International Space News
NASA International Space Station (ISS) program managers decided today that Wednesday's "water in the helmet" episode is not an impediment to proceeding with another spacewalk on Sunday. The ISS Mission Management Team (IMMT) gave approval for the spacewalk to proceed this morning.
NASA astronauts Terry Virts and Barry "Butch" Wilmore are conducting a trio of spacewalks to get docking ports ready to accept commercial crew spacecraft when they begin flying in 2017. The first two on February 21 and February 25 went fine, but after Virts reentered the airlock on February 25 and it began repressurizing, he noticed water inside his helmet.
Virts was wearing spacesuit 3005 and NASA immediately explained that the same suit had a similar problem after a December 2013 spacewalk. NASA is very sensitive to water incursion after a very serious incident in July 2013 when ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano's helmet filled with water during a spacewalk while he was still outside the ISS.
This time was entirely different, according to NASA officials. The lead EVA spacewalk officer, Alex Kanelakos, said on NASA's Space Station Live program after the IMMT decision that it was only a small amount of water, 15 milliliters (ml), and it has happened seven times previously with this spacesuit. He explained that a small amount of "carryover water" can develop inside the helmet during repressurization. NASA considers up to 57 ml to be permissable. Kanelakos did not say exactly how much water filled Parmitano's helmet in July 2013, but indicated it was many times more.
Because this has happened with suit 3005 several times, Kanelakos said that although NASA does not "expect" it to happen, it is a "known feature" of that suit.
NASA posted an explanation later in the day saying the suit "has a history of what is called 'sublimator water carryover', a small amount of residual water in the sublimator cooling component that can condense once the environment around the suit is repressurized following its exposure to vacuum during a spacewalk...."
Why Virts and his ISS crewmates were surprised and concerned about the water is unclear if it is a known feature and has happened seven times in the past with this suit.
In any case, the spacewalk was given the go-ahead to proceed on Sunday, March 1, beginning at about 7:10 am ET. NASA TV coverage will begin at 6:00 am ET. The spacewalk is expected to last 6 hours 45 minutes.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James added a dose of reality today to projections about when an American-made rocket engine could replace Russia's RD-180s for the Atlas V rocket. During testimony, she said that meeting the congressional mandate to have a new engine by 2019 may not be doable. Her experts tell her it will take 6-8 years to get a new engine and another 1-2 years to integrate it into a launch vehicle.
James spoke before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee (SAC-D) on the Air Force FY2016 budget request along with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III. The two are scheduled to testify to the House counterpart subcommittee (HAC-D) on Friday.
The issue really is about developing a new propulsion system, of which an engine is a part, but "engine" is commonly used as shorthand.
The deterioration in U.S.-Russian relationships beginning last year because of Russia's action in Ukraine highlighted how dependent the United States is on Russian technology to launch U.S. national security satellites. The United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V and Delta IV rockets -- referred to as Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs ) -- launch almost all of them, and the Atlas V is powered by Russia's RD-180 engine. The issue figured prominently in a number of hearings last year and Air Force officials, including Gen. William Shelton, then head of Air Force Space Command, rued the prospect of losing those engines. Still, Shelton and others eventually accepted that the time had come for the United States to develop its own comparable liquid rocket engine.
The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 113-291) and its accompanying explanatory statement direct DOD to develop a new U.S. propulsion system by 2019 "using full and open competition." The law authorizes $220 million and notes it "is not an authorization of funds for development of a new launch vehicle." Section 608 of the law prohibits the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) from "awarding or renewing a contract for the procurement of property or services" under the EELV program if the contract involves "rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation." The only exceptions are the EELV contract awarded to ULA on December 18, 2013 or unless the SecDef certifies that the offeror can demonstrate that it fully paid for or entered into a legally binding contract for such engines prior to February 1, 2014.
