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Commercial Space News

Trump Would Reinstate White House Space Council - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Oct-2016 (Updated: 22-Oct-2016 12:31 PM)

UPDATED October 22, 2016 to reflect the fact that Trump no longer plans to visit Kennedy Space Center next week, as reported by Florida Today.

In an op-ed published in Space News on October 19, two advisers to Donald Trump's presidential campaign laid out the broad strokes of what a Trump space policy would look like.  Trump himself reportedly had planned to visit NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida next week as the campaign enters its final phase.  Florida is one of the battleground states that each candidate especially wants to win.  Florida Today reported on October 22, however, that those plans have changed.

The op-ed was penned by former Congressman Bob Walker and University of California-Irvine professor Peter Navarro.   Walker was a Pennsylvania Congressman for 20 years and is now Executive Chairman of one of the top lobbying firms in Washington, Wexler|Walker.  Earlier he was advising Ohio Gov. John Kasich's presidential campaign on space issues, writing an essay in response to questions posed by Aerospace America.

While in Congress, Walker served as chairman of what is now the House Science, Space and Technology Committee when Republicans took over the House in 1995 and was one of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's inner circle.  Both men are ardent space program supporters.  Gingrich also is associated with the Trump campaign.

An op-ed in a trade publication is not the same as a statement from the candidate himself.  Florida Today had reported that Trump was planning to visit KSC on October 24 and participate in an industry roundtable.  However, it updated its report on October 22 saying that he would not visit the Space Coast after all because there was no suitable indoor venue and outdoor venues "present security concerns." The event would have been reminiscent of Gingrich's own presidential campaign in 2012 when he held an industry roundtable and made a major speech in Cocoa, FL (near KSC) laying out plans for a Moon base.

A key element espoused by Walker and Navarro in the Space News op-ed is reinstating the White House National Space Council, chaired by the Vice President.

The 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act created NASA to conduct U.S. civil space activities and assigned military space efforts to DOD.  It established a White House National Aeronautics and Space Council to coordinate those activities.  Originally the President was to chair the council, but that was quickly changed to the Vice President and it operated through the first Nixon term.  Nixon abolished the Council in 1973, however, and a variety of other mechanisms were used thereafter to coordinate government space activities and provide advice to the President. 

Following the 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy, Congress became so dissatisfied with how the White House was making space policy decisions, however, especially the length of time and lack of transparency, that it recreated a National Space Council (without the aeronautics component) in the 1989 NASA Authorization Act.  President George H.W. Bush signed an Executive Order shortly after taking office formally establishing it as part of his Executive Office of the President.  Chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle, it had an often fractious relationship with NASA.  Mark Albrecht, who served as Executive Director for most of the Bush Administration, wrote a book with an insider's view of what transpired during those years.

Subsequent Presidents have chosen not to staff or fund the Council, although it still exists in law. Currently, national security space policy resides within the White House National Security Council and civil space policy is overseen by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, with the White House Office of Management and Budget playing a major role as well.

Opinions in the space policy community about the value of such a Council run the gamut.  Opponents argue it is just one more White House entity that can say "no" to any idea, but without the clout to say "yes" and make something happen.  Supporters insist that a top-level mechanism is needed not only to effectively coordinate government civil and national security space programs, but to bring in the commercial sector and develop a holistic approach to space.

Walker and Navarro clearly share the latter opinion.  They say the Council would "end the lack of proper coordination" and "assure that each space sector is playing its proper role in advancing U.S. interests."

The op-ed offers few specifics, other than to praise private sector launch vehicle development efforts and question the need for the government to duplicate such capabilities.  Overall it is a rallying cry for the need to have a strong space program based on classic arguments that it will spur invention, innovation, and economic growth and appeal to aspirational and inspirational needs:  "Americans seem to know intuitively that the destiny of a free people lies in the stars.  Donald Trump fully agrees."

Neither Trump nor his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton have space policies posted on their campaign websites.  Both the Republican and Democratic party platforms mention space activities, but only briefly.  Trump has made a number of statements in response to questions about the space program during the campaign, but they often are vague and sometimes conflict.  Clinton also has responded to questions about space, but she is invariably enthusiastic and often tells the story of how she wanted to be an astronaut herself, but at the time, females were not allowed in the astronaut corps.

