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Posts Tagged ‘SpaceX

NASA is dead

with 3 comments

So I’m sitting on the upper deck this morning, looking at a clear blue sky, and there it is: a waning half Moon, as clear as crystal in the sky, and I sigh and wonder how much longer I have to wait to see a part of my childhood relived with men standing on the surface of Lunar.

And then I see this from space buff Robert Zimmerman, NASA IG: Artemis manned lunar landing will likely not happen in ’25.

Plus this bonus, courtesy of the latest Inspector General Report (pdf)

We also project the current production and operations cost of a single SLS/Orion system at $4.1 billion per launch for Artemis I through IV (p 4).

I knew things were bad with NASA’s Artemis program.

But not this bad.

… although the Agency’s ongoing initiatives aimed at increasing affordability seek to reduce that cost (p. 4 of the report (pdf)).

Perhaps they intend to hand the work over to Nigerian princes?

The cost of the Apollo program was about $156 billion in 2019 dollars, $172 billion if you add in the preceding Gemini program, which you should because it was essential to Apollo’s success. Taking into account all the test and operational flights in both programs, plus four flights of surplus Apollo gear from cancelled Moon missions that was used for the Skylab program, I figure that at about $5.6 billion per flight.

Except that this was for an effort starting from scratch that did the job in less than ten years.

By contrast Artemis has come only to this point after seventeen years of developing the system, starting with its predecessor, the Constellation Program in 2005, which was little different. That’s one of the killer aspects of this failure; it was built on previous developments that should have saved time and money. The Aries V rocket became the SLS, which itself extends rocketry used for the Space Shuttle since the 1980’s; the Orion spacecraft is the same, plus new spacesuits (the report points to them for delaying the landing to 2025), and changes to the launchpad, LC-39B, first developed for Apollo more than half a century ago. As Robert Zimmerman says of the schedule:

NASA’s Artemis program will likely continue to have repeated delays, announced piecemeal in small chunks. This has been the public relations strategy of NASA throughout its entire SLS program. They announce a target date and then slowly over time delay it in small amounts to hide the fact that the real delay is many years.

The final kick in the guts is that the IG report firmly states that the per launch cost of SLS will make any robust lunar exploration program utterly unsustainable.

This crap is already having flow-on effects, although they will be positive if the objective is the human exploration of the Solar System. Scientists have already been given the green light by Congress that one space probe, the Europa Clipper (to study a very important moon of Jupiter, Europa) , can launch on a commercial rocket, after years of insisting it had to be launched on the SLS, a sign that Congress has finally (and quietly) realised the terrible truth. Zimmerman has tracked down another obscure “White Paper” where scientists effectively told NASA that its way of doing things can’t work any longer in the face of SpaceX:

With Starship, missions to the Moon and Mars will no longer be very constrained in terms of weight. Nor will launch schedules be slow and far between. Rather than plan a few billion dollar NASA unmanned missions taking a decade to plan and launch, using Starship NASA could have many planetary missions launching fast and for relatively little cost, with far greater capabilities.

The scientists recognize this, and wrote their paper in an effort to make NASA’s hide-bound management recognize it as well.

What I suspect is going to happen is that the scientists will eventually bypass NASA entirely. Because of the lowered cost provided by Starship, they will find other funding sources, many private, to finance planetary missions. Those other sources will also be much more capable than NASA for reacting quickly to Starship’s fast timetable and gigantic capabilities.

Why bust your gut over sending a 1 tonne rover to Mars every couple of years when you can dump a dozen on the planet in one go? The Earth-based logistics of building and supporting them is another question, but scientists would likely regard this as a happy problem.

One last note that’s not about NASA but a SpaceX competitor, Blue Origin. Their proposal to NASA for a lunar landing vehicle was rejected (along with others) in favour of a modified SpaceX Starship vehicle, so they lodged a complaint with the Government Audit Office (GAO). When they lost that appeal they took it to the US Court of Federal Claims, who announced their decision a couple of weeks ago:

The Court finds that Blue Origin does not have standing because it did not have a substantial chance of award but for the alleged evaluation errors. Its proposal was priced well above NASA’s available funding and was itself noncompliant. Blue Origin argues that it would have submitted an alternative proposal, but the Court finds its hypothetical proposal to be speculative and unsupported by the record. The Court also finds that several of Blue Origin’s objections are waived.

Even if Blue Origin had standing and its objections were not waived, the Court finds that it would lose on the merits. Blue Origin has not shown that NASA’s evaluation or its conduct during the procurement was arbitrary and capricious or otherwise contrary to law. NASA provided a thorough, reasoned evaluation of the proposals, and NASA’s conduct throughout the procurement process was not contrary to law.

Ouch. It doesn’t get worse than that. The synopsis is that Blue Origin submitted a weak, overpriced bid, and when it lost on the merits, whinged and said it would have done something different if only had it known. What bullshit.

