Musk Says Maiden Falcon Heavy to Launch in November, Acknowledges High Risk and Releases New Animation

SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket poised for launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in this artists concept. Credit: SpaceX

Before the year is out, the long awaited debut launch of the triple barreled Falcon Heavy rocket may at last be in sight says SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk, as he forthrightly acknowledges it comes with high risk and released a stunning launch and landing animation earlier today, Aug. 4.

After years of painstaking development and delays, the inaugural blastoff of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy is currently slated for November 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, according to Musk.

“Falcon Heavy maiden launch this November,” SpaceX CEO and billionaire founder Elon Musk tweeted last week.

“Lot that can go wrong in the November launch …,” Musk said today on Instagram, downplaying the chances of complete success.

And to whet the appetites of space enthusiasts worldwide, just today Musk also published a one minute long draft animation illustrating the Falcon Heavy triple booster launch and how the individual landings of the trio of first stage booster cores will take place – nearly simultaneously.

Video Caption: SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch from KSC pad 39A pad and first stage booster landings. Credit: SpaceX

“Side booster rockets return to Cape Canaveral,” explains Musk on twitter. “Center lands on droneship.”

The two side boosters will be recycled from prior Falcon 9 launches and make precision guided propulsive, upright ground soft landings back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Each booster is outfitted with a quartet of grid fins and landing legs. The center core is newly built and heavily modified.

“Sides run high thrust, center is lower thrust until sides separate & fly back. Center then throttles up, keeps burning & lands on droneship. If we’re lucky!” Musk elaborated.

The center booster will touch down on an ocean going droneship prepositioned in the Atlantic Ocean some 400 miles (600 km) off of Florida’s east coast.

To date SpaceX first stages from KSC launches have touched down either on land at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) at the Cape or at sea on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship barge (OCISLY).

The launch of the extremely complicated Falcon Heavy booster with 27 first stage Merlin 1D engines also comes associated with a huge risk – and he hopes that it at least rises far enough off the ground to minimize the chances of damage to the historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

“There’s a lot of risk associated with Falcon Heavy, a real good chance that that vehicle does not make it to orbit,” Musk said recently while speaking at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington, D.C. on July 19.

“I want to make sure to set expectations accordingly. I hope it makes it far enough beyond the pad so that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win, to be honest.”

Musk originally proposed the Falcon Heavy in 2011 and targeted a maiden mission in 2013.

Whenever it does launch, the Falcon Heavy will become the world’s most powerful rocket.

“I think Falcon Heavy is going to be a great vehicle,” Musk stated. “There’s just so much that’s really impossible to test on the ground, and we’ll do our best.

“Falcon Heavy requires the simultaneous ignition of 27 orbit-class engines. There’s a lot that can go wrong there.”

Designing and building Falcon Heavy has proven to be far more difficult than Musk ever imagined, and the center booster had to be significantly redesigned.

“It actually ended up being way harder to do Falcon Heavy than we thought,” Musk explained.

“At first it sounds real easy! You just stick two first stages on as strap-on boosters. How hard can that be?” But then everything changes. All the loads change, aerodynamics totally change. You’ve tripled the vibration and acoustics. You sort of break the qualification levels on so much of the hardware.”

“The amount of load you’re putting through that center core is crazy because you’ve got two super-powerful boosters also shoving that center core. So we had to redesign the whole center core airframe,” Musk added. “It’s not like the Falcon 9 – because it’s got to take so much load. Then you’ve got separation systems.”

Due to the high risk, there will be no payload from a paying customer housed inside the nose cone atop the center core. Only a dummy payload will be installed on the maiden mission.

However future Falcon Heavy missions have been manifested with commercial and science payloads.

Musk also hopes to launch a pair of paying private astronauts on a trip around the Moon and back as soon as 2018 while journeying inside a Crew Dragon spacecraft with the Falcon Heavy – similar to what his company is developing for NASA for commercial ferry missions to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS).

Falcon Heavy will blast off with about twice the thrust of the Delta IV Heavy, currently the worlds most powerful rocket. The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy (D4H) has been the world’s mightiest rocket since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttles in 2011.

The Falcon Heavy sports about 2/3 the liftoff thrust of NASA’s Saturn V manned moon landing rockets – last launched in the 1970s.

SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Intelsat 35e – 4th next gen ‘Epic’ TV and mobile broadband comsat for Intelsat – on July 5, 2017 at 7:38 p.m. EDT from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Falcon Heavy is comprised of three Falcon 9 cores. The Delta IV Heavy is comprised of three Delta Common Core Boosters.

The combined trio of Falcon 9 cores will generate about 5.1 million pounds of liftoff thrust upon ignition from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“With the ability to lift into orbit over 54 metric tons (119,000 lb)–a mass equivalent to a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel–Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, at one-third the cost,” according to the SpaceX website.

“The nice thing is when you fully optimize it, it’s about two-and-a-half times the payload capability of a Falcon 9,” Musk notes. “It’s well over 100,000 pounds to LEO of payload capability, 50 tons. It can even get up a little higher than that if optimized.”

ULA Delta 4 Heavy rocket delivers NROL-37 spy satellite to orbit on June 11, 2016 from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The two stage Falcon Heavy stands more than 229.6 feet (70 meters) tall and is 39.9 feet wide (12.2 meters).

It weighs more than 3.1 million pounds (1.4 million kilograms).

Like the Falcon 9 it will be fueled with liquid oxygen and RP-1 kerosene propellants.

The thunder, power and roar of over 5 million pounds of liftoff thrust from the Falcon Heavy’s 27 engines is absolutely certain to be a thrilling, earth-shaking space spectacular !! Thus placing it in a class of its own unlike any US launch since NASA’s Saturn V and Space Shuttles rocketed to the high frontier from the same pad.

“I encourage people to come down to the Cape to see the first Falcon Heavy mission,” Musk said. “It’s guaranteed to be exciting.”

But before the Falcon Heavy can actually be rolled up to launch position at pad 39A, SpaceX must first complete repairs and refurbishment to nearby pad 40.

