Saturday, November 27, 2021

James Webb Space Telescope Launch Delayed Four Days

For several days, maybe a week, I've been trying to find more details on a reported anomaly that has caused at least a four day delay in the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope from No Earlier Than (NET) December 18th to NET December 22nd.  Details are hard to find, but apparently while in the early phases of mating the JWST to the Ariane 5 launch vehicle something went wrong.  This was earlier this month, November 9th.  The best summary I've found so far is this video from a channel I wasn't aware of. 

The story he presents is essentially complete on  There's a spring loaded band that's part of the adapter that attaches the JWST to the Ariane and while the JWST was being attached to the booster, that band unexpectedly sprung open.  While nobody was hurt and the instrument appeared undamaged, it was certain that a shock impulse was transferred to the satellite. During movement around the US and by ocean-going ship to its launch site in French Guiana, the JWST was instrumented to record the shocks and vibrations it was exposed to.  Those instruments had been removed at the time of the incident, in accordance with the established procedures.  As a result, nobody knew the exact levels that JWST was exposed to.

NASA convened an Anomaly Review Board to determine what testing is necessary to ensure nothing received more vibration than it was rated for and previously tested to.  On Wednesday, just before the long holiday weekend, NASA tweeted that the review concluded JWST was safe to launch.  (The last line of the tweet, cut off by Twitter, is to here.)

To me, the money quote to end this with is from Dr Thomas Zurbuchen, identified as the director of science at NASA.  He said, 

"Just for sheer caution what we have done... [is go back] to a small number of subsystems and just do the functional tests to make sure that nothing happened as this energy went into the [telescope]," he told reporters.

"When you work on a $10bn telescope, conservatism is the order of the day."

Friday, November 26, 2021

A Day of Normalcy

When you get down to it, normalcy feels pretty darned good.  

We enjoyed what has become our traditional Thanksgiving celebration at my brother's house in south Florida.  There and back combine into five hours of driving, but it's mostly the Florida Turnpike and I-95 so it's easier than driving in stop and go traffic.  This was the smallest gathering I can remember; there were just eight of us.  We spent from about 12:30 till about 7:30 PM with my extended family.  It's just good to spend time with family.  

Today was our Thanksgiving here with just us.  I smoked a turkey using a method I found on Serious Eats; a combination of spatchcocking the turkey together with a dry brine and then smoking in my Weber kettle grill.  It gives such a nice pink smoke ring in the meat that you just don't get with the electric smokers.  I've done this basic recipe a few times and it does produce a good turkey.  I have fooled around with what I do a bit but I never know if the main difference is what I've done or how the turkeys are being raised.  

Since it's Black Friday (for another few hours), I feel like I do at least one post about the absurdity of this new national "holiday" every year.  I'm a bit on the curmudgeonly side on this whole thing.  

I don't know about you, but I'm sure I started seeing black Friday ads in July.  For sure, I must have been getting 50 to 75 emails a day with black Friday in the subject for the last month.  When we have a Black Friday sale in every month, what's so special about it anymore?  In the usual sense of a special day that kicks off the Christmas shopping season.  Add to that the fear of product shortages causing people to start doing their Christmas shopping early, and I don't even know if Black Friday is today or if it was some weeks ago.  

Once there started to be a perception that good deals came on Black Friday, it was only a matter of time until it became just another way of saying “BIG SALE!”  But shoppers like to think they're getting big deals, and there are stores that put one or two items on a massive discount to get some people to line up the night before.  Maybe they can get some buzz on the news.  

It always pays to know what going prices are.  I've heard that generally speaking, the best time for deals isn't today, it's closer to Christmas; and especially the last couple of days before Christmas.  You could get better prices than this week, but it's a gamble.  You're betting that the stores will be stuck with something you want and would rather discount it than not sell it.  If they sell out first you lose.  If they don't sell out but still won't or can't cut the price, again you lose.  That said, it has worked out for me in the past.  It's sort of like calling a bluff in poker. 

Retail is a rough way to make a living. I'm sure you've heard how airline reservation systems base the seat price on the apparent interest in a flight.  If you go back and check on the price of that seat every week, the system says there must be more demand for that flight and raises the price.  What if stores could measure real time demand and adjust the price.  Say you're looking for a new tool or other gadget; what if they see someone checking the web site regularly and interpret that as several people interested in that item and raised its price?  Would you be upset or offended?  What if they dropped the price to see at what level you can't resist pushing the Glistening, Candy-like, "BUY IT" button?  I don't have any hard evidence that anyone does that, but it seems trivial for an online store to track interest in something.  The biggest risk is scaring away customers.

To me the Golden Rule is the willing seller/willing buyer.  My inner engineer drives me to optimize things, but if people are happy with what they paid, regardless of whether or not it really is "the best price of the year", and the seller is happy with the price they got for it, that's definition of a fair price.  I'm sure not gonna poop in anyone's corn flakes by telling them they didn't get the best price.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Falcon 9 Aces First Interplanetary Launch Overnight

In the overnight hours last night/this morning, SpaceX successfully launched NASA's Dual Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft on its trajectory out of the Earth-Moon system into a solar orbit and headed toward the dual asteroid system.  DART is the world’s first planetary defense test mission.  Right on time at 0621 UTC (10:21 PST or 1:21 AM EST on the 24th over here), Falcon 9 B1063 lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base's SLC-4E on its third mission, reaching orbit about eight minutes later.  

A few seconds after that, B1063 successfully landed on drone recovery ship Of Course I Still Love You.  DART was the first interplanetary NASA mission launched on a flight-proven commercial rocket and the Falcon 9 vehicle’s first interplanetary launch.  Falcon Heavy launched Elon Musk's Tesla to Mars, and while the two strap on boosters and the core stage are essentially Falcon 9s, those were not considered to have been the same as this one.  Whatever they like. 

Around 28 minutes after liftoff, Falcon 9’s orbital second stage fired up for the second and final time. In just 53 seconds, Falcon 9’s upper stage accelerated from a stable velocity (relative to Earth’s surface) of 7.5 kilometers per second (4.7 mi/s) to almost 11.1 km/s (6.9 mi/s), sending DART (and itself) from low Earth orbit (LEO) to an Earth escape trajectory that will ultimately leave them in orbit around the sun. 

SpaceX provided their usual video coverage, but it started a few minutes longer before liftoff to include a few minutes of presentations on DART. 

DART (NASA's mission page) is the first time people have attempted to change the orbit of an asteroid.  The key is in the name Dual Asteroid Redirection Test: DART is headed for a dual asteroid, and is intended to smack into the smaller asteroid (Dimorphos) orbiting a larger one (Didymos) under power.  