Still, the silver lining of this failure is that it may spur Bezos to STFU and start building the space capabilities he’s been taking about for a decade.


See also my 2020 post, Wanderers. Here’s the video.

Written by Tom Hunter

November 28, 2021 at 7:00 pm

Posted in Aerospace, Space, USA

Tagged with , , ,


While his competitors continue to fumble around with much delayed, modest successes like getting spaceships into sub-orbital flights, Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation continues to power ahead with stuff that’s at least a decade in front of them, not to mention national space agencies like China’s and NASA.

Following the successful atmospheric test flight of Starship SN15 – after a few catastrophic landings for earlier models – the next test ship, SN16, was simply scrapped while work moved ahead on a sub-orbital / orbital test vehicle.

This is entirely in keeping with SpaceX’s iterative development process of rapid design-build-test prototyping.

Only a few days ago, it was observed that the Super Heavy Booster (formerly called the BFR), the 1st stage of the Starship system, had been moved to its launchpad in Texas.

But just the other day, it was seen that an actual Starship sub-orbital/orbital model, SN20, was lifted into place atop the SHB:

How big is this thing?

Bigger than the Saturn V rocket that sent men to the Moon. It’s also more than twice as powerful, punching out some 7200 tons of thrust compared to the Saturn V’s 3500 tons. One of the basic design decisions that still concerns me about the SHB is that it uses 29 Raptor engines to get this thrust, compared to the five J-1 engines of the Saturn. The more things you have, the more that can go wrong, even if computer control systems are many times better than in the 1960’s.

The Starship was later pulled off the SHB, effectively yet another test of how they will mate the things together and improvements that can be made to the process. With SpaceX it’s all about continuous process improvement, like any factory.

It gets even crazier. That launch tower in the pictures is also a capture tower; the idea is that the SHB will land vertically right beside the tower after each launch, and the tower will then latch on to it, ready for maintenance checks and refueling for the next launch. Personally I’d build two such towers at a minimum for redundancy, especially if a high flight rate is desired, and Musk is aiming for three launches a day.

However, it’s still testing time and this combo won’t be launched for a few months yet, but hopefully before the end of 2021. In that test flight both vehicles will simply be destroyed by allowing them to fall into the ocean, but in the case of Starship, not before it’s made at least one orbit of the Earth. Starship will land in the Northern Pacific Ocean, while the SHB will attempt a “soft-landing” (meaning a vertical landing with engines on) into the Gulf of Mexico, yet another example of squeezing every drop of learning possible from everything they do.

Incidentally, the decision by NASA to select Starship for lunar landings later this decade (see A Thousand Moons) – a decision challenged by Jeff Bezos and his company Blue Origin – has been confirmed by the GAO (Government Accountability Office) after a review of several months. It’s not a surprise. Starship may only be partway through its testing process, let alone having a lunar-capable vehicle developed, but it’s still far ahead of Blue Origin and company, who still have only draft plans.

Written by Tom Hunter

August 9, 2021 at 12:33 pm

The 21st Century Space Race

The news on April 16 that NASA has selected the SpaceX Starship design for two missions to the Moon was stunning enough on its own, but the last few months have seen some other important events that show that space exploration, including human exploration, is starting to rapidly increase its tempo.

April was an especially busy month.

There have been two spectacular robotic missions to Mars. The third SpaceX crew mission to the ISS was launched. Another four astronauts returned in their original SpaceX Dragon craft. The Chinese have launched the first module of their new space station into orbit, sent Taikonauts to it and landed their first Mars probe.


Yes, that is a drone helicopter on Mars.

What you are looking at in these pictures is the first flying machine on another planet. This is the spacecraft, Ingenuity, a little helicopter weighing only a couple of kilograms, and these pictures are from its 4th test flight, conducted on April 29. The first was April 19.

It was only expected to fly a few missions as a pure test vehicle, starting with a simple up-and-down flight, followed by moving around the landscape, returning to where it started and so forth.

However, like many other American robots of recent years, it has proved far more durable than expected, and since it provides the ability to scout ahead of the rover Perseverance (its “mother ship” that landed on February 18) the JPL team has decided to use it for that until it eventually fails.

Planning the route that such rovers have to drive is a slow and careful process; some years ago one of the solar-powered rovers, Opportunity, got stuck in an unseen sand trap. Ingenuity is a huge help in preventing that.

That map plan was from the 9th planned flight, which was completed a couple of days ago, with the machine flying a distance of 2,051 feet (625 meters) at 5 meters (16 feet) per second and remaining airborne for approximately 2 minutes, 47 seconds. They’re really pushing the little beast beyond its limits:

The onboard algorithm which lets Ingenuity determine where it is along the flight path, was designed for a comparatively simple technology demonstration over flat terrain and does not have the design features to accommodate high slopes and undulations that are to be found in Séítah. 

You can keep track of the flights at Robert Zimmerman’s Behind The Black blog.

