National Space Society Cheers On SpaceX’s Return to Flight and Successful First Stage Return to Launch Site

With a successful launch on December 21 at 8:29 PM EST, 2015 SpaceX achieved several dramatic milestones while returning to flight following the loss of a Falcon 9 last June. Eleven ORBCOMM OG2 satellites were delivered to orbit to complete ORBCOM’s global data network. A new version of the Falcon 9 was launched from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The updated Falcon, which is internally referred to as “Falcon 9 V1.1 Full Thrust” features super-cooled liquid oxygen propellant, an additional 1.2 meters of height, and the use of full-thrust Merlin engines. These changes have been made to enhance the ability of the Falcon 9 first stage to return to its launch site following the launch of a geosynchronous satellite. Finally, and most importantly, for the first time ever the complete first stage of an orbital rocket was successfully flown back to the launch site and landed intact.

“This is a game-changing event,” said Dale Skran, NSS Executive Vice President. “Never before has the entire first stage of an orbital rocket been returned to its launch site for potential re-use. SpaceX has challenges ahead to demonstrate that re-used first stages can significantly lower launch costs, but this could be the beginning of the true age of practical space commerce. NSS thanks the Air Force, Sierra Nevada, ORBCOMM, and the FAA for their essential support of this outstanding SpaceX mission. It was a true team effort.”

Falcon return
Falcon 9 first stage after landing. Credit: SpaceX

Recently Blue Origin flew a sub-orbital booster to the Karman line (the edge of space) and returned the rocket to its launch site for potential re-use. SpaceX has bettered this valuable achievement by returning a first stage from much higher altitudes and faster speeds. “Competition is the key to rapid progress in space,” said Bruce Pittman, NSS Senior Vice President. “NSS has strongly supported competition in both the NASA Commercial Re-supply Services program and the Commercial Crew program. Today’s success is a direct result of the competitive, commercial nature of these efforts.”

“NSS congratulates SpaceX on this incredible achievement,” said Mark Hopkins, NSS Executive Committee Chairman. “It took enormous courage and confidence to continue forward with rapid technical innovation following a loss of mission incident. The effect of this event, both long and short term, promises to be world-altering. We can now see the NSS vision for our future in space (nss.org/settlement/roadmap) coming ever closer to becoming reality.”

National Space Society Congratulates Orbital ATK and ULA on Cygnus Launch to ISS Using Atlas V

On December 6, 2015, at 4:44 pm EST, a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket launched an Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the NASA Commercial Resupply Services contract. This is the fourth operational flight of the Cygnus to the ISS, and the first using an Atlas booster. This is also the first flight of the enhanced Cygnus freighter, now featuring a greater payload capacity, new solar arrays, and new fuel tanks. This Cygnus capsule has been named the SS Deke Slayton II after Mercury 7 astronaut Deke Slayton,the first Chief of NASA’s astronaut office, who flew on Apollo-Soyuz.

Cygnus2“NSS applauds ULA and Orbital’s success in launching the Cygnus freighter on a different booster than originally targeted to maintain service to the ISS,” said Dale Skran, NSS Executive Vice President. “This has never been done before, and represents a significant step toward reliable support of the ISS.” Cygnus is planned to berth with the ISS in three days carrying 7,000 lbs of equipment and supplies. The enhanced Cygnus can carry up to 2,630 lbs more than the older version. Experiments being carried to the ISS on Cygnus include the Packed Bed Reactor Experiment (PBRE), the Space Automatic Bioproduct Lab (SABL), and BASS-M (Burning and Suppression of Solids-Milliken). In addition to delivering the Cygnus to the ISS, 18 small satellites, including 12 Planet Labs Flock-2e Earth observation satellites, will be deployed on this mission.

“Orbital ATK and ULA have done a great job working together to allow the enhanced Cygnus to be launched on the Atlas V booster. This flexibility is vital to reliable operations in space,” said Bruce Pittman, NSS Senior Vice President and Senior Operating Officer. “We wish Orbital ATK the best as they move forward toward a return-to-flight using an upgraded Antares rocket next year.”

