Tuesday, August 31, 2021

NASA's Space Launch System Slipping Into '22

While not something tied to an explicit announcement, Ars Technica's Eric Berger reports that the first SLS mission has slipped into 2022.  A source told Ars the best-case scenario for launching the Artemis 1 mission is spring of '22, with summer being the more realistic target for a test flight of the heavy lift rocket and Orion spacecraft.  If I may quote myself, “If NASA and Boeing are lucky and there are no more failures that eat months at a time, Artemis-1 might fly by the fall of 2022.”  My reasoning was simple.  The schedule to launch before the end of this year was never changed after their time at Stennis delayed completion of their Green Run test by nine months.  I just added nine months to the announced "before the end of '21" date. 

Publicly, NASA is still saying before the end of '21.  They're also acknowledging the schedule is slipping and the Covid problems are a factor. 

NASA's Kathryn Hambleton acknowledged that the space agency has seen schedule slips. "The agency continues to monitor the rise of COVID cases in the Kennedy area, which, combined with other factors such as weather and first time operations, is impacting our schedule of operations," she said. "Moving step by step, we are progressing toward launch while keeping our team as safe as possible."

There are still many hoops to jump through between where they are now and being able to launch.  For example, earlier this summer, when the vehicle was stacked on the cape, instead of adding the Orion spacecraft, a mass simulator was added.  The mass simulator is for vibration testing of the assembled rocket to ensure they understand the difference between the natural vibrations of the full stack versus those caused by external forces.  Berger adds:

NASA originally hoped to complete this work in July, but Hambleton confirmed to Ars that this vibration, or "modal" testing, is ongoing in the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center.

"Complete in July" has turned into September - if they can even meet that.  Eric Berger goes into details on several of the tests that need to be completed before launch, so by all means read over there if you're interested.  He also goes into a refresher on the history of the program.

My view is that the program was created as a giveaway to companies that lost their income streams when the Shuttle program was canceled, and since its start I'm not aware of a single milestone they've met and a single budget they haven't overspent.   What NASA needs to get SLS launched before next September is for schedule items to be moving left on the schedules - earlier in time.  Not only have things like this vibration testing slipped right, I don't think in the entire history of the SLS program that anything has moved left on the schedules. 

The launch vehicle stage adapter for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is integrated with the core stage in June.  NASA Photo from Ars Technica

One of the early proponents of SLS was (of course) Florida Senator Bill Nelson - who is now NASA administrator.  The legislation starting the program was passed in 2010 and SLS was supposed to have flown by 2016.  Nelson said, 

"This rocket is coming in at the cost of what not only what we estimated in the NASA Authorization act, but less,” Nelson said at the time. “The cost of the rocket over a five- to six-year period in the NASA authorization bill was to be no more than $11.5 billion.” Later, he went further, saying, "If we can't do a rocket for $11.5 billion, we ought to close up shop."

Over a decade later, that $11.5 billion has ballooned to over $20 billion and 2016 has transformed to very likely '22.  They can't do a rocket for $11.5 billion and the shop is still open.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Monday Space News Roundup

Firefly Aerospace is another one of the private companies trying to get into the launch services market like Astra we talked about yesterday.  They've showed up in the blog a few times before.  In January, there was news they were planning to launch their Alpha rocket “this summer.”  Summer is waning, but it looks like they're going to make that date.  They're planning to launch on Thursday, September 2nd.  The rocket has been at Vandenberg Air Force Base for a while, and was static fired earlier in August (video of the 15 second static firing).  

Firefly Alpha, first stage, prior to shipment to Vandenberg.  Firefly Aerospace photo

The launch is scheduled for 6:00 PM, Pacific Daylight Time, with the launch window extending to 10:00PM.  It will be streamed by Everyday Astronaut; expect the stream to start at 5PM PDT but it sounds like loose scheduling. 

Over at Starbase, SpaceX's operation at Boca Chica, the first of the three arms that the Orbital Launch Integration Tower (OLIT) will get was added Saturday. This is called the quick disconnect or QD arm and its purpose is to provide connections to ground support equipment (GSE) including electrical monitoring signals back to launch control as well as to supply propellants to the Super Heavy booster on the pad.  

Screen capture of the QD arm on the right side of the OLIT.  This is not one of the arms that will capture the Super Heavy when it returns to the pad.  Those will be higher up the OLIT.  Those two arms, which have been in construction for weeks, will transform the OLIT into Mechazilla, (Elon's term).  They are to grab a hovering Super Heavy booster well enough to hold it, but gently enough not to crush it.  

During the two hour and 20 minute walk around of Starbase with Elon Musk that Everyday Astronaut conducted, Elon said something that stuck in my mind like a sand spur in a wool sock.  He said when the Super Heavy returns to the launch tower to be caught in the air, its density (pounds per cubic inch) is close to that of an empty beer can.  A very, very tall beer can. 

Elsewhere at Boca Chica, they began the work of putting all 29 Raptor engines onto booster 4 while it's in the high bay.  For the second time.  

Back on August 1st, SpaceX mounted all 29 Raptors in the course of a day, less than an hour per engine.  This was part of the move to stack the booster and Starship for the first time ever a few days later.  

Since Booster 4’s later August 11th build site return, SpaceX teams have been hard at work fitting the massive 69m (225 ft) tall rocket booster with thousands of feet (if not miles) of secondary plumbing and power and avionics cables. That process effectively began with removing the Super Heavy’s 29 Raptor engines, which finished just a few days after its return to the high bay.

Now, just 12 days after Super Heavy Booster 4 arrived back at the high bay and 11 days after workers briskly removed its Raptors, SpaceX has begun the process of reinstalling those engines – albeit with several new entrants this time around. When SpaceX first fitted B4 with Raptors, it became clear that five or more of had never been tested, making the removal of some of the Super Heavy’s 29 engines more or less inevitable. Indeed, as expected, several new Raptors (engines that weren’t clearly installed the first time around) have joined around two dozen engines that were installed earlier this month.

It can be hard to keep up with the pace of work at Starbase.  From what we know now, B4 was nowhere near ready for static testing and certainly not launch, nor was any of the infrastructure ready.  They're still completing assembly of B4.

Except for four pairs of black composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs), virtually none of the complex plumbing or wiring visible here was present when B4 was in the launch complex.  (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Currently, Cameron County's road closure web site is saying "intermittent closures" between 8AM and noon CDT, tomorrow and Wednesday.  Seems like something or some things might be going between the shipyard and the launch complex. 

Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Most Interesting Rocket Flight Abort

Astra is a rocket company that we've talked about several times; the most recent launch coverage was back in December '20 of a rocket that made it into space but ended up about 500 meters/sec (about 1100 mph) too slow to achieve orbit.  They had made the statement that if they had launched from the Cape, where the Earth's rotational speed helps the horizontal component of velocity much more than it does at their Kodiak, Alaska, launch complex they would have made orbit, but they made the launch vehicle about five feet longer to hold more fuel and oxidizer.  

