Rocket Report: FAA grounds Starship, Biden’s big rocket dilemma
January 29, 2021
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Northrop Grumman conducted a validation test of its GEM 63XL rocket motor on Jan. 21 at its Promontory, Utah, facility.
Enlarge / Northrop Grumman conducted a validation test of its GEM 63XL rocket motor on Jan. 21 at its Promontory, Utah, facility.

Northrop Grumman

Welcome to Edition 3.31 of the Rocket Report! Most of the news this week has happened with bigger rockets, with an especially interesting bit concerning the Falcon Heavy rocket and NASA’s Europa Clipper that’s worth checking out. It’s also exciting to see NASA and Boeing move the launch date for Starliner’s second test flight forward.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Firefly seeks to raise additional funding. Firefly Aerospace said this week it is looking to raise $350 million to scale up production and work on a new, larger vehicle, SpaceNews reports. Speaking during a webinar on Tuesday about investment in the space industry, Firefly CEO Tom Markusic said the funding would support its long-term growth as it brings the Alpha rocket into service while the company develops a medium-class launch vehicle named Beta.

Betting on growth … “In the next five years,” he said, “we want to take Firefly from a $1 billion company when we go out and fly Alpha and the SUV to, in about five years, being on the order of a $10 billion company.” The SUV to which Markusic was referring is an upper stage called the Space Utility Vehicle that can serve as a space tug. The Alpha rocket is due to make its debut in a few weeks, and Beta could make its debut as early as 2024, Markusic said. (submitted by BH and Ken the Bin)

Virgin Orbit nabs commercial launch contract. Fresh off the first successful flight of its LauncherOne rocket, Virgin Orbit announced on Monday that it has been selected by the Dutch space-engineering company Innovative Solutions in Space to launch the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s first ever satellite, a 6U CubeSat called BRIK-II.

A ride-share mission … Currently scheduled to launch in 2021, BRIK-II will fly as a ride-share payload on an upcoming LauncherOne mission. Virgin Orbit is working via its subsidiary, VOX Space, to add payloads to this mission from the US Department of Defense’s Space Test Program. The mission will fly from Mojave Air & Space Port in California. (submitted by NotYourUsername, platykurtic, and Ken the Bin)

Starliner launch date moves left. NASA said this week that it and Boeing are now targeting no earlier than Thursday, March 25, for the launch of Starliner’s second uncrewed flight test as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. This is four days earlier than the previous date NASA announced, and it is due to the changing availability of an Atlas V rocket.

Next rocket up … Also this week, United Launch Alliance announced that it has delayed the launch of the STP-3 mission for the US Space Force “to enable the customer to evaluate the launch readiness of the STP Satellite-6 spacecraft.” That mission had been due to launch before Starliner, but its delay now means ULA can focus on Boeing’s test flight. (submitted by Ken the Bin and platykurtic)

Crew named for first fully private orbital crew launch. The crew of the first entirely private orbital space mission will include the second-oldest person to launch into space, the second Israeli in space, the 11th Canadian to fly into space, and the first former NASA astronaut to return to the International Space Station, CollectSpace reports. Houston-based Axiom Space is organizing the mission.

Launch within a year … Slated to launch on a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft are: Larry Connor, an American real estate and technology entrepreneur; Eytan Stibbe, a businessman and former Israeli fighter pilot; Mark Pathy, a Canadian investor and philanthropist; and Michael Lopez-Alegria, a retired NASA astronaut. This Ax-1 mission could launch as soon as January 2022. (submitted by Ken the Bin and Tfarog04)

The easiest way to keep up with Eric Berger’s space reporting is to sign up for his newsletter, we’ll collect his stories in your inbox.

Japan moves into next phase of H3 rocket testing. The core stage of the country’s next-generation launcher, H3, will be transported to its launch site at Tanegashima Space center for a series of tests beginning in February. A wet dress rehearsal is planned for March, when the launcher will be loaded with cryogenic propellant, simulating the work leading up to a launch, SpaceNews reports.

No launch date yet … These are hopeful signs for the rocket originally expected to launch in 2020, but which had to overcome problems with its new LE-9 main engine. However, no target launch date has yet been picked (or at least been made public). JAXA says the launch date of the first H3 rocket will be “decided after coordination with the development status of the onboard satellite and related organizations.” (submitted by Ken the Bin and platykurtic)

Falcon 9 launches record number of satellites. On Sunday, SpaceX launched its first dedicated ride-share mission, named Transporter-1, aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. With this launch of 143 total satellites, SpaceX surpassed the previous record holder for most satellites launched in a single mission, set by India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in 2017, Ars reports.

