling tourist flights on their capsules, is even more egregious. Once again, the only benefactors of this action would be the Russians, who will then be able to grab that tourist business.

It is for these reasons I call these sources, with the help of Reuters, anti-American.

Moreover, the issues that are outlined in this article are very dubious, to put it mildly. Suddenly, after years of reviews that never mentioned any issues with SpaceX’s parachutes as well as seventeen successful parachute test flights, NASA has suddenly deemed that the parachute design has “some design discrepancies.”

As for Boeing, the article mentions the valve leak failures during a engine test last year. In response Boeing has had the valves redesigned and reordered, but they still need further testing. While this is a legitimate issue, I suspect it is being used here as a sledge hammer against this American company, not as an issue that requires intelligent review.

Where is our “America-First” president in all this? Political forces in Washington and within NASA are actively working to block our country’s effort to fly in space, for the benefit of a foreign power. Why isn’t Trump doing something about this?

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Air Force awards launch contracts (3 each) to ULA and SpaceX

Capitalism in space: The Air Force yesterday announced the awarding of launch contracts to both SpaceX and ULA, giving each company three launches.

ULA will receive $441.76 million under a fixed-price contract to launch SBIRS GEO-5, SBIRS GEO-6 and Silent Barker, a classified space situational awareness mission.

SpaceX will receive $297 million to launch AFSPC-44, NROL-85, and NROL-87.

Note the difference in price. While the specific missions might have requirements that make the ULA launches more expensive, I suspect that most of the difference has to do with SpaceX’s ability to simply do it cheaper. The Air Force however did not give all the contracts to SpaceX because it has strategic reasons to have two independent launch companies. It also faces political pressure to support both companies, regardless of cost, as illustrated by recent stories about the political gamesmanship between SpaceX and ULA.

This story does illustrate however how the competition from SpaceX has forced ULA to lower its prices. For these three launches they are charging an average of about $147 million. Before SpaceX’s competition, their price per launch generally averaged more than $225 million. Isn’t competition wonderful?

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SpaceX protests NASA launch contract to ULA

Turf war! SpaceX has filed a protest against a NASA launch contract award to ULA for almost $150 million for the Lucy asteroid mission in 2023.

In a statement, SpaceX, the California company founded by Elon Musk, said it was the first time it had challenged a NASA contract.

“SpaceX offered a solution with extraordinarily high confidence of mission success at a price dramatically lower than the award amount,” the company said in a statement to The Washington Post. “So we believe the decision to pay vastly more to Boeing and Lockheed for the same mission was therefore not in the best interest of the agency or the American taxpayers.”

This protest might explain the politics of two other stories recently:

In the first case two California politicians are using their clout to pressure the Air Force for the benefit of SpaceX. In the second the Air Force inspector general office is using its clout to pressure the Air Force to hurt SpaceX.

All these stories illustrate the corrupt crony capitalism that now permeates any work our federal government does. In order to get government business, you have to wield political power, which means you need to kowtow to politicians and bureaucrats. Very ugly, and very poisonous.

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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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NASA’s political and corrupt safety panel

After spending the last few years complaining about certain specific issues with the manned capsule efforts of SpaceX and Boeing, NASA’s safety panel this past weekend released its annual 2018 report. (You can download the report here [pdf].) Its position now on those certain specific issues can now be summarized as follows:

They make no mention of the parachute issues that forced Boeing to do numerous extra tests, causing probably a year delay in the program, though Boeing has had decades of experience with capsule parachutes and the entire American aerospace industry has never had a parachute failure.

The panel also admits that their concerns about SpaceX’s rocket fueling procedures is really not an issue.

The NESC [NASA Engineering and Safety Center] has independently studied the load and go procedure and provided a thorough report that identifies the hazards and available controls. Based on the NESC report, the CCP [Commercial Crew Program] has decided that the load and go concept is viable if subsequent analysis is adequate and if verifiable controls are identified and implemented for all the credible hazard causes that could potentially result in an emergency situation or worse.

As Emily Litela said, “Never mind!” Their concerns were never credible, as it really doesn’t matter if you fuel the rocket before or after the astronauts board, because in either case they are there when a lot of fuel is present. All the panel did was delay the first Dragon launch by at least a year by pushing this issue.

The panel is still holding onto its concerns about the installation blankets (COPV) used in SpaceX’s internal helium tanks, the location of the problem that caused the September 2016 launchpad explosion. Despite SpaceX’s apparent fixing of this problem, with 40 successful launches since that failure, they are listing further vague requirements:
» Read more

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SpaceX’s new Raptor engine: The world’s most powerful?

