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Commercial Space News

SpaceX CRS-5 Launch Successful; Landing "Close But No Cigar" - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jan-2015 (Updated: 17-Jan-2015 04:52 PM)

SpaceX founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk reported early this morning (January 10) that the landing of his Falcon 9 first stage on a drone ship did not go as planned:  "Close, but no cigar."  However, the main objective of the launch today was sending a Dragon cargo resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) and that part of the mission is proceeding flawlessly.

Liftoff of this fifth SpaceX operational cargo resupply mission, SpaceX CRS-5 or SpX-5, was on time at 4:47 am EST this morning from Cape Canaveral, FL.  The countdown proceeded without a hitch this time, unlike the previous launch attempt on Tuesday when launch was scrubbed with just over one minute to go because of a malfunctioning second stage thrust vector control actuator. SpaceX replaced that actuator for today's launch.

The first and second stages of the Falcon 9 rocket performed as planned, placing Dragon into the correct orbit for it to reach the ISS on Monday at about 6:00 am EST.  It carries 5,108 pounds of food, water, clothing, experiments and equipment for the six-person crew living aboard the space station.

Delivering cargo for NASA is the main job, but interest in the launch was especially high because of SpaceX's test of landing the Falcon 9 first stage on a platform in the ocean -- an "autonomous drone ship."  The company already successfully conducted two "landings" on water, but the stage, of course, tipped over into the water at the end.   Today's test was to have a survivable landing. The tests are related to Musk's goal of developing a reusable rocket.  The only reusable launch vehicle successfully developed and flown to date was the U.S. space shuttle.  The shuttle's airplane-like orbiters, which included the system's three main engines, and its solid rocket boosters were all reusable.  The shuttle program was terminated in 2011 after 30 years of flights.

Today, one of the nine Falcon 9 first stage engines reignited for the "boost back" stage of the flight and it reached the ship, but "landed hard" as Musk tweeted (@elonmusk) in the first of several messages throughout the morning:

"Rocket made it to drone ship, but landed hard. Close, but no cigar this time.  Bodes well for the future, tho."

"Ship itself is fine.  Some of the support equipment on the deck will need to be replaced ...."

"Didn't get good landing/impact video.  Pitch dark and foggy. Will piece it together from telemetry and ... actual pieces."

"Grid fins worked extremely well from hypersonic velocity to subsonic, but ran out of hydraulic fuel right before landing."

"Upcoming flight already has 50% more hydraulic fluid, so should have plenty of margin for landing attempt next month."

"Am super proud of my team for making huge strides towards reusability on this mission,  You guys rock!"

On January 16,  Musk tweeted video taken by a camera on the done ship of the first stage crashing into it.   The video does not appear to be posted on SpaceX's website, but other sites, such as, have done so.

Note:  This article was updated shortly after noon EST on January 10 (the day of launch) with more of Musk's tweets and deleting the reference to a NASA press conference that had been scheduled for 6:30 am, but subsequently cancelled.  It also was updated on January 17 with the link to the video of the crash landing on the drone ship.

SpaceX CRS-5 Still on for Early Saturday Morning

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Jan-2015 (Updated: 09-Jan-2015 10:13 PM)

As of 10:00 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST) tonight, January 9, SpaceX's fifth operational cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) is still on schedule for launch at 4:47 am EST tomorrow morning.

The launch of Space X CRS-5, or SpX-5,  has been delayed several times since its original December 9, 2014 launch date.   Most recently it was scrubbed just over one minute before launch on January 6 because of a malfunctioning thrust vector control actuator in a second stage engine.  SpaceX reportedly has replaced that actuator and is on track for tomorrow morning's launch.  The weather forecast is 80 percent favorable.

NASA TV coverage of the launch begins at 3:30 am EST.

Virgin Galactic Determined to Persevere and Succeed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Jan-2015 (Updated: 09-Jan-2015 09:45 PM)

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides made clear today that the company remains committed to its goal of opening space for all both with suborbital flights of passengers and launches of small satellites.

