Welcome to Edition 1.21 of the Rocket Report! This week, one space tourism company says it is coming to space “within weeks” while another company says it won’t fly humans there until early 2019. Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of big rocket news, including a report critical of Boeing’s management of the Space Launch System rocket.
As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.
Blue Origin delays first New Shepard flights. The space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is now planning to send its first crew on a suborbital space trip during the first half of 2019, GeekWire reports. Blue Origin’s plan calls for its own employees to get aboard for the first crewed flights. The company already has former space shuttle astronauts on its payroll, including Nicholas Patrick and Jeff Ashby. When the publication asked Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith whether the first crew has been selected, he replied, “I’m not going to comment on that.”
No ticket price, either … Smith said Blue Origin hadn’t talked about a ticket price. Maybe that’s so. Maybe it’s not. The company also isn’t ready to say how many flights with “test passengers” will occur before space tourism flights begin. As always, Blue Origin says people will fly when its engineers are convinced the vehicle is safe. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
“Price swings” likely ahead in new era of launch. The next two to three years will be a time of adjustment in the space launch industry, SpaceNews reports. “People are making a lot of bets on new companies and concepts,” Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s president and chief executive, said at an industry meeting. “Some will take. Some will shake out.” One result will be swings in launch prices during the next two to three years, Hart said. After that, he anticipates more price stability and company profitability.
A new era … We’re not there yet, but we will soon move from an era of scarcity in terms of launch vehicles to one of abundance. Probably overabundance. This will cause many aspiring rocket companies to fail while some succeed. The winners of this will undoubtedly be satellite operators and other innovators seeking lower-cost access to space. So while we’re headed to a better place, the ride may be painful.
Richard Branson says Virgin will be in space ‘in weeks not months.’ “We should be in space within weeks, not months. And then we will be in space with myself in months and not years,” the Virgin founder and CEO told CNBC at the Barclays Asia Forum in Singapore Tuesday. “We will be in space with people not too long after that, so we have got a very, very exciting couple of months ahead.”
We’ll see … Virgin has said for a while that this is the year it intends to fly the VSS Unity spacecraft into space as part of its test flight program. We’re hopeful that happens but far from certain. Also, it probably depends on whether Virgin’s definition of “space” is closer to 80km or 100km. As always, we wish Virgin and its test pilots the best of fortune.
Astra Space schedules another commercial launch. Notices from the US Department of Homeland Security and the Alaska Aerospace Corporation indicate the launch from Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island is planned for Friday, with backup dates scheduled through October 16, according to reports. The notices don’t name the company behind the launch, but other government filings name Astra Space, which is licensed for a suborbital flight of its “Rocket 1” vehicle.
A secretive start … The Alameda, California-based company (sometimes styled ASTRA) said a 21-second flight in July was a success, although it has released few details about that launch attempt. Similarly, Astra Space has released no public information about the flight plan for the coming test flight. Hopefully, some day the company will share more.
UP Aerospace offers $1 million small-sat launches. Suborbital launch company UP Aerospace is halfway through funding an all-solid propellant rocket called Spyder, SpaceNews reports. The company hopes Spyder will meet government demand for missions that need to launch on short notice. UP is developing the four-stage Spyder rocket for a debut in 2021, and it intends the booster to carry up to 10kg of payload to low Earth orbit for $1 million a launch.
Storing solids … The company believes it can offer the US government a rapid-launch capability by stockpiling multiple rockets and then launching them on demand. It’s an interesting business idea and just one of many innovative approaches emerging from the commercial industry. (submitted by Unrulycow)
Firefly signs a deal to launch York satellites. Firefly announced it’s teaming up with Denver-based York Space Systems to launch York’s S-CLASS satellites, up to four per launch, AustinInno reports. York’s small satellites are versatile enough to be configured for space startups, government clients, and others.
Latest sign of life … This is the latest encouraging sign from the Austin-based rocket company. There is also talk of state agency Space Florida trying to lure the company and its rocket to the Cape Canaveral launch complex. It’s great to see healthy signals from Firefly.
