NASA to extend ISS commercial cargo contracts

Cygnus departne

An Orbital Sciences Corporation Cygnus spacecraft departs from the ISS in February at the end of the first of that company’s eight CRS cargo missions to the station. (credit: NASA)

As NASA begins to plan for a follow-on contract to transport cargo to the ISS, the agency announced plans Monday to extend its current contracts with Orbital Science and SpaceX. In a procurement synopsis posted Monday, NASA said it will perform a no-cost extension of its current Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts with the two companies, extending the contracts from December 2015 to December 2017.

The announcement doesn’t indicate how many additional cargo missions would be awarded to the two companies; both contracts include options for additional missions. “There’s a lot of work ahead before we’d have a number of flights,” a NASA spokesperson told Space News Monday.

To date, SpaceX has performed two of the twelve CRS flights under its contracts, with a third planned for launch likely later this month, after a problem with the launch range at Cape Canaveral postponed a March 30 launch attempt. Orbital has flown one of its eight CRS missions, with a second planned for launch in early May, a date that could slip depending on when the SpaceX mission flies.

Even without additional flights, the extension would likely be needed in order to accommodate all the currently contracted flights in the original CRS contracts. A schedule of ISS missions included in the fiscal year 2015 budget justification document for NASA indicates that SpaceX’s eighth CRS mission, the last listed, is slated for launch in June 2015, while Orbital’s fifth CRS mission is planned for launching July 2015. At the projected pace of missions—about four per year for SpaceX and three per year for Orbital—the companies’ final missions under their current contracts would extend into at least mid-2016.

Could a Facebook deal revive Armadillo Aerospace? (updated)


John Carmack speaking at the QuakeCon conference in Dallas on August 1, 2013, in a screenshot from the webcast of his speech.

Last August, John Carmack announced that his small space venture, Armadillo Aerospace, was in “hibernation mode” because of a lack of funding. Carmack, discussing the status of Armadillo during a question-and-answer session during the QuakeCon conference in Dallas, said he was actively looking for outside investors willing to fund operations. “If we don’t wind up landing an investor, it’ll probably stay in hibernation until there’s another liquidity event where I’m comfortable throwing another million dollars a year into things,” he said at the time.

There’s been no news about Carmack finding an outside investor for Armadillo, but there may have been a “liquidity event” for Carmack. Days after his QuakeCon appearance, Carmack announced he had joined Oculus VR, a startup company pursuing virtual reality technology with a headset called Oculus Rift, as the company’s chief technology officer. Yesterday, Facebook announced it was acquiring Oculus VR in a cash-and-stock deal valued at about $2 billion. That is a pretty big liquidity event.

How much of that windfall will go to Carmack, a relatively senior but recent hire by the company, is unclear, as is whether he’ll set aside any of that as “crazy money” with which he feels comfortable funding Armadillo. (He noted last August that funding the company “always been a negotiation with my wife.”) Since the deal was announced late yesterday, Carmack has indicated via Twitter that he’s busy focusing on Oculus software at the moment:

Update 3/30: Carmack, in a tweet posted Saturday evening, indicated that the windfall he expected to get from the Facebook acquisition of Oculus VR would help him get back into aerospace, but not in the immediate future:

In response to a question another person posed, Carmack played down the size of the money he would have available to any future space venture:

Shotwell on launch delay, reusability, and other issues

Falcon 9 for CRS-3

The Falcon 9 rocket that will launch the next Dragon spacecraft late Sunday evening is shown in its hangar in a photo released by SpaceX earlier this month. This is the first Falcon 9 to feature landing legs on its first stage. (credit: SpaceX)

In this week’s issue of The Space Review, I write about SpaceX’s upcoming launch, including its plans to test the recovery of the Falcon 9′s first stage, as part of a broader look at some of the issues facing the launch industry in general today. The article includes some quotes from SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, who appeared Friday on David Livingston’s The Space Show program for an interview. Shotwell made some additional comments in the interview that didn’t make it into the article but are still worth noting.

