‘A City on Mars’ is Elon Musk’s Ultimate Goal Enabled by Rocket Reuse Technology

Elon Musk’s dream and ultimate goal of establishing a permanent human presence on the Red Planet in the form of “A City on Mars” took a gigantic step forward with the game changing rocket landing and recovery technology vividly demonstrated by his firm’s Falcon 9 booster this past Monday, Dec. 21 – following a successful blastoff from the Florida space coast just minutes earlier on the first SpaceX launch since a catastrophic mid-air calamity six months ago.

“I think this was a critical step along the way towards being able to establish a city on Mars,” said SpaceX billionaire founder and CEO Elon Musk at a media telecon shortly after Monday night’s (Dec. 21) launch and upright landing of the Falcon 9 rockets first stage on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Continue reading “‘A City on Mars’ is Elon Musk’s Ultimate Goal Enabled by Rocket Reuse Technology”

“The Falcon Has Landed” – SpaceX Soft Lands Rocket after Launch in Historic Feat

“The Falcon Has Landed!” gushed exuberant SpaceX officials following tonight’s (Dec 21) history making upright ground landing of the firms spent Falcon 9 boost stage barely 10 minutes after if launched on a critical mission to deliver a constellation of commercial communications satellites to Earth orbit.

Breaking News: Check Back later for more. See more photos video in follow up story here

Following a spectacular nighttime blastoff from Cape Canaveral, Fla, SpaceX has just successfully recovered and soft landed the 156 foot tall first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket back on the ground at the Cape – in a monumental and historic space feat that will reverberate around the world. This is a game changing moment that will alter the future of space travel.

WATCH the SpaceX webcast as the first stage lands, at about 31 minutes in the video:

Local area spectators cheered the launch and clearly saw the landing. They said several powerful sonic booms could be heard thundering loudly across the space coast. It was one of the most amazing sights they had ever seen, many folks said.

The upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 launched a fleet 11 ORBCOMM OG2 communications satellites to orbit on Monday, Dec. 21 at 8:29 p.m. from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

The stunning liftoff and landing marked the Falcon 9 boosters ‘Return to Flight’ and is the first launch for SpaceX since the catastrophic mid-air destruction of the rocket six months ago on June 28, 2015 – after launching from the same pad as today – on a cargo mission for NASA bound for the International Space Station (ISS) and her six person crew.

The first stage landing, vertically at night, was apparently perfect and came off without a hitch by all accounts.

The Falcon 9 is equipped with four landing legs and four grid fins to enable the propulsive landing back on the ground at the Cape, once the first stage separates and relights a Merlin 1D engine.

About 3 minutes after liftoff and about 60 miles altitude, the spent first stage separated from the second stage which continued to orbit with the Orbcomm satellites.

While moving at extremely high speed of some 3000 mph, the rocket was then commanded to fire cold gas nitrogen attitude thrusters to reorient itself and to turn the vehicle around – its sort of like riding on a broomstick in a hurricane. It then conducted a boostback burn with a first stage Merlin 1D engine to create a reversed ballistic arc. Then it conducted a reentry burn and finally a landing burn above the ground at Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral.

The quartet of side mounted landing legs were lowered into place in the final moments before touchdown.

Long exposure of launch, re-entry, and landing burns of SpaceX Falcon 9 on Dec. 21, 2015. Credit: SpaceX
Long exposure of launch, re-entry, and landing burns of SpaceX Falcon 9 on Dec. 21, 2015. Credit: SpaceX

The history making landing attempt of the boosters first stage took place back at the Cape at the SpaceX Landing Zone 1 site at about 8:39 p.m. EST after high altitude separation from the upper stage and around 10 minutes after launch.

The entire event from launch to landing was shown via a live SpaceX webcast.

The goal is to recover and eventually reuse the boosters in order to radically cut the cost of sending payloads and people to space, as often stated by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

But the key step to solve is you first have to recover the booster before you can even think about relaunching it. After its recovered it can then be thoroughly analyzed for the impact of aerodynamic stresses and the engine firings to determine the feasibility of refurbishment and reusability for relaunch.

Long exposure of launch, re-entry, and landing burns of SpaceX Falcon 9 on Dec. 21, 2015. Credit: SpaceX
Long exposure of launch, re-entry, and landing burns of SpaceX Falcon 9 on Dec. 21, 2015. Credit: SpaceX

Landing the Falcon 9 rockets first stage on land at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) complex by a pinpoint propulsive soft landing was the secondary test objective. Landing Zone 1 is located some six miles south of launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral.

Because of the proximity to populated areas, SpaceX required special approvals for the surface landing test from the Air Force and the FAA. And much of the military base and NASA installations have been evacuated for safety reasons. Media are also not allowed to watch and photograph from their customary locations on site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

SpaceX has built Landing Zone 1 by renovating and refurbishing an abandoned area previously known as Space Launch Complex 13 (SLC-13).

