Virgin Galactic wants to make sure people know its first powered SpaceShipTwo (SS2) flight is coming soon. Yesterday the company tweeted a photo of what it called the second “in a short series of final tests” of the vehicle’s hybrid rocket motor prior to that first flight:
The 2nd in short series of final tests prior to SS2′s 1st rocket-powered flight. <3 the photo, <3 the data even more. twitter.com/virgingalactic…
While Musk debuted the video of the latest Grasshopper test Saturday in his on-stage interview at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas, it wasn’t the only space-related topic discussed during the hour-long event. Musk also provided some new insights on the problems the company’s latest Dragon spacecraft experienced immediately after launch on March 1 as well as the latest in the company’s interest in a Texas spaceport.
Musk said the problem with three of the thruster pods was initially puzzling because they didn’t expect three to fail. “These things are cross-strapped. You’d think that maybe one wouldn’t work or a cross-strapped pair wouldn’t work, but not three. It was really, really strange.” That left the spacecraft tumbling while SpaceX developed new code to send to the spacecraft to try and solve the problem, using US Air Force antennas with enough power to get that code uplinked to the spacecraft.
Musk said that the company now believes the problem was with check valves in pressurant lines leading to oxidizer tanks for the three affected thruster pods. “There was a slight change to a check valve that was in three of the tanks and not in the other. We were able to replicate that problem on the ground later,” he said. They solved the problem by building up pressure upstream and then releasing it to “slam the valve” and get it to open. “We’re trying to give it sort of the spacecraft equivalent of the Heimlich maneuver,” he said. That ultimately worked, getting all four thruster pods up and running.
Another topic discussed in the interview was the company’s interest in developing a new commercial spaceport on the Texas coast near Brownsville. On Friday, Musk was up the street from the Austin convention center at the State Capitol, testifying before a committee about his plans. “Right now, Texas is arguably the leading candidate,” he said at SXSW. “We need certain legislation passed supportive of space launch.” That legislation, which he said is “not particularly controversial,” includes the ability to close the beach during a launch (current state law requires beaches to be open to the public), as well as “protection for the 1-in-10,000-person case who complains about the thing.” He didn’t specify what that “protection” would be, although he cited a case where a person sued over SpaceX’s rocket testing facility near McGregor, Texas, even though that person didn’t even live in the same county as the test site.
“If thing go as expected, it’s likely that we’ll have a launch site in Texas,” Musk said. In the best-case scenario, the company would make a decision this year about the location of the launch site and start construction of it next year. The first launches from the spaceport would take place in two to three years.
Later in the interview, after discussing his other two ventures, electric car company Tesla and solar power company SolarCity, the interview turned back to Musk’s interest in going to Mars. “If humanity doesn’t land on Mars in my lifetime, I’ll be really disappointed. That would probably be my biggest disappointment,” he said. “I do personally want to set foot on Mars, but honestly, I would be doing this even if I knew there was no chance of me to go to Mars, because I think it’s important that we’re on a path to getting there.”
Near the end, Musk was asked who influenced and inspired him. He went through a number of historical figures and then some current businesspeople, including Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin as well as Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who, of course, has his own space company, Blue Origin. “Every time I see Jeff Bezos,” Musk said, “I say, ‘Why aren’t you doing more in space?’”
Saturday afternoon Elon Musk was the subject a keynote interview at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas. It was at the conference that he showed the first video of Thursday’s test flight of SpaceX’s Grasshopper vehicle. How new was this video? “You’re the first people to see that video,” he told an audience that filled the main ballroom and an overflow room at the conference, as well as those watching online. “Even including SpaceX, apart from the video editor who just sent it to me half an hour before this.”
Musk called this test the “Johnny Cash hover slam” test, and the video itself featured Cash’s iconic “Ring of Fire” song as its soundtrack. Grasshopper flew to an altitude of 80.1 meters, according to a statement released by SpaceX while Musk was speaking, and was airborne for 34 seconds. By comparison, on its previous flight, in mid-December, Grasshopper flew to 40 meters and was aloft for 29 seconds. The landing was “its most accurate precision thus far on the centermost part of the launch pad,” according to the SpaceX statement. And, alluding to the “hover slam” aspect of the test, “at touchdown, the thrust to weight ratio of the vehicle was greater than one, proving a key landing algorithm for Falcon 9.”