The company, owned by Richard Branson, is still recovering from a fatal SpaceShipTwo spaceplane test flight accident on October 31, 2014 that killed one of the two pilots.  Co-pilot Michael Alsbury died. Pilot Peter Siebold survived.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has not completed its investigation, but determined that Alsbury prematurely moved a lever to initiate a "feathering system" designed to slow the spaceplane during its descent.  It should have been moved when the spaceplane was at Mach 1.4, but he moved it at Mach 1.02 during ascent.  Deployment of the feathering system was supposed to require a second lever to be moved by the pilot and that did not take place.  Why it deployed nonetheless is still under scrutiny.  The deployment of the feathering system at the wrong time apparently created aerodynamic forces that ripped the spaceplane apart.

Whitesides said that Virgin Galactic (VG) will "recover, we'll learn the hard lessons from the accident, and return to flight."  In fact, he said test flights will resume in 2015 and commercial flights will begin in 2016. 

VG was planning to build five SpaceShipTwo vehicles.  The one lost in the October accident was the only completed vehicle, but a second was already in manufacturing.  Today, Whitesides said structural fabrication is over 90 percent complete as well as two-thirds of the systems.  "Weight on wheels is now in sight," he told the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) SciTech2015 conference in Kissimmee, FL, adding that the vehicle will accommodate any changes identified by the NTSB to enhance safety.

Society has become "risk intolerant," Whitesides observed, which has both positive and negative consequences.  Injuries may be reduced by people wearing bike helmets, but taking "smart risks" is essential to progress.  He said he has spent a great deal of time since the accident explaining the nature of test flights to the public and press and concedes that VG could have done a better job of managing expectations.  There is no simple answer to when a vehicle is ready to fly, he stressed.

As for launching small satellites (smallsats), VG is developing LauncherOne, an air-launched vehicle.  Whitesides was optimistic about the market for such satellites, especially constellations of low Earth orbit (LEO) smallsats that will need continual replenishment.   The first flight test of LauncherOne is expected in 2016.

Branson "has redoubled his commitment" to VG, Whitesides asserted.  "A second spaceship is close at hand and we are hard at work on LauncherOne. We will persevere and ultimately succeed," he vowed.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article identified Whitesides as President of VG.  He is currently its CEO.





Senate Commerce Names Subcommittee Chairs: Ted Cruz for NASA, Marco Rubio for NOAA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Jan-2015 (Updated: 08-Jan-2015 09:55 PM)

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee today announced who will chair its subcommittees in the 114th Congress.   Ted Cruz (R-TX) will chair the subcommittee that oversees NASA, while Marco Rubio (R-FL) will chair the one with jurisdiction over NOAA.

The Senate is now in Republican hands, so all committee and subcommittee chairs are Republican and ranking members are Democrats (though there are two Independents, who usually vote with Democrats, who might also hold committee leadership positions).   The full Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is chaired by Sen. John Thune (R-SD), who announced the six subcommittee chairs today.  The two of most interest to the space policy community are the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, which includes NOAA, and the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness, which includes NASA and added "competitiveness" to its title this year.

Cruz was the top Republican on the Science and Space subcommittee last year, so his ascension to chair is not unexpected.   He did not play a prominent public role in NASA matters in the last Congress, and is known mostly for his advocacy of reduced government spending overall and opposition to almost anything that the Obama Administration supports.  Bill Nelson (D-FL) chaired the subcommittee in the previous Congress, when it was controlled by Democrats, and is an ardent NASA supporter, having flown on the space shuttle in 1986 when he was a Member of the House of Representatives.  Nelson is now the top Democrat on the full Senate Commerce Committee.

Like Cruz, Rubio was the top Republican on the Oceans/Atmosphere subcommittee in the last Congress and now becomes chair.   All of NOAA's activities are within the jurisdiction of the subcommittee and historically it has focused more on fisheries and coastal issues than on space.

SpaceX CRS-5 Slips Another Day to January 10

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Jan-2015 (Updated: 07-Jan-2015 04:35 PM)

The launch of SpaceX's fifth operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) has been delayed another day, to January 10, 2015.  The launch time for SpaceX CRS-5, or SpX-5, that day is 4:47 am EST.  NASA TV coverage will begin at 3:30 am EST.

