Issue No. 66

Next week we’ll be pushing back our newsletter to Wednesday due to the difficulty some of us *cough*Ben*cough* have consistently had writing over the weekend. We don’t want anyone to worry when Issue No. 67 doesn’t arrive hot off the presses in their inbox on Tuesday.

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 66 | May 26, 2020

🚀 🌍 🛰

Crew Dragon takes center stage. Tomorrow at 1:32 p.m. PDT / 4:32 p.m. EDT / 20:32 UTC, watch NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley launch on SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission to the ISS, the first orbital launch of astronauts from American soil since the last Space Shuttle mission in July 2011 (STS-135 mission highlight video). This the first new American crewed spacecraft capable of orbit since 1981 (SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo have reached suborbital space, but that requires roughly 32x less energy than orbit), the first new human-rated orbital spacecraft worldwide since the Shenzhou first launched in 2003, and with this launch, SpaceX will become the first private company ever to put humans in orbit. Watch online via the SpaceX stream, NASA TV, or with the Planetary Society. And, if you’re in Northern Europe, you may be able to see it fly overhead.

Along with some friends, Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon sit clamped into the strongback transporter awaiting roll out to pad 39A. Also, here’s a photo of the Falcon 9 orbital vehicle, from orbit.

The Commercial Crew Program has been a great deal. In preparation for this week’s successful completion 🤞🏼 of the Commercial Crew Program’s (CCP) first human-rated launch, the Planetary society looked at the financial success of the program. While it didn’t come to fruition as quickly as many would have liked (the first human launch to LEO was originally planned for 2015), the overall cost certainly isn’t an area of complaint. Both the total development costs ($1.7B and $2.8B for Crew Dragon and Starliner, respectively) and the per-seat costs ($60-67M and $91-99M) have outperformed all other NASA crewed programs since the early days of the agency—especially in the case of Crew Dragon with ongoing seat cost savings well below the $90M NASA has been paying for Soyuz seats. For comparison, development costs for the Space Shuttle were $27.4B, while Orion is estimated at $23.7B. CCP’s reduced development costs come from the maturity of the technologies involved, the limited scope of transporting small crews to LEO (whereas the Space Shuttle was built to transport large crews and massive cargo), as well as the incentives of fixed-price contracts and potential commercial success. Ars Technica has a long-form piece that digs into the origins of NASA’s commercial space programs. For NASA’s first investment of $396M in commercial cargo deliveries to the ISS with SpaceX, it got the development of the Cargo Dragon, the Falcon 9, and the KSC launch site. Related: As SpaceX and CCP start to push down the price of human spaceflight (which is really just high-value mass to orbit), its rideshare program is also pushing down prices across the smallsat launch industry.

Rockets, Rockets, Rockets
  • Virgin Orbit’s first launch attempt. Yesterday, Virgin Orbit’s retrofitted 747 Cosmic Girl aircraft performed their first orbital launch attempt of the LauncherOne vehicle over the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, it ended in termination of the orbital vehicle (launch photo). The 21 m two-stage LauncherOne rocket will hopefully soon carry about 300 kg to a 500 km SSO, powered by a NewtonThree engine on the primary stage and a NewtonFour on the upper stage—both  turbopump-fed engines are in-house developed and run on LOX/RP-1. The LauncherOne is dropped like a missile, then ignites when away from the 747. (As pointed out by one of Andrew’s  coworkers, “Igniting an orbital class rocket while attached to your wing sounds like a good way to RUD a 747.”)
  • UK-based Skyrora completed a full static fire test of their suborbital Skylark L vehicle, likely powered by their Ecosene fuel made from (previously) un-recyclable plastic waste.
  • Ariane 6 and Vega C inaugural launches are both likely delayed until 2021.
  • Japan's H-IIB rocket made its final flight with the last H-II Transfer Vehicle resupply mission to the ISS. The mission carries an experiment to study fire safety in microgravity, a bioscience microscope, communications systems, replacement batteries, and other payloads—JAXA’s next ISS mission is slated for 2022 with the maiden flight of their upcoming HTV-X vehicle.

New US remote sensing regulations. The US Commerce Department & NOAA released an update to the country’s commercial satellite remote sensing regulations (pdf). The new rules come after last year’s draft version received significant industry pushback over their classification of nearly all orbital remote sensing systems as restricted due to perceived national security risk. In an effort to keep US companies competitive while protecting national security, the new rules break remote sensing systems into three categories. Category assignment will be based on whether or not proposed sensing capabilities are “substantially the same” as those available internationally, with minimal regulation if equivalent services are already available, and more stringent ones if they’re not. Another change is the dropping of special requirements for things like Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), shortwave infrared, and nighttime imaging. Many companies are excited to see these relaxed regulations but still hold concerns around how they will actually be implemented—especially around who will determine what it means for a foreign product to be “substantially the same” and how these determinations will be updated.

News in brief. Doug Loverro, NASA’s head of human spaceflight, resigned after holding the role for only six months, raising some alarm that he may have safety concerns, but his exit is more likely due to a violation of government procurement rules for the recently awarded lunar lander contracts (possibly involving communication with Boeing regarding the pricing of their proposal); and, the Soyuz-2.1b Fregat upper stage that was used to deliver the EKS 4 ballistic missile early warning satellite re-entered over Australia in a dramatic light show.
  • Space Talent recently released an analysis of aerospace hiring during the pandemic. TLDR: space, like most other industries, is hiring less right now (~30% in this case), but due to uncertainty, even fewer people are seeking jobs (~60% down), meaning that there are apparently more positions available at the moment than most would expect. Check out Space Talent’s job board.
  • GHGSat operates high-resolution satellites used to detect greenhouse gases and is on track to launch their next satellite, Iris, on a Vega rocket next month (as well as another scheduled to launch later this year). They’re hiring a DevOps specialist and a Web dev in Montreal, and their analytics office in Ottawa is hiring its own DevOps specialist and a Software dev. Reach out to or see their careers page.

An all blue-filtered image (see the guide on filtering above) of the Lagoon Nebula from Dustin Gordon.

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