“What you saw there was essentially testing the terminal guidance and landing capability of the rocket,” Musk said at SXSW. “With each successive test, we want to go higher and further and improve the technology to the point where we’re doing transitions all the way through hypersonic and back, hopefully later this year.”
Grasshopper is a technology development vehicle that is part of SpaceX’s efforts to create a reusable version of its Falcon 9 rocket. Musk emphasized the importance of reusability to lowering launch costs in his SXSW presentation. “That’s been the goal since the beginning of the company,” he said. “I think we’ve kind of got a handle on it. We’ve got a design that, in the simulations… it closes. If we can build that thing, it should work.”
SpaceX developed Grasshopper to test technologies it plans to incorporate into a future reusable version of the Falcon 9. The vehicle is a Falcon 9 first stage with a single Merlin engine and fitted with landing legs. The vehicle last flew in December, flying to an altitude of 40 meters and staying airborne for 29 seconds. SpaceX previously flew Grasshopper in September and November.
A SpaceX spokesperson did not respond to a request for information about the flight on Friday afternoon. In December, the company waited nearly a week after the successful test flight before releasing videos of the flight and other information.
SpaceShipTwo, the suborbital vehicle under development by Virgin Galactic and its partner Scaled Composites, has been on the verge of beginning powered flights for a few months now, after performing a glide flight in a “powered flight configuration” in December. There’s been little news from Virgin since then, until a blog post today by Sir Richard Branson himself about a first-of-its-kind nighttime test of SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor. Much of the blog post is a description of the February 28th test written by Matt Stinemetze, the Scaled program manager for SS2. The key item from the post is at the end, where Stinemetze writes that this test was the “first in a rapid series of final confirmation firings leading up to SpaceShipTwo’s first rocket powered flight.”
The test doesn’t yet appear on the RocketMotorTwo flight test log maintained by Scaled, where the last test is from Janaury 24. The description also doesn’t mention the length of the burn or other details, other than it appeared to be a success. The fact that the test merited a blog post, though, and by Branson himself, suggests a growing level of confidence that this first SS2 powered flight will finally be coming soon.
NASA announced Saturday afternoon that the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched Friday, which has recovered from a thruster problem that jeopardized its mission, is cleared to arrive at the station just one day later than planned. Dragon will rendezvous with the station in the early morning hours Sunday, with the station crew scheduled to grapple the Dragon with its robotic arm at 6:31 am EST (1131 GMT). The arm will than move the Dragon to its berthing location on the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module.
That’s a major recovery from just 24 hours ago, when SpaceX engineers were still struggling to bring the spacecraft’s four thruster pods online. According to NASA, “all of Dragon’s systems are operating as planned” now, including the thrusters, which have been raising the spacecraft’s orbit in preparation for Sunday’s arrival. “SpaceX said it has high confidence there will be no repeat of the thruster problem during rendezvous, including its capability to perform an abort, should that be required,” NASA noted in the statement.
Update 3/3 9:30 am: The berthing took place not according to plan, but actually ahead of it: The station’s robotic arm grappled Dragon one hour early, at 5:31 am EST (1031 GMT), and attached it to the station at 8:56 am EST (1356 GMT). Dragon will remain at the station until March 25, when it will return to Earth carrying experiments and other items from the station.
This time it’s the spacecraft that’s causing some problems for SpaceX. The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off on time at 10:10 am EST (1510 GMT) after a trouble-free countdown and placed the Dragon into orbit nine minutes later, all according to plan. However, SpaceX reported a problem with the Dragon immediately after separation, offering no additional details. SpaceX CEO and CTO Elon Musk tweeted the most details offered to date about the issue, which may be software related.
Issue with Dragon thruster pods. System inhibiting three of four from initializing. About to command inhibit override.
11:20 am EST update: SpaceX public relations provided the following brief statement: “One thruster pod is running. Two are preferred to take the next step which is to deploy the solar arrays. We are working to bring up the other two in order to plan the next series of burns to get to station.”
12:05 pm EST update: Another update from SpaceX public relations: “Falcon 9 lifted off as planned and experienced a nominal flight. After Dragon achieved orbit, the spacecraft experienced an issue with a propellant valve. One thruster pod is running. We are trying to bring up the remaining three. We did go ahead and get the solar arrays deployed. Once we get at least 2 pods running, we will begin a series of burns to get to station.”
2:15 pm EST update: There’s been no further word from SpaceX about the status of the Dragon troubleshooting, but NASA has informed the ISS crew that Saturday’s planned arrival of Dragon at the station won’t take place, suggesting SpaceX is still working to get the Dragon’s thrusters working.
