Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Life Support

Click the arrow to watch the Expedition 50 crew landing. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Three International Space Station crew members, two Russians and one American, landed April 10 on the frigid steppes of Kazakhstan. Their Soyuz capsule was a design evolved from the original that first launched with cosmonauts in 1971.

No Americans were supposed to have been on Russian craft by now.

President Barack Obama's proposed Fiscal Year 2011 NASA budget planned to spend $5.8 billion during Fiscal Years 2011 through 2015 to develop American commercial crew spacecraft that would be operational by 2015.

Congress agreed to fund the commercial crew program, but over Fiscal Years 2011-2013 slashed the program's budget by 62%. Congress did so despite repeated warnings from NASA executives that the cuts would extend reliance on Russia until 2017 or longer.

The cuts were bipartisan. Many members of the House and Senate space authorization and appropriations subcommittees represent districts and states that have NASA space centers or legacy contractors. They objected to the Obama administration's proposal to cancel the Constellation program, which was to succeed the Space Shuttle. Constellation had run years behind schedule and was billions of dollars over budget. An August 2009 Government Accountability Office report concluded that Constellation lacked a “sound business case” and still faced many technical obstacles. An October 2009 independent committee review concluded that Constellation was unsustainable without a massive cash infusion. Its first crewed launch would be no earlier than 2017, probably later.

But Constellation employed both NASA civil servants and legacy contractors from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Alliant Techsystems (ATK), all three long-established aerospace companies with capable lobbyists and deep pockets to finance re-election campaigns.

When Congress finally approved a NASA budget for Fiscal Year 2011, the legislators reluctantly agreed to cancel the Constellation boondoggle, but imposed on NASA a new program called Space Launch System. Dubbed the Senate Launch System by its critics, SLS had no missions or destinations, but it did require NASA to use Shuttle and Constellation contractors without competitive bid. Commercial crew was slighted to fund the SLS porkfest.

As predicted, commercial crew's schedule slipped. NASA has been forced to sign contracts with the Russian space agency Roscosmos extending reliance on Soyuz until commercial crew is ready. In 2018, Roscosmos will charge NASA $81 million per seat to ferry U.S. and allied astronauts to the space station. A September 2016 Office of the Inspector General report concluded that NASA hopes to have its first operational commercial crew flight by late 2018, but challenges remain.

Rarely mentioned or contemplated by critics is the other side of the equation.

For years, the Russians have known that it's only a matter of time before their primary customers leave to launch once again from American soil.

Despite the country's autocratic leadership, occasionally Roscosmos executives and cosmonauts have publicly criticized their space program, noting that the NewSpace commercial movement in the United States will produce innovative new systems that will be far more modern and less costly than the Russian competition.

Expedition 31 crew members in the first SpaceX Dragon to deliver cargo to ISS. Commander Gennady Padalka is at the lower left. Image source: SpaceX.

Senior cosmonaut Gennady Padalka commanded the ISS in May 2012 when the SpaceX Dragon made its first automated cargo delivery. After he returned to Russia, Padalka criticized his nation's program.

At the traditional Russian post-landing press conference on Sept. 21, cosmonaut Gennady Padalka complained about the “spartan” conditions aboard the Russian side of the station, especially as compared with the American side. The conditions were cold, noisy, overstuffed with equipment, and cramped — each Russian had about one-seventh the living space that the American astronauts had. “All of this gives serious inconvenience in the operation of the Russian segment,” he said ... The equipment, he continued, was reliable and safe but was decades out of date. “Nothing has been done in the 20 years since the foundation of the new Russia,” he complained. The Russian space technology is technologically bankrupt and “morally exhausted.” It was, he told reporters, “frozen in the last century.” He contrasted those conditions with the spaciousness and modernity of the American modules, and praised the advanced technology he saw there: the robotics experiment (“As always, still under study in Russia”) and SpaceX's commercial spacecraft docking, for example.

A week later, Roscosmos General Director Vladimir Popovkin said in a public lecture, “Unless we undertake extreme measures, the sector will be uncompetitive within three-four years.” Popovkin predicted that by 2015, “Western equipment will be priced 33 to 50 percent lower.”

In October 2013, Popovkin was sacked and replaced by Oleg Ostapenko. Popovkin died in June 2014, from an undisclosed illness at age 57.

Ostapenko was sacked in January 2015, as Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin directed that Russian space activities be brought under tighter state control, the opposite of what the U.S. is doing. Ostapenko was replaced by Igor Komarov, who's managed to remain in the Director General position to this day. Although he began his education as an engineer, Komarov's career largely has been in banking and finance.

Rogozin was one of seven Russian government officials designated by the Obama administration in a March 2014 executive order which imposed economic sanctions on “individuals who wield influence in the Russian government and those responsible for the deteriorating situation in Ukraine.”

A January 2017 meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin. Image source: Vladimir Putin Blog.

The sanctions generally have been effective in depressing the Russian economy. At the time in March 2014 when the sanctions were imposed, the ratio of Russian rubles to U.S. dollars was about 0.027. Today it's about 0.018.

As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, United States government officials worried that Soviet aerospace engineers might flee to nations hostile to American interests. Under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, NASA slowly intertwined itself with the Russian space program. By one vote in 1993, the House of Representatives nearly cancelled the Space Station Freedom project. The U.S. invited Russia to join Europe, Japan and Canada in building a new International Space Station, based on Freedom's earlier designs but now with Russian segments. NASA flew Space Shuttle missions to the Soviet-era Mir space station, to develop experience in assembling and servicing an orbital platform. Russian cosmonauts flew to Mir on the Shuttle, and U.S. astronauts flew to Mir on Soyuz spacecraft.

By the time of the Columbia accident on February 1, 2003, NASA, Roscosmos and the other ISS partners had learned to collaborate as one global space agency. No one questioned American reliance on Soyuz for crew rotations after Columbia. On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush announced that the Shuttle would fly again, but only to complete ISS assembly to honor the nation's commitment to its spacefaring partners, and then the Shuttle would retire. Crew rotations would continue to rely on Roscosmos, even during the gap between Shuttle and whatever transport system came next.

In early 2014, Russian President Putin ordered troops to invade Crimea, today a part of the independent nation Ukraine but in times past a part of Russia. The U.S. and other nations imposed sanctions upon the Russian economy and Putin cronies, including Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin.

