Part III: All Aboard Elon Musk’s Mars Express

A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)

“The goal of SpaceX is really to build the transport system. It’s like building the Union Pacific Railroad. And once that transport system is built then there’s a tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars and create something new or build the foundations of a new planet.

“When they were building the Union Pacific, a lot of people said that’s a super dumb idea because hardly anybody lives in California. But, now today we’ve got the U.S. epicenter of technology development and entertainment, and it’s the biggest state in the nation.

Elon Musk
SpaceX Founder & CEO

By Douglas Messier
Managing Edtior

The idea of a transcontinental railroad to the West Coast came into the world in 1830 as many dreams do: as a visionary, if seemingly outrageous, plan that few people took seriously. Why build a rail line through a howling wilderness where almost nobody lived? It would be a hideously expensive boondoggle, a road to nowhere.

This same problem has dogged the space movement since Sputnik was launched 60 years ago. While Hartwell Carver and other backers of the transcontinental railroad were able to overcome all the obstacles in their way, human progress in the silent vacuum of space has been slow and halting. It has never lived up the expectations people had at the start of the Space Age.

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NASA Authorization Act Calls for Study of Sending Orion to Space Station

NASA astronaut Suni Williams exits a test version of the Orion spacecraft in the agency’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston. The testing is helping NASA identify the best ways to efficiently get astronauts out of the spacecraft after deep space missions. (Credit: NASA)

The Senate-approved NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 would require the space agency to conduct a study of whether the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle would be capable of carrying crews and supplies to the International Space Station.

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Virgin Galactic Rolled Out Unity a Year Ago

Richard Branson rolls out Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Unity in Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

One year ago today, Virgin Galactic rolled out the second SpaceShipTwo Unity in a lavish ceremony inside the FAITH hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

The new spacecraft made its first captive carry flight with the WhiteKnightTwo mother ship in September. It has since made three additional captive carry tests and a pair of glide flights in December.

Virgin Galactic has said it plans around 10 glide flights before beginning powered tests later this year. Unity will eventually fly paying passengers from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Airbus to Build Second Orion Service Module


BREMEN, Germany (ESA PR) — A European Service Module will power NASA’s Orion spacecraft beyond the Moon and back in 2018, and now work has started on a second mission, this time to carry astronauts.

Set for launch as early as 2021, this will be the first mission since 1972 to take humans out of low orbit – and European hardware will provide propulsion, electrical power, water, thermal control and atmosphere for up to four crew members.

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SpaceX Pushes Back Red Dragon Mission to Mars by 2 Years

Gwynne Shotwell

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the company would delay its 2018 Red Dragon mission to Mars at least two years to better focus its resources on two programs that a running significantly behind schedule.

“We were focused on 2018, but we felt like we needed to put more resources and focus more heavily on our crew program and our Falcon Heavy program,” Shotwell said at a pre-launch press conference in Cape Canaveral, Florida. “So we’re looking more for the 2020 timeframe for that.”

The mission will land a modified Dragon spacecraft on the martian surface. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said he planned to launch Dragons to the surface every two years beginning in 2018, culminating in a crewed mission in 2024.

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Top Programmatic Risks for SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Program

SpaceX Crew Dragon Weldment Structure (Credit: SpaceX)

NASA Commercial Crew Program
Schedule Pressure Increases as Contractors Delay Key Events

GAO Report 17-137
February 16, 2017

Program’s Top Risks for SpaceX

The Commercial Crew Program’s top programmatic and safety risks for SpaceX are, in part, related to ongoing launch vehicle design and development efforts. Prior to SpaceX’s September 2016 loss of a Falcon 9 during pre-launch operations, the program was tracking several risks related to SpaceX’s launch vehicle.

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Top Programmatic Risks for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program

Boeing’s CST-100 Structural Test Article ready for shipment from C3PF to Boeing’s facility in Huntington Beach, California. (Credit: Boeing)

NASA Commercial Crew Program
Schedule Pressure Increases as Contractors Delay Key Events

GAO Report 17-137
February 16, 2017

Program’s Top Risks for Boeing

The Commercial Crew Program’s top programmatic and safety risks for Boeing are, in part, related to having adequate information on certain systems to support certification. For example, the Commercial Crew Program is tracking a risk about having the data it needs to certify Boeing’s launch vehicle, ULA’s Atlas V, for manned spaceflight.

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NASA Astronauts Take Water Survival Training With U.S. Air Force

Four NASA astronauts sit in with a class of survival school students being briefed on life raft procedures Feb. 10, 2017, at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash. Water survival training was hosted at the base fitness center pool. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Ryan Lackey)

By Airman 1st Class Ryan Lackey,
92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. (AFNS) — Four NASA astronauts trained with U.S. Air Force Survival School instructors in water survival and recovery Feb. 10, at the base fitness center pool here.

The astronauts underwent the training in preparation for anticipated test flights of the new commercially made American rockets, the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and the SpaceX Dragon.

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GAO: Commercial Crew Contractors Under Increasing Schedule Pressure


NASA Commercial Crew Program

Schedule Pressure Increases as Contractors Delay Key Events

GAO Report 17-137
February 16, 2017

What GAO Found

Both of the Commercial Crew Program’s contractors have made progress developing their crew transportation systems, but both also have aggressive development schedules that are increasingly under pressure. The two contractors — Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies, Corp. (SpaceX) — are developing transportation systems that must meet the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) standards for human spaceflight — a process called certification.