“If DART succeeds, NASA anticipates it will be able to observe a slight 1.5% change in Dimorphos’ orbital period (how long it takes to orbit Didymos) with Earth-based telescopes. Perhaps one day – building upon DART, follow-up reconnaissance mission HERA, and other asteroid missions like Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx – NASA and other space agencies will team up to develop a fleet of planetary defense spacecraft that can intentionally redirect asteroids that threaten Earth, preventing catastrophic impacts like the one that likely wiped out 75% of species and virtually all nonavian dinosaurs around 66 million years ago.” — November 23rd, 2021

Basically, it's the movie Armageddon turning into reality, except for the mission being unmanned, so no Bruce Willis equivalent and no live video as it's going on.  Well, it's a test of the concept; Dimorphos and Didymos are no threat to Earth. 

The Dimorphos/Didymos system is in solar orbit relatively close to Earth, and the mission is going to complete between September 26 and October 1, 2022; under one year from launch.  

Final words to Teslarati's Eric Ralph:

Given that CEO Elon Musk’s entire motivation for founding the company and pursuing spaceflight was to help make humanity multiplanetary and protect against mass-extinction events like those that befell the dinosaurs, it’s only fitting that SpaceX ultimately won NASA’s DART launch competition and sent the DART spacecraft on its way to Dimorphos as part of the first true planetary defense test in history.

As is usually the case, I'll be taking off tomorrow for our annual family gathering in South Florida with my brother and his extended family.  Friday we'll be back, and I'll be smoking a turkey for us. That ordinarily doesn't affect my ability to look up something interesting.

In the meantime, a happy and healthy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

A Perfect Economic Storm

I've been a regular reader of Bill Bonner's economic ramblings for years. My earliest reference to him here on the blog was back in 2011, a decade ago, and I'm fairly sure I was reading him longer than that.  Possibly into the early '00s.  Today, his home site is called Rogue Economics, but he has had a few others.  I currently get his daily emails and read many but not all.  Articles by Bill tend to be weekdays. Saturdays are usually other partners, and Sunday is a summary with links to postings from the previous week. 

Bill is an interesting commentator and observer of the world, strongly focused on the win-win transactions of a free market as opposed to the win-lose world of the command driven, fake economies.  Last week, he ran an article that was called, “Who Could Have Seen That Coming?” in the email but which the website tonight calls, “What to Expect When the Government Ignores Consequences.”  I like the original title better.

He starts it with a simple proposition.  If you were to see someone with a gas can and matches apparently targeting a Federal building, shouldn't you say something?  (Let's pretend the Federal building is worth saving.)  Then he follows with this gem to get you to keep reading:

The Federal Reserve printed up nearly 5 trillion brand-spanking-new dollars between August 2019 and today.

Surely, there must have been at least one alert economist among the 1,000 Ph.D.s on the Fed’s payroll who noticed that they were about to cause the whole economy to go up in flames.

Surely the “one alert economist” at the Fed must have known that no nation had ever created this much money in so short a period before.  Nobody questioned this?  Have you ever heard the expression, “it takes a Ph.D. to be that stupid?”  This is an example.  Here I must quote another economic columnist I used to read, the Mogambo Guru who wrote about monetary creation in 2009:

Whether or not this theory is true, I don’t know, but I don’t think so, as I have never read anything like, “From the moment that the government started creating and spending large amounts of money, everything got better and better, and the more money that was created for the government to spend, the better things got, until they reached Utopia and everybody lived happily ever after.” 

Every one of the millions of us who have seen inflation and monetary destruction before this could tell the Fed what was going to happen.  Something about the training of those Ph.D.s at the Fed has blinded them to even acknowledging the role of central banking in all the economic collapses in history.  Remember this famous quote from Nobel Prize winner Milton Freedman: “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon in the sense that it is and can be produced only by a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output.”  

The truth though is that Fed wants inflation; the only question is exactly how much inflation they're going to create.  You can find any number of citations saying they aim for 2% inflation, although they rarely achieve it.  By the Rule of 72 (really 69.3, but you can't do that in your head) says to divide 72 by that 2% and it tells you the cost of living doubles in 36 years.  If they reported the COL honestly and consistently. 

The Fed is deathly afraid of deflation, of prices going down, which is their natural tendency.  As people get better at doing their jobs, the costs go down and the brains at the Fed say that there will be no reason for people to spend beyond their immediate needs (and even the cost of food goes down as producers learn new ways to increase crop yields or food production).  They believe forcing people to spend is the proper goal because their forcing is what drives the economy.  

The response to the Covid-19 outbreak has created a perfect storm of things that are now causing epic inflation.  First, there's this:

Supply chain disruptions were relatively unknown back in March 2020, when the spree of money-printing began in earnest. Now, they’re as common as strip malls.

How came they to be?

When the offices, restaurants, and bars closed, people turned to their home computers… found that they had stimmy money from the feds in their accounts… and determined to spend it.

Then there's the attempt to shut down transportation by limiting domestic energy production (while saying they're trying to convince OPEC increase production).  That raises shipping prices which immediately adds to the prices of everything simply because everything gets shipped.  The prices of food go up; again because everything gets shipped.  Because of the supply chain disruptions you add real cost increases caused by real market forces - lower supply for the same demand pushes up prices - to prices being bid up by the increased supply of dollars.  Housing and car prices, both used and new, go up.  

Now a totally new wrinkle caused by the virus responses including the "jab or job" blackmail the Biden administration is pushing.  People quit their jobs.  As Bill puts it:

Perhaps less foreseeable… but with so much liquidity weeping from the clouds, many people just decided to stay home permanently.

In what came to be known as the Great Resignation, some 4.4 million workers went AWOL, in September alone.

And then businesses, eager to meet the increased demand, found they had to pay higher wages and benefits to keep their workers happy. Our friend David Stockman tells us that the latest Employment Cost Index figures show labor costs rising at a 6% annualized rate.

Compensating workers is the number one expense of U.S. industry. So, any rise in labor costs is important… and must be passed along.

It is also the most “sticky” of cost increases. Prices for raw materials may go up and down, but once an employee gets a raise, it is hard to take it back; there’s nothing “transitory” about it.

Nothing about the current situation is transitory.  It will keep going.  Shadowstats shows that using the methods for measuring inflation during the end of the Jimmy Carter era shows the same levels of inflation as the end of the Jimmy Carter era (1980).  

