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OPINION: What is a space journalist?

In the face of all the “fake news” hullabaloo making the rounds lately, I started thinking about the state of space journalism and, more to the point, what exactly constitutes a “space journalist”?

Certainly there are those who cover happenings in the space industry who have garnered quite a following over the years, and as with any industry, there are those who command more attention than others…often garnered from years of focused professionalism covering the industry.

But just what is a space journalist? Is it someone who provides content to an established legacy news outlet? Internet-only site?

How about those who dedicate a majority of their social media activities to covering spaceflight topics? What about bloggers? Podcasters?

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The Atlas V 541 carrying GOES-R lifts off at 6:42pm EST. Credit: Curt Godwin

The Atlas V 541 carrying GOES-R lifts off at 6:42pm EST. Credit: Curt Godwin

COMMENTARY: I finally saw a launch…and it was incredible

I have seen a huge 5-segment solid rocket booster perform a full duration burn in the desert of Utah at Orbital ATK’s facility. Pro tip: if NASA tells you to not look at the flame, then do NOT look at the flame.

I’ve watched the incredible RS-25 engine static fired in a test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Twice.

I’ve been on top – ON TOP! – of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center (KSC)… within touching distance of a satellite at Ball Aerospace in Boulder… in United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Denver Operations Support Center (DOSC) and in their Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center (ASOC) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). These are not easy places to access.

I’ve toured NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) — where the agency built components of the Saturn-series of rockets, and manufactured the Space Shuttle’s external tank (ET), and are now building the Space Launch System (SLS) — not once… not twice… but three times.

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"Going my way?" NASA's astronauts have had to hitch a ride with the Russians since the cancellation of the Shuttle program in 2011. Credit: William Neff/The Plain Dealer

“Going my way?” NASA’s astronauts have had to hitch a ride with the Russians since the cancellation of the Shuttle program in 2011. Credit: William Neff/The Plain Dealer

Commercial Crew: It was never about saving money

The Bear knows how to play Monopoly

The last time NASA had to pony up for astronauts to hitch a ride to the International Space Station (ISS) with the Russians on their venerable Soyuz spacecraft, they paid — on average — nearly $82 million per seat, for a total of six seats. That’s $490 million to get six astronauts to the ISS.

Think about that for a moment: almost half a billion dollars to ferry six people to the ISS. It would appear that our formerly communist rivals learned that capitalism can sometimes be a very profitable thing – Soyuz seats have increased 384 percentin 10 years. Having no competition allows Russia to increase prices with relative impunity.

To be fair, that amount does cover more than just taxi service to the orbiting outpost — launch services and flight training are also included in that “low, low” price. However, that’s still a heck of a lot of money to be sending to a government that may beactively operating against American institutions.

Oh, and there are those little incidents in Syria and Crimea, too. It would seem as if it’s not the best idea to rely upon “The Bear” for any longer than is necessary.

Thankfully, since 2010, NASA has been working with private companies as part of their Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, with the goal of accelerating development of commercial space capabilities and returning human launches to US soil.

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The NASA "meatball" logo held tough in the face of Hurricane Matthew's strongest winds. Credit: Curt Godwin

The NASA “meatball” logo held tough in the face of Hurricane Matthew’s strongest winds. Credit: Curt Godwin

How much wind load did the Vehicle Assembly Building withstand during Hurricane Matthew?

Let me start by stating, in no uncertain terms, that I am not a structural engineer. I am also not a genius (hush, peanut gallery). I didn’t even stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. So, super smart brainiac-types, you can sheath your slide rules and programmable calculators — I know that I might not have this exactly right.

What I am, however, is a person who took some publicly-announced information, and plugged it into some formulas meant to determine wind loads on various structures. Yay, spreadsheets!

If you read my piece about how Kennedy Space Center (KSC) fared after being battered by Hurricane Matthew, then you’ll know that both KSC Center Director Bob Cabana and KSC Damage Assessment and Recovery Team Chief Bob Holl stated that Hurricane Matthew’s winds at ground level were 75 knots, and a blustery 118 knots above 100 feet (30.48 meters).

