Main Engine Cut Off

Thank You to July Supporters!

Very special thanks to the 437 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off for the month of July. 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.

And a huge thanks to the 39 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Brandon, Matthew, Simon, Lauren, Melissa, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, David, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, and seven anonymous executive producers.

If you’re getting some value out of what I do here and want to help support Main Engine Cut Off, join the crew of supporters and producers! Don’t forget about Headlines, the extra weekly podcast episode that goes out to all supporters at the $3+ level.

There are other ways to help support, too: head over to the shop and buy yourself a shirt or a pair of Rocket Socks, tell a friend, or post a link to something I’m writing or talking about on Twitter or in your favorite subreddit. Spreading the word is an immense help to an independent creator like myself.

Starship SN5 Flew, So Let’s Check In on Some Predictions

Yesterday evening, Starship SN5 took a glorious flight up to 150 meters and down to its landing pad. It was a joy to watch, and other than a small engine fire that probably isn’t much to worry about, looked like a wonderfully successful test, complete with off-axis thrust, attitude control, and great sound.

It’s been almost a year since Starhopper’s flight to a similar altitude, which simultaneously feels recent and ancient. That’s a good reminder of the hectic-yet-steady, fast-yet-slower-than-hoped pace of Starship work.

On that note, back on February 28—mere days before life in the US got turned upside down—I had Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut, join me for a Starship discussion on episode T+149 of the podcast. Right around the 43 minute mark, Tim posed four predictions for each of us to make.

I figured now is as good a time as any to check in on those (and I also kind of just wanted to put them in writing somewhere for easy reference). Below are the four scenarios Tim posed and a paraphrased answer from each of us.


1. Will there be a flight of one of these Serial Number 1, 2, 3, etc vehicles before the 20 kilometer attempt?

Anthony: 100% yes. Higher than Starhopper, but not that high.

Tim: Yes, very short hovers, maybe only to 20 meters.


2. When will the 20-ish kilometer flight happen?

Anthony: February 28, 2021 (a year + leap day from recording), and it will be with something like SN6 or SN7.

Tim: They will proceed immediately to the 20 kilometer hop after the short hop. End of May, 2020.


3. How many high-altitude, non-orbital flights will there be?

Anthony: They will do a 6-month-long, 1-flight-per-month-ish test campaign between the 20 kilometer flight and the first orbital attempt.

Tim: 3 non-explosive high-altitude hops before the first orbital attempt.


4. When will the first orbital attempt be?

Anthony: December, 2021

Tim: February, 2021

Off-Nominal 32 - Well Within the Kill Zone

Jake and Anthony are joined by Lord British himself, Richard Garriott de Cayeux. Richard is a storied video game designer/developer, an entrepreneur, an astronaut who flew to the ISS for a week, and an adventurer with so many tales it’s hard to keep up. Richard is also the son of Owen Garriott, a NASA astronaut who flew on Skylab II and STS-9.

Richard joins us to talk about growing up as the son of an astronaut, to tell tales of spaceflight and undersea adventures, to ruminate on the commercial spaceflight industry, and to blow our minds with stories of dodgy Russian safety protocols.

Also, our fundraiser is over and we’ve made a significant impact on two organizations working hard to bring racial equity to STEM and space. We raised nearly $35,000!

NASA Updates Planetary Protection Policies, Downgrades Most of the Moon

Jeff Foust, for Space News:

The first of what are formally known as NASA Interim Directives revises planetary protection classification of the moon. Mission to the moon had been in Category 2, which required missions to document any biological materials on board but set no cleanliness standards on them. That classification was driven by concerns spacecraft could contaminate water ice at the lunar poles.

Under the new directive, most of the moon will be placed in Category 1, which imposes no requirements on missions. The exceptions will be the polar regions — north of 86 degrees north latitude and south of 79 degrees south latitude — which will remain in Category 2. Regions around Apollo landing “and other historic sites” will also be in Category 2, primarily to protect biological materials left behind by the crewed Apollo landings.

A good plan that Jake of WeMartians fame called months ago. His episode about planetary protection with Dr. Wendy Calvin—a member of the Planetary Protection Independent Review Board that had influence on these changes—is seriously worth a listen.

Let’s take some shots on goal.

Defense Production Act Giveth, Defense Production Act Taketh Away

The rideshare contracts that SMC planned for 6 companies have been withdrawn. The list of companies included—Aevum, Astra, X-Bow, Rocket Lab, Space Vector and VOX Space (Virgin Orbit)—was lacking some big name, high visibility players, and it seems like leaving them out came back to bite.

I’m guessing it was going to be more pain than warranted to see this batch of contracts through to the finish line, unfortunately.