The Carter years are still widely quoted as the worst period of inflation in the US.  Those were my first years working for a living, getting 5% pay raises compounded every six months (10.25%/year) which still didn't keep pace with inflation.  The eventual fix for the inflation was to raise the prime interest rate into territories now considered impossible, hitting 19.1% in June of 1981.  Pigs will fly fast enough to break the sound barrier before that rate could be instituted now.  The line item for "interest on the debt" in the Federal Budget would blow up - blowing the budget up with it.  Everyone knows they need to stop the monetary creation and raise interest rates, but that's destructive, too. 

Everywhere you look, it seems the chances of a total collapse of the dollar are higher than at any time.  Those chances continue to go up with this inflation. 


Monday, November 22, 2021

Super Heavy Booster 5 Down to Final Assembly Details

Last Friday, November 19th, workers at SpaceX Boca Chica lifted the liquid methane tank for B5 and put it on top of the oxygen tank, marking the last of the major assembly steps in readying the ~225 foot tall rocket for testing.  A team of welders has been doing final assembly since then.

Two days earlier, Elon tweeted this upskirt photo of B4 after the installation of heat shielding between the Raptor engines.  The tweet simply said, “12 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.” 

This will be the most powerful rocket launched in human history.  Then it will be upgraded with an additional four engines to a total of 33.  I calculate the additional four engines will raise the thrust to 13.7 million pounds.  

Teslarati author Eric Ralph points out that B5 is being assembled differently than B4 and is coming along faster.  Refining processes while in motion is how SpaceX works, though, so not surprising in the least. 

Once Booster 5’s two halves are welded together, only a few things will set it and Booster 4 apart. In recent weeks, SpaceX’s slow progress on Super Heavy B4 relented a bit as technicians began closing out the booster’s raceway (a conduit for plumbing, wiring, and avionics) with basic covers. More importantly, SpaceX also began reinstalling Raptor engines and installing heat shielding around those engines for the first time. In the photo Musk published on November 17th, that heat shield is easily visible and there are signs that it will ultimately enclose the entire outer ring of 20 Raptor Boost engines above their nozzles.
Super Heavy Booster 5, on the other hand, has taken a slightly different path through assembly. Unlike Booster 4, which first rolled out as little more than a giant steel tank with Raptors half-installed, SpaceX appears to have installed most of Booster 5’s external plumbing, wiring, equipment racks, and maybe even the start of its Raptor heat shield during assembly instead of after. Perhaps as a result, SpaceX has taken more than ten weeks to stack Booster 5 versus 2.5 weeks for Booster 4. But given that Booster 4 still doesn’t appear to be complete some 18 weeks after its assembly began, there’s a chance that Booster 5 will ultimately take 4-6 weeks less to reach initial test readiness.

It looks like B5 could conceivably be ready to test before B4 is.  I don't see them rolling it to the launch area because there's nowhere to put it.  There are two test stands: one still has B3 on it, the other has B4.  The Orbital Launch Pad is said to be nearing the point when a fully loaded booster can be mounted and do a full static fire of the 29 engines, but isn't there yet.  

Let's pretend the FAA gives approval on December 31st, like the schedule shows.  That means they can launch as soon as they want.  The first week in January?  There's a lot to do, a lot to test before they try to put that thing into orbit.  Flounder said it best.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Weekly Update on the 1 by 1 - part 15

It has been a week with too much unwanted adulting, it's the annual insurance renewal time after all, but I did complete the mounting plate I talked about last time.  

Top view:  

and bottom view:

As you've probably noticed, there are excessive machining marks on the top, and that's kind of sitting on a background processor in my head to try to come up with ways around that.  I'm watching a few forum threads by really master machinists and they tend to finish parts before they put the engine together.  One guy in particular is building a model of the Ford 300 cubic inch in-line six cylinder engine at about 1/4 scale and his work is so beautiful it blows my mind.  He has a bead blaster, another tool I don't have, and every part that will be seen is bead blasted and painted.  It makes raw machined parts like this look ugly in comparison.  I always thought of them as pretty.

I have some powder coating experience but even though it tends to come out thicker than other finishes, powder coating relies on having the metal itself smoothed and preferably shiny.  

The other activity was picking what part to make next.  The answer is the next important group of parts: the cylinder, piston, connecting rod, and wrist pin, but probably not in that order.  The conventional advise is to make the cylinder as close to perfectly sized as you can determine, then make the piston to fit it.  In other words, the cylinder is supposed to be 1.000" inside diameter, but if I make it a little too big or too small, it's still usable if the piston is custom fit to the cylinder.  The engine is designed for a polymer piston ring in contrast with the cast iron rings I bought for the Webster last year.  The connecting rod has to fit the journal on the crankshaft I just built and it can be sized to that bearing in the same sort of way: the journal size is what it is and I just make the connecting rod to fit.  

The cylinder will be made from cast iron, and the finished outside diameter is to be 1.750".  My stock is a square bar that's sold as 2" on a side, but is closer to 2-1/16".  I plan to cut that down to a slightly oversized square bar, perhaps .050" over on a side, and then mill away some of the protruding corners so that it's easier on the lathe than turning the rectangular crankshaft bar was.  Every revolution of the bar as the lathe spun whacked the cutting tools loudly.  

I should probably have the connecting rod made before I try to fit the piston into the cylinder.  I'm going to need a handle and that's its job in the engine. 

Meanwhile, though, it's what we used to call the short week.  There will be a couple of days of holidaying so no telling what I'll be able to do.  SpaceX has no road closures until next Monday the 29th - and those slip all the time.  It figures to be a slow week in everything.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Astra Achieves Orbit

This morning (Eastern time) Astra's next attempt at making orbit with their Rocket 3.3 lifted off from their launch facility on Kodiak Island, Alaska.  This launch succeeded and marks the first time the company has achieved orbit  joining the ranks of the small sat launchers who have done so. 

The Bay Area startup's 43-foot-tall (13 meters) Launch Vehicle 0007 (LV0007) lifted off from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Alaska's Kodiak Island on Saturday (Nov. 20) at 1:16 a.m. EST (0616 GMT), carrying a dummy payload on a test flight for the U.S. military.

Just nine minutes later, LV0007's upper stage slipped into orbit about 310 miles (500 kilometers) above Earth, notching a huge milestone for Astra.

Regular spaceflight observers know that the reason most launch sites are considerably farther south than Kodiak Island's 57 degrees north latitude is that launching from lower latitudes gets a stronger assist from the Earth's rotational velocity.  That rotation literally throws the rocket in the desired direction and the closer to the equator the faster the throw.  Astra doesn't intend to operate only from Kodiak Island.  On the other hand, no particular place is listed as a future base of operations, just saying, "a variety of locations around the world."  

