NASA’s Tracking Data Relay Satellite-M Vital for Science Relay Poised for Liftoff Aug. 18 – Watch Live

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M) stands on the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station poised for liftoff on Aug. 18, 2017. The rocket rolled out to the pad two days earlier on Aug. 16. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The last of NASA’s next generation Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TRDS) that looks like a giant alien fish or cocooned creature but actually plays an absolutely vital role in relaying critical science measurements, research data and tracking observations gathered by the International Space Station (ISS), Hubble and a plethora of Earth science missions is poised for blastoff Friday, Aug. 18, morning from the Florida Space Coast.

Liftoff atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket of NASA’s $408 million eerily insectoid-looking TDRS-M science relay comsat atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket is scheduled to take place from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 8:03 a.m. EDT (2:03 GMT) Aug. 18.

Up close clean room visit with NASA’s newest science data relay comsat – Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M) inside the Astrotech payload processing facility high bay in Titusville, FL. Two gigantic fold out antennae’s, plus space to ground antenna dish visible inside the ‘cicada like cocoon’ with solar arrays below. Launch on ULA Atlas V slated for August 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Atlas V/TDRS-M launch stack was rolled out from the ULA Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) to pad 41 Wednesday morning, Aug 16 starting at about 9:10 a.m. EDT. The quarter mile move took about 50 minutes and went off without a hitch.

“The spacecraft, Atlas V rocket and all range equipment are ready,” said NASA launch director Tim Dunn at today’s pre-launch news conference at the Kennedy Space Center. “And the combined government and contractor launch team is prepared to launch TDRS-M — a critical national space asset for space communications.”

The rocket and spacecraft sailed through the Flight Readiness Review (FRR) and Launch Ready Review (LRR) over the past few days conducted by NASA, ULA and Boeing and the contractor teams.

The two stage Atlas V rocket stands 191 feet tall.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M) stands on the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station poised for liftoff on Aug. 18, 2017. The rocket rolled out from the VIF the pad two days earlier on Aug. 16. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

You can witness the launch with you own eyes from many puiblic beaches, parks and spots ringing the Kennedy Space Center.

If you can’t personally be here to witness the launch in Florida, you can always watch NASA’s live coverage on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

The NASA/ULA/TDRS-M launch coverage will be broadcast on NASA TV beginning at 7:30 a.m. as the countdown milestones occur on Aug. 18 with additional commentary on the NASA launch blog:

https://blogs.nasa.gov/tdrs/

You can watch the launch live at NASA TV at – http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

The launch window opens at 8:03 a.m. EDT extends for 40 minutes from 8:03 a.m. to 8:43 a.m.

In the event of delay for any reason, the next launch opportunity is Saturday, Aug. 19 with NASA TV coverage starting about 7:30 a.m. EDT. The launch window opens at 7:59 a.m. EDT.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M) stands on the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station poised for liftoff on Aug. 18, 2017 The rocket rolled out to the pad two days earlier on Aug. 16. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The weather looks quite good at this time with an 80% chance of favorable conditions at launch time according to U.S. Air Force meteorologists with the 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base. The primary concerns on Aug. 18 are for thick clouds and cumulus clouds.

The odds remain at 80% favorable for the 24 hour scrub turnaround day on Aug. 19.

The launch was originally scheduled for Aug. 3 but was delayed a few weeks when the satellite’s Omni S-band antenna was damaged during final spacecraft closeout activities.

The Omni S-band antenna was bumped during final processing activities prior to the planned encapsulation inside the nosecone, said a Boeing official at the prelaunch media briefing and had to be replaced and then retested. It is critical to the opening phases of the mission for attitude control.

Inside the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, FL,NASA’s massive, insect like Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-M, spacecraft is undergoing preflight processing during media visit on 13 July 2017. TDRS-M will transmit critical science data gathered by the ISS, Hubble and numerous NASA Earth science missions. It is being prepared for encapsulation inside its payload fairing prior to being transported to Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on 3 August 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The importance of the TDRS constellation of satellites can’t be overstated.

Virtually all the communications relay capability involving human spaceflight, such as the ISS, resupply vehicles like the SpaceX cargo Dragon and Orbital ATK Cygnus and the soon to launch human space taxis like crew Dragon, Boeing Starliner and NASA’s Orion deep space crew capsule route their science results voice, data, command, telemetry and communications via the TDRS network of satellites.

The TDRS constellation enables both space to space and space to ground communcations for virtually the entire orbital period.

Plus it’s a super busy time at the Kennedy Space Center. Because, if all goes well Friday’s launch will be the second this week!

The excitement of space travel got a big boost at the beginning of the week with the lunchtime blastoff of a SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft on a cargo mission carrying 3 tons of science and supplies to the space station. Read my onsite articles here.

Blastoff of SpaceX Dragon CRS12 on its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017 as seen from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The success of Monday’s SpaceX cargo Dragon rendezvous and berthing to the ISS is virtually entirely dependent on the TDRS network of satellites. That network will be enhanced with Fridays planned liftoff of NASA’s TDRS-M science relay comsat.

TDRS-M looks like a giant insect – or a fish depending on your point of view. It was folded into flight configuration for encapsulation in the clean room and the huge pair of single access antennas resembled a cocoon or a cicada. The 15 foot diameter single access antennas are large parabolic-style antennas and are mechanically steerable.

What does TDRS do? Why is it important? How does it operate?

“The existing Space Network of satellites like TDRS provide constant communications from other NASA satellites like the ISS or Earth observing satellites like Aura, Aqua, Landsat that have high bandwidth data that needs to be transmitted to the ground,” TDRS Deputy Project Manager Robert Buchanan explained to Universe Today during an interview in the Astrotech clean room.

“TRDS tracks those satellites using antennas that articulate. Those user satellites send the data to TDRS, like TDRS-M we see here and nine other TDRS satellites on orbit now tracking those satellites.”

“That data acquired is then transmitted to a ground station complex at White Sands, New Mexico. Then the data is sent to wherever those user satellites want the data to be sent is needed, such as a science data ops center or analysis center.”

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M) stands on the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station poised for liftoff on Aug. 18, 2017. The rocket rolled out to the pad two days earlier on Aug. 16. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

TDRS-M, spacecraft, which stands for Tracking and Data Relay Satellite – M is NASA’s new and advanced science data relay communications satellite that will transmit research measurements and analysis gathered by the astronaut crews and instruments flying abroad the International Space Station (ISS), Hubble Space Telescope and over 35 NASA Earth science missions including MMS, GPM, Aura, Aqua, Landsat, Jason 2 and 3 and more.

The TDRS constellation orbits 22,300 miles above Earth and provide near-constant communication links between the ground and the orbiting satellites.

Tracking and Data Relay Satellite artwork explains how the TDRS constellation enables continuous, global communications coverage for near-Earth spacecraft. Credit: NASA

TRDS-M will have S-, Ku- and Ka-band capabilities. Ka has the capability to transmit as much as six-gigabytes of data per minute. That’s the equivalent of downloading almost 14,000 songs per minute says NASA.

The TDRS program is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

TDRS-M is the third satellite in the third series of NASA’s American’s most powerful and most advanced Tracking and Data Relay Satellites. It is designed to last for a 15 year orbital lifetime.

The first TDRS satellite was deployed from the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983 as TDRS-A.

TDRS-M was built by prime contractor Boeing in El Segundo, California and is the third of a three satellite series – comprising TDRS -K, L, and M. They are based on the Boeing 601 series satellite bus and will be keep the TDRS satellite system operational through the 2020s.

TDRS-K and TDRS-L were launched in 2013 and 2014.

The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite project is managed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

TDRS-M was built as a follow on and replacement satellite necessary to maintain and expand NASA’s Space Network, according to a NASA description.

The gigantic satellite is about as long as two school buses and measures 21 meters in length by 13.1 meters wide.

It has a dry mass of 1800 kg (4000 lbs) and a fueled mass of 3,454 kilogram (7,615 lb) at launch.

TDRS-M will blastoff on a ULA Atlas V in the baseline 401 configuration, with no augmentation of solid rocket boosters on the first stage. The payload fairing is 4 meters (13.1 feet) in diameter and the upper stage is powered by a single-engine Centaur.