They had announced another launch, and this time renamed what had been Rocket 3.2 in December to Rocket 3.3.  Since it was to be watchable on YouTube, I opened a Firefox tab on Friday and they scrubbed.  Yesterday they had the most interesting launch abort I can recall.  Scott Manley does a great video on the story, and let me add a screen capture of one of the most unusual parts of this launch failure.  

The video title tells you what you may not know by looking at the picture, but at this point, the rocket had just recovered from tilting toward the right; the control systems had corrected the thrust vector to get the rocket upright, but it was still moving sideways to the right and out of view.  

What happened was that one of the engines failed very early on, and the remaining engines didn't have quite enough thrust to get the rocket moving up.  It was a thrust to weight ratio of almost exactly 1:1.  As the rocket was burning fuel, though, that was reducing the weight and the vehicle soon starts moving upward.  

I have to marvel at the fact that they didn't blow the rocket up right then and there, but the bigger picture is that they never blew it up.  That was apparently for a couple of reasons: first was to get as much data as possible on how every system reacted, and second was to make sure if the booster blew up on its own that the debris fell into the ocean and not onto land there in Alaska.  OK, maybe the order of those two is reversed; first was they didn't want to clean up a mess from it crashing onto land and second was to get as much data as they can.

Astra is probably not in trouble.  They've gotten $3.9 million from NASA and are now a publicly traded company.  People are invested in their stock.  After this failure, CEO Chris Kemp appeared on video to give the news while standing in front of their seventh rocket.  Note: that link is to a time tag in the Scott Manley video, not a separate video.

This is why people refer to rocket science as being hard.  Rockets are hard.  Orbit is harder still.  I'm sure someone would like to point out that by missing reaching orbit by 1100 mph, Astra has still gotten much closer to orbit than Blue Origin.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Shop Update on the 1 by 1 - Part 6

It has been two weeks since I updated work on the 1x1 engine, because I wanted to be able to say I'm finished with the two side plates and I wasn't quite done last weekend.  

The last thing I mentioned was completing the machining of the first plate, which removes a lot of metal.  The second plate was done the same way but couldn't use exactly the same G-code routines.  I was just able to use two out of three cylinder machining steps.  Side plate 1on the left.

These two close around the short edges that are almost touching, and with the exception of that short edge, all the edges get some tapped holes or another machined spot.  First, though, the exterior surface of plate two needed three holes tapped; two for 10-24 screws and one 3/8-16.  They're a little awkward because the 10-24 holes are almost centered on the edge of that raised area and the big one is almost on the edge of one of the carved out cylinders.  I should have tapped those holes before doing the other features, but too late for that.

Then it was on to tapping the holes on all the sides.  The top has a 1.100" diameter hole that I cut using the exact same approach as I did for the internal hollowed out areas, as well as four tapped holes.  The two large reamed holes on the left are for the valve push rods.  The big hole and four tapped holes are to mount the piston cylinder.  The big hole will pass the piston connecting rod.

For each the sides - this one, the edge on the right and the one facing down - I need to set an X and Y=0 point.  Tedious but not what I'd call hard.  The right side, though had one that was hard.  It's made by tilting the right edge up so that the angle between the bottom and right side is 40 degrees.  There's just one hole to drill and ream, a 1/2" diameter hole in side plate 2.

This turned into "think about it 30 times, measure it 20 times, machine it once."  I played with this in CAD over and over.  I think I wore a groove in the concrete floor and then tiles walking between the mill and this computer.  

During the process of checking it 30 times, I found that side plate 2 does not get the two drilled and tapped #8 holes you can see.  For someone like me without TIG welding capability, the fix is to put in a setscrew with some red LocTite. 

Finally, the bottom.  Notice that the side plate facing the camera is #2, not #1, unlike the pictures above.  The big, 3/8-16 tapped hole is in plate #1.  A milder case of check and recheck before drilling.

They clearly need some cosmetic work to gussy them up a bit, and while I've deburred the holes, some sanding both inside and out would help, so they're not Done done, but I think all the features are there. I honestly think this might be the most complex little assembly I've built.  There were lots of setups and operations done on the two pieces.  There's nothing equivalent in the Webster or my Duclos Flame Eater.


Friday, August 27, 2021

Trying to Interpret the Inflated Economy

Did you notice that the NASDAQ 100 index hit record highs this week, mostly buoyed by the big high tech stocks, the ones they call the FANGMAN stocksFacebook, Amazon, Netflix, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Apple, and Nvidia.  Did you make any money?  Did I?  I started asking myself that question and I can't answer it without some deep study.   

The problem is the all the money creation that the Fed is doing makes it hard to know if you've actually improved your position in life.  Inflation does not improve your spot in life, at least for five-nines of the population (99.999%).  Inflation just blows up prices.  If your expenses cost 25% more and your pay rate at work (or retirement investments) went up more than 25%, congratulations!  You're better off.  Having started working for a living in the 1970s, during the awful inflation from the (until now) worst president in US history, I can tell you it's not usually the case that you make out well.  It's not like everything you need to buy goes up by the same exact percentage.  Some things go up more than others and you're lucky to come out ahead. 

One way to evaluate stocks is the Price/Earnings ratio.  Prices are up, that's what the record NASDAQ index means; what about Earnings?  Economic writer and advisor Bill Bonner notes that 10 years ago in 2011, the P/E ratio of the FANGMAN bunch was 16.  Today, the P/E is 39. 

Put another way, a dollar of earnings cost you $16 in 2011. Now, the same dollar of earnings costs $39 in FANGMAN stock prices.  By that way of looking at it, the value of the stocks has gone down.  

In a functioning free market economy, prices convey information.  The flood of fiat money being pumped into the world interferes with that information like a jammer blocking a radio link and keeps buyers and sellers from knowing what things really should sell for. 

Consider junk bonds.  They get that name because they're riskier than typical bonds issued by established companies or various governments, but they tend to pay higher yields than those bonds because of that extra risk.  The stated inflation from the official US sources are saying inflation is running under 6% - most of us think that's actually about a half of the real number but let's stick with 6% for fun. 

The Bank of America US High Yield Index shows that the yield on junk bonds has been below inflation for all of '21 - and back to November of '20.   If the real inflation rate is closer to the 12% Shadowstats shows, the high yield bonds have never been greater than inflation.

If you buy a 10 year Treasury Inflation Indexed Security, because it's backed by "the full faith and credit of the United States" (ha!) the current yield is negative.  Not less than inflation; less than zero.