Space: The Invisible Frontier

Commentary by Dale Skran
NSS Board of Directors

Over the last few years amazing progress has been made in space technology, but with a curious silence in the mainstream press. On November 23rd, Blue Origin flew their reusable New Shepard vehicle to the Karman line (100km), the official definition of the “edge of space” and back to the launch site for a soft landing on four legs. Previously, the DCX and SpaceX Grasshopper had flown vertically to various altitudes far lower than the Karman line, and landed for reuse. The venerable yet reusable X-15 rocket plane, launched by a B-52, crossed the Karman line on a couple of occasions, but did not land vertically. Viewed from this perspective, Blue Origin’s feat does not seem that remarkable.

And in some sense, like all engineering milestones, it is not that remarkable. It is one link in a long chain of tests. It needs to be followed by close investigation of wear and tear, multiple re-flights, and finally certification for use by sub-orbital tourists. This process will take several years. In parallel, Blue Origin is developing a much larger rocket, for which the New Shepard will be the 2nd stage. A methane/lox engine called the BE-4 is being constructed by Blue Origin both for usage in the first stage of their own “Big Rocket” and the United Launch Alliance Vulcan. The completion of this engine will take more years, and the testing of a reusable first stage based on the BE-4 still more years.

So what is different about Blue Origin’s achievement this time? First, although Blue has received a small amount of NASA funding as part of the COTS program, the great bulk of money was provided by Jeff Bezos himself. There is certainly no NASA line item, that, if cut, would cause Blue Origin to change direction or cancel New Shepard. Second, unlike NASA, Blue plans to start selling research slots on New Shepard right away – probably as early as next year. These commercial research flights will allow for extensive testing and certification of the BE-3 (the liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine used in New Shepard) and the technology surrounding reusability. Finally, when space tourists start flying on New Shepard, and it increasingly seems like this could happen as soon as 2017, it will be a world-changing event. No humans flew on the DCX or grasshopper. Only government test pilots could fly the X-15. Regular tourist flights, even flights with 4 or 5 minutes of zero gravity, will introduce a new generation to space, and whet appetites for future orbital flights. Perhaps more significantly, the BE-3 will become the first truly re-usable (as opposed to refurbishable, as were the Shuttle engines) liquid hydrogen/oxygen engine, no small feat in itself.

Hence, although only a link in chain, the November 23rd landing of the New Shepard booster after reaching the Karman line must be viewed as historic event. I could not help but notice that the Wall Street Journal, which normally covers business news very well, did not devote any space in the first section to the safe return of New Shepard. I thought there might be a front-page story in the “Business & Tech” section, but instead there was a small pointer in upper left hand corner to the story, which appeared on the “back front page” of the business section. Now this is not the worst possible coverage, but it seems quite disappointing for such an important event.

My local paper, the Asbury Park Press, simply had no coverage whatsoever. The APP has given up on covering national news, and instead relies on an insert from USA Today for this purpose, which also had no coverage whatsoever. Readers of the Wall Street Journal are a distinct minority on the national level. This admittedly narrow example suggests that one reason Americans think that space program has been “canceled” is that reporters and editors have decided that nothing happening in space is of great interest unless someone dies. At the rate space coverage is declining, by the time Elon Musk retires on Mars, it won’t be covered at all, since, after all, who really cares where some rich guy is going to live then he retires!

National Space Society Congratulates Blue Origin on First Return to Launch Site of New Shepard

On November 23, 2015, Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket successfully flew to the edge of space, reaching the Karman line (100 km/329,839 ft) before a picture-perfect landing in West Texas. During the flight, the vehicle reached Mach 3.72, nearly 4x the speed of sound. This marks the first time that a re-usable vertical take-off/vertical landing vehicle has reached space and returned to its launch site.

“Although the New Shepard is a sub-orbital vehicle rather than an orbital rocket, this is a significant milestone for space tourism.” said Dale Skran, NSS Executive Vice President. “The successful landing clears the way for a program of sub-orbital research flights over the next year or so, expected to lead to sub-orbital tourist flights.” With this success, Blue Origin becomes the company to beat in sub-orbital tourism, with rival XCOR yet to make a first flight, and Virgin Galactic recovering from the loss of SpaceShipTwo. Powered by the 110,000 pound thrust BE-3 liquid hydrogen/oxygen engine, the New Shepard consists of a two parts – a re-usable booster that returns to the launch site and a cargo/passenger capsule that lands separately via parachute. A future crew of up to six would experience 3x the force of gravity on takeoff and 5x the force of gravity during part of the descent.

