Saturday, September 26, 2015

Retro Saturday: XS-1 Transsonic Research Airplane

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: The Digital Implosion YouTube channel.

This week's Retro Saturday is the first of three films about Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert north of Los Angeles.

The base began in the 1930s around a giant dry lake bed near a town called Muroc, which was “Corum” spelled backwards. The Corums were the family that settled the area. According to the history page on the Edwards AFB web site:

In 1910, the Corum family settled at the edge of this lakebed. In addition to raising alfalfa and turkeys, they located other homesteaders in the area for a fee of $1 per acre. As those settlers moved in, the Corum brothers earned contracts for drilling water wells and clearing land. They also opened a general store and post office.

Their request to have the post office stop named “Corum” was disallowed because there was already a Coram, Calif. So they simply reversed the spelling of their name and named it “Muroc.” Small, isolated homesteads dotted the land over the next 20 years.

The Army Air Corps established the Muroc Bombing and Gunnery Range at the dry lake in September 1933. During World War II, the remote site was a natural place for testing experiment aircraft.

The book and subsequent film The Right Stuff made the base famous for the site of Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier on October 14, 1947. This 18-minute 1950 Air Material Command film is about the XS-1, also known as the X-1, developed by Bell Aircraft Company as a joint project between the U.S. Air Force (which became a separate branch from the Army on September 18, 1947) and NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

You'll see lots of Yeager, but if you look closely you'll see two X-1 aircraft, with tail numbers 6062 and 6063. 6062 was the Army/Air Force craft — which is why Yeager flew it — while 6063 was the NACA craft.

Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier on October 14, 1947 in the Bell X-1 6062. Image source: Wikimedia.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Articles of Interest

A September 21 test fire of an upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 booster in McGregor, Texas. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

I've been sick all week with the latest virus to merrily infect us in the Space Coast, so rather than writing separate articles I'll lump these various stories into one post.

Aerojet Rocketdyne had a bad week.

The Boeing Company rejected AR's $2 billion to acquire United Launch Alliance, which Boeing jointly owns with Lockheed Martin. According to the Reuters article, a Boeing spokesperson said, “The unsolicited proposal for ULA is not something we seriously entertained.”

But Reuters reports that AR is undeterred, contemplating a higher second offer for ULA.

United Launch Alliance flies the Atlas V and Delta IV boosters from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The United States government is ULA's primary customer, although on October 2 ULA is scheduled to launch a communications satellite for the Mexican government. It will be the first non-U.S. government launch for ULA since 2009.

A September 24 Fortune article suggests that the big winner is Blue Origin. The NewSpace startup has a partnership with ULA to develop methane-fueled engines for the proposed ULA Vulcan booster. Journalist Clay Dillow suggests that AR is so driven to acquire ULA because, without the OldSpace company, AR essentially has no other launch customers.

That point was emphasized when it was reported September 24 that AR agreed to pay $50 million to Orbital ATK to settle a claim filed after Orbital's Antares rocket exploded seconds after launch at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops, Virginia last October 28. AR sold Orbital refurbished Russian engines built in the 1970s for a cancelled Soviet-era lunar program.

The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to issue an official ruling on the accident's cause. According to the Sacramento Business Journal, “the two companies essentially agreed to disagree over what caused the October accident.”

The agreement ends the deal Aerojet had to send liquid propulsion rocket engines to Orbital for that company's Antares program and says the Rancho Cordova company must deliver the payment before month's end. As part of the agreement, Orbital will give back title to Aerojet for 10 engines scheduled for delivery under the previous deal.

I can't think of any other company that would go near these engines, so they'll become expensive paperweights. Check eBay soon to place your bid.

Also soon to appear on the paperweight market will be AR solid rocket boosters. The ULA Atlas V has used AR strap-on solid rocket boosters when required, but in the future the Atlas and Vulcan will use solids provided by Orbital ATK. According to a ULA press release:

“As ULA transforms the space lift industry, strong partners such as Orbital ATK are critical to reducing cost, introducing cutting-edge innovation and continuing our focus on mission success,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO. “We have relied for decades on Orbital ATK’s industry leading rocket motor technology, which is ideally suited to support our future rocket launch plans.”

