Main Engine Cut Off

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.

Issue #12

Dream Chaser at Edwards

Image credit: NASA

There has been a flurry of activity of all sorts this past week, so I thought it might be time for a compilation of all that is interesting and worth reading. With updates from SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, Aerojet Rocketdyne, some hints on 2017 NASA policy, and interesting developments in Russia, there’s a lot to keep up with.

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.

First SpaceX Launch from 39A Now CRS-10, with New T/E Procedure

Renovation and conversion work on Pad 39A is taking longer than anticipated, and EchoStar 23 has been bumped until after the time-critical CRS-10. This isn’t much of a surprise, since converting 39A has been akin to building out a brand new pad for SpaceX.

Chris Bergin, of NASASpaceFlight:

EchoStar 23, a telecommunications satellite, does not have the same pressure of launch date availability, resulting in the decision to swap the running order.

Ironically, even if 39A is classed as ready to conduct launches, there won’t be an advance on the February 14/15 launch date target, given the Dragon payload is run on its own schedule per the experiments she carries to the orbital outpost.

Some interesting changes to the Transporter/Erector/Launcher:

Nonetheless, TEL testing has been proceeding to plan, with the first “Throwback” test completed, which will be a change to how the Transporter Erector performs during a launch.

Normally the TE retracts away from the rocket with just over three minutes to launch. However, the “Throwback” method will see the TEL remain in place, before retracting, rapidly, at T-0.

SpaceX More Than Doubles Its Square Footage in Redmond

Alan Boyle, for GeekWire:

SpaceX has taken on a 40,625-square-foot facility in Redmond, Wash., that will become a research and development lab for its ambitious satellite operation.

The warehouse-style space in the Redmond Ridge Corporate Center, owned by M&T Partners, is slated for a $2.1 million interior remodeling job, according to a permit application filed last month with King County.

SpaceX is already using a 30,000-square-foot office building that’s about a 10-minute drive away in Redmond.

Dream Chaser Arrives at Edwards

Sierra Nevada Corporation delivered its Dream Chaser spacecraft Wednesday to NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, located on Edwards Air Force Base. The spacecraft will undergo several months of testing at the center in preparation for its approach and landing flight on the base's 22L runway.

The test series is part of a developmental space act agreement SNC has with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The upcoming test campaign will help SNC validate the aerodynamic properties, flight software and control system performance of the Dream Chaser.

I’m very excited to see how this next test goes. The first flight ended with a failed gear deployment and Dream Chaser tumbling down the runway. The funny thing is that this test is part of the original Commercial Crew agreement—windshields and all—though the results will support the Commercial Cargo variant of Dream Chaser.

PS: Called it!

T+37: Government Subsidies, Private Capability, and the 2010 National Space Policy

Four members of the House of Representatives sent letters to DARPA and the Pentagon this week to file a complaint about a program in conflict with the 2010 National Space Policy. It’s a situation reminiscent of the debate over commercial use of retired ICBMs as low-cost launch vehicles, except this time, Orbital ATK is on the other side. I discuss the current issues and how their resolution may affect future policy decisions.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 4 executive producers—Pat O, Matt Giraitis, Jorge Perez, and one anonymous—and 28 other supporters on Patreon.

Orbital ATK For and Against Government Subsidies

Caleb Henry writing for SpaceNews, today:

Four U.S. lawmakers complained to DARPA and the Pentagon this week that the project appears to run afoul of a national space policy that discourages the government from developing space systems and services it could otherwise buy from the private sector.

“DARPA’s RSGS program will subsidize a single company with several hundred million dollars’ worth of space hardware and launch service, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer, to directly compete with commercial satellite servicing systems that Orbital ATK and other companies are developing with their own private capital. Even worse, we estimate that DARPA will provide about 75% of the program funding but retain only about 10% of its capability, a highly questionable and inefficient use of public funds,” Orbital ATK said.

And back in May, this, from Jeff Foust, also of SpaceNews:

The present-day debate, where Orbital ATK seeks a policy change to allow it to use ICBM motors to provide lower cost commercial launches, mirrors one from the early 1990s that established the current policy that restricts those motors’ use. And, in the intervening quarter century, some of the key players have switched sides.

The irony hurts.

It’s also no mistake that Orbital ATK posted two videos of the Mission Extension Vehicle on YouTube this week: one showing a typical mission profile, and one of a simulation with real hardware.

Relatedly, I still recommend checking out the episode of The Space Show with Jim Armor of Orbital ATK that I linked to back in December.

Issue #11

In last week’s issue, and in the most recent episode of the podcast, I speculated how the slower fueling procedures SpaceX implemented for Falcon 9’s return to flight would affect overall performance, and specifically, first stage recoveries. Since then, we got some additional insight from Elon Musk, himself.

T+36: Falcon 9 Flies with New Fueling Procedures, and the NASA-Boeing-Soyuz Saga

SpaceX’s Early 2017 Cadence

Stephen Clark of Spaceflight Now on the upcoming SES-10 mission from Pad 39A:

Assuming the final launch pad work is completed in the coming days, and SpaceX can launch its next two missions on, or close to, their current target dates, the launch of SES 10 could occur around Feb. 22, at the earliest, an SES official told Spaceflight Now.

