It looks like old times — the good kind — at KSC, as the recent spike in activity at the Vehicle Assembly Building is reminiscent of the Shuttle era. This time, it’s the stacking of the Space Launch System (SLS) that has the high-bays humming as NASA’s own human-rated, heavy-lift vehicle is prepped for a full-up launch. It’s been a long time coming: Experimental Test Flight 1 (EFT-1), aiming to send an Orion capsule to the Moon and back.

So, we are looking ahead to late 2021 or early 2022, assuming the full-up integration and testing goes as planned. Once more, the mobile launch platform, its massive crawler and Launch Complex 39 will be brought together as the jumping-off point for the most powerful rocket on the planet. We will witness four flight-proven RS-25 main engines — coupled with a pair of solid rocket boosters evolved from Shuttle-times — loft a human-ready spacecraft beyond Earth orbit for the first time since 1972.

While the cadence of SLS launches will not match the pace of Saturn V or Shuttle era flights, EFT-1 is the harbinger of possibilities to come: deep-space flights, exploration at local LaGrange points and beyond, and the ability to lift the equipment necessary to build complex, multi-component vehicles for extended human spaceflight. How SLS might be supplemented by or paired with the capabilities of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Starship are to be determined. But the prospects are exciting and the skies will be the limit no more. Stay tuned.

Making Space Look Easy

Time and again during launch campaigns, the media representatives for SpaceX remind the public that “Space Is Hard.”   There is no question that spaceflight is immensely complex and full of risks.  That said, SpaceX continues to make spaceflight to Earth orbit seem easier and easier.    The most recent example was this past Tuesday, June 25, at 2:30am when the Falcon Heavy (FH) leapt off Pad 39A and executed what can be described fairly as one of the most complex satellite delivery missions ever:  Space Test Program 2.

For space enthusiasts viewing the launch at KSC or elsewhere down on the Cape, the launch was pure spectacle of the very best kind.   More than 2,500 visitors flocked to the Saturn V Center on Banana Creek with hopes of watching the FH head to orbit (and return) in the middle of the night from the closest vantage point for the general public.   They persisted through a 3-hour wait in the launch window, despite oppressive humidity.    SpaceX and the KSC Visitor Center made the wait all the more worthwhile by providing tunes, pre-launch commentary and catered food.   These FH gatherings provide an important public service, putting children and adults in close contact with what is currently the most audacious and creative spaceflight engineering on the planet.   These are also great and important opportunities for people from around the country (and the globe) with a wide range of perspectives to find and celebrate common ground — a staunch belief in and appreciation of the value of space science and engineering in what is otherwise a fractured political landscape.

At 2:30am, T-minus zero, the 27 Merlin engines on the core and twin boosters fired up and SpaceX once again demonstrated how ingenuity and determination can yield remarkable results including:

  • Launch of a FH using recycled boosters
  • Recovering two of the two boosters on land, adjacent to the launch site
  • Delivering with high-precision 24 satellites across a wide range of orbits
  • Cycling through 4 separate, second-stage burns to get the payload elements to the right  orbits
  • Almost succeeding in a Hail Mary recovery of the first-stage core hundreds of miles out to sea.
  • Catching part of the payload fairing at night

Simply put, the night launch of the FH was beautiful.

Once the FH cleared the pad and headed East, the sky was marked by a stunning, fast-moving, tear-drop of red-orange flame.  After a few seconds, the sounds of launch reached the Saturn V Center and viewers were treated to the truly eerie vibrations created by 27 Merlin engines as they throttle up to full thrust.  The sound is akin to dozens of tightly-coiled springs twanging at high-frequency with a deep base vibe underscoring it.   As the FH pushed downrange, from the ground it seems that the vehicle had turned into a meteorite streaking across the sky, looking as if it might be diving down toward the horizon.   During the immediate climb-out, it was possible to see the condensation cloud that washes over the vehicle as it crosses Max Q.  The sky was clear enough that folks on the ground could see with the naked eye:

  • Separation of the side boosters
  • Haunting, gaseous plumes created by the booster pitch-around and burn-back manuevers
  • Cutoff of the Merlin engines on the center core
  • The concurrent, high-altitude deceleration burns of the side boosters heading back to the Cape
  • The landing burns of the side boosters

No one was disappointed.  I suspect the United States Air Force, the prime sponsor of this mission, was equally satisfied with the outcome for it now has another, economical and reliable flight-proven option for getting various payloads to orbit.