For months, Rogozin blustered that Russia would abrogate its ISS participation. He claimed that Russia would walk away from the ISS in 2020 — yet less than a year later Russia extended its participation to 2024.

Rogozin and Putin-controlled Russian media continue to spin one story for internal consumption, while another is told to the outside world. Russia Today reported on April 5 that Russia should plan for withdrawing from the ISS partnership in 2024, seeking a new partnership with China or India. A similar report appeared in Pravda. But at the same time, Director General Komarov was in Colorado Springs at the Space Symposium telling reporters that Roscosmos is willing to extend ISS to 2028.

Roscosmos Director General Igor Komarov April 4 at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. Image source: Space Foundation via Spaceflight Now.

The Russian space program continues to deteriorate. In June 2016, Roscosmos delayed a Soyuz launch, fearing that the spacecraft might roll uncontrollably as it approached ISS. In December 2016, a Progress cargo flight to ISS was lost after launch as it broke up over Siberia. By one estimate, it was the fifteenth failure of a Russian rocket in six years.

The Moscow Times reported on March 30 that “An investigation into quality control issues in the Russian space industry has discovered that nearly every engine currently stockpiled for use in Proton rockets is defective.” The Moscow Times is an independent English-language publication based in Moscow.

And to add a little intrigue, a former Roscosmos executive director was found murdered March 18. Vladimir Yevdokimov was stabbed to death in prison while awaiting trial on fraud charges. Yevdokimov had been in charge of quality control at Roscosmos.

In March 2016, the Russian government approved a ten-year budget for its space program. The total dollar amount was $20 billion, a bit more than what NASA spends in one fiscal year. It was nearly two-thirds less than the $56 billion ten-year budget proposal draft circulated in the spring of 2014, before the sanctions took effect.

On March 30, SpaceX launched and landed its first previously flown Falcon 9 rocket. State-controlled Sputnik News reported the next day that a Kremlin spokesman claimed Roscosmos is working on “no less advanced and breakthrough developments” to compete with SpaceX. Another Sputnik News article claimed that the Space Shuttle program ended because it failed to achieve its goal of reusable affordability. The article quoted a Russian military expert as saying, “Ultimately, the United States was left without its own spacecraft and delivery of their astronauts to the International Space Station is being provided by Russia.” The article claimed that the SpaceX design is flawed, and that a Russia-China partnership might develop a more competitive reusable system.

No mention has been made of Blue Origin, which is also developing reusable rocket technology. Blue intends to fly its New Glenn orbital rockets from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 36 by the end of this decade.

Some emerging NewSpace launch companies are thinking small. Vector Space Systems, Rocket Lab and others are developing small rockets to launch small payloads into orbit. The Vector-R is designed to deliver 60 kilograms (130 pounds) to low Earth orbit. The company claims Vector-R is designed for up to 100 launches. It can be launched from a mobile platform, and will be retrieved by parachute.

A Vector-R test article on the mobile platform. Image source: Vector Space Systems.

Historians may look back at the American NewSpace movement as the defining technological advance of our era. It may compare to the 1920s, when the U.S. Post Office contracted with airplane owners to deliver mail, and eventually offered a subsidy to carry passengers. That program led to the commercial aviation industry and the airport hub system we have today.

The United States has a robust economy. Russia does not. Venture capitalists are discovering NewSpace. A February 2016 Tauri Group report found that “Venture capital firms invested $1.8 billion in commercial space startups in 2015, nearly doubling the amount of venture cash invested in the industry in all of the previous 15 years combined,” according to Fortune magazine.

CNBC reported on April 6 that Goldman Sachs is telling its clients to invest in NewSpace.

A new space age is emerging, and the so-called space economy will become a multitrillion-dollar industry within the next two decades, Goldman Sachs is telling its clients.

More than 50 venture capital firms invested in space in 2015, driving more VC dollars into the sector in that year alone than in the prior 15 years combined, analyst Noah Poponak wrote in a Tuesday note to investors. Those firms included SoftBank, Fidelity, Bessemer and the VC arm of Alphabet's Google, among others.

“While relatively small markets today, rapidly falling costs are lowering the barrier to participate in the space economy, making new industries like space tourism, asteroid mining and on-orbit manufacturing viable,” Poponak said.

With the exception of the Space Launch System, the United States is embracing private sector investment, innovation and competition. Russia is retreating into a Soviet-era model of state control, corruption and cronyism.

It didn't work the last time. It won't work this time either.

In the early 1990s, American policy analysts were concerned that Soviet aerospace technologists might flee into the embracing arms of hostile nations.

The collapse of the modern Russian aerospace industry might result in the same “brain drain,” but this time no one particularly seems concerned.

Vladimir Putin and his cronies may be set for life with their accumulated wealth. But the Russian space program is on life support.

Friday, March 24, 2017

"It's About Jobs"

Click the arrow to watch the bill signing. Original video source: NASA YouTube channel.

To be charitable, President Donald Trump is politically inexperienced.

His “drain the swamp” rhetoric during the 2016 presidential campaign appealed to those who were fed up with business as usual in Washington, DC, although such remarks suggested he had no concept of the art of governance.

Trump himself said little about NASA and space exploration during the campaign. In November 2015, Trump told a ten-year old New Hampshire boy that fixing potholes is more important to him. One can only wonder if that ten-year old's dreams of being an astronaut might have been dashed when the candidate suggested a career in road repair might be more vital to the country.

On March 21, Trump signed into law the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017.

During the signing ceremony, Trump robotically read a statement prepared for him, although he did make a few off-the-cuff remarks.

“We support jobs. It's about jobs, also.”

For once, Mr. Trump spoke the truth.

The Congressional representatives surrounding him at the ceremony were members of the House and Senate space committees largely responsible for the bill's contents.

Some of them were around when in 2010 Congress foisted upon NASA the Space Launch System.

Derided by some critics as the Senate Launch System, the SLS was created by Congress with no specific mission or use in mind. Its primary purpose was to protect Space Shuttle and Constellation program jobs.

During a September 14, 2011 media event, members of both houses lined up before the cameras to boast how they had saved jobs in their districts and states.

Click the arrow to watch the September 14, 2011 SLS media event.

Leading that event was Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who provided a primer on the SLS design, calling it a “monster rocket.”

