live for liftoff —

“The problem with the MK1 stuff was that I didn’t have my eye fully on the ball.”


A Falcon 9 rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Enlarge / A Falcon 9 rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Welcome to Edition 2.35 of the Rocket Report! There’s lots to get to this week, especially in the realm of heavy-lift rockets. I also want to let readers know that there will be no report next week due to range maintenance, errr, a family vacation. See you in two weeks!

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.

Relativity Space expands Mississippi testing. In a feature published this week, Ars revealed that Relativity has expanded its portfolio at NASA’s Stennis Space Center to encompass two test cells at the E-2 complex. The California-based company now controls two-thirds of the rocket-engine test stands at the NASA facility. Relativity acquired the 20-year leases through a competitive process.

Launch in 18 months? … The story also discusses the state of engine development at the company. Relativity increased the thrust of its Aeon engine last year, from 17,000 pounds to 23,000, and began testing of the more powerful engine components in December. The company plans to conduct fully integrated engine testing this summer and is now aiming for a “fall” 2021 launch of its Terran 1 rocket.

Astra misses out on winning DARPA challenge. On Monday, Astra came within 53 seconds of launching its Rocket 3.0 from a spaceport in southern Alaska, Ars reports. With less than a minute to go in the countdown, a sensor delivered some data about the rocket that Astra’s chief executive, Chris Kemp, said “really concerned us.” Despite the prospect of losing out on a $2 million check from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (and potentially $10 million more later this month), Astra engineers halted the launch attempt.

Long-desired capability … Astra thought the problem may lie with a faulty sensor, as bad data was intermittent, but engineers weren’t sure. Kemp said the company is likely “weeks” away from trying again rather than months. But the window to claim the DARPA Launch Challenge has closed. That no company won the challenge underscores how difficult it remains to build rockets—even small ones—and put them into orbit rapidly. DARPA has been pushing this capability for a long time, dating all the way back to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

The easiest way to keep up with Eric Berger’s space reporting is to sign up for his newsletter, we’ll collect his stories in your inbox.

NASA eyeing human suborbital flights. With NASA now allowing researchers to fly with experiments on commercial suborbital spacecraft, the agency is beginning a certification process that would allow its astronauts to also fly on such vehicles. This effort is apparently being driven by the agency’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, SpaceNews reports.

Damn it, Jim, I’m an astronaut … “There is an interest in NASA, especially from its administrator, to not just do human-tended payloads but what we would call crew-tended payloads. In other words, NASA astronauts themselves would fly with equipment and fly with payloads,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine during a March 2 speech at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference. (submitted by whiteknave)

PLD Space tests revamped rocket engine. Nine months after the Spanish-startup PLD Space suffered a catastrophic engine failure, it has successfully tested a new version. In late February, engineers hot-fired the TEPREL B regenerative engine for a full two minutes, the company said.

Soon … This test at an airport in Spain allowed the company to validate the nominal engine performance during the full mission-duration burn of two minutes, the necessary time to boost the MIURA 1 launch vehicle into space. In a news release, the company’s co-founder said PLD will make a launch attempt “soon,” although that word definitely has different meanings across the aerospace industry. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Stratolaunch to continue its comeback. Stratolaunch plans to resume test flights of its giant aircraft in September as the company continues its shift from a launch-services company to a provider of high-speed flight test services, SpaceNews reports. The Stratolaunch plane has flown just once, in April 2019, in a test flight from Mojave Air and Space Port in California that 2.5 hours.

Despite the name of the company … “We are working to get certified by the FAA, so beginning in September, we’ll fly at least once a month,” Mark Bitterman, vice president for government relations and business development at Stratolaunch, said. Those tests would last for about eight months in order to get the plane certified. Stratolaunch no longer refers to itself as a launch company but is focused on supporting high-speed flight testing, such as hypersonics work. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Second Falcon 9 to go on public display. A SpaceX rocket has quietly touched down in Houston, landing under the cover of night at the NASA visitor center where it will soon go on display, Collect Space reports. The Falcon 9 first stage, which was used to launch supplies to the International Space Station on two NASA-contracted missions, was delivered by truck to Space Center Houston late on Tuesday.

X marks the spot … The arrival came 10 months after the announcement that the booster would be joining the outdoor exhibits at the non-profit science and space exploration learning center, which also serves as the official visitor center for NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas. It will be the second “flown” Falcon 9 first stage on public display in the United States, after the rocket outside the company’s factory in Hawthorne, California.

A fun video tour of ULA’s rocket factory. In this Smarter Every Day video, United Launch Alliance Chief Executive Tory Bruno offers a tour of the company’s factory in Decatur, Alabama. It’s cool to see all of the hardware and the process by which ULA makes its rockets.