According to a tweet by Elon Musk, SpaceX’s new Raptor rocket engine has achieved during testing a chamber pressure that exceeds that of Russia’s RD-180 engine, which for decades has held the record.

First and foremost, it’s far too early to actually crown Raptor as the new official record-holder for combustion chamber pressure. RD-180 has been reliably flying on ULA’s Atlas V rocket with chamber pressures as high ~257.5 bar (3735 psi) since the year 2000, while Raptor has been performing subscale integrated testing for roughly two years and full-scale integrated testing for less than seven days. As such, the fact that full-scale Raptor has achieved ~269 bar (3900 psi) is an almost unbelievably impressive achievement but probably shouldn’t be used to jump to any conclusions just yet.

Thanks to the 10-20% performance boost supercool liquid methane and oxygen will bring Raptor, currently stuck using propellant just barely cold enough to remain liquid, the engine performing tests could already be made to reach its design specification of 300+ bar (4350+ psi), although Musk cautioned that he wasn’t sure Raptor would be able to survive that power in its current iteration. Nevertheless, 250 bar is apparently more than enough to operate Starship and its Super Heavy booster during most regimes of flight, although maximum thrust (and thus max chamber pressures) is probably desirable for the first minute or so after launch when gravity losses are most significant. [emphasis in original]

If the Raptor meets these goals, it will make most of Musk’s dreams for Startship and Super Heavy very possible.

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NASA to avoid SLS delays should another shutdown occur

Faced with an impending second government shutdown mere days away, NASA has been moving to avoid any delays in an upcoming planned Orion/SLS launch abort test should another shutdown occur.

What I find most fascinating about this article is how different the attitude seems to be at NASA between this SLS/Orion test flight and SpaceX’s Dragon test flight. With SpaceX, NASA has apparently made no effort to figure out ways for the test to go forward during the shutdown, even though the launch would be run by SpaceX employees on a SpaceX launchpad, and would only require NASA employees who are all considered essential.

With this Orion abort test, however, they have been and are planning to do everything they can to bypass the shutdown. Like SpaceX, the Air Force was free to operate during the shutdown, because its budget had already been approved.

“Then the shutdown kept going so I said ‘boy, let me see what I can do with these Air Force pieces.’ And it was very interesting, I had to work with lawyers here at Kennedy and Johnson [Space Center],” explained [Mark Kirasich, NASA Orion Program Manager.]

“The Air Force was not shut down, it was only NASA. So you had to write the legal justification — ‘hey the Air Force is not shut down, this is important work to do in this building’ and we were eventually able to allow the Air Force to get access to the buildings, if that makes sense.”

“And then the very last piece which was the NASA piece,” he continued. “Now of course NASA was shut down, that was the hardest thing to get exempted and I was working on that piece right when the government on that Friday night signed that continuing resolution, but I was confident I would get that piece going again had the shutdown continued.”

The contrast is most striking. It almost makes you think that NASA is purposely using any excuse to slow-walk SpaceX’s effort.

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Border wall to divide SpaceX’s Texas spaceport?

According to this article, the proposed location of the border wall in Boca Chica will bisect SpaceX’s spaceport facility there, and Democrats are working a deal to prevent this.

This article is part of the full court press being put on by the Democrats, with blatant media help, to block the wall, in any way possible, as I noted previously. I have very serious doubts the wall will cut across SpaceX’s property in any way that is significant, but if it is threatening to do so, the solution would not be to not build a wall there (which is what the Democrats want), but to work out an arrangement where the wall is built on the edge of their property and thus does them no harm.

If no wall is built here, the property then becomes a target for illegals, and thus will create even worst problems for SpaceX.

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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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SpaceX ramps up Raptor engine tests

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has conducted another Raptor engine test, this time running the engine at full power.

“Raptor just achieved power level needed for Starship [and] Super Heavy,” Musk tweeted just after 3 a.m. EST (08:00 GMT) Feb. 7.

Musk did not say how long the test was or if it was at full power. The Feb. 3 burn was only about two seconds and at about 60 percent power. However, he said the latter test reached a chamber pressure of 257 bar, or about 3,700 pounds per square inch, and an estimated force of about 172 metric tons with “warm propellant.”

Musk has said that they will be doing hopper test flights with their Starship prototype this spring, but they can’t do that until they have three working Raptor engines. It seems to me that it will be at least a few months before this engine is tested sufficiently to be ready for flight. Then they need two more finished engines.