Since then, NASA has spent roughly $3-4 billion per year on SLS, the Orion crew capsule, and ground support systems. Some analysts believe SLS will be too expensive to operate, especially in competition with projected commercial options such as the SpaceX Falcon Heavy and the Blue Origin New Glenn.

During the signing ceremony, the President mispronounced the name for the Orion crew capsule, pronouncing it like a certain cookie with an “n” at the end.

Not NASA's next crew capsule.

Mr. Trump has spoken favorably about the commercial space sector, labelled NewSpace by some. While reading his prepared statement, the President added his own impromptu remarks.

This bill will make sure that NASA's most important and effective programs are sustained. It orders NASA to continue — and it does, it orders just that — to continue transitioning the activities to the commercial sector, where we have seen great progress. It's amazing what's going on. So many people and so many companies are so into exactly what NASA stands for. So, the commercial and the private sector will get to use these facilities, and I hope they're going to be paying us a lot of money.

If Mr. Trump thinks the purpose of the commercial space program is to generate revenue for NASA, he's mistaken.

The SpaceX lease of Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A transfers over operation to the company to get government costs off the books. According to Florida Today, “NASA sought to lease 39A to keep it active and save more than $1 million annually in maintenance costs. As part of the lease, SpaceX takes over pad operation and maintenance costs.”

NASA's commercial cargo and crew programs paid milestone awards to competitors in exchange for achieving government-specified objectives. The idea was to grow an industry from which NASA and other government agencies could affordably acquire services.

Trump made no mention of his baseless claim uttered in Daytona Beach last August, when he told a local reporter that the U.S. space program was like “a third world nation.” It was just another fact-free insult that he's yet to retract.

After Trump signed the bill, the politicians surrounding him interjected various comments, possibly hoping one might stick.

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), the Houston-area congressman who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee responsible for NASA funding, told the President:

Mr. President, just as Americans remember that President Eisenhower was the father of the interstate highway system, with your bill signing today and your vision and leadership, future generations will remember that President Donald Trump was the father of the interplanetary highway system.

Trump, of course, had nothing to do with all that. Culberson, in my opinion, was being a miserable suck up.

But particularly noteworthy was Trump's reply.

Well, that sounds exciting ... First we want to fix our highways. We're going to fix our highways.

Shades of New Hampshire.

UPDATE March 25, 2017 — This week's video presidential address was on the history of NASA and Mr. Trump's signing of the 2017 NASA Act. Beyond that, no real substance.

Click the arrow to watch the address. Video source: The White House YouTube channel.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Blue Origin Has Its First Launch Customers

Click the arrow to watch the New Glenn promotional film. Video source: Blue Origin YouTube channel.

Blue Origin announced March 7 that it has its first paying customer for a New Glenn launch.

Eutelsat will launch in the early 2020s, presumably from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 36.

Blue Origin also released a computer animation of a New Glenn launch and landing. The booster would return to a ship at sea.

Founder Jeff Bezos said that New Glenn could deliver 45 metric tons to low Earth orbit. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, projected to launch sometime later this year, reportedly would deliver about 55 metric tons to low Earth orbit.

On March 8, OneWeb announced a deal to launch five satellites on New Glenn, so now Blue has two customers.

CBS News reports on the Blue Origin/SpaceX rivalry. Video source: CBS This Morning YouTube channel.

This week's announcements come on the heels of SpaceX announcing February 27 a contract to fly two unspecified customers to the Moon on a cislunar round trip.

The Washington Post reported on March 2 that Bezos, who owns the paper as well as Blue Origin and, had submitted a seven-page proposal to NASA for delivering commercial cargo to the Moon's south pole for a lunar base.

Bezos and SpaceX founder Elon Musk both sit on President Donald Trump's council of economic advisors. UPI reported March 8 that Musk attended the President's transportation infrastructure meeting that day, to discuss Musk's hyperloop technology.

Both visionary entrepreneurs have privileged access to the President. How much that matters, remains to be seen, but clearly the two rivals have captured media attention in the last few weeks.

NBC News reports on May 11, 2016 about Elon Musk's hyperloop technology. Video source: NBC News YouTube channel.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Blue's Origin, Part 6

Construction continues on the Blue Origin factory on Space Commerce Road just outside the Kennedy Space Center gate.

These are photos taken with my cameraphone. You're welcome to use these images elsewhere, just credit Click an image to view it at a larger size.

Earlier articles:

June 7, 2016 “Blue's Origin, Part 1”

July 3, 2016 “Blue's Origin, Part 2”

August 8, 2016 “Blue's Origin, Part 3”

October 30, 2016 “Blue's Origin, Part 4”

January 15, 2017 “Blue's Origin, Part 5”

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Once in a Blue Moon

Jeff Bezos at the September 15, 2015 media event announcing Blue Origin will come to Cape Canaveral. Image source: Space News.

The Washington Post, owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, published today an “exclusive look” at plans for Bezos-owned Blue Origin to develop technology for robotic deliveries to the Moon.

Bezos, ranked by Forbes magazine last October as the second richest person in the United States, is best known for founding, an electronic commerce and cloud computing company.

Bezos in recent years has pursued a new service called Amazon Prime Air, which would deliver packages using aerial drones.

Now it appears Bezos wants to extend that concept to the Moon.

According to the article:

More than four decades after the last man walked on the lunar surface, several upstart space entrepreneurs are looking to capitalize on NASA's renewed interest in returning to the moon, offering a variety of proposals with the ultimate goal of establishing a lasting human presence there.

The commercial sector's interest comes as many anticipate support from the Trump administration, which is eager for a first-term triumph to rally the nation the way the Apollo flights did in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The article reports that Bezos submitted a seven-page white paper to NASA and the Trump transition team “about the company's interest in developing a lunar spacecraft with a lander that would touch down near a crater at the south pole where there is water and nearly continuous sunlight for solar energy.”

Bezos wants NASA to invest in the enterprise, perhaps with a milestone model similar to the commercial cargo and crew programs. The article states the white paper calls for NASA to provide “incentives to the private sector to demonstrate a commercial lunar cargo delivery service.”

There's no point in delivering a package if no one is there to receive it (much less sign for it), so “Blue Moon” as it's called would need for another entity, public or private, to establish a lunar base first.

Bigelow Aerospace is suggested as a possible technology for deploying a base infrastructure. Its Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is currently being tested at the International Space Station.

Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance and SpaceX all are developing technologies for human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit. NASA's Space Launch System with its Orion capsule is also in development for such missions, but is considered by most observers to be far more expensive and inefficient than projected commercial alternatives.

UPDATE March 3, 2017 — Jeff Bezos discussed Blue Moon and other Blue Origin projects last night at the Aviation Week awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.

Click the arrow to watch the interview clip. Video source: AviationWeek YouTube channel.

New Heights for Virgin Galactic

An artist's concept of LauncherOne. Image source: Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic announced today the formation of a company that separates their anticipated satellite launch services from commercial human spaceflight.

Effective today, our family of space companies numbers three. As with before, Virgin Galactic will be our commercial human spaceflight services provider and The Spaceship Company will continue to offer design, manufacturing and testing services to build vehicles for Virgin Galactic. And our small satellite LauncherOne team will become our newest company: Virgin Orbit.

In a separate press release, Virgin stated that the new company “will offer flexible, routine and low cost launch services for small satellites via the LauncherOne system.”

The press release states the system “is in advanced phase of hardware testing for every subsystem and major component of the vehicle-having already conducted long duration, full thrust firings of both of LauncherOne’s engines, cryogenic tank tests, and hardware-in-the-loop testing of the vehicle’s avionics.”

A December 2015 LauncherOne promotional video. Video source: Virgin Galactic YouTube channel.

Virgin Orbit will be headquartered in Long Beach, California, but LauncherOne flights may take off from the Space Coast.

In April 2016, small satellite company OneWeb announced that LauncherOne may deploy some of their “microsats” from the former Space Shuttle runway at Kennedy Space Center.

On February 28, OneWeb and Intelsat announced a “conditional combination agreement” that could merge the two companies. Intelsat CEO Stephen Spengler stated in the press release:

We believe that combining Intelsat with OneWeb will create an industry leader unique in its ability to provide affordable broadband anywhere in the world. As an early equity investor in OneWeb, we recognized a network that was a complement to our next-generation Intelsat EpicNG fleet and a fit with our long-term strategy. By merging OneWeb’s LEO satellite constellation and innovative technology with our global scale, terrestrial infrastructure and GEO satellite network, we will create advanced solutions that address the need for ubiquitous broadband. The transaction, including SoftBank’s investment, will significantly strengthen Intelsat’s capital structure and accelerate our ability to unlock new applications, such as connected vehicles, as well as advanced services for our existing customers in the enterprise, wireless infrastructure, mobility, media and government sectors, while also reducing execution and other risks.

In October 2015, NASA awarded $4.7 million to Virgin Galactic to conduct a CubeSat demonstration flight by the end of 2018. Part of NASA's Venture Class Launch Services program, the awards to Virgin and two other companies were intended to “represent NASA's investment in the future of the commercial launch industry for SmallSats,” according to the NASA press release.

The viability of the smallsat market was demonstrated February 15 when the Indian Space Research Organization launched 104 satellites into orbit on its PSLV C 37. It was a record for the most satellites placed into orbit with one launch. Most of them were smallsats.

The ISRO mission deploys 88 DoveSats for Planet. Video source: Planet YouTube channel.

Eighty-eight of these were DoveSats from U.S.-based Planet. Formerly known as Planet Labs, the company called it the deployment of “the largest satellite constellation ever to reach orbit.” Planet specializes in the collection of data and imagery for its customers.

Former U.S. Senator Dan Coats (R-IN), President Trump's nominee for Director of National Intelligence, expressed his shock that India launched 104 smallsats. He seemed ignorant of the U.S. small launcher market emerging through companies such as Virgin Orbit, Vector Space Systems, Rocket Lab, and Masten Space Systems, among others.

Virgin Orbit hopes to have the first test flight of LauncherOne by the end of 2017. Hopefully Mr. Coats will take note.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Golden Dragon

A 2012 concept for a commercial lunar flight to the Moon using a SpaceX crew Dragon on a Falcon Heavy booster. Image source: Golden Spike Company.

In December 2012, former NASA executives announced the formation of a commercial lunar spaceflight enterprise called The Golden Spike Company.

Named after the final spike driven to complete construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, Golden Spike offered to send two customers to the Moon for a circumlunar mission and perhaps a landing.

A notional concept posted on the company's web site depicted a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launching a crew capsule — presumably the SpaceX crew Dragon — to the Moon, where it would orbit and rendezvous with a lunar lander. In January 2013, Golden Spike announced a contract with Northrup Grumman to develop the lander.

By the end of 2014, Golden Spike had gone silent. The company's web site simply states, “Under Construction.” The last post on its Facebook page is dated October 13, 2014. The Golden Spike Twitter account is still active, with its last retweet dated February 23, possibly maintained by co-founder Alan Stern, but it has nothing recent about the company's activities.

A Golden Spike promotional video posted December 6, 2012. Video source: Golden Spike YouTube channel.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced today that he will be the next one to attempt to drive that golden spike into the track that leads from Earth to the Moon.

According to the SpaceX press release:

We are excited to announce that SpaceX has been approached to fly two private citizens on a trip around the moon late next year. They have already paid a significant deposit to do a moon mission. Like the Apollo astronauts before them, these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration. We expect to conduct health and fitness tests, as well as begin initial training later this year. Other flight teams have also expressed strong interest and we expect more to follow. Additional information will be released about the flight teams, contingent upon their approval and confirmation of the health and fitness test results.

In a teleconference not available to the public, Musk declined to identify the clients to the media. He also noted the flight will require approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Who will train the two crew members was not identified. The logical candidate would be Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies (SGT), Inc., which in 2014 received a nine-year contract to “ provide mission and flight crew operations support for the International Space Station and future human space exploration.” To quote from the SGT web site:

We prepare the Astronauts and Flight Control Team to achieve mission objectives safely and effectively. This begins with initial requirements development, curriculum design, training product development, and training execution in off-line, computer-based trainers, and high fidelity simulations. We integrate training activities, facilities, and personnel to achieve certification for mission execution.

Axiom Space, founded last year by SGT executives, intends to operate a commercial space station in low Earth orbit. Their web site states, “Axiom Space is the only company in the world equipped to provide NASA-level astronaut training, and all operations required to keep astronauts and tourists safe and productive on orbit.”

Since Johnson Space Center eventually should have a SpaceX Dragon crew simulator, SGT seems the likely choice to train these lunar voyagers.