Astra already has signed up paying customers, including Planet, the company that operates the world's largest network of Earth-observing satellites (and has flown on SpaceX ride sharing missions).  Plus (surprisingly) Astra recently filed an application with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to assemble a constellation of 13,600 internet-beaming satellites.  The article concludes:

We should expect more spaceflight action over the coming weeks and months from Astra, which hopes to ramp up to a nearly daily launch cadence by 2025.

Welcome to the orbital club, Astra! 

Before the Movie Set Shooting Goes Fully Away

Count this as "use it before the 'best used by' date comes up.  Before people stop talking about Alec Baldwin and that whole, horrific, tragic, mess on the set of the movie Rust. From Alan Korwin's Gun Laws weekly (or so) mailing.  

The side note is that I was a fan of the Agents of Shield series and even remember the episode.  I can't imagine a force that's really trained in using guns would do something like this.  Unless they're really not a giant X all pointing at each other and we can't tell that from the angle of the photo.

Friday, November 19, 2021

With Any Luck, The Massive Spending Bill Dies in the Senate

I'm sure everyone knows that the House passed the so-called “Build Back Better” (BBB or bbb) plan early Friday, a multi-trillion-dollar welfare and climate change spending bill.  Democrats passed the bill unilaterally and later than planned thanks to a record-setting length speech against it but it still passed. 

With any luck, the Senate will not pass this abomination.  It's a terrible tarball of bad ideas and bad laws.  

To begin with, you'll see it called a $1.85 trillion spending bill.  That's by writing all sorts of tricks into it, like starting a giveaway for 10 years but ending funding early.  You know that saying, "nothing is as permanent as a temporary government program?" (number 4)  That's what they're counting on.  They can't allocate the funds now, but they gamble those funds can get added in the future.  Once people get used to a handout they ask their congresscritter to keep it coming.  The Committee For a Responsible Federal Budget has analyzed the bill, concluding 

We estimate the House Build Back Better Act includes roughly $2.4 trillion of spending and tax cuts along with roughly $2.2 trillion of offsets. However, the bill relies on a number of sunsets and expirations to keep the official cost down. If the plan's temporary policies were made permanent, we find the cost would increase by as much as $2.5 trillion. As a result, the gross cost of the bill would more than double from $2.4 trillion to $4.9 trillion.

The Build Back Better Act relies on a number of arbitrary sunsets and expirations to lower the official cost of the bill. These include extending the American Rescue Plan's Child Tax Credit (CTC) increase and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) expansion for a year, setting universal pre-K and child care subsidies to expire after six years, making the Affordable Care Act (ACA) expansions available through 2025, delaying the requirement that businesses amortize research and experimentation (R&E) costs until 2026, and setting several other provisions – from targeted tax credits to school lunch programs – to expire prematurely.

Just like back in September, they keep saying it will add nothing to the deficit.  Yeah, it may be more fiscally responsible to pair spending increases with tax hikes, but it doesn’t make them cost less, and the two combined don't make it cost nothing; they just get it closer to revenue neutral.  Except that it isn't revenue neutral.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says it will add a bit over a third of a trillion dollars ($367 billion) to the debt.  I know in an era of $5 trillion bills, that doesn't sound like much, but hey, $367 billion is a mere $11,682 per second for a year.

According to the Yellenator, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, we can call it revenue neutral if we include the revenue the metric buttload of IRS agents that the bill talks of hiring will collect.  The CBO separately estimated that the IRS provision would bring in $207 billion in revenues over 10 years. The Treasury Department has said that the provision would yield $400 billion. 

It wouldn't be the socialist "Green New Deal" approximation that the bill is without absurd climate control stuff.  The bill funnels billions into electric vehicle subsidies that make almost zero difference on carbon emissions and pad the pockets of wealthy consumers. It similarly wastes billions funding a “Civilian Climate Corps” that would pay people to do environmental activism that even proponents admit won’t reduce emissions. I prefer to call that the Civilian Climate Karens because they're nothing but wokescolds who will attack and harass anyone guilty of whatever make believe climate "science" prohibition they think they see. 

Even halting all US vehicle emissions would barely make a dent in global emission levels, and make-work schemes like this would have no measurable impact, simply as a matter of scale.  

Many of the links I include in this post come from the daily mailing from FEE - the Foundation for Economic Education - which is compiled by Brad Polumbo.  It concludes with a couple of good paragraphs. 

Because the bill confiscates trillions from the private, productive sector and funnels it through the government’s political schemes, it will actually lead to lower wages, lower employment, and lower economic growth over the long-run. That’s the finding of analyses by the Wharton School of Business, the Tax Foundation, and too many other experts to count. (And no, the spending bill won’t reduce inflation as President Biden oddly claims). 
In sum, the Build Back Better agenda is a government spending bill that’s uniquely terrible even by the abysmally low standards we expect from Congress. The good news is that it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere once it gets to the Senate.

Analysis provided by the Committee For a Responsible Federal Budget.

Just about all I can say about a bill like this is Let's Go Brandon!! 



Thursday, November 18, 2021

A Dozen Starship Orbital Launches Next Year?

I thought that was the most unexpected thing Musk said during the teleconference yesterday.  While acknowledging they were on hold, he said they plan to launch their first orbital Starship mission at the start of next year, then later said it might stretch out to being in February.  One of his important messages is the last part of this tweet:

A dozen launches of a reusable vehicle like Starship doesn't imply needing a dozen of them built, but while they've already said they don't expect, or necessarily even intend, to recover the booster and Starship used in the first flight, there's still a need for production.  Booster 5 and Starship 21 are both close to done (I haven't checked lately - they may be done now) and it seems two or three Starship systems could get them to a dozen launches - that's building one or two more after they throw the first one out.  They've yet to get the new Raptor engine factory running and the rate they can produce those engines still seems to be the long pole in that tent, as that tweet pretty much states outright. 

The idea they're working on a dozen launches in '22 was rapidly followed by another surprising idea: they expect to start launching payloads commercially on Starship by 2023, although that could mean one payload 25 months from now if we're strictly speaking.  

One of the Bushes (either W. or H.W.) coined the famous phrase "the vision thing" about a political rival.  What distinguishes Elon Musk is exactly that: his remarkable vision.  He points out that what humanity really needs is cheap, reliable transport into the solar system.  You wouldn't take many trips by airplane if it was thrown a way after each use (or during each use).  Similarly, cars wouldn't be useful at all if they were treated that way.  Casey Handmer has been hammering on how people don't seem to grasp the size of the revolution that Starship brings, and added more to it yesterday, largely focused on unmanned science missions

While traditional rockets are typically expendable and can launch up to 5 T [T=ton] probes to deep space for a few hundred million dollars, Starship promises the ability to deliver ~100 T of cargo to any planetary surface in the solar system for as little as $50m including refilling tanker flights.