The launch was scrubbed on Tuesday, January 6, just over one minute before launch.  The problem was with a thrust vector control actuator in a second stage engine.  That was the latest is a series of schedule changes for this mission, whose original launch date was December 9. 

If launch does not take place on Saturday, the next opportunity is Tuesday, January 13, at 3:36 am EST. 

The launch is generating a lot of interest because SpaceX plans to return the Falcon 9 first stage to an "autonomous drone ship" as a further step in its goal to develop a reusable rocket.   SpaceX officials stress, however, that the primary objective of this mission is delivering cargo to the ISS.   SpaceX is one of two companies that provide "commercial cargo" services to NASA. The other, Orbital Sciences Corporation, is currently recovering from the loss of its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft in an October launch failure and it is not clear when its next launch will take place.  Thus, NASA is quite anxious to get this SpaceX mission launched to deliver 5,108 pounds of food, water, clothing, research experiments and equipment.

The delay could also affect other SpaceX launches.  The launch of the NOAA-NASA-Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) was already delayed by an earlier slip to this SpX-5 launch.

SpaceX CRS-5 Launch Scrubbed for Today - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Jan-2015 (Updated: 06-Jan-2015 01:21 PM)

SpaceX scrubbed its launch of its fifth operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) this morning 81 seconds before launch. The countdown had been proceeding smoothly, but, according to NASA, was scrubbed when a thrust vector control actuator on the second stage did not perform as expected.

The mission, Space-X CRS-5 or SpX-5, is carrying 5,108 pounds of food, water, clothing, research experiments, and  equipment for the ISS crew. 

The next launch opportunity is on Friday, January 9, at 5:09 am Eastern Standard Time (EST) and NASA TV coverage will begin at 4:00 am EST if SpaceX determines it is ready for launch that day.

A planned post-launch briefing was cancelled.  NASA said to check for updates.

Interest in this launch is especially high because SpaceX plans to land the Falcon 9 first stage on an autonomous drone ship as the next step in its plans to make the first stage reusable.

Note:  this article was updated several times as new information became available.

Sierra Nevada to Continue Dream Chaser Despite CCtCAP Protest Loss

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Jan-2015 (Updated: 05-Jan-2015 06:36 PM)

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) said today that it will continue developing and testing its Dream Chaser spacecraft even though it lost its protest of NASA's Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) awards to Boeing and SpaceX. 

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) ruled in NASA's favor today, denying SNC's protest that NASA did not evaluate its bid in accordance with the criteria specified in the request for proposals.  The company said GAO's decision was "not what SNC expected" and is "evaluating" that decision.

GAO did not release the details of its decision, only a summary in a press release.  The complete text of the decision is under protective order and must be redacted before being made public.

NASA has been supporting all three companies in the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) phase of the commercial crew program, a public-private partnership whose goal is to develop U.S. crew space transportation systems to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  NASA has been dependent on Russia to provide crew transportation services since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011 and is eager to restore an independent capability through this program. 

NASA was expected to choose only two of the three to continue into the CCtCAP phase.  Price was listed as the top criterion and SNC's price was much lower than Boeing's.  According to GAO's summary, Boeing's price was $3.01 billion, SNC's was $2.55 billion, and SpaceX's was $1.75 billion.  NASA awarded more than that to Boeing and SpaceX.  Boeing received $4.2 billion and SpaceX received $2.6 billion.  NASA explains that its award is the Total Potential Contract Value, which includes special studies and the maximum number of post-certification missions -- six.  GAO's figures are for the Evaluated Price as defined in the CCtCAP request for proposals, which has a guarantee of only two missions.

SNC said today that "we maintain our belief that the Dream Chaser spacecraft is technically very capable, reliable and was qualified to win based on NASA's high ratings of the space system."   Dream Chaser is a lifting body -- a winged vehicle -- that resembles a space shuttle orbiter and would be launched on an Atlas V rocket.   It is based on a design NASA developed decades ago for the HL-20 program. 