In other Defense Production Act news, LeoLabs is being awarded a $15 million contract. It’s a small amount, but will obviously be a huge help to a small company like LeoLabs. More interesting to me is the fact that the Department of Defense sees LeoLabs as highly valuable, enough so as to make sure they survive 2020.

A Few Thoughts on OneWeb’s Acquisition by the UK Government and Bharti Global

I’ve been kicking the news on this one around my head for a bit. I can’t quite come up with a grand unifying theory, but there are a couple of good reasons, though.

For Bharti—a huge telecom operating in India, parts of Africa, and a few other countries—the move makes a ton of sense. Constellations like OneWeb are going to be a huge factor in getting more connectivity to remote parts of the world. It’s a no-brainer for a telecom like Bharti, but it seems like they were looking for a complementary partner in the deal.

Turns out the UK is that partner. Aside from the obvious historical connections between the countries, they complement each other well because they are geographically distinct markets, so won’t compete for concurrent throughput.

The UK government, who wants and needs some new projects for growth and related economic reasons post-Brexit, might like the idea of providing services throughout remote regions of the country and the rest of Europe.

The UK also has a pretty good space sector at the moment, but intends to see more growth there. As far as their relationship with Europe, there is definitely some saltiness around being “left out” of the recent Copernicus contracts. It’s not surprising when you look at the ESA contributions, but I think the UK would quite like to have a huge launch contract to hold over Arianespace’s head—they have 19 of 22 launches left to go.

The UK and Bharti Global both put up $500 million for the acquisition, but there’s a lot of funding left to dump into this project for it to be successfully completed, so let’s see where that comes from.

I was wrong that Amazon would want the spectrum, but it sounds like they had other, more promising irons in the fire.

Thank You to June Supporters!

Very special thanks to the 422 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off for the month of June. 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.

And a huge thanks to the 38 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Brandon, Matthew, Simon, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, David, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, and seven anonymous executive producers.

If you’re getting some value out of what I do here and want to help support Main Engine Cut Off, join the crew of supporters and producers!

There are other ways to help support, too: head over to the shop and buy yourself a shirt or a pair of Rocket Socks, tell a friend, or post a link to something I’m writing or talking about on Twitter or in your favorite subreddit. Spreading the word is an immense help to an independent creator like myself.

DARPA Signs Several Contracts for Blackjack, OPIR Included

Way back in April, DAPRA selected Lockheed Martin for satellite integration of the Blackjack program. The goal is to build and launch a small satellite constellation within just a few years.

Just a few weeks ago, more contracts were signed, bringing the total to just over $70 million spread around several companies. Blue Canyon Technologies will be supplying satellite buses, and SA Photonics will be supplying optical communications terminals.

Most interesting is the contract Raytheon won for $37 million, under which they will supply Overhead Persistent Infrared payloads—the same type of payloads they’re supplying for the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared missile warning satellites.

Relativity Expanding to Vandenberg, Signs Iridium to Multi-Launch Contract

Relativity announced that they have signed a Right of Entry Agreement with the Air Force to develop a launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, where they could fly missions to polar, Sun-synchronous, and other high-inclination orbits. That’s really important for Relativity’s business model, because combined with their launch site at Cape Canaveral—Launch Complex 16—they could sell missions to any orbit desired.

The agreement isn’t a “Come on in and build!” agreement, though. They still have to complete environmental assessments and a ton of other paperwork. In California, and within Vandenberg Air Force Base specifically, that could drag on forever and potentially be fatal to the plans. That’s made worse by the fact that the area they have access to—south of both SLC-6 (Delta IV Heavy) and SLC-8 (Minotaur)—has been a really tough spot to build on in the past.

I was wrong on my bet that Relativity would get SLC-3W. I’m running out of names to take over SLC-3W, but it is really close to SLC-3E where Atlas V and soon Vulcan fly from, so that might make it a tough spot for anyone to settle in.

The dearth of launch sites at Vandenberg could be a major area of focus of the upcoming Phase 2 awards for the National Security Space Launch program. Blue Origin’s New Glenn and Northrop Grumman’s OmegA would need a launch site if chosen, so that will be something to watch.

In other good news for Relativity, they also announced that they’ve signed Iridium to a multi-launch contract to put up Iridium’s spare satellites between 2023 and 2030. Iridium has 6 spare satellites that they kept on the ground to hedge against any issues that might have cropped up during their launch campaign with SpaceX.

Everything went perfectly with that campaign, though, so Iridium wants each of the 6 spare satellites to be put into a different plane of their constellation. Relativity’s Terran 1 turns out to be a perfect size and price for that job.

Relativity now has a hell of a backlog, plenty of facilities, and the holy grail that is both an east and west coast launch site, if they can successfully build one at Vandenberg.

I honestly wouldn’t bet on the latter, but not because of Relativity’s ability to execute.