Friday, December 3, 2021

Space News Week Roundup

It has been an interesting week for space news.  We've gone several weeks with nothing noteworthy happening and then this week we got four interesting stories.  Let me present a few other stories that caught my eye.  

From where I sit the big one is that this morning on Twitter, Elon Musk announced that they've started construction of a Starship pad at the Kennedy Space Center, at Pad 39.  

I'm stoked because that means I'll be able to see Starship launches from my backyard.  We've joked that we moved here too late, in '1982 while Saturn V launches ended with Apollo 17 in '72.  We did get to see almost every Shuttle launch but it wasn't the biggest rocket in history.  That may change in '23.

He projects it to be operational by '23, and possibly early '23.

There are reports out via Aviation Week magazine that the SLS (Space Launch System) is facing yet another problem.  Linked by Ars Technica's Rocket Report but the magazine we used to call "Aviation Leak" is not allowing nonsubscribers to read anything but one lead-in paragraph.  These two paragraphs are from Ars Technica.

There's an issue with an SLS engine controller. This past weekend, rumors emerged about a problem with the controller for one of the four RS-25 engines that power the Space Launch System. NASA has not officially commented, but Aviation Week's Irene Klotz spoke with Aerojet's RS-25 program manager, Jeff Zotti. Troubleshooting the problem began on November 22, Aviation Week reported.

Schedule impacts yet to be determined ... If necessary, "replacing a line or a component … we're probably talking about multiple days. Replacing an engine, we're probably talking about multiple weeks," Zotti told the publication. "On top of that, we have to assess what that does and how that affects the vehicle and the integration activities that are going on," he added. All of that must be factored into a potential delay of the launch, presently scheduled for February 12. A summer launch for the SLS now seems far more likely than spring.

Last March, Rocket Lab announced a heavier lift vehicle called Neutron that's planned to compete with the Falcon 9 and allow them to put heavier payloads into space.  On Thursday, Rocket Lab's CEO Peter Beck unveiled the Neutron.  Well, not in hardware, but in renderings and a slickly produced video.  It's a stubby-looking rocket that they claim is designed that way to ease in recovery.

Neutron, he said, is optimized to serve both for the deployment of megaconstellations as well as geostationary satellites and even interplanetary spacecraft.

"This is what a rocket should look like in 2050," Beck said. "But we're building it today."

Beck says the wider, stubbier rocket is intended to catch more atmospheric drag during reentry, requiring less fuel to slow down.  The structure will be made of a proprietary carbon fiber for strength to weight ratio, much like Starship was originally conceived.  The first stage will have fixed landing legs, and the rocket will only land back at the launch site rather than offshore. 

Rocket Lab famously flew the first 3D printed engine that has successfully (and routinely) made orbit, and they're following up by creating a new engine, Archimedes, for the Neutron.  Like Starship, and (allegedly) the New Glenn, Archimedes will be a methane/oxygen engine.  They intend to aim for at least 10 re-uses of each Neutron, which is (of course) SpaceX's original protocol.  

What got me, though, was the rendering of the fairing opening to release a payload.  Rocket Lab calls it the "Hungry Hippo" fairing and once you've seen that, you can't unsee the kids' hippo game.  

Finally, Thursday afternoonNASA announced that it had awarded three different teams, each involving multiple companies, more than $100 million apiece to support the design and early development of private space stations in low Earth orbit.  Much like the competition between private sector companies for the Human Landing System, there are three groups of companies that have been awarded contracts.  In fact, with one conspicuous absence (the winners) the companies seem to be the same.  

  • Blue Origin, $130 million, leading a team including Sierra Space, Boeing, and Redwire Space
  • Nanoracks, $160 million, leading a team including Lockheed Martin and Voyager Space
  • Northrop Grumman, $125.6 million, leading a team including Dynetics
  • Previously, in February of  '20, NASA awarded a $140 million contract to Axiom Space to develop a habitable module that is to be docked with the ISS.  In particular, they're allocated the station's Node 2 forward point.  This award gives NASA four options for a private space station. 

    The ISS is only technically expected to remain operational through 2024 - which will be here before you blink a few times.  I'd bet these contractors won't even have completed their design reviews by then, although with Axiom's head start they would seem to have the best chance.  Could the ISS make it to 2030?  Longer?  It's possible but not a certainty.  Then there's the question of whether it could get funded or whether it should even be funded.  What's the public's interest in the space station?  We hear about all sorts of things that seem good for manufacturing or other private sector concerns.  If a company wants to put up their own space station, why not let them and get NASA out of that?   


    1. Glad to see SpaceX still moving forward.

      Be interesting to see if the SLS issue is related to the same issues that Starliner has. And, really, engine controls? Weren't those solved back in the shuttle days? Can legacy aerospace do anything right? (And the answer is, mostly, no, no it can't.)

      As to the nextgen space station, seriously, Blue Origin? Seriously? Has anyone not learned anything yet about BO? Like, well, it stinks? Now Sierra Space has a chance, but not with Bogus Operator hanging around their necks. And add Boeing to the mixture? Doomed to fail even before it starts.

      To me the nosecone reminds me of either the graboids from "Tremors" or a sandworm from "Dune." Hungry hungry hippo would be the two-piece fairings used during the Gemini missions for docking targets. That thing illustrated just sends off the heebie-jeebies on me. Space insect. Bleh. But still a better chance of it working than any BO product.

    2. Sorry, SiG, but many of us have seen the "Hungry Hippo" fairing a gajillion times, every time we watch the prologue of You Only Live Twice.

      1. I saw YOLT and that scene was gone from memory until you mentioned it.

    3. Sadly most science oriented news reminds me of Atlas Shrugged. Any comp associated deeply with .gov is incompetent and/or corrupt (med,space, energy...) Fortunately some have kept the state at arms length so they still function

      1. When it becomes more cost effective to buy legislators than improve your company it's the inevitable result.