What’s Your Favorite NASA Mission Soundtrack?

NASA recently commissioned a song for one of its missions (H/T STEMDaily).  The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has been orbiting our moon since 2009, taking readings of the lunar surface.  Maybe so so we don’t forget about it, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center wanted a song to capture the inspiration that comes from studying the moon.  Ideally the song would also encourage interest in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

The resulting song, “The Moon and More” was developed by musicians Matt Cusson and Javier Colon (who won the first season of the NBC competition show The Voice).  Cusson produced the song, and the two recorded a video with a *space shuttle* for a backdrop (at least for part of the video).

While it’s not a mission requirement, NASA has used music to promote its missions before, and will likely do so again.

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What SpaceX Thinks It Knows About The Test Failure

On September 2, SpaceX conducted a static fire test of a Falcon 9 rocket and payload that resulted in the catastrophic loss of both (translation – stuff blew up in a big way).  Three weeks later the company has released an update of its investigation so far.

No cause of the accident has been identified as yet, but the company has so far determined that the failure came from a breach in the cryogenic helium storage system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank.  The company also considers most of the surrounding area – launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral to be in reasonably good condition (but not unaffected by the explosion).

SpaceX has ruled out any connection with the 2015 accident where a Falcon 9 rocket exploded en route to the International Space Station.  That accident was traced to the failure of a piece of hardware – a strut – within the second stage that led to a failure of the second stage liquid oxygen tank (also linked to the helium system).  SpaceX declared following that accident that it would no longer use the kind of struts that failed.

What strikes me as optimistic is the declaration in the latest update that SpaceX could resume flight as early as November – 6-10 weeks away (though pad 40 would not be ready to support launches that quickly).  After the June 2015 accident, SpaceX didn’t resume flight until December.  Without knowing the cause of the breach in the helium system, I don’t quite understand where the optimism is coming from.  Perhaps it’s an effort to assure SpaceX customers that it will be back in business sooner rather than later.  But with November admittedly the company’s best case outcome, I think the company risks more of a hit with its customers by promising too much up front, rather than working from a more reasonable turnaround and surprising everyone by being ready sooner.

But I’m neither a rocket scientist or a rocket businessperson.  I could well be wrong.  Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, SpaceX’s next technical milestones aren’t likely to happen until 2017.  These include the first launch of a previously-used Falcon 9 rocket and the first tests of the Falcon Heavy, the launcher that will carry Elon Musk’s Martian plans to the Red planet.

Blue Origin Wants To Go Orbital

SpaceX may seem to get the biggest share of attention given to private space companies, it does have competitors.  Blue Origin shares more than a few similarities.  Both businesses are owned by men who made their fortunes in other technology companies (Jeff Bezos of Amazon is behind Blue Origin, and Elon Musk of Tesla runs SpaceX), and both businesses aim to grow through the development and refinement of reusable boosters.  Through this technology they would dramatically reduce the cost of getting things to orbit.

But a major difference – that Blue Origin has focused on sub-orbital flight and SpaceX on orbital missions, is about to go away.  Blue Origin has announced a new rocket in its family, the New Glenn.  Those conversant in space history will note the parallels with the first American astronauts.  Alan Shepard was the first American to achieve suborbital flight, and his name inspires the New Shepard booster that has been the key to Blue Origin’s success to date.  The New Glenn is named for John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.

The New Glenn is massive, and has two and three stage configurations that would be capable of lifting heavy payloads and/or crew capsules into orbit.  It would compete with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which is a larger version of the Falcon9 booster it has used to great success so far.

(Such success, is, of course, not without failure.  This is space, where risk is a part of the business.)

Both the New Glenn and its new engines have to complete testing before the booster would enter service.  However, the engines could be ready by next year, and the full booster might compete for launch business around the same time SpaceX flights are trying to get to Mars.  Having a competitor on one’s shoulder could make both companies strive for achievements faster than either on their own.  It would be nice to see.

So We May Be Getting The Astronaut Twin Movie We Didn’t Know You Wanted

Astronaut Scott Kelly recently retired from NASA after, among other notable things, completing a nearly one-year term on the International Space Station.  As sometimes happens, he will be writing a memoir (currently titled Endurance: My Year in Space), and it is expected to come out in November 2017.

What is not so common, at least with astronaut memoirs, is to have a movie come along with the book.  But that just might happen.  The Hollywood Reporter notes that Sony has purchased the movie rights for the book (H/T Vulture).  Of course, this is no guarantee of a film, but Scott Kelly is not the average astronaut.  For better or for worse, he has a bit more to his story that probably makes a movie much more likely.

