SpaceX launches CRS-11 to ISS

SpaceX passed another important milestone, on their route to reusability, with the successful launch of the CRS-11 Dragon mission to the International Space Station.

The Dragon capsule used for this launch previously flew to the ISS on the CRS-4 mission in September 2014 and following some refurbishment and re-certification was approved for this current mission.  With this launch, SpaceX became the first commercial company to send a previously flown capsule to orbit.

This was the 7th launch this year and 5th landing for SpaceX and the cadence doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon with several more launches scheduled for June including one from Vandenburg.

Among the payloads being carried to the ISS are the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), Roll-Out Solar Array (ROSA) and Multiple User System for Earth Sensing Facility (MUSES).

SLS delayed again and no crew on EM-1

This week NASA announced that they had completed the study requested by the Trump administration who had requested that they look into add crew to the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS).  NASA concluded that it would cost an additional $600-900 million to do this and would delay the first flight until sometime in 2020.  Due to this, the White House decided to leave the EM-1 mission as an uncrewed mission.

During the same press conference, NASA announced that the first launch of SLS would be delayed anyway due to several factors including damage sustained at the Michoud facility earlier in the year by a tornado that touched down.  The launch which has already been delayed several times was previously set for November 2018 and will now be delayed to some time in 2019.  However, at present, they haven’t determined an exact date and will be reporting back in the next couple of weeks.

During the Q&A time after it was determined that there would most likely be an impact on the EM-2 mission too as NASA needs approximately 33 months to modify the Launch Platform for the taller version of SLS due to the introduction of the Exploration Upper Stage which is approximately 40 feet taller than the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) flying on EM-1.

NASA has been developing a replacement for the Space Transport System (STS) since the 2005 NASA Authorization act and to date has only performed two launches related to the programs.  NASA started work on the Constellation program which proposed the development of two rockets Ares I and V, a crew capsule Orion and several other components.  This program ran until 2010, during which time they launched a single Ares 1 rocket.  The Ares 1 basically consisted of a Solid Rocket Booster derived from the boosters used by the space shuttle.  While this launch was successful nothing further came from the program.

In 2010 the program was canceled and morphed into the Space Launch System which proposed a single rocket capable of launching the Orion capsule beyond Low Earth Orbit.  Since then there has only been one launch related to the program in 2014 when a Delta IV Heavy rocket carried the Orion capsule to orbit for a 4-hour 24-minute mission to test the vehicle’s heat shield.  This was also a successful mission with the capsule splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

To date, NASA has spent approximately $9 billion on Constellation and another $15+ billion on SLS.  From an investment north of $24 billion dollars only having two launches equals $12 billion each.  With these additional delays more and more money is being poured into the program and while NASA recently announced plans for more missions for SLS there is no guarantee that the program won’t be canceled especially if there any further delays.

200th ISS Spacewalk Complete

Astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer completed a 4 hours, 13 minute spacewalk successfully today, this was the 200th at the International Space Station.

The spacewalk which was shortened due to an issue with a Service and Cooling Umbilical hose used to provide power and consumables to the spacesuits while inside of the station, this resulted in both Astronauts having to share one reducing the overall battery time they had available.

However, despite this, they were able to complete the following tasks:-

  • Replaced ExPRESS Carrier Avionics (ExPCA)
  • Installed Pressurized Mating Adapter-3 (PMA-3) Forward Shield
  • Installed Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) 1552 Terminator
  • Secured Multilayer Insulation (MLI) on Japanese Manipulator System
  • Relocated a Portable Foot Restrain to PMA-3

This was Peggy’s ninth spacewalk for a total time of 57 hours, 35 minutes and Jack’s first.

This brings the total time for ISS spacewalks to 1247 hours, 55 minutes.

ULA launches Cygnus on OA-7 mission to ISS

This morning at 11:14 AM EDT United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully launched another Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft towards the International Space Station (ISS). This was the third Cygnus that ULA has launched for Orbital and at the present time the last.

John Glenn Banner inside Cygnus

Named after the late John Glenn, former Astronaut and US Senator who passed away last December. The launch was delayed several times to allow ULA time to address some issues with the launch vehicle and pad, and then to accommodate the hectic ISS schedule. The vehicle is carrying 3,459 kg (7,626 lb) of cargo to the space station and will spend at least 80 days at the station before being released. After it is successfully completed its mission another of the Saffire experiments will be performed, where a controlled fire will lite. Once that is complete the vehicle will burn up in the atmosphere.

The countdown proceeded smoothly this morning with an on-time launch, which concluded when the Cygnus spacecraft was delivered to orbit.

This was ULA’s 71st Atlas V, 36th 401 config, 4th launch of 2017 and 119th consecutive successful launch keeping their perfect 100% record.

As a side note, this was the last launch for NASA PAO George Diller who has been the voice of NASA for many launches in the past.  We hope that he has a great and long retirement and will miss hearing his commentary.