Space is hard but it appears to be getting easier.

SpaceX-pletive Deleted

This week’s loss of a Falcon 9-FT (full-thrust version) on the pad at Cape Canaveral creates real problems for NASA and the ISS.  The vehicle exploded during fueling for a static-firing test of the 9 first stage engines, a dress-rehearsal in preparation for the actual launch of the rocket a few days later.  Rockets exploding during fueling is something that really shouldn’t happen these days, especially when the vehicle involved is supposed to be human-rated (safe for crewed flight),  lofting people into low earth orbit beginning in 2018.

The Xplosion on the pad points to: human error, a problem with the design and/or metallurgy of one or more fuel tanks and/or a problem with the design and mechanics of the fuel-loading system.  This is the second time in less than two years that a Falcon 9 has blown its top due to a problem with the fuel system.  The first time around, poorly manufactured steel struts caused a fuel tank component to break free in mid-flight, puncturing one of the fuel tanks and destroying the vehicle.  The Falcon 9 is supposed to begin bringing crewed Dragon capsules to ISS in the not-too-distant future and is supposed to be the part of the core of the Falcon Super Heavy vehicle that SpaceX will test in 2017.

A lot rides on finding and fixing the latest fault.  SpaceX had recently convinced the US Air Force that the Falcon is reliable and inexpensive enough for national security payloads.  As we heard just yesterday, SpaceX has given the USAF a seat at the investigative table.  How and when NASA grants the vehicle a human-safety rating will be interesting to see.  Right now, the launch vehicle has a potential failure rate (on pad and in-flight) much worse than the retired Space Shuttle.   In the meantime, Boeing and NASA are continuing to prepare vehicles for human-rated low earth orbit (and beyond in NASA’s case) for liftoff in 2018.

Taking a broad perspective on this, here’s a question:  “how do the Russians do it?”  It being highly-reliable human space flight.   Flight after flight of Soyuz “taxis” lofted into low earth orbit for decades to the Salyut station

, then the Mir and now the ISS without substantial fault or failure.  Obviously, the Soyuz technology has developed incrementally over a remarkably long period of time while SpaceX, Blue Origins, Orbital ATK and Virgin Galactic have put forward new designs and capabilities engineered from the ground-up (mostly).  I wonder if engineers at these firms ever could invite their Russian counterparts to sit at the table during failure analyses.  The transfer of knowledge and experience surely would be interesting.

In the meantime, it’s now 6 years since NASA and the U.S. ditched the shuttle.  If we are lucky, we may regain a human spaceflight capability in two more years.  Fingers-crossed.


Amazon’s Founder Delivers Something Special

Blue Origin, the nascent space-launch firm, enjoyed a milestone achievement yesterday when its New Shepard booster lofted a capsule to 330,000 feet and then returned to its launch site in an autonomous, on-target vertical descent.   This is a big leap forward toward reusable rockets that will carry humans and cargo to the edges of space and beyond at a fundamentally lower price-point per pound thanks to the recycle-ability of the booster and its main engines.

Blue Origin is the creation of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.

Fellow technologist and featurist, Elon Musk, has been attempting to achieve the same feat but with much larger and more powerful Falcon 9.X boosters capable of pushing people and packages to altitudes at or above Low Earth Orbit.   So far, the Falcon 9, a product of SpaceX, has come close (but no cigar) to successfully sticking a vertical landing after reaching the edge of space.  There’s next to no doubt that SpaceX will see that goal achieved in the next year or two.