However, the USA has finally been matched in the Mars Rover department when, on May 14, China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft landed and on May 22 sent its Zhurong rover trundling onto the surface. With its solar panels it looks awfully similar to the Opportunity and Spirit rovers (see An Everlasting Itch For Things Remote) sent to Mars by NASA in the 2000’s. It will be interesting to see if it lasts as long as they did.

SpaceX and the ISS

On April 23rd SpaceX launched a crew of four to the ISS in the company’s second such mission, called Crew-2. The key mission first was that both the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft were reused machines. The Crew Dragon, named Endeavour, had flown the historic Demo-2 mission (their first crewed flight) and the Falcon 9 rocket had pushed the Crew-1 astronauts to the ISS last year, in the first operational flight.

They crossed paths with the Crew-1 team which also consisted of four astronauts, making things rather crowded on the ISS for a few days before they returned to Earth on May 2nd. As you can see from the link, these splashdowns are rather more casual than the days of Apollo when countless US Navy ships were deployed far out in the Pacific. Here, they’re only just offshore from the Florida coast, and SpaceX kept the exact landing spot quiet this time so that they would not be surrounded by rubber-necking boaties as happened for the return of Demo-2.

Space X is contracted for four more crewed missions but will likely get more than that as the ISS is expected to be up there for a few more years: 2024 has been discussed as a shutdown date, with the Russians perhaps quitting then. However, new modules continue to be launched, the station is working well and since there’s no replacement it seems silly to abandon it even if its equipment is starting to get aged and obsolete.

As a side note, one continuing disappointment has been Boeing’s CST 100 Starliner spacecraft – pictured on the right – which was supposed to have been on the same schedule as SpaceX’s Dragon so that NASA could have a backup. Instead it’s fallen badly behind schedule but will attempt another uncrewed test flight at the end of July.

China’s space station and Russia

Another reason the USA and ESA may hang on to the ISS for longer than planned, is that on April 29, just days after its Mars probe landing, China launched the first module of its new Taingong space station, followed by three “Taikonauts” on June 20.

Since then they’ve been busy conducting spacewalks, readying everything for the next modules to be sent up. The plan is to have it finished by the end of 2022. It will be about 1/5 the size of the ISS, comparable to the old Russian Mir space station.

By the time Mir crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2001, Russia had already been hard at work for a decade with NASA on the ISS, just one part of the whole post Cold War effort by the USA to shovel money into Russian technology centres to keep their scientists and engineers in-country and not working with the likes of North Korea.

But the world has changed. Between losing the lucrative ISS passenger business to SpaceX and with their announced plan to stop using the ISS by 2024, Russia was clearly removing itself somewhat. Still, the US is proceeding into its post-ISS future with the Artemis programme to land astronauts on the Moon and establish a base there by the end of this decade and Russia could well have been expected to join that. So it came as a bit of shock in March when Russia announced an agreement with China to build a lunar base together, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). No schedule has been announced but Russia clearly feels more comfortable in China’s orbit than in the US’s.

The US Military and SpaceX

A few weeks ago the US Air Force released a 462-page report detailing how it intends to spend its $200 billion budget. Such is routine bureaucracy, but on page 305, under the heading of “Rocket Cargo” was a very interesting section:

“The Department of the Air Force seeks to leverage the current multi-billion dollar commercial investment to develop the largest rockets ever, and with full reusability to develop and test the capability to leverage a commercial rocket to deliver AF cargo anywhere on the Earth in less than one hour, with a 100-ton capacity,

Although no company or vehicle was mentioned by name, there is only one vehicle even on the drawing boards that has that capability.

It will likely be a decade before this comes to fruition, as the USAF will want to see a lot of successful Starship cargo flights, including sub-orbital hops around the Earth, before it will start laying contracts to buy flights and possibly even order Starship variants to its specifications. In this it would be following in the wake of the Boeing 747, which was built with military as well as commercial use in mind.

Written by Tom Hunter

July 12, 2021 at 6:00 am

Splashdowns and flying Grain Silos

I’d seen this a couple of years ago, but it was in real time, whereas this has been compressed into just 15 seconds.

Falcon 9 Vandenberg flightpath and ‘nebula’ area

It’s video taken of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from the Vandenberg Air Force base in California and although it looks like it’s passing over Los Angeles its trajectory was actually out over the Pacific.

What looks like a nebula are the chemicals from the rocket’s exhaust, drifting like clouds through the atmosphere between sixty to ninety miles above the earth. At those altitudes the chemicals freeze and the sun is still shining, so the light is refracted through these frozen chemicals at different wavelengths, creating the spectacular displays. It’s called a “twilight phenomena” and it is not uncommon given the locations of Vandenberg, LA and the long sweep of the California coast.


The Falcon 9’s create an extra “nebulae” because their first stage doesn’t just separate but returns to Earth. If you look at the lower right of the video you can see the flare of the rockets as it drops back to land.

