Falcon 9-R Flies to 1 Kilometer


SpaceX released this video of the Falcon 9-R rising to 1000 meters today.

What a way to end a week marked by the bitter battle between SpaceX and United Launch Alliance over the right to compete against 30 year old technology developed by the Soviet Union, the sweet sights and sound of progress being made in skies over Texas.

It comes as wordless reminder that in the long run, the real issue is not the purchase of Russian engines and possible violations of current trade policy.  It is not even disputed contracts in the EELV program, although those are more important than many people realize, and not just for SpaceX.

In the big picture, one American company is making visible,  steady, and sometimes spectacular progress not in stunts, but in advancing the art of space launch. The other is not, and what a shame that is.

SpaceX’s next attempt at a flight booster recovery will come in just over a week, as the next Falcon 9 mission is scheduled to launch on Saturday, May 10th in a window which opens at 9:39 AM EDT. With a relatively light payload of 6 Orbcomm OG2 satellites and a lower orbital inclination than the NASA CRS-3 mission, the first stage will have an opportunity to return to a possible soft landing in the Atlantic, one much closer to Cape Canaveral, and hopefully, calmer seas than the April 18th flight to ISS.




SpaceX Releases Landing Video, Elon Musk Announces Reveal of Dragon 2.0

As promised, SpaceX has posted a video of the recent Falcon 9 first stage soft landing attempt which took place on April 18.  As promised, it is rather garbled to say the least. And this is the improved footage, which SpaceX still hopes will be further cleaned up in a crowd sourced effort.

Also forthcoming, an announcement regarding the long awaited unveiling of the crew carrying spacecraft which will ride to orbit atop the Falcon 9, the Dragon 2.0.

The timing was apparently prompted by Russian space minister Dmitry Rogozin who according to reports, indirectly threatened the status of astronaut access to ISS while complaining about US sanctions which have personally targeted him, suggesting that NASA would need a trampoline to get to the station.

In a strange version of a renewed Cold War being waged through tweets, Elon Musk countered with this:

With NASA Administrator Charles Bolden having stated that the agency has some flexibility within the Commercial Crew program to prioritize getting one provider on-line as soon as possible, even in a two provider scenario, the SpaceX Dragon reveal is an important development.  Presuming a successful pad abort demonstration later this year, followed by an in-flight abort demonstration soon after, the U.S. could be looking at a fully demonstrated capacity to launch its own astronauts within surprisingly short order, even if an actual first launch is a bit longer in coming.

Orbital Sciences Suggests a New Antares for Stratolaunch


Stratolaunch has been pretty quiet as of late, but an Orbital Sciences conference call reported in Space News sheds some new light on the booster the behemoth twin fuselage aircraft may be lofting.

Originally reported as likely to be a solid cored booster comprised of components provided by ATK,  based on comments by CEO David Thompson to investors, it appears the booster will be an alternate version of OSC’s Antares.

While the comments do not preclude the possibility of an all solid booster as well, it is an interesting development, made all the more intriguing by the fact that Orbital is entertaining bids from three different engines, two Russian and one American, as well as examining a U.S. built first stage to replace the current one built in eastern Ukraine.

From a launch development perspective, the substitution of a liquid fueled first stage at least raises the possibility, remote as it may be, of an eventual transition to a reusable, flyback version. To be clear, OSC has said nothing along these lines, and assuming it secures a new stage engine, the company can probably anticipate winning further ISS resupply contracts through 2024.

In the long run however, even if the first stage of the CRS-3 Falcon 9 washes up on shore at OSC’s Wallops Island launch pad, it does not appear to be unlikely that a subsequent Falcon 9R will gently touch down on the eastern tip of Cape Canaveral long before OSC manages to fly a new engine.  Given the steady march towards re-usability by the company which OSC refuses to identify by name, it might be something to think about.