TDRS-M will be launched to a Geostationary orbit some 22,300 miles (35,800 km) above Earth.

“The final orbital location for TDRS-M has not yet been determined,” Buchanen told me.

The Atlas V booster was assembled inside the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at SLC-41 and was rolled out to the launch pad 2 days before liftoff with the TDRS-M science relay comsat comfortably encapsulated inside the nose cone.

Carefully secured inside its shipping container, the TDRS-M satellite was transported on June 23 by a US Air Force cargo aircraft from Boeing’s El Segundo, California facility to Space Coast Regional Airport in Titusville, Florida, for preflight processing at Astrotech.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite TDRS-M, CRS-12, ORS 5 and NASA and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about the upcoming ULA Atlas TDRS-M NASA comsat on Aug. 18, 2017 , SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 resupply launch to ISS on Aug. 14, Solar Eclipse, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Aug 17-18: “TDRS-M NASA comsat, SpaceX CRS-12 resupply launches to the ISS, Intelsat35e, BulgariaSat 1 and NRO Spysat, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Dream Chaser Mini-Shuttle to Fly ISS Resupply Missions on ULA Atlas V

Artist’s concept of the Sierra Nevada Corporation Dream Chaser spacecraft launching atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in the 552 configuration on cargo missions to the International Space Station. Credit: ULA

The first two missions of the unmanned Dream Chaser mini-shuttle carrying critical cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA will fly on the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket and start as soon as 2020, announced Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and United Launch Alliance (ULA).

“We have selected United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket to launch our first two Dream Chaser® spacecraft cargo missions,” said SNC of Sparks, Nevada.

Dream Chaser will launch atop the commercial Atlas V in its most powerful configuration, dubbed Atlas V 552, with five strap on solid rocket motors and a dual engine Centaur upper stage while protectively tucked inside a five meter diameter payload fairing – with wings folded.

Blast off of Dream Chaser loaded with over 5500 kilograms of cargo mass for the space station crews will take place from ULA’s seaside Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spacecraft docks at the International Space Station.
Credits: Sierra Nevada Corporation

The unique lifting body design enables runway landings for Dream Chaser, similar to the NASA’s Space Shuttle at the Shuttle Landing Facility runway at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The ULA Atlas V enjoys a 100% success rate. It has also been chosen by Boeing to ferry crews on piloted missions of their CST-100 Starliner astronaut space taxi to the ISS and back. The Centaur upper stage will be equipped with two RL-10 engines for both Dream Chaser and Starliner flights.

“SNC recognizes the proven reliability of the Atlas V rocket and its availability and schedule performance makes it the right choice for the first two flights of the Dream Chaser,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems business area, in a statement.

“Humbled and honored by your trust in us,” tweeted ULA CEO Tory Bruno following the announcement.

Liftoff of the maiden pair of Dream Chaser cargo missions to the ISS are expected in 2020 and 2021 under the Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS2) contract with NASA.

Rendering of Launch of SNC’s Dream Chaser Cargo System Aboard an Atlas V Rocket. Credit: SNC

“ULA is pleased to partner with Sierra Nevada Corporation to launch its Dream Chaser cargo system to the International Space Station in less than three years,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Human and Commercial Systems.

“We recognize the importance of on time and reliable transportation of crew and cargo to Station and are honored the Atlas V was selected to continue to launch cargo resupply missions for NASA.”

By utilizing the most powerful variant of ULA’s Atlas V, Dream Chaser will be capable of transporting over 5,500 kilograms (12,000 pounds) of pressurized and unpressurized cargo mass – including science experiments, research gear, spare part, crew supplies, food, water, clothing and more per ISS mission.

“In addition, a significant amount of cargo, almost 2,000 kilograms is directly returned from the ISS to a gentle runway landing at a pinpoint location,” according to SNC.

“Dream Chaser’s all non-toxic systems design allows personnel to simply walk up to the vehicle after landing, providing immediate access to time-critical science as soon as the wheels stop.”

“ULA is an important player in the market and we appreciate their history and continued contributions to space flights and are pleased to support the aerospace community in Colorado and Alabama,” added Sirangelo.

Under the NASA CRS-2 contract awarded in 2016, Dream Chaser becomes the third ISS resupply provider, joining the current ISS commercial cargo vehicle providers, namely the Cygnus from Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia and the cargo Dragon from SpaceX of Hawthorne, California.

NASA decided to plus up the number of ISS commercial cargo providers from two to three for the critical task of ensuring the regular delivery of critical science, crew supplies, provisions, spare parts and assorted gear to the multinational crews living and working aboard the massive orbiting outpost.

NASA’s CRS-2 contracts run from 2019 through 2024 and specify six cargo missions for each of the three commercial providers.

By adding a new third provider, NASA simultaneously gains the benefit of additional capability and flexibility and also spreads out the risk.

Both SpaceX and Orbital ATK suffered catastrophic launch failures during ISS resupply missions, in June 2015 and October 2014 respectively, from which both firms have recovered.

Orbital ATK and SpaceX both successfully launched ISS cargo missions this year. Indeed a trio of Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft have already launched on the Atlas V, including the OA-7 resupply mission in April 2017.

Orbital ATK’s seventh cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station -in tribute to John Glenn- launched at 11:11 a.m. EDT April 18, 2017, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX has already launched a pair of resupply missions this year on the CRS-10 and CRS-11 flights in February and June 2017.

Unlike the Cygnus which burns up on reentry and Dragon which lands via parachutes, the reusable Dream Chaser is capable of low-g reentry and runway landings. This is very beneficial for sensitive scientific experiments and allows much quicker access by researchers to time critical cargo.

1st Reused SpaceX Dragon cargo craft lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:07 p.m. June 3, 2017 on CRS-11 mission carrying 3 tons of research equipment, cargo and supplies to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Dream Chaser has been under development for more than 10 years. It was originally developed as a manned vehicle and a contender for NASA’s commercial crew vehicles. When SNC lost the bid to Boeing and SpaceX in 2014, the company opted to develop this unmanned variant instead.

A full scale test version of the original Dream Chaser is currently undergoing ground tests at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. Approach and landing tests are planned for this fall.

Other current cargo providers to the ISS include the Russian Progress and Japanese HTV vessels.

Watch for Ken’s onsite space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Scale models of NASA’s Commercial Crew program vehicles and launchers; Boeing CST-100, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, SpaceX Dragon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser engineering test article in flight during prior captive-carry tests. Credit: NASA

Clean Room Tour with NASA’s Next Gen Tracking Data Relay Satellite TDRS-M, Closeout Incident Under Review – Photos

Inside the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, FL,NASA’s massive, insect like Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-M, spacecraft is undergoing preflight processing during media visit on 13 July 2017. TDRS-M will transmit critical science data gathered by the ISS, Hubble and numerous NASA Earth science missions. It is being prepared for encapsulation inside its payload fairing prior to being transported to Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on 3 August 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

ASTROTECH SPACE OPERATIONS/KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The last of NASA’s next generation Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TRDS) designed to relay critical science data and research observations gathered by the International Space Station (ISS), Hubble and dozens of Earth-orbiting Earth science missions is undergoing final prelaunch clean room preparations on the Florida Space Coast while targeting an early August launch – even as the agency reviews the scheduling impact of a weekend “closeout incident” that “damaged” a key component.

Liftoff of NASA’s $408 million eerily insectoid-looking TDRS-M science relay comsat atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket currently scheduled for August 3 may be in doubt following a July 14 work related incident causing damage to the satellite’s Omni S-band antenna while inside the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, Florida.

“The satellite’s Omni S-band antenna was damaged during final spacecraft closeout activities,” NASA said in an updated status statement provided to Universe Today earlier today, July 16. NASA did not provide any further details when asked.

Everything had been perfectly on track as of Thursday, July 13 as Universe Today participated in an up close media tour and briefing about the massive probe inside the clean room processing facility at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Fl.