That Cape pad was heavily damaged nearly a year ago during a catastrophic launch pad explosion that took place in Sept. 2016 during a routine prelaunch fueling and static fire engine test of a Falcon 9 rocket with the Amos-6 commercial comsat payload bolted on top.

Pad 40 must achieve operational launch status again before SpaceX can commit to the Falcon Heavy launches at Pad 39A. Workers will also need to finish construction work at pad 39A to support the Heavy launches.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster deploys quartet of landing legs moments before precision propulsive ground touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Canaveral Air Force Station barely nine minutes after liftoff from Launch Complex 39A on 3 June 2017 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the Dragon CRS-11 resupply mission to the International Space Station for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

To date SpaceX has successfully demonstrated the recovery of thirteen boosters by land and sea.

Furthermore SpaceX engineers have advanced to the next step and successfully recycled, reflown and relaunched two ‘flight-proven first stages this year in March and June of 2017 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida involving the SES-10 and BulgariaSat-1 launches respectively.

SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk and SES CTO Martin Halliwell exuberantly shake hands of congratulation following the successful delivery of SES-10 TV comsat to orbit using the first reflown and flight proven booster in world history at the March 30, 2017 post launch media briefing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The next SpaceX Falcon 9 launch is slated for Aug. 13 on the NASA contracted CRS-12 resupply mission to the ISS.

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.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Booster leaning atop OCISLY droneship upon which it landed after 23 June launch from KSC floats into Port Canaveral, FL, on 29 June 2017, hauled by tugboat as seen from Jetty Park Pier. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Blastoff of 2nd flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida- as seen from the crawlerway. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX Set to Launch Stacked Pair of Electric Propulsion Comsats on June 15 – Watch Live

Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 awaits launch of Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 awaits launch of Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — Less than three weeks after their last successful launch and landing attempt involving a Thai payload, SpaceX is set to continue the firms rapid fire pace of satellite deliveries to orbit with a new mission involving a stacked pair of all-electric propulsion commercial comsats that are due to liftoff tomorrow, Wednesday morning.

Working off a hefty back log of lucrative launch contracts SpaceX is targeting Wednesday, June 15 for the launch of the Boeing-built EUTELSAT 117 West B and ABS-2A satellites for Latin American and Asian customers from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on an upgraded Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX is aiming to launch at the opening of Wednesday’s launch window at 10:29 a.m. EDT (2:29 UTC) which closes at 11:13 a.m. EDT.

Two Boeing built satellies named Eutelsat SA 117 West B and ABS 2A are due to launch on June 15, 2015 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket  from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: SpaceX
Two Boeing built satellies named Eutelsat SA 117 West B and ABS 2A are due to launch on June 15, 2015 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Boeing

SpaceX most recently scored a stellar success with the double headed launch of Thaicom-8 and sea based first stage landing on May 27 – as I reported here from the Cape.

And Wednesday’s launch comes just 5 days after Saturday’s (June 11) launch from the Cape of the world’s most powerful rocket – the Delta 4 Heavy – which delivered a huge spy satellite to orbit for the NRO in support of US national defense.

Indeed what makes this flight especially interesting is that the satellites are based on Boeing’s 702SP series program and were the first all-electric propulsion satellites when Boeing introduced it in 2012, a Boeing spokesperson Joanna Climer told Universe Today.

The 229 foot-tall (70 meter) Falcon 9 will deliver the roughly 5000 pound commercial telecommunications satellites to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) for Eutelsat based in Paris and Asia Broadcast Satellite of Bermuda and Hong Kong.

SpaceX Falcon 9 poised for launch on June 15, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.   Credit: Julian Leek
SpaceX Falcon 9 poised for launch on June 15, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Julian Leek

For the fourth time in a row, the spent first stage booster will again attempt to propulsively soft land on a platform at sea some nine minutes later.

You can watch the Falcon launch live on Wednesday via a special live webcast directly from SpaceX HQ in Hawthorne, Ca.

The SpaceX webcast will be available starting about 20 minutes before liftoff, at approximately 10:09 a.m. EDT at SpaceX.com/webcast

The two stage Falcon 9 rocket has a 44-minute long launch window that extends until 11:13 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, June 15.

The path to launch was cleared after SpaceX engineers successfully carried out a brief static fire test of the first stages engines with the rocket erect at pad 40. The customary test lasts a few seconds and was conducted headless – without the two satellites bolted on top.

Incredible sight of pleasure craft zooming past SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 as it arrives at the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL,  atop droneship platform on June 2, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Incredible sight of pleasure craft zooming past SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 as it arrives at the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL, atop droneship platform on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The vertically stacked pair of comsats are “very similar, but not identical,” Climer told me.

They are already encased inside the Falcon 9 payload fairing and stacked in a Boeing-patented and customized interface configuration – as seen in the photo herein.

They were tested at the Boeing Satellite Development Center in El Segundo, Calif., to ensure they could withstand the rigors of the launch environment. They have a design lifetime of a minimum of 15 years.

“They vary slightly in mass, but have similar payload power. The satellite on top weighs less than the one on the bottom.”

The Eutelsat satellite is carrying a hosted payload for the FAA.

They will detached and separate from one another in space. The top satellite will separate first while the pair are still attached to the second stage. Then the bottom satellite will detach completing the spacecraft separation event.

They will be deployed at about 30 minutes and 35 minutes after liftoff.

Eutelsat 117 West B will provide Latin America with video, data, government and mobile services for Paris-based Eutelsat.

ABS 2A will distribute direct-to-home television, mobile and maritime communications services across Russia, India, the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region for Asia Broadcast Satellite of Bermuda and Hong Kong.

The satellites have no chemical thrusters. They will maneuver to their intended orbit entirely using a use xenon-based electric thruster propulsion system known as XIPS.

XIPS stands for xenon-ion propulsion system.

“XIPS uses the impulse generated by a thruster ejecting electrically charged particles at high velocities. XIPS requires only one propellant, xenon, and does not require any chemical propellant to generate thrust,” according to Boeing officials.

“XIPS is used for orbit raising and station-keeping for the 702SP series.”

