Sunday, September 21, 2014

Break Out the Bubbly

SpaceX champagne glasses. Image courtesy Karen LaFon.

I wrote August 5 about SpaceX setting a modern-era record for the shortest turnaround of a pad for launches. The company launched two Falcon 9 rockets in just under 22 days.

This morning, SpaceX obliterated that record.

Fourteen days after launching commercial satellite AsiaSat 6 on September 7, SpaceX launched their robotic cargo craft Dragon this morning to the International Space Station.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 launches its Dragon to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Video source: NASA.

The record could have been thirteen days, but yesterday's attempt was rained out with about a half-hour left in the countdown.

You might have to go back to the Gemini 7 and Gemini 6A launches from Pad 19 in December 1965 to find a faster turnaround of a Cape pad. That was improvised, not planned. Gemini 6 was supposed to launch on October 25 to rendezvous with an Agena Target Vehicle, but the Agena was destroyed during launch earlier that day, so Gemini 6 had no mission. It was decided to postpone the mission until December, so it could practice a rendezvous with Gemini 7, which launched on December 4. Pad 19 required only minimal repairs, and the renamed Gemini 6A launched on December 15.

It should be noted that SpaceX uses a horizontal integration method for Falcon 9, as did Gemini for the Titan II, which might suggest why it was possible for both pads to be turned around so quickly. Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39, and the two United Launch Alliance pads that bookend the SpaceX Pad 40, use a vertical integration, which adds overhead and infrastructure that may require repair after launches.

A time-lapse photograph of the erection and launch of Gemini 10. Image source: Wikipedia.

The Russians have used horizontal integration at Baikonur going back to the R-7 ICBM in the late 1950s. Lacking a prosperous economy, Russia and its Soviet predecessor have always been forced to find the more efficient means to operate their space program.

Perhaps more important than the record is that the last two launches have been routine, with no significant anomalies.

In the post-launch media event, SpaceX Vice-President of Mission Assurance Hans Koenigsmann said he thought it might be possible for SpaceX to reduce time between launches to as short as a week, assuming weather cooperates.

SpaceX now has six launches at Pad 40 in 2014. Koenigsmann said two more are planned for the year, including another Dragon flight and a commercial satellite launch. In November, SpaceX will use Pad 40 to demonstrate a Dragon V2 pad abort for the commercial crew program.

The revolutionary potential of NewSpace is here. I can't help but wonder what executives at Boeing, Lockheed Martin, ATK and Orbital Sciences are thinking about how they will possibly compete with SpaceX.

Click the arrow to watch the post-launch media briefing. Video source: NASA.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Retro Saturday: Atlas Project Film Report

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

This week's Retro Saturday looks at the first test flight of the Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile from Cape Canaveral on June 11, 1957 on Pad 14.

As you'll see in the 13½ minute film, it doesn't go well.

At the same time as the U.S. was developing its first ICBM, the Soviet Union was testing its R-7 Semyorka ICBM at Baikonur. Its first test in May 1957 failed, but the R-7 successfully flew for the first time during a test on August 21, 1957. The R-7 was used to launch Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, on October 4, 1957.

The successful R-7 launches led to political accusations that the United States trailed the Soviet Union in rocket technology. Those accusations resulted in Congressional hearings which eventually led to the creation of NASA in 1958.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

That's the Way It Will Be

Click the arrow to watch the segment. You may be subjected to an ad first. Video source: CBS This Morning.

CBS This Morning aired a segment today about the NASA Orion capsule, although it began with a bit about the commercial crew selection.

Click here to read the accompanying article.

The segment included a transition showing the “low-tech” similarities between Orion and Apollo landing in the water for retrieval. The clip included footage of Walter Cronkite, which alone makes it worth watching.

Something Borrowed, Something Blue

Click the arrow to watch the Boeing/Blue Origin event at the National Press Club. Video source: Blue Origin YouTube channel.

A year ago in September, Blue Origin filed a complaint to protest the lease award of Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A.

Many observers surmised that Blue Origin might have a tacit agreement with United Launch Alliance, a Boeing/Lockheed Martin partnership whose legal government launch monopoly is threatened by SpaceX. Blue Origin had no foreseeable need for Pad 39A in the near future, but denying SpaceX access to the pad would be throwing sand in their mutual competitor's metaphorical gear box.

Members of Congress who have received campaign contributions from Boeing or Lockheed Martin sent NASA letters protesting the SpaceX award.

Three months later, the Government Accountability Office rejected the complaint, and in April 2014 NASA and SpaceX formally signed at 20-year lease for Pad 39A.

If there was no quid pro quo between Blue Origin and ULA a year ago, their courtship became formal today.

At a media event in Washington, D.C. the companies announced a partnership to jointly produce a new engine that could eventually replace the Russian RD-180 engine currently used on the ULA Atlas V.

According to the ULA press release:

The ULA/Blue Origin agreement allows for a four-year development process with full-scale testing in 2016 and first flight in 2019. The BE-4 will be available for use by ULA and Blue Origin for both companies’ next generation launch systems.

