2019: A Busy Year in Suborbital Flight

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Last year was a busy one for suborbital flights as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic conducted a combined four flights of their crewed suborbital vehicles. Despite hopes to the contrary, neither company flew paying tourists on their spaceships.

There were also 26 sounding rocket launches that carried scientific experiments and technology payloads above the atmosphere. The year saw:

  • Japanese startup Interstellar Technologies conduct a successful launch of its Momo commercial sounding rocket;
  • Texas-based Exos Aerospace continue to struggle with its reusable SARGE booster; and,
  • the first suborbital launch ever achieved by college students.
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SpaceX Designing Service Tower for Pad 39A

Falcon Heavy on the launch pad. (Credit: SpaceX)

Spaceflight Now reports that SpaceX is completing plans for a mobile service tower so the company can integrate U.S. military satellites onto its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters while they are in a vertical position on Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

The tower will surround Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets at pad 39A, shielding the vehicles from storms and high winds and providing a controlled environment for ground crews to hoist heavy satellites and mount them on top of the launch vehicles in a vertical configuration.

SpaceX currently installs satellites, already cocooned inside their payload shrouds, onto Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets horizontally inside hangars near the company’s launch pads. But some of thee U.S. government’s most sensitive intelligence-gathering satellites, some of which come with billion-dollar or higher price tags, are designed to be mounted on their launch vehicles vertically.

SpaceX officials said the vertical integration capability is required for participants in the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement. The U.S. Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center — now part of the U.S. Space Force — released a request for proposals for the Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement last May.

The military plans to select two companies later this year to launch the Pentagon’s most critical satellite missions from 2022 through 2026. The military’s incumbent National Security Space Launch providers — United Launch Alliance and SpaceX — are competing for the lucrative contracts with newcomers Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin for the Phase 2 contracts.

Boeing Update on Starliner Flight Anomaly

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is guided into position above a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 21, 2019. Starliner will be secured atop the rocket for Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The spacecraft rolled out from Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center earlier in the day.

Boeing Mission Update

The CST-100 Starliner is in a safe, stable orbit after an anomaly this morning following launch and spacecraft separation from the Atlas V.

The anomaly appears to have been the result of a mission elapsed timer (MET) using an unexpected timeline, which delayed orbital insertion thruster firings, putting Starliner in an unplanned orbit. Further root cause analysis is needed.

The Boeing flight control team quickly took action to place Starliner into an orbit that supports a safe landing at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

The combined Boeing and NASA team now plan to work together to define test flight objectives for the remainder of the mission, while preparing for the Starliner landing.

At this time, we do not expect the Starliner to dock at the International Space Station on this flight.

We are proud of the team for their professionalism and quick action to protect the vehicle and enable a safe return. We look forward to reviewing and learning from the data that has been generated from this mission so far.

ULA Successfully Launches Boeing Starliner on the Orbital Flight Test

Atlas V lifts off with Starliner on Orbit Flight Test 1. (Credit: NASA webcast)

Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., (Dec. 20, 2019) – A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying Boeing’s Starliner capsule on the Orbital Flight Test lifted off on Dec. 20 at 6:36:43 a.m. EST, from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This marks the 81st launch of an Atlas V rocket and ULA’s 136th successful launch.

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Starliner Reaches Orbit, Can’t Dock with Station

Atlas V lifts off with Starliner spacecraft on Orbital Flight Test 1. (Credit: NASA webcast)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft suffered an anomaly after reaching space during its maiden flight test on Friday morning, resulting in the abandonment of plans for a rendezvous and docking with the International Space Station (ISS).

Boeing and NASA officials said the spacecraft is in a good orbit and performing well. They are planning an abbreviated two-day flight test before bringing the spacecraft down for a landing on Sunday morning at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

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NASA Selects ULA’s Atlas V Rocket to Launch GOES-T Weather Satellite

ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the AEHF-4 mission for the U.S. Air Force lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41. (Credit: ULA)

Centennial, Colo., Dec. 18, 2019 (ULA PR) – NASA’s Launch Services Program announced today that it selected United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) proven Atlas V vehicle to launch the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-T mission, the second to last satellite in the GOES constellation. This award resulted from a competitive Launch Service Task Order evaluation under the NASA Launch Services II contract.

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Starliner Launch on Schedule for Friday Morning

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is guided into position above a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 21, 2019. Starliner will be secured atop the rocket for Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The spacecraft rolled out from Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center earlier in the day.

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. (ULA PR) — Everything is progressing toward the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch carrying the Orbital Flight Test (OFT),  Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule. 

The mission is set to lift off on Friday, Dec. 20, from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The instantaneous launch is planned for 6:36 a.m. EST.

Live broadcast coverage of launch will begin at 5:30 a.m. EST on Dec. 20 and will broadcast live on NASA TV. Live launch updates and the webcast will be available at www.ulalaunch.com and  www.boeing.com/starliner

Atlas V rocket will deliver the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to a 98 nautical mile suborbital trajectory to the International Space Station. After Starliner separation from Atlas V, Starliner engines will burn taking it the rest of the way to orbit and on to the International Space Station.

The Starliner OFT will be the 81st launch of the Atlas V and will mark ULA’s 136th mission.

Launch Forecast Summary

Today’s forecast shows a 70 percent chance of favorable weather conditions for launch. 

