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OPINION: SpaceX – realistic announcement or unattainable timeline?

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy lifts off the pad in this artist’s depiction. Image credit: SpaceX

After SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted there would be a SpaceX announcement at 4pm EST (1pm PST) on February 27, 2017, speculation had run rampant. Was it an unveiling of the company’s spacesuit? Perhaps it was news about the Falcon Heavy. Or, maybe, it was something as fanciful as their ITS rocket.

Nope. All wrong.

In a release on the SpaceX website, the company announced they were going to fly two private citizens on a circumlunar trip. That’s right — the company that has yet to launch a single person to low Earth orbit (LEO) contends that it will be ready to send a pair of paying customers on a free-return trajectory around the Moon and then safely return to Earth. In 2018. On a rocket that has never been launched. With a spacecraft that has never been to space.

One may get the sense that I’m somewhat skeptical this will happen. If that’s what you’ve inferred from what I’ve already written, let me make sure I state this plainly: It’s. Not. Going. To. Happen. In. 2018.

SpaceX in general, and Musk in particular, has a well-earned reputation of missed timelines and over-promising things. Take the Falcon Heavy, for instance. It was supposed to launch in 2012 or 2013.

I have a few concerns about this mission and how SpaceX plans to address them. Off the top of my head:

  • Deep space navigation.
  • Communications.
  • Radiation shielding.
  • Life support.
  • Will it have crew in addition to the tourists?

I’m not necessarily saying that it’s impossible for SpaceX to send crew around the Moon and return them safely. Maybe SpaceX can pull off the improbable…but I don’t think so. Until the company can successfully launch the Falcon Heavy…and launch and recover astronauts to and from to the International Space Station, I will remain highly skeptical.

Commercial Crew: It was never about saving money

"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 been forced to hitch a ride with the Russians since the cancellation of the Shuttle program in 2011. Credit: William Neff/The Plain Dealer

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 percent in 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 be actively 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. Read More →

Elon Musk answers questions in a surprise Reddit AMA

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

In stark contrast to questions SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk encountered following his Mars architecture announcement at the 2016 International Astronautical Congress (IAC) earlier this year, the NewSpace entrepreneur entertained questions from a more informed group in a surprise Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Oct. 23, 2016.

The AMA took place in the website’s r/spacex forum and shed some light on SpaceX’s future plans. Participants were asked to refrain from asking questions about Tesla or Solar City. If fact, Musk spent little time discussing much beyond the company’s Mars-centric hardware. He did, however, talk about the company’s upcoming upgrade for the Falcon 9 rocket.

Read much more in my full piece for SpaceFlight Insider

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

Elon Musk presents SpaceX's plan to make humans a multi-planet species. Credit: SpaceX

Elon Musk presents SpaceX’s plan to make humans a multi-planet species. Credit: SpaceX

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.

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Musk teases world with images of Raptor test ahead of historic announcement

Elon Musk shared this picture of the first firing of the company's methalox-powered Raptor engine.

Elon Musk shared this picture of the first firing of the company’s methalox-powered Raptor engine. Credit: SpaceX

While much of the Western Hemisphere was still sound asleep on Sept. 26, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk conducted the first firing of the company’s Raptor engine. On the eve of what is expected to be a defining announcement from Musk as he outlines the NewSpace firm’s goals for Mars at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC), the CEO shared a couple photos and provided a few insights into the engine’s capabilities.

Although short on deep details of the engine’s performance numbers, Musk did provide enough to whet observers’ appetite.

“Production Raptor goal is specific impulse of 382 seconds and thrust of 3 MN (∼310 metric tons) at 300 bar,” Musk tweeted. “Chamber pressure is almost 3X Merlin, so engine is about the same size for a given ratio.”

Read more in my full article at SpaceFlight Insider.

SpaceX narrows genesis of explosion to helium pressurization system

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

Faster than the blink of an eye – that’s how little time there was between the first sign of an anomaly and the loss of the Falcon 9 rocket with the AMOS-6 satellite during a pre-flight test propellant loading operation on Sept. 1, 2016. After poring over the data, SpaceX engineers have narrowed down the likely cause of the explosion to a failure in the upper stage’s helium system.