The FY2015 Defense Appropriations Act (Division C of P.L. 113-235) followed suit, appropriating the same $220 million as was authorized "to accelerate rocket propulsion system development with a target demonstration date of fiscal year 2019." It directs the Air Force, in consultation with NASA, "to develop an affordable, innovative, and competitive strategy ... that includes an assessment of the potential benefits and challenges of using public-private partnerships, innovative teaming arrangements, and small business considerations."
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and James engaged in two exchanges about the RD-180 today. Shelby noted that the President's FY2016 request is only for $84 million. "It's also my understanding that developing an RD-180 replacement engine and the associated launch vehicle and launch pad can cost anywhere from $1 billion to more than $3 billion and take perhaps 7 to 10 years to develop," Shelby said. James replied that technical experts have advised her that "It's 6 to 8 years ... for a newly designed engine and then an additional 1 to 2 years on top of that to be able to integrate the engine into the launch vehicle." As for cost, "I've seen $2 billion," James said.
James asked that Congress clarify what it wants, because the 2019 deadline is "pretty aggressive" and "I'm not sure 2019 is doable." She also stressed that they want "at least two" domestic engines "because we want competition of course."
Shelby also revealed that DOD's General Counsel "may" interpret the Section 608 language contrary to congressional intent resulting in a "capability gap for certain launches" and eliminating "real competition." James explained that the General Counsel is trying to interpret several different provisions of law that may or may not have had the same intent, but said the point she wanted to stress is that "virtually everybody" agrees that the United States should be less reliant on Russia. The question is how to accomplish that: "We don't want to cut off our nose to spite our face."
The two also discussed certification of "new entrants." a reference to SpaceX, which has been attempting to obtain certification from the Air Force so it can compete against ULA for these types of national security launches.
ULA manufactures the Atlas V and Delta IV in Decatur, Alabama, Shelby's home state. Shelby talked about the virtues of competition, but, without mentioning SpaceX by name, said "some of these so-called companies that are planning to compete, and we'd like for them to compete, they have had several mishaps" compared to ULA. James replied that every developmental program has mishaps and "I'm quite sure they're going to get there from here."
ULA is jointly owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing. At yesterday's hearing before the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, Boeing's John Elbon also urged a "thoughtful" approach to the transition from the RD-180 to a U.S. engine and keeping the pipeline of engines open as long as possible rather setting a hard cut-off date.
Meanwhile, ULA announced last fall that it is partnering with Blue Origin to develop the BE-4 rocket engine as an RD-180 replacement. ULA and Blue Origin said at the time that the project is fully paid for and not in need of government funding.
NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Terry Virts performed a successful 6 hour 43 minute spacewalk from the International Space Station (ISS) today, but after they were back inside the airlock, during repressurization, Virts noticed water inside his helmet. It was a small amount compared to a major incident in July 2013, but NASA is now investigating what went wrong and whether another spacewalk planned for Sunday can go forward.
What little is known at this moment is that Virts noticed the water while he was face down in the airlock during repressurization. In zero gravity, being face up or down should not matter. He immediately reported it and ISS crewmate Samantha Cristoforetti (from the European Space Agency -- ESA) began to help him remove the helmet. That requires a number of steps and the process was not rushed since there was no emergency. At one point ground controllers asked Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, who was assisting Cristoforetti, to point a camera directly at Virts' helmet so they could see what he was experiencing. The blob of water was clearly visible adhering to the interior of his visor.
No problems were reported during the spacewalk itself. It occurred only once Virts and Wilmore were back inside the airlock and it was repressurized to 5 pounds per square inch (psi). Repressurization pauses at that point for a suit check before continuing to full repressurization to 14.7 psi.
At the request of ground controllers, once the helmet was removed, Cristoforetti touched the water to determine its temperature as part of troubleshooting steps. She reported that it was cold. She also reported that the Helmet Absorption Pad (HAP) at the back of the helmet was damp, but not saturated. Virts later added that the water was not from his drink bag, which was fine, and that the water had a chemical taste.
