SpaceX launches NROL-76 satellite

This morning SpaceX completed another important milestone in their history as they launched the first National Reconnaissance Office Payload the NROL-76 satellite.  As with all NROL launches the exact details of the payload and its final orbit were not released however Elon Musk tweeted that Launch and Landing of the payload were good if we get more information will update.  SpaceX once again brought the first stage back for a landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) Landing Zone One.  As SpaceX was not allowed to show the second stage on the live stream they instead focused on the landing and returned absolutely amazing views of the stage as it returned to Earth, see the second video below.

With this launch, SpaceX has now broken the monopoly that United Launch Alliance had on NROL launches paving the way for more competition for future launches.

The launch was originally scheduled for Sunday 30th April but was scrubbed in the last few seconds due to a first stage sensor issue.

This was the fifth launch for SpaceX this year and the fourth landing, since the introduction of the Falcon 9 they have launched 33 times with one failure in 2015 and landed ten times, six of those on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships.  SpaceX also suffered a failure during tanking operations for a Static Fire test, in both cases, they determined the most likely cause of the issue and came back stronger.

SpaceX has several more milestones they hope to achieve this year including the resumption of flights from CCAFS Launch Complex 40, the launch of the first Falcon Heavy, as well as the launch of the first Crewed Dragon vehicle.

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.

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.

SpaceX ready for resumption of Falcon 9 launches

Following a four month investigation into the September 1st anomaly that resulted in the lose of a Falcon 9 rocket with it’s payload the Spacecom Amos 6 satellite and significant damage to Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral, Florida. SpaceX announced this week that they have completed the investigate (see report here) and are ready to return to flight operations started on Sunday 8th January with the first of seven launches for Iridium.

SpaceX are able to resume flight operations without having to make design changes to the rocket by changing their propellant loading operation to avoid the scenario that most likely caused the anomaly.  They have indicated that longer term they will make design changes to the COPV tanks to resolve the issue which will allow them to resume faster loading operations.

The flight of the Falcon 9 with ten Iridium Next satellites is currently scheduled for 10:28:97 PST on Sunday 8th January from Space Launch Complex 4E in Vandenberg, CA.  However this is still subject to the results of the Static Fire test scheduled for Tuesday 3rd and flight readiness review.

 

SpaceX achieve another important milestone

While driving to work this morning I heard how SpaceX suffered another setback yesterday due to the destruction of the first stage after it landed.

It seems to me that people are focusing on the wrong thing here, yes the end result of the EXPERIMENTAL LANDING was a failure because they were not able to recover the first stage.

First Stage approaching Drone Ship
First Stage approaching Drone Ship

However SpaceX did achieve an important milestone yesterday, they were able to land the first stage on the Drone Ship which was floating in the pacific ocean, this in itself is an amazing achievement and further proves that they are moving in the right direction.

The reason the first stage was lost was due to the failure of one of the landing legs to log into place correct, as explained by Elon Musk himself.

I have no doubt that SpaceX will determine what changes are needed to the landing leg system to ensure that that the failure can’t happen again.

So in summary yes another destroyed first stage but also further progress in recovering them.

When will Falcon 9 Return to Flight

It has been 9 weeks since the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch failure, and with the exception of one update from Elon Musk on 20th July we have not heard anything further on the return to flight of the Falcon 9.

The initial investigation found that a strut in the second stage oxygen tank failed at 1/5 the load it was designed to withstand resulting in the helium bottle used to pressurize the tank dislodging and catastrophically damaging the tank, this lead to the explosion and failure of the mission.  During the announcement into the failure it became clear that this part had not been tested internally by SpaceX before the accident, subsequent tests showed that other samples of the strut also failed below their designed limits.

It became clear very quickly after the accident that Dragon had survived the initial explosion and was seen flying away from the exploding rocket.  This was confirmed by Elon and they continued to receive telemetry from Dragon until if dropped beyond the horizon.  Unfortunately the vehicle was lost when it crashed into the ocean.

During the initial report Elon announced several changes that would be coming for future flights which are expected to resume in September.

  1. SpaceX will no longer use these particular structs within the vehicle – It is our understanding that this part is useful throughout the vehicle so this change itself will be quite significant, as they already have cores built we also don’t know how much work it will be to modify those.
  2. SpaceX will implement additional hardware quality audits throughout the vehicle – This will add additional time to the build process and therefore additional cost, some of which may be passed on to customers, although Elon indicated that may not be the case.
  3. SpaceX will update the Dragon software to allow deployment on chutes in case of future failures – Elon indicated that this this was just a software change, if so that would be a relatively easy change as deployment is already build in for return.

So the question now is when will the flights resume and what will be the first payload to be flown?

