Sunday, March 29, 2015

Going Up, Part 3

Click an image to view it at a higher resolution. All images in this article are copyright © 2015 Stephen C. Smith. Use elsewhere is permitted if credit is given to

Below are images I shot today of Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A as SpaceX continues renovations for the Falcon Heavy and crewed versions of the Dragon V2 atop a Falcon 9.

Earlier images from January and February:

Going Up, Part 1 (January 31)

Going Up, Part 2 (February 24)

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Clash of the Titans

Retired USAF General Larry D. Welch in 2010. Image source: Air Force Historical Foundation.

Multiple media outlets are reporting that an investigation led by retired U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Larry D. Welch has concluded that the service went beyond its appropriate role by trying to impose its own standards on SpaceX, which hopes to be certified for launching military payloads.

Reuters reported on March 26:

The U.S. Air Force overstepped its bounds as it worked to certify privately held SpaceX to launch military satellites, undermining the benefit of working with a commercial provider, an independent review showed on Thursday.

The report cited a “stark disconnect” between the Air Force and SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies, about the purpose of the certification process and recommended changes ...

The report, prepared by former Air Force Chief of Staff General Larry Welch, said the Air Force treated the process like a detailed design review, dictating changes in SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and even the company's organizational structure.

That approach resulted in over 400 issues that needed to be resolved, which was “counterproductive” to a national policy aimed at encouraging competition in the sector.

In fact, the process was intended to show that SpaceX met overall requirements to launch military satellites, not carry out the more detailed review required for each launch on a case-by-case basis, he said.

A March 26 Bloomberg Business report said that the investigation was delivered to Congress on March 25 and was to be released to the public on March 26, however I've been unable to locate it online.

The Welch report also faulted SpaceX for failing to respect the Air Force's experience.

According to the Bloomberg report:

Describing the past conflicts, Welch said the company’s view “is that the Air Force should have confidence in SpaceX capabilities based on its track record of performance,” while the Air Force “has approached certification as a detailed design review.”

“Neither view was the intent of the original certification plan,” which envisioned a “partnership that leveraged the commercial practices and experience of SpaceX and decades of Air Force experience,” Welch said. “Both teams need to adjust.”

Aviation Week reported on March 25 that Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who ordered the review, said in an interview that “The U.S. Air Force and SpaceX are modifying the Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRDA) signed two years ago to outline” the process necessary to complete certification.

The changes are needed to refocus the certification process on establishing top-level trust and confidence that the company can deliver a launch as planned. The current CRDA was “probably too focused on the government side on conducting detailed design reviews and instructing design changes … rather than focusing on the high-level question of do we trust this new entrant,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told Aviation Week during a March 25 interview.

SpaceX chose its path to certification and the CRDA was signed by both parties in June 2013. “Even though the certification process is governed by a CRDA — it is all written down — and you would think that would help people mutually understand what is expected, that, in fact, was not always the case,” James said. SpaceX’s culture of innovation and the Air Force’s culture — focused on “history and a lot of experience” — clashed.

The 80-year old General Welch retired in 1990 but has continued to serve on various panels, including a 2007 task force that reviewed Defense Department policies for handling nuclear weapons.

Retro Saturday: DC-X: The Future Is Now!

Click the arrow to watch the 1993 promotional film. Video source: Rick Tumlinson YouTube channel.

This week's Retro Saturday is about a reusable rocket with landing legs.

No, it's not the SpaceX Falcon 9R, but a distant ancestor, the McDonnell Douglas DC-X, also known as the Delta Clipper.

The DC-X was a one-third scale prototype for a reusable single stage to orbit (SSTO) vertical launch vehicle. McDonnell Douglas was originally contracted by the Department of Defense to build DC-X, but after DOD cut funding it was transferred to NASA.

Click here for more information on DC-X at Encyclopedia Astronautica.

It was to be succeeded by the DC-Y, which would have attempted orbital flight, but once DC-X was cancelled the DC-Y program was never funded.

Below is film footage of the final test flight of the DC-XA, the NASA version of Delta Clipper, on July 7, 1996. A landing strut failed to extend due to a disconnected hydraulic line, causing the vehicle to fall over and leak liquid oxygen, causing a fire. NASA declined to fund repairs and further research, so the program was cancelled.