On July 13, technicians were busily working to complete final spacecraft processing activities before its encapsulation inside the nose cone of the ULA Atlas V rocket she will ride to space, planned for the next day on July 14. The satellite and pair of payload fairings were stacked in separate high bays at Astrotech on July 13.

Alas the unspecified “damage” to the TDRS-M Omni S-band antenna unfortunately took place on July 14.

Up close clean room visit with NASA’s newest science data relay comsat – Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M) inside the Astrotech payload processing facility high bay in Titusville, FL. Two gigantic fold out antennae’s, plus space to ground antenna dish visible inside the ‘cicada like cocoon’ with solar arrays below. Omni S-band antenna at top. Launch on ULA Atlas V slated for August 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

TDRS-M was built by Boeing and engineers are now analyzing the damage in a team effort with NASA. However it’s not known exactly during which closeout activity or by whom the damage occurred.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno tweeted that his company is not responsible and referred all questions to NASA. This may indicate that the antennae was not damaged during the encapsulation procedures inside the ULA payload fairing halves.

“NASA and Boeing are reviewing an incident that occurred with the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-M) on July 14 at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida. The satellite’s Omni S-band antenna was damaged during final spacecraft closeout activities” stated NASA.

Up close look at the NASA TDRS-M satellite Omni S-band antenna damaged during clean room processing on July 14, 2017. Launch on ULA Atlas V is slated for Aug. 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

TDRS-M looks like a giant insect – or a fish depending on your point of view. It was folded into flight configuration for encapsulation in the clean room and the huge pair of single access antennas resembled a cocoon or a cicada. The 15 foot diameter single access antennas are large parabolic-style antennas and are mechanically steerable.

What does TDRS do? Why is it important? How does it operate?

“The existing Space Network of satellites like TDRS provide constant communications from other NASA satellites like the ISS or Earth observing satellites like Aura, Aqua, Landsat that have high bandwidth data that needs to be transmitted to the ground,” TDRS Deputy Project Manager Robert Buchanan explained to Universe Today during an interview in the Astrotech clean room.

“TRDS tracks those satellites using antennas that articulate. Those user satellites send the data to TDRS, like TDRS-M we see here and nine other TDRS satellites on orbit now tracking those satellites.”

“That data acquired is then transmitted to a ground station complex at White Sands, New Mexico. Then the data is sent to wherever those user satellites want the data to be sent is needed, such as a science data ops center or analysis center.”

Once launched and deployed in space they will “take about 30 to 40 days to fully unfurl,” Buchanan told me in the Astrotech clean room.

Astrotech is located just a few miles down the road from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the KSC Visitor Complex housing the finest exhibits of numerous spaceships, hardware items and space artifacts.

Preflight clean room processing inside the Astrotech payload processing facility preparing NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-M, spacecraft for launch on ULA Atlas V in Aug. 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

At this time, the TDRS-M website countdown clock is still ticking down towards a ULA Atlas V blastoff on August 3 at 9:02 a.m. EDT (1302 GMT) from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, for a late breakfast delight.

The Aug. 3 launch window spans 40 minutes from 9:02 to 9:42 a.m. EDT.

Whether or not the launch date will change depends on the results of the review of the spacecraft’s health by NASA and Boeing. Several other satellites are also competing for launch slots in August.

“The mission team is currently assessing flight acceptance and schedule. TDRS-M is planned to launch Aug. 3, 2017, on an United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida,” NASA explained.

NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-M, spacecraft will be encapsulated inside these two protective payload fairing halves inside the Astrotech payload processing facility high bay in Titusville, FL. Launch on ULA Atlas V slated for August 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

TDRS-M, spacecraft, which stands for Tracking and Data Relay Satellite – M is NASA’s new and advanced science data relay communications satellite that will transmit research measurements and analysis gathered by the astronaut crews and instruments flying abroad the International Space Station (ISS), Hubble Space Telescope and over 35 NASA Earth science missions including MMS, GPM, Aura, Aqua, Landsat, Jason 2 and 3 and more.

The TDRS constellation orbits 22,300 miles above Earth and provide near-constant communication links between the ground and the orbiting satellites.

Preflight clean room processing inside the Astrotech payload processing facility preparing NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-M, spacecraft for launch on ULA Atlas V in Aug. 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

TRDS-M will have S-, Ku- and Ka-band capabilities. Ka has the capability to transmit as much as six-gigabytes of data per minute. That’s the equivalent of downloading almost 14,000 songs per minute says NASA.

The TDRS program is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

TDRS-M is the third satellite in the third series of NASA’s American’s most powerful and most advanced Tracking and Data Relay Satellites. It is designed to last for a 15 year orbital lifetime.

The first TDRS satellite was deployed from the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983 as TDRS-A.

TDRS-M was built by prime contractor Boeing in El Segundo, California and is the third of a three satellite series – comprising TDRS -K, L, and M. They are based on the Boeing 601 series satellite bus and will be keep the TDRS satellite system operational through the 2020s.

TDSR-K and TDRS-L were launched in 2013 and 2014.

The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite project is managed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

TDRS-M was built as a follow on and replacement satellite necessary to maintain and expand NASA’s Space Network, according to a NASA description.

The gigantic satellite is about as long as two school buses and measures 21 meters in length by 13.1 meters wide.

It has a dry mass of 1800 kg (4000 lbs) and a fueled mass of 3,454 kilogram (7,615 lb) at launch.

Tracking and Data Relay Satellite artwork explains how the TDRS constellation enables continuous, global communications coverage for near-Earth spacecraft. Credit: NASA

TDRS-M will blastoff on a ULA Atlas V in the baseline 401 configuration, with no augmentation of solid rocket boosters on the first stage. The payload fairing is 4 meters (13.1 feet) in diameter and the upper stage is powered by a single-engine Centaur.

TDRS-M will be launched to a Geostationary orbit some 22,300 miles (35,800 km) above Earth.

“The final orbital location for TDRS-M has not yet been determined,” Buchanen told me.

The Atlas V booster is being assembled inside the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at SLC-41 and will be rolled out to the launch pad the day before liftoff with the TDRS-M science relay comsat comfortably encapsulated inside the nose cone.

NASA/contractor team poses with the Boeing built and to be ULA launched Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M inside the inside the Astrotech payload processing facility clean room high bay in Titusville, FL, on July 13, 2017. Launch on ULA Atlas V slated for August 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Carefully secured inside its shipping container, the TDRS-M satellite was transported on June 23 by a US Air Force cargo aircraft from Boeing’s El Segundo, California facility to Space Coast Regional Airport in Titusville, Florida, for preflight processing at Astrotech.

Watch for Ken’s onsite TDRS-M and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

KSC Director/Shuttle Commander Robert Cabana Talks NASA 2018 Budget- ‘Stay on the path’ with SLS, Orion, Commercial Crew: One-on-One Interview

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER VISITOR COMPLEX, FL – Following up last week’s announcement of NASA’s proposed Fiscal Year 2018 top line budget of $19.1 Billion by the Trump Administration, Universe Today spoke to NASA’ s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Director Robert Cabana to get his perspective on the new budget and what it means for NASA and KSC; “Stay on the path!” – with SLS, Orion, ISS and Commercial Crew was his message in a nutshell.

The highlights of NASA’s $19.1 Billion FY 2018 budget request were outlined last week by NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot during a ‘State of NASA’ speech to agency employees held at NASA HQ, Washington, D.C. and broadcast to the public live on NASA TV on May 23.

In order to get a better idea of the implications of the 2018 NASA budget proposal for KSC, I spoke one-on-one with Robert Cabana – one of NASA’s top officials, who currently serves as Director of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) as well as being a former astronaut and Space Shuttle Commander. Cabana is a veteran of four space shuttle missions.

How did NASA and KSC fare with the newly announced 2018 Budget?

“We at KSC and NASA as a whole did very well with the 2018 budget,” KSC Director Robert Cabana explained during an interview with Universe Today by the Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) in Florida.

“I think it really solidifies that the President has confidence in us, on the path that we are on,” Cabana noted while attending a student robotics competition at KSCVC sponsored by NASA.

“With only a 1 percent cut – when you look at what other agency’s got cut – this budget allows us to stay on the path that we are on.”

