Progress 57 arrives at the International Space Station

Fifteen hours after the lose of the Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft another cargo vehicle from Russia arrived successfully at the station.  Launched just six hours before, the Progress 57 completed it’s four orbit, six hour journey to the station with a successful docking at 9:08am EDT.

Carrying almost three tonnes of supplies for the station, the craft will be remain at the station for the next six months, it will be unloaded and eventually filled with trash that will burn up in the atmosphere.

Here is a video of the launch earlier this morning

Below are some screen grabs of the docking.

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Orbital Sciences Orb-3 rocket explodes after liftoff #Orb3

2014-10-28_182331Following a scrub yesterday due to a boat breaking the range safety keep out area the Orbital Sciences Orb-3 mission made another attempt today. Following a very some and uneventful countdown the Antares rocket carrying the ‘Deke Slayton’ Cygnus lifted off on time at 6:22pm EDT, unfortunately approximately 6 seconds later a catastrophic failure occurred causing the rocket to explode and come crashing back to the launchpad.

Orbital Sciences have instigated a failure investigation team which will be led by Richard Straka, Deputy General Manager of Orbital’s Launch Systems Group. The investigation team will include representatives from NASA, Orbital, and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops, Va.

Reports on NASA TV indicate significant damage to the launch pad and fires could be seen burn over a wide area after the explosion.  All range personnel have been accounted for.

This is certainly a setback for Orbital Sciences, the Commercial Cargo program and the numerous science teams that had payloads on Cygnus, it shouldn’t have too much of an impact on future launches for the other suppliers to the station.  However until the cause of the anomaly is known and resolved we seriously doubt there will be any further Cygnus launches to the station.

We will continue to update this post as further information becomes available.

TMA-14M launches successfully

Soyuz-TMA-14M-Mission-PatchA Soyuz TMA-14M carrying cosmonaut Aleksandr Samokutyayev, the first female cosmonaut Yelena Serova and astronaut Barry E. Wilmore lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome at 4:25pm EDT to begin a four orbit, six hour journey to the International Space Station to complete the Expedition 41 crew complement.

Following a smooth ride to orbit the spacecraft transitioned to orbital operations before beginning the accelerated approach plan that been adopted by the Russian Federal Space Agency for trips to the station. This reduces the amount of time the crew spends in the cramped environment of the Soyuz spacecraft, before the new plan was adopted it would typically take two days before the crew would be aboard the station.

Soyuz_TMA-14M_crew_during_an_emergency_scenario_training_session_at_JSCDocking is scheduled at 10:15pm EDT today and will be shown live on NASA TV, with hatch opening scheduled for a couple of hours later once all the leak tests have been completed.



Below are screen grabs of the launch from NASA TV.

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SpaceX CRS-4 Mission Launches Successfully

crs4 mission patchAt 1:52:04am EDT today a SpaceX Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral carrying a Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station for the fourth CRS mission under the NASA’s commercial cargo program.  The launch originally scheduled for yesterday had to be scrubbed due to weather constrains. Unlike the recent satellite launches which had long launch windows SpaceX had to liftoff exactly on time or perform a 24 hour scrub.

Following a smooth countdown despite more weather concerns near the launchpad the rocket was able to liftoff to begin a 2 day journey to the station.

160 seconds after liftoff the first stage completed it’s job and dropped back to earth where despite not having landing legs SpaceX will perform a series of tests as they have before in an attempt to land the rocket. We learnt today during a NASA briefing that SpaceX has been sharing the data from these tests with NASA as they were planning to perform some very similar tests for landing on Mars and other planetary bodies. Instead of spending the money on there own tests they are providing assets for SpaceX to help track the first stage as it returns.

Once the stages had separated the second stage’s single engine propelled the rocket the rest of the way to orbit where the Dragon spacecraft was successfully deployed. Once in orbit Dragon deployed it’s solar arrays and began it’s journey to the station.

Below are some of the payloads that are being carried among the 5,000 pounds of supplies that Dragon is taking to the station.

3D Printing in Zero-G Experiment – Will demonstrate 3D printing technology in space, created by Made In Space Inc this will test out the capabilities of a 3D printer in micro-gravity something that has only been done in 30 seconds stints until now. Made In Space are already working on another bigger version of the printer which they hope to launch next year this could enable the station crew to print replacement parts instead of waiting for a visiting vehicle to bring them.

ISS-Rapid Scatterometer (ISS-RapidSat) – This is being carried in the trunk and will be attached to the outside of the station by the robot arm.  The ISS-RapidSat will be used to monitor ocean surface wind speed and direction.

Rodent Research-1 – For the first time SpaceX will be carrying live animals to the station, this has been made possible by the inclusion of SpaceX’s first Environmental Control and Live Support System (EGLSS) system.  This experiment will allow researches to determine the long-term effects of micro-gravity on mammals.  Half the rodents will be returned when CRS-4 lands, the others will remain on the station and will return on the next mission CRS-5.

