Issue No. 133


The Orbital Index

Issue No. 133 | Sep 8, 2021

🚀 🌍 🛰

Firefly Alpha’s first test flight. Firefly Aerospace attempted the first launch of their Alpha small satellite launch vehicle from Vandenberg Air Force Base last week. Alpha can carry 1 ton to LEO and is in the same class as China’s Long March 11 (800kg to LEO), JAXA’s Epsilon (1.5 tons), and ESA’s Vega (1.5 tons), as well as the upcoming Terran 1 from Relativity (1.25 tons, launching in early 2022) and RS1 from ABL Space (1.35 tons, later this year). This mission carried just 100 kg of student CubeSats (on a free and very risky ride), a test of SETS’s 200W electric hall-effect thruster that will eventually propel Firefly’s orbital tug, and an 18 square meter drag sail from Purdue University to accelerate deorbit of the upper stage. Unfortunately, none of those things went to space that day. While the launch initially looked solid, climbing quickly off the pad, the vehicle did not break Mach 1 when expected due to the loss of an engine 15 seconds after launch (post mortem video), and then once supersonic, tumbled out of control and was dramatically terminated by the range, causing parts of the craft to fall to the ground including (initially) intact engines (photos, video). Failure was due to engine 2’s main propellent value closing spuriously. Maybe we should start saying “valves are hard” instead of “space is hard”—valves were one of the primary causes of early failed landing attempts for Falcon 9, the Crew Dragon explosion, and are currently holding up Starliner’s launch. Regardless, it was a great first attempt and we expect an orbital future for Firefly and Alpha.


🎆  (Image Credit: Michael Baylor / NASA Spaceflight)


The Orbital Index is made possible through generous sponsorship by:


Virgin Galactic is grounded. The FAA has grounded all flights of SpaceShipTwo while investigating a course deviation during the Virgin Galactic flight that took Richard Branson to space in July. Near the end of VSS Unity’s engine burn, a red light turned on, signaling an “entry glide-cone warning”. The pilots, Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci, decided not to terminate the burn and were able to control the issue and land safely—it’s not clear how close of a call it was—but in doing so they took the spacecraft outside of their approved FAA flight area. This article in the New Yorker about the incident is sobering (and at least partially spurred the FAA’s grounding decision), suggesting a culture that downplays risks, fires whistleblowers, and is the only commercial space program to have killed someone in flight. Part of the issue is that Virgin Galactic uses a space vehicle that is flown directly by human pilots, the last to do so. (Related: Here’s a brief history of the manual piloting capabilities of past orbital spacecraft, suffice it to say that it’s not one of our innate abilities, despite what sci-fi movies would have you believe.)


Why fixed-price contracts are so important. Reprised from an old issue, as the SLS again faces delays and the JWST finally heads toward launch: The Best Way to Make a Profit as an Aerospace Company is to Fail, a compelling piece about how massive corporations like Northrop Grumman have little incentive to hit their cost-plus contract budgets and are arguably incentivized not to. “Northrop Grumman […] won the James Webb Space Telescope contract in 1996 with a promise that the project would cost $500 million and be flight-ready in 2007. The telescope is now likely to launch in 2021 and is expected to cost nearly $10 billion. [...] [W]ith every delay and snafu, Northrop Grumman rakes in more money as missed deadlines extend the timeline and require more funding from the government. One delay in 2018 brought Northrop Grumman close to a billion dollars alone—twice the price the firm originally quoted to the government for the entire project.” The massive overruns by Boeing on SLS are a similar example. Compare this to the much more sensible “fixed-firm” contracts of Commercial Cargo & Crew, CLPS, and now HLS and CLD, where snafus like Starliner actually cost the sellers money, not just NASA—in Starliner’s case, Boeing has spent at least $410 million to cover remediation and the as-yet-unlaunched second test flight. At a minimum, this approach incentivizes companies to come in relatively on time since program overhead for long-running projects severely cuts profit. 


An XKCD from July 2, 2018, which is fortunately/hopefully wrong.


News in brief. Dawn Aerospace, a suborbital spaceplane capable of launching 3U payloads, has now conducted five low altitude test flights NASA, along with some French scientists, was finally able to bounce a laser off of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s retro-reflector after a decade of trying (paper) Amazon asked the FCC to reject SpaceX’s updated Starlink plans and SpaceX landed a counter-filing suggesting that Amazon is trying to stifle competition (which it sure looks like they are) China launched four satellites on two different launch vehicles—one is probably an infrared missile launch early warning satellite similar to the US’s OPIR program Perseverance successfully cored its first rock (the first attempt failed due to the target being too crumbly and delicious) Cosmonauts found “superficial fissures” in the aging Zarya ISS module and worry that they will expand over time—Vladimir Solovyov, a Russian space program chief engineer, also pointed out that “at least 80 percent of in-flight systems on the Russian segment of the ISS ha[ve] passed their expiry date A fire from a solid rocket motor test damaged the Esrange Space Center in Sweden, burning down two buildings—there were, fortunately, no injuries SpaceX’s Inspiration4 orbital tourism mission (crew pictured below) is scheduled to launch next week and the rocket has rolled to the padNetflix has a 4 part “real-time” documentary series—we’ll certainly be covering it further.

Inspiration4's crew.

© 2020 The Orbital Index. All rights reserved.

Powered by Hydejack v8.4.0