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  1. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon successfully returns NASA astronauts back to Earth Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley safely returned to Earth inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule this afternoon, bringing their historic two-month mission at the International Space Station to an end. The spacecraft carrying the two astronauts splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida at 2:48PM ET, where recovery boats were waiting nearby to receive the crew. With this landing, the Crew Dragon has now successfully completed its first-ever passenger flight to orbit. The mission began on May 30th, when Behnken and Hurley both launched inside the capsule from Cape Canaveral, Florida and then docked with the space station a day later. Called Demon-2 or DM-2, the mission was meant to prove out all of the Crew Dragon’s biggest capabilities — by safely transporting people to space and getting them to the ISS. Now SpaceX has proved that the capsule can safely bring people home, too. The mission isn’t quite over yet, as SpaceX recovery boats filled with teams of people are working to hoist the Crew Dragon out of the water. Then Behnken and Hurley can exit the capsule and breathe fresh air again. But the riskiest part of the landing is complete, and that ultimately paves the way for Crew Dragon to start regularly carrying astronauts to space in the future. SpaceX developed the Crew Dragon as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, an initiative that tasked private companies with creating commercial vehicles to ferry the agency’s astronauts to orbit. Behnken and Hurley’s flight was the final test for the capsule as part of that program, and now, SpaceX is already preparing to fly the Crew Dragon again with people — once in September and again in spring of 2021. As SpaceX takes up the mantle of launching astronauts, NASA is now entering a new era of human spaceflight, one where private companies are the ones regularly flying people to low Earth orbit. For nearly all of NASA’s history, the space agency had always been the one in charge of developing the spacecraft that took NASA astronauts to space. But thanks to the Commercial Crew Program, Behnken and Hurley’s flight marked the first time people had ever launched to orbit on a privately developed spacecraft. returning NASA’s human spaceflight program back to the United States Their flight also effectively returned NASA’s human spaceflight program back to the United States. Ever since the final flight of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has had to rely on Russia’s Soyuz rocket to get the agency’s astronauts to the space station. It was the only option that NASA had, and it was a costly one. Each seat on the Soyuz ran NASA roughly $80 million. Now, NASA can launch its astronauts on the Crew Dragon, which takes off from Florida and costs about $55 million per seat. To commemorate the return of US human spaceflight to American soil, Behnken and Hurley have brought back with them a very special piece of cargo from the ISS: a small American flag. The flag has been on the space station for the last nine years, left there by the last Space Shuttle crew in 2011, which actually included Hurley. The Shuttle crew commanded that the flag could be retrieved only by the next crew of astronauts who launched from the US, sparking perhaps the most epic game of Capture the Flag — with respect to time and distance. The flag has traveled more than 27 million miles during its time in orbit, according to NASA. Doug Hurley holding the American flag the crew returned home Image: NASA But now it’s back on Earth, along with Behnken and Hurley, who undocked from the space station with the flag yesterday evening. The two then spent 18 hours in orbit inside the Crew Dragon, slowly distancing from the space station. Just before 2PM ET, the Crew Dragon’s thrusters ignited, taking the capsule out of orbit and setting it on course for Earth. The capsule then plunged through Earth’s atmosphere, experiencing intense heating that reached up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. After reaching a certain altitude, the Crew Dragon deployed a series of parachutes to help slow its fall and touch down gently in the ocean. Their landing marked the first time since the Apollo program that NASA astronauts splashed down in the ocean when returning from space. It’s also the first spacecraft landing to take place in the Gulf of Mexico. NASA and SpaceX would have preferred for the astronauts to touch down on the east side of Florida near Cape Canaveral, but Tropical Storm Isaias forced the Crew Dragon to land near Pensacola — one of seven potential landing sites for the capsule around Florida. Landing in water is not necessarily the nicest experience, as the motion of the waves can be a little nauseating after performing an intense plunge through Earth’s atmosphere. Plus, most astronauts have to adjust to Earth’s gravity after being in space for a long period of time, where their bodily fluids have shifted around and their sense of balance has been thrown out of whack. Fortunately, there is appropriate “hardware” on Crew Dragon in case Behnken and Hurley get sick. “Just like on an airliner, there are bags, if you need them,” Hurley said ahead of the landing during a press conference. “And we’ll have those handy; we’ll probably have some towels handy as well. And, you know, if that needs to happen, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that that’s happened in a space vehicle.” The view from SpaceX’s main recovery boat ahead of landing (NASA/Bill Ingalls) NASA expects it to take an hour after splashdown for Behnken and Hurley to be out of Crew Dragon and on the deck of SpaceX’s main recovery vessel. They’ll be greeted by NASA personnel, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals, who will assess the crew and make sure they’re okay. Once given the all clear, the astronauts will then take a helicopter from a helipad on the boat to Pensacola. There, they’ll board a Gulfstream jet that will take them back to Houston, where their families will be waiting for them. Behnken and Hurley each have a son, and the two boys recorded a wake-up message for the astronauts this morning, telling their dads how eager they are to see them. And the astronauts are also eager to see their boys. “I think for me, and probably for Doug as well, I think we’re really excited to see our families,” Behnken said prior to his return. “My son is 6 years old and I can tell from the videos that I get and talking to him on the phone that he’s changed a lot even in the just couple months that we’ve been up here.” Once Behnken and Hurley are out of the Crew Dragon, the capsule will be checked out on the boat and then returned to one of SpaceX’s facilities in Florida. That’s where it will undergo refurbishment, so that it can fly again on its next mission: SpaceX’s third crewed flight of the Crew Dragon in spring of 2021. That flight will carry a crew of four astronauts to the space station, including Behnken’s wife, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur. McArthur flew to space once before on the Space Shuttle to help repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Now she’ll be flying on an entirely new vehicle and living on the space station for the first time. “Of course I’ll have a lot of tips for her,” Behnken said. “A lot of them will be about how life on space station goes. I think that’s been the thing that’s been more unique, rather than the capsule itself. I think that’s probably where I’ll have the most to share with her, but I definitely have some advice about living inside of Dragon.” Developing... SpaceX’s Crew Dragon successfully returns NASA astronauts back to Earth
  2. More quickly than anyone expected, NASA embraces reuse for human flights "With reuse, we can actually drive down costs and we can increase access." First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all images. Weather permitting, SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft will splash down in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday. Forecasters are closely watching conditions due to Hurricane Isaias but are hopeful the mission will find calm seas and light winds offshore from the Florida Panhandle. Unlike the Apollo missions, which returned to Earth in the Pacific Ocean, NASA and SpaceX chose to target a splashdown near the Florida Peninsula. The main reason they did this is to get crews more quickly back to their homes, near Houston, after a spaceflight. However, landing Dragon near Florida has another advantage for SpaceX. By splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico or nearshore waters of the Atlantic Ocean, a SpaceX recovery boat can transport the Crew Dragon vehicle back to the company's facilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station within days. This has become all the more important after a recent announcement that NASA will allow SpaceX to begin reusing its Crew Dragon spacecraft early next year. Although the company's next human spaceflight, Crew-1, will launch no earlier than late September on a new Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft, that will not be the case for the subsequent mission. This Crew-2 flight, due to launch no earlier than spring 2021, will reuse the Falcon 9 first stage from the Crew-1 mission, and the Dragon capsule is expected to splash down this weekend. Benji Reed, who directs Crew Mission Management at SpaceX, said Thursday that the company has a plan to refurbish a Crew Dragon capsule in a couple of months, which includes removing exterior panels and checking the underlying hardware. This would leave a couple of months of "margin" for processing Crew Dragon for a launch in early 2021. Each vehicle should be able to fly up to five missions into orbit. Seeking sustainability The reuse of rockets and spacecraft always seemed like it would be part of SpaceX and NASA's extended plans for human spaceflights, but few anticipated it happening so quickly. NASA's original commercial crew contract with SpaceX called for the first six operational missions to each use new Dragons. However, a contract modification signed in May allowed SpaceX to introduce reuse much more quickly. In exchange for extending the Demo-2 test flight—carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken—from two weeks to up to 119 days, SpaceX got permission to reuse spacecraft instead of building new ones. This extension allowed Behnken to participate in four spacewalks in recent weeks, swapping out battery packs on the exterior of the orbiting laboratory. The move toward reuse was supported by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "From my perspective, what we're really looking for in all of our missions is sustainability," he said. For the commercial crew program, NASA set the high-level requirements but then left it up to SpaceX and Boeing to innovate. "That innovation ultimately drove us to a point where we're now reusing these rockets reusing the capsules," Bridenstine said. "With reuse, we can actually drive down costs, and we can increase access." The flexibility of Bridenstine, who has embraced commercial partnerships at NASA, allowed SpaceX to push the boundaries of reuse forward. And that's just where the company wants to be, Reed said, with the "awesomeness" of reuse from an economic and reliability standpoint. "From the get-go, we were expecting to be able to reuse this vehicle," Reed said. "We had always hoped that we'd be able to reuse it on NASA astronaut missions." NASA's endorsement of reuse should also buttress SpaceX's efforts to sell private customers on the viability of flying on used Falcon 9 rockets as well as flying inside spacecraft that have gone into orbit before. Listing image by NASA More quickly than anyone expected, NASA embraces reuse for human flights (To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)
  3. NASA’s new Mars rover is about to embark on a hunt for ancient alien life Perseverance’s biggest goal is to dig up samples to bring back to Earth one day OnOn July 30th, a six-wheeled NASA rover the size of an SUV will embark on its journey to Mars — the beginning of a quest to decode the secrets of the Red Planet’s past. Equipped with a suite of instruments and a sophisticated drilling system, the rover is tasked with answering a question that has confounded scientists for centuries: has Mars ever hosted life? The rover, named Perseverance, is one of NASA’s most ambitious planetary missions to date. Not only is the bot designed to analyze Martian rocks for signs of past life, but the rover will also cache dozens of samples to leave somewhere on the Martian surface. These samples will weather the next decade on Mars, awaiting the day that another robotic spacecraft arrives, picks them up, and blasts off. The samples will then travel back to our planet, where eager scientists will be waiting to receive them. It’s all part of a herculean operation known as Mars Sample Return. The goal is to bring pristine pieces of Martian material back to Earth where we can study them in sophisticated labs. “If you want to confirm that life exists beyond the Earth, you probably cannot do it with any instruments that can be flown today,” Kenneth Farley, the project scientist for Perseverance and a professor at the California Institute of Technology, tells The Verge. “You really have to bring samples back to the lab.” Perseverance is just the first — extremely complicated — step in that sample return process. If successful, Perseverance will neatly package dozens of samples of the Martian surface that may one day see Earth. They may tell us if life existed on Mars or if it’s always been a barren planet. “This is really a unique — really a once-in-a-lifetime — opportunity to get samples from a known location on Mars,” Tanja Bosak, a professor of geobiology at MIT who is a participating scientist on the mission, tells The Verge. The search for life on Mars In 1976, NASA sent two landers, called Viking 1 and Viking 2, to the Martian surface to actively look for signs of life. While the pair learned a great deal about Mars, they didn’t turn up any compelling evidence that life had ever existed on the planet, putting a damper on the search for a while. But in hindsight, the Viking landers were not well-equipped to answer that ultimate question. “Compared to what we know today, they did not have a very sophisticated understanding of how to actually look for life,” says Farley. NASA followed up the Viking landers with orbiters that studied Mars from above as well as rovers that crawled across the planet’s surface. Over time, a new portrait of Mars’ past emerged. Thanks to data from these spacecraft, scientists realized that 3.5 billion years ago, liquid water lakes and rivers dotted the planet’s surface. Flowing water on Earth is perhaps the single most important ingredient for life on our planet; many scientists wondered if this lush Mars of the past hosted organisms, too. Data from NASA’s most recent rover, Curiosity, reinvigorated the search for life. Dropped into a basin called Gale Crater in 2012, Curiosity’s instruments quickly determined that the region was once a giant lake. “At the same time as that environment existed, on Earth a similar environment would not only be habitable, it would have been inhabited,” Farley says. “There would have been living organisms in a very similar environment at a very similar time on Earth.” A false color image of Jezero Crater, as seen from above from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Image: NASA Fast-forward to today, and NASA picked perhaps the most tantalizing place for Perseverance to explore: a region on Mars called Jezero Crater. Scientists are fairly certain that the crater was once home to a flowing river that poured into a lake. That flowing water may have brought sediments and other minerals into the lake, providing the right chemical recipe needed for tiny lifeforms to thrive. “We are going to see what looks to us from orbit as a very, very habitable environment,” Ken Williford, the deputy project scientist for Perseverance at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tells The Verge. “If there were microbes in that lake, they had every opportunity to colonize, especially, say, on the edge of the lake where you often find pond scum on Earth or this sort of just green goo at the edge of a pond or a lake. That’s like our holy grail.” The Martian dig Once Perseverance makes it to Jezero, the hunt will be on for so-called “biosignatures.” A biosignature could be a rock, mineral, or structure that is formed by living things. It could be chemicals that are produced by biological processes or organic matter — molecules made of carbon and hydrogen that comprise all of Earth life. Finding one biosignature would be incredible, while finding multiple types in one location would be a jackpot. An artistic rendering of Perseverance with its primary robotic arm extended, drilling into the surface of Mars. Image: NASA Perseverance is decked out with seven instruments, most of which will look for biosignatures as the rover surveys the Martian terrain. They include cameras, radar, a laser, and more. Perseverance has a few side projects, too. One instrument called MOXIE will attempt to turn carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into oxygen — a technique that may be useful for future human explorers of Mars. The glitziest addition is a tiny helicopter, which will attempt to fly through the thin Martian atmosphere. The real pièce de résistance of Perseverance is its sampling system. “The sample return aspect is really sort of the biggest motivating objective of Mars 2020,” Williford says. “It’s our reason for being.” A robotic arm will extend outward from the front of the rover and drill into the surface with one of nine drill bits. The drilled material will be shuffled into one of the 43 titanium sample tubes that Perseverance brought to Mars. Once filled, a tube is brought into the belly of the rover, where another robotic arm takes pictures of the sample, hermetically seals it, and then stores it for later. Entire teams of scientists and engineers will determine where and when Perseverance drills. They’re trying to plan as much as they can now, but it all depends on exactly where Perseverance lands within Jezero Crater. Once it’s on the ground, the rover can analyze its surroundings and highlight key areas of interest. The teams are on the hunt for certain types of rocks like carbonates, which have been seen from orbit surrounding the rim of Jezero Crater. They’re also hoping to spot bumpy mounds of layered dirt, known as stromatolites. Stromatolites form in shallow water environments on Earth when mats of cyanobacteria trap tiny bits of sediment, creating layered rock formations. Similar structures on Mars would provide enticing spots to drill. Ultimately, a decision to drill will take days to weeks of discussion, with scientists weighing thousands of different factors. “Each sample will be incredibly valuable, and really one of its kind,” says Bosak, who is part of the team of scientists making the decision on where to drill. “But while valuable, we can be paralyzed also by: ‘Oh is this as valuable as something around the corner could be?’ We’re still working out what exactly is good enough, because maybe around the corner is worse.” Weathering Mars The goal is to get at least 20 samples of diverse material that can be returned to Earth one day, though the option is there to fill all 43 tubes. “If you ask all the engineers, it’s 43,” Eric Aguilar, a system testbed manager and assistant product delivery manager for the sample caching system on Perseverance at NASA JPL, tells The Verge. “We want every single one taken and working and have a sample, and then make it really hard for the scientists to decide which ones to come back.” Engineers load the titanium sample tubes into Perseverance ahead of launch. Image: NASA At some point, scientists will make the decision to drop the sample tubes somewhere on the Martian surface. It’s possible they’ll decide to dump the tubes in ones and twos, or most likely in one big grouping on a flat surface somewhere. Since they’re made of titanium, the sample containers should be able to withstand the cold Martian environment — as well as any potential dust storms — without losing the precious contents inside them. They’ve also been painted white in case things heat up on Mars, too. “We don’t want these things to get overheated on the surface of Mars, even though it’s still pretty cold up there,” Aguilar says. “But in direct sunlight it can get fairly hot, too.” All in all, NASA claims the tubes will be able to last for up to 20 years without degrading. That’ll be key since it’s going to be a long wait until the follow-up mission. NASA and the European Space Agency are working together to help speed things up. The mission will likely send another rover to Mars to collect the samples and then take them to a rocket, which might meet up with another spacecraft in orbit. That spacecraft will then start the journey back to Earth with the samples. It’s going to be incredibly complicated, and scientists are looking at a wait that could last up to a decade. But if it all pans out, the results could be tremendous. Once on Earth, scientists would be able to take the samples and slice them down into thin sheets of rock. “We ultimately polish it down until it’s thinner than a sheet of paper, so you can shine light through it,” says Williford. “And this then allows you to see very, very tiny things the size of individual microbial cells. We can’t really do that quite yet with the instruments that we can fly on a Mars mission. But if we get the samples back, we can do that.” Getting to the launchpad There is still quite a lot of work left to do, but just getting to this point is an achievement for the Perseverance team. The idea of a Mars sample return mission has been on the minds of scientists for decades. “People would laugh and say we’re always 10 years away from Mars sample return,” says Williford. “That was the joke, because this is something people have wanted to do at least since the Apollo era.” Because of the nature of Perseverance’s mission, many extra precautions had to be taken. Above all, the rover has to be incredibly clean to avoid any contamination of Mars. Engineers baked the rover at more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius), to completely sterilize it. “When we collect that sample, we have to make sure when we open it up and we interrogate it for possible ancient microbial life, that we don’t say, ‘Hey, big newsflash, we found life on Mars!’ And come to find out, it’s actually something that hitched a ride from Earth,” Moogega Stricker, the lead for planetary protection on Perseverance at NASA JPL, tells The Verge. The Atlas V rocket, operated by the United Launch Alliance, will launch Perseverance to Mars. Image: NASA During the final stretch of launch preparations, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing engineers to completely rework their plans. The team worked in shifts to enforce social distancing and added extra cleaning and disinfection precautions to make sure they didn’t spread the virus to their colleagues. There were struggles with the rover’s ride to Mars, too. The Atlas V rocket slated to launch the mission experienced some issues during a test in June, forcing the team to push back the launch by a few weeks. There’s only a small window of time this summer for Perseverance to launch when Mars and Earth come closest together on their orbits. If the rover can’t launch before late August, NASA may have to wait another two years to try again. Perseverance is now days away from its scheduled launch on July 30th at 7:50AM ET. The vehicle will take off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, putting Perseverance en route to Mars with a scheduled arrival date sometime in February 2021. It’s the same month that two other spacecraft will arrive at Mars: an orbiter built by the UAE called Hope and China’s Tianwen-1 mission, which also includes a rover. Next February, Perseverance will descend to Mars, a daring feat that only eight missions have successfully pulled off. It’ll be the most harrowing part of the journey, often described as seven minutes of terror. But if Perseverance can get down to the ground in one piece, the real work can begin. Whether or not Perseverance finds life, it could give us important insights into the nature of our Solar System — and the Universe. “The central question of ‘Is there life on other planets?’ — it really comes down to: is the origination of life some kind of magic spark that happens only incredibly rarely, or alternatively, is it the kind of thing that is inevitable?” says Farley. “What we can do is we can go to such place in our own solar system on Mars and ask the question, ‘Is life ubiquitous?’” NASA’s new Mars rover is about to embark on a hunt for ancient alien life
  4. A Helicopter Ride Over Mars? NASA's About to Give It a Shot “I see it as kind of a Wright brothers moment on another planet,” says the project's chief engineer at JPL. Photograph: NASA/JPL-Caltech Later this week, NASA plans to launch its fourth Mars rover, Perseverance, on a six-month journey to the Red Planet. Perseverance will boot up a mission to collect samples of Martian dirt that might have traces of ancient life, so that they can be returned to Earth by another mission later this decade. It will also carry a payload unlike anything that’s ever been boosted into space: a small autonomous helicopter called Ingenuity. Sometime next spring, probably in April, Ingenuity will spin up its rotor blades and become the first spacecraft to go airborne on Mars. “I see it as kind of a Wright brothers moment on another planet,” says Bob Balaram, the chief engineer for the Mars helicopter project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It’s a high-risk, high-reward mission that could enable us to go to lots of places we haven’t been able to go before.” Satellites are good at getting a global understanding of a planet, and the rovers are great at exploring a relatively small amount of terrain in minute detail. For everything in between, it helps to have an airborne system. A rover can only cover a few dozen kilometers over the course of several years, but future extraterrestrial drones could easily cover that in a day. They could take aerial snapshots to help a rover plot the best path or collect samples and return them to a stationary lander for analysis. Ingenuity won’t be able to do any actual science, but it’s the first step toward an extraterrestrial aircraft that can. Ingenuity’s hardware—cameras, communications equipment, avionics—is stuffed in a small cube that will be suspended in the air by four spindly legs that make it look a bit like a robotic insect. Up top, there are two pairs of rotor blades, each four feet in diameter, sandwiched between Ingenuity’s body and a rectangular solar panel. The whole apparatus weighs less than a full two-liter soda bottle, but it's hardy enough to withstand the extreme environments it will face during launch, landing, and its day-to-day existence on the Martian surface. Once Perseverance arrives on Mars, it will spend a few weeks checking out its systems. If everything looks good, its first order of business will be to find a clearing in the rock-strewn Jezero crater to drop off its passenger. (And it will literally be dropped—the helicopter is attached to the belly of the rover.) Once the rover and the helicopter part ways, the chopper’s days are numbered. Balaram and his team will only have a month to conduct up to five test flights. “The whole intent of this campaign is to get engineering data so we can say this worked the way we thought and there were no surprises on Mars,” says Balaram. “Beyond 30 days, we’d just be a distraction.” Like the Wright brothers’ famous flight test at Kitty Hawk, on its first flight Ingenuity will only be in the air for a few seconds. This hop will be a nearly exact replica of flight tests Balaram and his crew did back on Earth so they can make an apples-to-apples comparison of the helicopter’s performance against expectations. If everything goes well, Ingenuity will attempt increasingly challenging flight profiles. The helicopter is designed to fly up to 15 feet in the air and can travel up to three football fields from its takeoff point. Its batteries limit it to just 90 seconds of flight time, but this will be more than sufficient for the types of flight demos it will do on Mars. For Balaram, the first Martian flight has been a long time coming. He cooked up a plan for an extraterrestrial chopper in the late 1990s—although the idea wasn’t exactly new—after seeing a conference presentation by Ilan Kroo, an aerospace engineer at Stanford University who had spent the past few years working on a coin-sized atmospheric research drone called the mesicopter. As Kroo and his team knew all too well from their research, aerodynamics becomes soupy at small scales, which makes controlling flight difficult. "We soon realized that flying mesi-scale devices on earth was very similar, at least aerodynamically, to flying larger vehicles on Mars," says Kroo. "We started working with Bob Balaram and the Jet Propulsion Lab to take our tiny rotor designs and scale them up to fly on Mars." Balaram and Kroo submitted a proposal for a Mars helicopter to NASA in the early 2000s, but the proposal was never funded despite positive feedback from reviewers. (Balaram blames budget cuts at the agency.) The idea languished on the shelf for another 15 years until Charles Elachi, the director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, asked Balaram to rework the proposal and submit it as a possible ridealong experiment for the agency’s newest rover. In 2018, NASA officials announced that the helicopter would be the scientific sideshow on the Mars 2020 mission. By that point, R&D on the chopper was well underway. NASA tapped AeroVironment, a drone manufacturer in California, to build the hardware for the mission. The company has a lot of experience operating autonomous aircraft in extreme environments—and a bit of history with NASA. In 2001, the company contracted with the agency to build a solar-powered drone that managed to fly at 96,000 feet; 20 years later, the record still stands. That altitude on Earth is comparable to flying near the surface on Mars because of the planet’s tenuous atmosphere. But flying a small helicopter on Mars makes piloting a giant solar powered wing on Earth look easy. “We had to keep everything super lightweight to make the whole program work,” says Ben Pipenberg, an aeromechanical engineer at AeroVironment. “We really tried to pull every milligram out of every single component, because that’s really what it takes to get the weight low enough to fly on Mars” The Ingenuity team had to balance the stringent weight requirements with competing demands on durability and performance. Even though the chopper’s weight was capped at four pounds, it had to be strong enough to withstand the intense forces it would encounter during launch and landing. Its hardware also had to meet the demands of the mission, like having a motor that can spin the rotor blades five times faster than a typical helicopter so it can generate lift. Oh, and it will need a computer powerful enough to run the machine vision algorithms the helicopter will use to autonomously navigate the Martian landscape. It’s a lot to ask of a machine that weighs less than a laptop. “This pushed every single technical discipline,” says MiMi Aung, the project manager for Ingenuity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “There were a lot of unnerving moments.” To trim weight, engineers at AeroVironment made the blades out of foam and wrapped them in carbon fiber, and used more exotic materials, like beryllium metal matrix composites, for other body components. For avionics and power supply, the team turned to commercial off-the-shelf parts. Ingenuity stores its power with a common lithium ion battery and its computer is a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, which is found in a variety of smartphones. They might not be quite as immune to failure as the hardware on the Perseverance rover, but they’re cheaper than using space-grade hardware while also meeting the helicopter’s performance requirements. Since Ingenuity isn’t critical to the rover’s main mission, the JPL team could afford to take a chance on some smartphone components. There was also the challenge of simply figuring out how to test the thing. “Nobody has done this before, so the team had to invent a way to incrementally test the vehicle while another team is inventing the helicopter in parallel,” says Aung. “We were really paranoid, and we had to be, because we were under a lot of time pressure to progress fast enough to catch the rover launch. So we really had to think ahead.” The team built two prototypes of Ingenuity: one for environmental testing and the other for flight tests. Environmental testing is the art of making life hell for a spacecraft. A prototype of Ingenuity was exposed to extremely cold temperatures to mimic conditions on Mars, it was placed near small detonations to make sure it could withstand the explosive shocks from the charges on the rover used to deploy the landing parachute, and it was blasted with the biggest and baddest stereo system around to see if all its nuts and bolts will hold tight when exposed to the extreme vibrations of a rocket launch. The flight tests took place in a giant 25-foot diameter vacuum chamber that was pumped full of carbon dioxide to replicate the composition and thinness of the Martian atmosphere. The gravity on Mars is only about one-third as strong as on Earth, and since NASA hasn’t yet figured out how to manipulate gravity itself, the agency’s engineers have to compensate in other ways to create a realistic Martian scenario. For Ingenuity, this meant attaching a gravity offload tether to the vehicle. The tether looks a bit like fishing line and can be dynamically adjusted to pull up on the helicopter just enough to simulate the effects of reduced gravity while it’s flying. As far as physics is concerned, flying a helicopter on Mars is fundamentally the same as flying a helicopter on Earth: The blades spin and pull air downward fast enough to generate lift. But the devil is in the details, and hands-on flight experiments helped the Ingenuity team discover some quirks about flying a chopper on another planet. During one early test, an AeroVironment engineer found that he was able to flawlessly pilot an Ingenuity prototype in an open vacuum chamber. But once the chamber was sealed and the air pumped out to replicate Martian conditions, the helicopter started behaving erratically and became difficult to fly. “That’s when we realized maybe the control isn’t as straightforward as we think it is,” says Balaram. On Earth, helicopter blades have a natural tendency to flap as they rotate due to the length of the blades and the turbulent aerodynamic environment around the rotor. The feedback from this flapping would make a helicopter nearly impossible to control if it weren’t for the fact that the Earth’s thick atmosphere damps the vibrations to a manageable level. But as the AeroVironment engineer discovered, Mars’s atmosphere is too thin to have this flap damping effect, and as this ripples through the machine it wreaks havoc on its controls. “This had all our NASA helicopter experts tremendously excited, because to them it was like seeing everything with fresh new eyes,” says Balaram. To compensate for this effect, the Ingenuity team rebuilt the blades to make them stiffer. There’s a lot riding on the accuracy of the flight test results. Unlike the Ingenuity prototypes, which have logged hours of flight time, the helicopter headed to Mars has only spent a few minutes in the air on Earth. “We didn’t want to wear out the system in the process of testing it,” says Balaram. By the time NASA abandons Ingenuity on the Martian surface, the intrepid little helicopter will have flown for fewer than 30 minutes. Balaram says that NASA is already working on the next generation of extraterrestrial choppers, and the engineering data collected by Ingenuity during its flight tests will directly affect their development. These future helicopters may look a lot different than Ingenuity—one design NASA is studying has six rotors, for instance—and they’ll certainly be larger. But the first scientific flight on another planet may not happen on Mars. In 2025, NASA plans to send a small nuclear-powered quadcopter called Dragonfly on a mission to hunt for life around Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Dragonfly will be much longer-lived than Ingenuity—it’s expected to spend two years hopping around on the moon’s surface—and it will have a 2 mile altitude range. Titan is generally considered to be the easiest place to fly in the solar system because of its extremely dense atmosphere and low gravity. “You could strap on wings and fly there yourself, if you didn’t mind the cold,” Balaram says. For now, though, we’ll have to make do with a helicopter. A Helicopter Ride Over Mars? NASA's About to Give It a Shot
  5. NASA, SpaceX preparing to bring Crew Dragon home this week So far, this test flight has been a great success. Enlarge / SpaceX's Crew Dragon (center right), the Japanese HTV resupply ship (center bottom), and Europe's Columbus laboratory module appear in this photo taken during a spacewalk conducted by Bob Behnken and Chris Cassidy. NASA 88 with 39 posters participating Nearly two months have passed since a Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying two astronauts blasted off the face of the Earth and delivered NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into orbit. Now, it's time to come home. So far, this test flight of the SpaceX-built crew spacecraft has gone nearly flawlessly since its May 30 launch. Named Endeavour by its crew, the spaceship flew smoothly on its way to the International Space Station, where it docked without incident. During the last two months, its solar panels have held up well. And while on orbit, Hurley and Behnken—who performed four spacewalks to help install new batteries outside the station—contributed to NASA's mission. Now, NASA would like the crew to come home and complete the final, key objective of the test flight, splashing down safely in the ocean. Nominally, this is scheduled for the afternoon of Sunday, August 2. A final target date and time will be selected on Wednesday, during a "Return Flight Readiness Review," which will consider both the health of the spacecraft and weather. There are seven potential splashdown zones for Dragon around the state of Florida, in both the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. Among the criteria for weather are winds less than 16.5km/hour, calm seas, and a low probability of rainfall. A decision on where to splash down will come about six hours before undocking, but a final call on whether to actually undock may not be made until the final minutes before departure. Depending on the splashdown location chosen, it will take between six and 30 hours for the crew to return to Earth after undocking. Enlarge / Approximate location of splashdown sites. NASA Crew Dragon will perform two very short burns to separate from the station, and then there will be four slightly longer burns to move Endeavour farther away and begin the journey home. During this time, NASA and SpaceX will continue to monitor weather in the splashdown location, and if conditions deteriorate a decision will be made to wait 24 to 48 hours for another landing attempt. When a final decision is made to commit to a landing, the Dragon capsule will shed its trunk and perform a deorbit burn. During the reentry process Dragon will be subjected to temperatures as high as 1,950°C, relying on its forward heat shield to absorb these extreme conditions. Once in the lower atmosphere, the capsule's drogue parachute will deploy at about 5.5km above the planet's surface, followed by the main parachutes at an altitude of about 2km. After splashing down, Hurley and Benhken will remain inside Dragon for 30 to 60 minutes, depending on sea states, before either the Go Searcher and the Go Navigator recovery ship hoists the spacecraft onto its main deck. After an initial checkout on the ship, in most scenarios, the crew will board a helicopter to fly to Cape Canaveral. On land, they will take a NASA plane that will bring them to Ellington Field, near their homes in Houston. And then, finally, they will be done flying for a while. NASA, SpaceX preparing to bring Crew Dragon home this week
