Sunday, June 19, 2016

Blue Skies

Click the arrow to watch highlight clips from today's Blue Origin test flight. Video source: Blue Origin YouTube channel.

Blue Origin today flew in west Texas its four test of its New Shepard suborbital launch system.

The above video has clips of the test. Click here to watch the complete webcast of the test flight.

The webcast itself is significant, because until now Blue hasn't broadcast live its tests. If successful, eventually we saw highlight clips on YouTube and the Blue Origin web site.

Also significant is that this was Blue's first test of the capsule's re-entry without one of its three main chutes. More about the test flight in this Spaceflight Now article.

The BE-3 engine uses liquid hydrogen as a fuel. Most launch providers on Planet Earth use RP-1 kerosene, which is cheaper and easier to handle, but liquid hydrogen provides more bang for the buck. The upper stages of the Saturn V, and the Space Shuttle's orbiter main engines, used liquid hydrogen. Blue's next-generation engine, the BE-4, will use methane. Rival SpaceX is also working on a next-generation engine called Raptor that would use methane.

The BE-4 engine will be used on a booster capable of sending payloads into orbital flight. That unnamed rocket will launch from the Cape's Pad 36. Blue is currently clearing land at Kennedy Space Center on Space Commerce Road for their Orbital Launch Site Manufacturing Complex. Click here for images.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Ready When They're Ready

Pieces of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner arrive at Kennedy Space Center. Video source: NASA Kennedy YouTube channel.

The next International Space Station crew rotation is scheduled for July 7 from the Russian launch site at Baikonur, Khazkhstan.

Here at Kennedy Space Center, commercial crew vendors Boeing and SpaceX continue to prepare for their first missions in the next two years.

A Boeing executive said on May 11 that their CST-100 Starliner is behind schedule. Their first uncrewed test flight is planned for 2017, with the first crew flight in 2018. According to an Aviation Week article (subscription required), Boeing has problems with the capsule's mass and noise problems as it interacts with its United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster.

SpaceX maintains they're still on track for operational status by the end of 2017, although their schedules are notoriously optimistic.

As recently as March, NASA told media representatives that Boeing and SpaceX were both still on track for 2017. According to a May 25 Spaceflight Now article:

Boeing announced earlier this month that its first piloted CST-100 Starliner flight with two test astronauts on-board has slipped from October 2017 to February 2018. That will be preceded by an abort test using the capsule’s pusher escape engines at White Sands, New Mexico, in October 2017 and a trip to the space station by an unoccupied CST-100 in December 2017, Boeing officials said ...

Earlier this year, SpaceX quietly delayed its initial Crew Dragon mission without astronauts from late 2016 to May 2017. A NASA official confirmed the updated schedule in a March presentation to the agency’s advisory council.

The commercial crew program on paper goes back to President George W. Bush's administration. Part of his Vision for Space Exploration proposal, the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office opened in November 2005. NASA issued the first commercial cargo contracts in August 2006, but commercial crew went unfunded because it would compete with the government Constellation Ares I.

A 2009 review concluded that Constellation would not fly Ares I until at least 2017, and possibly 2019. Although prohibited by Congress, NASA budget documents from the Bush era assumed Constellation would be funded by ending ISS in 2016. The station would be disposed into the Pacific Ocean.

NASA was building a rocket to nowhere.

President Barack Obama's Fiscal Year 2011 NASA budget proposal cancelled Constellation to extend the International Space Station to 2020, accelerate commercial cargo and fund the commercial crew program. The goal was to have commercial crew operational by 2015.

After months of political rancor, Congress finally agreed, but for several fiscal years underfunded commercial crew. According to a November 2013 NASA Office of the Inspector General report:

The Program received only 38 percent of its originally requested funding for FYs 2011 through 2013, bringing the current aggregate budget shortfall to $1.1 billion when comparing funding requested to funding received. As a result, NASA has delayed the first crewed mission to the ISS from FY 2015 to at least FY 2017.

Subsequent funding cuts pushed the post-Shuttle “gap” into FY 2018.

