Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Blue Skies


An illustration comparing Blue Origin New Glenn launch vehicles to other rockets. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: Blue Origin.

While rival SpaceX tries to figure why its Falcon 9 went kaboom during a tanking test, Blue Origin announced yesterday its first orbital launch vehicle that could provide SpaceX customers with a viable alternative.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos wrote in an email to the company's subscribers:

Building, flying, landing, and re-flying New Shepard has taught us so much about how to design for practical, operable reusability. And New Glenn incorporates all of those learnings.

Named in honor of John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, New Glenn is 23 feet in diameter and lifts off with 3.85 million pounds of thrust from seven BE-4 engines. Burning liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen, these are the same BE-4 engines that will power United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket.

The 2-stage New Glenn is 270 feet tall, and its second stage is powered by a single vacuum-optimized BE-4 engine. The 3-stage New Glenn is 313 feet tall. A single vacuum-optimized BE-3 engine, burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, powers its third stage. The booster and the second stage are identical in both variants.

We plan to fly New Glenn for the first time before the end of this decade from historic Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. New Glenn is designed to launch commercial satellites and to fly humans into space. The 3-stage variant — with its high specific impulse hydrogen upper stage — is capable of flying demanding beyond-LEO missions.

Our vision is millions of people living and working in space, and New Glenn is a very important step. It won’t be the last of course. Up next on our drawing board: New Armstrong. But that’s a story for the future.

Gradatim Ferociter!

The Orlando Sentinel reported on September 7 that, in addition to Space Launch Complex 36, Blue Origin also plans to use the adjacent SLC-11.

The plan was revealed in permit applications with the St. Johns River Water Management District, which oversees permitting on that land.

The permits hint at a plan to test rockets onsite while launching from the launch pad.

Nearly one year ago, Bezos announced that the company would launch rockets from SLC 36.

In the permit, the company said it would “contstruct and operate an orbital launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's (Space Launch Complex) 11 and SLC-36.”

In the permit application, the company also referenced its efforts to recover launched vehicles, which Blue Origin has done multiple times in west Texas.

“The existing launch complex will be updated to include infrastructure to test engines, integrate launch vehicles and launch orbital vehicles as well as support systems to recover and refurbish launch vehicles,” the permit read.


Launch pads on the tip of Cape Canaveral. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: Google Earth.

The Blue Origin pads are near the tip of the Cape, and some of the most historic launch sites in the history of the U.S. space program.

Pad 3 was used in July 1950 to launch the first Cape rockets. The Bumpers were modified V-2s. The adjacent Pad 4 was used in 1953-1954 for the first test launches of the Redstone booster, which were eventually used in 1961 at Launch Complex 5/6 to send the first two Americans into suborbital flight.

SLC-36 was built for the venerable Atlas-Centaur that launched many of the earliest probes to the Moon, Mercury, Venus and Mars, as well as commercial communications satellites. Its last launch was in February 2005.

SLC-11 was used for some of the earliest Atlas series uncrewed flights. Perhaps the most famous was the SCORE launch in December 1958. The U.S. Army's Signal Communication by Orbiting RElay satellite played a recording by President Eisenhower, broadcasting to the world a Christmas message by short wave radio.


December 18, 1958 ... An Atlas launches the Army's SCORE satellite. Video source: Jeff Quitney YouTube Channel.

Just north on ICBM Road, past SLC-12, is the SpaceX Landing Zone 1, formerly known as Space Launch Complex 13. Two of the six Falcon 9 landings have been at LZ-1, with the other four on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

Blue Origin plans to land its New Glenn boosters too, both by land and by sea. In March 2014, Blue was awarded a patent for “sea landing of space launch vehicles”, but SpaceX filed an appeal. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in March 2015 largely agreed with SpaceX, and in August 2015 Blue cancelled its patent.

SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell said today in Paris that SpaceX hopes to be launching off Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A by November, along with polar orbit missions at Vandenberg AFB in southern California. This assumes, of course, that SpaceX has determined a cause for the September 1 failure.

SpaceX also acknowledged that the first Falcon Heavy launch is delayed to at least the first quarter of 2017.

The 2004 presidential commission chaired by Chairman Pete Aldridge proposed “building a robust space industry” that was the first bureaucratic step towards today's NewSpace movement:

The Commission finds that sustaining the long-term exploration of the solar system requires a robust space industry that will contribute to national economic growth, produce new products through the creation of new knowledge, and lead the world in invention and innovation. This space industry will become a national treasure.

Twelve years later, the NewSpace Race is about to begin on the tip of the Cape, returning to where it all began sixty-six years ago.

Monday, September 12, 2016

What Is A Planet?


Astronomer Mike Brown lectures at the National Air and Space Museum, March 20, 2007. Video source: Smithsonian YouTube channel.

What is a planet?

That's the question Caltech astronomer Mike Brown posed to a friend in December 1999.

Seven years earlier, Massachusetts Institute of Technology astronomers David Jewitt and Jane Luu proved the existence of the Kuiper Belt, a vast population of small solar system bodies beyond Neptune.

After Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930, many astronomers suspected more might lie beyond, but lacked the technology to explore further.

Pluto itself was a bit of an oddball. It was much smaller than the other planets. It's smaller than Earth's moon. Pluto's eccentric orbit takes it within the orbit of Neptune for twenty years of its 248-year orbit around the Sun; the last time was 1979-1999.

In his 2010 book How I Killed Pluto, and Why It Had It Coming, Brown argues that Pluto never should have been categorized as a planet in the first place.

The definition of a “planet” has changed over the centuries.

The word “planet” derives from the ancient Greeks, who described as “wandering stars” the lights in the night sky that were not fixed, but slowly moved over time. Our word “planets” is descended from the Greek phrase for wandering stars, asteres planetai.

In the 19th Century, as the tools used by astronomers matured, many new “planets” were discovered. Brown writes about the discoveries of Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta in the years 1801-1807. They too were described as “planets.” By 1851, fifteen more of these asteroid planets had been discovered, as well as Neptune. Brown has in his collection an 1896 Rand McNally Atlas solar system map that lists Ceres, Pallas, Juno and Vesta as planets.

By the early 20th Century, common convention had dropped these as planets. The asteroids were no longer assumed to be “planets.” No international organization or body voted to change the definition. Popular opinion simply changed. An object no longer simply had to be a “wandering star” to be a planet. Size seemed to matter.

When Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930, it was bigger than the known asteroids, but it was much smaller than the other planets and had an eccentric orbit. The Kuiper Belt would remain undiscovered for another seventy years, so Pluto could not be evaluated in its context. Pluto became the ninth planet, simply because no other term seemed to fit.

The International Astronomical Union was founded in 1919. According to its web site, “Its mission is to promote and safeguard the science of astronomy in all its aspects through international cooperation.”

On the naming of astronomical objects, its web site states:

Celestial nomenclature has long been a controversial topic. At its inaugural meeting in 1922 in Rome, the IAU standardized the constellation names and abbreviations. More recently IAU Committees or Working Groups have certified the names of astronomical objects and features ...

The IAU has been the arbiter of planetary and satellite nomenclature since its inception in 1919. The various IAU Working Groups normally handle this process, and their decisions primarily affect the professional astronomers. But from time to time the IAU takes decisions and makes recommendations on issues concerning astronomical matters affecting other sciences or the public. Such decisions and recommendations are not enforceable by any national or international law; rather they establish conventions that are meant to help our understanding of astronomical objects and processes. Hence, IAU recommendations should rest on well-established scientific facts and have a broad consensus in the community concerned.

The discovery of the Kuiper Belt, and subsequent discoveries of Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), is perhaps one of the most fundamental and revolutionary astronomical advances of our time.