While AR seeks new customers, the Sierra Nevada Corporation continues to seek a government contract to create a sound business case for its Dream Chaser spaceplane.

The Orlando Sentinel reported September 24 that SNC's plans to launch Dream Chaser atop an Atlas V from the Cape in November 2016 depend on the government committing to use it for commercial crew or cargo.

John Roth, vice president of business development for Sierra Nevada's Space Systems, said the company has not released any details on its potential commercial business yet.

“What everybody is waiting on is the award of the [NASA] cargo contracts. We do have a few customers that . . . might still do the missions whether we get one of the cargo contracts or not,” Roth said. “But a lot of customers would like to see us have that NASA contract.”

NASA is in the process of selecting vendors for its second round of commercial cargo contracts. Both Orbital and SpaceX, the current vendors, have suffered launch accidents in the last year.Beoing and Lockheed Martin also have submitted bids for the next round.

SNC might have more credibility if they'd step up the pace with demonstration flights. Their lone flight was a drop test in October 2013. The glide test was considered successful, but one of the struts collapsed on landing, damaging the prototype. SNC has development deals with the European Space Agency and Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, but seems reluctant to more aggressively invest in Dream Chaser R&D without a guaranteed contract.

That doesn't stop SpaceX founder Elon Musk, whose company earlier this week test-fired at its McGregor, Texas site an upgraded Falcon 9 booster. SpaceX developed its Falcon 9 and new Falcon Heavy using only its own investment money. The company did receive in 2006 a contract from NASA to develop its Dragon commercial cargo spacecraft, and in September 2014 was awarded one of two contracts (Boeing was the other winner) to deliver crew to the International Space Station. SpaceX is chasing the global commercial satellite launch business neglected by ULA due to its monopolistic pricing practices over the last decade, and is investing its own money in building a commercial launch complex outside Brownsville, Texas. In January, Google and Fidelity Investments invested a combined $1 billion in SpaceX to help build a space-based Internet, and now own 10% of SpaceX.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Retro Saturday: Voyager Neptune Encounter Highlights

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: wdtvlive42 YouTube channel.

This week's Retro Saturday is a 1989 Jet Propulsion Laboratory video titled Voyager Neptune Encounter Highlights. The title pretty much sums it up.

Most of the video is a compilation of animation set to music, although there's a little narrative here and there.

Voyager 2 passed Neptune and its moons in the summer of 1989. It's now on its way out of the solar system heading for interstellar space.

A 1989 image of Neptune by Voyager 2. Image source: NASA.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Take Your Time

Click the arrow to listen to the September 16, 2015 Orion teleconference. Audio source: NASA.

On January 14, 2004, nearly a year after NASA lost Columbia, President George W. Bush gave his Vision for Space Exploration speech.

In light of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report, the Bush administration concluded that the Space Shuttle would fly again only to complete the International Space Station, and then retire the Shuttle.

Bush proposed “to develop and test a new spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, by 2008, and to conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014. The Crew Exploration Vehicle will be capable of ferrying astronauts and scientists to the Space Station after the shuttle is retired. But the main purpose of this spacecraft will be to carry astronauts beyond our orbit to other worlds. This will be the first spacecraft of its kind since the Apollo Command Module.”

Using this craft, Bush said, “we will undertake extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods.”

Talk is cheap.

Government space programs are not.

This didn't happen ... An early CEV concept proposed by Lockheed Martin. Image source: Wikipedia.

When the Vision was delivered to Congress two weeks later, it included what came to be known as the Vision Sand Chart.

Click here to download the Vision Sand Chart from the NASA web site. The free Adobe Acrobat Reader is required.

The Chart showed a four-year gap between retirement of the Shuttle and the first flight of the CEV. During this time, NASA would rely on Russia for crew rotations to the International Space Station. Once CEV was operational, to pay for it NASA would decommission the just-constructed ISS and splash it into the Pacific Ocean.

