Main Engine Cut Off

Jason Crusan of NASA on Crewed EM-1

Jeff Foust, of SpaceNews:

That study is in progress and is expected to be completed by late March or early April. “We’re going back and reevaluating the trades of why we decided what we did” regarding not flying a crew on EM-1, said Jason Crusan, director of advanced exploration systems at NASA Headquarters, during a Feb. 23 panel on human spaceflight held by the Royal Aeronautical Society at the British Embassy here. “There’s many reason why we decided to do that, a lot of the related to risk posture, and a lot of them related to budget realities.”

“If you put crew on the first mission, you’re not going to go to distant retrograde orbit and push the limits of the vehicle on the very first flight,” he said. “So do you actually make less progress, or more progress? That’s the trade we have to go through.”

Guess that answers a few questions about what the flight plan would be for a crewed EM-1. Interestingly, he didn’t rule out a near-free return trajectory, which is seeming more likely for the currently-planned EM-2.

The study, Crusan said, would also look at the effects putting a crew on EM-1 would have on later missions, including plans to fly co-manifested payloads on EM-2 using additional capacity on the upgraded version of the SLS that will fly starting on EM-2. Accelerating the first crewed flight, he cautioned, may not avoid the gap that currently exists between EM-1 and EM-2 because of “uncompressible” elements of infrastructure that need to be developed.

As I said in the latest episode of the podcast, “Then what?” is the most important question this study has to answer. Putting crew on EM-1 and leaving the entire roadmap after that unchanged doesn’t accomplish anything more than a stunt.

Europa Clipper Enters Phase B, Launch Vehicle Undecided

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

Another question is what launch vehicle will be used for Europa Clipper. The Space Launch System would send the spacecraft on a direct trajectory to Jupiter, allowing it to reach the planet less than three years after launch. “We’re keeping the options open right now,” Niebur said at the OPAG meeting, noting it is also compatible with the Delta 4 Heavy and possibly other vehicles through the use of gravity assists.

“In the big view of things, it doesn’t hurt us to keep launch vehicle options open,” he said. “But the time is coming when we need to narrow that range down.”

It’s no secret that SLS is in a tumultuous place right now. Relying on its existence at this moment in time could be fatal to the mission.

It’s not just SLS that’s hard to plan on, either. We’re a few months-to-years out from the debut of some very interesting launch vehicles—Falcon Heavy, ITS, New Glenn, Vulcan-Centaur, Vulcan-ACES with distributed lift, just to name a few.

I don’t envy the people making the call on which launch vehicle to go forward with, or making the call on when that decision is appropriate. From where I sit, it’s too early to narrow the options down to only SLS.

Similarly, the lander is in a tough spot:

There is no similar choice for the proposed lander mission, which will be far heavier than Clipper given the propellant it has to carry to be able to enter orbit around and then land on the surface of Europa. “It’s about 13,000 kilograms wet,” he said. “As of now, SLS is the only vehicle with the performance to launch it.”

I’m glad that sentence was prefaced with “as of now.”

NASA Partners with Masten to Mature 25,000lbf Methalox Engine


Masten Space Systems, Inc., Mojave, California: Maturing the M10A 25,000lbf Liquid Oxygen/Methane Broadsword Engine

Masten Space Systems is developing an engine which incorporates advanced manufacturing techniques. The engine will be used to provide a lower-cost reusable launch service for the growing CubeSat and smallsat launch market.

Last year, Masten’s Phase I SBIR proposal was selected which helped support the initial development of the engine. In that abstract, they discuss usage of this engine and its derivatives as propulsion for a Mars ascent vehicle, and Xephyr, their entry into DARPA’s XS-1 program.

Good to see more activity on this front.

S7 Licensed for Space by Russian Government

The Moscow Times:

The company says it plans its first launch of a Ukrainian-Russian Zenit-M rocket — similar to the ones used by Sea Launch — from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan by year’s end. The launch is meant to work out kinks in operations before rebooting the Sea Launch platform.

Wayne Hale on the Age-Old Question

Wayne Hale with some wonderfully-thoughtful prose (as always) on the question: “If you were NASA Administrator, what would you have the agency do?”

In this business, nothing is ever perfect. Space flight involves risk, it can never be completely eliminated. But real space flight is actual flight, not studies and ground tests. It is difficult to find the balance of having done enough to be reasonably sure of success and safety and to get on with a project and actually fly. I hate the term ‘risk averse,’ but as much as it makes my teeth grate, the effect of wanting to make every detail perfect has the same outcome as cowardice: never flying.