In the interview, she said that the contamination detected in the trunk of the Dragon spacecraft was not the sole cause of the delay of the launch from March 16 to March 30. That contamination was just one of several factors, which she said included “struggling on some buffering with data transfer between here and Houston” and more time needed to work with the range regarding the recovery of the first stage. In addition to the contamination, she hinted that the Dragon team needed some time to catch their breaths. “So, it was really the combination of those four things where we said, ‘You know what, we need to step back’” and take more time to resolve all of those issues, she said.

Shotwell also discussed some of the changes SpaceX made since their previous attempt to try and recover the Falcon 9 first stage from September. She said engineers are “optimizing” the reentry burn by the first stage after separation and the landing burn before splashdown. “In addition, we have to get a little more stability on that stage as it comes in,” she said, which they’re doing with the optimized burns and an attitude control system.

Shotwell emphasized that these were test flights: “We’ll continue to make a little progress, probably take a step back, make some more progress, take another step back,” she said. “This is a really hard problem. I do believe we will solve it.” She did state that the company hopes to return a Falcon 9 stage to a landing site on land (rather than splashing down in the ocean, as this stage will do) later this year, and reuse a Falcon 9 first stage next year.

The reusable Falcon 9, she said, won’t have any affect on the payload capacity as published on its website. “Overall, this upgraded Falcon 9, which has flown three times, has about 30 percent more performance than what we put on the web, and that extra performance is reserved for us to do our reusability and recoverability demonstrations right now,” she said. That would explain why SpaceX has a contract to use a Falcon 9 to launch the SES-10 satellite in 2016, despite SES-10 weighing in at about 5,300 kilograms, above the published capacity of 4,850 kilograms.

Besides the Falcon 9 and its reusability, SpaceX is also hard at work on a crewed version of its Dragon spacecraft. Despite concerns about US access to the ISS given current tensions with Russia and NASA’s current reliance on Soyuz, Shotwell said she didn’t think it was feasible to greatly accelerate the development of a crewed Dragon. “We proposed a pretty forward-leaning program” for commercial crew, she said. “I don’t want to say that we couldn’t speed things up: we probably could, but it would have to be in lockstep with NASA.” She added that SpaceX current believes it can have a crewed Dragon ready “a little bit faster” than current NASA plans for flights in late 2016 or early 2017.

Next SpaceX launch officially rescheduled for March 30

The launch of the next SpaceX cargo mission to the International Space Station is back on for the evening of March 30, NASA and SpaceX confirmed Friday. The launch, which had been scheduled for the early morning hours of March 16, was postponed a few days before launch after engineers detected contamination in the unpressurized “trunk” section of the Dragon spacecraft. The contamination was said to be a concern for two payloads being carried to the station in the trunk, a laser communications experiment and a high-definition camera system.

However, SpaceX and NASA determined that the contamination was not an issue, and that the Dragon can launch “as-is,” Florida Today reported, citing a statement it received from the company. “All parties agree that the particular constituents observed in Dragon’s trunk are in line with the previously defined environments levels and do not impose additional risk to the payloads,” that SpaceX statement (not widely distributed to media, nor posted on its website) continued.

The launch is now scheduled for 10:50 pm EDT Sunday, March 30 (0250 GMT March 31), with a backup launch date of 9:39 pm EDT April 2 (0139 GMT April 3) from Cape Canaveral, Florida. There appear to be no other significant changes to the mission, the third of twelve currently contracted by NASA to SpaceX to ferry cargo to and from the ISS.

