Main Engine Cut Off

NASA Wins MECO’s 2020 Good Decision of the Year Award by Bringing Back the Worm

SpaceX DM-2 Booster with NASA Worm

The worm is back. And just in time to mark the return of human spaceflight on American rockets from American soil.

The retro, modern design of the agency’s logo will help capture the excitement of a new, modern era of human spaceflight on the side of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle that will ferry astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the Demo-2 flight, now scheduled for mid- to late May.

This makes me so happy. I absolutely adore the NASA worm and it looks so damn good on SpaceX hardware. I wish it were the main logo for the agency, but:

And there’s a good chance you’ll see the logo featured in other official ways on this mission and in the future. The agency is still assessing how and where it will be used, exactly.

And don’t worry, the meatball will remain NASA’s primary symbol.

Darn.

At the end of the post, NASA links to the original Graphics Standards Manual for the worm. I have a hardback print and it’s one of my favorite books to flip through.

Virgin Orbit Designs Automatic Ambulatory Bag Pump

Virgin Orbit has developed a new mass-producible bridge ventilator to help in the fight against the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The Virgin Orbit team has been consulting with the Bridge Ventilator Consortium (BVC), led by the University of California Irvine (UCI) and the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), a group formed to spawn and nurture efforts to build producible, simple ventilators to aid in the current COVID-19 crisis. Pending clearance by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Virgin Orbit aims to commence production at its Long Beach manufacturing facility in early April, sprinting to deliver units into the hands of first responders and healthcare professionals as soon as possible.

Really nice work by Virgin Orbit. Make sure to watch the video that demonstrates what they’ve designed. If they mentioned this last week when touting that they were staying open through the pandemic, I might have been less cranky.

However, it’s an odd time for Virgin Orbit to take this on. They are in for a tough stretch in terms of funding, with the parent organization dropping their funding levels due to their underperformance on LauncherOne thus far and, obviously, the pandemic, since no one can announce bad news without blaming it on that. Though for Virgin, that’s totally valid, as a massive amount of their revenue comes from industries hit the hardest—travel and hotels.

Word is that Virgin Orbit is even looking for funding from the government to get them through their test campaign. Here’s hoping that they’ve worked out their technical issues in the run up to the first launch and they really are close.

OneWeb Can’t Raise Money, Blames the Pandemic, Files for Bankruptcy

The week of terrible space news continues. Caleb Henry, for SpaceNews:

Satellite internet startup OneWeb filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Friday after its largest investor, Softbank, rejected a request for additional funding.

OneWeb, in its March 27 news release, blamed the coronavirus pandemic for its inability to raise the money it needed to avoid bankruptcy.

I’m still sick of blaming the pandemic for issues that have been simmering on the horizon for a while now.

Where OneWeb goes from here is going to be a hell of a story. By some estimates, they need at least $4 billion to finish off their constellation.

There are some big money companies out there who have that sort of cash under their mattresses and have been working on constellations (Amazon’s Project Kuiper) or have been rumored to be interested in such a thing (Apple). In the case of Amazon, they’re still in need of spectrum, so this could be an easy pickup.

There are some out there who see SpaceX in serious need of funding, too, in excess of what they’ve been raising already. What Musk said a few weeks back during a nearly unwatchable interview at Satellite 2020 sounds even more prescient now: he just wants SpaceX to be in the “not bankrupt” category.

The way Caleb finishes off his article is worth remembering:

Iridium, Globalstar, Orbcomm and Teledesic all went bankrupt about two decades ago, though only Teledesic failed to emerge from bankruptcy and deploy a second-generation constellation.

Bigelow Lays Off All Employees

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

According to sources familiar with the company’s activities, Bigelow Aerospace’s 68 employees were informed that they were being laid off, effective immediately. An additional 20 employees were laid off the previous week.

Those sources said that the company, based in North Las Vegas, Nevada, was halting operations because of what one person described as a “perfect storm of problems” that included the coronavirus pandemic. On March 20, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak signed an emergency directive ordering all “nonessential” businesses to close.

Bummer for everyone there, but for years it has been known that Bigelow was a hot mess internally. So much potential in what they could have done if they had the right mix of leadership and vision and drive.

Also, I hate this whole “in part because of the pandemic” thing going on. Does anyone truly believe that ExoMars 2020 was delayed and that Bigelow laid off everyone because of a pandemic? Sure, it makes things harder. But the writing was on the wall for both of these programs.

Astra Loses First Rocket 3.0

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

In an email late March 23, Chris Kemp, chief executive of Astra, said the rocket had been damaged in prelaunch testing earlier in the day. “We’ll be rescheduling launch,” he said, but had not selected a new launch date. He did not elaborate on the damage the rocket sustained.

Local radio station KMXT reported March 23 that there had been an “anomaly” at the launch site on Kodiak Island that prompted an emergency response. There were no injuries reported, but the area was cordoned off.

