Welcome to Edition 3.35 of the Rocket Report! There is an incredible amount of launch news this week, but I want to start with this: my new book on the origins of SpaceX, Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX, was published this week. Early reviews have been tremendous, and if you’re at all interested in the company, or just want a rollicking story, please check it out.
As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.
Rocket Lab unveils plans for larger rocket. This week, the US rocket company said it had plans to go public, as well as develop a “Neutron” rocket capable of launching as much as 8 tons to low Earth orbit. “Rocket Lab solved small launch with Electron. Now we’re unlocking a new category with Neutron,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and CEO, in a news release. The company plans an initial launch in 2024 but is only now beginning work on a new engine.
Another space SPAC … The company also said it planned to go public via a Special Purpose Acquisition Company, with Vector Acquisition Company. The public offering will allow Rocket Lab to raise the funds needed to accelerate its growth plans, including development of the Neutron vehicle. Ars has interviewed Peter Beck about these plans and will go deeper in a forthcoming article. (submitted by EllPeaTea, platykurtic, and Ken the Bin)
NASA awards Mars ascent rocket contract. The space agency has awarded the Mars Ascent Propulsion System contract to Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation as part of its efforts to retrieve rock samples from the surface of Mars. The cost-plus, fixed-fee contract has a potential mission services value of $60.2 million and a maximum potential value of $84.5 million, NASA said.
Much work to do … Coupled with the successful touchdown of the Mars Perseverance rover, this award moves NASA and ESA one step closer to realizing the Mars Sample Return mission. This two-stage rocket will be a critical element in supporting the mission to retrieve and return the samples that the Mars Perseverance rover will collect for return to Earth. There’s still a long way to go, and we shouldn’t expect samples to land on Earth before the end of the 2020s. But this is a positive step forward.
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Astra nabs NASA contracts for TROPICS missions. NASA said it has selected Astra Space to provide launch services for the agency’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of SmallSats, or TROPICS mission. Launches of the constellation of six CubeSats will begin as early as next year.
Eye on the storm … The launch service contract for the TROPICS mission is a firm fixed-price contract valued at $7.95 million, and it will be composed of three separate launches of Astra rockets. The CubeSats will provide rapid-refresh microwave measurements that can be used to determine temperature, pressure, and humidity inside hurricanes as they form and evolve. This is a nice contract win for Astra and will likely bolster the confidence of other potential customers in its launch system. Related: Astra reveals its 100-year plan to SpaceNews. (submitted by Ken the Bin and platykurtic)
India launches its first mission of 2021. On Saturday, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle sent Brazil’s Amazonia-1 Earth observation satellite and 18 smaller payloads into orbit. The mission was hailed as the first dedicated commercial mission of NewSpace India Limited, a Government of India company under the Department of Space, SpaceNews reports.
Getting back on track … The launch is India’s first of 2021, following a 2020 severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Satish Dhawan Space Center carried out its first (and only) 2020 mission in November with the launch of the EOS-1 Earth observation satellite and nine smaller payloads. India is expected to launch a number of missions in the coming months including the flight of the country’s first geostationary Earth observation satellite. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
SpaceX wins hypersonics heat shield contract. The Air Force Research Laboratory has awarded SpaceX an $8.5 million contract to investigate advanced materials and manufacturing techniques for heat shields that protect hypersonic vehicles in flight, SpaceNews reports. An AFRL spokesman said this was a competitive program with multiple bidders.
Re-entry gets hot … Heat protection is a critical technology to shield hypersonic vehicles from the intense heat experienced when flying at more than five times the speed of sound. SpaceX has previously developed advanced heat-shielding systems to protect the Dragon human spaceflight capsule and its next-generation Starship space exploration vehicle. (submitted by Rendgrish)
Starliner launch slips to indefinite. Recently, NASA announced that it was delaying the launch of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, on an Atlas V rocket, from March 25 to April 2. Now, the Orbital Flight Test-2 mission has been delayed again, with no new date set. In a news release, NASA attributed the delay to “winter storms in Houston and the recent replacement of avionics boxes.” This set the program back about two weeks.
Launch a couple of months away … The winter storms were no picnic (trust me), but power was restored to most homes and businesses that lost electricity after about three days. NASA cited other factors it is weighing in setting a new date, including “the volume of verification and validation analysis required prior to the test flight and the visiting vehicle schedule at the International Space Station.” Sources said the launch was now likely to occur no earlier than late May. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Relativity Space plans Falcon 9 competitor. Relativity Space, the 3D-printing rocket builder, is making another big bet: developing a fully reusable rocket, designed to match the power and capability of SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket. Called Terran R, the reusable rocket is “really an obvious evolution” from the company’s Terran 1 rocket, Relativity CEO Tim Ellis told CNBC.