Assuming the next three launches hold their date, SpaceX will hit their target cadence of once every two weeks right off the bat. Iridium-1 on January 14, EchoStar 23 on January 26, CRS-10 on February 8, SES-10 on February 22. Those are gaps of 12 days, 13 days, and 14 days, respectively.

Even if we assume each launch is delayed between 3 and 7 days for weather or technical reasons, they’d still start the year off with a very promising pace.

The NASA-Boeing-Soyuz Transaction

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

In a “sources sought” procurement filing Jan. 17, NASA said it considering plans to acquire from Boeing two Soyuz seats on missions to the ISS in the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2018, and options for three additional Soyuz seats in 2019. Boeing, the filing stated, had obtained the rights to the seats from Soyuz manufacturer RSC Energia.

Energia owes Boeing $320 million plus legal fees. Most recently, Roscosmos sold NASA six Soyuz seats for $81.7 million each. If Boeing were to sell these seats to NASA for the same price, they’d get just over $408 million in payment. It’s a very odd way to get the money they’re owed, but it’ll work.

There’s been a lot of grumbling about buying more Soyuz seats for ISS flights during the time period when Commercial Crew flights are due to begin. Acquiring these seats doesn’t necessarily mean that Commercial Crew will be delayed further, though. NASA will take any and all seats it can get, and Boeing isn’t going to do anything with these five slots.

Plus, I think it’s smart to have a bit of overlap here. If and when any issues arise during the first few flights, it’d be good to have Soyuz to rely on, just as we do now.

Issue #10

SpaceX Iridium-1 Launch

Image credit: SpaceX

SpaceX successfully returned to flight this weekend with the launch of Iridium-1. It was a beautiful launch out of a fog-free Vandenberg Air Force Base, which made for incredible views for the entire duration of the flight. The first stage landing on Just Read the Instructions couldn’t have been gentler or more dead center—they keep getting better with each recovery. The most interesting part of the launch, though, was the change in fueling procedures, and how those changes may affect future launches.

Moon Express Lands $20 Million in Funding

Eric Berger, of Ars Technica:

Moon Express has a contract to fly with Rocket Lab, which plans to begin tests on its Electron rocket in the next month or so. According to Richards, Moon Express is launch number eight on the company’s manifest, which would mean Rocket Lab would have to fly eight missions on its unproven vehicle this year for Moon Express for a chance to win the X Prize.

I can’t wait to see how Rocket Lab does this year. It will be a seriously impressive feat if they launch 8 times this year—all on or close to schedule—and get Moon Express off by December.

It’s not clear whether any of the teams—SpaceIL from Israel, Moon Express, US-based Synergy Moon, Team Indus of India, and Hakuto of Japan—will succeed. Only the United States, Soviet Union, and China have ever softly landed on the Moon and deployed a rover, let alone any privately funded company.

Quick note: “Only [short list of countries] have ever done [achievement in space], let alone a privately-funded company.” is going to become a very tired sentence structure.

SpaceX, NASA, and Load and Go

Eric Berger, for Ars Technica:

The ASAP panel urged NASA to weigh the benefits of load and go with the “large” uncertainties and additional risk it entails. There is some evidence NASA’s commercial crew program managers are doing just that. One official familiar with deliberations at Johnson Space Center told Ars, “Prelaunch is a phase of flight that is scrutinized as much as any other with safety being our top priority. Load and go has had a great deal of interest within NASA a long time before last September’s accident and any ASAP discussions.”

Another Houston source directly involved in the review said load and go operations for crewed Dragon flights were not yet entirely off the table, but the concept had a “steep hill to climb” to get NASA's acceptance.

Exactly one month ago, I pulled this little bit from an article by Jeff Foust, of SpaceNews:

SpaceX said that it has worked with NASA to perform “a detailed safety analysis of all potential hazards” involved in this fueling process, with a report approved by NASA’s Safety Technical Review Board in July. That report, the company said, identified various controls it will implement to address those hazards. “As needed, any additional controls will be put in place to ensure crew safety,” the company said.

There’s clearly a split over this topic within NASA and their advisory groups. My guess is that load and go is going to win out in the end. If SpaceX can put together a strong, reliable 2017, with the above report from NASA’s Safety Technical Review Board in hand, this issue could be put to bed once and for all.

As big as the technical challenges are that SpaceX faces, the political ones are even bigger.

T+35: NASA Policy Grab Bag

While we don’t yet have hard details on which direction NASA programs are headed during the Trump administration, we have started to get some hints. The leadership of the Congressional subcommittees that NASA depends on will be largely unchanged, and Boeing and SpaceX were each promised 4 more Commercial Crew flights. I also talk a little bit about how the Air Force One and F-35 situations apply to NASA programs.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 3 executive producers—@spacepat_o, Matt Giraitis, and one anonymous—and 26 other supporters on Patreon.

Results of Progress MS-04 Investigation

Roscosmos posted a statement on their site about the investigation, but hasn’t updated their English site just yet. Anatoly Zak of has a nice wrap-up:

Members of the commission established that the most probable cause of the accident had been the disintegration of the oxidizer tank of the third stage as a result of the failure of the 11D55 engine, following the fire and disintegration of its oxidizer pump, Roskosmos said. The fire in the pump and its disintegration could be triggered by a possible injection of the foreign particles into the pump's cavity or by violations during the assembly of the 11D55 engine, such as a wrong clearance between the pump's shaft and its attachment sleeve, floating rings and impellers, leading to a possible loss of balance and vibration of the rotor.