A point I've pounded on more times than I can think in the life of this blog is that printing money never produces wealth.  Money is not wealth, it's simply a way of measuring wealth.  Printing money bends the wealth that is already there in the money-printers’ direction. 

I'm rather impressed with the Information Theory of Money, and the more money you print, the more confusing and chaotic the economic picture becomes.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Gee, Does Anyone Know A Company That Bores Tunnels?

From the "well, I'll be" category, and courtesy of Ars Technica, we read that in an effort to overcome the hassles to their operation of working around road closure requirements, SpaceX has proposed building a tunnel to simplify things.  For those who didn't get my joke in the post title, Elon Musk also owns The Boring Company that, well, bores tunnels. 

As SpaceX has ramped up Starship testing and launch activities in South Texas in recent years, the company has more frequently sought the closure of the Boca Chica Highway. This two-lane road runs along the company's rocket assembly and launch facilities.

Residents of South Texas use the highway primarily to travel from Brownsville and nearby towns to Boca Chica Beach, the southernmost beach in Texas. When the road is closed, no one can access or remain on the beach.

This situation has become a logistical headache for SpaceX, which seeks road closures to move rocket hardware along the road and for tests and launches. It has also been unpleasant for nearby residents and those who enjoy the undeveloped beach.

Now, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has a potential solution. The Brownsville Herald reports that officials from Musk's The Boring Company met with Cameron County officials in July to discuss digging a tunnel from the south end of South Padre Island to the north end of Boca Chica Beach, facilitating alternate access to the barrier island.

The tunnel would serve a couple of purposes.  It would allow people in the area to still access Boca Chica Beach, but it would also probably reduce commuting times for SpaceX employees who live on South Padre Island and that area.  

The tunnel itself wouldn't be particularly long, but it would have to be deep.  The distance from South Padre island to Boca Chica beach is about a half mile, but it's under a shipping channel.  Now the Boring Company has only done one tunnel for hire, a 1.7-mile project in Las Vegas that cost $52 million.  I have no details on how that one compares to what's needed here.

As you might expect, a small county in south Texas didn't seem particularly interested in contracting to get a tunnel put in.  I imagine they said something along the lines of, "if you want a tunnel, pay for it yourself.  Cost of doing business.  Oh, and you'd better not do anything that would interfere with shipping in our port."

Boca Chica Highway with SpaceX's facilities in the distance.  Photo by Trevor Mahlmann for Ars Technica, in August of 2020 when those facilities were quite a bit smaller than they are today.

Probably the most intriguing story in this week's Rocket Report. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Blue Origin Rolls Out a Stainless Tank To Test, Too

A friend here near the Space Center emailed a link to Ars Technica with a story that at launch complex 36 on the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Blue Origin has rolled out a stainless steel test tank as part of what they're calling Project Jarvis.  Any similarity between this and Tony Stark's J.A.R.V.I.S. AI that he talks to through all the Iron Man movies is purely coincidental and unintentional.  At least on my part.  

On Tuesday, Blue Origin used a modular transport to roll its first stainless steel test tank to Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. This tank is part of the company's efforts—under the codename "Project Jarvis"—to develop a fully reusable upper stage for Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket.

Ars revealed the existence of this effort last month, and we are now publishing the first photos of the tank prototype. A source at Blue Origin said this tank could start to undergo a series of tests to determine its strength and ability to hold pressurized propellants as soon as next month.

Long time Texas tank watchers will see a lot in this picture that's familiar.  

Photo credit: Trevor Mahlmann for Ars Technica

Stainless steel tank, like SpaceX has gone to for Starship and Super Heavy?  Yup.  Rapid build, test, break, build again, test again?  You got it. 

Project Jarvis encompasses the tank program, which is intended to rapidly prototype a propellant tank to withstand the rigors of multiple launches and re-entries. The company's engineers are studying the use of stainless steel as a material for these tanks, as SpaceX has chosen to do with its Starship booster and upper stage. Stainless steel is cheaper and better able to withstand atmospheric heating during re-entry, but it's about five times heavier than composites.

In an effort to move quickly and test whether SpaceX's iterative design philosophy can be mimicked, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos has empowered the engineers leading Project Jarvis to innovate in an environment unfettered by rigorous management and paperwork processes. This has led to the rapid development of the tank rolled to Launch Complex 36 on Tuesday.

Ars Technica's space correspondent, Eric Berger, says that his sources inside the company said the construction of this test tank has proceeded much more rapidly than other programs at Blue Origin, which may validate Bezos' experiment with rapid, iterative development.  They say it's an effort to live up their motto.  

"Jeff wants to heavily emphasize the ferociter in our motto now," one source said of Blue Origin's Gradatim Ferociter motto, which means step by step, ferociously.

For the last several years, I don't think anyone would argue that ferociter was even a tiny part of Blue's character.  

EDIT 8/26/21 9:20 AM EDT to add:  About the time I was posting this, SpaceX was wrapping up testing their Ground Support Equipment test tank.  It appeared successful, nothing popped, but they haven't officially commented.  As usual. 

Unless something has changed radically, we will only know about Blue Origin's tests in some sort of statement as there is no way to watch the tests like we can watch SpaceX's tests.



Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Road Closures at Boca Chica May Not be For Any Flying Vehicles

During Monday's road closures that I talked about on Saturday, what they rolled to the launch complex area was a new thing and not anything I expected.  For the first time, it appears that SpaceX has built a test version of the several tanks they've built for Ground Support Equipment something they've never done before

Known as a ‘test tank,’ the relatively small steel structure was fairly rapidly assembled from parts of an older Ground Support Equipment (GSE) tank scrapped in July over the last week or so. SpaceX completed the first Starship-derived propellant storage tank in April 2021 and rapidly rolled that tank (GSE1) and a second (GSE2) from the build site to the orbital launch pad just a few weeks apart. Less than a month after that, SpaceX also completed GSE tank #3, though things seemingly devolved into chaos immediately thereafter.

Only three months later would GSE3 finally be transported to – and installed on a concrete mount at – Starship’s first orbital launch site, and only after a number of structural modifications and in the footsteps of GSE tanks #5 and #6. Little is known about why SpaceX’s custom GSE tank production faltered so soon after it began, why none of the five Starship-sized tanks installed at the orbital pad have been fully plumbed or subjected to any kind of testing, or why structural modifications were seemingly required after the fact. However, it’s safe to say that SpaceX’s brand new GSE ‘test tank’ is now at the center of the mystery.

The test tank being rolled into the launch complex, passing "Hoppy," the first of the Starship prototypes to take a 500 ft hop, August 27, 2019.  Photo credit listed in the picture, to @bocachicagal at NASASpaceflight.com.  