Don’t expect the first Starship hopper flights for at least six more months, if that soon.

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A look at SpaceX’s upcoming launch schedule

Link here. It appears that the launch dates for both Falcon Heavy launches depend entirely on when the first Falcon 9 manned Dragon test flight takes place.

With Demo-1 having priority, the final preparations for Arabsat [using Falcon Heavy] will not be able to begin until the Demo-1 launch has occurred as there is only so much space in the Pad 39A hangar. With that in mind, Arabsat 6A will likely occur in the second half of March at the earliest, as NASA announced on Wednesday that Demo-1 is now targeting no earlier than March 2nd, 2019.

While the March 2nd launch date for Demo-1 is still tentative, it is understood that the Space Station’s Visiting Vehicle Schedule does have availability for a launch on that date should the NASA and SpaceX teams be ready.

Once Demo-1 and Arabsat are out of the way, Pad 39A will not be done supporting high profile missions. SpaceX will work to quickly turnaround the first stage boosters from the Arabsat 6A flight in order to reuse them for the STP-2 mission – the second Falcon Heavy launch of the year. STP-2 is a mission for the U.S. Air Force which will feature several technology demonstration payloads. According to FCC filings, the launch is currently scheduled for no earlier than April 30th, 2019. However, since this mission requires boosters from the Arabsat 6A launch, SpaceX will require several weeks between the two flights to refurbish the cores.

Therefore, STP-2 is directly connected to the launch schedule for Arabsat 6A which is in turn connected to Demo-1’s schedule. Consequently, the odds of a slip with STP-2’s date are high, as two major dominos currently stand in front of it.

In addition, the date for SpaceX’s launch abort test of Dragon depends entirely on the completion of the Demo-1 flight, since they plan to use that same capsule in the abort test.

Though there are a handful of other launches described in the article through April, but much of SpaceX’s schedule for the spring depends entirely on whether NASA can get off its duff and allow the Dragon test mission to fly. If NASA continues to drag its feet, everything else will get delayed. It would seem that at some point SpaceX might even have the right to demand financial compensation from NASA for the loss of income NASA is causing it. They don’t get paid for any of these launches until they fly, and thus NASA is preventing them from earning money from other customers.

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NASA confirms new Dragon launch date

Confirmed: NASA today announced a new launch date, March 2, for the first unmanned test flight of SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule.

The agency now is targeting March 2 for launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon on its uncrewed Demo-1 test flight. Boeing’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test is targeted for launch no earlier than April.

These adjustments allow for completion of necessary hardware testing, data verification, remaining NASA and provider reviews, as well as training of flight controllers and mission managers.

This is actually the first time that NASA itself has specified a launch date, which suggests to me that they finally have admitted that they cannot hold things up any longer. Based on this announcement and assuming the weather and everything else cooperates, the launch will likely happen then, which will also allow time for SpaceX to get the launchpad reconfigured for its Falcon Heavy launch a week later.

The announcement also listed the remaining test schedule for commercial crew, as it stands now:

  • SpaceX Demo-1 (uncrewed): March 2, 2019
  • Boeing Orbital Flight Test (uncrewed): NET April 2019
  • Boeing Pad Abort Test: NET May 2019
  • SpaceX In-Flight Abort Test: June 2019
  • SpaceX Demo-2 (crewed): July 2019
  • Boeing Crew Flight Test (crewed): NET August 2019

The manned flights have not been pushed back significantly from the dates that NASA announced in October, June for SpaceX and August for Boeing. I would expect that the delays now will force these dates to get delayed as well.

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NASA delays unmanned test of manned Dragon again

While not yet confirmed, industry rumors for the past twenty-four hours are saying that NASA has once again forced a delay in the launch of SpaceX’s unmanned test of manned Dragon, pushing it back into March.

I have linked to one article, but I have been hearing these rumors from a number of sources.

This delay, if true, will cause SpaceX scheduling problems in numerous ways. First, it will conflict with the second Falcon Heavy launch, presently planned for March using the same launchpad. Second, it forces a pushback on the manned Dragon launch. Because SpaceX will use this capsule to fly its launch abort mission, it needs at least three months to prep this capsule for its reuse. Assuming that is a success, it will then need three more months to assess that launch abort flight and prepare for the manned flight. This means the manned flight cannot happen prior to October.