Commercial Crew Still Under Fire

Underfunded Again? Credit : NASA

Underfunded Again?
Credit : NASA

NASA’s Commercial Crew program continues to suffer the slings and arrows in this week’s passage of an Omnibus spending bill. After being badly underfunded for the third year in a row,  in early 2013 NASA Administrator Charles Bolden warned Congress that a failure to authorize the $821 million being requested as part of the FY2013 budget would mean the program could not meet a late 2017 first flight, and would have to purchase another round of missions from Russia.

Fast forward to this week. Although the total amount allocated for Commercial Crew in the overall $17.6 billion NASA budget fell well short of the amount Bolden requested, at $696 million it marked an improvement over the previous year’s $525 million. But Congress just could not leave it alone.  Included in authorization is a provision which withholds $171 million until the NASA Administrator certifies that an independent cost benefit analysis for the program has been performed, one which takes in to account the future of the International Space Station program.  In other words, until the analysis is complete, NASA’s budget for Commercial Crew falls right back to $525 million. Congress  has picked up the gauntlet thrown down by the Administrator and thrown it back at him.  Will he fight back?

Given that it may take some time, even several years for the International Partners to fully commit to extending the station’s life to 2024 as both NASA and the Obama Administration would like to do, any analysis, while perhaps not a bad idea in principle, is likely to be delayed, or so full of both caveats and genuine unknowns that its actual utility will be questionable at best.

And then there is the question of whether an independent analysis will take into account the very real, but also very unknown variable of SpaceX’s pursuit of re-usability for the Falcon 9-R. One could make the argument that given the likely cost of independently pursuing a re-usable booster program, (tens of billions of dollars) the benefit of receiving one for free partly as a result of the company being selected as a winner in Commercial Crew, justifies the entire program on that basis alone.  Don’t be surprised however, if it is not even mentioned.

What also is not going to be mentioned apparently,  is any similar stipulation that the far more expensive SLS/MPCV programs undergo a cost benefit analysis, or even a cost analysis for that matter. Or even asked to explain what it’s mission is.

Instead, coming in to what should be a definitive year for the Commercial Crew program, culminating in the selection of which company or companies are moving into the final phase, NASA faces a choice; whether to further throttle the entire program as it jumps through the hoops Congress has placed in front of it, or to keep its current schedule with a decision late this year, and necessarily down select to a single winner.

As if that weren’t enough, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel weighed in this week with its annual report, which while more positive regarding the Commercial Crew program than it has been in the past, cautioned against a premature down select even as it chided policymakers for failing to provide the necessary funds.

Already three and half months into 2014 fiscal year, NASA faces a real dilemma. How it responds may tell us more about the manner in which Charles Bolden’s tenure as NASA Administrator will be regarded than any other item.  How Congress handles the upcoming FY 2015 budget request  will tell us just how ugly the battle will get.

The DC-X, NASA and the Future of RLV Development

Twenty Years  The DC-X

Twenty Years
The DC-X

Sunday, August 18th 2013 marked the twentieth anniversary of the first flight of one of the most unique, and influential rockets of the space age, one which never reached orbit and was never intended to.

Developed under the auspices of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO), the DC-X marked an incremental approach to solving the central challenge of the space age, making space launch affordable.  That another organization besides NASA conceived and implemented the project, because in part it believed the agency was incapable of doing so, was a damming indictment on the NASA of the early 1990’s, but, we all make mistakes, and that as they say…was then.  But what about now?

It is difficult to evaluate which was the greater accomplishment,  the DC-X program’s amazing success, developing and operating the test article on a budget of $70 million between 1900 and 1995; or NASA’s subsequent “now you see it, now you don’t”  achievement in sweeping it all away.

To be sure, the DC-X, which was powered by four Pratt and Whitney RL-10A-5 engines, was only a technology demonstrator, and was never intended to achieve what could be realistically termed suborbital flight.  And, despite its revolutionary nature in throwing away so many of the conventions of launch vehicle development; massive budgets, large teams, new hardware, it was, like the Shuttle, burdened from the beginning with trying to meet a military requirement; in this case, a complicated “flip over” maneuver to allow for a nose first reentry and large aerodynamic cross range for polar launches.