Trump cut NASA’s 2018 budget request by $0.5 Billion compared to the recently enacted FY 2017 budget of $19.6 Billion approved by the US Congress and signed by the President.

Other Federal science agency’s also critically vital to the health of US scientific research such as the NIH, the NSF, the EPA, DOE and NIST suffered terrible double digit slashes of 10 to 20% or more.

KSC is the focal point for NASA’s human spaceflight programs currently under intense development by NASA – namely the Space Launch System (SLS) Mars megarocket, the Orion deep space crew capsule to be launched beyond Earth orbit (BEO) atop SLS, and the duo of Commercial Crew Program (CCP) space taxis being manufactured by Boeing and SpaceX that will ferry our astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS).

Numerous NASA science missions also launch from the Florida Space Coast.

“At KSC the budget keeps us on a path that continues to provide a commercial crew vehicle to fly crews to the ISS in 2018,” Cabana stated.

“The budget also keeps us on track to launch SLS and Orion in 2019.”

“I think that’s really important – along with all the other stuff we are doing here at KSC.”

“From our point of view it’s a good budget. We need to press ahead and continue on with what we promised.”

Hull of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Structural Test Article (STA)- the first Starliner to be built in the company’s modernized Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

What’s ahead for commercial crew at KSC?

“We are moving forward with commercial crew,” Cabana told me.

“Within the next calendar year [2018] we are moving ahead with flying the first certification flight with crew to the ISS. So that’s test flights and by the end of the year an actual crewed flight to the ISS. I want to see that happen.”

Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2018. Credit: NASA

Industry partners Boeing and SpaceX are building the private CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon spaceships respectively, as part of NASA’s commercial crew initiative aimed at restoring America’s human spaceflight capability to launch our astronauts aboard American spaceships on American rockets from American soil.

Commercial Crew is a public/private partnership initiative with commercial contracts valued at $4.2 Billion and signed by Boeing and SpaceX with NASA in September 2014 under the Obama Administration.

The goal of commercial crew is to end our sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronaut flights to the space station since the retirement of the space shuttles back in 2011 – by manufacturing indigenous rockets and human rated spaceships.

However the CCP program suffered severe budget reductions by the US Congress for several years which forced significant work stretch-outs and delays in the maiden crew launches by both companies from 2015 to 2018 – and thus forced additional payments to the Russians for Soyuz seat purchases.

Both the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Dragon crew vehicles can carry 4 or more astronauts to the ISS. This will enable NASA to add another crew member and thereby enlarge the ISS crew from 6 to 7 permanent residents after they become operational.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Meanwhile NASA is focusing on developing the SLS heavy lift rocket and Orion crew capsule with prime contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin in an agency wide effort to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.

The European Space Agency(ESA) is also partnered with NASA and providing the service module for Orion.

What’s the status of the delivery of the European Space Agency’s service module?

“The service module will be here sometime next year,” Cabana said.

He noted that the details and exact timing are yet to be determined.

The first integrated launch of SLS and Orion on the unpiloted Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is now slated for sometime in 2019 after NASA recently slipped the date to the right from Fall 2018.

At the request of the Trump Administration, NASA also just completed a detailed study to ascertain the feasibility of adding a crew of two NASA astronauts to the EM-1 flight and launch it by the end of 2019.

In the end, NASA officials decided to stick with the baselined plan of no crew on EM-1 for a variety of technical and safety reasons, as well as cost – as I reported here.

I asked Cabana for his insight and opinion on NASA not adding crew to Orion on the EM-1 flight.

“No we are not launching crew on the first flight [EM-1],” Cabana stated.

“With the budget that we have and what we need to do, this is the answer we got to at the end.”

“You know the crew study was still very important. It allowed us to find some things that we should still do on [EM-1], even though we are not going to launch crew on that flight.

“So we will make some further modifications that will reduce the risk even further when we do fly crew [on the next flight of EM-2].”

The newly assembled first liquid hydrogen tank, also called the qualification test article, for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally beside the Vertical Assembly Center robotic weld machine (blue) on July 22, 2016. It was lifted out of the welder (top) after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

So for 2017 what are the major milestone you hope to complete here at KSC for SLS and Orion?

“So for me here at the Kennedy Space Center, my goal for the end of this calendar year 2017 we will have completed all of the construction of all of the [ground systems] hardware and facilities that are necessary to process and launch the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion,” Cabana elaborated.

‘We will still have a lot of work to do with the software for the spacecraft command and control systems and the ground systems.”

“But my goal is to have the hardware for the ground systems complete by the end of this year.”

What are those KSC facilities?

“Those facilities include the VAB [Vehicle Assembly Building] which will be complete to accept the mobile launcher in September and pad 39B will be complete in August,” Cabana said.

“The RPSF is already complete. The NPFF is already complete and we are doing testing in there. The LASF [Launch Abort System Facility] is complete – where they put the abort rocket on.”

“The Mobile Launcher will be complete from a structural point of view, with all the systems installed by the end of the year [including the umbilical’s and while room].”

Floor level view of the Mobile Launcher and enlarged exhaust hole with 380 foot-tall launch tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars. The ML will support NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft for launches from Space Launch Complex 39B the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s onsite CRS-11 mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

View of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), Launch Control Center and Mobile Launcher from the KSC Launch Complex 39 Press Site. NASA is upgrading the VAB with new platforms to assemble and launch NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

.……….

Learn more about the SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 resupply launch to ISS, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

May 30/31: “SpaceX CRS-11 and CRS-10 resupply launches to the ISS, Inmarsat 5 and NRO Spysat, EchoStar 23, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Robert Cabana, Director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and former Space Shuttle Commander, and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss the newly proposed NASA FY2018 budget backdropped by the Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, FL in May 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Trump Proposes $19.1 Billion 2018 NASA Budget, Cuts Earth Science and Education

NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot outlines NASA’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposal during a ‘State of NASA’ speech to agency employees held at NASA HQ on May 23, 2017. Credit: NASA TV/Ken Kremer

The Trump Administration has proposed a $19.1 Billion NASA budget request for Fiscal Year 2018, which amounts to a $0.5 Billion reduction compared to the recently enacted FY 2017 NASA Budget. Although it maintains many programs such as human spaceflight, planetary science and the Webb telescope, the budget also specifies significant cuts and terminations to NASA’s Earth Science and manned Asteroid redirect mission as well as the complete elimination of the Education Office.

Overall NASA’s FY 2018 budget is cut approximately 3%, or $560 million, for the upcoming fiscal year starting in October 2017 as part of the Trump Administration’s US Federal Budget proposal rolled out on May 23, and quite similar to the initial outline released in March.

The cuts to NASA are smaller compared to other Federal science agencies also absolutely vital to the health of US scientific research – such as the NIH, the NSF, the EPA, DOE and NIST which suffer unconscionable double digit slashes of 10 to 20% or more.

The highlights of NASA’s FY 2018 Budget were announced by NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot during a ‘State of NASA’ speech to agency employees held at NASA HQ, Washington, D.C. and broadcast to the public live on NASA TV.

Lightfoot’s message to NASA and space enthusiasts was upbeat overall.

“What this budget tells us to do is to keep going!” NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot said.

“Keep doing what we’ve been doing. It’s very important for us to maintain that course and move forward as an agency with all the great things we’re doing.”

“I want to reiterate how proud I am of all of you for your hard work – which is making a real difference around the world. NASA is leading the world in space exploration, and that is only possible through all of your efforts, every day.”

“We’re pleased by our top line number of $19.1 billion, which reflects the President’s confidence in our direction and the importance of everything we’ve been achieving.”

Lightfoot recalled the recent White House phone call from President Trump to NASA astronaut & ISS Station Commander Peggy Whitson marking her record breaking flight for the longest cumulative time in space by an American astronaut.

Thus Lightfoot’s vision for NASA has three great purposes – Discover, Explore, and Develop.

“NASA has a historic and enduring purpose. It can be summarized in three major strategic thrusts: Discover, Explore, and Develop. These correspond to our missions of scientific discovery, missions of exploration, and missions of new technology development in aeronautics and space systems.”

