Blue Origin pinpoints problem with BE-4 engine

Capitalism in space: According to ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno, Blue Origin has identified and fixed the issue with the turbopumps of its new BE-4 rocket engine.

United Launch Alliance Chief Executive Tory Bruno said Friday that the problem was “sorted out,” and that the full-scale, flight-configured BE-4 engine is now accumulating a lot of time on the test stand. Bruno made his comments about one hour into The Space Show with David Livingston.

Bruno’s company, ULA, is buying the BE-4 engine to provide thrust for the first stage of its upcoming Vulcan-Centaur rocket. This booster may make its debut next year, although ULA is still awaiting delivery of BE-4s for the first flight. Two of these large engines—each providing about 25-percent more thrust than the RS-25s used on the Space Shuttle—will power each Vulcan rocket.

Here’s what I think happened: Blue Origin struggled to fix the problem for several years. ULA, suspecting problems, got increasingly impatient at the lack of delivery of an operational engine, and threatened to dump the BE-4 in favor of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engine unless it was given a test engine to analyze. Blue Origin finally complied in July, and very quickly ULA pinpointed the problem and the solution.

While this is good news for the development of both ULA’s Vulcan and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rockets, it does not speak well for the development team at Blue Origin. Nonetheless, the engine is always the big hurdle for designing a rocket, and that hurdle has now been passed.

During Bruno’s interview he also said that ULA still intends to recover and reuse these engines when it flies its Vulcan rocket, but gave no timeline for when that might happen. Initially, and probably for several years at least, expect those engines to be expendable and tossed into the ocean with each flight.

Delta 4 Heavy launch now delayed indefinitely due to launchpad issues

ULA has now delayed indefinitely the launch of a military reconnaissance satellite using its Delta 4 Heavy rocket because of ongoing issues in the swing arms on the launch tower.

According to ULA’s CEO, Tory Bruno:

..ULA was “working through an issue with pad hydraulics” associated with the swing arm retraction system at the Delta 4 launch pad. Three swing arms feeding propellants and conditioned air to the rocket and its satellite payload are designed to retract as the Delta 4-Heavy lifts off.

“Fixing is always easy,” Bruno tweeted. “Making sure something stays fixed takes more work and lots of discipline.”

This launch has been delayed numerous times in the past two months, almost always because of a variety of different problems, most related to the launchpad, with two scrubs occurring as launch aborts at launch. As the article at the link correctly notes,

The repeated problems with different parts of the Delta 4-Heavy’s launch pad have raised questions about aging infrastructure at pad 37B, which was originally built to support Saturn rocket launches in the 1960s, then mothballed until Boeing took over the facility in the 1990s for the Delta 4 program.

Boeing built the towering mobile gantry for the Delta 4 rocket, along with a then-new fixed umbilical tower with huge swing arms designed to pull away from the launcher as it climbs away from the pad.

The age of the launchpad, combined with the expensive complexity of the Delta 4 Heavy that results in very few launches spread over many years, cannot result in reliable operations.

Endless technical issues force Delta 4 Heavy launch scrubs

BUMPED and revised to include the September 30th launch abort.

Can we count the ways? For what has become a string of seemingly endless technical issues, ULA on September 29th was forced to once again scrub the launch of a military reconnaissance satellite because of a technical issue with its Delta 4 Heavy rocket and launchpad.

Apparently when they tried to move the launchpad’s mobile gantry away from the rocket they discovered “a hydraulic leak in the ground system.”

On the evening of September 30th (tonight) they tried again, only to have an abort at T-7 seconds, just as the engines were to ignite as planned.

They have been trying to get this bird off the ground now for more than a month. Here is a chronology of the launch scrubs, with all the various technical issues described.

August 26: Scrub because of “several problems,” the primary cause being a “pneumatics system issue.” This same countdown also had a long hold because of two blown fuses in a launchpad heater.

August 29: Aborted at T-3 seconds, due to “a torn diaphragm in one of three pressure regulators” in the launchpad. During the countdown they also had holds to deal with a fuel valve issue, a fuel sensor issue, and a temperature payload issue.

September 26: Scrubbed because of issue with the launchpad “swing arm retraction system.”

September 27: Scrubbed because of a continuing issue with the launchpad “swing arm retraction system.”

September 29 (just after midnight): A lightning strike forced a scrub. This was the only scrub not caused by technical issues.

September 29 (just before midnight): Scrubbed because of a hydraulic leak in the ground system.

September 30: Aborted at T-7 seconds. Under investigation. No new launch date yet announced.

This string of seemingly minor and apparently easy-to-fix problems does not reflect well on the quality control systems at ULA. I understand that this is rocket science, and thus difficult. At the same time engineers have now been doing launches for more than a half century, and this tale of woe above is more reminiscent of the early days of rocketry in the 1960s, when you might have a dozen or more scrubs because of these kinds of technical issues. You’d think by now ULA’s launch engineers would have worked these kinks out.

