by Jennifer Hurst
July 16, 2018

SpaceX is Closing the Gap on America’s Lost Dominance in Space

With the uptick in SpaceX launches, the U.S. achieved something it hasn’t been able to since 2003—be the world’s leader in launches. Last year, the U.S. logged 29 successful flights (18 of them from SpaceX alone). This year, the company plans to launch 26 times, including its commercial crew endeavors. In August of this year, SpaceX plans to demo its new Crew Dragon, the ship that will soon ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

During the mission, dubbed Demo-1, the unoccupied Dragon will launch from Florida to the ISS, where it will dock with the station and remain on orbit for a few weeks to test how it performs before a second launch—this time with people on board—in December. Thanks to Musk’s prowess, rocket companies across the globe have had to up their game. Newcomer Blue Origin boasts that its rocket (currently in development) will be capable of flying 25 times before refurbishments are needed. China has even taken some notes from Musk’s playbook and is working on developing reusable rockets that will one day be able to compete with SpaceX’s.

But some rocket providers have faulted under the pressure. Russia’s Proton rocket has fallen on hard times and after 53 years in service, the rocket is running out of customers. This is in part due to failures that have plagued the vehicle over the years. For nearly half of its life, the Proton was the go-to rocket for commercial satellite operators. Now, the Proton is being replaced by more reliable launch vehicles, like the Falcon 9. — Observer


Blue Origin Targets Moon Landing by 2023 as Step Toward Lunar Settlement

Blue Origin is laying out a plan to support the creation of permanent settlements on the moon, starting with a lunar landing mission within the next five years. Blue Origin’s business development director, A.C. Charania, said the company’s Blue Moon program is “our first step to developing a lunar landing capability for the country, for other customers internationally, to be able to land multi metric tons on the lunar surface.”

“Any permanent human presence on the lunar surface will require such a capability,” he said. Charania said “we’re actively working on the descent stage for Blue Moon, the capabilities, the partnerships that are required to enable that service … to start going back to the moon with larger and larger payloads.” Blue Moon could help answer longstanding scientific questions about the moon’s origin and evolution, delve into lunar resource identification and extraction, and “enable human lunar return,” Charania said.

Charania said the first Blue Moon landing could take place even before 2023. Blue Origin’s executives have talked about a five-year time frame for lunar landings several times over the past year, but Charania’s comments made clear that the company is looking for international partnerships as well as support from NASA. — Geek Wire


Blue Origin to Offer Dual Launch With New Glenn After Fifth Mission

Blue Origin will begin flying two customers on the same New Glenn rocket after the launch vehicle has performed five missions with solo customers. “Our first five are all dedicated missions as we release margin and prove out our operational reusability concept,” McFarland said July 4 at the APSAT 2018 conference here. “But starting from launch six on, we will have a dual-manifesting capability. Coupled with a 13-metric-ton to GEO — to actual GEO insertion — capability at that point, it will be a fairly significant achievement.”

New Glenn’s dual-launch arrangement will allow two satellites to launch together without having to coordinate mass differences, as is done on Arianespace’s heavy-lift Ariane 5, he said. Ariane 5, Europe’s flagship launch vehicle, launches most missions with two spacecraft, but the second satellite has to be smaller to fit in the rocket’s lower berth. — Space News

Artist’s rendition of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. Credit: Blue Origin


SpaceX’s New Ultra-Reusable Rocket Could Shape the Future of Humanity

When Elon Musk’s SpaceX first launched its Falcon 9 rocket back in 2010 it was thought of as a novelty venture by a tech entrepreneur that would be little more than a tech demonstration. No one thought it would become the de facto rocket for getting satellites, and even people, into orbit.

Exactly 54 launches later, SpaceX has become famous the world over for its reusable rockets, with their discarded boosters landing dramatically back on their launch pad, or on drone-ships offshore. So far about 20 first-stage boosters, complete with engines and fuel tanks, have been recovered.

SpaceX is scheduled to send a crewed test flight into orbit in December 2018 in a Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 Block 5. Its rival for the NASA contract is Boeing, which will perform a similar test flight in January 2019 using its CST-100 Starliner space capsule and an Atlas V rocket from ULA. However, both companies – and NASA – appear to be dragging their feet. — TechRadar

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 boosters can be reused as much as 100 times. Credit: SpaceX


Eight Ways Commercial Space Travel Will Change Things

Space travel for everyone can be a little difficult to image with our current technology levels. However, companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are working to make it happen. We asked members of the Forbes Technology Council what they thought the future of commercial space travel might look like, and what it could mean for the future of technology. The answers suggested breathtaking new opportunities for humans and for the commerce in general, given time and focus. — Forbes


The Air Force is Already Betting on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy

Falcon Heavy is about to take off in a big way. Just a few months after its thrilling debut, SpaceX’s heavy-lift rocket is back in the headlines. Not for sending another cherry-red Tesla into space, but for gaining some major accolades from the Air Force.