Lightfoot further recounted the outstanding scientific accomplishments of NASA’s Mars rover and orbiters paving the path for the agencies plans to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.

“We’ve had a horizon goal for some time now of reaching Mars, and this budget sustains that work and also provides the resources to keep exploring our solar system and look beyond it.”

Lightfoot also pointed to upcoming near term science missions- highlighting a pair of Mars landers – InSIGHT launching next year as well as the Mars 2020 rover. Also NASA’s next great astronomical observatory – the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

“In science, this budget supports approximately 100 missions: 40 missions currently preparing for launch & 60 operating missions.”

“The James Webb Space Telescope is built!” Lightfoot gleefully announced.

“It’s done testing at Goddard and now has moved to Johnson for tests to simulate the vacuum of space.”

JWST is the scientific successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and slated for launch in Oct. 2018. The budget maintains steady support for Webb.

The 18-segment gold coated primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is raised into vertical alignment in the largest clean room at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on Nov. 2, 2016. The secondary mirror mount booms are folded down into stowed for launch configuration. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Planetary Sciences division receives excellent support with a $1.9 Billion budget request. It includes solid support for the two flagship missions – Mars 2020 and Europa Clipper as well as the two new Discovery class missions selected -Lucy and Psyche.

“The budget keeps us on track for the next selection for the New Frontiers program, and includes formulation of a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.”

SLS and Orion are making great progress. They are far beyond concepts, and as I mentioned, components are being tested in multiple ways right now as we move toward the first flight of that integrated system.”

NASA is currently targeting the first integrated launch of SLS and Orion on the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) for sometime in 2019.

Top NASA managers recently decided against adding a crew of two astronauts to the flight after conducting detailed agency wide studies at the request of the Trump Administration.

NASA would have needed an additional $600 to $900 to upgrade EM-1 with humans.

Unfortunately Trump’s FY 2018 NASA budget calls for a slight reduction in development funding for both SLS and Orion – thus making a crewed EM-1 flight fiscally unviable.

The newly assembled first liquid hydrogen tank, also called the qualification test article, for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally beside the Vertical Assembly Center robotic weld machine (blue) on July 22, 2016. It was lifted out of the welder (top) after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The budget request does maintain full funding for both of NASA’s commercial crew vehicles planned to restore launching astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the ISS from US soil on US rockets – namely the crewed Dragon and CST-100 Starliner – currently under development by SpaceX and Boeing – thus ending our sole reliance on Russian Soyuz for manned launches.

“Working with commercial partners, NASA will fly astronauts from American soil on the first new crew transportation systems in a generation in the next couple of years.”

“We need commercial partners to succeed in low-Earth orbit, and we also need the SLS and Orion to take us deeper into space than ever before.”

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

However the Trump Administration has terminated NASA’s somewhat controversial plans for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) – initiated under the Obama Administration – to robotically retrieve a near Earth asteroid and redirect it to lunar orbit for a visit by a crewed Orion to gather unique asteroidal samples.

“While we are ending formulation of a mission to an asteroid, known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission, many of the central technologies in development for that mission will continue, as they constitute vital capabilities needed for future human deep space missions.”

Key among those vital capabilities to be retained and funded going forward is Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP).

“Solar electric propulsion (SEP) for our deep space missions is moving ahead as a key lynchpin.”

The Trump Administration’s well known dislike for Earth science and disdain of climate change has manifested itself in the form of the termination of 5 current and upcoming science missions.

NASA’s FY 2018 Earth Science budget suffers a $171 million cut to $1.8 Billion.

“While we are not proposing to move forward with Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3), Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE), Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder (CLARREO PF), and the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), this budget still includes significant Earth Science efforts, including 18 Earth observing missions in space as well as airborne missions.”

The DSCOVR Earth-viewing instruments will also be shut down.

NASA’s Office of Education will also be terminated completely under the proposed FY 2018 budget and the $115 million of funding excised.

“While this budget no longer supports the formal Office of Education, NASA will continue to inspire the next generation through its missions and the many ways that our work excites and encourages discovery by learners and educators. Let me tell you, we are as committed to inspiring the next generation as ever.”

Congress will now have its say and a number of Senators, including Republicans says Trumps budget is DOA.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SS John Glenn Stellar Space Station Launch – Photo/Video Gallery

Orbital ATK’s seventh cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station -in tribute to John Glenn- launched at 11:11 a.m. EDT April 18, 2017, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – This week’s blastoff of the ‘SS John Glenn’ Cygnus cargo freighter atop an Atlas V rocket on a critical mission delivering over 7000 pounds of science and gear to the International Space Station (ISS) yielded stellar imagery from all around the Florida Space Coast.

On the occasion of what amounts to a sentimental third journey to space for NASA astronaut John Glenn – the first American to orbit Earth – near perfect weather conditions enabled spectacular views of the lunchtime liftoff of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V carrying Orbital ATK’s commercial Cygnus supply ship named in honor of a true American hero.

The SS John Glenn blasted to orbit on time at 11:11 a.m. EDT Tuesday, April 18 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The cargo ship safely reached the station early Saturday morning.

The stunning launch events were captured by journalists and tourists gathered from across the globe.

Liftoff of Orbital ATK SS John Glenn OA-7 mission atop ULA Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on April 18, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

Check out this expanding gallery of eyepopping photos and videos from several space journalist colleagues and friends and myself – for views you won’t see elsewhere.

Click back as the gallery grows !

Watch this truly magnificent and unique video from space journalist Jeff Seibert positioned at a Playalinda Beach on the Atlantic Ocean – as excited vacationers and space enthusiasts frolic together in the waves and sands of this public beach.

Video Caption: Launch of Orbital ATK OA-7 Cygnus cargo vessel viewed from Playalinda Beach, FL on April 18, 2017. An Atlas 5 rocket launching a Cygnus cargo vessel, the “S.S. John Glenn” to the ISS loaded with 7452 pounds of science equipment, experiments, consumables and spare parts. Credit: Jeff Seibert

Playalinda is located just north of NASA’s Launch Complex 39A and offers the closest and clearest possible views of Atlas rocket launches from only about 5 miles away.

Orbital ATK’s seventh cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station – in tribute to John Glenn- launched at 11:11 a.m. EDT April 18, 2017, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Four days after liftoff the SS John Glenn finally arrived at the station as planned Saturday morning April 22 following a carefully choreographed series of thruster maneuvers this past week.

The private Cygnus resupply vessel is carrying nearly four tons of science and supplies crammed inside for the five person multinational Expedition 51 crew.

After reaching the vicinity of the space station overnight Saturday, Cygnus was successfully captured by astronaut crew members Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency) and Expedition 51 Station Commander Peggy Whitson of NASA at 6:05 a.m. EDT using the space station’s 57.7-foot (17.6-meter) Canadian-built Canadarm2 robotic arm.

The SS John Glenn Cygnus vehicle counts as Orbital ATK’s seventh cargo delivery flight to the station.

The vehicle is also known alternatively as the Cygnus OA-7 or CRS-7 mission.

Cygnus OA-7 is loaded with 3459 kg (7626 pounds) of science experiments and hardware, crew supplies, spare parts, gear and station hardware to the orbital laboratory in support over 250 research experiments being conducted on board by the Expedition 51 and 52 crews. The total volumetric capacity of Cygnus exceeds 27 cubic meters.

Blastoff of SS John Glenn on Orbital ATK OA-7 resupply mission bound for the ISS atop ULA Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on April 18, 2017. Credit: Julia Bergeron

The Orbital ATK SS John Glenn Cygnus is the 2nd US cargo ship to launch to the ISS this year following the SpaceX Dragon CRS-10 mission in February – as I reported here.