All of this is good and demonstrates one of the key advantages of inviting tech entrepreneurs into the competition to deliver new, lower-cost modes for getting to space.

Next up for SpaceX and Blue Origin:  getting Human Space Flight ratings for their respective pressurized space capsules.

Now, check out this video of Blue Origin’s New Shepard getting it done!

New Horizons

Unless you live in a cave, you have by now heard something about the New Horizons deep space probe and its incredible success reaching across billions of miles of solar system to capture upclose images of Pluto and its moon, Charon, that were basically mind-blowing.  More on that in a minute.

If you’ve not seen or heard any of the mission FAQ’s that the New Horizons media team released this past week in conjunction with the space probe’s flyby of its target, check them out.  Here are a couple of my favorites:

* The accuracy (timing, speed and relative position) of the probe as it zoomed by Pluto\Charon, given that the craft was launched from planet Earth and traversed some 3 billion miles is akin to: (1) placing a basketball at the teeing ground of a golf range with an 80-miles distance to the hole;  (2) hitting a molecule off of that basketball; (3) having that molecule land in the hole.  Of course, the New Horizon’s team had the ability to make mid-flight, course corrections on route to the “hole” — something that golfers are not capable of doing though I certainly wish it were possible.  (My handicap in golf is astronomical).

* The spacecraft is the size and shape of a grand piano — so please picture a molecule shaped like a grand piano.

* Because Pluto is “way-the-hell-out-there,” the launch energy necessary to get New Horizons to Pluto on time was by far the greatest ever required and achieved for a deep space probe:  by comparison, 10 times the energy required to get a probe to Mars.

What is truly stunning about this journey, which ultimately involved hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and effort all for a flyby that lasted less than a few days, is the quality of the “reveal.”   Basically, Pluto appears on first (and only) pass to be a very dynamic place:  full of water ice mountains, long, pillowy plains of ice and dust formed from various frozen gases, with the prospect of geysers or the upwelling of warmer gases and liquids that reach the surface from a liquid sea below.

Planetary scientists working with very low-resolution, highly pixelated images of Pluto and some really good models of planetary development, had projected a landscape fairly similar to that that New Horizon’s is showing us today, though the monstrous water-ice mountains were not part of the modeled planet-scape.  Those planetary scientists who dared to imagine the geologic and chemical make-up of Pluto’s surface and the seas underneath should be feeling pretty good right now.  Also, we knew before New Horizons’ arrival that methane was venting from portions of the planet.  Now we know more precisely where on the surface the methane is coming from and perhaps soon we’ll understand better why the methane is there.

If you are wondering whether life might be present on Pluto, the answer after New Horizon’s flyby is a definite “possibly.” The surface, reaching -400F at times and with atmospheric pressures barely a sliver of Earth’s, is not a likely home for life.  The below surface seas could be another story.  Taking the very long view, about 5 billion years from now, our Sun will have evolved into a Red Giant, generating sufficient energy to warm up Pluto and perhaps provide just the right temperatures for the existing mix of chemical compounds to cook and stew and yield something that fits our definition of life.  If you happen to have a functioning cyro-sleep chamber, move it and yourself to Europa, climb in and set the alarm accordingly (5bn years from now, Earth may not be doing all that well being so close to a Red Giant.)

What’s are the key takeaways?

  • Science is amazing.
  • The U.S. system of educating scientists and engineers is the best there is (could be better, yes).  Just look at what we are capable of achieving.
  • Planetary/space science captures the imagination and draws young and older minds into the asking and answering of big and important questions about planetary science and why we exist.
  • More and more, everywhere we look — whether relatively close to home, or way out across interstellar space — the evidence grows and grows that life is happening somewhere beyond Earth orbit.
  • If you marvel at and value the news and knowledge coming back from New Horizons, The Hubble Space Telescope or any of our Mars orbiters or rovers, or the probes we’ve sent in the past decade or so to Jupiter (the Juno probe is enroute) and the Moon, let your elected representatives in Washington know you support funding for space science.