Meantime, it’s hard to believe that almost two months have gone by since SpaceX sent their first Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS with two astronauts on board. They came back home a few days ago, having pushed off from the ISS last Sunday, orbiting for 19 hours, and then reentering the Earth’s atmosphere and gently splashing down into the Gulf of Mexico just off the coast of Pensacola, Florida.

It was the first time a spacecraft has ever landed there. They were supposed to drop into the Atlantic off Florida’s East Coast, but a hurricane was threatening. The previous time astronauts landed on the water was when the last Apollo command ship splashed down in 1975 after the Apollo-Soyuz mission.

Despite the throwback return, a mark of changed times is the fact that the spacecraft was rapidly surrounded by dozens of small boats as the location and time had been announced in advance so people decided to go out and see the show, something unimaginable in the 1960’s and 70’s. And there was just one ship to pick up the spacecraft, rather than the fleets of vessels and tracking aircraft of yore: such is the confidence in modern guidance and control systems.

Florida seas rain storm

There will probably be several more such returns before an attempt is made to touch down on land. Crew Dragon’s designed to do that, with rockets that fire just before landing, and the Russians have been doing it almost from the start (Gagarin ejected, which was kept secret for decades). It makes the turnaround time faster and in some respects it’s safer. NASA will have to review all the data but it would seem that SpaceX is now fully certified to fly crew to and from the ISS, the final test having been this one with reentry 😬🥵, the heat shield 😬😅 and sea recovery 💦. The next flight will happen in late September and carry four astronauts to the ISS as part of SpaceX’s $2.4 billion contract with NASA for six flights

Meantime, SpaceX is not slowing down on their long-term plans. Just a few days later they launched their latest Deep Space grain silo on a short ‘hop’ of 500 feet at their factory in Texas.

This is actually the core of their new Starship spacecraft. Instead of the nose cone with a flight deck and cargo space or 100 passengers, they added a weight to the top, since it’s easier to balance such. Here’s a fuller YouTube item that covers that and other details, as well as those rather worrying flames seen coming out of the side of the new Raptor rocket engine!

Not commented on is the strange sight of no launch tower and the launch happening right beside the factory, a nearby carpark and presumably hundreds of people! I can’t help thinking they’re getting a little too cocky about their rocket control.

Written by Tom Hunter

August 9, 2020 at 5:32 pm

Posted in Space, USA

Tagged with , , ,

Iron Man goes Full Martian

In the article, Not Iron Man Yet, I reviewed the brief history of SpaceX, looking at its success since its founding in 2004 in developing and flying commercial rockets more cheaply and with a lower fail rate than anybody else in the world – particularly nation-state space agencies that have been around for more than half a century.


But the company has more surprises in store, having started three more projects:
  • A new rocket engine called the Raptor, that is twice as powerful as the Merlin engines.
  • An even larger rocket called the BFR, that will loft 100+ tonnes to LEO: Note that this is still short of the Saturn V that could push 140 tonnes into LEO and send 50 tonnes to the Moon, but the BFR will be upgraded as the Falcon’s were until it reaches 150T to LEO.  BFR officially stands for Big Falcon Rocket, but everybody knows that Musk, with his usual sense of humour initially called it the “Big Fucking Rocket“.  This thing will have 37 Raptor rocket engines, which seems scarily close to being unmanageable.
  • A huge spaceship to fly on that rocket: 50m long, 9m wide with 1000 m3 of cargo space that can be converted to carry 100 people into Earth orbit and beyond. Naturally it’s called Starship. It can be a cargo vessel, fuel tanker or crewed vessel and SpaceX wants each one to last 20-30 years.
Stacking and launching something like this is going to be a challenge, not to mention the vertical landings back on Earth.


L->R Saturn V. Starship/BFR. Falcon 9

But almost all the features of the system have been played out by earlier SpaceX rockets and spacecraft: fully reusable; vertical landings, automated docking. And Musk intends this system to make Falcon 9 and even the Falcon Heavy obsolete as soon as possible.

But it gets even crazier. Musk has made it clear that this is an Interplanetary Transport System. With orbital refuelling it can reach the Moon and Mars, and possibly beyond them in later versions. And it’s designed to enter a planet’s atmosphere like the Space Shuttle, getting rid of 99% of the velocity via aerodynamics, but then landing vertically.

Those planets include Earth and Mars. Moreover the Raptor engine burns methane and oxygen, all of which can be produced on Mars. The first Starships help build that refuelling capacity: the later ones will use that to refuel and take off again.

It was at this stage, as all these aspects were seen together, that it became obvious that Musk had been deadly serious all along about his seemingly insane, long-term plans of colonising Mars, and that all the money the company made was being used to that end.

Back in mid-2017, Musk said that the Starship architecture could potentially allow a million-person city to rise on Mars within 50 to 100 years. This goal of making humanity a multi-planet species is obviously close to his heart. There’s no reason to do any of this without that goal.