In a surprising move, and after just one flight, the Air Force announced it has certified Falcon Heavy for military launches and awarded the vehicle its first highly coveted launch contract: the AFSPC-52 mission. The contract is valued at $130 million—that’s the price of ferrying the Air Force Space Command-52 satellite to its intended orbit sometime in 2020.

After only one flight, the Air Force decided the heavy lifter had earned its seal of approval. It will still need to fly at least three times before AFSPC-52’s scheduled 2020 launch date to maintain the contract. This makes the Falcon Heavy—essentially three strapped-together Falcon 9 rockets—a powerful new weapon in SpaceX’s arsenal. — WIRED

Credit: SPACEX


Mining Moon Ice: Prospecting Plans Starting to Take Shape

A diverse range of scientists, engineers and mining technologists have begun blueprinting what hardware and missions are required to explore and establish a prospecting campaign for water ice at the poles of Earth’s moon.

Why have they warmed up to ultra-cold lunar ice? Water ice can be converted to oxygen, liquid water and rocket fuel. Exploiting the stores of this resource — which is thought to be abundant within permanently shadowed polar craters on the moon — could help pioneers survive and thrive on the moon, and help entrepreneurs turn a profit.

“We’re at the tipping point of a new era in space commerce, where private industry, NASA and international collaborators are joining together to realize the dream of launching humanity into the solar system,” said Hunter Williams, a Colorado School of Mines researcher. “There has never been a more exciting time for furthering science, turning a profit or promoting international cooperation than right now.”

Williams, along with Chris Dreyer and George Sowers, also of the School of Mines, detailed a low-cost mission to discover the extent of water resources on the moon, as well as a newly developed extraction technique, “thermal mining,” that transforms lunar water ice into rocket fuel. —

Earth’s moon is rich in valuable resources that could help pioneers survive and thrive on the moon — and help entrepreneurs turn a profit.
Credit: NASA/ESA
Click Image to Enlarge


White House Nominates Morhard to be NASA Deputy Administrator

NASA’s new boss wanted a deputy with technical chops. Trump is sending him a Senate staffer instead.

WASHINGTON — The White House nominated a veteran Senate aide with little space experience to be NASA’s deputy administrator July 12, a month after the agency’s administrator said he wanted someone with technical expertise for the job.

In a statement, the White House announced its intent to nominate James Morhard to be deputy administrator. The position, like that of administrator, requires confirmation by the Senate.

Morhard has been the deputy sergeant-at-arms for the Senate, handling various administrative issues for the body, since early 2015. He served in various other staff roles in the Senate from the early 1980s until 2005, including chief of staff of the Senate Appropriations Committee and staff director of what is now its commerce, justice and science subcommittee, whose jurisdiction includes NASA. — Space News

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has wanted someone with a technical background and space experience to be his deputy, but the White House instead nominated a longtime Senate aide for the post. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky


Pentagon Sees Quantum Computing as Key Weapon For War in Space

Michael Hayduk, chief of the computing and communications division at the Air Force Research Laboratory says quantum technology will be “disruptive” in areas like data security and GPS-denied navigation.

WASHINGTON — Top Pentagon official Michael Griffin sat down a few weeks ago with Air Force scientists at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to discuss the future of quantum computing in the U.S. military. Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, has listed quantum computers and related applications among the Pentagon’s must-do R&D investments.

Quantum computing is one area where the Pentagon worries that it is playing catchup while China continues to leap ahead. The technology is being developed for many civilian applications and the military sees it as potentially game-changing for information and space warfare.

The U.S. Air Force particularly is focused on what is known as quantum information science. Artificial intelligence algorithms, highly secure encryption for communications satellites and accurate navigation that does not require GPS signals are some of the most coveted capabilities that would be aided by quantum computing. — Space News


SpaceX Gives Nose-Cone-Catching Boat ‘Mr. Steven’ a Bigger Net

Mr. Steven now has some more margin for error.

SpaceX has outfitted the speedy boat with a much larger net, to give it a better chance of plucking payload fairings — the nose cones that protect spacecraft during launch — out of the sky.