Congress, in subsequent NASA budget legislation, would prohibit the agency from such a drastic act, but neither the Bush Administration nor Congress bothered to provide adequate funding for the program to stay on schedule.

Ever obsessed with protecting jobs in their districts and states, Congress in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act mandated in Section 502 that NASA had to “use the personnel, capabilities, assets, and infrastructure of the Space Shuttle program in developing the Crew Exploration Vehicle, Crew Launch Vehicle, and a heavy-lift launch vehicle.” No competition allowed. Job security was guaranteed, meaning ... no rush.

As early as July 2006, the Government Accountability Office issued a report warning that the Vision lacked a sound business case:

NASA’s current acquisition strategy for the CEV places the project at risk of significant cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls because it commits the government to a long-term product development effort before establishing a sound business case. NASA plans to award a contract for the design, development, production, and sustainment of the CEV in September 2006 — before it has developed key elements of a sound business case, including well-defined requirements, a preliminary design, mature technology, and firm cost estimates. The period of performance for the contract scheduled for award in September 2006 will extend through at least 2014, with the possibility of extending through 2019. This contract will comprise all design, development, and test and evaluation activities, including production of ground and flight test articles and at least four operational CEVs. Although NASA is committing to a long-term contract, it will not have the elements of a sound business case in place until the project level PDR in fiscal year 2008. Awarding a contract for design, development, production, and sustainment of the project as NASA has planned places the CEV project at increased risk of cost growth, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls.

When 2008 came, the CEV was now known as “Orion.” It would launch on a low orbit booster called the Ares I. A more powerful booster, called the Ares V, was on paper for the promised Moon missions. These vehicles collectively came to be known as Constellation.

The GAO still had little confidence in Orion. In April 2008, GAO Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management Cristina Chaplain testified to Congress about Orion and its Ares I booster:

... [T]here are considerable unknowns as to whether NASA’s plans for these vehicles can be executed within schedule goals and what these efforts will ultimately cost. This is primarily because NASA is still in the process of defining many performance requirements. Such uncertainties could affect the mass, loads, and weight requirements for the vehicles. NASA is aiming to complete this process in 2008, but it will be challenged to do so given the level of knowledge that still needs to be attained.

Chaplain testified, “In fact, we do not know yet whether the architecture and design solutions selected by NASA will work as intended.”

July 31, 2008 ... An Orion parachute test fails in Arizona. Image source: NASA.

Barack Obama took office as President in January 2009. Later that year, he appointed a committee headed by aerospace executive Norm Augustine to review the status of NASA's human spaceflight plans.

While that review was under way, the GAO issued yet another critical audit in August 2009. The report began:

NASA is still struggling to develop a solid business case — including firm requirements, mature technologies, a knowledge-based acquisition strategy, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time — needed to justify moving the Constellation program forward into the implementation phase.

The audit cited “a poorly phased funding plan that runs the risk of funding shortfalls in fiscal years 2009 through 2012, resulting in planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. This approach has limited NASA’s ability to mitigate technical risks early in development and precludes the orderly ramp up of work force and developmental activities.”

The audit cited several design challenges, some of which still vex Orion to this day:

  • NASA attempted to replicate the Avcoat ablative heat shield used on the 1960s Apollo capsule. The audit noted the difficulty of manufacturing a shield to consistent standards using that approach. NASA recently announced that, after all these years, they have abandoned this approach. On future flights, the Avcoat shield will be attached in blocks — similar to how SpaceX does it with the Dragon capsule.
  • For years, NASA has struggled to reduce the weight of the Orion capsule. The audit noted that NASA had abandoned a landing on land, going to landing in water to lose the weight of air bags. NASA recently found a way to reduce weight by another 500 pounds, removing panels from the cone section of Orion.
  • NASA chose to go with a “pull” launch abort tower similar to that used by Apollo. SpaceX and Boeing will use a “push” system on their commercial crew vehicles, reducing weight. The abort system on the SpaceX Dragon uses propellant that will also feed the Super Draco engines used for a powered soft landing on a landing pad. The audit noted that Orion contractor Lockheed Martin was having difficulties finding “a subcontractor who could design and build a working attitude control motor that steers the system during an abort.” Orbital ATK is now developing the abort system, but its in-flight test won't be until near the end of this decade.

