Monday, February 27, 2017

The Golden Dragon


A 2012 concept for a commercial lunar flight to the Moon using a SpaceX crew Dragon on a Falcon Heavy booster. Image source: Golden Spike Company.

In December 2012, former NASA executives announced the formation of a commercial lunar spaceflight enterprise called The Golden Spike Company.

Named after the final spike driven to complete construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, Golden Spike offered to send two customers to the Moon for a circumlunar mission and perhaps a landing.

A notional concept posted on the company's web site depicted a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launching a crew capsule — presumably the SpaceX crew Dragon — to the Moon, where it would orbit and rendezvous with a lunar lander. In January 2013, Golden Spike announced a contract with Northrup Grumman to develop the lander.

By the end of 2014, Golden Spike had gone silent. The company's web site simply states, “Under Construction.” The last post on its Facebook page is dated October 13, 2014. The Golden Spike Twitter account is still active, with its last retweet dated February 23, possibly maintained by co-founder Alan Stern, but it has nothing recent about the company's activities.


A Golden Spike promotional video posted December 6, 2012. Video source: Golden Spike YouTube channel.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced today that he will be the next one to attempt to drive that golden spike into the track that leads from Earth to the Moon.

According to the SpaceX press release:

We are excited to announce that SpaceX has been approached to fly two private citizens on a trip around the moon late next year. They have already paid a significant deposit to do a moon mission. Like the Apollo astronauts before them, these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration. We expect to conduct health and fitness tests, as well as begin initial training later this year. Other flight teams have also expressed strong interest and we expect more to follow. Additional information will be released about the flight teams, contingent upon their approval and confirmation of the health and fitness test results.

In a teleconference not available to the public, Musk declined to identify the clients to the media. He also noted the flight will require approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Who will train the two crew members was not identified. The logical candidate would be Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies (SGT), Inc., which in 2014 received a nine-year contract to “ provide mission and flight crew operations support for the International Space Station and future human space exploration.” To quote from the SGT web site:

We prepare the Astronauts and Flight Control Team to achieve mission objectives safely and effectively. This begins with initial requirements development, curriculum design, training product development, and training execution in off-line, computer-based trainers, and high fidelity simulations. We integrate training activities, facilities, and personnel to achieve certification for mission execution.

Axiom Space, founded last year by SGT executives, intends to operate a commercial space station in low Earth orbit. Their web site states, “Axiom Space is the only company in the world equipped to provide NASA-level astronaut training, and all operations required to keep astronauts and tourists safe and productive on orbit.”

Since Johnson Space Center eventually should have a SpaceX Dragon crew simulator, SGT seems the likely choice to train these lunar voyagers.


A September 2015 computer animation of the SpaceX crew Dragon in orbit around Earth. Image source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

A remote possibility might be Astronauts4Hire. According to their web site, the non-profit is incorporated in Florida, although their contact address is in Redondo Beach, California. “A4H’s principal service is to train its members as professional astronaut candidates who can assist researchers, payload developers, and spaceflight providers with mission planning and operations support,” the web site states.

Another dark horse might be Space Adventures, which arranges for private citizens to train on Russian Soyuz simulators.

According to the press release, this private flight will occur after NASA certifies the Dragon for its commercial crew program. On paper, that would occur sometime by the end of 2018.

Today's announcement comes just a few days after NASA announced the agency will study delaying its first Space Launch System test flight so that the Orion capsule and service module can be human-rated to carry two crew members on a mid-2019 circumlunar mission.


Listen to the February 24, 2017 NASA teleconference discussing the 2019 crewed lunar mission study.

The study was directed in response to inquiries from the Trump administration's NASA transition team. It's far from certain at this late date whether human-rating the system would be practical, much less safe. It would delay yet again a mission ordered by Congress in 2010 to launch no later than December 31, 2016.

Training two civilians in a year to be skilled astronauts capable of surviving a circumlunar mission seems like yet another audacious idea from Mr. Musk. It assumes that the Falcon Heavy technology will have matured, as well as the crew Dragon. Perhaps the most audacious assumption is that the FAA will license this.

But significant anniversaries approach for the Apollo program. December 2018 will be the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 8 circumlunar mission. July 2019 will be the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first landing of humans on the Moon. Maybe the two customers are motivated by those anniversaries.

In my opinion, this mission will have more credibility once we know who are the customers, who will train them, and we've seen that Falcon Heavy can fly.

But where Golden Spike failed, SpaceX may succeed. Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

"Baby Came Back"


Click the arrow to watch the launch of SpaceX CRS-10. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

The third generation of spaceflight began today at Kennedy Space Center, when SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket from Pad 39A.

Eight minutes later, triple sonic booms announced the first stage landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The booster landed at the former Launch Complex 13, used for the early Atlas rockets, now renamed Landing Zone 1.

Less than twenty minutes after the landing, SpaceX founder Elon Musk posted this on Twitter:


Later in the day, SpaceX released on YouTube this video of the landing.


The launch was postponed nearly 24 hours after Musk personally aborted the countdown at T-13 seconds. He was concerned about readings from a backup thrust vector control actuator on the upper stage. SpaceX lowered the rocket to horizontal overnight, replaced the actuator, then raised it to vertical again with the transporter erector.


