Main Engine Cut Off

T+64: BE-4 Fires Up, and Some Thoughts on the Future of Commercial and Military Launch

Blue Origin fired up their BE-4 engine) for the first time, which is a big moment. And I share some meandering thoughts on the future of commercial and military launch.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 22 executive producers—Kris, Mike, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Guinevere, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Robert, and five anonymous—and 95 other supporters on Patreon.

SES Rethinks GEO Model

Peter B. de Selding, Space Intel Report:

Here’s the profile of tomorrow’s geostationary-orbit satellite for SES:

It weighs around 2,000 kilograms, is delivered on orbit 18 months after contract signature — which means a 14-month procurement if it takes an all-electric design four months from launch to reach its operating station.

It is launched in stacked formation with two or three other satellites aboard the same rocket and is designed to operate for just seven or eight years. Halliwell said he could envision a per-satellite capital investment of around $55 million, assuming a $50 million or $60 million launch cost, divided by three, and a sub-$50-million cost for the manufacture of the spacecraft.

Really interesting stuff from SES, who is always looking to push the industry forward. The current era of GEO is coming to a close, and this sounds like the structure of the next.

T+63: Centaur V, BFR Updates

Tory Bruno wrote an op-ed in SpaceNews regarding Vulcan and its future, and he announced that ULA will be upgrading Centaur. Elon Musk spent some time on reddit talking about BFR and updating us on some of the details.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 21 executive producers—Kris, Mike, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Guinevere, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, and five anonymous—and 92 other supporters on Patreon.

Gradually, Then Suddenly

Caleb Henry for SpaceNews, on International Launch Services’ plans for Proton Medium:

“We need to target something between $65 [million] and $55 million as the price point, and the Angara 5 vehicle will not be able to do that,” Pysher told SpaceNews. “That is why it is not really the right fit for the current commercial market as we see it today. We need that family of vehicles that the variants address.”


Compared to Proton-M, which can carry up to 7 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit, Proton Medium lifts 5 to 5.7 metric tons.

“It fits that sweet spot where we see the medium-class satellite is today, and it competes directly with Falcon 9,” Pysher said.

We’re seeing this strategy from several players in the market with several launch vehicles—ULA with Atlas V, Arianespace with Ariane 6, and ILS with Proton Medium. Cutting costs and optimizing launch vehicles to compete at current Falcon 9 prices is going to work for the next few years, at least.

But this strategy is going to crumble in two ways.

Gradually, then suddenly.

SpaceX is a solid 5 years ahead of the competition when it comes to reusability right now. And by the time the others get around to it—if they ever do—SpaceX will be 5-10 years into operational reusability.

SpaceX has had an incredible 2017 so far, and they’re proving out a lot of the question marks in their business plan. As we move into 2018 and Falcon 9 Block 5 takes flight—again, and again, and again—we’ll start to see everything come into place.

Oh, and compared to ULA, Arianespace, and ILS, Blue Origin is hot on the heels of SpaceX.

Gradually, then suddenly.

Notes on Gwynne Shotwell’s Talk at Stanford

SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell gave a talk at Stanford last night, and several redditors were in attendance. They’ve posted their notes over at r/spacex, and there are some really interesting tidbits in there.

The two most interesting things of note were regarding BFR, from /u/Sticklefront.

On its production location:

We’re looking at building a facility by the water in LA. We thought we’d build it in our factory in Hawthorne, but we priced transport to the harbor, and it came out to $2.5 million per trip. It would require taking down stoplights, and just wouldn’t be worth it. So we will build a new facility by the water. We will eventually also have a number of production sites by our launch sites.

And on its launch site:

Pad 39A will be used for Falcon Heavy launches and crew flights

Boca Chica launch site under construction is the "perfect location for BFR"

She did not mention anything else about Boca Chica other than its prime suitability for BFR

I had speculated on the podcast last week with Chris Gebhardt that Boca Chica would be focused on BFR from the start. Given Tom Ochinero’s recent comments about SpaceX not needing a fourth launch site for Falcon, it makes perfect sense to go forward with Boca Chica as BFR’s first launch site.

And thinking about it more, Boca Chica is the perfect place to work out landings back on the launch mount. Trying to pull that initial testing off at 39A would be a non-starter as far as NASA is concerned.

The 45-Day Study and Orion’s Future

Jeff Foust for SpaceNews, writing about comments made by Jason Crusan, head of NASA’s advanced exploration systems division, on the forthcoming 45-day report on NASA’s roadmap to the National Space Council:

He said that analysis will include how the proposed Deep Space Gateway, a human-tended outpost in cislunar space, could support missions to the lunar surface. “It can enable robotic missions that way initially, and then human return,” he said. “Or, do you pivot and just do human return directly?”

He cautioned that a direct return to the moon might not be sustainable in the long run. “It could be achievable, but you would gut a lot of things in the process to go do that very rapidly,” he said.

By “gut a lot of things,” Crusan means kill Orion, because, in its current form, it’s a useless vehicle for any lunar surface-focused architecture.