And, as a technology and program demonstrator, the DC-X did not attempt to address the primary challenge of the Vertical Takeoff / Vertical Landing SSTO approach, achieving a mass fraction which would have allowed larger scale follow on single stage vehicles to reach orbit, and perhaps even carrying a payload. Nevertheless, in its short, episodic life that saw three start / stop series of flight tests, the DC-X demonstrated, much like the SpaceX   Grasshopper is doing today,  that VTVL represents a realistic and credible approach to RLV development, and one clearly worthy of enthusiastic pursuit.

After taking over and bungling the DC-X project, NASA went its own way with its commitment to Lockheed Martin and a very different approach and arguably more complicated approach in horizontal takeoff and landing with the X-33 / Venturestar fiasco that unlike the DC-X,  which at least went down in flames, literally;  ended instead with a delaminated fuel tank and a whimper.

It may well be that the actual, practical answer to more affordable launch costs lies not in highly problematic Single Stage to Orbit architectures, but instead in two stage to orbit systems briefly pursued under NASA’s Second Generation RLV program, as well as its strange fling with Kistler Aerospace and the K-1 vehicle, which lasted right up into the current era by winning (and then losing) one of two positions in NASA’s COTS program. Today the quest for re-usability is being pursued on multiple fronts, by companies large and small, but it is clearly most visibly represented by SpaceX.

As for Blue Origin, which is apparently the closest modern adherent to the DC-X design, it is difficult to reach any conclusion about its contribution to the legacy of its forebear,  given the company’s near obsessive secrecy.  However, considering the fact that Blue Origin has been uncharacteristically vocal about its desire to lease KSC pad 39A for its own use, as well as for undefined other  operators, and to prevent SpaceX from gaining exclusive access,  if ever there was a time to pull back the curtain and disclose just how far along the company actually is in fielding a flight capable vehicle prior to NASA’s October deadline for making the decision, this weekend would have provided the perfect opportunity for doing so.

NASA, to its credit,  is providing some tentative support to RLV work both through its Flight Opportunities Program, its CCDev 1 and 2 awards to Blue Origin, and of course, in a very indirect manner through its ongoing relationship with SpaceX in both the CRS  and Commercial Crew programs. Furthermore, no one at SpaceX has been hesitant to give the agency the heartfelt thanks its deserves for its undeniable, and invaluable  role in helping the company be where it is today; on the cusp of launching the world’s booster designed to make the evolutionary jump from expendable to reusable operations the  Falcon 9 V1.1  / aka Falcon 9-R (reusable).

If NASA, which as an executive agency is bound by the dictates of Presidential administrations, and the funding of Congress,  maintains its indifferent approach to directly supporting RLV work in a serious manner, then the least it could do is to continue to support it indirectly wherever possible.

Sometime next year, NASA will make an altogether critical decision as to which company or companies will move on to the final round of the Commercial Crew program.  Although many factors must necessarily go into the decision, and crew safety will necessarily be foremost among them,  we can only hope that the agency also takes into serious consideration the challenge SpaceX has willingly embraced at its own expense in aggressively pursuing a reusable launch system which is inextricably linked to its Commercial Crew entry.  It will be a chance for the agency to put both itself and the nation,  back on hot pursuit of a goal which suddenly seemed so very attainable twenty years ago this week.

Latest Grasshopper Test

From the SpaceX Channel:

“On August 13th, the Falcon 9 test rig (code name Grasshopper) completed a divert test, flying to a 250m altitude with a 100m lateral maneuver before returning to the center of the pad. The test demonstrated the vehicle’s ability to perform more aggressive steering maneuvers than have been attempted in previous flights.

Grasshopper is taller than a ten story building, which makes the control problem particularly challenging. Diverts like this are an important part of the trajectory in order to land the rocket precisely back at the launch site after reentering from space at hypersonic velocity.”


SpaceX Conducts New Test

Testing Again Credit SpaceX

Testing Again
Credit SpaceX

Although there has been no official word from SpaceX, nor even a tweet from Elon Musk,  according to Wacotrib.com Space X apparently conducted another moderately long duration test of the Falcon 9-R Wednesday evening.   It is unclear just how long the test lasted with witnesses saying it was “about a minute.”  NASAspaceflight.com has a very informative article “Testing Times”  detailing difficulties with the previous test which cut off unexpectedly at 118 seconds, well shy of the full burn time for the first stage.