Absolutely fantastic read. Take a few minutes to read the whole thing. You owe it to yourself.

Commercial Crew Providers Remain Confident in Schedules

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

“There is risk in the schedule, but we’ve also put margin in the schedule,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for the commercial crew program at Boeing. He said the company is focused on qualifying all the components that will be used on the spacecraft and build an initial series of vehicles for upcoming tests.

“We just have to fight through getting past component qualification and getting these initial test articles built and powered on,” he said. “Once we get through that, our risk goes down significantly.”


NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel Meeting Thursday

Marcia Smith of, with her fantastic weekly “What’s Happening in Space Policy” update:

Meanwhile, NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) will meet at Kennedy Space Center in public session on Thursday. The agenda includes updates on NASA's development of Exploration Systems (SLS, Orion and associated ground systems), commercial crew, and the iSS.  One can listen to the meeting via telecon (no WebEx though). ASAP's most recent annual report expressed both praise and concern about safety at NASA. NASA's announcement last week that it is assessing whether to put a crew on the first flight of the Space Launch System might provoke discussion, too.

I’m not sure whether this will be interesting, entertaining, or something else, but it’s got potential.

Falcon 9 and Dragon Vertical at Pad 39A

SpaceX — Falcon 9 and Dragon for CRS-10 Vertical at Pad 39A

SpaceX posted a jaw-dropping photo of Falcon 9 and Dragon vertical at Pad 39A over on Flickr.

A perfect Florida sky, the blending of past and future hardware with the weathered Fixed Service Structure and SpaceX’s brand-new transporter-erector, the sleek-as-ever Falcon 9 complete with landing legs…the absolute beauty of this photo is endless.

Remains of ITS Composite Tank Spotted Back in Port

Our old friend u/Death_Cog_unit posted some photos over on r/spacex of the ITS composite tank back in port after its most recent test outing. This time, it came back in pieces:

This is what I saw when I was driving to work Wednesday morning. I was told that when the barge returned empty (Sometime last week?) the tank had exploded, and now here it is.

Supposedly when it went, it blew about 50 feet into the air and off the barge. Divers had to retrieve it. It is gone as of today.

We probably won’t get any detailed report from SpaceX on this. The big question is whether this failure met their expectations or was a surprise. Our old friend Lars Osborne shared some insight over in the comment thread:

Looks like it separated right along the seam.

I am going to interpret this as being a bad result for the test, since it failed in longitudinal stress, rather than hoop stress. A hoop stress failure will typically indicate that the vessel was efficiently designed, since longitudinal stresses are usually lower than hoop stresses. This is applicable to metallic pressure vessels, which is what my experience is in. It is also possible it was intended to fail a long the seam, but usually, a good seam/weld will be designed to be a little stronger than the bulk material.

Whatever the case, progress is being made.

NASA Selects Two Proposals for Development of Improved Oxygen Recovery Technologies

NASA has selected two proposals for the development of oxygen recovery technologies that could help astronauts breathe a little easier on deep space, long-duration missions. The agency will invest as much as $2 million and 24 months for the development of each proposal into a complete and integrated system for NASA testing.

The selected proposals are:

  • Phase II Methane Pyrolysis System for High-Yield Soot-Free Recovery of Oxygen from Carbon Dioxide – Honeywell Aerospace in Phoenix
  • Continuous Bosch Reactor – UMPQUA Research Co. in Myrtle Creek, Oregon

The state-of-the-art system currently used on the International Space Station recovers about 50 percent of the oxygen from exhaled carbon dioxide. The remaining oxygen required for crew respiration is transported to the station from Earth. For long-duration missions beyond low-Earth orbit, resupply of oxygen becomes economically and logistically prohibitive. To mitigate these challenges, NASA’s Next Generation Life Support Spacecraft Oxygen Recovery project element is targeting development of technology to increase the recovery of oxygen to 75 percent or more, thereby reducing the total oxygen resupply required for future missions.

Exactly the kinds of projects NASA should be putting attention towards. Help push the development of new and improved technologies that are critical to the missions we—collectively—are on the verge of undertaking. These are also the kinds of projects that show the value in having a testbed like the ISS active and nearby.

More of this, please!

Bridenstine at the 2017 Commercial Space Transportation Conference

Representative Jim Bridenstine posted the full video of his talk at the Commercial Space Transportation Conference, and it’s absolutely worth your time to give it a listen.