The potential for extremely radical change is there.  Also from the same post:

For substantially less than current annual SLS development cost, a planetary science-focused Starship launch program could send a fully loaded Starship to every planet at least once per year, except for Mars whose launch windows are less frequent, but which benefits from Starship baseline design and will probably enjoy its own dedicated program.

Why shouldn’t we have a dedicated orbiter, lander, rover, helicopter, and submarine on every discrete body in the solar system over, say, 100 km in diameter? Let’s build a fleet of clockwork automatons for Venus and an armada of submarines for Europa, Enceladus, and Titan. Let’s darken the Martian skies with helicopters. Let’s drive rovers across the frozen nitrogen plains of Pluto.

Consider this conceptual map of every solid surface in the solar system scaled to the surface of the Earth.  From XKCD

Note that the gas giants (Jupiter out through Neptune) aren't included in this map - they don't have a solid surface, and Monroe (XKCD creator) included the ocean surfaces for Earth and the moons of the outer planets. 

Before any of that, Starship needs to work.  It seems that betting against SpaceX achieving these things isn't a smart way to put your money, but we know of lots of things that need to happen before that first orbital flight.  The ground infrastructure needs to be completed.  Musk says that will be complete as soon as “later this month.”  After that, the booster needs to be tested, maybe not at first but eventually with all 29 engines.  It seems like the rest of the year might have some interesting things to watch over at Boca Chica.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Wednesday Afternoon Talk

As I expected, we were able to listen to everything Musk had to say in SSB & BPA Video Conference. It's here:

As is the case with all online meetings, there's some wasted time at the beginning, in this case with a video about Starship that they can't get the sound working on. Elon first starts really talking at about 4 minutes in.

The majority of the hour and ten minutes is questions from the people in the conference.  They ask Musk some interesting questions and it's rather clear they don't know much about Starship or the massive changes that could come with a vehicle as disruptive as it looks to be.  

There's some sort of automated speech capture system that takes what the people are saying and converts it to text along the bottom of the screen.  It's wrong most of the time. Some of them are funny but most are just wrong.   


EDIT 11/18/21 1630 EST:  Massive change to the post.  The video was replaced and all references to times and details in the video deleted or changed.  

At some point this afternoon, the video was changed to being private, presumably by the National Academies of Science SSB & BPA who conducted the conference.  A search for a replacement yielded this one from a place called Space Span.  As with the original, it's an hour long talk but worthwhile.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Got Some Time Wednesday Afternoon/Evening?

Teslarati is reporting that Elon Musk will be presenting an update on the status of Starship on a live video feed that we can apparently watch. 

 The venue: the National Academies’ first virtual Space Studies Board. Vaguely titled “SpaceX Starship Discussion,” the CEO’s presentation – scheduled at 6pm EST on November 17th – will likely be his first Starship-specific update since September 2020 and, most importantly, it will be streamed live.

Since Musk’s last partial update, SpaceX has made a spectacular amount of progress, leaving no shortage of topics for the CEO to cover. In September 2020, Starship prototype SN6 had just completed SpaceX’s third 150m (~500 ft) hop test in South Texas, while the company was also close to finishing the first higher-altitude prototype (SN8). Three months later, after completing a range of preflight tests and having its nose section installed at the launch pad, Starship SN8 would nearly ace SpaceX’s first 10+ kilometer (~6 mi) launch and landing test, only failing seconds before touchdown after an otherwise successful 6+ minute flight.

There is a video conference link  that appears to be open to the public.  That is, there is no mention of registering in advance or of codes that need to entered anywhere.  

There's no shortage of accomplishments in Starship development to talk about, although the last few months have been more focused on infrastructure than launches.  The last launch, SN15, was six months ago in early May.  As I was quoting Casey Handmer saying on Saturday, 

Two years ago, Raptor was unproven, aero flaps had never been demonstrated, and stainless steel rocket construction was still troubled. Today, these major programmatic risks are largely retired. SpaceX has qualified their full flow staged combustion engine. They’ve done a full system test of the landing process, and they’ve ramped up QA in construction. There are still major risks on the critical path between now and a fully reusable Starship, but no miracles are required to solve them.

From outside the operation it's hard to determine the precedence of things causing the slowdown in Starship tests but we can be sure that the FAA reviews are a significant factor, if not the biggest single delay.  News broke yesterday that the FAA said the target date for completion of their Environmental Assessment of SpaceX’s orbital Starship launch site is December 31st, 2021.  Assuming they don't finish before that date it seems to eliminate any orbital launch attempt this year.

The "Permitting Dashboard" shows this summary of the work:

Early word from the FAA indicates the report will be a FONSI - Finding Of No Significant Impact - the best case.  If they had a list of things they objected to, we could be talking another year before Starship flew.     

Monday, November 15, 2021

The Big Gov Pretty Much Ruins Everything It Touches

Next in the news: water is wet and fire will burn you.  Film at 11. 

The general topic can be said as the title puts it.  The big screws up everything it touches.  We used to say the only things they're good at are killing people and breaking things, but with stories coming in from various incidents around the world I'm not even sure they're good at those anymore.  Well, they seem to break their own stuff pretty regularly.

Tonight's tale is about the response to the SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus pandemic.  Not the vaccines - there's not enough ink - um, not enough pixels, electrons or whatever in the universe to cover that screw-up.  No, this one is about the simpler question: why aren't there rapid, cheap, COVID testing kits everywhere in the US?  

The story starts at ProPublica ("Investigative Journalism in the Public Interest") called, "Here’s Why Rapid COVID Tests Are So Expensive and Hard to Find."  I got the lead to ProPublica from FEE - the Foundation for Economic Education - who almost used the same title but added (Than in Europe) to it.  

I'll bet you already know the answer: the problem is the FDA.  The problems are cronyism and the bureaucrat's default decision-making that I've written about many times; in this case, it's better to deny approval to a test that might do lots of good than to approve one that might cause harm.  In denying the good test, the bureaucrat is also harming people through inaction.  Nobody ever seems to care about harm done through inaction.  Except the families.  In the second case, harm by action - by actually doing something - might well get them a seat in front of a congressional investigation.  

