Former senator Bill Nelson appearance before the Senate Commerce Committee this week turned into a mutual admiration society with legislators and the nominee for NASA administrator exchanging compliments and largely agreeing on the future direction of the space agency.
Barring some unexpected development, the Senate Commerce Committee should easily approve Nelson’s nomination and forward it to the full Senate, where it is likely to pass by a wide margin.
The only fireworks that were expected prior to the hearing involved NASA’s controversial decision last week to award a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX to build the Human Landing System to take astronauts to the lunar surface as part of the Artemis program.
Some legislators have questions the decision to award a single contract instead of making multiple awards to maintain competition and give NASA redundancy. Losing bidders included Dynetics and Blue Origin’s National Team, which included Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.
Nelson voiced support for the award and the goal of landing two astronauts at the lunar south pole by the end of 2024.
“I think you may be pleased that we’re gonna see that timetable try to be adhered to, but recognize that with some sobering reality that space is hard,” Nelson said.
The SpaceX contract covers an uncrewed and crewed lunar landings by the company’s Starship vehicle. NASA plans to open another competition for taking crews and cargo to the lunar surface as the agency builds a base on the moon.
Losing bidders Blue Origin National Team and Dynetics have major presence in Huntsville, Ala.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, Congressman Robert Aderholt (AL-04) released the following statement after NASA’s announcement about the Human Lander System or HLS.
“America’s space program is extremely important to me and returning Americans to the surface of the moon is a top priority. However, NASA’s award decision today raises a lot of questions. NASA and the U.S. Air Force recently agreed to very high SpaceX prices, several times the price on the company’s web site, for a launch of Gateway elements, and for national security payloads. The years of delay in the development of the Falcon Heavy, as well as recent tests of the Starship program as reported in the news, also raise technical and scheduling questions. Given the importance of our space program to our national security, I will be asking NASA a number of questions about today’s announcement and about their management of the program.”
WASHINGTON (House Science Committee PR) — Today, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced it has selected SpaceX to continue development of the Human Landing System (HLS) that will transport astronauts to the lunar surface under the Artemis program.
Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) made the following statement.
“I am disappointed that the Acting NASA leadership decided to make such a consequential award prior to the arrival of a new permanent NASA Administrator and Deputy Administrator. The decision to make the award today also comes despite the obvious need for a re-baselining of NASA’s lunar exploration program, which has no realistic chance of returning U.S. astronauts to the Moon by 2024. While work continues on the upcoming Artemis-1 mission, it will be critically important for the new NASA leadership team to carry out its own review of all elements of NASA’s Moon-Mars initiative to ensure that this major national undertaking is put on a sound footing.”
HOUSTON (NASA PR) — NASA is getting ready to send astronauts to explore more of the Moon as part of the Artemis program, and the agency has selected SpaceX to continue development of the first commercial human lander that will safely carry the next two American astronauts to the lunar surface. At least one of those astronauts will make history as the first woman on the Moon. Another goal of the Artemis program includes landing the first person of color on the lunar surface.
The Washington Post is reporting that SpaceX has won a single-source contract to develop the Human Landing System (HLS) based on its Starship design that will take humans back to the moon.
SpaceX beat out Dynetics and the Blue Origin-led National team that included Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper. SpaceX’s $2.9 billion bid was well below that of its competitors, according to the Post.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said a methane leak caused the Starship SN11 prototype to explode in midair on March 30. Musk tweeted:
Ascent phase, transition to horizontal & control during free fall were good.
A (relatively) small CH4 leak led to fire on engine 2 & fried part of avionics, causing hard start attempting landing burn in CH4 turbopump.
This is getting fixed 6 ways to Sunday.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 5, 2021
The leak and explosion occurred as the vehicle was beginning preparations to land at SpaceX’s test site at Boca Chica, Texas. It was the fourth failure to land a Starship prototype in as many attempts.
The SN15 Starship is now being prepared for flight. SpaceX elected to skip prototypes SN12 through SN14.
SpaceX launched its Starship SN11 prototype from Boca Chica on Tuesday morning, only to see the vehicle crash like its predecessors SN8, SN9 and SN10.
It is not entirely clear what precisely went wrong because the vehicle was launched in a thick fog that enveloped the coastal launch site in south Texas.
Using onboard cameras, SpaceX’s website showed SN11 reaching 10 km as it gradually shut off all three engines. It then glided down to an altitude of 1 km, at which time SN11 began to restart one of its engines and to pivot for a landing.
At 5:49 into the flight, the feed from the onboard camera froze. This was followed by the sound of what appeared to be an explosion and vehicle parts crashing to the ground.
“We do appear to have lost all data from the vehicle,” said John Insprucker, who anchored SpaceX’s webcast of the test. “We’re going to have to find out from the team what happened.”
Insprucker ended the webcast a short time later without providing any further details. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted, ‘At least the crater is in the right place!”
“Looks like engine 2 had issues on ascent & didn’t reach operating chamber pressure during landing burn, but, in theory, it wasn’t needed,” Musk later tweeted. “Something significant happened shortly after landing burn start. Should know what it was once we can examine the bits later today.”
The next vehicle will be called SN15. As part of SpaceX’s rapid prototyping approach, SN12 through SN14 have been skipped.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX plans to build a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant to produce dishes, Wi-Fi routers and related devices for the Starlink satellite broadband network in Austin, Texas, and establish the “city of Starbase” at Boca Chica, Texas.