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NASA Examines Placing Crew on First SLS-Orion Flight

An expanded view of the next configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, including the four RL10 engines. (Credit: NASA)

Reports out of the leaking like a sieve Trump Administration say the president is looking for some space spectacular that can be conducted in time for his re-election campaign in 2020 to serve as evidences he’s made America great again.

So, NASA is examining whether it can give him one by putting a crew on the first Space Launch System-Orion flight, which is currently planned as a circum-lunar flight without astronauts aboard.

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, in a speech at the Space Launch System/Orion Suppliers Conference here Feb. 15, and a memo emailed at the same time to the agency’s workforce, said he had directed Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, to begin a study on the feasibility of putting a crew on the first SLS mission, known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1)….

Current plans call for the EM-1 mission to launch in late 2018 without a crew. The first crewed flight would be EM-2, which NASA is planning to launch in 2021. However, an assessment in 2015 performed as Orion reached a development milestone known as Key Decision Point C indicated that there was a 70 percent chance the EM-2 mission would launch no later than April 2023.

Lightfoot, in the memo, said the study will examine the technical and schedule issues of flying a crew on EM-1. “I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed,” he wrote, “and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date.”

That work, as Lightfoot suggested in his memo, would likely delay the EM-1 launch from its current estimated launch window of September to November 2018. Industry sources said they believe addressing the various issues would delay the mission to 2019 or 2020. That would still be sooner than current NASA schedules for EM-2.

Could Dream Chaser Service Hubble Space Telescope?

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s space vehicle suspends in a hangar at NASA’s Armstrong to undergo testing. (Credit: NASA/Ken Ulbrich)

The Wall Street Journal reports that Sierra Nevada Corporation has put forth a proposal to send a crewed Dream Chaser to service the aging Hubble Space Telescope.

The discussions are still preliminary, no specific plans have been drafted and senior White House aides or administration advisers currently overseeing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration could veto the concept. Decisions about any potentially major NASA initiative await the appointment of a new agency head, according to industry and government officials.

But deliberations about sending a spacecraft to link up with NASA’s pioneering orbiting telescope—comparable to five earlier missions by the now-retired space shuttle fleet stretching back to 1993—illustrate the Trump team’s guiding principles when it comes to space investments. Industry and transition officials agree the focus is on seeking dramatic but relatively inexpensive space projects that can be readily understood by average Americans.

The Hubble repair proposal also has garnered administration officials’ attention because it appears to meet still other important White House criteria, according to these people. The goal is to put a lid on federal expenditures for space by fostering public-private partnerships, while devising projects that can be completed within the president’s current four-year term….

Sierra Nevada is betting that the Trump administration’s enhanced interest in commercial space projects—including transition memos extolling the potential benefits of manned missions orbiting the moon—could revive Hubble’s rejuvenation bid. The company twice presented its proposal to transition officials, according to one person familiar with the details.

Sierra Nevada is currently developing a cargo variant of Dream Chaser to resupply the International Space Station. That vehicle is not scheduled to begin deliveries to the space station until 2019.

It’s not clear how much work, funding or additional testing would be required to upgrade the cargo ship for crew use. Nor is it clear whether a mission to Hubble could be completed in time for Trump’s re-election campaign in 2020.

The company did make substantial progress toward a crew vehicle during NASA’s Commercial Crew Program before Dream Chaser was dropped from the program in 2014.

The two selected commercial crew companies, Boeing and SpaceX, have run into significant technical problems during the final phase of commercial crew development and testing. Both companies are running significantly behind schedule.

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NASA Announces Awards to Develop Oxygen Recovery Technologies for Future Deep Space Missions

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA has selected two proposals for the development of oxygen recovery technologies that could help astronauts breathe a little easier on deep space, long-duration missions. The agency will invest as much as $2 million and 24 months for the development of each proposal into a complete and integrated system for NASA testing.

“The development of advanced life support technologies will allow NASA to establish improved capabilities for future deep space, long-duration, human exploration missions,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) in Washington. “The selected proposals represent the best value to the agency and strong investments for STMD.”

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American, Russian Cargo Ships Set to Resupply Space Station

Dextre at the end of Canadarm2 preparing to remove cargo from Dragon. (Credit: NASA)

The Expedition 50 crew is gearing up for three different spaceships in two months to resupply the International Space Station. The crew also worked today on a variety of research hardware and practiced an emergency drill.

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Astronaut Evaluate Crew Dragon Controls

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Eric Boe evaluate Crew Dragon controls. (Credit: NASA)

HAWTHORNE, Calif. (NASA PR) — Astronauts Bob Behnken, left, and Eric Boe evaluated the controls, seating and other aspects of the crew compartment of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft during a recent visit to the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California. Sitting in a mock-up of the Crew Dragon cockpit, the two studied many aspects of the layout including spacing of displays and ease of movement.

The testing is taking place as SpaceX develops the Crew Dragon with an eye toward launching the spacecraft into orbit in the near future on a flight test to and from the International Space Station. Later, the Crew Dragons, launching atop Falcon 9 rockets, will perform operational missions to rotate crews aboard the orbiting laboratory. Companies build high fidelity models of their spacecraft and systems to help determine everything from practicality and operation to fit and comfort.