  6. How NASA Built a Self-Driving Car for Its Next Mars Mission It’s hard enough to get an autonomous vehicle to work on Earth. It’s even harder on another planet. Like the self-driving cars on Earth, Perseverance will navigate using an array of sensors feeding data to machine vision algorithms.Photograph: NASA/JPL-Caltech Later this month, NASA is expected to launch its latest Mars rover, Perseverance, on a first-of-its-kind mission to the Red Planet. Its job is to collect and store geological samples so they can eventually be returned to Earth. Perseverance will spend its days poking the Jezero Crater, an ancient Martian river delta, and the samples it collects may contain the first evidence of extraterrestrial life. But first it has to find them. For that, it needs some damn good computers—at least by Martian standards. Perseverance is significantly more autonomous than any of NASA’s previous four rovers and is designed to be what Philip Twu, a robotics system engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, calls a “self-driving car on Mars.” Like the ones on Earth, Perseverance will navigate using an array of sensors feeding data to machine vision algorithms. But whereas terrestrial autonomous vehicles are packed with the best computers money can buy, the main computer on Perseverance is about as fast as a high-end PC … from 1997. The only way Perseverance’s poky brain is able to handle all this autonomous driving is because NASA gave it a second computer that acts like a robotic driver. On previous rovers, the navigation software had to share limited computing resources with all the other systems. So to get from one point to another, the rover would take a picture to get a sense of its surroundings, drive a little, and then stop for a few minutes to figure out its next move. But since Perseverance can offload many of its visual navigation processes to a dedicated computer, it won’t have to take this stop-and-go approach to Martian exploration. Instead, its main computer can figure out how to get Perseverance where it’s supposed to go, and its machine vision computer can make sure it doesn’t hit any rocks on the way. “We’re moving closer and closer to being able to continuously drive and think,” Twu says. Autonomy is critical for Perseverance’s mission. The distance between Earth and Mars is so large that it can take a radio signal traveling at the speed of light up to 22 minutes to make a one-way trip. The long delay makes it impossible to control a rover in real time, and waiting nearly an hour for a command to make a round trip between Mars and the Earth isn’t practical either. Perseverance has a packed schedule—it needs to drop off a small helicopter for flight tests, then collect dozens of rock samples and find a place on the surface to store them. (A later mission will bring the cache back to Earth so it can be studied for signs of life.) If the rover has any hope of accomplishing all of this in the year allotted for its primary mission, it has to be able to make a lot of navigation decisions by itself. Terrestrial autonomous vehicles typically use lasers to determine where an object is and how far away it might be, but these Lidar systems are bulky, energy hungry, and prone to mechanical failure. Instead, Perseverance will use stereo vision and visual odometry to figure out where it is on the Red Planet. Stereo vision combines two images from a “left camera” and a “right camera” to create a 3D picture of the rover’s surroundings, while visual odometry software analyzes images separated in time to estimate how far the rover has moved. “We were concerned about the mechanical reliability of Lidar for a space mission,” says Larry Matthies, a senior research scientist and supervisor of the computer vision group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We started using stereo vision for 3D perception at JPL decades ago when Lidars were far less mature, and it’s worked out pretty well.” Matthies has helped build the visual navigation systems for every rover that’s ever gone to Mars. Aside from Sojourner, NASA’s first rover on the Red Planet, all of its mobile explorers have used a combination of stereo vision and visual odometry to get around. But what makes Perseverance special is that it has dedicated hardware and a suite of fancy new algorithms for machine vision. Perseverance’s new digital glasses will allow it to autonomously navigate its surroundings several times faster than its predecessors, which means the rover has more time to focus on its main scientific objectives. Still, it will take Perseverance a full day to drive the same distance a sloth can cover in an hour. But compared to NASA’s previous Mars rovers, Perseverance is a hot rod. “The longest drive that any Martian rover has ever done in a day is 219 meters,” says Twu. “We’re able to drive around 200 meters per day, so on average Perseverance will be hitting or exceeding the current track record for Mars rovers.” It’s not Perseverance’s fault that it thinks slowly; blame the radiation. Mars doesn’t have a magnetic field or a thick atmosphere to shield it from the charged particles streaming from the sun, and these particles can wreak havoc on a computer. They can cause transistors to turn on and off when they’re not supposed to, and if enough of these errors accumulate, they can cause a computer to crash. This could cause a loss of valuable data—or the failure of the entire mission—so engineers at NASA do everything they can to prevent crashes from happening in the first place. There are a lot of techniques to make a computer immune to radiation. For example, it’s possible to add additional transistors that are harder to turn on and off, which makes them less likely to be flipped by a wayward ion. Minal Sawant, the space systems architect at Xilinx, a California technology company that designed and built the machine vision computer for Perseverance, says that the chip is radiation hardened by design. Based on qualification tests conducted by the company, the chip shouldn’t experience more than two bit flip errors—in which an ion causes a bit of information stored in memory to change from one to zero or vice versa—per year. But, generally speaking, protecting a processor from radiation requires compromising its performance. This partly has to do with the design of the processor, and partly with the fact that it simply takes a long time to test a component’s immunity to radiation. By the time a component is qualified, the performance of state of the art processors has surged ahead. NASA engineers don’t want to use old technology; but they do want to use technology they know will work. The type of Xilinx chip Perseverance uses has flown on several previous space missions and has nearly a decade of performance data to back it up. “The US space industry is traditionally very risk averse, and there’s a logic to that,” says Sawant. “One small error can cause a whole mission to go south, so they want to use a component that’s already been to space rather than try new technology. Reliability is key.” Xilinx’s machine vision computer will be running brand-new vision algorithms developed by Twu, Matthies, and their colleagues at NASA. Unlike self-driving cars on Earth, Perseverance doesn’t have the luxury of a bank of powerful computers in its trunk for image processing. Energy and processing power are precious resources on the Red Planet, which means the algorithms that Perseverance uses to navigate must be as lean and efficient as possible, without compromising their accuracy. “The algorithm can always make a mistake, even if the hardware is perfect,” says Matthies. “In computer vision, there are outliers that cause the algorithm to make mistakes. And so we have to overwhelm that possibility.” Outliers might include a situation in which the rover can’t see an object, or mistakes it for something else. One solution to this problem is to feed the rover’s navigation system data from other sensors so it’s not just relying on sight to get around. For example, gyroscopes and accelerometers help the rover understand the slope and roughness of the surface. The other solution is to expose the rover’s algorithms to as many scenarios as possible before it launches so there aren’t any surprises when it gets to Mars. At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, there’s a large outdoor field strewn with boulders and red dirt that simulates a Martian landscape. This is the Mars Yard, and for the past few years it's served as a proving ground for the algorithms that will guide Perseverance. Twu and his colleagues have regularly taken a replica of the rover out to the Mars Yard and deliberately constructed scenarios that they thought would confuse the rover. For example, if the rover drove itself into a dead end, could it backtrack and try a new route? “The more complicated the system is, the more types of decisions it could make,” says Twu. “Making sure you’ve covered every possible scenario that the rover might run into has been very challenging. But it’s by doing a lot of really hands-on tests like this that we find quirks in the algorithm.” But there are only so many different ways to arrange boulders in a giant sandbox. Most tests of Perseverance’s navigation algorithms were tested in virtual simulations, where the rover team threw every conceivable scenario at the rover’s software to get an idea of how it would perform in those situations. This was still mostly shuffling (virtual) rocks around, but there wasn’t really a limit to the types of landscapes and scenarios that could be modeled. Twu says this extensive testing of the visual algorithms combined with all the sensor data pulled in by the rover will allow Perseverance to navigate much more difficult terrain than any of the other Mars rovers. But even the most perfect simulations pale in comparison to the real thing. The rover will undergo its most high stakes test yet when it touches down on the Red Planet next February. If all goes well, the path it plots may lead us to evidence of life beyond Earth. How NASA Built a Self-Driving Car for Its Next Mars Mission
  7. NASA astronauts set to return to Earth in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon on August 2nd Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are coming home soon Image: NASA NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are tentatively scheduled to return to Earth inside SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon capsule on August 2nd. It’s the same Crew Dragon vehicle that launched the astronauts to space at the end of May — marking the first time a privately made spacecraft had carried people to orbit. For now, NASA plans for the duo, currently on board the International Space Station, to board the Crew Dragon on August 1st. They’ll then be back on the ground sometime the next day, according to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, who noted that weather will be a major factor in the return date. The departure will cap off a two-month stay on the ISS for Behnken and Hurley. While in space, they’ve both been very busy, with Behnken conducting numerous spacewalks to swap out aging batteries on the outside of the International Space Station. The crew’s return to Earth will also be the last major test of the Crew Dragon, proving whether the vehicle can get people to the ground safely. The capsule has a heat shield, designed to protect its passengers from the intense heat generated as the vehicle plunges through Earth’s atmosphere. The Crew Dragon also sports a suite of four parachutes that deploy once the capsule is closer to the ground. They’re meant to gently lower the vehicle into the Atlantic Ocean, where the spacecraft and its astronauts will then be picked up by a special SpaceX recovery vessel. If all goes well, the splashdown will bring an end to the Crew Dragon’s first crewed test flight —called Demonstration Mission 2, or DM-2. The test mission will determine if the Crew Dragon is ready to start flying crews of astronauts regularly to and from the ISS. SpaceX’s next flight of the Crew Dragon is currently slated for mid-to-late September and will carry four astronauts to the station. But this return must go well first. NASA astronauts set to return to Earth in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon on August 2nd
  8. NASA’s inspector general report roasts Lockheed Martin for Orion fees So far NASA has spent $16.7 billion to develop Orion. Enlarge / A mock-up of the Orion Crew Module is seen on Monday, March 30, 2009 during a news conference on the National Mall in Washington. NASA 152 with 102 posters participating NASA's inspector general on Thursday released a detailed report that investigates the time and money that the space agency has spent to develop its Orion spacecraft. This is the vehicle NASA hopes to use to fly its astronauts to and from lunar orbit as part of the Artemis Program. Since NASA awarded its first contract on Orion in August 2006, the report says NASA has spent $16.7 billion for development of Orion, or about $1.1 billion annually. NASA has paid the lion's share of those funds to Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for development of the Orion capsule. For this tally, the report does not include funding for Orion's large Service Module, which is being built and delivered by the European Space Agency. Most of the awards to Lockheed were conducted under a "cost-plus" contract structure, in which NASA is required to reimburse Lockheed for all allowable costs and, in addition, pay applicable award and incentive fees. Despite significant cost increases and schedule delays, Lockheed received nearly all available award fees, the report found. Those award fees struck NASA Inspector General Paul Martin as excessive. He writes that the agency's contract with Lockheed for Orion, "In our judgement disincentivizes contractor performance by offering the contractor the opportunity to, at the end of a final award fee period, earn previously unearned award fees. We calculate that, at a minimum, NASA paid at least $27.8 million in excess award fees to Lockheed throughout development for the 'Excellent' performance ratings it received while the Orion Program was experiencing substantial cost increases and schedule delays." A long history Orion has a long, somewhat tortured history, and some of the delays are due to changing requirements. Throughout its development over the last 15 years, the vehicle has been called upon to do various tasks, including flying astronauts to the Moon and an asteroid and serving as a taxi to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. In 2010, when the program was behind schedule and over budget, President Obama tried to cancel it. But Congress pushed back on this effort, and it was ultimately reinstated. NASA's current administrator, Jim Bridenstine, inherited the Orion program and is trying to make the best of it as part of NASA's Artemis Moon initiative. The current plan is for Orion to make a test flight in late 2021 or 2022 on top of a Space Launch System rocket and then carry crew on an Apollo-8 like mission around the Moon no earlier than 2023. At that point, the spacecraft will have been nearly two decades in development and have cost the space agency more than $20 billion. Two decades is a long time to develop a crewed spacecraft. During a comparable period from 1961 to 1981, NASA debuted no fewer than five human-carrying spacecraft with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules, the Lunar Module, and the space shuttle. The new report dings NASA for trying to exclude past costs of Orion in its accounting for the program. This exclusion, the report notes, "has hindered the overall transparency of the vehicle’s complete costs." Finally, the report also casts doubt on whether NASA will be able to control the costs of Orion as the space agency sends humans back to the Moon in the 2020s. "It remains too early to determine how successful these efforts will be in making the Orion more affordable as NASA looks ahead to Artemis missions to the Moon and beyond," the report concludes. This is rather important, as the White House and Congress canceled the Apollo Program in the early 1970s because its costs were too high for NASA to continue on a sustainable basis. Critics of NASA's current Artemis approach, which uses cost-plus contracts to fund Orion and the large Space Launch System, say this effort, too, is doomed to fail because its expenses are not sustainable in the long term. NASA’s inspector general report roasts Lockheed Martin for Orion fees
  9. Congress may allow NASA to launch Europa Clipper on a Falcon Heavy New budget also offers some hope for Human Landing System. Enlarge / A full-scale prototype of the high-gain antenna on NASA's Europa Clipper spacecraft. NASA 131 with 49 posters participating The US House of Representatives released its proposed fiscal year 2021 budget for NASA on Tuesday, funding the agency at $22.63 billion. This is the same amount of funding that was enacted for NASA's budget this year. This is just the beginning of the budget process, of course. The White House released its budget request back in February, and now the House and Senate will establish their priorities. Months of negotiations will ensue, compounded by the COVID-19 crisis and the 2020 presidential election. After the fiscal year 2020 budget ends in October, a continuing resolution is likely. The 2021 budget seems unlikely to be resolved before December. Still, the new document does tell us where Democrats and Republicans in the House think NASA funding should go. And there are a few important clues within worth discussing. Europa Clipper One of the big questions in recent years has been how NASA will get its multi-billion-dollar Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter's moon. In the past, Congress has said this must go on NASA's Space Launch System rocket, but this came with downsides. For one, the SLS rocket likely will cost NASA at least $1.5 billion more than a commercial rocket. Also, because it takes so long to build the large rocket, it's unlikely an SLS would be available for the Clipper before 2026. Because the spacecraft may be ready to launch as early as 2024, and storing it would lead to increased costs, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has studied alternative launch vehicles. Among the most promising is a Falcon Heavy booster with a kick stage. In the House legislation, Congress says NASA "shall use the Space Launch System, if available, as the launch vehicles for the Jupiter Europa missions," and plan for an orbiter launch no later than 2025. Because few people at NASA expect an SLS vehicle to be available in 2025, this is a pretty big deal. It remains to be seen how the US Senate will act—the biggest proponent of the SLS rocket, Alabama's Richard Shelby, chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee. Human Landing System In order to have any chance to make a 2024 landing on the Moon, NASA also needs to receive substantial funding soon for a Human Landing System. This is the most technologically challenging aspect of the Artemis Program to return to the Moon. NASA is currently working with three teams, led by Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX, on lander designs. Back in February, the White House asked for $3.37 billion in fiscal year 2021 to accelerate development of the lander. Democrats in the House have been skeptical of the 2024 launch date—some see it as political due to the timing of the next presidential election—and so have been slow to fund the lander. In its budget, the House appropriates $1.56 billion for "Exploration Research and Development." This includes funding for the lander, Lunar Gateway, and other activities related to the Moon's surface, of which more than $600 million can be used for the lander. "I want to thank the House Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee for the bipartisan support they have shown for NASA’s Artemis program," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. "The $628.2 million in funding for the human landing system is an important first step in this year’s appropriations process. We still have more to do, and I look forward to working with the Senate to ensure America has the resources to land the first woman and next man on the Moon in 2024." While this is far from the White House request, it seems like a better starting point than zero. And the budget for the lander probably will receive additional funding from the Senate later in the fiscal process. Sources at NASA said the lander program will remain on track as long as new funding arrives by the end of this calendar year. Congress may allow NASA to launch Europa Clipper on a Falcon Heavy