Diagram of the Xenon propulsion system aboard the Boeing-built EUTELSAT 117 West B and ABS-2A satellites.  Credit: Boeing
Diagram of the Xenon propulsion system aboard the Boeing-built EUTELSAT 117 West B and ABS-2A satellites. Credit: Boeing

The ASDS drone ship landing platform known as “Of Course I Still Love You” or OCISLY was already dispatched several days ago.

It departed Port Canaveral for the landing zone located approximately 420 miles (680 kilometers) off shore and east of Cape Canaveral, Florida surrounded by the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.

As I witnessed and reported here first hand, the Thaicom-8 first stage arrived on OCISLY six days after the ocean landing, in a tilted configuration. It was craned off the drone ship onto a ground support cradle two days later.

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
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

Watch for Ken’s continuing on site reports direct from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the SpaceX launch pad.

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Orbital ATK Cygnus, ISS, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

June 14/15: “ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SpaceX, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Up close view of landing legs at base of SpaceX Falcon 9 that launched on June 15, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.   Credit: Lane Hermann
Up close view of landing legs at base of SpaceX Falcon 9 that launched on June 15, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Lane Hermann
Logo for EUTELSAT 117 West B and ABS-2A satellite mission launch. Credit: SpaceX
Logo for EUTELSAT 117 West B and ABS-2A satellite mission launch. Credit: SpaceX

NASA Tests Orion’s Fate During Parachute Failure Scenario

What would happen to the astronaut crews aboard NASA’s Orion deep space capsule in the event of parachute failures in the final moments before splashdown upon returning from weeks to years long forays to the Moon, Asteroids or Mars?

NASA teams are evaluating Orion’s fate under multiple scenarios in case certain of the ships various parachute systems suffer partial deployment failures after the blistering high speed reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Orion is nominally outfitted with multiple different parachute systems including two drogue chutes and three main chutes that are essential for stabilizing and slowing the crewed spacecraft for safely landing in the Pacific Ocean upon concluding a NASA ‘Journey to Mars’ mission.”

This week engineers from NASA and prime contractor Lockheed Martin ran a dramatic and successful six mile high altitude drop test in the skies over the Arizona desert, in the instance where one of the parachutes in each of Orion’s drogue and main systems was intentionally set to fail.

“We test Orion’s parachutes to the extremes to ensure we have a safe system for bringing crews back to Earth on future flights, even if something goes wrong,” says CJ Johnson, project manager for Orion’s parachute system, in a statement.

“Orion’s parachute performance is difficult to model with computers, so putting them to the test in the air helps us better evaluate and predict how the system works.”

Although Orion hits the atmosphere at over 24,000 mph after returning from deep space, it slows significantly after atmospheric reentry.

By the time the first parachutes normally deploy, the crew module has decelerated to some 300 mph. Their job is to slow the craft down to about 20 mph by the time of ocean splashdown mere minutes later.

On Aug. 26, NASA conducted a 35,000 foot high drop test out of the cargo bay of a C-17 aircraft using an engineering test version of the Orion capsule over the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona.

“The engineering model has a mass similar to that of the Orion capsule being developed for deep space missions, and similar interfaces with its parachute system,” say officials.

“Engineers purposefully simulated a failure scenario in which one of the two drogue parachutes, used to slow and stabilize Orion at high altitude, and one of its three main parachutes, used to slow the crew module to landing speed, did not deploy.”

Here’s a video detailing the entire drop test sequence of events from preflight preparations to the parachute landing.

The high-risk Aug. 26 experiment was NASA’s penultimate drop test in this engineering evaluations series. A new series of tests in 2016 will serve to qualify the parachute system for crewed flights.

Engineers prepare to test the parachute system for NASA’s Orion spacecraft at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona on Aug. 26, 2015 by loading a test version on a C-17 aircraft. Credit: NASA
Engineers prepare to test the parachute system for NASA’s Orion spacecraft at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona on Aug. 26, 2015 by loading a test version on a C-17 aircraft. Credit: NASA

Orion’s inaugural mission dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT) was successfully launched on a flawless flight on Dec. 5, 2014 atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The parachutes operated flawlessly during the Orion EFT-1 mission.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orion’s next launch is set for the uncrewed test flight called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). It will blast off on the inaugural flight of NASA’s SLS heavy lift monster rocket concurrently under development – from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center.

The maiden SLS test flight is targeted for no later than November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds. It will boost an unmanned Orion on an approximately three week long test flight beyond the Moon and back.

Toward that goal, NASA is also currently testing the RS-25 first stage engines that will power SLS – as outlined in my recent story here.

NASA plans to gradually upgrade the SLS to achieve an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), enabling the more distant missions even farther into our solar system.

Homecoming view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014 after successful blastoff on Dec. 5, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Parachutes are stowed atop Orion
Homecoming view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014 after successful blastoff on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about MUOS-4 USAF launch, Orion, SLS, SpaceX, Boeing, ULA, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orbital ATK, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Aug 31- Sep 2: “MUOS-4 launch, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Antares and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Genesis of ULA’s New Vulcan Rocket Borne of Fierce Commercial and Political Pressures: Interview

Fierce commercial and international political pressures have forced the rapid development of the new Vulcan launcher family recently announced by rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA). Vulcan’s “genesis” and development was borne of multiple unrelenting forces on ULA and is now absolutely essential and critical for its “transformation and survival in a competitive environment” moving forward, according to Dr. George Sowers, ULA Vice President for Advanced Concepts and Technology, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.

“To be successful and survive ULA needs to transform to be more of a competitive company in a competitive environment,” Dr. Sowers told Universe Today in a wide ranging interview regarding the rationale and goals of the Vulcan rocket.

Vulcan is ULA’s next generation rocket to space and slated for an inaugural liftoff in 2019.

Faced with the combined challenges of a completely changed business and political environment emanating powerfully from new space upstart SpaceX offering significantly reduced launch costs, and continuing uncertainty over the future supply of the Russian-made RD-180 workhorse rocket engines that power ULA’s venerable Atlas V rocket, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Sowers and ULA’s new CEO Tory Bruno were tasked with rapidly resolving these twin threats to the firms future well being – which also significantly impacts directly on America’s national security.