From a customer perspective this list of issues is also troubling, considering that the Delta 4 Heavy costs the customer more than any other commercial rocket. Granted it can put up a lot of payload, but the Falcon Heavy can put up more, and do it for less than half the cost and far more reliably. If I was ULA’s customer I would not be very satisfied with the product I am getting, even if the launch turns out to be a complete success.

The delays are also impacting other launches. SpaceX has had to repeatedly delay the launch of a GPS satellite on its Falcon 9 because for scheduling reasons the ULA launch must come first.

China and Russia launch a bunch of satellites

Russia today used its Soyuz-2 rocket to launch three communication satellites plus 19 commercial smallsats.

This was the first time Russia used the Soyuz-2 for these particular small communications satellites, as previously they had been launched by a variety of smaller rockets.

China in turn today used its Long March 4B to place two Earth resource satellites into orbit.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

25 China
15 SpaceX
10 Russia
4 ULA
4 Europe (Arianespace)

China has moved ahead of the U.S. 25 to 24 in the national rankings.

These numbers should change again in the next few days. The U.S. has had a number of scrubs and launch delays in the past few days. ULA has been repeatedly pushing back the previously delayed launch of a National Security Agency reconnaissance satellite due to a variety of problems related to its Delta 4 Heavy rocket. The launch is now set for just after midnight tonight (Monday night). [UPDATE: Launch scrubbed due to lightning and poor weather. Tentatively rescheduled for 11:58 pm (Eastern) on September 29.]

SpaceX meanwhile had to scrub a launch this morning (September 28) of another 60 Starlink satellites due to weather. No new launch date has yet been announced.

Northrop Grumman also has had to scrub tomorrow’s Antares launch of a Cygnus cargo freighter because of poor weather at Wallops Island. It is now set for the evening of October 1st.

SpaceX also has a scheduled launch tomorrow morning of a GPS satellite on its Falcon 9 rocket. This is also threatened by weather. There is also no word whether the ULA launch scrub will cause this launch to be delayed.

ULA reveals Chinese-owned company attempted to steal rocket data

In an interview yesterday ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno revealed that a Chinese-owned software company tried to infiltrate the supply chain being set up to build their next generation Vulcan rocket.

Bruno said the Chinese-owned vendor identified in ULA’s supply chain was a provider of software for tools used to manufacture the company’s next-generation rocket Vulcan Centaur. Because the issue was detected quickly, no sensitive information was extracted by that supplier, Bruno said.

The company flagged as a risk was a tool supplier working with KUKA Robotics. According to ULA, KUKA had no access to ULA’s intellectual property. “ULA envisions no further future work involving KUKA or KUKA products,” the spokesperson said. “There was no evidence they attempted to obtain data, however, we have an obligation to our customers as well as our company to ensure we have taken all necessary steps to protect our IP as well as information the government has entrusted us with.”

The Pentagon has shown growing concern about Chinese ownership of U.S. suppliers and continues to impose cybersecurity requirements on contractors. “But I have to tell you this is just shocking in terms of the scale and ubiquity of this threat and this effort on the part of China to not only gain access to intellectual property through traditional means — hacking or espionage — but through infiltration of the supply chain,” Bruno said.

The article also notes that while the top tier subcontractors ULA might hire are almost all American owned, foreign companies own 70% of the smaller subvendors, and the number of Chinese-owned subvendors has grown 420% since 2010.

China’s effort to steal American technology has been a serious problem that has been ignored for too long.

ULA pinpoints cause of Delta launch abort, reschedules launch

ULA has identified the cause of the launch abort of its Delta 4 Heavy rocket on August 29th, and has now aiming for a launch no earlier than September 18th.

A torn diaphragm in one of three pressure regulators at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 37 caused the computer-controlled scrub just three seconds before liftoff on Aug. 29, ULA CEO Tory Bruno said via Twitter on Wednesday. The engines briefly lit on fire, but the rocket remained firmly on the pad.

“Torn diaphragm (in the regulator), which can occur over time,” Bruno said. “Verifying the condition of the other two regulators. We will replace or rebuild as needed, re-test, and then resume towards launch.” [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words illustrate the less than stellar old space rocket design that the Delta 4 Heavy represents, and that ULA is perpetuating as long as it uses this rocket. Rather than redesign so that these torn diaphragms will no longer be a problem, it appears they will simply make sure this design is tested and works, for this launch. Thus, this issue has the possibility of reappearing in a future launch.

Wouldn’t it be better to upgrade and eliminate such a problem, for good, once it is identified? That appears to be SpaceX’s strategy, and the consequence is that their rockets and spacecraft get increasingly more reliable with time.

Anyway, if ULA’s schedule holds, it means there will be two launches at Cape Canaveral in less than 24 hours, as SpaceX is aiming for another Starlink launch the day earlier.

ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy: Launch abort at T-3 seconds tonight

Delta 4 Heavy immediately after engine shutdown

UPDATE: It appears ULA will need at least a week to analyze the situation before attempting another launch. It also appears that SpaceX is going forward with its two launches on August 30.

—————————
Tonight’s attempt by ULA to launch a National Reconnaissance Satellite on its Delta 4 Heavy rocket was aborted at T-3 seconds when the rocket’s main engines did an automatic abort. The image to the right shows the rocket immediately after the engines shut down, the smoke clearing and the rocket still sitting on the launch pad.

They are presently unfueling the rocket and will not launch tonight. They have not set a new launch date, and there is also no word on whether this launch delay will force delays in the two SpaceX launches set for August 30th. My guess is that the issue tonight will take time to assess, so they will give up their place in line and let SpaceX proceed as planned.

In watching ULA’s broadcast tonight, as well as reviewing the issues that prevented launch two days ago, I was struck by several things. First, ULA’s promo films to tout the wonders of the Delta family of rockets actually made them seem incredibly clunky and complex. There seemed to be too many pieces and complex operations to get the rocket ready for launch, which makes sense as Delta rockets are very costly and not competitive with today’s market. This is the exact reason ULA is in the process of retiring the entire Delta family. They will complete the already purchased and scheduled launches, but in the future will use their new Vulcan rocket for similar future bids.

Second, the number of minor and major technical issues during both countdowns reinforced my impressions above. This is a very complex rocket to launch, and that complexity apparently leads to many issues that make launch difficult.

For the scrub on August 26 they first had two blown fuses in a launchpad heater that had to be replaced, then a pneumatics system issue that was apparently not solved during the countdown. When they scrubbed, however, they said they did it because of “several problems,” not just this one.

On tonight’s launch they first had an issue with a fuel valve, then several fuel sensor alarms gave them problems, requiring them to disable them to proceed, then the temperatures in the payload electronics posed an issue that after some analysis was considered acceptable. These issues caused the launch to be delayed by about an hour and a half.

Finally, the rocket’s main engines shut down at the rescheduled lift-off time.

It might not be fair, but in comparing this ULA launch effort with the numerous countdowns by SpaceX the differences were stark. SpaceX has had comparable few issues during recent launches, with only one launch recently scrubbed due to a technical issue in July. Moreover, the company’s launch team has several times had similar launch aborts at T-0, and still were able to recycle everything and proceed to launch immediately.

All these impressions once again suggest that ULA is making the right decision to retire Delta. That it is going to take them several more years however to launch several more government surveillance satellites raises questions about the decisions of our government to pay for such a unwieldy and expensive rocket. There now are better and cheaper options available.

Five American launches in two days!

Capitalism in space: Though the first launches in the string of four American launches that was initially scheduled to begin two days ago and continue through the weekend was delayed because of weather and then technical issues, all these delays have done is pack those scheduled launches into a shorter time period, with the addition of a fifth launch!

If all goes as scheduled (hardly guaranteed), we will see five launches from three spaceports and four private companies in less than two days. The schedule, as of this moment:

August 29th at 2:04 am (Eastern): ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy to launch a military reconnaissance satellite from Cape Canaveral. The company’s webcast of the launch can be seen here.

August 29th at 11:05 pm (Eastern): Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket will launch a commercial radar satellite from New Zealand. The launch can be watched at the company’s live stream channel.

August 30th at 10:08 am (Eastern): SpaceX’s Falcon 9 will launch more of its Starlink satellites from Cape Canaveral. All SpaceX launches are live streamed from SpaceX’s website, though the links are not yet up.

August 30th at 7:19 pm (Eastern): SpaceX’s Falcon 9 will launch an Argentinian Earth observation satellite from Cape Canaveral. All SpaceX launches are live streamed from SpaceX’s website, though the links are not yet up.

August 30th at 10:00 pm (Eastern): Astra will attempt the first orbital test launch of its privately built rocket from Kodiak, Alaska. They will not be live streaming their launch, but will provide updates at their Twitter feed.

All times and dates list only the beginning of the launch windows, which means they might launch, but not exactly at the times listed.

Also, SpaceX is aiming to do its second Starship test hop this weekend, the first for its sixth prototype.

Delta 4 Heavy launch scrubbed

Tonight’s launch of ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy was scrubbed due to a variety of technical problems. They have not set a new launch time, though they say they are aiming for the early morning hours of August 28.

This was to have been the first of four American launches in the next four days. The next, a Falcon 9 launch of an Argentinian radar Earth observation satellite, was scheduled for tomorrow, August 27th, at 7:19 pm (Eastern). No word on whether it is going forward as planned, though it might be since the ULA launch has shifted after it, to August 28th.

The third, by Rocket Lab, is presently scheduled also for August 28rd at 11:05 pm (Eastern), launching out of New Zealand.

The fourth, another SpaceX launch of more Starlink satellites, had been scheduled for 10:30 am (Eastern) on August 29th. Once again, this schedule could change due to tonight’s ULA scrub.

