Welcome to issue 2.38 of the Rocket Report! If you’re reading this, you survived the first quarter of 2020. What will the second quarter be like? We can’t speak for the world beyond launch, but inside the launch world has plenty to look forward to — starting with the potential for a crew launch from Florida in May.
As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss any issue, please register using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-compatible versions of the site). Each report includes information on small, medium and heavy rockets, as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.
Blue Origin workers angry over potential trips to Texas. Blue Origin employees say the company is pressuring employees to travel from Washington state to rural Van Horn, Texas, to conduct a test launch of the New Shepard during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many workers at this time have expressed concerns about travel, both for their safety and that of rural Texas residents, The Verge reports. The company originally targeted April 10 for New Shepard’s next launch and was working toward that date over the weekend.
Safety comes first …In a meeting on Wednesday, Jeff Ashby, a senior mission insurance director at Blue Origin and a former NASA astronaut, suggested there could be employment consequences if employees disagree with management’s decisions. Ashby said, “I’d say you should ask yourself as an individual: are you acting like a poison in the organization, fueling discontent, or are you really trying to help our senior leaders make better decisions?” Blue Origin told the publication it would not comment on internal meetings, claiming that safety is the top priority.
The pivot from Stratolaunch to hypersonics is official† This week, the company unveiled a new business plan flying the world’s largest aircraft: to build and operate hypersonic test beds, Ars reports. To facilitate this, Stratolaunch has released preliminary designs for “Talon-A”, a reusable vehicle that can reach Mach 6. (Hysonic flight is generally defined as speeds above Mach 5 through the atmosphere.)
Calling the US Air Force … The company says its 8.5-meter Talon-A vehicle is a “flexible, high-speed test bench built for hypersonic research, experimentation and enabling operational missions.” When the hypersonic testbed will be ready to fly is unclear. If the company succeeds in developing the Talon-A vehicle — and we should probably have some healthy skepticism given that this is about the fifth or sixth vehicle proposed to fly the Stratolaunch aircraft — the US military would certainly be interested. (submitted by Jack56, Unrulycow and platykurtic)
Avio exempt from coronavirus lockdown† The Italian government has exempted aerospace companies from the nationwide lockdown aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus to allow Avio to continue producing rockets, Avio CEO Giulio Ranzo said, according to SpaceNews. Arianespace launches the Avio-built Vega rocket from the Guyana Space Center, which is currently closed.
Looking for a quick reopening … As 60 percent of Avio’s revenue comes from manufacturing, the French government’s March 16 decision to suspend launches from the Guyana Space Center should not impact revenues as long as Europe’s South American spaceport is in reopens in two to three months, Ranzo said. “We all have the same shared interest in reopening this as soon as possible,” he added. Vega and its larger replacement rocket, Vega C, would launch four times in 2020 (submitted by JohnCarter17)
Virgin chooses an Asian spaceport location† On Thursday, Virgin Orbit announced a new partnership with Ōita Prefecture to bring horizontal launch to Japan. With the support of regional partners ANA Holdings Inc. and the Space Port Japan Association, the goal is to fly the LauncherOne booster from Japan into space as early as 2022.
Start of a space hub? … “We are eager to host Japan’s first horizontal takeoff and landing spaceport. We are also honored to partner with brave technology companies solving global problems through their small satellites,” said Katsusada Hirose, governor of the Ōita prefecture. “We hope to foster a cluster of aerospace industries in our prefecture, starting with our partnership with Virgin Orbit.” (submitted by Ken de Bin)
British science minister backs Scottish spaceport† British Science Secretary Amanda Solloway made her support clear in a letter, The Northern Times reports. “The government remains committed to supporting ambitions to develop a spaceport in Sutherland and to companies looking to launch from the site,” she wrote.
Work should start soon … Located in the far north of Scotland, the Sutherland Spaceport has caused some controversy due to its environmental impacts, including those on land and at sea, and the light and noise levels that can be generated especially around launch times. Work on the site should begin fairly soon to be ready for the Orbex Prime rocket’s planned debut in 2022.