ULA Atlas V streaks aloft carrying Orbital ATK SS John Glenn OA-7 resupply mission to the ISS after April 18, 2017 liftoff from pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Blastoff of SS John Glenn on Orbital ATK OA-7 resupply mission bound for the ISS atop ULA Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on April 18, 2017. Credit: Julia Bergeron
ULA Atlas V soars to orbit with the Orbital ATK SS John Glenn OA-7 resupply mission to the ISS after April 18, 2017 liftoff from pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Julia Bergeron
Orbital ATK’s seventh cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station – in tribute to John Glenn- launched at 11:11 a.m. EDT April 18, 2017, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK’s 7th cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station launched at 11:11 a.m. EDT April 18, 2017 carrying the SS John Glenn atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, as seen from the VAB roof at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Liftoff of Orbital ATK SS John Glenn OA-7 mission atop ULA Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on April 18, 2017, as seen from VAB roof at KSC. Credit: Julian Leek
ULA Atlas V soars to orbit with the Orbital ATK SS John Glenn OA-7 resupply mission to the ISS after April 18, 2017 liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL – as seen from Titusville Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn. Credit: Gerald DeBose
Launch of Orbital ATK SS John Glenn atop ULA Atlas V on April 18, 2017 from pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL – as seen from KSC Press Site Complex 39. Credit: Jean Wright
Orbital ATK’s seventh cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station -in tribute to John Glenn- launched at 11:11 a.m. EDT April 18, 2017, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft named for Sen. John Glenn, one of NASA’s original seven astronauts, stands inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida behind a sign commemorating Glenn on March 9, 2017. It launched on April 18, 2017 on a ULA Atlas V. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

SS John Glenn Arrives at Space Station with Science and Supplies

#Canadarm2 on @Space_Station is positioning #Cygnus for berthing to Unity module on 22 April 2017. Credit: NASA TV

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The SS John Glenn commercial Cygnus resupply vessel arrived at the International Space Station early this morning, April 22, carrying nearly four tons of science and supplies crammed inside for the five person multinational Expedition 51 crew.

After reaching the vicinity of the space station overnight Saturday, the commercial Cygnus cargo ship was successfully captured by astronaut crew members Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency) and Expedition 51 Station Commander Peggy Whitson of NASA at 6:05 a.m. EDT using the stations Canardarm2.

Working at robotic work consoles inside the domed Cupola module, Pesquet and Whitson deftly maneuvered the space station’s 57.7-foot (17.6-meter) Canadian-built Canadarm2 robotic arm to reach out and flawlessly snare the Cygnus CRS-7 spacecraft at 6:05 a.m. EST at the short and tiny grappling pin located at the base of the vessel.

Now bolted into place on @Space_Station, @OrbitalATK’s #Cygnus will spend ~3 months at the orbiting outpost. Credit NASA TV

Cygnus and the station were soaring some 250 miles (400 km) over Germany as they were joined at Canada’s high tech arm in a perfect demonstration of the peaceful scientific purpose of the massive laboratory complex.

The private supply ship was moved and bolted into place a few hours later at 8:19 a.m. EDT to physically berth and join the station at the Unity module.

Thus begins a three month long sentimental journey ‘bridging history’ to the dawn of America’s human spaceflight with the cylindrically shaped ship named in tribute to John Glenn – the first American to orbit Earth way back in 1962.

The SS John Glenn is a private Cygnus spacecraft manufactured by Orbital ATK under the commercial resupply services (CRS) contact with NASA whose purpose is to deliver many thousands of pounds of cargo and research supplies to the space station to enable the scientific research for which it was built.

Cygnus arrived at the station via a carefully choreographed series on thruster maneuvers after almost four days in orbit following liftoff earlier this week.

The SS John Glenn blasted to orbit on time at 11:11 a.m. EDT Tuesday, April 18 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo craft approaches its 10 meter capture point where the Canadarm2 grapples resupply ship on 22 April 2017. Credit: NASA TV

The SS John Glenn Cygnus vehicle counts as Orbital ATK’s seventh cargo delivery flight to the station.

The vehicle is also known alternatively as the Cygnus OA-7 or CRS-7 mission.

GO for capture of S.S. John Glenn #Cygnus on 22 April 2017 with Canadarm2. Credit: NASA TV

The entire rendezvous and grappling sequence was broadcast live on NASA TV starting at 4:30 a.m. Saturday: http://nasa.gov/nasatv

“Over the pin. Trigger initiated and snares closed,” radioed Pesquat in the final moments of approach as he carefully and ever so slowly moved the arm towards Cygnus this morning.

“Capture confirmed right on time at 6:05 a.m,” replied Houston Mission Control.

“We have a good capture, and are go for safing,” reported Station Commander Whitson.

“The crew of Expedition 51 would like to congratulate all the teams at NASA, Orbital ATK and the contractors for a flawless cargo-delivery mission,” Pesquat elaborated. “We are very proud to welcome onboard the S.S. John Glenn.”

“The more than three tons of pressurized cargo in the Cygnus spacecraft will be put to good use to continue our mission of research, exploration and discovery. Achievements like this, fruit of the hard work by space agencies and private companies and the international cooperation across the world, are what truly makes the ISS such a special endeavor at the service of all mankind.”

“Station, Houston, well said,” replied Mission Control.

After the astronauts finished their work in orbit, mission controllers in Houston took over and commanded the arm to move Cygnus to the Earth facing port on Node 1 where it was remotely bolted in place with 16 hooks and latches and hard mated to the Unity module.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft named for Sen. John Glenn, one of NASA’s original seven astronauts, stands inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida behind a sign commemorating Glenn on March 9, 2017. It launched on April 18, 2017 on a ULA Atlas V. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The mission is named the ‘S.S. John Glenn’ in tribute to legendary NASA astronaut John Glenn – the first American to orbit Earth back in February 1962.

Glenn was one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts selected by NASA. At age 77 he later flew a second mission to space aboard Space Shuttle Discovery- further cementing his status as a true American hero.

Glenn passed away in December 2016 at age 95. He also served four terms as a U.S. Senator from Ohio.

A picture of John Glenn in his shuttle flight suit and a few mementos are aboard.

Cygnus OA-7 is loaded with 3459 kg (7626 pounds) of science experiments and hardware, crew supplies, spare parts, gear and station hardware to the orbital laboratory in support over 250 research experiments being conducted on board by the Expedition 51 and 52 crews. The total volumetric capacity of Cygnus exceeds 27 cubic meters.

Science plays a big role in this mission named in tribute to John Glenn. Over one third of the payload loaded aboard Cygnus involves science.

“The new experiments will include an antibody investigation that could increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs for cancer treatment and an advanced plant habitat for studying plant physiology and growth of fresh food in space,” according to NASA.

The astronauts will grow food in space, including Arabidopsis and dwarf wheat, in an experiment that could lead to providing nutrition to astronauts on a deep space journey to Mars.

“Another new investigation bound for the U.S. National Laboratory will look at using magnetized cells and tools to make it easier to handle cells and cultures, and improve the reproducibility of experiments. Cygnus also is carrying 38 CubeSats, including many built by university students from around the world as part of the QB50 program. The CubeSats are scheduled to deploy from either the spacecraft or space station in the coming months.”

Also aboard is the ‘Genes in Space-2’ experiment. A high school student experiment from Julian Rubinfien of Stuyvescent High School, New York City, to examine accelerated aging during space travel. This first experiment will test if telomere-like DNA can be amplified in space with a small box sized experiment that will be activated by station astronauts.

The Saffire III payload experiment will follow up on earlier missions to study the development and spread of fire and flames in the microgravity environment of space. The yard long experiment is located in the back of the Cygnus vehicle. It will be activated after Cygnus departs the station roughly 80 days after berthing. It will take a few hours to collect the data for transmission to Earth.

Four spacecraft are parked at the station including the Orbital ATK Cygnus resupply ship, the Progress 66 cargo craft and the Soyuz MS-03 and MS-04 crew vehicles as of 22 April 2017. Credit: NASA

Watch for Ken’s onsite launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Orbital ATK’s seventh cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station -in tribute to John Glenn- launched at 11:11 a.m. EDT April 18, 2017, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SS John Glenn to Debut as World’s 1st Live 360 Degree Video of Rocket Launch April 18

Fiery blastoff of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar XIX satellite from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Imagine watching a real rocket launch in a 360 degree live video broadcast. Well NASA is about to make it happen for the first time in a big way and on a significant mission.