Six takeaways from the “Selling Space” debate

On Wednesday evening, the American Museum of Natural History in New York hosted it annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, this year on the topic of “Selling Space”, or the commercialization of spaceflight. Host Neil DeGrasse Tyson brought together both officials from a couple commercial space companies (Bigelow Aerospace and Space Adventures) as well as other experts, spending nearly two hours discussing various aspects of commercial spaceflight. Much of the discussion tread familiar ground, but there were a few interesting items brought up during the discussion:

A Space Adventures Soyuz seat goes for $52 million currently. It’s been widely known for some time that the approximate cost of flying to the International Space Station on a Soyuz spacecraft with Space Adventures is about $50 million—assuming that a seat is available, which today is rare since all the Soyuz seats are being used for ISS crew transfers. At Wednesday’s event, though, Space Adventures president Tom Shelley said on more than one occasion that the price is $52 million. That’s about $20 million less than NASA pays for Soyuz seats, the panelists noted, although the NASA contract includes additional services.

Space Adventures believes there’s price elasticity in the orbital space tourism market. When Shelley said that $52 million price, there was an audible reaction from the audience at the museum, one of shock. Tyson later asked Shelley if he believed the demand curve for orbital space tourism was elastic: would demand go up if prices went down? “If you dropped the price in half, would you have twice as many people signing up?” Tyson asked. “More than twice as many people, we believe,” Shelley responded. He added that the demand Space Adventures has already demonstrated for space tourism has helped support investment in other commercial space transportation systems that could later carry people into orbit.

Space Adventures is still pursuing a circumlunar commercial mission. The company has been quiet in recent years about plans to fly two people on a Soyuz spacecraft that would loop around the Moon, a mission with a current estimated ticket price of $150 million each. In early 2011, for example, Space Adventures said they had sold one seat and were “finalizing” a deal for the second seat. Calling that circumlunar mission “my personal favorite,” Shelley said they planned to carry out the mission by 2017 or 2018. “We have a couple clients under contract and we hope to take that forward,” he said.

People still get hung up on the definition of “space.” How high up to you have to go to be considered to have reached outer space? During the debate, Tyson was critical of Felix Baumgartner’s jump from “the edge of space,” and the panelists agreed that his jump was nowhere near any such edge. They differed, though, on some of the proposed suborbital flights to altitudes of 100 kilometers or so. Tyson said that some people have the “operating definition” of space where you can see stars in the daytime, which he said is about 100 kilometers. (In fact, 100 kilometers, also known as the Kármán line, is often used as the “boundary” of space and is based on aerodynamics, not the visibility of stars.)

Tyson got so wound up about this he managed to confuse suborbital and orbital spaceflight. “When you say ‘low Earth orbit,’ you’re going up to 100 kilometers and going back,” Tyson said at one point, as members of the panel tried to correct him.

People disagree on whether commercial human spaceflight is inspirational. Do people get excited about private citizens going to space in the same way as they do for government astronauts? Space historian John Logsdon doesn’t think so. “I don’t think commercial space is going to serve as inspiration. That’s where the government comes in,” he said. “Rich people taking joyrides is not inspirational.”

Space Adventures’ Shelley strongly disagreed. “We get calls and emails from people on a daily basis saying, ‘I am so inspired by what it is you’re doing, opening up space. I never thought it was going to be possible for me to be able go to space’” as a government astronaut.

Risk remains a major concern. Spaceflight is in inherently risky, and there was some debate if private spaceflight was riskier than government missions, or if private space travellers would be more willing to accept risks. “One of the big differences in this shift from public-sponsored human travel to private-sponsored human travel is the acceptance of higher risk in the private sector,” said Logsdon, noting that some who attempt to climb Mount Everest die in the attempt, but accept that risk given the rewards of scaling the world’s highest mountain—even if thousands of people have done it before.

Mike Gold of Bigelow Aerospace stressed that less expensive private spaceflight, though, was not inherently riskier than government sponsored missions. “Lower cost does not inherently mean less safe,” he said. “There’s this pernicious misperception that commercial space is going somehow to be less safe or more dangerous or we care more about money than NASA. Nothing could be further from the truth… If we have a bad day, we lose everything.”