Stay tuned. I suspect all three companies are going to aggressively work to get all four launches off as fast as possible, even if not exactly as presently scheduled.

Four American launches in the four days

UPDATE: Rocket Lab’s launch has been delayed to 11:05 pm (Eastern) August 28 due of weather.

Beginning tomorrow, the next four days will be very busy for the American space rocket industry, with three companies attempting to complete four different launches.

First comes Rocket Lab, which will attempt its first launch of its Electron rocket since its first operational launch failure on July 4. Launch is scheduled for 11:05 pm (Eastern) on August 26th.

Next ULA is scheduled to use its most powerful rocket, the Delta 4 Heavy, to put a National Reconnaissance Office surveillance satellite into orbit. Launch is set for 2:12 am (Eastern) on August 27th. This very expensive rocket (which costs three to four times that of a Falcon Heavy) has only four launches left before being permanently retired.

Then SpaceX will attempt two launches in quick succession. The first will launch at 7:19 pm (Eastern) on August 27th, putting up an Argentinian Earth observation radar satellite. On this launch the first stage is a new one, and will attempt the first landing at Cape Canaveral since March 2020.

SpaceX will then follow with its third Starlink launch this month and twelfth overall, scheduled for 10:30 am (Eastern) on August 29th out of its facility at Cape Canaveral, assuming the other launches at Kennedy go as planned.

Moreover, the startup smallsat rocket company Astra is also aiming to attempt its first test launch before the end of August. The date is not yet set.

Busy times for sure, but note that this is only the beginning. I expect by the end of the 2020s the launch schedule will get increasingly packed. Soon having three three launches per week will seem routine.

ULA’s Vulcan rocket: problems with Blue Origin’s rocket engine

Based on a detailed update today at NASASpaceFlight.com on the status of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket, it appears that while everything is proceeding as scheduled for a 2021 launch debut, the big issue that might cause a delay is Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine, to be used in Vulcan’s first stage.

Speaking to the Denver Business Journal yesterday, ULA CEO Tory Bruno noted an ongoing issue with BE-4’s turbopumps but voiced his confidence that the issue would soon be resolved and that it would not impact Vulcan’s schedule at this time.

…Development of the BE-4 has long been seen as the critical path for Vulcan. ULA exercised an option within the U.S. Space Force’s National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 award proposal and bid Atlas V as a backup vehicle for Vulcan in case the latter ran into development or certification issues.

When asked when ULA would have to inform the Space Force of its desire to switch one of the first awarded NSSL missions from Vulcan to Atlas V under a purely hypothetical BE-4 or Vulcan issue, Mr. Peller [VP of Major Development for ULA] did not comment directly, instead affirming ULA’s confidence that all of their NSSL missions would fly on Vulcan. [emphasis mine]

From the Denver Business Journal article:

Blue Origin is still troubleshooting the 75,000-horsepower pumps that bring fuel to the BE-4’s main combustion chamber, Bruno said, adding that he’s confident the issues will soon be solved. “There’s very little technical risk,” he said. “It isn’t easy, but we know we can do it.” [emphasis mine]

This is the first public admission I’ve seen anywhere of a specific problem with the BE-4 engine. It also suggests strongly that the problem has been long-standing, and has not yet been solved.

Both articles also make it clear that ULA is prepared to continue using both the Atlas 5 rocket and the Russian engines (that the BE-4 is supposed to replace) until 2027, if necessary.

While it could very well be that the BE-4’s turbopump issues are on the way to being solved and there will be no delays, the careful wording by Bruno and his head of development strongly suggests that they are aware of an issue and are trying to deflect press interest in it. In fact, the timing of this revelation, only six weeks after Blue Origin delivered to ULA its first BE-4 engine (a test version not flightworthy), suggests that ULA has only now become aware of the issue, and is now working to help solve it.

Stay tuned. I suspect all will become very clear within the next few months.

Air Force terminates development contracts to ULA, Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman

In awarding ULA and SpaceX exclusive launch rights for all launches through 2026, the Air Force also decided to end prematurely the development contracts to ULA, Blue Origin, and Northrop Grumman aimed at helping these companies develop new rockets.

An issue at hand is the termination of the Launch Service Agreement contracts that the Air Force awarded in October 2018 to Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman, as well as to ULA. The purpose of the agreements was to help Phase 2 competitors pay for launch vehicle development and infrastructure. Blue Origin received $500 million; Northrop Grumman $792 million and ULA $967 million. The funds were to be spread out through 2024, and the Air Force from the beginning said the LSAs would be terminated with those companies that did not win a Phase 2 procurement contract.

Despite political pressure to not end the LSAs, the agreements will be terminated, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Will Roper said Aug. 7 during a video conference with reporters. “We will work with those two companies to determine the right point to tie off their work under the LSA agreements,” Roper said. The intent of the LSAs “was to create a more competitive environment leading into Phase 2,” he said. “The point is not to carry them indefinitely.”