Bummer to hear that they’ve lost the vehicle as well as some equipment on the ground. Good thing they have 2 more following closely in the pipeline:

The company called this particular vehicle “1 of 3” as it was the first of three similar vehicles in production. In an interview in February, Kemp said the second vehicle was 90% complete and the third 40% complete.

From Dragon to Cygnus to an Android Phone

Loren Grush, for The Verge:

To test out this technology, Lynk launched its third test payload to the International Space Station in December aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Astronauts on board the ISS then attached the payload to a Cygnus cargo spacecraft on the outside of the station. The Cygnus detached from the ISS on January 31st and has lingered in orbit ever since, allowing the Lynk team to test out their technology. And on February 24th, Lynk sent its first text with the payload, a message that read “This is a test” (though the first three letters were actually cut off in the message for some reason). It was received by an Android phone located on the Falkland Islands while the Cygnus capsule passed overhead.

Cool read on a very cool development.

I’m Not Just Picking on Virgin Orbit

If it wasn’t clear in my post yesterday, I’m annoyed at California’s overly-broad definition of aerospace manufacturers that allows Virgin Orbit to keep its facilities open in any capacity.

I don’t think Astra should be prepping its next launch attempt this week.

The amount of people I could hear in the background of SpaceX’s Starlink webcast 4 days ago made me uncomfortable.

I’m skeptical that the three NRO payloads Rocket Lab is launching next week are of such a high priority, but New Zealand can do whatever they want to do.

Again, I’d be more than willing to make exceptions for launch campaigns like Perseverance, Commercial Crew, and other high priority, time-sensitive things.

But even NASA has stopped most if not all work on SLS and James Web Space Telescope. Those should be huge indicators of the right call here.

I think we should have stopped domestic air travel in the US a week ago.

Stay home. Don’t see other people. Work remotely if you can, and help people around you who aren’t so lucky.

At a certain point, we can collectively make the shutdown suck for 2–3 weeks, or we can half-ass it and let it linger for 2–3 months or longer.

Virgin Orbit, Who Has Been Saying Their First Launch is This Year for Nearly Three Years, Deemed an Essential Service

Sandra Erwin, for SpaceNews:

“In conversations with our representatives, we have learned that our work of developing and operating our flexible, responsive space launch system for our customers, including those at NASA and in the U.S. Department of Defense, has been deemed as one such essential service, and that therefore we have been exempted from many of the “Safer At Home” shelter in place restrictions,” Virgin Orbit Kendall Russell said in a statement.

To prevent the spread of the virus, Virgin Orbit will be sending all employees home for the next week except a “small crew necessary to assure the safety and security of the facility,” said Russell. “Those employees who can do their work remotely will do so; and those who cannot work remotely will still be paid in full.”

With all due respect to anyone reading this who works at Virgin Orbit, this is quite frankly bullshit. I’m fine with designating high-visibility, time-sensitive launch campaigns like Mars 2020 (Perseverance), Commercial Crew, or even AEHF-6 as essential services. But a company still in the development and testing phase of a launch vehicle that has been delayed for several years now with the only government flight being a Space Test Program launch?

If there’s something the Department of Defense needs up in space so urgently, I would suggest driving 20 minutes north to Hawthorne and having a conversation with SpaceX.

For context, I have plenty of my own questions about the economic impact of a worldwide shutdown in response to the ongoing pandemic, sure. But this situation isn’t a mythical, low-probability threat to me as it is to most people out there.

My wife is a physician here in Philadelphia. She and many of our closest friends, here and elsewhere in the country, wake up every morning and head into a hospital where they face first-hand the problems the rest of us only read about. I can’t honestly justify why Virgin Orbit should be designated an essential service while also seeing the situation from as close as you can get to it without being there.

I’m open to hearing why I’m wrong, and I’d love to hear how many people are going into the Virgin Orbit facility each day, so reach out if you’ve got something to say about either item.

First Long March 7A Fails, with Some Evidence Pointing to Second Stage Failure

Andrew Jones, far and away my favorite source (and podcast guest!) for Chinese space news, has a great rundown on SpaceNews on Long March 7A and the impacts its failure could have:

The RP-1/liquid oxygen side boosters and core stage share commonalities with the Long March 5, including YF-100 engines. An issue with these engines could potentially impact planned Long March 5 missions, including China’s first independent interplanetary mission—to Mars—in July. It could also have knock-on effects for China’s space station plans.

If the issue was with the second stage YF-115 engines, the impact of the failure could be limited to the Long March 6 and 7 series rockets. A new variant of the Long March 6 developed by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology is expected later in 2020.

Later on Twitter, he posted some amateur videos from the launch that an explosion just after MECO, separation, and second stage ignition. That evidence coupled with the fact that nothing was registered in orbit after launch seem to indicate that the failure was in the second stage, which—if true—would be great news for China’s Mars, Space Station, and lunar sample return plans.