Missed It By That Much….

In case you missed it, earlier this month SpaceX — founded and led by Elon Musk — came this close (your thumb and forefinger separated by a millimeter) to achieving something never done before in the field of big-time, commercial rocketry:

  1. Launching a full-blown, multistage spacecraft, in this case a Falcon 9;
  2. to deliver a payload into earth orbit;
  3. and then retrieving the spent first-stage of the rocket;
  4. by having it auto-navigate to a soft-landing on a fixed target!

This is like throwing a pencil as hard as you can up into the air and expecting it to land vertically on the eraser end without toppling over.   Yes, the U.S. Space Shuttle and the Soviet Buran space shuttle could do this but those were immensely expensive and required legions of technical staff to help them fly and land.

Elon Musk almost nailed it this time — he has been testing the retrieval and landing technology for a few years.   Basically, the Falcon 9 was on track to make its vertical landing but ran short of hydraulic fluid, causing it come in “hot” and pitched too steeply.  The first-stage did hit its target, just a bit “abruptly.”

If you’ ve not seen the video of the landing, turn on your speakers and watch here:

SpaceX is going to make this work soon and when it does, it will be a game-changer in terms of the economics of spaceflight  including human spaceflight.   It was not too surprising, then, to see Google and Fidelty make a $1 billon investment in the company as they did last week.   It’s a good investment.  Competitors Boeing and Lockheed should be getting nervous.

Cool Happenings Down on the Cape

The clock is ticking down to a couple of very cool experimental flights in December.

The first is NASA’s Experimental Test Flight-1, which will throw the first, flight-ready Orion crew capsule into orbit.  That mission is slated for this Thursday and appears ready to fly — barring a moderate probability of isolated showers and winds.  A lot hangs on the success of EFT-1:   beyond a smooth launch and orbital insertion, we need to see maintenance of the capsule’s structural integrity during flight, near-flawless avionics performance, a safe, high-speed re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere, full-deployment of parachutes and an on-target splashdown.  Because of the relativity slow “cadence” of the Orion and Space Launch System development-effort (at least compared to Apollo/Saturn and Shuttle), if there is a major malfunction on this flight, we will see a serious confounding of the critical path to the first non-experimental flights late in this decade and in the 2020’s.

Liftoff is a couple minutes past 7AM ET Thursday.  Don’t forget to tune in to NASA TV online or via cable TV.

The other big reveal this month, one that points in the direction of a major reworking of the economics of human spaceflight to low Earth orbit, is the launch of a SpaceX Falcon rocket on a resupply flight to the International Space Station.  This will not be any routine Falcon flight.  SpaceX will be pushing the envelope, after some testing, by endeavoring to retrieve and ultimately re-use the first stage structure and engines of the Falcon through a precision, soft-landing on an autonomous landing pad positioned in the Atlantic.

This is a bit like landing a plane on a rolling aircraft carrier EXCEPT this craft will travel 50 miles up into the atmosphere at supersonic speeds and then descend relatively slowly and vertically toward a less than stable bulls-eye on the vast ocean surface — without a pilot.   And did I mention that it has grasshopper legs that must deploy at just the right moment?  Kudos to Elon Musk, CEO and visioneer of SpaceX for thinking this big.  If it all works — or comes close to working — we will be a major step closer to a drop in the cost to get humans and cargo into low Earth orbit.   The Falcon flight is scheduled for mid-December.

It’s great to see this kind of innovation taking flight from NASA’s southernmost spaceport!

Excitement Builds Ahead of EFT-1 Orion Flight

Down at Cape Canaveral, work is underway to integrate NASA’s first orbit-ready Orion capsule with the workhorse Delta IV Heavy already positioned on Pad 37B.  Launch is scheduled to occur just after sun-up on December 4.  Orion’s brief flight, designated Experimental Flight Test 1, will send the craft beyond low earth orbit and loop it back for a searing, high-speed re-entry and splashdown.