  10. NASA’s most iconic building is 55 years old and just getting started “This building is not a monument.” First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all 9+ images. NASA's Kennedy Space Center is now nearly six decades old—it was formally created on July 1, 1962 as a separate entity from Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. Construction began soon after. At the time, the "Launch Operations Directorate" under Wernher von Braun and his team of German scientists was based at Marshall. But NASA's leaders realized they would need their own facilities in Florida alongside the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. So they created a new "Launch Operations Center" on nearby Merritt Island. President Lyndon B. Johnson would rename the facility Kennedy Space Center a week after President John F. Kennedy's November 1963 assassination in Dallas. As plans for the Apollo Program developed, NASA also soon realized it would need a large building in which to assemble the Saturn V rocket that would power the Moon landings. Work began on what was then known as the Vertical Assembly Building (VAB), where the big rocket would be stacked in a vertical configuration before rolling out to the launch pad. The 160-meter-tall building was topped off in 1965 and completed in 1966. Construction photos of the VAB's development—the building required almost 90,000 metric tons of steel—are as incredible as those of the finished building itself. But NASA officials wanted to make clear at the time that this building was not an end in itself. Rather, it was a means to an end. "This building is not a monument," said Kurt Debus, the German rocket scientist who supervised construction of the Florida facilities in 1965. "It is a tool, if you will, capable of accommodating heavy launch vehicles. So if people are impressed by its bigness, they should be mindful that bigness in this case is a factor of the rocket-powered transportation systems necessary to provide the United States with a broad capability to do whatever is the national purpose in outer space." Enlarge / Center Director Kurt Debus speaks at the "topping off" ceremonies for the Vehicle Assembly Building in 1965. NASA Even before it was completed, the VAB's name was changed from Vertical to Vehicle Assembly Building because it was felt that the building might well be used for launch vehicles other than the Saturn V. And indeed it would, serving the space shuttle from 1981 to 2011. After returning to Earth, the space plane would roll into the VAB for refurbishment after each mission. Following the shuttle's retirement nine years ago, the cavernous building sat empty for a time. But as Debus noted back in 1965, the building was built to serve the nation's large rockets and would soon be called upon again. The VAB has four high bays, which will be used for various purposes during the coming decade. One will be used to stack NASA's big Space Launch System rocket, and another is presently in use for Northrop Grumman's Omega rocket. The future of both these large rockets is far from certain—each is likely to only exist as long as the government foots the bill (NASA for the SLS rocket, the US Space Force for Omega)—but as rockets come and go, the VAB remains the same. Listing image by NASA NASA’s most iconic building is 55 years old and just getting started (To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)
  11. NASA’s next Mars mission has now burned nearly half of its launch window The $2.1 billion rover has a limited amount of time to launch this summer. First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all 6 images. NASA says it will be forced to delay the launch of its multibillion-dollar Perseverance mission to no earlier than July 30. The Mars-bound large rover must launch on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida before the middle of August, or it will miss Earth's conjunction with the red planet. This is the third delay in the launch campaign for Perseverance, formerly known as Mars 2020, and the most concerning because a new, formal launch date has not been set. A problem arose during a Wet Dress Rehearsal test earlier this month. During this standard prelaunch test, an Atlas V rocket is fueled with propellant and a countdown is conducted until the final moments before ignition. So what happened? "A liquid-oxygen sensor line presented off-nominal data during the Wet Dress Rehearsal, and additional time is needed for the team to inspect and evaluate," NASA said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon, in response to a query from Ars. A source in Florida indicated that the issue was related to the Atlas V rocket's Centaur upper stage, which is fueled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Expanding launch window The $2.1 billion rover is similar to NASA's Curiosity rover but contains several upgrades, including the addition of a small helicopter, and it will launch on the 541 configuration of the Atlas V rocket. NASA originally set a launch window from July 17 to August 11, the optimal period for the rocket to launch, and for Perseverance to reach Mars within about six months. The launch has since been delayed from July 17 to July 20 due to a crane issue during the stacking process; it was again delayed from July 20 to July 22. NASA attributed the latter setback to "a processing delay encountered during encapsulation activities of the spacecraft." The spacecraft has yet to be stacked on top of the Atlas V rocket's first and second stages. It now seems likely that the rocket's manufacturer, United Launch Alliance, will need to understand and address the issue with the liquid-oxygen sensor line before that activity can proceed. Once the rocket and its payload reach the launch pad, the mission will also have to contend with summertime weather in Florida, where storms along the coast are common. On Tuesday, the space agency said it had extended the launch window to August 15 and will examine whether the launch window can be extended a few more days into August. If the Perseverance mission misses this launch window, it would be delayed 26 months, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, until the next Earth-Mars conjunction in 2022. Listing image by United Launch Alliance NASA’s next Mars mission has now burned nearly half of its launch window (To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)
  12. SpaceX and NASA counting down to launch under ominous skies Anyone who followed the space shuttle program will remember a lot of scrubs. Enlarge / Skies at 2pm ET Wednesday over the launch site were rather stormy. Trevor Mahlmann 279 with 98 posters participating Now that humans are about to lift off from the United States into orbit again, the constraints surrounding launch weather are heightened. To that end, we're watching conditions closely today in advance of a historic launch of a Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft at 4:33pm ET (20:33 UTC). This will be the first launch of humans into orbit from the United States since the space shuttle retired in 2011, and people who remember that program will recall plenty of scrubs. For today's mission, we need to track weather both at the launch site for liftoff, and down range in case of potential emergencies with the rocket during the countdown or after it launches. Launch site weather For Kennedy Space Center and SpaceX's Launch Complex 39A, there are 12 different criteria near the pad that must be met before a launch can proceed. These include sustained winds of 30mph or below, no anvil thunderstorm clouds within 10 nautical miles, and various rules about clouds. When the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida provides the official forecast for a launch, it is basing its percentage solely on conditions for a particular rocket and weather at the launch site. This morning's updated forecast for today's launch attempt of SpaceX's Crew Dragon is decent, with a 50 percent chance of "violating weather constraints" at the time of launch. Demo-2 launch webcast. However, this forecast does not include several other important considerations, most notably ascent abort weather. This is a really big concern today with the formation of Tropical Storm Bertha off the coast of South Carolina and unsettled weather in Dragon's path. A complicated analysis When the Falcon 9 rocket launches, there is a small probability of an issue with the rocket. Therefore the Crew Dragon spacecraft has a launch escape system, which SpaceX successfully tested in January. In case of an emergency, Dragon's SuperDraco thrusters fire instantaneously to pull the spacecraft away from the rocket. At this point, the capsule rises toward an apex and then begins falling back toward the Earth. Because it takes a little more than eight minutes for the rocket's first and second stage to reach orbit—and an emergency is theoretically possible all along the way—it is possible for Dragon to come down over the Atlantic Ocean anywhere between Florida and Ireland. Weather is important for an abort scenario for several reasons. One is rainfall, as too much precipitation would impair the ability of Dragon's four main parachutes to bring the spacecraft down. Additionally, recovery operations need relatively calm sea states to safely bring the spacecraft onto SpaceX's GO Searcher recovery ship. This week, NASA officials said they will monitor about 50 sites along Dragon's track for weather conditions. However, some will be weighted more than others. SpaceX has developed a model that looks probabilistically at many locations off the US East Coast. Some points are weighted significantly higher, such as an abort related to a staging failure, in the final analysis. Weather scrubs Anyone who followed the space shuttle program will remember a lot of scrubs due to poor weather. The space shuttle did not have a launch escape system, but more than half of missions scrubbed at least once due to weather. This is because the shuttle not only had its own weather rules, it also had "Transoceanic Abort Landing" sites, in the Azores, Spain, and France. A handful of these locations had to have clear weather for a launch to proceed. So when it comes to human launches in the future, weather will be a major factor going forward for NASA and SpaceX. Source: SpaceX and NASA counting down to launch under ominous skies (Ars Technica)
  13. NASA and SpaceX say they are ‘go’ to proceed with historic crewed flight on May 27th Though there’s still more work to be done After two days of intense reviews, NASA is giving its commercial partner SpaceX the thumbs-up to launch its first astronauts to space next week. There’s still more work to be done by both the agency and SpaceX, including another review on Monday, but officials decided there were no major issues standing in the way of the launch. “It was a good review, great discussion,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press conference. “I think everybody in the room was very clear that now’s the time to speak up if there are any challenges.” Bridenstine noted that many people did speak up, and they had a lot of discussions about various aspects of the mission. “At the end we got to a ‘go,’” he said. “So we are now preparing for a launch in five short days.” On May 27th, SpaceX is slated to launch its first crew of two — NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — to the International Space Station for NASA. The flight is the final test for SpaceX as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which enlisted private companies to create vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. SpaceX’s vehicle for the program is the Crew Dragon, and after six years of development and testing, the company is less than a week away from finally putting people inside the vehicle. During the review, officials talked over a lot of technical issues that could become a problem during flight, such as the Crew Dragon’s parachutes, which have required enormous amounts of testing over the last few years. They also discussed an unexpected technical issue that arose last year when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule exploded during a ground test, as well as concerns about the company’s ability to suppress any unexpected fires that might break out on Dragon. Ultimately, everyone concluded that the risks were manageable. “There are no significant open issues, I am happy to report,” Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s associate administrator, said during the press conference. “It was a very, at the end, was a very, very clean review.” Also this afternoon, SpaceX tested the Falcon 9 rocket that will launch Behnken and Hurley. At 4:33PM ET, the company ignited the engines on the rocket while holding it down on its launchpad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, verifying that all the rocket’s systems were in working order. While NASA says SpaceX is “go” for launch, there’s still quite a bit of work to do before the company’s rocket takes flight. On Saturday, Behnken and Hurley will do what’s called a “dry dress rehearsal,” where they’ll suit up in SpaceX’s custom spacesuits and go through all of the steps leading up to flight, without actually launching. Then on Monday, SpaceX and NASA officials will do yet another review about whether to proceed with the launch. That review will incorporate data from today’s ignition test, as well as data from the dress rehearsal. “That’s a ton of data,” Benji Reed, director of crew mission management at SpaceX, said during the press conference. “It’s really, really important that all of our engineers, they’re all on deck and ready to go right now. And for the next few days through the weekend, they will be analyzing and looking at all the data and all the observations that are made.” So things are still on track, but it’s not “all systems go” just yet. Source: NASA and SpaceX say they are ‘go’ to proceed with historic crewed flight on May 27th (The Verge)
  14. The numbers don’t lie—NASA’s move to commercial space has saved money “Together, we have become stronger for this nation.” Enlarge / The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft arrives at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA When NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken blast off inside a Crew Dragon spacecraft later this month, they will not only launch into space. They will also inaugurate a potentially transformative era for the space agency. No private company has ever launched humans into orbit before. Therefore the success of their mission, and others to come in the near future, may go a long way toward determining whether the promise of commercial spaceflight and lower cost access to space becomes the new reality. This moment has been a long time coming. Nearly 15 years ago, NASA placed a small bet on the nascent commercial space industry when it sought to diversify its fleet for delivering cargo to the International Space Station. NASA had the space shuttle to ferry supplies, of course, but that aging vehicle was not going to fly forever. So the agency’s administrator at the time, Mike Griffin, committed $500 million in seed money for the development of new, privately built spacecraft. Griffin may not have realized what he had unleashed. The first small “Commercial Orbital Transportation Services” contracts awarded to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have since expanded into other areas of spaceflight while multiplying in value from hundreds of millions of dollars into billions of dollars. NASA now looks to private companies for not just cargo delivery to orbit but, with Crew Dragon, people. NASA also recently sought commercial services for sending supplies to the Moon and even landing humans there. What began as a pebble tossed into a pond has become a wave. Critics of this commercial approach certainly remain—it has disrupted the business models of traditional aerospace powers like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which have long profited from lucrative cost-plus contracts. Some at NASA, too, still don’t trust commercial providers, and they’re especially wary of Elon Musk, the brash founder and chief engineer of SpaceX. Yet it is Musk's firm that has delivered NASA a human-rated spacecraft in its hour of need, with Russia continuing to raise prices for rides into space nearly a decade after the space shuttle’s retirement. And if you speak with the NASA engineers who have worked alongside SpaceX engineers for more than a decade, they appreciate what the company has accomplished. First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all 9+ images. “This has been a great relationship for the both of us,” said Kathy Lueders, who manages the NASA program overseeing Crew Dragon. “It’s been rewarding to see how our NASA teams have learned from SpaceX, and how the SpaceX teams have learned from NASA. Together, we have become stronger for this nation.” At times, their cultures have clashed. SpaceX relentlessly seeks to innovate, cut costs, and move fast; the space agency is far less nimble and much more risk averse. Yet the coming together of America’s space agency and its most audacious space company has borne fruit and benefited both. NASA has provided money and advice; SpaceX has delivered the goods. It has not been an easy road to get here. "Utter horse pucky" Even before Griffin offered funding for private spaceflight he faced concerns about “commercial” space. Change is hard, and some critics legitimately believed the private companies were simply not ready to supplant NASA for mission-critical functions. Up until then, for big human spaceflight projects, NASA engineers had decided precisely what they needed, selected a contractor to build it, and then monitored every step with paperwork in triplicate. For this, the contractor got reimbursed for its costs, plus a generous fee. If a vehicle ran five years late and doubled its original budget, NASA was on the hook for cost overruns. This tended to not encourage on-time delivery, but eventually the government got what it wanted. Griffin's "commercial" space proposed a different way. Instead of beginning with a detailed blueprint for what a contractor should build, NASA would stipulate the service it wanted. For “commercial cargo,” NASA sought the delivery of a few tons of food, water, supplies, and science experiments into orbit. But it did not tell the private companies how to do this. Instead, they were left to design their own vehicles to meet this need. NASA would pay a fixed price for these services and no more. In return the companies retained ownership of their spacecraft. “In my own mind, I envisioned it as being somewhat like the arrangement when you build an expensive custom home,” Griffin explained in 2013. “The contractor builds homes for a living, I’m not creating the contractor’s company. He has to have a company before I will consider allowing him to build a home for me. He builds his homes, and if I like them, I can buy a design that he offers. At different stages of completion he gets money from me if he’s building my home, but he doesn’t get all the money until he has furnished all the product.” Griffin faced opposition to this within his own administration even before he awarded contracts to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to begin designing and developing their cargo spacecraft. Often, senior officials at NASA came and went between the agency and large contractors. This allowed the old-guard aerospace contractors, long accustomed to cost-plus contracts, to maintain some control over the direction of the agency. The career of Scott Horowitz is illustrative. From 1996 to 2001, the US Air Force Colonel and NASA astronaut piloted three shuttle missions and commanded a fourth one, helping to service the Hubble Space Telescope and supply the space station. He left NASA in October 2004 to take a senior position with ATK, which built the solid-rocket boosters for the space shuttle. Horowitz held this job for about a year before returning to NASA to become chief of a new division that supervised the agency’s lunar exploration plans, known as Constellation. Back at NASA, Horowitz helped shape strategy for the Moon plan, which included a new rocket named Ares I to launch crews into orbit. Ares I would use some of the same technology that powered the shuttle—a modified shuttle solid rocket booster would serve as its first stage. Accordingly, in April 2006, NASA awarded a $1.8 billion contract to Horowitz’s old company, ATK, to begin design work. So closely tied to the former astronaut was Ares I that it soon earned the nickname “Scotty Rocket.” One year after the award to ATK, Horowitz left NASA. Then, from 2008 to 2010, ATK paid him $100,000 in lobbying fees. (Horowitz could not be reached for comment). Horowitz also emerged as one of the chief critics of NASA's efforts to commercialize aspects of spaceflight. An oral history interview Horowitz later gave to NASA provides a sense of the hostility he and some agency leaders had toward commercial space companies. The interviewer, Rebecca Wright, asked Horowitz about NASA’s claim that the commercial cargo program had helped it develop robust and cost-effective launch services for the space agency. “That statement is complete and utter horse pucky," he responded. Horowitz then asserted that the Ares I and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket had similar costs, citing a 2009 test flight of an Ares I prototype. “Interesting point—when we flew Ares I-X, which flew right after I left, (NASA) went back and did a total cost analysis—full-cost accounting, government, all of our waste and all of our overhead. The number I saw was about $400 million to fly that flight,” he said. “The cost to get to the first Falcon 9 flight was about $400 million.” This comparison between the Scotty Rocket and the Falcon 9 rocket is jaw dropping, and not in a good way. But before explaining why, it's vital to understand how NASA went from commercial cargo flights to the larger step of allowing private companies to launch humans. From cargo to crew By the end of 2008, both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences were well on their way to developing spacecraft—Cargo Dragon and Cygnus, respectively—and NASA felt confident in moving forward with awarding contracts for actual cargo delivery services. SpaceX received $1.6 billion for a dozen missions, and Orbital $1.9 billion for eight flights. As President Obama came into office in January, 2009, he was inclined to further the commercial efforts begun under the Bush administration. He and his vice presidential candidate, Joe Biden, had even campaigned on it. “We want to reinvigorate our national space program and that includes creating an environment for a vibrant commercial space program,” Biden had said at an October campaign stop in Florida. After reviewing NASA and its spaceflight efforts, President Obama did indeed cancel the Ares I rocket, opting to make Orion a deep space capsule only and relying on commercial companies to fly humans to the space station. (The cancellation of the Scotty Rocket in favor of commercial providers probably explains Horowitz's antipathy). As the Obama administration pushed this idea, Congress pushed back. Many members were not ready to cede that much authority to emerging private companies such as SpaceX. Push came to shove in 2010 as NASA sought congressional funding for companies to begin developing spacecraft to launch humans. During that same year, SpaceX was preparing to fly its Falcon 9 rocket for the first time. This was a demonstration mission for the booster needed to loft its Cargo Dragon into orbit. In April 2010, President Obama visited SpaceX’s launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, a vote of confidence for the company. At the time, SpaceX had a decidedly mixed record of success. It had failed on three of five launches of a smaller rocket. Enlarge / President Barack Obama tours SpaceX facilities, along with founder Elon Musk, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in April, 2014. NASA Behind the scenes, the deputy administrator of NASA and a handful of other advisers pressed the president to keep the faith as SpaceX neared its first launch. But they knew what a failed launch could mean. “It is scary as shit to recommend the President support something that you know will succeed in the long-term, but might embarrass him in the short term,” NASA's deputy administrator at the time, Lori Garver, said in an interview. “We tried to be as clear as possible that while this path was 100 percent the best way to get the most out of our space program for the nation, there would likely be setbacks.” But there were no setbacks. In June 2010, the Falcon 9 made a successful debut flight. Also that year, NASA began awarding fixed-price contracts to begin developing commercial crew vehicles, not only to SpaceX, but also to Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and Blue Origin. In 2014, NASA would down-select to SpaceX and Boeing. By then, the space shuttles were in museums. It was up to the private sector to step up. Revisiting the Scotty Rocket Let’s now turn to the question of value. Recall that Scott Horowitz cited a cost of $400 million for the Ares I rocket and compared this to the development cost of the first Falcon 9 flight. However, the $400 million cited by Horowitz is not for Ares I development; that's merely the cost for a test flight of a single space shuttle solid rocket booster, with hardware mock-ups on top. "The rocket that thundered aloft from NASA’s Launch Pad 39B sure looked like an Ares I," Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin said at the time. "But that’s where the resemblance stops. Turns out the solid booster was—literally—bought from the Space Shuttle program, since a five-segment booster being designed for Ares wasn’t ready. So they put a fake can on top of the four-segmented motor to look like the real thing." What would it have actually cost to bring the Scotty Rocket to the launch pad? Before President Obama pushed Congress to fund private vehicles, NASA had intended to use the Ares I rocket and Orion spacecraft to fly crews to the space station. In 2009, NASA estimated it would cost $24.5 billion to develop Ares I and Orion. But an independent analysis later that year found the true cost probably would be at least $34.5 billion. The majority of that, likely about $20 billion, would have been spent on the Ares I rocket. Twenty billion dollars for a rocket capable of lifting about 25 metric tons to low-Earth orbit. Under the commercial cargo development program denigrated by Horowitz, NASA eventually paid $396 million to SpaceX. However, this money was not earmarked just for the rocket. It also paid for development of the Cargo Dragon spacecraft and a launch pad in Florida. The modern Falcon 9 rocket can lift 23 metric tons to low-Earth orbit. This is nearly as much lift capacity as the Scotty Rocket, which would have cost 50 times as much to develop. Program Cargo Dragon Commercial crew Constellation Type Private, fixed-price Private, fixed-price Government, cost-plus NASA costs $396 million $5 billion $34.5 billion Deliverable Cargo Dragon Crew Dragon Ares I rocket Falcon 9 rocket Starliner spacecraft Orion Florida launch site Booster integration (costs are estimated) Results Cargo Dragon went on to fly Crew Dragon to fly in May, Ares I canceled, Orion to be 20 ISS deliveries Starliner next year used only in deep space. Put another way, while SpaceX developed a cargo version of its Dragon spacecraft, the Falcon 9 rocket, and built its launch facilities at Cape Canaveral, the Constellation Program was toiling away on Orion, the Ares I rocket, and ground systems. “We were effectively doing what the Constellation Program was doing with about the same amount of money, total, that they were burning in a single month,” said Mike Horkachuck, the NASA engineer originally assigned to SpaceX for the commercial cargo program. “So that kind of puts it into perspective.” But that’s just for cargo missions. Now compare the costs for crew transportation. All told, NASA will invest nearly $5 billion in SpaceX and Boeing to bring their Crew Dragon and Starliner systems to the launch pad. Phil McAlister, a NASA manager for commercial space, noted that NASA was on track to spend about six times more for the single Ares I-Orion system than what it ultimately paid for two distinct private spacecraft launched on private rockets. Speaking earlier this month at a committee meeting of NASA’s Advisory Council, McAlister said of these savings, “That is significant. That is money that we have been able to plow into our deep space mission.” LEO and beyond Of NASA's commercial providers, SpaceX has delivered the greatest value. For cargo, it has flown more missions for less. As part of the crew development program, NASA paid Boeing about 50 percent more than SpaceX. Despite this, SpaceX completed Crew Dragon about a year ahead of Boeing, which is unlikely to fly a crewed mission before next spring at the earliest. In turn, SpaceX has gleaned great value from working with NASA, both financially and in know-how for safely flying humans. “NASA has been an extraordinary customer, and an extraordinary partner, a mentor for us,” said Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s president. “Hopefully NASA has enjoyed the relationship as much as we have. We’ve learned from them. We were founded in 2002 to fly people to low-Earth orbit, the Moon, and Mars. NASA has certainly made that possible.” Change has come relatively slowly to NASA, but thanks to the successes by SpaceX with cargo and, hopefully soon, crew, change is definitely coming. In just the last two months, SpaceX won a contract to deliver cargo to the Lunar Gateway, and the company was one of three successful bidders for work to develop a Human Landing System as part of NASA’s new Artemis plan to return humans to the Moon. These were fixed-price awards, meaning that NASA would pay only a share of the development costs. Skeptics remain of this new way of doing business. Looking ahead to the Artemis program, some in Congress say NASA must own the lunar lander, not buy services from the private sector. But the launch of two humans from Florida in a week or two could go a long way toward quieting those who say what NASA can and cannot do, in an era when Dragons breathe fire and rockets return by sea. Source: The numbers don’t lie—NASA’s move to commercial space has saved money (Ars Technica) (To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)
  15. NASA creates Artemis Accords in effort to extend its values to the Moon "We don’t want to only carry astronauts to the Moon, we want to carry our values." Enlarge / NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is leading implementation of the Artemis Accords. NASA 149 with 59 posters participating, including story author NASA said Friday it has begun negotiating a series of bilateral agreements with space agencies in other countries that want to join the Artemis Program. Essentially, partner nations would need to agree to 10 basic norms as part of their space activities, such as operating transparently and releasing scientific data. "We don’t want to only carry astronauts to the Moon, we want to carry our values forward," said Mike Gold, a NASA associate administrator who has led development of the Artemis Accords. "We want to use the excitement around Artemis to incentivize partners to adopt these principles that we believe will lead to a more peaceful, transparent, safe and secure future in space—not only for NASA and the international partners we’re working with, but the entire world." He and NASA's deputy administrator, Jim Morhard, spoke with Ars in advance of Friday morning's announcement. Both were careful to say that these accords are based on the Outer Space Treaty, which forms the basis of international space law, as well as the United Nations' Registration Convention. "This is based on our values and our own behaviors, but it’s also grounded in the Outer Space Treaty," Morhard said. "Hopefully you’ve seen it in our own actions in how we comport ourselves at NASA. We intend to continue acting the same way we have. Our hope is that we’ll have new international partners, and current ones that will adopt those same values if they haven’t already." NASA is continuing to refine the details of its Artemis Program, which entails the launch of humans to the Moon as early as 2024 and future lunar missions that could include international astronauts. NASA would also spearhead development of a small space station in lunar orbit, called the Gateway, which will include modules contributed by other countries. Gold said that NASA, working with the US State Department, hopes to negotiate and reach a final agreement with one or more international partners by the end of this year. “We’re trying to create some teeth for the obligations to the Outer Space Treaty," he said. The Artemis Accords, which are outlined in the gallery below, generally reflect what NASA and its international partners have already agreed to in the framework that governs the International Space Station. However, they do introduce some new principles, such as the use of space resources, that are unique to exploration on other worlds. This particular accord states, "The ability to extract and utilize resources on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids will be critical to support safe and sustainable space exploration and development." First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all 9+ images. After elements of these accords were leaked in early May, some perceived them as an effort by the United States to regulate the exploration of the Moon. The leader of Russia's space corporation, Dmitry Rogozin, reacted angrily on Twitter, comparing the effort to bypass the United Nations or NATO to American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. However, Gold and Morhard said that the agreements would be negotiated with international partners instead of being unilaterally instituted. Although NASA has not yet formally reached out to Russia about the Artemis Accords, Morhard said, "We certainly hope that Russia will be part of this. It’s not like we don’t want them." In some ways, the agreements appear to be an effort to differentiate a Western model of exploration from that of China—which is not transparent about much of its exploration plans and has a mixed record of sharing data from its research activities. There is also rising concern about debris from Chinese rocket launches, including the reentry Monday of large pieces from a Long March 5B booster that came down in Africa but could just as easily have landed in the United States. Although China will be invited to join the Artemis Accords, NASA officials said it or any other country would have to respect the safety of people on Earth. “The empty core stage of the Long March 5B, weighing nearly 20 tons, was in an uncontrolled free fall along a path that carried it over Los Angeles and other densely populated areas," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told Ars on Friday morning. "I can think of no better example of why we need the Artemis Accords. It’s vital for the U.S. to lead and establish norms of behavior against such irresponsible activities. Space exploration should inspire hope and wonder, not fear and danger.” Source: NASA creates Artemis Accords in effort to extend its values to the Moon (Ars Technica) (To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)
  16. A 2024 Moon landing may sound crazy, but NASA is giving its best shot Analysis: Space agency chief is making smart decisions about the lunar program. Enlarge / Will this toddler be a pre-teen, teenager, or an adult before humans go back to the Moon? NASA 113 with 63 posters participating Jim Bridenstine really wanted to become NASA's administrator. As a pilot and congressman from Oklahoma, he sought out opportunities to influence space policy and met with experts whenever he had a chance to do so. He was the rare congressman who engaged in space policy not because he had a NASA facility in his state, but because he had genuine interest. After President Trump nominated Bridenstine for the administrator position in September 2017, Bridenstine had a long wait. There were fears the conservative Republican would prove an overtly political chief of NASA, driving the space agency hard to the right. The US Senate finally approved Bridenstine's nomination in April 2018, with a party-line vote. Over the next year Bridenstine showed himself to be a leader for all of NASA. He eschewed partisanship for inclusiveness. He genuinely sought to push NASA forward. But then, at the end of March 2019, Bridenstine was handed an almost insurmountable task. During a speech at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, Vice President Pence instructed NASA to land humans on the Moon by the end of 2024. "I call on NASA to adopt new policies and embrace a new mindset," Pence said. "If our current contractors can't meet this objective, then we'll find ones that will." Though Bridenstine welcomed the challenge, there are many reasons this seemed an impossible assignment. Since Apollo, NASA has tried several times to return humans into deep space and failed. Little of the technology NASA needed for such a mission, from spacesuits to a lander, was close to ready. Far from working as one, the contentious mix of aerospace contractors vying for NASA funding had to be brought together. And finally, a recalcitrant Congress had to be convinced this endeavor was worth funding. It was a very narrow needle to thread. And yet—and yet—with the recent award of Human Landing System contracts it seems like Bridenstine and his hand-picked chief of human spaceflight, Doug Loverro, are giving the agency its best possible chance to succeed. Here's a look at why. Competing interests Before going further let's take a quick look at the various interests that Bridenstine must answer to, at least to some degree, in his post as administrator. The White House This is his ultimate authority. He answers to President Trump and more specifically Pence, who has overseen the nation's space portfolio. Bridenstine has clear marching orders to set humans down on the Moon by 2024. After that, Pence has expressed a desire to build up a lunar settlement before moving humans onward, toward Mars, in the distant future. NASA bureaucracy Bridenstine fired the long-time chief of human spaceflight he inherited, Bill Gerstenmaier, in July 2019 for moving too slowly on the Artemis Moon program. But NASA is filled with civil servants at all levels who have their own fiefdoms. They cannot always easily be ordered around, as NASA is a civil not a military agency. Many there prefer to go directly to Mars. Congress and large aerospace contractors Congress has funded development of the expensive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft for more than a decade, touting these vehicles as the backbone of NASA's deep space exploration program. Leading people in Congress, and its corporate contributors, generally have demanded that any Artemis plans use SLS and Orion. Commercial space SpaceX and its brethren in the new space industry are quick to say they can provide faster solutions for NASA's needs than SLS and Orion, at a lower price. And often, they're not wrong (SpaceX is beating Boeing in commercial crew, for a significant discount). This is a small but growing constituency that Bridenstine seems to appreciate. The bottom line: Bridenstine has a mandate to get to the Moon by 2024, and his key constituencies are at odds about how to do so—and in some cases whether NASA should even do so. These are a lot of cats to herd. NASA’s needs One of the biggest issues facing Bridenstine, who at present has less than five years to get to the Moon, is that rather little of the hardware he needs actually exists. Most all of the rockets, spacecraft, and landers either have not yet been built, tested, or flown with humans. And because there are always development problems in aerospace, he cannot really count on any of this hardware being ready. To reach the Moon, NASA has three basic needs. And at present, there are multiple paths to fulfilling each need. Get astronauts to lunar orbit NASA performed the Apollo landings with an all-up launch on a Saturn V rocket. But neither SLS nor Orion is as powerful as its predecessors. The initial variants of SLS and Orion can get four astronauts into a high lunar orbit (and back home to Earth), which is good enough for the 2024 landing. Although untested with crew, Orion is in good shape. However, the SLS rocket has been perennially delayed and now is unlikely to launch for the first time until 2022. There are "commercial" alternatives. A Falcon Heavy rocket, with modifications, could launch Orion. Orion could also launch on a smaller commercial rocket and dock in low-Earth orbit with a Centaur upper stage to get its boost to lunar orbit. Finally, SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft would require some additional heat shielding, but it also could supplant Orion in a pinch to get crew to and from lunar orbit. Get the Human Landing System to lunar orbit NASA picked three separate designs for a human lander, and all three could launch on commercial rockets to the Moon. Blue Origin's Blue Moon lander could go on the New Glenn or Vulcan rockets. Dynetics' lander is baselined to the Vulcan rocket. However, to fly on commercial rockets, the landers would need to be broken into components and then assembled in lunar orbit. Potentially, these landers could be launched fully assembled on an upgraded SLS rocket (Block 1B), but it is highly unlikely this rocket would be ready by 2024—or even a year or two later. Finally, there is SpaceX's Starship lander. It would be launched to lunar orbit by the company's Super Heavy rocket, where it would rendezvous with astronauts for a lunar landing. Super Heavy is not yet built. Land on the Moon NASA has contracts for design and initial development of three different Human Landing Systems. Very little actual hardware for these exists. Blue Origin has built the BE-7 engine for its lander, and SpaceX has the Raptor engine for its Starship. But industry experts generally agree that developing, testing, and flying even one of these landers by 2024 will require extraordinary effort. Bridenstine’s plan Given all of these challenges, one has to appreciate the plan put together by Bridenstine and Loverro. Their approach plays for time while also addressing some of the problems cited above. In theory, NASA's SLS and Orion offer the best technical solution for the Moon landing. But these programs, especially the SLS, have been plagued by development issues. And their long-term costs are staggering. Commercial companies, potentially, offer a better long-term solution. With the 10-month contracts issued in late April, Bridenstine has basically established a competition. If the government programs come together—for example, if the SLS rocket passes its critical Green Run test firing later this year with flying colors—that will bolster the argument of building Moon landing missions around the expensive government technology. Meanwhile, the commercial companies will also get a chance to show their stuff. Perhaps United Launch Alliance will demonstrate its Vulcan rocket with a test flight next spring. Maybe SpaceX will fly Starship on a suborbital test that showcases its ability to make a vertical landing. Blue Origin could begin flying some of its Blue Moon prototypes. All the while, Bridenstine has something to offer each of his constituencies. For the White House, he is moving forward to the Moon. Within the space agency, he can continue to build support by establishing a credible plan that demonstrates progress. In Congress, he can explain that he is putting SLS and Orion on a path to succeed. For the commercial companies, he can say, look, I'm giving you a chance. First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all 9+ images. Next year, Bridenstine will be in a good position to move forward (assuming he is still administrator after the 2020 election). If SLS and Orion succeed, he and Loverro can select those programs with confidence. If commercial spaceflight is in ascendancy, he can build support for a more purely private program based upon that evidence. If both are succeeding, NASA can plan around a mix of both. There are other reasons to like Bridenstine's approach, too. He had steadfastly pushed for the lunar lander contracts to be fixed-price awards—even in the face of political pressure to make these lucrative, cost-plus contracts for favored contractors. He has favored companies that put "skin in the game" by investing in their own lander designs. Finally, he has shown a willingness to take a chance on new ideas. The "drop tanks" in Dynetics' design are innovative. Blue Origin seeks to build an ambitious, reusable rocket to make its overall system affordable. And SpaceX, of course, has a plan based around Starship that—if successful—may one day lead humanity to Mars. In short, Bridenstine is trying to push NASA forward into the future while remaining grounded in the realities of his political world. Odds are still against a human landing in 2024, but damn if he's not going for it. Source: A 2024 Moon landing may sound crazy, but NASA is giving its best shot (Ars Technica) (To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)