LSA funds supported the development of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket and Northrop Grumman’s OmegA launch vehicle. ULA will continue to receive funds for its Vulcan Centaur vehicle.

Almost immediately after the award of these contracts was announced in 2018, ULA and Blue Origin announced one year delays in the development of Vulcan and New Glenn. Apparently, meeting the additional requirements of military’s bureaucracy in exchange for getting the cash slowed development.

Now they won’t be getting a large part of that cash, making the decision to take it a deal with the devil. The delay in development has definitely hurt both companies in their competition with SpaceX. First, it likely has raised the cost and complexity of their new rockets, making it harder to compete in price. Second, the delay has given SpaceX more time to grab more customers while improving its own rockets.

SpaceX initially protested not getting a share of this development money, but has subsequently chosen to no longer pursue such government money for Starship because it doesn’t want itself hampered by obtuse government officials and their mindless requirements.

Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman’s Omega rocket is almost certainly dead. That company took the old big space company approach, structuring development around government cash. Without it there is no R&D money at Northrop Grumman to continue work. Furthermore, Omega was designed to serve only once customer, the military. Without any launch contracts there are no customers for Omega, especially because it likely has too high a launch price.

Air Force limits future launch bidding to SpaceX and ULA

The Air Force today announced that it decided, after more than a year of discussions and negotiations, to limit bidding on all launch contracts for the next five years to only SpaceX and ULA, thus restricting competitive bidding on those contracts.

The awards represent the second phase of the military’s National Security Space Launch program, which is organized by the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, California. Four companies — Elon Musk’s SpaceX, ULA, Northrop Grumman and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin — bid for the contracts, with the military set to spend about $1 billion per year on launches.

The NSSL awards represent nearly three dozen launches, scheduled between 2022 and 2026. ULA won 60% of the launches, and SpaceX won the remaining 40%.

The award blocks Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin from bidding on these contracts. Expect a lawsuit from these two companies demanding that they have the right to bid, just as SpaceX did several years ago when the Air Force tried to maintain ULA’s monopoly on bidding.

On a very common sense level, this approach by the Air Force (its space operations soon to be taken over by the Space Force) makes little sense. Why restrict bidding? Both Blue Origin or Northrop Grumman expect to have their new rockets operating commercially in the next two years. They should have the right to bid on military launches. The competition will strengthen the launch market, reduce the costs to the military, and give it more redundancy and flexibility.

Based on my research, the only real reason I have ever been able to find for the Air Force’s desire to do this is their inability to deal with their paperwork should more than two bids be received.

SpaceX and ULA get launch contracts from SES

Capitalism in space: The satellite communications company SES yesterday announced the award of new launch contracts to both SpaceX and ULA.

It appears that the contract was for one launch from each company, each putting up two satellites. Previously SES’s satellites were generally too large for either the Atlas 5 or the Falcon 9 to launch two at one time. This suggests that the satellite company is slimming down the design of its satellites.

Live stream of Perseverance launch tomorrow

I have embedded below the fold NASA’s live stream channel for tomorrow’s 7:50 am (Eastern) launch of the Perseverance rover to Mars on a ULA Atlas-5 rocket.

At present the channel is carrying NASA’s programming leading up to the launch. The actual live stream for the launch begins at 7 am (Eastern).

The weather looks good, and there appear to be no issues, as of 11 pm (Eastern).

» Read more

Blue Origin delivers its first BE-4 rocket engine

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin this week delivered its first BE-4 rocket engine to ULA, for use in ULA’s new Vulcan rocket.

This engine is still a test article and is not yet flight-worthy.

“The engine delivered is the first pathfinder engine to be mated with the Vulcan Centaur and will support ULA’s testing,” a Blue Origin spokesperson told SpaceNews. “We are planning on delivering the second engine in July.” A pathfinder is a development engine. Blue Origin has not said when a flight-qualified engine will be delivered.

…ULA set a 2021 target to fly its first Vulcan Centaur mission and needs two production-quality engines to build the launch vehicle for that mission. Flying Vulcan Centaur in 2021 is an imperative for ULA as it tries to win one of two contracts that the U.S. Space Force will award this summer to launch dozens of national security satellites between 2022 and 2027.

According to sources, frustration has been mounting at ULA as the company’s future is tied to the success of Vulcan Centaur and there is no room for error when it comes to the main engine.

I empathize with ULA’s frustration. The pace of development at Blue Origin has seemed incredibly slow in the past two years. They had begun static fire tests in 2018, and then — beginning with ULA’s decision to buy the BE-4 for Vulcan in May 2018 — for more than a year there was no news. It wasn’t until August 2019 that they announced completion of the first full power test. Even then, it took another whole year before they got to this point now, where they were willing to deliver a first test engine to ULA.

