Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Super Sunday

Click the arrow to watch the launch of the upgraded Falcon 9 demonstration mission. Video source: SpaceX.

Space advocates on Twitter are calling it Super Sunday.

Within five hours, two NewSpace companies — Orbital Sciences and SpaceX — made history today, demonstrating the viability of their technologies.

At 7:00 AM EDT, the International Space Station crew captured the Orbital Sciences Cygnus, one of two NewSpace robotic spacecraft developed under NASA's commercial cargo program. Using the station's Canadarm2, European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano attached Cygnus to the ISS at 8:44 AM EDT.

The successful delivery gives the United States two 21st Century cargo delivery vehicles.

The other, the SpaceX Dragon, showed its stuff during a May 2012 demo flight. Dragon delivered cargo to the ISS in October 2012 and March 2013. It appears that its next delivery will be in February 2014.

That delivery will be atop an upgraded version of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. This version, also called by some the Falcon 9 version 1.1 or the Falcon 9R, launched for the first time at 12:00 PM EDT from Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California.

U.S. Air Force representatives gave the launch only a 50-50 chance of success, based on past experience with test launches. SpaceX founder Elon Musk went out of his way to remind everyone this was only a test, and rolled the dice by testing not only upgraded Merlin engines, but also a new nine-engine configuration, a longer first stage, and payload fairing to protect his first commercial satellite customer. If that wasn't enough, he was also going to test new technology that he hoped would one day allow SpaceX to fly back the first and second stages for eventual re-use.

No pressure.

But Elon pulled off another miracle, accomplishing nearly all the mission objectives.

According to various Twitter posts by Jeff Foust at from the post-launch media event, Musk said the next SpaceX commercial cargo delivery will be in February. The upgraded Falcon 9 may have landing "legs" which will help test the viability of steering the first stage back to a pad for landing and reuse. Musk said he was looking at the “eastern tip of Cape Canaveral” for a landing site.

My guess is he's referring to Launch Complex 36, once used for Atlas-Centaur launches but now operated by Space Florida. The state agency hopes to lure commercial companies to launch from the complex. Masten Systems signed a letter of intent with Space Florida on November 22, 2010 to use LC-36, but so far hasn't shown up despite a statement that day on their web site claiming they hoped to fly a demonstration launch from there sometime in 2011.

Musk also said he's targeting the second quarter of 2014 to launch a pad abort test for the crewed version of Dragon from their current facility at the Cape's LC-40.

When presidential candidate Barack Obama spoke at Titusville on August 2, 2008, he vowed to “close the gap” created in January 2004 when the Bush administration announced that the Space Shuttle would be retired once the ISS was completed.

Dragon and Cygnus now fly. We're halfway there.

With the federal government about to shut down due to petty politics on Capitol Hill, today's successes are more proof that NewSpace is the key to saving the U.S. space program.

Its biggest critics, ironically, have been those same members of Congress who are now too busy playing blind man's bluff to notice they were totally and completely wrong.

Click the arrow to watch highlights of the Cygnus berth at the ISS. Video source: NASA.

Click the arrow to watch the post-berth media event. Video source: NASA.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Jim Lovell Joins NewSpace

May 12, 2010 ... The Senate Science Committee meets to discuss the future of U.S. human space flight. Starting at the one hour forty-eight minute mark, Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan testify to criticize President Obama's space policies.

An old Dog will learn no Tricks.

— Nathan Bailey, Divers Proverbs, 1721

When President Barack Obama visited Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010, he gave a speech that shook to its foundation the space-industrial complex.

For nearly a half-century NASA, its aerospace contractors, and the politicians who represented them practiced business the same way. NASA, they insisted, was all about big programs that supposedly “inspire” people by spending tens of billions of dollars every year in the states and districts of those on the Congressional space committees. It was simply not permitted to question whether the benefit was worth the cost.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy proposed the Moon program not because he was an explorer, but because of national prestige. The word “prestige” repeatedly appears in Kennedy administration documents as the primary benefit of the Apollo program.

The public perception was quite different, and remains so to this day thanks to Kennedy's mythological “Moon speech” at Rice University on September 12, 1962. Kennedy said the United States would achieve great things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” In private, however, his position was quite different, as evidenced by the transcript of a November 21, 1962 meeting between Kennedy, NASA Administrator James Webb, and various government budget officials.

Kennedy told Webb:

But I do think we ought get it, you know, really clear that the policy ought to be that this is the top-priority program of the Agency, and one of the two things, except for defense, the top priority of the United States government. I think that that is the position we ought to take. Now, this may not change anything about that schedule, but at least we ought to be clear, otherwise we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money because I’m not that interested in space. I think it’s good; I think we ought to know about it; we’re ready to spend reasonable amounts of money. But we’re talking about these fantastic expenditures which wreck our budget and all these other domestic programs and the only justification for it, in my opinion, to do it in this time or fashion, is because we hope to beat them and demonstrate that starting behind, as we did by a couple years, by God, we passed them.

This was two months after the Rice speech.

The astronauts were on the front line of this great Space Race. Kennedy invited them to the White House and toured with them when he visited Cape Canaveral.

After Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, the Moon program was seen as fulfilling Kennedy's legacy, and with that came the knighting of the astronauts. Needless to say, this would be pretty heady stuff for test pilot engineers who, only a few years before, thought they'd be spending their lives flying cutting-edge aerospace technology. Now they were to bring back the Holy Grail filled with Moon rocks to fulfill the promise of Camelot and its fallen king.

