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.

 

SpaceX makes history with SES-10 launch

Today SpaceX once again made history with the first launch of a previously flown first stage booster. The Falcon 9 lifted off at 6:27 pm EDT today with the SES-10 payload.

The booster was previously used for the SpaceX CRS-8 mission on 8th April 2016, the booster was the first to successfully land on an Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS). Following a comprehensive review of the booster, SpaceX was confident that it was ready for a second mission which it completed today with the successful launch and landing this time back on the ASDS “Of Course I Still Love You”.

During a press briefing after the successful mission, Elon Musk revealed that the payload fairing had been successfully recovered to making yet another milestone in the march towards rapid reusability.

The SES-10 payload was successfully deployed to orbit 32 minutes after liftoff making this the fourth successful mission of 2017.

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 launches EchoStar 23

After several delays originally for the static fire test and then the weather SpaceX successfully completed its third launch of 2017 this morning with the delivery of the EchoStar 23 payload to orbit.  Liftoff occurred at 02:00 with the ignition of the nine Merlin 1D engines that propelled the towards orbit.  35 minutes later confirmation of payload separation was posted by SpaceX.

Due to the weight and destination of the payload there was no attempt to land the rocket either on land or the ASDS.

The full launch video from SpaceX is below, liftoff occurred at 12:00 minutes in.

Jeff Bezos provides update on New Glenn Rocket

This morning at the Satellite 2017 show Jeff Bezos, of Amazon and Blue Origin, provided an on the New Glenn launch system, including video below. He also announced that they had signed their first customer Eutelsat.

Update March 8, Jeff announced second customer for New Glenn

Here are some of the details revealed today: –

  • New Glenn is a two stage system with first stage being designed for 100 reuses.
  • New Glenn is designed to carry 13 tonnes to GTO and 45 to LEO.
  • New Glenn will have six landing legs and could still land even if one didn’t deploy correctly.
  • New Glenn first stage will use seven BE-4 engines (based on Video), which would translate to approximately 3.85 million lbs of thrust at launch.
  • Blue Origin incorporated what they have learned from New Shepherd into the design of New Glenn.

In related news, Jeff tweeted yesterday that the first BE-4 engine completed assembly.

ULA launches NROL-79 mission

Following a smooth countdown this morning United Launch Alliance launched an Atlas V 401 carrying a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.

Due to the nature of this launch the live broadcast was terminated after the payload separation occurred.