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Cosmic Space

SpaceX and NASA make history with night splashdown

For the first time since Apollo 8 in 1968, NASA astronauts returning to Earth from orbit have splashed down at night. And for the first time ever, it was done with a commercial spaceship.

After spending 168 days in space, NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, along with Japan’s Soichi Noguchi, descended safely from the International Space Station to the Gulf of Mexico in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience. The Dragon hit the water off Florida’s Gulf Coast at 2:56 a.m. ET today (11:56 p.m. PT May 1).

A recovery team hauled the Dragon, with its crew inside, onto the deck of a ship called the Go Navigator. While he waited to be brought out from the capsule, Hopkins expressed his thanks to the SpaceX and NASA teams for a trouble-free return.

“It’s amazing what can be accomplished when people come together. … Quite frankly, y’all are changing the world. Congratulations,” Hopkins said. “It’s great to be back.”

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NASA freezes SpaceX’s lunar lander cash

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.

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Cosmic Space

Mars helicopter gets a new job: robot scout

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has been doing such a great job on Mars that mission managers have decided not to kill it off. Instead, the solar-powered rotorcraft will be given a new assignment: scouting from the air as NASA’s Perseverance rover moves into new territory.

“It’s like Ingenuity is graduating from the tech demo phase to the new ops demo phase, where we can show how a rotorcraft can be used, and show products that only an aerial platform from an aerial dimension can give,” MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager, said today during a news briefing held to lay out the helicopter’s new mission.

Ingenuity rode to a February landing on Mars beneath Perseverance’s belly, on an $85 million technology demonstration mission that’s a subset of the rover’s $2.7 billion, two-year-long primary mission.

Perseverance’s main tasks are to survey the terrain of Mars’ Jezero Crater, which was thought to have once been the site of an ancient lake, and store up samples for later return to Earth.

NASA planned to try out the solar-powered mini-helicopter on five test flights, merely to prove out the technology for conducting aerial missions in Mars’ ultra-thin carbon dioxide atmosphere. After the first flight, Aung hinted that the final flight just might push the envelope far enough to break the 4-pound flying machine.

But things have gone so well during the flights to date — including today’s fourth flight in the series — that the mission team is extending Ingenuity’s mission for an operational demonstration.

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Elon Musk taunts Jeff Bezos over lunar lander protest

The billionaire space battle just got kicked up a notch, with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture challenging NASA’s award of a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract to SpaceX — and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk replying with a double entendre.

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.

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Cosmic Space

SpaceX sends astronauts to orbit with a light show

Four astronauts from three nations have arrived at the International Space Station in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, after a night launch that lit up the skies over Florida with UFO-like displays.

The light show came courtesy of the timing for liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, on April 23 at 5:49 a.m. ET — which was just right for the dawn’s early glare to illuminate clouds of fuel and exhaust left behind by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket as it ascended and went through stage separation.

In a tweet, NASA said the skies “lit up like a sunrise.” Other observers said the launch left an impression that was out of this world:

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Cosmic Space

Mars helicopter blazes trail for future flights

For the first time ever, a robotic flier made a controlled takeoff and landing on the surface of another planet – and NASA says space exploration will never be the same.

“This really is a Wright Brothers moment,” NASA’s acting administrator, Steve Jurczyk, said hours after today’s first Red Planet flight by the Ingenuity helicopter.

The 4-pound, solar-powered helicopter arrived on Mars in February as a piggyback payload on NASA’s Perseverance rover. After weeks of preparation, which included a software fix downloaded from a distance of 178 million miles, Ingenuity spun up its twin rotors and lifted off for a 39.1-second, 10-foot-high hop.

It was the first of five planned flights that serve as a technology demonstration for future aerial missions that could flit through Mars’ ultra-thin carbon dioxide atmosphere.

Project manager MiMi Aung of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said the feat was equivalent to sending an earthly rotorcraft flying at an altitude three times the height of the Himalayas.

“Unforgettable day,” she said.

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SpaceX wins out over Blue Origin for moon landings

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.

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Cosmic Space

Sierra Nevada Corp. lays out its space station plan

Sierra Nevada Corp. is lifting the curtain higher on its vision for a space ecosystem featuring its orbital space planes and inflatable habitats — a vision that it says could become a reality by 2028 if NASA signs onto a public-private partnership.

This week’s big reveal at SNC Space Systems’ development center in Louisville, Colo., comes as NASA is seeking input about plans for putting commercial space stations in low Earth orbit, or LEO. NASA’s current plan calls for keeping the International Space Station in operation until at least 2028.

By the time the ISS is retired, the space agency would like to have other destinations available in LEO for astronaut training and research.

“Commercial destinations are a critical piece of our robust and comprehensive plan for transitioning low Earth orbit toward more commercial operations,” Angela Hart, NASA’s program manager for the Commercial LEO Development Program, said in a news release. “This strategy provides us and industry the best path for success.”

That’s where SNC hopes to fill a role. The company already has a deal with NASA to conduct at least seven resupply missions to the International Space Station, using an uncrewed version of its reusable Dream Chaser space plane. If all goes according to plan, the first of those flights would be sent to orbit atop United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket in 2022.

SNC has continued to work on other elements of space infrastructure, including a crewed version of the Dream Chaser and inflatable modules that could provide living quarters in space or on the moon.

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Way-out technologies win NASA’s support

NASA’s latest crop of space technology grants will fund work on projects ranging from power-beaming lasers for lunar missions to high-temperature testing of components for nuclear-powered rockets.

Those are just a couple of the 365 concepts attracting a total of $45 million in grants from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs, also known as SBIR and STTR.

Jim Reuter, associate administrator for the space agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said the release of the SBIR/STTR Phase I solicitation was accelerated by two months to help small-scale tech ventures cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

“At NASA, we recognize that small businesses are facing unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic. … We hope the expedited funding helps provide a near-term boost for future success,” Reuter said today in a news release.

This year’s batch of SBIR/STTR Phase I grants will go to 289 small businesses and 47 research institutions across the country. More than 30% of the awards are going to first-time NASA SBIR/STTR recipients.

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Next NASA chief faces big moonshot decisions

President Joe Biden’s choice to lead NASA — former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — will be in the hot seat for a host of issues in human spaceflight that will require a tricky balance between “Old Space” and “New Space.”

Nelson is a 78-year-old Florida Democrat who went on a space shuttle flight as a congressman in 1986, and served three terms in the Senate before his defeat in 2018. In today’s statement announcing his nomination, the White House said that Nelson “was known as the go-to senator for our nation’s space program,” and that “most every piece of space and science law has had his imprint.”

“I am honored to be nominated by Joe Biden and, if confirmed, to help lead NASA into an exciting future of possibilities,” Nelson said in a statement. “Its workforce radiates optimism, ingenuity and a can-do spirit. The NASA team continues to achieve the seemingly impossible as we venture into the cosmos.”