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 Amazon.com, 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 SpaceKSC.com. 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 Amazon.com, 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.