Antares Soars Back Into Service

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Oct-2016 (Updated: 18-Oct-2016 01:25 AM)

Orbital ATK's Antares rocket is back in service after a successful launch five hours ago from Wallops Island, VA.  The rocket delivered a Cygnus cargo spacecraft to orbit.  Cygnus will be berthed to the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday after an extended period of independent flight while a new crew arrives.

The 7:40 pm ET launch on October 17 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility slipped to 7:45 pm ET, the end of the 5-minute launch window.  A commentator on NASA TV said at the time it was due to a minor engine problem.  At a post-launch press conference, however, Orbital ATK's Frank Culbertson said it was to give the launch crew one last chance to check everything over according to a tweet from Jeff Foust (@jeff_foust) of Space News.

Whatever the reason for the brief delay, the launch appeared flawless when it took place.

Antares Liftoff on Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-5 Mission, October 17, 2016.  Photo Credit: NASA Wallops/Patrick Block

This is first flight of Antares since a failure almost exactly two years ago (October 28, 2014).  In the intervening time, Orbital ATK replaced the old Russian NK-33/AJ26 engines with newer Russian RD-181 engines.

The launch was delayed many times since this spring, most recently from Sunday to Monday.  It is designated OA-5, for Orbital ATK-5, even though OA-6 already has been launched.  While Antares was being re-engined, Orbital ATK launched two Cygnus cargo spacecraft on United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets. OA-4 was launched in December 2015 and OA-6 in March 2016.   This mission was intended to launch in between those, hence the non-sequential numbering.

If this launch had taken place as planned on Sunday, Cygnus OA-5 would have gone directly to the ISS and been berthed there on Wednesday.  Because of the one-day delay, however, it will have to wait until Sunday because a new ISS crew (Soyuz MS-02) will be launched on Wednesday and dock on Friday.  NASA wants to wait for that to occur and the new crew to have a day to acclimate.   Cygnus will be grappled using the robotic Canadarm2 at about 7:05 am ET on Sunday and berthed to an ISS port about two hours later.

What's Happening in Space Policy October 16-22, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Oct-2016 (Updated: 16-Oct-2016 06:36 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of October 16-22, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess until November 14. 

During the Week

At 7:30 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) tonight, China will launch a two-man crew aboard the Shenzhou-11 (SZ-11) spacecraft from the Jiuquan launch site in the Gobi desert (where it will be 7:30 am Monday),  They are headed to the new Tiangong-2 space station with docking expected in two days.  They will remain aboard for 30 days, doubling the duration of China's longest human spaceflight mission to date. Tiangong-2 is small, 8.6 metric tons (MT), compared to the 400 MT International Space Station (ISS), but it is a precursor to a larger 60 MT space station the Chinese plan to have in place in the early 2020s.

ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and Europe.  It has been permanently occupied by multinational crews rotating on 4-6 month shifts since the year 2000 and is regularly resupplied via cargo missions launched by two U.S. companies (Orbital ATK and SpaceX) and the Japanese and Russian space agencies.  The next cargo mission, Orbital ATK's OA-5,  was scheduled for launch tonight from Wallops Island, VA at 8:03 pm EDT.  At press time, however, Orbital ATK announced that the launch of the Cygnus cargo spacecraft is being postponed for 24 hours because of a bad ground support cable.  The new launch time is Monday at 7:40 pm EDT.   Cygnus OA-5 will deliver supplies, equipment and scientific experiments to the three crew members currently aboard (one each from NASA, JAXA and Roscosmos).  Cygnus is being launched with a new version of Orbital ATK's Antares rocket.  This is the first flight of Antares since an October 28, 2014 failure.  If launched tonight, Cygnus was to arrive at ISS Wednesday morning, but with a Monday launch, arrival at ISS will be delayed a few days.  Three new ISS crew members are being launched to ISS on the Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft early Wednesday morning EDT.  They are taking the 2-day route to ISS arriving on Friday.  NASA and Orbital ATK said at a press conference yesterday that if the OA-5 launch was delayed to Monday, as now has happened, they would have the Cygnus spacecraft loiter in orbit for a few days to allow the Soyuz MS-02 crew to dock first.  The Cygnus arrival is now scheduled for Sunday, October 23.  The Soyuz MS-02 crew (one American, two Russians) will restore the ISS to its usual crew complement of six.

