Main Engine Cut Off

NASA Adds SpaceX and Blue Origin, Among Others, to CLPS

Last week, NASA announced the addition of SpaceX, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, Tyvak, and Ceres Robotics to the list of Commercial Lunar Payload Services providers. That brings the total number of providers to 14.

It’s good to see continued support of Starship and Blue Moon from NASA, but don’t get too excited by these two merely being added to the CLPS list. After all, OrbitBeyond was on the list and won a task order, and we saw how that turned out.

The key task order for Starship and Blue Moon will be VIPER, the fairly-sizable rover NASA officially announced a month ago at IAC. None of the previous CLPS providers had a lander big enough, so I see this as a contest between Starship and Blue Moon.

I’d be shocked if Blue Moon didn’t get it, as they seem perfectly matched for each other.

That’s not a knock on Starship, but it’s going to take some time for most of the industry to get their head around any architectures involving multiple on-orbit refueling runs and 40-meter cranes.

Blue Moon has a much more straightforward development path from today to VIPER on the lunar surface.

Blue Origin’s Protest Successful: Air Force to Revise Criteria for NSSL

Blue Origin filed a protest back in August with a handful of complaints about the selection criteria for the National Security Space Launch program. The Government Accountability Office sided with Blue Origin on what seems like the most important complaint, but threw out a handful of other ones.

The GAO released a redacted version of their decision, which contains the best description of the selection criteria that Blue Origin protested and the Air Force will modify:

The Air Force does not contemplate performing a “typical source selection”, wherein the agency would rank the proposals and then conduct individual trade off determinations for the first and then second requirements contract. COS at 13-14. Rather, the RFP contemplates that award will be made to the two offerors that, “when combined, represent the overall best value to the Government.” RFP, attach. No. 6, Evaluation Criteria, at 2. In response to the protest, the contracting officer explains that the Air Force does not intend to conduct a tradeoff based on the individual merits of each individual proposal, but, rather, intends to conduct a tradeoff based on pairings of proposals.

This “when combined” clause was the biggest issue, as it makes the selection criteria murky, and in my eyes, easily manipulable. That clause makes it easy to shut down any protests or arguments after an award—the Air Force could rely on the explanation, “These two went together the best.”

Blue Origin likely—rightfully—saw that clause as one of the biggest ways they could lose out to SpaceX and ULA. After all, which two offerors go together better than the two flying these missions reliably right now?

The other complaints that the GAO did not agree with had to do with things that would more obviously benefit Blue Origin over others—they wanted to see three providers selected instead of two, they wanted to see two-year awards instead of five, and so on. In those two circumstances, Blue Origin would be selected as the third provider after SpaceX and ULA, because OmegA is a hot mess, and Blue Origin would have a good shot at winning two-year awards in the future when New Glenn is flying.

The Air Force will be removing the “when combined” clause and will not be modifying their selection size or timelines, so the stage is set for the best providers to win.

Blue Origin needs to show that they’re doing great work and have an attractive offer, and ULA needs to buckle down now that the path is not as easy for them as it was before.

I will still be shocked if the selection result is not SpaceX and ULA, in that order, but the GAO decision certainly opens up the possibilities here.

Virgin Orbit Gets Funding from UK Space Agency, Maybe Local Government

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

The U.K. Space Agency announced Nov. 5 that it will provide £7.35 million ($9.5 million) to Virgin Orbit U.K. Ltd., the U.K. branch of Virgin Orbit, for launch support equipment and mission planning activities at Cornwall Airport Newquay, also known as Spaceport Cornwall, intended to support flights by Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne air-launch system.

The space agency funding is part of a broader funding package of nearly £20 million to allow Virgin Orbit to operate from the airport in southwestern England. The local government in Cornwall is slated to vote later this month on providing £10 million for the effort, while Virgin Orbit will contribute £2.5 million.

Virgin Orbit continues the trend of Virgin space companies convincing local governments to pay for its spaceports. But the Virgin Orbit funding is a lot more sensible than the Virgin Galactic funding.

I think I’m too quick to shrug off the “domestic launch capability on demand” aspect of Virgin Orbit. That’s a big selling point for countries with no up-and-running spaceport, and even more so for countries with geography that isn’t conducive to the existence of one at all.

Thanks to October Patrons

Very special thanks to the 335 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of October. 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: Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, Sam, and six anonymous executive producers.

Your support was the reason I could head down to IAC 2019 and make so many incredible connections that will be hugely beneficial to the show in the future! The interview with Peter Beck was the first of the episodes that came out of that trip, so it’s already starting to pay off! I could not do that without you, so thank you!

If you’re getting some value out of what I do here and want to help support Main Engine Cut Off, head over to Patreon and 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.

Starlink Demos at 610 Mbps

Gwynne Shotwell held a media roundtable last week, and the best piece of info is this, thanks to Sandra Erwin of SpaceNews:

Shotwell said many of the Starlink features are being tested by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory under a program called Global Lightning. SpaceX in December 2018 received a $28 million contract to test over the next three years different ways in which the military might use Starlink broadband services. So far, SpaceX has demonstrated data throughput of 610 megabits per second in flight to the cockpit of a U.S. military C-12 twin-engine turboprop aircraft.