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Just as the vehicle was passing through max Q - the area of greatest aerodynamic pressure - the abort command was issued. Credit: Blue OriginBlue Origin makes a fibber out of me, and I’m OK with that

Is Blue Origin imbued with the spiritual DNA of Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, because they sure know how to make the improbable happen. While the company was fairly certain of a successful outcome for the New Shepard spacecraft in the in-flight abort test, the prognosis for the booster was far less rosy.

“This test will probably destroy the booster,” stated company founder Jeff Bezos in an email release early in September 2016.

Really, Mr. Bezos…really?

As if in defiance of those predictions, the booster continued its flight, even after being blasted with 70,000 pounds of thrust from the abort motor and having to fly with a decidedly un-aerodynamic leading edge.

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Artist’s rendering of SpaceX’s ship on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. Credit: SpaceX

Artist’s rendering of SpaceX’s ship on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. Credit: SpaceX

Musk’s historic Mars announcement wows many, leaves others with questions

Industry leaders, pundits, and fans had been waiting for months in anticipation of what SpaceX CEO Elon Musk would unveil during his session at the 2016 International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico. When Musk finally took the stage on September 27, 2016, he was welcomed with cheering and applause on a level normally reserved for rock stars. The excitement was palpable.

Musk spoke for about an hour, sharing his vision for making humanity a multi-planet species, and what SpaceX will do to make that happen. Accompanying his speech were images, charts, renderings, and videos driving home the visionary CEO’s talking points.

Oh, did I say video? Because there was one heck of a video. Shortly before Musk was scheduled to appear on stage, SpaceX released a video giving people a glimpse of what a Mars transport system may look like. The SpaceX CEO also played it for those in attendance. The visuals presented in the video were suitably futuristic, while still residing (mostly) in the realm of reality.

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Rough mission profile of SpaceX's notional Red Dragon mission. Credit: SpaceX

Rough mission profile of SpaceX’s notional Red Dragon mission. Credit: SpaceX

Interesting details emerge regarding NASA’s involvement with Red Dragon

In NASA’s weekly Future In-Space Operations (FISO) teleconference, Phil McAlister — NASA’s Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development — discussed the agency’s involvement with SpaceX on the company’s Red Dragon mission, tentatively scheduled for May 2018.

First, a little history

SpaceX surprised the world when it announced the mission on April 27, 2016, by proposing to launch an uncrewed Dragon v2 capsule — dubbed ‘Red Dragon’ in reference to its destination — to Mars in 2018 and land the capsule on the surface of the planet. Though NASA has been successful in landing craft and rovers on the Red Planet, the heaviest has been Curiosity. However, NASA needs to be able to do more than that.

Weighing in at nearly 2,000 pounds (899 kilograms), the rover represents only a fraction of the mass the agency would need to land on the Martian surface to support and sustain a crewed mission. SpaceX’s Dragon v2 capsule, though… MORE


Orbital ATK's Antares in the company's Horizontal Integration Facility at Wallops Island. Photo credit: Orbital ATK

Orbital ATK’s Antares in the company’s Horizontal Integration Facility at Wallops Island. Photo credit: Orbital ATK

Orbital ATK eyes early October 2016 for Antares’ return to flight

It’s been nearly two years since Antares has taken flight, but Orbital ATK’s launcher may soon thunder from Launch Pad 0A at the Mid-AtlanticRegional Spaceport on Virginia’s Wallops Island. The company issued anews release indicating a targeted launch window of October 9-13, 2016 for the OA-5 mission to ferry supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) via their Cygnus spacecraft.

Sidelined after a failed turbopump caused the loss of the vehicle and payload shortly after launch for the Orb-3 mission on October 28, 2014, Orbital ATK had to source a replacement engine, and perform validation tests, prior to resuming launches.

