Stuck the Landing!

True to form, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin pulled off something spectacular yesterday in near-total secrecy:

That crashing sound you hear are the “OldSpace” business models collapsing from California to Florida.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Elon Musk didn’t take it all that gracefully. I’m actually a little disappointed in him as this shouldn’t take away from anything he’s done with SpaceX. Pro tip: don’t let it get under your skin. You’re building bigger rockets that are coming back from space even faster, so quit measuring dongs (then again, maybe all this really is a phallic hangup. I mean, just look at the thing).

A full-up test of their New Shepard suborbital passenger rocket is pretty impressive, given they’ve only flown it once before. Getting the passenger capsule into space and back is also cool. Two for two.

But flying the booster back from space and landing it? PRICELESS.

That Escalated Quickly

Blue Origin finally lifted the curtains late yesterday:

This has taken a lot of industry observers by surprise as most of the reliable space news sites haven’t even picked up on it yet. They’ve been very secretive and now we can see why: when not busy running the worldwide juggernaut that is Amazon, Jeff Bezos has been building his own personal space program. What’s amazing to me is just how close to the vest he’s been able to play this: they’d announced test flights would start this year, but danged if they didn’t go and start with an all-up test of the full vehicle all the way to space.

The difference between their approach and that of the better-known Virgin Galactic is clear, and it goes beyond vehicle design. Bezos waited until he was satisfied they were ready to put on a real show with close-to-operational hardware instead of stringing people along and taking their money during the unpredictable development process. This is in stark contrast to Virgin, who Doug Messier reports is still flagellating over their final choice for an engine.

This is also a useful lesson in how the very wealthy go about creating entire industries that no one could have anticipated. After revolutionizing commerce and publishing with Amazon, Bezos used that wealth to pursue his real passion and is applying similar foresight to opening up space for the rest of us. History will regard men like him and Elon Musk in the same way we look back at Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford.

If you want more, Blue Origin’s formerly bare-bones website is now updated with lots of cool videos and other imagery, so head over there to service your nerdboner. Because cool as it is, there’s no getting around that it looks like a flying…

Stuff Rich People Do

Falcon 9, on the way to GTO.

In sharp (and welcome) contrast to my last post, witness the power of this fully armed and operational free market:

Today, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) successfully completed its first geostationary transfer mission, delivering the SES-8 satellite to its targeted 295 x 80,000 km orbit. Falcon 9 executed a picture-perfect flight, meeting 100% of mission objectives.

Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at 5:41 PM Eastern Time. Approximately 185 seconds into flight, Falcon 9’s second stage’s single Merlin vacuum engine ignited to begin a five minute, 20 second burn that delivered the SES-8 satellite into its parking orbit. Eighteen minutes after injection into the parking orbit, the second stage engine relit for just over one minute to carry the SES-8 satellite to its final geostationary transfer orbit. The restart of the Falcon 9 second stage is a requirement for all geostationary transfer missions.

As one might expect, the Wall Street Journal had a bit more coverage of the business angle. Here’s the (literal) money bit:

Before the mission, SpaceX said by 2015 it planned to double rocket production to about 24 annually.

If SpaceX achieves its goals, it will vindicate a host of satellite manufacturers, operators and space agencies that have revised business plans based on the availability of the Falcon 9. In some cases, SpaceX foresees competing head-to-head with Europe’s Arianespace, which often launches dual satellites aboard its heavy-lift Ariane 5 ECA rocket.

SpaceX emphasizes that it developed the original Falcon 9 for under $300 million—or roughly half of the Pentagon’s overall cost to launch a single spy satellite on the heavy-lift version of the Delta IV rocket initially developed by Boeing.

Industry officials estimate SES got a discount from the roughly $60 million SpaceX officials have talked about as the typical price tag for such a launch. Many industry officials, though, predict SpaceX’s prices eventually will climb to about $100 million per launch.

Keep in mind these “industry officials” are almost certainly just spouting the company line while hoping it comes true, particularly if SpaceX pulls off a successful recovery and reuse of a Falcon 9 first stage next year. If that happens, that crashing sound you hear will be the Borg Collective Boeing/LockMart/USAF/NASA launch business model collapsing.

No power in the ‘verse can stop it.

Super Sunday

While the rest of us were laying around on our butts watching football, the geeks were busy inheriting the Earth…or rather the sky above us.