The European Space Agency (ESA)-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) mission already had an important event today. The spacecraft is carrying a small lander, Schiaparelli, and they made the trip to Mars together.  They are three days away from Mars now and it was time for them to separate.  Separation occurred at approximately 10:30 am EDT, but was followed by a nail-biting period of time when ESA was not receiving telemetry from TGO.  That problem appears to be resolved now and the mission is proceeding as scheduled.  On Wednesday, Schiaparelli will land on Mars and TGO will enter orbit.  ESA will provide live coverage of those events and hold a press conference on Thursday.

To recap only these events (all EDT):

Today (Sunday)

  • ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter/Schiaparelli lander separation
  • Chinese launch of Shenzhou-11 with two crew members to Tiangong-2 space station at 7:30 pm EDT (usually broadcast on China's CCTV, available in English on the Internet)


  • New launch date for U.S. Orbital ATK launch of Cygnus OA-5 cargo mission to ISS, 7:40 pm EDT (broadcast on NASA TV)


  • Chinese crew arrives at Tiangong-2 (time not announced)


  • Russian Soyuz MS-02 launch to ISS from Kazakhstan with three crew members (one American, two Russian) at 4:05 am EDT (watch on NASA TV)
  • ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter enters Martian orbit and Schiaparelli lands (watch on ESA's website, 9:00 am - 4:00 pm EDT)


  • ESA press conference about ExoMars (watch on ESA's website, 4:00-5:00 am EDT)


  • Soyuz MS-02 docks at ISS (time not announced)


  • Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-5 arrival at ISS (if launch is on October 17), grapple at approximately 7:00 am EDT

Many other events are on tap this week in addition to those launches and arrivals.  Among them is the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division on Planetary Sciences (DPS) in Pasadena, CA.  This year it is combined with a meeting of the European Planetary Science Congress.  Exciting discoveries and other results from planetary exploration missions are the staple of this conference.  It starts today and runs through Friday.

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis (CSBA) is having an interesting discussion on Tuesday morning at the Newseum in Washington, DC.  CSBA challenged teams from four prominent Washington think tanks to develop alternative strategies and rebalance DOD's major capabilities in light of today's security challenges.  They could choose from over 1200 pre-costed options provided by CSBA to add to or cut from the projected defense program for the next 10 years.  They will present their conclusions at the meeting.  It will be interesting to see if they recommend any changes to the national security space portfolio.  The event will be webcast.

On Friday, the State Department and the Secure World Foundation will hold a day-long seminar at the State Department on International Best Practices for Space Sustainability. It features four panels of top experts from around the world (your editor is lucky enough to moderate the industry panel).  Hopefully you followed the instructions and registered by last Friday as required for this event (for security checks etc.).

And last but not least of our highlighted events for the week, the final 2016 presidential debates is Wednesday night from 9:00-10:30 pm EDT.  It will be nationally televised (check local listings).   The election is on November 8.

All of those events and others we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others that we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list or for schedule changes.

Sunday, October 16

Sunday-Friday, October 16-21

Monday, October 17

Tuesday, October 18

Wednesday, October 19

Thursday, October 20

Friday, October 21

Antares Ready for Sunday Night Launch, Viewable Along East Coast - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Oct-2016 (Updated: 16-Oct-2016 06:33 PM)

UPDATE, October 16, 6:30 pm ET:  Orbital ATK has postponed the launch for one day because of a bad ground support cable. The new launch date and time are Monday, October 17, at 7:40 pm ET.  If that date holds, Cygnus OA-5 will loiter in orbit for a few days rather than going directly to ISS in order to allow the Soyuz MS-02 crew to dock on Friday first.  Cygnus will wait until Sunday, October 23, with grapple by the robotic Canadarm2 at approximately 7:00 am ET.

ORIGINAL STORY, OCTOBER 16, 6:04 am ET:  Orbital ATK will launch an Antares rocket with a Cygnus spacecraft full of cargo for the International Space Station (ISS) at 8:03 pm ET tonight (Sunday).  There is a 5 minute launch window.  Weather is forecast 95 percent "go" for the launch from Wallops Island, VA on the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia (DELMARVA) peninsula.  By coincidence, the launch will take place just half an hour after China launches a two-man crew to its new Tiangong-2 space station.