“Our current plan is to have the new Vulcan rocket flying by 2019,” Sowers stated.

Whereas ULA enjoyed a virtual US launch monopoly for many years, those days are now history thanks to SpaceX.

Vulcan - United Launch Alliance (ULA)’s next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019.  Credit: ULA
Vulcan – United Launch Alliance (ULA) next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019. Credit: ULA

The Vulcan launcher was created in response to the commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and it will combine the best features of ULA’s existing unmanned Atlas V and Delta IV booster product lines as well as being revamped with new and innovative American-made first stage engines that will eventually be reusable.

It will meet and exceed the capabilities of ULA’s current stable of launchers, including the Delta IV Heavy which recently launched NASA’s maiden Orion crew module on an unmanned test flight in Dec. 2014.

“We at ULA were faced with how do we take our existing products and transform them into a single fleet that enables us to do the entire range of missions on just one family of rockets.”

“So that was really the genesis of what we now call the “Vulcan” rocket. So this single family will be able to do everything [from medium to heavy lift],” Sowers told me.

Another requirement is that Vulcan’s manufacturing methodology be extremely efficient, slashing costs to make it cost competitive with the Space X Falcon 9. Sowers said the launcher would sell “for less than $100 million” at the base level.

“Vulcan will be the highest-performing, most cost-efficient rocket on the market. It will open up new opportunities for the nation’s use of space,” says ULA CEO Tory Bruno.

In its initial configuration Vulcan’s first stage will be powered by a revolutionary new class of cost effective and wholly domestic engines dubbed the BE-4, produced by Blue Origin.

It can be augmented by up to six solid rocket boosters, to propel high value payloads on missions ranging from low Earth orbit to interplanetary destinations for NASA, private industry and vital US national security interests.

Vulcan will also blast off with astronaut crews aboard the Boeing CST-100 space taxi bound for the International Space Station (ISS) in the early 2020s.

Cutaway diagram of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket powered by BE-4 first stage engines, six solid rocket motors and a 5 meter diameter payload fairing. Credit ULA
Cutaway diagram of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket powered by BE-4 first stage engines, six solid rocket motors and a 5 meter diameter payload fairing. Credit ULA

Further upgrades including a powerful new upper stage called ACES, will be phased in down the road as launches of ULA’s existing rocket families wind down, to alleviate any schedule slips.

“Because rocket design is hard and the rocket business is tough we are planning an overlap period between our existing rockets and the new Vulcan rocket,” Sowers explained. “That will account for any delays in development and other issues in the transition process to the new rocket.”

ULA was formed in 2006 as a 50:50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that combined their existing expendable rocket fleet families – the Atlas V and Delta IV – under one roof.

Development of the two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV’s) was originally funded by the U.S. Air Force to provide two independent and complimentary launch capabilities thereby offering assured access to space for America’s most critical military reconnaissance satellites gathering intelligence for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), DOD and the most senior US military and government leaders.

Since 2006, SpaceX (founded by billionaire Elon Musk) has emerged on the space scene as a potent rival offering significantly lower cost launches compared to ULA and other launch providers in the US and overseas – and captured a significant and growing share of the international launch market for its American-made Falcon rocket family.

And last year to top that all off, Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, who is in charge of space and defense industries, threatened to “ban Washington from using Russian-made [RD-180] rocket engines [used in the Atlas V rocket], which the US has used to deliver its military satellites into orbit.”

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, March 12, 2015, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
ULA Atlas V rocket first stage is powered by Russian-made RD-180 engines.
United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, March 12, 2015, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

“ULA was formed eight years ago as a government regulated monopoly focused on US government launches. Now eight years later the environment is changing,” Sowers told me.

How did ULA respond to the commercial and political challenges and transform?

“So there are a lot of things we had to do structurally to make that transformation. One of the key ones is that when ULA was formed, the government was very concerned about having assured access to space for national security launches,” Sowers explained.

“In their mind that meant having two independent rocket systems that could essentially do the same jobs. So we have both the Atlas V and the Delta IV. But in a competitive environment you can well imagine that that requirement drives your costs significantly higher than they need to be.”

ULA actually offered three rocket families after the merger, when only one was really needed.

“So our first conclusion on how to be competitive was how do we go from supporting three rocket families – including the Delta II – off of 6 launch pads, to our ultimate aim of getting down to just 1 rocket family of off just 2 pads – one on each coast. So, that is the most cost effective structure that we could come up with and the most competitive.”

Developing a new first stage engine not subject to international tensions was another primary impetus.

“The other big objective that was always in our minds, but that became much higher priority in April 2014 when Russia decided to annex Crimea, is that the RD-180 rocket engine that became our workhorse on Atlas, now became politically untenable.”

“So the other main objective of Vulcan is to re-engine [the first stage of] our fleet with an American engine, the Blue Origin BE-4.”

The RD-180’s will be replaced with a pair of BE-4 engines from Blue Origin, the highly secretive aerospace firm founded by Jeff Bezos, billionaire founder of Amazon. The revolutionary BE-4 engines are fueled by liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen and will produce about 1.1 million pounds of thrust vs. about 900,000 pounds of thrust for the RD-180, a significant enhancement in thrust.

“The Blue Origin BE-4 is the primary engine [for Vulcan]. ULA is co-investing with Blue Origin in that engine.”

Although the BE-4 is ULA’s primary choice to replace the RD-180, ULA is also investing in development of a backup engine, the AR-1 from Aerojet-Rocketdyne, in case the BE-4 faces unexpected delays.

“As I said, rocket development is hard and risky. So we have a backup plan. That is with Aerojet-Rocketdyne and their AR-1. And we are investing in that engine as well.”

More on the Vulcan, BE-4, reusability and more upcoming in part 2.