In the real world, of course, Congress couldn't wait to cut the NASA budget, and even before Neil Armstrong set a foot on the Moon NASA spending was reduced. Within five years, it went from $5.9 billion in 1966 to $3.7 billion in 1970.

The astronauts, for the most part, had bought into the vision, and once the Moon program ended many of them yearned for another administration to resurrect Apollo, just as with Arthurian mythology the great king is prophesized to return from Avalon to save England in its hour of greatest need.

The Obama administration shocked the space-industrial complex in early 2010 when it proposed the cancellation of Constellation, a 2004 Bush administration program that promised the Moon but delivered little while wasting billions of dollars. Constellation's first program was to build Ares I, nominally to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, but it would be funded by deorbiting the ISS, therefore it had no purpose. That was fine with the space-industrial complex, but not with the President and his new NASA management.

April 15, 2010 ... President Barack Obama speaks at Kennedy Space Center.

In his April 15, 2010 KSC speech Obama said:

But I also know that underlying these concerns is a deeper worry, one that precedes not only this plan but this administration. It stems from the sense that people in Washington — driven sometimes less by vision than by politics — have for years neglected NASA’s mission and undermined the work of the professionals who fulfill it. We’ve seen that in the NASA budget, which has risen and fallen with the political winds.

But we can also see it in other ways: in the reluctance of those who hold office to set clear, achievable objectives; to provide the resources to meet those objectives; and to justify not just these plans but the larger purpose of space exploration in the 21st century.

All that has to change.

Obama proposed saving the ISS by cancelling Constellation. The ISS would be extended to 2020. The savings would be used to prime the commercial space pump, speeding up the development of new cargo and crew vehicles. NASA would also invest in new propulsion technologies hoping to reduce the time it would take for human spaceflight to asteroids and one day to Mars.

The Apollo astronauts, for the most part, were enraged.

“Obama cancelled the space program!” became their mantra, although anyone who watched or read his speech could find for themselves that the truth was the opposite.

In May 2010, Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan published a joint letter savaging Obama. They claimed the President had set America “on a long downhill slide to mediocrity.” They also dismissed “NewSpace,” writing that “The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the President’s proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty, but is likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope.”

History has proven them wrong.

For about $700 million, NASA has worked with NewSpace contractors to develop 21st Century robotic spacecraft that deliver cargo to the ISS. The SpaceX Dragon has berthed three times at the ISS, and the Orbital Sciences Cygnus awaits its berthing demonstration later this week. $700 million was the cost for one Space Shuttle flight. It's estimated that it would have cost NASA on its own about four times as much to develop this technology.

A year later, in May 2011, the three Apollo astronauts penned a second editorial ridiculing the President's program.

Obama's advisers, in searching for a new and different NASA strategy with which the president could be favorably identified, ignored NASA's operational mandate and strayed widely from President Kennedy's vision and the will of the American people.

But the truth is that Kennedy's supposed “vision” was to simply show the world U.S. technology was superior to the Soviet Union. Mission accomplished.

The Obama administration's vision is to unleash American enterprise, ingenuity and innovation by allowing the private sector to do what it does best. No longer will a bureaucracy hamstrung by competing political parochial interests waste billions on programs that never go anywhere, do anything, or innovate any more.

The three astronauts concluded:

Kennedy launched America on that new ocean. For 50 years we explored the waters to become the leader in space exploration. Today, under the announced objectives, the voyage is over. John F. Kennedy would have been sorely disappointed.

A bit arrogant of them, in my opinion, to presume to know what Kennedy would think — especially since the evidence is overwhelming that by late 1963 he was seriously concerned about Apollo budget overruns. In that year, Kennedy commissioned three different reviews of the Moon program, questioning if it was worth the cost. In September 1963, he appeared before the United Nations and proposed the U.S. and U.S.S.R. combine their space programs.

And as for their claim that “the voyage is over,” that's also obviously untrue as astronauts remain in orbit aboard the ISS — in low Earth orbit, where we've been since 1981.

One is left wondering if they're grossly misinformed, if they're lying for partisan political interests, or if someone wrote it for them as a political screed and asked them to sign it.

Armstrong passed away in 2012, and Cernan to my knowledge remains unrepentant.

Lovell, however, has shown that an old sea dog can learn new tricks.

In a shocking September 23, 2013 column published in Space News, Lovell acknowledged that the NewSpace course is the correct one.

Some in Congress are at this very moment talking once again about forcing NASA to establish a program to sustain a human presence on the Moon. I, unfortunately, am not optimistic as we have been here before.

But there is hope. The private sector is stepping up to meet the challenge: an ambitious startup, the Golden Spike Co., is leading the way in creating commercial models to mount human expeditions to the surface of the Moon for nations, companies and individuals.

Until now I have been very doubtful and indeed critical of many existing commercial space ventures that are largely funded by taxpayer dollars. But after several meetings with Golden Spike executives, including the chairman of its board — my old friend — former Apollo Flight Director Gerry Griffin, I became convinced that we truly are on the cusp of a brand new era of commercial lunar space travel.

In his concluding remarks, Lovell recommends:

In fact, NASA itself should look carefully at what Golden Spike is doing and incorporate its plans into America’s national space ambitions. The agency, in my opinion, should be among Golden Spike’s first customers and biggest allies.

And that's exactly what NASA is doing, through its March 2013 unfunded Space Act Agreement with Bigelow Aerospace.

With Armstrong's passing, Lovell might be the most famous Apollo-era astronaut thanks to the Apollo 13 movie. (Or Buzz Aldrin; but in general he has supported Obama's program and was present at KSC that April day when the President gave his speech.) Lovell's embracement of NewSpace undercuts the claims of its critics that “America's heroes” oppose Obama's space program. Lovell, Aldrin, and Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart are Apollo-era astronauts who have publicly declared that commercial space has arrived.

