My Views on Commercial Space

Today during a twitter conversation about the new SpaceX Texas Spaceport one of the people in the discussion send the following tweet.

This got me thinking as personally I fully believe in Commercial Space as being the key to the future of human access to space. The reason I am writing this post is to share my perspective Commercial Space.

Yes during the twitter conversation it could be viewed that I was downplaying Commercial Space, however that really wasn’t the case, I was basing the information on what I had learned this week from Garrett Reisman of SpaceX who during a Q&A session after his presentation at the NASA FISO forum stated that the SpaceX Texas Spaceport would not be used for crewed missions. This was because at present the only customer for Commercial Crew is NASA and to get to the space station from Texas would have required flying over populate land which is not allowed under FAA rules.

Commercial Crew

It is my hope that at least two companies are selected under the up coming CCtCap awards which are due to be announced any time now.  Yes I would love SpaceX to be one of those awarded not only because I am a fan of SpaceX but also because currently Boeing and Sierra Nevada plan to use the Atlas 5 launcher which uses the RD-180 Russian engine, although both have said that they could fly on Falcon 9 too.

In an ideal scenario all three companies would be funded to give the US a huge advantage over the rest of the world when it comes to launching crew to orbit, longer term it is my hope that future missions for NASA would use commercial crew for missions especially to LEO and even as far as the moon.  Eventually there would be no need for NASA to have there own launcher and instead could focus there money on science and exploration.

Commercial Stations

In an article that I plan to publish next month I talk a lot more about this, personally I believe that any successor to the International Space Station (ISS) should be derived from commercially available platforms like the Bigelow inflatable modules or others yet to come.  Smaller versions of these inflatable modules could be used to provide crew quarters for longer distance missions.

Bigelow are currently planning to launch at least one of their BA-330 module in 2017 presumably once there is at least one Commercial Crew provider available.  Once there modules are in space and depending on their orbit it could well be that crew could be launched from Texas or even from California.

Space Resource provisioning

For us to be successful in space we need to establish a reliable way of supplying missions from space itself, this would reduce the amount of cargo/fuel that needs to be launched allowing larger payloads, pair that with inflatable spacecraft then longer distance missions could be launched where only the supplies that cannot be sourced in space need to be included.

So why am I playing down the potential

That was never my intention, however I can certainly see from what was said recently that it could be viewed that way, and will certainly be more careful how I say things in future.

I fully believe that the only viable solution to human’s permanent presence in space is through commercial companies.  I closely follow the Commercial Crew programs from Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX, as well as what is happening with Bigelow and any other companies that are trying to future the use of space.

Will SLS ever fly

Following on from my previous article I wanted to explore the possibility that the Space Launch System (SLS) may never actually fly.

While progress has been made on the SLS it will not be ready to fly when President Barack Obama leaves office and given that he cancelled the Constellation Program (CxP) when he came to office it is quite likely that whoever takes office in 2017 could look at how much has been spent on SLS and decide to cancel it too.  Thankfully we believe that the Commercial Crew program will be far enough along that it won’t be cancelled but there is no guarantee.

So what happens if SLS is cancelled?

1) The US would have spent close to $25 billion on CxP and SLS by the time it is cancelled (including Orion and Ground support work).  While elements of the work could be used on a new program it is likely that some of the money would have been wasted.

2) Depending what direction the new President decided the new launcher for NASA could be many years away.

3) NASA would be dependent on Commercial Crew or Russia to launch people to orbit, while that would be the case for International Space Station (ISS) anyway this would also apply to any other missions before an alternate is available.

What do we hope happens?

1) That SLS is cancelled, despite how much has been “invested” in the program we feel that the system is just too expensive to ever fly.  We have heard estimates that each flight could cost $2-3b but at present there just isn’t enough data to know for certain.

2) That any new direction decided would make use of the Commercial partners that are already providing services to NASA.  SpaceX have plans for Falcon Heavy which would have the largest payload capacity of any rocket currently available and they are already working on engines for a successor to that.  The three competitors in the Commercial Crew Program Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX all have vehicles that can carry as many as seven passengers to orbit.  SpaceX’s long term goals are to travel to Mars which means they will have vehicles in the future that can make the journey.

