Main Engine Cut Off

Episode T+145: Caleb Henry

Caleb Henry of SpaceNews joins me to talk about the recent happenings in the satellite industry, including new ITU milestones for megaconstellations, SpaceX’s big year for Starlink, OneWeb’s progress, and DirecTV’s battery issue.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 38 executive producers—Brandon, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, and six anonymous—and 325 other supporters.

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Firefly’s Test Stand Fire

Firefly posted a video on Twitter of their first stage hotfire, which ended quickly after a fire broke out. It was way less scary than the first rumors sounded.

It’s important to remember that if you’ve got hardware on a test stand that can create fire—the good or the bad kind—you’re ahead of an extraordinarily large portion of all people who have ever tried to go to space.

Here’s hoping they fix it fast and can continue on their way.

The Completely Unsuprising Demise of XS-1

A DARPA launch project, contracted out to Boeing, in the year 2020—I don’t know many people who would have bet on XS-1 panning out. And sure enough, less than three years after the award, Boeing has officially dropped out.

I’m quite happy with how my thoughts on XS-1 have held up, three years later:

With a partially-reusable, flyback, two-stage-to-orbit vehicle operating today, the XS-1 concept is less impressive than it would have been a few years ago. It’ll still be interesting to follow along with, especially as someone who loves launch vehicles, but I can’t help but be a bit disappointed in the decision.

I was hopeful that the XS-1 program would be used as a good opportunity to invest in and develop new capabilities from younger players in the industry. Instead, Boeing is developing a bigger X-37B-like aircraft and putting an SSME on it.

Proactively widening the industry would do more to lower launch costs than working with Boeing on yet another project powered by an SSME-derived engine. “Boeing” and “low-cost launch” have rarely, if ever, been used in the same sentence.

Study That Takes New Russian Launch Vehicles Seriously Says Air Force Should Support Three Domestic Launchers

Sandra Erwin, for SpaceNews:

The study, prepared by the RAND Corp., looked at the impact of U.S. Air Force space launch acquisition decisions on the heavy lift launch market. It does not recommend that the Air Force change its decision to award national security launch contracts to just two providers later this year. But it does argue that the Air Force should find a way to keep a third supplier in the national security market as a fallback.

RAND analysts predict the commercial addressable market share held by U.S. firms is expected to drop as Arianespace and Russia field new launch vehicles that are better suited to heavier launch. This is of concern to the U.S. Air Force because its Phase 2 strategy assumes launch providers will have a healthy commercial business.

On the list of threats to the commercial launch market, unless and until something drastic changes, new Russian launch vehicles should sit just above the heat death of the universe.

Thanks to December Patrons

Very special thanks to the 360 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of December. MECO is entirely listener- and reader-supported, and it’s your support keeps this blog and podcast going, growing, and improving, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 39 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Brandon, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, Sam, and six anonymous executive producers.

If you’re getting some value out of what I do here and want to help support Main Engine Cut Off, head over to Patreon and join the crew of supporters and producers!

There are other ways to help support, too: head over to the shop and buy yourself a shirt or a pair of 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.

Episode T+144: 2019 Impacts

A look back at 2019 through the lens of “Who actually did something that matters this year?”

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 38 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, Sam, and six anonymous—and 325 other supporters.

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Mission Shakti, 9 Months Later

A total of 125 larger debris fragments have been catalogued as well-tracked. Over 70 percent of these larger tracked debris pieces from the test were still on-orbit 45 days after the test (the moment they all should have been gone according to the Indian DRDO!). 

Now, nine months after the test, 18 of these debris fragments, or 14 percent, are still on orbit.

All but four of the remaining pieces currently have apogee altitudes well above the orbital altitude of the ISS, in the altitude range of many operational satellites. Nine of them have apogee altitudes above 1000 km, one of them up to 1760 km. Their perigees are all below ~280 km.

I appreciate his updates on this, because as easy as it is for this sort of story to fall out of the news cycle, it’s important to keep an eye on it.

Microsat-R was intercepted at an altitude of ~300 kilometers, and there is still debris reaching 1,400 kilometers higher (and 8 other pieces 700 kilometers higher). Those pieces regularly pass through the orbital regimes of the ISS, low-orbiting weather satellites, nearly all satellites in sun-synchronous orbits, and a ton of LEO communications satellites.

Episode T+143: Starliner, 2020 US Space Budget

Starliner’s flight test did not go as planned, and the US 2020 budget was passed, which creates Space Force and has big implications for NASA’s work.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 38 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, Sam, and six anonymous—and 317 other supporters.

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The Firefly Saga

Doug Messier has a hell of a read over on Parabolic Arc about the Firefly saga over the last three years.

We’ve heard bits and pieces of this before, but there’s a ton in here about investors, some Vulcan (Stratolaunch) involvement I had not heard previously, and a bunch of accusations in both directions:

Later that month, Vulcan ended its investment in Firefly and abandoned plans to launch Alpha boosters from Stratolaunch’s airplane, the source said. Chuck Beames, who had favored the rocket, left his position as Vulcan’s president as a result.

On Oct. 6, Stratolaunch announced an agreement to purchase three Pegasus XL rockets for use on its aircraft. Pegasus would be an interim step as the company developed other boosters to launch larger payloads.

By then, the damage to Firefly had already been done. The company furloughed all of its staff at the end of September as it continued to search for other investors.

If you’re at all interested in Firefly, this is seriously worth a read, and it even adds some insight into the Stratolaunch saga, as well.

As with any of these types of stories (company drama that gets told years after), you’re hearing from the disaffected and/or the victors.

You don’t know which info is from which side, so it’s hard to string together the real truth, but I always like hearing as much as possible for consideration.