Peggy Whitson ISS mission extention

NASA announced this week that Astronaut Peggy Whitson, who has already set several space flight records and will soon break Scott Kelly’s record for most time in space by a US Astronaut, will be staying on the International Space Station for an additional three months.

Originally scheduled to return home in June this year with her crewmates Oleg Novitskiy and Thomas Pesquet she will instead transition to the Expedition 52 crew and return home with Fyodor Yurchikhin and Jack Fischer in September.

This was possible because Russia has now switched to a two cosmonaut crew rotation plan, this would have meant that only two people would have been on the station after Peggy and her crew left in June.  This extension will allow the station to keep a full complement of people on the station allowing them to continue the same level of science investigations that has been established recently.

When Peggy returns home in September she will have the third longest consecutive stay on the ISS a record that was set last year by Scott Kelly and Mikhail Korniyenko when they spent 340 days aboard the station.

SpaceX vs NASA progress since 2010

In 2010 Senator Richard Shelby made the following statement

“This request represents nothing more than a commercially-led, faith-based space program.  Today, the commercial providers that NASA has contracted with cannot even carry the trash back from the space station much less carry humans to or from space safely.

“These providers have yet to live up to the promises they have already made to the taxpayer.  Not a single rocket or ounce of cargo has been launched since we met last year.  Instead of requiring accountability from these companies, the President’s budget proposes to reward these failed commercial providers with an additional bailout.

Full text here

While it was true at the time that no cargo had been launched by any of the competitors in the program, to say that SpaceX was a “failed provider that needed an additional bailout” seemed a little harsh. As we will see in the article things have changed quite a bit since then for SpaceX and for comparison in the same time frame we will see the lack of progress for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).

SpaceX

Started in 2002 by Elon Musk, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation known as SpaceX was created to lower the cost of access to space. The first rocket that was developed was the Falcon 1 which had a single Merlin engine, SpaceX attempted five launches of the Falcon 1 the first three of which failed. All their future hopes rested on the fourth launch which was successful and delivered their first payload to orbit, also making Falcon the first privately funded liquid fueled rocket to do so.

In 2006 SpaceX was awarded a NASA Commercial Orbital Transporation Service (COTS) contract which allowed them to develop the Falcon 9 rocket which is the vehicle they current use for all launches. Four years later SpaceX launched their first Falcon 9 rocket which carried the new Dragon cargo capsule to orbit for a brief mission that splashed down in the Pacific Ocean two orbits later, making SpaceX the first commercial company to successfully launch, orbit and return a cargo vehicle. Two years later they followed that launch with their first COTS demo mission to the International Space Station and soon after became the first and at present only commercial company capable of delivering cargo to and returning cargo from the station.

SpaceX didn’t stop with just NASA contracts, they so far launched XX commercial missions for various companies and has many more orders in their manifest.

Since that initial launch in 2010 SpaceX has upgraded the Falcon 9 rocket three times to what is currently in use today the Falcon 9 (v1.2) or Full Thrust version which is capable of carrying 22,800kg to Low Earth Orbit or 8,300kg to Geo-Transfer Orbit. SpaceX has also pursued a goal of making the Falcon 9 (and any future rockets) re-usable a goal which was achieved for the first time in March 2017.  There are two more upgrades planned for the Falcon 9 both of which are due in 2017, the changes should allow faster turn-around times for the reusability of the rocket and also address issues found with cracking in the Merlin engines.

In August 2012 SpaceX was awarded a second NASA contract this time to develop a crewed version of their Dragon capsule to allow NASA astronauts to be transported to/from the ISS.  They are still developing the crew version with a demonstration mission planned for late 2017.

Things haven’t been smooth sailing however in 2015 they suffer the first failure of their Falcon 9 vehicle when a strut broke during launch which caused the second stage to be destroyed, this resulted in the loss of a Dragon capsule carrying cargo to the ISS.  In 2016 during a static fire test, the rocket exploded on the launch pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle, its payload and significant damage to the launch pad.

Elon said after the successful SES-10 launch in March that so far SpaceX had spent about $1 billion dollars in the development of Falcon 9.  Some of that money came from NASA, some from the commercial launches and some from SpaceX themselves.

SLS/Orion

To put what SpaceX has achieved into perspective I thought it would be useful to compare what NASA has achieved in the same seven years since Senator Shelby made that statement.

The Space Launch System (SLS) started life as the Constellation program in 2005, the program was to consist of two launch vehicles Ares 1 and 5 as well as a crew capsule Orion.  This program launched a single Ares 1 rocket in October 2009 before it was canceled.  In 2010 under the direction of President Obama, the SLS program was launched utilizing the Orion capsule and a successor to the Ares 5 design.

