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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.

REVIEW: Amazing Stories of the Space Age

I was recently asked if I’d be interested in reviewing a space-related book — Amazing Stories of the Space Age by Rod Pyle — and I jumped at the opportunity. I love to read, and with it being a book about space, I couldn’t say no.

Indeed, with a subtitle stating: “True tales of Nazis in orbit, soldiers on the moon, orphaned Martian robots, and other fascinating accounts from the annals of spaceflight,” I was grabbed from the get-go.

Though I was familiar with most, if not all, of the topics Pyle explores, I must admit that even an old space nerd like me still learned quite a lot of new information. Even with Pyle covering an array of topics, he doesn’t leave out details for the sake of telling a quick story — every subject is brimming with information.

Not content to simply cover programs which actually came to fruition, Pyle occasionally strays into the “what ifs” of projects that, had they made it off the drawing board and into orbit, the modern world could be markedly different.

Part science fiction and part historical fact, Amazing Stories of the Space Age is a well-written and heavily-researched collection of stories, spanning spacefaring’s earliest days through the United States’s Space Shuttle program, and a variety of programs in-between. Highly recommended.

ANALYSIS: President-elect Trump’s NASA landing team continues to take shape

Though both major party candidates made clear their position on a multitude of issues prior to the election, their view of NASA’s role in our nation’s space-faring endeavors was not necessarily among them. Certainly, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump often gave politically expedient answers when asked what their vision of what NASA should be, but neither has ever really presented a coherent roadmap for the agency’s future.

Indeed, Trump seemed, at times, to present wildly diverging positions on the nation’s space agency. At one point, the then-candidate professed to love NASA but declared that the country has bigger problems to address, such as fixing potholes.

Whether or not he was speaking of literal or figurative potholes, it appeared as if NASA wasn’t terribly high on Mr. Trump’s priority list and that the businessman-turned-politician didn’t necessarily have a ready answer for his take on national space policy.

However, now that the election of 2016 is in the books and the President-elect continues forming his Cabinet and landing teams, it would appear that Trump – or, at least, his advisory team – is taking NASA a bit more seriously. More seriously than during the campaign and is selecting an experienced collection of members, some of whom seem to favor a “stay the course” focus, while others may be adherents to the NewSpace movement, to help the incoming President decide how best to direct NASA during his presidency.

From the outset, Jeff Sessions, a Republican Senator from Alabama, was a key architect in guiding the make-up of the landing team, and conventional wisdom dictated this was a strong indicator that NASA’s big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which was designed and is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, would not only survive a Trump presidency but also could likely thrive.

Read much more in my full piece at SpaceFlight Insider.

Lockheed Martin completes assembly of GOES-S

Lockheed Martin personnel prepare GOES-S for an acoustics test. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

Although the recently launched GOES-R series satellite, since designated GOES-16, has yet to enter operation, Lockheed Martin hasn’t been idle. The second member of the GOES-R series of weather satellites, GOES-S, is now complete and undergoing mechanical and environmental tests to ensure the spacecraft can handle the rigors of launch and harshness of space.

Like its on-orbit sibling, GOES-S represents a revolutionary step forward in weather satellites and will greatly enhance the data available to weather forecasters with the capability to provide near real-time observations.

However, before it can take its place in geostationary orbit and begin supplying data to scientists and forecasters, the spacecraft and its related hardware must undergo rigorous testing here on Earth.

Read more in the full piece at SpaceFlight Insider.

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?

Does one need to have a degree in journalism? Should writing about spaceflight be the person’s primary source of income in order to be considered a journalist?

I’ve seen people who purport to be spaceflight journalists, yet they regularly inject their opinion into their pieces and/or social media interactions. Others seem to keep a relatively even approach to their content. Should a journalist always be impartial, or is it acceptable to occasionally show bias?

I don’t necessarily have the answers to these questions. Indeed, in the changing world of news media and the role social media plays in it, I’m not certain there is a monolithic answer. What are your thoughts — what is a space journalist?


ULA finishes 12-for-12 with launch of EchoStar XIX

The Atlas V, carrying EchoStar XIX, lifts off from the pad at SLC-41. Credit: ULA

The weather might not have been perfect, but that didn’t prevent United Launch Alliance (ULA) from successfully delivering the EchoStar XIX satellite to orbit atop their Atlas V rocket. The launch marked ULA’s 12th of 2016 and 115th overall since the company’s founding more than 10 years ago.

Amidst broken clouds from an approaching cold front, the Atlas V 431 lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s (CCAFS) Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at 2:13 p.m. EST (19:13 GMT), after a 42-minute hold at T-minus 4 minutes from the initial opening of the two-hour launch window due to a technical glitch.

“Congratulations to ULA and the entire integrated team who ensured the success of our last launch capping off what has been a very busy year,” Col. Walt Jackim, 45th Space Wing vice commander and mission Launch Decision Authority, said in a news release. “This mission once again clearly demonstrates the successful collaboration we have with our mission partners as we continue to shape the future of America’s space operations and showcase why the 45th Space Wing is the ‘World’s Premiere Gateway to Space.’”

Read more in my full piece for SpaceFlight Insider…

ULA looks to close out 2016 with launch of EchoStar XIX

EchoStar XIX, with its antennas and solar arrays stowed, sits on a vertical stand prior to fairing encapsulation. Photo credit: SSL

As 2016 draws to a close, United Launch Alliance (ULA) is busy making final preparations to launch the EchoStar XIX communications satellite on the Atlas V rocket. Liftoff is scheduled for the beginning of a two-hour launch window at 1:27 p.m. EST (18:27 GMT) Dec. 18.

Originally scheduled to launch on Dec. 16, ULA was forced to delay the mission two days due to a hardware issue discovered during final checkout procedures.

EchoStar XIX will be launching on the 431 variant of the Atlas V, which has a 4-meter payload fairing, 3 supplemental solid rocket motors, and a single-engine Centaur stage. This will mark the 12th mission of the year for the Colorado-based launch provider.

The satellite, also known as Jupiter 2, arrived at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in early November 2016, where it has since undergone processing in preparation for its launch on Dec. 18, 2016.

Read more in my full piece at SpaceFlight Insider…

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.


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!

ULA notches another successful launch with delivery of WGS-8 to orbit

A Delta IV Medium+ (5,4) lifts off on December 7, carrying the USAF’s WGS-8 satellite. Credit: ULA

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully delivered the latest member of the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) constellation to orbit. The launch of WGS-8 (ULA’s 114th overall and the 34th Delta IV ) occurred on time with liftoff commencing at 6:53 p.m. EST (23:53 GMT) Dec. 7, 2016, precisely at the opening of its 49-minute launch window.

“Thank you to the U.S. Air Force and industry team whose flawless execution enabled today’s successful launch of the WGS-8 mission,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president of Custom Services, in a news release. “Last week ULA celebrated our anniversary and 10 years of 100 percent mission success. This evening’s launch epitomizes why our customers continue to entrust ULA to deliver our nation’s most crucial space capabilities.”

Read more in my full write-up at SpaceFight Insider…