ULA concept for SMART reuse capability for the new Vulcan rocket involves eventual midair recovery and reuse of the first stage engines.  Credit: ULA
ULA concept for SMART reuse capability for the new Vulcan rocket involves eventual midair recovery and reuse of the first stage engines. Credit: ULA

Meanwhile, the next commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 is due to blastoff this Sunday, June 28, on the Dragon CRS-7 resupply mission to the ISS.

Watch for my onsite reports 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
………….

Learn more about ULA, SpaceX, Europa, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Jun 25-28: “SpaceX launch, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Antares and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Launch pad remote camera view.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

U.S. Air Force Certifies SpaceX for National Security Launches, Ending Monopoly

SpaceX Falcon 9 is now certified for USAF launches. SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
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The U.S. Air Force announced Tuesday that they have certified SpaceX to launch the nations critical and highly valuable national security satellites on the firms Falcon 9 rocket, thereby breaking the decade old launch monopoly held by launch competitor United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA is a joint venture owned by aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The Air Force’s goal in approving the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster is aimed at drastically cutting the high cost of access to space by introducing competition in the awarding of military mission launch contacts. The prior contract involved a sole source $11 Billion “block buy” bid for 36 rocket cores from ULA in December 2013 which was legally challenged by SpaceX in April 2014, but eventually settled by SpaceX in an agreement with the USAF earlier this year.

Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), announced the long awaited decision on Tuesday, May 26.

The certification milestone came after a grueling two year review process in which the Air Force invested more than $60 million and 150 people to thoroughly review all aspects of the Falcon 9 booster. The review was based on three successful flights by the Falcon 9 v1.1 which first launched in late 2013.

The purpose of certification is to assure that qualified launch providers could meet the challenge of safely, securely and reliably lofting expensive U.S. national security military missions to space and into their intended orbits with full mission capability that are critical for maintaining national defense.

“The SpaceX and SMC teams have worked hard to achieve certification,” said Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space, in a statement.

“And we’re also maintaining our spaceflight worthiness process supporting the National Security Space missions. Our intent is to promote the viability of multiple EELV-class launch providers as soon as feasible.”

And the competitive launch races “for award of qualified national security space launch missions” between SpaceX and ULA start very soon, within the next month says the USAF.

In June, the Air Force will issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for GPS III launch services. ULA has three GPS launches in its manifest for 2015.

Of course SpaceX was overjoyed on hearing the certification news.

“This is an important step toward bringing competition to National Security Space launch, said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer.

‘We thank the Air Force for its confidence in us and look forward to serving it well.”

Until today, ULA has held a launch monopoly over military missions since the company was founded in 2006. ULA also launches many NASA science missions, but very few commercial satellites.

Thus the U.S. military and NASA provide the core of ULA’s business and the source of much of its income and profits.

SpaceX is suing the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is now certified by the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“This is a very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense,” said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, in a statement.

“SpaceX’s emergence as a viable commercial launch provider provides the opportunity to compete launch services for the first time in almost a decade. Ultimately, leveraging of the commercial space market drives down cost to the American taxpayer and improves our military’s resiliency.”

Other military spacecraft in the future could involve vehicles such as the X-37B space plane which recently launched on an Atlas V, as well as weather satellites, signals intelligence and missile warning satellites and a range of top secret missions for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) that have been routinely launched by ULA with a 100% success rate to date.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

ULA’s stable of launchers includes the Atlas V and Delta IV families of vehicles. ULA is phasing out the Delta IV due to its high costs. Only the Delta IV Heavy will remain in service as required to launch the very heaviest satellites that cannot be accommodated by less powerful rockets.

ULA is also replacing the Atlas V with the partly reusable new Vulcan rocket, that will be phased in starting in 2019 using American-made engines from either Blue Origin or Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The Atlas V uses Russian made RD-180 engines, who’s use has become highly contentious since the deadly crisis in Ukraine erupted in 2014.

The ensuing threats of RD-180 engine embargoes and imposition of sanctions and counter sanctions imposed by the US and Russia have thus placed US national security at risk by being dependent on a rocket with foreign made engines whose future supply chain was uncertain.

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been highly critical of the ULA dependence on the Russian RD-180 engines and issued this statement in response to the Air Force announcement.

“The certification of SpaceX as a provider for defense space launch contracts is a win for competition, said McCain.

“Over the last 15 years, as sole-source contracts were awarded, the cost of EELV was quickly becoming unjustifiably high. I am hopeful that this and other new competition will help to bring down launch costs and end our reliance on Russian rocket engines that subsidizes Vladimir Putin and his cronies.”

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Overall the Air Force “invested more than $60 million and 150 people in the certification effort which encompassed 125 certification criteria, including more than 2,800 discreet tasks, 3 certification flight demonstrations, verifying 160 payload interface requirements, 21 major subsystem reviews and 700 audits in order to establish the technical baseline from which the Air Force will make future flight worthiness determinations for launch.”

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Busy Year of 13 Launches by ULA in 2015 Begins with Blastoffs for the Navy and NASA

A busy year of 13 space launches by rocket provider United Launch Alliance (ULA) in 2015 begins with a pair of blastoffs for the US Navy and NASA tonight and next week, emanating from both the US East and West Coasts.

The hefty manifest of 13 liftoffs in 2015 comes hot on the heels of ULA’s banner year in 2014 whereby they completed every one of the firm’s 14 planned launches in 2014 with a 100% success rate.

“What ULA has accomplished in 2014, in support of our customers’ missions, is nothing short of remarkable,” said ULA CEO Tory Bruno.

“When you think about every detail – all of the science, all of the planning, all of the resources – that goes into a single launch, it is hard to believe that we successfully did it at a rate of about once a month, sometimes twice.”

ULA’s stable of launchers includes the Delta II, Delta IV and the Atlas V. They are in direct competition with the Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX founded by billionaire Elon Musk.

And ULA’s 2015 launch calendar begins tonight with a milestone launch for the US Navy that also marks the 200th launch overall of the venerable Atlas-Centaur rocket that has a renowned history dating back some 52 years to 1962 with multiple variations.

And tonight’s blastoff of the Multi-User Objective System (MUOS-3) satellite for the US Navy involves using the most powerful variant of the rocket, known as the Atlas V 551.

