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Astronauts successfully depart the ISS aboard SpaceX Dragon, starting their trip home

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have successfully undocked from the International Space Station, which is the first crucial stage of their return to Earth. Next, they’ll travel on a coast phase that will take them on a descent course back through the atmosphere from space, shedding speed as they prepare to deploy the parachutes of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and drop into the Atlantic Ocean for recovery.

The undocking, coast and splashdown phase are all meant to be performed entirely via automation, with the control systems SpaceX designed for Crew Dragon managing the entire process, including burns to control the capsule’s travel away from the Station and its controlled descent through the atmosphere. While re-entering the atmosphere, the Dragon will undergo tremendous stress, and its angle of descent is intended to slow its velocity to the point where it can safely deploy those parachutes to slow its fall even further, all the while keeping Behnken and Hurley safe.

The coast phase will take many hours, with SpaceX and NASA expecting the eventual splashdown of the capsule happening sometime around 2:42 PM EDT (11:42 PM PDT) tomorrow, Sunday August 2.

This is the final phase of SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission from its Commercial Crew program with NASA, which is the qualification program that the agency requires to certify Crew Dragon for regular operational missions taking astronauts to and from the station. Behnken and Hurley launched on the first part of this historic mission, which is the first to see humans fly aboard a SpaceX spacecraft, on May 30, and have spent the intervening months on the Space Station contributing to regular crew missions.

Crew Dragon will splash down off the coast of Florida to conclude Demo-2, and SpaceX crews are on hand to recover the astronauts at that point and bring them the rest of the way back to terra firma. If everything goes to plan, then SpaceX will officially be ready to begin standard astronaut flights, as mentioned – and the first of those is planned for sometime in late September, so they won’t have to wait long.

We’ll have updates for the remainder of this final leg as they become available, so stay tuned.

Rocket Lab launch fails during rocket’s second stage burn, causing a loss of vehicle and payloads

Rocket Lab’s ‘Pic or it didn’t happen’ launch on Saturday ended in failure, with a total loss of the Electron launch vehicle and all seven payloads on board. The launch vehicle experienced a failure during the second stage burn post-launch, after a lift-off from the Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.

The mission appeared to be progressing as intended, but the launch vehicle appeared to experience unexpected stress during the ‘Max Q’ phase of launch, or the period during which the Electron rocket experiences the most significant atmospheric pressure prior to entering space.

Launch video cut off around six minutes after liftoff during the live stream, and rocket was subsequently shown to be falling from its current altitude before the web stream was cut short. Rocket Lab then revealed via Twitter that the Electron vehicle was lost during the second stage burn, and committed to sharing more information when it becomes available.

This is an unexpected development for Rocket Lab, which has flown 11 uneventful consecutive Electron missions since the beginning of its program.

Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck posted an apology to Twitter, noting that all satellites were lost, and that he’s “incredibly sorry” to all customer who suffered loss of payload today. That includes Canon, which was flying a new Earth imaging satellite with demonstration imaging tech on board, as well as Planet, which had five satellites for its newest and most advanced Earth imaging constellation on the vehicle.

We’ll update with more info about the cause and next steps from Rocket Lab when available.

SpaceX’s astronaut launch marks the dawn of the commercial human spaceflight industry

SpaceX on Saturday launched two NASA astronauts aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft, and the accomplishment is a tremendous one for both the company and the U.S. space agency. At a fundamental level, it means that the U.S. will have continued access to the International Space Station, without having to rely on continuing to buy tickets aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to do so. But it also means the beginning of a new era for the commercial space industry – one in which private companies and individual buying tickets for passenger trips to space is a consistent and active reality.

With this mission, SpaceX will complete the final step required by NASA to human-rate its Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon spacecraft, which means that it can begin operationally transporting people from Earth essentially as soon as this mission concludes (Crew Dragon still has to rendezvous with the space station tomorrow, and make its way back to Earth with astronauts on board in a few weeks). Already, SpaceX has signed an agreement with Space Adventures, a private space tourism booking company that has previously worked with Roscosmos on sending private astronauts to orbit.