NASA TV coverage begins at 7:00 pm ET of the launch of Orbital ATK's Commercial Resupply Services-5 (OA-5) mission, but it also should be visible to the naked eye from New England to South Carolina and as far west as Charleston, WV.  Orbital ATK provided a map of where and when to look.

Where to Look for the Orbital ATK OA-5 Launch on October 16, 2016.  (L = launch) Image credit: Orbital ATK.

This is the first flight of Antares since an October 28, 2014 launch failure that was caused by one of its two Russian NK-33/AJ26 rocket engines.  During the past two years, Orbital ATK has substituted newer Russian RD-181 engines in all of its Antares rockets, so this is also the first flight of the re-engined Antares.  

The failed mission in 2014 was designated Orb-3 -- the third operational ISS cargo mission for Orbital Sciences Corporation, which later merged with ATK to form Orbital ATK.

Orbital ATK launched two Cygnus missions from Cape Canaveral, FL using United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets while Antares was being readied for flight.  Those were Orbital ATK-4 (OA-4) in December 2015 and OA-6 in March 2016,   Today's mission is OA-5 and, as the name indicates, was originally intended to fly in-between those two launches, but was delayed for a variety of technical reasons.

The OA-5 Cygnus spacecraft is loaded with 5,300 pounds (2,400 kilograms) of supplies, equipment, and science experiments.  The spacecraft is named after the late Alan Poindexter, a former NASA astronaut who died in 2012 from injuries sustained in a non-space-related accident.  Poindexter flew on two space shuttle missions that delivered modules to the ISS. 

If all goes as planned, OA-5 will arrive at the ISS on Wednesday morning and be grappled using the robotic Canadarm2 at about 7:00 am ET and berthed to the space station approximately two hours later.  If the launch is delayed for any reason, the next opportunity is tomorrow, Monday, at 7:40 pm ET.

This is the beginning of a busy two-week period at the ISS.  Three new crew members will launch to the ISS on Wednesday aboard the Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft, about three hours before OA-5 arrives at ISS.  The Soyuz MS-02 crew is taking the two-day trajectory to ISS, with arrival on Friday.  The three crew are NASA's Shane Kimbrough and Roscosmos's Andrey Borisneko and Sergey Rhyzhikov.

If the OA-5 launch slips to Monday, NASA and Orbital ATK plan to have the Cygnus spacecraft loiter in space for several days and berth after the Soyuz MS-02 crew is aboard.  Ten days after Soyuz MS-02 arrives, the three crew members currently aboard the ISS (NASA's Kate Rubins, JAXA's Takuya Onishi and Roscosmos's Anatoly Ivanishin) will return to Earth. They will be replaced in November.

OA-5 will remain berthed to ISS for about one month.  After it departs from the ISS in November, several cubesats will be deployed.  For the first time, they will be released from an altitude above the ISS, providing a longer orbital lifetime.   In subsequent days, a second SAFFIRE fire experiment will be conducted inside the Cygnus capsule to study how fires behave in weightlessness.  Once the experiment is completed, Cygnus will be commanded to reenter Earth's atmosphere and the entire capsule will burn up due to the heat of reentry.  Cygnus spacecraft are not designed to survive reentry and are used for trash disposal.

This "commercial cargo" launch is part of Orbital ATK's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA under which the company is delivering a total of 66,000 pounds (33,000 kilograms) of cargo to the ISS through 2018.   SpaceX, with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft, is Orbital ATK's competitor for CRS missions.   Both companies as well as Sierra Nevada were awarded at least six flights each under the follow-on CRS2 contract,  Sierra Nevada is building the Dream Chaser winged spacecraft (which looks like a small space shuttle) that will be launched with ULA's Atlas V rocket.  The CRS2 missions begin in 2019.  

ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries acting through the European Space Agency (ESA).  All the partners except Europe are committed to operating the ISS at least through 2024.  ESA is expected to agree at its December 2016 ministerial meeting where the ministers in charge of space activities for each of its member countries make decisions about future activities.