The BE-4 is a liquid oxygen, liquefied natural gas (LNG) rocket engine that delivers 550,000-lbf of thrust at sea level. Two BE-4s will power each ULA booster, providing 1,100,000-lbf thrust at liftoff. ULA is investing in the engineering and development of the BE-4 to enable availability for national security, civil, human and commercial missions. Development of the BE-4 engine has been underway for three years and testing of BE-4 components is ongoing at Blue Origin’s test facilities in West Texas. Blue Origin recently commissioned a new large test facility for the BE-4 to support full engine testing.

Click here for the ULA BE-4 fact sheet.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos with a scale model of the BE-4 engine today at the National Press Club. Image source:

Both ULA CEO Tory Bruno and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos stressed that the BE-4 is not a “one for one” replacement for the RD-180, but global events this year have spurred the military and ULA to consider replacing the Russian engine.

After the Obama administration imposed economic sanctions on Russia earlier this year in response to events in Ukraine, Defense Minister Dmitri Rogozin threatened to end RD-180 shipments to ULA.

I've written several times that I viewed Rogozin's threats as hollow, because Energomash has no other market for the RD-180. That was confirmed yesterday by The Moscow Times:

Russia is not planning to halt shipments of its RD-180 and NK-33 rocket engines to U.S. aerospace firms in response to the latest round of Western sanctions, the deputy chairman of the government's Military-Industrial Commission said Tuesday.

“We do not have such plans. It is not profitable for us. We produce and deliver the [engines], they buy them,” Oleg Bochkarev said in comments carried by the TASS news agency ...

“Russia is rather peacefully responding to the sanctions,” Bochkarev said. “We have no plans to break relationships with anyone, they are trying to break relations with us.”

This formal partnership between an OldSpace company and a NewSpace company will be an interesting test to see if one culture is compatible with another.

ULA was created in 2006 to assure the government had a launch capability. It was not created to innovate; that was the purpose of the commercial cargo and crew program.

Blue Origin participated in earlier rounds of the commercial crew competition, and has continued with an unfunded Space Act agreement.

But ULA is not in the habit of developing new technology unless compensated by the federal government, so it will be interesting to see if the new partnership seeks a military contract backed by their Congressional benefactors to defray any investment costs.

It also appears to be an implicit admission that separately neither company can compete with SpaceX. The BE-4's LOX/LNG propellant appears to be an attempt to compete with the SpaceX Raptor engine under development that would use LOX and methane.

Today's event is further evidence that we are witnessing the birth of a “robust space industry” foreseen by the Aldridge Commission in June 2004 when it urged the Bush administration to inject competition through an awards program that would create innovation and bring down launch costs.

Something Old, Something New

Click the arrow to watch the Kennedy Space Center media event.

Click the arrow to listen to the commercial crew teleconference.

NASA announced yesterday that Boeing and SpaceX will provide the commercial vehicles that will transport astronauts to the International Space Station, hopefully by 2017.

Sierra Nevada Corporation, the third commercial crew participant in the prior round, will not be part of the certification process. Congress has pressed NASA to downselect as quickly as possible, even though the lack of competition would remove the incentive to innovate and charge an affordable price.

That could be reflected in the awards given the winners. Boeing will be eligible for $4.2 billion, while SpaceX can win $2.6 billion.

The significant disparity was a major focus of questions during yesterday's two media events, as well as social media debate.

Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathey Leuders repeatedly explained that the discrepancy was due to the vendors' responses to NASA's request for proposal. Both companies must meet the same milestones and achieve the same requirements, although the tests within each milestone may differ.

The implication is, frankly, that Boeing wants to charge more for the same service that SpaceX will provide.

What Sierra Nevada might have charged was not revealed, and may never be. Ms. Leuders declined to comment on why SNC and other proposals lost, other than they selected those that “provided the best value to the government.”

Neither vendor automatically gets the amount of the award. It must be earned, and it's possible neither company will ever earn that amount.

It's an important distinction, because it maintains a degree of competition in the final round.

Assuming both vendors complete their milestones and are certified by 2017 as planned, NASA has guaranteed each company a minimum of two and a maximum of six flights to the International Space Station. To quote from the press release:

The contracts include at least one crewed flight test per company with at least one NASA astronaut aboard to verify the fully integrated rocket and spacecraft system can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock to the space station, as well as validate all its systems perform as expected. Once each company’s test program has been completed successfully and its system achieves NASA certification, each contractor will conduct at least two, and as many as six, crewed missions to the space station. These spacecraft also will serve as a lifeboat for astronauts aboard the station.

If SpaceX bid a lower price than Boeing, then theoretically SpaceX could get six flights while Boeing gets only two. These are fixed-price contracts, meaning neither vendor is guaranteed a profit nor can they come back and plead for more money.

A NASA promotional video for the Boeing CST-100. Video source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.

A NASA promotional video for the SpaceX Dragon V2. Video source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.

