Main Engine Cut Off

XCOR Loses XS-1 and ULA ACES Contract, Announces Lay Offs

Alex Knapp for Forbes:

“Due to adverse financial conditions, XCOR had to terminate all employees as of 30 June 2017,” the company said in a statement. “XCOR management will retain critical employees on a contract basis to maintain the company’s intellectual property and is actively seeking other options that would allow it to resume full employment and activity.”

The primary impetus for the layoffs, Acting CEO and XCOR Board member Michael Blum told me, is the loss of a contract for engine development that the company had with United Launch Alliance. “The proceeds should have been enough to fund the prototype of Lynx [the company’s planned spacecraft], but ULA decided they're not going to continue funding the contract. So we find ourselves in a difficult financial situation where we need to raise money or find joint developments to continue.” ULA declined to comment.

Not mentioned was XCOR losing out on the next phases of DARPA’s XS-1 program. This is just about the end for XCOR. They’re probably hoping to find a good home for the intellectual property they’ve developed, but I can’t see anything other than that happening anytime soon.

This leaves ULA’s Vulcan-ACES in an interesting position. Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne are now in direct competition for engines on both stages of Vulcan-ACES: BE-4 and AR1 for the first stage, BE-3U and RL10 for ACES. Will ULA decide to go with one supplier for the entire vehicle or diversify and split the vehicle? There are probably cost advantages to the single supplier route, and peace-of-mind advantages for the split—they wouldn’t be solely dependent on a single company, who in the case of Blue Origin could and most likely will be a direct competitor.

Thanks to June Patrons

Very special thanks to the 71 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of June. Your support is much appreciated and helps me continually improve the blog and podcast by helping to cover infrastructure costs, gear upgrades, travel expenses for launches and conferences, and most importantly, to keep this independent.

And a huge thanks to the 16 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Kris, Mike, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Laszlo, Jamison, Guinevere, Nadim, Peter, and four other anonymous executive producers. I could not do this without your support, and I am extremely grateful for it.

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SpaceX Deploys OctoGrabber, Recoverable Fairings Have Their Best Attempt Yet

Fantastic update from Chris Bergin over at on SpaceX’s incredible week. Two launches, one reused stage, two successful landings and recoveries, the first appearance of their new robot on the droneship, the best attempt yet at recovering fairings. All while preparing for another launch Sunday.

This bit from Bergin sheds a bit of light on the fairing recovery attempt and the mechanics of the recovery itself:

Classed as the best attempt to date, SpaceX has added steerable parachutes to guide the fairing halves to the ocean surface, before it deploys a “bouncy castle” that protects it while it awaits recovery. The technology is still being refined, but Elon Musk believes full recovery could be achieved later this year.

When people heard “bouncy castle,” most people thought the fairings were going to be steering into a prepositioned inflatable recovery surface. Instead, as it sounds here, the inflatable piece is deployed from the fairing halves themselves. Can’t wait to see video when they finally get to that point.

T+51: The SpaceX Steamroller, Blue Origin Chooses Alabama

SpaceX launched two missions last weekend, flew new titanium grid fins on Falcon 9, and are really picking up the pace. And Blue Origin got cozy with the Alabama Launch Alliance by announcing that they’ll build the BE-4 production facility in Huntsville—if the engine is chosen for Vulcan.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 15 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Laszlo, Jamison, Guinevere, Nadim, Peter, and four anonymous—and 55 other supporters on Patreon.

BE-4 Two Years Ahead of AR1

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

“They are two years behind Blue Origin,” one meeting attendee, not authorized to speak on the record, said of the assessment’s conclusion about AR1. Another year would be needed to integrate the engine with a launch vehicle.

The BE-4 powerpack testing mishap raised a number of questions by those at the briefing, the source said, but the NASA assessment concluded it would not have a major effect on the overall testing program for the engine. “They should be on track to restart testing in late summer and still stay on schedule,” the attendee recalled.

Things are still looking up for BE-4.

This article is long, exhaustive, and worth every minute of your time. It covers the 2018 NDAA, the BE-4 vs. AR1 competition, and Blue Origin’s move to Alabama in more detail than you could ever hope for.

House Armed Services Committee Markup of 2018 NDAA

The EELV section of the House Armed Services Committee markup is quite interesting. You can find it in this PDF (3.2 MB). Search “Evolved Expendable” and you’ll find your way there (it’s a huge PDF). The section itself is not long, so it’s definitely worth a read.

The full committee will be marking up the bill today, so things may change quite a bit. But until then, there are a few interesting bits within:

AR1 vs. BE-4

The language of the bill would keep the AR1 vs. BE-4 competition alive as it is today. It allows the Air Force to fund domestic engines and the integration of domestic engines with new or existing launch vehicles.


The bill allows the Air Force to fund the development of fairings needed for national security launches:

Using funds described in paragraph (3), the Secretary of Defense may only obligate or expend funds to carry out the evolved expendable launch vehicle program to develop capabilities necessary to enable commercially available space launch vehicles or infrastructure to meet any requirements that are unique to national security space missions to meet the assured access to space requirements pursuant to section 2273 of title 10, United States Code, with respect to only modifications to such vehicles required for national security space missions, including fairings necessary for the launch of national security space payloads to orbit.

