Main Engine Cut Off

Issue #4

NASA’s Orion

There’s no way around it: spaceflight wasn’t the focus of really anyone’s week. The US Presidential election dominated the news, and not much was announced in its wake. So much so, that I didn’t end up recording an episode of the podcast this week (not to mention that I lost my voice for the first half of it). Sorry about that! Hope you’ll forgive me, and I promise to make up for it next week.

Spaceflight isn’t close to the top issue of the election or the new administration, but Jeff Foust of SpaceNews wrote a nice article summing up what we could expect for space in the next 4 years. It’s worth a read. Specifically pay attention to the 9 key aspects of the plan.

Orion’s Future

While I don’t have all too much to say about the election with regards to spaceflight, there are more and more details beginning to emerge about NASA’s exploration roadmap into the 2020s. In the last issue, I talked a lot about the potential pivot from Mars to the Moon. Now we’re getting some hints as to the future of Orion. It’s important to remember that these trends were underway before the election, and probably would have continued regardless of the result.

The revelations about Orion’s future come from Eric Berger, who has some very interesting and well-placed sources. He wrote a piece for Ars Technica about an RFI, released this fall, focused on the production—or replacement—of Orion vehicles beyond EM–2.

Nevertheless, three sources familiar with the RFI, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, told Ars there is more to the request than a simple extension for Orion’s primary contractor, Lockheed Martin. Perhaps most radically, the RFI may even open the way for a competitor, such as Boeing or SpaceX, to substitute its own upgraded capsule for Orion in the mid–2020s.

To me, this reads as follows: use the RFI to see how far down prices for Lockheed Martin-built Orion vehicles can realistically go, and if they don’t go far enough, replace its usage completely with commercially-sourced crew vehicles (namely the ones soon to be flying crew to the ISS). The commercial crew and cargo proponents seem to be slowly but surely gaining support within NASA.

The deep space habitat initiative seems to be following in those programs’ footsteps, and this RFI indicates that Orion may be following closely behind. Later in the article, Berger says that his sources indicate there are ongoing discussions about issuing a similar RFI for SLS. The new model for NASA programs is focused on fixed-price contracts to commercial partners who retain ownership of their products and supply NASA once they’re up and running.

This is a very encouraging direction for NASA to take. It would open up the exploration program, which, for decades, has been an insiders club building and flying the same hardware under new names. Shedding the old way of doing things for the competitive, fixed-price-contract future is a great way to keep their roadmap consistent while revolutionizing the way it all works.

This switch instantly makes the near future of NASA, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others come together in quite an incredible way. If NASA focuses on their roadmap, and doesn’t get bogged down in specific vehicles or programs, they can leverage the best of what’s available and allow them to keep up with the speed at which things change. Additionally, it would spur a lot of private development, just the way the ISS programs have done.

Interestingly, this sounds a lot like what the Obama administration was proposing early on—it was the right idea for the wrong time. The difference is that there exists now a vibrant private industry to be leveraged with a lot of plans in motion for the mid-to-long-term. That was nearly non-existent 8 years ago.

Of course, all of this will have to be done while keeping the same constituencies happy. The new direction has to garner more political capital than the previous model if it’s ever to see the light of day. It’s no surprise that Elon Musk mentioned potentially constructing ITS in the Gulf states.

SpaceX News!

About a month ago, the FAA signed a report clearing the environmental concerns surrounding Falcon 9 landings on the west coast. This covers both RTLS landings at SLC–4W and landings on the ASDS no less than 31 miles offshore.

This is great news, and well-timed, given that we’re a few weeks away from the Falcon 9 return to flight, with one of the first few missions flying out of Vandenberg. We haven’t seen or heard much lately about the landing pad at SLC–4W, so I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for any and all updates on that.

Switching focus to Dragon flights, Chris Gebhardt wrote a great article for NASASpaceFlight documenting all of the trunk payloads for CRS–10 through –20. Notably absent from the list is NanoRacks’ airlock.

In my interview with Mike Johnson, Chief Designer at NanoRacks, he mentioned they were in the process of booking a flight on Dragon, and would probably fly on 18 or 19 (start listening around 26 or 27 minutes). I sent NanoRacks a note to see if they had any updates since they were left out of the list that Chris wrote about, and I got a quick response back. Their plans remain—currently targeting to fly on CRS–19, in spring 2019.

Orbital ATK

Andy Pasztor reported, for the Wall Street Journal, that the next Cygnus is due to fly on an Atlas V.

My guess as to what this means: no one jumped at the first of the ULA RapidLaunch slots, and NASA loves the idea of increased supplies with some lingering SpaceX unpredictability. Or ULA wants to use this sort of flight to prove the speed and efficiency of RapidLaunch. Or, with all the switching of Antares cores that has been going on at Wallops, maybe there is a problem they aren’t telling us about yet.

Relatedly, Jeffrey Smith wrote an article for The Space Review all about Orbital ATK’s next-generation launch vehcile that’s really worth reading. It’s a great look at how Orbital ATK got here today, why their next rocket is so appealing, and how things may play out in the future.

Thank you!

Thanks for reading the fourth issue of Main Engine Cut Off Weekly. Each week, I bring you what I find interesting and important in spaceflight, and you can get it however you like best—blog, podcast, or this here column. If you like what I’m doing, I’d really appreciate your support. Head over to Patreon and become a patron for as little as $1 per month. Everything I do is supported entirely by readers and listeners like you, and every little bit of support helps. Big thanks to those of you out there supporting!

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Thanks for reading, and I’ll talk to you next week.

— Anthony