A Soyuz rocket failed Thursday, but the crew survived. At 4:40am EDT, a Soyuz rocket took off carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin toward the International Space Station. The ascent proceeded normally until the separation of the second stage. (Rumors are circulating about a problem with one or more strap-on boosters). Because the Soyuz spacecraft did not reach orbit at the point of this booster failure, the crew members were forced to make a rapid ballistic descent likely under high g-forces. They survived.
So many questions … What exactly happened? How long will Russia’s investigation take? How long will the Soyuz be grounded? When can commercial crew vehicles be ready? How long can the crew in orbit realistically stay on board? We are now living the nightmare of a single-point failure in ISS transportation after the space shuttle retirement in 2011. Not a good place for NASA or Roscosmos (or the world) to be.
The Air Force chooses its rockets for the 2020s. On Wednesday, the US Air Force awarded its much-anticipated new round of “Launch Service Agreements,” which provide funds to rocket companies to complete development of their boosters. The three big winners were United Launch Alliance, Northrop Grumman, and Blue Origin. The military is betting big on the Vulcan, Omega, and New Glenn rockets for its national security payloads.
Where was SpaceX? … We know SpaceX bid for these awards, but we don’t know what it bid for. The military already has certified the Falcon Heavy as a rocket that can meet all of its reference orbits. Air Force officials may also feel that, because of NASA contracts for commercial cargo and crew, the government has already facilitated development of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy—which uses three Falcon 9 rocket cores.
SpaceX appears to be practicing catching fairings. Teslarati reports that SpaceX is dropping one-half of a payload fairing from a helicopter to test the ability of its Mr. Steven boat to catch them with a large net. Long-distance photos show an “oddly arranged” Falcon 9 payload fairing half with harness connections so that it could be released from a helicopter.
Keep experimenting … The company has not succeeded in catching payload fairings yet. But what seems clear is that SpaceX is going to keep at it until it succeeds, and the company is willing to go to great lengths to get there. It’s hard not to applaud this kind of self-initiative in spaceflight. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Did a piece of a rocket wash up on a Carolina island? A mystery came out of the ocean on South Carolina’s Seabrook Island earlier this month. It could be a piece of space hardware, but authorities haven’t identified it yet. It might be made of concrete, but Marine Mammal network officials say that’s deceiving, the Charlotte Observer reports. Touch it and it feels like “a soft foam,” said the network, adding that the mystery stuff was quickly whisked away by town officials.
We have no idea what it is … Maybe you do? There is a clear photograph on Facebook. (submitted by Bart Stevens)
NASA IG report raises serious questions about SLS. A new report from NASA’s inspector general makes clear just how badly the Space Launch System rocket development process has gone. The report lays the blame mostly at the feet of Boeing, Ars reports. “We found Boeing’s poor performance is the main reason for the significant cost increases and schedule delays to developing the SLS core stage,” the report, signed by NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, states.
Delays, cost overruns, and more … There is a lot of detail to glean from the report, which provides one of our few glimpses behind the scenes of SLS program management. The report also casts doubt on the viability of NASA’s recent (June 2020) maiden launch date for SLS. It remains unclear whether this report will prompt Congress or the White House to act on a program that spends in excess of $2 billion a year.
Boeing provides an update on the Exploration Upper Stage. Why has work on the Space Launch System rocket’s upper stage slowed down? According to Boeing’s John Shannon, it’s because NASA wants more performance from the EUS. When asked by SpaceNews about the possibility to improve the EUS performance as an opportunity created by the delay in the stage’s introduction, Shannon said “It’s a very open-ended discussion with NASA… We have some really sharp guys. They’re going off and coming up with some really great options for NASA to consider.”
With all due respect … We have a ton of respect for John Shannon, a truly talented engineer who helped NASA close out the space shuttle program on a tremendously successful run. But we have heard other reasons for why work on the EUS has slowed down, and those reasons having nothing to do with NASA seeking a higher-performing upper stage from Boeing. We hope to be able to say more in the months ahead. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Next three launches
Oct. 15: Long March 3B | Beidou-3 M15 & Beidou-3 M16 satellites | Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China | 04:15 UTC
Oct. 17: Atlas V | Advanced Extremely High Frequency-4 satellite | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 04:15 UTC
Oct. 20: Ariane 5 | BepiColombo Mercury probe | Kourou, French Guiana | 01:45 UTC