Though no one was hurt in the launch mishap, extensive damage was caused to the launch pad and it destroyed the Cygnus spacecraft and the cargo intended for the ISS. Orbital ATK already had plans to replace that version of Antares, and the launch failure was an opportunity for the company to accelerate that development. MORE…

 


Technicians guide the Orion heat shield in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building after removing it from its shipping crate.

Technicians guide the Orion heat shield in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building after removing it from its shipping crate.

Key component for EM-1’s Orion spacecraft arrives at Kennedy Space Center

Slamming into Earth’s atmosphere at 6.8 miles per second (11 kilometers per second), Orion’s heat shield must protect the vehicle from the searing heat of reentry after its flight around the Moon. However, before it can go on its journey to our nearest neighbor, the shield had to make a much more mundane — though no less important — trip here on Earth.

The heat shield for the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) Orion vehicle arrived at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida on September 19, 2016, where it was offloaded from the agency’s Super Guppy aircraft and delivered to the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building’s high bay.

The heat shield is a joint project, designed by engineers at Lockheed Martin and NASA’s Orion team, and was built at Lockheed Martin’s Denver-area manufacturing facility. MORE…

 


NASA released this notional timeline for their Asteroid Redirect Mission. Image Credit: NASA

NASA released this notional timeline for their Asteroid Redirect Mission. Image Credit: NASA

Planetary defense is a key tenet of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission

NASA provided an update on their Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) during a series of internet-streamed events on Sept. 14, 2016, from the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Long a mission with lukewarm support in many sectors, NASA provided subject matter experts, as well as agency leaders and governmental advisors, giving them the chance to feature some mission hardware and outline the key benefits to be gained from ARM.

The early panel discussion featured Dr. John P. Holdren (Assistant to the President for Science and Technology), NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and Dr. Michelle Gates (NASA’s ARM Program Director). Dr. Holdren was quick to assure the current administration’s support of the program.

“I wanted to put the ARM mission in context of the President’s and NASA’s vision for expanding the human exploration of space,” Holdren said. “That vision is ambitious, it’s coherent, it’s systematic, it has four major pieces.”

First among those pieces that Holdren outlined is the intent to work with private industry in order to develop the most cost-effective mission design and hardware possible. He also noted that developing new technologies in support of a crewed mission to Mars – such as…

Read more in my full piece at SpaceFlight Insider.


New Glenn, as compared to the Saturn V. Credit: Blue Origin

New Glenn, as compared to the Saturn V. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin announces orbital-class rocket

Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, might be known for keeping a relatively low profile insofar as Blue Origin is concerned, but one cannot accuse him of not knowing how to make an entrance. In a surprise email on September 12, 2016, Bezos revealed to the world the company’s plan to build and launch its first orbital-class rocket by the end of this decade: the New Glenn.

Named after the first American to orbit Earth, John Glenn, the rocket will be the company’s entry into the reusable orbital-class rocket market, currently occupied by a single player — SpaceX. Although Blue Origin was the first commercial company to launch a rocket and crew-capable vehicle into space and recover both for later re-use, those flights were only suborbital.

Blue Origin has taken the expertise gained from the suborbital flights of their New Shepard vehicle — named after America’s first suborbital astronaut, Alan Shepard — and scaled it up just a bit. OK, perhaps more than “just a bit.” New Shepard’s booster, sans capsule, tops out at approximately 52 feet (16 meters), whereas the smaller version of New Glenn towers at 270 feet (82 meters). It would appear as if Blue Origin is bypassing the small-to-medium class of launch vehicles and going straight to a heavy/super heavy lift vehicle (HLV/SHLV) rocket, right? MORE…


Members of the 45th Space Wing's Incident Management Team observe the ongoing conflagration at SpaceX's SLC-40. Credit: 45th Space Wing

Members of the 45th Space Wing’s Incident Management Team observe the ongoing conflagration at SpaceX’s SLC-40. Credit: 45th Space Wing

Quick work by Incident Management Team likely saved OSIRIS-REx

It would seem that NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was in much greater danger of being lost than had been initially disclosed. The 45th Space Wing released a recounting of events from the morning of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 loss, and the incredible efforts by the Incident Management Team to ensure the safety of area personnel and the greater public, as well as likely saving the launch of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.