Below are screen grabs of the launch

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Exciting times in Space

A lot has happened in Space or related to Space recently and the future is looking very bright.

Below is a summary of some of the recent news and upcoming events.

SpaceX and Boeing awarded CCtCap contracts – We now have two companies contracted to build manned spacecraft to deliver crew to the ISS.  Currently only two other countries have the ability to do this.  See my full article on the awards here.

ULA and Blue Origin announce BE-4 engine – Following pressure from various sources ULA have announced they are going to partner with Blue Origin to build the engine which will allow them to move away from the Russian RD-180 engine for Atlas.  Full article include specs can be found here.

Mars Orbiters arriving soon – This Sunday NASA’s Mars Maven orbiter will be arriving at the planet and next Wednesday India’s Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft is also expected to arrive.  They will join three other orbiters currently at Mars and the two active Rovers on the surface.

ESA Rosetta Lander Philae has a landing site – The European Space Agency has announced the landing site for Philae which is part of the Rosetta mission.  This will be the first time a vehicle has landed on the surface of a Comet.  For more information on the mission check out the excellent ESA Blog for Rosetta.

First 3D Printer heading to space – Early tomorrow morning SpaceX’s CRS-4 mission is scheduled to lift off, on board will be the first 3D printer to go into space.  The possibilities this opens up for the future are immeasurable.  For more information on the printer check out this page.  We will be posting an update tomorrow morning following the launch of CRS-4.


ULA and Blue Origin unveil BE-4 rocket engine

Today United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin announced a new liquid oxygen, liquefied natural gas (LNG) rocket engine that delivers 550,000-lbf of thrust at sea level.

2014-09-17_132821The engine has been in development at Blue Origin for three years and a pair of them will be integrated into the Atlas rocket in appropriately three/four years. The upgraded rocket will have 1.1m lbf thrust giving it a boost over the single RD-180 engine design currently used.

The engine will be jointly funded by ULA and Blue Origin, the BE-4 was selected because of the progress that had already been made developing the engine.

One natural question that comes out of this is what will the impact on SpaceX?

Basically in the short-term this will not have much impact as SpaceX have a large manifest of orders on the books and just recently added nine more including potentially three Falcon Heavy launches.  Plus the engine isn’t scheduled to be ready for three/four years so ULA will still be using RD-180 until then.

Longer term we don’t believe it will have much of an impact either, once it has been integrated to Atlas they will have to have at least three flights to re-certify for any Air Force launches and also prove the new system is as reliable as what they have today before customers will commit, and finally they will have to reduce there prices to really have an impact on SpaceX.  If anything this could actually benefit SpaceX as they will have three/four more years of proven flights behind them and may also be closer to completing their new Raptor engine which has significantly more thrust than BE-4.

Following the announcement they held a Q&A session below are some of the questions that were found on twitter.

Atlas V launches with CLIO payload

This evening a United Launch Alliance Atlas V lifted off with a secret payload called CLIO for the Department of Defense.  Details of the orbit or what the payload is for has not been made available.  The launch was delayed several times due to weather constrains but those cleared allowing a liftoff to occur at 8:10pm EDT which was right at the end of the window available for today’s attempt.

CLIO was successfully deployed from the Atlas’ centaur upper stage nearly three hours after launch high above the eastern Indian Ocean. The spacecraft’s successful 11:01 p.m. separation will be followed over the next few weeks by maneuvering CLIO to it’s home in geostationary orbit.

Below are screen grabs from the launch webcast.


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AsiaSat-6 launched successfully

spacex_lightning_strikeFollowing an 12 day delay for SpaceX to triple-check that the Falcon 9 was okay after the Falcon 9 Reusable explosion the rocket and payload successfully lifted off this morning to complete another mission for SpaceX and AsiaSat, during the countdown this evening the weather conditions were not ideal including a lightning strike on the tower, which didn’t damage the rocket or satellite. Once the weather cleared the countdown was able to proceed to a liftoff at 1:00 am EDT.

This was the second launch in a month for both companies and the payload was successfully deployed to the desired parking orbit following the successful firing of the first and second stages.  Assuming everything goes well the second stage will relight once more to place the satellite in it’s final orbit before separation.

As with the AsiaSat-8 launch there wasn’t enough fuel available to attempt a return to ocean test which is why the Falcon 9 didn’t have the landing legs attached to save weight.

At present the next launch for SpaceX is scheduled for September 19 to launch a Dragon to the ISS, at this point it isn’t known if SpaceX can meet this date due to the delay in this launch. Once we have further news we will let you know.

Below are some screen grabs of the launch.


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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.

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.