Welcome to Edition 4.08 of the Rocket Report! It’s been another big week for private spaceflight, which means I made my second trip in nine days to the El Paso airport. This time, I enjoyed getting to see Blue Origin’s launch site in West Texas, and watching New Shepard launch in person. It’s an impressively engineered vehicle that appears to offer a super smooth ride to space.
As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.
Jeff Bezos blasts off. Will Blue Origin follow? On Tuesday morning, the founder of Amazon fulfilled a lifelong dream of flying into space aboard a rocket and capsule he personally funded. “Best day ever,” Bezos said after landing safely beneath three parachutes. “My expectations were high, and they were dramatically exceeded.” It was a great day for Blue Origin and its beautifully engineered New Shepard launch system.
But what does it mean for Blue Origin? … After he returned from his spaceflight on Tuesday, what I most wanted to know is whether Jeff Bezos is all-in on space. His company Blue Origin is behind on major projects such as the BE-4 rocket engine and New Glenn rocket. Clearly, he has the vision. He has the money. But at the age of 57, does he have enough years or willingness to ensure Blue Origin’s success? Or will he leave Blue Origin to flounder while he mostly retires to his half-billion-dollar yacht after a suborbital joyride? An Ars feature investigates.
China continues testing reusable launch technology. On Friday, China conducted a clandestine first test flight of a reusable suborbital vehicle as a part of its development of a reusable space transportation system. The vehicle launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center and landed at an airport just over 800 kilometers away at Alxa League in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, SpaceNews reports. Neither images nor footage nor further information—such as altitude, flight duration, or propulsion systems—were provided.
No significant details yet … The CASC release said the vehicle uses integrated aviation and space technologies and indicates a vertical takeoff and horizontal landing profile. The test follows a September 2020 test flight of a “reusable experimental spacecraft”. The spacecraft orbited for days and released a small transmitting payload before deorbiting and landing horizontally. The spacecraft is widely believed to be a reusable spaceplane concept. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Rocket Lab completes anomaly review. The rocket company said this week it has concluded an extensive review into the cause of the anomaly that resulted in the loss of its “Running Out Of Toes” mission launched on May 15, 2021. The review concluded that an issue occurred within the second-stage engine igniter system almost 3 minutes 20 seconds into the flight. This induced a corruption of signals within the engine computer that caused the Rutherford engine’s thrust-vector control to deviate outside nominal parameters and resulted in the engine computer commanding zero pump speed, shutting down the engine.
Getting back into the launch cadence … Rocket Lab has since been able to reliably replicate the issue in testing and has implemented redundancies in the ignition system to prevent any future reoccurrence. This included modifications to the igniter’s design and manufacture. The company now says it plans to resume a “busy” launch schedule for the second half of 2021. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)
Europe plans to evolve Vega rocket further. The European Space Agency said it will further increase the “competitiveness and environmental sustainability” of the Vega launch system beyond 2025 through a contract signed with Avio in Italy. The contract enables an evolution to the Vega-E booster, which will make extensive use of Vega-C building blocks. The Vega C version of the booster is expected to debut next year. The Vega-E rocket will use a completely new upper stage, featuring a new, low-cost liquid-fueled engine.
From four stages to three … “This contract takes Vega a step further having at its heart the new M10 liquid oxygen–methane cryogenic engine, which will further increase its competitiveness, performance and sustainability,” said Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA Director of Space Transportation. Vega-E will have three stages, while Vega-C had four. Two stages will be derived from Vega-C: the first-stage P120C solid rocket motor (which provides the thrust at liftoff) and the second-stage solid rocket Zefiro-40 motor. The new third stage is the liquid oxygen–methane cryogenic upper stage. (submitted by EllPeaTea)
Mark Stucky departs from Virgin Galactic. Mark “Forger” Stucky, Virgin Galactic’s flight test director and pilot, is no longer with the space tourism company. “I am now a former Director of Flight Test and former SpaceShipTwo pilot,” Stucky wrote in a post on LinkedIn. He added in a comment on LinkedIn that he did not leave the space tourism company “on my own timeline.” Virgin Galactic confirmed to CNBC that Stucky “is no longer employed,” but the company did not explain further.
Related to a book? … “We thank him for his 12 years of service on the flight test program,” a Virgin Galactic spokesperson said in a statement. Stucky helped develop Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo system, serving first as the engineering test pilot for Scaled Composites—which built the spacecraft for Virgin Galactic—before spending the last six years as Virgin Galactic’s lead test pilot and director of flight testing. This could be related to Stucky’s candor in the recent book about Virgin Galactic, Test Gods, written by Nick Schmidle. (submitted by BH)
Russia launches Nauka module, but will it reach the ISS?. After years of delays, a Proton rocket finally launched the large new module for the International Space Station, named “Nauka,” on Wednesday. The MLM (multipurpose laboratory module) deployed its solar arrays and navigational antennas as planned, but then informal reports starting cropping up about the module’s primary propulsion system having a problem.