Landing Zone 1 measures about 282 feet in diameter and is constructed of reinforced concrete. SpaceX has actually built several of the concrete landing pads for use as a landing site by the firms Falcon 9 as well as the triple barreled Falcon Heavy boosters which may debut in 2016.

Launch Complex 13 is a former U.S. Air Force rocket and missile testing range last used in 1978 for test launches of the Atlas ICBM and subsequently for operational Atlas launches.

View of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage approaching Landing Zone 1 on Dec. 21, 2015. Credit: SpaceX
View of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage approaching Landing Zone 1 on Dec. 21, 2015. Credit: SpaceX

The primary mission was to carry a payload of eleven small commercial communications satellites for Orbcomm on the second OG2 mission. They were fueled and stacked on the satellite dispenser and encapsulated inside the payload fairing.

All 11 of the refrigerator sized OG2 satellites were successfully deployed as planned at an altitude of about 400 mi (620 km). They joined the existing fleet of OG2 satellites.

The 380 pound (170 kg) satellites were deployed two at a time from the satellite dispenser during six separation events. The staggered deployment of the 170 kg comsats took place over about four minutes from 8:42 p.m. to 8 46 p.m. in order to place the constellation of spacecraft into the proper orbit.

All 11 Orbcomm OG2 satellites were deployed to nominal orbits.  Credit: SpaceX
All 11 Orbcomm OG2 satellites were deployed to nominal orbits. Credit: SpaceX

This was the second and last OG2 launch for OrbComm. SpaceX has already notched one successful launch for Orbcomm when the first six Orbcomm OG2 satellites lifted off on July 14, 2014.

The ORBCOMM OG2 satellites provide Machine – to – Machine (M2M) messaging and Automatic Identification System (AIS) services.

Overall it was a wildly successful ‘Return to Flight’ and a historic day for SpaceX.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for Orbcomm OG2 launch slated for Dec. 20 stands vertical at pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Fla.  Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for Orbcomm OG2 launch before liftoff on Dec. 21, stands vertical at pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Credit: SpaceX

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

Ken Kremer

Aerial view of SpaceX landing Zone 1 Complex at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida
Aerial view of SpaceX landing Zone 1 Complex at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida

SpaceX Targets Dramatic Nighttime Falcon 9 Launch and Daring Cape Canaveral Landing on Dec. 21

A “significantly upgraded” SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stands erect on the Florida space coast today, Sunday, Dec. 20, and is poised to make history Monday evening (Dec. 21) with a spectacular nighttime blast off and daring first ever surface landing attempt of the boosters first stage at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, that could be accompanied by sonic booms – if all goes well.

Dec 20 Update: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has just scrubbed for the day and reset launch to Monday, Dec. 21 and story is revised.

“Just reviewed mission params w SpaceX team. Monte Carlo runs show tmrw night has a 10% higher chance of a good landing. Punting 24 hrs,” Musk tweeted. Continue reading “SpaceX Targets Dramatic Nighttime Falcon 9 Launch and Daring Cape Canaveral Landing on Dec. 21”

SpaceX Sets Dec. 20 For ‘Return to Flight’ Launch and Historic Rocket Ground Landing Recovery Attempt – Watch Live

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced today (Dec. 19) that his company plans to launch an upgraded version of its Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday night, Dec. 20, from Cape Canaveral, Florida – for the first time since it failed in flight six months ago on a mission for NASA to the space station – after successfully completing a crucial test of the rockets engines late Friday night.

Furthermore, SpaceX confirmed it will conduct a historic first ever attempt to recover the commercial rocket’s first stage by a soft landing on the ground at a special SpaceX site called Landing Zone 1 on the Cape’s Air Force Station. Continue reading “SpaceX Sets Dec. 20 For ‘Return to Flight’ Launch and Historic Rocket Ground Landing Recovery Attempt – Watch Live”

SpaceX Targeting Dec. 19 ‘Return to Flight’ Liftoff for Falcon 9 after June Mishap

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket after successful static hot-fire test on June 13, 2014 on Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL.  Launch is slated for Friday, June 20, 2014  on ORBCOMM OG2 mission with six OG2 satellites. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket after successful static hot-fire test on June 13, 2014 on Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Launch is slated for Friday, June 20, 2014 on ORBCOMM OG2 mission with six OG2 satellites. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX announced today (Dec. 10) that the aerospace firm is now targeting Dec. 19 as the target date for the ‘Return to Flight’ of their Falcon 9 rocket, and comes approximately six months after their last launch in late June 2015 ended suddenly in a catastrophic mid-air calamity resulting in total destruction of the rocket carrying out a critical cargo mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Falcon 9 ‘Return to Flight’ launch attempt from Cape Canaveral, Florida was confirmed by SpaceX CEO and chief designer Elon Musk via twitter this morning.