3) That whatever plan is decided on by the President is based on feedback from the citizen’s of the US, either via a Survey or by putting together a team of non government experts who could layout a course that benefits everyone, a decadal survey for manned space flight.

4) Whatever plan is adopted needs to at least have started flying within a single Presidential term so that it is much harder to cancel when the next President takes office.

The views in this article are our own, we would love to 
hear your feedback on this.


The true cost of getting the US back to manned flight

To date we have seen a lot of talk about the cost of the SLS program, however that isn’t the only cost that has been incurred by the US tax payer since the announcement that the Space Shuttle was to be retired. This article will look at everything that has happened since then and how much has been spent, or remains to be spent based on current budgets before the US has manned flights again.

First we will look at NASA’s progress towards manned flight, then we will look at the Commercial sector.


In early 2003 President George W. Bush announced the retirement of the Space Shuttle during his Vision for Space Exploration initiative, which also called for the development of a new launch system and manned capsule capable of launching crew to the International Space Station and beyond. The program was known as the Constellation (CxP) program and consisted of two launch vehicles Ares I and Ares V, ohe crewed capsule Orion and a lander Altair. Work on CxP progressed to the point where an Ares I rocket was launched in Oct 2009, however shortly after President Barack Obama took office the program was cancelled and instead NASA was refocused on the Space Launch System.

Total cost of CxP: $9 billion estimated in 2010

In 2010 President Barack Obama cancelled the Constellation program and launched the Space Launch System (SLS) plan that called for a single launcher with different capacities from 70mt to 130mt and a human rated capsule which would allow 2-6 crew members to be travel to space.  With this new goal set NASA began working on the SLS and just this week passed the KDP-C  which takes the SLS from design phase to manufacture.  However first flight is still targeted to be somewhere between 12/2017 and 11/2018 depending if everything is ready, with only a 70% confidence of meeting that target.

We also need to take into account the cost of building the crew vehicle that will be launched on SLS, this is a key part of the goal.  There have been a number of tests performed so far on different versions of the Orion module with the first test flight using a Delta IV heavy currently scheduled for later this year 12/2014.

And finally we cannot forget that to launch this massive new rocket the ground support systems will also need to be upgraded, the VAB hasn’t been used for such a large vehicle since the last Saturn 5 launch, in addition the launch pad needs to be upgraded to handle the larger rocket.

Estimated cost of SLS: $7 billion by launch in 11/2018
Estimated cost of Orion: $10 billion
Estimated cost of Ground Systems: $3 billion

Commercial Providers

Due to NASA focus on the a large capacity system that would most likely to too costly and too late for International Space Station crew missions NASA was also tasked with out-sourcing ISS Cargo and Crew missions to commercial companies.  This has been successfully completed with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences providing multiple missions already and contracted for many more.  For crew the process is still on-going with three companies currently working under CCiCap agreements, this will soon be narrowed down to one or two companies under the new CCtCap agreements which is due to be announced any time.

Total cost of Commercial Cargo Dev for NASA: $800 million

Total allocated fund for Commercial Crew Dev (so far) for NASA: $1.2 billion based on budget requests thru 2013 budget. *

* For Commercial Crew the money is only paid out upon reaching pre-defined milestones so while this amount has been allocated not all has been paid out yet.


So in summary NASA has spent $800m helping bring Commercial cargo availability back to the US, that doesn’t include the $3.4b it has on contract with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences for actual cargo which isn’t relevant for this article.

They have so far spent $1.2b helping bring Commercial crew availability back to the US and assuming there are not any significant issues with whoever is selected to move forward in CCtCap should have the capacity to launch crew in the next two years.

