Main Engine Cut Off

First Vulcan Certification Flight Delayed to 2021

Jeff Foust, SpaceNews:

“We’re making good progress on the development” of Vulcan, he said. “Our first certification flight is targeted for April of ’21. We were really excited about the results of the Air Force’s LSA procurement. We’re off and marching.”

As recently as last month, though, ULA said the first Vulcan launch was scheduled for 2020, a date the company had bene holding for some time. In a Sept. 27 release about its selection of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine for Vulcan’s first stage, the company said the vehicle “is on track for its initial flight in mid-2020.”

I said this at the time, but I expected this news alongside either the BE-4 or Air Force selection announcements. Burying bad news with good news is always a solid plan, and I can’t imagine something has changed drastically in the last few weeks on the Vulcan front.

Viasat Firms Up Falcon Heavy Option

Viasat chose the SpaceX Falcon Heavy for its ability to fly a near direct-injection mission, inserting a ViaSat-3 satellite extremely close to geostationary orbit—as a result, the spacecraft can begin in-orbit testing (IOT) quickly after launch, rather than spending weeks or months performing orbit raising maneuvers. This is expected to enable Viasat to turn on its ultra-high-speed broadband service much quicker after launch than is possible with other launch vehicles.

Just a few weeks back they announced the selection of ULA for a ViaSat-3 launch, and now they’ve firmed up what was an existing option for a Falcon Heavy launch in the 2020–2022 timeframe—the same timeframe as the ULA mission.

Falcon Heavy’s manifest continues to grow, even as we’re a few months out from the second flight. I wonder how many more customers we’ll see sign on for direct-to-GEO missions (or near-direct, like this flight) on Falcon Heavy.

C-Band Alliance Increases Offer to 200 MHz

Caleb Henry, for SpaceNews:

The group, led by Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and Telesat — four of the world’s largest satellite operators — agreed to offer up 200 megahertz of C-band spectrum for use in 5G mobile networks, up from the 100 megahertz first proposed in February by Intelsat, Intel and SES.

Intelsat and SES have said the loss of spectrum, especially 200 megahertz or more, would require new satellites to make up for lost capacity already in orbit. Under their plan, now embraced by Eutelsat and Telesat, cellular operators would be responsible for the cost of replacement infrastructure.

Looks like this move is solidifying, and may have interesting implications for the geostationary satellite production and launch markets.

Gateway Logistics Services

This is big news from NASA, who is interested in information from US companies for cargo services to the Gateway:

NASA is interested in a logistics module capable of carrying pressurized and unpressurized cargo. The agency anticipates needing at least three cargo delivery missions, with the first mission potentially delivering a robotic arm provided by an international partner to the Gateway in 2024. The first two logistics modules will likely launch on commercial rockets, but after Gateway assembly, NASA’s Space Launch System will be available as well.

Once docked to the Gateway, the logistics module will be used for storage and trash. Additional requirements are outlined below, and in the information request online:

  • Must include guidance and navigation, power generation and propulsion to enable docking to the Gateway;
  • Must be built to the International Docking Standard; and
  • Must be capable of self-disposal within three years of space operations.

It is expected that the initial requirement will be for three missions, with a single mission expected to deliver up to 5 metric tons of pressurized cargo and 2.6 metric tons of unpressurized cargo. The first Logistics Module may be required to transport a Robotic Arm as unpressurized cargo.

It’s hard to overstate just how much cargo they want on a single mission. Dragon can take 6 metric tons to ISS in any mix of pressurized and unpressurized (though it becomes volume-limited for pressurized pretty quickly), and Cygnus can take 3.5 metric tons of pressurized cargo up.

NASA is asking about 7.6 metric tons of cargo to lunar orbit. That’s an ATV-class vehicle—a huge undertaking, requiring a big launch vehicle.

SpaceX and Blue Origin jump to mind immediately, but I wonder how much payload something like a cargo version of the NanoRacks-SSL-ULA-Altius outpost vehicle could take to lunar orbit.

Ovzon Books a Direct-to-GEO Falcon Heavy Flight

In an important step towards growing its satellite service offering, Ovzon has entered into an agreement with SpaceX for launch of Ovzon’s first GEO satellite. The launch is expected to take place no earlier than Q4 2020. The next step for the company is to finalize the procurement of the satellites.

“We are honored that Ovzon has chosen SpaceX to launch the first of its satellites,” said SpaceX’s President and COO, Gwynne Shotwell. “We look forward to working closely on the execution of this important direct-to-GEO mission.”

Good news for SpaceX and Falcon Heavy, but I still haven’t figured this one out. How did a company that has yet to finalize procurement of a satellite decide that a direct-to-GEO mission was right for them and their payload?

Paul Allen

Very sad news. Go watch Pirates of Silicon Valley sometime this week.

On the space side of things, it’ll be interesting to see Stratolaunch’s path forward here. This is an early test of the whole “Billionaire Space Venture Without Billionaire” storyline.

For all my skepticism of Stratolaunch, it’s a major bummer that Allen never got to see the giant plane fly.

Talk of Dragon 2 Parachute Issues

Stephen Clark, for Spaceflight Now:

One major area of concern identified by McErlean involves the Crew Dragon’s parachutes, which are similar to the chutes used on SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule. He pointed to unspecified anomalies observed on parachutes during testing and on Dragon returns on cargo missions from the space station.

“Recent parachute testing, both using the commercial crew program qualification testing regimen and some anomalies that have been witnessed in the resupply contract, which is also handled by SpaceX, showed that there have been difficulties and problems with the parachute design,” McErlean said. “Clearly, one cannot risk crew without there being complete confidence in the parachute design.”

It’s kind of amazing that this is the first we’re hearing of this. Is this a new issue, or related to whatever caused Dragon 2 to end up with four parachutes?

T+97: SLS OIG Report, Air Force LSA Awards

I share some thoughts on the two rocket drama stories from last week: a brutal OIG report on Boeing’s work on SLS stages, and the Air Force selected three new launch vehicles to receive development funding.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 35 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Tyler, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, and eight anonymous—and 186 other supporters on Patreon.