A September 2015 computer animation of the SpaceX crew Dragon in orbit around Earth. Image source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

A remote possibility might be Astronauts4Hire. According to their web site, the non-profit is incorporated in Florida, although their contact address is in Redondo Beach, California. “A4H’s principal service is to train its members as professional astronaut candidates who can assist researchers, payload developers, and spaceflight providers with mission planning and operations support,” the web site states.

Another dark horse might be Space Adventures, which arranges for private citizens to train on Russian Soyuz simulators.

According to the press release, this private flight will occur after NASA certifies the Dragon for its commercial crew program. On paper, that would occur sometime by the end of 2018.

Today's announcement comes just a few days after NASA announced the agency will study delaying its first Space Launch System test flight so that the Orion capsule and service module can be human-rated to carry two crew members on a mid-2019 circumlunar mission.

Listen to the February 24, 2017 NASA teleconference discussing the 2019 crewed lunar mission study.

The study was directed in response to inquiries from the Trump administration's NASA transition team. It's far from certain at this late date whether human-rating the system would be practical, much less safe. It would delay yet again a mission ordered by Congress in 2010 to launch no later than December 31, 2016.

Training two civilians in a year to be skilled astronauts capable of surviving a circumlunar mission seems like yet another audacious idea from Mr. Musk. It assumes that the Falcon Heavy technology will have matured, as well as the crew Dragon. Perhaps the most audacious assumption is that the FAA will license this.

But significant anniversaries approach for the Apollo program. December 2018 will be the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 8 circumlunar mission. July 2019 will be the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first landing of humans on the Moon. Maybe the two customers are motivated by those anniversaries.

In my opinion, this mission will have more credibility once we know who are the customers, who will train them, and we've seen that Falcon Heavy can fly.

But where Golden Spike failed, SpaceX may succeed. Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

"Baby Came Back"

Click the arrow to watch the launch of SpaceX CRS-10. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

The third generation of spaceflight began today at Kennedy Space Center, when SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket from Pad 39A.

Eight minutes later, triple sonic booms announced the first stage landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The booster landed at the former Launch Complex 13, used for the early Atlas rockets, now renamed Landing Zone 1.

Less than twenty minutes after the landing, SpaceX founder Elon Musk posted this on Twitter:

Later in the day, SpaceX released on YouTube this video of the landing.

The launch was postponed nearly 24 hours after Musk personally aborted the countdown at T-13 seconds. He was concerned about readings from a backup thrust vector control actuator on the upper stage. SpaceX lowered the rocket to horizontal overnight, replaced the actuator, then raised it to vertical again with the transporter erector.

The lowered Falcon 9 is serviced overnight on Pad 39A. Image source: Red Huber, Orlando Sentinel.

Today's events are historic, but the future will place the launch in its historical context.

Nearly eight years passed between the last Saturn V launch from Pad A, the Apollo-Skylab launch on May 14, 1973, and the first Space Shuttle launch on April 12, 1981.

Nearly six years passed between the last Shuttle launch on July 8, 2011 and the first SpaceX launch from Pad A on February 19, 2017.

SpaceX intends as soon as this summer to use Pad A to launch its Falcon Heavy, three Falcon 9 boosters connected side-by-side, with a combined thrust of about 4.5 million pounds. That would make it the most powerful launch system currently operational on the planet.

Pad A may be used as early as 2020 to launch the SpaceX Red Dragon mission to Mars.

A video released by SpaceX in September 2016 showed a modified Pad A used to launch Musk's Interplanetary Transport System. Musk's stated goal is to evolve his technology so it can be used to colonize Mars.

Click the arrow to watch a computer generated concept of a SpaceX interplanetary transport launch. Video source: SpaceX.

Later this year, SpaceX intends to use Pad A for the first launch of a previously flown Falcon 9, perhaps as soon as March. The next cargo delivery to the International Space Station will be the first use of a previously flown Dragon. SpaceX will also use Pad A for sending crew members to the ISS. The uncrewed test flight of a crew Dragon is projected for the end of this year.

Click the arrow to watch the post-launch media briefing. Video source: NASA.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Elon Pulls the Plug

Click the arrow to watch the abort of the CRS-10 launch at T-13 seconds. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Elon Musk personally called the hold that aborted today's SpaceX attempt to launch its first mission from Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A.

Musk wrote in a series of Twitter posts:

“TVC” refers to the Thrust Vector Control on the Falcon 9 upper stage. Earlier in the countdown, about fifteen minutes before launch, it was announced SpaceX was working an issue with the device. Another anomaly with the new automated flight termination system was resolved with a software update.

A thrust vector control actuator reportedly used on the Falcon 9. Image source: Jansen’s Aircraft Systems Controls Inc.

A page on the Jansen's Aircraft Systems Control web site states they produce the TVCs used on the Falcon 9. The page states, “Embedded within the single-ended piston is a dual-element LVDT, which provides two independent channels of position feedback to the external controller. A single D38999 Series III connector on the EFSV housing communicates all signals to and from the controller.”

“LVDT” is an acronym for Linear Variable Differential Transformer. According to the TE Connectivity web site, “LVDTs provide reliable position measurement for applications in subsea, power generation, industrial automation, aerospace, test and measurement, and more.”

A January 2015 SpaceX launch also was scrubbed due to a TVC actuator issue. According to the report by The Verge, “The launch was halted by the flight team because a thrust vector control actuator wasn't functioning correctly. The actuator was central to the landing mission and would have triggered an automatic abort if the team hadn't stepped in to stop the launch.”

As of this writing, a live video feed from shows the Falcon 9 has been lowered to the horizontal, out of view of the camera. This suggests it's either horizontal on the pad or back inside the integration hangar for inspection.

This mission will launch the SpaceX cargo Dragon to deliver payloads to the International Space Station. The next launch window is 9:38 AM EST tomorrow. According to Florida Today, a delay to Monday February 20 would require negotiating permission from Russia because that agency is scheduled to launch a Progress cargo ship to the ISS on February 22.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The SpaceX CRS-10 Pre-Game Show

Click the arrow to watch the NASA Social briefing for the payloads aboard SpaceX CRS-10. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Click the arrow to watch the pre-launch briefing at Pad 39A before the SpaceX Falcon 9 horizontal on the pad. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Almost three years have passed since SpaceX in April 2014 signed a twenty-year lease for Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A.

The first launch is scheduled for tomorrow.