FEE sums it up this way:

It all began in early 2020. After the virus’s genome was sequenced, commercial laboratories, universities, and biotech companies began developing tests that would determine to a high degree of accuracy whether an individual had COVID. The American federal bureaucracy, however, was not having any of it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) erected countless barriers such as lengthy and insurmountable approval procedures that did not take into consideration the gravity of the public health situation. In doing so, the CDC, as well as other agencies, effectively barred these non-government researchers from developing COVID tests to be put out to market, preventing their dissemination to hospitals, clinics, and individuals.

As an aside, I covered the CDC test mess back in March of '20.  

Here's where it's worth switching to the deeper story at ProPublica.  Their article mentions that when the FDA opened up applications for Emergency Use Authorizations for screening tests, the FDA balked at the idea of Over The Counter solutions, saying they were afraid of false negatives.  

“To mitigate the impact of false results, all Covid-19 tests authorized to date have been made available only by prescription, so that clinicians can interpret results for patients,” wrote Shuren and his deputy Dr. Tim Stenzel in an October 2020 column in The New England Journal of Medicine.

"Shuren" is Dr. Jeff Shuren, head of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, which authorizes tests. Dr. Tim Stenzel is ...

a microbiology Ph.D. who in 2018 became director of the office that authorizes diagnostic tests, holds the most day-to-day power over whether a test gets approved. He worked at biotech companies for most of his career before coming to the FDA, leading some to wonder if those prior relationships played a role in determining which testmakers became the most important players in the market.

Among Stenzel’s former employers were Abbott and the San Diego-based Quidel Corporation, the first two companies to sell self-administered, prescription-free COVID tests in large volumes.  Predictably, Quidel (the smaller company) had a tremendous increase in both revenues and market capitalization once their test was on the market.  

While saying that Stenzel worked at those two companies is suggestive of why they were approved early, according to ProPublica his disclosures of any outside conflicts of interests have always said he has no relationships with them, but his having worked at the two major test manufacturers and the slow pace of authorizations for other companies’ at-home tests drew a letter from an anti-monopoly think tank, the American Economic Liberties Project, calling for an investigation.

This is a good example of why bureaucrats do their best to not end up under investigation.  The rest of the article shows good examples of why all of the FDA should be under investigation.  For one example:

Nanōmix, a diagnostics designer based in Emeryville, California, developed a rapid test with the help of a federal grant and submitted it to the FDA in February. In early June, an FDA reviewer sent back a list of questions, giving Nanōmix a deadline of 48 hours to respond. The company couldn’t provide answers that quickly, so it was sent to the back of the line.

“We start development on a set of guidance,” said Nanōmix CEO David Ludvigson. “Then they change the guidance after we’re done, and expect us to have conformed to their revised guidance.”

Reuters Photo from the Voice of America, just to show what these tests look like.

At every level, the US is an arthritic bureaucracy that can't get out of it's own way.  You've seen how people talk about being ungovernable?  Are they governing or just obstructing everything?     


Sunday, November 14, 2021

Weekly Update on the 1 by 1 - part 14

Like last week, my already slow pace (compared to more experienced machinists on the forums I watch) slowed farther.  Most of that was due to some other things going on in life. The most time consuming of those was researching an antenna project.  All of my antenna projects start with the phrase "when it cools off" and cool weather arrived for the first time last weekend, but that's a story for another day.  I'll just stick with this topic.  

I decided to do the approach I talked about last time and clamp the mounting plate rough stock at an angle and then cut it parallel to the mill table to form the desired angles.  Naturally, I first had to measure those angles and could do so easily in CAD.

First, notice that the long side (on the left) is 18.8 degrees while the shorter side is 19.4 degrees.  The angle I really needed to know is what is required to make those inclined sides parallel to the X-axis of the mill table.  I circled the angle I need to know and left question marks there, but it's knowable without having to measure it in CAD.  If it's not immediately clear, the 18.8 degree angle and the mystery angle are called alternate interior angles and are equal to each other.  I realize a lot of people say they never use that middle or high school math they took, but that's what this is.  Nothing but applied geometry.

All I had to do was lower the right side (as seen in this drawing) and set the angle on the inclined surface to 18.8 degrees.  The converse goes for the other side.  Long side first (the angle cube is reading 18.85 degrees).

and the short side

I just cut until the very shortest edge was 0.313" and declared it right.

The other issue I mentioned last week is that there are two radius cuts on the bottom and I don't have a cutter of the right size.  You can see the two radii in the drawing at the top.  I decided the most expedient thing to do is just use the closest drill bit that I have and cut the radii to that size, not the 0.313 radius that drawing calls for.  I used a 1/2" drill bit.  In that picture at the top, it means drilling into the screen to cut the radius on those two corners.  The only thing tricky about this operation is that I'm drilling with the center of the bit on the bottom edge of this piece and drilling holes just doesn't work that way.  The way around that is to clamp a sacrificial piece of metal to the work and cut the radius on both pieces.  You can see the two half-inch holes in this picture.  The eventual mounting bracket is away from the camera, and the sacrificial piece closer to it.  I'll need to remove the metal between those two holes - only on the part, not the sacrificial piece.

It shouldn't take more than another few hours in the shop to finish this piece.  Which is why I chose it. 

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Variations on a Theme

Variations on the theme of spacecraft reusability.

Let me start with this morning's Falcon 9 Starlink launch.  In contrast with Wednesday night's Crew-3 launch we were able to watch the launch until the booster stage was dropped and the second stage engine burn started, after which high clouds wiped out what was very low contrast display. 

SpaceX Photo posted on Twitter

A rare day around here this time of year, when dense fog covers the first "few dozen" feet above the ground and the rest of the air column is clear.  That's more common in the winter.  My decades in photography tell me there's a colored filter on the camera, too.  Especially given the colors in their 20 second video of the launch.  

This was the ninth mission for this booster, and the mission went without a hitch.  The booster landed on recovery drone Just Read The Instructions NE of the Cape.  I'd bet the world's only "club" of orbital class boosters that have had ten missions will soon get a new member.

Without a doubt, the Falcon 9 has changed the launch industry, it just hasn't been noticed as much as it might have been if the industry itself wasn't booming as much as it has.  The simple reality is that reusability totally changes the economics of the launch industry and everyone else is having a tough time keeping up with SpaceX.  

We know that China, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia are talking of developing reusable boosters right now.  The small satellite launch sector is facing it because the ride sharing missions on a Falcon 9 are price competitive with any of the smaller boosters.  Rocketlab, the company originally from New Zealand and now both New Zealand and USA, will recover their next booster after allowing it to splash into the Pacific, and intend to catch them in the air with a helicopter soon.

A little over a year ago, I mentioned a space blogger named Casey Handmer and his October of 2019 article that the SpaceX Starship is a Very Big Deal.  I found today that in October of this year, he reprised that piece with another article that's absolutely worth your time to read.  This one is called Starship is Still Not Understood.  As I usually do, a few out of context paragraphs to bring up some interest. 