The lowered Falcon 9 is serviced overnight on Pad 39A. Image source: Red Huber, Orlando Sentinel.

Today's events are historic, but the future will place the launch in its historical context.

Nearly eight years passed between the last Saturn V launch from Pad A, the Apollo-Skylab launch on May 14, 1973, and the first Space Shuttle launch on April 12, 1981.

Nearly six years passed between the last Shuttle launch on July 8, 2011 and the first SpaceX launch from Pad A on February 19, 2017.

SpaceX intends as soon as this summer to use Pad A to launch its Falcon Heavy, three Falcon 9 boosters connected side-by-side, with a combined thrust of about 4.5 million pounds. That would make it the most powerful launch system currently operational on the planet.

Pad A may be used as early as 2020 to launch the SpaceX Red Dragon mission to Mars.

A video released by SpaceX in September 2016 showed a modified Pad A used to launch Musk's Interplanetary Transport System. Musk's stated goal is to evolve his technology so it can be used to colonize Mars.


Click the arrow to watch a computer generated concept of a SpaceX interplanetary transport launch. Video source: SpaceX.

Later this year, SpaceX intends to use Pad A for the first launch of a previously flown Falcon 9, perhaps as soon as March. The next cargo delivery to the International Space Station will be the first use of a previously flown Dragon. SpaceX will also use Pad A for sending crew members to the ISS. The uncrewed test flight of a crew Dragon is projected for the end of this year.


Click the arrow to watch the post-launch media briefing. Video source: NASA.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Elon Pulls the Plug


Click the arrow to watch the abort of the CRS-10 launch at T-13 seconds. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Elon Musk personally called the hold that aborted today's SpaceX attempt to launch its first mission from Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A.

Musk wrote in a series of Twitter posts:






“TVC” refers to the Thrust Vector Control on the Falcon 9 upper stage. Earlier in the countdown, about fifteen minutes before launch, it was announced SpaceX was working an issue with the device. Another anomaly with the new automated flight termination system was resolved with a software update.


A thrust vector control actuator reportedly used on the Falcon 9. Image source: Jansen’s Aircraft Systems Controls Inc.

A page on the Jansen's Aircraft Systems Control web site states they produce the TVCs used on the Falcon 9. The page states, “Embedded within the single-ended piston is a dual-element LVDT, which provides two independent channels of position feedback to the external controller. A single D38999 Series III connector on the EFSV housing communicates all signals to and from the controller.”

“LVDT” is an acronym for Linear Variable Differential Transformer. According to the TE Connectivity web site, “LVDTs provide reliable position measurement for applications in subsea, power generation, industrial automation, aerospace, test and measurement, and more.”

A January 2015 SpaceX launch also was scrubbed due to a TVC actuator issue. According to the report by The Verge, “The launch was halted by the flight team because a thrust vector control actuator wasn't functioning correctly. The actuator was central to the landing mission and would have triggered an automatic abort if the team hadn't stepped in to stop the launch.”

As of this writing, a live video feed from SpaceflightNow.com shows the Falcon 9 has been lowered to the horizontal, out of view of the camera. This suggests it's either horizontal on the pad or back inside the integration hangar for inspection.

This mission will launch the SpaceX cargo Dragon to deliver payloads to the International Space Station. The next launch window is 9:38 AM EST tomorrow. According to Florida Today, a delay to Monday February 20 would require negotiating permission from Russia because that agency is scheduled to launch a Progress cargo ship to the ISS on February 22.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The SpaceX CRS-10 Pre-Game Show


Click the arrow to watch the NASA Social briefing for the payloads aboard SpaceX CRS-10. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.


Click the arrow to watch the pre-launch briefing at Pad 39A before the SpaceX Falcon 9 horizontal on the pad. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Almost three years have passed since SpaceX in April 2014 signed a twenty-year lease for Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A.

The first launch is scheduled for tomorrow.

SpaceX will launch its Falcon 9 booster with its cargo Dragon to deliver payloads to the International Space Station. Liftoff is scheduled for 10:01 AM EST.

As of this writing, the weather forecast is 70% favorable.

The only known issue being worked at this time is a small helium leak in the upper stage.

Click here for a NASA overview of the mission.

Click here for a SpaceX overview of the mission.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

President Trump to Visit Space Coast


SpaceX conducts a static test fire at Pad 39A on February 12, 2017, as filmed from Exploration Tower in Cape Canaveral. Video source: CocoaBeach365 YouTube channel.

Having completed its first static test fire on Pad 39A, SpaceX continues to target Saturday, February 18, at about 10:00 AM EST for its first Falcon 9 launch from Kennedy Space Center.

President Donald Trump may be targeting the launch too.

Florida Today has confirmed that Trump will appear that afternoon at 5:00 PM EST in Melbourne, about forty miles south of KSC.

President Trump's Twitter account tweeted this message today:

About the same time as Trump's Melbourne visit was announced, news broke that acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot had announced NASA will study changes to the Space Launch System schedule. Space News journalist Jeff Foust reports:

“The study will examine the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space,” NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said in a statement to SpaceNews confirming the planned study.

