Main Engine Cut Off

SpaceX Wins GPS III Launch, More Info on Phase 1A

Phillip Swarts for SpaceNews:

SpaceX won the contract for the first GPS 3 launch with a bid of $82.7 million. The winning bid for the second launch was $96.5 million. SpaceNews has contacted SpaceX for an explanation on the price increase.

Leon said she suspected that it was due to company “becoming more familiar with the requirements of the Air Force,” and likely adjusting their bid to better meet the service’s strict “mission success requirements.”

I’m not surprised to see rising prices—after all, you don’t have to outrun the bear, just the ones you’re running alongside.

The other launches planned for Phase 1A include communications satellites, the Air Force’s missile-warning SBIRS constellation, and launches for the National Reconnaissance Office.

The requirements for those launches will be different than GPS, Leon said, because “some missions are more stressing than others.”

The first two of Phase 1A’s fifteen launches went SpaceX’s way, but ULA has the home-field advantage when it comes to SBIRS and NRO satellites.

On the importance of Falcon Heavy’s upcoming demo mission:

SpaceX, however, will need to roll out its next rocket if it wants to win some of the launches.

“They will need the Falcon Heavy for some of those competitions,” Leon said. “They need to get a demo flight off at least to be competitive for some of those missions.”

NASA’s Cislunar Habitat Plans

Jeff Foust of SpaceNews, on NASA’s cislunar habitat plans:

Gerstenmaier, in an interview after his conference presentation, said putting a crew on EM-1 could open up new possibilities for EM-2 and later missions. “It makes EM-2 be more of an aggressive mission, and we can do more with the cargo that’s behind the Orion capsule on that flight,” he said.

Certainly sounds like NASA’s plans have changed since their EM-2 payload RFI went out back in October:

Current EM-2 mission concepts assumes that any co-manifested payloads would deploy from SLS and have no further interaction with the rocket or Orion spacecraft. NASA would provide the launch opportunity, and the payload provider would assume all payload costs.

As I had commented then, it always seemed like they were leaning towards launching a chunk of a habitat on EM-2.

More Details on Altius’ Cryo Coupler

A few days after I linked to Altius’ SBIR Phase II win, this post on Altius’ blog went up:

While Altius has won a few SBIR Phase I contracts in the past, this is our first SBIR Phase II contract, and to give you an idea of how competitive this process is, Altius was one of only 133 Phase II awardees–out of a total of 399 Phase I contracts this cycle, which were selected from 1278 Phase I proposals. Since I didn’t have the chance to explain what we were doing for this project back when we won the Phase I effort, I wanted to spend some more time and give some background on what we’re doing and where we’re trying to take this after Phase II.

It’s a fantastic read, and really worth your time. If you don’t believe me, maybe this tidbit will:

Since we wanted to design and build a flight-like prototype in Phase II anyway, we decided it was best to tie it to a real-world application, so we could make sure we were designing something that could actually be used after Phase II is over. So, during Phase I, we reached out to several launch vehicle companies that are actively developing upper stages that use at least one cryogenic fluid, and found a few who would like to work with us to provide design requirements and design feedback as we develop the coupling. I won’t go into the details of who we’re working with yet, as I haven’t verified with the customers that I have permission to discuss their applications, but we’ve found at least one customer who needs a LOX coupler, in a size that’s convenient to work with in Phase II, and which could potentially get us a flight opportunity for the coupler very soon after the end of Phase II.

The Alabama Launch Alliance

Eric Berger of Ars Technica:

At the end of February, two US representatives, Mike Rogers of Alabama and Mac Thornberry of Texas, decided to push a little harder. On February 28, they sent a letter to Lisa Disbrow, the acting secretary of the US Air Force, and James MacStravic, who is performing the duties of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. In addition to reiterating a desire that ULA continue to fly a second rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, the letter urges the Pentagon officials to be skeptical about the BE-4 engine.

“The United States Government (USG) must have a hands-on, decision-making role... in any decision made by United Launch Alliance to down-select engines on its proposed Vulcan space launch system, especially where one of the technologies is unproven at the required size and power,” the letter states. “If ULA plans on requesting hundreds of millions of dollars from the USG for development of its launch vehicle and associated infrastructure, then it is not only appropriate but required that the USG have a significant role in the decision-making concerning the vehicle.” The letter then goes on to say the Air Force should not give any additional funding to ULA, other than for current launch vehicles, until the company provides “full access, oversight of, and approval rights over decision-making” in its choice of contractors for the engines on Vulcan.

Politicians sure are politicking.