SpaceX wants to start sending up paying tourists on orbital flights (without any ISS stops) starting as early as next year aboard Crew Dragon. The capsule actually supports up to seven passengers per flight, though only four seats will ever be used for official NASA crew delivery missions for the space station. SpaceX hasn’t released pricing on private trips aboard the aircraft, but you can bet they’ll be expensive since a Falcon 9 launch (without a human rated capsule) costs around $60 million, and so even dividing that by seven works out to a high price of entry.

So this isn’t the beginning of the era of accessible private spaceflight, but SpaceX is the first private company to actually put people into space, despite a lot of talk and preparatory work by competitors like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. And just like in the private launch business, crossing the gulf between having a private company that talks about doing something, and a company that actually does it, will absolutely transform the space industry all over again.

Here’s how.

Tourism

SpaceX is gearing up to launch tourists as early as next year, as mentioned, and while those tourists will have to be deep-pocketed, as eight everything that SpaceX does, the goal is to continue to find ways to make more aspects of the launch system reusable and reduce costs of launch in order to bring prices down.

Even without driving down costs, SpaceX will have a market, however niche, and one that hasn’t yet really had any inventory to satisfy demand. Space Adventures has flown a few individuals by buying tickets on Soyuz launches, but that hasn’t really been a consistent or sustainable source of commercial human spaceflight, and SpaceX’s system will likely have active support and participation from NASA.

That’s an entirely new revenue stream for SpaceX to add to its commercial cargo launches, along with its eventual launch of commercial internet service via Starlink. It’s hard to say yet what kind of impact that will actually have on their bottom line, but it could be big enough to have an impact – especially if they can figure out creative ways to defray costs over successive years, since each cut will likely considerably expand their small addressable audience.

SpaceX’s impact on the launch business was to effectively create a market for small satellites and more affordable orbital payloads that simply didn’t make any economic sense with larger existing launch craft, most of which were bankrolled almost entirely by and for defence and NASA use. Similarly, it’s hard to predict what the space tourism market will look like in five years, now that a company is actually offering it and flying a human-rated private spacecraft that can make it happen.

Research

Private spacefarers won’t all be tourists – in fact, it could make a lot more financial sense for the majority of passengers to and from orbit to be private scientists and researchers. Basically, imagine a NASA astronaut, but working for a private company rather than a publicly-funded agency.

Astronauts are essentially multidisciplinary scientists, and the bulk of their job is conducing experiments on the ISS. NASA is very eager to expand commercial use of the ISS, and also to eventually replace the aging space station with a private one of which they’re just one of multiple customers. Already, the ISS hosts commercial experiments and cargo, but if companies and institutions can now also send their own researchers as well, that may change considerably how much interest their is in doing work on orbit, especially in areas like biotech where the advantages of low gravity can produce results not possible on Earth.

Cost is a gain a significant limiting factor here, since the price per seat will be – no pun intended – astronomical. But for big pharma and other large companies who already spend a considerable amount on R&D it might actually be within reach. Especially in industries like additive manufacturing, where orbit is an area of immense interest, private space-based labs with actual rotating staff might not be that farfetched an idea.

Marketing & Entertainment

Commercial human spaceflight might actually be a great opportunity to make actual commercials – brands trying to outdo each other by shooting the first promo in space definitely seems like a likely outcome for a Superbowl spot. It’s probably not anyone’s priority just now, given the ongoing global pandemic, but companies have already discussed the potential of marketing partnerships as a key driver of real revenue, including lunar lander startup ispace, which has signed a number of brand partners to fund the build and flight of its hardware.

Single person rides to orbit are definitely within budget for the most extreme marketing efforts out there, and especially early on, there should be plenty of return on that investment just because of how audacious and unique the move is. The novelty will likely wear off, but access to space will remain rarified enough for the forseeable future that it could still be part of more than a few marketing campaigns.

As for entertainment, we’ve already seen the first evidence of interest there – Tom Cruise is working on a project to be filmed at least in part in space, apparently on board the International Space Station. SpaceX is said to be involved in those talks, and it would make a lot of sense for the company to consider a Crew Dragon flight with film crew and actors on board for both shooting, and for transportation to ‘on location’ shoots on the ISS.

Cruise probably isn’t the only one to consider the impact of a space-based motion picture project, and you can bet at least one reality show producer somewhere is already pitching ‘The Bachelor’ in space. Again, it’s not going to be within budget for every new sci-fi project that spins up, but it’s within blockbuster budget range, and that’s another market that grew by 100% just by virtue of the fact that it didn’t exist as a possibility before today.