Until a few years ago, we all thought that, beyond Neptune, it was only Pluto and then interstellar space.

According to David Jewitt's web site, “There are at least 70,000 "trans-Neptunians" with diameters larger than 100 km in the radial zone extending outwards from the orbit of Neptune (at 30 AU) to 50 AU.”

An astronomical unit (AU) is the distance from the Sun to Earth, about 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers. Pluto's average distance from the Sun is about 40 AU.

KBOs have orbits of various eccentricities. Many of them have highly ellipitical orbits, influenced by the gravitational pull of large objects such as Neptune. Others seem to meander on their own.

In January 2005, Brown's Caltech team discovered a KBO that the IAU eventually approved naming Eris. It was 27% more massive than Pluto, although Pluto is slightly larger by volume. Eris' average distance from the Sun is about 68 AU; right now, it's about 97 AU from the Sun.

The discovery of Eris raised once again the question, “What is a planet?”

If only size matters, Eris is more massive than Pluto, so Eris must be a planet. But what about other KBOs that may be larger than Pluto?

Many of these objects don't sweep their orbit of debris. Many planets have craters on their surface, because their gravity attracted asteroids and other objects to impact. On Earth, most impacts have been erased over the eons by weather and seismic events. On planets with little or no atmosphere, the evidence is far more evident.

KBOs have impact craters, but lots of debris still barrel about their orbits. KBOs are so small, they have relatively little gravitational pull. They don't sweep their orbit like what we think of as planets. Their surfaces are rough and craggy, not relatively smooth and round like much larger celestial objects.

Taking all this into consideration, the IAU in August 2006 chose to define a planet. Planets and other bodies “except satellites” (i.e. moons) henceforth would be defined into one of three categories — planet, dwarf planet or small solar system body.

The difference between a planet and dwarf planet is that the latter “has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.”

What do they have in common?

Both orbit around the Sun, have sufficient mass for gravity to force the body into a round shape, and are not a satellite.

If an object doesn't fall into either category ... it's a “small solar system body.”

Eris and Pluto became dwarf planets, along with KBOs Haumea (discovered in December 2004) and Makemake (discovered in March 2005). Ceres, in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, is the fifth dwarf planet.

The objects in the asteroid belt and the Kuiper Belt, if not falling into the other two categories, are small solar system bodies.

Clear as mud?

Let's muddy the astronomical waters even more.

In January 2016, Caltech researchers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin announced “evidence of a real ninth planet.” The press release stated:

Caltech researchers have found evidence of a giant planet tracing a bizarre, highly elongated orbit in the outer solar system. The object, which the researchers have nicknamed Planet Nine, has a mass about 10 times that of Earth and orbits about 20 times farther from the sun on average than does Neptune (which orbits the sun at an average distance of 2.8 billion miles). In fact, it would take this new planet between 10,000 and 20,000 years to make just one full orbit around the sun.

The researchers used mathematical models to infer the planet's existence, but it's so far away that it can't be observed directly. If it exists, it's about 700 AU from the Sun.


January 20, 2016 ... Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin discuss their findings of a possible distant solar system planet. Video source: Caltech YouTube channel.

Their work was published in the February 2016 edition of The Astronomical Journal. Click here to download a PDF of the report.

In May 2016, science journalist Bruce Dorminey suggested at Forbes.com that the new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) could be used to search for Planet Nine. Dorminey wrote:

“If a new planet is found, JWST will be able to fully characterize it,” Stefanie Milam, JWST deputy project scientist for planetary science at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, told me. “Planet 9 is predicted to be fairly large but far, so most ground based facilities [would] barely be able to detect it.”

Milam says this would include being able to detect compounds like carbon dioxide in the putative planet’s tenuous, icy atmosphere.