The tentative Falcon 9 launch Continue reading “SpaceX Targeting Dec. 19 ‘Return to Flight’ Liftoff for Falcon 9 after June Mishap”

Orbital ATK on the Rebound With Antares Return to Flight in 2016

Orbital ATK is on the rebound with return to flight of their Antares rocket slated in early 2016 following the catastrophic launch failure that doomed the last Antares in October 2014 on a resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS).

Engineers are making “excellent progress” assembling a modified version of Antares that is currently on track to blast off as soon as March 2016 with the company’s Cygnus resupply ship and resume critical deliveries of research experiments and life sustaining provisions to the multinational crews serving aboard the orbiting outpost.

“We are on track for the next Antares launch in early 2016,” said David Thompson, President and Chief Executive Officer of Orbital ATK in a progress update.

Resuming Antares launches is a key part of the company’s multipronged effort to fulfil their delivery commitments to NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

“The focus all along has been to do everything we can to fulfill our commitments to delivering cargo to the space station for NASA,” Thompson stated.

“After the Antares launch failure last October … our team has been sharply focused on fulfilling that commitment.”

Pre-launch seaside panorama of Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket at the NASA's Wallops Flight Facility launch pad on Oct 26 - 2 days before the ??Orb-3? launch failure on Oct 28, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Pre-launch seaside panorama of Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket at the NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility launch pad on Oct 26 – 2 days before the Orb-3 launch failure on Oct 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The key milestone was to successfully re-engine Antares with a new type of first stage engine that completely eliminates use of the original AJ26 engines that were refurbished 40 year leftovers – the NK-33 from Russia’s abandoned manned moon landing program.

After the launch failure, Orbital managers decided to ditch the trouble plagued AJ-26 and “re-engineered” the vehicle with the new RD-181 Russian-built engines that were derived from the RD-191.

Soviet era NK-33 engines refurbished as the AJ26 exactly like pictured here probably caused Antares’ rocket failure on Oct. 28, 2014. Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallaps. These engines powered the successful Antares liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Soviet era NK-33 engines refurbished as the AJ26 exactly like pictured here probably caused Antares’ rocket failure on Oct. 28, 2014. Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallaps. These engines powered the successful Antares liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orbital ATK holds a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract from NASA worth $1.9 Billion to deliver 20,000 kilograms of research experiments, crew provisions, spare parts and hardware spread out over eight Cygnus cargo delivery flights to the ISS.

NASA has recently supplemented the CRS contract with three additional Cygnus resupply deliveries in 2017 and 2018.

However, the Cygnus missions were put on hold when the third operational Antares/Cygnus flight was destroyed in a raging inferno about 15 seconds after liftoff on the Orb-3 mission from launch pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore.

Until Antares flights can safely resume, Orbital ATK has contracted with rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch a Cygnus cargo freighter atop an Atlas V rocket for the first time, in early December – as I reported here.

The Antares rocket is being upgraded with the new RD-181 main engines powering the modified first stage core structure that replace the troublesome AJ26 engines whose failure caused the Antares Orb-3 launch explosion on Oct. 28, 2014.

Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“We are making excellent progress in resuming our cargo delivery service to the International Space Station for NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract,” said company officials.

Orbital ATK engineering teams have been working diligently on “integrating and testing the new RD-181 main engines.”

After engineers finished acceptance testing and certification of the RD-181, the first dual engine set was shipped to Orbital’s Wallops Island integration facility. They arrived in mid-July. A second set is due to arrive in the fall.

“The RD-181 engine provides extra thrust and higher specific impulse, significantly increasing the payload capacity of the Antares rocket. This state-of-the-art propulsion system is a direct adaptation of the RD-191 engine, which completed an extensive qualification and certification program in 2013, accumulating more than 37,000 seconds of total run time,” said Scott Lehr, President of Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group, in a statement.

Engineers and technicians have now “integrated the two RD-181 engines with a newly designed and built thrust frame adapter and modified first stage airframe.”

Then they will add new propellant feed lines and first stage avionics systems.

Then comes the moment of truth. A “hot fire” test on the launch pad will be conducted by either the end of 2015 or early 2016 “to verify the vehicle’s operational performance and compatibility of the MARS launch complex.”

“Significant progress has been made in the manufacture and test of the modified hardware components, avionics and software needed to support the new engines,” said Mike Pinkston, Vice President and General Manager of Orbital ATK’s Antares Program.

“We are solidly on track to resume flying Antares in 2016.”