Serious cause for concern … According to Russian space reporter Anatoly Zak, as of Thursday morning, Nauka’s main engines were out of commission and specialists were troubleshooting the issue. Later on Thursday, Roscosmos said the propulsion system was working normally. This is a critical piece of the space station for Russia, and if it were to fail, that may decrease Russian incentive to continue participating in the international project. (submitted by Tfargo04 and Ken the Bin)
Starliner attached to Atlas V rocket for launch. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft has been fully assembled on its ride to space, the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, NASA said this weekend. These preparations were completed in advance of the launch time on Friday, July 30, at 2:53 pm EDT. This will be the second Orbital Flight Test of Starliner.
A do-over … The Atlas V rocket will launch Starliner on a mission to rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station before landing five to 10 days later in the western United States. The uncrewed mission is an end-to-end test flight to prove the system is ready to fly astronauts. It comes after a failed demonstration mission 18 months ago during which Boeing came close to losing Starliner in flight. If this mission is successful, astronauts may launch on Starliner in 2022. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Rocket Lab may build Neutron in Virginia. Rocket Lab has recently disclosed plans to develop a new medium-lift vehicle, Neutron, that could compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Now, based on zoning requests, the company appears to be interested in manufacturing the Neutron rocket on 28 acres near the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, Shore Daily News reports.
A positive vote for Neutron … The facility will allow Rocket Lab to build the rockets near the Virginia launch site. This would be an advantage for the company as it anticipates launching as many as 12 of the boosters a year from the Eastern Range. The plan involves the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport constructing a massive facility and then leasing it to Rocket Lab. The Accomack County Board of Supervisors approved three rezoning requests. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
China tests fairing recovery. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation launched a Long March 2C rocket on Monday from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. The launch carried three Yaogan-30 remote-sensing satellites and the Tianqi-15 communications satellite. In addition to successfully delivering the satellites to orbit, the launch also included an experimental attempt to recover the rocket’s payload fairings, NASASpaceflight.com reports.
So were they recovered? … The payload fairings for the mission were strengthened based on data from previous fairing-recovery attempts. For the first time, these fairings were designed to open their parachutes at a high altitude. The fairings also had an improved electrical system for their parachute hardware. Alas, information about the outcome of the experiment has yet to be released. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
The FAA adds Houston office for space safety. On Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration announced the opening of a new safety field office in Houston to increase its oversight of commercial space operations in Texas and New Mexico. From this location in Texas’ most-populous city, the FAA said its inspectors will be able to more effectively and efficiently monitor the ongoing testing programs and commercial space tourism operations of SpaceX and Blue Origin in Texas and Virgin Galactic in New Mexico, along with others in the region.
Shorter travel times … According to the federal agency, this is the latest action it is taking to keep pace with the increasing frequency of commercial space launch and reentry activities. The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation also is increasing its safety inspection staff, reorganizing to improve efficiency and accountability, and it has established an Office of Spaceports. The move follows an incident earlier this year when a Starship test launch, in South Texas, was delayed due to travel by an FAA inspector from the East Coast. This seems like a great move by the FAA.
SpaceX completes first Super Heavy hot fire test. After attaching three Raptor engines to the Super Heavy rocket, SpaceX engineers on Tuesday performed a static fire test of the large rocket for the first time. Video of the test, published by NASASpacelight.com, shows a full-duration test firing that appears to have gone well.
Not ready to fly yet … SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said this “Booster 3” will not launch, but if all goes well with its ground testing, the company will proceed with a launch of Booster 4. This rocket is already being built at the company’s assembly facility a few kilometers from the launch site in South Texas. Whereas SpaceX is testing Booster 3 with three Raptor engines, a fully orbital version of Super Heavy will have 33 of the methane-fueled Raptors.
Alabama legislator lays out plan for SLS viability. Last week, one of the SLS rocket’s most ardent supporters, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), proposed an amendment to the appropriations legislation that modified NASA’s Human Landing System program and supported upgrades of the SLS rocket. Ultimately, the amendment was withdrawn, but it illustrates the lengths to which committed politicians such as Aderholt are willing to go to save the SLS rocket from obsolescence, Ars reports.
Finding missions for the big rocket … Aderholt’s amendment said NASA should select a “second” Human Landing System provider during the coming fiscal year, which would necessarily either be a team led by Blue Origin or Dynetics. Moreover, the amendment would have required the second lander to be launched on the SLS rocket. Additionally, at some time in the future but no later than 2032, NASA must have a plan to fly at least one SLS Block 1B cargo flight a year. “The mission for which is to be determined by the NASA Administrator,” the amendment stated. I mean, come on.
Next three launches
July 27: Ariane 5 | Star One D2, Eutelsat Quantum | Kourou, French Guiana |TBD
July 30: Atlas V | Starliner OFT-2 | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 18:53 UTC
August 2: Soyuz | OneWeb 9 mission | Baikonur, Kazakhstan | TBD