Space Force awards $87.5 million for rocket development

The U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command today announced awards totaling $87.5 million to support prototype commercial projects relating to next-generation rocket testing and enhancements to make upper stages more resilient.

The awards were made under the aegis of the National Security Space Launch program using the Space Development Corps’ Space Enterprise Consortium, which facilitates engagement involving the Pentagon space community, industry and academia.

The awards include:

  • $24.35 million to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture for cryogenic fluid management on the New Glenn rocket’s second stage.
  • $24.35 million to Rocket Lab to develop the Neutron rocket’s upper stage.
  • $14.47 million to SpaceX for rapid throttling and restart testing of the Raptor rocket engine, which is destined for use on SpaceX’s Starship rocket, liquid methane specification development and testing; and combustion stability analysis and testing.
  • $24.35 million to United Launch Alliance for uplink command and control for the Centaur V upper stage, which will be used with ULA’s Vulcan rocket.
Cosmic Space

Starship survives its landing for the first time

SpaceX’s Starship prototype super-rocket stuck the landing today after a 10-kilometer-high test flight. And this time, it didn’t blow up.

The six-minute flight at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, marked the first time in five tries that one of SpaceX’s 160-foot-tall prototypes survived a complete cycle of launch and landing.

The third attempt came close in March, but in that case, the rocket erupted in a fireball minutes after it landed.

No such setback occurred this time around. Propelled by three of SpaceX’s methane-fueled Raptor engines, the Starship SN15 prototype rose into a cloudy sky, hovered at an altitude of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) as planned, and then flipped into a horizontal attitude in order to increase drag and reduce its speed as it descended.

Moments before reaching the ground, Starship re-ignited two of its engines, righted itself and landed on its feet. When the smoke cleared, the rocket stood tall on its landing pad, with flames licking at its side.

“The Starship has landed,” SpaceX launch commentator John Insprucker declared. He said the post-landing fire was “not unusual with the methane fuel that we’re carrying, as we continue to work on the test vehicle design.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted a three-word reaction to Starship’s successful flight: “Starship landing nominal!”


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.


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.


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.

Cosmic Space

A new SpaceShip and a falling Starship

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:

Say hello to SpaceShip III

The next iteration of Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered space plane looks like a shinier version of SpaceShipTwo, but Space News reports that the structure of the vehicle has been adjusted to make it lighter and more efficient as well as easier to build, inspect and maintain.

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

Blue Origin New Glenn rocket factory
Blue Origin has its New Glenn rocket factory in Florida. (Blue Origin Photo)

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.

Cosmic Space

SpaceX’s Starship lands at last — but then blows up

SpaceX’s prototype Starship super-rocket landed upright today at the end of the program’s third high-altitude test flight — which qualifies as a big step forward, even though the rocket blew up minutes later.

There were actually two launch attempts during today’s hours-long opportunity at the company’s Boca Chica test facility in South Texas. The first one ended with an aborted ignition. In a tweet, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the rocket’s three methane-fueled Raptor engines exceeded a “slightly conservative high thrust limit.”

SpaceX’s launch team raised the allowable thrust limit for another attempt two hours later, and this time the liftoff was picture-perfect. As was the case for SpaceX’s two earlier high-flying Starship tests — in December and February — the 160-foot-tall rocket rose majestically from its pad at the company’s Boca Chica test facility, reaching its target altitude of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles).

When the prototype, known as SN10, passed through the top of its trajectory and began its descent, it did an eyebrow-raising flip onto its belly — a maneuver designed to brake its speed on the way down. Moments before reaching the ground, SN10 executed yet another flip to return to a vertical position for a retro-rocket landing.

All that was successfully done during the earlier SN8 and SN9 test flights. The landing has been tougher to execute: Both of those earlier tests ended in a fiery crash — due to low fuel-tank pressure in December, and a faulty rocket engine in February.

This time around, the prototype spaceship landed on its feet, although it appeared to lean a bit to the side. “Starship SN10 landed in one piece!” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk exulted in a tweet.

The sense of accomplishment was dimmed only slightly minutes later when Starship caught fire while sitting on the landing pad. The massive rocket erupted in a fireball, sending Starship’s remains hundreds of feet into the air.

“SN10 re-flew a lot quicker than any of us expected,” Tim Dodd, also known as the Everyday Astronaut, joked in a tweet.

Elon Musk replied in kind: “RIP SN10, honorable discharge.”