Rather than develop a completely new system SLS was to be designed to utilize the RS-25 engines that flew on the Space Shuttle (STS) and upgraded versions of the Solid Rocket Booster that also launched STS. Unlike STS neither the engines or SRB’s are to be recovered after launch making SLS a completely expendable rocket.

Since 2010 NASA has spent approximately $18 billion dollars developing SLS and Orion and so far has only launched Orion once using a United Launch Alliance Delta Heavy rocket.  In addition, estimates show that each individual launch could cost anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion.

The current plan is for NASA to launch the first SLS rocket in 2018 on an uncrewed test, this schedule could be impacted however due to damage at NASA Michoud facility following a tornado.

While the first launch will prove the design of the SLS SRB’s, main stage and Orion capsule it will not allow a test of the complete system as it will use the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) 2nd stage which is only going to be flown once.  The Exploration Upper Stage which will be used for subsequent launches is bigger than the ICPS, this will require that NASA makes changes to the mobile launch platform after one launch.

Recently NASA started an investigation into the possibility of adding a crew to the first mission, the results of this have not yet been published but could add additional delays.

Summary

In summary, since Senator Shelby made that statement SpaceX has launched 32 times include ten missions to the ISS, they have a large manifest of missions and have upgrades and new vehicles in development. Included in those missions is a plan to send the new Dragon spacecraft to orbit the Moon and also to land on Mars.

In contrast, NASA’s SLS system has cost approximately 18 times as much and so far only the Orion capsule has been launched. The first actual launch is still at least a year away and even then will not be the complete SLS system.  Until this year it could have been argued that SLS had different destinations in mind, however with SpaceX’s announcements of Red Dragon and more recently their Crew Dragon mission around the Moon this isn’t even a valid argument.

 

Expedition 50 completes fourth EVA

Today Astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson completed a 7 hour 4 minute Extravehicular Activity (EVA) bring the total count of EVA’s performed at the International Space Station (ISS) to 199 for a total time of 1,243 hours 42 minutes.

During the EVA they completed the following primary tasks:-

  • EPIC MDM removal & replace
  • Node 3 axial shields install, including replacing a lost shield with the PMA-3 cover.
  • PMA-3 forward shield install
  • PMA-3 cummerbunds install
  • PMA-3 cover removal
  • PMA-3 connections
  • Close Node 3 port CDC

As well as the following get-ahead tasks:-

  • Inspection & cleaning of the Earth-facing berthing port of the Harmony module

During the installation of the Node 3 axial shields, one of them was misplaced and later was seen floating away from the station.

Axial shield seen floating away in upper right above the NASA logo.

This was Peggy’s eighth EVA for a total time of 53 hours, 22 minutes, making her the most experienced female spacewalker, both for the number of EVAs and cumulative career EVA time.

This was Shane’s sixth EVA for a total time of 39 hours.

ISS PMA-3 moved

Following the successful spacewalk on Friday the International Space Station operations team used the station’s Canadarm2 to move the Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA) 3 from its home on Node 3 where it has been since arrival in October 2000 to the Zenith of Node 2.

With this move complete the next International Docking Adapter (IDA) can be delivered by SpaceX to complete the migration of the two PMA’s to support the Commercial Crew dockings including those by Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX Crewed Dragon scheduled to start either later this year or in 2018.

Expedition 50 complete third EVA

Astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet completed the third Extravehicular activity (EVA) of Expedition 50 with the successful re-pressurization of the Quest airlock.  The spacewalk lasted 6 hours 34 minutes and the astronauts completed the following tasks.  Prepare PMA for

  • Prepare PMA for move
  • Installed new Epic MDM
  • Camera WorkLubricated Canadarm2 end effector and inspected a radiator value.
  • Lubricated Canadarm2 end effector
  • Inspected a radiator value.

This was the 198th spacewalk performed at the International Space Station, for a total time of 1,236 hours and 38 minutes

This was Shane’s 5th EVA for a total time of 31 hours, 56 minutes and Thomas’s 2nd who now has 12 hours, 32 minutes working outside in space.

The next spacewalk is currently scheduled for March 30th.

SpaceX CRS-10 launches

This morning SpaceX made history once again as it made its first launch from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center. The pad that had previously been used by NASA for Apollo and Space Shuttle launches has been refurbished by SpaceX over the last couple of years.

Designed to support the launch of Falcon Heavy, National Security Payloads and Crewed Missions 39A was called into duty following the September, 1st 2016 accident that resulted in the loss of LC-40 at neighboring Cape Canaveral.

The launch was originally scheduled to lift off yesterday but during to a 2nd Stage Thrust Vector issue they decided to scrub to allow time to investigate further.  The issue was resolved overnight and the countdown proceeded this morning to a 9:38 am EST launch when the nine merlin engines roared to life to propel the rocket to orbit.  Following completion of the first stage burn, the booster returned to Landing Zone 1 (LZ1) and landed making this the third time SpaceX has returned to LZ1.