Main Engine Cut Off

Aerojet Rocketdyne Tries Using the Word “Reusability”

Aerojet Rocketdyne, Inc., a subsidiary of Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings, Inc. (NYSE:AJRD), has successfully completed hot-fire qualification tests of an engine that demonstrates the ability to meet reusability requirements for Boeing's Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner crew module propulsion system. The tests were conducted on Aerojet Rocketdyne's MR-104J hydrazine monopropellant engine in Redmond, Washington. For NASA service missions to the International Space Station, Boeing's Starliner spacecraft will carry up to four astronauts and time-critical scientific research.

"Our engineers have incorporated a unique design that will allow the MR-104 engine to be used on multiple missions, providing the reliability, cost-efficiency and reusability our customer needs to be competitive in the current commercial space environment," said Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and President Eileen Drake.

Somehow I don’t think reusing reaction control engines is the thing that’s going to allow Boeing to be competitive in the current commercial space environment.

Jon Goff on Reusable Launch Vehicles and Megaconstellations

Jon Goff with some thoughts on how the second generation megaconstellations will be impacted by the presence of SpaceX as both a constellation operator and launch provider:

And while OneWeb may have the first mover advantage, SpaceX has an important advantage for second generation systems–they also own their own in-house low-cost launch system. You don’t have to fawn over every tweet Elon types to believe that they’re likely one of the cheapest launch providers in the world right now, and that their launch costs are probably significantly lower than anyone else’s launch price.

This is a really interesting and important point to consider. SpaceX’s internal launch cost is incredibly low with a reusable first stage—and better yet, that first stage was already paid for by someone else.

While it might not be in some of these companies’ best interest to fly with SpaceX—thereby subsidizing a launch (or ten) of a competitor—no one else is yet approaching SpaceX’s launch price. For the time period between when SpaceX begins flying their own, competing constellation satellites and when someone else approaches their launch price, things might get a bit awkward and standoffish.

Cygnus, Antares, Atlas V, and NGL

With the launch of OA–7, I’ve been thinking about the interplay between Cygnus, Antares, Atlas V, and Orbital ATK’s Next-Generation Launch Vehicle.1

Let’s start with a bit from Jeff Foust’s latest article on Cygnus for SpaceNews:

Orbital ATK is one of three companies that received follow-on CRS-2 cargo contracts from NASA in early 2016 to deliver cargo to the ISS into the 2020s. Orbital’s contract includes options for Cygnus launches on either the Antares or Atlas 5.

Culbertson said that the company expects to hear from NASA in the near future about the mix of launch vehicles it wants for those missions. “On CRS-2, NASA hasn’t actually told us exactly which missions they’ll want on which vehicles,” he said. “We’re waiting to see which way they’d like for us to go, whether it’s a mix or all one or the other. We hope to hear that pretty soon.”

It made a lot of sense for Orbital to take advantage of available Atlas V slots in the wake of the Orb-3 failure. Integrating new engines was going to take a while, and Orbital ATK had a contract to fulfill.

And then after OA-5, Orbital and ULA announced that Cygnus would again fly on an Atlas V—the first use of ULA’s RapidLaunch program. This time it made sense because NASA needed the extra upmass, and Orbital could eliminate the need for one additional Antares flight to finish out their original CRS-1 contract. Orbital sees the math working out in the long-term: one slightly-more expensive flight on Atlas V beats two slightly-less expensive flights on Antares.2

Yet through all these actions and justifications, Orbital ATK may have brought about the end of Antares.

ULA is making huge strides on cost-reduction. A base-level Atlas V 401 now starts at $109 million, and a Cygnus flight probably costs something in the $200-250 million range all said and done.

Antares’ Achilles’ heel is its low flight rate and lack of use, other than for Cygnus. That means Orbital will have a tough time bringing down its cost.