And finally they will have spent an estimated $16b on the Rocket, $10b on Orion and $3b on upgrades to the ground system to have there own launch capability back.  If the first SLS does finally launch in late 2017 or sometime in 2018 then NASA would have launched just three rockets in 12 or 13 years (one a commercial rocket carrying the first test Orion), at a cost of $9.6b each.  This cost doesn’t actually include the first crewed flight with SLS as we currently don’t have enough data to truly calculate the total, however some have estimated that the total cost by first crewed flight could be anywhere from $32-37b.

While we understand developing a new rocket isn’t a cheap project, it is also clear based on the numbers above the both SpaceX and Orbital were able to bring new rockets to the table Falcon 9 and Antares for far less and in much shorter time-frames.

We also have three viable Commercial Crew vehicles in development each of which has a larger crew capacity and at least two of which could be flying most likely before the first SLS ever leaves the ground.  **

The other factor that we need to consider is the 2016 Presidential Election, we already know that there will be a new president starting in 2017 and it is quite possible that whoever is elected will look at the amount of money spent on SLS and want changes made anywhere from cancelling the whole program to re-purposing it which could cause costly delays.

** Based on two being awarded CCtCap contracts, although SpaceX has already stated that they would try to continue development of Dragon V2 even if they don’t get an award as it is key to their long term goals of sending people to Mars.

The opinions in this article are my own, the information on costs is 
publicly available from multiple sources on the internet.


SpaceX talk to NASA FISO

2014-08-27_163946This afternoon SpaceX’s Garrett Reisman gave a talk to NASA’s Future In-Space Operations Group regarding SpaceX.

During the talk he mentioned the up coming milestones for CCiCap.

The Dragon Pad Abort test will be performed from the top of a test structure from SLC-40 as SLC-39 will not be ready in time. The vehicle will include a dummy and prototype seat so that they can gather data during the test on the effects on the crew.

The second test will be the in-flight abort test, will be just before Max-Q and will allow SpaceX to determine how they can control the spacecraft as it flies away from the Dragon.

The goal for SpaceX is to fly a Falcon to orbit, land it, refuel and fly again.

SpaceX building own docking mechanism for Dragon V2 will be simpler and lighter than shuttle version.

Dragon V2 will use parachutes during landing and then fire the Super-Draco engines to cushion the landing.

After the talk a number of questions were asked

Q) How re-usable will be Dragon V2 be.
A) Designed for 10 flights but not going to worry about that for cert, willing to build a new one for each flight.

Q) What happens after an launch abort with landing?
A) Will always be a water landing, however if the wind drifts you to land it can still land.

Q) Range safety for the Texas site?
A) Brownsville will only be for commercial to GEO so will be threading through the keyhole between Florida and Mexico so that there isn’t any over flight of land.

Q) Raptor engine development status?
A) Designed for follow on to Falcon Heavy, currently components are in testing a Stennis.

Q) Where there any considerations to building the rockets closer to the launch side to limit the restrains on the design which stops the cores from being larger than 12 feet otherwise additional costs come into play for transportation?

A) The follow on to Falcon Heavy will most likely have a larger structure, currently no decision on where this will be manufactured.

Q) Is the initial Falcon Heavy flight still on track?
A) As far as he knows it is but hasn’t checked the chart recently to be sure.

Q) How much will seat be for crewed missions?
A) Plan for 7 crew members expected to be $20m cost for fewer crew will increase but unsure of cost. Number of flights per year will also be a factor in the cost per person.

Q) Falcon Heavy Shroud – Any plans to have larger on vehicle?
A) Current plan is to use the same one as Falcon 9, there is desire for larger but no current plans for bigger. Currently want to keep the same one to reduce the risks and costs of having different sizes.

Q) Are the cores the same for the Falcon Heavy?
A) Central Core is same, outer cores originally planned to have different plumbing but that may have changed now.

Q) Will first FH launch use cross-feed?
A) Not sure at present, originally that was the plan.

Q) Will the Raptor engine be usable as an upper stage engine in the future?
A) Not know at the current time.

Q) Dragon recovery process? Parachutes + Propulsion?
A) Propulsive is for the final part of the landing, parachutes for main descent.

Q) When is the SpaceX IPO?
A) No plans at present, Elon has stated that they would like to wait until they have people on Mars.

