Main Engine Cut Off


The Moon 2024 initiative finally has a name, and it kicks ass—Artemis. That came yesterday as the White House released a summary of its budget amendment for Artemis. The amendment is for $1.6 billion above the $21 billion request made previously, and breaks down like this:

  • $1 billion for a human lunar landing system
  • $321 million less for Gateway, descoped to only propulsion and a habitat/transfer node
  • $651 million additional for SLS/Orion (as yet unexplained)
  • $132 million for “exploration technology” (whatever that entails)
  • $90 million for what seems like additional payloads to the lunar poles before humans land there

This is obviously going to kick off all sorts of Congressional drama, as now this heads to Congress to decide what they’ll do with it. This is just about the messiest political year ever, and there’s talk of fiscal year 2020 running fully on continuing resolutions and not actually getting a budget, so that doesn’t inspire much hope.

However, there seems to be some mass cognitive dissonance that I can’t get my head around, and it comes in two flavors:

  • NASA needs to do things in new ways with less costly methods of contracting and acquisition, yet a program like this should still cost $40 billion
  • $1.6 billion is a laughably small amount, they should have requested more, and given us a 5-year total number as well, yet Democrats in Congress are sure to reject even this laughably small initial funding

Starting “small” makes sense for one reason: if you can’t even get funding to start the lander program in earnest, then the entire program is toast.

The intentions of this budget amendment are very clear—big Gateway is out, skinny Gateway is in, and we need to start a lander program. Why argue over EVA suits before you even get the lander program started?

It’s a pretty great week for that conversation, as a company with massive funding just announced a lander program of their own that is realistic and achievable on the timescales needed for Artemis. I’m even told that Orion/Gateway/etc can get into a 24-hour elliptical lunar orbit (lower than the 6-day NRHO), and that from there, a tug/transfer stage would probably not be needed for Blue Moon.

So let’s get a contract in place for Blue Origin to develop Blue Moon in accordance with NASA standards, get Lockheed started on an Orion-derived ascent stage, and we’ve got ourselves a plan.

All that said, I think we have massive spending and budgeting issues in the US government, so that makes me nervous for any increases. Sure, this is small relative to the overall pie, but I don’t think we can go on forever like this.

And it always bears mentioning: I don’t necessarily think NASA needs more money, they need more focus. The descoping of Gateway and the focus on the lander program in the amendment does give me at least a little glimmer of hope.

Virgin Orbit Has “One Thing Left to Button Down” (and It’s Not Great)

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

Stephen Eisele, vice president of business development at Virgin Orbit, said the company was in the “final, final, final” phase in the development of its LauncherOne rocket. “We’ve got one thing left to button down” with the rocket, along with a few captive carry flights of the modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft, he said, but didn’t give an estimated date of their first orbital launch.

I’ve heard some talk of what Virgin Orbit is working through, and from the sounds of it, it’s bad. Nearing potentially-losing-an-important-mission bad.

On the extreme ends of things, if they get beaten to commercial launches by Firefly, and Firefly is able to keep their price and payload as stated, Virgin Orbit could be in for some trouble.

T+120: Dr. Mike Baine, Axiom Space

Dr. Mike Baine, Chief Engineer of Axiom Space, joins us to talk through Axiom’s plans for commercial low Earth orbit space stations.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 40 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, Rui, Julian, Lars, Heather, Tommy, and six anonymous—and 243 other supporters on Patreon.

Thanks to April Patrons

Very special thanks to the 283 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of April. 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 40 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Rui, Julian, Lars, Heather, Tommy, 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.

Real-time satellite imagery on your desktop with Downlink

My worlds collide: I built a Mac app using near real-time imagery from GOES-East, GOES-West, and Himawari-8.

It’s called Downlink and you can get it today (free!) on the Mac App Store.


While browsing the GOES Image Viewer a few months ago, I had an idea: with the data frequency that these new GOES satellites provide, I could build a Mac app that pulls the newest image every 20 minutes and sets it as your desktop background.