Cargo Starship releasing a large payload into LEO.

In a recent interview with ArsTechnica, he ran the numbers:

“…what kind of tonnage do you need to make it self-sustaining? It’s probably not less than a million tons.

And how can you get a million tons to Mars? You need a fleet of 1000 Starships. And you need it in a decade. That’s why SpaceX is designing its factory to build one Starship per week, and then ramping that up to one every 72 hours. They’re building a machine to build machines.

“That’s fucking insane,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s insane,” Musk replied.
“I mean, it really is.”
“Yeah, it’s nuts.”
“As I look across the aerospace landscape, nobody is doing anything remotely like this,” I said.
“No, it’s absolutely mad, I agree,” Musk said

Much as I admire what he’s done with SpaceX I find this all a bit too much. Too many moving parts (perhaps literally) pushing too far and too fast.

But that’s what he’s always done, so I wouldn’t bet against him.

NASA’s Orion spaceship heading for the Moon

Besides, it looks pretty good next to the traditional alternative of NASA, where they’re still plodding along with their huge Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft after more than a decade of development. The Apollo Program this is not.

Artists’s view of SLS & Orion

In an effort to re-create Kennedy’s spur for that program, the Trump Administration challenged NASA to land on the moon by 2024 rather than the original target of 2028, but given the history of the SLS’s blown budgets and deadlines I doubt they’ll make it. The giant rocket is sarcastically known as the “Senate Launch System” because it has only survived due to the votes of key Senators to whose states the funding flows.

Musk may make it to Mars before NASA gets back to the Moon, and there’s no reason his Starship can’t land on the Moon as well.

And even if that doesn’t happen, what Musk has achieved already is a rebuttal of the grim prediction made back in 2011 by some hack called Gwynne Dwyer, who hit the roof when Obama cancelled the Constellation program to get to the Moon by 2020, writing an article titled Why The First Man on Mars will probably be Chinese, which included these choice lines:

In the real world, the United States of America is giving up on space, although it is trying hard to conceal its retreat. 

… for the next decade, at least, the United States will be an also-ran in space, while the new space powers forge rapidly ahead. 

And even if some subsequent administration should decide it wants to get back in the race, it will find it almost impossible to catch up. 

And that is why the first man on Mars will be probably Chinese or Indian, not American.

And his reasoning behind this was very simple; the private sector could not possibly do what NASA could and the whole thing was a “charade“:

Obama suggests this embarrassment will be avoided because private enterprise will come up with cheap and efficient “space taxis” that can at least deliver people and cargo to the International Space Station once in a while. And he’s going to invest US$6 billion in these private companies over the next five years. 

These entrepreneurs are mainly people who made a pile of money in the dotcom boom or in computer game design, and want to do something really interesting with some of it.  

People like Amazon president Jeff Bezos, John Carmack, programmer of Doom and Quake, Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, and Richard Branson of Virgin Everything.
“Our success is vital to the success of the US space programme,” Musk said recently.

No doubt they will get various vehicles up there, but if they can build something by 2020 that can lift as much as the ancient shuttles into a comparable orbit, let alone something bigger that can go higher, I will eat my hat.

I made a point at the time about Dwyer’s article:

You’ve really got to love the anti-capitalist and anti-American snark that Dwyer always brings to the table. Narrative: the dotcom boom was a massive exercise in capitalist excess and waste, and computer games like Doom are for kiddies, ergo…….these nuts will be just as useless in space.


Written by Tom Hunter

June 17, 2020 at 12:33 am

Not Iron Man Yet

For NASA the first half of each year is always sad in terms of history, with a series of disasters to remember.

Jan 27, 1967 – Apollo 1 fire, killing three astronauts.
Jan 28, 1986 – Space Shuttle Challenger destroyed after launch, killing all seven astronauts.
Feb 1, 2003 – Space Shuttle Columbia destroyed during re-entry, killing all seven astronauts.
If you work at NASA you might start to look at late January/early February the way financial traders look at September/October.
But that’s NASA history. SpaceX and other private sector companies are the future.


Earlier this year I discussed SpaceX’s abort testing on its new Crew Dragon spacecraft, using its own Falcon 9 rocket to fly two NASA astronauts to the ISS. After one weather-driven abort, that launch and docking went without a hitch the other day and while re-entry will be a month or more away there’s no reason to think that won’t be successful as well.

This will lead to certification of Dragon by NASA and the start of regular flights from the USA to the ISS and LEO (Low Earth Orbit). Hopefully joining SpaceX later this year will be the Boeing ST-100 Starliner, flying to the ISS on commercial Atlas V rockets, although Boeing has been having a very bad couple of years.

Elon Musk with Mind Expanding Device

SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, a South African-born businessman and entrepreneur. At age 30, Musk made his initial fortune by selling his two successful companies: Zip2, for $307 million in 1999, and PayPal, for $1.5 billion in 2002. He then announced that he was going to invest some of the money into a privately funded, startup space company, a sum reported to be $100 million.