“Mr. Steven — now with more net. SpaceX’s fairing recovery vessel has been fitted with a 4x larger net ahead of its next recovery attempt targeted for later this month,” SpaceX representatives wrote via Instagram Friday (July 13), along with before-and-after photos of the 205-foot-long (62 meters) boat.

Mr. Steven is part of SpaceX’s push to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets and spacecraft. Such technology could slash the cost of spaceflight enough to make bold projects like Mars colonization economically feasible, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said.

SpaceX already routinely lands and relaunches first stages of its workhorse, two-stage Falcon 9 rocket. Snagging Falcon 9 fairings makes a lot of economic sense as well; they cost about $6 million apiece, Musk has said. And plucking them out of the air, before they hit the highly corrosive seawater, is key.

Each Falcon 9 fairing consists of two pieces, both of which come back to Earth under parachute (actually, parafoil) shortly after liftoff. The fairing halves are also equipped with small thrusters and can therefore steer themselves toward desired splashdown points.

Mr. Steven has tried to snag a fairing half on three separate occasions, in February, March and May of this year. On the first and third tries, it was close but no cigar: Mr. Steven got within a few hundred meters in February and missed by about 50 meters (160 feet) in May, SpaceX representatives have said. During the March attempt, the targeted half’s parafoil twisted, and the fairing piece slammed into the ocean hard. —

SpaceX has given its rocket-nose-cone-catching boat, Mr. Steven, a much bigger net.
Credit: SpaceX via Twitter


Engine Tests Underway for DARPA Spaceplane Program

A space shuttle-era main engine is undergoing a series of daily test firings to demonstrate its suitability for use on a reusable spaceplane under development. The Aerojet Rocketdyne AR-22 engine is in the midst of a series of 10 100-second engine firings over the course of 10 days at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. As of July 2 the company has completed six such tests and was on track to complete the rest on schedule.

The engine is a version of the Space Shuttle Main Engine with only minor modifications, said Jeff Haynes, AR-22 program manager at Aerojet, in a July 2 interview. “We’re not designing or building any new hardware for this engine,” he said. “We’re taking and making use of existing hardware, most of it being flight proven.” One minor difference in the engine, he said, is using a new flight controller, or computer system, from the updated version of the RS-25 engine intended for use on NASA’s Space Launch System.

The purpose of the test series is to demonstrate that the engine can be used 10 times in 10 days. That is a major requirement of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Experimental Spaceplane program, for which the AR-22 will power Boeing’s Phantom Express vehicle. Although the AR-22 and its shuttle-era predecessors have decades of experience, the same engine has never been tested so frequently. — Space News

An AR-22 fires on a test stand at the Stennis Space Center July 2, the sixth in a series of daily tests of the engine. Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne


SpaceX’s Pad 39A Undergoing Upgrades for Dragon 2 Crew Launches

Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center is preparing for a return to crew launches, with modifications taking place to prepare the Fixed Service Structure (FSS) for the installation of the Crew Access Arm (CAA) and associated crew support equipment. The gantry – that astronauts will use to ingress Dragon 2 spacecraft – is at KSC undergoing final assembly inside a large tent. The historic Pad 39A is no stranger to crew launches, having been part of the Apollo and Shuttle Programs. — NASA Space Flight


Elon Musk Sends SpaceX Engineers to Aid Soccer Team Trapped in Thai Cave

Elon Musk sent engineers from his SpaceX and The Boring Co. companies to aid in the rescue of a youth soccer team in Thailand that’s trapped in a cave and running out of time.

Twelve boys and their 25-year-old soccer coach were trapped in the Tham Luang cave in Thailand. The boys, who range in age from 11 to 16, were exploring the cave when a flash flood trapped them. As oxygen levels continue to drop, the boys are getting more and more exhausted, which in turn is leading to malnourishment among them. — 


Gateway Foundation Spaceport Envisions Large Scale Space Construction

Orbital Assembly and the Gateway Foundation are working on a reasonable set of plans and steps to build a space station that is 488 meters in diameter. They would start with a hub that is 78 meters wide. The National Space Society has the goal of 100-meter wide space station that weighs 8500 tons. It could house 500 people.

In the NSS Space Settlement as Easier Way, there are Kalpana One space stations which at 450 meters in diameter and 224 meter in width would weigh 170,000 tons and could have about 8000 colonists. The 8000 person Kalpana stations are thus thicker than the proposed Gateway Foundation spaceport / hotel but they would have similar diameter. I had described how if 160 double sized Kalpana space stations were built then 2.5 million people could be housed in space. 2.5 million people is the population of the USA in 1776. — Next Big Future

Credit: Brian Wang