On Tuesday April 18, NASA will broadcast the launch of the ‘S.S. John Glenn’ space station cargo freighter in a feat marking the world’s first live 360-degree stream of a rocket launch – namely the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.

The ‘S.S. John Glenn’ is named in honor of legendary NASA astronaut John Glenn – the first American to orbit Earth back in February 1962.

The late morning daytime launch offers the perfect opportunity to debut this technology with the rocket magnificently visible atop a climbing plume of smoke and ash – and with a “pads-eye” view!

The ‘S.S. John Glenn’ is actually a Cygnus resupply spacecraft built by NASA commercial cargo provider Orbital ATK for a cargo mission heading to the International Space Station (ISS) – jam packed with nearly 4 tons or research experiments and gear for the stations Expedition 51 crew of astronauts and cosmonauts.

“NASA, in coordination with United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Orbital ATK, will broadcast the world’s first live 360-degree stream of a rocket launch,” the agency announced in a statement.

“The live 360 stream enables viewers to get a pads-eye view.”

The Cygnus spaceship will launch on a ULA Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Liftoff of the S.S. John Glenn on Orbital ATK’s seventh commercial resupply services mission to the ISS – dubbed OA-7 or CRS-7 – is slated for 11:11 a.m. EDT Tuesday, April 18.

The launch window lasts 30 minutes and runs from 11;11-11:41 a.m. EDT.

You can watch the live 360 stream of the Atlas V/OA-7 cargo resupply mission liftoff to the ISS on the NASA Television YouTube channel starting 10 minutes prior to lift off at:

http://youtube.com/nasatelevision

The sunshine state’s weather outlook is currently very promising with a forecast of an 80% chance of favorable ‘GO’ conditions at launch time Tuesday morning.

John Glenn was selected as one of NASA’s original seven Mercury astronauts chosen at the dawn of the space age in 1959. He recently passed away on December 8, 2016 at age 95.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft named for Sen. John Glenn, one of NASA’s original seven astronauts, stands inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida behind a sign commemorating Glenn on March 9, 2017. Launch slated for March 21 on a ULA Atlas V. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The S.S. John Glenn will carrying more than 7,600 pounds of science research, crew supplies and hardware to the orbiting outpost.

How can you watch the streaming 360 video? Read NASA’s description:

“To view in 360, use a mouse or move a personal device to look up and down, back and forth, for a 360-degree view around Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Note: not all browsers support viewing 360 videos. YouTube supports playback of 360-degree videos on computers using Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer and Opera browsers. Viewers may use the YouTube app to view the launch on a smart phone. Those who own virtual reality headsets will be able to look around and experience the view as if they were actually standing on the launch pad.”

“While virtual reality and 360 technology have been increasing in popularity, live 360 technology is a brand new capability that has recently emerged. Recognizing the exciting possibilities opened by applying this new technology to spaceflight, NASA, ULA, and Orbital ATK seized this opportunity to virtually place the public at the base of the rocket during launch. Minimum viewing distance is typically miles away from the launch pad, but the live 360 stream enables viewers to get a pads-eye view.”

A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar 19 high speed internet satellite is poised for blastoff from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The naming announcement for the ‘S.S. John Glenn’ was made by spacecraft builder Orbital ATK during a ceremony held inside the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) clean room facility when the cargo freighter was in the final stages of flight processing – and attended by media including Universe Today on March 9.

“It is my humble duty and our great honor to name this spacecraft the S.S. John Glenn,” said Frank DeMauro, vice president and general manager of Orbital ATK’s Advanced Programs division, during the clean room ceremony inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHFS) high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about the SS John Glenn/ULA Atlas V launch to ISS, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Apr 17-19: “SS John Glenn/ULA Atlas V launch to ISS, SpaceX SES-10, EchoStar 23, CRS-10 launch to ISS, ULA Atlas SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, SpaceX and Orbital ATK missions to the ISS, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

In this Oct. 23, 2016 image, the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm captures Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft on its sixth mission to the station. The company’s seventh cargo resupply mission is targeted for launch April 18 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credits: NASA

Nighttime Delta IV Blastoff Powers Military Comsat to Orbit for U.S. Allies: Photo/Video Gallery

Blastoff of ULA Delta IV rocket carrying the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) comsat to orbit for the U.S. Air Force from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – The second round of March Launch Madness continued with the thunderous nighttime blastoff of a ULA Delta IV rocket powering a super swift military communications satellite to orbit in a collaborative effort of U.S. Allies from North America, Europe and Asia and the U.S. Air Force.

The next generation Wideband Global SATCOM-9 (WGS-9) military comsat mission for the U.S. Force lifted off atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV from Space Launch Complex-37 (SLC-37) on Saturday, March 18 at 8:18 p.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Check out this expanding gallery of spectacular launch photos and videos gathered from my space journalist colleagues, myself and spectators ringing the space coast under crystal clear early evening skies.

A key feature in this advanced Block II series WGS satellite is inclusion of the upgraded digital channelizer that nearly doubles the available bandwidth of earlier satellites in the series.

WGS-9 can filter and downlink up to 8.088 GHz of bandwidth compared to 4.410 GHz for earlier WGS satellites. It supports communications links in the X-band and Ka-band spectra.

ULA Delta IV rocket streaks to orbit carrying WGS-9 tactical communications satellite for the U.S. Air Force and international partners from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, at 8:18 p.m. EDT on Mar. 18, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

Note that Round 3 of March Launch Madness is tentatively slated for March 29 with the SpaceX liftoff of the first ever reused Falcon 9 first stage from historic pad 39 on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

The WGS-9 satellite was paid for by a six nation consortium that includes Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United States. It joins 8 earlier WGS satellites already in orbit.

The partnership was created back in 2012 when the ‘WGS-9 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)’ was signed by Defense organizations of the six countries.

The WGS-9 MOU agreement to fund the satellite enabled the expansion of the WGS system with this additional satellite added to the existing WGS constellation.

“The agreement provides all signatories with assured access to global wideband satellite communications for military use,” according to the US Air Force.

Watch this launch video compilation from Jeff Seibert:

Video Caption: Launch of WGS-9 satellite continues USAF Breaking Barriers heritage. This ULA Delta 4 launch of the WGS-9 satellite on Mar 18, 2017 marks the start of the 70th anniversary of the United States Air Force. That was also the year that U.S. Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. Credit: Jeff Seibert

Watch this launch video from Ken Kremer:

Video Caption: ULA/USAF Delta IV launch of Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) from pad 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on 18 Mar. 2017 – as seen in this remote video taken at the pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

WGS-9 was built by Boeing.

The 217 foot tall Delta IV Medium+ rocket launched in the 5,4 configuration with a 5 meter diameter payload fairing that stands 47 feet tall, and 4 solid rocket boosters to augment the first stage thrust of the single common core booster.

The payload fairing was emblazoned with decals commemorating the 70th anniversary of the USAF, as well as Air Force, mission and ULA logos.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) mission for the U.S. Air Force launches at 8:18 p.m. EDT on Mar. 18, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl – reflecting beautifully in the pad pond. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Blastoff of ULA Delta IV rocket carrying the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) comsat to orbit for the U.S. Air Force from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Orbital ATK manufactures the four solid rocket motors. The Delta IV common booster core was powered by an RS-68A liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine producing 705,250 pounds of thrust at sea level.
A single RL10B-2 liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine powered the second stage, known as the Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS).

The booster and upper stage engines are both built by Aerojet Rocketdyne. ULA constructed the Delta IV Medium+ (5,4) launch vehicle in Decatur, Alabama.

Launch of USAF WGS-8 milsatcom on ULA Delta IV rocket from pad 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

The DCSS will also serve as the upper stage for the maiden launch of NASA heavy lift SLS booster on the SLS-1 launch slated for late 2018. That DCSS/SLS-1 upper stage just arrived at the Cape last week – as I witnessed and reported here.

