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LR Space Bite – December 13, 2016

Rocket Lab recently conducted a full stage hot-fire test of their Rutherford engine, nine of which will help power the Electron off the pad. Credit: Rocket Lab


Pegasus is grounded. Temporarily.

Due to an unforeseen problem, Orbital ATK’s Pegasus didn’t take flight on December 12, 2016. Though the weather played “hide-and-seek” with a clear launch path, it wasn’t the villain.

Listening to the comms net between air and ground personnel, the call of a ‘RED’ status was called out – the hydraulic system responsible for the drop mechanism had failed. Multiple recycles of the breaker didn’t help, and Orbital ATK ended up calling an overall ‘abort’ after a second attempt to launch.

Pegasus is now scheduled to launch “no earlier than” December 14, 2016, in a 1-hour launch window opening at 8:20am EST.


Money problems at SpaceX?

According to an article at The Motley Fool, SpaceX is no longer profitable and is not cashflow positive.

Considering their fleet has been grounded since the explosion — I mean, fast fire — of the Falcon 9 with the AMOS-6 sitting atop, and not set to take flight any earlier than mid-January 2017, prospects do not look good for a rapid turn-around of fortune for the NewSpace company.

Of course, that’s not to imply that SpaceX is “circling the drain” by any means; however, it does highlight how sensitive the company may be to mishap.

Reliability matters.


Electric rocket engines roar to life.

Rocket Lab achieved another milestone with the flight qualification and acceptance of their Electron vehicle’s first stage. And they made a video about it.

What is so special about Rocket Lab? For starters, their engines are electrically powered. The turbopumps of the company’s Rutherford engines are powered by electric motors, rather than by siphoning off a bit of propellant and igniting it in a pre-burner to generate the needed power to spin-up the turbopumps.

This means that ALL of the propellant is used for thrust. But is it better? Rocket Lab seems to think so.

We’ll know more after the company has had a chance to launch a few payloads.


More delays for Commercial Crew.

In a blog post released December 12, 2016, NASA presents the projected dates for both Commercial Crew providers — Boeing and SpaceX — to begin carrying crew to orbit, and eventually to the International Space Station.

It’s not stellar news.

Boeing is slated to conduct its first uncrewed flight in June 2018, with their crewed flight coming two months later in August.

SpaceX, though, looks to November 2017 for its uncrewed demonstration flight, and astronauts won’t reach orbit on the Crew Dragon six months later, in May 2018.

Delay after delay seems to beset the Commercial Crew program in general, and to SpaceX in particular. In fact, one customer chose to select an alternate launch provider for their satellite due to repeated slips from SpaceX.

Good thing the Russians have a solid launch system.

Oh.

LR Space Bite – December 11, 2016

December has been a busy month in spaceflight…and, not coincidentally, a busy one for me, too. As many of you know, I’m a contributor to SpaceFlight Insider (SFI) as well as the person solely responsible for The Liftoff Report (LR). And those are just things I do in my spare time – I’m employed full-time as the Network/System Administrator for one of the largest school districts in the country.

Unfortunately, that means sometimes there isn’t enough time in the day to do all the things I would like to do…and that often means that LR gets a bit stale at times. And I don’t like that. At all.

So I’m going to do something about it.

In an effort to make sure this site has fresh content on a regular basis, I plan to slightly revamp how I approach what I post. In the past, I would either cross-post content I wrote for SFI, or I would write some first-party content for LR. However, as is apparent if one reads anything I write, I usually tend to go a bit long…and that’s part of the problem.

You see, I love to share my enthusiasm for spaceflight, and that can come out as a long write-up, and because those write-ups can take so long to produce, many don’t see the light of day simply because I don’t have enough time to do them properly.

But I plan to change that. I will still cross-post my SFI content, and I will still have the occasional lengthy pieces for LR, but I’m also going to start posting shorter tidbits on a more regular basis…something I’m calling the “LR Space Bite.” Well, unless I can think of something better.

So, now that I’ve written a lengthy bit about how I’m going to start writing shorter bits, let’s get on with the first LR Space Bite. This one may be longer than most.


John Glenn

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not much of a “people person”. I know more about “stuff and things” than I do about the people who create/use them. However, there are exceptions…and one of those was John Glenn.

To me, he was the epitome of what an astronaut should be, and was a member of a cadre of explorers not often encountered. There may be other astronauts who have done more, travelled farther, and been every bit the hero that Glenn was. But, to me, when I think ‘astronaut’, Glenn immediately comes to mind. He was a singular man.

Godspeed, John Glenn. Godspeed.


SpaceX Loses a Customer

Inmarsat has announced that they’re moving the launch of a broadband satellite to Arianespace from SpaceX. Inmarsat, unsurprisingly, reiterates their confidence in SpaceX and looks forward to working with SpaceX with future launches.

However, I cannot help but feel that customers are rapidly losing patience with SpaceX…and, as far as I’m concerned, this can be laid squarely at the feet of the company’s overriding goal of reusability.

Certainly, reusability is something which must eventually be developed for a sustainable space economy. And while SpaceX has done what many thought to be improbable, I cannot help but wonder if SpaceX has rushed things a bit. Crawl before walking…walk before running…and build a reliable launch system before trying to recover it.

There is currently zero business case for reusability. There are no satellites not launched because the cost to get them to orbit them is too high, and there is not a backlog of crewed missions in the wings waiting on reusability to be perfected.

Indeed, the only satellites not launched are because SpaceX’s reliability isn’t where it needs to be. So customers are looking elsewhere. Inmarsat states that it’s due to regulatory pressures, and that may well be the case. But other customers will also succumb to the pressures of their shareholders and their downstream customers.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) knows this, and that’s why they unveiled their Rocket Builder site. Should SpaceX suffer further delays, or — goodness forbid — another failure, Inmarsat won’t be the last customer to find a new launch provider.


Upcoming Launches

December, though nearly half over, still has four launches before the year comes to a close. One of the more interesting is the Orbital ATK launch of their Pegasus XL rocket.

The company’s L-1011 Stargazer aircraft will launch the Pegasus on December 12, 2016, from an altitude of 40,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean. Pegasus will be carrying eight small satellites designed to study the inner core of hurricanes. Very cool.

Besides Pegasus, a ULA Atlas V is slated to launch Echostar 19 on December 18, followed by Arianespace’s Ariane-5 carrying JCSAT 15 and Star One D1 just two days later. Echostar 21, launching on a Russian Proton-M, closes out the calendar with its scheduled liftoff on December 22.

SpaceX, initially targeting December 16 for the launch of the Iridium Next comms satellites, has now pushed that back to some time in January 2017.


NASA Prepares to Stress SLS’s 2nd Stage

The Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) — an enlarged version of the Delta IV’s upper stage — will help power the Orion crew capsule to orbit on the maiden launch of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) in 2018.

However, before that can happen, the agency must ensure the stage can handle the stresses its likely to incur during a launch. Enter the ICPS structural test article (STA).

The STA is identical to the flight version of the ICPS, with the obvious exclusion of a propulsion system. Workers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, moved the STA into a stand in preparation for the load tests.

The Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage test article is being lifted into the stress stand at Marshall Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA


That’s it for the inaugural edition of the LR Space Bite. Look for the next one soon – thanks for reading!