Though early information from news and industry sources indicated no appearance of damage or danger to the Atlas V rocket, or its payload, from the ongoing conflagration at SpaceX’s nearby SLC-40, there may very well have been significant damage to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) infrastructure that put the NASA mission at considerable risk.

According to the release, the explosion at SLC-40 damaged the water deluge system at that pad, causing it to “hemorrhage” water at a rate greater than could be replenished by the pumps. Had the pumps run dry, the motors could have burned out, rendering them inoperable. The deluge system that supplies SLC-40 also supplies ULA’s SLC-41, which is where the Atlas V rocket, carrying OSIRIS-REx, was set to launch just a week later. MORE…


The New Shepard's pusher-style abort motor gets activated in this pad abort test in 2012. Credit: Blue Origin

The New Shepard’s pusher-style abort motor gets activated in this pad abort test in 2012. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin to test in-flight abort system

As the New Shepard spacecraft and booster accelerate through the most aerodynamically stressful part of their launch profile, also known as “max Q,” a flight computer detects an anomaly and triggers an in-flight abort. The crew module shoots away from the stricken booster, allowing the gumdrop-shaped capsule to safely return its occupants to a safe recovery. Although notional in description, this is what Blue Origin plans to verify in an early October 2016 test flight of the company’s reusable rocket and spacecraft.

The company already performed a pad abort test, nearly four years ago, during which the abort motor fired for nearly 2 seconds and lofted the craft to an altitude of 2,307 feet (703 meters). The capsule landed under its triple-parachute canopy 1,630 feet (497 meters) away from the pad.

Unlike the traditional tower-based, towed-tractor style abort systems used during Mercury and Apollo programs – and soon on NASA’s Orion spacecraft riding atop the Space Launch System – Blue Origin’s abort motor is integrated into the crew vehicle and is a “pusher” system: it pushes the capsule from below rather than pulling it from above as with the tower systems.

Read more in my full write-up for SpaceFlight Insider.


An Atlas V 411 carrying NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft lifts off from SLC-41. Photo credit: ULA

An Atlas V 411 carrying NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft lifts off from SLC-41. Photo credit: ULA

ULA notches another successful mission with launch of OSIRIS-REx

A practically cloudless sky provided a perfect backdrop for the launch of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft atop a ULA Atlas V rocket in a rare 411 configuration.

With only a single strap-on solid rocket motor to accompany the Atlas V’s main RD-180 engine, the rocket presented an unusual sight to viewers as the RD-180 had to gimbal enough to mitigate the asymmetric thrust provided by the lone solid motor, giving the rocket the appearance of “sliding” slightly as it ascended. This particular configuration of the Atlas V – the ‘411’, which designates a 4-meter payload fairing, single solid rocket motor, and a single RL10-engined Centaur stage – had only flown three times previously and is one of the rarer configurations of the reliable Atlas V family.

The on-time launch at 7:05 pm EDT on Thursday, September 8, 2016, places NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on a trajectory to rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu. This will be NASA’s first spacecraft to visit an asteroid and retrieve a sample for later return to Earth. More…


Animation of the booster from CRS-8 landing on a drone ship. This is cool, but more effort needs to be expended on making operations more reliable. Landings come later. Much later. Credit: SpaceX

Animation of the booster from CRS-8 landing on a drone ship. This is cool, but more effort needs to be expended on making operations more reliable. Landings come later. Much later. Credit: SpaceX

OPINION: Thoughts on SpaceX after the AMOS-6 incident

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, you’ve no doubt heard that SpaceX had a rocket explode on the pad while in the midst of preparing for a brief static fire of the Falcon 9’s (F9) first stage engines. The incident, which occurred on September 1, 2016, is still in the early stages of being investigated and — as of this posting — the company has made no mention of a cause, suspected or otherwise. Regardless of how learned or informed the analysis may be, one must understand that unless and until a statement is made by SpaceX and/or an investigatory panel, all other analysis is conjecture.