Liftoff of MUOS-3 is set for 7:43 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The launch window extends for 44 minutes and the weather outlook is very favorable. It will be carried live on a ULA webcast.

MUOS-3 Navy communications satellite and Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL for launch on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: ULA
MUOS-3 Navy communications satellite and Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL for launch on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: ULA

The second ULA launch of 2015 comes just over 1 week later on January 29, lofting NASA’s SMAP Earth observation satellite on a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

MUOS is a next-generation narrowband tactical satellite communications system designed to significantly improve ground communications for U.S. forces on the move, according to ULA.

This is the third satellite in the MUOS series and will provide military users 10 times more communications capability over existing systems, including simultaneous voice, video and data, leveraging 3G mobile communications technology.

ULA’s second launch in 2015 thunders aloft from the US West Coast with NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive mission (SMAP). It is the first US Earth-observing satellite designed to collect global observations of surface soil moisture.

SMAP will blastoff from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg AFB at 9:20 a.m. EST (6:20 a.m. PST) on ULA’s Delta II rocket.

NASA's Soil Moisture Active Passive mission (SMAP) will lift off from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 9:20 a.m. EST (6:20 a.m. PST) on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket.   Credit:  NASA
NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive mission (SMAP) will lift off from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 9:20 a.m. EST (6:20 a.m. PST) on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket. Credit: NASA

“It goes without saying: ULA had a banner year,” Bruno said. “As we look ahead to 2015, we could not be more honored to continue supporting our nation in one of the most technologically complex, critical American needs: affordable, reliable access to space.”

ULA began operations in December 2006 with the merger of the expendable launch vehicle operations of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

ULA’s Delta IV Heavy is currently the world’s most powerful rocket and flawlessly launched NASA’s Orion capsule on Dec. 5, 2014 on its highly successful uncrewed maiden test flight on the EFT-1 mission.

Overall, the 14-mission launch manifest in 2014 included 9 national security space missions, 3 space exploration missions, including NASA’s Orion EFT-1 and 2 commercial missions.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Launch pad remote camera view.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Beyond MUOS-3 and SMAP, the launch manifest on tap for 2015 also includes additional NASA science satellites, an ISS commercial cargo resupply mission as well as more GPS satellites for military and civilian uses and top secret national security launches using the Delta II, Delta IV and the Atlas V boosters.

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS) to study Earth’s magnetic reconnection is scheduled for launch on an Atlas V 421 booster on March 12 from Cape Canaveral. See my up close visit with MMS and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center detailed in my story – here.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

In March, June and September the GPS 2F-9, 2F-10 and 2F-11 navigation satellites will launch on Delta IV and Atlas V rockets from Cape Canaveral.

Two top secret NRO satellites are set to launch on a Delta IV and Atlas in April and August from Vandenberg.

An Air Force Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) space plane may launch as soon as May atop an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral.

The MUOS-4 liftoff is set for August on another Atlas from the Cape.

The Morelos 3 communications satellite for the Mexican Ministry of Communications and Transportation is due to launch in October from the Cape.

In November, the Atlas V will be pressed into service for the first time to launch the Orbital Sciences Cygnus Orb-4 cargo vehicle to the International Space Station (ISS) as a replacement rocket for the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket which is grounded following its catastrophic Oct. 28 explosion on the Orb-3 mission from NASA Wallops.

This Cygnus launched atop Antares on Jan. 9 and docked on Jan. 12   Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during exclusive visit by  Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. ISS astronauts will open this hatch to unload 2780 pounds of cargo.  Docking mechanism hooks and latches to ISS at left. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
This Cygnus launched atop Antares on Jan. 9, 2014. The next Cygnus Orb-4 will launch for the first time atop an Atlas V in Nov. 2015. Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. ISS astronauts will open this hatch to unload 2780 pounds of cargo. Docking mechanism hooks and latches to ISS at left. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The Orb-4 launch also marks ULA’s first launch to the ISS. It may be followed by another Cygnus launch atop an Atlas V in 2016 as Orbital works to bring the Antares back into service.

Antares doomed descent to incendiary destruction after first stage propulsion system of Orbital Sciences’ rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Antares doomed descent to incendiary destruction after first stage propulsion system of Orbital Sciences’ rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

In another major milestone down the road, the Atlas V is being man rated since it was chosen to launch the Boeing CST-100 space taxi which NASA selected as one of two new commercial crew vehicles to launch US astronauts to the ISS as soon as 2017.

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

Ken Kremer

Moon Over Orion Heralds Start of NASA’s Human Road to Mars

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – This week’s appearance of the Moon over the Kennedy Space Center marks the perfect backdrop heralding the start of NASA’s determined push to send Humans to Mars by the 2030s via the agency’s new Orion crew capsule set to soar to space on its maiden test flight in less than two days.

Orion is the first human rated vehicle that can carry astronauts beyond low Earth orbit on voyages to deep space in more than 40 years.

Top managers from NASA, United Launch Alliance (ULA), and Lockheed Martin met on Tuesday, Dec. 2, and gave the “GO” to proceed toward launch after a thorough review of all systems related to the Orion capsule, rocket, and ground operation systems at the launch pad at the Launch Readiness Review (LRR), said Mark Geyer at a NASA media briefing on Dec. 2.

A new countdown display has been constructed in the place of the former analog countdown clock at the Press Site at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for Orion’s first launch. The display is a modern, digital LED display akin to stadium monitors. It allows television images to be shown along with numbers.  Note former shuttle launch pad 39A in the background above clock.   Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
A new countdown display has been constructed in the place of the former analog countdown clock at the Press Site at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for Orion’s first launch slated for Dec. 4, 2014. The display is a modern, digital LED display akin to stadium monitors. It allows television images to be shown along with numbers. Note former shuttle launch pad 39A in the background above clock. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orion is slated to lift off on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket on its inaugural test flight to space on the uncrewed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission at 7:05 a.m. EST on December 4, 2014, from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

America’s astronauts flying aboard Orion will venture farther into deep space than ever before – beyond the Moon to Asteroids, Mars, and other destinations in our Solar System starting around 2020 or 2021 on Orion’s first crewed flight atop NASA’s new monster rocket – the SLS – concurrently under development.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveils world’s largest welder to start construction of core stage of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden officially unveils world’s largest welder to start construction of core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, on Sept. 12, 2014. SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket ever built. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The current weather forecast states the launch is 60 percent “GO” for favorable weather condition at the scheduled liftoff time of at 7:05 a.m. on Dec. 4, 2014.

