Main Engine Cut Off

Gerst the Politician, Gerst the Engineer

When the news broke yesterday that long-time head of human spaceflight at NASA, Bill Gerstenmaier, was joining SpaceX as a consultant, everyone got very excited…for the wrong reasons.

The collective reaction was that Gerst would be going to SpaceX to help its relationship (and to win contracts) with NASA, Congress, other parts of the government, or maybe even other governments entirely.

Other than disregarding the fact that Gerst is prohibited from a lot of that kind of work due to his history on the other side of it, that analysis is also disregarding an important bit of information: he is joining Hans Koenigsmann’s team, focused on reliability.

You don’t join Hans’ team to talk to government customers.

I’m hopeful—both personally and for his sake—that Gerst is heading to SpaceX not to be a political face for the organization or to schmooze inside the right DC circles, but rather to take things back to his roots as an engineer. I really hope his work at SpaceX looks a lot more like this than what the last few years of his work at NASA looked like.

He’s got a wealth of knowledge from the design, development, and operational cycles of Shuttle and Station. I’m sure, as the engineer he is, he’d love to pass that on to the next generation in a more hands-on way. Especially with how stuck and dull civil space policy is today.

He can play the part of the wise engineer, telling stories of the biggest wins and hardest failures of decades of human spaceflight programs which had many of each. He can ask wide-ranging questions with fresh eyes that see things the people intimately familiar with the systems will always overlook. And importantly for him, Gerst the Engineer, he can take on new problems with an exciting vision and a hell of a lot of momentum.

Beyond that, though, I still can’t shake a certain feeling. In some ways, admittedly from the outside, Gerstenmaier seems to be the antithesis of SpaceX culture—emotionally reserved (maybe even repressed), a preference for the slow-and-steady, and not necessarily prone to taking risks.

Or maybe that’s what Washington did to our beloved engineer.

A Look Inside Astra

Astra is finally making themselves known publicly by way of an Ashlee Vance feature for Bloomberg. Some really cool details of their setup:

At the former Alameda Naval Air Station, Astra took over a decrepit building used decades ago to test jet engines indoors, which has helped keep its secrecy intact. The facility has two long tunnels that send fire and scorching hot air up through exhaust towers and thick concrete walls capable of absorbing the explosive impacts of tests gone wrong.

This setup has allowed Astra to conduct thousands of runs on its rocket engines without its neighbors noticing much of anything. It’s also meant Astra can put the engines through their paces on-site and make adjustments to the hardware quickly, instead of going to the Mojave Desert or an open field in Texas where other rocket makers typically run engine trials.

In addition to tidbits like that, the feature has a few nice photos and videos of their factory, so be sure to check those out.

SpaceX Selected for PACE Launch to SSO from Cape Canaveral

NASA has selected SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, to provide launch services for the agency’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission.

The total cost for NASA to launch PACE is approximately $80.4 million, which includes the launch service and other mission related costs. The PACE mission currently is targeted to launch in December 2022 on a Falcon 9 Full Thrust rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Nice win for SpaceX, but the most interesting part is that PACE is going to sun-synchronous orbit from Cape Canaveral rather than Vandenberg. SpaceX will be trying out this long-unused launch profile next month for the launch of SAOCOM-1B.

The decision to fly SAOCOM-1B from the Cape made sense to me as a pathfinder of sorts for launch vehicles that don’t have a pad on the west coast but need to fly to polar orbits—Falcon Heavy and Starship in SpaceX’s case.

But it seems that this might be the new normal for SpaceX missions that, like PACE at 1,700 kilograms, have very light payloads. SpaceX’s Vandenberg manifest is pretty empty these days, so why deal with switching operations coast-to-coast when you can fly it from the Cape just as easily?

Huge Thanks to January Supporters!

Very special thanks to the 361 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of January. MECO is entirely listener- and reader-supported, and it’s your support keeps this blog and podcast going, growing, and improving, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

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NASA Selects Axiom for ISS Node 2 Expansion

Big-yet-expected news. I talked with Dr. Mike Baine, Chief Engineer of Axiom, last May about their plans, and they sure seemed liked the favorite to win access to Node 2. A few interesting tidbits from their announcement:

In addition to building and launching the Axiom Segment, the company will launch crewed flights to the ISS and later the ISS/Axiom complex at a rate of about two to three flights per year.

The first module is due to launch in 2024 (make sure you watch their animation of the development of Axiom Station), but sounds like we’ll see some flights before that goes up. Both the timing and the frequency of those missions seems synced up with the NASA Private Astronaut Missions policy:

As part of NASA's mission to stimulate a low-Earth orbit (LEO) economy, NASA is enabling up to two short-duration private astronaut missions per year to the International Space Station beginning as early as 2020. Private astronaut missions will be privately funded, dedicated commercial spaceflights on a commercial launch vehicle dedicated to the mission to enable private astronauts to conduct approved commercial and marketing activities on the space station (or in a commercial segment attached to the station). These missions must use U.S. transportation vehicles certified by NASA, such as the ones developed by Boeing and SpaceX under NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

The thing I’m left wondering is whether these missions will be bought as an additional seat on already-scheduled Commercial Crew flights, or whether they will be flown on separate flights.