Overall probability of violating weather constraints: 30%
Primary concerns: Cumulus cloud rule, ground winds
Overall probability of violating weather constraints for 24-hour delay: 40%
Primary concern: Cumulus cloud rule, thick cloud layer rule

Updates

To keep up to speed with updates, dial the ULA launch hotline at 1-877-852-4321 or join the conversation at  www.facebook.com/ulalaunch,  twitter.com/ulalaunch and instagram.com/ulalaunch; hashtags #AtlasV #Starliner

NASA to Provide Coverage of Boeing Orbital Flight Test for Commercial Crew

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is guided into position above a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 21, 2019. Starliner will be secured atop the rocket for Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The spacecraft rolled out from Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center earlier in the day.

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — The launch of Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test (OFT) to the International Space Station, as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, is targeted for 6:36 a.m. EST Friday, Dec. 20. The uncrewed flight test will be the Boeing CST-100 Starliner’s maiden mission to the space station.

Live coverage will begin on NASA Television and the agency’s website  Tuesday, Dec. 17, with prelaunch events.

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NASA, Boeing to Hold Media Teleconference on Orbital Flight Test Mission

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is guided into position above a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 21, 2019. Starliner will be secured atop the rocket for Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The spacecraft rolled out from Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center earlier in the day.

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA and Boeing will hold a news teleconference Thursday, Dec. 12, following the agency’s Flight Readiness Review for Boeing’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) to the International Space Station, as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

The teleconference will begin no earlier than 2 p.m. EST, or approximately one hour after the review ends. The start time will be adjusted as necessary. Media may participate and ask questions via phone only.

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ULA Conducts Dress Rehearsal for Starliner Launch; Date Slips a Day

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is guided into position above a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 21, 2019. Starliner will be secured atop the rocket for Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The spacecraft rolled out from Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center earlier in the day.

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla., Dec. 6, 2019 (ULA PR) — The launch of the Atlas V rocket carrying Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test (OFT) Starliner spacecraft is now targeted for Dec. 20.

We successfully conducted a wet dress rehearsal (WDR), a critical pre-launch milestone, on Friday, Dec. 6. We were unable to complete the milestone on Thursday, Dec. 5, as planned due to a weather-related launch delay of an International Space Station re-supply mission, which created a range resource conflict. This caused our targeted launch date to shift to the right by one day.

We continue to work closely with Boeing to ensure that the Starliner flies as soon as the spacecraft and launch vehicle are ready. 

Starliner Launch Delayed Two Days to Dec. 19

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is guided into position above a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 21, 2019. Starliner will be secured atop the rocket for Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The spacecraft rolled out from Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center earlier in the day.

Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., Dec. 3, 2019 (ULA PR) — The launch of the Atlas V rocket carrying Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test (OFT) Starliner spacecraft is now targeted for Dec. 19, 2019.

During pre-launch processing of the Atlas V, there was an issue with the rocket’s purge air supply duct. Additional time was needed for the ULA and Boeing teams to complete an analysis of the issue, replace the duct and complete processing ahead of launch.

We continue to work closely with Boeing to ensure that the Starliner flies as soon as the spacecraft and launch vehicle are ready. 

Boeing CST-100 Starliner Rolled Out, Mated with Booster

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is guided into position above a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 21, 2019. Starliner will be secured atop the rocket for Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The spacecraft rolled out from Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center earlier in the day.

By Linda Herridge
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft that will launch to the International Space Station on the company’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) has taken a significant step toward launch. Starliner rolled out of Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 21, making the trek on a transport vehicle to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

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GAO Upholds Blue Origin’s Protest Over USAF Launch Solicitation

Jeff Bezos

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has upheld a pre-award protest by Blue Origin over the selection process the U.S. Air Force is using to award contracts for military launches for the years 2022 to 2027.

GAO recommended the Air Force modify the solicitation under which it planned to select two companies that would compete for launches during that period. The decision would have been based on which combination of two independently developed proposals provided the best value to the government.

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USAF Selects 8 Companies to Compete for Launch Contracts

The U.S. Air Force has selected eight companies to compete for $986 worth of launch contracts under its Orbital Services Program-4 (OSP-4) program. The companies include:

  • Aevum Inc., Huntsville, Ala.;
  • Firefly Black LLC, Cedar Park, Texas;
  • Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, Chandler, Ariz.;
  • Rocket Lab USA Inc., Huntington Beach, Calif.;
  • Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Hawthorne, Calif.;
  • United Launch Alliance, Centennial, Colo.;
  • VOX Space LLC., El Segundo, Calif.;
  • Xbow Launch Systems Inc., Auburn, Calif.;

“The contract seeks to capitalize on the emerging small launch providers while providing dedicated and primary launch services to the Department of Defense and other government agencies,” the U.S. Air Force said in announcing the selections.

“The program allows for the rapid acquisition of launch services to meet mission requirements for payloads greater than 400 pounds, enabling launch to any orbit within 12-24 months from task order award,” the announcement added.

The eight companies will be competitive for indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity, firm-fixed-price contracts under OSP-4.

China Launch Surge Left U.S., Russia Behind in 2018

Long March 2F rocket in flight carrying Shenzhou-11. (Credit: CCTV)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The year 2018 was the busiest one for launches in decades. There were a total of 111 completely successful launches out of 114 attempts. It was the highest total since 1990, when 124 launches were conducted.

China set a new record for launches in 2018. The nation launched 39 times with 38 successes in a year that saw a private Chinese company fail in the country’s first ever orbital launch attempt.

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