A chart in the report estimated that the date for the first crewed Orion flight had slipped six months, from September 2014 to March 2015. The Augustine report, issued in October 2009, estimated a more realistic date was in the range of 2017 to 2019.

The latest GAO audit and the Augustine report led the Obama administration to conclude that Constellation, including the Orion capsule, was not sustainable. In February 2010, NASA announced its proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget. The proposal cancelled Constellation, using the savings to extend the ISS to 2020 and to prime the pump on the commercial crew program. If fully funded as requested by President Obama, it was projected that the commercial crew spacecraft would be flying people by 2015 — years earlier than projected for Orion.

Entrenched interests rebelled. Constellation contractors and the members of Congress they underwrite falsely claimed that Obama had ended the space program. Because of the blowback, in April 2010 Obama proposed salvaging Orion as an ISS lifeboat.

To protect the contractors and the voters employed by them, Congress imposed on NASA a new program called Space Launch System. Dubbed the Senate Launch System by critics, Congress mandated that NASA must use Orion on SLS — and launch the first test flight by December 31, 2016.

Funding for the commercial crew program, meanwhile, was slashed over the first three fiscal years by 62% from what Obama requested. Those cuts and subsequent reductions pushed back the first flights from 2015 to 2017. For Fiscal Year 2016, the House of Representatives has already voted to cut the program by 20%, and the Senate Appropriations Committee has voted to cut it by 25%. These cuts forced NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to extend the current taxi contract with Russia to 2019.

The launch of Orion EFT-1 in December 2014. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

The first Orion uncrewed test flight was on December 5, 2014, atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV. Orion re-entered the atmosphere at about 80% the velocity of a cislunar flight.

The next Orion uncrewed test will be atop the Space Launch System. The congressionally mandated December 31, 2016 launch date was always a fantasy. In August 2014, NASA announced the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) test would be in the fall of 2018.

In March 2015, Administrator Bolden testified before Congress that although he remained confident SLS would be ready by the end of 2018, “the second flight for us will come in sometime after 2018” because he didn't believe Orion would be ready by the end of that year.

So that brings us to September 16, 2015, when NASA executives Bill Gerstenmaier and Robert Lightfoot held a teleconference to update the timeline for the next two Orion tests on SLS.

The emphasis was on Exploration Mission 2, which would be the first crewed flight. EM-2 will send a crew of four on a three week flight beyond the Moon. The executives stated they have a “low level of confidence” that the first human flight can be achieved by their August 2021 target date, but believe it can be achieved by no later than April 2023. “The team continues to make incredible progress towards that date,” said Lightfoot.

The pair did not discuss EM-1 until asked by a reporter. They said a firm confirmation could not come until the end of this year, when managers of the Orion, SLS and ground systems programs can meet to make a final decision. In any case, the executives insisted that any slip in the EM-1 date was irrelevant, because all that really matters is when Orion launches with people on EM-2.

They also said that the controversial Asteroid Redirect Mission was unlikely to be flown on EM-2. ARM was proposed to give Orion something to do, but most members of Congress have dismissed it as a waste of money. It appears that EM-2 will be little more than a three-week sightseeing trip for the crew, with nothing much to do than occupy the capsule and monitor its performance. But NASA continues to tell taxpayers it's confidently on the path to sending crew to Mars in the 2030s.

When Orion finally does fly with people, it will have been nearly twenty years since it was proposed by President Bush.

Compare that to the nine years from the formal approval in 1972 by President Richard Nixon for the Space Shuttle, to its first crewed flight in 1981.

Or the fourteen years from the 1984 proposal date by President Ronald Reagan for Space Station Freedom, until the 1998 launch of the first ISS module.