An overall success with the mission will demonstrate to the public and to Congress that NASA is making significant progress toward the long-term HSF aspirations riding on the continued evolution and build out of the Space Launch System (SLS).

But this is a mission with many firsts.

We will see how Orion, her structure and systems, handle the dynamic boost phase and staging.  Flight and navigational systems will be tested.  The vessel’s amp’d up heat-shield (–already undergoing redesign to improve production quality)  will be put to the test as Orion re-enters the atmosphere at 20,000 mph, the fastest, intentional re-entry of a U.S., human-rated spacecraft in generations.  After the literal trial by fire, the craft’s high-tech, staged-release parachute system will need to deploy as planned for the vehicle to achieve a relatively smooth and stable landing along the Pacific Coast near Baja.

Lessons undoubtedly will be learned — this is an experimental test flight after all — but an intact launch and landing with no major failures will make the biggest, single leap ahead for the SLS since the first welds we executed on the Orion spacecraft.   The hoped-for win for the program should provide the leverage necessary to protect  program funding streams.  If we are to see the initial exploration missions achieve launch given current timelines, NASA will need to avoid the introduction of new, major critical path items.

For those who see intrinsic and demonstrated value in publicly-financed Human Spaceflight and the returns on science and engineer that follow, December 4 is a very important date.

Space is Hard

“Space is hard” has been the refrain of the week after the tragic Virgin Galactic loss of crew and craft following the frustrating destruct-on-launch of the Antares rocket. Two commercial systems that have very different purposes and architectures but perhaps suffered mishaps due to the same profit-driven motives.

Orbital Sciences Antares is commercial in the sense that the design, engineering and integration of the rocket were entrusted to a for-profit business that received huge, upfront cash infusions from NASA — with NASA regulating key operating standards. Virgin Galactic is truly commercial. Other than subsidies from the State of New Mexico and California in the form of below-cost spaceports, this system is the product of unfettered capitalistic impulses. The only regulatory burden on Virgin Galactic was the need for a first-of-its-kind FAA certificate for a hybrid craft that takes off like a plane and is the launch platform for a mini-rocketplane that travels into suborbital space. The FAA, under pressure not to get in the way of commercial spaceflight, issued the certificate with very little scrutiny — certainly nothing like that afforded the development of conventional planes like the 787, 777, and A380.

Because the Virgin Galactic test-flight was operating under a FAA license when it failed and it was piloted, a first-of-its-kind investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board will be required. This is a very good thing because the NTSB findings will be public and few agencies are as competent and dispassionate in the analysis of accidents as the NTSB is.

Contrast this with the ill-fated Antares rocket which operates under a wholly different part of the Code of Federal Regulations. In theory and under law, the cause of the Antares accident could be withheld from the public. Such was the case when a quality assurance test of the Antares first-stage engine resulted in a catastrophic explosion back in May. To this day, the diagnosis behind that explosion has been kept private — information that belongs to and is controlled by Orbital Sciences. Of course, since the Antares rocket blew up while thousands watched live via Internet and on the ground, Orbital Sciences may have lost the ability to hide the failings of its rocket design from the public.

This leads me to two observations about commercial spaceflight: one my own (well, me and many others) and another belonging to James Oberg, former NASA manager and current space journalist. Oberg commented this week that commercial spaceflight — at this stage of the developmental curve — is riskier spaceflight than that directed and engineered by NASA. That is because of the profit motive which drives the search for cheaper ways to orbit and subsequently a willingness to push the risk envelope: fewer test flights and fewer static tests of components equals lower costs. Could Oberg be right? Orbital Sciences decision to buy at very low cost and rebuild 40+ year-old Soviet rocket engines was a cost-saving maneuver — or so it seemed. Certainly, buying spares was cheaper than designing new. We know that the Antares first-stage engine, the AJ26, failed repeatedly during dynamic tests in its original mission: lofting a huge Soviet rocket to the move. That rocket never made it to orbit because the large number of AJ26 engines it employed would shake apart due to destructive resonance.