Today, Paul Spudis published a great piece on Orion, SLS, and the Deep Space Gateway that very much deserves your attention:

To support this scaled back mission profile, the current edition of the Service Module for the Orion (built by the Europeans) is smaller than the previous edition under Constellation. Unfortunately, that also means that the Orion can get into (but cannot then get out of) low lunar orbit, taking from Orion what little value it had for a possible lunar mission.

But can Orion be repurposed? In contrast to most informed opinion, I believe that of the three major human spaceflight pieces described here, Orion is the one that is the least useful and most likely to vanish. This should not be too surprising, considering that it is an orphaned, smaller piece of a larger system designed to return people to the Moon. Yet work continues on Orion, heedless of any possible change in mission – and has done so throughout the last 8 years as its mission gradually morphed from Moon-Mars spacecraft, to an asteroid spacecraft, to a “Space Station in Deep Space” spacecraft. This bureaucratic resilience suggests that setting Orion aside is a nonstarter – contractors and Congressional advocates may insist on its continuation, in a manner similar to the SLS “lobby,” which assured continuity of that development program.

Plain and simple: missions to the Moon are hamstrung by Orion—specifically by the European Service Module and its pitifully-small delta-V budget.

SpaceX’s Tom Ochinero at APSCC 2017 on Pricing, Launch Sites, and How BFR Affects Falcon’s Future

Peter B. de Selding wrote a nice report over at Space Intel Report on comments made by SpaceX Senior Director Tom Ochinero at APSCC 2017.

On pricing in the era of reusability:

We continue to differentiate [in price] between a flight-proven vehicle [and a new first stage]. But because the market’s acceptance of these flight-proven vehicles has been fantastic, I don’t foresee that type of differentiation lasting.

Our goal has always been to be a launch service. We’ll take your package from here to here on a certain date and it shouldn’t really matter what color the truck is or the number of miles on the engine.

The current [insurance premium] numbers that I have seen is that they don’t differentiate between a previously flown first stage or a stage that hasn’t flown. We want to get away from that kind of service model.

Yours truly, ruminating on the same topic back in July:

In this new model, a customer wouldn't know and, more importantly, shouldn’t care whether the first stage that flies their payload is making its first or fifth flight. That decision becomes part of SpaceX’s internal fleet management operations, the same way that hardware and procedural upgrades are handled today.

Back to Ochinero, with some interesting comments on the need—or lack thereof—for their Texas launch site:

What we have manifested in customer commitments are not bottlenecked by the lack of a fourth launch site. We can manage with the three. Between upgrading our production capability, having the pads — and most importantly, the visibility — between the balance of those three we don’t foresee not being able to meet customer commitments. I am happy to take on more launch commitments right now.

And on BFR and how it affects Falcon’s future:

I can see how people might take it that we are going to shut down and transfer. This is not the case. We’ll continue to produce Falcon, then develop BFR and then offer it to the market and see what the market chooses.

The transition from Falcon to BFR is farther away from where we are today than we are from Falcon 9’s first flight.


If you’ve been listening to and/or reading my stuff for a bit, you probably know Jake Robins of WeMartians. He and I both do podcasts with fairly regular formats and topics we cover (he more than I…), and have been wanting an outlet with a loose format where we can discuss things outside of our typical realms. And most importantly, we wanted a place to hang out and talk space on a regular basis.

Off-Nominal is that outlet.

It’s a monthly podcast where we grab a drink or two and discuss whatever is on our collective space radar that month. In the future we may convince some other friends to join us, we may explore live streaming, and if we ever end up in the same geographical location (Hello, Falcon Heavy demo!), we might even put together a live, in-person shindig of some sort. We’re keeping plans loose and flexible and want this to be a fun outlet for this here little community.

We recorded the first episode this past weekend covering SpaceX’s BFR update (again, but together!), the future of Falcon Heavy, and the first meeting of the National Space Council.

Head over to to have a listen, find it in your preferred podcast directory (Apple, Google, Overcast, Stitcher, TuneIn), or drop this RSS URL into your podcast player. Hope you enjoy!

Tory Bruno’s Op-Ed on the Future of ULA’s Launch Vehicles

We’re making enhancements to Vulcan’s Centaur upper stage to add crucial heavy lift capability for the Air Force. That will add about six months to the program’s original schedule, but the resulting delay is months, not years, and it’s a purpose-driven change to deliver better performance, not a schedule slip.

The Vulcan-Centaur combination will permit launch of the nation’s heaviest satellites to any of the nine reference orbits our national security customers require. Moreover, the enhanced Centaur stage will allow this heavy lift capability without resorting to the costly three-booster configuration of today’s “heavy” launch configurations.

This is some curious new information. What we had heard previously was that Vulcan was going to fly first with today’s Centaur and wouldn’t be able to cover all reference orbits—which meant Delta IV Heavy sticking around. Eventually, Vulcan would move to ACES, which was a brand new stage packed with a ton of improvements, and would allow the retirement of Delta IV Heavy.

I wonder how many—if any—of those ACES improvements will find their way into this Centaur upgrade. Interestingly, ACES was not mentioned once.

Goodbye ACES, long live Centaur?