NSS believes that space tourism, including sub-orbital tourism, can be a driving force toward lowering launch costs and increasing access to space. “Blue Origin’s successful landing of the New Shepard booster after reaching the edge of space represents a major step toward a fully re-usable sub-orbital vehicle,” said Bruce Pittman, NSS Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. “We congratulate Jeff Bezos and the entire Blue Origin team for their hard work, dedication, and vaulting ambition.”

Blue Origin has a contract with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to develop the BE-4, a new methane/liquid oxygen engine for the planned ULA Vulcan launch vehicle. On September 15, 2015 Bezos announced plans to spend over $200 million annually in Florida to build a Blue Origin “big rocket” to be launched from Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to orbit using the BE-4 in the first stage and the BE-3 in the second stage.

“The recent passage of the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act by the House paves the way for the future success of companies like Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and XCOR in the sub-orbital space tourism business,” said Mark Hopkins, Chair of the NSS Executive Committee. “NSS has been working diligently to create a favorable regulatory environment for space tourism, and we are delighted to see Blue Origin advancing toward lower cost space launches.”

Blue Origin Makes Historic Rocket Landing

Van Horn, Texas – November 24, 2015 – Blue Origin today announced that its New Shepard space vehicle successfully flew to space, reaching its planned test altitude of 329,839 feet (100.5 kilometers) before executing a historic landing back at the launch site in West Texas.

“Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts—a used rocket,” said Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin. “Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard space vehicle flew a flawless mission—soaring to 329,839 feet and then returning through 119-mph high-altitude crosswinds to make a gentle, controlled landing just four and a half feet from the center of the pad. Full reuse is a game changer, and we can’t wait to fuel up and fly again.”

Bezos stated: “This flight validates our vehicle architecture and design. Our unique ring fin shifted the center of pressure aft to help control reentry and descent; eight large drag brakes deployed and reduced the vehicle’s terminal speed to 387 mph; hydraulically actuated fins steered the vehicle through 119-mph high-altitude crosswinds to a location precisely aligned with and 5,000 feet above the landing pad; then the highly-throttleable BE-3 engine re-ignited to slow the booster as the landing gear deployed and the vehicle descended the last 100 feet at 4.4 mph to touchdown on the pad.”

Named in honor of the first American in space, Alan Shepard, the New Shepard vertical takeoff and vertical landing vehicle will carry six astronauts to suborbital altitudes beyond 100 kilometers, the internationally-recognized boundary of space. The New Shepard space vehicle is a fully reusable and operated from Blue Origin’s West Texas launch site. The vehicle is comprised of two elements—a crew capsule in which astronauts would ride, and a rocket booster powered by a single American-made BE-3 liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen engine. At liftoff, the BE-3 delivers 110,000 pounds of thrust. During ascent, astronauts would experience 3x the force of gravity as the spacecraft accelerates through the atmosphere.

Following powered flight, the crew capsule would separate from the booster and coasts into space, providing several minutes of weightlessness. As the crew capsule descends, it reenters the atmosphere with astronauts experiencing about 5x the force of gravity before deploying three main parachutes for landing. Meanwhile, the booster descends under guided flight to the landing pad. Just prior to landing, the booster re-ignites its BE-3 engine which slows the vehicle to 4.4 mph for a gentle, powered vertical landing, enabling vehicle reuse.

Flight Details

  • Launched at 11:21 a.m. Central Time, November 23, 2015
  • Apogee of 329,839 feet (100.5 kilometers) for the unmanned crew capsule
  • Mach 3.72
  • Re-ignition of rocket booster at 4,896 feet above ground level
  • Controlled vertical landing of the booster at 4.4 mph
  • Deployment of crew capsule drogue parachutes at 20,045 feet above ground level
  • Landing of the crew capsule under parachutes at 11:32 a.m. Central Time

A video is below (with a somewhat confusing inclusion of some animated segments):

NASA Orders SpaceX Crew Mission to International Space Station

NASA took a significant step Friday toward expanding research opportunities aboard the International Space Station with its first mission order from Hawthorne, California based-company SpaceX to launch astronauts from U.S. soil.