People thought he was insane. At the time the biggest concern of the space industry was how America was going to compete with the European Space Agency (ESA), China and Russia in the launch game, all of whom seemed to be producing better, cheaper services. There was much talk of the US government providing more support to the behemoths of the industry to help them survive: Boeing, Lockheed, United Launch Alliance (a joint venture between the two), and others

For SpaceX it’s been a long, slow road for a company that likes to move fast.

Falcon 1 launches from Kwajalein Atoll, 2008

In 2006 NASA provided them with a small contract of $278 million as part of the COTS program (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services). That was a mark of respect for a company that had only existed since 2004. Other such firms fell away but the people who had pushed COTS figured that would be the case.

One interesting aspect is that early on, SpaceX asked NASA to run their expert rulers across its plans for the worlds first fully private-sector, liquid-fueled rocket – the Falcon 1.

NASA bluntly told Musk that it was just not possible to build such a rocket in the proposed timeframe for their proposed cost. They said it would take twice as long and cost several times more than SpaceX’s plan and budget allowed. Still, NASA also effectively said, “Hey, knock yourself out, this is what these little seed contracts are for“.

SpaceX thanked NASA for its advice – and then ignored it. Falcon 1 had three test failures before a success in 2008. As Musk told his staff at the time of the fourth test, they had no more parts or money for another.

With the Falcon 1 success SpaceX began to make money by launching small satellites (670kg). But those profits allowed them move on to their real, medium-term objective – building a rocket big enough to lift heavy cargo and passenger spaceships to the ISS as NASA wanted.

More years and failures followed with the Falcon 9 rocket series, which they’d already been working on in parallel with the Falcon 1, the result of Musk’s overall development approach:

  • Parallel development of vehicles, leveraging knowledge from one to the other.
  • In-house build with minimal out-sourcing.
  • Fast turn-around through design, build and test; an interative process lifted from his experience in the software industry.
  • Emphasis on reusability of rockets and spacecraft to reduce spaceflight costs, again with fast turnaround like commercial planes.

As such the Falcon 9 was expected to fly in 2008/09 but did not until 2010, and it had problems. But it could put 13 tonnes into LEO (Low Earth Orbit) amd in 2012 it finally lifted a Dragon cargo ship to the ISS. It should be noted that when the space station was developed in the 1980s and ’90s private spaceflight hadn’t even been considered.

Falcon 9 Launch

Within just a couple more years Falcon 9 had established records for successful flights, while also undercutting the price of every other rocket launch system in the world. Every competitor, including nation-states like China, is now scrambling to just match what SpaceX is doing now.

They charge $62 million per flight: the nearest US competitor is $73 million for a smaller payload. The Falcon 9 has also been steadily upgraded and can now push 23 tonnes to LEO and even 4 tonnes to Mars if called upon.

But SpaceX did not stand still and started going much further than they needed to for the NASA contract. In short-order they did the following:

  • Began building a version of the Dragon spacecraft that could carry humans and pitched for the NASA contract to fly people to and from the ISS. Since NASA became entirely dependent on Russia to do that job it was costing them $75 million per astronaut – briefly touching $82 million in 2015. SpaceX will do the job for $58 million.
  • Made the Falcon 9 even more reusable by landing it back at its launch site on land or at a mobile platform at sea. The response to this was eye-rolling and scoffing. The Shuttle SRB’s (Shuttle Rocket Booster) was reusable but had splashed down in the Atlantic, from where it was recovered followed by months of refurbishment.
  • Started development on a larger rocket called the Falcon Heavy that could loft 64 tonnes into space and be fully reusable. As yet another example of SpaceX learning, the first test flight was almost a total success, with only the centre stage failing to land back on earth. The two booster rockets – basically Falcon 9’s – landed together in Florida in what truly looked like a scene from a Science Fiction movie.
Space Tesla: Falcon Heavy’s test flight cargo
As of writing the Falcon 9 has flown 85 rockets, with 46 landings, and 31 of the rockets being used multiple times.


The Falcon Heavy successfully launched in February 2018 and costs about $90 million per launch. 

One aspect that really surprised me about the Falcon Heavy was the number of rocket engines involved. The more you have the tougher it is to control them all in perfect synchronisation. That was the main reason the USSR’s Moon rocket, the N1, failed in 1969; its 1st stage had 30 engines. The Falcon Heavy has 27 of the company’s Merlin engines, but then computer and physical control technology has come a long way.
And that sophistication is going to be needed considering the plans Musk has made for the future of SpaceX, and humanity, which are far greater and possibly more insane than just starting a private-sector space company.


Written by Tom Hunter

June 11, 2020 at 11:00 pm

America is back in space

After two weeks on the road catching up on various jobs, I got back home yesterday to find I was so bloody tired that I slept for ten hours and missed SpaceX’s second attempt at launching astronauts to the ISS, which happened at about 7am this morning NZ Time.