Continuing from the Axiom press release:

Team Axiom also includes Boeing, Thales Alenia Space Italy, Intuitive Machines, and Maxar Technologies.

We can guess at each of their roles from what we already know:

  • Boeing could be working on the berthing mechanisms, as they are doing for Nanoracks’ airlock
  • Thales Alenia is likely building the pressure vessels, as they do for Cygnus and again, for Nanoracks’ airlock
  • Maxar is likely working on some sort of robotics—I see a robotic arm in the free-flying Axiom Station renderings
  • Intuitive Machines says they are “the system’s integrator and lead developer of a commercial space station” on their website, and the photo shows the Axiom mockups, so there’s that

I’m really excited to watch this project move forward. It’s a distinctly 2020s project, and has the feeling of something we’ll remember in the long view of space history.

Bridenstine’s Response to the House

Leave it to the man himself to write the nice version of my thoughts on the draft authorization:

In particular, we are concerned that the bill’s approach to developing a human lander system as fully government-owned and directed would be ineffective. The approach established by the bill would inhibit our ability to develop a flexible architecture that takes advantage of the full array of national capabilities – government and private sector – to accomplish national goals.

We do think that the bill’s concerns for limiting activities on the Moon could be counterproductive. If we are going to explore Mars in a safe and sustainable way, we will require a strong in situ resource utilization capability and significant technology development using the surface of the Moon. NASA would appreciate more flexibility in defining lunar surface activities that may contribute directly to Mars exploration.

House Draft NASA Authorization Bill is the Greatest Hits of Terrible, Dead-End Space Policy

I usually don’t give draft appropriations or authorization bills much focus here or on the podcast, though I do keep track of them to see where the Congressional mindset is on space policy. But the draft NASA authorization bill that the House Science Committee released last week is worth mentioning, because it is utterly atrocious policy making.

It contains a dizzying jumble of misaligned priorities that don’t fit together in any sensible way.

It gives the thumbs up to lunar landings beginning in 2028, with two per year thereafter, all in service of—I shit you not—a 2033 mission to orbit Mars.

It rules out a lunar base, any research into in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) on the lunar surface, and indicates that they would like to see the Gateway relocated somewhere else in cislunar space rather than the near-rectilinear halo orbit it’s destined for currently (which arguably could be the only slightly-laudable part of this junk).

And because the above wasn’t prescriptive enough, it would direct NASA to build and own a lander system that would be integrated with SLS and the Exploration Upper Stage—you know, the kind Boeing is touting. Oh, and NASA would have to use cost-plus contracting for the lander, rather than public-private partnerships with fixed-price contracts.

So a target date two-to-three presidential elections away, a nonsensical roadmap, major restrictions on ISRU and other research that would be indescribably valuable to any exploration program, prescriptive architectural decisions on launch and landing vehicles that favor Boeing up and down the whole stack, and explicit rules on contracting methods for all of the above.

Playing every single one of the hits from the last 3 decades of flawed, dead-end space policy.

Firefly’s Test Stand Fire

Firefly posted a video on Twitter of their first stage hotfire, which ended quickly after a fire broke out. It was way less scary than the first rumors sounded.

It’s important to remember that if you’ve got hardware on a test stand that can create fire—the good or the bad kind—you’re ahead of an extraordinarily large portion of all people who have ever tried to go to space.

Here’s hoping they fix it fast and can continue on their way.

The Completely Unsuprising Demise of XS-1

A DARPA launch project, contracted out to Boeing, in the year 2020—I don’t know many people who would have bet on XS-1 panning out. And sure enough, less than three years after the award, Boeing has officially dropped out.

I’m quite happy with how my thoughts on XS-1 have held up, three years later:

With a partially-reusable, flyback, two-stage-to-orbit vehicle operating today, the XS-1 concept is less impressive than it would have been a few years ago. It’ll still be interesting to follow along with, especially as someone who loves launch vehicles, but I can’t help but be a bit disappointed in the decision.

I was hopeful that the XS-1 program would be used as a good opportunity to invest in and develop new capabilities from younger players in the industry. Instead, Boeing is developing a bigger X-37B-like aircraft and putting an SSME on it.

Proactively widening the industry would do more to lower launch costs than working with Boeing on yet another project powered by an SSME-derived engine. “Boeing” and “low-cost launch” have rarely, if ever, been used in the same sentence.