SpaceX will launch its Falcon 9 booster with its cargo Dragon to deliver payloads to the International Space Station. Liftoff is scheduled for 10:01 AM EST.

As of this writing, the weather forecast is 70% favorable.

The only known issue being worked at this time is a small helium leak in the upper stage.

Click here for a NASA overview of the mission.

Click here for a SpaceX overview of the mission.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

President Trump to Visit Space Coast

SpaceX conducts a static test fire at Pad 39A on February 12, 2017, as filmed from Exploration Tower in Cape Canaveral. Video source: CocoaBeach365 YouTube channel.

Having completed its first static test fire on Pad 39A, SpaceX continues to target Saturday, February 18, at about 10:00 AM EST for its first Falcon 9 launch from Kennedy Space Center.

President Donald Trump may be targeting the launch too.

Florida Today has confirmed that Trump will appear that afternoon at 5:00 PM EST in Melbourne, about forty miles south of KSC.

President Trump's Twitter account tweeted this message today:

About the same time as Trump's Melbourne visit was announced, news broke that acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot had announced NASA will study changes to the Space Launch System schedule. Space News journalist Jeff Foust reports:

“The study will examine the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space,” NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said in a statement to SpaceNews confirming the planned study.

Current plans call for the EM-1 mission to launch in late 2018 without a crew. The first crewed flight would be EM-2, which NASA is planning to launch in 2021. However, an assessment in 2015 performed as Orion reached a development milestone known as Key Decision Point C indicated that there was a 70 percent chance the EM-2 mission would launch no later than April 2023.

Lightfoot, in the memo, said the study will examine the technical and schedule issues of flying a crew on EM-1. “I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed,” he wrote, “and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date.”

The complete memo is in this article by Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach.

Foust quotes the memo as stating this program change “would likely delay the EM-1 launch from its current estimated launch window of September to November 2018. Industry sources said they believe addressing the various issues would delay the mission to 2019 or 2020. That would still be sooner than current NASA schedules for EM-2.”

The announcement comes less than a week after Politico journalist Bryan Bender reported that the Trump administration was considering a “bold and controversial vision for the U.S. space program” that included a crewed return to the Moon by 2020.

The more ambitious administration vision could include new moon landings that “see private American astronauts, on private space ships, circling the Moon by 2020; and private lunar landers staking out de facto 'property rights' for American [companies?! — the word is missing in the article] on the Moon, by 2020 as well,” according to a summary of an “agency action plan” that the transition drew up for NASA late last month.

Such missions would be selected through an “internal competition” between what the summary calls Old Space, or NASA's traditional contractors, and New Space characterized by SpaceX and Blue Origin.

But the summary also suggests a strong predilection toward New Space. “We have to be seen giving 'Old Space' a fair and balanced shot at proving they are better and cheaper than commercial,” it says.

The timing of NASA announcing it's considering a 2020 crewed circumlunar mission seems a bit coincidental.

So does the timing of Trump's visit.

With a 5:00 PM rally down the road in Melbourne, it gives the troubled President lots of time to attend the SpaceX launch earlier in the day at Kennedy Space Center.

Elon Musk meets with Donald Trump and others December 14 at Trump Tower in New York City. Image source: Newsweek.

On December 14, SpaceX founder Elon Musk joined the President's Strategic and Policy Forum. Despite their differences, Musk continues to attend Trump's advisory meetings. Musk said that “engaging on critical issues will on balance serve the greater good,” despite calls that he resign in protest.

This privileged access, of course, gives Musk the opportunity to invite Trump to attend a SpaceX launch. What better opportunity than to attend the first launch of the third generation of spaceflight from Kennedy Space Center?

Given all the bad publicity Trump has received in recent days, he might see this as an opportunity to distract public scrutiny with a big brash announcement that seizes the headlines.

Perhaps he might announce a pivot of SLS away from Mars, back towards the Moon by 2020 in competition with SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin and anyone else who feels up to the challenge.

The immediate question, of course, is who would pay for it.

SpaceX and other NewSpace companies aren't going to divert their business plans just to make Trump look good.

There's also the question of whether all this will pass Congressional scrutiny. After years of acrimony between Congress and the Obama White House, a tenuous compromise existed at the end of President Barack Obama's administration. Congress by and large permitted NewSpace programs to continue so long as Space Launch System directed pork to the districts and states of key representatives, in particular those representing NASA centers.

Congressional porkers might not have the stomach for yet another pivot in NASA direction, although in the end I suspect they can be bought with more dollars directed to their districts. The question is whether the rest of Congress might go along.

The 2010 NASA authorization act directed the agency to have SLS core elements operational by December 31, 2016. That date, of course, quickly became meaningless. The current NASA line is that SLS is scheduled to have its first uncrewed test flight in late 2018, although many observers expect that date to slip. Yet another pivot in the program would buy NASA more time, but Congress as a whole might reach the consensus that enough is enough.

There's also the risk of launching crew on an untested rocket, one billed as the most powerful in history. But NASA did the same with the Space Shuttle in 1981, launching with two test pilot crew members, because the orbiter essentially required people to land it.

Despite the risks, Trump might see himself as acting boldly by proposing the 2020 Moon circumlunar mission, then heading to Melbourne to claim he'd just created more jobs for the Space Coast.

This weekend already was going to be historic. If President Trump attends the launch, history might become a three-ring circus.

UPDATE February 16, 2017NASA issued this statement late yesterday about the crewed EM-1 study.

NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot has asked Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft. The study will examine the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space. The SLS and Orion missions, coupled with record levels of private investment in space, will help put NASA and America in a position to unlock the mysteries of space and to ensure this nation’s world preeminence in exploring the cosmos.

UPDATE February 16, 2017James Dean of Florida Today reports:

Bob Walker, a former congressman and adviser to the Trump administration who helped craft the Trump campaign’s space policy, said the administration wants to take a more aggressive posture on human space exploration with at least a lunar flyby as quickly as possible.

“There has been a lot of controversy over whether or not the SLS has a definable mission,” he said. “And I think what you see playing out here is that NASA is trying to find a way to meet the time schedule that they think the administration is on in terms of going back to a flyby mission to the moon.”

UPDATE February 19, 2017 — Mr. Trump said nothing about space in his Space Coast rally last night. Read about the event in this Florida Today article.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Light It Up

The orbiter Endeavour's Flight Readiness Firing on April 6, 1992. Video source: 3210andLiftoff YouTube channel.