At the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Toronto shortly after SNC challenged NASA's choice of Boeing and SpaceX in September, SNC made clear that it intended to proceed with Dream Chaser regardless of whether it won the protest or not.  Today's announcement was in a similar vein.  "SNC firmly believes that the Dream Chaser will play a central role in shaping the future of space transportation with its unique capabilities which address a wide spectrum of needs," it said, adding that it responded to NASA's request for proposals for a second round of commercial cargo resupply services awards.   SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation currently provide commercial cargo services to NASA under contracts that expire in 2016.

NASA also issued a statement in response to the GAO ruling, saying simply that it is pleased it can move forward with the commercial crew program so America can end its reliance on Russia for ISS crew transportation.

GAO Decision on Sierra Nevada Bid Protest Expected Monday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Jan-2015 (Updated: 04-Jan-2015 06:21 PM)

The Government Accountability Office's (GAO's) decision on Sierra Nevada Corporation's (SNC's) protest of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract awards to Boeing and SpaceX is expected tomorrow, January 5, 2015.

GAO has 100 days from the date the protest was filed to make its ruling.  That time period expires tomorrow.

SNC filed the protest on September 26, 2014 noting in a press release that it was the first time the company had taken such action in its 51-year history.   It said there were "serious questions and inconsistencies in the source selection process."   Among them was the fact that NASA would spend "up to $900 million more ... for a space program equivalent to what SNC proposed" even though price was the primary evaluation criteria in the CCtCAP solicitation.

Aviation Week reported in October that an internal document signed by Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, concluded that SNC's design had "the lowest level of maturity" and "more schedule uncertainty" than its competitors and "the longest  schedule for completing certification."  The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on December 23, 2014 that part of SNC's protest is based on those comments because schedule was not one of the main criteria in the solicitation.  SNC is asserting that Gerstenmaier "overstepped his authority by unilaterally changing the scoring criteria" according to the WSJ.

The protest was filed 10 days after NASA awarded a total of $6.8 billion to Boeing and SpaceX --  $4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX -- to develop commercial crew transportation systems to service the International Space Station (ISS).  NASA has been supporting all three companies in the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) phase of the program and was expected to be able to support only two in the CCtCAP phase.  

Pursuant to regulations governing contract protests, NASA issued a stop- work order to Boeing and SpaceX once SNC filed the protest, but reversed course and lifted the stop-work order a few days later on the grounds that it was acting within its statutory authority to avoid significant adverse consequences.  SNC filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to have the stop-work order reinstated, but the court ruled in NASA's favor.

If GAO decides SNC's protest has merit, NASA may have to go through the solicitation process all over again with consequent potential delays in the availability of commercial crew systems.  NASA is hoping that at least one of the systems will be available by the end of 2017, two years later than its original plan because Congress did not provide all of the requested funding for the program.   Some members of Congress continue to question why, for example, NASA is funding two companies instead of one.

NASA has been dependent on Russia to take crews to and from the ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011 and must continue to rely on Russia until a new U.S. system is available.  By law, the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft must be designed to service the ISS as a backup in case the commercial crew program fails, but the first crewed launch of Orion is not scheduled until 2021.

What's Happening in Space Policy January 1-9, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Dec-2014 (Updated: 31-Dec-2014 02:43 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events coming up for the first week-and-a-half of the New Year and any insight we can offer about them.   The 114th Congress convenes at noon on Tuesday, January 6.

During the Weeks

The New Year gets off with a bang in 2015 with three major conferences, a SpaceX launch that could demonstrate the Falcon 9 first stage returning to land on a barge, the beginning of a new Congress, and meetings of three NASA advisory groups.

The three conferences are:

Special sessions (e.g. Town Halls, lectures, plenaries) will be held at each. The conference organizers have varying policies on webcasting, so check at the links provided to determine if these events can be viewed remotely.

SpaceX's fifth operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX CRS-5 or SpX-5, was postponed from December 19 to January 6 because a Falcon 9 static fire test did not go as planned.  Launch on January 6 is at 6:18 am EST.  While SpaceX cargo resupply missions to the ISS have become somewhat routine, SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk has been using them -- with NASA's concurrence -- to test the reusability of the Falcon 9 first stage.  On two missions already, the first stage has returned vertically to "land" on the ocean -- tipping over into the water, of course, at the end.   On this flight, SpaceX will attempt to land it on a specially designed barge as the next step towards reusability.

