To add to the sense of history, today marks the 60th anniversary of Project Mercury’s first crewed spaceflight — a suborbital trip taken by New Shepard’s namesake, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard, in 1961.
“In the decades since, fewer than 600 astronauts have been to space above the Kármán Line to see the borderless Earth and the thin limb of our atmosphere,” Blue Origin said in today’s announcement, referring to the 100-kilometer line that serves as the internationally accepted boundary of outer space. “They all say this experience changes them.”
NASA says it’ll hold up on its payments to SpaceX for developing its Starship super-rocket as a lunar lander while the Government Accountability Office sorts out challenges to the $2.9 billion contract award from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture as well as from Alabama-based Dynetics.
Dynetics and a space industry team led by Blue Origin submitted their protests to the GAO this week, contending that the award unfairly favored SpaceX. The three teams spent months working on proposals in hopes of winning NASA’s support for developing a landing system capable of putting astronauts on the moon’s surface by as early as 2024.
The GAO has 100 days to determine whether the challengers’ complaints have merit, and if so, what to do about it. That 100-day clock runs out on Aug. 4.
In the meantime, the space agency is suspending work on the contract. “NASA instructed SpaceX that progress on the HLS contract has been suspended until GAO resolves all outstanding litigation related to this procurement,” Space News quoted NASA spokeswoman Monica Witt as saying.
It’s not clear how much of an effect the suspension of NASA funding will have on Starship development. Even before this month’s contract award, SpaceX was conducting an extraordinarily rapid series of high-altitude tests of Starship prototypes. The next prototype, dubbed SN15, is due for launch from SpaceX’s Boca Chica base in South Texas sometime in the next few days.
Landing people and cargo on the moon is just one of the applications that SpaceX has in mind for Starship. The reusable rocket ship and its even bigger Super Heavy booster are also meant to be used for point-to-point terrestrial travel, mass deployment of satellites in Earth orbit, commercial trips around the moon and odysseys to Mars and back. SpaceX has raised billions of dollars in private investment for its rocket development effort, and that funding seems likely to sustain SpaceX while the GAO reviews NASA’s award.
The contretemps in commercial space began on April 26 when Blue Origin sent the Government Accountability Office a 50-page filing (plus more than 100 pages’ worth of attachments) claiming that NASA improperly favored SpaceX in the deliberations that led to this month’s single-source award.
A team led by Blue Origin — with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper as partners — had competed for a share of NASA funding to develop a system capable of landing astronauts on the moon in the mid-2020s. Alabama-based Dynetics was also in the competitiion, and has also filed a protest with the GAO.
Both protests contend that NASA was wrong to make only one contract award, despite Congress’ less-than-expected support levels, due to the importance of promoting competition in the lunar lander market. Both protests also contest many of the claims NASA made in a document explaining its selection process. For example, Blue Origin says NASA erroneously determined that it was seeking advance payments for development work.
Although both protests delve deeply into the details of procurement, Blue Origin’s challenge has an added twist of personal rivalry.
United Launch Alliance says it’s struck a deal for a series of nine launches of its Atlas V rocket to send satellites into low Earth orbit for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband internet constellation.
Amazon emphasized that this is just the first wave for a 3,236-satellite network that’s designed to offer broadband access to billions of people.
“We’re determined to make affordable broadband a reality for customers and communities around the world,” Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said today in a news release. “ULA is a fantastic partner that’s successfully launched dozens of missions for commercial and government customers, and we’re grateful for their support of Kuiper.”
In contrast, the Atlas V has successfully executed more than 80 launches since 2002. Rajeev Badyal, Amazon’s vice president of technology for Project Kuiper, touted the Atlas V’s reputation as a “capable, reliable rocket.”
Badyal didn’t rule out selecting Blue Origin for a later round of launches. “We’ve designed our satellites and dispenser system to accommodate multiple launch vehicles — this gives us the flexibility to use many different rockets and providers to launch our satellite system,” he said.
Because Bezos is the sole owner of privately held Blue Origin, publicly held Amazon has to navigate a careful path as it selects launch providers for Project Kuiper. Decisions that appear to favor Blue Origin could spark questions about self-dealing.
In a surprise move that was dictated by budget constraints, NASA is awarding $2.89 billion to SpaceX alone for the development of its Starship super-rocket as a lunar landing system for astronauts — leaving out Alabama-based Dynetics as well as a team led by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.
If all proceeds according to plan, SpaceX would demonstrate Starship’s capabilities during an uncrewed mission to the lunar surface, and then follow up with a crewed demonstration mission for NASA’s Artemis moon program in the mid-2020s.
“NASA’s Artemis program is well underway, as you can see, and with our lander award today, landing the next two American astronauts on the moon is well within our reach,” Steve Jurczyk, the space agency’s acting administrator, said today during a teleconference announcing the award.
In a tweet, SpaceX said it was “humbled to help @NASAArtemis usher in a new era of human space exploration.”
NASA also plans to set up a follow-up competition for future crewed lunar landings that would be provided as a commercial service. Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that could serve as another “on-ramp” for Blue Origin’s team and Dynetics.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture flew a mannequin into space today during the 15th test flight for its New Shepard reusable suborbital spaceship — but for the first time, living, breathing humans practiced all the steps leading up to launch and following landing.