Q) What can you tell us about the F9R incident?
A) It looks like it was a single point failure on the F9R, which doesn’t exist on F9. Most likely even if the same failure had happened on F9 it would have continued it’s mission without any issues. Because F9R didn’t have a backup they had to abort the test as it flew outside the bounds of the flight.

Below is the presentation


AsiaSat-6 launch scrubbed

SpaceX announced this afternoon that this evening’s AsiaSat-6 launch has been scrubbed. This follows last Friday’s F9R test failure and almost certainly is to allow the team more time to review the data from that test and ensure that the problem won’t happen to the F9 launcher.

While this is yet another delay for SpaceX it is to be understood, while the failure last week was on a test vehicle having a similar issue with a commercial launch would be a big setback for SpaceX.

A new launch date has not yet been announced, SpaceX do have a backup date for 8/28 if ready otherwise could be next week.

SpaceX Test Rocket Explodes during Test

22falcon9r_400281A serious anomaly occurred during the latest flight of SpaceX reusable test rocket F9R resulting in the Flight Termination Software destroying the rocket.  This was the first test flight of the three engine test vehicle which is designed to fly higher than the single engine vehicles that had been tested up to this point.  Elon Musk acknowledged the explosion on his twitter account.

Several video’s have appeared online of the test flight and it seems clear that the rocket was having issues well before it exploded as it can be seen diverting left and right and appeared to flip over just before it exploded.

What does this mean for SpaceX?

First let us now forget that this is a test vehicle and therefore there was no guarantee that it would work, so far SpaceX have had a lot of success with the Grasshopper and F9R test flights but as they continue to push the limits something was bound to happen.

Second these tests are for the re-usability functionality that SpaceX are planning for the future where they plan to return the first stages to the launch pad so that they can be reused.  The design of this vehicle is also different, while the stage is the same size as the full Falcon 9 there were only three engines on this one not the full nine that would be found on a standard first stage.  And let us not forget that NO-ONE else is even attempting to do this.

However the timing isn’t ideal, just today the FAA approved the test flights of the DragonFly vehicle which is designed to test the propulsive landing capabilities of the Dragon spacecraft, also today the static fire test for the AsiaSat-6 launch was performed and appears to have been successful and finally the CCtCap awards are just around the corner and this failure could cause some in Congress to question awarding SpaceX with the CCtCap agreement until the results of the failure investigation are made available.

What happens next?

SpaceX have not said if this failure will have an impact on the launch of the AsiaSat-6 satellite next Wednesday morning.  They will be reviewing the data from the static fire test and will then holder a final review meeting to determine if the launch can proceed.  Should they decide they need more time due to this failure that would be decided then.

SpaceX will no doubt perform a full review of the F9R test flight to determine what happened and what needs to be done to address the issue.  However the data they are collecting from the F9R is being supplemented by the successful return flights of the full Falcon 9 missions, while the two AsiaSat launches didn’t allow the full return test due to needing more fuel to launch the next Dragon flight to the ISS SpX-4 is due to launch in September and will allow another test to be performed.  SpaceX have already announced that they will soon attempt to land on a barge however no further details are available at the moment.

We have no doubt that SpaceX’s competitors will be jumping all over this failure regardless of the fact that it was a test flight and we are also sure that those on congress how have voiced opposition to SpaceX will also try to make the most of this.

The key question for us is how will SpaceX handle this?

Delta 4 launches on 5th Attempt

Following one delay due to a technical issue and three due to bad weather a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket finally lifted off this evening carrying Twin inspector spacecraft and a micro-satellite test-bed.  The launch was delayed several times this evening also due to weather but finally a window opened and they were able to get off the ground.

Due to the nature of the mission the live stream ended before the payloads were deployed, check back here later to determine the status of the mission.

Below are some images captured from the live stream.

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The SpaceX EELV debate

There has been quite a heated debate about the whole SpaceX Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle issue recently on twitter and in the press. This article discusses this debate and our views on the situation.