Later that day,  back in Washington, the 114th Congress will convene with the House and Senate both in Republican hands.   Will that mean less gridlock?   Post-election vibes suggest that in the Senate, at least, liberal Democrats may take pages from the playbook used by Tea Party Republicans to demonstrate that the minority party wields power, too, so there are no sure bets.

NASA's advisory bodies -- or "analysis groups" (AGs) in some cases -- also get off to a fast start.  Two of the AGs are first up:  the ExoPlanet Exploration Analysis Group (ExoPAG) this weekend (January 3-4) and Small Bodies Analysis Group (SBAG) on January 6-7.  AGs are not officially allowed to give advice to NASA because they are not chartered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).  Only FACA-chartered bodies are supposed to give "advice," but non-FACA groups can provide input that seems a lot like advice.  ExoPAG provides input to the NASA Advisory Council's (NAC's) Astrophysics Subcommittee and SBAG provides input to NAC's Planetary Science Subcommittee.  Both of those subcommittees report to NAC's Science Committee.  Another NAC Science subcommittee, Heliophysics, meets on Friday, January 9. 

These and other meetings scheduled for January 1-9, 2015 are listed below.

Saturday-Sunday, January 3-4

Sunday-Thursday, January 4-8

Monday-Friday, January 5-9

  • American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) SciTech 2015, Kissimmee, FL

Monday, January 5

  • SpaceX CRS-5 (SpX-5) pre-launch briefings, NASA Kennedy Space Center, FL (watch on NASA TV)
    • 12:00 noon EST, Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) Earth science instrument
    • 1:30 pm EST, science briefing
    • 4:00 pm EST, mission status briefing

Tuesday, January 6

  • SpaceX CRS-5 launch, Cape Canaveral, FL, 6:18 am EST (watch on NASA TV beginning at 5:00 am EST); post-launch briefing approximately 90 minutes after launch
  • 114th Congress convenes, noon EST, The Capitol, Washington, DC

Tuesday-Wednesday, January 6-7

Thursday, January 8

  • SpaceX CRS-5 arrives at ISS.  NASA TV coverage of grapple begins at 4:30 am EST (grapple is approx. 6:00 am EST) and of berthing at 8:15 am EST.

Thursday-Friday, January 8-9

Friday, January 9

SpaceX CRS-5 Delayed to No Earlier Than January 6 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Dec-2014 (Updated: 18-Dec-2014 10:27 AM)

UPDATE, December 18, 10:25 am EST:  A link to the statement NASA finally put out is added, along with information on the status of the pre-launch briefings.

SpaceX confirmed to SpacePolicyOnline this morning that its fifth operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) will be postponed from tomorrow (December 19) to no earlier than January 6, 2015.

SpaceX spokesman John Taylor said via email that the delay is due to an "abundance of caution" following a static fire test yesterday that did not achieve all of its objectives.  "While the recent static fire test accomplished nearly all of our goals, the test did not run the full duration.  The data suggests that we could push forward without a second attempt, but out of an abundance of caution, we are opting to execute a second static fire test prior to launch."

The next launch opportunity is not until January 6 because of the time it will take to conduct the second test, limited launch opportunities during the holiday period, and a beta angle cutout period when the Sun's angle to the ISS prevents certain on-orbit activities like berthing Dragon, he added.  The beta angle cutout period is December 28-January 7.

If the launch takes place on January 6, Dragon would arrive at the ISS on January 8, after the cutout period ends.  January 7 is a backup launch date.

The likelihood of a delay was first reported by Chris Bergin of yesterday via Twitter, but not confirmed by SpaceX (or NASA) until this morning.

SpaceX has a full launch manifest, including the January 23 launch of the NOAA-NASA-Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) on January 23.  What impact the SpX-5 slip may have on other launches is unclear at the moment.   NOAA will hold a media teleconference this morning at 11:00 am EST where more information about the DSCOVR launch may be made available.

NASA finally issued a statement at about 10:15 am EST confirming the postponement and clarifying that three pre-launch briefings scheduled for today will be rescheduled for January 5.  If the launch takes place on January 6, the launch time is 6:18 am Eastern Standard Time (EST).