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Rocket Report: New Shepard push angers workers, Falcon 9 gets wormed

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Space this way — “We intend to the maximum extent possible to stay on track.” Eric Berger – Apr 3, 2020 11:00 am UTC Enlarge / The mighty Delta IV Heavy rocket takes to the skies.Welcome to Edition 2.38 of the Rocket Report! If you’re reading this, you survived the first quarter of 2020. What…

Space this way —

“We intend to the maximum extent possible to stay on track.”


Cartoon rocket superimposed over real rocket launch.

Enlarge / The mighty Delta IV Heavy rocket takes to the skies.

Welcome to Edition 2.38 of the Rocket Report! If you’re reading this, you survived the first quarter of 2020. What will the second quarter hold? We can’t speak for the world outside of launch, but within the world of launch there is plenty to look forward to—starting with the potential for a crew launch from Florida in May.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Blue Origin workers angered by potential Texas travel. Employees at Blue Origin say the company is pressuring workers to travel from Washington state to rural Van Horn, Texas, to conduct a test launch of the New Shepard during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many employees have expressed concerns about traveling right now, both for their safety and that of residents in rural Texas, The Verge reports. The company was originally targeting April 10 for the next New Shepard launch and was working toward that date as recently as last weekend.

Safety is the priority … During a meeting on Wednesday, Jeff Ashby, a senior mission assurance director at Blue Origin and a former NASA astronaut, suggested there may be employment repercussions if workers didn’t agree with management’s decisions. Ashby said, “I would say that you should ask yourself, as an individual, are you acting as a toxin in the organization, fanning discontent, or are you really trying to help our senior leaders make better decisions?” Blue Origin told the publication it would not comment on internal meetings and maintained that safety is its highest priority.

Stratolaunch’s pivot to hypersonics is official. This week the company with the world’s largest aircraft unveiled a new business plan: building and operating hypersonic test beds, Ars reports. To facilitate this, Stratolaunch released preliminary designs for “Talon-A,” a reusable vehicle capable of reaching Mach 6. (Hypersonic flight is generally defined as speeds above Mach 5 through the atmosphere.)

Paging the US Air Force … The company says its 8.5-meter-long Talon-A vehicle is a “flexible, high-speed testbed built for hypersonic research, experiments, and enabling operational missions.” When the hypersonic testbed will be ready for flight is unclear. If the company succeeds in developing the Talon-A vehicle—and we probably should have some healthy skepticism given that this is about the fifth or sixth vehicle proposed to fly on the Stratolaunch aircraft—the US military would certainly be interested. (submitted by Jack56, Unrulycow, and platykurtic)

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Avio exempt from coronavirus lockdown. The Italian government declared aerospace companies exempt from the nationwide lockdown aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus, enabling Avio to continue production of rockets, Avio CEO Giulio Ranzo said according to SpaceNews. Arianespace launches the Avio-built Vega rocket from the Guiana Space Center, which is presently closed.

Seeking a quick reopening … Since 60 percent of Avio’s revenue comes from manufacturing, the French government’s March 16 decision to suspend launches from the Guiana Space Center shouldn’t impact revenues as long as Europe’s South American spaceport reopens within two to three months, Ranzo said. “We all have the same shared interest to reopen this as soon as we can,” he added. Vega and its larger replacement rocket, Vega C, were due to launch four times in 2020. (submitted by JohnCarter17)

Virgin picks an Asian spaceport location. On Thursday, Virgin Orbit announced a new partnership with Ōita Prefecture to bring horizontal launch to Japan. With the support of regional partners ANA Holdings Inc. and the Space Port Japan Association, the goal is to fly the LauncherOne booster into space from Japan as early as 2022.

Beginning of an aerospace hub? … “We are eager to host the first horizontal takeoff and landing spaceport in Japan. We are also honored to be able to collaborate with brave technology companies solving global-level problems through their small satellites,” said Katsusada Hirose, governor for the Ōita Prefectural Government. “We hope to foster a cluster of space industry in our prefecture, starting with our collaboration with Virgin Orbit.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

UK science minister backs Scottish spaceport. UK Science Minister Amanda Solloway made her support clear in a letter, The Northern Times reports. “The Government remains committed to supporting ambitions to develop a spaceport at Sutherland and those firms wishing to launch from the site,” she wrote.