Here’s my point. The corporate secrecy that has come with NASA’s commercial cargo and commercial crew business model is disappointing. (Leaving Virgin Galactic out of this since the NTSB will shine a very bright light on its circumstances). As noted earlier, Orbital Sciences has received a $1.6 billion commitment from NASA, meaning from all of us taxpayers. Why was Orbital allowed to keep secret the causes of the test-engine failure in May? What if that failure and last week’s failure are connected?

And what about Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft — the mini shuttle that, until recently, was in the running as an option for NASA’s commercial crew program. One year ago, in a flight test of its automated guidance and landing systems, the spaceplane was dropped from altitude with the goal of flying itself to a smooth landing on NASA’s runway at Edwards Air Force Base. The spaceplane flew brilliantly but crash-landed (on-target) when one of its landing gears failed. Sierra Nevada called its a success — key objectives accomplished! NASA conspicuously made no comment. When this reporter filed a FOIA request with NASA for all video and photographic images of the accident captured by NASA, the request was denied because the test article was privately owned and NASA was operating on behalf of Sierra Nevada when it recorded the incident. An appeal to NASA senior management noting that the test article was funded with hundreds of millions of taxpayers dollars AND that the test article crashed on a government runway operated by NASA received a response noting that almost all photos and videos had been handed over to Sierra Nevada and the case was closed. As for the remainder not handed over, I was out of luck. (Ultimately, many months later, one photo was leaked to the web showing the extent of the damage).

The point? We can’t forget that secrecy and the profit-motive are linked in the development of commercial spaceflight, no less so than when government bureaucracies rely on secrecy to achieve certain aims

Around the Antares Maelstrom

Antares failure. We are going to know soon what triggered the Antares/Cygnus explosion on Tuesday based on hints that Orb-Sci dropped today. Looking frame-by-frame at NASA’s HD raw feeds from the launch and listening closely to audio, I’m moving away from my initial theory that the problem was a failure of one or both of the first-stage powerplants to build adequate thrust, followed by an automated destruct program.

Based on launch control callouts, it sounds as if the AJ26 engines were running at the intended 108% of rated thrust as the rocket climbed away from the pad. I still think I see an issue with yaw control during the first 6-9 seconds of climb-out, which could point to failing avionics and/or engine gimbal actuator under-performance and/or winds buffeting the rocket. I no longer think the yaw action alone precipitated the failure.

What seems absolutely certain is that the first-stage powerplants blew-up (not the rocket, not the self-destruct system) but one engine followed immediately by the other. That comes across from the audio and the visuals (synched up to adjust for speed-of-sound lagtime). The stack (the entire rocket) does not appear to have broken apart until impact with the ground. So, no self-destruct sequence but definitely complete, instantaneous failure of the engines. That points to three possible triggers for the event that ended the flight: (1) catastrophic metallurgic failure anywhere along one of the powerplant’s fuel/oxidizer flow lines and turbo pumps; (2) a fuel/oxidizer mixture imbalance due to obstructed or leaking fuel lines or valves feeding into the powerplant, resulting in a reaction imbalance outside of engine tolerances; (3) a software error that resulted in unintended upstream valve closure or flow restriction on the fuel or oxidizer side.

Watching and listening: the powerplants blow up at 15-16 seconds in rapid succession; 7 seconds for the rocket to return to Earth remarkably vertical resulting in a substantial blast and sonic wave as the engines hit the ground; followed 2 seconds later by a massive explosion (the fireworks display) and sonic wave as either: (1) the first-stage tanks and second-stages tanks collapse, mix, and cook-off; or (2) the Range Safety Officers’ destruct order kicks in, effectively blowing up the tanks.

Right or wrong, interesting to thinking through the mechanics of the failure.

New ways to orbit and beyond