Update: We have seen several comments that indicate that RTF could be November or even end of year.  With no news from SpaceX it is hard to dispute or verify these statements.  For now we are sticking with a September RTF pending further official information from SpaceX.

Update 8/31: It would appear from comments by SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell that RTF is still a couple of months away (see tweets below)

Shotwell also announced that RTF will also be the first flight of the more powerful Merlin engines

Update 9/1: Further news today regarding SpaceX missions later this year, the CRS-8 mission to ISS is now scheduled to fly 9/15 according to the post below. The mission will still carry the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module in the trunk.

SpaceX releases preliminary data on 6/28 Falcon 9 failure

More than three weeks ago during the launch of the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station the Falcon 9 second stage suffered an anomaly that resulted in the lost of the spacecraft and its payloads.

Today Elon Musk announced that the preliminary investigation into the accident indicates that a strut inside the Liquid Oxygen (LOX) tank on the 2nd stage failed causing the liquid helium bottle to dislodge and hit the top of the LOX tank causing the explosion.  Elon stressed multiple times during the call that this is a preliminary result so far.

 

SpaceX have tested 1000s of the struts since the accident and have found a number of failures below rated value, including one that failed below 2,000 lbs.

During the call Elon admitted that SpaceX did not perform Quality Control on the strut that failed and instead relied in the part meeting the specification as provided by the supplier.  They will be revising their processes to ensure all parts of the rocket are fully QCed for future flights.  While this will increase SpaceX costs during construction of the rocket they didn’t expect it to have much if any of an impact on the cost of the rocket.

Elon also announced that Dragon V1 didn’t have the ability to deploy the chutes in case of an emergency during ascent, the next flight will have the ability should it be needed which would have most likely have resulted in pressurized cargo being saved. They expect to delay flights until September but at present don’t know who will be the first flight manifest will most likely change.  Again because this is preliminary so may change should another cause become obvious.

Elon also announced that due to the investigation the flight of Falcon Heavy will most likely be delayed until April 2016.  

Elon also admitted that most of the people who now work for SpaceX have never seen a failure due to all the successful launches in the last seven years.  This had caused most of them to become complacent about the difficulty of launching rockets.  They have now learned the hard way just what is involved. 

Leading theories for SpaceX CRS-7 mishap

2015-06-28_102410It has been two days since the Falcon 9 carrying the CRS-7 Dragon exploded and there are currently two leading THEORIES on what happened.

As we have yet to hear an official reason from SpaceX these are just PURE SPECULATION at this point.

1) The International Docking Adapter or a part of it came lose during the flight and impacted with the top of the 2nd Stage. This caused damage to the 2nd stage that resulted in the explosion.

2) The Liquid Oxygen tank ruptured causing the explosion, either due to a manufacturing issue or because of a leak in the Helium Pressure system which caused too much pressure to build in the tank.

At this point it is impossible to say if these are even close to the truth and until we hear officially from SpaceX the speculation will continue to grow.

Now comes SpaceX’s true test

This morning SpaceX suffered the first failure of their Falcon 9 rocket as it explode two minutes into the CRS-7 mission. Initial data from Elon Musk indicates that an over-pressure event happened on the second stage.

This was the first time since the third flight of Falcon 1 that SpaceX has suffered a mission ending failure, they have had minor issues during launch including loss of engine (this caused a secondary payload to be lost but primary mission was successful) and an issue with Dragon after deployment (which was later resolved).

Since that Falcon 1 failure in August 2008 SpaceX have launched 20 rockets include 18 Falcon 9 vehicles all reaching orbit successfully, quite an achievement for a new launch provider.

The true test of what SpaceX are made of happens now as they review the data from the failure today, what changes they need to make to address the issue, how open they are about the failure and how quickly they turn this around and start launching rockets again. One advantage that SpaceX have over other people as stated by COO Gwynne Shotwell is the fact that they make most of the parts of the rockets so don’t have to seek data from other parties.

While it is sad that this happened on a NASA International Space Station (ISS) launch it is also a blessing in some respects as we are more likely to hear more information about the failure than if it had been for a commercial customer’s launch.

Over the coming days SpaceX will review thousands of pieces of data and any debris that the teams were able to recover to fully determine what happened.

Initial indications show that the Dragon capsule actually survived the initial explosion of the rocket and continued to transmit data afterwards, most likely stopping when it impacted the ocean.  One change that we hope for future flights of Cargo Dragon (just in case) is a way for Mission Control to be able to deploy the chutes during an non-nominal event, this potentially could have allowed Dragon to splashdown safely in the ocean just as a Crewed Vehicle is designed to.

UPDATE – Elon this morning tweeted an update on the investigation