  17. NASA planning to launch an integrated Lunar Gateway in 2023 NASA has already assessed the viability of the Falcon Heavy for the task. Enlarge / Artist's concept of initial configuration of the Lunar Gateway. NASA 84 with 34 posters participating Last week NASA announced awards to three companies to develop Lunar Landers as part of the Artemis Program. But the space agency did not say much about its "other" major program near the Moon, a Lunar Gateway that will serve as a small space station that will be used to conduct scientific experiments. It will also function as a stop for potentially stashing fuel and a temporary habitat for humans. NASA's primary mandate from the White House is to land humans on the Moon by 2024, and for now the space agency is working through the details of how that will happen. One aspect of the lunar lander awards worth noting is that NASA and its contractors will spend the next 10 months finalizing their plans, and from this process they will collectively determine the fastest, best path to the Moon by 2024. That may involve staging the first human landing from the Gateway, in high lunar orbit, or it may not. But in an interview with Ars, both NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and the space agency's chief of human spaceflight, Doug Loverro, said the Gateway was an essential part of NASA's long-term plans to not only to return humans to the Moon but to do so in a sustainable manner. The agency's current timeline entails launching the nucleus of the Gateway in 2023, Loverro said. He also confirmed that the first two elements of the Gateway will be launched as an integrated unit. This means that the Power and Propulsion Element built by Maxar and the pressurized Habitation and Logistics Outpost built by Northrop Grumman will be assembled together on the ground and then launched on a commercial rocket. Can go on Falcon Heavy By law, this launch must be competitively bid. But NASA has already studied the combined Gateway to ensure that at least one rocket flying today—SpaceX's Falcon Heavy booster—could loft it to lunar orbit. "We assured ourselves that it could be done with the Falcon Heavy," Loverro said. "We haven't selected the launch vehicle yet, but we had to assure ourselves that there would be at least one vehicle for it. And so we know the Falcon Heavy can do it, and we know that because they have to meet an Air Force Department of Defense requirement for an extended fairing. So there could be more than one option, but we had to verify at least one." Assembling the two initial elements of the Gateway on the ground reduces risk and saves the space agency money, Loverro said. "Quite frankly, it creates a much better foundation for the future," he said. "So we're really happy about that one." In an interview with Ars in March, NASA's program manager for the Gateway, Dan Hartman, said the space agency is continuing to work with international partners to build other components for the Gateway. "We have the International-HAB, which we call the I-HAB, which is kind of a combination with ESA in the lead but with JAXA supplying components for that," he said. "The Canadians are providing the robotic devices, which is certainly the bigger arm, and then they'll have some dexterous capability as well. One element that we are still kind of under a lot of discussion on is the airlock, and we've reached out to Roscosmos for that." These elements will probably be delivered and installed at the Gateway sometime during the second half of the 2020s, depending on international partner funding, development snags, and the readiness of the Gateway itself. Source: NASA planning to launch an integrated Lunar Gateway in 2023 (Ars Technica)
  18. NASA will pay a staggering $146 million for each SLS rocket engine The rocket needs four engines and it is expendable. Enlarge / SLS Liquid Hydrogen Tank test article is moved onto the Pegasus barge. NASA 225 with 135 posters participating, including story author Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered. So how come no one has taken the Space Launch System rocket behind the woodshed yet? We'll answer that question in a moment. First, some news: On Friday, the space agency announced that it had awarded a contract to Aerojet Rocketdyne to build 18 additional space shuttle main engines for the Space Launch System rocket. The contract is valued at $1.79 billion—so $100 million per engine. However, this is not the true price of these engines. NASA has previously given more than $1 billion to Aerojet to "restart" production of the space shuttle era engines and a contract for six new ones. So, according to the space agency, NASA has spent $3.5 billion for a total of 24 rocket engines. That comes to $146 million per engine. (Or 780,000 bars of Gold-Pressed Latinum, as this is a deal only the Ferengi could love.) The NASA news release says that Aerojet has "implemented a plan to reduce the cost of the engines by as much as 30 percent," noting the use of more advanced manufacturing techniques. These "savings," however, are difficult to square with reality. It is true that the shuttle main engine, or RS-25, is the Ferrari of rocket engines. NASA designed these brilliant engines in the 1970s for the space shuttle program, during which they each flew multiple launches. A total of 46 engines were built for the shuttle at an estimated cost of $40 million per engine. But now these formerly reusable engines will be flown a single time on the SLS rocket and then dropped into the ocean. There are four engines on a Space Launch System rocket. At this price, the engines for an SLS rocket, alone, will cost more than $580 million. This does not include the costs of fabricating the rocket's large core stage, towering solid-rocket boosters, an upper stage, or the costs of test, transportation, storage, and integration. With engine prices like these, it seems reasonable to assume that the cost of a single SLS launch will remain $2 billion into perpetuity. Just to summarize that for you: NASA is spending at least three times more for an engine that was previously built for reuse, but now is expendable. And in the news release, Aerojet brags about reducing the price of these engines. There are a lot of things one could buy in the aerospace industry for $146 million. One might, for example, buy at least six RD-180 engines from Russia. These engines have more than twice the thrust of a space shuttle main engine. Or, one might go to United Launch Alliance's Rocket Builder website and purchase two basic Atlas V rocket launches. You could buy three "flight-proven" Falcon 9 launches. One might even buy a Falcon Heavy launch, which has two-thirds the lift capacity of the Space Launch System at one-twentieth the price, and you'd still have enough money left over to buy several hundred actual Ferrari sports cars. Or, again, you could buy a single, expendable rocket engine. Speaking of engines, SpaceX is building the Raptor rocket engine to power its Super Heavy rocket and Starship upper stage. The Raptor has slightly more power at sea level than the RS-25, and is designed for dozens of uses. According to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, it costs less than $1 million to build a Raptor engine. The company has already built a couple dozen of them on its own dime. So there's that. Anyway, the original question concerned why the SLS rocket has not been canceled. You didn't need to read this article to find the answer—it's right there on NASA's website: "Men and women in all 50 states are hard at work building NASA's Deep Space Exploration Systems to support missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond." Source: NASA will pay a staggering $146 million for each SLS rocket engine (Ars Technica)
  19. NASA is counting on a lot of unproven rockets for its Artemis plan Notably, the space agency seems to have taken an upgraded SLS off the table. Enlarge / It's still not clear how NASA will get its lunar lander to the Moon. NASA 87 with 35 posters participating On Thursday, NASA announced awards to begin final design and initial development of landers to carry humans down to the Moon—a big step for the Artemis Program. Building these landers to reach the lunar surface by 2024 is a big challenge, as it leaves a little more than four years to design, build, test, and fly these complex vehicles. After all, it took Grumman more than six years to build the Lunar Module in the 1960s, and the company had done some preparatory work before NASA issued its first contracts. But assuming at least one of the three lander concepts is ready to go by 2024—Blue Origin's Blue Moon lander, Dynetics' landing system, or SpaceX's Starship—there remains the question of how to get it to the Moon. NASA has not settled upon a final architecture for the Artemis III mission to land on the Moon in 2024, and a choice of four rockets remains. It is noteworthy that none of these rockets has yet taken flight. In fact, for its human program, NASA has eschewed the most powerful rocket currently in existence, the Falcon Heavy, as well as the Delta IV Heavy booster, which already has launched NASA's deep-space Orion spacecraft to an altitude of 5,800km. Instead, the space agency is counting on at least two new rockets to complete development and make successful test flights before the Moon missions. That certainly seems possible, but far from guaranteed. After all, the commonly cited space-is-hard cliché also happens to be true. Here's a look at the rockets NASA proposes to use, and their status. Vulcan-Centaur Earliest possible launch date: Spring 2021 Potentially used to lift Dynetics lander or elements of Blue Moon lander Initial capacity of 13 tons to lunar orbit Developed by United Launch Alliance with funding from the US Air Force, Vulcan-Centaur will probably fly first among the four rockets on this list. The company is already producing flight hardware. The biggest question concerns the rocket's BE-4 engine, developed by Blue Origin but not yet proven in flight. However, given United Launch Alliance's historical record for mission success, it seems likely that Vulcan-Centaur will enter service ready to go. And if the rocket does begin flying in 2021, or even 2022, it should have plenty of experience by 2024. Enlarge / Artist's rendering of a Vulcan-Centaur rocket launch. United Launch Alliance In a configuration with six side-mounted boosters and a Centaur upper stage with two engines instead of one, the company plans an initial capacity of 13 metric tons to lunar orbit. Additionally, there will be a "growth path" to support higher future requirements, and the company plans to have this more powerful configuration of Vulcan certified for Artemis missions by 2024. Both Blue Origin and Dynetics have negotiated with United Launch Alliance, the rocket company's chief executive, Tory Bruno, confirmed on Thursday. One source told Ars that the Dynetics lander is base-lined to fly on Vulcan-Centaur. Space Launch System Earliest possible launch date: Late 2021 Used for Orion, potentially Blue Moon and Dynetics landers Capacity of 26 tons to lunar orbit NASA's large SLS rocket will be capable of delivering 26 tons to low-Earth orbit—more than any rocket on this list other than SpaceX's Super Heavy booster. At the direction of Congress, NASA has spent nearly a decade and $20 billion to develop this rocket, but it is not yet ready for flight. There are several potential uses for NASA's large SLS rocket. If NASA chooses the Blue Origin or Dynetics landers for the Artemis III mission, then four astronauts will launch in Orion, stacked on top of the SLS rocket, for a trip to high-lunar orbit. There, they will rendezvous with the lander and go down to the surface. The SLS might also be used to launch the "integrated" Blue Origin lander, which consists of three elements that when combined are too heavy for any commercial rocket. First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all 8 images. The SLS booster is slated to make its first flight during the second half of 2021. However, there are several reasons to be skeptical about this date. Earlier this year, NASA moved the big rocket's core stage to a test site at Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi. Before the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily halted work, NASA and Boeing teams were working toward a critical summer exercise. During this "green run" test, the clamped-down rocket will ignite its engines and burn for about eight minutes to simulate an ascent into orbit. But those centers have been closed for more than a month and are not expected to reopen imminently. There are also no guarantees that the SLS rocket will pass this test, as Boeing and NASA engineers have concerns about fuel leaks. A 2022 test flight seems more likely. It is noteworthy that NASA has taken an upgraded version of the Space Launch System, dubbed Block 1B, off the critical path for Artemis. Some people, including former NASA official and Boeing lobbyist Doug Cooke, had been pushing a plan where both astronauts and the lunar lander launched on this version of the SLS that used an as-yet undeveloped Exploration Upper Stage. "We're going to continue to develop the Exploration Upper Stage as the appropriations have already been let, and we're doing what is required by law," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an interview. "I think it's also fair to say that we're not accelerating it in order to achieve the end state." New Glenn Earliest possible launch date: Late 2021 Potentially used to launch elements of Blue Moon lander Capacity of 10 or 11 tons to lunar orbit Blue Origin, which has largely self-funded New Glenn, has not specified a lift capacity to lunar orbit, but a reasonable estimate is that the rocket will have slightly less capacity than Vulcan. The company has proposed using New Glenn to separately launch elements of its lander—the ascent, descent, and transfer stages—for integration in lunar orbit. It's not clear when the large reusable rocket will launch. Blue Origin is holding to a 2021 launch date, but this seems likely to slip into 2022. Why? Because we have yet to see any real hardware tests beyond the BE-4 engine, which will also power the first stage of this rocket in addition to Vulcan. Blue Origin has done a fine job of building facilities—a huge production building in Florida, a launch site at Cape Canaveral, and an engine factory in Alabama. But integrating and testing New Glenn is going to be difficult. Enlarge / Blue Origin's concept art for a New Glenn rocket launch ascending to orbit. Blue Origin Blue Origin has hired some of the best people in the industry, but the reality is that the company has not launched anything into orbit yet. Going from the small but capable suborbital New Shepard rocket to the massive New Glenn vehicle is a bit like skipping from a Go-kart to a semi-trailer. New Shepard has 110,000 pounds of thrust; New Glenn has 3.85 million—35 times more power. However, when New Glenn gets flying, it would prove useful for Artemis because it is intended to have a fully reusable first stage. This means the rocket would likely cost less than the first two boosters on this list. Super Heavy Earliest possible launch date: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Used to launch Starship Capacity of ~40 tons to lunar orbit SpaceX's self-funded Super Heavy booster will be fully reusable and the most capable rocket on this list, and it really will not be close. The rocket, with 37 Raptor engines, will boost Starship into low-Earth orbit and then return to Earth. Starship would then use its own propulsion to get to the Moon. Among the killer applications of this launch system—if it can be made to work—is that Starship is designed to be refueled in low-Earth orbit by multiple Super Heavy launches. Using this approach, a single Starship might one day be capable of delivering 100 or even 150 tons to the lunar surface. That is an order of magnitude above any other launch system on this list. First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all 9+ images. So far SpaceX has focused its development efforts on Starship, as founder and chief engineer Elon Musk believes building this fully reusable upper stage is the more difficult engineering challenge. In an interview with Ars earlier this year, Musk explained the company's approach to Super Heavy: “If we’re making tanks for the ship, the booster’s just a longer tank with more engines on the base and no heat shielding,” Musk said. “We’ll bring it back and land it just like the Falcon 9. We’ll make the booster using the same domes and cylinder sections that we do for the ship. If you build a ship line, you’re kind of building the booster line anyway. The only thing that really changes is the aft dome where you’re transferring thrust load into the booster. You’ve got like 31 engines, potentially 37—that thrust dome obviously has to be unique, relative to the rest of the vehicle. It would use the same, or similar legs, as the ship. It’s less complicated in that it doesn’t need any heat shielding, but more complicated on the engine side.” Given SpaceX's frenetic schedule, Super Heavy could be ready to fly as early as 2021, but if Starship development problems persist, it could take a few years more. The new funding from NASA for its lunar lander program, however, seems likely to help SpaceX bring Super Heavy to fruition at its factory in South Texas. Source: NASA is counting on a lot of unproven rockets for its Artemis plan (Ars Technica) (To view the article's image galleries, please visit the above link)