According to NASA's JWST web site:

Webb can observe everything in our Solar System that is further from the Sun than the Earth is. Webb's sensitivity will be most useful in studying the faint rocky and icy objects in the far outer Solar System, including the dwarf planet Pluto and other Kuiper Belt Objects. Webb's studies of these objects will test theories of how the Solar System formed. Webb will also observe the moons of the gas giant planets, comets and asteroids and the planets Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

The 20th Century saw humanity launch its first telescopes above the atmosphere.


The electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to gamma rays. Click to view at a larger size. Image source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

The Hubble Space Telescope, deployed by the Space Shuttle in 1990, is the most famous but many preceded and followed. Space telescopes may be specialized to look at certain wavelengths within the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to gamma rays. Humans see only visible light, but objects may be observed at other wavelengths. Planet Nine may be too far away to reflect visible light, but if it has any warmth JWST might be able to pick it up, because it's designed specifically to capture infrared light.

The 21st Century may reveal more planets, dwarf planets, small solar system bodies and other objects beyond the Kuiper Belt. If the century began with the question, “What is a planet?” it may end with the question, “Where does the solar system end?”

In 2013, NASA tried to answer this question when Voyager 1 entered interstellar space. The probe had moved beyond the Sun's bubble of electrically charged particles, called the heliosphere. Voyager 1 passed through the heliopause, the border where the bubble ends, and encountered interstellar wind.


A September 2013 NBC News illustration depicting a definition for the end of the solar system.

But Voyager 1 has yet to reach the Oort Cloud, a theoretical cloud of icy objects that are believed to be the source of comets and other debris that occasionally enter the solar system. The Oort Cloud is considered, for now, to be the outermost region of the solar system. The small solar system body, Sedna, discovered in 2003, may be the first object detected in the Oort Cloud. Sedna never enters the Kuiper Belt. It travels in a long elliptical orbit between 76 and 1,000 AU from the Sun.

The discovery of Sedna by the Caltech team led them to look for other objects with odd orbits. Their research resulted in the January 2016 paper suggesting the existence of Planet Nine.

The question “What is a planet” led Dr. Brown and the Caltech researchers beyond Pluto and beyond the Kuiper Belt. How much farther will they go?

Will “Where does the solar system end?” finally answer the question, “What is a planet?”


UPDATE September 15, 2016The Los Angeles Times published an interview yesterday with Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin about their upcoming search for Planet Nine.

What we have is a gravitational signature of the existence of this planet. This planet, just like every other major planet in the solar system, shepherds the small bodies that surround it. And the particular way in which the orbits of this debris are arranged can only be explained by existence of a planet. So it’s a little bit like being downtown and hearing an ambulance — you know it’s there, but you haven’t seen it yet. You even know the overall direction the sounds are coming from, but you haven’t seen what color the ambulance is.

In Pluto news, NASA announced yesterday the cause of a red splotch on Pluto's largest moon Charon.

... Charon’s polar coloring comes from Pluto itself — as methane gas that escapes from Pluto’s atmosphere and becomes “trapped” by the moon’s gravity and freezes to the cold, icy surface at Charon’s pole. This is followed by chemical processing by ultraviolet light from the sun that transforms the methane into heavier hydrocarbons and eventually into reddish organic materials called tholins.


A July 14, 2015 image of Charon taken by NASA's New Horizons probe. Click the image to view at a larger size.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Going Up, Part 11



Click an image to view it at a higher resolution. All images in this article are copyright © 2016 Stephen C. Smith. Use elsewhere is permitted if credit is given to SpaceKSC.com.

It's been about six months since my last photography run outside the perimeter of Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A, where SpaceX is remodelling the pad for its Falcon Heavy launch vehicle.

Given the events of September 1, the status of the pad upgrade has a new urgency.

An update issued September 2 by SpaceX stated:

Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base is in the final stages of an operational upgrade and Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center remains on schedule to be operational in November. Both pads are capable of supporting Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches. We are confident the two launch pads can support our return to flight and fulfill our upcoming manifest needs.

So it seems quite timely to do a photo update for you to observe the status for yourself.