Orbital Science’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft docked with the International Space Station, making it the second commercial launch provider to do so:

Cygnus berthing at the ISS

Meanwhile, the first commercial operator to reach the ISS flew their upgraded Falcon 9R launcher out of Vandenberg AFB in California. This was a number of firsts for SpaceX: first flight of the 9R, first all-commercial payload, and first relight of a booster in a controlled re-entry:

Falcon 9R

That last bit is by far the most significant — it’s the key to SpaceX’s plans for reusable rockets, which is the key to lower launch costs, which is the key to the rest of us being able to afford a trip to orbit (or even farther) some day.

The goal is to eventually return the first stage of an operational Falcon 9 (and later, when it flies, the three cores of the Falcon Heavy) to the launch site, and reuse them.

Sunday’s flight test on an ostensibly operational mission was less ambitious. The goals were to see if 1) they could get the vehicle back into the atmosphere in one piece with the first burn (all previous Falcon 9 uncontrolled first-stage entries have been destructive) and 2) if they could gently drop it into the ocean with the thrust of a single engine, and recover it. The company has emphasized repeatedly over the past several months that this was not part of the primary mission goal, and that they didn’t have high expectations of success.

As it turned out, they seem to have succeeded at their first test goal, but failed the second…

Despite the recovery failure, company founder and CEO Elon Musk seemed very optimistic about the results.

The above is clipped from Rand Simberg’s authoritative roundup at PJ Media. Interestingly, DARPA and McDonnell Douglas made some significant advancements along these lines 20 years ago with the Delta Clipper Experimental (DC-X). Made on the cheap with a good deal of off-the-shelf parts, they managed several successful flights until the project was transferred whole-hog to NASA:

DC-X, first hover landing

NASA agreed to take on the program after the last DC-X flight in 1995. In contrast to the original concept of the DC-X demonstrator, NASA applied a series of major upgrades to test new technologies…

The upgraded vehicle was called the DC-XA, renamed the Clipper Advanced/Clipper Graham, and resumed flight in 1996.

…Its next flight, on 7 July, proved to be its last. During testing, one of the LOX tanks had been cracked. When a landing strut failed to extend due to a disconnected hydraulic line, the DC-XA fell over and the tank leaked. Normally the structural damage from such a fall would constitute only a setback, but the LOX from the leaking tank fed a fire which severely burned the DC-XA, causing such extensive damage that repairs were impractical.

In a post-accident report, NASA’s Brand Commission blamed the accident on a burnt-out field crew who had been operating under on-again/off-again funding and constant threats of outright cancellation. The crew, many of them originally from the SDIO program, were also highly critical of NASA’s “chilling” effect on the program, and the masses of paperwork NASA demanded as part of the testing regimen.

NASA had taken on the project grudgingly after having been “shamed” by its very public success under the direction of the SDIO.

Read the whole entry at Wikipedia for a case study of what happens when a willingness to take risks is swallowed up by ass-covering bureaucratic inertia.  Surprising? Sadly, no…but at least the commercial camel’s nose is now all the way up in NASA’s government tent and sniffing at their junk.

Space Nerd News

Been a while since I’ve updated the blog (I’m largely staying away from the internet ’cause it keeps getting in the way of actually, you know, writing), but as promised here’s some links to interesting stuff:

Christian Science Monitor explores the pychological aspects of the Inspiration Mars effort. Short version: “Survivor” in space. Though I can think of a lot of “reality” TV stars that ought to be sent on a possible one-way mission to deep space. Like pretty much all of them. Buh-bye, media whores…

So how would they get there, anyway? Popular Mechanics has a nice overview of where things stand with commercial spaceflight: The Race to Cash in on Earth Orbit

And in not-unrelated news: Number of “City Killer” Asteroids “Very Large”, House Panel Told. As Professor Reynolds often quotes, “Asteroids are nature’s way of asking, ‘How’s that space program coming along?'”

UPDATE: Almost forgot, the brains behind Inspiration Mars have posted a response to Dennis Wingo’s analysis of their plan. Unfortunately it’s about what I expected: everybody loves the idea of a Venus-Mars flyby, but they’d have to be prepared to leave a good year ahead of the current schedule, which is ambitious enough already. An awful lot of tech currently in development would have to go just right for that to happen, and it sounds like they don’t want to bank on it.