Antares is in that position because frankly, it isn’t that useful. It has a small payload capacity with only a 3.9-meter fairing, and more importantly, it can only launch from Wallops, which means it can’t fly useful missions to polar orbits or GTO. And yet another concern: it uses RD-series engines, which would become a liability if they ever wanted to use Antares for national security flights.

At the same time, Orbital is putting a lot of effort into the development of NGL and is focused on making it cost-competitive with the Atlas V. NGL addresses every drawback of Antares. NGL will fly from Kennedy Space Center (Pad 39B) and Vandenberg (SLC-2), which means it can fly anything from low-inclination LEO and GEO flights, to polar and other high-inclination flights. It also will fly with a 5-meter fairing, all-American propulsion, and a competitive payload capacity (including direct injection to GEO capability). Overall, NGL is a far, far more useful launch vehicle that could compete for contracts with ULA and SpaceX.3

I wouldn’t be surprised if Orbital ATK retired Antares after their initial 20-engine (10-flight) contract is up with Energomash, opting instead to fly on Atlas V and/or Vulcan until their own NGL is ready.

In retrospect, it will be Orb-3 that ended Antares. But it wasn’t because of the failure, it was because of the timing.

  1. I can’t stand writing that all the time. Orbital ATK better name this launch vehicle soon. ↩︎

  2. The unverified (and probably unverifiable, since neither party will talk) cost numbers I’ve heard are around $200 million for an Antares-Cygnus flight, and $200-250 million for an Atlas-Cygnus. ↩︎

  3. I use the phrase “could compete” in the sense that it will be technically able to be entered into a contract competition. Whether or not it will be economically viable is another discussion entirely. ↩︎

House Members Ask Air Force to Fund Vehicles, Not Components

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

In the letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, dated April 10, the members said the Air Force should continue efforts to develop “complete, robust launch systems” rather than focus on specific components, such as an engine to replace the Russian-built RD-180. That approach, they argued, is the best way to end reliance on the RD-180 while providing assured access to space at reduced cost.

This bit of the full letter (PDF, 1.8MB) is really interesting:

In its budget for Fiscal Year 2017, the Air Force requested $1.2 billion across five years to invest in domestic launch systems. The end goal of these investments is two long-term domestic, commercially viable launch providers that meet national-security space requirements.

Saying the end goal is to develop two launch vehicles doesn’t mean the Air Force is only giving out two contracts. They could—and probably should—award more than two contracts, so that they can still meet their goal even if one or more contenders fail for any reason.

It would be a huge shock if ULA doesn’t win a contract for Vulcan. If and when ULA formally selects the BE-4, AR1 will be left out in the cold after winning a contract in the previous round.

Orbital ATK is pretty confident they’ll win a contract for their completely-uninspiringly-named Next-Generation Launch Vehicle. NASA and the Department of Defense have a vested interest in keeping Orbital ATK around, so I’m expecting to see a contract headed their way in this round. The last Air Force contract included funding for development of an extendable nozzle for the BE-3U, which NGL would likely use on its upper stage.

Blue Origin wouldn’t put themselves in the running for this contract—they don’t need the money or the constraints and distractions that would come with this contract. But it’s extremely likely that both of their engines are part of the launch vehicles funded.

That leaves us with SpaceX. In the last round, they received funding for development of the Raptor engine:

This other transaction agreement requires shared cost investment with SpaceX for the development of a prototype of the Raptor engine for the upper stage of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.

I see two ways SpaceX could get a contract this time around.

They could propose a new variant of the Falcon family with a Raptor-powered upper stage. The upper stage would probably be fully-reusable, since that seems to be coming back into favor.

Or, way less likely, they go for the Hail Mary pass and propose something in the realm of ITS development. That wouldn’t necessarily fit the EELV designation, unless they proposed a scaled-down version or something of that sort, but SpaceX is known for the unexpected.

Elon Musk did say that SpaceX will be releasing updated plans for the ITS soon, so maybe we’ll see something in there that could fit with this Air Force initiative.