Wanda Austin, president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, did argue that spending a little more on “mission assurance” activities (which she said did not have to cost “oodles” of money) was worthwhile. However, at the end of her brief appearance (she appeared via videoconference for the first half-hour of the event because of a prior commitment in California), she did answer positively when Tyson asked her if commercial spaceflight was “ready for prime time.” “We are taking the right steps,” she said. “We’ve already walked through the door, Neil. This is not something that maybe will happen, this is something that is already happening.”

Moon Express names Andrew Aldrin as its new president

A long-time launch vehicle executive, and son of a famous moonwalker, is leaving United Launch Alliance to become president of one of the leading teams in the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition.

Moon Express announced Tuesday that Andrew Aldrin is the company’s new president. Aldrin will be responsible for day-to-day activities at the company, which is developing its MX-1 lander to travel to the Moon by late next year. Co-founder Bob Richards had been serving as president and CEO; he retains the CEO position with the addition of Aldrin.

Aldrin was previously director of business development and advanced programs at ULA, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that manufactures Atlas and Delta rockets. Aldrin had worked at Boeing prior to the formation of ULA. “I am thrilled to be part of an entrepreneurial company that is helping transform the commercial space industry,” he said in a statement. “It is exciting to join a pioneering enterprise filled with passion and dedication to the bold dream of unlocking the Moon’s mysteries and resources, and putting the United States back on the surface of the Moon in a permanent way.”

Aldrin is also the son of Buzz Aldrin, the Apollo 11 astronaut. “Andy’s experience will be invaluable to MoonEx, and I have every confidence in an Aldrin piloting us toward the Moon,” quipped Richards in the announcement.

SpaceX postpones its next ISS mission

Falcon 9 for CRS-3

The Falcon 9 rocket that will launch the next Dragon spacecraft is shown in its hangar in a photo released by SpaceX earlier this week. This is the first Falcon 9 to feature landing legs on its first stage. (credit: SpaceX)

The crew of the International Space Station (ISS) will have to wait a little longer for its next batch of supplies, and fans of reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) will have to wait a little longer for a key technology test.

SpaceX announced late Thursday that the launch of its next Falcon 9, on the third of twelve Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) missions to the ISS, had been postponed. The launch, previously planned for 4:41 am EDT (0841 GMT) Sunday, is now planned for the evening of March 30, with a backup launch date on April 2. The company was vague regarding the delay, saying only it needed to “allow additional time to resolve remaining open items.” However, CBS News reported the delay was triggered after engineers found contamination of some kind in the unpressurized trunk of the Dragon cargo spacecraft that could adversely affect two payloads contained in it: a laser communications experiment and high-definition cameras, both to be installed on the ISS.

(True to form, SpaceX was stingy with the information it provided, distributing the press release to a select group of media by email late Thursday afternoon, but not posting anything to its social media accounts, including Twitter and Facebook, for several hours. As of this writing, more than 12 hours after the announcement of the delay, there’s still no copy of the press release or other notice about the delay on the company’s website.)

The primary purpose of the launch is to deliver the Dragon spacecraft to the ISS. The spacecraft, flying a mission the company calls CRS-3 and what NASA designates at SpX-3 (to differentiate it from Orbital Sciences’ CRS missions), will carry nearly 2,100 kilograms of supplies to the station and return about 1,600 kilograms of cargo to Earth at the end of its mission, according to the mission press kit.

Many people, though, have been interested in this mission for reasons other than the Dragon spacecraft. Company officials have said they plan, after the first stage separates, to attempt what might be considered a “soft splashdown” of the stage, reigniting engines during descent to slow the stage down. SpaceX attempted something similar on the first Falcon 9 v1.1 launch in September, achieving some success, although the spinning of the stage pushed the remaining propellant to the walls of their tanks, shutting down the engines prematurely. This Falcon 9 is the first to be equipped with landing legs on the first stage that, eventually, will allow the stage to make a powered vertical landing on land; the legs clearly won’t be used for that on this mission, but will be tested during the descent.