4:25 pm EST update: Dragon appears to be on the mend after a near-death experience immediately after launch. NASA and SpaceX officials said in a telecon that the spacecraft’s thrusters were coming back online, and Elon Musk tweeted shortly after the end of the telecon that all four pods were now online. Musk said engineers suspect that debris of some kind lodged in a line leading from a helium tank to an oxidizer tank, keeping the oxidizer tank from pressurizing; alternative, a valve could have stuck closed. The problem appears to have been resolved, however, and Dragon will soon perform a thruster burn to raise its orbit.
As for when Dragon will arrive at the station, NASA and SpaceX officials said they’ll need time to review the data from the thrusters and be confident that they’re working properly before bringing Dragon close to the station. While a Saturday arrival has been ruled out, Dragon could still berth with the station as soon as Sunday. Once Dragon raises its orbit this afternoon, Musk said they’ll have plenty of time to determine next steps: Dragon can remain in orbit for months now that its solar arrays are deployed, and there are plenty of berthing opportunities for Dragon at the station, except for some days around mid-month when three members of the station’s current crew depart.
7:45pm EST update: One final update tonight, in the form of a press release just emailed to media by SpaceX, indicating Dragon is now on track for arrival at the ISS as early as Sunday, just one day later than original plans despite all of today’s drama:
SPACEX ACHIEVES FIFTH CONSECUTIVE FALCON 9 LAUNCH DURING SECOND OFFICIAL CARGO RESUPPLY MISSION
Dragon spacecraft heads toward International Space Station
Hawthorne, Calif. – Today, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft to orbit for SpaceX’s second mission under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. Falcon 9 completed its job perfectly, continuing its 100 percent success rate.
“Falcon 9 was designed to be the world’s most reliable rocket, and today’s launch validated this by adding to Falcon 9’s perfect track record with our fifth success in a row,” said Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX.
After Dragon separated from Falcon 9’s second stage approximately nine minutes after launch, a minor issue with some of Dragon’s oxidation tanks was detected. Within a few hours, SpaceX engineers had identified and corrected the issue, normalizing the oxidation pressure and returning operations to normal. Dragon recomputed its ascent profile as it was designed to and is now on its way to the International Space Station (ISS) with possible arrival on Sunday, just one day past the original timeline.
Dragon is the only spacecraft in the world today capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth. Dragon will stay on station for a three-week visit, during which astronauts will unload approximately 1,200 pounds of cargo and fill the capsule with return cargo, for return to Earth. Dragon is filled with supplies for the ISS, including critical materials to support science investigations. Later this month, Dragon will return a payload that includes research results, education experiments and space station hardware.
The Falcon 9 carrying the Dragon spacecraft for the CRS-2 mission undergoes a hot fire test on the pad on Monday, February 25. (credit: SpaceX)
SpaceX is on track to launch this Friday the second of 12 contracted cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS). Launch of the Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket on a mission the company designates CRS-2 is scheduled for 10:10 am EST (1510 GMT) from Cape Canaveral. NASA and SpaceX officials indicated all was going well with the launch preparations, and there is an 80% chance of acceptable weather for the launch.
During a preflight press conference Thursday afternoon, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell provided some new details about the previous Falcon 9 launch, of the CRS-1 mission, in October. That launch suffered a shutdown of one of its nine first stage engines; the Dragon spacecraft still reached orbit although a second payload, a demonstration satellite for commercial communications company ORBCOMM, was placed in a lower-than-planned orbit to comply with NASA mission rules, and deorbited a few days later. Back in December Shotwell said the investigation into the engine anomaly was wrapping up, but offered few details about the incident.
On Thursday, Shotwell went into a little more detail. “There was a material flaw that went undetected in the jacket of the Merlin engine, resulting in a breach during the flight, causing depressurization of the combustion chamber,” she said. “The flight computer recognized that depressurization and commanded a shutdown.”
Shotwell did not go into more detail about the nature of the anomaly, saying that a detailed report about it was being reviewed by the State Department for public release in order to comply with export control laws. Engine technology is particularly sensitive, she said, and thus the company is being very conservative in what it says while awaiting approval of the report. “We’re just ultra-sensitive about that. I don’t look good in horizontal stripes. I certainly don’t want to go to jail,” she said.