Forget Matthew, It's Nicole Delaying the Return to Flight of Antares-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Oct-2016 (Updated: 14-Oct-2016 02:29 PM)

Update, October 14:   NASA/Wallops PAO Keith Koehler reports that there was little damage to the tracking station and final testing remains scheduled for tomorrow.  Launch is still on for Sunday, October 16, at 8:03 pm ET, as of now.

Original Story, October 11, 2016: Orbital ATK's return to flight of the Antares rocket has been delayed again.  The new launch date is Sunday, October 16, at 8:03 pm ET.  Last week's concerns that Hurricane Matthew might impact the launch site at Wallops Island, VA have given way to new worries that Tropical Storm Nicole will affect a critical tracking site on Bermuda.  Nicole is expected to reach hurricane status by the time it arrives there.  Ironically, a hurricane also delayed the last Antares launch, which failed two years ago this month.

The launch date for this cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), Orbital ATK-5 (OA-5), has been delayed many times this year.  It is the first Antares launch since an October 28, 2014 failure that was traced to one of the Russian-built NK-33/AJ26 rocket engines. Orbital ATK decided to replace those engines for all Antares rockets with new Russian RD-181 engines.  Technical challenges in doing that slipped the launch, originally expected in the spring, until now. 

The October 28 failure was of the Orb-3 cargo mission to ISS.  At the time, the company was Orbital Sciences Corporation and its ISS cargo missions were designated "Orb."  As the number implies, it was the third operational cargo mission for that company, which later merged with ATK and is now Orbital ATK.  Orbital ATK has launched two cargo flights, OA-4 and OA-6, to ISS in the interim, using United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets instead of Antares.

In a twist of fate, the Orb-3 launch also was delayed by a hurricane hitting Bermuda -- Gonzalo.

Most recently, the Antares return-to-flight mission was scheduled for October 13, but slipped to October 14 because of minor technical issues and preparations for Hurricane Matthew, whose path was difficult to forecast and could have come up the East Coast.  (Instead, it caused wind and storm surge damage in Florida and then dealt a punishing blow to North and South Carolina with rain).

Having dodged that bullet, however, the launch is now being affected by Tropical Storm Nicole.  It does not threaten the U.S. East Coast, but is headed towards Bermuda and is forecast to reach hurricane status before it arrives there on October 13.

"The tracking station at Bermuda is required to conduct the Antares launch from Wallops," said Steven Kremer, chief of the Wallops Range and Mission Management Office. The threat to not only the tracking station itself, but Bermuda's overall infrastructure, are of concern.  Once the storm passes, a damage assessment will be performed, mission readiness will be tested, and the site will be brought back to operational status NASA said in a press release today.

Two pre-launch briefings that were scheduled for tomorrow, October 12, also have been postponed.  They now will take place on Saturday, October 15, at 4:00 pm ET (science) and 6:00 pm ET (mission status).  They will be aired on NASA TV. 

If the launch takes place on Sunday, October 16, at 8:03 pm ET, NASA TV coverage will begin at 7:00 pm ET.

What's Happening in Space Policy October 9-14, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Oct-2016 (Updated: 09-Oct-2016 03:52 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of October 9-14, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess until November 14.

During the Week

The week starts tonight (Sunday) with the second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton (D) and Donald Trump (R).  Don't expect the space program to come up at all, but these debates are important elements of the presidential election, the foundation of our democracy.   Everyone should be paying attention!  This one is a town-hall format at Washington University in St. Louis from 9:00-10:30 pm ET (nationally televised, check local listings).

Tomorrow, October 10, is a Federal holiday (Columbus Day), so government workers, at least, will have a day off to recuperate. This is a holiday that many businesses do NOT observe, however, choosing instead to close on the day after Thanksgiving.  So whether you get to sleep in tomorrow or not depends on where you work.

For the space program, this week's big event is the launch of Orbital ATK's re-engined Antares rocket on a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).  Launch schedules are always subject to change, but at the moment it is planned for 9:13 pm ET on Thursday night (two pre-launch briefings will take place the day before).  Antares launches from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA.  It is a night launch.  Weather permitting, it should be viewable for a good-sized segment of the East Coast.  This is the first Antares flight since an October 28, 2014 failure that destroyed that rocket and a Cygnus spacecraft loaded with cargo for ISS.  This mission is designated OA-5, for Orbital ATK-5, although it is the sixth operational flight in this series.  Orbital ATK names its cargo spacecraft after deceased astronauts.  This one is named after Alan Poindexter who died in 2012 from injuries sustained in an accident.  He flew on two space shuttle missions (STS-122 as pilot, STS-131 as commander) that delivered modules to the ISS as part of its construction.