It seems that an old dog can be taught new tricks after all.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Posey Takes a Stand

Click the arrow to watch the hearing on YouTube.

The hearing title seemed inconsequential, even a bit boring.

“NASA Infrastructure: Enabling Discovery and Ensuring Capability.”

The hearing charter stated the meeting's purpose was “to review NASA’s efforts to manage its facilities and infrastructure, the agency’s current legislated authorities, and its proposed legislation to provide greater flexibility to the agency.”

But as most things NASA these days, it quickly turned into yet another attempt by House members whose campaigns are partially funded by legacy aerospace companies trying to stifle use of Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A by “NewSpace” upstart SpaceX.

Committee chair Steven Palazzo (R-MS) and member Mo Brooks (R-AL) claimed that 39A should be a multi-user pad, as well as a backup for the government's Space Launch System. The SLS is scheduled to fly only in 2017 and then in 2021 from neighboring 39B.

Palazzo's district includes NASA's Stennis Space Center, and Brooks represents Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Both facilities rely heavily on government contracts to “OldSpace” firms such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

According to, Palazzo has already received in this campaign cycle $6,500 from Lockheed Martin and $3,000 from the Boeing Company. During the 2012 campaign cycle, Palazzo received $10,000 from Lockheed Martin.

As for Brooks, according to Brooks has received $4,000 from Lockheed Martin. During the 2012 campaign cycle, Brooks received $15,750 from Lockheed Martin and $11,750 from Boeing.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and ATK are the primary SLS contractors. They did not win those contracts through competition. They got the contracts because Congress told NASA to use them.

Section 304(a)(1) of the 2010 Space Act ordered NASA to use “existing contracts, investments, workforce, industrial base, and capabilities from the Space Shuttle and Orion and Ares 1 projects” to build SLS. That's why critics refer to SLS as the Senate Launch System. To this date, the SLS still has no missions or destinations authorized or funded by Congress. They simply told NASA to build it to keep those contractors happy.

If SpaceX takes over 39A, they will most likely use it to launch the Falcon Heavy. When operational circa 2015, this rocket will be the most powerful booster in history after the Saturn V rocket. It would be an immediately affordable option to SLS.

An artist's concept of the Falcon Heavy. Image source: SpaceX. Click here for a March 2013 Popular Science article on the Falcon Heavy.

That's why the OldSpace companies don't want to see SpaceX at 39A. Congress would be forced into explaining to the American taxpayer why billions are being wasted on a rocket to nowhere.

Through their partnership United Launch Alliance, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have supported a competing bid from Blue Origin. This NewSpace company admits they won't be ready to fly until at least 2018, but claim they would be willing to sublet 39A to a competitor. They say they will run it as a multi-user pad, but no multi-user commercial launch pad exists anywhere in the world, to my knowledge. It's likely that Falcon Heavy and whatever Blue Origin flies by the end of the decade would be entirely different vehicles.

Pad 39B, future home to SLS, is nominally a multi-user facility because it's a “clean pad.” A user has to roll out their vehicle to 39B on a mobile launch platform and transporter crawler, as did Apollo Saturn V in the 1960s. A new platform built for the cancelled Constellation program in 2010 is going to be modified for SLS. The three legacy platforms built in the 1960s remain, although no one has come forward to propose a use. And no one has come forward to use 39B, further evidence that there is no commercial demand for a multi-user pad at Kennedy Space Center.

NASA hasn't announced a decision, but earlier this month Blue Origin filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office, alleging NASA had rigged the process in favor of SpaceX. Several members of Congress, again backed by OldSpace campaign contributions, wrote letters supporting Blue Origin.

Earlier this week, many of us were pleasantly surprised when the entire Florida congressional delegation — Republican and Democrat, House and Senate — sent letters to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden supporting the agency's internal process determining 39A's future use. The lead signatory on the House letter was Space Coast Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL).

When it was Posey's turn to speak at today's hearing (the 56:30 mark in the above video), he tried to introduce into the record the letters submitted by the Florida delegation. The letters supporting Blue Origin already had been entered into the record, but Rep. Palazzo shocked Posey by objecting.

Palazzo claimed that no letters could be entered into the record unless he had “reviewed” them in advance. Posey said he'd never heard of such a rule; Palazzo replied, “Neither have I, until the last minute.” Just who informed Palazzo of this rule went unspoken. Nor did the chair explain why this rule had never been enforced until now.

Posey read aloud the first few lines from the House letter, then said:

People here are trying to weigh in, actually, before that process is completed. Our position is we need to complete the process. We are not taking sides in the formal configuration of the launch pad, whether they're single- or multi-use. They're looking at both. We just want our space program to move forward. We want to alleviate Monday-morning quarterbacking and second-guessing. We have Inspector Generals who do that for us.

You know, we've used charts, we've seen charts in this committee that are a matter of record, that show over two dozen of our space programs that we call “Missions to Nowhere” over the last two decades and billions and billions and billions of dollars wasted because we have the parochial interests of different members trying to micromanage what NASA does.

It's like a City Councilman trying to tell a police chief who to arrest and not who to arrest.

The exchange was perhaps the most dramatic I've seen in a space subcommittee hearing in some time. A Republican chair tried to squelch a fellow Republican from introducing a bipartisan letter. It wasn't party versus party. It was transparency versus corruption.

Palazzo later relented and allowed the letters to be entered into the record, but he'd already shown his true colors.