Commercial cargo and crew programs have not flown on schedule either, but the critical difference is that much of those vehicles are privately financed. Government programs are 100% taxpayer funded.

SpaceX spent 100% of its own money to develop the Falcon 9 booster and the upcoming Falcon Heavy. The cargo Dragon capsule cost $850 million to develop; $400 million was NASA seed money, while $450 million was SpaceX money. It was only four years from SpaceX receiving its first commercial cargo contract in August 2006 to the first test flight in December 2010. The first Dragon delivery was in May 2012. Dragon was designed with the eventual goal of using it for people, so the crewed Dragon V2 would seem likely to avoid much of the design delays that might plague other commercial crew companies.

Orion and SLS have no urgency, because there's no profit motive. The contractors get paid regardless of their pace or success; it's required by law. Their lobbyists ensure through generous campaign contributions that Congress will prohibit any competition. Representatives of NASA space centers populate the space authorization and appropriations committees in the House and the Senate; their priority, sometimes stated explicitly, is to protect the taxpayer-funded government jobs in their districts and states.

Maybe, someday, we'll actually see NASA crew climb into an Orion capsule atop a Space Launch System booster at Pad 39B. But it will be tens of billions of dollars after we see commercial crew companies do it for far cheaper.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The ULA Tower Begins

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

United Launch Alliance has begun erecting the pieces of what will be a commercial crew access tower at the Cape's Launch Complex 41.

After its Titan-era facilities were demolished in 1999, the pad was renovated in the early 2000s for the Lockheed Martin Atlas V. When LockMart and Boeing formed United Launch Alliance in 2005, the Atlas became partnered with the Boeing Delta IV at Launch Complex 37. The first Atlas V launched from Pad 41 in August 2001; since then, the booster has a virtually perfect record.

On September 4, I posted these photos of the commercial crew segments stored in a field across from the Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center. The segments are now being transported north on Titan III Road — past the SpaceX complex at Pad 40, which was also once a Titan pad — to LC-41.

NASA released today the above video of the segments being erected at LC-41. It illustrates the Boeing CST-100 Starliner launching on an Atlas V, but Sierra Nevada also plans to use the Atlas V at LC-41 for its Dream Chaser spaceplane.

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

The above July 2015 video shows computer animation of a Dream Chaser launching on an Atlas V from Pad 41. In January 2014, Sierra Nevada acquired an Atlas V booster for an uncrewed Dream Chaser test flight scheduled for November 2016.

Unlike Boeing and SpaceX, Sierra Nevada does not have a commercial crew transportation contract, but has proposed to NASA that Dream Chaser could be used for automated cargo deliveries to and from the International Space Station. Sierra Nevada believes Dream Chaser can land at any international airport runway, and has pursued deals to land at runways near Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center in Houston and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

The Wild Blue Yonder

Click the arrow to watch the media event. Original video source: NASA.

Five months after Florida Today reporter James Dean broke the story, Blue Origin's tenancy at Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 36 is finally official.

In a ceremony under a tent briefly pelted by rain, Blue founder Jeff Bezos and various government officials spent nearly an hour yesterday congratulating each other for this historic agreement.

Bezos pledged that an “orbital vehicle” of unspecified name would launch from Pad 36 by the end of the decade. It would build on the company's New Shepard suborbital technology that had its first test flight last April 29 at its test facility in west Texas.

The pad will also be used for “acceptance testing” of Blue's BE-4 engine. The BE-3, used in the April test flight, burns liquid oxygen as the oxidizer and uses liquid hydrogen as the fuel. The BE-4 will substitute liquefied natural gas for the liquid hydrogen, and is designated as the engine for the United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket scheduled for use in the 2020s.

An artist's concept of the Blue Origin orbital vehicle. Image source: Blue Origin.

Blue will also move into Exploration Park, providing Space Florida for the anchor tenant it's sought for over five years. Space Florida broke ground on Exploration Park in June 2010, but after installation of underground utilities it's sat dormant for years.