Also on Thursday night, Women in Aerospace (WIA) will hold its annual awards dinner in Arlington, VA.   Six distinguished women will receive awards -- including a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award for Molly Macauley -- and Patti Grace Smith, who passed away earlier this year, will also be recognized.

The annual International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS 2016) will be held in Las Cruces, New Mexico on Wednesday and Thursday, with pre- and post-events the prior and following days.  The website does not indicate if any of the symposium will be webcast.   If we find out that it will be, we'll post the link in our calendar item about this event.   Looks really interesting, so hopefully it will be livestrearmed.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.  Check back throughout the week for others that we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Sunday, October 9

Monday, October 10

  • U.S. Federal Holiday (Columbus Day), government offices will be closed

Tuesday, October 11

Wednesday, October 12



Thursday, October 13

Friday, October 14

Blue Origin's New Shepard Rocket Blows Away Crew Capsule, Both Survive

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Oct-2016 (Updated: 06-Oct-2016 05:06 PM)

Blue Origin successfully tested its in-flight escape system today deliberatley separating the crew capsule from the New Shepard rocket while it was accelerating into space.  Company founder Jeff Bezos kept expectations low that the rocket would survive the event, but survive it did, continuing on its way to space as though nothing had happened and returning to land about two miles from its launch site.  This was the fifth -- and last -- flight this specific reusable rocket whose next destination is a museum.

New Shepard is designed to take passengers on suborbital trips to space and return them to Earth.  Both the rocket and the crew capsule are reusable.  Blue Origin, in keeping with its slogan, Gradatim Ferociter (step-by-step, ferociously), is conducting tests to show that the rocket and capsule can safely return passengers to Earth under several different failure scenarios.

In today's test, launch of the New Shepard rocket was delayed by three unplanned holds.  Two were very brief, but one lasted about 15 minutes.  The company did not fully explain why, but at approximately 11:30 am ET (10:30 am local time at the Blue Origin test range in west Texas), the rocket lifted off.  As planned, about 45 seconds later at an altitude of 16,000 feet where the rocket encounters maximum dynamic pressure (MaxQ), Blue Origin triggered the escape sequence.  A solid rocket motor at the base of the crew capsule fired and pushed the capsule away from the rocket.

The bright light near the top is the solid rocket motor firing to separate the crew capsule (above) from the rocket (below).  Photo credit: Blue Origin

The firing of the solid rocket motor imparted 700,000 pounds of force onto the rocket.  It was not designed to withstand such forces, so Bezos and his team expected the rocket to fail at that point and crash onto the desert floor, making an "impressive" impact.

The rocket was tougher than that, though.  It continued on its way to space as it did in previous launches.  For its part, the crew capsule experienced a survivable, but exhilarating flight profile after separation, soon stabilizing and deploying its drogue parachutes.

On left, crew capsule under drogue parachutes returning to Earth.  On right, New Shepard rocket continuing on its path to space.  Screenshot from Blue Origin webcast.

Referred to as a "full envelope escape system," it is designed to ensure that people will be able to survive no matter what may happen during launch. 

Once passenger flights begin, it will be a short ride -- 11 minutes total, of which four are in zero gravity (g).  During descent, they will experience a peak of 5 gs of force.  The capsule descends in free flight, then deploys drogue parachutes, then main parachutes, slowing it to three miles per hour when thrusters fire for the final soft landing (similar to how Russian Soyuz spacecraft land).

New Shepard is a suborbital rocket named after Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space on a suborbital flight in 1961.  Next, Blue Origin plans to launch a rocket before the end of this decade that is capable of achieving orbit.  It is named New Glenn in honor of John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth (in 1962).  It will be followed by New Armstrong, after Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the Moon (1969).  Bezos asserts that his long term vision is for "millions of people living and working in space."

A video of the test is posted on YouTube.  To see only the launch, separation, and capsule and rocket landings, scroll forward to 1:06.  