The launch window extends for 2 hours and 39 minutes.

The two-orbit, four and a half hour Orion EFT-1 flight around Earth will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 3,600 miles, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years.

EFT-1 will test the rocket, second stage, and jettison mechanisms, as well as avionics, attitude control, computers, and electronic systems inside the Orion spacecraft.

Orion atop Delta 4 Heavy Booster.   Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
Orion atop Delta 4 Heavy Booster. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Then the spacecraft will carry out a high speed re-entry through the atmosphere at speeds approaching 20,000 mph and scorching temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit to test the heat shield, before splashing down for a parachute assisted landing in the Pacific Ocean.

NASA TV will provide several hours of live Orion EFT-1 launch coverage with the new countdown clock – starting at 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 4.

Orion’s move to Launch Complex-37. Credit: Mike Killian
Orion’s move to Launch Complex-37. Credit: Mike Killian

Watch for Ken’s ongoing Orion coverage and he’ll be onsite at KSC in the days leading up to the historic launch on Dec. 4.

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

Ken Kremer
………….
Learn more about Orion, SpaceX, Antares, NASA missions, and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Dec 1-5: “Orion EFT-1, SpaceX CRS-5, Antares Orb-3 launch, Curiosity Explores Mars,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Cool NASA Animation Beautifully Details Every Step of Orion’s First Launch!

Video Caption: Animation details NASA’s Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission launching on Dec. 4. 2014. Credit: NASA

It’s not Science Fiction! It’s Not Star Trek!

No. It’s a really, really big NASA Mission! It’s Orion!

In fact, it’s the biggest and most important development in US Human Spaceflight since the end of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011.

Orion is launching soon on its first flight, the pathfinding Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission and sets NASA on the path to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.

Watch this cool NASA animation beautifully detailing every key step of Orion’s First Launch!

Orion is designed to take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before. Even farther into deep space than NASA’s Apollo moon landing which ended more than four decades ago!

We are T-MINUS 4 Days and Counting to the inaugural blastoff of Orion as of today, Sunday, November 30, 2014.

To learn even more about the 8 major events and goals happening during Orion’s EFT-1 mission be sure to check out my recent story with NASA’s fabulous new set of infographics – here.

Every aspect of the final processing steps now in progress by engineers and technicians from NASA, rocket provider United Launch Alliance, and Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin is proceeding smoothly and marching towards launch.

Orion’s move to Launch Complex-37. Credit: Mike Killian
Orion’s move to Launch Complex-37. Credit: Mike Killian

Orion will lift off on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket on its inaugural test flight to space on the uncrewed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission at 7:05 a.m. EST on December 4, 2014, from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The two-orbit, four and a half hour Orion EFT-1 flight around Earth will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 3,600 miles, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years.

EFT-1 will test the rocket, second stage, jettison mechanisms as well as avionics, attitude control, computers and electronic systems inside the Orion spacecraft.

Then the spacecraft will carry out a high speed re-entry through the atmosphere at speeds approaching 20,000 mph and scorching temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit to test the heat shield, before splashing down for a parachute assisted landing in the Pacific Ocean.

Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle that will carry America’s astronauts beyond Earth on voyages venturing farther into deep space than ever before – beyond the Moon to Asteroids, Mars, and other destinations in our Solar System.

NASA TV will provide several hours of live coverage

Delta 4 Heavy rocket and super secret US spy satellite roar off Pad 37 on June 29, 2012 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA’s Orion EFT-1 capsule will blastoff atop a similar Delta 4 Heavy Booster in December 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Here’s how Orion EFT-1 Launch will look!
Delta 4 Heavy rocket and super secret US spy satellite roars off Pad 37 on June 29, 2012, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA’s Orion EFT-1 capsule will blastoff atop a similar Delta 4 Heavy Booster in December 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s ongoing Orion coverage and he’ll be onsite at KSC in the days leading up to the historic launch on Dec. 4.

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

Ken Kremer

Launch - It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be bright. It’s going to be smoky. Engines are fired, the countdown ends and Orion lifts off into space atop the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida.  Credit: NASA
Launch – It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be bright. It’s going to be smoky. Engines are fired, the countdown ends and Orion lifts off into space atop the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Credit: NASA

………….

Learn more about Orion, SpaceX, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Dec 1-5: “Orion EFT-1, SpaceX CRS-5, Antares Orb-3 launch, Curiosity Explores Mars,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

IMG_7780a_Delta 4 Heavy_Ken Kremer

Dive teams attach tow lines to Orion test capsule during Aug. 15 recovery test at Norfolk Naval Base, VA.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Dive teams attach tow lines to Orion test capsule during Aug. 15, 2013 recovery test at Norfolk Naval Base, VA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Orion on Track at T MINUS 1 Week to First Blastoff – Photos

At T MINUS 1 Week on this Thanksgiving Holiday, all launch processing events remain on track for the first blast off of NASA’s new Orion crew vehicle on Dec. 4, 2014 which marks the first step on the long road towards sending Humans to Mars in the 2030s.

Orion will lift off on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket on its inaugural test flight to space on the uncrewed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission at 7:05 a.m. EST on December 4, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Technicians and engineers installed Orion’s batteries and have been conducting a thorough checkout of all the electrical and battery connections between the crew module, service module and Delta IV Heavy second stage while working inside the mobile service tower at pad 37.

With access doors at Space Launch Complex 37 opened, the Orion and Delta IV Heavy stack is visible in its entirety inside the Mobile Service Tower where the vehicle is undergoing launch preparations.  Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
With access doors at Space Launch Complex 37 opened, the Orion and Delta IV Heavy stack is visible in its entirety inside the Mobile Service Tower where the vehicle is undergoing launch preparations. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

There is some margin time available in the schedule in case additional testing and checkouts are required.