More on the Blue story in this Florida Today article.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Elon Musk Hat Trick

I'm in Southern California for a few days reliving my thrilling days of yesteryear.

Realizing an opportunity, I visited in one day all three companies associated with entrepreneur Elon Musk.

The Solar City field office in Santa Ana. Image source:

I began with the SolarCity field office in Santa Ana. The address was listed on the SolarCity web site as a regional office. I walked in the door and found it's just a light industrial facility with a secretary and some cubicles, not a public operation. But they humored me, let me take a couple photos and gave me some literature.

The Tesla Motors store in The Shops at Mission Viejo. Image source:

Then it was on to the Tesla Motors store on the upper level of The Shops at Mission Viejo. The community is upscale, which is a polite way of saying it has a lot of image-conscious people with a lot of disposable money. Exactly the kind of people who'd drive a Tesla.

The SpaceX corporate headquaters in Hawthorne. Image source:

Valhalla was a visit and tour of the SpaceX corporate headquarters in Hawthorne.

A SpaceX friend arranged the tour. To enter the facility, you sign a non-disclosure agreement and have a picture taken of yourself. No photos are allowed inside, but to be honest I really didn't see much different from what you've seen on YouTube of Elon Musk and others walking us through the factory floor.

The tour was at 6:30 PM on a Friday evening. It was very busy; apparently they're 24/7.

I thought of Elon's critics who a few years ago dismissed him as a “hobbyist.” How ludicrous they seemed now as I watched hundreds of people working at warp speed.

Which reminds me ... Despite the NDA, I will confirm that I saw no dilithium crystals.

Other than Elon, I wonder if anyone else has ever visited operations of all three companies in one day.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Retro Saturday: Project Fire

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: NASA Langley CRGIS.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

— President John F. Kennedy
“On Urgent National Needs”
May 25, 1961

The “returning him safely to the earth” part is the subject of this week's Retro Saturday film.

Project FIRE (Flight Investigation Reentry Environment) was a NASA research project to determine how spacecraft could safely re-enter the atmosphere at the 25,000 mile-per-hour velocity Apollo capsules would experience returning from the Moon. Re-entry packages were launched on an Atlas V from Pad 12 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The film, Project Fire: Flight Reentry Research at Hyperbolic Velocities, was produced circa 1964 by project contractor Republic Aviation Corporation.

Technicians at NASA's Langley Research Center ready materials to be subjected to high temperatures that will simulate the effects of re-entry heating on spacecraft materials. Image source: NASA.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Belly of the Beast

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

SpaceX posted September 10 a one-minute video clip touring the interior of the Dragon V2 commercial crew spacecraft.

Still images are available on the SpaceX crew Dragon web page.

UPDATE September 11, 2015 11:00 AM EDT ‐ SpaceX also released yesterday a second video depicting Dragon with crew in orbit.

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

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Let's Make a Deal

Reuters reported September 8 that “Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc submitted a $2 cash billion offer to buy United Launch Alliance (ULA), a satellite launch provider jointly held by Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, sources familiar with the matter said Tuesday, a deal that would further consolidate the space business.”

The report was confirmed by Space News and The Wall Street Journal.

According to the Reuters article:

Aerojet, which acquired Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne in June 2013, would likely operate ULA as a separate unit, said one of the sources, who said former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin could be tapped to lead the unit.

Asked on Twitter about the report, ULA CEO Tory Bruno responded:

Mr. Bruno has spent his year-plus in office trying to change ULA's corporate culture. The company was created in 2005 as a joint operation by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which had complained to the federal government they could not remain in business if they had to compete. In 2006, the Federal Trade Commission granted ULA a legal monopoly to ensure the government had guaranteed access to space on expendable rockets.

ULA enjoyed a launch monopoly for nearly a decade. Its monopolistic pricing drive the commercial satellite launch business overseas. Until the arrival of SpaceX at Cape Canaveral, the last commercial satellite launch by ULA at the Cape was in 2009.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk demonstrated that it was possible to operate a launch company like any other competitive commercial enterprise. The commercial satellite industry returned to the Cape, launching on SpaceX Falcon 9 boosters. Some have estimated that SpaceX charges about one-third the price charged by ULA, although ULA CEOs have disputed that calculation.