“Specifically, they will design and develop control systems and software for production line machinery – ultimately tackling the toughest mechanical, software, and electrical challenges that come with high volume manufacturing, all while maintaining a focus on flexibility, reliability, maintainability, and ease of use,” said a job posting for the position of automation and controls engineer.
CNBC reports that Elon Musk’s SpaceX has completed an equity funding round of $850 million, raising the company’s valuation to $74 billion.
The company raised the new funds at $419.99 a share, those people said — or just 1 cent below the $420 price that Elon Musk made infamous in 2018 when he declared he had “funding secured” to take Tesla private at that price.
The latest round also represents a jump of about 60% in the company’s valuation from its previous round in August, when SpaceX raised near $2 billion at a $46 billion valuation.
In addition to SpaceX further building a war chest for its ambitious plans, company insiders and existing investors were able to sell $750 million in a secondary transaction, one of the people said.
SpaceX will use the funding to build out its 12,000-satellite Starlink broadband network and to develop its Super Heavy and Starship vehicles.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has provided more information on SpaceX’s SN8 launch in December and the delay in issuing a license for the SN9 flight conducted yesterday. Basically, the agency says SpaceX proceeded with the December launch without approval, but it is not fining the company for the violation.
FAA Statement on Starship SN8 Launch
Regarding the SpaceX Starship SN8 launch in December 2020, the company proceeded with the launch without demonstrating that the public risk from far field blast overpressure was within the regulatory criteria specified by 14 CFR § 431.35(b)(1)(i).
The FAA required SpaceX to conduct an investigation of the incident, including a comprehensive review of the company’s safety culture, operational decision-making and process discipline. All testing that could affect public safety at the Boca Chica launch site was suspended until the investigation was completed and the FAA approved the company’s corrective actions.
With respect to potential enforcement action, the FAA’s compliance monitoring and enforcement is designed to modify behavior to comply with federal safety regulations. It also has various enforcement tools available to ensure satisfactory public safety results.
The FAA-approved corrective actions implemented by SpaceX enhanced public safety. Those actions were incorporated into today’s SN9 launch. We anticipate taking no further enforcement action on SN8 matter.
HAWTHORNE, Calif. (SpaceX PR) — On Tuesday, February 2, Starship serial number 9 (SN9) completed SpaceX’s second high-altitude flight test of a Starship prototype from our site in Cameron County, Texas.
Similar to the high-altitude flight test of Starship serial number 8 (SN8), SN9 was powered through ascent by three Raptor engines, each shutting down in sequence prior to the vehicle reaching apogee – approximately 10 kilometers in altitude. SN9 successfully performed a propellant transition to the internal header tanks, which hold landing propellant, before reorienting itself for reentry and a controlled aerodynamic descent.
The Starship prototype descended under active aerodynamic control, accomplished by independent movement of two forward and two aft flaps on the vehicle. All four flaps are actuated by an onboard flight computer to control Starship’s attitude during flight and enable precise landing at the intended location. During the landing flip maneuver, one of the Raptor engines did not relight and caused SN9 to land at high speed and experience a RUD.
These test flights are all about improving our understanding and development of a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration, interplanetary flights and help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond.
SpaceX’s Starship SN9 rocket finally flew from Boca Chica in Texas on Tuesday, reaching an altitude of 10 km (6.2 miles) before pancaking into the ground in a gigantic fireball just like its predecessor, Starship SN8, did back in December.
It appeared that one of two rocket engines that were supposed to fire as the rocket reoriented itself for landing failed to ignite. The rocket then plunged into the ground and exploded.
The build up for this flight was longer than usual because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not issue a launch license in time for SM9’s planned flight last week.
The FAA issued the launch license late Monday after resolving safety issues. The agency issued the following statement explaining the circumstances behind issuing the license.
Prior to SN8 test launch in December, SpaceX sought a waiver to exceed the maximum public risk allowed by federal safety regulations. After the FAA denied the request, SpaceX proceeded with the flight. As a result of this non-compliance, FAA required SpaceX to conduct an investigation of the incident. All testing that could affect public safety at Boca Chica launch site was suspended until the investigation was completed and FAA approved company’s corrective actions to protect public safety. The corrective actions arising from the SN8 incident are incorporated into the SN9 launch license.
SpaceX has already rolled out the doomed rocket’s successor, SN10 rocket.
Flight date depends upon completion of review and the issuing of a launch license by Federal Aviation Administration.
Wednesday, February 3
Launch Vehicle: Falcon 9 Payloads: 60 Starlink broadband satellites Launch Time: 5:57 a.m. EST (1057 UTC) Launch Site: Kennedy Space Center, Florida
Thursday, February 4
Launch Vehicle:Falcon 9 Payloads: 60 Starlink broadband satellites Launch Time: 1:19 a.m. EST (0619 UTC) Launch Site: Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida
NET Saturday, February 13
Launch Vehicle: VSS Unity/VMS Eve Payload: Two pilots, microgravity experiments Launch Time: TBD Launch Site: Spaceport America, New Mexico
Repeat of a flight test aborted on Dec. 12 due the computer losing contact with the engine. Launch opportunities extend through February. First of three additional tests intended to complete SpaceShipTwo’s initial flight test program.
SpaceX was not able to conduct a planned flight test of its SN9 Starship vehicle at Boca Chica in Texas this week because it didn’t have a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
This time, instead of a rocket exploding, Twitter did.