Main Engine Cut Off

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.

T+78: No Cost-Plus, But No Vision, Either

NASA had some interesting comments on the Lunar Gateway at a recent NASA Advisory Council meeting—the program is eschewing cost-plus contracting, but it’s lacking vision.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 27 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Brian, Russell, John, Moritz, Tyler, Joel, and six anonymous—and 153 other supporters on Patreon.

T+77: Blue Origin Reconfigures New Glenn

Caleb Henry got a great scoop on some changes Blue Origin is making to New Glenn. I think through why these changes may have been made and what these changes could mean for the near future.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 27 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Brian, Russell, John, Moritz, Tyler, Laszlo, Joel, and six anonymous—and 150 other supporters on Patreon.

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.

Thanks to March Patrons

Very special thanks to the 176 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of March. Your support keeps this blog and podcast going, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 28 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, Laszlo, Joel, 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 (a bunch of new ones up this month!) or a pair 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.

Two Weeks Until “The Stick” Gets Its Name

Chris Gebhardt of NASASpaceflight wrote a great rundown of Orbital ATK’s Next Generation Launcher that included this little nugget at the end:

On 16 April 2018 at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Orbital ATK will unveil the official name for NGL as well as the engine that has been selected for the cryogenic LOX/LH2 third stage.

The upper stage engine news will be quite interesting, especially in light of the recent Blue Origin news. Blue Origin’s BE-3U was reportedly dropped from the competition a few months back, leaving Aerojet Rocketdyne’s RL10 and ArianeGroup’s Vinci as the finalists. I’m really curious how these two decisions are related, if at all.

SpaceX CRS-14 Carrying Two Important Payloads

There are two payloads on CRS-14 that caught my eye as very important to the future in space.

Multi-use Variable-gravity Platform

First up, Leonard David tells us about an (admittedly small) artificial gravity platform that will be installed permanently on ISS:

Developed by Techshot of Greenville, Indiana, the MVP is a permanent, commercially operated facility onboard the ISS capable of producing artificial gravity in space.

This new research tool in space, spinning at varying gravity levels, can involve a wide variety of sample types – such as tissue chips, plants, fish, cells, protein crystals, worms and flies.

Roughly, the size of a microwave oven, MVP hosts six separate “experiment modules” on each of two internal carousels.

This new research platform is equipped with temperature, light cycle, and humidity control, video feed from inside the hardware, and the two identical and independently-controlled centrifuges that can generate artificial gravity from .1 to 2g.

The first experiment launching on the upcoming SpaceX CRS-14 will focus on Drosophila melanogaster (fruit flies). Known as MVP-Fly-01, this first campaign using the system will be conducted for a research team at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

So far, we know a lot about living in 1g and 0g. If we have any intentions to live anywhere else in the Solar System for any period of time, partial gravity is the most important thing to research. It’s a shame it took so long to get something like this installed permanently on ISS, but I’m glad to see it. (Update: Chris Wolverton corrected me on the state of centrifuges on ISS.)


The second payload—which has been a long time coming—that caught my eye is RemoveDebris, built by SSTL, which will be testing a variety of systems that could be used for debris removal in the future. Stephen Clark of Spaceflight Now wrote a nice article about it:

RemoveDebris accounts around 220 pounds, or 100 kilograms, of the Dragon’s cargo load.

But the small spacecraft, developed by SSTL in the United Kingdom, punches above its weight. The RemoveDebris mothership contains two CubeSats, a net and a harpoon, a laser ranging instrument, and a “dragsail” designed to unfurl behind the main satellite and hasten its fall back into Earth’s atmosphere using aerodynamic resistance.

Surrey Space Centre had a great video made to show off the mission as a whole that’s really worth watching. It shows each of the tests, and even shows the NanoRacks small satellite deployment process, which is cool to see if you’ve ever wondered what that looks like from start to finish:

The Curious Case of Boeing and The Surprise Funding of WGS 11 and 12

Sandra Erwin of SpaceNews on the mysterious addition of $600 million in the 2018 omnibus budget to fund WGS 11 and 12:

The additional money would fund the 11th and 12th satellite of the Wideband Global SATCOM constellation, manufactured by Boeing.

Peterman called it a waste of taxpayer resources and a “political earmark that was driven into the budget and blindsided DoD in a significant way.”

While WGS is an important capability for the military, it is technology that has been surpassed by the private sector, said Peterman. “The tragedy, I think, is that by the time WGS 11 and 12 are fielded, there will be terabits worth of private sector satcom available,” far more than the military says it needs. This would give DoD a chance to get more services for less money, he said.

Large federal funding of a Boeing-built system which the private sector says is unnecessary because they can provide the government with more services for less money. Sounds familiar.