Why the delays? Nowhere in this article or in any of the rumors I have heard has any real reason been given. The article says the following, with the important words highlighted:

As of the first week of December 2018, SpaceX was reportedly planning towards a mid-January 2019 launch debut for Crew Dragon. By the end of December, DM-1 was no earlier than the end of January. By the end of January, DM-1 had slipped to from late-February to NET March 2019. Put in slightly different terms, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launch debut has been more or less indefinitely postponed for the last two months, with planning dates being pushed back at roughly the same pace as the passage of time (i.e. a day’s delay every day).

Admittedly, DM’s apparently indefinite postponement may well be – and probably is – more of an artifact than a sign of any monolithic cause. While the US government’s longest-ever shutdown (35 days) undoubtedly delayed a major proportion of mission-critical work having to do with extensive NASA reviews of SpaceX and Crew Dragon’s launch readiness (known as Readiness Reviews), much of the 60+ day DM-1 delay can probably be attributed to the complexity of the tasks at hand. Being as it is the first time SpaceX has ever attempted a launch directly related to human spaceflight, as well as the first time NASA has been back at the helm (more or less) of US astronaut launch endeavors in more than 7.5 years, significant delays should come as no surprise regardless of how disappointing they may be. [emphasis mine]

The first paragraph above outlines the endless delays that appear to me to be entirely caused by NASA’s endless review process, much of it designed solely to delay things, for political reasons. SpaceX has clearly been ready to launch since December. Moreover, NASA is somewhat irrelevant to this launch, as it is run by a SpaceX launch team on a SpaceX-run launchpad. The delays are all paperwork related, imposed by NASA bureaucrats hostile to this commercial private spacecraft because it is showing the world NASA’s own inability to build its own manned rocket and spacecraft, SLS/Orion.

These NASA bureaucrats are clearly putting their own interests ahead of the interests of the nation. While they play petty political games with this launch, their delays risk putting us in the position next year of having no way to ferry our own astronauts to and from our own space station. The contract with Russia runs out this year, and Russia has said that it would be very difficult for them to quickly schedule more flights beyond that.

Meanwhile, what is Trump doing? Nothing. He is allowing this, even though he has the power to prevent it.

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SpaceX test fires next generation rocket engine

Capitalism in space: This week Elon Musk tweeted pictures of the first static test firing of the first flight Raptor engine, to be used on SpaceX’s next generation rocket, the Super Heavy first stage and the Starship upper stage.

The billionaire entrepreneur also tweeted out several videos of the 3-second test, which took place at the company’s development facility in McGregor, Texas.

Starship is the 100-passenger stainless-steel vehicle SpaceX is building to take people and cargo to Mars and other distant destinations. Starship will launch atop a giant rocket SpaceX calls Super Heavy. Both of these vehicles will be reusable and Raptor-powered. Starship will sport seven of the new engines, and Super Heavy will use 31 Raptors to get off the ground.

A “hopper” prototype that SpaceX will use to test the Starship design on short flights within Earth’s atmosphere will have three Raptor engines. This hopper will debut soon, Musk has said — perhaps within the next month or so, if everything goes according to plan.

This engine appears to be the first built with the intention to actually fly, and is likely going to be used in that “hopper” prototype.

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Unmanned test flight of manned Dragon delayed again?

SpaceX has applied for a new launch license from the FAA for its unmanned test flight of its manned Dragion capsule that sets the launch date as no earlier than March 2nd.

This does not necessarily mean the launch is delayed until then. As noted by commenter Kirk Hilliard here at Behind the Black, “their previous license was valid through 1 March, so they may just be covering their bases here while still planning on launching under the authority of their previous license.”

Regardless, I have seen nothing to change my opinion about the cause of these delays: the NASA bureaucracy. SpaceX has been ready to do this launch since December. It has already done two successful launch rehearsals, one in which they did a successful static fire test, as is standard for the company. Both illustrate their readiness. The launch would use their leased launchpad using their launch crew. There has been no indication of any technical reason for the delays, other than a demand that SpaceX complete paperwork for NASA and the government shutdown (which has not prevented other launches from government facilities).

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Lockheed Martin’s space profits to decline in 2019 because of ULA

Capitalism in space: Lockheed Martin is projecting a decline in its space profits in 2019 because of a decline in income coming from its ULA partnership with Boeing.

In the previous quarterly earnings call in October, Bruce Tanner, Lockheed Martin’s chief financial officer, warned those earnings could be down as much as $150 million in 2019 compared to 2018. Tanner said then that both the number of [ULA] launches and the mix of vehicles contributed to that decline.