The one area that SpaceX cannot compete with ULA today is fairing size. The Falcon family has undersized fairings, which is sometimes why ULA wins a particular launch without competing, though these launches are often classified so it’s hard to know the details. This bill would allow SpaceX to pursue Air Force funding to develop new and larger fairing capability, which is probably of interest to the Air Force, because it’s one thing keeping the expensive Delta IV Heavy around.

One visible example of Falcon’s small fairings: the Bigelow-ULA partnership to launch a B330. The B330 could not fit within the short fairings of the Falcon family.

Vertical Integration, Payload Facilities, Ground Systems

The bill also allows the Air Force to fund the development of vertical integration, new payload facilities, and ground systems as needed for national security launches:

Using funds described in paragraph (3), the Secretary of Defense may only obligate or expend funds to carry out the evolved expendable launch vehicle program to develop capabilities necessary to enable commercially available space launch vehicles or infrastructure to meet any requirements that are unique to national security space missions to meet the assured access to space requirements pursuant to section 2273 of title 10, United States Code, with respect to only the development of infrastructure unique to national security space missions, such as infrastructure for the use of heavy launch vehicles, including

(I) facilities and equipment for the vertical integration of payloads;

(II) secure facilities for the processing of classified payloads; and

(III) other facilities and equipment, including ground systems and expanded capabilities, unique to national security space launches and the launch of national security payloads

SpaceX has plans for vertical integration at 39A, and 39A needs some upgrades to handle Falcon Heavy. All of that work falls under this language, so we could see some Air Force funding in this direction.

Orbital ATK’s NGLV Funding

(2) PROHIBITION. Except as provided in this section, none of the funds described in paragraph (3) shall be obligated or expended for the evolved expendable launch vehicle program, including the development of new launch vehicles under such program.

The bill as proposed would technically prohibit overall funding of Orbital ATK’s Next-Generation Launch Vehicle, but major components of it could still be funded. Orbital ATK’s first-stage motors, Blue Origin’s BE-3U, fairings, ground systems, and payload facilities would all be able to get funding under the language as written currently, but I’m not sure how that would square with the “no new vehicles” clause.

Gwynne Shotwell on The Space Show

The entire hour-long show is absolutely worth a listen—she gives a good update on where SpaceX is at, currently—but one particular moment stood out.

At the 26:55 mark, she edited herself away from saying that Raptor’s primary purpose is to power the ITS. She instead said Raptor’s original purpose was to power the ITS.

Between that self-edit, the fact that she made it clear that SpaceX is still considering a Raptor-powered Falcon upper stage, and the fact that she said openly that SpaceX wants to build a reusable upper stage, some pretty solid assumptions can be made about what’s happening internally: they’re working on a fully reusable Raptor-powered upper stage to fly on Falcon.

Missing the Mark on SpaceX, Falcon Heavy

Andy Pasztor hasn’t been very fond of SpaceX over the years, but his recent article on SpaceX’s double-launch weekend is something else. Let’s start here:

After using previously flown main engines to blast a Bulgarian telecommunications satellite into orbit Friday from a Florida launchpad, the closely held company on Sunday afternoon used a California Air Force base to send a batch of 10 smaller satellites into space for Iridium Communications Inc., SpaceX’s largest commercial customer.

They used a little bit more than just the engines.

Juggling launch dates, which happens to a lesser extent with every rocket operator, is further complicated for SpaceX because it has to match customer technical needs with a range of rocket variants the company flies to orbit.

Right now, SpaceX flies one variant of one launch vehicle. Arianespace flies 3 different vehicles with 2 configurations of Ariane 5. The king of configuration, ULA, flies 17 total configurations—4 Delta IV Medium configurations, Delta IV Heavy, and 12 Atlas V configurations. And those numbers don’t include the upcoming dual engine Centaur variants, which will push ULA’s configuration count to double digits.

How any honest, thinking journalist could write such a sentence about SpaceX boggles my mind.

And finally, on Falcon Heavy:

After years of delays, the company plans to launch its significantly beefed-up derivative rocket, called the Falcon Heavy, for the first time later this year. The demonstration flight will be closely watched by both the Pentagon and satellite operators, prospective customers eager to benefit from the Falcon Heavy’s greater power versus the Falcon 9.

This is right down the middle of what is typically said about Falcon Heavy—it’s been delayed years, SpaceX might finally get around to it this year, and tons of customers are clamoring to fly on it.

To be fair, it isn’t only Pasztor who is missing the mark on Falcon Heavy—it’s just about everyone.

Quite honestly, there is almost zero current demand for it. The only known payloads on SpaceX’s manifest that Falcon 9 could not lift are Red Dragon missions and the private lunar flight.

All other manifested Falcon Heavy flights are launches that SpaceX could fly on Falcon 9 but would rather not, because they hate flying Falcon 9 expendably. STP-2 only requires Falcon Heavy because the Air Force is using the low-priority research mission to certify the launch vehicle—it is nowhere close to a Falcon Heavy-class payload.

The lack of existing demand now doesn’t mean there aren’t payloads that will require Falcon Heavy once it’s flying—there is almost certainly an “If you build, it they will come.” dynamic at play. But the idea that there are customers elbowing each other out of the way like it’s Black Friday at Target is a bit of an embellishment.