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: CaughtOnTapeTV YouTube channel.

Gemini and Apollo astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad was the DC-X flight manager for McDonnell-Douglas.

The inherited DC-XA was in competition with the NASA X-33 VentureStar contracted with Lockheed Martin. Several authors, including this 2013 article, suggest many in NASA management wanted to see DC-X fail because it originated with DOD, while wanting to prove that the NASA X-33 project was more viable. X-33 was cancelled in 2001 due to technical difficulties with flight instability and excess weight.

McDonnell Douglas merged in 1997 with the Boeing Company.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Picky, Picky, Picky ...

A March 26, 2014 computer animation of Asteroid Redirect Mission Option B. Video source: Video YouTube channel.

The Orion crew retrieves a sample from the boulder. This video was posted on March 25, 2015, a year later than the above animation. Video source: Video YouTube channel.

UPDATE March 27, 2015 — NASA has released a video that combines new asteroid rendezvous animation with the crew animation. Video source: Video YouTube channel.

When the Barack Obama administration's first NASA budget was presented to Congress on February 1, 2010, it proposed cancelling the Constellation program. Constellation claimed to be a lunar human spaceflight program, but in reality it was a pork-laden fiasco that was years behind schedule and billons of dollars over budget. The October 2009 Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee report concluded that Constellation wouldn't send people to the Moon until the end of the 2020s, if ever, and even then there were no plans for a lunar lander.

The executive summary began with this sentence:

The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory.

So the Obama administration proposed cancelling Constellation. The savings would be used to extend the International Space Station, and to prime the pump on commercial cargo and crew programs that would service ISS after the Space Shuttle program retired in 2011.

Members of the congressional space subcommittees unleashed a firestorm of outrage.

In a February 25, 2010 House Science Committee hearing, members of both parties fell all over each other racing to see who could hurl the most outlandish accusations at the testifying witness, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.

Several insisted that NASA human spaceflight needed a “destination,” although they didn't explain why.

On April 15, 2010, President Obama stepped into the eye of the storm. During a speech at the Kennedy Space Center, Obama gave Congress what it claimed it wanted — a destination.

Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. So we’ll start — we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.

Although those words have been cited many times in the five years since, often overlooked is the following paragraph:

Critical to deep space exploration will be the development of breakthrough propulsion systems and other advanced technologies. So I’m challenging NASA to break through these barriers. And we’ll give you the resources to break through these barriers. And I know you will, with ingenuity and intensity, because that’s what you’ve always done.

Earlier in the speech, Obama had proposed:

We will invest more than $3 billion to conduct research on an advanced “heavy lift rocket” — a vehicle to efficiently send into orbit the crew capsules, propulsion systems, and large quantities of supplies needed to reach deep space. In developing this new vehicle, we will not only look at revising or modifying older models; we want to look at new designs, new materials, new technologies that will transform not just where we can go but what we can do when we get there. And we will finalize a rocket design no later than 2015 and then begin to build it.

Congress really hated that part.

It meant an end to the pork flowing to the districts and states of key Congressional members representing NASA space centers and contractors. In the worst recession since the Great Depression, thousands of Constellation-related jobs would be eliminated.

NASA was originally created in 1958 as an aerospace research and development agency. The 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act called for the new agency to “contribute materially” to “one or more” of a list of objectives.

One objective was, “The improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles.”

But an unintended consequence of President John F. Kennedy's Moon program was that it morphed NASA into a Congressional porkfest. The administrations of Kennedy and his successor Lyndon Johnson assured that Apollo contracts were distributed across the nation.

That tradition remains unchanged a half-century later.

As the above 2003 graph illustrates, NASA likes to brag that it generates jobs in every state — which conveniently assures political support for its continued existence.

So Congress ignored Obama's proposal to increase NASA’s budget by $6 billion over the next five years, and instead directed that Shuttle and Constellation contractors be shifted to a program Congress chose to create itself — the Space Launch System. It was dubbed the Senate Launch System by its critics.