If you're unhappy with that, you may wish to contact your members of Congress to determine how they voted when NASA's budget came up for a vote.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Blue's Origin, Part 1

This sign is visible from Space Commerce Road. All images credit:

Blue Origin has begun clearing at their future manufacturing complex at Kennedy Space Center's Exploration Park.

You'll notice that, on the above sign, it states, OLS Manufacturing Complex. What's OLS?! I'm guessing it's Orbital Launch Site, apparently, from the below press release.

The Haskell Company of Jacksonville has the contract to design and build the complex. Here's their April 26, 2016 press release:

Haskell, a leading integrated design, engineering and construction firm, announced today that it has been selected to design-build a new orbital rocket manufacturing facility for Blue Origin. The facility will be built at Exploration Park in Cape Canaveral, Florida — the hub of U.S. space exploration.

In 2015, Blue Origin announced plans to open a 21st century production facility that will focus on manufacturing a new fleet of reusable orbital launchers for their private spaceflight program. The facility is strategically located near Complex 36, the site where Blue Origin plans to launch from later this decade.

This is Haskell’s second engagement for the private spaceflight company. Haskell previously performed design-build services on a 20,000 SF launch site complex in Texas that was completed in September of 2006. “Haskell’s aerospace and aviation industry performance track record coupled with their proven ability to meet aggressive design-build schedules made them the right fit for this job,” said Scott Henderson, Blue Origin's Orbital Launch Site Director. “We look forward to partnering with Haskell to deliver a world class launch vehicle manufacturing facility to support our vision of millions of people living and working in space.”

“Haskell is thrilled to be a part of this industry-changing project that makes spaceflight more commercially accessible,” said Paul Raudenbush, Haskell’s Aviation & Aerospace Division Leader. “Blue Origin’s culture is grounded in innovation, value and safety much like our own, which makes this a great fit for our two organizations. As a Florida-based company, we’re especially invested in completing a successful project that brings Blue Origin’s operations into our home state.”

Scott Henderson, by the way, once worked for SpaceX at the Cape as Director of Launch Integration and Mission Assurance. He joined Blue in March 2014.

From time to time, I'll drive by the site and shoot photos to keep you apprised of their progress.

Click on an image to view at a larger size. Images may be used elsewhere if credit is given to

These first two photos were taken on May 29.

These images were shot today, on June 7.

That New Habitat Smell

Click the link to look inside the BEAM. Video source: NASA Johnson YouTube channel.

Another first for NewSpace.

NASA astronaut Jeff Williams yesterday entered the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), the first time a person has entered an expandable habitat on orbit.

BEAM has a volume of 16 cubic meters, or about 212 cubic feet. It's roughly comparable to a small bedroom.

As noted in the NASA video, BEAM was delivered last April in the trunk of the SpaceX cargo Dragon. That was another first — the first time a private company's space module was delivered to orbit by another private company's cargo ship.

In March 2013, I wrote a blog article, “The Origins of Commercial Space.” The NewSpace era as we know it began with a report issued by President George W. Bush's Commission on Implementation of United Space Exploration Policy. Titled A Journey to Inspire, Innovate, and Discover, the commissioners saw fit to dedicate an entire chapter to the subject, “Building a Robust Space Industry.”

The commission wrote in that chapter's preface:

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.

That report was released in June 2004. Twelve years later, the national treasure is on orbit.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Two Billionaires, One NewSpace

Click the arrow to watch the May 31, 2016 Jeff Bezos interview. Video source: Recode YouTube channel.

Click the arrow to watch the June 1, 2016 Elon Musk interview. Video source: Recode YouTube channel.

They didn't appear on the same day, but NewSpace entrepreneurs Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk were among the speakers interviewed at this year's Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.

According to the event's web site, “Code Conference is an invitation-only event where top industry influencers gather for in-depth conversations about the current and future impact of digital technology on our lives — at home, at work, in our communities and the world.”

This year was the third annual conference.

Originally known as Re/code, today's Recode is tech business news entity now owned by Vox Media. Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, the founders of Re/code, are the on-stage interviewers.

Both NewSpace entrepreneurs are interviewed about many topics, not just their space companies. Each interview runs about 80 minutes.