An entirely different sort of noise is coming out of the Paris Air Show, where Arianespace is touting the advantages of the Ariane V ME for taking on both SpaceX and the ILS Proton in a single launch.  According to report in Space News,  Arianespace claims the planned upgrade to the upper stage will allow the company to continue its practice of dual manifesting, placing a large satellite capable of matching anything Proton can loft in the upper slot, and a slightly smaller satellite in the lower position, where it would compete effectively against the Falcon 9 v1.1.   In another measure of the looming competition, Arianespace is also promoting its capacity to deliver one of the new series of all-electric propulsion satellites to a higher initial drop-off point than SpaceX,  thereby reducing the time required for the slow climb to its final orbital slot.

Arianespace describes the increased capability of the Ariane V ME as a “SpaceX  defense,” which shows just seriously the European launch consortium has come in its estimation of the competition since the days its previous president  Jean-Yves Le Gall, now head of the French Space Agency would virtually refuse to call the American company by name.

In the end however, the defense may prove to be little more than another Maginot line.  What Arianespace is not saying, because it has no answer, it how it would compete with a dual manifested Falcon Heavy, an indication of just how important the triple core booster is to the Hawthorne based company.  And as for the Falcon 9-R, better keep that white flag handy.

SpaceX Takes Another Step into EELV Market

Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski and Elon Musk sign CRADA Credit : Space Missile Center

Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski and Elon Musk sign CRADA
Credit : Space Missile Center

The U.S. Air  Force Space and Missile  Systems Center announced yesterday that it has signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with Space Exploration Technologies Corp., paving the way for the company to take the next steps along the pathway to entering the EELV business as outlined in the New Entrants Certification Guide which was introduced in October 2011.  According to the press release the CRADA 

  “enables the Air Force to evaluate the Falcon 9 v1.1 launch system according to the Air Force’s New Entrant Certification Guide (NECG). As part of the evaluation, SMC and SpaceX will look at the Falcon 9 v1.1’s flight history, vehicle design, reliability, process maturity, safety systems, manufacturing and operations, systems engineering, risk management and launch facilities. SMC will monitor at least three certification flights to meet the flight history requirements outlined in the NECG. Once the evaluation process is complete, the SMC commander will make the final determination whether SpaceX has the capability to successfully launch NSS missions using the Falcon 9 v1.1.”

As the announcement indicates,  it will still be some time before SpaceX will be in a position to compete for EELV launches,  and there  is no word on when the Air Force evaluations will begin.  Presumably however,  SpaceX would want to wait until after the new booster has successfully completed the first few flights on its manifest, and in particular delivered its first commercial communications satellite to GTO,  which should come with flight number and the launch of  SES-8 out of Cape Canaveral.  

SpaceX will enter into a separate certification agreement with the Air Force to enable the Falcon Heavy to compete for EELV class launches, a process which will probably quite a bit longer, as the company currently lists three launches on its manifest for the triple core booster; a demo flight which will likely take place in 2014, followed by two flights the following year, one of which is a demonstration flight for the Air Force,  labelled Space Test Program -2, contracted under the  Orbital/Suborbital-3  (OSP-3) program.  The remaining Falcon Heavy flight currently on the manifest is for Intelsat, but that may not be the case for long. 

A sucessful introductory campaign for the Falcon 9 v1.1, the core of the Falcon Heavy, beginning with the launch of Cassiope out of Vandenberg, and followed by the SES launch,  is likely to open the door heavy and super heavy class comsat launches in short order. 

In a related note, SpaceX has notified the Waco Tribune that another “loud” test similar to 112 second run on Friday evening is imminent.