Antares rocket raised at NASA Wallops launch pad 0A bound for the ISS on Sept 18, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Antares rocket raised at NASA Wallops launch pad 0A bound for the ISS on Sept 18, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Simultaneously, teams have been working hard to repair the Wallops launch pad which was damaged when the doomed Antares plummeted back to Earth and exploded in a hellish inferno witnessed by thousands of spectators and media including myself.

Repairs are expected to be completed by early 2016 to support a launch tentatively planned for as soon as March 2016.

SpaceX, NASA’s other commercial cargo company under contract to ship supplies to the ISS also suffered a launch failure of with their Falcon 9/Dragon cargo delivery rocket on June 28, 2015.

NASA is working with both forms to restart the critical ISS resupply train as soon as can safely be accomplished.

Be sure to read Ken’s earlier eyewitness reports about last October’s Antares failure at NASA Wallops and ongoing reporting about Orbital ATK’s recovery efforts – all here at Universe Today.

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

Ken Kremer

………….

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

Aug 29-31: “MUOS-4 launch, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Antares and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Faulty Support Strut Likely Caused SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Failure: Elon Musk

The in-flight failure of a critical support strut inside the second stage liquid oxygen tank holding a high pressure helium tank in the Falcon 9 rocket, is the likely cause of the failed SpaceX launch three weeks ago on June 28, revealed SpaceX CEO and chief designer Elon Musk during a briefing for reporters held today, July 20, to explain why the critical cargo delivery run for NASA to the space station suddenly turned into a total disaster after a promising start.

The commercial booster and its cargo Dragon payload were unexpectedly destroyed by an overpressure event 139 seconds after a picture perfect blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28 at 10:21 a.m. EDT.

Musk emphasized that the failure analysis is still “preliminary” and an “initial assessment” based on the investigation thus far. SpaceX has led the investigation efforts under the oversight of the FAA with participation from prime customers NASA and the U.S. Air Force.

The root cause appears to be that the second stage strut holding the high pressure helium tank inside the 2nd stage broke at a bolt – far below its design specification and thereby allowing the tank to break free and swing away.

“The strut that we believe failed was designed and certified to handle 10,000 lbs of force, but failed at 2,000 lbs, a five-fold difference,” Musk explained.

“During acceleration of the rocket to 3.2 G’s, the strut holding down the helium tank failed. Helium was released, causing the over pressurization event.”

To date no other issues have been identified as possible failure modes, Musk elaborated.

The helium tanks are pressurized to 5500 psi and were breached during the over pressurization. The purpose of the helium tanks is to pressurize the first and second stage propellant tanks.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“We tested several hundred struts. On the outside they looked normal. But inside there was a problem,” Musk explained

“Detailed close-out photos of stage construction show no visible flaws or damage of any kind,” according to a SpaceX statement.

The struts are produced by an outside vendor that Musk would not identify. He added that in the future, SpaceX will likely choose a different vendor to manufacture the struts.

He said the struts were made from a type of stainless steel and would also likely be redesigned.

“The material of construction will be changed to Inconel,” Musk told me in response to a question.

Hundreds of the original type struts have been used to date on the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 with no issues. In the future, they will also be independently certified for use, by an outside contractor instead of the vendor.

The nine first stage Merlin 1D engines of the Falcon 9 were still firing nominally during the start of the mishap, said Musk. The first stage had nearly completed its planned firing duration when the explosion took place.

“The event happened very quickly, within 0.893 seconds,” Musk stated, from the first indication of an issue to loss of all telemetry.

“Preliminary analysis suggests the overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank was initiated by a flawed piece of support hardware (a “strut”) inside the second stage,” noted SpaceX in a statement.

Video caption: Launch video of the CRS-7 launch on June 28, 2015 from a remote camera placed at Launch Complex 40. The launch would fail around two minutes later. Credit: Alex Polimeni/Spaceflight Now

The blastoff of the Dragon CRS-7 cargo mission for NASA was the first failure of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket after 18 straight successes and the firms first launch mishap since the failure of a Falcon 1 in 2008.

The SpaceX CRS-7 Dragon was loaded with over 4,000 pounds (1987 kg) of research experiments, an EVA spacesuit, water filtration equipment, spare parts, gear, computer equipment, high pressure tanks of oxygen and nitrogen supply gases, food, water and clothing for the astronaut and cosmonaut crews comprising Expeditions 44 and 45.

Umbilicals away and detaching from SpaceX Falcon 9 launch  from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 that was doomed to disaster soon thereafter.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Umbilicals away and detaching from SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 that was doomed to disaster soon thereafter. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Dragon cargo freighter survived the explosion but was destroyed when it impacted the Atlantic Ocean.

“But the Dragon might have been saved if the parachutes had been deployed,” said Musk.

Unfortunately the software required to deploy the parachute was not loaded onboard.

“The new software required to deploy the parachutes will be included on all future Dragons, V1 and V2,” said Musk, referring to the cargo and crew versions of the SpaceX Dragon spaceship.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply spaceship explode about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply spaceship explode about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The NASA cargo was valued at about $110 million. The launch itself was not insured.