“We have more, for instance, Delta 4 launches in 2018 than we expect to have in 2019,” he said in the prior call. “Those are obviously the most profitable launch vehicles in all of ULA’s portfolio.”

In the latest earnings call, Tanner said the decline would not be as large as previously projected, estimating it to be closer $100 million. Part of the change has to do with improved performance at ULA, he said, but a bigger factor was a delay of a Delta 4 Heavy launch from late 2018 to earlier this month, shifting the profit realized from it to 2019. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted language illustrates why they are losing sales. The Delta family of rockets might bring ULA the most income, but that is because it is also its most expensive rocket to build and launch, and is also the one for which it charges the most.

Back in 2016 ULA announced that it planned to retire Delta, but it has not yet done so, probably because the company earns so much with each launch. Whether they eventually retire it or not doesn’t really matter, however, because its high cost will have it with time go the way of the horse regardless. Other cheaper rockets, such as the Falcon Heavy, are getting the business instead.

In fact, this competitive process probably explains entirely the drop in earnings expected in 2019.

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Upper half of Starship hopper blown over by winds

High winds at Boca Chica have toppled the upper half of SpaceX’s Starship Hopper prototype, causing damage that will take “a few weeks to repair,” according to Elon Musk.

The video at the link taken by a driver going past the facility shows the top half lying on the ground.

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Arianespace slashes launch price for Ariane 5

Capitalism in space: Arianespace has announced that it is once again dropping the launch price for an Ariane 5 launch, in order to increase the chances it will win several contracts this year.

Arianespace is competing for two major launch contracts in the Asia-Pacific region that should be awarded this year and expects there could be tenders for another three, said [Arianespace Managing Director and Head of Sales for Asia-Pacific Vivian Quenet].

The article does not mention the actual price, but Arianespace had been charging about $100 million per launch satellite, while SpaceX had been charging $62 million (for a new Falcon 9) and about $50 million (for a reused one).

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SpaceX shifts some Starship/Super Heavy construction to Texas

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has decided to shift some of the construction of its new Starship/Super Heavy rocket from Los Angeles to its Boca Chica facility in Texas.

In tweets later Jan. 16, Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of SpaceX, said that development of the vehicle itself, including the Raptor engines that power it, would continue in Hawthorne, while at least the prototype versions of Starship are built in Texas. “We are building the Starship prototypes locally at our launch site in Texas, as their size makes them very difficult to transport,” he said.

A shift to South Texas, industry sources said, could be a way to reduce expenses, given the lower cost of living there versus the Los Angeles area. However, that region of Texas has a much smaller workforce, particularly in aerospace, compared to Southern California.

Meanwhile, I keep hearing from my sources in the industry that SpaceX is facing more serious problems because of the coming decline in the manufacture of large geosynchronous satellites. The smallsat revolution appears to be the cause, and SpaceX’s larger rockets are not ideal for launching these tiny satellites. I am not entirely convinced of this pessimistic conclusion, but if SpaceX is in trouble it will likely be a tragedy for manned spaceflight. The smallsat rockets cannot put people in space. Neither can the gigantic government rockets like SLS. Without innovative companies like SpaceX building and launching large rockets for profit, the development of the large inexpensive rockets needed for human travel will be significantly hampered.

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A detailed look at the layoffs at SpaceX

Capitalism in space: Link here. Because of California’s complex employee protection laws, SpaceX has provided the government there a detailed list describing the 577 layoffs taking place in California.

Technicians — a critical role at any rocket company — make up the lion’s share of laid-off employees, with 174 positions eliminated (30.2% of all layoffs in Hawthorne). Engineers come next with 97 jobs let go, or nearly 17% of the locally terminated workforce.

Managers and supervisors together make up about 7% of the layoffs in Hawthorne. Positions listed under “Other” include baristas, dishwashers, drivers, recruiters, writers, and an investigator.

The article really doesn’t tell us much, other than the large majority of the 10% reduction are occurring in California, which makes me wonder if SpaceX is acting to reduce its presence in that high-tax, high-regulation state.

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More updates from SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch site

Link here. The article reviews what has been done for the past few months, as well as what has been done most recently. All of this new work appears focused on preparing for test flights of Starship and Super Heavy.

I should note however that I am beginning to sense a little bit of Barnum in this work. The steel-clad Starship Hopper that SpaceX has assembled here is clearly not even close to doing any hopper tests, as it doesn’t appear to have fuel tanks and its engines appear to be mere “placeholders for fit checks.” It looks really really cool, however, and is impossible to hide to the public, so it thus has garnered the company a lot of attention.

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