If you're wondering where Posey gets his campaign contributions ... According to, he's received $1,000 from SpaceX. He's also received $1,000 each from Boeing and Lockheed Martin. During the 2012 campaign, he received $8,000 from Lockheed Martin, $4,550 from Boeing/Lockheed Martin partnership United Space Alliance, and $3,000 from SpaceX.

Today's squabble ended with Posey apologizing to Palazzo for being unaware of the rules, but since Palazzo didn't know about it either I'm not sure the apology was justified.

In any case, it remains to be seen if a schism widens on the House Space Subcommittee between those who want to protect OldSpace and those who realize it can't be business-as-usual if the United States is going to compete in the growing 21st Century commercial launch market.

As someone who's been a frequent critic of Mr. Posey, I am very encouraged by the direction he's taken this week.

Elsewhere ... Florida Today reports on today's hearing.

UPDATE September 21, 2013Keith Cowing at NASA Watch posted this statement from SpaceX:

“SpaceX has nearly 50 missions on manifest to launch over the proposed 5 year lease period and we can easily make use of the additional launch site. At the time we submitted the bid, SpaceX was unaware any other parties had interest in using the pad. However, if awarded this limited duration lease on 39A, SpaceX would be more than happy to support other commercial space pioneers at the pad, and allow NASA to make use of the pad if need be.”

In my opinion ... SpaceX can make this gesture knowing there's no one else out there, government or commercial, interested in using 39A for years to come. Blue Origin has admitted they have no need until at least 2018, and by then it's possible that the Space Florida commercial spaceport at Shiloh will be operational. Blue Origin has already acknowledged an interest in Shiloh, so again there's no other legitimate user for 39A.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

SpaceX: The Next Generation

Click the arrow to watch the static test fire on YouTube.

SpaceX founder just posted on Twitter a link to the above YouTube video and the tweet:

Completed rocket static fire with all systems green this time. Launch window opens in 10 days.

That would put the first launch of the upgraded Falcon 9 on September 29. Not from Cape Canaveral, but from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The SpaceX facility at the Cape's Pad 40 was upgraded during the summer with a new erector to handle the taller and more powerful Falcon 9. The first launch from there will be an SES-8 communications satellite, currently scheduled for sometime in October.

Where Credit is Due

It's no secret I'm not a big fan of Space Coast's congressional representative, Bill Posey.

(If you've ever had any doubts, click here to reference previous articles that referenced Posey.)

But Posey and the rest of the Florida congressional delegation did the right thing last week, when all representatives sent letters of support to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, after members from other states and districts tried to interfere in the leasing process for Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A.

It was refreshing to see all members — Democrat and Republican, House and Senate — set aside partisan differences to challenge this assault on the integrity of NASA's decision-making process by congressional members whose campaigns are partially financed by legacy aerospace companies.

I submitted a letter this afternoon to Florida Today. I don't know if it will be published, but I'm posting it here to acknowledge that I'll support any elected official willing to do the right thing.

Thank you to Rep. Bill Posey and the rest of Florida’s congressional delegation for their unanimous bipartisan efforts to stop powerful interests from interfering in NASA’s process for determining the future of Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39A.

With pad 39B remodeled for the government’s Space Launch System, NASA has no need for 39A. NASA sought commercial tenants who might use the pad, just as NASA has found tenants for other Apollo and Shuttle era facilities.

SpaceX and Blue Origin submitted bids. SpaceX has a track record of success and an imminent need for 39A to launch their Falcon Heavy rocket. Blue Origin admits they’ll have no need until at least 2018, but claim they’re willing to sublease it to a competitor.

Certain members of the House and Senate have protested a deal with SpaceX. These members, according to online records, have received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from legacy aerospace companies threatened by SpaceX innovation and efficiency.

Florida’s two senators and its 27 House members unanimously rejected pork politics. They wrote letters supporting NASA’s bid process, placing the nation’s needs first.

Their bipartisan act is a template for solving other problems facing this nation.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Double Your Pleasure

Click the arrow to watch on YouTube the Orbital Sciences Cygnus launch. Video source: NASA.

NASA's commercial cargo fleet doubled today as Orbital Sciences launched its Cygnus vehicle atop its Antares booster from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.

As of this writing, the mission has been virtually flawless. According to, Cygnus has completed a seven-minute firing of its main thruster which “sets up the spacecraft for the first of 10 demonstration maneuvers this evening, in which the Cygnus will prove its ability to transition to free drift and abort an approach to the International Space Station.”

The demonstration flight comes sixteen months after SpaceX launched its Dragon demo, but that doesn't mean Orbital took longer.

SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler were awarded the initial commercial cargo contracts in August 2006. SpaceX met its milestones, but Rocketplane Kistler did not so their NASA contract was terminated in October 2007. Orbital Sciences replaced Rocketplane Kistler in February 2008 — eighteen months after SpaceX won its contract. Problems with the Commonwealth of Virginia building the spaceport for Orbital also deserve some blame.