The investigation board is reviewing data from over 3,000 telemetry channels as well as video and physical debris, he noted.

The next launch of a Falcon 9 will be postponed at least a few months until “no earlier than September” Musk indicated.

Two Falcon 9 launches had been set for August from Vandenberg AFB and Cape Canaveral. And the next launch to the ISS had been slated for September on the Dragon CRS-8 mission.

Musk said the next payload to be launched aboard a Falcon 9 has yet to be determined.

Starting in 2017, the Falcon 9 will launch astronauts to the ISS aboard the Crew Dragon.

Overall CRS-7 was the seventh SpaceX commercial resupply services mission and the eighth trip by a Dragon spacecraft to the station since 2012.

CRS-7 marked the company’s seventh operational resupply mission to the ISS under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the station during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016 under NASA’s original Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters, including Universe Today, in Cocoa Beach, FL, during prior SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters, including Universe Today, in Cocoa Beach, FL, during prior SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

………….

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

July 21/22: “SpaceX, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, MMS, Antares and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings/afternoon for July 22 Delta IV launch of USAF WGS-7 satellite

NASA Names Four Astronauts for First Boeing, SpaceX U.S. Commercial Spaceflights

NASA today (July 9) named the first four astronauts who will fly on the first U.S. commercial spaceflights in private crew transportation vehicles being built by Boeing and SpaceX – marking a major milestone towards restoring American human launches to U.S. soil as soon as mid-2017, if all goes well.

The four astronauts chosen are all veterans of flights on NASA’s Space Shuttles and to the International Space Station (ISS); Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams. They now form the core of NASA’s commercial crew astronaut corps eligible for the maiden test flights on board the Boeing CST-100 and Crew Dragon astronaut capsules.

Behnken, Boe and Hurley have each launched on two shuttle missions and Williams is a veteran of two long-duration flights aboard the ISS after launching on both the shuttle and Soyuz. All four served as military test pilots prior to being selected as NASA astronauts.

The experienced quartet of space flyers will work closely with Boeing and SpaceX as they begin training and prepare to launch aboard the first ever commercial ‘space taxi’ ferry flight missions to the ISS and back – that will also end our sole source reliance on the Russian Soyuz capsule for crewed missions to low-Earth orbit and further serve to open up space exploration and transportation services to the private sector.

Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in September 2014 worth $6.8 Billion to complete the development and manufacture of the privately developed CST-100 and Crew Dragon astronaut transporters under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

“I am pleased to announce four American space pioneers have been selected to be the first astronauts to train to fly to space on commercial crew vehicles, all part of our ambitious plan to return space launches to U.S. soil, create good-paying American jobs and advance our goal of sending humans farther into the solar system than ever before,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a statement.

“These distinguished, veteran astronauts are blazing a new trail — a trail that will one day land them in the history books and Americans on the surface of Mars.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The selection of astronauts for rides with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) comes almost exactly four years to the day since the last American manned space launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis on the STS-135 mission to the space station on July 8, 2011 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Hurley was a member of the STS-135 crew and served as shuttle pilot under NASA’s last shuttle commander, Chris Ferguson, who is now Director of Boeing’s CST-100 commercial crew program. Read my earlier exclusive interviews with Ferguson about the CST-100 – here and here.

Since the retirement of the shuttle orbiters, all American and ISS partner astronauts have been forced to hitch a ride on the Soyuz for flights to the ISS and back, at a current cost of over $70 million per seat.

“Our plans to return launches to American soil make fiscal sense,” Bolden elaborated. “It currently costs $76 million per astronaut to fly on a Russian spacecraft. On an American-owned spacecraft, the average cost will be $58 million per astronaut.

Behnken, Boe, Hurley and Williams are all eager to work with the Boeing and SpaceX teams to “understand their designs and operations as they finalize their Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and operational strategies in support of their crewed flight tests and certification activities as part of their contracts with NASA.”

Until June 2015, Williams held the record for longest time in space by a woman, accumulating 322 days in orbit. Behnken is currently the chief of the astronaut core and conducted six space walks at the station. Boe has spent over 28 days in space and flew on the final mission of Space Shuttle Discovery in Feb. 2011 on STS-133.

The first commercial crew flights under the CCtCAP contract could take place in 2017 with at least one member of the two person crews being a NASA astronaut – who will be “on board to verify the fully-integrated rocket and spacecraft system can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock to the space station, as well as validate all systems perform as expected, and land safely,” according to a NASA statement.

The second crew member could be a company test pilot as the details remain to be worked out.

Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA
Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA

The actual launch date depends on the NASA budget allocation for the Commercial Crew Program approved by the US Congress.