And it all went swimmingly. After nine long years, America is back in space, and thanks to spreading the load beyond NASA to private companies, I don’t think we’re going to see another gap like that in US launching ever again.
In my previous article on this I made the point that the names for the ship-type and mission were a bit lame, but it seems the two astronauts on the flight decided to give their spacecraft a specific name, in line with the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions.
They’ve named it Endeavour, after Captain Cook’s famous vessel of exploration, and also because of Space Shuttle’s Endeavour. Like those ships, this one is intended to be used multiple times.
You can watch 14 minutes of launch highlights here on the following YouTube clip, which runs from 24 seconds before launch to the separation of the second stage at 200km altitude and 27,000km/h.

After that, the Dragon is headed for the ISS, where it will dock at 10.27amEDT tomorrow morning (2:27am NZ time). If they keep to that schedule it means the docking will happen only ten minutes before the ISS and Dragon fly over NZ, though they will not be visible.
You can continue to watch the flight live here at SpaceX’s website, as the Dragon chases after the ISS, steadily raising their altitude until they’re ready to dock. The diagram below shows the overall approach.
And the next diagram shows all the little maneuvers they’ll use in the final approach:
Amazing the things America can do even in the middle of a pandemic.

Written by Tom Hunter

May 31, 2020 at 1:32 am

God Speed "Launch America"

If everything goes as planned, in a little over eight hours time later today, at about 8:30 in the morning NZ time, the USA will launch the first astronauts from its soil since 2011 when the last Space Shuttle flew.

Since then all NASA astronauts have had to ride the reliable old Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS and back to Earth.

The launch of the new SpaceX vehicle, Crew Dragon, is scheduled for 4:33pm, Wednesday, May 27 EDT (8:33am, Thursday, May 28 NZT).

It will liftoff from the storied launchpad, 39A, at the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral from which Apollo missions to the Moon were launched in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and countless Shuttle flights from the 1980’s to 2011.

It will be the first time humans have been sent into space by a private company, SpaceX having built the Falcon 9 launch rocket, the spacecraft, and controlled all aspects of the launch, with NASA as a watchful and hopeful partner.

You can watch it live streaming from either NASA TV…


… or the live stream from SpaceX themselves. Given the historic nature of this launch the NASA channel may well be jammed up. It will likely be carried by many cable and satellite TV channels.

Behnken (L) and Hurley (R) in their Intersteller suits

The NASA astronauts are Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. They’ve been to space on two shuttle missions each, with Hurley flying on the final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis in 2011.

I have to say their spacesuits are a lot cooler looking than the old orange “pumpkin” suits of those days, but that sense of style is very much part of Musk’s ethos. In keeping with the 21st century they’re 3D-printed.

The two men will be riding SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which has performed dozens of successful launches of commercial satellites over the last few years, as well sending the Dragon 2 spacecraft to the ISS on supply missions.

“There she is partner, All bridled and saddled. Ready to go.”

Crew Dragon is the human transport version of Dragon 2. It can carry up to seven astronauts, which means it can also act as a lifeboat for the entire crew of the ISS and it’s designed to be re-used, unlike the old Apollo capsules.

Last year a Crew Dragon spacecraft was launched to and docked with the ISS in the so-called “Demo 1” mission, carrying only a mannequin named “Ripley“. Since then there has also been a complete test of the Abort System that will save the astronauts lives should something go wrong with the launch.

And something could go wrong. This mission was originally scheduled for July 2019 following the Demo-1 flight, but during a static test firing of the spacecraft’s abort rockets in April 2019 the spacecraft was destroyed in an explosion.


The Falcon 9 rockets are also reusable and as has been done many times before, this one will attempt to land back on a SpaceX robotic droneship floating out in the Atlantic Ocean. In keeping with the theme of SF that ship is called Of Course I Still Love You, after one of the giant autonomous Artificial Intelligence spaceships from the “Culture” fictional universe of writer Iain Banks.

The mission is called Demo-2 because it is another test flight, hopefully the last one if successful, whereupon NASA will certify Crew Dragon for regular flights back and forth to the ISS. I’m guessing that NASA came up with the mission name because I’m sure Musk would called it something a bit cooler, although “Crew Dragon” is admittedly a clunky name for a spacecraft, and NASA, perhaps realising a PR problem, have belatedly started calling this mission Launch America, although it’s probably too late for public knowledge.

Still, the two Mission Patches look well done.

SpaceX “Demo-2”  Mission Patch
NASA “DM-2” Mission Patch

The crew will work with the ISS astronauts for one to four months before returning to Earth in their spacecraft: a final test, this time of the heat shield and other aspects of re-entry.

NASA has already assigned astronauts to the first Crew Dragon operational mission, which will launch before the end of the year if all goes well with this mission.

If the launch is stopped by weather or some other event, there are backup launch times at 3:22pm EDT, Saturday, May 30, or 3 pm ET on Sunday, May 31.

