SpaceX is planning its own spaceport about three miles north of Mexico at the southern tip of Texas.

SpaceX is planning its own spaceport about three miles north of Mexico at the southern tip of Texas.

SpaceX had been looking at sites at various potential sites, including ones in Florida, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Company officials have said they plan to operate out of Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base as well. A third, commercial launch site frees them from range restrictions that exist at the other two locations.

The actual cost to launch

In writing this short post on the efforts of Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences to launch rockets for the small satellite market, Clark Lindsey made this comment:

It costs around $50 million to launch a Orbital Sciences Minotaur 4, which can put 1,730 kg into LEO while the Lockheed’s Athena 2 will cost around $65 million to put 1,712 kg into LEO. SpaceX currently posts charges $54M – $59.5M for launching to LEO 10,450 kg (equatorial) and 8,560 kg (polar). If SpaceX is able to sustain these prices in routine operation, it will obviously result in some disturbance to the launch industry.

Let’s deconstruct these numbers again, this time listing them by the cost per kilogram:
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Stupidity on display

In hearings Wednesday, several members of Congress suggested that NASA force the new competing commercial space companies to combine their efforts in order to save money.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) asked NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a March 21 hearing on the agency’s 2013 budget the same question he asked of the White House’s chief science adviser last month: would NASA’s partnership with commercial companies to develop astronaut transports be cheaper if the companies competing for NASA funds combined their efforts into a single “all for one and one for all” project?

Similarly, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) made the same stupid argument in her continuing effort to keep the funding of the Space Launch System, the rocket-formerly-called-Constellation, as high as possible, at the cost of cutting everything else in NASA if necessary.

If you needed any evidence that members of Congress are ignorant idiots, you only need read the comments of these elected officials at these hearings to get your proof. Wolf or Hutchison as well as several others from both parties very clearly haven’t the slightest idea what these various space companies are building. Nor do they have the faintest notion of the difficulties entailed in building these manned space vessels.
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Aviation Week looks at the launch challenges facing SpaceX over the next two years.

Aviation Week looks at the launch challenges facing SpaceX over the next two years.

Though it is very clear SpaceX has a tough schedule of launches coming up, with much of the future of American aerospace riding on their success, this article is strangely hostile to the company. There is no doubt the company has fallen behind schedule, but the list of customers who have been willing to commit to the company is quite impressive, especially considering that SpaceX literally didn’t exist six years ago.

I’ll make several predictions:

  • SpaceX will experience further launch delays.
  • SpaceX will even have one launch failure in the next two years.
  • SpaceX will nonetheless succeed, because its successes will far exceed the failures, and they are clearly offering a better product for less money.

The fundamental design flaw of all of Tesla Motors’ electric cars.

The fundamental design flaw of all of Tesla Motors’ electric cars.

A Tesla Roadster that is simply parked without being plugged in will eventually become a “brick”. The parasitic load from the car’s always-on subsystems continually drains the battery and if the battery’s charge is ever totally depleted, it is essentially destroyed. Complete discharge can happen even when the car is plugged in if it isn’t receiving sufficient current to charge, which can be caused by something as simple as using an extension cord. After battery death, the car is completely inoperable. At least in the case of the Tesla Roadster, it’s not even possible to enable tow mode, meaning the wheels will not turn and the vehicle cannot be pushed nor transported to a repair facility by traditional means.

This problem could destroy the company, which, believe it or not, might actually have a negative effect on the American space program! Elon Musk, the man behind SpaceX and the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule is also the CEO of Tesla. If Tesla goes down, one wonders if that could have an impact on SpaceX’s effort to get Americans into space.

SpaceX outlines its new design goals for Falcon 9

What competition brings: SpaceX outlines its new design goals for Falcon 9 and its Merlin rocket engine.

[U]pcoming upgrades to the engine (Merlin 1D) will provide a vast improvement in performance, reliability and manufacturability – all of which could provide a timely boost to aiding the potential for success for the fully reusable Falcon 9.

Increased reliability: Simplified design by eliminating components and sub-assemblies. Increased fatigue life. Increased chamber and nozzle thermal margins,” noted SpaceX in listing the improvements in work.

Improved Performance: Thrust increased from 95,000 lbf (sea level) to 140,000 lbf (sea level). Added throttle capability for range from 70-100 percent. Currently, it is necessary to shut off two engines during ascent. The Merlin 1D will make it possible to throttle all engines. Structure was removed from the engine to make it lighter.

Improved Manufacturability: Simplified design to use lower cost manufacturing techniques. Reduced touch labor and parts count. Increased in-house production at SpaceX.

That’s just the engine. Most of the article however talks about the company’s effort to make as much of Falcon 9 reusable as possible. Hat tip to Clark Lindsey.

Space exploration and the unexpected consequences of government decisions

On Thursday, December 15, 2011, NASA management announced what seemed at first glance to be a very boring managerial decision. Future contracts with any aerospace company to launch astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) will follow the same contractual arrangements used by NASA and SpaceX and Orbital Sciences for supplying cargo to the space station.