Congress has never approved NASA’s full funding request for the CCP program and has again cut the program significantly in initial votes this year. So the outlook for a 2017 launch is very uncertain.

Were it not for the drastic CCP cuts we would be launching astronauts this year on the space taxis.

“Every dollar we invest in commercial crew is a dollar we invest in ourselves, rather than in the Russian economy,” Bolden emphasizes about the multifaceted benefits of the commercial crew initiative.

Under the CCtCAP contract, NASA recently ordered the agency’s first commercial crew mission from Boeing – as outlined in my story here. SpaceX will receive a similar CCtCAP mission order later this year.

At a later date, NASA will decide whether Boeing or SpaceX will launch the actual first commercial crew test flight mission to low Earth orbit.

Boeing’s commercial CST-100 'Space Taxi' will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil.   Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing’s commercial CST-100 ‘Space Taxi’ will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil. Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“This is a new and exciting era in the history of U.S. human spaceflight,” said Brian Kelly, director of Flight Operations at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, in a statement.

“These four individuals, like so many at NASA and the Flight Operations Directorate, have dedicated their careers to becoming experts in the field of aeronautics and furthering human space exploration. The selection of these experienced astronauts who are eligible to fly aboard the test flights for the next generation of U.S. spacecraft to the ISS and low-Earth orbit ensures that the crews will be well-prepared and thoroughly trained for their missions.”

Both the CST-100 and Crew Dragon will typically carry a crew of four NASA or NASA-sponsored crew members, along with some 220 pounds of pressurized cargo. Each will also be capable of carrying up to seven crew members depending on how the capsule is configured.

The spacecraft will be capable to remaining docked at the station for up to 210 days and serve as an emergency lifeboat during that time.

The NASA CCtCAP contracts call for a minimum of two and a maximum potential of six missions from each provider.

The station crew will also be enlarged to seven people that will enable a doubling of research time.
The CST-100 will be carried to low Earth orbit atop a man-rated United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. It enjoys a 100% success rate.

Boeing will first conduct a pair of unmanned and manned orbital CST-100 test flights earlier in 2017 in April and July, prior to the operational commercial crew rotation mission to confirm that their capsule is ready and able and met all certification milestone requirements set by NASA.

The Crew Dragon will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It enjoyed a 100% success rate until last weeks launch on its 19th flight which ended with an explosion two minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral on June 28, 2015.

Umbilicals away and detaching from SpaceX Falcon 9 launch  from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 that was doomed to disaster soon thereafter.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Umbilicals away and detaching from SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 that was doomed to disaster soon thereafter. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX conducted a successful Pad Abort Test of the Crew Dragon on May 6, as I reported here. The goal was to test the spacecrafts abort systems that will save astronauts lives in a split second in the case of a launch emergency such as occurred during the June 28 rocket failure in flight that was bound for the ISS with the initial cargo version of the SpaceX Dragon.

SpaceX plans an unmanned orbital test flight of Crew Dragon perhaps by the end of 2016. The crewed orbital test flight would follow sometime in 2017.

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

Ken Kremer

Falcon 9 Rocket Failure a Huge Blow to SpaceX: Musk

In his first public comments since the surprise disintegration of the commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket some two minutes after last week’s liftoff on June 28, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said today (July 7) that the launch failure was a “huge blow” to his company and the cause remains elusive and is under intense investigation.

“The accident was a huge blow to SpaceX,” Musk told the opening session of the International Space Station Research & Development Conference being held in Boston, Mass, during an on-stage conversation with NASA’s International Space Station manager Mike Suffredini.

The private SpaceX Falcon 9 booster broke up just minutes after a picture perfect blastoff from Cape Canaveral on a crucial logistics flight for NASA, carrying a SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter that was headed to the International Space Station (ISS).

Dragon was chock full of over two tons of research experiments and much needed supplies and gear for the multinational crews serving aboard.

“There’s still no clear theory that fits with all the data,” Musk said. “We take these missions incredibly seriously.”

The cargo ships function as a railroad to space and the lifeline to keep the station continuously crewed and functioning. Without periodic resupply by visiting vehicles the ISS cannot operate.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon were destroyed just over two minutes after a stunning liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in sunny Florida at 10:21 a.m. EDT.

The upper stage of the rocket suddenly exploded due to an as yet unexplained anomaly as the nine first stage Merlin 1D engines kept firing. Moments later it vaporized into a grayish cloud at supersonic speed, raining debris down into the Atlantic Ocean.

Although the second stage appears to be the culprit in the disaster, Musk said that there is still not a coherent cause and explanation of the data and was hard to interpret.

“Whatever happened is clearly not a sort of simple, straightforward thing,” he explained. “In this case, the data does seem to be quite difficult to interpret.”

“So we want to spend as much time as possible just reviewing the data. No clear theory fits all the data.”