As you may remember SpaceX filed suit last month Elon Musk announced that SpaceX were filing a suit against the US Air Force (USAF) protesting the United Launch Alliance (ULA) block purchase which had been award without any competition.

Since this happened the debate seems to be firmly split into two camps, those who fully support SpaceX’s actions and those who don’t. Having viewed both sides of the debate we can see valid points from both camps.

Should SpaceX have the chance to compete? Yes regardless of whether they have proven to date that they can reliably launch payloads they should have the chance to compete against ULA.

What if they lose anyway? As Elon Musk stated when they filed the suit they just want the chance to compete, if the USAF decide that ULA is still the better option then they would have to accept that and move on. If they were to compete today we believe they would absolutely lose because they just don’t have the track record yet.

What happens if a launch fails? As with any launch provider if they lose a payload due to a launch failure then they would have to investigate to determine what went wrong and then prove that they have addressed the issue before having the chance to launch again.  The bigger question is can they survive a launch failure?  That is really an unknown at this point, it would really depend on what caused the failure and what would be involved in resolving it.

They don’t have the same launch capacities as ULA so can’t compete? That is correct as of today they can only compete for the smaller payloads, however once the Falcon Heavy rocket is complete and has been flown a few times SpaceX will have the ability to launch larger payloads than any of the ULA rocket combinations currently available.

Why did they sue USAF? To highlight the fact that a large order had been placed without any competition.

What about all the delays? SpaceX are still a young company compared with ULA or any of the other launch providers and therefore have a lot more to lose if something goes wrong as I said before here.

So what is next for SpaceX? This debate is not going to go away anytime soon, personally we believe that SpaceX should just knuckle down and get back on track with the launches they have on the books already.  The more flights they complete over the next 18 months and if they can reduce the number of delays we believe they will be in a much better position to compete for the USAF contracts.

SpaceX Launches Six Orbcomm Satellites

Fourth time is a charm for SpaceX as they finally launch six Orbcomm OG2 satellites to orbit.  This morning’s launch which was delayed slightly to resolve a ground system issue lifted off at 11:15 am EDT when the nine Merlin 1D engine’s on the first stage roared to life.  Ten minutes later the second stage completed it’s planned burn leaving the craft in it’s intended orbit.

SpaceX webcast the launch up to the point where the second stage finished firing, separation of the satellites will occur later once the spacecraft reaches the desired drop off locations.

Update 12:04 pm EDT – Marc Eisenberg CEO of Orbcomm tweeted that all six satellites were successfully deployed.


Update 1:27 pm EDT – Elon Musk tweeted updates on re-entry of first stage

2014-07-14_132953 2014-07-14_133011

Below are some screen captures of the launch.

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The SpaceX Delays

As most of us have seen SpaceX have suffered a number of delays recently, one of these was due to a customer concern, another due to a range failure. However the majority have been due to problems internal to SpaceX.

I have seen many posts complaining about these delays and the lack of information from SpaceX. If I am totally honest I have been one of those complaining.

However when I put my business hat on I can understand these delays and this article tries to explain them from an outsiders perspective.

First SpaceX is a private business and while Space Launches are exciting for the fans they are the revenue stream for SpaceX. SpaceX cannot afford to have a launch fail and any indication that something is not right on the vehicle could lead to that failure, therefore it makes sense to me that they would rather delay a little while investigating so they can be confident that the launch will be as successful as possible.

Second SpaceX is looking to expand into the lucrative Government contract business and while they have passed initial Certification requirements for Falcon 9 any failure could impact the changes of being award these regardless of the cost difference.

Third any failure would give fuel to all the detractors of SpaceX, and there are plenty of them still despite how successful SpaceX have been so far.

Fourth SpaceX are currently competing to launch crews on the same Falcon 9 rocket that is used today, any failure could impact the changes on this continuing.

So while it is frustrating for all of us who support SpaceX and the vision Elon Musk has for the future of cargo and manned spaceflight we also have to understand that there is far too much riding on each launch for them to ignore any concerns.

Recently SpaceX said they would not be Live Streaming the launches because they had become routine, however this isn’t the case as these delays have proven.