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

Media reports:

Associated Press “2nd Private Company Rockets Toward Space Station with Supplies, Cygnus Capsule Holds Goodies”

CNN “New Space Cargo Ship Makes First Flight”

Florida Today “Privately Run Spacecraft En Route to ISS Docking”

Florida Today editorial “Giant Leap for Smarter Government”

Forbes “The Private Space Race Heats Up As Orbital Sciences Sends Cygnus To Space Station”

Huffington Post “Orbital Sciences Rocket Launches Cygnus Spacecraft On Debut Mission To ISS”

Los Angeles Times “Watch Orbital Sciences Launch Capsule to International Space Station ” “Orbital’s Antares Launches Cygnus on Debut Mission to ISS”

NBC News “Cygnus Cargo Ship Flies for First Time, Heading for Space Station”

Reuters “Orbital Sciences' New Cargo Ship Blasts Off for Space Station” “NASA Hails Private Cygnus Spacecraft's 'Picture Perfect' 1st Launch to Station”

Space News “Cygnus on Way to Station, Orbital Sciences on Way to Collecting From NASA”

Washington Post “Successful Launch for Antares Rocket; Cygnus Spacecraft on Way to Space Station”

This is what I think will be the iconic photo for today's historic launch. Image source: NASA.

In the Heat of the Night

Click the arrow to watch the Atlas AEHF3 launch on YouTube.

It was delayed over an hour due to weather concerns, but at 4:10 AM EDT this morning an Atlas V launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 41 with an Advanced Extreme High Frequency (AEHF) satellite built by Lockheed Martin.

Todd Halvorson of Florida Today reports:

The 197-foot-tall United Launch Alliance rocket leap off its launch pad at 4:10 a.m. -- 66 minutes behind schedule. Launch managers had to wait for cumulus clouds to clear the area and upper-level winds to die down.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Orbital Cygnus Pre-Game Show

Click the arrow to watch the September 17 Cygnus test flight press conference on YouTube. Video source: NASA.

The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program reaches its climax this week when Orbital Sciences plans to launch its Cygnus cargo module from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops, Virginia.

If successful, the United States will have two robotic 21st Century spacecraft capable of delivering payloads to the International Space Station. No other nation has more than one. The other vehicle in the program, the SpaceX Dragon, has visited the ISS three times and is scheduled for its fourth delivery in January.

The launch window is Wednesday September 18, from 10:50 AM to 11:05 AM EDT. Arrival at the ISS is planned for September 22 at about 7:25 AM EDT.

It's been a busy month for the Orbital launch complex at Wallops. On September 6, the NASA Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) launched on an Orbital Minotaur V from Pad 0B. Cygnus will launch atop an Orbital Antares from Pad 0A.

NASA released today the below photo displaying Orbital's sense of humor about their launch vehicles' destinations.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Push Comes to Shove

On Friday September I wrote that Blue Origin had filed a protest trying to delay the leasing of Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A, presumably to competitor SpaceX.

Five senators, all with ties to Space Launch System contractors, sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden criticizing the selection process, and implicitly supporting the Blue Origin bid.

Today all twenty-seven members of Florida's House delegation, Republican and Democrat, rode to the rescue, sending Bolden a letter telling him it was their belief that NASA knows best how the pad should be used.

. . . [W]e understand that NASA is currently undertaking an open competitive process to transfer LC-39A to a private entity, with formal decisions relating to lease terms and duration to be determined through proper negotiation subsequent to award. Given KSC's expertise, it should be within their purview and judgment to determine what factors to consider and outcomes to render. We urge you to proceed with these plans.

The first signature was by Bill Posey (R-FL), who represents the Space Coast and the district where Kennedy Space Center is located. To my knowledge, this is the first time Posey has chosen to take a public stance on the battle between OldSpace and NewSpace.

Meanwhile, Space News reports that NASA has responded in writing to unsubstantiated allegations made July 22 by Reps. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Robert Aderholt (R-AL), both of whom have received campaign contributions in the past from OldSpace stalwarts Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

According to Space News, responded in writing on August 2 to the two House members.

While NASA seldom discusses ongoing procurements, the agency suggested in an Aug. 2 letter to lawmakers that any operating concept, single or multiuser, is preferable to tearing down Pad 39A, which NASA says it would have to do if it cannot find a commercial lessee.

“NASA believes that the argument for or against one operating concept is secondary to the demonstrated capability of any proposer to undertake the financial and technical challenges of assuming an asset of this magnitude,” wrote L. Seth Statler, NASA’s associate administrator for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, in an Aug. 2 letter to Reps. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.).

Aderholt, who represents a district nearby the Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, Ala., was concerned that such a lease would leave NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket without a backup launch pad.

The Space Launch System is currently slated to launch from Pad 39B, Kennedy’s other shuttle launch facility. Statler, in his response to Aderholt and Wolf’s July 22 letter, said the big rocket did not need a backup pad. Furthermore, Statler added, the heavy-lifter could easily share Pad 39B with other rockets, even if its launch rate were higher than one mission every four years, as NASA now plans.

UPDATE September 17, 2013Jeff Foust at Space Politics has posted a letter by Florida Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) which expresses the same sentiments as in the House delegation letter.

We support NASA's efforts to make the best use of its valuable infrastructure, as driven by the agency's current and future mission needs. NASA should apply its extensive expertise in this area and not yield to outside influence when determining what factors to consider in choosing partners to ensure that its selection process yields the best outcome for our nation's space program.

UPDATE September 18, 2013Space News reports the latest on the Florida delegation's letters supporting NASA.

Florida’s House delegation of 10 Democrats and 17 Republicans said they saw no reason to question the particulars of what they called NASA’s “open, competitive process.”

“Given the [Kennedy Space Center’s] expertise, it should be within their purview and judgment to determine what factors to consider and what outcomes to render,” the lawmakers wrote. Rep. Bill Posey, a Republican whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center, was the lead signer.

Three days earlier, Sens. Nelson and Rubio — one a Democrat, the other a Republican — lashed out against what they characterized as outside interference in Kennedy’s affairs.

Florida Today also reported on the delegation's action.