Work should begin soon … The Sutherland Spaceport, located in the far northern reaches of Scotland, has generated some controversy because of its environmental impacts, including on land and marine environments, and levels of light and noise that could be generated especially around launch times. Work must begin on the site fairly soon if it is to be ready for the planned 2022 debut of the Orbex Prime rocket.

NASA and SpaceX simulate Crew Dragon mission. Joint teams from NASA and SpaceX continue making progress on the first flight test with astronauts to the International Space Station by completing a series of mission simulations from launch to landing, the space agency said this week. Earlier in March, control teams and crew ran through a simulated mission starting at pre-launch and continuing through ascent and eventual rendezvous with the station. More recent simulations saw teams execute timelines from hatch closure to undocking with the space station—as well as a free flight in preparation for re-entry and splashdown.

End-to-end testing … “The simulations were a great opportunity to practice procedures and to coordinate decision-making for the mission management team, especially with respect to weather,” said Michael Hess, manager of Operations Integration for CCP. “Simulation supervisors do a great job at picking cases that really make the team think and discuss.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

That Demo-2 mission will carry a new logo. The space agency said the retro-looking “worm” logo will be stamped on the side of the Falcon 9 rocket that will carry astronauts to the International Space Station as part of SpaceX’s Demo-2 flight, presently scheduled for mid- to late May. NASA says there’s a good chance you’ll see the worm logo featured in other missions, too.

Change we can all believe in … The change was driven by the space agency’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, who told Ars he is a “huge fan” of the worm symbol. “I thought marking the achievement of returning human spaceflight to American soil by bringing back the worm would be a fitting tribute to a historic achievement,” he said. The worm was retired in 1992.

Falcon Heavy to deliver lunar cargo. Last Friday, NASA announced that the first award under this “Gateway Logistics” contract would go to SpaceX. The company will use its Falcon Heavy rocket to deliver a modified version of its Dragon spacecraft, called Dragon XL, to the Lunar Gateway, Ars reports. After delivering cargo, experiments, and other supplies, the spacecraft would be required to remain docked at the Gateway for a year before “autonomous” disposal.

First crack at big money … This is a big deal for SpaceX in that it provides yet another customer for the Falcon Heavy and showcases the booster as a viable vehicle for delivering cargo (and yes, maybe even crew inside a modified Crew Dragon) to the vicinity of the Moon. NASA is expected to eventually select a second partner, but for now, SpaceX will have first dibs at the $7 billion NASA has set aside over a period of 12 to 15 years for logistics supply. (submitted by Ken the Bin and JohnCarter17)

SpaceX releases Payload User’s Guide for Starship. The six-page guide for Starship and its Super Heavy booster provides some basic information for potential customers to judge whether a launch vehicle meets their needs for getting payloads into space. For cargo, Starship boasts what would be the largest payload fairing of any existing or planned rocket, with a volume of 8 meters by 22 meters, Ars reports.

No prices, yet … The new guide is notable because it details the lift capabilities of Starship in reusable mode, during which both the first and second stages reserve enough fuel to return to Earth. In this configuration, the rocket can deliver more than 100 metric tons to low Earth orbit and 21 tons to geostationary transfer orbit. The guide provides neither pricing information nor a date when the service will become available.

Air Force still working toward big rocket selection in 2020. While the COVID-19 pandemic is creating unprecedented challenges, officials insist they are doing what they can to keep the Pentagon’s contracting machine in motion, SpaceNews reports. “We intend to the maximum extent possible to stay on track,” Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, said.

No problems for now … SMC is reviewing bids from launch providers competing for two five-year contracts to be awarded in mid-2020 for national security space-launch services. Thompson said the source selection work has not stopped since SMC shifted to telework two weeks ago. Some launch providers are developing new rockets for the competition, but Thompson said that, so far, none have indicated they will not be able to stay in the race due to the pandemic. (submitted by platykurtic)

Next three launches

April 9: Soyuz | Crew mission to International Space Station | Baikonur, Kazakhstan | 08:05 UTC

April 25: Soyuz | Progress supply mission to ISS | Baikonur, Kazakhstan | TBD

April 29: Falcon 9 | GPS III mission | Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida | 11:00 UTC

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