  20. NASA awards lunar lander contracts to Blue Origin, Dynetics—and Starship “Between the three contractors, I think NASA has everything it needs to be successful.” First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all 4 images. NASA announced Thursday that it has awarded three contracts to begin initial development of lunar landing systems that will take astronauts down to the surface of the Moon in less than five years. With these Human Landing System awards, space agency officials reiterated in an interview that they remain committed to landing a pair of astronauts on the Moon by 2024 and building a sustainable presence by 2028. Asked if 2024 was still "on the table" despite the COVID-19 pandemic and myriad other challenges with such an aggressive timeline, NASA's chief of human spaceflight, Doug Loverro, replied, "It's not only on the table, it is the table." The awards are notable both for their diversity and NASA's apparent willingness to take a chance on SpaceX and its out-of-the-box concept with its ambitious Starship system. "Between the three contractors I think NASA has everything it needs to be successful for the 2024 landing, and not just that, we have what is necessary for a sustainable lunar presence by 2028," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told Ars. "We’re thrilled. Each one of these contractors brings not just unique designs, they’re bringing unique histories and unique philosophies toward development. All of that makes NASA better." Three contracts The awards, which cover a period of 10 months, were given to the following teams: $579 million to the Blue Origin-led "National Team." Blue Origin will serve as the prime contractor, building the Blue Moon lunar lander as the "descent element" of the system, along with program management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance. Lockheed Martin will develop a reusable "ascent element" and lead crewed flight operations. Northrop Grumman will build the "transfer element," and Draper will lead descent guidance and provide flight avionics. It will launch on a New Glenn rocket. $253 million to a Dynetics-led team. The company's proposal for a lunar lander is non-traditional and includes Sierra Nevada Corporation as a major partner. The ALPACA lander has a pair of drop tanks that are launched separately, which allow the main lander to be reused. These tanks are depleted and then jettisoned during descent. ALPACA could be launched on United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rocket. $135 million to SpaceX. The company bid its Super Heavy rocket and Starship to carry humans to the Moon. The benefit of Starship is that if the vehicle is successful, it would offer NASA a low-cost, reusable solution for its needs. The fourth known bidder for a Human Landing System contract was Boeing, which partnered with Houston-based Intuitive Machines. Boeing, which is already contracted with NASA to build the core stage of the Space Launch System rocket and the booster's Exploration Upper Stage, did not receive an award. Bridenstine said the individual award amounts do not reflect a ranking or preference on the space agency's behalf. Rather, he said, the awards are based upon the amounts requested by each of the three teams and the scope of work they proposed to complete over the next 10 months. "Some people might look at the dollar amounts and think we’re playing favorites," he said. "And we’re really, really not." Two-pronged approach NASA has not actually selected a final architecture for its first human landing mission of the Artemis Program. Both Bridenstine and Loverro said a final decision for this Artemis III mission architecture, scheduled for 2024, will not be made until near or at the end of the initial 10-month lunar lander contract phase. "We’re keeping that part open right now as we see how these designs mature and evolve as we start to work with the contractors," Loverro said. Over the remainder of this year, NASA will assess the technical readiness of the various approaches to deliver both a lander to lunar orbit and the lander technology itself. Loverro reiterated his preference for building, or integrating, the lander on the ground and launching it in one combined system. "Clearly, that is one of the trades that we will go through," Loverro said. "I do view it as far less risky to go ahead and integrate things on the ground. It’s fewer launches. It’s fewer independent propulsion systems and power systems. So certainly there’s a huge advantage to doing that. But it comes with the limitations on how you could possibly launch it, and all of the other kind of things." NASA is taking a two-pronged approach toward the Artemis program. The agency has a clear mandate from the White House to land humans on the Moon by 2024. This has been criticized by some as a "political" date, but supporters of the fast timeline say it has injected needed urgency into the program. At the same time, NASA also wants to avoid the pitfalls of the Apollo Program—which flew six missions to the Moon and then ended due to high costs—by designing Artemis to be sustainable for the long term. At the end of the initial 10-month contract, NASA may or may not down-select from three to two lander designs. Bridenstine said that calculation will be decided by funding and which designs allow NASA to go both "fast" and "sustainably." He also has encouraged companies to work with engineers at NASA centers, including those without human spaceflight expertise such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, to mature their designs this year. What the agency is trying to do with these awards is unprecedented, both in terms of breaking the traditional aerospace mold and in going fast. By way of comparison, Grumman’s contract to build the Lunar Module for the Apollo Program was finalized in March 1963 at $387.9 million. The first crewed Lunar Module flew six years later in March 1969 on Apollo 9. The Apollo 11 landing took place in July 1969. The Grumman contract was worth $3.2 billion in present-day dollars. About Starship NASA's award for Starship will likely surprise many in the aerospace community who have viewed the ambitious project with some skepticism (SpaceX's founder eventually plans to build hundreds of Starships to settle Mars). But Bridenstine said NASA could not afford to ignore the potential of this system. "SpaceX is really good at flying and testing—and failing and fixing," he said. "People are going to look at this and say, 'My goodness, we just saw Starship blow up again. Why are you giving them a contract?' The answer is because SpaceX is really good at iteratively testing and fixing. This is not new to them. They have a design here that, if successful, is going to be transformational. It’s going to drive down costs and it’s going to increase access, and it’s going to enable commercial activities that historically we’ve only dreamed about. I fully believe that Elon Musk is going to be successful. He is focused like a laser on these activities." Bridenstine also praised Blue Origin and its founder Jeff Bezos for investing billions of dollars into hardware development that has given the company a head start on its Blue Moon lander. And while Dynetics may not be a household name in aerospace, Bridenstine said the company has quietly worked with NASA for decades and brings "an immense amount of history and capability to the table." Listing image by NASA Source: NASA awards lunar lander contracts to Blue Origin, Dynetics—and Starship (Ars Technica) (To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)
  21. Here are 10 alternative ideas for what NASA could do with its Moon budget For this kind of money in space, there's a universe of things we might do instead. Enlarge / Lake Bosumtwi, located in Ghana, is situated inside a meteorite impact crater. Perhaps we should protect ourselves? (Photo by USGS/ NASA Landsat/Orbital Horizon/Gallo Images/Getty Images) USGS/ NASA Landsat/Orbital Horizon/Gallo Images/Getty Images 129 with 73 posters participating One year ago, NASA embarked upon a journey to send humans back to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Program. At the direction of the White House, NASA seeks to land astronauts at the South Pole of the Moon by 2024. Only recently, in February, did the space agency put a price on this Artemis Moon plan—$35 billion over the next five years above its existing budget. Since then, of course, the world has turned upside down. In the weeks after NASA released this cost estimate, the threat posed by COVID-19 has swamped space budget debates or policy concerns. Moreover, most of the space agency's major hardware development programs for the Moon landing are temporarily shuttered. And truth be told, no one knows what kind of economy or federal budget will emerge on the other side of this pandemic. So during this pause in government spaceflight activity perhaps it is worth asking, is the Moon worth it? Certainly for much of the human spaceflight community, the Moon is the next logical step. It offers a nearby place to test our ability to fly humans beyond low-Earth orbit and the next frontier for human economic activity in space. On the other hand, $35 billion over five years is a lot of money. Instead of accelerating a human landing on the Moon by a few years—and there is no guarantee that Artemis will succeed—NASA could accomplish other interesting and useful things. To help find out just what we might do in space instead, I reached out to followers on Twitter and received hundreds of suggestions. From this, I broke these myriad proposals into 10 different "big ideas" that represent alternative approaches to exploration from NASA's mostly traditional Artemis Program. Under each category, for additional context, I've included links to individual suggestions that fall broadly into that area for additional context. Find asteroids, then deflect or mine them In survey after survey, protecting planet Earth from killer asteroids consistently ranks highest among public priorities for NASA. However, in recent years NASA has spent less than 1 percent of its budget tracking and characterizing hazardous objects in space, or about $150 million a year. Recently, the space agency proposed building a $600 million space-based NEO-Surveillance Mission to detect 65 percent of the undiscovered asteroids 140 meters or larger near Earth within five years, and 90 percent of them within 10 years. With more funding, NASA could build a second space-based telescope and supplement it with ground-based observatories. At the same time, the space agency could also do more missions like its Double Asteroid Redirection Test to study the deflection of potentially threatening asteroids. Finding and deflecting hazardous asteroids for the next century would cost substantially less than $35 billion. With the extra money, NASA could fund more missions to see about extracting rare metals and other precious commodities from them, which it is already doing in a limited fashion with the OSIRIS-REx, Psyche, and Lucy planetary science missions. The rare metals on asteroids are valued in the trillions of dollars. By better characterizing asteroids and conducting missions to test working on them, NASA could lay the groundwork for commercial development of asteroids and for building off-world mining industries. In doing so, the space agency could save Earth from strip mining and other activities harmful to the environment—in addition to averting a globally catastrophic impact. (suggested by Gabriel Arisi, Bryan Veersteg, What About It?!, Kurt, Kevin DuPriest, Maurice Brown, jules) Explore the Solar System In recent decades, NASA has arguably gotten the biggest bang for its buck from a succession of planetary missions that have explored all of the planets in the Solar System and many of their Moons. Thanks to the Voyagers, Galileo, Cassini, New Horizons, half a dozen landers on Mars, and a fleet of other spacecraft, we have learned so much about the worlds around us. Perhaps, then, NASA should double-down on these efforts to answer fundamental questions, such as whether life exists elsewhere in our Solar System today or whether it ever did in the past. With $35 billion, NASA could launch flagship missions to the planets Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, and Venus, as well as intriguing moons in the outer Solar System, such as Triton, Titan, Enceladus, Europa, and more. First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all 9+ images. Alternatively, planetary scientist Doug Ellison suggested NASA could fund the dozens of Discovery- and New Frontiers-class missions that made it past the first round of competition but were ultimately not funded for flight due to limited resources. Even doing this, NASA would still have about $20 billion left over. The bottom line is that instead of sending a few humans to the surface of the Moon, NASA could provide a comprehensive picture of our Solar System through the use of robotic explorers over the next two decades. (submitted by Amanda Tess, Doug Ellison, Mario Billiani, Matthieu Prigent, Tiktaalik, Enrique, David Koelle, Mapperwocky, Alex Pertuz, John Christoph, Samuel Benjamin) Enlarge / Artist's impression depicting a wide variety of existing and future satellites for communication, surveying Earth resources, and mapping them, circa 1978. Space Frontiers/Getty Images Clean up our big mess Given the thousands of satellites already in low-Earth and geostationary orbits, plus tens of thousands more coming from satellite Internet mega-constellations, perhaps NASA should focus on keeping the near-Earth environment safe for all. A near miss of two satellites above Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the end of January—approaching one another with a relative velocity of 15km/s—reinforced the importance of this task. According to Charity Weeden, vice president at a company called Astroscale that is working to remove orbital debris, about 26,000 pieces of trackable debris orbit the planet. Unfortunately, most of this debris is concentrated in orbits used today. There are many more pieces of smaller debris that cannot be tracked. Even something as small as a few millimeters could nick a satellite's fuel tank and lead to a major catastrophe, she said. Weeden and other orbital debris experts think there are about 500,000 blueberry-sized pieces of debris in orbit around Earth and more than 100 million pieces on the order of a few millimeters. "Here we are in 2020 and we’re going to double the active satellite population this year," she said. "It’s kind of exciting. But we're still using the same rules and we’re not really ready for that reality." No US agency has taken responsibility for clearing space debris, but it's something that will become increasingly important with more and more satellites on the way. NASA could take this on as one of its primary jobs, both through support of global commercial infrastructure to track satellites and debris, as well as supporting contracts to develop removal technologies and actually funding those missions. Investing $35 billion now would ensure a prosperous future in space. (suggested by Chris Taylor, Stephen Bates, Alistair Funge, Starfest 2020, Gabriel Ciociola, defecon 3, Shelby Steiner) Prizes for affordable exploration One way to nudge industry toward a preferred outcome is by offering prizes—for example, the privately offered Ansari XPrize helped to launch the new space industry. Prizes can cost considerably less while still encouraging new ideas from new contractors.The downside, as recently seen in the DARPA Launch Challenge, is that there is no guarantee of success. For the money offered, no companies may succeed, or even try. A series of prizes might be useful in stimulating the development of truly sustainable spaceflight. Readers had various suggestions about how to encourage industry to develop technologies such as in-space refueling, reusable landers, on-orbit construction, and more. All of these tools could underlie a future of more affordable spaceflight. Rocket scientist Jeff Greason offered a specific series of prizes for a sustainability starter kit: $1 billion award fee for co-orbiting private space station near the International Space Station $1 billion a year to fly people and cargo to it $1 billion to add a third commercial crew provider (in addition to SpaceX and Boeing) $8 billion ($6 billion first prize, $2 billion second prize) for US boots on the Moon for 28 days or longer $2 billion to demonstrate capability to push 50 tons from low-Earth orbit using existing boosters $2 billion to demonstrate assembly of space object with three times the diameter of a rocket payload fairing $2 billion for development of a cislunar propellant depot, and then $2 billion a year to purchase propellant in cislunar space from lowest-cost provider All of these capabilities are within the reach of US aerospace companies. And prizes might be the incentive they need to bring them to fruition. (suggested by Jeff Greason, Ben Pearson, EldenC, Andrew Cantino, anonyx, Michael Mealling, Dream Chaser, Andre Infante, Joel Martin) In-space nuclear propulsion Instead of focusing on launch technology with the expensive Space Launch System, which private sector companies such as SpaceX and United Launch Alliance appear capable of, a number of readers suggested the space agency focus on really hard, novel tasks such as in-space nuclear propulsion. NASA maintained a nuclear thermal propulsion program into the 1970s, when it was shut down to help pay for the space shuttle program. In recent years, Congress provided some limited funding to develop a nuclear rocket ($125 million in 2019), but developing and deploying this technology will require billions, not millions of dollars. The basic concept is fairly simple: a fission reactor heats up propellants such as hydrogen to accelerate them through a nozzle. Nuclear thermal propulsion would require substantially less fuel than chemical rockets, and therefore it could theoretically cut down the travel time from Earth to Mars from six months to less than three. Beyond the technical challenge of developing and testing nuclear engines in space, there are a host of regulatory and intergovernmental issues to be worked out as well. For this reason, only a large government agency like NASA could really make a technology like this work. But if the agency is serious about sending humans to Mars and elsewhere in the Solar System, it would seem that faster in-space propulsion would be a good place to start. (suggested by John M. Aldrich, Spiritual Advisor, Andrei K, Axe, WWBYD) Enlarge / Aerodynamic strakes are shown wiggling. Blue Origin Support commercial space NASA has spent the lion's share of its exploration funds over the last decade on cost-plus contracts awarded to traditional aerospace contractors. They have been used to (slowly) build the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System rocket, and seemingly unending ground support projects at Kennedy Space Center. Given that NASA will continue to support these projects with billions of dollars a year regardless of Artemis, one option might be to invest $35 billion in commercial space companies with purely fixed price contracts that tend to move faster. For example, NASA might pre-buy a series of five or more launches on Blue Origin's New Glenn and SpaceX's Starship rockets. (The space agency already did this on a very small scale with the Venture Class Launch Service program for small satellite launch rockets.) NASA could also work with industry in a purely commercial way by providing fixed-price contracts for services, such as United Launch Alliance and its ACES upper stage to demonstrate on-orbit refueling, a cornerstone technology to making spaceflight affordable. There are many ways NASA could go about this, but the basic goal remains the same: invest in cost-effective technologies that drive down the price of reaching space and moving to destinations. This would require a big step away from the Apollo model of exploration NASA has followed for the better part of half a century. But if we are to transition away from a few highly trained astronauts working in space to making it a place for widespread human activity, then change is required. And clearly a lot of space fans are frustrated with the status quo of slow, cost-plus contracts. (suggested by To The Stars, TruckTesla, KenKirtland, AlexandreNajjar, PH, Rick Strickland, Luis, Mack Crawford, Adam Hugo, Fred Kleindenst, Cory de Luna, David Holtkamp, Dale Arney, Paul) Understand Earth, address climate change NASA maintains several satellites in orbit to study the Earth's climate system, but some of this infrastructure is aging or fails to take advantage of new technologies. Yet the public consistently rates monitoring Earth's climate system among NASA's highest priorities. Several readers advocated building a more robust climate monitoring system to better inform the public about how the world is changing and to better inform policymakers about how to address climate change. This would be substantial money, as $35 billion is 10 times the NASA 2020-2027 budget for future Earth science missions. We could answer really important questions about aerosols, clouds, and precipitation faster and with smaller error bars. Only a fraction of those missions would be related to climate change, as there are enormous co-benefits for water planners, disaster monitors, insurers, traders, storm preparers, weather forecasters, and more. Leaning into these questions with $35 billion would be quite literally Earth-changing. (suggested by Andrew Dessler, A Siegel, Mark Thornton) Fund big astronomy In the 1990s and 2000s, NASA led development of four "great observatories" that have changed our understanding of the universe—the Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer Space Telescope, Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. Enlarge / The new great