Two years ago, Raptor was unproven, aero flaps had never been demonstrated, and stainless steel rocket construction was still troubled. Today, these major programmatic risks are largely retired. SpaceX has qualified their full flow staged combustion engine. They’ve done a full system test of the landing process, and they’ve ramped up QA in construction. There are still major risks on the critical path between now and a fully reusable Starship, but no miracles are required to solve them. For example, many mature heat shield (TPS) designs already exist. SpaceX can try to make a better, cheaper, lighter one but if it doesn’t work out, they can always trade some mass and just use PICA, like Dragon. In just two years, practically all the low TRL science projects have been solved.
Starship matters. It’s not just a really big rocket, like any other rocket on steroids. It’s a continuing and dedicated attempt to achieve the “Holy Grail” of rocketry, a fully and rapidly reusable orbital class rocket that can be mass manufactured. It is intended to enable a conveyor belt logistical capacity to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) comparable to the Berlin Airlift. That is, Starship is a powerful logistical system that puts launch below the API.
Let me explain the fundamental issue. NASA centers and their contractors build exquisitely complex and expensive robots to launch on conventional rockets and explore the universe. To take JPL as an example, divide the total budget by the mass of spacecraft shipped to the cape and it works out to about $1,000,000/kg. I’m not certain how much mass NASA launches to space per year but, even including ISS, it cannot be much more than about 50 T. This works out to between $100,000/kg for LEO bulk cargo and >$1,000,000/kg for deep space exploration.

Enter Starship. Annual capacity to LEO climbs from its current average of 500 T for the whole of our civilization to perhaps 500 T per week. Eventually, it could exceed 1,000,000 T/year. At the same time, launch costs drop as low as $50/kg, roughly 100x lower than the present. For the same budget in launch, supply will have increased by roughly 100x. How can the space industry saturate this increased launch supply?

Space industry watchers have heard the stories of at least one top level engineer from Blue Origin jumping to SpaceX.  Casey Handmer can see it happening to old space companies like Boeing. 

At this point, the real fear of other industry players should be that SpaceX won’t even ask them to try. Instead, they’ll wake up one morning and find that all their ambitious junior engineers have taken a pay cut and moved to Texas, while no-one can work out why Starliner’s valves refuse to work properly.

I bet that left a mark.

Friday, November 12, 2021

SpaceX Boca Chica Static Fires Starship 20

SpaceX has had a lot going on this week between both coasts of Florida and Boca Chica, concluding for now in a static firing of all six engines of Starship 20.  I don't want to call that the peak of the week; I'll leave that for you to call.

As you can read in the upper right corner, that was at 12:13:55 CST; about 45 to 50 minutes before that, there was what appeared to be a test of the pre-burners for all six engines.  I saw that one but didn't grab a screen capture like this.  After this one, Elon Musk tweeted a reply to a NASA Spaceflight tweet showing a video of the test.   

Earlier in the week, the Crew-2 mission departed the ISS after launch delays kept affecting the Crew-3 launch.  The Crew Dragon and four astronaut crew splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, off of Pensacola Florida on Tuesday night around 10:30 PM EST.   NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, and JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide were all out of the spacecraft within an hour and off to medical facilities for checkups.  Presumably after that they went home to their own beds.  Perhaps by Wednesday morning.

On Wednesday night at 9:03 PM EST, the Crew-3 mission lifted off from pad 39A on the Kennedy Space Center, successfully putting the Crew Dragon capsule into the desired orbit and recovering booster B1067 for another use.  The automated rendezvous and docking with the ISS occurred Thursday morning, about half an hour earlier than originally scheduled.  For NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, and Kayla Barron, and ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer, the launch is just the beginning of a more than six-month stint in low Earth orbit.

Richard Angle photo for Teslarati, left, SpaceX photo from drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas, right.

In the left hand frame you can see a solid cloud deck that the mission flew into and there's a more vivid picture here.  It was cloudier here, about 35 miles south of the launch site, so we saw nothing.  Not even a bright spot behind the clouds.  

A scheduled Starlink satellite launch from the KSC, the first since May, was postponed this morning due to weather, when it had a 60% chance of good weather.  It has been rescheduled for tomorrow, Saturday morning at 7:19 EST.  

That's four big steps since Tuesday - four days if the launch goes off tomorrow morning as scheduled.  Admittedly it has been quiet for a while, but that's quite a pace.  I'm assured that the US has multiple corporations and a vibrant space industry.  It only seems like just one of those companies is actually doing anything.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Biden Nominates Yet Another Commie

In what must be just the wildest of coincidences, the administration has nominated another questionable nominee, this time Yet Another Commie (YAC) to high federal office.  This time the office is Comptroller of the Currency, the nation's highest banking official, and the nominee is Saule Omarova.  

Ms. Omarova isn't the typical leftist YAC kid from the US who went to a big lefty school in the US and was indoctrinated in how wonderful communism is; she was actually born in Kazakhstan, part of the former Soviet Union. 

Omarova graduated from the Soviet Union’s Moscow State University in 1989 on the Lenin Personal Academic Scholarship, according to the Wall Street Journal. As recently as 2019, she was still praising the USSR’s economic system as in some ways superior to our own. “Say what you will about old USSR, there was no gender pay gap there. Market doesn’t always ‘know best.'”

One report that I heard said that she was in the US during the tumultuous period when the USSR collapsed.  She spoke some English but certainly wasn't fluent in it, and still has a dense accent.  Nevertheless, she apparently applied to be allowed to stay and was granted the privilege.  Unlike any other former Soviet or refugee from any communist country that I've ever seen or hear speak, she apparently liked the the old country's way of doing things and thinks more government control is a good thing.  You might gather that from the last sentence quoted above. 

Among the first things she has said is that she wants to destroy all the banks in America.  Not just your big, national-name and "too big to fail" banks; she wants all banks to go away.  From what I can see everything from your neighborhood small bank or local credit union to the big national banks like Chase, Citicorp, Wells Fargo and so on.  All banking will be done through the Federal Reserve Bank so if your local bank survives at all, it will be as some sort of office of the Federal Reserve. 

Omarova’s goal is the eventual elimination of private banking and the establishment of the Federal Reserve as the nation’s only bank.