New Shepard is powered by Blue Origin's own BE-3 liquid oxygen (LOX)/liquid hydrogen engines.  It also is developing the BE-4 engine that will use a novel LOX/liquefied natural gas (methane) mixture.  New Glenn will use BE-4 engines.  The United Launch Alliance is also considering BE-4 engines for its new Vulcan rocket.

Blue Origin's main competitor for suborbital tourist flights is Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which uses a completely different type of system.  Today, they offered their congratulations, tweeting (@virgingalactic) "Kudos from our whole team."  The Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group to which Blue Origin belongs, also offered congratulations.

Correction:  An earlier version identified Jeff Bezos as the President of Blue Origin.  He is the founder; Rob Meyerson is the President.

Antares Return to Flight Will Be October 13 if Matthew Doesn't Interfere - UPDATE 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Oct-2016 (Updated: 14-Oct-2016 01:43 PM)

UPDATE, October 14, 2016:   The launch is currently scheduled for October 16 at 8:03 pm ET.  It was delayed from October 13 to October 14 due to a "minor vehicle processing issue...together with time spent on contingency planning for Hurricane Matthew" which could have come up the East Coast (but did not).  It was delayed again from October 14 to October 16 because of concerns about Hurricane Nicole's impact on Bermuda where a critical tracking station is located.   There was little damage, however, and NASA/Wallops PAO Keith Koehler reports today that, as of now, the launch remains on track for October 16.

ORIGINAL STORY, October 4, 2016: Orbital ATK and NASA have agreed on October 13 as the launch date for the next Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS).  That date is contingent on the company completing pre-launch integration and testing activities and on the path of Hurricane Matthew.

A launch date range of October 9-13 was previously announced.  The launch time on October 13 is 9:13 pm ET.

This will be Orbital ATK's first flight of the re-engined version of Antares, using two Russian RD-181 engines instead of Russian NK-33/AJ26 engines.   The company is retrofitting its Antares rockets with the newer engines because of an October 28, 2014 launch failure that was blamed on the older engine.  It destroyed the rocket and the Cygnus cargo spacecraft that was filled with cargo headed to the ISS.  That was the third operational ISS cargo mission for Orbital Sciences Corporation and was designated Orb-3.

Orbital Sciences later merged with ATK to become Orbital ATK.   While waiting for the new Antares to be ready, Orbital ATK launched two ISS cargo missions using United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket .  They were designated OA-4 and OA-6.

The upcoming flight, OA-5, was supposed to launch in between those two, hence the disrupted numbering system.

Antares launches from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA.   That is on the Atlantic Coast of the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia (DELMARVA) peninsula.   Hurricane Matthew, which is expected to inflict severe damage on Haiti today, is a variable that could change the launch date.  Forecasters are not able to pinpoint Matthew's course after Haiti, although Florida has declared a state of emergency already just in case it heads in that direction.  If it comes up the East Coast, it could affect coastal Virginia and delay pre-launch preparations.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the original Antares used a single NK-33/AJ26 engine.  It used two.

What's Happening in Space Policy October 3-7, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Oct-2016 (Updated: 02-Oct-2016 03:06 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of October 3-7, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in recess until November 14.

During the Week

Happy World Space Week!   In 1999, the United Nations declared October 4-10 as World Space Week to commemorate the beginning of the Space Age -- October 4, 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the world's first satellite, Sputnik -- and the entry into force of the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty (October 10, 1967).  Space agencies and other organizations around the world hold events to celebrate the occasion.  A list is on the World Space Week website.

Among the various specific space policy events coming up this week, we know of only one that has officially declared itself a World Space Week event, however.  That is the International Space University-DC (ISU-DC) U.S. alumni chapter, which is holding its next Space Cafe on Wednesday, October 5, at the The Brixton in Washington, DC.  The speaker is Dennis Stone, who is the World Space Week Association President and Project Executive of NASA's Commercial Space Capabilities Office at Johnson Space Center.

There are many other events that could be, though, including one on Tuesday, the 59th anniversary of Sputnik, that might create quite a bang.  Blue Origin will conduct a test of its in-flight escape system for the New Shepard reusable rocket, activating it 45 seconds after launch.  Blue Origin President Jeff Bezos said the rocket, which has flown four times already, was not designed to withstand the forces it will experience and is not expected to survive the test (though there is a small chance it might).  Assuming it does not, he said the impact with the desert floor of the still almost fully fueled rocket "will be most impressive."  The test will be webcast beginning at 10:50 am ET.