He speaks passionately and intelligently about spaceflight, exploration, technology, and policy, and shows a true understanding of the issues at hand. You don’t often see a member of Congress speak about these topics with such confidence and fire.

The first question afterwards was about the current DARPA-SSL-Orbital ATK situation—even though it wasn’t brought up during his remarks—and he dives straight into it with a thorough and thoughtful reply.

Appointing Bridenstine as Administrator of NASA is a double-edged sword. We would lose a strong voice for space in Congress, but we’d get someone with some fire in their opinions.

SpaceX Hardware on the Move

A Falcon Heavy side booster was seen outside SpaceX HQ wrapped and ready to hit the road. By all accounts, this is the booster that flew the Thaicom 8 mission, landed hard on the ASDS, came back to port leaning, and was converted to fly on the Falcon Heavy demo mission. It’s most likely now on its way to McGregor for a static fire. It will be exciting to finally see a booster with a nosecone on the test stand.

On the ITS front, the composite tank was seen on the move in Anacortes, WA. Looks like they’re taking it out to sea again for another pressure test.

NASA Announces Acceptance of NanoRacks Airlock Proposal

It took a while for this to be announced officially. I talked with Mike Johnson, Chief Designer at NanoRacks, back in September about the airlock project (among a lot of other very interesting topics) and he said on the podcast that they were all set on the NASA side and were about to start finding a launch slot.

The last I talked to NanoRacks, they said they’re targeting SpaceX’s CRS-19 mission in spring of 2019.

Thanks to January Patrons

Very special thanks to the 32 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of January. Your support is much appreciated and helps me continually improve the blog and podcast by helping to cover infrastructure costs, gear upgrades, travel expenses for launches and conferences, and most importantly, to keep this independent.

And a huge thanks to the four executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Matthew Giraitis, Pat O., Jorge Perez, and one other anonymous executive producer. I could not do this without your support, and I am extremely grateful for it.

If you’re getting some value out of what I do here and want to send a little value back to help support Main Engine Cut Off, head over to Patreon and donate as little as $1 a month—every little bit helps. Or, if you’d rather help in a non-monetary way, tell a friend, post a link on Twitter, or in your favorite subreddit. Spreading the word is an immense help to an independent creator like myself!

Prometheus Becomes ESA Project with €85 Million in Funding Towards 2020 Test Firing

Caleb Henry for SpaceNews:

Charmeau said the market dynamics that have dissuaded the company from reusability in the past are still the same, but the company wants to lay the foundation for long-term launcher development.

“We are preparing the market for 2030. Today we do not have in Europe an engine which has the capability to be reused for the main stage of the launcher. Until we have this engine, it is very difficult to design what could be a new launcher,” he said.

I’m not sure how well this strategy will work out, long-term, but I do admire this cautious-yet-curious attitude towards reusability rather than the fingers-in-ears attitude of Arianespace CEO Stephane Israel.

Doug Messier on the State of the Russian Space Industry

Doug Messier of Parabolic Arc wrote up a fantastic rundown of the issues in the Russian space industry that’s worth your time. The crux of it:

Employees at the engine builder receiving only 10,000 to 15,000 rubles per month, which works out to between $166 and $249. That’s not very much at all. Especially with the ruble’s decline against the dollar and the rise of inflationary pressure.

Of course, the scourges of low pay and an aging workforce have been a perpetual issue in the Russian space program. Officials have made efforts to boost salaries and make the industry attractive to new workers, but Rogozin’s comments suggest those efforts have fallen short.

Meanwhile, Russian officials have acknowledged that the space sector is bloated and inefficient, with too many workers doing too little work. So, at the same time the industry needs to attract talented replacement workers, it also needs to shed tens of thousands of existing workers who have the expertise needed to keep the rockets launching on time.

There are several factors at play, and each factor accelerates the others. It’s a sad, painful death spiral to watch, and it’s been going on for decades.

If you remove the historical link to the success of the Soviets in space, what does Russia have going for itself today? All of the bright spots one could point to are holdovers or descendants from a previous era.

Florida 2017 Budget Proposal Includes $17 Million for Blue Origin’s Launch Complex 36

James Dean for Florida Today:

The governor's office said the budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year starting July 1 includes $34 million for launch complex improvements that “will help attract more commercial activity to the area.”

Space Florida confirmed the total includes $17 million from the Florida Department of Transportation to help prepare Launch Complex 36, a state-run pad last used in 2005, into a site for Blue Origin's giant New Glenn orbital rockets. The company also plans to build an engine test stand, incorporating the adjacent Launch Complex 11.