Not only was NASA ordered by Congress to design SLS using existing Shuttle and Constellation technology, but NASA was also ordered to use existing Shuttle and Constellation contractors. Section 304 of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act orders the NASA Administrator to “minimize the modification and development of ground infrastructure and maximize the utilization of existing software, vehicle, and mission operations processes.”

So much for new technology.

The political compromise that came out of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act was that, on paper, NASA was going to Mars via an asteroid, so long as SLS and the Orion crew vehicle were used.

Of course, Congress didn't provide adequate funding so, as I write this, the first uncrewed SLS launch is officially two years behind the December 31, 2016 operational date mandated by Section 301(c)(2) of the 2010 Act, and by my estimation it's already slipped again into 2019.

For the last five years, NASA has soldiered on, engaging in the polite fiction that SLS and Orion will take humanity to Mars in the 2030s via an asteroid.

On April 10, 2013, NASA announced the Asteroid Initiative.

An early concept of a robotic craft capturing an asteroid. Image source: NASA.

Inspired by the April 2012 “Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study” by the Keck Institute for Space Studies, NASA proposed to develop a robotic craft by the end of the decade to capture an asteroid and move it to a lunar orbit where astronauts could rendezvous with it.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) robotic craft would use solar-electric propulsion, intending to evolve that technology towards one day reducing travel time to Mars.

Once again ... Congress hated it.

The House space subcommittee drafted legislation trying to forbid NASA from doing an asteroid mission, although it eventually failed to pass through both houses of Congress. Subcommittee chair Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) called ARM “a costly and complex distraction.” It should be noted that Rep. Palazzo's district includes Stennis Space Center, which tests the traditional liquid propellant engines that would be rendered obsolete by solar-electric propulsion.

Absent any financial support from Congress, NASA tried to figure out a way to make ARM work within projected budget constraints.

Last year, we learned that NASA was studying two options. The grand rhetoric about rearranging our solar system by moving around asteroids was dropped, as NASA contemplated simply picking a boulder off an asteroid instead.

That option, known as Option B, has won.

An artist's concept of the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle landing atop a boulder. Image source: NASA.

NASA announced on March 25 that “a robotic spacecraft will capture a boulder from the surface of a near-Earth asteroid and move it into a stable orbit around the moon for exploration by astronauts, all in support of advancing the nation’s journey to Mars.”

“The Asteroid Redirect Mission will provide an initial demonstration of several spaceflight capabilities we will need to send astronauts deeper into space, and eventually, to Mars,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “The option to retrieve a boulder from an asteroid will have a direct impact on planning for future human missions to deep space and begin a new era of spaceflight.”

The press release stated that “NASA has identified three valid candidates for the mission so far: Itokawa, Bennu and 2008 EV5,” with possibly one or two more candidates.

(For more on Option B, download this July 2014 presentation to the NASA Small Bodies Assessment Group.)

Although most members of the space subcommittees will probably yawn at the latest proposal, one key Republican may be in a position to support ARM.

Space News reported on March 25 that Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) is a supporter of solar-electric propulsion. As chair of the House subcommittee that oversees NASA appropriations, he's in a position to influence how much money NASA gets for its programs.

Culberson's west Houston district doesn't include Johnson Space Center, but a 2006 study of his 7th district estimated that over 3,000 former or retired NASA employees live there.

UPDATE March 27, 2015 — Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle tweeted that he's just completed an interview with Rep. Culberson. The congressman is most definitely opposed to ARM. Eric cited his Adrift series article from December 2014 in which he quotes Culberson:

I don’t think there’s a clear consensus on much in Congress, but we all agree that pushing a rock around in space is a waste of taxpayer dollars that we don’t have to spare.

My personal opinion about ARM is that I've always seen it as a back-door attempt to push some of the new technologies promoted by Obama five years ago, solar-electric propulsion in particular.

Recent history has shown us that, as the saying goes, the biggest obstacle to progress is Congress.

Technical innovation won't come from NASA. It will come from the private sector.

Since the Obama administration has been a big proponent of commercial space, I hoped that the original “Option A” would transfer technologies to the nascent U.S. commercial asteroid mining industry, to companies such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries.

An artist's concept of a Deep Space Industries craft capturing an asteroid for harvesting. Image source: Deep Space Industries.