Rice University's Baker Institute will hold a panel discussion entitled "Lost in Space 2016" tomorrow night (Monday) with a panel of space policy analysts and practitioners.  It is a reprise of a panel four years ago at the time of the last presidential election.   The panel will be webcast (5:30-7:30 Central/6:30-8:30 pm Eastern) and includes Mark Albrecht, Leroy Chaio, Joan Johnson-Freese, Neal Lane, Michael Lembeck, Eugene Levy, and John Logsdon, with George Abbey as moderator.  An impressive line-up.

Speaking of the election, Tuesday night (almost certainly NOT in commemoration of Sputnik's 59th anniversary) is the one and only Vice Presidential debate between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence.   Fireworks are not expected, but it should be interesting nonetheless.  It is from 9:00-10:30 pm ET and will be nationally telecast (check local listings).

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others that we learn about later and add to our Events Of Interest list.

Monday, October 3

  • Lost in Space 2016 panel, Rice University's Baker Institute, Houston, TX, 5:30-7:30 pm Central/6:30-8:30 pm Eastern, webcast

Monday-Tuesday, October 3-4

Tuesday, October 4

Tuesday-Wednesday, October 4-5

Tuesday, October 4 - Monday, October 10

Wednesday, October 5

Wednesday-Thursday, October 5-6

Wednesday-Friday, October 5-7

Thursday, October 6

  • MEPAG, virtual, 8:30 am - 12:30 pm Pacific/11:30 am - 3:30 pm Eastern (Adobe Connect)
  • NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX, 10:15-11:30 am Central/11:15 am-12:30 pm Eastern), audio available

Blue Origin to Test In-Flight Escape System Next Week - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Sep-2016 (Updated: 03-Oct-2016 04:28 PM)

Update, October 3, 2016:  The test has been postponed by one day, to October 5, due to bad weather.

Original story, September 30, 2016: Blue Origin President Jeff Bezos announced yesterday that the company will conduct an in-flight test of its escape system for the New Shepard rocket.  The test will take place on October 4, which happens to be the 59th anniversary of the Space Age -- the date when the Soviet Union orbited the world's first satellite, Sputnik.  Blue Origin will provide a live webcast of the test.

New Shepard is a reusable, suborbital rocket designed to take passengers on short trips to space.  It is named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space, who made a 15 minute suborbital flight on May 5, 1961 (three weeks after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, completing one orbit of the Earth).  There is no legal definition of where air ends and space begins, but today 100 kilometers is an internationally recognized boundary and that is what companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic use as their benchmark.

The in-flight escape system would be used if an emergency occurred during launch and the crew capsule had to be separated from the rocket to return the passengers safely to Earth. In the test, the escape system will be triggered approximately 45 seconds after launch at an altitude of 16,000 feet.  If all goes as planned, the capsule will separate and land using its parachutes.

The rocket that will be used for this test has flown four times already.   Bezos is not optimistic that it will survive this fifth flight since it was not designed to withstand the aerodynamic forces it will experience. He said there is a chance it might, but if not, "its impact with the desert floor will be most impressive."

Launch of New Shepard rocket on its fourth flight, June 19, 2016.  This same rocket will be used for the October 4 test.  Photo credit: Blue Origin

The webcast on the Blue Origin website will begin at 10:50 am ET.  The time for the test itself was not specified.

Elon Musk may be focused on sending 1 million people to Mars, but Bezos wants "millions of people living and working in space" generally.   Two weeks ago he announced plans for his orbital rocket, New Glenn, named after John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth (on February 20, 1962).   He expects the first New Glenn launch by the end of the decade.  It will use BE-4 rocket engines that he is developing.  They use a novel propellant -- Liquid Oxygen (LOX) and liquified natural gas (methane) instead of the traditional LOX/kerosene.  The United Launch Alliance (ULA) is considering use of the BE-4 for its new Vulcan rocket, as well.

After New Glenn will come New Armstrong, named after Neil Armstrong, the first human to step foot on the Moon (on July 20, 1969).  Bezos said only that it is "up next on our drawing board ... but that's a story for the future."

For now, he is focused on suborbital flights and the October 4 test is another step in that direction.