Not skipping Terran 1 … “I’ve always been a huge fan of reusability. No matter how you look at it, even with 3D printing, and dropping the cost, and [increasing the] automation of a launch vehicle, making it reusable has got to be part of that future,” Ellis added. The company said it is still committed to developing the smaller Terran 1 rocket, which is scheduled for its first flight later this year. (submitted by gavron and Ken the Bin)
SpaceX updates on Falcon 9 landing failure. On February 16, during its sixth mission to orbit, a Falcon 9 rocket first stage successfully delivered its payload of 60 satellites into low-Earth orbit. However the booster then failed to make a safe landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
Watch out for boot holes … This week, during a news conference for the upcoming Crew-2 mission, SpaceX’s Benji Reed provided an update on what happened. A Merlin rocket engine boot developed a hole and sent hot gas to “where it wasn’t supposed to be,” Reed said, and shut down during first-stage flight. There was therefore not enough thrust for landing. The company continues to investigate. (submitted by Ken the Bin, platykurtic, and JohnCarter17)
Cape Canaveral assessing launch weather rules. Spaceflight Now has an interesting article this week on the lengths to which US Space Force officials are going to work with companies like SpaceX to accommodate their launch windows and cope with weather. This includes strategies to prepare for two different launch windows on a given day to guard against weather delays.
Some fine forecasting … In an interview with the publication, SpaceX adviser Hans Koenigsmann praised the Space Force officials. He said the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron, which tracks launch weather conditions at Cape Canaveral, is “absolutely amazing.” “The level of detail that we get is remarkable, how good the forecast is,” Koenigsmann said. “There are launches where we work the entire time with the weather officer and try to find the right time.” All of this is being done to increase the number of launches the Cape can conduct in a given year. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Next OneWeb launch on track. This week, Roscosmos said the next launch of OneWeb satellites, due to occur later this month, will be the second fully commercial launch from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia. It is being conducted by European launch-service supplier Arianespace for OneWeb, using the Soyuz launch vehicle.
Scrambling to catch up … The satellites have already arrived at the spaceport for integration with the rocket. The mission will add 36 satellites to the existing OneWeb constellation of 110 satellites. OneWeb is seeking to accelerate the implementation of its satellite Internet service as SpaceX continues launching about 120 Starlink Internet satellites a month.
Starship makes its third high-altitude test flight. The Starship prototype dubbed SN10 landed this time after the previous two flights had failed. For about 10 minutes, it stood there. Suddenly, the vehicle briefly rose upward in a violent explosion and crashed back into the pad. This landing was unquestionably a step forward, as SpaceX engineers seem to have figured out the vexing issues with propellant and Raptor relighting that had scuttled the two previous landing attempts.
But is it enough forward progress? … What we don’t know is how NASA will see this, Ars reports. Will it be deemed a positive? Or as a negative, with the third destruction of a Starship in three flights? This matters as the agency gets closer to a down-select next month for its Human Landing System contract that could see billions of dollars flow to SpaceX for its Starship program—or not. NASA may decide to go with more conventional landers under development by teams led by Blue Origin and Dynetics.
NASA vet George Abbey says SLS rocket should be reconsidered. In a policy brief for the Biden administration, Abbey—the former director of Johnson Space Center and an influential, long-time human spaceflight leader—offered an overview of the Space Launch System rocket. The goal of the document was to provide decision-makers “relevant and effective ideas” for supporting the nation’s policy goals.
Launch costs should matter … “In view of the current availability of a significant number of commercial launch vehicles with proven payload capabilities, as well as the industry’s progress in providing a launch vehicle with significantly greater lift capabilities, the Biden administration should reconsider the need for the SLS during its annual budget review,” writes Abbey, who is now a senior fellow in space policy for Rice University.
Some explanation on why New Glenn was delayed. Ars provides a behind-the-scenes report on why New Glenn is now unlikely to launch before 2023 at least. The biggest takeaway is that Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos made the critical decision to leap directly from New Shepard to New Glenn, without an interim step in between. “It’s like if NASA had gone straight from Alan Shepard to the Saturn V rocket, but then also had to make the Saturn V reusable,” one source noted.
Step by step, but not always? … The story also discusses the management style of Bob Smith, who became CEO of Blue Origin in 2017 and has been trying to implement a culture transformation from hobby shop to major aerospace corporation. Some employees have struggled with his leadership style and complained that he has acted too slowly. Another factor in the delay is that Blue Origin simply has higher priorities right now, particularly finishing the BE-4 engine for United Launch Alliance and competing for the Human Landing System contract from NASA.
Next three launches
March 8: Falcon 9 | Starlink-20 | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 03:41 UTC
March 12: Long March 7A | XJY-06 02 | Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, China | 13:34 UTC
March 20: Soyuz 2.1a | Ride-share mission including Astroscale ELSA-d mission | Baikonur Cosmodrome | TBD