Orion’s launch window opens at 7:05 a.m. EST on Dec. 4 at the beginning of a launch window that extends 2 hours, 39 minutes.

One week ago, top NASA and Lockheed Martin managers gave the “GO” to continue with launch preparations after the vehicle passed the Flight Readiness Review (FRR) on Thursday, Nov. 20.

This past week the doors of the Mobile Servicing Tower (MST) at pad 37 were opened to reveal the Orion spacecraft stack atop the Delta IV Heavy that will carry the spacecraft into orbit.

NASA's Orion EFT-1 spacecraft atop Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Cape Canaveral, Florida ahead of launch set for Dec. 4, 2014.   Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
NASA’s Orion EFT-1 spacecraft atop Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Cape Canaveral, Florida ahead of launch set for Dec. 4, 2014. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The Delta IV Heavy is the world’s most powerful rocket.

The MST will be rolled back from the rocket stack on Wednesday evening, Dec. 3 starting 8 hours, 15 minutes before launch to allow the rocket to be fueled and continue into the final stage of launch operations and the countdown to liftoff on Thursday morning Dec. 4.

I’ll be at the pad during MST rollback reporting live for Universe Today.

Orion’s move to Launch Complex-37. Credit: Mike Killian
Orion’s move to Launch Complex-37. Credit: Mike Killian

The two-orbit, four and a half hour Orion EFT-1 flight around Earth will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 3,600 miles, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years.

Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle that will carry America’s astronauts beyond Earth on voyages venturing farther into deep space than ever before – beyond the Moon to Asteroids, Mars and other destinations in our Solar System.

NASA’s Orion EFT 1 crew module enters the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility on Sept. 11, 2014 at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, beginning the long journey to the launch pad and planned liftoff on Dec. 4, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s Orion EFT 1 crew module enters the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility on Sept. 11, 2014 at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, beginning the long journey to the launch pad and planned liftoff on Dec. 4, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s ongoing Orion coverage and he’ll be onsite at KSC in the days leading up to the historic launch on Dec. 4.

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about Orion, SpaceX, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Dec 1-5: “Orion EFT-1, SpaceX CRS-5, Antares Orb-3 launch, Curiosity Explores Mars,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

These three RS-68 engines will power each of the attached Delta IV Heavy Common Booster Cores (CBCs) that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
These three RS-68 engines will power each of the attached Delta IV Heavy Common Booster Cores (CBCs) that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion flight test profile for the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) launching on Dec. 4, 2014. Credit: NASA
Orion flight test profile for the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) launching on Dec. 4, 2014. Credit: NASA

Orion Passes Key NASA Flight Review – “GO” for Maiden Test Flight on Dec. 4

After a decade of hard work, numerous twists and turns, and ups and downs, NASA’s new Orion deep space crew vehicle is finally, and officially, marching towards its maiden blastoff in less than two week’s time.

The Orion spacecraft cleared one of the final hurdles to its first launch when top managers from NASA and Lockheed Martin successfully completed a key review of the vehicle’s systems ahead of the looming Dec. 4 flight test.

Orion passed the Flight Readiness Review (FRR) on Thursday, Nov. 20, and officials announced that the spacecraft is “GO” for proceeding on the road to launch – and one day on to Mars!

The FRR is a rigorous assessment of the spacecraft, its systems, mission operations, and support functions needed to successfully complete Orion’s first voyage to space.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion and recently completed its fabrication in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Center in September 2014.

Orion in orbit in this artists concept.  Credit: NASA
Orion in orbit in this artists concept. Credit: NASA

Orion will lift off on a Delta IV Heavy rocket on its inaugural test flight to space on the uncrewed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission at 7:05 a.m. EST on December 4, 2014, from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket is the world’s most powerful rocket and the only booster sufficiently powerful to launch the 50,000 pound Orion EFT-1 spacecraft to orbit.

The rocket was transported to pad 37 in late September. Then, on Nov. 12, this path finding Orion spacecraft was itself rolled out to the launch pad and hoisted and bolted atop the Delta IV Heavy.

The United Launch Alliance Delta-IV Heavy rocket tasked with launching NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission being hoisted vertical atop Space Launch Complex-37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on the morning of Oct. 1, 2014. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace
The United Launch Alliance Delta-IV Heavy rocket tasked with launching NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission being hoisted vertical atop Space Launch Complex-37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on the morning of Oct. 1, 2014. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

The critical December test flight will pave the way for the first human missions to deep space in more than four decades since NASA’s Apollo moon landing missions ended in 1972.

To learn more about the major events and goals happening during Orion’s EFT-1 mission be sure to check out NASA’s cool new set of infographics explaining the 8 key events in my story – here.

The two-orbit, four and a half hour Orion EFT-1 flight around Earth will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 3,600 miles, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years.

EFT-1 will test the rocket, second stage, jettison mechanisms, as well as avionics, attitude control, computers, and electronic systems inside the Orion spacecraft.

Then the spacecraft will carry out a high speed re-entry through the atmosphere at speeds approaching 20,000 mph and scorching temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit to test the heat shield, before splashing down for a parachute assisted landing in the Pacific Ocean.

NASA’s completed Orion EFT 1 crew module loaded on wheeled transporter during move to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHFS) on Sept. 11, 2014 at the Kennedy Space Center, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s completed Orion EFT 1 crew module loaded on wheeled transporter during move to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHFS) on Sept. 11, 2014, at the Kennedy Space Center, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle that will carry America’s astronauts beyond Earth on voyages venturing farther into deep space than ever before – beyond the Moon to Asteroids, Mars, and other destinations in our Solar System.

Watch for Ken’s ongoing Orion coverage and he’ll be onsite at KSC in the days leading up to the historic launch on Dec. 4.

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

Ken Kremer

Orion flight test profile for the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) launching on Dec. 4, 2014. Credit: NASA
Orion flight test profile for the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) launching on Dec. 4, 2014. Credit: NASA
Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com