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NASA funds big ideas from small businesses

How do you keep moondust from gumming up the works in NASA’s future spacesuits and spacecraft? That’s one of the issues addressed in the latest batch of projects backed by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program.

“NASA is working on ambitious, groundbreaking missions that require innovative solutions from a variety of sources – especially our small businesses,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said in a news release. “Small businesses have the creative edge and expertise needed to help our agency solve our common and complex challenges, and they are crucial to maintaining NASA’s leadership in space.”

Four SBIR research contracts will go to Washington state companies. And two of those contracts are going to Everett-based Off Planet Research. One Off Planet project focuses on the development of a flexible fiber seal that will hold up in dusty environments.

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Starliner space taxi’s success paves way for crewed flight

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space capsule landed safely amid the sands of New Mexico after a six-day test flight to the International Space Station and back.

This trip was uncrewed — assuming you don’t count a sensor-equipped mannequin nicknamed Rosie the Rocketeer as a crew member. But living, breathing astronauts could fly on Starliner as soon as this year.

All went well today with Starliner’s descent from the space station and its parachute-aided, airbag-cushioned landing at White Sands Missile Range, Cheers arose at NASA’s Mission Control in Houston, where the final stages of the flight test were being tracked.

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Starliner docks with space station after ‘excruciating’ wait

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi docked with the International Space Station for the first time today during an uncrewed flight test, marking one more big step toward being cleared to carry astronauts to orbit. But it wasn’t easy.

“The last few hours have been excruciating,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, acknowledged during a post-docking teleconference for journalists.

Despite a few glitches, Lueders and other leaders of the NASA and Boeing teams said they were generally pleased with Starliner’s performance, beginning with its May 19 launch from Florida and continuing with today’s hours-long series of orbital maneuvers.

“We’ve learned so much from this mission over the past 24 hours,” Lueders said.

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Boeing’s Starliner space taxi lifts off for second test flight

Two and a half years after an initial orbital flight test fell short, Boeing is trying once again to put its CST-100 Starliner space capsule through an uncrewed trip to the International Space Station and back.

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket sent Starliner spaceward from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 6:54 p.m. ET (3:54 p.m. PT) today. Boeing and NASA are hoping that this second orbital flight test, known as OFT-2, will pave the way for Starliner’s first crewed flight later this year.

Within OFT-2’s first hour, Starliner separated from the Atlas 5 rocket’s Centaur upper stage and executed an engine burn to reach its intended orbit. “It’s a major milestone to get behind us, but it is really just the beginning,” NASA commentator Brandi Dean said. “We’ve got a number of demonstrations now that the Starliner will have to go through ahead of its International Space Station arrival.”

Boeing has received billions of dollars from NASA to develop Starliner as an alternative to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for sending astronauts into orbit. NASA’s arrangement with SpaceX and Boeing has been compared to a taxi service, with the space agency paying the spacecraft providers for rides.

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Cosmic Space

NASA rolls back its SLS moon rocket to make repairs

NASA brought its Space Launch System rocket back to one of the world’s biggest repair shops — the 526-foot-tall Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida — to fix some flaws that turned up during rehearsals for a mission beyond the moon.

It took 10 hours to roll the 322-foot-tall, 3.5 million-pound rocket on its mobile launch platform from Launch Complex 39B to the VAB. The 4-mile journey, which made use of a giant crawler-transporter handed down from the Apollo and space shuttle programs, was basically a rewind of the rocket’s trip to the pad on March 17-18.

NASA had hoped to conduct a “wet dress rehearsal” for the launch of the SLS and its Orion deep-space capsule on an uncrewed trip around the moon. That mission, known as Artemis 1, is meant to set the stage for a crewed round-the-moon mission in 2024 and the first crewed landing on the moon since the Apollo era in 2025 or 2026.

Unfortunately for NASA, the practice runs came across some issues that need to be addressed in the days and weeks ahead.

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NASA pays out millions for future space communications

Six satellite ventures — including SpaceX’s Starlink network and Amazon’s Project Kuiper — are due to receive a total of $278.5 million in NASA funding to demonstrate next-generation space communication services in Earth orbit.

The Communications Services Project is intended to smooth the transition from NASA’s constellation of dedicated communication satellites, known as Tracking and Data Relay Satellites or TDRS, to a commercially operated network that draws upon multiple providers.

NASA has turned to similar public-private models for space services including cargo resupply and crew transportation to the International Space Station, as well as the future delivery of scientific experiments and astronauts to the lunar surface.

“By using funded Space Act Agreements, we’re able to stimulate industry to demonstrate end-to-end capability leading to operational service,” Eli Naffah, project manager for the Communications Services Project at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, said today in a news release. “The flight demonstrations are risk reduction activities that will develop multiple capabilities and will provide operational concepts, performance validation and acquisition models needed to plan the future acquisition of commercial services for each class of NASA missions.”

