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Rocket Report: Falcon Heavy ready to fly, Stratolaunch plane put up for sale

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"We're predicting a really brutal consolidation of the small-launch-vehicle market."

Welcome to Edition 2.04 of the Rocket Report! We've got some up-to-the-minute news this week, with updated launch dates for NASA's commercial crew missions, BE-7 rocket engine tests, and a Falcon Heavy flight early next week. Thanks to everyone for their great contributions—nearly all of this week's content came from your tips.
 

 

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Small Rockets

"Brutal consolidation" coming for small launch. In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Rocket Lab's Peter Beck talks about how his company does (and does not) use 3D printing technology for its rockets and engines. Beck also discusses a consistent theme of this newsletter, namely that despite all of the activity in launch vehicle development, a significant winnowing is coming in terms of providers.

Definitely a bubble ... "There's a huge number of small launch vehicles in development," Beck said. "And it's funny, because everybody's quoting the same customers. So we're predicting a really brutal consolidation of the small-launch-vehicle market. Right now it's definitely in a bubble. I think small launch is in for a really brutal time in the next 12 to 18 months." Hard to disagree with that sentiment, although depending on the extent of US Department of Defense support, we can see at least two or three US smallsat launch companies making it, as well as a like number in China.

Stratolaunch for sale. Holding company Vulcan is seeking to sell Stratolaunch for $400 million, people familiar with the matter told CNBC. Vulcan is the investment conglomerate of late billionaire and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Allen died last October following complications of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The price includes ownership of the airplane as well as the intellectual property and facilities.

Who will buy? ... It is not clear who might emerge as a buyer, although the report suggests that Virgin's Richard Branson has offered $1 for the airplane. This is an unfortunate, but probably predictable, development for a company that never seemed to make that much sense from a business standpoint: using a very large airplane to launch relatively small rockets. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Firefly offers free rides on its first launch. On Monday, Texas-based Firefly announced that it will accept some academic and educational payloads free of charge on the first flight of its Alpha rocket. "We've wanted to do something like this on our first flight from the beginning," CEO Tom Markusic said. The payloads will fly to a 300km circular orbit, with a 97-degree inclination. The company also has an (undisclosed) customer for the flight, Ars Technica reports.

So when is the launch? ... Markusic admitted that pushing toward a December launch from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base is aggressive and that, to make it, the company must meet a tight schedule of milestones. Objectively, a December launch is doable. Historically, however, Markusic said he realizes that problems often occur during stage testing and other activities that have the potential to delay launch dates. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

NASA developing a new launchpad for smallsat rockets. Set for completion by the end of this year, NASA is developing Launch Complex 48 between Kennedy Space Center's pad 39A and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 41 to the south. The space agency intends to use the facility for commercial companies wanting a pad from which to launch their small rockets, Florida Today reports.

Small rockets only ... "This is a NASA capability that is being made available to whatever small launcher company wants to come in here and do small-vehicle launches," Tom Engler, Kennedy Space Center's director of planning and development, told the publication. Maximum liftoff weight for small rockets would be 300,000 pounds, and no landings would be allowed. This represents a fairly large change in thinking by NASA from a decade or two ago, and a welcome one. (submitted by trimeta)

Does Rocket Lab have to disclose its payloads? The company has not disclosed one of the seven payloads launching from New Zealand on its "Make it Rain" mission later this month, and a local publication, called Stuff, has submitted a request to the government to force disclosure. New Zealand's Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment will make a determination on the request. The ministry would balance the justification for any secrecy against the public interest in disclosure and would have to provide the grounds on which it declined to provide information.

No weapons ... One thing Rocket Lab's Peter Beck said the company will not do is launch weapons. "All of the defense payloads we have launched to date are all 'R&D' payloads that have dual-use applications," Beck said. "We will never fly weapons or anything that really isn't committed to the safe and secure and responsible use of space. We are not going to do anything that doesn't align with our core values." This will be an interesting case to follow, with the potential to hurt Rocket Lab's commercial prospects for New Zealand launches. (submitted by platykurtic)

Environmentalists raise concerns about Scottish launch site. Land on the A' Mhòine Peninsula in northern Scotland has been identified as a location for the launching of rockets carrying small satellites, but new research questions why a "wild land" site covered by environmental protections was chosen for the project, the BBC reports. Research by professors Mike Danson and Geoff Whittam also casts doubts on claims that 40 "high-quality" jobs would be created by the spaceport, suggesting "the jobs which will be available to local people have been stated as housekeeping and security."

Pushback from Orbex ... The paper questions the focus by Highlands and Islands Enterprise on the A' Mhòine site over other locations. It also suggests a previous report overstated the level of community support while not paying enough attention to infrastructural issues and environmental designations. Companies that have proposed using the launch site, such as Orbex, have pushed back against the new conclusions. (submitted by BH)

Medium Rockets

NASA updates launch dates for commercial crew. As part of standard planning among the international partners, NASA has revised its Visiting Vehicle plan for all upcoming and long-range missions to the International Space Station, and the update includes new planning dates for the first Commercial Crew launches on SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's Starliner vehicles, NASASpaceFlight.com reports. These dates should all be regarded as subject to change, especially the crewed flights.