An additional contract could be issued once these terminate, and through a bidding process NASA could once again select the best offer.

The flights will be purchased through Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) contracts. Each flight will be a “task order,” formally known as in indefinite delivery contract. Task orders are used when the number and scheduling of services is undetermined.

During today's presentation at the Federal Aviation Administration's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., NASA's Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development Phil McAlister referred to a “five-year ordering period,” implying that up to twelve flights could occur from certification until five years later, e.g. 2017-2022. McAlister said the ordering process would occur “incrementally,” issuing task orders as they progress.

Implying that NASA might favor one vendor over another, McAlister said the agency would “leverage whatever vehicle is best for the program.” Note the use of the singular.

When asked if it was possible for SNC or other vendors to obtain crew contracts at a later date, McAlister said the FAR rules allow NASA to “bring in another provider if circumstances warrant.” He noted that “It's in NASA's interest to have a competitive environment.”

Click the arrow to watch the video of the FAA COMSTAC event with Phil McAlister.

Although NASA hopes that certification and operational flights begin in 2017, Administrator Charlie Bolden stressed that “Congress needs to support the President's request” for commercial crew funding, which hasn't happened since the Obama administration proposed funding the program in February 2010. A November 2013 audit by the NASA Office of the Inspector General found that the lack of Congressional support has already delayed the program by at least two years:

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. For FY 2013, Commercial Crew Program managers had already expected less than the requested $830 million and based their planning on a funding level of $525 million. The combination of a future flat-funding profile and lower-than-expected levels of funding over the past 3 years may delay the first crewed launch beyond 2017 and closer to 2020, the current expected end of the operational life of the ISS.

Bolden also said that "we need more destinations than the International Space Station." He didn't specifically name Bigelow Aerospace, but he did say "single modules" and "other laboratories" which would seem to describe the Bigelow habitats. A demonstration version called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module is scheduled to fly to the ISS in 2015 on the SpaceX cargo Dragon flight CRS-8.

Both Boeing and SpaceX have deals with Bigelow to deliver customers to the full-scale habitats which are planned to launch starting in 2017, roughly coinciding with the vendors' NASA certification date.

A Boeing Co. promotional video showing a computer animation of a CST-100 docking at the ISS. Video source: theworacle YouTube channel.

Bolden encouraged the media to ask the vendors about their commercial flights to other destinations. The certification process applies only to NASA flights; commercial flights to Bigelow are the regulatory purview of the Federal Aviation Administration.

As for Sierra Nevada, I wouldn't dismiss Dream Chaser just yet.

SNC has signed developmental agreements with the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. SNC has proposed various versions of Dream Chaser, including a strictly autonomous version that could serve an orbital microgravity laboratory and land by remote control.

NASA executives already have talked about a new round of ISS commercial cargo contracts, a potential market Boeing representatives recently speculated could be a use for CST-100 if Boeing didn't get a crew contract. Theoretically it's possible that SNC could seek an autonomous cargo delivery or orbital laboratory contract with NASA in the future. Dream Chaser will continue to receive NASA award payments for milestones achieved under earlier commercial crew round contracts once achieved, and could continue to collaborate with NASA using unfunded Space Act Agreements. Today's presentation by Phil McAlister left open the possibility that SNC could get a contract is SpaceX or Boeing falter.

Some members of Congress have criticized the SAAs; the NASA Inspector General issued a report in June 2014 which found problems with NASA's management of funded SAAs but did not question the unfunded agreements.

Unless Congress finally provides full funding for commercial crew as requested by the Obama administration since 2010, the future of this program will remain uncertain. If the November election gives control of both houses of Congress to the Republican party, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) could become chair of the appropriations subcommittee that controls NASA funding. He's generally been unfriendly to anything he interprets as a threat to the Space Launch System, which Shelby views as a major source of pork for his state. The House in recent years has consistently provided less funding for commercial crew than the Senate, so a Republican takeover might continue to underfund commercial crew.

I wrote in May 2014 that the commercial cargo and crew programs were proposed by the Bush administration specifically to encourage innovation and price reduction by encouraging risk. The idea has proven itself with commercial cargo.

Now we get to see if it works with commercial crew.

The significant price disparity between Boeing and SpaceX suggests the final battle between OldSpace and NewSpace may be which vendor gets six ISS flights. If SpaceX gets six while Boeing gets only two, it will be because SpaceX validated the original idea behind “Building a Robust Space Industry,” as it was called in 2004 by the Aldridge Commission.

Their report called for “the breaking down of barriers to commercial and entrepreneurial activities in space, as well as a cultural shift towards encouraging and incentivizing more private sector business in space. Such a change in both perspective and posture is essential if we are to develop a broad-based, societal change in space business.”

That vision for societal change was echoed time and again in yesterday's and today's media events. By the end of the decade, we'll know if it worked.

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver on Bloomberg TV comments on the commercial crew awards. You may be subjected to an ad first.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk interviewed by CNN. You may be subjected to an ad first.