Largely silent in the days following the incident, SpaceX has provided scant information on the progress of the investigation – until now. In a release issued by the company Sept. 23, 2016, SpaceX outlined some of the findings of the Accident Investigation Team (AIT) – composed of SpaceX, the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and industry experts – and on the condition of the infrastructure at Launch Complex 40 (LC-40).

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

Interesting details emerge regarding NASA’s involvement with Red Dragon

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

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

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.

Read More →

OPINION: Thoughts on SpaceX after the AMOS-6 incident

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

Animated GIF 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

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.

I believe that SpaceX has achieved things that many, myself included, thought would be supremely difficult, if not impossible, to pull off. Being able to recover the Falcon 9’s first stage, be it on land or on one of the ‘Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships’ (ASDS), is a remarkable achievement. Combine that with them being the first private company to launch and recover a LEO-capable spacecraft…and ferry supplies to and from the International Space Station (ISS), one would be disingenuous if they didn’t respect SpaceX’s accomplishments.

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SpaceX sticks the landing. Again.

Falcon 9 booster on the deck of the 'Of Course I Still Love You' after completing its part of launching the JCSAT-16 satellite.

Falcon 9 booster on the deck of the ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ after completing its part of launching the JCSAT-16 satellite. Credit: SpaceX

In what is becoming an increasingly expected occurrence, SpaceX has successfully recovered the first stage of one of their Falcon 9 rockets. The company still considers the landing attempts to be ‘experimental’, and they do still encounter the occasional failure, but it’s undeniable that their accuracy is greatly improved.

As with several past landing attempts at sea, the video feed from the automated drone ship cut just as the stage approached the deck of the ‘Of Course I Still Love You’. While waiting for video confirmation of the stage’s fate, the official SpaceX Twitter account tweeted that the stage had, indeed, landed. This was quickly confirmed on the video feed, which showed the booster sitting nearly dead-center of the circular landing zone painted on the deck of the ship.

While many people are interested in the launch and landing attempts, the primary mission – the deployment of the JCSAT-16 satellite – was still underway at the time of the booster recovery. After a pause during the second stage’s coast phase, the hosted feed continued when the upper stage’s engine was re-ignited in order to place the satellite on the intended geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO), followed by the subsequent deployment of the satellite. All appeared to go well, and SpaceX can count this as another successful mission, both in its primary and secondary goals.

Though the company has recovered several boosters – some at sea and some returning to land – they have yet to re-fly any of the recovered vehicles. But that may soon change. SpaceX has recently been testing the booster recovered from the JCSAT-14 mission at their McGregor, TX testing facility in an effort to better understand the condition a booster may be in after such a high-energy flight profile.

There have been no shortage of customers interested in having their payload fly on one of the recovered boosters, with an executive from the large satellite operator SES stating that they would be keen to be the first company to do so. There have been reports that SpaceX has found a customer for this historic launch, though there has been no independent confirmation from the company about who that may be.

More news as it becomes available.

SpaceX JCSAT-16 mission update

Official SpaceX JCSAT-16 mission patch. Credit: SpaceX

Official SpaceX JCSAT-16 mission patch. Credit: SpaceX

The countdown for the launch of the JCSAT-16 satellite, atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, continues to progress towards a projected T-0 of 1:26am EDT (5:26am UTC) on August 14, 2016. Currently, weather stands at 80% ‘GO’, with the primary concerns for violating weather constraints being cumulus and thick clouds. Should a 24-hour delay be necessary, weather favorability drops to 70% ‘GO’ with the same primary concerns.

Though the primary mission is the launch of the JCSAT-16 satellite, many – if not more – people are interested in the mission’s secondary mission: the landing and recovery of the Falcon 9’s first stage. Due to the satellite’s orbital parameters, the landing attempt will be on the automated drone ship Of Course I Still Love You rather than back on land. While rocket watchers are less enthusiastic about the offshore landing, residents near KSC/CCAFS are likely pleased with prospect of not having their slumber interrupted by the triple sonic boom of the returning stage.

As has been the case as of late, SpaceX will carry both a hosted and a technical feed for the launch. Check back with The Liftoff Report for the latest news and information.