Here are links to images in earlier articles:

Going Up, Part 1 (January 31, 2015)

Going Up, Part 2 (February 24, 2015)

Going Up, Part 3 (March 29, 2015)

Going Up, Part 4 (April 27, 2015)

Going Up, Part 5 (May 26, 2015)

Going Up, Part 6 (June 27, 2015)

Going Up, Part 7 (August 9, 2015)

Going Up, Part 8 (October 16, 2015)

Going Up, Part 9 (November 8, 2015)

Going Up, Part 10 (February 29, 2016)














Saturday, September 3, 2016

SpaceX Picks Up the Pieces


Click the arrow to watch WESH-TV Channel 2 Orlando's raw feed of the SpaceX fire. The audio is largely silent. Original video source: WESH-TV Facebook page.


Click the arrow to watch WFTV-TV Channel 9 Orlando's raw feed of the SpaceX fire. Audio commentary begins at the 6:40 minute mark. Original video source: WFTV-TV Facebook page.

The smoke and flame are gone at Cape Canaveral's Pad 40.

For SpaceX, the damage from its second accident in fourteen months will linger much longer.

SpaceX now has an official web page for updates. They refer to the incident as an “anomaly.”

This statement was issued yesterday at 6:45pm EDT:

SpaceX has begun the careful and deliberate process of understanding the causes and fixes for yesterday's incident. We will continue to provide regular updates on our progress and findings, to the fullest extent we can share publicly.

We deeply regret the loss of AMOS-6, and safely and reliably returning to flight to meet the demands of our customers is our chief priority. SpaceX's business is robust, with approximately 70 missions on our manifest worth over $10 billion. In the aftermath of yesterday's events, we are grateful for the continued support and unwavering confidence that our commercial customers as well as NASA and the United States Air Force have placed in us.

Overview of the incident:

— Yesterday, at SpaceX's Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, an anomaly took place about eight minutes in advance of a scheduled test firing of a Falcon 9 rocket.

— The anomaly on the pad resulted in the loss of the vehicle.

— This was part of a standard pre-launch static fire to demonstrate the health of the vehicle prior to an eventual launch.

— At the time of the loss, the launch vehicle was vertical and in the process of being fueled for the test. At this time, the data indicates the anomaly originated around the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Per standard operating procedure, all personnel were clear of the pad. There were no injuries.

To identify the root cause of the anomaly, SpaceX began its investigation immediately after the loss, consistent with accident investigation plans prepared for such a contingency. These plans include the preservation of all possible evidence and the assembly of an Accident Investigation Team, with oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration and participation by NASA, the United States Air Force and other industry experts. We are currently in the early process of reviewing approximately 3000 channels of telemetry and video data covering a time period of just 35-55 milliseconds/

As for the Launch Pad itself, our teams are now investigating the status of SLC-40. The pad clearly incurred damage, but the scope has yet to be fully determined. We will share more data as it becomes available. SpaceX currently operates 3 launch pads — 2 in Florida and 1 in California at Vandenberg Air Force Base. SpaceX's other launch sites were not affected by yesterday's events. Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base is in the final stages of an operational upgrade and Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center remains on schedule to be operational in November. Both pads are capable of supporting Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches. We are confident the two launch pads can support our return to flight and fulfill our upcoming manifest needs.

Again, our number one priority is to safely and reliably return to flight for our customers, as well as to take all the necessary steps to ensure the highest possible levels of safety for future crewed missions with the Falcon 9. We will carefully and thoroughly investigate and address this issue.

Launches can't simply move from the Cape to Vandenberg. For safety, prograde orbits — those that launch with the rotation of Earth — are from the Cape. They go over the ocean in case of an “anomaly.” When SpaceX CRS-7 blew up on June 28, 2015, 2½ minutes after launch, the pieces fell into the Atlantic Ocean. Polar orbits launch from Vandenberg for the same reason. If a rocket explodes, it falls into the Pacific Ocean. Vandenberg can't be used for a prograde orbit because the rocket would have to pass over populated land.