I don’t intend to discuss my thoughts on what caused this particular event as I’m not qualified to do so, nor am I privy to any information not otherwise publicly available. That said, I have been following SpaceX since their early days and have some definite thoughts about the company. As stated in the title, this is strictly an opinion piece, though I will be backing up those opinions with facts wherever possible. More…


Half-scale model of the GPIM spacecraft. Credit: Curt Godwin

Half-scale model of the GPIM spacecraft. Credit: Curt Godwin

‘Going green’ is for more than Earth-based endeavors

When one hears about ‘going green’, their mind’s eye may conjure pictures of electric cars…or solar panels…or wind turbines. Spacecraft, though, probably aren’t in that mental slideshow. Ball Aerospace, though, is going to change that.

Via their Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM), Ball Aerospace hopes to demonstrate the viability of this ‘green’ propellant when the satellite is launched in 2017 as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Rather than using highly-toxic hydrazine, GPIM will utilize the safer hydroxyl ammonium nitrate fuel (also known as AF-M315E) developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory.

As part of a Technology Demonstration Mission – managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL – the green propellant will be the foundation for the main propulsion system on the Ball BCP 100-based spacecraft. More…


The completed MRO spacecraft sits in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility prior to fairing encapsulation in July, 2005. Credit: NASA

The completed MRO spacecraft sits in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility prior to fairing encapsulation in July, 2005. Credit: NASA

OPINION: NASA needs to start investing in Mars comms network

By practically every metric, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been an incredible success. Launched on August 12, 2005, MRO has spent more than ten years orbiting the Red Planet, both as a science-gathering platform and as a communications relay for other Mars-based assets. In its science role, it has contributed to significant findings on the planet, and returns more science information from Mars in a single day than the weekly total of all other Mars missions.

Indeed, in the time it has been active in the Martian system, MRO has transmitted more than 264 terabits (33,000 gigabytes – more than 7,000 DVDs) of data, which is more than all other interplanetary missions — past and present — combined. Not only that, but it has done so at data rates ranging from less than 500 kilobits per second (Kbps) when Mars is at its furthest from Earth (approximately 250 million miles) to 4 megabits per second (Mbps) when the two planets are a “mere” 60 million miles apart.

In its role as a communications relay satellite, MRO has no equal in the Martian system. Its 10-foot diameter high-gain antenna, combined with the 100-watt X-band radio, makes for the perfect partner to relay critical telemetry and science data from other spacecraft in-system. More…


File footage of the Phoebus 1B reactor in operation from a test in February 1967. Credit: NASA

File footage of the Phoebus 1B reactor in operation from a test in February 1967. Credit: NASA

OPINION: It’s time to restart the nuclear thermal rocket program

Though it sounds like some far-fetched contrivance from the mind of a science fiction writer, nuclear thermal rockets (NTRs) are a very real – and incredibly efficient – means of propulsion under consideration for human missions to Mars. Not only are they real, but they have already been designed and tested…albeit more than 40 years ago.

Unfortunately, amidst a downturn in public support for nuclear-related programs of any sort in the early 1970s, the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program was cancelled in 1972 and never resumed.

However, with NASA’s Space Launch System(SLS) marching towards its uncrewed maiden launch in 2018, and the agency’s goal of sending a crewed mission to Mars some time in the 2030s, there has been a renewed interest in propulsion systems that may help to get craft and crew to the Red Planet more efficiently, and more quickly, than traditional chemical propulsion systems. More…


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