The Falcon 9 was transmitting data on over 3,000 channels of flight data streams.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo spaceship dazzled in the moments after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 but were soon doomed to a sudden catastrophic destruction barely two minutes later in the inset photo (left).  Composite image includes up close launch photo taken from pad camera set at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral and mid-air explosion photo taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida as rocket was streaking to the International Space Station (ISS) on CRS-7 cargo resupply mission.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo spaceship dazzled in the moments after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 but were soon doomed to a sudden catastrophic destruction barely two minutes later in the inset photo (left). Composite image includes up close launch photo taken from pad camera set at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral and mid-air explosion photo taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida as rocket was streaking to the International Space Station (ISS) on CRS-7 cargo resupply mission. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Virtually since the moment of the mishap approximately 139 seconds after the otherwise successful launch, SpaceX engineers have been pouring over the data to try and determine the root cause of the accident.

“Everyone that can engage in the investigation at SpaceX is very, very focused on that,”Musk elaborated. “We want to spend as much time as possible just reviewing the data.”

From the beginning Musk indicated that there was some type of over pressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank and he elaborated a bit at the conference.

“At this point, the only thing that’s really clear was there was some kind of over-pressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank, but the exact cause and sequence of events, there’s still no clear theory that fits with all the data.”

“So we have to determine if some of the data is a measurement error of some kind, or if there’s actually a theory that matches what appear to be conflicting data points.”

SpaceX is conducting an intense and thorough investigation with the active support of various government agencies including the FAA, NASA and the U.S. Air Force.

“The interaction with NASA has been great so far,” Musk said. “The biggest challenge is that there are a lot of inquiries coming in simultaneously, so it’s hard to keep responding to everyone right away.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply spaceship explode about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply spaceship explode about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The accident investigation is in full swing both at the Cape and SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Ca.

Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX VP of Mission Assurance, is leading the accident investigation for SpaceX.

“The process for determining the root cause of Sunday’s mishap is complex, and there is no one theory yet that is consistent with the data,” SpaceX spokesman John Taylor told me earlier.

“Our engineering teams are heads down reviewing every available piece of flight data as we work through a thorough fault tree analysis in order to identify root cause.”

Umbilicals away and detaching from SpaceX Falcon 9 launch  from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 that was doomed to disaster soon thereafter.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Umbilicals away and detaching from SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 that was doomed to disaster soon thereafter. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The June 28 launch was the 19th overall for the Falcon 9 booster and the first failure in an otherwise hugely successful program by the new space company founded by Musk and headquartered in Hawthorne, CA. Musk’s oft stated goals include radically slashing the cost of access to space to enable much wider participation in the space frontier by entrepreneurs and individuals and foster much greater exploration that will aid human missions to the Red Planet.

SpaceX may have more to say publicly later this week.

“I think we’ll be able to say something more definitive towards the end of the week,” Musk noted.

In the meantime all SpaceX launches are on hold for several months at least.

The SpaceX CRS-7 cargo launch failure was the second of two back to back cargo delivery launch failures run to the space station, including both American and Russian rockets since April, and the third in the past eight months that significantly crimped the stations stockpiles and abruptly impacted upcoming crew rotations and launches throughout the remainder of 2015.

Fortunately, the string of launch failures with the successful launch the Russian Progress 60 cargo freighter on July 3, five days after the SpaceX CRS-7 failure. Progress 60 docked at the ISS on July 5 with three tons of supplies, to the relief of the station partners worldwide.

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

Ken Kremer

Mike Suffredini,  NASA International Space Station manager and Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX VP of Mission Assurance discuss Space CRS-7 mission to the ISS at media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mike Suffredini, NASA International Space Station manager and Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX VP of Mission Assurance discuss SpaceX CRS-7 mission to the ISS at media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Falcon 9 Failure Investigation Focuses on Data not Debris as SpaceX Seeks Root Cause

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – SpaceX and NASA are diligently working to “identify the root cause” of the June 28 in flight failure of the firms Falcon 9 rocket, as the accident investigation team focuses on “flight data” rather than recovered debris as the best avenue for determining exactly what went wrong, a SpaceX spokesperson told Universe Today.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 booster broke up just minutes after a picture perfect blastoff from a seaside Florida launch pad on a critical mission for NASA bound for the International Space Station (ISS). It was carrying a SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter loaded with research equipment and new hardware to enable crewed spaceships to dock at the orbiting outpost.

The accident investigation team is still seeking the root cause of the launch failure through a complex fault tree analysis.

“The process for determining the root cause of Sunday’s mishap is complex, and there is no one theory yet that is consistent with the data,” said SpaceX spokesman John Taylor.

The accident investigation is in full swing both at the Cape and SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Ca.