Building a new rocket engine is not simple, so these delays could be entirely reasonable. At the same time, the company’s overall pace in accomplishing anything has been glacial. For example, in the past three years it has repeatedly not delivered on its promises to start flying humans on its New Shepard suborbital capsule. Four months ago, in their most recent promise, they said they would need three more unmanned test flights of New Shepard before they’d put humans on it, and that all those flights (including the manned one) would occur this year. Yet nothing has happened since.

While I truly want Blue Origin to succeed, one must cast a cold eye on what is really happening. If they wish to really compete with SpaceX they have got to pick up their pace.

Perseverance launch delayed to July 30, 2020

Not good: Because of an issue with the Atlas 5 rocket, NASA and ULA have decided to delay again the launch of the next Mars rover Perseverance from July 22nd to July 30th.

“Due to launch vehicle processing delays in preparation for spacecraft mate operations, NASA and United Launch Alliance have moved the first launch attempt of the Mars 2020 mission to no earlier than July 30,” NASA said. “A liquid oxygen sensor line presented off-nominal data during the Wet Dress Rehearsal, and additional time is needed for the team to inspect and evaluate.”

ULA performed the Wet Dress Rehearsal on June 22. The exercise involved rolling the Perseverance rover’s Atlas 5 launcher out of its vertical integration hangar to Cape Canaveral’s Complex 41 launch pad, then loading the rocket with kerosene, liquid hydrogen, and liquid oxygen propellants. The launch team practiced countdown procedures, testing the Atlas 5’s systems before halting the pre-launch sequence seconds before ignition of the rocket’s RD-180 main engine.

Their official launch window extends to August 11th, though they could still launch as late as August 15th and get to their landing site in Jezero Crater on Mars.

This is the third delay. The first involved a faulty crane and the second contamination issues in the rover’s clean room. Now an issue with an oxygen sensor. Let us hope their are no more, and that the weather then cooperates. It they don’t launch by August 15th the launch will then be postponed for two whole years.

Perseverance launch delayed two days

NASA and ULA have agreed to delay the launch of the new Mars rover Perseverance two days, from July 20th to July 22nd, because of “a contamination concern.”

NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance was scheduled to launch toward the Red Planet on July 20 from a pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. But a problem cropped up as engineers worked to encapsulate the rover in the nosecone of its Atlas V rocket, which was built by United Launch Alliance.

“NASA and United Launch Alliance are now targeting Wednesday, July 22, for launch of the Mars 2020 mission due to a processing delay encountered during encapsulation activities of the spacecraft,” NASA officials said in an update. “Additional time was needed to resolve a contamination concern in the ground support lines in NASA’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF).”

This contamination likely relates to their effort to keep the rover free from Earth biology.

The official launch window closes on August 11th, though they can still launch as late as August 15th and get to their targeted landing site in Jezero Crater on Mars.

ULA on schedule for maiden flight of Vulcan in early 2021

Capitalism in space: According to ULA, the development program for its new Vulcan rocket remains on schedule, and will make its maiden flight in early 2021 as initially planned.

The launch will send Astrobotic’s privately built Peregrine lander to the Moon, carrying NASA science instruments.

The article provides a good overview not only of the status of construction, but also the political history that forced the development of Vulcan, that being the insistence by Congress that ULA stop using Russian engines in its rockets.

Atlas 5 launches X-37B spacecraft

Capitalism in space: ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket this morning successfully launched one of the military’s two X-37B reusable mini-shuttles into orbit.

I have embedded the video of the launch below the fold, with the launch occurring at 23:50.

As has been standard procedure during all previous X-37B missions, only a few details about the payloads have been released, though the military has said it wishes to be a bit more open this time.

“This sixth mission is a big step for the X-37B program,” said Randy Walden, director and program executive officer for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. “This will be the first X-37B mission to use a service module to host experiments. The incorporation of a service module on this mission enables us to continue to expand the capabilities of the spacecraft and host more experiments than any of the previous missions.” The service module is attached to the aft end of the X-37B spaceplane, providing additional capacity for experiments and payloads. The X-37B itself, measuring more than 29 feet (8.9 meters) long, also has a cargo bay inside its fuselage.

Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett said Wednesday that the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office is partnering with the U.S. Space force and the Air Force Research Laboratory on the next X-37B mission. … “This important mission will host more experiments than any prior X-37B flight, including two NASA experiments,” Barrett said Wednesday. “One is a sample plate evaluating the reaction of select significant materials to the conditions in space. The second studies the effect of ambient space radiation on seeds.”

The X-37B also carries a space-based solar power experiment. “A third experiment designed by the Naval Research Laboratory transforms solar power into radio frequency microwave energy, then studies transmitting that energy to Earth,” Barrett said.