NASA's TV commentator reported that this suit, 3005, had a similar problem after a December 2013 spacewalk and that it occurred at exactly the same point -- when repressurization reached 5 psi.
The December 2013 spacewalk was necessitated by the failure of a key ISS component (a coolant loop) and performed on a contingency basis because of an earlier and much more serious event in July 2013. At that time, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano's helmet filled with water while he was outside the ISS performing the spacewalk. The cause ultimately was determined to be a clogged filter that allowed water from the suit's cooling system to enter the helmet. Parmitano later wrote a compelling account of the experience. NASA has been even more careful about ensuring the spacesuits are functioning properly since then and implemented a number of changes -- including installing HAPs to soak up any water that does enter a helmet. That apparently was at least partially successful today.
NASA will now investigate this incident. NASA said this afternoon that a decision on whether to proceed with Sunday's spacewalk will be made at an already scheduled management meeting on Friday.
Today's spacewalk is the second of a trio that Wilmore and Virts are performing to ready ISS docking ports to be able to accommodate U.S. commercial crew spacecraft. The first was successfully conducted on February 21. NASA hopes to complete all three before March 12 when Wilmore will return to Earth as part of a routine crew rotation. Two of the three spacewalks were delayed by a day as NASA worked an earlier issue with the suits' fan pump separators.
Sen. Ted Cruz’s first hearing as chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA and commercial space activities was politely inquisitive and not confrontational as some expected. Cruz (R-TX), a leading Tea Party activist, is a relative unknown quantity on space issues. The hearing exhibited that he is an advocate of U.S. leadership in space, ending U.S. reliance on Russia, and supporter of commercial space.
As is typical, few Senators attended yesterday’s hearing before the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), the top Democrat (Ranking Member) on the subcommittee, and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), were there only briefly because they also serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where Secretary of State John Kerry was testifying at the same time. (Ironically, Gardner unseated Udall’s cousin, Mark Udall, for that Colorado Senate seat in last year’s election.)
Cruz chaired the hearing for the full duration and was joined for most of it by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who was the chairman of this subcommittee in the last Congress when Democrats controlled the Senate. Nelson is now Ranking Member of the full committee. Cruz was the Ranking Member on the subcommittee in the last Congress, so the two have worked together on these topics in the past as well as on other committees and rarely see eye to eye. In this case, however, Cruz’s opening statement was a pep talk about the space program full of familiar themes about the need for U.S. leadership in space and ending U.S. dependence on Russia. Nelson noted the similarities in their views on those subjects, at least, and the two bantered about how the fact that they agreed on something could be used against them in future political campaigns.
The hearing broke little new ground, but sparked interesting dialogue. One panel of former astronauts offered the usual hopes of human trips to Mars coupled with familiar warnings that NASA’s budget needs to grow to accomplish such a goal. A second panel of industry and academic experts offered perspectives on commercial space, U.S. leadership, future human spaceflight destinations, and preferences in reauthorizing the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA).
The first panel was comprised of three former astronauts: Apollo 7’s Walter Cunningham, Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin (the second man to walk on the Moon), and space shuttle astronaut Mike Massimino. The second panel was Boeing’s John Elbon, George Washington University’s Scott Pace, and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s Eric Stallmer.
Cruz is a vocal climate change skeptic and concerns were widely expressed in the space community when he became chairman of this subcommittee that he would use his position to try to restrict funding for NASA’s earth science research. Cunningham is also a climate change skeptic and his inclusion on the panel fueled expectations that the hearing would focus on that topic. In fact, however, climate change barely arose and only in response to a question from Udall to Massimino about whether he agreed that NASA should remain a multi-mission agency including funding programs for earth observation. Massimino discoursed about how the International Space Station is a great “perch” for viewing Earth and his belief that if NASA can help with any of the problems facing the country and the world, it should.
Except for his opening statement, Cruz kept his own views to himself and asked thought provoking questions that allowed the witnesses an opportunity to share their perspectives.
