Proton Disaster

Proton Failure Credit:  News 24

Proton Failure
Credit: News 24

After a difficult two-year span which had seen a surprising number of failures in the Russian launch  industry, things appeared to be getting back on track in 2013.  Until today.  Within a few seconds of liftoff at 8:38 a.m. local time,  (10:38 p.m. EDT Monday July 1)  a  Russian Proton-M  booster carrying 3 Glonass (GPS) satellites began oscillating, exhibiting a loss of control which resulted in a wild, arching flight which came to a fiery conclusion near an alternate launch pad 17 seconds after ignition. 

With the booster’s highly toxic unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide fuel residue blanketing the immediate area around the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Rianovosti is reporting that the upcoming launch of the Progress resupply ship to the International Space Station will almost certainly be delayed.

The dramatic failure of the trouble plagued rocket is going to have numerous repercussions, and is a blow to International Launch Services of Reston, Va. which markets a slightly different version of the Proton for commercial satellite launches. ILS had been planning a launch of the SES Astra 2E comsat later this month, but that is clearly not going to happen. With Sea-Launch attempting to recover from its most recent and similarly dramatic failure, and SpaceX yet to qualify the Falcon 9 V1.1, Arianespace is likely to begin looking for places on a crowded manifest as it cements its position as the world’s most reliable commercial launch provider. The Proton accident may also open a rare window for United Launch Alliance, which has reportedly been attempting to re-entry the commercial market with the Atlas-V booster.

In addition to the commercial implications, this latest  example of what seems to be a teetering Russian space infrastructure raises additional concerns about ongoing American reliance on the Russian launch industry which includes  ISS crew transportation as well as the RD-180 main engine for the Atlas-V. 

Anatoly Zak has in depth coverage of the accident at

Rianovosti has a useful infographic detailing the cost of recent Russian launch failures.

SpaceX Completes First Development for Falcon V 1.1

Development Complete Credit : SpaceX

Development Complete
Credit : SpaceX reports via its Joe Science blog, the following notification from  SpaceX received Thursday evening.

“SpaceX completed first-stage development testing on June 19 with a test fire.  This test achieved all verifications needed following earlier stage testing, and with this test we have achieved the equivalent of nearly two full mission duty cycles on the integrated stage.  We are now moving into the stage acceptance tests and final preparations for flight.”

A further update by the company also noted that a launch date for MDA Corporation’s Cassiope mission out of Vandenberg has been set, but has yet to be published.

Roundup: SpaceX Adds Launch Orders, Lots in Texas

Two week ending notes for SpaceX.  In a report in Space News, SpaceX has received orders for two launches, one of which dates back to the last time the Falcon 1(e) was on the manifest. As observers may recall, the company had listed a Falcon 1E launch for Astrium for some period of time, only to see it disappear.  Somewhat surprisingly, Astrium has exercised options which allow the orders for German radar satellites to be transferred to the Falcon 9.

If you were thinking that SpaceX really may need more capacity to handle all those launches, a story in the Brownsville Herald details several more acquisitions of small parcels of land related to the proposed commercial launch site at Boca Chica beach.

Finally, if there was one bright note coming out of the chaotic Congressional sub committee hearings on the NASA Authorization Act this week, it seems that the House of Representatives is more inclined to fully fund the Commercial Crew Program this year. One exception, Alabama Representative Mo Brooks, who indicated that if SLS doesn’t get $1.8 instead of $1.4 billion in funding, he may take his ball and go home.

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 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.” 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.

SpaceX Conducts First Firing for Falcon 9-R

Start Your Engines  Credit :  Elon Musk

Start Your Engines
Credit : Elon Musk

Based on a tweet from company founder Elon Musk, it appears that SpaceX has begun full-scale testing of all 9 engines for the Falcon 9-R  at the company’s McGregor, Texas development facility.  Musk tweeted  ” 1st firing of Falcon -R advanced prototype rocket. Over 1M lbs thrust,  enough to lift a skyscraper,”  accompanied by the image above.  Musk later clarified the comparison by saying “Vac thrust of 700 tons means avg of 14 tons/floor of structural steel for a 50 story building.”

Presumably, this was the first “test of unusual loudness” which Joseph Abbot has been keeping up to date on at, although there has yet to be any confirmation as to the duration or further specifics about the test.  If SpaceX follows the same routine as it has for both Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 development programs, it will conduct a full, mission length burn of all 9 engines prior to beginning the launch campaign for its next mission, the maiden flight for the Falcon 9 V1.1,  scheduled to launch out of Vandenberg, California.  