Option A would seem far more suited for that than Option B. Asteroid mining companies would like to capture and move an asteroid to a stable parking place, so it can be harvested by a fuel processor. (For more on this, see my March 15 book review of Asteroid Mining 101.)

Option B doesn't seem to do much for technology transfer, other than the solar-electric propulsion demonstration and perhaps some precision robot flying.

But it's something for SLS and Orion to do — even if it maintains the polite fiction that this is a first step in human travel to Mars.

Hopefully NASA will run a contest to name its asteroid landing vehicle. I propose “Plucky.”

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Atlas Shrugged

Click the arrow to watch the March 17, 2015 House Armed Services Committee hearing.

On March 17, 2015, the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Strategic Forces held a hearing to discuss the consequences of Congress passing a law in 2014 that forbids the Department of Defense from acquiring launch services with any rocket using engines built in Russia.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 (H.R. 3979) became law on December 19, 2014.

Section 1608 in its entirety states:


(a) In General.— Except as provided by subsections (b) and (c), beginning on the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Defense may not award or renew a contract for the procurement of property or services for space launch activities under the evolved expendable launch vehicle program if such contract carries out such space launch activities using rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation.

(b) Waiver. — The Secretary may waive the prohibition under subsection (a) with respect to a contract for the procurement of property or services for space launch activities if the Secretary determines, and certifies to the congressional defense committees not later than 30 days before the waiver takes effect, that —

     (1) the waiver is necessary for the national security interests of the United States; and
     (2) the space launch services and capabilities covered by the contract could not be obtained at a fair and reasonable price without the use of rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation.

(c) Exception.—

     (1) In general. — The prohibition in subsection (a) shall not apply to either —

          (A) the placement of orders or the exercise of options under the contract numbered FA8811-13-C-0003 and awarded on December 18, 2013; or
          (B) subject to paragraph (2), a contract awarded for the procurement of property or services for space launch activities that includes the use of rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation that prior to February 1, 2014, were either fully paid for by the contractor or covered by a legally binding commitment of the contractor to fully pay for such rocket engines.

     (2) Certification. — The Secretary may not award or renew a contract for the procurement of property or services for space launch activities described in paragraph (1)(B) unless the Secretary, upon the advice of the General Counsel of the Department of Defense, certifies to the congressional defense committees that the offeror has provided to the Secretary sufficient documentation to conclusively demonstrate that prior to February 1, 2014, the offeror had either fully paid for the rocket engines described in such paragraph or made a legally binding commitment to fully pay for such rocket engines.

The upshot of all this is that the United Launch Alliance Atlas V, which launches from the Cape's Pad 41, uses RD-180 engines built by the Russian company NPO Energomash. RD-180s were used first on the Lockheed Martin Atlas III in 2000, then on the Atlas V in 2002. Lockheed Martin, a partner with Boeing in owning ULA, chose to use the RD-180s at the urging of the U.S. government which wanted to keep Russian engineers from defecting to hostile nations after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Russian Federation invaded Crimea in February 2014. The United States government in response began to impose economic sanctions on Russian government leaders and those who were close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. One of those was Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin, who heads Russia's aerospace sector.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin. Image source: The Moscow Times.

Rogozin threatened to cut off RD-180 deliveries to ULA, but as with many of his threats it turned out to be empty. As I wrote last May, he would only succeed in ending jobs for thousands of Russians who build the engines. Rogozin also threatened to end Russian involvement in the International Space Station after 2020, but in late February Russia announced its intention to join the U.S. in operating ISS through 2024.

Putin and Rogozin only succeeded in convincing Congress it's time to end any American business relationships with Russia for rocket engines, at least those to be used for launching military payloads. Congratulations.

Russian engines may still be used for non-military launches, such as the recent Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission for NASA that launched from Pad 41 on March 12. In December, Orbital Sciences ordered RD-181 engines for its Antares rocket, which launches its Cygnus cargo ship to the ISS from Wallops, Virginia.

Based on comments made by ULA CEO Tory Bruno during the March 17 hearing, it appears that ULA roughly has about forty RD-180s left in inventory. Each Atlas V launch uses one RD-180 engine.