Cruz’s key messages in that statement were: NASA needs to get back to its “core priorities” of exploring space; the United States should be the leader in space; SLS and Orion are critical to exploring space “whether it is Moon, Mars or beyond” (omitting mention of asteroids); U.S. dependence on Russia for access to ISS is “unacceptable” and it is “imperative” that we be able to get to the ISS without the Russians; the commercial crew program is “critical” to ending U.S. dependence on Russia; and the United States should be able to launch national security satellites without Russian engines. He said he is encouraged by progress on commercial cargo and crew, but “maximum efficiency and expedition” are needed, and he will be an “enthusiastic advocate of competition and the enabling of the private sector to compete and innovate.” He ended by saying “There is no limit to human imagination or desire for exploration …. America has always led the way in space exploration and we need to reclaim that leadership.”
Interesting tidbits from the hearing include the following:
The written statements of the witnesses and an archived webcast are available on the committee’s website.
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of February 23-27, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
This is one of those weeks when so much is going on that it's difficult to choose just a couple of events to highlight. Please peruse the list below to find your own favorites.
There are seven congressional hearings of interest to the space policy community, though one suspects two are of particular note to readers of this website: Tuesday's Senate hearing on the U.S. human spaceflight program and commercial space competitiveness (with three former astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin), and Friday's House hearing on NASA's commercial crew program.
But the others should be of interest, too: Wednesday's House hearing with the NASA Inspector General (and his counterparts at the Departments of Commerce and Justice) and hearings on the FY2016 budget requests for the Department of Transportation (including the Office of Commercial Space Transportation), Air Force (where many national security space programs reside), and the Department of Commerce (home of NOAA). Many congressional hearings are webcast (though usually not the ones held in the U.S. Capitol), so you can enjoy them live or later in archived webcasts. We'll provide summaries of as many of them as we can.
Tuesday, February 24
Tuesday-Wednesday, February 24-25
Wednesday, February 25
Thursday, February 26
Friday, February 27
OrbitalATK President and CEO David Thompson said today that the company plans the first flight of its upgraded Antares rocket on March 1, 2016 from Wallops Flight Facility, VA. An Antares exploded at liftoff in October 2014 destroying a Cygnus capsule loaded with supplies for the International Space Station (ISS). The upgraded Antares will use a different rocket engine.
Thompson and two other top officials of the new company held an investors teleconference this morning. The merger of Orbital Sciences Corporation and Alliant Techsystems (ATK) closed on February 9. Thompson and CFO Garrett Pierce are from the Orbital side of the merger; COO Blake Larson is from ATK.
Data presented by the trio this morning show that 56 percent of the company's revenue is from national security programs, 26 percent from commercial programs, and 18 percent from NASA and other civil government programs. NASA programs were numbers two and three of the five top revenue producers last year: NASA's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract to take cargo to the ISS (approximately $300 million) and the propulsion system for the Space Launch System (about $250 million). In first place was small caliber ammunition for the Army ($430 million). Fourth was medium and large caliber ammunition for the Army ($225 million) and fifth place was a tie between missile defense interceptors and tactical missiles, both at $150 million.
Public attention is focused on the merged company's recovery from the Antares failure. Thompson was confident that OrbitalATK will be able to fulfill its contract with NASA to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016. Between now and the first launch of the upgraded Antares, OrbitalATK will launch one of its Cygnus spacecraft on a competitor's rocket -- United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5. Thompson said that launch will be ready for flight in early October, but NASA may want to wait until later that month or November, depending on other ISS activities. That will be followed by the March 1 launch of the upgraded Antares and two more later in the year. The Cygnus itself is an upgraded model as well that can carry more cargo than the earlier version, allowing OrbitalATK to meet the tonnage requirements with only four more launches instead of five.