All of this leads me to speculate that there might well be tests of this test tank during the road closures Wednesday and Thursday evening, 5 to11 PM CDT (Tuesday's road closures were cancelled) and no tests of Booster 4 (B4) or Starship 20 (S20).  Considering how much of this GSE infrastructure SpaceX has built without going through testing like this, it seems like there would have to be a lot of rebuilding if they find their tanks aren't up to the job.



Monday, August 23, 2021

China Moving to Emulate NASA's Commercial Cargo System

NASA's Commercial Cargo program has been a successful effort to get more companies involved in bringing supplies to the International Space Station as well as bringing back junk from the ISS.  This Saturday, for example, a SpaceX Cargo Dragon is scheduled to launch to the ISS, the 23rd mission just from SpaceX.  Northrup Grumman launched their 16th mission earlier in the month from Wallops Island, Virginia.  

News came out last week showing that China is doing the same sorts of things to try to help boot up their commercial space sector, too. Space News carries the story, starting out with a related item:

Beijing-based InterSpace Explore signed a deal Aug. 4 with Chinese private launch firm Galactic Energy for launch of the Zengzhang-1 demonstration returnable satellite on a Ceres-1 solid rocket in 2022.

A day later Interspace Explore, full name Beijing Interstellar Development Technology Co., Ltd., raised tens of millions of Chinese yuan (¥6.48 per dollar) from investment firm Innoangel Fund.


Interspace Explore founder Fu Shiming, a former employee of state-owned spacecraft maker China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) and a member of the Tiangong-2 space lab project, said at a press conference that spacecraft are essential to human use of space resources and hold huge commercial and military value.

They make the statement that this is in response to a call for proposals issued by China’s human spaceflight agency, CMSA, last January soliciting low-cost cargo transportation solutions for the Chinese space station. The announcement was the first indication that the national space station project would be opened to involvement of commercial companies. 

The main requirements for cargo delivery include a payload capacity of 1-4 tons, the possibility for removing and deorbiting station waste to prevent space debris, and transportation costs to be inline with international levels. For returning cargo to Earth, requirements are for a payload 100-300 kilograms with the returning spacecraft to be easily tracked and recovered. 

The scheme aims to supplement the large Tianzhou cargo delivery system and build a “flexible, efficient, diverse, and low-cost cargo transportation system.”

Right now, the Tianzhou cargo spacecraft are the only means China has to supply their space station.  These are large, 13,000 kg payload vehicles, and the Chinese could use a more robust supply line to keep their new station operational. 

The Long March 5B (Y2) used to launch the Chinese space station core module at assembly at a facility in Tianjin. CMSA photo.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Relativity Space and A Worthwhile Video

I've talked about Relativity Space and their concept of 3D printing virtually everything in their rockets - including the rocket itself - several times, most recently in June.  They're continuing work toward the first flight of their Terran 1 rocket later this year.  That linked piece emphasized their plans to develop a large rocket to compete directly with SpaceX's Falcon  9, to be called the Terran R where the R is for reusable.  

Tonight's emphasis is to direct you to a worthwhile 20 minute long video on the YouTube channel Veritasium.  It's 10 days old, but I finally got around to watching it and would recommend it to any space nerds or techno-geeks.  It certainly went faster for me than 20 minutes of most TV programs.  Veritasium's lead, Dr. Derek Muller, conducts a walk around interview with Relativity CEO Tim Ellis.  They carry UV protective masks to watch large metal prints being made, watch the bell nozzle of a rocket engine being printed, stand along side the Terran 1 slated to fly, and lots more.

The video includes a lot of things worth watching, including time lapse photos of how they 3D print rockets, and engine parts.  There's a lot of details in here; Muller gets input from Scott Manley on several technical points.   

It's also fun to see Tim Ellis in more detail than I've seen before.  He's clearly a space nerd and you get a great feel for his passion about rockets and technology.  It comes across clearly that he's building Relativity because he sees it as an existential part of being human.  His vision is for expansion to Mars, like Elon Musk's, but sees different ways to achieve some of these things.  

Relativity's Terran-R concept rendering.


Saturday, August 21, 2021

Could Be an Interesting Week to Keep an Eye on SpaceX

If you have the freedom to open a browser tab and leave it on one of the YouTube channels that monitors SpaceX in Boca Chica, this might be an interesting few days to do that.  Monday through Wednesday, by which time everything we say here will have changed. 

Since Starship 20 (S20) moved back to the launch complex area, there has been work to prepare it for the series of tests we expect: pressure tests, cryogenic tests, and finishing with a static engine firing.  Teslarati's SpaceX correspondent Eric Ralph said last Wednesday (18th) that the testing might start as early as the next day, but that was plainly too optimistic.  The county's road closure website, though was updated to cancel road closures on Thursday and Friday, and replace them with short duration "intermittent" road closures on Monday (23rd) followed by longer closures on Tuesday and Wednesday with alternate (backup) days of Wednesday and Thursday.  

Screen capture from the Cameron County website. 

S20 returned to the launch complex earlier in the week, and was then lifted onto Test Stand B.  It was held by one of the cranes on site for a few days, and then unhitched.  Eric Ralph adds:

Curiously, after spending weeks modifying Mount B with a series of hydraulic rams meant to simulate the thrust of Ship 20’s six Raptor engines during its cryo proof(s), SpaceX removed all of that extra hardware just prior to the Starship’s second rollout and now-imminent installation on said mount. Regardless of why, that decision likely means that Starship S20 will move directly to static fire testing once it passes cryo proofing. Given that Ship 20 appears to be on track to be the first Starship prototype of any kind to fire more than three Raptors at a time, that static fire campaign will likely be somewhat cautious, possibly beginning with just 1-3 engines and then moving to four, five, or straight to six.

My SWAG here is that Monday's short window for road closures is to move something from the assembly area to the launch complex, perhaps another one of those ground support tanks.  The 5:00 to 11:00 PM road closures starting Tuesday might well be for some of the testing expected. 

Screen capture of Lab Padre's Nerdle Cam - I usually start here and then look at what other views are available.  

Earlier last week, Elon Musk said that their first completed Starship rocket, expected to be S20 and Booster 4, could be ready for its orbital launch debut just “a few weeks” from now – pending the FAA approval.  B4 is currently in the high bay building, although it could move back to launch area during Monday's road closure.  Sorry to say, but I think that's "Elon Standard Time" and the FAA will kill that concept.  As I understand it, the FAA action has to follow the process (Administrative Procedures Act) on this.  The absolute best thing they could do is release a draft environmental review of SpaceX’s orbital Starship launch site, accept public comments for the required 30 days, instantly clear Starbase with environmental approval within a few days of the public comment window, and then approve Starship’s South Texas orbital launch license as soon as the necessary environmental permissions are in hand.  That sounds more like six weeks than "a few" to me. 