Once in orbit, the X-37B will also release a small satellite named FalconSat 8. Developed by Air Force Academy cadets in partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory, the small satellite carries five experimental payloads. It will be operated by by the Air Force Academy’s Cadet Space Operations Squadron

They have not said how long this X-37B will remain in orbit.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

8 China
6 SpaceX
6 Russia
6 Europe (Arianespace)
3 ULA

The U.S. now leads China 11 to 8 in the national rankings, and will likely increase that lead very early tomorrow in the next day or so when SpaceX completes its next scheduled Falcon 9 Starlink launch. (Because of weather they have pushed back one day.
» Read more

Blue Origin to deliver first BE-4 engines to ULA this summer

Capitalism in space: Development of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, to be used in both its New Glenn rocket as well as ULA’s new Vulcan rocket, appears to be finally reaching its conclusion with the planned delivery this summer of two operational engines to ULA.

The bulk of the article at the link is mostly a summary of stuff that had already been revealed about the development of the New Glenn rocket. The only new piece of information that I could glean was this engine delivery date. It is significant, however, because no rocket company can ever really design its rocket before it has finished building the rocket’s engines. With the BE-4 now complete, I would expect the development of both New Glenn and Vulcan to proceed with great speed.

ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket successfully launches military satellite

Capitalism in space: United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket today successfully placed into orbit the first military satellite officially under the U.S. Space Force’s command.

The satellite is the fifth of a constellation designed to provide communications for all military operations.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

6 China
5 SpaceX
4 Russia
2 Europe (Arianespace)
2 ULA

The U.S. now leads China 9 to 6 in the national rankings.

First launch of ULA’s Vulcan on schedule for 2021

Capitalism in space: According to ULA’s CEO, Tory Bruno, the company is on track to transition as planned from its Atlas 5 and Delta rockets to its new Vulcan rocket.

Just five Delta IV Heavy launches remain on the manifest, all NRO launches procured under the block buy Phase 1 methodology. Bruno expects the final Delta launch to occur in 2023 or 2024.

The workhorse of the ULA fleet, Atlas V, is expected to retire on a similar timeframe. Bruno says the launcher could be “done as early as 2022, or as late as 2024.” Atlas V will have to continue operations until its replacement, Vulcan, can be human-rated to launch the Boeing Starliner spacecraft.

…The first flight of Vulcan Centaur is on track for early 2021, with the first flight vehicle under construction, and more vehicles in flow, in ULA’s factory in Decatur, Alabama. Vulcan’s debut launch will carry the Astrobotic Peregrine lander to the moon for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. A second launch is currently planned for later that year, which will satisfy the Air Force certification requirement for Vulcan to launch military missions.

Bruno’s report is also good news for Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, since both will use Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine in their first stage. If ULA is on schedule, than Blue Origin also likely to be on schedule, meaning that come 2021 or so the U.S. will have at least three companies (including SpaceX) capable of putting large payloads into orbit. Moreover, Northrop Grumman is developing its OmegA rocket, which will compete for the same business.

The article also talks about the military’s launch procurement program, which supposedly will pick two of these launch companies to provide all military launches through the 2020s. That program however is certain to fail, as it will blacklist all other viable companies from bidding on military launches. I expect those companies will successfully sue and force the Space Force to accept bids from more than two companies.

And that is as it should be. Why the military wishes to limit bidding makes no sense, and is probably illegal anyway. As long as a company has a qualified rocket, its bids should be welcome.

Blue Origin opens rocket engine factory

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin yesterday cut the ribbon on its main rocket engine factory in Huntsville, Alabama, while also announcing that production of their BE-4 engine for both ULA’s new Vulcan rocket and their own New Glenn rocket will begin in a few months.

In the meantime, made-in-Kent engines are being tested at Blue Origin’s West Texas site. Smith said two flight readiness engines will be delivered in May to United Launch Alliance. They’ll be used for integrated tests of ULA’s Vulcan first-stage booster, which is taking shape not far from Huntsville in Decatur, Ala.

This is excellent news. For the past year and a half the company has released little information about their progress with the BE-4 engine, suggesting that they might be experiencing issues. Yesterday’s news bursts that pessimistic balloon, indicating that both the Vulcan and New Glenn rockets will be flying, maybe as soon as next year.

ULA’s Atlas 5 launches Solar Orbiter

Capitalism in space: ULA tonight successfully launched a new solar science spacecraft Solar Orbiter.

For more information about Solar Orbiter, which will take the first high resolution images of the Sun’s poles, see the link above or video I’ve embedded below the fold.

Earlier today Northrop Grumman aborted the launch of its Cygnus cargo freighter to ISS only three minutes before launch because of an issue with a ground support sensor. Right now they are are targeting a new launch date of February 13, 2020.

The status in the 2020 launch race:

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

In the national ranking, the U.S. now leads China 4-3. If Northrop Grumman had launched, that lead would have been 5-3, and the U.S. total would have been comprised of four different and completely independent competing launch companies, all capable of topping the efforts of entire nations. If that doesn’t illustrate the power of freedom, capitalism, competition, and private ownership, I don’t know what does. Moreover, this is only the start. The U.S. right now has numerous other new launch companies rushing to join the competition.