Novel industry

It’s hard to fully appreciate what kind of impact this will have, because SpaceX has literally taken something that previously wasn’t possible, and made it available – at costs that, while high, aren’t so high as to be absurd. As with every other such expansion, it will likely create new and innovative opportunities that haven’t even been conceived, especially once the economics and availability of flights, etc. are clarified. GPS, another great space-based innovation, formed the bedrock of an industry that changed just about every aspect of human life – private commercial spaceflight could do the same.

The first SpaceX Dragon capsule is taking its final flight

Last night, SpaceX launched its first generation Dragon capsule on its twentieth — and final — resupply run to the International Space Station.

The launch marks the Dragon’s last mission as the capsule makes way for SpaceX’s updated and improved Dragon 2 capsule, which will begin making resupply runs to the space station in October.

Alongside cargo to resupply the ISS, the Dragon will be bringing along payloads for experimental research aboard the space station. Including an Adidas experiment to see how it can manufacture midsoles in space; a project from the faucet maker, Delta, to see how water droplets form in zero gravity; and Emulate is sending up an organ-on-a-chip to examine how microgravity affects intestinal immune cells and how heart tissue can be cultured in space.

It’s been twelve years since SpaceX first won a $1.6 billion contract to resupply the space station, and over that time, the space industry has changed dramatically.

The company’s technical innovations around manufacturing and reusing rocket components revolutionized the space industry and created an environment where entrepreneurs believed in the possibility of competing with industry giants like Aerojet Rocketdyne, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin.

Since SpaceX first emerged to challenge those longtime government contractors, which had a lock on government space missions, a wave of commercial activity has emerged around the International Space Station, supporting the creation of new industries.

Earlier this week, Axiom Space announced that it would be using SpaceX to ferry the first entirely private crew of passengers to the International Space Station for a ten-day trip (albeit at a cost of $55 million). Axiom’s vision of building a private orbiting space station off of the existing International Space Station is a bold step forward for the commercialization of space — and one which would be less likely if not for SpaceX’s work and the success of the first Dragon.

Boeing’s Starliner crew spacecraft will attempt a landing on Sunday

Boeing launched its Starliner CST-100 commercial crew spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time on Friday morning in an uncrewed test, and while an error with the onboard mission clock meant that the Starliner didn’t reach its target orbit as intended and subsequently didn’t have enough fuel on board to actually meet up and dock with the ISS, it’s still doing as much testing as it can to complete other mission objectives. One of those objectives is landing the Starliner spacecraft, and Boeing and NASA have scheduled that landing for Sunday at 7:57 AM EST (4:57 AM PST).

The landing will take place at White Sands, New Mexico, and will involve a controlled de-orbit and descent of the Starliner capsule. The spacecraft will begin its de-orbit burn at 7:23 AM EST if all goes to plan, and NASA will begin a live broadcast of the entire landing attempt starting at 6:45 AM EST (3:45 AM PST) on Sunday morning if you want to tune in to the stream embedded below.

Boeing and NASA held a press conference today to provide updates about the mission status after the unplanned mission timer incident on Friday. Boeing SVP of Space and Launch Jim Chilton said during the conference that the team has managed to successfully run a number of its test objective with the mission despite the setback, including extending the docking system to see that it performs as expected, and testing the abort system on board the crew capsule.

The landing is another key test, and could even be more crucial to crew safety in terms of its execution. Both NASA and Boeing have said that were astronauts on board the Starliner during this mission, the mission clock timer incident that occurred would not have put them in any actual danger at any time. Problems with the automated landing sequence would be a different story, potentially – though astronauts are trained to do everything manually in case of any issues encountered while they’re actually in the spacecraft.

Should anything warrant skipping the first attempt at landing tomorrow, NASA and Boeing have a back-up landing opportunity about eight hours after the first. Tune in tomorrow to see how this spacecraft, which will still hopefully carry its first human passengers next year, does with its landing maneuvers.

Blue Origin moves closer to human spaceflight with 12th New Shepard launch

Jeff Bezos -founded Blue Origin has recorded another successful mission for its New Shepard sub-orbital launch vehicle, which is a key step as it readies the spacecraft for human spaceflight. This is also the sixth flight of this re-used booster, which is a record for Blue Origin in terms of relying on and recovering one of its rocket stages.