Aerojet Rocketdyne has stagnated for too long and is now a prime target of ULA’s cost-cutting decisions. The Delta IV—powered by the expensive RS–68A and RL10-B–2—is being phased out entirely because of how expensive it is to fly. The AJ–60A solid boosters on Atlas V are being phased out in favor of GEM–63 boosters from Orbital ATK, and a stretched version will fly on Vulcan. There hasn’t yet been a decision on ACES’ engines, but it’s safe to say that the BE–3U seems more likely than an RL10 variant.

After years of complaining about not having a robust supply of American rocket engines, the same group is now saying “No, no, no! That isn’t what we meant!”

This is the true coming-of-age moment for ULA. Fight for independence and a surely-more-exciting future, or take the “safe” government job like your parents think you should. Look, they already got you in the door because of their friends that work there. You’re practically a shoo-in.

“It’d look really bad for us if you didn’t take it, and you’d be making a huge mistake that you would regret later.”

Planet Explorer Beta

Planet co-founder and CEO, Will Marshall, introducing Explorer Beta:

What is surprising to me is that in nearly every image we collect, when we compare it to a previous image, we see some level of change: a reservoir level drains, a tree is cut down, a field is harvested. People think of the Earth as static because we’ve been trained on static maps. In reality, Earth has never been static; it’s always changing and imagery of our planet should reflect that.

Explorer Beta is available publicly and, with no login, users can see regional and global change month-by-month or quarterly as they browse our global Timelapse Basemaps. Each basemap is made from over 2 million satellite images automatically processed and stitched together. At 3-5 meter per pixel, users can see a tree, a road or a ship, but not people or license plates; the goal is to see broad-scale change.

I remember the excitement around Google Earth way back when it was first released. I would spend hours zooming in and out all over the world to see satellite imagery of places I’ve lived, loved, or hadn’t experienced first-hand. Explorer Beta feels like the next step: open and accessible just like Google Earth, but this time with dynamism.

Seeing the change over seasons, months, or even days is wonderfully interesting to you and I, and it’s easy to see how useful this type of imagery can be to governments, businesses, and other organizations.

Explorer is something that seems so simple and obvious in hindsight, but only became possible once a few things came together in the right way: the rise of small satellites, the increase of launch availability, and easy distribution on the web, to name a few.

It feels a lot like the way Instagram rose to popularity. There had been plenty of photo sharing services over the years, but the one that was built alongside the rise of smartphones with great cameras and an always-on Internet connection took off like nearly everything before it failed to do.

Timing is everything.

Boeing Completes First Starliner Chute Test

Chris Bergin of

During the test, the Starliner was lifted about 40,000 feet in the air, the flying altitude of a typical commercial airline flight, by a Near Space Corp. helium balloon and then released over the White Sands Missile Range, next door to Spaceport America.

Uniquely, this test wasn’t conducted via the use of a helicopter of an aircraft – as seen with other vehicles, such as the Orion spacecraft. Boeing was not able to fit the Starliner test article into the hold of a C-130 or C-17 aircraft, so they instead used a 1.3-million-cubic-foot balloon, which is able to lift the capsule to its intended altitude.

Great rundown of Starliner progress, complete with some talk about RD-180 certification:

“One of the top Boeing risks is the RD-180 engine certification. The engine has a long history, but it has been difficult to get detailed design information for certification,” added the ASAP minutes.

“The Boeing team is developing an approach that takes advantage of the long history of successful use, combined with information that they can obtain.”

Altius’ In-Space Cyrogenic Propellant Coupling Selected in SBIR Phase II

NASA announced the selection of 133 proposals for Phase II of the SBIR program. One of the more exciting proposals selected is from Altius Space Machines, titled “Lightweight, High-Flow, Low Connection-Force, In-Space Cryogenic Propellant Coupling”:

While all cryogenic rocket stages have to have a propellant fill/drain coupling for loading propellant on the ground, existing designs are not capable of in-space refuelability. A dual-purpose coupler that could be used for both ground fill/drain and for in-space refueling would be extremely valuable.In this proposed SBIR Phase II research effort, Altius Space Machines proposes continuing the development of just such a dual-purpose, lightweight, high-flow cryogenic propellant coupling to enable both ground fill/drain and in-space refueling. This coupling incorporates an innovative new cryogenic sealing architecture to enable a coupling with very low insertion/extraction forces, for manual, robotic, and astronaut-connected cryogenic propellant transfer operations.

An exciting, much-needed development that could be a huge part of our future in space. One of these days, we just might get Jon on the show to discuss.