That’s some serious speed.

Some More Details on the Firefly-Aerojet Rocketdyne Partnership

Caleb Henry, for SpaceNews, with some enlightening details on the Firefly-Aerojet Rocketdyne partnership from an interview with Mark Watt, acting CFO at Firefly:

Watt said Beta has been redesigned from a triple-core rocket, akin to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, to a single core in order to increase how much it can lift. That rocket, featuring a reusable first stage, will be able to lift 8,000 kilograms to LEO, he said.

In a statement, Firefly CEO Tom Markusic praised the AR1 as an engine well suited for Beta, but stopped short of saying the engine’s selection is a done deal.

I still think that as a launch services company, it’s a bad idea to put yourself in a situation where you’re beholden to someone else’s business for your core engines.

But the confirmation of moving to a single-core, reusable first stage, along with a doubling of Beta’s previous payload is at least the best case scenario here.

I’m curious to find out what their reusability plan would be for a first stage design like that.

Firefly Wins MECO’s 2019 Bad Decision of the Year Award

Talk about burying news. Firefly and Aerojet Rocketdyne announced a partnership late Friday afternoon on the weekend before IAC 2019, and all the way at the end of the generic press release is this:

Dr. Markusic added, “Firefly is committed to flying Beta, our medium class launch vehicle. Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine, which incorporates the latest advances in propulsion technology, materials science and manufacturing techniques, is incredibly well suited to power Beta given its cost-effective, high performance capabilities. By cooperating on this development, we are accelerating our time to market and providing our customers with high confidence in Beta’s schedule, performance and reliability.”

I’ve been genuinely excited to see what Firefly can do in the launch market.

And I still am excited to see Alpha, but for Beta, this is a major violation of the rocket equivalent of Alan Kay’s theorem: people who are really serious about launch services should make their own engines.

Not only are they violating that rule, but they’re violating it and partnering with a slow-moving company that has a long history of expensive engines.

It’s possible that Firefly realized that the 3-core Beta vehicle would be overly complex, and needed to simplify down to a bigger (hopefully reusable) single-core that could still lift Beta-level payloads. If that’s the case, I’m curious why they’d go with AR1 instead of a cluster of their own engines.

I hope we find out.

I’m Heading to IAC 2019

Big week coming up: I‘ll be heading down to DC for IAC 2019. It’s sure to be packed with announcements and interesting information, so keep your eyes peeled here on the blog, over on Twitter, and become a supporter to get access to any and all bonus content I produce throughout the week. I will likely be doing some ad hoc recording (maybe even interviews?), so it’s a great time to hop in and support!

If you’ll be in the DC area this Sunday, October 20, Jake Robins of WeMartians and I will be doing a couple of wonderful meetups! Early in the day at the Udvar-Hazy wing of the Air and Space Museum, and in the evening just about 10 minutes away from the convention center. Details over at events.offnominal.space(and we’ll post any day-of updates there, as well!).

If you’re heading to IAC, as well, I’d love to talk about what you’re working on, so join us at the meetups on Sunday or let’s connect during the week!

SpaceX Submits 20 Filings to ITU for 30,000 More Satellites

Caleb Henry, for SpaceNews:

Filings trigger a seven-year deadline whereby the satellite operator, in this case SpaceX, must launch at least one satellite with its requested frequencies and operate it for 90 days. Once spectrum rights have been assigned through this “bring into use” procedure, other ventures must design their systems to avoid interference with the newly minted incumbent operator.

Tim Farrar, a telecom analyst critical of SpaceX, tweeted that he was doubtful the ITU will be able to review such big filings in a timely manner. He sees the 20 separate filings as a SpaceX effort to “drown the ITU in studies” while proceeding with its constellation.

I follow Farrar and often appreciate his perspective, but I would definitely say he ranges from cranky to cynical. He wrote a piece back in May that I reread and found it particular prescient given this recent ITU filing dust-up. In it he predicts the same aforementioned flood-the-ITU-and-fly-satellites strategy, as well as the big funding round that SpaceX raised following the first Starlink flight:

While other systems like Theia are required to receive ITU approval “prior to the initiation of service”, SpaceX has now been given permission to provide service over the Starlink system unless and until a final ITU finding is published. This appears to reflect the FCC’s view of SpaceX as a potential winner in the NGSO race and a desire to enable operations to begin as soon as possible. In addition, SpaceX appears to be receiving strong backing from other agencies within the US government for the capabilities that Starlink is expected to make available.

It appears that the launch will be accompanied by a publicity blitz to set the scene for a major fundraising effort immediately thereafter, with one feature of this PR campaign being SpaceX’s production line in Redmond, described to me as “more impressive” than OneWeb’s factory in Florida.

I’m not completely sure what to make of this new set of filings yet. The cynical end of the spectrum is Farrar’s opinion, and the optimistic end of the spectrum is SpaceX preparing for massive growth in Starlink services over the next decade.

I prefer being an optimist.