Written by Tom Hunter

May 27, 2020 at 12:00 pm

Just another parking job

My Photo
Take a minute out of your day to enjoy this HD video of one of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft changing its parking spot on the International Space Station the other day.
I expect it’s opening up the other spot in preparation for the flight to the ISS later this month of the first crewed Dragon spacecraft,
Uncrewed Dragon at the ISS.

That launch, scheduled for May 27, will mark the first time that astronauts will have launched from US soil since 2011 when the Space Shuttle was retired.


Although short, the video is very cool, with The Blue Danube as the background music of choice, naturally.


Okay, so it’s not as cool as the 21st century space station docking we were promised back in 1968, but it’ll do for the moment.


Written by Tom Hunter

May 14, 2020 at 12:01 pm

Posted in New Zealand

Tagged with , ,

The Dragon Flies


Crew Dragon that is, SpaceX’s modified version of its Cargo Dragon spacecraft, which has been hauling supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) since 2012. Crew Dragon is designed to carry astronauts between the USA and the ISS, with other flights to LEO (Low Earth Orbit) as needed.

Yesterday’s successful uncrewed flight – seen in the 3 minute clip above – tested out the in-flight abort system by causing a deliberate malfunction in the Falcon 9 rocket that launched the spacecraft. It all went perfectly, with Crew Dragon using it’s eight small abort rockets built into its hull to pull away from the Falcon, before turning around at Mach 2.2 and slowly descending to the ocean on parachutes.

ISS in orbit around Earth

The Falcon 9 rocket was exploded, resulting in another loud bang to go with the noise of the launch and sonic booms, followed by more noise as pieces of it fell into the ocean. It must have been quite a day at Kennedy Space Center, where it’s usually desired for rockets not to blow up.

The launch was made from the famous Pad39A, used for several Apollo missions to the Moon and countless Space Shuttle launches to orbit and the ISS.

Crew Dragon at the ISS

They’ll be more analysis of the flight done, as beneath the obvious success there may have been the dreaded “anomalies” of the trade.

However, this test would seem to open the final door to a crewed flight to the ISS in April this year, when two NASA astronauts – Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, both former Space Shuttle astronauts – will fly to the ISS and stay there for two weeks.

L->R: NASA Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley

That mission was originally scheduled for April 2019, but there had been the usual delays in various ground tests. Still, in March 2019 the spaceship did make a successful remote-controlled flight to the ISS where it docked and stayed for several days before returning to Earth.

And then in April 2019 this happened!


That was yet another ground test, this time of the abort system rockets, and was expected to be routine since it had been repeated many times since 2015. But in this test it exploded, completely destroying the vehicle and ejecting a smoke plume that could be seen for miles around the Kennedy Space Center, so everybody knew something had gone seriously wrong.

Anybody onboard would have died and that was especially concerning since this was no throwaway test vehicle but the spacecraft that was going to be used for the in-flight abort test and possibly the first crewed flight, since SpaceX is all about reusing their rockets and spacecraft like planes.

It turned out that the explosion occurred because of a very small failure, which is often the case with spacecraft:

“… a small amount of nitrogen tetroxide leaked into a helium line used to pressurize the propellant tanks. The leakage apparently occurred during pre-test processing. As a result, the pressurization of the system 100 ms before firing damaged a check valve and resulted in the explosion.”

Nitrogen Tetroxide is a bitch of a chemical that explodes on contact with certain other chemicals – a so-called hypergolic fuel. That makes it useful for rockets where 100% certainty of firing is needed – like the Apollo Lunar Module Ascent stage rocket for getting off the Moon. But aside from that useful, if dangerous, property it’s also as corrosive as hell, which is why the valves failed. There followed a bunch of upgrades and a series of successful static-fire tests to make way for last weekend’s launch test of the abort system.

The spacecraft carrying the astronauts in April will be a brand-new one off the production line. They will be the first Americans launched into space from US soil since 2011 when the last Space Shuttle flight occurred.

Boeing CST 100 Starliner

When NASA retired its fleet of space shuttles in 2011, the agency looked to the private sector to ferry crews to and from the ISS, selecting SpaceX and Boeing as its future space taxi providers and signing some $6.8 billion of contracts with them for those services.

Aside from Crew Dragon, there’s also the CST-100 Starliner built by Boeing. It has also suffered from years of delays but is also expected to launch astronauts to the ISS this year.

At that point, these vehicles will become NASA’s primary means of transporting astronauts to and from space for many years to come. NASA will finally be free of relying on the Russian Soyuz rocket-spacecraft system and their price of $75 million per person per flight.

And it will be due to smart cooperation between a government agency that needed a commercial-type job done, and seeding the private sector with the expectation that different approaches would be tried quickly – and fail – but eventually result in success beyond what NASA could achieve with a single, traditional-style programme.

Written by Tom Hunter

January 20, 2020 at 11:56 pm