Issue No. 109


The Orbital Index

Issue No. 109 | Mar 24, 2021

🚀 🌍 🛰

Another round of NIAC (part deux). Continuing on from last week, here are eight more fantastic NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) awards that enable the early study of futuristic missions and systems (none of which were generated by GPT-3):


SLS clears Green Run. On Thursday, NASA and Boeing successfully completed the Green Run tests with a repeat hot fire test of the one that failed in January due to engine gimbal hydraulics hitting preset limits. This time, everything seems to have gone well: 2.7 million liters of cryogenic fuel were loaded and burnt to produce 725,000 kg of thrust, the engines were seen jiggling through gimbal tests while ramping up and down between power levels, and the deluge system suppressed sound and protected metal flame deflectors with 1.25 million liters of water per minute which quickly turned to steam, mixed with engine exhaust water vapor, and created a private rainstorm. NASA captured terabytes of data from a full 8-minute burn via a network of 500+ sensors connected by 18 miles of cabling. This was 4 minutes more than the minimum required to complete the testing campaign. The rocket will be moved by barge to Kennedy Space Center next month for stacking and mating with two solid rocket boosters, the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage, and an Orion capsule. The uncrewed Artemis 1 mission is scheduled for November, but will probably slip into 2022. SLS remains a rocket that will cost more than $2 billion per launch (although NASA is now studying how to reduce this number), has already cost $20 billion to develop, is dramatically over schedule, somewhat underpowered without additional development, and throws away $400 million worth of exquisitely engineered and otherwise reusable RS-25 engines with every flight. Whatever happens with SLS, it will likely be the last large chemical rocket NASA ever builds.


Joe nominates Bill. The administration nominated former Florida Senator Bill Nelson as the next NASA Administrator. Nelson, a politician who has historically said politicians shouldn’t run NASA, has long been a supporter of the agency, chaired the House’s Space Subcommittee and the Senate’s Space and Science Subcommittee, and even rode Columbia to space in 1986 as a “congressional observer”. Nomination of Nelson likely signals meaningful support for NASA from Biden, and as a NASA advisory board member appointed by Bridenstine, may even lead to some bipartisan support. But, the nomination also raises serious questions. Historically, Nelson has been a strong supporter of the (now boondoggle) SLS and cost-plus contracts, while being skeptical of the (now very successful) commercial crew and resupply programs. The nomination also passes over very qualified female candidates, meaning NASA will continue as one of the few major government departments never to have been led by a woman.

News in brief. China’s 14th Five-Year Plan includes a commercial spaceport; Japan’s new H3 launch vehicle passed a pressure test, with a first launch attempt likely later this year; the Chang’e-5 orbiter, having dropped off its lunar samples in December, has now arrived at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point for its extended mission of solar observations and other tests; SpaceX is almost done stacking their first massive Super Heavy Booster, which will not fly (except accidentally), but will be used to test transportation and cryogenic pressurization—meanwhile,  SN11 will likely fly late this week or early next; Perseverance dropped its belly pan, exposing its sampling systems; NASA engineer Glynn Lunney, who played a large role in saving the Apollo13 crew, has died; Rocket Lab launched “They Go Up So Fast”, which included their 100th customer payload and a test of their Photon satellite system named Pathstone to prepare for a future lunar mission; and, a Soyuz 2.1a rocket launched the South Korean CAS-500-1 remote sensing satellite and 38 other payloads, including ELSA-d which we wrote about last week.

Perseverance’s heat shield falling away above Jezero Crater as seen by Perseverance’s Lander Vision System Camera and colorized by the prolific Kevin Gill.


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