The above statement claims that Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A will be “operational in November,” but SpaceX timelines have proven in the past to be notoriously optimistic. Some work projected for earlier this year has yet to begin. SpaceX had said they would remove the old Space Shuttle Rotating Service Structure, but it's still in place. A large yellow crane lies on the ground nearby, waiting to lift the Shuttle era's lightning mast so an overhead crane can be installed for intergrating vertical payloads on the pad when required by a customer.

SpaceX prograde orbit launches could move to KSC's Pad 39A — when operational. But it would seem prudent to identify a cause of the “anomaly” before attempting any more Falcon 9 launches.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Risky Business


Click to watch video of today's SpaceX static test fire explosion. Video source: USLaunchReport YouTube channel.

Risk management involves understanding, analysing and addressing risk to make sure organisations achieve their objectives. So it must be proportionate to the complexity and type of organisation involved.

Institute of Risk Management

Nearly a century ago, at the dawn of the 1920s, the U.S. Post Office invested public funds into the new technology of aviation, when private capital was unwilling to invest. Over a period of about ten years, the USPS issued exclusive contracts to vendors that would deliver mail over specified routes in exchange for a percentage of the air mail stamp's value. As the companies matured, and as their contracts came up for renewal, the USPS required the vendors to demonstrate they could fly at night, in bad weather and at lesser cost.

Lives were lost, but by the early 1930s these vendors were carrying commercial aviation passengers, partially financed by government subsidy.

Risk management as a profession didn't exist back then, but essentially that's what the USPS did. They assumed part of the risk so a robust commercial aviation industry could emerge.

Assumption of risk is a legal concept that's part of our everyday lives. You cross the street against a red light. You run out to fetch the paper in a lightning storm. You smoke a cigarette knowing it can give you lung cancer, meaning your insurance company won't insure you.

LegalDictionary.net defines assumption of risk as, “situations in which an individual acknowledges the risks associated with any activity, but chooses to take part regardless.”

SpaceX CRS-7 launched from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on June 28, 2015. Two minutes and twenty seconds after liftoff, the upper stage failed, destroying the rocket. The Dragon cargo ship plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean, and was destroyed on impact. The cause was traced to a faulty strut holding a helium bottle in the upper stage.

Government, commercial and educational payloads were lost. They were owed no compensation. SpaceX did arrange for some of the customers to fly again, and gave NASA a discount for future deliveries.

According to a June 2016 NASA Office of the Inspector General report, the agency lost $118 million from the incident, including the first International Docking Adapter (IDA) that will be used for future commercial crew vehicles.

The first-round commercial cargo contracts, known as Commercial Resupply Services 1 (CRS-1), “place much of the risk associated with an unsuccessful mission on NASA.”

According to the report:

However, this is not unusual for Government contracts relating to space operations given the associated expense and risks, and the limited number of capable contractors. Due to the relationship between risk and price, shifting more risk to the contractor would likely increase contract price. To this end, the CRS-1 contracts do not require SpaceX or Orbital to re-fly failed missions or carry upmass from a failed mission on future flights, nor do they make the companies liable for any cargo destroyed as a result of a launch failure or other anomaly. While, as previously noted, if SpaceX or Orbital fail to deliver cargo to the Station the companies forfeit any payment tied to the associated milestones, NASA is not entitled to recover previous milestone payments associated with the launch. Furthermore, the Agency can only recover milestone payments it has made toward missions not yet flown if it terminates the contract for cause — known as “termination for cause.”

In January 2016, NASA issued a second round of contracts, known as Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS-2). Among other requirements, CRS-2 added “an insurance requirement to cover damage to government property during launch services, reentry services or transportation to, from, in proximity of, or docking with the space station,” according to a NASA press release.

Six months after the CRS-7 loss, SpaceX returned to flight, delivering eleven Orbcomm commercial satellites into orbit.