This is the ninth time that Blue Origin has flown commercial payloads aboard New Shepard, and each launch moves it one step closer to demonstrating the system’s readiness for carrying crew on board. This launch carried experimental payloads that will be used for research, including materials used in student studies. It also had thousands of postcards on board written by students from around the world, which were submitted to the Club for the Future nonprofit set up by Blue Origin earlier this year to provide educational resources about space to schools and students.

Blue Origin intends to fly paying space tourists aboard New Shepard eventually, along with other commercial astronauts making the trip for research and other missions. Up to six passengers can fit in Blue Origin’s capsule atop the New Shepard, but we don’t yet know when it’ll actually be carrying anyone on board, either for testing or for commercial flights.

Elon Musk says Starship should reach orbit within six months – and could even fly with a crew next year

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk delivered an update about Starship, the company’s nest generation spacecraft, which is being designed for full, “rapid reusability.” Musk discussed the technology behind the design of Starship, which has evolved somewhat through testing and development after its original introduction in 2017.

Among the updates detailed, Musk articulated how Starship will be used to make humans interplanetary, including its use of in-space refilling of propellant, by docking with tanker Starships already in orbit to transfer fuel. This is necessary for the spacecraft to get enough propellant on board post-launch to make the trip to the Moon or Mars from Earth – especially since it’ll be carrying as much as 100 tons of cargo on board to deliver to these other space-based bodies.

Elon Musk

These will include supplies for building bases on planetary surfaces, as well as up to 100 passengers on long-haul planet-to-planet flights.

Those are still very long-term goals, however, and Musk also went into detail about development of the current generation of Starship prototypes, as well as the planned future Starships that will go to orbit, and carry their first passengers.

The Starship Mk1, Mk2 and the forthcoming Mk3 and Mk4 orbital testers will all feature a fin design that will orient the vehicles so they can re-enter Earth’s atmosphere flat on their ‘bellies,’ coming in horizontal to increase drag and reduce velocity before performing a sort of flip maneuver to swing past vertical and then pendulum back to vertical for touch-down. In simulation, as shown at the event, it looks like it’ll be incredible to watch, since it looks more unwieldy than the current landing process for Falcon boosters, even if it’s still just as controlled.

SpaceX Starship Mk1 29

The front fins on the Starship prototype will help orient it for re-entry, a key component of reuse.

Musk also shared a look at the design planned for Super Heavy, the booster that will be used to propel Starship to orbit. This liquid-oxygen powered rocket, which is about 1.5 times the height of the Starship itself, will have 37 Raptor engines on board (the Starship will have only six) and will also feature six landing legs and deployable grid fins for its own return trip back to Earth.

In terms of testing and development timelines, Musk said that the Starship Mk1 he presented the plan in front of at Boca Chica should have its first test flight in just one to two months. That will be a flight to a sub-orbital altitude of just under 70,000 feet. The prototype spacecraft is already equipped with the three Raptor engines it will use for that flight.

Next, Starship Mk2, which is currently being built in Cape Canaveral, Florida, at another SpaceX facility, will attempt a similar high altitude test. Musk explained that both these families will continue to compete with each other internally and build Starship prototypes and rockets simultaneously. Mk3 will begin construction at Boca Chica beginning next month, and Mk4 will follow in Florida soon after. Musk said that the next Starship test flight after the sub-orbital trip for Mk1 might be an orbital launch with the full Super Heavy booster and Mk3.

Elon Musk 1

Musk said that SpaceX will be “building both ships and boosters here [at Boca Chica] and a the Cape as fast as we can,” and that they’ve already been improving both the design and the manufacture of the sections for the spacecraft “exponentially” as a result of the competition.

The Mk1 features welded panels to make up the rings you can see in the detail photograph of the prototype below, for instance, but Mk3 and Mk4 will use full sheets of stainless steel that cover the whole diameter of the spacecraft, welded with a single weld. There was one such ring on site at the event, which indicates SpaceX is already well on its way to making this work.

This rapid prototyping will enable SpaceX to build and fly Mk2 in two months, Mk3 in three months, Mk4 in four months and so on. Musk added that either Mk3 or Mk5 will be that orbital test, and that they want to be able to get that done in less than six months. He added that eventually, crewed missions aboard Starship will take place from both Boca Chica and the Cape, and that the facilities will be focused only on producing Starships until Mk4 is complete, at which point they’ll begin developing the Super Heavy booster.