Current plans call for the EM-1 mission to launch in late 2018 without a crew. The first crewed flight would be EM-2, which NASA is planning to launch in 2021. However, an assessment in 2015 performed as Orion reached a development milestone known as Key Decision Point C indicated that there was a 70 percent chance the EM-2 mission would launch no later than April 2023.

Lightfoot, in the memo, said the study will examine the technical and schedule issues of flying a crew on EM-1. “I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed,” he wrote, “and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date.”

The complete memo is in this article by Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach.

Foust quotes the memo as stating this program change “would likely delay the EM-1 launch from its current estimated launch window of September to November 2018. Industry sources said they believe addressing the various issues would delay the mission to 2019 or 2020. That would still be sooner than current NASA schedules for EM-2.”

The announcement comes less than a week after Politico journalist Bryan Bender reported that the Trump administration was considering a “bold and controversial vision for the U.S. space program” that included a crewed return to the Moon by 2020.

The more ambitious administration vision could include new moon landings that “see private American astronauts, on private space ships, circling the Moon by 2020; and private lunar landers staking out de facto 'property rights' for American [companies?! — the word is missing in the article] on the Moon, by 2020 as well,” according to a summary of an “agency action plan” that the transition drew up for NASA late last month.

Such missions would be selected through an “internal competition” between what the summary calls Old Space, or NASA's traditional contractors, and New Space characterized by SpaceX and Blue Origin.

But the summary also suggests a strong predilection toward New Space. “We have to be seen giving 'Old Space' a fair and balanced shot at proving they are better and cheaper than commercial,” it says.

The timing of NASA announcing it's considering a 2020 crewed circumlunar mission seems a bit coincidental.

So does the timing of Trump's visit.

With a 5:00 PM rally down the road in Melbourne, it gives the troubled President lots of time to attend the SpaceX launch earlier in the day at Kennedy Space Center.


Elon Musk meets with Donald Trump and others December 14 at Trump Tower in New York City. Image source: Newsweek.

On December 14, SpaceX founder Elon Musk joined the President's Strategic and Policy Forum. Despite their differences, Musk continues to attend Trump's advisory meetings. Musk said that “engaging on critical issues will on balance serve the greater good,” despite calls that he resign in protest.

This privileged access, of course, gives Musk the opportunity to invite Trump to attend a SpaceX launch. What better opportunity than to attend the first launch of the third generation of spaceflight from Kennedy Space Center?

Given all the bad publicity Trump has received in recent days, he might see this as an opportunity to distract public scrutiny with a big brash announcement that seizes the headlines.

Perhaps he might announce a pivot of SLS away from Mars, back towards the Moon by 2020 in competition with SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin and anyone else who feels up to the challenge.

The immediate question, of course, is who would pay for it.

SpaceX and other NewSpace companies aren't going to divert their business plans just to make Trump look good.

There's also the question of whether all this will pass Congressional scrutiny. After years of acrimony between Congress and the Obama White House, a tenuous compromise existed at the end of President Barack Obama's administration. Congress by and large permitted NewSpace programs to continue so long as Space Launch System directed pork to the districts and states of key representatives, in particular those representing NASA centers.

Congressional porkers might not have the stomach for yet another pivot in NASA direction, although in the end I suspect they can be bought with more dollars directed to their districts. The question is whether the rest of Congress might go along.

The 2010 NASA authorization act directed the agency to have SLS core elements operational by December 31, 2016. That date, of course, quickly became meaningless. The current NASA line is that SLS is scheduled to have its first uncrewed test flight in late 2018, although many observers expect that date to slip. Yet another pivot in the program would buy NASA more time, but Congress as a whole might reach the consensus that enough is enough.

There's also the risk of launching crew on an untested rocket, one billed as the most powerful in history. But NASA did the same with the Space Shuttle in 1981, launching with two test pilot crew members, because the orbiter essentially required people to land it.

Despite the risks, Trump might see himself as acting boldly by proposing the 2020 Moon circumlunar mission, then heading to Melbourne to claim he'd just created more jobs for the Space Coast.

This weekend already was going to be historic. If President Trump attends the launch, history might become a three-ring circus.


UPDATE February 16, 2017NASA issued this statement late yesterday about the crewed EM-1 study.

NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot has asked Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft. The study will examine the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space. The SLS and Orion missions, coupled with record levels of private investment in space, will help put NASA and America in a position to unlock the mysteries of space and to ensure this nation’s world preeminence in exploring the cosmos.


UPDATE February 16, 2017James Dean of Florida Today reports:

Bob Walker, a former congressman and adviser to the Trump administration who helped craft the Trump campaign’s space policy, said the administration wants to take a more aggressive posture on human space exploration with at least a lunar flyby as quickly as possible.

“There has been a lot of controversy over whether or not the SLS has a definable mission,” he said. “And I think what you see playing out here is that NASA is trying to find a way to meet the time schedule that they think the administration is on in terms of going back to a flyby mission to the moon.”


UPDATE February 19, 2017 — Mr. Trump said nothing about space in his Space Coast rally last night. Read about the event in this Florida Today article.