ULA launches Mars InSight

United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully launched NASA’s Mars InSight lander today aboard their Atlas V rocket in the 401 configuration from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Following a smooth countdown, the rocket lifted off at 7:05 AM EDT and approximately 94 minutes later the spacecraft separated from the upper stage to begin its six-month journey to the red planet.

After separation of the main payload, two CubeSats MarCO-A and MarCO-B were also successfully deployed and will accompany InSight on its journey.  They will be used to relay information from InSight during it’s landing on Mars in November.

This was the first time that a spacecraft destined for another planet had been launched from the west coast.

SpaceX Launches TESS

This evening SpaceX successfully launched the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) telescope this evening.

SpaceX’s eighth launch of the year and 53rd overall for Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) Launch Complex (LC)-40 following a smooth countdown.  The TESS telescope was delivered to orbit approximately 48 minutes later to begin on-orbit operations.

The first stage of the rocket successfully landed on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) “Of Course I Still Love You” marking the fifth landing of the year and 24th overall.

The launch was originally scheduled for Monday 16th but was delayed 48 hours to allow SpaceX more time to perform Guidance Navigation and Control analysis to ensure a successful mission today.

For more information on TESS check out their web page here.

SpaceX launches Dragon on 14th CRS mission

This afternoon SpaceX launched their 14th Dragon mission to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 40.

Following a smooth countdown, the nine Merlin 1D engines powered the rocket and its payload to orbit.

This was the 7th launch for SpaceX in 2018, the 52nd Falcon 9 launch and 11th using a Flight Proven booster.  As this was an older Block IV booster SpaceX elected to forgo the landing attempt and instead used the booster to perform testing before it crashed into the ocean.

This was also the 2nd mission for this Dragon Capsule which had previously flown on the CRS-8 mission in 2016.  Now that the capsule is in orbit and the Solar Array’s have successfully deployed it will begin its journey to the ISS which capture and berthing expected on Wednesday morning.

SpaceX’s Dragon successfully completes CRS-13 mission

The Dragon capsule that was launched late last year completed it’s mission to the International Space Station with a successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean today.

In another first, this time for NASA and the Canadian Space Agency the Dragon capsule was released by the robotics engineers on the ground instead of using the Astronauts aboard the station as they have for all the previous visits.

This was the second time the vehicle had visited the station also the second time SpaceX has reused a Dragon capsule.  Approximately 4100 pounds of cargo was returned inside the capsule which will now be handed over to NASA.  Check here for more details on what is being returned.

SpaceX confirmed successful completion of the mission at 10:39 AM EST.

The Year of Commercial Crew

If all goes to plan this year we should see at least four Commercial Crew vehicle launches as Boeing and SpaceX complete their uncrewed and crewed demo launches.  In addition, we should also see an in-flight launch abort from SpaceX as they test the system and Max-Q when the maximum dynamic pressure is felt by the rocket during launch.

So what is the Commercial Crew program?

Following on from the success of the Commercial Cargo (COTS) program, which resulted in Orbital ATK (formally Orbital Sciences) and SpaceX being awarded contracts to launch cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA launched a commercial crew program with the goal of delivering four crew members to the ISS and successfully returning them to Earth at the end of their mission.

As with the COTS program, NASA designed the Commercial Crew program to be milestone based where payments would only be made when the milestones had been achieved.  As part of the bidding process, the competitors defined their own milestones detailing when they would achieve to meet those.

The program was broken into multiple phases started with the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) 1 program which was awarded to five companies Blue Origin, Boeing, Paragon Space Development Corporation, Sierra Nevada Corporation and United Launch Alliance.  A total of $50 million was awarded and a total of 53 milestones defined all due to be completed by 2010.

The second phase CCDev 2, $270 mission was awarded in March 2011 to seven companies, three of those were non-funded.  The funded awards were given to Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corporation, SpaceX, and Boeing with the non-funded awards going to United Launch Alliance, Alliant TechSystems (ATK) and Excalibur Almaz.

In September 2011 the third phase awards were made under the name Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCap), with this phase NASA wanted complete, end-to-end designs for spacecraft, launch vehicles, launch services and operations.   Three companies were awarded contracts in this phase for a total of $1.1 billion, Sierra Nevada, SpaceX, and Boeing.

The next phase was awarded to the same three companies and was called the Certification Products Contract (CPC) 1, in this phase they had to define the certification plan for their systems.

The final phase was awarded to two companies Boeing and SpaceX under the name Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap).  Under this phase, the two companies are required to complete two demonstration launches of their vehicle with the second taking a crew to the ISS.

Boeing’s CST-100

Boeing is developing a capsule-based vehicle called the Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner.  The capsule is designed to carry as many as seven crew members, for the commercial crew program however they will only be carrying four.

Full details of the CST-100 can be found here.

The CST-100 will launch atop the Atlas V from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 41 which has been upgraded to include a crew access tower and arm to allow access to the CST-100 capsule.

SpaceX’s Dragon 2

The SpaceX entry for the Commercial Crew program is an upgraded version of the Dragon capsule that is currently flying to the ISS on a regular basis.  When first announced SpaceX planned to use the same thrusters for Launch Abort and Propulsive Landing capabilities, this would have given the capsule the ability to land anywhere that had a pad.  However, since then the propulsive landing capability has been dropped in favor of a water landing as the current Dragon capsule does.

The Crew Dragon launch abort system is built directly into the capsule allowing abort capability all the way to orbit.  SpaceX tested the system with a pad abort test on 6th May 2015 when the capsule fired the SuperDraco engines before successfully deploying its parachutes and splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.

Full details of the Crew Dragon can be found here.

The Crew Dragon is designed to carry as many as seven crew members to orbit and safely return them to Earth at the conclusion of their mission.  For the Commercial Crew program, SpaceX will only be carrying four crew members to the ISS.  Once launched the capsule will use an automated docking system to approach and dock to the ISS, to aid with this NASA has modified the old Shuttle Docking system with the International Docking Adapter.  The first IDA was lost during the SpaceX CRS-7 anomaly, however, a 2nd adapter successfully flew to the station on CRS-9 in July 2016 and a replacement for the first is due to fly on CRS-16 in Summer 2018.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that whoever successfully launches the first crewed mission to the ISS will have bragging rights, however, the real winner in this program is the America Space Program which has been without the ability to launch any crew from US soil since the Space Shuttle retired in 2011.  In addition at present, there are only two countries with the capability to launch a crew into space China and Russia, once Boeing and SpaceX have completed their programs the US will double that and we still have the Space Launch System (SLS) and potentially a crewed version of Dream Chaser coming in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

SpaceX launches CRS-13 mission to ISS

SpaceX successfully launched their CRS-13 mission to the International Space Station today marking the return to flight for Launch Complex 40 (LC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS).  The launch was delayed a couple of days to allow SpaceX time to resolve an issue with particles in the 2nd stage fuel system.

This launch also marked the first time that SpaceX had used a flight-proven booster for a NASA CRS mission, the booster 10XX.2 previously launched the CRS-11 mission in June 2017.  This was the second time a flight-proven Dragon capsule was used, having previously flown on the CRS-6 mission in April 2015.

This was SpaceX’s 17th launch for 2017 and the 45th flight of Falcon 9, and the 14th landing with 20 overall.

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.