Uwingu wants to develop a Mars map, and Mars One promises to use it

Uwingu Mars map

A screenshot of Uwingu’s Mars map, populated with a variety of names of craters purchased by the public.

Last week, Uwingu, a venture that last year solicited names for exoplanets, announced that it was allowing the public to name craters on Mars. Starting at just $5 (and up, depending on the size of the crater), people could pick a crater that currently has no name on Mars and name it. Uwingu plans to use those funds to support space research and education: in excess of $10 million dollars, if Uwingu gets people to pay for names for all the approximately 500,000 unnamed craters on Mars.

“We’ve had thousands of features named on Mars already,” Uwingu’s Alan Stern said in a phone interview over the weekend. “Since we’ve debuted this, we’ve named about as many features as the old system, naming through the astronomical committees, named in the previous fifteen years.”

The Uwingu website doesn’t keep a running tally of the number of names assigned to date, but does have a map that is updated in near real time that lists the craters that have been named. There’s a mix of craters named after people and those with more… whimsical names: “Daniel’s Pit of Awesome,” “Big Dazzas Martian Love Nest,” and “SASQUATCH’S SLIPPERY SINKHOLE.”

Stern said they plan to examine the choice of names people assign to craters, to look for trends. “Are people naming them after relatives primarily, famous people, historic places on Earth, sports teams, artists; what’s the distribution of naming types?” he said. “We’re interested not just in what people name things, but why they name things.”

Uwingu’s plans to name craters, though, has encountered some opposition. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), which currently handles the naming of features on Mars and other celestial bodies, told Space News last week it would not sanction any of the names chosen by participants in Uwingu’s effort. And, in a blog post yesterday, lunar scientist Paul Spudis expressed his opposition to this effort in no uncertain terms. “I find this new Uwingu scheme offensive because it preys on the ignorance and trust of the general public,” he wrote, likening Uwingu’s Mars map to the International Star Registry, a company that has sold names of stars to the public with the veneer of officialdom, even though those names are not recognized by IAU or other astronomers.

Stern, in the interview, said some people have misunderstood what Uwingu is doing. “We’re not selling anything like property rights or naming rights,” he said. “We’ve just created a Mars map that grandfathers in everything that’s already been named—about 15,000 features—and takes just the craters and asks the public, ‘What would you name these features?’”

Uwingu addresses that issue as well in a FAQ on its website. “How will our Uwingu Mars feature names be used? They’ll be used by anyone using Uwingu’s Mars maps. For now that’s just the public, but soon, we hope, scientists and space missions to Mars will be using these maps too.” In other words, that name is only as official as that map.

On Monday, one organization announced that it would use that map in its future missions. Mars One, the Dutch venture that has long-term plans to send humans to Mars on one-way missions, said its future missions, starting with a lander and orbiter slated for launch in 2018, will carry the Uwingu map, and that it will use the map as part of its mission operations. In return, Mars One will get a share of the proceeds of the Uwingu Fund; Stern said he couldn’t discuss specific numbers, but that Mars One gets a “slice of the Uwingu Fund for a limited period of time” that “leaves plenty of headroom for tons of other grants.”

“For us it’s a really nice partnership,” Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp said in an interview Sunday on The Space Show, where the agreement between Mars One and Uwingu was first publicly announced. Including the map on Mars One’s 2018 missions is “the really nice thing Mars One can contribute to this partnership,” he added. “That name will actually travel to Mars, land on Mars on 2019… and your name will really be on Mars.”

Of course, Mars One has plenty of skeptics who wonder if the venture can raise enough money to pay for those initial robotic missions, let alone those long-term human plans. Uwingu’s Stern, though, is happy about it. “I’m really psyched about it,” he said of the partnership with Mars One, “because not only can people who put names on our map know that that’s going to the surface of Mars, but also, having an actual an actual Mars mission adopt our map as their standard for mission operations makes it a lot more interesting for people.”

