The Orbital Index is a curated newsletter about space and the space industry.

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The Orbital Index

Issue No. 101 | Jan 27, 2021

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Bridenstine’s legacy. Jim Bridenstine’s time as NASA Administrator came to an end with the passing of the Trump administration. As perhaps the most effective Trump appointee, Bridenstine left a legacy of competence and compromise. The outgoing administrator fostered the growth of commercial space begun by his predecessors, pushed for private property rights in space, and launched the Artemis Accords (on which we’re currently withholding judgement). While his stint at the helm of the Artemis program won’t get humans back to the Moon by 2024, we hope that it is the start of a sustainable and on-going crewed lunar program with a landing sooner than the previous timeline of 2028. We’re looking forward to learning what the Biden administration’s space-related plans are and who will replace interim acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk, but we’re also happy to let the new administration focus on large and present Earthly problems for the moment. Hopefully an indicator of Biden’s commitment to NASA and science is his choice to display a 3.9 billion year old Moon rock in the Oval Office (sample history and locality thanks to Moon Monday). Related: Tim Fernholz recently interviewed Bridenstine for his Space Business newsletter.

A payload of SpaceX updates. The past couple of weeks have seen a bunch of SpaceX news items—the company appears to be running at full thrust! 🧀 All this SpaceX news can overwhelm our normal News in Brief section, so here’s a concentrated dose:

All 143 smallsats integrated in their various deployers on Transporter-1.

Remembrance. Sadly, the anniversaries of NASA’s three most tragic moments cluster in a brief six day window at the end of January. The Command Module fire that killed the Apollo 1 crew—Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee—occurred 54 years ago today, and fundamentally changed how NASA manages fire hazards (including the usage of flammable materials, hatches that can be opened quickly under pressure—emotional and atmospheric—, and ending the use of pure oxygen environments). Meanwhile, tomorrow is NASA’s official day of remembrance and the 35th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. This avoidable failure was rooted in a slow degradation of the post-Apollo 1 safety culture, and in management that was not receptive to warnings about the SRB’s brittle O-ring gaskets. Feynman, one of the investigators of the disaster, later wrote, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” Unfortunately, not all of these lessons were heeded, and February 1st will mark 18 years since the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew during reentry. Results of a subsequent investigation didn’t look that different from Challenger’s and painted the agency as one “dominated by milestone-obsessed middle management” (see that link also for the story of the Columbia rescue plan that wasn’t). Human spaceflight has always been a dangerous game and will never be without risk, and in general, NASA does an admirable job of weighing these risks—now pegged at a 1-in-276 chance of loss for the commercial crew program flights. NASA runs tests even when a failure would be bad PR, such as with the recent SLS test. Yet even small risks add up when you repeat them over and over again—what might have been acceptable for a single Shuttle launch turned into 2 disasters when repeated 135 times. While we are all excited for the rise of commercial spaceflight, it is worth pausing to remember these events, how they happened, and that a culture that leads to safety may not always be the same one that leads to short-term political gains or 10x ROIs for investors. Related: Ars’s 2019 piece about these disasters.


eROSITA imaged hot gas structures at X-ray wavelengths above and below the Milky Way disc.

News in brief. China launched a Tiantong-1 communications satellite; Boeing completed requalification of the Starliner’s flight software after 2019’s failed uncrewed ISS mission; Chang'e 4’s lander and rover concluded their 26th lunar day (749 Earth days) on the far side of the Moon; Google is shutting down their Loon high-altitude balloon connectivity project due to difficulty in commercialization—its optical link technology lives on, as do their results using Reinforcement Learning for station keeping; 10 small launch companies bid on NASA’s recent small launch vehicle contract (the article provides a good ‘state of small launch’ for those interested); NASA released its analysis of the SLS post-hotfire abort; and, Axiom announced the crew for their first commercial mission (Ax-1) to the ISS, currently scheduled for next January—former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría will command the mission, becoming the first astronaut to command both a civil and a commercial mission, with the three other private crew members each paying $55 million for their seats.


See also: Rules for my 1/10,000th scale world.