How popular is it? … SpaceX has not disclosed many details about the popularity of its ride-share program or the number of payloads booked on future launches. However, several customers have said they were surprised by the cost and speed of the service SpaceX offered. The company plans to launch a couple of these ride-share missions per year on the Falcon 9 rocket.

NASA solicits information on Clipper commercial launch. NASA has posted a solicitation for a commercial launch vehicle to send its Clipper spacecraft to Jupiter’s moon Europa. “The launch vehicle shall deliver a minimum 6,065 kg Europa Clipper spacecraft with Mars-Earth-Gravity-Assist trajectory characteristics,” the solicitation states. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket is the only available commercial rocket capable of this trajectory. Were the Delta IV Heavy booster to be used, it would need to perform a Venus flyby, necessitating additional thermal protection for Clipper.

So why not just award the contract to SpaceX? … For years, Congress mandated that Clipper launch on the Space Launch System rocket. However, recent wind tunnel tests found that the torsional vibration the SLS boosters would induce is very high and would necessitate a substantial rework of the spacecraft. So Congress agreed to allow the mission to move to a private rocket. However, because some in Congress are not the biggest fans of SpaceX, they wanted NASA to open up the competition to rockets not yet flying, including Vulcan and New Glenn. In response to a question on Twitter, United Launch Alliance’s Tory Bruno declined to say whether a base-model Vulcan could complete the trajectory NASA wants. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Trump leaves Biden with a rocket dilemma. Only two years have passed since then-Vice President Mike Pence offered this tough love for SLS engineers at NASA: “If American industry can provide critical commercial services without government development, then we’ll buy them. And if commercial rockets are the only way to get American astronauts to the Moon in the next five years, then commercial rockets it will be.”

Well, maybe not … Today, the former vice president’s ambitious 2024 goal of landing on the Moon has fallen out of reach. Pence has left office. And of course, the SLS rocket did not launch in 2020. Now, it’s virtually certain to not launch before 2022. So what comes next? This Ars article looks at what may be coming for NASA and the SLS rocket it is building to send humans back to the Moon.

SpaceX scrubs Thursday Starship launch attempt. SpaceX had been gearing up to launch its SN9 prototype Thursday, but a little before 11am local time, the “Temporary Flight Restrictions” for the day’s Starship launch were canceled. Before the scrub, engineers and technicians had been preparing the vehicle for a launch. Local residents were also evacuated.

Elon not happy … The launch appears to have been delayed because the FAA did not grant final approval for the 10km launch attempt. SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted about the FAA, saying, “Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities. Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars.” Temporary Flight Restrictions are also in place for Friday, which is now the earliest possible time the vehicle could take flight. Weather should be more benign for SN9 on Friday.

Space Force ends deals with Northrop, Blue Origin. At the end of 2020, the US Space Force officially terminated launch-technology partnerships signed in October 2018 with Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman, SpaceNews reports. These were six-year public-private partnerships where both the government and the contractors agreed to invest in rocket development and infrastructure required to compete in the National Security Space Launch program.

Not a great deal? … The deals with Northrop and Blue Origin were ended because neither was selected for the program. From October 2018 through December 2020, Blue Origin was paid $255.5 million. The original six-year agreement was worth $500 million. Northrop Grumman got $531.7 million over that same period, nearly two-thirds of the LSA’s total value of $792 million. In return for the investment, the Space Force will get limited rights to data and hardware the companies developed under the agreements.

Northrop conducts rocket-motor validation test. On January 21, Northrop Grumman said it conducted a validation ground test of an extended length 63-inch-diameter Graphite Epoxy Motor in Promontory, Utah. This variation of the company’s GEM 63 strap-on booster was developed in partnership with United Launch Alliance to provide additional lift capability to the Vulcan Centaur rocket.

Ready for a rocket … The GEM 63XL motor fired for approximately 90 seconds, producing nearly 449,000 pounds of thrust to validate the performance capability of the motor design. Additionally, the test firing verified the motor’s internal insulation, propellant grain, ballistics, and nozzle in a hot-conditioned environment. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

Jan. 31: Falcon 9 | Starlink-18 | Kennedy Space Center, Fla. | 12:00 UTC

Feb. 15: Soyuz | Progress 77P | Baikonur Cosmodrome | 04:45 UTC

Feb. 20: Antares | Northrop Grumman-15 ISS Supply mission | Wallops Island, Virginia | 17:36 UTC

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