“This is as real as it can get without … sending them on a trip to space,” launch commentator Ariane Cornell said during the countdown to liftoff from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in West Texas.
Bezos was more succinct in an Instagram post from the scene. “It’s time,” the billionaire wrote. He followed up on that assessment with Blue Origin’s motto: “Gradatim Ferociter,” which is Latin for “Step by Step, Ferociously.”
In addition to testing the rocket and rehearsing the on-the-ground procedures for flying passengers, Blue Origin provided a sneak peek at its arrangements for future crewed spaceflights.
During the actual test flight, New Shepard went through its standard mission profile, rising to a height beyond 100 kilometers (62 miles), the “Karman Line” that serves as the international boundary of outer space. The capsule’s maximum altitude was 347,574 feet (105 kilometers).
At the end of the trip, New Shepard’s booster touched down autonomously on its landing pad, while the uncrewed crew capsule landed with the aid of its parachutes and retro rockets.
Virgin Galactic rolls out the successor to SpaceShipTwo, debris from SpaceX’s failed Starship test flight sparks questions from the FAA, and Blue Origin seeks to expand its rocket manufacturing site in Florida. Get the details on the Web:
The first craft in the SpaceShip III line has been christened VSS Imagine, with flight tests due to begin this summer. The second SpaceShip III, VSS Inspire, is under construction in Mojave, Calif. Virgin Galactic is still considering whether to build a third III or move ahead to a next-generation space vehicle. Meanwhile, SpaceShipTwo (a.k.a. VSS Unity) is due to take on another flight test in May, eventually leading up to suborbital space tours for paying customers.
Starship breakup sparks questions
Today wasn’t a good day for SpaceX’s Starship flight test program. The company’s latest super-rocket prototype, SN11, was launched amid obscuring fog at the Boca Chica manufacturing and test facility in South Texas. The craft blasted through the murk to an altitude of 10 kilometers, as planned, but “something significant happened shortly after landing burn start,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reported in a tweet. According to Ars Technica, there were indications of trouble with the rocket’s belly flop maneuver on the way down.
The result? SN11 broke up into pieces, including lots of pieces that rained down on the area around the launch pad. “At least the crater is in the right place!” Musk tweeted. He said the problem should be corrected for SN15, which is due to roll out to the launch pad in a few days. The Verge reports that the Federal Aviation Administration will oversee SpaceX’s investigation of the anomaly, and that investigators want more information about the reports of falling debris.
Blue Origin to expand rocket factory
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning a major expansion of its Florida manufacturing site, the Orlando Business Journal reports. Development plans filed with Florida state officials on March 26 indicate that the company will expand into 70 acres just south of its existing Cape Canaveral campus. The acreage is an abandoned citrus grove that’s part of NASA’s property at Kennedy Space Center and is being leased to Blue Origin, according to the Orlando Business Journal. (Orlando’s WFTV picked up the report.)
Blue Origin hasn’t announced a construction timeline for the project it calls “South Campus Phase 2.” The centerpiece of the campus is a 750,000-square-foot manufacturing complex where Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket is being built. New Glenn is currently due to make its launch debut in late 2022.
With backing from NASA, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture will upgrade its New Shepard suborbital spaceship to provide lunar levels of gravity for future experiments.
“Humanity has been dreaming about artificial gravity since the earliest days of spaceflight,” Erika Wagner, Blue Origin’s director of payloads for New Shepard, said today in a news release. “It’s exciting to be partnering with NASA to create this one-of-a-kind capability to explore the science and technology we will need for future human space exploration.”
Parabolic-flight aircraft are able to provide a spectrum of reduced-gravity environments — such as the 17 percent of Earth gravity that people and payloads would experience on the moon. Similar gravity levels can be produced using centrifuges on suborbital spacecraft. But those methods have their limits. For example, the dose of lunar gravity amounts to just seconds at a time during a parabolic flight, and the centrifuges can accommodate only small payloads.
In contrast, Blue Origin’s method would turn the entire New Shepard capsule into a centrifuge for up to two minutes or more. The capsule’s reaction control thrusters would generate a spin amounting to 11 rotations per minute during the free-fall portion of the flight. The resulting centrifugal force would be equivalent to the moon’s gravity.
Blue Origin expects to provide the rotational capability starting in late 2022. Testing payloads under lunar conditions should help pave the way for NASA’s Artemis moon exploration program, which is due to send astronauts to the lunar surface in the mid-2020s.
The Space Force ended up choosing United Launch Alliance and SpaceX for the next round of national security launches. Jarrett Jones, Blue Origin’s senior vice president for New Glenn, told Space News that losing out on that round of launch contracts represented a $3 billion hit to anticipated revenue, and forced the company to “re-baseline” its development plans.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is testing a full-scale prototype of its cargo lunar lander, as part of its campaign to get a jump on heavy-duty deliveries to the moon.
In a video posted today to Twitter and Instagram, members of Blue Origin’s lander development team provided a status report.
The pathfinder lander has been taking shape at the factory that Blue Origin recently opened in Huntsville, Ala. That factory is responsible for manufacturing the descent element for a human-capable landing system, as well as the BE-4 engines for Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.