SpaceX
Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida undergoes modifications by SpaceX to adapt it to the needs of the company’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which are slated to lift off from the historic pad in the near future. A horizontal integration facility has been constructed near the perimeter of the pad where rockets will be processed for launch prior of rolling out to the top of the pad structure for liftoff. SpaceX anticipates using the launch pad for its Crew Dragon spacecraft for missions to the International Space Station in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Credits: SpaceX

This is the second in a series of four guaranteed orders NASA will make under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts. The Boeing Company of Houston received its first crew mission order in May.

“It’s really exciting to see SpaceX and Boeing with hardware in flow for their first crew rotation missions,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “It is important to have at least two healthy and robust capabilities from U.S. companies to deliver crew and critical scientific experiments from American soil to the space station throughout its lifespan.”

Determination of which company will fly its mission to the station first will be made at a later time. The contracts call for orders to take place prior to certification to support the lead time necessary for missions in late 2017, provided the contractors meet readiness conditions.

Commercial crew missions to the space station, on the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, will restore America’s human spaceflight capabilities and increase the amount of time dedicated to scientific research aboard the orbiting laboratory.

SpaceX’s crew transportation system, including the Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket, has advanced through several development and certification phases. The company recently performed a critical design review, which demonstrated the transportation system has reached a sufficient level of design maturity to work toward fabrication, assembly, integration and test activities.

“The authority to proceed with Dragon’s first operational crew mission is a significant milestone in the Commercial Crew Program and a great source of pride for the entire SpaceX team,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX. “When Crew Dragon takes NASA astronauts to the space station in 2017, they will be riding in one of the safest, most reliable spacecraft ever flown. We’re honored to be developing this capability for NASA and our country.”

Commercial crew launches will reduce the cost, per seat, of transporting NASA astronauts to the space station compared to what the agency must pay the Russian Federal Space Agency for the same service. If, however, NASA does not receive the full requested funding for CCtCap contracts in fiscal year 2016 and beyond, the agency will be forced to delay future milestones for both U.S. companies and continue its sole reliance on Russia to transport American astronauts to the space station.

Orders under the CCtCap contracts are made two to three years prior to actual mission dates in order to provide time for each company to manufacture and assemble the launch vehicle and spacecraft. Each company also must successfully complete a certification process before NASA will give the final approval for flight. Each contract includes a minimum of two and a maximum potential of six missions.

A standard commercial crew mission to the station will carry up to four NASA or NASA-sponsored crew members and about 220 pounds of pressurized cargo. The spacecraft will remain at the station for up to 210 days, available as an emergency lifeboat during that time.

“Commercial crew launches are really important for helping us meet the demand for research on the space station because it allows us to increase the crew to seven,” said Julie Robinson, International Space Station chief scientist. “Over the long term, it also sets the foundation for scientific access to future commercial research platforms in low- Earth orbit.”

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manages the CCtCap contracts and is working with each company to ensure commercial transportation system designs and post-certification missions will meet the agency’s safety requirements. Activities that follow the award of missions include a series of mission-related reviews and approvals leading to launch. The program also will be involved in all operational phases of missions to ensure crew safety.

Buzz Aldrin: SpaceX Failure Shows We Need More Commercial Space Travel—Not Less

Buzz AldrinBuzz Aldrin, second man on the Moon and member of the National Space Society Board of Governors, has a fine op-ed piece for Time magazine which we recommend:

http://time.com/3945033/buzz-aldrin-spacex-commercial-space-travel/

National Space Society Urges NASA and SpaceX to Continue Developing Innovative Rocket Reuse Technology

The loss of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services 7 (CRS-7) mission on June 28th demonstrates, in the view of the National Space Society (NSS), the wisdom of NASA’s policy of maintaining technologically different competitive CRS providers. This was the seventh of 12 contracted flights to the International Space Station (ISS) by SpaceX. All 18 previous flights of the Falcon 9 (including five v1.0 flights and thirteen v1.1 flights) have been successful in meeting their primary objectives. CRS-7 was to have launched a new docking ring to the ISS for future use by NASA Commercial Crew flights and would have made another first stage recovery attempt.