What resulted was a simple little menu bar app that gives you a near real-time view of Earth all day long. I’ve been using it for a few weeks as I’ve built it, and it is an absolute joy to have a window to Earth all day.

There are 8 different views of Earth to choose from in the first version of the app, including full disk images from GOES-East, GOES-West, and Himawari-8 (which happens to have a nearly identical imager). Real time views of Earth (and other planets) are only going to get more popular, so the idea is to keep the app updated with the newest image sources in the future.

Head over to the Mac App Store, get Downlink for free, and let me know what you think!

Trial Ballooning the Lunar Budget

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews, on Bridenstine’s short appearance in the Senate today:

He downplayed reports, though, that claimed NASA would seek an additional $8 billion a year for five years. “I will tell you that is not accurate,” he said. “It is nowhere close to that amount. But I don’t want to throw out a number until we have gone through the process with OMB and the National Space Council.”

Speculation has focused on a smaller, but still significant, increase of about $3 billion to $5 billion a year. That revised budget proposal is expected to be delivered to Congress in the near future, but Bridenstine didn’t give a specific date he thought it would be ready.

Letting the $8 billion number circulate for a few days makes asking for $4 billion seem more sane than it would have otherwise.

Moon 2024, Integrated Lunar Landers, and Blue Origin

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

In a procurement filing issued late April 26, NASA updated an earlier notice published April 8 that announced plans to solicit proposals for an ascent stage for a human-rated lunar lander. Instead, the upcoming procurement will seek proposals for “a complete integrated lander” that includes an ascent module as well as a descent module and transfer stage.

This is the change that gives me any glimmer of hope to see a lunar landing in 2024. Before this, I would have bet on the architecture consisting of an Orion-derived ascent stage built by Lockheed Martin, a Blue Moon descent stage built by Blue Origin, and an ESM/ATV-derived transfer stage built by Europe. That would have doled out the pieces nicely in a typical NASA fashion, but it also would have created approximately 100 spots for delays to crop up.

With complete integrated landers being back in the realm of possibility, anything could happen. From SpaceX’s Starship, to a full Blue Moon lander.

On that note, Blue Origin teased an announcement on May 9. I’d be shocked if it wasn’t about Blue Moon and their intentions to land near the lunar South Pole. If Blue wants to get into a big NASA program, large cargo and human lunar landers are where they can do it. They missed out on Commercial Cargo and Crew, but they’re well-positioned to build a lander on the scale that we need.

It sounds like Skinny Gateway is the way to go for a 2024 attempt—that is, merely some propulsion and a docking node for transferring between vehicles. Orion can’t get into anything lower than NRHO, so some propulsion and vehicle transfer is needed if Orion is in the picture.

New Information on Titan’s Lakes

The new findings, published April 15 in Nature Astronomy, are the first confirmation of just how deep some of Titan's lakes are (more than 300 feet, or 100 meters) and of their composition. They provide new information about the way liquid methane rains on, evaporates from and seeps into Titan - the only planetary body in our solar system other than Earth known to have stable liquid on its surface. 

On the eastern side of Titan, there are big seas with low elevation, canyons and islands. On the western side: small lakes. And the new measurements show the lakes perched atop big hills and plateaus. The new radar measurements confirm earlier findings that the lakes are far above sea level, but they conjure a new image of landforms - like mesas or buttes - sticking hundreds of feet above the surrounding landscape, with deep liquid lakes on top.

Titan is the second coolest planet in the system. Go Team Dragonfly.

T+119: Dr. John Charles

Dr. John Charles spent nearly 33 years at NASA—most recently as Chief Scientist of the Human Research Program—working on human spaceflight through Shuttle, Mir, ISS, and beyond. He lead missions such as STS-95 (John Glenn’s Shuttle flight), STS-107, and the Twins Study with Scott and Mark Kelly. He retired from NASA in February 2018 and is now the Scientist in Resident at Space Center Houston. We talk about his career, the human spaceflight issues he worked and solved in his time at NASA, and the things that need to be solved for the exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 39 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, Rui, Julian, Lars, Heather, and six anonymous—and 238 other supporters on Patreon.