However, at Thursday’s press conference, Shotwell indicated that they were near the limits of the performance of the current, and soon to be replaced, version of the Falcon 9. “The upgraded Falcon 9 launch vehicle will accommodate a dramatic increase in cargo,” she said, referring to the “v1.1″ version of the Falcon 9, whose first flight in planned for. “You will see an increased amount of cargo both due to probably NASA comfort with our maturity in getting to space station, in addition, the upgraded Falcon 9 allows for additional carriage of cargo.”
Shotwell also briefly addressed another topic at the press conference unrelated to the CRS-2 mission: the announcement this week by the Inspiration Mars Foundation, established by businessman and space tourist Dennis Tito, to launch a human Mars flyby mission in 2018. SpaceX had been wrapped up in the news because a paper about the proposed mission used the company’s Dragon and Falcon Heavy vehicles as its baseline. So far, though, Shotwell said the company has no relationship with Inspiration Mars, confirming what those involved with the project said earlier this week. “I think his plan is very ambitious,” she said. “If he can come up with the funding to execute this mission, I’d be happy to have him as a customer.”
Dennis Tito discussing Inspiration Mars at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on February 27.
The Inspiration Mars Foundation formally rolled out their plans for a human Mars flyby mission on Wednesday in Washington, and there were few surprises during the event compared to what had already been reported about their proposal, here and elsewhere. During that time Inspiration Mars has been grouped with a number of rather audacious NewSpace ventures announced since late 2011: air-launch company Stratolaunch Systems, asteroid mining companies Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, and Golden Spike with its plans for commercial human lunar missions. All are taking things that sound like science fiction and making them real.
However, there’s a key factor that sets Inspiration Mars apart that has nothing to do with technologies or missions. The others mentioned above all have business plans designed to create sustainable, profitable ventures. In many cases, those business plans are not particularly innovative: Stratolaunch Systems is just another launch services provider, although one with a unique technical approach (which, as Sea Launch discovered when it went through Chapter 11 reorganization, is alone no guarantee of success.) Inspiration Mars, though, is very different: there’s no desire to make a profit, and their proposed mission is a one-shot effort.
“This is not a commercial mission,” Dennis Tito, the founder of Inspiration Mars, said at Wednesday’s press conference. “This is not mission that, if it’s successful, I’m going to come out to be a lot wealthier. Let me guarantee you: I will come out a lot poorer as a result of this mission. But my grandchildren will come out a lot wealthier from the inspiration that this will give them.”
At the press conference, Tito said he would provide the funding to sustain the project through its first two years, but did not disclose how much that would be. (Most of the expense of the mission, including the purchase of the launch vehicles and spacecraft, would likely come in the three years leading up to the launch.) While Tito is wealthy—not a billionaire but widely reported to be a centimillionaire—he is likely not rich enough to pay for the mission entirely himself. Instead, he said the nonprofit foundation would raise money through donations as well as potential sales of sponsorships and media rights.
While raising money has been a major challenge for many NewSpace ventures, Tito didn’t think it would be that big a hurdle. “I think it’s such a great mission I’m very excited about going out there and raising that money,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a real difficult problem, although I’m going to assume I’ll spend a lot of my time doing that.” He noted the California Science Center is currently raising money to build a new wing to host the Space Shuttle Endeavour, and that the person responsible for raising those efforts is a friend of his. “I know his experience in raising money. It wasn’t that difficult. If you have a good idea you can raise money for it.”
That puts Inspiration Mars closer to the B612 Foundation, which last summer announced plans to raise money to develop a space telescope called Sentinel to look for near Earth objects. (One wonders if the people at B612 agree with Tito’s statement that raising hundreds of millions of dollars isn’t “that difficult.”) However, B612 had been around for years before announcing Sentinel, and likely have long-term plans beyond Sentinel. Inspiration Mars, though, is focused solely on a 2018 Mars mission, after which it plans to donate any technology and other intellectual property it’s developed to NASA and the American people.
Inspiration Mars, then, is not so much a NewSpace venture as an initiative that takes advantage of, at least in part, the capabilities of NewSpace companies. SpaceX, of course, has been identified as one potential supplier of launch vehicles and spacecraft, but Inspiration Mars officials have cited a number of other options for spacecraft and launch vehicles from both established and emerging space companies. “We live in a time when more human spacecraft are being developed in America than in all American history combined up to this era,” said Taber MacCallum of Paragon Space Development Corporation, which is working on life support systems for the project. (Paragon itself has some NewSpace elements, including winning a first-round Commercial Crew Development award from NASA in 2010 to support development of life support technologies.)
After the press conference, I asked Tito why he preferred spending his money on Inspiration Mars than investing it into any number of other commercial space ventures that could lower launch costs or enable new markets, and also provide a monetary return. “It’s not a better investment of money,” he said. He explained he had reached a point in his life where he was less concerned about making more money than trying to give something back.
So, is this project his grandchildren’s inheritance? “Exactly.”
“If someone had told me six months ago I’d be talking with you about this,” Taber MacCallum said, shaking his head as the words trailed off. The “this” he was referring to in an interview yesterday in Washington was the plan being formally announced today by a new organization, Inspiration Mars, to mount a privately-funded crewed Mars flyby mission in 2018: a concept that leaked out last week and being led by Dennis Tito, the engineer-turned-businessman who is best known for being the first space tourist to visit the International Space Station in 2001.
MacCallum, CEO and CTO of Paragon Space Development Corporation, said he was approached by Tito back in September about this concept and agreed to look into the feasibility of sending a crew on a 501-day “free return” Mars flyby trajectory, launching from Earth in January 2018. “We kept on finding issues and then finding a workaround,” he said. “We all went into this very skeptical… but it all sort of kept working out.”
The organization’s plan is, notionally, what is described in the IEEE conference paper previously mentioned here: a two-person crew flying in a spacecraft like SpaceX’s Dragon. While the paper specifically describes launching a Dragon on a Falcon Heavy rocket, also developed by SpaceX, MacCallum said they’re still looking at various mission architectures involving other spacecraft and launch vehicles.
Although a Wall Street Journal article suggested that plans for cooperation with SpaceX “imploded” recently, he said they had not even started discussions with the company. “We haven’t been in touch with SpaceX other than to verify that the information on the web is correct,” he said, referring to technical information about the Falcon Heavy and Dragon used in their paper. “Unfortunately, as that paper leaked around, it created the perception that SpaceX is the baseline launch provider, and they’re not. It’s an open field, and we’re looking at two, maybe three, scenarios that look very promising.”
Regardless of the vehicle selection, MacCallum said they would use a two-person crew, which offered redundancy over sending a single person but without the “psychological issues” of a three-person crew. “And then Dennis said, ‘If it’s going to be two crew members, it needs to represent humanity, so it needs to be a man and a woman,’” he said, adding that they preferred a married couple past childbearing age and that Tito himself was not interested in going.
And what will that two-person crew do during the mission? “Mostly keeping themselves alive,” MacCallum said. The spacecraft’s life support system will be “as non-automated as possible” so it is more easily maintained by the crew, a very different approach to the more automated systems on the ISS designed to free up crew time to do science, but which are more difficult for crews to repair without getting replacement items sent up form Earth. “It’s going to be a ’55 Chevy. They’re going to be taking this apart a lot,” he said. There will be time for some human deep space physiology research, he said, with Jonathan Clark putting together a set of proposed experiments to do during the mission.
One sensitive area for the proposal is just how much it will cost. “Dennis has asked us not to talk about what it’s going to cost, because he’s sure that whatever number we say will be wrong,” MacCallum said. The project is willing to admit that the cost would be “a fraction of Curiosity,” the NASA Mars rover whose estimated mission cost is $2.5 billion. Tito has committed to fund the first two years of development “no matter what is costs,” he said, and then will raise money for the rest.
The project also has support—technical, not financial—from NASA. MacCallum said they have signed a reimbursable Space Act Agreement with NASA to help in areas like development of the capsule’s thermal protection system. They have also briefed NASA leadership, including administrator Charles Bolden, as well as select members of Congress and officials with the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the White House. All, MacCallum said, have had a “very positive” response to their plans, and don’t see the mission as competing in any way with NASA’s own long-term human space exploration plans.
But why do this in the first place? MacCallum suggested that Tito, 72, “is at a time in his life when it’s time to give back and time to figure out how he contributes to society, and feels very deeply that this mission will contribute to the American spirit.” A mission like this, they believe, will “reignite a time of daring and exploration,” encouraging people to take risks to pursue great things. “We could get America back to taking those kinds of risks that really push the boundaries and inspire people to greatness.”
This is, in many respects, a one-off effort: there are no plans for follow-on missions if the 2018 Mars flyby mission is successful. “It’s a philanthropic mission,” he said. Technologies developed for the mission and any data collected will be made freely available. “It really is a contribution for America.”