Tag Archives: SpaceX

ISS, Antares and the Russian war of aggression

If you’ve not heard of the Antares rocket and the role it plays launching supplies to the ISS from the U.S., that’s okay. Antares has quietly carried out its mission, mostly without incident, for the past four years. Each launch from NASA’s Wallops Island Spaceport in Virginia lofts a Cygnus cargo module built by Orbital ATK to the ISS. SpaceX gets lots more coverage of its ISS launches thanks to its expert marketing team. Northrop Grumman is the manufacturer/purveyor of the Antares.

Antares from its inception was built on Russian (and USSR) rocket motors. Today, the first-stage propulsive force that helps get the Antares Cygnus to orbit comes from two Russian RD-181 motors. The Antares first stage core is manufactured by Yuzhmash, a Ukrainian company.

Thanks to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, Northrup Grumman can no longer source new RD-181 engines. Ukraine is too badly battered and disrupted to reliably produce the first stage cores used by Antarers. At this point, Antares has supplies sufficient for two more launches.

From its beginnings, the Russian attack on the Ukraine — and the USA’s response — were expected to have downstream effects on International Space Station operations. Initial concerns focused on whether or not Russia would continue to sell seats on its Soyuz taxi to carry US astronauts to and from the orbital space station. Some wondered if Russia would decouple from the ISS program.

So far, the operational flow on ISS has not been substantially impacted. Thankfully, SpaceX Crew Dragon and the version of Dragon used for resupply of ISS were up and running before the European conflict got underway. With Boeing apparently closing in on operational status for its CST-100 crew transport, greater redundancy for getting astronauts to ISS is about to arrive.

The possible loss of Antares would affect the cadence of ISS resupply missions and potentially require a rescheduling of on-orbit operations while alternative paths to orbit are worked out. The Cygnus can reach orbit using the Atlas V manufactured by ULA. The Atlas V uses the RD-180 engine also manufactured in Russia. In any case, ULA is already scheduled to fly-out its existing inventory of Atlas, so a ride might not be available on the Atlas V.

With the Vulcan rocket — the follow-on to Atlas — not ready to fly, we may soon see a push to use the Falcon 9 to deliver Cygnus to ISS. A solution will be needed soon.

One thing is for certain: the wisdom of commercial resupply and commercial crew programs is being validated by today’s geopolitical complexities. In retrospect — always easy to say things retrospectively — an emphasis or requirement that rocket motors be sourced within the US seems essential.

Heavy Stuff

Typically, I don’t tack commentary on top of previously published commentary, but what we witnessed with the Falcon Heavy launch was not typical.  It was revolutionary — and solid evidence that true (not subsidized) commercial spaceflight is right around the corner.  It is also evidence that we better believe Elon Musk when he says SpaceX is going to build a BFR for deep-space passenger and cargo loads.

Unless you have been living under a rock, we all saw what SpaceX and Falcon Heavy accomplished.  Succesful, stand-up (first-time) launch of a new vehicle.  Successful, simultaneous return-to-launch-site of two (previously flown) boosters.  A nearly successful return of the core first-stage (…missed it by that much).  Successful fairing deploy.  Successful orbit and orbital-escape burns for one of the most unique payloads ever.


If you were down on the Cape to see the Heavy go, you experienced one of the most energizing and optimism-fueling events in spaceflight since Atlantis made its final reach for the stars in 2011.  It was a party atmosphere — and SpaceX and Delaware North (the outsourced operator of KSC visitor sites) proved they know how to throw a party.  At the Saturn V center there was champagne.  Champagne flutes.  Delicious and endless empanadas, egg rolls, stir-fry, pasta and ice cream.  Bill Nye the Science Guy was onsite, narrating the event and talking up science literacy!  The crowd was representative of the U.S.:  blue, red, purple, from all part of the nation.  People who travelled 10-20-200-500-1000-and-3000 miles to bear witness.  “Make American Great Again” hat-wearers  right next to climate scientists.

We have in Falcon Heavy the backup we will need if SLS/Orion is further drawn out or cancelled (please, no)!  It is the bridge to BFR (assuming we can find a safe location from which to launch it).  It is evidence that the genius and vision that led to something as remarkable (and complex) as the Space Shuttle lives on.

HERE WE GO!  The SpaceX Falcon Heavy is at Pad 39A down on the Cape, ready to fly.  This moment has been a long-time coming and by that I mean the return of boosters truly capable of sending astronauts Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO).  The last U.S. rocket capable of doing that was the Saturn V that lofted Skylab in 1973.  NASA continues work on its next human-rated, heavy lift (“deep” space exploration) rocket — the SLS.  If we are lucky, we might see SLS and the Orion capsule launch astronauts beyond Earth orbit in 2023.  The trickle of funding that has barely kept the SLS\Orion alive is at constant risk of reduction or deletion.  At best, I think it’s 50-50 that SLS gets beyond its initial exploratory mission.  Kinda like the Energia system that launched the USSR’s shuttle.  As a nation, we won’t be able to afford it — or have the will to sustain it.

Falcon Heavy could be the vehicle that fills the gap between now and when SLS\Orion flies.  Or it may simply by default become the only option we are going to have for supporting human BEO missions for a long time to come.  SpaceX will need customers — and human-rated qualification for the Heavy and whatever capsule (Dragon Crew, presumably) it puts on top of the Heavy’s core booster — if it is going to ramp-up production of the Heavy and fine-tine it for human spaceflight.  Wouldn’t it be great if NASA considered using the Falcon Heavy for some of its science and exploratory missions?   Despite all the skepticism about commercial cargo and commercial crew, for-profit companies have achieved substantial leaps and bounds in the development of new flight hardware — yes, some very much derived from the Saturn program and, yes, very much funded by government agencies, a.k.a., customers.

With the coming launch of Falcon Heavy, for the first time since I was a grade-schooler, I really believe I will live to see human’s return to the moon.  Let’s see (and hope for) a nice, clean flight this coming week!

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.