The designation as being a test of the Falcon 9-R  “advanced prototype rocket” as opposed to Falcon 9 v1.1 first stage is interesting,   particularly given `company’s intention to use each of its upcoming launches to progressively test first stage recovery after  second stage separation.  At that moment, each operational  Falcon 9 literally splits into two different rockets,  the first a conventional, expendable second stage on the way to space, and the second, a prototype test vehicle for first stage return.  As such SpaceX’s customers can take particular pride in the fact that they are materially contributing to the advancement of space exploration and commerce in a meaningful way.

The flight test program is also going to make every upcoming launch a fascinating experience far removed from tightly controlled, extremely conservative commercial space launches.  After separation, and with the payload hopefully safely on its way to orbit,  literally nobody knows what is going to happen next,  and how much of the mystery surrounding the most critical aspect of powered return will be peeled back on any given flight.   In so many aspects, this promises to take us back to  the early years of space flight testing, making it perhaps the summer’s most exciting reality drama.

NASA Seeks Tenant for Pad 39A

CRS-2 Pre Launch 044

It is starting to look like a case of too little, too late for the Kennedy Space Center.  After KSC Director Bob Cabana earlier this week seemed to reluctantly conceed that NASA would not stand in the way of Space Florida’s proposed commercial spaceport near Shiloh,  provided it passes environmental  review,  KSC released a synopsis today outlining its plans to seek a commercial tenant for Pad 39A.

According to the announcement for proposals,  NASA is seeking a lease agreement under the authority of the Commercial Space Launch Act for a period of not less than five years.  It is not immediately clear who, if anybody would be interested in assuming responsibility and maintainance for the historic pad which seems like overkill for anything but the heaviest of boosters.  

As for the proposed Shiloh facility, the reality of what is likely to be a year-long environmental review could put the state’s ambitions in serious jeopardy, particularly if SpaceX gets off to a fast start with the introduction of the Falcon 9 v1.1 later this year. 


SpaceX Fairing Separation Video

SpaceX  has released this video of a fairing separation test being conducted at NASA’s Plum Brook Station, part of the Glenn Research Center.   In designing the composite fairing, SpaceX kept with its overall philosophy of both in-house production as well as a preference for pneumatic separation systems which can be tested before flight.

Market leader Arianespace on the other hand, also uses a composite payload fairing for the Ariane V, but employs a pyrotechnic separation system. The Ariane fairing is built by the Swiss corporation RUAG, which also supplies a similar structure for the ULA Atlas V 500 series.

SpaceX Nears EELV Certification Plan

Preparing for the Next Step Credit :  S Money

Preparing for the Next Step
Credit : S Money


Aviation Week is reporting that SpaceX and the U.S. Air Force are “days away” from finalizing details for a certification plan which would allow the company to compete for national security launches aboard its Falcon 9 V1.1 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.  Having already won two launch orders under the Air Force’s separate Orbital/Suborbital-3  (OPS-3)  program, which carries a lower level of risk,  final announcement of  a  certification plan will mark another significant milestone for  company as it seeks to expand its business into the world of EELV launches now monopolized by United Launch Alliance.  It will also mark the beginning of a new era for SpaceX, which having very successfully learned to work with NASA and its Partner Integration Teams will now need to handle a new level of scrutiny from a different organization, the Air Force, as it undergoes far-reaching audits into its systems before winning any launch orders under EELV. 

Although there will no doubt be some rough moments along the way,  it seems likely that such scrutiny, which after all has helped Boeing, Lockheed Martin and their progeny ULA,  achieve unprecedented reliability  for  American (well mostly American,  RD-180 and some payload fairings excepted) )  expendable launch vehicles,  could very well do the same for SpaceX which is off to a pretty good start as it is.   The question, which will not be answered for some time, is how the increased overhead of new compliance affects the Falcon’s overall cost structure.  If the effect is negligible or only modest, and is born out by the actual flight record, then ULA, which has repeatedly attempted to justfy the high costs of the EELV program in recent years by pointing to product reliability, will have some “splainin” to do.  

On another note, one additional benefit which will in all likelihood still be ignored  by certain members of Congress is that the increased scrutiny required by the Air Force, should rationally go a long way to easing  “concerns” voiced by some that the launch systems offered under Commercial Crew, including both the Atlas V and the Falcon 9,  are somehow unsafe because they were not explicitly designed by NASA.