NASA had wanted to lease pad 39A for at least five years starting as soon as next month. The agency says it cannot afford to maintain the mothballed pad indefinitely at a cost of more than $1 million annually.

Friday, September 13, 2013

If At First You Don't Succeed ...

The Orbiter Access Arm has been removed from Launch Complex 39A's Fixed Service Structure. This photo was taken on September 8, 2013. Image credit:

We last visited the Launch Complex 39A competition on August 1. Two companies, SpaceX and Blue Origin, had submitted bids to lease the historic pad from NASA.

SpaceX indicated it might use 39A for Falcon Heavy and commercial crew. Blue Origin, with a scant track record and no need for 39A until at least 2018, offered to manage the pad on NASA's behalf, renting it out to any other potential users. Blue Origin had the support of United Launch Alliance, another SpaceX competitor.

No decision has been announced, but on September 8 Florida Today reported that Blue Origin had filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office protesting NASA's bid process.

A dispute over control of a mothballed Kennedy Space Center launch pad is now in lawyers’ hands while political pressure on the process grows.

Blue Origin last week filed a formal bid protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office regarding NASA’s plans to lease pad 39A for commercial use.

NASA has not announced a lease agreement but was known to be considering an exclusive deal with SpaceX.

The article noted that five U.S. Senators, including Patty Murray (D-WA), had sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden supporting the Blue Origin protest. In an incredible coincidence, Blue Origin just happens to be located in Senator Murray's state. (That was sarcasm, boys and girls.)

The letter so far hasn't surfaced online, so we don't know its contents or who were the other senators.

On September 11, Florida Today ran a guest editorial by Jeffrey K. Harris debunking Blue Origin's claim that 39A could effectively function as a multi-user pad.

Some claim that an exclusive-use lease would be improper or damage the national interest. While multi-use launch pads sound good, and many have tried to make them work, no multi-user launch pad operated by a company has succeeded. Pad 37 for the Delta IV rocket was intended to make the pad compatible with the Delta II launch vehicle. It was not successful, and Atlas and Delta launch from different pads.

Launch vehicles have different propulsion systems and propellants with different masses, acoustic environments, structures and mechanical interfaces. Some payload and launchers are integrated vertically, while others are integrated horizontally. Additional complexity costs both time and money.

A multi-user pad will take additional time and money. The notion of competitors collaborating on common and compatible systems adds difficulty. Proprietary information, security and schedules define competitiveness. Time is money.

According to the column, Harris was director of the National Reconnaissance Office and Assistant Secretary of Air Force (space), and held senior executive leadership positions at Lockheed Martin and Space Imaging. He is currently CEO of JKH Consulting in Maryland.

In my opinion, the Blue Origin bid is just a sand-in-the-gearbox delaying tactic by SpaceX competitors. Even if Blue Origin and SpaceX operations could be made technically compatible at 39A, it's far-fetched to think that Blue Origin would give a competitor equal treatment. That's why NASA so far has been unable to find a commercial user for 39B, which has gone back to a clean-pad design. Although theoretically compatible for anyone willing to roll out with a custom platform and tower, no one wants to be a secondary tenant to Space Launch System.

Blue Origin has also expressed an interest in the proposed Space Florida commercial spaceport up the coastline at Shiloh. If and when Blue Origin is ready to fly, Shiloh might be operational by then. SpaceX is about ready to go with both Falcon Heavy and commercial crew.

I can't imagine Blue Origin winning their protest, but it does show that they care more about their business interests than what's best for the U.S. space program.

UPDATE September 14, 2013Alan Boyle of NBC News reports on the 39A competition.

The 100-day cycle that was put into motion by Blue Origin's protest could give NASA a chance to plead its case — not only with the GAO, but with congressional critics as well. It could provide a break for NASA to negotiate changes that would somehow satisfy Blue Origin as well as SpaceX. Or it could lead to a hardening of the political lines — and yet another round of uncertainty about the fate of America's most famous launch pads.

Boyle's article includes a link to the protest letter signed by five Senators. In addition to Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the others were David Vitter (R-LA), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT). Louisiana has the Michoud Assembly Facility, being used by Lockheed Martin and Boeing for Space Launch System. Hatch represents the home of ATK, building the SLS boosters. Inhofe has no NASA centers in his state, but according to Boeing was Inhofe's #1 campaign contributor during 2009-2014. Why does Boeing like Inhofe? He's the ranking minority member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

UPDATE September 14, 2013 7:45 PM EDT — I was reminded by a friend that Boeing also has operations in Washington. I checked and, sure enough, Boeing has contributed $88,410 to Murray in the last five years. She is a member of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, hence the Boeing interest.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Where No One Has Gone Before

Click the arrow to watch “Traveller's Tales” on YouTube. Video source:

NASA confirmed today that Voyager 1 has ventured into interstellar space.

New and unexpected data indicate Voyager 1 has been traveling for about one year through plasma, or ionized gas, present in the space between stars. Voyager is in a transitional region immediately outside the solar bubble, where some effects from our sun are still evident. A report on the analysis of this new data, an effort led by Don Gurnett and the plasma wave science team at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, is published in Thursday's edition of the journal Science.

"Now that we have new, key data, we believe this is mankind's historic leap into interstellar space," said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. "The Voyager team needed time to analyze those observations and make sense of them. But we can now answer the question we've all been asking — 'Are we there yet?' Yes, we are."

During today's news conference (below), a replica of the “Golden Record” was displayed. The Golden Record was a project to send an interstellar message to a sentient alien species. Astrophysicist Carl Sagan headed the committee that selected the record's content.