We can hope.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Solar Cycle 25 Off to a Strong Start

I've been covering forecasts of how active this sunspot cycle will be since well before it started.  The consensus was that the current cycle (25) is going to be much like the last one.  Which was the weakest cycle in about a hundred years.  In fact, one group presented data in 2018 saying cycle 24 was the weakest solar cycle in 200 years. In April of '19, when NOAA presented its official forecast, they used this graphic to show the similarity of cycle 25 to 24.

The bottom of cycle 24 occurred in December of '19, and (as usual) the first cycle 25 spots were appearing some months before that.  The cycle was widely considered to be starting by mid-January of '20.  Now that we're about 20 months into the new cycle, the first "observed vs. predicted" sunspot number counts are starting to show up.  This appeared August 4th on SpaceWeather.com

As you can see, since about the spring of '20, the actual sunspot numbers have run higher than predicted every month. Spaceweather notes:

Issued by the NOAA/NASA Solar Cycle 25 Prediction Panel in 2019, the official forecast calls for Solar Cycle 25 to peak in July 2025. However, a better fit to current data shows Solar Cycle 25 peaking in October 2024. This is just outside the 8-month error bars of the Panel's forecast.

July 2021 was a remarkable month. Solar Cycle 25 crossed multiple thresholds, including its first X-flare and, at one point, 6 sunspots on the solar disk. The last time so many sunspots were seen at the same time was Sept. 2017 (SWx archive). One farside CME in July was so strong it affected Earth despite being on the "wrong" side of the sun. A handful of other CMEs narrowly missed our planet.

Is the more important part of the prediction also affected, how high the Sunspot Number will be, and not just that it will peak at a meager sunspot number sooner?  The better fit link in that first copied paragraph does indicate a slightly higher sunspot count in October '24, on the order of 10% higher (rough estimate).  You might remember that just about a year ago, a paper was released based on a new method of analyzing existing data and predicting a cycle "magnitude that rivals the top few since records began."  The graphic they presented predicts the Smoothed Sunspot Number could be as much as twice what's predicted above in that plot from Spaceweather.  

It's an interesting prediction, but when a new group comes along with a whole new way of looking at a problem that has been studied for years, they either suddenly revolutionize the field or fail and go away.  We'll see what happens with this prediction.

In the mean time, and we should know by the end of '24, we watch and wait.  I noticed earlier in the summer and in the late spring that we got days where solar flux went into 90s, instead of the 70s where I'd just gotten used to seeing it.  The higher HF bands (12 and 10m) definitely sounded better than usual.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

What if Taiwan Gets Taken Over

With the epic disaster our "most popular president ever" unleashed in Afghanistan in the last week, I feel certain that our rivals in the world (enemies if you prefer) are licking their chops and thinking this is an ideal time to do things they've never thought they could get away with.  After watching how the US handled China's institution of harsh shutdowns in Hong Kong, I'm sure that the leadership in Taiwan is planning how they could respond to a Chinese invasion since they can't depend on the US.

Ask yourself if you can envision that our current crop of "perfumed princes of the pentagon" would go to war with China.  About all I can envision is another "strongly worded press statement."  

Peter Grant at Bayou Renaissance Man made reference to this in his morning post today:

If I were a resident of Taiwan right now, I'd be packing my bags and looking for an exit as fast as I could.  (If I were a US manufacturer reliant on computer chips from Taiwan, which makes about half the world's supply, I'd be begging, borrowing and stealing any and all supplies I could get out of there before the invasion.).

Emphasis on the part in parentheses.  The heart of the issue is the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company or TSMC.  I think everyone is aware that there's a chip shortage that's affecting the delivery of many products, from pickup trucks to phones.  While there's still a fairly large group of the semiconductor fabrication plants ("fabs") in the US, they tend to be older plants, not capable of the leading edge of performance found in the most modern processors (Central Processing Units or CPUs).  TSMC is the monster in the field. 

Around thirty five years ago, when I was working in defense electronics, many of the chips were made in Asia for American companies.  In the years since then, the situation expanded and concentrated more fabs in Asia with fewer in the US.  This was quite deliberate on the American companies' part.  Coincidentally, Electronic Design did a feature article about the shortage of parts and the need to build more fabs in the states that showed up in today's email.  

How We Got Here

In short, the relentless outsourcing and lack of investment in our own semiconductor sourcing moved the U.S. into last place at the most advanced nodes of this ever-growing industry. At present, American companies are at zero production capacity on a technology that’s coming more and more swiftly to define the world, both inside and outside of tech development.

The governments of Taiwan, Korea, and China, on the other hand, enacted swift, articulated industrial policies and incentives to semiconductor foundries. They traded short-term profit for the potential of long-term dominance. They did this at a time when capital investment subsidies were manageable and translated into ongoing competitive advantage.

The U.S. did not do the same. To the contrary, American companies took advantage of outsourcing deals that maximized near-term profit at the expense of long-term strategy.

It's important to note that first sentence; our problem is in the "most advanced nodes of this ever-growing industry."  It's not like we have no fabs in the US, it's just that the most advanced processors can't be made here without substantial investment.  The article notes that of the three types of semiconductors—digital, analog, and power—the U.S. holds only a slim lead on analog and faces a tense race with Germany for dominance in power microchips.  FWIW, the difference between analog and power chips is the power chips are bigger.  It's in the digital chips where we've fallen far behind.  

We did a useful overview of the industry with emphasis on fab issues back in August of '16.  While the "glamor" side of the semiconductor industry is smallest transistors, 14 nanometers at that time, the actual work is done by older, less fine geometries.  From that 2016 post:

The graph on the left is showing that 43% of worldwide semiconductor production is in the five largest geometries: from 65nm up to the largest sizes used.  Further, the graph on the right shows that 85% of new designs are 65nm and larger.  Or-Bach takes this as evidence that the industry is bifurcating; very few designs move to the finest geometries while most designs are being designed into older, bigger geometries.  This is leading foundries to invest and develop enhancements to the older processes, keeping older facilities in production longer.

The other aspect that goes along with most parts being larger is that they're cheaper parts. Investing in the new machines, new processes and learning how to make those components winnows out the field. This graphic shows that while there were 22 companies capable of building parts with 130 nm features, as features got smaller, the number of companies that could or would invest in the plant went down, so that at the finest features (densest number of transistors in the highest performance processors) only four companies were still in the game.  I'll bet one is TMSC and all four of them are somewhere in Asia.

I don't know if China has one of those plants, but I find it easy to think part of their motivation for going after Taiwan might be for the income TMSC brings in.  If the Chinese Communist Party owns the production of all the densest, most powerful processors, do you think they'll sell them to American companies?  Do you think the supply issues that Ford and other carmakers have are going to get better or worse?  

With one move into Taiwan, they could cripple us by cutting off processor shipments from TMSC, or raise the prices prohibitively.  It's looking more like a low risk move for the CCP. 