The March 5, 2014 Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on national security space launch programs. Video source: SpaceKSCBlog YouTube channel.

Following Russia's invasion of Crimea, legislation passed by Congress required ULA to phase out its use of Russian RD-180 engines on the Atlas V booster for military payloads. The RD-180 is made by Russian company NPO Energomash, which had a joint partnership with Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne to produce and sell the engine to ULA. The American company was acquired in 2013 by GenCorp, which recently changed its name to Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings.

On March 5, 2014, Musk appeared with Bruno's predecessor, Michael Gass, before the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee to discuss military launch access to space. Musk hammered the point that SpaceX engines are made in the United States, while Gass touted ULA's perfect launch record. Musk promoted SpaceX affordability, while Gass emphasized mission assurance.

It was shortly after this hearing that Mr. Gass was relieved at ULA by Mr. Bruno.

In April 2015, Bruno announced ULA would replace the Atlas with a new booster called Vulcan. The primary choice for engine would be the Blue Origin BE-4 under development, which would use liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquefied natural gas. To hedge its bets, ULA also commissioned Aerojet Rocketdyne to build the AR-1, which relies on the more traditional combination of LOX and RP-1 kerosene.

Should Aerojet Rocketdyne acquire ULA, it would suggest that the Blue Origin engine project might be cancelled. The Vulcan might be cancelled too; it is reviewed quarterly by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

In April, Bruno ridiculed Aerojet Rocketdyne claims that the AR-1 could be ready by 2018. In an Aviation Week interview, Bruno said, “They believe that they can do some clever things with new materials in additive manufacturing and analytical models that shorten the development cycle from what we have traditionally experienced. I believe that they are overly optimistic. It is our assessment that they are 1-2 years behind Blue Origin at this time.”

SpaceX became vulnerable on June 28 when the Falcon 9 upper stage failed during a commercial cargo launch, bolstering ULA's argument that its boosters, while expensive, are more reliable. But the requirement to phase out the RD-180 engine without any immediate replacement available, along with aggressive SpaceX competitive pricing, have brought ULA's raison d'être into question.

ULA was created specifically so two OldSpace companies could enjoy a generous government contract with no competition. That time has gone.

So it may be that Boeing and Lockheed Martin are looking for an exit strategy rather than choosing to compete with SpaceX, Blue Origin and other emerging launch companies, not just in the U.S. but around the world.

The OldSpace companies spend tens of millions of dollars each year lobbying Congress to protect their interests.

Although Aerojet Rocketdyne has a lobbying presence on Capitol Hill, the money it spends chasing federal dollars pales in comparison to ULA's parent companies.

According to, in 2014 Boeing made $2.2 million in campaign contributions to federal candidates, and spent $16.8 million on lobbying. Lockheed Martin made $2.6 million in campaign contributions to federal candidates, and spent $14.6 million on lobbying.

GenCorp in 2014 made only $136,000 in 2014 campaign contributions to federal candidates, and spent $1.1 million on lobbying.

Contrast these with SpaceX, with $192,000 in campaign contributions and $1.5 million on lobbying.

If Boeing and Lockheed Martin sell ULA to Aerojet Rocketdyne, that's far less ULA muscle prowling the halls of Congressional office buildings trying to strongarm launch business for their client.

Aerojet's main shareholders are largely investment and trust companies, with GAMCO Investors owning the most shares at 12.7%. According to, GAMCO made $25,000 in campaign contributions in 2014, and has no lobbyists on the Hill.

So if Boeing and Lockheed Martin choose to sell ULA, expect a much more even playing field for NewSpace in competing for government contracts.

UPDATE September 11, 2015ULA Issued a press release yesterday announcing “ the signing of an agreement to expand production capabilities for the American-made BE-4 engine that will power the Vulcan next generation launch system.”