Carl passed away in 1996, but his Cosmos series helped draw public attention to the Voyager program.

I found the above tribute video on YouTube, produced by Milky Way Musings. It seems perfect for you to enjoy on this historic day.

Click the arrow to watch the NASA Voyager news conference.

UPDATE September 12, 2013 6:00 PM EDT — I neglected to mention that the first human spacecraft to enter interstellar space launched from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on September 5, 1977. The launch vehicle was a Titan IIIE.

UPDATE September 12, 2013 7:00 PM EDT — Here's an NBC Nightly News video report from September 5, 1977 showing the launch of Voyager 1 from LC-41.

Click the arrow to watch the NBC News report. You may be subjected to an ad first.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Journey Through Atlantis

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player
Click the arrow to watch "Journey Through Atlantis" on the WKMG web site. You may be subjected to an ad first.

WKMG Channel 6 in Orlando aired on Saturday September 7 a one-hour documentary called Journey Through Atlantis about the new Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

The documentary is now online. Click the arrow above to watch it without commercial breaks.

Garver Unchained

Now that she's left NASA, former Deputy Administrator Lori Garver has granted at least two interviews that glimpse into the porkery and myopia that harm today's government space program.

In the September 7 Orlando Sentinel, Garver suggested that the first test flights of Space Launch System may slip at least one to two years.

Lori Garver, leaving NASA after four years as deputy administrator, said NASA and Congress long have oversold the agency's ability to build the rocket, called the Space Launch System, and its Orion capsule on an annual budget of roughly $3 billion.

"It's very clear that we could have slips of a year or two," said Garver, referring to both the 2017 launch — which won't have a crew — and the first planned flight of NASA astronauts aboard the SLS rocket in 2021.

"People are more optimistic than … reality," she said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel.

Another interview posted September 9 on pulled no punches, as Garver took aim at the space-industrial complex interested in perpetuating the old way of doing things.

“Canceling tens of billion, much less $100 billion programs, is nearly impossible in government,” Garver told SpaceNews during her final week in the job. The 52-year-old space policy wonk begins a new career Sept. 9 as general manager of the Air Line Pilots Association.

“The relentless momentum of the status quo is very large,” Garver said Sept. 4. “And that is not unrelated to my view that we should utilize nongovernment resources, investments and partners whenever possible. Because those are the programs that are affordable and competitive.”

Although Garver was not cited as the source, the article suggests that the Obama administration quickly lost faith on NASA Administrator Charles Bolden due to his tendency to go off-message.

Bolden, a retired Marine Corps major general and former shuttle commander loyal to his troops and trusted by lawmakers, had quickly lost the White House’s confidence in his ability to explain and defend administration policy. During his first week on the job, NASA abruptly canceled a long list of scheduled media interviews with Bolden after the White House took issue with his performance during a televised all-hands meeting. Among the causes for concern, current and former administration officials have told SpaceNews, was Bolden’s off-script comments about the Moon and Mars and the role NASA would play in a National Security Council-led space policy review then getting underway. “When the budget came out, they were not comfortable he could defend it,” one official said.

Subsequent NASA press briefings often were held via teleconference with Bolden reading an opening statement before turning it over to Garver or another official to field questions.

Garver began work September 9 as the general manager of the Air Line Pilots Association.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The First Shall Be Last

Pioneer 1 on the pad at Launch Complex 17-A on October 11, 1958. Image source: Wikipedia.

Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 17, deactivated earlier this year, is scheduled for demolition.

LC-17 was one of the most active launch complexes in the Cape's history. Originally built for the Thor program, its first launches were in 1957. NASA's first launch, Pioneer 1, was from Pad 17A on October 11, 1958. Its last launch was also a NASA mission; the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) launched from 17B on September 10, 2011. Both were Moon missions.

Demolition has begun at the complex, so I went by to shoot some photos before it all disappears into history.

Boxer Rebellion

Click the arrow to watch the hearing on YouTube.

Today's International Space Station has its roots in an earlier proposal called Space Station Freedom.

Proposed by President Ronald Reagan during the 1984 State of the Union address, Freedom suffered from many of the same problems that affected the Space Shuttle and later the ISS.

Government Accountability Office (GAO) audits during the 1990s faulted Freedom for many of the same deficiencies that plague other NASA projects. Some examples:

NASA: Large Programs May Consume Increasing Share of Limited Future Budgets (September 4, 1992) “GAO found that: (1) the largest of NASA programs, such as the space shuttle, Space Station Freedom, and Earth Observing System, may require nearly all of the potential NASA appropriation by fiscal year (FY) 1997; (2) other budget areas may have large future funding demands; (3) NASA is reviewing its major programs with the view of reducing their cost and making appropriate adjustments to balance its overall space and aeronautics program with budget realities; (4) NASA 5-year planning estimates may be too optimistic in face of a 5-year domestic spending freeze; (5) major program growth may exacerbate the budget shortfalls and jeopardize funding for other NASA activities; (6) the NASA Vision 21 strategic plan does not accurately project the current programs' resource needs or likely future available funding; (7) Vision 21 is inconsistent with the executive branch's FY 1993 budget submission and several criteria mandated by Congress, but NASA is addressing the latter issue; and (8) NASA could improve its program status reports by including anticipated 5-year funding projections and life-cycle cost estimates in the funding section.”