Wednesday, August 18, 2021

ATF NPRM on Redefining Everything - Comments Close 19th

I'm falling down on the job in not reminding everyone who might want to comment on the ATF's Notice of Proposed Rule Making 2021-R05 that the deadline is August 19th - today for most of you who will read this on Thursday.  

This is the one that claims it's going to clarify the definitions of receivers, frames, and firearms, as well as the definitions used with incomplete guns finished at home; the so-called "80% guns."  That number is PFA and has nothing to do with the number of operations left to do as opposed to how many there are starting from chunks of metal.  

My emphasis from the start back in May has been on the Personally Made Firearms (PMFs) or 80% guns.  The introduction to the NPRM promises to clarify what "readily converted" means in their allowing these to be sold as long as they can't be "readily converted to fire a projectile."  

It clarifies nothing.  It simply provides us a matrix of things that go into determining what the word means but with no specific numbers for what constitutes “readily.”  They include a long footnote including different rulings from courts on guns that were "readily converted" that ranged from taking less than an hour for a person with no specialized knowledge up to "eight hours in a properly equipped machine shop."  I can agree that if someone who can barely handle a battery powered drill can do it in less than an hour, that's readily converted, but the other extreme is light years from "readily" to me.  

Exactly where the line should be between the number of minutes it takes Homer Simpson with a cordless drill and an eight hour day in a well-equipped machine shop is what they should be telling us, but they don't. 

The only legal case they mention that was not ruled as not readily converted was done by a Master gunsmith with $65,000 worth of tools.  I'm not sure what qualifies one as a Master, but does five years sound reasonable?  Full time (40 hour weeks) for a year is 2080 hours so round five years to 10,000 hours of experience, plus maybe another 2000 hours of training, and a commercial investment in tools.  I can agree that's not readily converted, but if the tools get cheaper, where's the line?  $50k?  $35k?  Again, they don't say.  

In last December's action against Polymer80 for selling a "Buy Build Shoot Kit," it seems that ATF used "convenient" as the working definition for "readily converted."  According to the Wall Street Journal:

The probe focuses on Polymer80’s “Buy Build Shoot Kit,” which includes the parts to build a “ghost” handgun. The kit, which Polymer80 sells online, meets the definition of a firearm, ATF investigators determined according to the warrant application. That means it would have to be stamped with a serial number and couldn’t be sold to consumers who haven’t first passed a background check.

This turns the question into how inconvenient does ATF want the process to be?  Is it acceptable to order the frame from Polymer80 and the parts to complete it from Midway USA?  Do we need to order the internal parts as one part per vendor; buying from 10 or 20 vendors instead of just one?  How about if between every step we have to go run around the block?  What's that, ATF?  Between every step we need to crawl across Death Valley on our hands and knees? 

Conveniently packaged is just as nebulous a concept as readily converted.  We should get precise, repeatable definitions.  Instead, for everything we get the crutch of tyrants everywhere: we'll know it when we see it, because we're the experts. 

The rest of the NPRM is just as bad.  The Gun Owners of America puts up a video arguing that a strict interpretation says that a plain old, stock, Glock 40 can be interpreted to contain 16 ATF regulated firearms.  That means that in the event you need to replace a part in any one of those subassemblies that you'll need to fill out a form 4473 and pay for a background check.  It sounds to me that means that if you need to replace a $1 part, you will be paying around 30 to perhaps $50 to get the part shipped to an FFL and your background check. 

Which, of course, is the point: to make gun buying and ownership so onerous that many people will just refuse to take part.  That's been the trend since at least the 1968 Gun Control Act, if not the 1934 NFA.

Commenting is easy.  Go to Regulations.gov and enter the NPRM number (NPRM 2021R-05) in the search bar at the top.  I think there were two items returned but one wasn't the actual NPRM.  Once you click on the NPRM, you get a form where you can either enter a comment or attach a document you've written already.  It's said that polite, original comments matter more than things that they've seen copied a hundred times, but that option is also available at a GOA Comment Site, too. 

Hey, it's Homer with a drill!  OK, he's working on a camera and not an AR Lower, but I worked my reference to him into the picture. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

An Extended Visit and Walk Around Starbase with Elon Musk

I don't know how many of you are aware of or have watched the three videos that YouTube channel Everyday Astronaut (Tim Dodd) posted to YouTube but I've spent the two and a half hours watching them over the last few days and they're really rather remarkable.  I think it's nothing short of remarkable for the billionaire CEO of the world's leading private space company agreeing to spend that much time walking around his rocket factory with a YouTube video channel host.  

Rather than embed them here, I'm going to link to them on YouTube.

In addition, Tim has a website EverydayAstronaut.com and a summary page for the three portions.  It helps you to see and save off to your computer (if you'd like) some of the more important aspects of this conversation.  

While I think that anyone interested in SpaceX, the Starbase operations or Starship itself would find it easy to sit through the three interviews, I could imagine a lot of people would want more of the highlights.  That would probably fit the webpage better.  

The three videos start in the evening at Boca Chica and Elon takes Tim on a tour through several of the construction buildings there.  As the second video starts, sundown has passed and the sky is darkening outside.  It's fully dark for the remainder of the second and all of third video.  Elon, Tim and his cameraman following them walk through lots of interesting areas.  He fires questions at Elon who answers them rather frankly.  Several times he feels the need to say that the way SpaceX works means that things he talks about may be right today and wrong tomorrow.   

In the first video, Elon talks about his five step engineering process for developing Starship.  Much like Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, Musk's Five Laws of Engineering are to be followed in this order:

  1. Make the requirements less dumb. The requirements are definitely dumb; it does not matter who gave them to you. He notes that it’s particularly dangerous if an intelligent person gives you the requirements, as you may not question the requirements enough. “Everyone’s wrong. No matter who you are, everyone is wrong some of the time.” He further notes that “all designs are wrong, it’s just a matter of how wrong.”
  2. Try very hard to delete the part or process. If parts are not being added back into the design at least 10% of the time, not enough parts are being deleted. Musk noted that the bias tends to be very strongly toward “let’s add this part or process step in case we need it.” Additionally, each required part and process must come from a name, not a department, as a department cannot be asked why a requirement exists, but a person can.
  3. Simplify and optimize the design. This is step three as the most common error of a smart engineer is to optimize something that should not exist.
  4. Accelerate cycle time. Musk states “you’re moving too slowly, go faster! But don’t go faster until you’ve worked on the other three things first.”
  5. Automate. An important part of this is to remove in-process testing after the problems have been diagnosed; if a product is reaching the end of a production line with a high acceptance rate, there is no need for in-process testing.