"This agreement gets us closer to having an affordable, domestic and innovative engine that will help the Vulcan rocket exceed the capability of the Atlas V on its first flight and open brand new opportunities for the nation’s use of space,” said Tory Bruno, president and chief executive officer of ULA. "This partnership enables each company to leverage its strengths, with ULA bringing production excellence and mission assurance, and Blue Origin bringing innovative engineering concepts and a commitment to lowering the cost of spaceflight."

"The BE-4 engine test program is well underway with more than 60 staged-combustion tests already on the books," said Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin. "This new agreement is an important step toward building BE-4s at the production rate needed for the Vulcan launch vehicle."

Read into this what you will.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Boeing and Lockheed Martin “differ on whether to sell their equal stakes in the joint venture, according to people familiar with the details.”

UPDATE September 16, 2015Space News reports that two Boeing executives have dismissed Aerojet Rocketdyne's proposal to buy ULA.

“ULA is a huge part of our strategic portfolio going forward along with our satellites and manned space business. This bid we’ve really not spent much time on it at all because we’re focusing on a totally different direction,” Chris Chadwick, president and chief executive officer of Boeing Defense, Space & Security told reporters Sept. 16 at the Air Force Association’s annual technology expo in National Harbor, Maryland.

Craig Cooning, president of Boeing Network and Space Systems, speaking in Paris at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week conference, made similar remarks Sept. 16, saying ULA’s parent companies aren’t taking the bid seriously. Cooning currently holds the chairmanship of ULA’s board of directors, a position that rotates between Boeing and Lockheed.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Retro Saturday: NACA Crash Fire Research

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: wdtvlive42 YouTube channel.

How'd you like to be paid to crash airplanes?

That's the subject of this week's Retro Saturday.

NACA Crash Fire Research is a 38-minute 1952 documentary by NASA's predecessor. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was created in 1915 by Congress as an independent agency in response to the perception that Europe had advanced ahead of the United States in airplane technology. The NACA reported directly to the President.

This 1952 film is a classic example of how the NACA conducted research that could be shared with the private sector to develop more advanced aircraft.

The NACA was folded into NASA in 1958, along with various non-military aerospace research programs from the Department of Defense. The first “A” in NASA is Aeronautics, continuing to this day the work of its predecessor.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Boeing Debuts Starliner

A NASA film profiling the Boeing CST-100 Starliner. Video source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.

Boeing held a ceremony September 4 at their Kennedy Space Center commercial crew hangar to formally open the facility and reveal that their CST-100 capsule will be known as Starliner.

Florida Today space journalist James Dean reports:

Boeing on Friday unveiled the new name for the capsule it is developing to fly crews to the International Space Station, during a “grand opening” ceremony for the renovated former shuttle facilities at KSC where the spacecraft will be assembled.

The “Starliner” name, echoing Boeing’s new Dreamliner jet, links the company's pursuit of success in commercial spaceflight to its century of experience in commercial aviation.

“For about 50 of those 100 years, we’ve been involved in the nation’s space program,” said Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg. “There’s nothing we do that’s more inspiring to the next generation of scientists and engineers and aerospace workers than the work we do in human spaceflight.”

It should be noted that Boeing counts in their “involvement&Rdquo; NASA contracts held by aerospace companies they acquired over the years, such as Rockwell, North American Aviation, and McDonnell Douglas.

The one-hour ceremony held September 4 as telecast live by NASA TV. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Discussed during the event was the need for a service tower at Launch Complex 41, where the United Launch Alliance Atlas V will launch the CST-100. Boeing officials stated the segments are here now awaiting assembly at the pad.

While driving around the Cape today on business, I spotted the segments stored in a field near the Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center (ASOC) on Titan III Road. Photos are below. (Photo credit:

UPDATE September 8, 2015 — Boeing has posted a couple videos related to their commercial spaceflight operations.

A video of the crew access tower segments currently across from ASOC. Video source: Boeing press release.

An overview of the newly opened Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility, of C3PF. Video source: Boeing YouTube channel.