Blue Origin, the private space firm started by’s billionaire founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, will match the state’s investment, resulting in the $34 million budget figure cited by the state.

Later in the article, Dean mentions that Blue Origin is expected to put more than $200 million in total into new facilities in the area, which includes their presence out at the launch complexes and their buildings at Exploration Park, where they’ll manufacture New Glenn.

The Intricate Dance of Orion, SLS, Commercial Crew, and Soyuz

I’ve been thinking a lot about the draft of the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act that Marcia Smith, of, reported on this week:

According to a draft we’ve seen, there are three especially interesting changes. One clarifies that the primary consideration for the acquisition strategy for the commercial crew program is to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) “safely, reliably, and affordably.” Another directs NASA to report to Congress on how the Orion spacecraft can fulfill the provision in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that it be able to serve as a backup to commercial crew, including with use of a launch vehicle other than the Space Launch System.

The biggest criticism of Commercial Crew is that the program is behind schedule, and additional delays make NASA increasingly reliant on an increasingly unreliable partner—Russia. Soyuz is the only method of crew transportation into orbit, and there are serious quality control and reliability problems throughout the Russian space program and industry.

“Safely” and “reliably” transporting US astronauts are listed as two distinct items with regard to commercial crew. That could mean that Congress would mandate a US-based backup crew vehicle be available at all times, instead of falling back on Soyuz in times of trouble or transition. This is precisely where Orion could enter the picture.

As part of Constellation, Orion was intended to be used for crew transportation to the ISS, and Congress is now asking for a report on whether that is still in the cards. If Orion is able to serve this role and be launched by various launch vehicles, we would have our backup crew vehicle, and additionally, there would be one less reason for SLS’ existence in its current form. That would give those RFIs NASA put out last fall a lot more weight, since it becomes feasible to replace SLS with commercially-available launch vehicles, especially as Falcon Heavy, Vulcan, and New Glenn get closer to the launch pad.

The US currently has no active crew vehicles, but plenty of active launch vehicles. The combination of that fact, increasingly unreliable launches from Russia, and a NASA report stating that, with some design work, Orion can be flown on other launch vehicles could give Congress the political capital it needs to make some serious changes. I can envision a policy that cancels and replaces SLS with commercial alternatives, revitalizes the Orion program with changes from the NASA RFI, and effectively increases Orion’s funding using funds saved from SLS’ development.

I previously thought that SLS was more cancellation-proof but I’m beginning to think Orion holds that title.

AR1: An Engine in Search of a Launch Vehicle

Aerojet Rocketdyne announced their plans to produce the AR1 in Huntsville. Though, as of right now, they don’t actually have anything to produce the engines for. My favorite part of the announcement is this, from CEO and President Eileen Drake:

“The AR1 rocket engine is crucial to ensuring America’s assured access to space and making U.S. launch vehicles competitive across the globe.”

The AR1 is being developed to provide the United States with a new, world-competitive, state-of-the-art engine for launch vehicles and will end American dependency on Russian engines for national security and civil space launches.

The Atlas V—which was the original intended use-case for AR1—is being retired, and its successor, Vulcan, is almost certainly going to use Blue Origin’s BE–4. Tory Bruno said today that he expects to downselect between BE–4 and AR1 “very soon.” What that means is that as soon as Blue Origin completes a hot fire of the BE–4, ULA will officially declare that the engine for Vulcan.

I’ve speculated in the past about two uses I could foresee for AR1: an upgraded Antares, and unicorns the SLS’ advanced boosters. The AR1 is in no way crucial to ensuring America’s access to space, nor would it do anything to make launch vehicles competitive across the globe.

Draft Version of the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act

Marcia Smith, of, on the 2017 version of the NASA Transition Authorization Act:

According to a draft we’ve seen, there are three especially interesting changes. One clarifies that the primary consideration for the acquisition strategy for the commercial crew program is to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) “safely, reliably, and affordably.” Another directs NASA to report to Congress on how the Orion spacecraft can fulfill the provision in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that it be able to serve as a backup to commercial crew, including with use of a launch vehicle other than the Space Launch System. The third is a finding that NASA has not demonstrated to Congress that the cost of the Asteroid Redirect Mission is commensurate with its benefits, a stronger statement than what was in the 2016 bill.

I can’t wait to see what NASA’s response to Congress will say about flying Orion on another launch vehicle.