Friday, December 17, 2021

Delay, Delay, Delay

A trio of delays in the space news this week.  

The James Webb Space Telescope's December 18th launch, which was delayed until the 22nd, and has been delayed again, this time until the 24th.  The little blurb at that link refers to “... a communication issue between the observatory and the launch vehicle system.”  I've seen a rumor that it's a bad cable, for whatever that's worth.  The one good thing about this mission is that launching to the L2 Lagrange point which they're targeting is not like launching to Mars where the conditions are best for a few weeks every two years.  Delays aren't likely to kill the mission.  

Considering that when the program was started in 1996, the expected launch date was 2007, let's just say that launch delays are not unusual with this program.  This is not to say that this is an absurdly easy program that has been mismanaged time after time, but it was definitely "biting off more than anyone could chew."  

Boeing's Starliner has been delayed again.  Earlier this week, NASA and Boeing announced that the "Orbital Flight-2" or OFT mission will be no earlier than May of '22.  It felt strange when I read that Starliner's first test flight was almost exactly two years ago, December 20, 2019.  As that linked post from that date shows, the mission was in dire trouble from the moment the capsule achieved orbit.  By February, it was evident they were exceptionally lucky to have gotten the capsule back in one piece.

Starliner in December of '19 - Boeing photo.

To accommodate this launch date for the "Orbital Flight-2" or OFT mission, Boeing will swap out a faulty service module—which provides power and propulsion to the Starliner capsule in flight—with a new one.

NASA and Boeing did not hold a media event to announce their findings, and unfortunately some key questions remain. For example, it appears that Boeing has not yet fully identified the root cause of the valve failure, which was believed to be related to high humidity at the Florida launch site, which caused corrosion.

"Ongoing investigation efforts continue to validate the most probable cause to be related to oxidizer and moisture interactions," the news release states. "NASA and Boeing will continue the analysis and testing of the initial service module on which the issue was identified."

Blue Origin had been saying since last summer that they would deliver flight-ready BE-4 engines for the ULA Vulcan by "the end of the year."  That's pretty much right now and a couple of insider sources have told Ars Technica that the delivery isn't going to happen. 

Blue Origin is unlikely to deliver two flight-ready versions of the BE-4 rocket engine to United Launch Alliance (ULA) before at least the second quarter of 2022, two sources say. This increases the possibility that the debut flight of ULA's much-anticipated new rocket, Vulcan, could slip into 2023.

A "relatively small" production issue was blamed for the delay, but the bottom line is the delay.  A reasonable "no-earlier-than" date for the engines' to get to ULA's manufacturing facility is now April 2022, and this assumes a smooth final production and testing phase. 

ULA declined to comment on specifics about the production issue. However, the company said it was disappointed that it did not receive these two flight engines in 2021 as anticipated.

"We are disappointed that we will not be receiving Vulcan flight engines from Blue Origin by the end of the year, but they will be arriving early next year," the company said in a statement. "The certification program is moving along very well, and the production engines are being manufactured. We look forward to Vulcan’s first launch in 2022."

I think that given recent history, that last sentence could be laughably optimistic, but would be happy to be proven wrong.  Vulcan succeeding is a Big Freakin' Deal since Vulcan will replace both the Atlas and Delta launch vehicles that were ULA's bread and butter.  The US military is counting on Vulcan to lift about 60 percent of the nation's national security payloads into space from 2022 to 2027.

If those BE-4 engines are delivered by April, that leaves ULA eight months to make a launch in '22.  It's not out of the question, but it doesn't look like a solid way to bet, either. 

BE-4 test fire on the stand in Texas.  Blue Origin photo. 

So how about some good news?

In response to an inquiry from SpaceX, NASA is preparing to conduct environmental assessments to develop a proposed new launch site, Launch Complex 49, at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The 175-acre site, located north of Launch Complex 39B within the center’s security perimeter, would support the launch and landing of the company’s Starship and Super Heavy launch vehicle. NASA and SpaceX are moving forward with the initial environmental analysis before concluding a potential agreement to develop the property.

“LC-49 has been a part of Kennedy’s master plan for several years,” said Tom Engler, Kennedy’s director of Center Planning and Development. “The Notice of Availability was updated in 2014.”

That means SpaceX is seeking approvals to build a second Starship launch pad and all of its necessary infrastructure.  That means - eventually - twice as many Starship launches are possible.

(NASA map - larger version at the link) 

SpaceX said its proposed expansion at Kennedy Space Center, which include the LC-49 launch site and expansion of the Roberts Road site, would provide redundancy and allow for an increased flight rate of Starship while minimizing disruptions to Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon missions.

EDIT Dec. 18, 2021 at 9:27 PM EST:  Link to James Webb Telescope project page at NASA (second link in post, at the top) was broken. 


  1. Interesting. It looks like LC-49 is going to be where the additional planned LC-39 pads were going to go, before they got scrapped. From what I've read, A was going to be to the north, B where it is, and the current A was going to be C. Aren't there four firing rooms in the building adjacent to the VAB?

  2. One wonders what that will do to Titusville's Playalinda Beach? One suspects there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. One wonders if anybody in North Brevard owns the right politicians?

    1. Why would it be different than now? They shut down the south end of the beach for Shuttle launches, didn't they? Since Starship will be bigger than a Saturn V, anything closed for an STS mission would need to be closed for that.

      Playalinda's website says NASA can order the beach or the road to the beach closed when they want to. I'm pretty sure I've heard of them shutting down for Falcon 9 launches out of 39A.

      The new pad is inside the existing property so it's not like they're expanding, they're just getting closer to the beach. One wonders what politician would think the beach is more important than the thousands of jobs on the Cape? None that I know of.