Even more startling, the way we do things is freely available to every other nation in the world. All they have to do is to embrace freedom and the reduction of control and power by their governments. Sadly, very few in these times are willing to do this. In fact, even the U.S. resisted this concept for the entire last half of the 20th century. Only in the past decade have we returned to our roots, and that decision is now beginning to bear abundant fruit.
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Starliner lands safely after failed orbital insertion

Capitalism in space:Boeing’s Starliner capsule successfully landed today in New Mexico, returning to Earth prematurely because of its failure to reach its proper orbit after launch two days ago.

The article quotes extensively from both NASA and Boeing officials touting the many successful achievements of this flight, while trying to minimize the failure that prevented the capsule from docking with ISS properly. And that failure?

The mission elapsed timer issue that cut short Starliner’s planned eight-day mission started before the spacecraft lifted off Friday from Cape Canaveral aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, according to Chilton. “Our spacecraft needs to reach down into the Atlas 5 and figure out what time it is, where the Atlas 5 is in its mission profile, and then we set the clock based on that,” Chilton said in a press conference Saturday. “Somehow we reached in there and grabbed the wrong (number). This doesn’t look like an Atlas problem. This looks like we reached in and grabbed the wrong coefficient.”

“As a result of starting the clock at the wrong time, the spacecraft upon reaching space, she thought she was later in the mission, and, being autonomous, started to behave that way,” Chilton said. “And so it wasn’t in the orbit we expected without the burn and it wasn’t in the attitude expected and was, in fact, adjusting that attitude.”

I read this and find myself appalled. While I agree that overall the mission proved the capsule capable of launching humans to ISS (which is why NASA is considering making the next Starliner mission manned despite this failure), this failure suggests a worrisome lack of quality control at Boeing. I can’t even imagine how the Starliner software could be mis-configured to “grab the wrong number.” This explanation makes no sense, and suggests they are spinning the failure to avoid telling us what they really did wrong.

Either way, I suspect that NASA will approve a manned launch for Starliner’s next orbital flight, but will do so only after dwelling on the problem for at least six months.

Starliner launch fails, spacecraft to return to Earth

After being successfully placed in a preliminary orbit by ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket early this morning, Boeing’s Starliner capsule failed to reach its required orbit for docking with ISS when its own rocket engines did not fire properly at the right time.

The orbit it is in is stable, and the spacecraft is undamaged. Engineers now plan to bring it back to Earth on Sunday, landing at White Sands, New Mexico.

It appears some software issue had the capsule fire its own rockets either at the wrong time or for too short a time. The spacecraft was then in the wrong orbit, and needed to use too much fuel to correct this issue, making it impossible to dock with ISS.

More information here:

However, for reasons Boeing engineers do not yet understand, Starliner’s Mission Event Timer clock malfunctioned, causing the vehicle to think it was at a different point in the mission and at a different time in its mission that it actually was.

…This resulted in Starliner’s Reaction Control System thinking the Orbit Insertion Burn was underway and executing a series of burns to keep the vehicle oriented in the insertion burn attitude; however, the Orbit Insertion Burn was not actually occurring.

When mission controllers realized the issue, they sent manual commands to Starliner to perform an Orbit Insertion Burn in a backup window that came roughly eight minutes after the planned maneuver. However, a known and brief gap in NASA satellite communications caused a further delay.

By the time Starliner was finally able to burn its engines and get into a stable orbit, it had burned 25% more propellant than anticipated.

Boeing is certainly not having a good year. First it has had to shut down production on its new 737-Max airplane due to several crashes caused by software issues. Next its SLS rocket for NASA has had endless cost overruns and delays. Now Starliner fails during its first launch.

For ULA, however, the Atlas 5 rocket performed exactly as planned, so this launch gets listed as a success. They have now completed 5 launches this year.

ULA backing off from reuseablity and Vulcan upgrades?

Capitalism in space: According to this Space News story today, it appears that ULA is shifting away from building a major upgrade to the upper stage of its Vulcan rocket, even as it also appears to be backing off from pushing plans to recover and reuse its first stage engines.

ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye told SpaceNews by email that the company still plans to introduce an “advanced upper stage,” but only after Vulcan flies. Rye also declined to provide a specific timeline.

Similarly, ULA officials also refused to give a timeline for when they will begin recovering Vulcan’s first stage engines and reusing them.

Right now the company expects to launch the first iteration of Vulcan, using as Atlas 5 Centaur upper stage, sometime in 2021. It also appears that those first launches will not recover the first stage Blue Origin BE-4 engines.

In the long run, I do not see how ULA can compete. They certainly appear hesitant about introducing any new innovations or upgrades to Vulcan, which will result in an expendable rocket that costs far too much.

In fact, the arrival of this apparent timidity seems to have occurred almost to the day the company accepted a development contract for Vulcan from the Air Force. Thus, it increasingly appears that it is our federal government that is squelching the company’s creativity.

Why am I not surprised?

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