SpaceX’s satellites are manufactured at the company’s facilities in Redmond, Wash., not far from the complex where Amazon’s Project Kuiper is developing its broadband satellites.

In addition to SpaceX and Project Kuiper, the contractors include U.S.-based ventures representing Inmarsat, SES, Telesat and Viasat. Each venture will be required to complete technology development and in-space demonstrations by 2025 to prove that its system can deliver robust, reliable and cost-effective services — including the ability for new high-rate and high-capacity two-way links.

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Cosmic Space

Private astronauts get down to work on the space station

Axiom Space’s first quartet of private astronauts settled in on the International Space Station today after dealing with a glitch that cropped up during their approach.

The crew’s arrival aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule had to be delayed about 45 minutes while mission controllers at SpaceX and NASA sorted out an issue with a video system designed to monitor the docking using a camera aboard the space station.

After the video signal was re-routed, docking took place at 8:29 a.m. ET (5:29 a.m. PT). “We’re happy to be here, even though we’re a bit late,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, the former NASA astronaut who’s commanding the mission for Houston-based Axiom Space.

A little less than two hours after docking, Lopez-Alegria and Axiom’s three customers — Larry Connor, Mark Pathe and Eytan Stibbe — floated through the hatch to become the first completely private-sector crew to visit the space station.

The seven long-term residents of the space station — representing the U.S., Russia and the European Space Agency — greeted them with hugs and handshakes. Then the full complement of 11 faced the cameras for a welcome ceremony that incorporated a new tradition.

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AI gets tested on space station, starting with gloves

“Check my spacewalking gloves, HAL.”

The HAL 9000 computer that starred in “2001: A Space Odyssey” — and made such a mess of maintenance issues on the Discovery One spaceship — isn’t on the job on the International Space Station. But Microsoft and Hewlett Packard Enterprise are teaming up with NASA to put artificial intelligence to work on mundane orbital tasks, starting with the chore of checking spacewalkers’ gloves for wear and tear.

That’s just one of two dozen experiments in AI, cloud and edge computing that have been run on HPE’s Spaceborne Computer-2 since the hardware was sent to the space station a year ago.

“We’re bringing AI to space and empowering space developers off the planet with Azure, and it’s enabling the ability to build in the cloud and then deploy in space,” Steve Kitay, senior director of Azure Space at Microsoft, told me.

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NASA lays out its plan for another moon lander

NASA has laid out its plan for choosing a second commercial venture to build a landing system capable of carrying astronauts to and from the lunar surface.

The venture would provide a competitive alternative to SpaceX’s lunar landing system, which is based on its Starship design and won a $2.9 billion NASA contract last April. The Starship lunar lander is scheduled to take on an uncrewed test mission to the moon in 2024, followed by the first crewed lunar landing for NASA’s Artemis program in 2025.

“We expect approximately one human landing per year, over a decade or so, and these are not isolated missions,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said today. “Each is going to build on the past progress. … And all of that is, of course, in preparation for us then to have the first human mission to Mars late in the 2030s or 2040.”

When SpaceX won NASA’s nod last April, two competitors for the contract — Alabama-based Dynetics and a team led by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture — complained that NASA should have made more than one award, in the interest of promoting competition. Some members of Congress, including Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., made similar arguments.

Nelson said the new program, known as the Sustaining Lunar Development contract or NextSTEP Appendix P, would address those complaints. “I promised competition, so here it is,” he told reporters.

If the program proceeds according to plan, the second company’s landers would go into service in the 2026-2027 time frame, starting with an uncrewed test mission to the lunar surface.

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Cosmic Space

The stage is set for NASA moon rocket’s rehearsal

For the first time in nearly 50 years, a NASA rocket capable of sending humans to the moon is sitting on its launch pad.

The overnight rollout of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, topped by an Orion capsule, evoked memories of the Saturn V rocket launches that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon from Kennedy Space Center in Florida between 1968 and 1972.

The SLS is being prepared for a monthlong test mission known as Artemis 1, which will send the Orion on an uncrewed flight around the moon and back. That flight, currently set for the May-June time frame, is due to be followed by a crewed round-the-moon mission in 2024, and then a mission to send astronauts to lunar surface in 2025.

The precise timing of all these missions depends on the outcome of on-the-ground tests of the multibillion-dollar rocket. Those tests are due to take place over the next couple of weeks and come to a climax next month with a dress rehearsal for launch.

The stage for the rehearsal was set when the 322-foot-tall, 3.5 million-pound rocket rolled out of Kennedy Space Center’s giant Vehicle Assembly Building on a crawler-transporter that was retooled from the space shuttle era. After a trek that took nearly 11 hours, the rocket was fixed in place at around 4:15 a.m. ET (1:15 a.m. PT) today at Launch Complex 39B, which was first used for Apollo 10’s launch in 1969.