Thompson said that NASA is not asking the company to fly a demonstration launch of the upgraded rocket -- the March 1 launch will have a full cargo load. However, in January the company will conduct a test firing of the first stage on the launch pad at Wallops.
The first stage is built in Ukraine by Yuzhmash and Thompson was asked if he had any concerns considering the situation there. Thompson replied that he needs five more Antares first stages over the next two-and-a-half years and three are complete and the other two are "almost" complete. "We're watching closely with nearly full time presence" at Yuzhmash and "we do have a fallback plan if things really deteriorate there." No details were provided during the teleconference and the company has not yet responded to a query from SpacePolicyOnline.com about what that plan is.
The engines used for the original version of Antares were old Russian NK-33 engines manufactured more than four decades ago and refurbished here by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ26. Thompson said shortly after the October 28 launch failure that early indications were that the engines were the cause of the failure 15 seconds after launch.
The replacement engines also are Russian, but newer RD-181s built by NPO Energomash, a subsidiary of Energia. In a January 16, 2015 press release, Energia's President Vladimir Solntsev said the two companies had been working on the contract for three years. According to that press release, the contract value is $1 billion for 60 engines (plus engineering services), but apparently that is a firm contract for 20 engines plus two options for 20 more engines each. The first two engines are due to be delivered in June 2015. The RD-181 was "developed specifically" for Antares, according to the Energia press release, based on the RD-191 engine built for Russia's new Angara rocket family. Orbital/OrbitalATK itself has released very little information about the contract.
NASA decided to postpone by one day each the first two of a set of three spacewalks from the International Space Station (ISS) planned over the next week and a half. The first was scheduled for tomorrow, February 20, but will wait until February 21. The second will slip from February 24 to February 25. The third remains on track for March 1.
NASA astronauts Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Terry Virts will use the spacewalks to begin the process of outfitting ISS docking ports so they can accommodate new commercial crew vehicles when they start ferrying astronauts to the ISS in 2017. All three involve running cables and moving equipment on the exterior of the space station.
Experts are still troubleshooting an issue with the fan pump separators on the astronauts' spacesuits, however. NASA's ISS Operations and Integration Manager Kenny Todd revealed the problem at a press briefing yesterday. He said a decision on the schedule for the spacewalks would be made today after a special ISS Mission Management Team (IMMT) meeting. That meeting at Johnson Space Center (JSC) concluded about 2:30 pm Central Time (3:30 pm Eastern) with the decision to wait one more day for the first two.
NASA would like to get all three spacewalks completed before Wilmore returns to Earth on March 12. The third of the three is still scheduled for March 1. All three spacewalks will begin at about 7:10 am Eastern Time, with NASA TV coverage beginning at 6:00 am ET.
Todd explained that corrosion was discovered in the fan pump separators probably due to water intrusion. The corrosion creates mechanical binding on the bearings, preventing the fans from spinning up. The problem was discovered on orbit first on one suit and then on another. Those fan pump separators were replaced and returned to Earth on the recent SpaceX cargo mission to the ISS (SpX-5) giving engineers an opportunity to study them more closely.
He stressed that this is not the same problem that led to the "water in the helmet" episode in 2013. That was caused by a filter being clogged by particles in the water that allowed the water to enter European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Luca Parmitano's helmet. "That is not an issue here," he emphasized. "Fan pump separators can fail for a variety of reasons" and crews "train for that," he said. Nevertheless, NASA wants to be as certain as possible that there will be no problems at all during the spacewalks. Todd said the decision on when to conduct the spacewalks will be "data driven" and they will take place only when "we have high confidence" the suits will work properly.
Joan Johnson-Freese explained to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission today why former Rep. Frank Wolf was wrong to effectively ban all U.S.-China bilateral space cooperation. Wolf retired at the end of the last Congress, but his successor as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA holds similar views.
Johnson-Freese is a professor at the Naval War College and author of "The Chinese Space Program: A Mystery Within a Maze" and "Heavenly Ambitions: America's Quest to Dominate Space." She was one of the witnesses at today's hearing on China's space and counterspace programs.