According to a January 20, 2015 Space News article, ULA could order thirty more RD-180 engines for non-military launches such as for commercial customers.

But Bruno said that ULA intends to phase out the Atlas V for a new rocket dubbed the Next Generation Launch System (NGLS), and also phase out the Delta IV Medium class rocket that launches from the Cape's Pad 37.

The NGLS would use either new liquid oxygen and methane engines developed by Blue Origin, or as a backup liquid oxygen and RP-1 kerosene engines developed by Aerojet-Rocketdyne.

Bruno hopes to downsize ULA operations at the Cape to one launch complex that would be “mission agnostic” regardless of launch vehicle. Which complex will be used was not specified, and is currently under review.

The purpose of the hearing was to discuss what happens when a “gap” opens near the end of the decade, after RD-180 engines run out but before NGLS is certified by the U.S. Air Force for military use.

No one brought up what happens to ULA's commercial and civilian government customers.

The Atlas V is the launch vehicle for the Boeing CST-100, one of two NASA commercial crew vehicles (along with the SpaceX Dragon V2) scheduled to deliver astronauts to the ISS in 2017. ULA is currently building a service tower at Pad 41 to accommodate crew launches.

An artist's concept of the Boeing CST-100 atop an Atlas V at Pad 41. Image source: NASA.

Boeing is required to perform an uncrewed test flight in mid-2017, then a crewed demonstration flight by late 2017. After that, Boeing is guaranteed a minimum of two crew deliveries to the ISS under the current contract.

The CST-100 was certified by NASA for launch on the Atlas V. Presumably NASA would require a new round of certification before using CST-100 on the NGLS.

Other commercial companies plan on using the Atlas V.

Sierra Nevada has already acquired an Atlas V for a November 2016 uncrewed test flight with its Dream Chaser. Although Dream Chaser didn't get a commercial crew contract, Sierra Nevada recently submitted a bid for the next round of commercial cargo deliveries.

Orbital will use the Atlas V for one or two Cygnus cargo deliveries to the ISS in late 2015 / early 2016, until the Antares RD-181 upgrade is ready.

Video animation of the Atlas V launching a Boeing CST-100 capsule to a Bigelow habitat. Video source: theworacle YouTube channel.

In addition to the ISS, Boeing has a partnership with Bigelow Aerospace to deliver crew to Bigelow's B-330 expandable habitats which are projected to launch in 2018.

Both commercial crew companies are guaranteed a minimum of two and a maximum of six crew deliveries under this current round. Since the Atlas V may no longer be available by the end of the decade, it suggests that Boeing might only get two flights while SpaceX could get up to six to cover the gap.

If the United States government gets to the point where they have to choose priorities between launching military payloads or civilian, who gets the priority?

(The military, obviously.)

In January 2014, the U.S. Air Force awarded a thirty-six core block buy to ULA, a mix of Atlas V and Delta IV boosters. The mix isn't clearly specified, and Bruno said in the hearing he intends to phase out the Delta IV medium class configuration as the Atlas V is cheaper to fly. No one at the hearing raised the question, but it would seem possible that, as ULA approaches the gap, it might be possible for civilian launches to be bumped.

According to witnesses on the hearing's second panel, it could be five to seven years before NGLS is ready to fly.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), who chairs the subcommittee, pointed out that the gap would give SpaceX a de facto launch monopoly by the end of the decade. That isn't the fault of SpaceX. It's the fault of Congress for imposing a ban on RD-180 engines without thinking about the consequences.

Congress is also to blame for rejecting President Barack Obama's Fiscal Year 2011 NASA budget proposal to replace the RD-180 with a U.S. engine. According to a February 22, 2010 Space News article, “NASA says it intends to put enough money into first-stage propulsion development to produce 'a fully operational engine' by 2020, or possibly sooner if it can establish a partnership with the U.S. Defense Department.” But Congress said no.

It appears that the only way out of this mess is to relax the RD-180 ban, allowing ULA to stockpile enough engines until NGLS is certified.

In theory, the Boeing CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser are compatible with the SpaceX Falcon 9. So if the Defense Department calls dibs on remaining Atlas V boosters, perhaps it's more business for SpaceX.