After my years in design, I have to agree with these completely.  Number 2 isn't extremely relevant to lots of areas of engineering; saving the costs of taking out a small component doesn't mean much when you make a few hundred or a few thousand units, but gets more relevant when you make lots of them.  Think of saving two cents on something you sell 5000 of per year.  That's $100; not bad but you can't take the company out for lunch with that.  Now think of selling 5,000,000 a year, like a WiFi router or car stereo.

In Elon's case, he not only wants to manufacture quantities of Starships the space industry has never dreamed of, he has the added reality of rocket design.  For every pound he adds on the rocket - which will weigh in the vicinity of 200 tons - he reduces the payload by about two pounds.  He not only increased the weight of the rocket, he increased the weight of fuel needed to lift it. 

Musk strongly believes that all the engineers should know as much about the things they're working on as possible.  Don't just concentrate on your little piece.  As an example, Musk noted that an order of magnitude more time has been spent reducing engine mass than reducing residual propellant, despite both being equally important.

It has always been obvious to observers that Elon Musk is driven by his goal to see mankind become an interplanetary species and to move out to other worlds.  His emphasis has been Mars, and that's what has driven him.  In the third video, I recall him saying that in the '60s as we went to the moon, there was a line sloping upward tracing mankind's stretch into the solar system.  Then, in the late '70s, the line shrank back down to Low Earth Orbit where mankind has stayed ever since.  We flew first Skylab and then the Shuttles while Russia flew Soyuz and Mir.  When the Shuttle era ended, that line fell back to the ground, at least for the US.  He didn't mention getting the line back to LEO with his own company, just that the line is moving in the right direction and he wants to see it take off.  To the moon and beyond.  While also saying that he doesn't expect to live long enough to see a Mars colony become self-sustaining.

Musk noted that they are moving extremely fast as “if we operate with extreme urgency we have a chance of making life multi-planetary. It’s still just a chance, not for sure. If we don’t act with extreme urgency, that chance is probably 0.”

 Starship S20 getting work done on its Thermal Protection Tiles.  Those are made not far from me in Cape Canaveral, Florida, at a facility Elon referred to as "the Bakery."  Screen capture from Everyday Astronaut video.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Blue Origin Sues Over SpaceX Contract

Again.  First reported today by The Verge, less than three weeks after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) dismissed the Blue Origin/Dynetics action against NASA for awarding the Human Landing System (HLS) contract to SpaceX, the company filed its lawsuit against NASA with the US Court of Federal Claims today, Monday August 16th.  The suit is reported to refrain the same arguments that GAO refuted on July 30th.   

Blue Origin was one of three firms vying for a contract to land NASA’s first astronauts on the Moon since 1972. In April, NASA shelved the company’s $5.9 billion proposal of its Blue Moon landing system and went with SpaceX’s $2.9 billion Starship proposal instead, opting to pick just one company for the project after saying it might pick two. The contract involves two lunar landings — one test landing without humans, and another with humans — and SpaceX has already received $439 million from NASA to start its work, according to federal data.

For newcomers, we've been reporting on this since the start, but while NASA had expected and wanted to pick two suppliers, congress cut NASA's budget so far that they thought they couldn't afford dual sourcing.  SpaceX's $2.9 billion was almost exactly half of Blue Origin's $5.9 billion bid and unlike BO, SpaceX was closer to demonstrating ready to fly hardware.  NASA saw the bid as getting more for (our) money with SpaceX than the other teams.  Their HLS proposal is based on Starship orbiters, which have flown but not orbited.  BO has never achieved orbit on any of their vehicles.  

After losing the GAO decision, Blue Origin went on a more public smear campaign against SpaceX's plan, releasing this graphic on Twitter.  (The original, at that link, is about four times the size of this.)

Blue Origin targeted SpaceX’s Starship system directly, saying “there are an unprecedented number of technologies, developments, and operations that have never been done before for Starship to land on the Moon.” One critique cast SpaceX’s proposal as overly complex, noting it would take 16 separate Starship launches for each Moon landing.

SpaceX’s rocket system, as proposed to NASA, would require several launches of a fuel tanker version of Starship that would, through some proprietary fueling depot floating in Earth orbit, supply fuel to a lunar lander version of Starship before trekking to the Moon’s surface, according to the GAO. Musk defended this approach in responses to Blue Origin’s critiques on Twitter, saying “16 flights is extremely unlikely” and that a “max of 8” launches would be required for one Starship lunar landing.

Musk went on to add something that only SpaceX could say:

“However, even if it were 16 flights with docking, this is not a problem. SpaceX did more than 16 orbital flights in first half of 2021 & has docked with Station (much harder than docking with our own ship) over 20 times.” 

SpaceX leads every other space company and even every other nation besides China in orbital flights per year.  Again, Blue Origin doesn't have an orbital class rocket and so has zero experience.  

I saw somewhere else that NASA thought SpaceX's plans to launch and rendezvous in low Earth orbit was a fundamentally sounder proposal than to do more in translunar flight or lunar orbit.  

Thanks to a Tweet from Eric Berger of Ars Technica, we find there's a group of Blue Origin employees who have taken to Reddit to tell everyone, "we are NOT like this" referring to these actions from Blue (as they refer to the company).  Eric went on to say:

This will further inflame internal tensions at Blue Origin, which are rising. Many employees are super disappointed in this tactic. It will also make other commercial space companies wary of partnering, and make it super difficult to win any federal contracts in the future.

We may be seeing Blue Origin cutting off its nose to spite its face.  It's easy to imagine no other company wanting to partner with them, and generating enough bad will inside NASA that they'll never drop another contract their way.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Weekend Shop Update on the 1 by 1 - part 5

Last weekend, I had essentially just finished the outsides of the two side plates. 

As the week began, I tapped the five holes that will get screws holding the sides together, #10-24 - a size screw I don't have a single one of - and then it was time to take my aluminum tooling plate off the mill and put the milling vise back on.  Now it was time to start working on some of the internal complexity of these parts.  As refresher, here's a rendering of the side plate 1 model I made from the pdf drawings. 

There are three large, cylinders of metal removed to make three different diameter and different depth areas in the metal.  I've numbered them arbitrarily: area 1 is 2.375 in diameter by 0.557" deep; area 2 extends the center of area 1 deeper and is 1.125 diameter; the bottom face, which has the four screw holes in it, is 0.375" below the floor of area 1; finally 3 is a separate cavity 0.903 in diameter and 0.875" deep.

So how do you remove that much metal?  There are a few main ways to do that.  

On a milling machine, you can mount the plate rigidly in some sort of fixture, remove as much metal as you can with a drill bit or end mills, and then switch to a boring head, which allows you to move a cutter outward from the center line and cut larger diameters.  A company named Criterion is the originator of the most copied designs, and there are now dozens of clones of their design, like this one made of Chinesium and sold by Grizzly.  I've done this before with a boring head like that.