Starship Mk1 night

In total, Musk said that SpaceX will need 100 of its Raptor rocket engines between now and its first orbital flight. At its current pace, he said, SpaceX is producing one every eight days – but they should increase that output to one every two days within a few months, and are targeting production of one per day for early in Q1 2019.

Because of their aggressive construction and testing cycle, and because, Musk said, the intent is to achieve rapid reusability to the point where you could “fly the booster 20 times a day” and “fly the [starship] three or four times a day,” the company should theoretically be able to prove viability very quickly. Musk said he’s optimistic that they could be flying people on test flights of Starship as early as next year as a result.

Part of its rapid reusability comes from the heat shield design that SpaceX has devised for Starship, which includes a stainless steel finish on one half of the spacecraft, with ceramic tiles used on the bottom where the heat is most intense during re-entry. Musk said that both of these are highly resistant to the stresses of reentry and conducive to frequent reuse, without incurring tremendous cost – unlike their initial concept, which used carbon fibre in place of stainless steel.

Musk is known for suggesting timelines that don’t quite match up with reality, but Starship’s early tests haven’t been so far behind his predictions thus far.

NASA and SpaceX practice Crew Dragon evacuation procedure with astronaut recovery vessel

NASA and SpaceX continue their joint preparations for the eventually astronaut crew missions that SpaceX will fly for the agency, with a test of the emergency evacuation procedure for SpaceX’s GO Searcher seaborne ship. The ship is intended to be used to recover spacecraft and astronauts in an actual mission scenario, and the rehearsals this week are a key part of ensuring mission readiness before an actual crewed SpaceX mission.

Photos from the dress rehearsal, which is the first coordinated end-to-end practice run involving the full NASA and SpaceX mission teams working in concert, saw NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken don SpaceX’s fancy new crew suits and mimic a situation where they needed to be removed from the returned Crew Dragon spacecraft and taken to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from the GO Searcher by helicopter.

By all accounts, this was a successful exercise and seems to have left parties on both sides happy with the results. Check out photos released by NASA of the dry run below.

SpaceX and NASA continue to work towards a goal of launching Crew Dragon’s first actual crewed flight this year, though they’ve encountered setbacks that make that potentially impossible, including the explosion of a Crew Dragon test vehicle during a static test fire in April.

Watch SpaceX’s Falcon 9 ‘Block 5’ rocket take its first re-flight

SpaceX is sending of one of newest Falcon 9 rockets back into space for the second time this early morning U.S. time.

The Falcon 9 ‘Block 5’ rocket is designed to be able to go into space and return 100 times, but these are early days. The rocket leaving today is taking Indonesian satellite Merah Putih in what will be its second trip — a re-flight — into space. If all goes well and the SpaceX robotic drone successfully collects the rocket off the Florida coast as planned, then this particular vehicle will be the first Block 5 to manage a repeat lift-off following a previous trip in May.

The next major focus for the firm is to reduce the preparation time and cost required between the relaunch of rockets. Obviously, there’s plenty of benefits for faster turnaround time and the cost-savings associated. But first thing is first and the vehicle out today could become the first Falcon 9 to go into space three times.

The launch happened a few minutes ago, but you can keep up with progress via the SpaceX live feed above.

SpaceX caps a record year with 18th successful launch of 2017

 SpaceX has completed its 18th launch in 2017, marking a record year for the private space company. It’s the most rockets SpaceX has launched in a single year, beating its previous best by ten missions. The launch today was for client Iridium, delivering 10 satellites to low Earth orbit for its Iridium NEXT communications constellation. This is the fourth such mission that SpaceX has… Read More

SpaceX’s Dragon supply ship failed to rendezvous with ISS, will try again Thursday

c5qordewqaa4de A GPS error prevented SpaceX’s Dragon supply ship from mating with the ISS early this morning. The craft was less than a mile away from the space station when the docking had to be aborted. NASA stated the Dragon craft and the ISS crew are safe. Another rendezvous will be attempted on Thursday. This is the first time SpaceX had to abort an ISS delivery mission as the company has… Read More

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