The last time Launch Pad 39A's flame trench filled with fury was July 8, 2011, the final launch of the orbiter Atlantis and the Space Shuttle program.

That hibernation is scheduled to end on February 11, 2017, when SpaceX is to perform a static test fire of a Falcon 9 first stage on the renovated pad.

The Shuttle program's version of a static test fire was called a Flight Readiness Firing, or FRF. Each orbiter had one before its first operational mission.

The last orbiter FRF was April 6, 1992, on Pad 39B. The orbiter Endeavour lit its three main engines for 22 seconds. The Shuttle went nowhere, because the two solid rocket boosters were not lit and remained bolted to the mobile launch platform.

A Falcon 9 first stage on Pad 39A today. Image source: SpaceX Instagram.

The Falcon 9 scheduled to launch a cargo Dragon to the International Space Station on February 18 rolled out earlier today from the nearby horizontal hangar. For the first time in Pad 39A's history, a rocket rolled horizontally to the pad and tilted upright. Ever since 1967, all NASA missions rolled out vertically atop a mobile launch platform carried by a crawler transporter. SpaceX uses a transporter erector, also known as a “strongback.”

In the above image, the Dragon and upper stage are not atop the first stage. SpaceX lost its customer's satellite on September 1, 2016, when it conducted a static test fire at Pad 40 with the payload above. A helium bottle failed, causing an explosion and the destruction of the satellite. SpaceX no longer conducts static test fires with the customer's payload installed.

According to one report, SpaceX will conducts its test fire tomorrow sometime between 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM EST.

Remembering Apollo 1

Click the arrow to watch a film depicting the Apollo 1 exhibits. Image source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex opened a new exhibit on January 27, 2017, the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire. The exhibit, called Ad Astra Per Aspera, depicts the three astronauts, their lives, and the hatches from the capsule.

The exhibit joins other recent memorials added about the center.

Forever Remembered opened June 27, 2015 in the Space Shuttle Atlantis building. It features memorials to the crews lost on Challenger and Columbia, as well as the only public display of orbiter remnants.

Heroes and Legends opened on November 11, 2016. It incorporates the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame formerly located across the Indian River in Titusville, as well as some artifacts from the old Early Space Exploration exhibit. The attraction centers around the theme of defining the traits of a hero.

Below are photos I shot today inside the Apollo 1 exhibit.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

An Ill Wind

Click the arrow to watch amateur video of the tornado damage at Michoud. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

A severe storm system that struck New Orleans today included a tornado that plowed through NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility.

NASA released a statement this afternoon:

At 11:25 a.m. CST, a tornado impacted NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. At this time, only minor injuries have been reported and NASA employees and other tenants are being accounted for. There is still a threat of severe weather in the area and emergency officials are continuing to monitor the situation to ensure the safety of onsite personnel. The onsite Michoud emergency response team is also conducting damage assessments of buildings and facilities.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that Michoud suffered “significant damage.”

The National Weather Service confirmed that walls at the assembly facility were blown out, and cars in the parking lot were missing windshields. A warehouse in front of the NASA building was missing its front corner. A movie studio on the campus had a large portion destroyed.

Among many other uses, Michoud is where NASA will construct the core stage tank for Space Launch System.

UPDATE February 9, 2017 — NASA released today this video update of damage recovery at Michoud.

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

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Blade Runner

A SpaceX Merlin 1D engine on display at the company's Hawthorne, California headquarters. Image source: SpaceX.

Andy Pasztor of The Wall Street Journal reports that the draft of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit raises safety concerns about SpaceX Falcon 9 turbine blades.

If you encounter the Journal's pay wall, use Google to search the article title, “Congressional Investigators Warn of SpaceX Rocket Defects”. For some reason this bypasses the pay wall.

According to the article:

The Government Accountability Office’s preliminary findings reveal a pattern of problems with turbine blades that pump fuel into rocket engines, these officials said. The final GAO report, scheduled to be released in coming weeks, is slated to be the first public identification of one of the most serious defects affecting Falcon 9 rockets.

The crack-prone parts are considered a potentially major threat to rocket safety, the industry officials said, and may require redesign of what are commonly called the Falcon 9’s turbopumps. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, they said, has warned SpaceX that such cracks pose an unacceptable risk for manned flights.

The article quotes acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot as saying “we know how to fix them.”

With the exception of the Space Shuttle, little data exist on turbine blade failures because most rockets are expendable, i.e. they fall in the ocean and are not recovered. For all we know, it may be a common phenomenon on other engines too, just never fully observed.

Turbine blades cracked on the Space Shuttle Main Engines as well. We only know that because the orbiter returned from flight.

Because the report is only a draft, it is by no means a final or authoritative report. Audit drafts frequently undergo revision and review, not only to correct errors but also to allow the auditee to respond.

My question is who leaked the draft to Mr. Pasztor, and why.

Auditors are quite scrupulous about secrecy, so it seems to me the leak would have come from NASA, the audited agency.

Not everyone in the agency is enamored with NewSpace.

With the change in administrations, a transition team representing the Trump administration is reviewing agency operations. It's possible someone on that team reviewed the draft report and leaked it.

Chris Shank, a protégé former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, headed the “landing team” that began the transition. According to Ars Technica journalist Eric Berger:

With Shank as their leader, several other members of the initial landing team also had connections to Griffin, who favors a model in which NASA develops and builds its own rocket and spacecraft, rather than handing over the reins to commercial companies such as SpaceX or Blue Origin.

It was around that time that SpaceX founder Elon Musk agreed to join President Trump's business advisory team. Although they don't share many political philosophies, Musk has met with Trump at least two times since then.

Musk has many other interests to pursue with Trump, such as electric cars and solar homes, so his participation on Trump's advisory board shouldn't be viewed as strictly space parochial interests.

But if someone on the transition team from the OldSpace community is trying to torpedo SpaceX in the commercial crew competition, Musk is in a position where he can appeal to the White House for support.

UPDATE February 2, 2017 9:15 PM EST — Elon Musk posted this tonight on Twitter.

UPDATE February 3, 2017 9:15 AM ESTSpace journalist Irene Klotz at Reuters reports that SpaceX already has a fix in the pipeline for the blade cracks.