Wolf included language in several Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bills that prohibits NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from engaging in any bilateral activities with China on civil space cooperation unless specifically authorized by Congress or unless NASA or OSTP certifies to Congress 14 days in advance that the activity would not result in the transfer of any technology, data, or other information with national security or economic implications. His indefatigable opposition to cooperating with China was based largely on its human rights abuses and efforts to obtain U.S. technology. He was one of the strongest, but certainly not only, congressional critic of China, always stressing that he loved the Chinese people, but not the Chinese government.
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) is Wolf's successor as chairman of the CJS subcommittee. In December 2013 when rumors swirled that he would replace Wolf, he was interviewed by a reporter for the Houston Chronicle and when asked whether he agreed with Wolf about China replied: "Yes. We need to keep them out of our space program, and we need to keep NASA out of China. They are not our friends."
It remains to be seen whether he will include the same language in this year's CJS bill, but Johnson-Freese spelled out why she thinks it is the wrong approach.
She provides a comprehensive rebuttal to Wolf's reasoning, but in essence her contention is that "the United States must use all tools of national power" to achieve its space-related goals as stated in U.S. National Space Policy, National Security Strategy, and National Security Space Strategy. Wolf's restrictions on space cooperation simply constrain U.S. options, she argues: "Limiting U.S. options has never been in U.S. national interest and isn't on this issue either." She disagrees with Wolf's assumption that the United States has nothing to gain from working with China: "On the contrary, the United States could learn about how they work -- their decision-making processes, institutional policies and standard operating procedures. This is valuable information in accurately deciphering the intended use of dual-use space technology, long a weakness and so a vulnerability in U.S. analysis."
For some issues, there really is no choice, she continues. China must be involved in international efforts towards Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) and space sustainability, especially with regard to space debris, a topic given urgency by China's 2007 antisatellite (ASAT) test that created more than 3,000 pieces of debris in low Earth orbit. She notes that since that test and the resulting international condemnation, "China has done nothing further in space that can be considered irresponsible or outside the norms set the United States."
Not that China has refrained from tests related to negating other countries' satellites, however. She and other witnesses detailed China's recent activities in that regard. Kevin Pollpeter of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation joined her at the witness table. They reported on "missile defense tests" in 2010, 2013 and 2014 that are widely considered in the West to be de facto ASAT tests, along with a 2013 "high altitude science mission" and co-orbital satellite tests in 2010 and 2013, as potentially related to ASAT development. These tests were non-destructive, however, and did not generate space debris.
Former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Missouri), who co-chaired today's hearing, said that the Commission will publish a report by Pollpeter's institute on China's counterspace activities "in the coming days." The Commission was created by Congress in 2000 and submits an annual report on national security implications of the U.S.-China trade and economic relationship.
UPDATE, February 18: Friday's WSBR luncheon has been postponed.
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of February 16-20, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. Congress is in recess this week in observance of Presidents' Day (which commemorates Abraham Lincoln's birthday on February 12 and George Washington's on February 22).
During the Week
Members of Congress will be working in their State or District offices this week instead of Washington, D.C., hearing directly from their constituents about whatever is on their minds.
Lots of non-congressional events are on tap, though, including what could be a very interesting investors conference call with the leadership of the brand new OrbitalATK on Thursday. This is the first such call for the merged company, which melds Orbital Sciences Corporation and Alliant TechSystems' (ATK's) aerospace business (it spun off its sporting division as part of the merger). Only financial folks get to ask questions, but anyone can listen and the company is actually making this available via webcast. Orbital's David Thompson is President and CEO of the merged company, and Garrett Pierce is CFO, the same positions they held at Orbital. Blake Larson, who headed ATK's Aerospace Group, is COO of the merged company.