A busy end of the year ... Boeing's uncrewed Orbital Flight Test of its Starliner vehicle will move to a launch planning date of September 17, 2019. SpaceX's Demonstration Mission-2 is now tentatively planned for November 15, 2019. The flight would see astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley perform a 7-day flight of the Dragon capsule. Then, Mike Finke, Nicole Mann, and Chris Ferguson would launch November 30, 2019, on the first crewed mission of the Starliner capsule. We'll be pleasantly surprised if any of the crewed missions occur in 2019. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SpaceX gets a boost from House committee. The House Armed Services Committee last week approved legislation that seeks to increase competition in the national security space-launch program. The amended language retained two key provisions that help SpaceX and Blue Origin while removing two others that were opposed by United Launch Alliance and Northrop Grumman. Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) led the changes, SpaceNews reports.

Revising Phase 2 ... The legislation concerns the Air Force plan to award launch contracts from 2022 to 2026, known as Phase 2. Under the revisions, the Air Force will allow other competitors to challenge the two winners of Phase 2 after the first 29 launches are completed; and the Air Force will create a $500 million "certification and infrastructure fund" to be made available to SpaceX if it wins a Phase 2 contract. The latter funding puts SpaceX on an even playing field with companies that won Phase 1 awards for development of their launch systems. The US Senate must agree to the language.

Heavy Rockets

Report raises questions about SLS award fees. A new US Government Accountability Office report anticipates that the Artemis-1 mission—in which a Space Launch System rocket will boost an uncrewed Orion spacecraft around the Moon—will likely slip as late as June 2021. NASA also appears to have been obscuring the true cost of its development programs, particularly with the large SLS rocket, which has Boeing as its prime contractor, Ars Technica reports.

No consequences? ... The report found that NASA has continued to pay Boeing substantial award fees. From July 2014 through September 2018, the GAO found that NASA assessed Boeing's performance on development of the SLS rocket's core stage as "good," "very good," and "excellent" at various times. The agency gave Boeing $271 million in award fees during this period, even after the rocket's scheduled launch continued to slip. (submitted by JohnCarter17 and rochefort)

Blue Origin has fired its BE-7 engine. Announced via tweet by company founder Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin performed the first hotfire of its BE-7 lunar lander engine on Wednesday at Marshall Space Flight Center. "Data looks great and hardware is in perfect condition," Bezos wrote. "Test went full planned duration—35 seconds."

Mmmm, new hardware ... This is the engine that Bezos only revealed the existence of in May during an event in Washington, DC, to highlight his company's Blue Moon lander. The test comes as Blue Origin and other space companies are bidding on NASA contracts to develop a "descent" module for a lunar lander, essentially a large truck that could ferry supplies and perhaps a human ascent module down to the Moon's surface. Always nice to see a new rocket engine enter the fray. (submitted by Unrulycow and Ken the Bin)

Falcon Heavy launch on track for Monday night. After SpaceX completed a static firing of its Falcon Heavy rocket, the company said it remains scheduled to launch the Space Test Program-2 mission for the US Air Force on Monday night, from Florida. The rocket will contain two dozen satellites, including a novel solar-sail experiment, Ars Technica reports.

Sailing through space ... LightSail 2 will attempt to harness the momentum of photons and "sail" through space, and it is the culmination of decades of work by The Planetary Society. "This goes back to the very beginning, to Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Lou Friedman," the organization's chief executive, Bill Nye, said (yes, that Bill Nye). "We are carrying on a legacy that has been with us since the founders. It's just an intriguing technology because it lowers the cost of going all over the place in the Solar System."

Larger Ariane 6 rocket gets its first customer. Arianespace is planning two variants of its new Ariane 6 heavy lift rocket: one with two solid rocket boosters (Ariane 62) and one with four (Ariane 64). The rocket with two boosters will fly first, sometime in 2020, the European rocket manufacturer has said. Now the larger Ariane 64 has its first customer.

Getting to work, sooner ... Peter B. de Selding reports that the ViaSat-3 Tbs broadband satellite will move from an Ariane 5 rocket to an Ariane 64, for a launch sometime in 2021. By launching on the more powerful Ariane 64, the ViaSat-3 satellite will be able to reach a higher-energy geostationary transfer orbit and thus begin operations sooner. ViaSat also has contracts with SpaceX and United Launch Alliance for its ViaSat-3 program.

Fully restored Saturn IB rocket returns to display. NASA's last remaining flight-configured example of the rocket that launched the first Apollo astronauts into space is back on public view in Florida, having undergone an almost year-long extensive restoration, CollectSpace reports. The forerunner to the Saturn V that launched astronauts to the Moon, the Saturn IB, was first used by NASA's Apollo 7 crew in 1968.

As it should be ... The rocket can be seen at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Work to restore the Saturn IB began in July 2018. The Space Coast's salt-rich atmosphere and 40 years lying on its side had taken a toll on the rocket, which once stood on a launchpad ready to fly a planned but never-needed rescue mission to the United States' first space station, Skylab. The rocket now looks like new and is preserved as it deserves to be. (submitted by JohnCarter17)

Next three launches
June 21: Proton-M | Spektr-RG | Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan | 12:17:14 UTC
June 25: Falcon Heavy | Space Test Program-2 | Kennedy Space Center, Florida | 03:30:00 UTC
June 27: Electron | "Make It Rain" | Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand | 04:30:00 UTC

 

 

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