Alternatively, you could put a rotary table on the milling machine, positioned so that a cutter with a flat end (any end mill) cuts while the rotary table rotates the work into the cutter.   

A completely different way that can work is to hold the work on a four jaw chuck on a lathe and use a boring bar on the tool holder to size the hole.  I did this for some of the parts on my CNC conversion of my big milling machine, like this.  All three of these methods are going to involve tons of making a cut, readjusting the machine and repeating. 

The basic thing this is doing is cutting a circle, and the ability to cut smooth nice circles is built into the programming language we use in CNC tools, G-code.  Plus, while the commercial CAM program I have can cut circles, it ends up being a fairly coarse approximation - I can see and feel the steps the CAM generates.  I've hand programmed circle cutting, too while making the parts for the big mill CNC conversion and while working on my Webster engine.  Since I consider having CNC a strong feature of my shop, I thought I'd try to do them that way.  

The first thing I did was use the biggest end mill I have, a 3/4" diameter cutter, in the centers of the cylinders and not cutting to final depth.  Just removing bulk metal and creating a starting point.  That works out to be two holes.  Next, and I'm not gonna lie, I had forgotten how to do the code for cutting circles and dug out the code for that motor mount in that video as a refresher.  

The basic approach is to use that 3/4" hole in the middle as an entry into the cut.  That hole is where I lower the cutter (so I'm not drilling with an end mill) and then move back out to the rim of the circle to cut around the perimeter. I have to keep straight in my head that the tool path marks the center of the cutter, not the diameter of the hole it's cutting.  When using the CAM program, it will work from the diameter it needs to cut keep track of the tool radius offset.

After testing a couple of things, I figured the way to cut the big cylinder (1) is by cutting two passes around the circle, one with cutter center at the edge of the 3/4" hole, which doubles its size to 1.5", followed by a second cut with the center of the cutter 0.375 in from the final size.  Since the radius is 1.188, the cutter goes at 0.813 from the center.  This is after the first operation on cavity 1 and a video is here

The changes in the way the bottom of the cylinder reflect the light can't be felt, and you can see marks from both passes around the circles.

Today, I wrote toolpaths to enlarge and deepen the center of cavity 2 and then enlarge and deepen cavity 3, bringing both to final size.  Except I misread the drawing and made cavity 3 too small.  It's always easier to correct making something too small as opposed to making it too big, and with the file that enlarges and deepens that cylinder taking about 15 seconds, it took me more time to fix the G-code than fix the part by running it (video of the process - 28 seconds long at actual speed).

Both cylinders 2 and 3 are to be sliding fits for some ball bearing sets, and both fit well.

If you compare this view to the rendering above, that shows a large semicircular cutout along the top edge.  I'll cut that like these holes but later, when I have both halves screwed together.  As of now, there need to be two screw holes on the top, left and bottom sides and a couple of other holes to manage.  I call this 80% done. 

EDIT Aug 15 10:00PM and 10:20 PM EDT - I didn't include a link to a video I meant to include - I hadn't uploaded them yet.  

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Boeing Grounds Starliner for Foreseeable Future

Boeing's Starliner Updates site yesterday posted an update that Starliner is being returned to the factory for troubleshooting and the second test flight is off until further notice.  The notice in its entirety reads:

Today, Boeing informed NASA that the company will destack its CST-100 Starliner from the Atlas V rocket and return the spacecraft to the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) for deeper-level troubleshooting of four propulsion system valves that remain closed after last Tuesday’s scrubbed launch.

Starliner has sat atop the Atlas V rocket in ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility since August 4, where Boeing teams have worked to restore functionality to the affected valves.

The relocation of the spacecraft to the C3PF will require Boeing, NASA and United Launch Alliance to agree on a new launch date once the valve issue is resolved.

“Mission success in human spaceflight depends on thousands of factors coming together at the right time,” said John Vollmer, vice president and program manager, Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program. “We’ll continue to work the issue from the Starliner factory and have decided to stand down for this launch window to make way for other national priority missions.”

Starliner while still on the Atlas V launch vehicle in the Vertical Integration Facility.  Boeing photo.

The delay seems to be entirely the right thing to do.  The message they Tweeted was much shorter (I assume due to Twitter limits) but said they're "standing down to make way for other national priority missions."  

Those familiar with the schedules for the rest of the year are saying that the most likely time frame to try to schedule for is February of 2022, and even that is daunting.  That depends on Boeing finding the root cause of the valve issue, identifying a fix, implementing it, and successfully testing it.

Eric Berger, space correspondent for Ars Technica offered this input:

Over on Ars Technica, Eric reports a possible root cause:

According to Vollmer, some of the NTO leaked through seals on the valves. Such leaks are well understood from a physics standpoint, Vollmer said. But then this oxidizer combined with some unanticipated ambient moisture in the cavity around the valve, and this resulted in corrosion that prevented the valves from opening properly.

It is not clear how this moisture got into the spacecraft. While there were thunderstorms when the vehicle was on the Florida launch pad in early August, the ambient moisture did not come from those storms. It could have been due to the humid Florida atmosphere, however. This is one of the issues that Boeing must now investigate alongside engineers from NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne, which manufactured the spacecraft thrusters.

If this is from needing better protection from humidity or more waterproofing, that means it's a hardware problem and not software which is probably better for everyone.  The running joke in the hi-rel avionics world when I left it was that the attitude used to be "fix it in the software" until that resulted in so many fusterclucks that it became cheaper and easier to "fix it in the hardware".   There are whole industries dedicating to torturing hardware to verify it will survive the worst possible "real world" conditions. 

Friday, August 13, 2021

The New IPCC Report Is Out

What I wanted to do on Wednesday (when I came down with an odd little sickness) was write the definitive debunking of the IPCC AR6 report that was released on Monday and has been making news this week.  I failed at that because I'm not as far along at a starting point as many other people.  There's too much to read and digest in a couple of days.  Lots of people with big head starts on me have already done much of that heavy lifting.  In a bit of reading around, you can get a good idea of the things wrong with it, if you read the right sources. 

Some good sources are

The report was greeted with media adopting, "Red Flag Warning" and similar strident language.  I don't think it's justified.

Since we're nearing the peak of hurricane season, a tropical storm will pass to our west by Sunday and another is behind it by three or four days following a similar track, the way the paper addresses hurricanes was something I'm sensitive to.  There's a subtle mistake (very likely) here that Roger Pielke spotted since he's the author of one of the papers:

I don't mean to be trite but one of the most downloaded papers in history says most published papers are wrong.  In that paper, John Ioannidis presents a list of factors that are associated with results being wrong.  This one seems to be custom written for IPCC papers.

Corollary 6: The hotter a scientific field (with more scientific teams involved), the less likely the research findings are to be true.

This is one of them.