The Director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Chris Scolese, will speak to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) on Tuesday.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Editor's Note: Some of you may have heard about the Pioneering Space National Summit scheduled for Thursday and Friday. That event is by invitation only, so we do not list it. On a personal note, I wish them luck. I've been involved in too many of these exercises over the decades and declined their kind invitation to participate in yet another one. Perhaps this will be the one that makes a difference, but I admit to being skeptical.
Tuesday, February 17
Wednesday, February 18
Thursday, February 19
Thursday-Friday, February 19-20
Friday, February 20
UPDATE, February 11, 2015: DSCOVR was successfully launched at 6:03 pm ET. The Falcon 9 first stage landing on the drone ship was not attempted due to high seas, but the stage did go through its reentry burns and splashed down in the ocean.
UPDATE, February 10, 2015: SpaceX was one for three today. Dragon successfully splashed down as planned at 7:44 pm ET, but the Falcon 9 launch of DSCOVR was postponed because of strong upper level winds, which meant the landing test of the F9 first stage also was postponed. They will try again tomorrow (Feb 11).
ORIGINAL STORY, February 9, 2015: If all goes according to plan, tomorrow (February 10) SpaceX will launch a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a space weather satellite headed to the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point, the company's first deep space mission, accompanied by a second attempted landing of the Falcon 9's first stage on a drone ship. Then, coincidentally, a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft should land in the Pacific Ocean after detaching from the International Space Station (ISS). All in the course of an hour and a half.
Dragon arrived at the ISS on January 12, 2015 as SpaceX's fifth operational Commercial Resupply Services mission (SpX-5) for NASA. The spacecraft is scheduled to be released from the ISS at about 2:09 pm ET on Tuesday (NASA TV will provide live coverage beginning at 1:45 pm ET) and land in the Pacific Ocean around 7:44 pm ET (no live coverage is planned).
Meanwhile. at 6:05 pm ET, SpaceX should be launching the NOAA/NASA/Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) from Cape Canaveral, FL on a Falcon 9 rocket. Space X will conduct a second test of landing the Falcon 9 first stage on an "autonomous spaceport drone ship" positioned approximately 400 miles out at sea. Its first attempt to land a first stage last month -- on the flight that sent SpX-5 to ISS -- was "close, but no cigar," as SpaceX founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk phrased it at the time.
The problem last time was insufficient hydraulic fluid for the fins on the rocket stage that provide aerodynamic stability. SpaceX has increased the amount of hydraulic fluid this time, but this rocket is flying a different profile and company representatives still give it only a 50-50 chance of success. Last time, there were three post-launch engine firings to position the rocket stage for reentry and landing. This time there will be only two and the rocket will be reentering at a higher speed and pressure. Musk tweeted (@elonmusk) that it has "2X force and 4X heat" compared to the last attempt. The tests are part of Musk's attempt to develop a reusable rocket stage.
The drone ship, sometimes referred to as a barge although Musk points out that barges do not have their own thrusters and this does, will be positioned further out in the ocean than last time because of the different trajectory and associated higher safety risks. Musk named the ship "Just Read the Instructions,"a sci-fi reference.
The DSCOVR launch and Falcon 9 landing attempt depend on many factors, of course, beginning with the weather. The launch was aborted on Sunday because of a problem with a radar operated by the Air Force Eastern Test Range needed for tracking the rocket, and although there was a launch opportunity today, the weather forecast was only 40 percent favorable so they decided not to try. The forecast for tomorrow is 70 percent favorable. On Sunday there also was an issue with a transmitter on the Falcon 9 first stage, though it was the radar malfunction that aborted the launch attempt. If something goes awry and the launch does not take place tomorrow, a backup date is Wednesday, February 11, at 6:03 pm ET. After that, it would have to wait until February 20.
Weather in the Pacific theoretically could also delay Dragon's landing, though at the moment all appears on track for the 7:44 pm ET (4:44 pm PT) splashdown. Dragon is bringing back 3,700 pounds of cargo from the ISS, including the results of scientific experiments.