“Our engineering teams are heads down reviewing every available piece of flight data as we work through a thorough fault tree analysis in order to identify root cause.”

Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX VP of Mission Assurance, is leading the accident investigation for SpaceX.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo spaceship dazzled in the moments after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 but were soon doomed to a sudden catastrophic destruction barely two minutes later in the inset photo (left).  Composite image includes up close launch photo taken from pad camera set at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral and mid-air explosion photo taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida as rocket was streaking to the International Space Station (ISS) on CRS-7 cargo resupply mission.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo spaceship dazzled in the moments after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 but were soon doomed to a sudden catastrophic destruction barely two minutes later in the inset photo (left). Composite image includes up close launch photo taken from pad camera set at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral and mid-air explosion photo taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida as rocket was streaking to the International Space Station (ISS) on CRS-7 cargo resupply mission. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX is conducting an intense and thorough investigation with the active support of various government agencies including the FAA, NASA and the U.S. Air Force.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon were destroyed just over two minutes after a stunning liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in sunny Florida at 10:21 a.m. EDT.

The SpaceX CRS-7 cargo resupply mission to the ISS began flawlessly. The nine Merlin 1D engines powering the Falcon 9 rockets first stage were firing nominally at launch to produce about 1.3 million pounds of liftoff thrust for almost their entire duration.

However, approximately 139 seconds into the planned 159 second firing of the first stage engine, the majestic blastoff went awry as the upper stage of the vehicle experienced an as yet unexplained anomaly and suddenly exploded, vaporizing into a grayish cloud at supersonic speed and raining debris down into the Atlantic Ocean.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015. Credit: Alex Polimeni
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015. Credit: Alex Polimeni

The Falcon 9 has transmitting data on over 3,000 channels of flight data streams.

But something went wrong apparently with the upper stage said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

“There was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Data suggests counterintuitive cause,” tweeted Musk.

But why that happened and the vehicle disintegrated in mere seconds is still a mystery to be resolved through careful fault tree analysis of the data.

“Cause still unknown after several thousand engineering-hours of review. Now parsing data with a hex editor to recover final milliseconds.”

While SpaceX and Coast Guard ships have recovered some debris in the days since the launch mishap, the data streams are expected to be the most useful source of information to the investigation team.

Hex editors are being used to comb through the data.

A hex editor (or binary file editor or byte editor) is a type of computer program that allows for manipulation of the fundamental binary data that constitutes a computer file.

The name ‘hex’ comes from ‘hexadecimal’: a standard numerical format for representing binary data.

Some data was transmitted after the breakup.

The accident investigation teams are currently in the process of recreating the final milliseconds of the flight to give them some additional insights into what may have happened, when and why.

View of International Docking Adapter 2 (IDA-2) being processed inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) at NASA Kennedy Space Center for eventual launch to the ISS in the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon on the CRS-9 mission. It will be connected to the station to provide a port for Commercial Crew spacecraft carrying astronauts to dock to the orbiting laboratory as soon as 2017.  The identical IDA-1 was destroyed during SpaceX CRS-7 launch failure on June 28, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of International Docking Adapter 2 (IDA-2) being processed inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) at NASA Kennedy Space Center for eventual launch to the ISS in the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon on the CRS-9 mission. It will be connected to the station to provide a port for Commercial Crew spacecraft carrying astronauts to dock to the orbiting laboratory as soon as 2017. The identical IDA-1 was destroyed during SpaceX CRS-7 launch failure on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

In the meantime all SpaceX launches are on hold for several months at least.

The next Falcon 9 launch scheduled was for NASA’s Jason 3 from Vandenberg Air Dorce Base in California

The next SpaceX cargo Dragon had been scheduled for liftoff in September 2015 on the CRS-8 mission, but is now postponed pending the results of the return to flight investigation.

Umbilicals away and detaching from SpaceX Falcon 9 launch  from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 that was doomed to disaster soon thereafter.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Umbilicals away and detaching from SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 that was doomed to disaster soon thereafter. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

There are sufficient supplies on board the ISS to keep the crew continuing their mission until at least October 2015.

The SpaceX CRS-7 Dragon was loaded with over 4,000 pounds (1987 kg) of research experiments, an EVA spacesuit, water filtration equipment, spare parts, gear, computer equipment, high pressure tanks of oxygen and nitrogen supply gases, food, water and clothing for the astronaut and cosmonaut crews comprising Expeditions 44 and 45.

These included critical materials for the science and research investigations for the first ever one-year crew to serve aboard the ISS – comprising Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko.

The Dragon was also packed with the first of two new International Docking Adapters (IDS’s) required for the new commercial crew space taxis to dock at the ISS starting in 2017.

Another Russian Progress vehicle is set to fly on the next resupply mission from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Friday, July 3.

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply spaceship explode about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply spaceship explode about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com