SpaceX didn’t immediately say why the rocket exploded, but Scottish rocket scientist and YouTuber Scott Manley speculated that a rupture in the prototype’s oxygen tank was to blame.

Some observers said flames that were seen licking around the base of the rocket as it landed may have contributed to a structural failure. Others pointed to video views suggesting that at least some of the prototype’s landing legs didn’t work properly — which would explain why Starship was leaning on its landing pad.

In any case, it won’t be long until SN11 makes its way to the launch pad for the next Starship test. SpaceX is following a strategy of rapid prototyping, construction and high-altitude testing to hasten the development of a Starship capable of reaching orbit.

Eventually, SpaceX plans to launch Starship atop an even taller Super Heavy first-stage booster for trips to the moon and Mars. And the company is working on a tight timeline.

Just this week, Musk and Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa announced an update in their plans for a Starship trip around the moon. Maezawa’s crewmates for the trip are to be selected within the next few months in a global competition, and spaceflight training could begin this summer for a six-day mission that’s scheduled for 2023. “I’m highly confident that we will have reached orbit many times with Starship before 2023,” Musk said.

Update for 12:35 a.m. PT March 4: Less than 10 hours after the Starship test in Texas, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida to put another 60 of the company’s Starlink broadband internet satellites into low Earth orbit.

After stage separation, the first-stage booster flew itself back to an at-sea touchdown on a drone ship dubbed “Of Course I Still Love You.”

Starlink satellites are built at SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash. The latest batch joins more than 1,000 other satellites that are already providing connectivity to beta users.

Cosmic Space

Japanese tycoon reboots contest for moon trip

Will the third time be the charm for Yusaku Maezawa, the Japanese entrepreneur who’s looking for company on a trip around the moon?

Two and a half years ago, Maezawa announced that he would buy a ride on SpaceX’s Starship super-rocket — and select half a dozen artists on a par with Pablo Picasso or Michael Jackson to accompany him on a flight around the moon and back (without making a lunar landing).

A year ago, Maezawa took a different tack: He set up a reality-TV contest to choose a soulmate to be by his side, and invited women from around the world to apply. A couple of weeks later, he canceled the project and apologized to the 27,722 women who signed up.

Today marks the third try: Maezawa is opening up a fresh opportunity for folks to apply for a spot on his Starship, via his dearMoon website.

“I’m inviting you to join me on this mission,” he said in a video. “Eight of you from all around the world. It will be 10 to 12 people in all, but I will be inviting eight people to come along on the ridc.”

The current plan calls for the Starship launch to take place in 2023. A Super Heavy booster would lift the Starship to Earth orbit. Then the spaceship and its crew would loop around the moon and return to Earth. The round trip would last about six days in all.

Cosmic Space

Another awesome flip (and fiery crash) for Starship

SpaceX’s second high-altitude test flight of its Starship super-rocket prototype looked picture-perfect until the fiery crash at the very end.

In that sense, today’s up-and-down launch for SN9 echoed last month’s test of SN8. The 160-foot-tall rocket rose majestically from SpaceX’s Boca Chica test facility in South Texas, climbed to a maximum altitude of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), hovered for a few moments and then went horizontal for an aerodynamic descent at subsonic speeds.

The rocket was programmed to fire up its methane-fueled Raptor engines and flip itself back to a vertical position, just moments before  touchdown. Video of the test flight showed SN9 pitching over, but failing to straighten itself. As a result, the massive rocket belly-flopped onto its landing pad, exploding in a huge fiery cloud.

During today’s webcast, SpaceX launch commentator John Insprucker insisted the flight wasn’t a flop. He pointed out that the test was designed to try out all of Starship’s systems, from the three Raptors to the flight control system and its stabilizing flaps.

“We had, again, another great flight up to the 10-kilometer apogee. We demonstrated the ability to transition the engines to the landing propellant tanks. The subsonic re-entry looked very good and stable,” he said. “Again, we’ve just got to work on that landing a little bit.”


SpaceX’s Starship flight ends with a bang — and bravos

SpaceX put its Starship super-rocket through its first high-altitude test today — and although the flight ended in a fiery crash, the performance was impressive enough to draw congratulations from Jeff Bezos, who’s locked in a multibillion-dollar rivalry with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

“Anybody who knows how hard this stuff is is impressed by today’s Starship test,” Bezos, who’s the CEO of Amazon and the founder of the Blue Origin space venture, said in an Instagram post. “Big congrats to the whole SpaceX team. I’m confident they’ll be back at it soon.”