Saturday’s launch marks ULA’s 3rd launch in 2017 and the 118th successful launch since the company was formed in December 2006 as a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Blastoff of ULA Delta IV rocket carrying the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) comsat to orbit for the U.S. Air Force from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Launch of USAF WGS-8 milsatcom on ULA Delta IV rocket from pad 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017. Dawn Leek Taylor
Two AF Generals and a Delta! Major General David D. Thompson, Vice Commander Air Force Space Command, Peterson Air Force Base, CO, and Brig. Gen. Wayne R. Monteith, Commander of the 45th Space Wing Commander and Eastern Range Director at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla, celebrate successful Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) launch for the U.S. Air Force on ULA Delta IV from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017, with the media gaggle on base post launch with Delta pad 37 in background right. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Liftoff of ULA Delta IV with WGS-9 milsatcom on Mar 18, 2017 as seen soaring above the pool at the Quality Inn Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, FL. Credit: Wesley Baskin
Eerie view of ULA Delta IV blastoff of WGS-9 milsatcom on Mar 18, 2017 as seen soaring over residential area in Titusville, FL. Credit: Melissa Bayles
ULA Delta IV rocket prior to blastoff with the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) mission for the U.S. Air Force from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
ULA Delta IV blastoff of WGS-9 satcom on Mar 18, 2017 from Cape Canaveral AFS with long vapor exhaust trail as seen roaring over residential area in Titusville, FL. Credit: Ashley Carrillo
ULA Delta IV blastoff of WGS-9 satcom on Mar 18, 2017 from Cape Canaveral AFS with long vapor exhaust trail as seen roaring over residential area in Titusville, FL. Credit: Ashley Carrillo
ULA Delta IV blastoff of WGS-9 satcom on Mar 18, 2017 from Cape Canaveral AFS with long vapor exhaust trail as seen roaring over residential area in Titusville, FL. Credit: Ashley Carrillo
ULA Delta IV blastoff of WGS-9 satcom on Mar 18, 2017 from Cape Canaveral AFS with long vapor exhaust trail as seen roaring over residential area in Titusville, FL. Credit: Ashley Carrillo

SpaceX Outbids ULA for Military GPS Contract Igniting Fierce Launch Competition

Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The fierce competition for lucrative launch contracts from the U.S. Air Force just got more even intense with the announcement that SpaceX outbid arch rival United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch an advanced military Global Positioning System (GPS III) navigation satellite to orbit in approx. 2 years.

The U.S. Air Force has announced that SpaceX has won the national security contract to launch a single next generation GPS III satellite to Earth orbit in the first half of 2019. The contract award is valued at $96.5 million.

“SpaceX is proud to have been selected to support this important National Security Space Mission,” Gwynne Shotwell, President & COO, told Universe Today in a statement in response to the GPS III award.

The GPS constellation of navigation satellites is vital to both military and civilian users on a 24/7 basis.

“Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Hawthorne, California, has been awarded a $96,500,490 firm-fixed-price contract for launch services to deliver a GPS III satellite to its intended orbit,” the Air Force announced in a statement.

There could be as many as 15 Air Force launch contracts awarded this year in competitive bidding between ULA and SpaceX.

The upshot is that ULA’s decade long near monopoly on national security launches has now been broken several times in the past year with SpaceX outbidding ULA based on the price of their newer Falcon family of rockets compared to ULA’s long established Atlas and Delta rocket families.

Last year SpaceX won the competition to launch the first GPS-III satellite on a Falcon 9 rocket in 2018 with a bid of $82.7 million after ULA decided not to enter a bid.

“We appreciate the confidence that the U.S. Air Force has placed in our company and we look forward to working together towards the successful launch of another GPS-III mission,” Shotwell elaborated to Universe Today.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell meets the media at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 17 Feb 2017 to discuss a wide range of space launch plans. Credit: Julian Leek

ULA did not bid on the first GPS III contract citing the lack of availability of “any Atlas engines available to bid” and other contract factors as the reason for not submitting a bid for the 2018 launch based on the request for proposals (RFP) for the global positioning satellite.

The Atlas V is powered by Russian made RD-180 engines, who’s import for military uses had been temporarily restricted by Congress following the Russian invasion of the Crimea.

The launch price was a deciding factor in the winning bid.

“Each contractor had to prove through their proposal that they could meet the technical, the schedule and the risk criteria,” said Claire Leon, director of the launch enterprise directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, during a media briefing.

“SpaceX was able to do that. I wouldn’t say that they were necessarily better. They adequately met our criteria.”

SpaceX has been snatching away numerous launch contracts from ULA other launch providers across the globe with their substantially lower rocket prices. SpaceX has been hiring while other firms including ULA have suffered layoffs.

So in response to competitive pressures from SpaceX, ULA took concrete steps to dramatically cut launch costs and end dependency on the RD-180s when CEO Tory Bruno announced in April 2015 that the company would develop the new all-American made Vulcan rocket.

Vulcan is slated for an inaugural liftoff in 2019.

The Air Force expects SpaceX to achieve a rapid turnaround from winning the bid to actually launching the GPS satellite by April 2019.

“Contractor will provide launch vehicle production, mission integration, launch operations, spaceflight worthiness and mission unique activities for a GPS III mission. Work will be performed at Hawthorne, California; Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida; and McGregor, Texas, and is expected to be complete by April 30, 2019,” said the Air Force.

Only SpaceX and ULA bid on the GPS III satellite launch contract.

“This award is the result of a competitive acquisition with two offers received. Fiscal 2016 space procurement funds in the amount of $96,500,490 are being obligated at the time of award.”

The Air Force opened up military launch contracts to competitive bidding in 2015 after certifying SpaceX as a qualified bidder to launch the nation’s most critical and highly valuable national security satellites on their Falcon 9 booster.

Until 2015, ULA had a near sole source contract with the USAF as the only company certified to bid on and launch those most critical national security satellites. New space upstart SpaceX, founded by billionaire CEO Elon Musk, then forced the bidding issue by filing a lawsuit suing the Air Force.

In response to the lost GPS-III bid, ULA touted their demonstrated record of 100 percent success launching more than 115 satellites.

“United Launch Alliance continues to believe a best value launch service competition with evaluation of mission success and assurance, and past performance including demonstrated schedule reliability, is appropriate and needed for the Phase 1A missions given the technical complexities of rocket launch services and their critical significance to the war fighter and U.S. national security,” ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye told Universe Today.

“Over the past decade, ULA has provided unmatched reliability with 100 percent mission success and ensured more than 115 satellites were delivered safely to their orbits each and every time. We look forward to continuing to provide the best value launch services to enable our customers’ critical missions.”

ULA Delta IV rocket streaks to orbit carrying the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) tactical communications satellite for the U.S. Air Force and international partners from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, at 8:18 p.m. EDT on Mar. 18, 2017, in this long exposure photo taken on base. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The most recent ULA launch for the Air Force took place days ago involving the stunning Delta blastoff of the WGS-9 high speed communications satellite on March 18, 2017.

SpaceX has suffered a pair of calamitous Falcon 9 rocket failures in June 2015 and Sept. 2016, destroying both the rocket and payloads for NASA and the AMOS-6 communications satellite respectively.

So the U.S. Air Force should definitely be balancing risk vs. reward with regard to lower pricing and factoring in rocket robustness and reliability, regarding launches of national security satellites which could cost into the multi-billions of dollars, take years to manufacture and are not swiftly replaceable in case of catastrophic launch failures.

ULA’s workhorse Atlas V rocket successfully delivered the final GPS satellite in the IIF series to orbit for the US Air Force on Feb 5, 2016.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the GPS IIF-12 mission lifted off at 8:38 a.m. EST on Feb. 5, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

At that time the Global Positioning System (GPS) IIF-12 navigation satellite completed the constellation of GPS IIF satellites that are critical to both military and civilian users on a 24/7 basis.

The Atlas V rocket delivered the GPS IIF-12 satellite to a semi-synchronous circular orbit at an altitude of approximately 11,000 nautical miles above Earth.

“GPS III is the next generation of GPS satellites that will introduce new capabilities to meet the higher demands of both military and civilian users,” according to the USAF.

“GPS III is expected to provide improved anti-jamming capabilities as well as improved accuracy for precision navigation and timing. It will incorporate the common L1C signal which is compatible with the European Space Agency’s Galileo global navigation satellite system and compliment current services with the addition of new civil and military signals.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer