Main Engine Cut Off

Charges Against ARCA CEO Dumitru Popescu Dropped

Diana Alba Soular for the Las Cruces Sun News:

State prosecutors on Monday dropped 18 criminal charges against the CEO of a space technology company based in Doña Ana County

ARCA Space Corporation CEO Dumitru Popescu had been facing a series of fraud, securities fraud and embezzlement charges.

But Monday, Benjamin Schrope, special assistant district attorney with the state securities division, filed a brief notice in 3rd Judicial District Court in Las Cruces to dismiss the case.

That happened after a state grand jury heard last week declined to indict Popescu after hearing 14 hours of testimony in two separate sessions.

And the craziest bit about the grand jury hearing:

While presenting to the grand jury, Popescu represented himself legally. He said he "fired" his most-recent attorney about three weeks ago after he was dissatisfied with the legal representation he was receiving.

A few weeks ago, I was wondering where the whole ARCA situation had gotten to, and fell down quite a rabbit hole starting with this 12-minute monologue video in which Popescu details his side of the story.

The story is so complex that I had never spent too much time trying to work through the details, but this lay-it-all-out video (and the long ones that follow) opened my mind to the fact that Popescu might really be telling the truth here—that this situation was some sort of an attempted coup with some very suspect governmental involvement.

Honestly, I still have no idea what to make of it, but Popescu defended himself in front of a grand jury for 14 hours and they agreed with his case. Let’s see where ARCA goes from here:

At the time the charges were filed last fall, ARCA had been about two weeks from launching a test rocket from Spaceport America, according to Popescu. The criminal case stalled progress. Now, the company plans to carry out the rocket test in Europe. After that, it's likely the company will launch a test of a second rocket system from NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Count me in for a trip to Wallops to see that flight, if it happens.

Thanks to April Patrons

Very special thanks to the 192 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of April. Your support keeps this blog and podcast going, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 31 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Brian, Russell, John, Moritz, Tyler, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Barbara, and six anonymous executive producers. I could not do this without your support, and I am extremely grateful for it.

There are some great perks for those supporting on Patreon, too. At $3 a month, you get access to the MECO Headlines podcast feed—every Friday, I run through the headlines of the week and discuss the stories that didn’t make it into the main show. And at $5 a month, you’ll get advance notice of guest appearances with the ability to contribute questions and topics to the show, and you get access to the Off-Nominal Discord—a place to hang out and discuss all things space.

If you want to get in on some of these perks, of if you’re getting some value out of what I do here and just want to send a little value back to help support Main Engine Cut Off, head over to Patreon and do it there.

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.

Strategic Forces Subcommittee Pushes for Air Force Program Focused on Next-Generation Upper Stages

Sandra Erwin, for SpaceNews:

Rogers and Cooper also want more information on what the Air Force is doing to develop launch vehicle upper stages to be used for the defense of U.S. space assets. “Advanced upper stages could increase the operational flexibility and on-orbit reusability of the holistic launch system while also allowing for greater delivery of mass to orbit,” says the bill. It asks the Air Force to provide a briefing on “next generation upper stage technology.”

This language is surely the byproduct of ULA lobbying for funding that can be used for Centaur V and ACES, but I would absolutely support a program focused on upper stages.

That said, I would be very disappointed if the definition of “upper stages” was limited to traditional stages like Centaur and not inclusive of things that push the future forward, like SpaceX’s BFS.

Falcon 9 Turnaround

Chris Gebhardt, for NASASpaceflight, on SpaceX’s busy May, including Block 5’s debut, and this feat, as part of the Iridium NEXT-6/GRACE-FO mission:

The mission will use core B1043.2, a booster previously used to launch the much-discussed Zuma mission from Cape Canaveral, FL, in January.

At four-months 20 days between Zuma and Iridium NEXT-6/GRACE-FO, this will be the fastest Falcon 9 first stage turnaround between flights to date.

BE-4 Updates

Alan Boyle, for GeekWire, with a handful of BE-4 updates, including some behind-the-scenes insight on ULA’s decision:

Now Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith says the BE-4 has passed all of the technical tests required for ULA to sign onto a production contract.

“We’ve met the technical and performance requirements that they’re looking for,” Smith told GeekWire today during a one-on-one interview at the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. “And so we’re just working through how do we actually get to a production deal. We’re working through terms and conditions, termination liability, all of the things you’d want within a contractual structure.”

Smith said there’s been good interaction with ULA on the technical side of the BE-4 test-firing process. “At this point, we think it’s just, how do we get to the commercial production deal?” he said.

That sounds promising.

And some insight on last year’s testing issue:

The road hasn’t always been smooth: Last May, Bezos reported that an engine powerpack was lost during a round of testing at Blue Origin’s West Texas facility.

Smith said Blue Origin learned lessons from that setback. “We incorporated a lot of changes associated with how do we deal with foreign object debris,” Smith said.

We hadn’t heard any details whatsoever about that issue before this—and it’s still not clear exactly what happened—but the mention of foreign object debris is worth noting.

All in all, it sounds like BE-4 is in a good spot, and multiple reports say that it should be formally qualified by the end of the year.