observatories. greatobservatories.org At present, NASA is considering different proposals for four different in-space observatories that would take the next step, be it in definitively funding habitable exoplanets or ultra-powerful X-ray observatories. The present goal is to launch a single one of these multibillion dollar, highly ambitious projects by the mid-2030s. With $35 billion, NASA could simply move forward with all of them at once. Instead of going back to the Moon, NASA could quite literally explore the entirety of the universe. (suggested by Grant Tremblay, Dr Heidi B. Hammel, Chris Marshall, Michael Mealling, Donald Spines) Starship to Mars A lot of respondents thought NASA should bet on SpaceX as a back-up to the agency's current exploration efforts. In a recent conversation with Ars, SpaceX founder Elon Musk outlined his plan for building a fleet of reusable Starships to settle Mars with humans. This offers a radically different vision from the exploration plans NASA has contemplated. After returning to the Moon, in the 2030s, NASA envisions sending a crew of four to six astronauts to the surface of Mars for a short stay before a return to Earth. By contrast, SpaceX quite literally wants to send thousands of people to Mars to settle the Red Planet. So instead of spending $35 billion to fund a traditional exploration effort to the Moon, which may fail, why not fund a non-traditional plan to send a multitude of humans to Mars, which also may fail? First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all 9+ images. SpaceX has a lot of expertise when it comes to building rockets, but if it is to realize Musk's dreams of Mars, the company will probably need a lot of help from engineers and NASA. And the space agency is well prepared to help. For decades, scientists, engineers, and mission planners at NASA have been studying and building technologies needed to keep humans alive for a long time in microgravity and on the Red Planet's surface. Isn't it about time to test them out for real? A lot of readers think so. (suggested by Dennis Nyrkov, Space Colonize, Rome Strach, Angella King, Daniel Camero, Brad Fox, Phil D, Stan, Jeanne Yzelle, Joachim Voldseth, Ian Anderson) Space Elevator Long a dream of engineers, a space elevator remains almost entirely a theoretical proposition. But given the steep cost of launching stuff into space—still nearly $20,000 per kilogram, although the price is dropping—the prospect of a space elevator lifting material to orbit for $100 per kilogram sounds mighty attractive. The basic concept of a space elevator is seductively simple. A (very long) cable or tether would stretch from a base on the ground to a counterweight in geostationary orbit. Stops could be built along the way, such as low-Earth orbit, as a large car climbs up and down the cable. Finding the right material for the cable is among the many engineering challenges. At present, entrepreneurs and other nations are at least investigating the feasibility of this. And a space elevator is on China's long-term roadmap for space exploration, beginning in 2045. Costs are unknown but likely to fall in the range of tens of billions of dollars, at least. It would be an engineering challenge worthy of a space agency with the right stuff, to be sure. (suggested by blinkenjim, Michael Mosser) Alien contact, of a sort Finally, we have author and writer Chris Jones to thank for one final suggestion: "Two aliens at the same time." Source: Here are 10 alternative ideas for what NASA could do with its Moon budget (Ars Technica) (To view the article's image galleries, please visit the above link)
  22. NASA brings back its iconic “worm” logo to mark return of human spaceflight NASA administrator says he is a “huge fan” of the worm. Enlarge / This is the Falcon 9 rocket that will launch the Crew Dragon spacecraft, with NASA astronauts aboard. NASA 55 with 43 posters participating NASA originally planned to announce that it was bringing its iconic "worm" logo back on Wednesday, but the agency was afraid people would take it as an April Fools' Day joke. Happily, it most certainly is not. The worm has returned, and that's no joke. The space agency said the retro-looking logo will be stamped on the side of the Falcon 9 rocket that will carry astronauts to the International Space Station as part of SpaceX's Demo-2 flight, presently scheduled for mid to late May. NASA says there’s a good chance you’ll see the logo featured in other missions, too. The change was driven by the space agency's administrator, Jim Bridenstine, who told Ars he is a "huge fan" of the worm symbol. "I thought marking the achievement of returning human spaceflight to American soil by bringing back the worm would be a fitting tribute to a historic achievement," he said. "I’m very appreciative of the partnership with SpaceX and their willingness to work overtime to make this happen." NASA has only ever had two logos. There is the original "meatball," which was designed by an employee named James Modarelli in the space agency's second year, 1959. The iconic logo's round shape represents a planet, the stars represent space, the red v-shaped wing represents aeronautics, and circular orbit around NASA represents space travel. First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all 3 images. In 1976, as the agency sought to move beyond Apollo into the "modern" era with its nascent space shuttle, it created a new logo with NASA spelled out in a unique type style. With this update, NASA sought to express a "feeling of unity, technological precision, thrust and orientation toward the future." However, this "worm" logo was nevertheless retired in 1992, as NASA reverted to the meatball under the leadership of then-administrator Dan Goldin. Now, apparently, the space agency will use both logos going forward. NASA will continue to employ the meatball as its primary symbol, but the agency says it is assessing how and where the worm will be used. Source: NASA brings back its iconic “worm” logo to mark return of human spaceflight (Ars Technica) (To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)
  23. NASA spent a decade and nearly $1 billion for a single launch tower "NASA exacerbated these issues by accepting unproven and untested designs." Enlarge / A long-exposure view of the mobile launcher at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA 151 with 66 posters participating A new report published Tuesday by NASA's inspector general looks into the development of a mobile launch tower for the agency's Space Launch System rocket. The analysis finds that the total cost of constructing and modifying the structure, known as Mobile Launcher-1, is "at least" $927 million. This includes the original $234 million development cost to build the tower to support the Ares I rocket. After this rocket was canceled in 2010, NASA then spent an additional $693 million to redesign and modify the structure for the SLS rocket. Notably, NASA's original estimate for modifying the launch tower was just $54 million, according to the report by Inspector General Paul Martin. Mobile Launcher-1 supports the 355-foot-tall SLS rocket, provides access to the Orion spacecraft, and provides power, communications, coolant, and fuel to the rocket. So why did it cost so much to modify the mobile launcher? The report places a lot of the blame on a cost-plus contract with a company named Vencore, which provided designs for ground support equipment. The company's contract started in March 2011, and NASA chose to not exercise Vencore’s final contract year option in 2017 due to the company's overall performance. NASA not blameless But the space agency is not blameless. "NASA exacerbated these issues by accepting unproven and untested designs from Vencore in order to advance the construction and fabrication contracts," the report states. "Agency personnel stated that at times they knew the subsystem designs were not complete or needed more testing but advanced them because the project schedule required it so fabrication and construction activities could continue." Ultimately, by accepting these unfinished designs, NASA experienced significant delays and costly rework for Mobile Launcher-1 project, which in turn created further delays and cost overruns. Enlarge / A schematic of Mobile Launcher-1. NASA OIG Moreover, NASA did not use contractual mechanisms to punish Vencore for its poor performance. According to the inspector general, employees at Kennedy Space Center who rated Vencore’s performance "stated that even though design work was over budget and behind schedule they believed the contractor performed well due to the obstacles they had to overcome. As a result, Vencore received 'excellent,' 'very good,' or 'good' ratings despite the ML-1 project being significantly over budget and behind schedule." NASA officials did something similar for award fees with the contract for the SLS rocket's core stage and its prime contractor Boeing. Critics have said the rocket is a make-work project for the space agency designed to maximize jobs rather than further exploration. The new report tends to support such criticism of a rocket originally planned to launch in 2017 but unlikely to fly before late 2021 at the earliest. Now NASA is working on a second Mobile Launcher to accommodate the larger, Block 1B version of the SLS rocket. Bechtel won this contract to design and build the second larger mobile launcher for $383 million by March 2023. This would be for about one-third the cost of the first mobile launcher in half the time. Past performance would suggest this is unlikely. Source: NASA spent a decade and nearly $1 billion for a single launch tower (Ars Technica)
  24. NASA declares Starliner mishap a “high visibility close call” “We could have lost a spacecraft twice during this mission.” Enlarge / A protective tent is placed over Starliner after it returned to Earth in December. NASA/Bill Ingalls 140 with 84 posters participating After pondering the totality of issues that arose during a December test flight of Boeing's Starliner spacecraft this week, NASA chief of human spaceflight Doug Loverro said Friday that he decided to escalate the incident. So he designated Starliner's uncrewed mission, during which the spacecraft flew a shortened profile and did not attempt to dock with the International Space Station, as a "high visibility close call." This relatively rare designation for NASA's human spaceflight program falls short of "loss of mission" but is nonetheless fairly rare. It was last used by NASA after a spacewalk in 2013 when water began to dangerously pool in the helmet of astronaut Luca Parmitano. Asked to explain during a conference call with reporters why he did this, Loverro said, "We could have lost a spacecraft twice during this mission." In this, Loverro referred to two software errors that occurred during the two-day flight. The first problem occurred when Starliner captured the wrong "mission elapsed time" from its Atlas V launch vehicle—it was supposed to pick up this time during the terminal phase of the countdown, but instead it grabbed data 11 hours off of the correct time. This led to a delayed push to reach orbit. The second error, caught and fixed just a few hours before the vehicle returned to Earth through the atmosphere, was due to a software mapping error that would have caused thrusters on Starliner's service module to fire in the wrong manner. NASA and Boeing officials held Friday's teleconference to announce the conclusion of a report from an Independent Review Team established after December's flight. These reviewers made 60 recommendations to NASA and Boeing for corrective actions that ranged from fixing these software issues to ferreting out others that may still exist in the spacecraft's flight code. The investigative team is also still looking into an issue that led to multiple dropouts in communications between the ground and spacecraft during key moments of the flight. Corrective action plan By declaring the Starliner mishap a "close call," Loverro also formally opened a process during which the space agency's Safety Office will investigate the organization elements that may have led to the incident—likely focusing on why NASA did not detect the errors in Starliner's flight software. Loverro said no decisions are close to being made on when Starliner will return to flight or whether Boeing will have to fly another uncrewed demonstration test flight before NASA astronauts fly on Starliner. The next step, he said, is for Boeing to prepare a "corrective action plan" to implement the review team's findings, and that will include a schedule. NASA will evaluate that plan and then it may be in a position to decide whether another test flight is needed. Boeing's Jim Chilton, vice president and general manager of Space and Launch, said the company was prepared to continue working with NASA to ensure that Starliner is safe for crew flights. And if that entails paying for an additional orbital flight test (OFT), Chilton said, "Boeing stands ready to repeat an OFT." As part of its initial review NASA has also studied whether Boeing's problems with Starliner will affect other areas of human spaceflight. So far, Loverro said, there appear to be no spillover effects on the other company working with NASA as part of the commercial crew program, SpaceX. NASA appears satisfied with that company's end-to-end software testing procedures. SpaceX is continuing preparations for a crew flight of its Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station, likely sometime in May. Source: NASA declares Starliner mishap a “high visibility close call” (Ars Technica)
  25. NASA planning document may offer clues to changes in Artemis program The plan asks a lot of Boeing. Enlarge / A video still showing a rendering of an Exploration Upper Stage in flight. NASA NASA is close to finalizing a plan to land humans on the Moon in 2024 and is expected to publicly discuss it next month. While the space agency has not released its revised strategy publicly, a recently updated "mission manifest" for the Space Launch System rocket may provide some clues about the new Artemis Program. According to a planning document circulated at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center this week, titled "Moon 2024 Mission Manifest," the space agency has set target launch dates for its first 10 Artemis Moon missions. In doing so, the agency has shaken up the order of launches and emphasized the use of NASA's Space Launch System in the lunar return. The document confirms an earlier report that the first Artemis mission to test SLS rocket will take place no earlier than April 2021. It also adds an additional Artemis mission in the run-up to the first human landing at the South Pole in late 2024: April 2021: Artemis I, Uncrewed test flight of Orion on Block 1 of SLS January 2023: Artemis II, Crewed flight of Orion around Moon on Block 1 of SLS August 2024: Artemis III, Integrated lunar lander launched to Moon on Block 1B of SLS October 2024: Artemis IV, Crewed flight of Orion for human Moon landing on Block 1 of SLS September 2025: Science mission, Launch of Europa Clipper on Block 1 of SLS June 2026: Artemis V, Crewed flight of Orion to Moon on Block 1B of SLS June 2027: Science mission, Launch of Europa Lander on Block 1B of SLS August 2028: Artemis VI, Crewed flight of Orion to Moon on Block 1B of SLS February 2029: Artemis VII, Cargo mission to Moon on Block 2 of SLS August 2029: Artemis VIII, Crewed mission of Orion on Block 2 of SLS February 2030: Artemis IX, Cargo mission on Block 2 of SLS August 2030: Artemis X, Crew mission on Block 2 of SLS NASA said Thursday evening this mission manifest does not accurately reflect its Artemis plans. "The proposed timeline in this article has many inaccuracies," said Matthew Rydin, press secretary for NASA. "We are currently in a blackout period because multiple companies have proposed human lunar lander solutions. These selections will be made in the coming weeks. However, the plan represented in this article is not the NASA plan." But based upon the document obtained by Ars and recent internal briefings by NASA Associate Administrator Doug Loverro, it does seem increasingly clear that NASA is moving away from its original Artemis plan, which involved the use of multiple rockets and assembly of a Human Landing System in orbit around the Moon. Loverro shakes things up After arriving at NASA in late 2019 as the agency's new chief of human spaceflight, Loverro kicked off an assessment of the Artemis Program. As constituted at the time, NASA's plan called for using a mix of commercial rockets to pre-position components of a human lander near the Moon at the "Lunar Gateway." Four astronauts would then launch on the SLS rocket to rendezvous at the Gateway; two would descend to the surface of the Moon in the lander, and two would remain in orbit. For this assessment, about 60 people at the agency and from industry sought to determine the status of the program as it was currently structured. After the analysis, Loverro told staffers at NASA he had "concerns" about whether the existing plan would work. In particular, during internal briefings, Loverro expressed doubts about the remote assembly of elements of the lunar lander at the Gateway. He also wanted NASA engineers to make sure the Orion spacecraft, with crew on board, could dock to the lander without the Gateway. The potential revision of this plan, which may entail the launch of an entire lunar lander on an upgraded version of the SLS rocket, is notable for several reasons. Perhaps most significantly, it would place primary responsibility for NASA's Moon program on the shoulders of Boeing. That company is building the core stage of the SLS rocket, as well as an upgraded upper stage—the Exploration Upper Stage—that would now be required for use by August 2024 on the Block 1B version of the SLS. In fact, it would be required to accelerate development of the beefier SLS rocket. "Due to the increases in number of flights and configurations, and the need for (Block 1B) one year earlier, much of the analysis work must be performed in parallel, rather than phased in series," the Marshall Space Flight Center document notes. Marshall, located in northern Alabama, oversees development of the SLS rocket. Boeing on the critical path In addition to this, such a plan would necessitate building an extra SLS core stage before fall 2024–four instead of three. This appears to be a change of heart by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, who until now has said Boeing will have its hands full completing three core stages by that time. A reliance on Boeing would come as the contractor is already struggling with both the SLS rocket and its Starliner spacecraft for NASA. Largely due to issues with the core stage, the SLS rocket will be delayed at least four years beyond its original launch date of December 2016, with billions of dollars in overruns. NASA's inspector general has characterized Boeing's execution on the SLS program as "poor." Moreover, Boeing's Starliner crew spacecraft had several significant software issues during its first flight in December 2019 and was unable to fly up to the International Space Station. The new plan, if implemented, would substantially cut commercially developed rockets—such as SpaceX's Falcon Heavy and Blue Origin's New Glenn—back from the Artemis program. Previously, NASA had said it would launch elements of its Human Landing System on commercial rockets, because such vehicles cost much less than the estimated $2 billion rate per launch of the SLS vehicle. Now, perhaps, private rockets may be called upon to launch smaller pieces such as a lunar rover to the Moon's surface. Lunar lander The Marshall document does not specify the components of the Human Landing System that will be launched on the SLS rocket. NASA is still in a blackout period as it seeks to award preliminary contracts for the ascent, descent, and transfer modules of its Human Landing System. Those awards are likely to come some time in mid-March. There are four known bidders for lander development contracts: teams led by Boeing, Blue Origin, and Dynetics, as well as a plan from SpaceX. Of those, only Boeing has proposed building a fully integrated lander that would be launched on the Block 1B version of its SLS rocket. However, other bidders would presumably be allowed to propose integrated landers to be launched on the SLS booster. The SLS launch manifest only tells part of the story of the Artemis Program. It does not specify the role a Lunar Gateway would play, although at the very least it does appear that the Gateway is pushed off into the future after a Moon landing. In that sense, this plan appears to be similar to that proposed by the US House of Representatives in its H.R. 5666 NASA authorization legislation. Source: NASA planning document may offer clues to changes in Artemis program (Ars Technica)
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