NASA Program Costs: Space Missions Require Substantially More Funding Than Initially Estimated (December 31, 1992) “GAO found that: (1) 25 of the 29 programs reviewed required more funding than initially estimated; (2) the median estimate change for all programs was a 77-percent increase in space program costs; (3) general reasons given for differences in initial and current estimates included insufficient definition studies, program and funding instability, overoptimism by program officials, and unrealistic contractor estimates; (4) specific reasons for changes in estimates included program redesigns, technical complexities, budget constraints, incomplete estimates, shuttle launch delays, and inflationary effects; and (5) the content and schedule of many programs changed substantially between the initial and current cost estimates.”

Space Station: Program Instability and Cost Growth Continue Pending Redesign (May 18, 1993) “GAO found that: (1) the NASA cost estimate of $30 billion for the station did not include some cost elements attributable to the space station program; (2) some large NASA programs threaten to consume increasing shares of the agency's annual appropriations; (3) over $11.2 billion has been appropriated for the space station and related development through fiscal year 1993; (4) in fiscal years 1998 through 2000, all shuttle flights will be dedicated to assembling or using the existing space station design; (5) the space station program is not maintaining financial reserves to offset unanticipated program requirements, cost growth, and schedule delays; and (6) increased cost estimates for the current space station design exceed the reserves for the next 3 years.”

A 1991 artist's concept of Space Station Freedom. Image source: Wikipedia.

It was during this time that Barbara Boxer, an up-and-coming representative from Marin County, California, chaired a House hearing titled, “Costs of Space Station Freedom.” Not having skin in the game, Boxer called the hearing to question the station's ballooning costs and if its benefits would justify the expense. Representing the Republican minority was Christopher Cox, also a California from Orange County; Cox went on to chair the Securities and Exchange Commission under President George W. Bush.

I posted the hearing on YouTube (embedded above) for your perusal because I thought it was yet another demonstration of why government human spaceflight programs struggle to be viable. Put another way ... nothing much has changed in 22 years.

The hearing's second hour was dedicated to a panel of five scientists. Four of them not only opposed Freedom, but human spaceflight in general. Only one, Dr. Robert Bayuzick of Vanderbilt University, argued in favor of a long-term orbiting human spaceflight research platform. Unlike the other four, he had actual experience flying microgravity experiments on the Space Shuttle, so he knew the potential. Dr. Bayuzick passed away on February 8, 2013.

The lesson I took from this segment was that NASA has always struggled to articulate tangible benefits from its human spaceflight program. Not even NASA Administrator Richard Truly, who was grilled by Boxer in the third hour, could articulate benefits that would be worth the cost. President Reagan stated in 1984, “We can follow our dreams to distant stars, living and working in space for peaceful economic and scientific gain.” But did anyone ever bother to prove that was true? Did anyone ever question the cost, and if the “peaceful economic and scientific gain” would be worth it?

That was the core question raised over and over by Boxer.

She made it clear several times during the hearing that she supported human spaceflight, but that support wasn't blind, nor did it mean giving NASA a blank check.

On July 31, I posted a blog article documenting five tangible medical benefits thanks to microgravity reseach. I have to wonder what Rep. Boxer, and the skeptical scientists, would have said if I could teleport to the hearing and tell them these benefits are not only tangible, but lots more are in the pipeline. How much would it be worth to find a cancer cure?

In an era of trillion-dollar annual deficits and sequestration, space advocates need to articulate direct and tangible benefits. Simply citing spinoffs isn't enough, because many of those might have happened anyway.

Barbara Boxer asked the tough questions we should be asking ourselves today. If we don't have the answers, then don't expect Congress to give NASA any more financial support than it did two decades ago.

Friday, September 6, 2013

NewSpace All-Stars

Click the arrow to watch the Commercial Space Federation meeting on UStream. The webcast begins after you select (and then skip) an ad.

An all-astronaut panel was the main attraction at a September 4 meeting in Houston of the Commercial Space Federation. The presentation was part of a three-day long meeting of commercial space industry leaders in the Houston area.

Present were:

  • Michael Lopez-Alegria, President, Commercial Spaceflight Federation
  • Chris Ferguson, Director of Crew and Mission Operations, Boeing Space Exploration
  • Jim Voss, Advisor and former VP of Space Exploration, Sierra Nevada Corporation
  • Garrett Reisman, Commercial Crew Program Lead, Space Exploration Technologies
  • Jeff Ashby, Chief of Mission Assurance, Blue Origin
  • Rick Searfoss, Director of Flight Test Operations and Chief Test Pilot, XCOR Aerospace

Mario Diaz, the Director of Aviation for the City of Houston, opened the panel discussing a proposal to open a commercial spaceport at Houston's Ellington Airport. The spaceport was the subject of a September 4 Houston Chronicle article. The article didn't mention the presentations by the NewSpace astronauts, but did resurrect slights perceived by Houstonians:

But Houston's status as home to the nation's space program has taken a hit in recent years as the space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011 and NASA decided to hire out space station supply runs to private industry. The local space industry has also suffered job losses in recent years and residents felt snubbed when NASA didn't award the city one of the four retired space shuttles.

The Space Coast could make a legitimate argument that it's “home to the nation's space program,” but I'll leave that to those more obsessed with such parochial squabbling than getting on with the next generation of human spaceflight — which was ignored in the article.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Cygnus Ready for Its Debut

Click the arrow to watch the September 4, 2013 NASA media update.

NASA held a press briefing yesterday to announce they had completed their Flight Readiness Review for the Orbital Sciences Cygnus demonstration flight scheduled to launch September 17 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops, Virginia.

Cygnus is scheduled to berth September 22 at the International Space Station.

Media reports:

Florida Today “Orbital on Track for First Test Mission of Cygnus Craft to ISS” “Cygnus Cargo Vehicle Gearing Up for Debut Flight”