Falcon 9-R Completes First Long Duration Firing

If you’ve ever been to Key West, you probably visited Mallory Square docks around sunset to look for the elusive “Green Flash” on the western horizon. It is a beautiful sight to be sure, but for space exploration enthusiasts, it perhaps pales in comparison to another green flash, that emitted by the tea-tab ignition which marks the start up sequence of the first long duration firing for the Falcon 9-R and its Merlin 1D Engines.   Word of the test, which was conducted at the company’s McGregor, Texas  development facility and generated up to 1.5 million pounds of vacuum thrust, came as it usually does in the form of a tweet from Elon Musk, this one at 3:57 AM this morning.  

Completion of the test marks a major milestone for SpaceX on the way to a long anticipated first flight of the Falcon 9-R (the rocket formerly known as Falcon 9 v1.1)  and the beginning  of what could be a transformational  era in the history of spaceflight, as the company seeks to progressively introduce the world’s first fully reusable space transportation system.

Stratolaunch and OSC

Flying the Wrong Way? Credit :  Stratolaunch

Flying the Wrong Way?
Credit : Stratolaunch

Stratolaunch announced yesterday that following a 9 month courtship, it is entering into a development arrangement with Orbital Sciences Corporation to secure the booster for the behemoth, twin boomed aircraft currently being built by Scaled Composites at Mojave.

NBC News Science Editor Alan Boyle shed a little more light on the arrangement yesterday on his Cosmic Log site, based on an interview which Stratolaunch CEO Gary Wentz. According to Boyle, the OSC supplied launch vehicle will be a three stage rocket consisting of solid fueled first and second stages, topped (sort of, horizontally speaking) by a liquid fueled third stage,  which would likely be required in any event to achieve precise orbital insertion. Intended payload capability is 13,500 lbs. into low Earth orbit with first launch date target of 2018. 

While the announcement of a formal partnership with OSC hardly came as a surprise, for anyone hoping for a something a little more inspiring from an “innovative solution unlike anything tried before,” it may also be something of a disappointment. In announcing that it will stay on familiar turf and base its rocket on a solid fueled first and second stages, OSC and Stratolaunch seemed to have taken a very conservative approach, one which appears to close the door on any possibility that the final product will make a meaningful contribution to reducing launch costs and offering at least a path towards a reusable second stage like that already being taken by far more modest Swiss Space Systems and its SOAR space plane.

It seems a little incongruous to go to the trouble to build the world’s largest aircraft specifically as mobile launch platform, and then equip it with a conventional, dead-end solid rocket motor drawn from the legacy aerospace industry, presumably from regular OSC supplier ATK, with all the embedded costs which that involves. While perhaps there were no other realistic alternatives, one might have hoped that instead of resorting to a solid fueled architecture, OSC would have instead elected to build on its recent partnership with Antares first stage provider Yuzhnoye Design Bureau and explore the art of the possible in the light of what is currently taking place with Stratolaunch’s previous partner SpaceX.

While a solid fueled architecture will presumably facilitate the “any orbit, anytime, almost anywhere” goal established by Stratolaunch at a lower development cost than alternatives powered by potentially reusable liquid fueled engines, the tradeoff may not look so good over the long run. Given ongoing progress by SpaceX, underscored by a growing confidence in reusability which has found its way into the very name of its own new booster, Falcon 9-R(reusable), it seems quite possible that for an all new development effort with a 5 year time frame before first flight, there is already more business risk in assuming that SpaceX will fail, than in planning for the possibility that it will succeed.

Viewed from a more immediate perspective, it will be interesting to see if the Stratolaunch/OSC partnership can surpass the price point of its most immediate rival, the commercial Soyuz 2 launched by Arianespace out of French Guiana. With Soyuz pricing increasing dramatically in recent years, Stratolaunch’s Air Launch Vehicle may be in a position to deal Arianespace a commercial blow while neatly negating its equatorial advantage.   It would represent a remarkable reversal of fortune for the European consortium which is currently enjoying a unprecented run of market dominance, even as it nervously ponders what do about Falcon Heavy.  

One interesting sidebar is that as mentioned in a recent Space News article, XCOR President Jeff Greason told attendees at the Space Access ’13 conference that his company was looking into a two stage, reusable, liquid fueled orbital system based on an “existing aircraft.”