December 21, 2015 ... SpaceX launches Orbcomm satellites and successfully lands its first stage. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

The mission carried its own additional risks.

For the first time, SpaceX attempted to launch a Falcon 9 using supercooled liquid oxygen. To keep oxygen at a liquid stage, it must be at -297°F/-183°C. The upgraded F9 would use LOX chilled to -340°F/-207°C. The RP-1 kerosene fuel would be chilled to 20°F/-7°C, instead of its usual room temperature.

SpaceX also chose to attempt landing the first stage at the Cape's former Launch Complex 13, now designated Landing Zone 1.

This was a launch replete with risks, for both SpaceX and its customers. But all eleven satellites were delivered to orbit, and the Falcon 9 became the first booster to launch an orbital payload and safely land on a pad.

With subsequent launches, SpaceX struggled at times with tanking problems and aborts due to the supercooled LOX, but their last few launches had been without incident.

SpaceX entered this month having landed six Falcon 9 boosters — two at the Cape, and four at sea on their Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS). Confident that they had demonstrated minimal risk, the company sought a commercial vendor willing to fly on a previously launched booster.

On August 31, SES and SpaceX announced that the Luxembourg-based company would fly a satellite on the Falcon 9 used to launch SpaceX CRS-8 in April.

According to the press release:

“Having been the first commercial satellite operator to launch with SpaceX back in 2013, we are excited to once again be the first customer to launch on SpaceX's first ever mission using a flight-proven rocket. We believe reusable rockets will open up a new era of spaceflight, and make access to space more efficient in terms of cost and manifest management,” said Martin Halliwell, Chief Technology Officer at SES. “This new agreement reached with SpaceX once again illustrates the faith we have in their technical and operational expertise. The due diligence the SpaceX team has demonstrated throughout the design and testing of the SES-10 mission launch vehicle gives us full confidence that SpaceX is capable of launching our first SES satellite dedicated to Latin America into space.”

Space journalist Eric Berger of Ars Technica commented:

SpaceX has not yet specified how much it will charge for launch services on one of its flown boosters, but industry officials anticipate about a 30 percent discount on SpaceX's regular price of $62 million for a Falcon 9 launch. The company has not shared how much it is spending to refurbish and reuse a Falcon 9 stage, nor has it offered much public information about the extent to which the vehicle's engines have had to be tested and prepared for a second flight.

To make good on its goal of low-cost, reusable launch services, however, it is not enough for SpaceX to make spectacular landings at sea and on land. The company must now take the critical step of showing that rockets that have flown into space and made high-energy returns to Earth are capable of being turned around in reasonably short order, and at a low cost, to make reusable rocketry practical. Launching by the end of 2016 — at a discount — would begin to deliver on that promise.


July 28, 2016 ... SpaceX posts a video of a previously flown Falcon 9 being test-fired at its McGregor, Texas facility. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

While the NewSpace industry celebrated the first contract for the commercial relaunch of an orbital booster, NASA's Inspector General expressed a more cautious view.

Earlier today, the OIG issued an update on NASA's commercial crew vendors. According to the summary:

The Commercial Crew Program continues to face multiple challenges that will likely delay the first routine flight carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS until late 2018 — more than 3 years after NASA’s original 2015 goal. While past funding shortfalls have contributed to the delay, technical challenges with the contractors’ spacecraft designs are now driving the schedule slippages. For Boeing, these include issues relating to the effects of vibrations generated during launch and challenges regarding vehicle mass. For SpaceX, delays resulted from a change in capsule design to enable a water-based rather than ground-based landing and related concerns about the capsule taking on excessive water.