In her own words:

“The core idea here is simply to allow all U.S. citizens and lawful residents, local governments, non-banking firms and non-business entities to open transactional accounts directly with the Federal Reserve, thus bypassing private depository institutions,” she wrote. “In this sense, it is a variation on the familiar FedAccounts — or FedCoin, ‘digital dollar wallets,’ etc. — theme. In principle, FedAccounts can be made available as an alternative to bank deposit accounts, upon a person’s request.”

For those who have never learned this, or let this fact evaporate, the Federal Reserve isn't a government agency; it's a private corporation that enjoys a special tight relationship with the  "Tight" might not be strong enough.  Perhaps incestuous is a better word.  There's a word for a merger of big corporations and governments.  Benito Mussolini was a big advocate of the idea; it's called fascism.  

Omarova herself wrote that her proposal is “deliberately radical in scope and substance.”   As Kristin Tate wrote for The Hill on Wednesday:

Taken to its extreme, this would mean that the Federal Reserve, acting on behalf of Washington, could become the only place citizens could deposit their money. Such a massive transformation would be accomplished by replacing consumer deposits into a new digital dollar, held by the Fed.

And just like that, the end of the dollar and replacement of paper money with a digital currency would happen.  It would be replaced not by Bitcoin, Doge coin or any of the existing Cryptocurrencies, but a new one that has been called Fedcoin.  No need for dollars, and buying things for cash would probably be outlawed.  Since everything will be done through the Federal Reserve Bank, there's no need to pass that law that they monitor everything you buy over the course of a year that adds up to over $600, $10,000 or any other arbitrary number.  They will know every penny (or whatever they call it) that you spend.  They would literally hold your checkbook in their computers, just like my bank (a local credit union) now has records of my checking account back over the years.  

Omarova is far beyond "just" wanting to get rid of banks like Goldman Sachs.  A big deal is being made yesterday and today about a Twitter video someone found in which she calls matter-of-factly for the destruction of the oil, gas, and coal industries. To save the planet, of course.  

In the clip, Omarova, who was born in the Soviet Union and is not a native English speaker, is seen discussing “troubled industries and firms that are in transitioning.” She continues: “And here what I’m thinking about is primarily coal industry and oil and gas industry. A lot of the smaller players in that industry are, uh, going to probably, uh, go bankrupt in, in, in short order, at least we want them to go bankrupt if we want to tackle climate change, right?”
This radical and destructive rhetoric was to be expected from Omarova, who, as Stephen Green pointed out, “graduated from the Soviet Union’s Moscow State University in 1989 on the Lenin Personal Academic Scholarship.” Omarova was apparently such a convinced Marxist in the late 1980s that she wrote her thesis on Karl Marx’s thought, and tellingly has refused to release that thesis now.

The opposition to other appointees has risen to the point where some nominees, like Chipman, have had their nomination blocked.  We really need to do it on this one, too.  Same process in that she will have to go through the senate confirmation process.  None of the three articles I read and linked to here give a date for the hearings, or said that the hearings are imminent. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

NASA Hosts Teleconference on Getting Back to Work on HLS

This afternoon, NASA held a teleconference to talk about getting back to work on the Human Landing System (HLS) contract now that a Federal judge has ruled in the agency's favor in the lawsuit by Blue Origin and Dynetics against awarding the contract exclusively to SpaceX.  

The teleconference, full video at the first link, was just over an hour long.  

... NASA administrator Bill Nelson says that it will take the space agency some time to fully determine what and how much damage Blue Origin has caused. In the briefing, Nelson and associate administrators Kathy Lueders and Jim Free confirmed that Dynetics’ protest and Blue Origin’s protest and lawsuit have delayed SpaceX’s first crewed Starship Moon landing to no earlier than (NET) 2025.

As Eric Ralph from Teslarati put it in a Twitter exchange with Marcia Smith of Space Policy Online:

The article discusses a lot of details about the conference and they throw some information around that honestly surprised me.  It's worth reading, as is Marcia Smith's page of tweets while the conference was happening.  Bill "SLS" Nelson is still in love with his namesake program, and still ignorant of the world going on around him.  

Namely, exemplifying just how broken and deceptive NASA’s cost “transparency” is when it comes to SLS and Orion, the space agency used the briefing to announce its first updated Orion cost projections in more than half a decade. All the way back in September 2015, NASA announced major Orion delays and revealed that it had already spent $4.7B on the spacecraft and was committing another $6.7B through its first crewed launch – then scheduled no earlier than 2023.

That’s likely where NASA is getting its magically diminished Orion cost estimate. In reality, including Bush-era Constellation Program development that began in 2006, Orion will have cost NASA and the US taxpayer almost $22 billion by the end of 2021 and before a single full-up launch. Effectively doing the bare minimum to acknowledge a sanitized version of reality, NASA now says that Orion will cost at least $9.3 billion to its first crewed launch, which has been delayed to NET May 2024. It’s entirely unclear how NASA is calculating that deflated figure but in the six years since the space agency’s 2015 announcement that it would spend another $6.7B before Orion’s first crewed launch, it’s actually spent at least $8.4B and will have blown past the latest $9.3B target by mid-2022. Barring drastic funding cuts, Orion development will actually cost the US about $12.6B from 2016 to Artemis II and ~$25.8B since 2006 (not including inflation).

The worst of it, though, was that Nelson and Associate Administrator Jim Free seem to know little about what the HLS they've contracted for can actually do, and even less about contractor SpaceX. 

In an even starker demonstration of cognitive dissonance, when a New York Times reporter asked a hard question about the possibility of sidestepping Orion and SLS to get astronauts onto SpaceX’s Starship lunar lander, Administrator Nelson – having just repeatedly discussed Starship – fell back on an old boilerplate statement that “there’s only one rocket capable of doing this” – “this” being launching humans to the Moon and returning them to Earth and that “one rocket” being SLS. Association admin Jim Free also exhibited similar confusion, stating that “the architecture…just wouldn’t work.”

In reality, as currently contracted with NASA, SpaceX’s Starship Moon lander is a highly capable crewed spacecraft that will be refueled in Earth orbit before propelling itself to lunar orbit, where an SLS-launched Orion spacecraft would join it and transfer over three astronauts. Starship would then use its own propulsion to change orbits, land on the Moon, and eventually boost back into lunar orbit to transfer that crew back to Orion for the return to Earth. Nothing short of sheer ignorance – willful or not – could prevent competent spaceflight engineers or managers from understanding the possibilities such an architecture raises.

For her part, Associate Administrator Kathy Leuders, who was instrumental in the private launch programs that brought manned launches back to the US through SpaceX, seemed to understand the situation much better.  She remarked, "SpaceX has continued to make progress on HLS.  Working to fully understand that and make sure we can align milestones to safely return humans to the Moon." 

SpaceX illustration.