The Deep Space Gateway, Cislunar Staging Orbits, and Momentum

NASA’s announcement of the Deep Space Gateway and Deep Space Transport is—for a NASA framework at this point in its lifecycle—surprisingly full of what but totally lacking the why. Specifically, there are two important whys to answer, and answering them may help build support for—or at least understanding of—the DSG.

Why Near-Rectilinear Halo Orbit?

The required reading for this discussion is an October, 2015 paper by Ryan Whitley and Roland Martinez of NASA Johnson, titled Options for Staging Orbits in Cis-Lunar Space (PDF, 4.7MB). From the introduction:

In this paper orbits are assessed for their relative attractiveness based on various factors. First, a set of constraints related to the capability of the combined Orion and SLS system to deliver humans and cargo to and from the orbit are evaluated. Second, the ability to support potential lunar surface activities is considered. Finally, deployed assets intended to spend multiple years in the Proving Ground would ideally require minimal station keeping costs to reduce the mass budget allocated to this function. Additional mission design drivers include potential for uninterrupted communication with deployed assets, thermal, communications, and other operational implications.

The paper analyzes 7 orbits—Low Lunar Orbit, Prograde Circular, Frozen Lunar Orbit, Elliptical Lunar Orbit, Near-Rectilinear Orbit, Earth-Moon L2 Halo, and Distant Retrograde Orbit—and how each fits the criteria above. Jonathan Goff also did a similar exploration on the usefulness of these orbits, but his was specifically focused on an architecture involving LEO and lunar depots.

The best balance was found to be NRO for its relatively easy access from Earth, fast and global access to the lunar surface, low stationkeeping needs, constant communication with Earth (and good communication coverage of the lunar surface), among a handful of other advantages. That answers the “Why NRO?” question, and leads us into…

Why build the Gateway?

The Deep Space Gateway and Transport, and the way they were announced, are pretty symbolic of the limbo NASA is stuck in when it comes to long-term plans. Is the Deep Space Gateway meant to be a stepping stone to Mars? Should it be on the critical path to Mars? Or should it be a project in its own right, with focus to suit?

If NASA was focused solely on getting to Mars, they would skip the DSG and instead put the money towards DST off the bat. But the choice of NRO and the existence of DSG tip their hand. They want to build up a presence around the Moon, with surface access as a priority.

The most recent OIG report (PDF, 6.7MB) stresses the importance cost sharing to NASA’s plans. That means finding international and commercial partners willing to help foot the bill. Surface access is exactly where NASA intends to share costs.

NASA could focus on getting their own budget to cover the build up of the DSG through the 2020s, and let ESA—with their interest in the Moon Village concept—and commercial partners like Blue Origin—with their Blue Moon lander—cover the rest of the trip to the surface.

The way the pieces are aligning, it sure seems like NASA is headed back to the Moon, with no regard for Mars. The hand-wavy reference to the Deep Space Transport is probably there only to ease the transition, politically, away from Mars and back towards the Moon. The other remaining wrinkle in the plan: the giant ISS budget.

What NASA needs, as it has always needed, is focus. Being stuck in limbo about where the program is headed in a decade—while still spending billions on the ISS per year—is completely counter-productive. If the Moon is the destination, make it official, let the ISS burn up in 2024, and get on with the DSG.

Personally, I think the Moon is a much more achievable destination given the political environment we find ourselves in today. There is enough interest between NASA, ESA, and the private sector that the focus and clarity brought about by this plan could plant the seeds of a real, thriving economy in cislunar space.

And if you’re someone who believes Mars should be the goal, then you’ll be happy to know that there will be plenty of contracts to be had, services to be sold, and work to be done in cislunar space. SpaceX will almost certainly win more than a few, which would help bolster their own ambitions, just as the current ISS contracts have done.

Regardless of how you think our collective plans should be organized, we can all agree that we’d rather see something happen. Let’s be honest about where we’re headed, and get on with it.