OA-9E Cygnus Might Reboost ISS

Chris Gebhardt, for NASASpaceflight, on a very cool aspect of the upcoming OA-9E mission:

Moreover, and quite excitingly, the OA-9E Cygnus might be the first U.S. commercial vehicle to reboost the orbit of the International Space Station.  Speaking to the NASA Advisory Council last month, Ms. Gatens related that there is a potential Detailed Test Objective (DTO) in work for OA-9E to use Cygnus’ thrusters to perform an ISS reboost.

If the DTO is approved and executed, Cygnus will become the first U.S. spacecraft to perform a reboost of the ISS since the Space Shuttle fleet was retired seven years ago.

Taco Bell Space Station

Today is an appropriate day to link to this article by Debra Werner of SpaceNews:

“Would NASA have a program in a Taco Bell Station?” asked Blair Bigelow, Bigelow Space Operations LLC co-founder and vice president of corporate strategy. “On a government-subsidized station, we are held to highest and best use. With a commercial space station, we won’t be successful if we are held to the same kind of rules of engagement.”

Bigelow Aerospace is on schedule to have two private space stations ready to launch in 2021, Bigelow said. Bigelow Space Operations will be responsible for sales, customer service and operation of those space stations, she added.

Erin MacDonald, who was in the audience for the panel discussion, said she raised the question of Taco Bell sponsorship because she was concerned about education and public outreach. Would a private space station require schools to pay? If so, that would prevent a lot of kids from getting access, she said.

Jeffrey Manber, NanoRacks chief executive, said he did not see corporate sponsorship as a problem. NanoRacks plans to refurbish a Centaur upper stage to turn it into a private orbital outpost it calls Independence-1.

“If we are going to do a commercial space station, we have to succeed in the marketplace,” he said. “I’m sure you and everyone you know takes part in things that are sponsored. We welcome that.”

The name “Taco Bell Space Station” would do a hell of a lot more to get public buy-in for a space program than “Lunar Orbiting Platform—Gateway,” that’s for sure.


Awkward and clunky. The name isn’t great, either.

Seriously, though, it’s an otherwise cool name styled in the worst possible way. Going with two RL10 engines for the upper stage is…interesting. They obviously wanted to go all-American in the propulsion department for political reasons, but the cost side gets confusing.

I’d really love to know what a single RL10 costs these days.

Lockheed Martin Selected to Build Low-Boom Flight Demonstration Aircraft

Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company of Palmdale, California, was selected for the Low-Boom Flight Demonstration contract, a cost-plus-incentive-fee contract valued at $247.5 million. Work under the contract began April 2 and runs through Dec. 31, 2021.

Under this contract, Lockheed Martin will complete the design and fabrication of an experimental aircraft, known as an X-plane, which will cruise at 55,000 feet at a speed of about 940 mph and create a sound about as loud as a car door closing, 75 Perceived Level decibel (PLdB), instead of a sonic boom.

Beginning in mid-2022, NASA will fly the X-plane over select U.S. cities and collect data about community responses to the flights. This data set will be provided to U.S. and international regulators for their use in considering new sound-based rules regarding supersonic flight over land, which could enable new commercial cargo and passenger markets in faster-than-sound air travel.

That’s quieter than the SEPTA buses that drive by my front door here in Philadelphia. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

Eschewing Cost-Plus, Lacking Vision

Jeff Foust, of SpaceNews, wrote about some Lunar Gateway updates from the NASA Advisory Council meeting last week. This piece in particular about the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) caught my eye:

For the PPE, NASA plans to develop the module in a public private partnership with industry. Once the module is launched and its performance demonstrated in space, NASA would have the option to then buy the module for use in the gateway.

Gates said that NASA expects to issue a draft solicitation for the PPE in April, with an industry day to take place in late April or early May. A final solicitation will then follow, with proposals due to NASA in late July.

Though it’s the same old guard working on PPE studies—Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada, and SSL—the eschewal of cost-plus contracting should not be overlooked. The backbone of the next great NASA human exploration project will be bought after its performance has been demonstrated in space. That’s a big change.

That’s the good news. Here’s the bad:

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said the agency would be open to selecting more than one proposal for development and in-space demonstration depending on what was proposed, and at what price.

“The architecture is open enough that we can tolerate more than one of these Power and Propulsion Elements in the vicinity of the moon, if we got the right prices and the right considerations,” he said. “The architecture is broad enough and open enough that we can accommodate more of these in orbit.”

In that approach, he said, one PPE would be used at the gateway. Additional PPEs could be used for other aspects of NASA’s lunar exploration campaign, such as serving as a communications relay around the moon. “We’ll see what we get in the proposals, we’ll see how the selection process moves forward,” he said. “It’s too early to say one way or the other.”

There still is no vision for or definition of what exactly the Lunar Gateway is, what it does, or how it will be used.

NASA needs to take some advice from Jeff Bezos. Not about launch vehicles, but about vision:

We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details.

In the Flexible Path era, NASA has always been flexible on both the vision and the details. That is why the human exploration program is floundering.