Scott Kelly spent nearly a year on the International Space Station in part to participate in a study to better understand changes to the human body in space.  He is well suited because of his identical twin brother Mark, who is also a retired astronaut.  Apparently the two were quite competitive growing up, so it’s not that hard to envision some montages of identical brothers on the athletic field, in the classroom, in the cockpit, etc.

Mark is also married to former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who served on the House Space, Science and Technology Committee and survived an assassination attempt a few years ago.  Both of the Kellys and Congresswoman Giffords will be involved with the development of the film.  No director or writer is currently attached, though it is possible that Scott Kelly’s co-writer, Margaret Lazarus Dean, may be involved with the script.

SpaceX Explosion Mars An Otherwise Solid 2016

Today a SpaceX rocket and payload exploded on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral.  The company was conducting a static fire test, which involves fueling the rocket and firing the engines, when the explosion occurred.  Nobody was on the pad at the time and no injuries were sustained due to the explosion.  The payload and rocket were destroyed, and an investigation is ongoing.  The mission was scheduled to launch on Saturday morning.

This will certainly result in delays for SpaceX and its customers as the company completes its investigation and addresses what problems are identified.  The aggressive schedule the company outlined for its Mars program, in my opinion, will certainly slip from the planned first uncrewed mission date of sometime in 2018.  I’d love to be proven wrong, but SpaceX has yet to be reckless.  Does it take risks, yes.  But I’d be surprised if it was able to ascertain and correct the problems from this explosion, resume normal operations, and then test its Falcon Heavy rocket and Red Dragon capsule to the point where the company is comfortable heading to Mars.  (And I’m sure the launch windows for Mars will influence any rescheduled missions.)

Additionally, SpaceX’s efforts to establish itself as a competitor in the military launch sector will certainly be affected by the explosion and associated delays.  Additional successful launches and landings between now and the next contract competitions will certainly help, but today’s events will certainly be brought up by SpaceX’s competitors as a knock against the company’s reliability.  For better or for worse, one pre-launch explosion can go a long way to overshadowing the six successful rocket landings and nine successful missions SpaceX has had since December.

The lost payload was the AMOS-6 communication satellite, owned by an Israeli company.  Facebook co-funded a lease of the satellite with Eutelsat, and intended to use it to support its efforts to expand Internet access in sub-Saharan Africa.  While the payload is likely insured, Facebook will still need to locate a replacement and/or shift emphasis to other means of expanding Internet (and by extension Facebook) access in that part of the world.

It’s Too Early To Get Used To Yet Another SpaceX Landing, Right?

I know, frequent landings of reusable rockets are critical to the long term business plan of SpaceX.  But I think it’s a little too early to think that time has come.

Yes, the company had its sixth successful landing early Sunday, August 14.  Yes, the company’s landing success rate this year is close to 70 percent.  But we do not yet have reusability.  The next step toward that comes next month when SpaceX intends to re-use one of its previously landed rockets for a satellite launching mission.

Here I’ve focused on how SpaceX missions have been doing on the landings, but there’s news on the docking front.  On Friday astronauts on the International Space Station will be installing an International Docking Adapter.  This will facilitate the docking of the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule (as well as the Boeing Starliner) for when U.S. craft will once again be ferrying astronauts to the ISS.

There’s still a lot of new to all of this, after all we’re in the first year of landings like this:

If I found this ordinary today, I’d be worried that I’m tired of life.  I think I’ll need at least another year or two of regular landings for me to find this ordinary.

Commercial Space Launch Update; Some Old And Some New

Sadly, nothing to report that’s quite as exciting as a landing (successful or not), but SpaceX and Blue Origin continue to toil away at improving the cost for access to space.

SpaceX has started tests on its first successfully landed rocket.  While the company has indicated this particular rocket will not launch again, the firing tests conducted last week will help SpaceX better understand the stresses its rockets undergo and how well they could perform for subsequent launches.

That said, SpaceX is already competitive in providing launch services, as suggested by its missions launching satellites and providing cargo to the International Space Station.  The company is also authorized to launch military payloads, and has won a contract to do just that in 2018.  That contract was awarded to SpaceX in the absence of a competitor, even though the United Launch Alliance (ULA) is also certified to provide military launch services.  An upcoming bid on a GPS-III satellite launch will be the first time that both companies will vie for the same launch contract.  With SpaceX costs considered notably cheaper than those of ULA, this competition may be one sided, or demonstrate a significant change in the way that ULA does business.

Meanwhile, over in Europe, the continent’s equivalent of ULA, Airbus Safran Launchers (ASL), has taken steps to obtain a supermajority (74%) ownership in Arianespace.  This means that ASL now has the kind of control over the launch company that should allow for the kind economic benefits that ULA (and its two launch vehicle producing owners, Lockheed Martin and Boeing) enjoys from its setup.