As boring that sounds, this is probably the most important decision NASA managers have made since the 1960s. Not only will this contractual approach lower the cost and accelerate the speed of developing a new generation of manned spaceships, it will transfer control of space exploration from NASA — an overweight and bloated government agency — to the free and competitive open market.

To me, however, the decision illustrates a number of unexpected consequences, none of which have been noted by anyone in the discussions that followed NASA’s announcement back in mid-December.
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Rutan, Allen, Musk, Griffin team up to develop an air-launch rocket system to fire hardware and humans into orbit.

Superstars of space: Rutan, Allen, Musk, and Griffin have teamed up to develop an air-launch rocket system to fire hardware and humans into orbit.

Their concept calls for Rutan, a noted aircraft designer, to create a carrier jet with a 385-foot wingspan and six engines to ferry a liquid-fueled, 120-foot-long rocket built by SpaceX and outfitted with five main engines to altitude where the winged booster will be released for launch into orbit.

The case against SpaceX

The case against SpaceX. From one of the company’s biggest supporters.

Trent Waddington raises many good points, all of which must be considered to have a clear, educated sense of where the future stands for American manned spaceflight. Two quotes:

The goal of SpaceX is human spaceflight, and the greatest repository of knowledge about human spaceflight is NASA. As such, it would appear obvious that getting NASA to help you to fly humans safely is a good idea. The way to do that is with Space Act Agreements. This is what SpaceX did under the COTS program, and later under the CCDev program.. and they got paid for the privilege. As a result, the Dragon spacecraft will soon be fully qualified as safe for human habitation on orbit as it will be berthed to the ISS and have astronauts inside it.

The problem is that NASA is a precocious customer. They know what they want, they think they know even better than you do how to make it, and they feel no guilt about changing their mind halfway through the project. As such, Space Act Agreements just totally grind NASA’s gears. They don’t have enough control. [emphasis in original]

NASA money is like heroin.. once they start taking it, most people find it very hard to stop. There’s a dependence that has grown between NASA and SpaceX, and although it is obviously a love-hate relationship, it’s going to be very hard for SpaceX to let go.. but, inevitably, they must. The current needs of NASA are very different to the long term goals of SpaceX.

And this:

Fundamentally, SpaceX has a shoddy business case which is best described as a house of cards.. that they’re still trying to play poker with.. and there’s dogs at the table, and they’re smoking cigars! Yeah, metaphor.

Read the whole thing. It’s quite good.

Doubts on Display from Congress during hearing on Private Space

Several Congressmen expressed doubts about and resistance to the new private space manned effort by companies like SpaceX during hearings today in the House.

Let’s be honest: it’s all about pork and only pork. Unfortunately, the new companies don’t deliver the same kind of pork to the right congressional districts, even if they might deliver a real product faster and for less money. To quote the article:

Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., rallied to the industry’s defense, citing a “hostility” to the private space industry. “Much to my dismay, I see some of the worst elements of decision making,” he said. “I see an anti-commercial-space attitude that could have very negative consequences.” Rohrabacher (who represents a district near SpaceX’s headquarters) seemed to chide Hall and Johnson, the two Texans who chair the panel, for parochial views. “Focusing on one’s own district and directing federal funds seems to be having a major impact on this decision,” he said.

As we anticipated yesterday, there were other regional pleas connected to the word of choice heard in the halls of Congress: jobs. Rep. Hansen Clarke, D-Mich., for instance, asked how the space contract could be used to create jobs in his district of metropolitan Detroit. The witnesses made the most diplomatic kowtows they could. “I’ve been pushing SpaceX to use more automotive suppliers,” Musk responded. Other space industry execs went on to claim Michigan subcontractors, to praise the auto industry, and to speak of spin-offs from space science programs.

Elon Musk and the forgotten word

Elon Musk at National Press Club

When Elon Musk gave his speech at the National Press Club on September 29, he was asked one question to which he really did not know the answer. He faked it, but his response illustrated how completely forgotten is one fundamental fact about American society — even though this fact is the very reason the United States became the world’s most wealthy and powerful nation less than two centuries after its founding.

To explain this fundamental fact I think I need to take a step back and talk about the ongoing war taking place right now over how the United States should get its astronauts into space. On one side we have NASA and Congress, who want NASA to build a new heavy-lift rocket to carry its Orion capsule beyond Earth orbit. On the other side we have a host of independent new space companies, all vying for the chance to launch humans and cargo into space for fun and profit.

Which is right? What system should the United State choose?
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GAO and SpaceX blast military’s plans to spend $15 billion for all its launches through 2018 in one purchase

GAO and SpaceX blast the military’s plans to spend $15 billion for all its launches through 2018, in one bulk purchase.

The reason given by the military for buying all these launches up front is to save money. In reality, it is to favor the companies they want to do business with, rather than open up the business to as many competitors as possible.

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