The report continued:

As part of the certification process, Boeing and SpaceX conduct safety reviews and report to NASA on potential hazards and their plans for mitigating risks. We found significant delays in NASA’s evaluation and approval of these hazard reports and related requests for variances from NASA requirements that increase the risk costly redesign work may be required late in development, which could further delay certification. Although NASA’s goal is to complete its review within 8 weeks of receipt of a hazard report, the contractors told us reviews can take as long as 6 months. We also found NASA does not monitor the overall timeliness of its safety review process.

Risk management of the commercial crew program is specifically discussed on Page 7.

For the Commercial Crew Program, Boeing and SpaceX are contractually obligated to identify and track risks and their progress toward certification. In addition, they are required to provide NASA access to their risk systems and related data so that they can work with the Agency to address identified risks.

In discussing SpaceX performance with their contract, the report comments on Page 13:

As of June 2016, SpaceX had not revised its schedule and was still planning its first certified crewed flight in December 2017. However, given the delays in achieving milestones necessary to receive certification, we believe it highly unlikely SpaceX will meet this goal.

Page 16 of the report concludes with this prescient observation:

As stated earlier, SpaceX is scheduled to complete the final phase of its Critical Design Review in August 2016. As part of this review, SpaceX and NASA will assess lessons learned from the SpaceX’s failed June 2015 cargo mission. According to the Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, the accident provided an opportunity to gain a better understanding of weaknesses in SpaceX’s rocket design, which in turn can be used to inform its crew design. Although SpaceX officials told us that the mishap has not delayed its crew development efforts because it had built sufficient margin into the schedule, they also noted the lack of margin remaining to accommodate any additional unexpected issues that may arise.

An unexpected issue arose today at 9:07 AM EDT.

This official statement was issued on Twitter this afternoon by SpaceX:



SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted:

This image shows two consecutive frames taken from the above video by USLaunchReport.com. The first is the last frame before the anomaly, the second is the first frame showing the fire.


Image source: Phil Wilson Twitter account @FxPhilW.

The extent of the damage to Pad 40 awaits an extensive inspection. Distant video seems to show the horizontal integration hangar is intact.

But the damage will be far more than physical.

It's unclear if Spacecom, the customer that lost its AMOS-6 communications, was insured for today's incident.

Reporter Peter B. de Selding of SpaceNews tweeted:

Space News journalist Jeff Foust published this report listing the nine SpaceX customers who were scheduled to fly later this year.

Mark Fahey of CNBC posted this article about the volatile nature of the space insurance industry, and recent significant financial losses.

It seems likely that NASA won't be able to count on SpaceX for commercial cargo deliveries until at least early 2017. As the OIG predicted, the optimistic December 2017 operational date for commercial crew should slip into 2018.

And who knows what this will do to the Falcon Heavy, the company's next-generation heavy-lift launch vehicle. The Falcon Heavy essentially is three Falcon 9 boosters connected together. Although SpaceX has insisted it would fly the first test from Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A by the end of 2016, COO Gwynne Shotwell stated August 9 at the Small Sat conference in Colorado that the Falcon Heavy is “actually a harder problem than we thought.”

The 2018 NASA SpaceX Red Dragon joint mission to Mars also seems unlikely to launch on schedule. With launches timed to when Earth and Mars are closest, it seems likely Red Dragon won't happen until at least late 2020.

The biggest question, in my opinion, will be to see in upcoming months whether SpaceX commercial satellite vendors will bolt for other launch companies. They will crunch the numbers, they will calculate the risk, and determine if it's worth rolling the dice with SpaceX.

The cost of mitigating the risk of flying on a previously launched Falcon 9 might have priced reusable rockets out of the market, until SpaceX can demonstrate more reliability. Two losses in a little more than fourteen months won't incline insurance companies to provide coverage.

The Department of Defense, already a bit skittish about trusting SpaceX, may listen to those inside the Pentagon (and the halls of Congress) who argue that United Launch Alliance's track record of reliability makes that company worth the additional expense.

The biggest loss today may not be the rocket, or the payload, or the pad.

It may be the SpaceX business model.

If customers can't afford the risk, SpaceX can't fly.