This booster booster knows his boosters … Bruno, again, proves to be a winning combination of nerdy rocket knowledge and humor. He has been a really good public face for the company at a time when it has faced dramatic price pressure from SpaceX in the United States.

SpaceX rapidly scaling up South Texas operations. During a weekend visit to the Boca Chica launch site, Ars toured through the large tents where SpaceX engineers and technicians are building multiple Starships at a time. The visit followed a two-day spree in late February when the company doubled its employee count in South Texas to more than 500 people. It is all part of Elon Musk’s plan to rapidly scale up production. It seems to be working. The full feature is worth reading.

Lessons learned from Tesla … Building the first Starship prototype, MK1, took eight months. South Texas only needed a month, from late January to late February, to assemble SN1. And SN2 is following only about two weeks behind SN1. “The problem with the MK1 stuff was that I didn’t have my eye fully on the ball, because I was still taking care of a lot of Tesla stuff,” Musk said. “Now Tesla, I think, is in a good situation here, so that’s why I’m pretty much camped out in Boca. The MK1 was a failure not because the rocket failed at low pressure, but because we failed to build a production line.”

SLS rocket won’t launch until mid-late 2021. NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk said last Friday that the first launch of the Space Launch System with an uncrewed Orion spacecraft, Artemis I, will not take place until mid or late 2021, SpacePolicyOnline.com reports. It’s nice to see a NASA official confirm what Ars Technica reported (checks notes) last July.

Core stage not keeping up … The SLS rocket’s core stage, now at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, is the hold-up. All the other Artemis I hardware, for both Orion and SLS, is more or less ready to go and at Kennedy Space Center in the Vehicle Assembly Building, Jurczyk said. (submitted by Ken the Bin and Unrulycow)

Falcon Heavy wins Psyche mission launch contract. The most powerful rocket in the world has won its first NASA launch contract. NASA chose SpaceX to provide launch services for the agency’s Psyche mission, which is currently targeted to launch in July 2022 from Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Let’s go find some metals … The total cost for NASA to launch Psyche and the secondary payloads is approximately $117 million, which includes the launch service and other mission-related costs. The Psyche mission will journey to a unique metal-rich asteroid, also named Psyche, which orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

KSC planning roadwork to accommodate New Glenn. Roughly 30 miles of roadways winding through Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station will soon see multimillion-dollar infrastructure changes, making room for the future transport of Blue Origin’s massive New Glenn rocket, Florida Today reports. The rocket’s first stage measures about 60 meters in length. “These are significant changes to accommodate a very large vehicle,” Dale Ketcham, vice president of government and external relations at Space Florida, told the publication. “We knew this was coming. This was all part of the plan for New Glenn.”

Splitting the cost … The journey for New Glenn’s first stages, before attachment of the second stage and nose cone, will begin at the company’s factory just east of the KSC main gate. But in order to follow the 20-plus-mile trek to its pad at Launch Complex 36, changes will need to be made to road widths, light posts, fences, signs, and more. The total cost of the project is estimated at $4.5 million, according to Space Florida, the state’s spaceport authority. The Florida Department of Transportation will pay $2.7 million, with Blue covering the rest. On another note, it’s nice to see the company being more open about its plans on social media. (submitted by Fenris_uy)

Northrop tests Omega rocket’s second stage. Northrop Grumman says it completed the successful static-fire test at the company’s facilities in Promontory, Utah. This moves Omega a step closer to becoming certified to fly national security missions, SpaceNews reports.

A firing delayed … During the test, the second-stage motor fired for full-duration for approximately 140 seconds, burning nearly 340,000 pounds of solid propellant to produce upwards of 785,000 pounds of thrust, Northrop Grumman said. The second-stage test was initially scheduled for the fall of 2019 but was delayed following anomalies in the May 30 static-fire test of the first stage. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Plans for Falcon Heavy mobile service tower revealed. Teslarati reports on new renders for an enclosure that would give the US military the privacy it requires for its most secretive satellites. This vertical integration of payloads represents a significant change in the horizontal integration procedure that SpaceX has followed heretofore.

It’s a big one … The movable tower stretches 70 meters tall and 12.2 meters wide, with a “crawler” base that is 36 x 33 meters. There is no schedule for the tower’s construction, and presumably the company would only move forward with building it if the US Air Force awards it national security launch contracts for the period of 2022 to 2026. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

March 7 : Soyuz | Falcon Eye 2 | Kourou, French Guiana | 01:33 UTC

March 7: Falcon 9 | CRS-20 mission to supply space station | Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida | 04:50 UTC

March 9: Long March 3B | Beidou-3 geo satellite | Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China | 12:00 UTC

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