Momentum is more important than the particulars of any given plan. It’s why the 20 years between Yuri and Shuttle are so incredible to look back on, and why the 30 years after that seem so dry.

Without momentum, everyone and every plan suffers.

Modular vs. Single-Launch Architecture

I haven’t said much about NASA’s proposed Deep Space Gateway and Transport architecture yet, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

This bit on the Deep Space Transport from Jason Davis’ post on The Planetary Society’s blog caught my eye:

In NASA’s case, Gerstenmaier said the single-launch approach saves weight, since assembling multiple components requires extra berthing ports and internal hatches. The agency also has the Space Launch System at its disposal, and likely wants to avoid the cost of a multi-mission assembly project.

Gerstenmaier said that after talking about NASA’s plans for the Deep Space Gateway. The Deep Space Gateway is a decade-long project to build an outpost near the Moon, which requires assembling multiple components with extra berthing ports and internal hatches, all riding as secondary payloads on the Space Launch System.

The cognitive dissonance hurts.

Aerojet Rocketdyne Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic

In total, approximately 1,100 of the existing 1,400 positions in Sacramento are expected to be relocated or eliminated.

The company plans to close its Gainesville, Virginia facility in the third quarter of 2018. Approximately 170 positions there will be relocated or eliminated with relocations planned to Huntsville and the company’s facility in Orange County, Virginia.

To accommodate the company’s consolidations, overall growth plans for Huntsville include the addition of approximately 800 jobs to support America’s space and defense needs for the next quarter century and beyond.

Downsizing, relocating to a lower-cost location, and doubling-down on just about the only politicians who have been working for them lately.

Commercial Crew Update, Early 2017 Edition

An extensive and informative article by Chris Gebhardt, for NASASpaceFlight, on the recent Commercial Crew update given to the NASA Advisory Council.

On Boeing’s progress:

Since the last NAC update, Boeing has completed wind tunnel testing of the launch vehicle adapter skirt, conducted International Docking Adapter and NASA Docking System testing at the Johnson Space Center, successfully dropped tested the parachutes and tested their deployment sequence, hot fired the launch Abort Engines with their new propellant valves, completed acceptance testing and RL–10 hot fire of the CFT engines, and performed quality testing at the Langley Research Center for the landing airbag system.

Moreover, the version 8.0 software release has been completed, gaining specific note from Ms. Lueders who praised Boeing, saying that “It’s one of the few programs I’ve seen where the software is actually running ahead of the hardware.”

And on SpaceX:

Moreover, according to the NAC presentation from the CCP, “Completion of ECLSS (Environmental Control and Life Support System) system testing and successful suit milestone testing in Q4 CY2016 provides confidence that designs are closing and on a good trajectory for cert/qual.”

According to Ms. Lueders, the fact that SpaceX completed their suit milestones in 2016 “really built up a lot of confidence amongst the team” who had been nervous about the suit milestone.

From an infrastructure standpoint, SpaceX has completed the crew access arm and white room critical design reviews and has also completed the pad 39A design reviews including fluid systems, environmental control systems, emergency egress system, and hydraulics upgrades.”

If you’re interested in Commercial Crew, make some time to read the entire article.

Introducing the Main Engine Cut Off Shop

I’m excited to announce the launch of a brand new project: the Main Engine Cut Off Shop. This isn’t the typical “sell a t-shirt with your podcast logo on it” sort of project (though I do love me some podcast tees)—it’s an ever-growing collection of custom-designed products for space geeks like you and I.

Today, you’ll find two shirts and the long-awaited Rocket Socks. I’m working on a bunch of other products and ideas that will hit the store soon, so be sure to check back often (or follow me on Twitter) to keep up with new arrivals.

To pull back the curtain a bit, everything in the shop is printed on-demand. That means more freedom to create products (including incredibly quirky ones, like Rocket Socks), but it also means that it could take a few days to ship your order.

Head over to shop.mainenginecutoff.com and take a look.