When Pigs Fly

In which I kinda, sorta, defend the President.

Now pick yourself up off the floor.

Obama caught a lot of grief from conservatives over the decision to end the space shuttle program, when in reality this decision was made (correctly) by George W. Bush in 2007. Once enacted, it couldn’t be easily undone – supply chains and tooling were pretty much gone no matter what the Big O might have wanted.

The difference is that W had also directed NASA to develop a cheaper manned space capability that was supposed to be flying, well, this year.

Not seeing anything out there that looks like a new NASA vehicle? Nope, me neither. And that’s where the criticism comes from: along with the shuttles, Obama deep-sixed Constellation, which was Bush’s follow-on program. More accurately, it was the hobby horse of Bush’s NASA Administrator Mike Griffin – who literally wrote the book on spacecraft design – and was described as “Apollo on steroids.”

Which it was, sadly. Though a stupendous achievement and a source of great national pride to this day, Apollo was also a money sink that corrupted the thinking of an entire generation as to “how we do space.”

Constellation was deeply flawed and could only be fixed with a money injection that simply wasn’t going to happen. An independent review board composed of former aerospace execs and NASA astronauts determined that even if the whole program was dropped in their laps, fully developed and ready to go, that they still couldn’t afford to operate it. And in the meantime, Griffin was still diverting funding from other programs within the agency to prop up his personal favorite.

So yes, Obama was right to can it. He was also right to direct NASA to contract out their access to low-Earth orbit. In other words, as I’ve always preached: getting to and from orbit is well enough understood that it’s past time to let the private sector take over (while driving costs down, to boot). Let NASA save that money to buy rides into low orbit so they can develop the technology to routinely go beyond it. Maybe one day I’ll be able to afford a ticket. Maybe not. But it was never going to happen by doing it the NASA way.

Others have surmised the Prez did it because he doesn’t understand either spaceflight (most pols don’t) or the private sector (too many pols don’t; he’s just the worst example). It’s really the only substantially pro-free market decision he’s made, so “why” doesn’t really matter. It was the right call and he deserves credit for it.

Credit: NASA

So it pains me to see ostensibly “conservative” politicians trying to tar him with it – because if Obama’s for it, they’re agin’ it I suppose. While stubbornly refusing to accept the likes of SpaceX or Blue Origin, they still insist on throwing money down a hole to mandate that NASA build another big-@$$ rocket. While a new Saturn V-class launcher would be cool as heck to see, we don’t really need it. It would make a lot more sense to use smaller Atlas and Delta heavies with more launches and develop some kind of propellant depot capability in orbit. Given our experience in orbital rendezvous and construction, it’s hard to see how that’s not doable.

Fortunately, there are voices of reason on the (R) side who see things as they are. Here’s Dana Rorabacher (R-CA):

The bottom line is, in order to have steady funding, we’re going to have to defund every other space project that we have! Nobody here wants to face that! Maybe if we’re going to provide safety, maybe if we’re going to provide reliability and do this professionally, maybe we should set our goals to something we can actually accomplish within the budgets that are possible, without destroying every other aspect of the space program. I think that’s what’s happening here today. That’s what we’re really discussing.

I’m pretty sure SpaceX is in his district, so don’t discount the fact that he’s just advocating for the local gentry. That’s what congresscritters do. Fortunately, he’s on the right side of this debate.

In the larger picture, I’ve met a few politicians here & there and am convinced that most of them are just clueless. Maybe 10% are the real thinkers and visionaries, while the rest are followers who parrot the party line. They may more or less believe in their party’s platform, but for the most part are just along for the ride and know how to make people like them.

How To Train Your Dragon

Dragon spacecraft. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has got it goin’ on, ya’ll. This is just the second orbital flight of their Dragon capsule, and darned if they didn’t berth with the Space Station!

As our illustrious Vice President Jar-Jar Biden might say: “This is a big #@$&%! deal”. Just another example of what private citizens can do when they’re allowed to make money and follow their passions.

Viva Capitalism!

UPDATE: Archive videos from NASA TV here.

UPDATED UPDATE: Really, really excited about this? You can take a class in space hotel design this summer. Beats Medieval French Poetry or Transgender Victim Studies…