NASA and SpaceX Simulate Crew Dragon Mission† Joint teams from NASA and SpaceX continue to make progress on the first flight test with astronauts to the International Space Station by completing a series of mission simulations from launch to landing, the space agency said this week. Earlier in March, control teams and crew went through a simulated mission, starting at the pre-launch and continuing through the ascent and eventual encounter with the station. In more recent simulations, teams ran timelines from closing the hatch to disconnecting the space station, as well as a free flight in preparation for reentry and landing.
End-to-end testing … “The simulations were a great opportunity to practice procedures and coordinate decision-making for the mission management team, especially regarding the weather,” said Michael Hess, Operations Integration manager for CCP. “Simulation supervisors do a great job of choosing cases that the team is really thinking and discussing.” (submitted by Ken de Bin)
That Demo-2 mission gets a new logo† The space agency said the retro-looking “worm” logo will be stamped on the side of the Falcon 9 rocket that will take astronauts to the International Space Station as part of SpaceX’s Demo-2 flight, currently scheduled for mid-to-late. end of May. NASA says there’s a good chance you’ll see the worm logo in other missions as well.
Change we can all believe in … The change was driven by Jim Bridenstine, the space agency’s administrator, who told Ars he’s a “huge fan” of the worm symbol. “I thought marking the achievement of returning a manned spaceflight to American soil by returning the worm would be a fitting tribute to a historic achievement,” he said. The worm was retired in 1992.
Falcon Heavy to deliver lunar cargo. Last Friday, NASA announced that the first prize under this “Gateway Logistics” contract would go to SpaceX. The company will use its Falcon Heavy rocket to deliver a modified version of its Dragon spacecraft, called Dragon XL, to the Lunar Gateway, Ars reports. After delivering cargo, experiments and other supplies, the spacecraft should remain at the Gateway for a year before being “autonomously” removed.
First crack for a lot of money … This is a big deal for SpaceX because it offers yet another customer for the Falcon Heavy, showing the booster as a viable vehicle for delivering cargo (and yes, maybe even crew in a modified Crew Dragon) to the near the Moon. NASA is expected to eventually select a second partner, but for now, SpaceX will have the first amounts of the $7 billion NASA has earmarked for logistical supplies over 12 to 15 years. (submitted by Ken the Bin and JohnCarter17)
SpaceX Releases Payload User Guide for Spaceship† The six-page guide to Starship and its Super Heavy booster provides basic information for potential customers to assess whether a launch vehicle meets their needs to get payloads into space. For cargo, Starship boasts what would be the greatest payload of any existing or planned missile, measuring 8 meters by 22 meters in volume, Ars reports.
No prices yet …The new guide is notable for describing Starship’s lifting capabilities in reusable mode, with both the first and second stages reserving enough fuel to return to Earth. In this configuration, the rocket can deliver more than 100 tons in low Earth orbit and 21 tons in geostationary orbit. The guide does not provide pricing information, nor does it provide a date when the service will be available.
Air Force still working on major missile selection in 2020† As the COVID-19 pandemic presents unprecedented challenges, officials are insisting they do what they can to keep the Pentagon’s contracting machine moving, SpaceNews reports. “We intend to stay on track as much as possible,” said Lieutenant General John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center.
No problems for now …SMC is reviewing bids from launch providers competing for two five-year contracts to be awarded by mid-2020 for national security agencies for space launches. Thompson said the source selection work has not stopped since SMC switched to telecommuting two weeks ago. Some launch providers are developing new rockets for competition, but Thompson said none so far have indicated they cannot stay in the race because of the pandemic. (submitted by platykurtic)
Next three launches
April 9: Soyuz | Crew mission to the International Space Station | Baikonur, Kazakhstan | 08:05 GMT
April 25: Soyuz | Progress resupply mission to ISS | Baikonur, Kazakhstan | To be determined
April 29: Falcon 9 | GPS III mission | Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida | 11:00 UTC
Listing image by Aurich Lawson / United Launch Alliance