For ZERO-G, a supermodel photo shoot was no bust

Upton in zero-g

You didn’t think we would run an article about Kate Upton’s zero-g flight without including a photo of it, did you? (credit: Sports Illustrated)

Did you hear that Sports Illustrated’s latest swimsuit issue features model Kate Upton in weightlessness? If you’ve been paying any attention to the media in the last week and a half, it would have been hard not to hear about this. The issue includes photos of the supermodel, in swimsuits, floating in the cabin of ZERO-G Corporation’s aircraft during a flight last March that features 13 zero-g and 4 lunar parabolas. (And videos, too. Of course, videos.) The novelty of it all guaranteed plenty of attention, for both Ms. Upton and ZERO-G.

But was it good business, as well? Company spokesperson Stacey Tearne said earlier this week that it was still too soon to tell how much of that attention would translate into sales, but that traffic to the company’s website had increased by 1,000 percent since the release of the issue early last week. “They are receiving many individual seat and charter inquiries every day” since the issue hit newsstands last week, she said of the company’s sales team.

The question many were asking, though, was whether Ms. Upton made it through the photoshoot without feeling ill, as some people do on parabolic aircraft flights. Apparently not: “Kate surprised us all with how she handled modeling in weightlessness,” said MJ Day, editor of the issue, in the release. As as the company noted on Twitter last week:

NASA and companies prepare for next round of commercial cargo contracts

Cygnus departure

An Orbital Sciences Corporation Cygnus spacecraft departs the ISS on February 18, ending the first of eight such cargo transportation missions for the company. It and SpaceX are likely to compete for a new round of contracts that NASA is beginning the planning for.

NASA’s current contracts with Orbital Sciences Corporation and SpaceX for transporting cargo to and from the International Space Station, called Commercial Resupply Services (CRS), cover missions that run through 2016. With the station scheduled to remain in operations to 2020, and now to perhaps at least after the Obama Administration’s announcement of a proposed extension last month, NASA and those cargo providers have to start thinking ahead to a new round of CRS contracts.

On Friday, NASA issued a request for information (RFI) for a “follow on capability” for CRS, or CRS2. The RFI is designed to collect information form industry that would “help NASA refine and mature the follow on acquisition plan” for CRS2. The document doesn’t indicate when NASA would issue a formal RFP for commercial cargo services, but responses to the RFI are due on March 21.

According to the document, CRS2 would cover the period of 2017 through 2024, with funding of $1.0–1.4 billion per year for cargo transportation services. NASA anticipates needing the transportation of 14,250–16,750 kilograms per year of pressurized cargo and 1,500–4,000 kilogram of unpressurized cargo, and the return or disposal of a similar amount of cargo. NASA anticipates four to five missions a year to transport that cargo to and from the station.

Orbital and SpaceX are the two companies that have CRS contracts, with SpaceX preparing to launch its third CRS mission, of twelve, next month and Orbital just completing the first of eight CRS missions earlier this week. At a commercial spaceflight panel Friday night that is part of the SpaceUp Houston “unconference” this weekend, representatives of both companies said they were relatively satisfied with how the current CRS contracts are structured.

“I think the FAR Part 12 commercial contracting we have in place for the CRS program is working very well,” said SpaceX’s Garrett Reisman. That’s a reference to a section of the Federal Acquisition Regulations that cover the acquisition of commercial items. That approach, he said, is much more streamlined than other government contracting mechanisms, and closer to a commercial contract. He added that he hopes that the commercial crew transportation services will follow a similar approach for acquiring crew transportation services once a vehicle or vehicles enter service.

Jeff Siders of Orbital agreed. “The contracting mechanism has worked fine, and we’d see that continuing with no problems,” he said.