NSS would like to express continued support for SpaceX and NASA as they analyze and test to understand and recover from Sunday’s launch failure.  “Spacecraft engineering is a very challenging profession and failure is always one possible outcome but we learn, implement and move forward,” said Bruce Pittman, NSS Senior Operating Officer. “NASA and the US government should continue to support the ISS, including the commercial cargo and crew programs.”

Paul Werbos, member of the NSS Board of Directors, said, “In a free market world, the government is supposed to be taking on the burden of the most advanced, highest risk challenges, in an open competitive way. NASA has been doing this by supporting SpaceX via the Commercial Resupply Services program as SpaceX develops the technology to reuse launch vehicles.”

NSS fully supports Space X’s efforts to upgrade its Falcon 9 rocket, especially its efforts to make it reusable.   As SpaceX said recently, “A jumbo jet costs about the same as one of our Falcon 9 rockets, but airlines don’t junk a plane after a one-way trip from LA to New York. Yet when it comes to space travel, rockets fly only once-even though the rocket itself represents the majority of launch cost (www.spacex.com/news/2015/06/24/why-and-how-landing-rockets).” NSS believes reusable rockets, once perfected, will be inherently more reliable than expendable vehicles, as well as less costly.

NSS Executive Vice President Dale Skran said: “After a failure like this, voices will be heard calling into question NASA’s use of commercial launch service providers. We need to recall that in spite of the best efforts of NASA and the expenditure of many billions of dollars, NASA lost two space shuttles with their entire crews. Eventual success is built on lessons learned from failures. We are confident that SpaceX will learn from the loss and rapidly return to service.”

National Space Society Opposes Senate Gutting of Commercial Crew Program

The National Space Society (NSS) strongly opposes the Senate Appropriations Committee’s $344 million (27%) cut of the 2015 Commercial Crew budget requested by the Administration. The Senate cuts were $100 million more than those recently passed by the House.

NSS stands with NASA administrator Charles Bolden when he said “By gutting this program and turning our backs on U.S. industry, NASA will be forced to continue to rely on Russia to get its astronauts into space – and to continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the Russian economy rather than our own.”  The two winners of the Commercial Crew competition, Boeing and SpaceX, have been making excellent progress, exemplified by the May 6th successful pad abort test of the SpaceX Dragon 2 crew escape system. Both are on track to fly astronauts in 2017 assuming funding is provided.

Until Commercial Crew vehicles are flying, the only way for anyone to get to the ISS is the Russian Soyuz. Unfortunately, the Russian space program has recently displayed a worrisome lack of reliability. On May 16th the failure of the third stage of the Russian Proton resulted in the loss of the MexSat-1 communications satellite. During April, a Russian Progress M-27M carrying cargo to the ISS went out of control and was lost with all its contents. More recently, the unexpected firing of the engine of a Soyuz spacecraft attached to the ISS shifted its orbital position. Congress, which has underfunded and thus delayed Commercial Crew consistently, will bear a significant share of the responsibility if the next Russian accident results in injuries to astronauts or the abandonment of the ISS.

Some have advocated reducing the Commercial Crew program to a single vehicle, reducing current costs and eliminating competition. NSS has long supported competition in the Commercial Crew program (see the 2014 NSS position paper on the NASA Commercial Crew Program). The failure of the Orbital ATK Antares cargo rocket during a launch attempt to the ISS last year demonstrated the value of redundant systems, underscoring the vital importance of having multiple Commercial Crew providers.

It is imperative that Congress provide full funding to Commercial Crew so that both Boeing and SpaceX reach operational status. The Commercial Crew program has been one of NASA’s biggest success stories, generating large amounts of real product innovation while reducing costs to the government. Any expansive future in space, such as that envisioned in the NSS Roadmap to Space Settlement (www.nss.org/settlement/roadmap) requires lower cost specialized systems such as those being created by Commercial Crew and Commercial Resupply Services (CRS).

“NSS urges the Senate to pass a clean amendment restoring full funding of $1.244 billion to Commercial Crew when this Bill comes to the Senate floor for final passage,” said NSS Executive VP Dale Skran. “We are extremely concerned with the increasing difficulties in the Russian space program and suggest NASA immediately develop a contingency plan for Russian withdrawal other than evacuating the ISS.”