In an email to Reuters, SpaceX said it has “qualified our engines to be robust to turbine wheel cracks. However, we are modifying the design to avoid them altogether,” said spokesman John Taylor.

Reporter Loren Grush at The Verge reports she confirmed the existence of the audit.

A representative for GAO confirmed that the agency is working on a report about the Commercial Crew Program, where SpaceX and Boeing are developing vehicles to transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. “We do have work underway and it is due out later this month,” Charles Young, the managing director of GAO’s public affairs, tells The Verge. “I can’t comment on the contents of the report until it is issued. It is still in draft form and we have not provided copies to any reporters.”

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Pedal to the Metal

Click the arrow to learn about the discovery of metallic hydrogen. Video source: Harvard University YouTube channel.

Harvard University scientists have announced they created metallic hydrogen in a laboratory.

According to CNBC:

Metallic hydrogen is thought to be a superconductor, meaning it could conduct electricity without any resistance. Electricity traveling through normal circuits loses energy to resistance overtime, often in the form of heat. This is why it is harder to send electrical currents (say, through the electricity grid) over long distances than short ones. But a current traveling through a superconducting material loses nearly zero energy.

NASA partially funded the study, as metallic hydrogen has potential use as a rocket fuel. Isaac Silvera, the Harvard University researcher who published the paper, is quoted on the NASA web site:

Atomic metallic hydrogen, if metastable at ambient pressure and temperature could be used as the most powerful chemical rocket fuel, as the atoms recombine to form molecular hydrogen. This light-weight high-energy density material would revolutionize rocketry, allowing single-stage rockets to enter orbit and chemically fueled rockets to explore our solar system. To transform solid molecular hydrogen to metallic hydrogen requires extreme high pressures, but has not yet been accomplished in the laboratory. In the proposed new approach electrons will be injected into solid hydrogen with the objective of lowering the critical pressure for transformation. If successful the metastability properties of hydrogen will be studied. This new approach may scale down the pressures needed to produce this potentially revolutionary rocket propellant.

An illustration of metallic hydrogen propelling a rocket. Image source: NASA.

Not everyone believes the Harvard team was successful. According to Engadget, “Other scientists have reservations, saying it's possible the solid material they created is actually aluminum oxide that came from the anvil's diamond tips.”

In 2011, researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany announced they had converted hydrogen to “a conductive and metallic state.” Silvera and others questioned the findings.

(Note to climate change deniers ... This is how science works. Peer review. The data are real. Your denials are not.)

Silvera presented a lecture on his work in March 2012 at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Spring Symposium in Pasadena, California. Click here for his PowerPoint presentation. You can also watch a video of his presentation, but the audio is very poor.

Click the arrow to watch Dr. Silvera's presentation on metallic hydrogen as a rocket fuel. Turn up your volume as high as you can! Video source: Dept of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Utah youTube channel.

You can also read this 2010 paper by Silvera on metallic hydrogen as a source for rocket fuel.

NASA believes that metallic hydrogen may exist at the core of the planet Jupiter. According to the NASA Juno probe press kit web site:

Deep in Jupiter’s atmosphere, under great pressure, hydrogen gas is squeezed into a fluid known as metallic hydrogen. At these enormous pressures, the hydrogen acts like an electrically conducting metal, which is believed to be the source of the planet’s intense magnetic field. This powerful magnetic environment creates the brightest auroras in our solar system, as charged particles precipitate down into the planet’s atmosphere.

A cutaway image of Jupiter's core. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: NASA.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

SpaceX Stands Up

The transporter/erector was out on Pad 39A today as I drove past in a tour bus. The yellow construction crane present at the pad for so long has been moved away and partially dismantled.

All this suggests SpaceX may be closer to operational status.

These images were shot with a smartphone from a moving bus, so they are what they are. Click an image to view it at a higher resolution. All images in this article are copyright © 2017 Stephen C. Smith. Use elsewhere is permitted if credit is given to

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Going Up, Part 12

Click an image to view it at a higher resolution. All images in this article are copyright © 2017 Stephen C. Smith. Use elsewhere is permitted if credit is given to

According to media reports, SpaceX may attempt soon its first launch from Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A, so it's time to take another photo trip around the pad.

Most noticeable in recent weeks is the removal of parts of the former Shuttle-era rotating Service Structure. The Payload Changeout Room is being dismantled. It was an enclosed environmentally controlled room where payloads could be transferred into the orbiter's payload bay from a canister transported from the space center's industrial area.

The payload canister being lifted on June 17, 2011 into the Payload Changeout Room for transfer to Atlantis for the final Shuttle mission. Image source: NASA.

These images were taken on January 15, 2016. As always, use elsewhere is permitted if credit is given to Click on an image to see it at a larger size.

Can you find the bobcat in the grass?

The bobcat about to enter the undergrowth.

Here are links to images in earlier articles:

Going Up, Part 1 (January 31, 2015)

Going Up, Part 2 (February 24, 2015)

Going Up, Part 3 (March 29, 2015)

Going Up, Part 4 (April 27, 2015)

Going Up, Part 5 (May 26, 2015)

Going Up, Part 6 (June 27, 2015)

Going Up, Part 7 (August 9, 2015)

Going Up, Part 8 (October 16, 2015)

Going Up, Part 9 (November 8, 2015)

Going Up, Part 10 (February 29, 2016)

Going Up, Part 11 (September 4, 2016)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Blue's Origin, Part 5

An image released December 6, 2016 of an artist's concept of the Blue Origin administrative office and factory. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: Blue Origin.

The last time I posted photos of the Blue Origin construction site was October 30, 2016. One structure since then seems to have finished its outer walls, while the second is taking shape.

Blue founder Jeff Bezos released the above illustration in December showing what the main building will look like. This is the one facing Space Commerce Road.

The site is accessed by four entrances, labelled with big signs "A" through "D."

Here are photos I took today of the site from Space Commerce Road, driving from southeast to northwest.

You're welcome to use these images elsewhere, just credit Click an image to view at a larger size.

The power plant across the street and south of the main building.

An overhead image released December 6, 2016 of the construction site. Image source: Blue Origin.

Earlier articles:

June 7, 2016 “Blue's Origin, Part 1”

July 3, 2016 “Blue's Origin, Part 2”

August 8, 2016 “Blue's Origin, Part 3”

October 30, 2016 “Blue's Origin, Part 4”