Eric Berger

Artist's conception of a passenger balloon in Earth orbit.
Enlarge / Space Perspective aims to launch humans in balloons by 2024.

Welcome to Edition 3.05 of the Rocket Report! This week, much of the focus is on small rockets, and we have plenty of new deals to discuss. So let’s jump right into it!

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

NASA ready to buy suborbital rides for its people. This week, NASA formally asked the US space industry to dish the details on its plans for brief spaceflights. In essence, the space agency said it wants to buy brief hops into space for its Astronaut Corps and scientists, but it needs more information, Ars reports. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the program seeks mostly to increase the time NASA spends in microgravity.

Balancing cost and risk … The biggest question concerns the risk that NASA is willing to accept in putting its people on these space vehicles. For the space shuttle program, NASA had complete oversight of the vehicle’s development. Although the commercial crew program was a public-private partnership, NASA still had significant insight into every facet of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft because it paid for most of the development costs. Now, NASA is solely a customer. “We’re not going to make it more dangerous than orbital flight,” Bridenstine said of suborbital flight.

Iridium inks deal for up to six launches with Relativity. Relativity Space says it has reached an agreement with Iridium to launch six of the company’s next-generation communications satellites, Ars reports. Each of the Iridium NEXT satellites, which weigh 850kg, will be launched individually on Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket. This means the new Launch Services Agreement will lead to as many as six Terran 1 missions, beginning no earlier than 2023.

Needs a West Coast launch site … That’s because these are backup satellites to a constellation of 66 satellites in a near-polar orbit, spread across six different planes at an altitude of 780km. To reach this orbit, the Terran 1 rocket would need to launch toward a pole, and so the company has reached a “Right of Entry” agreement to build a second launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The company will do so at a site south of Space Launch Complex 6.

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Defense Department supports small launch companies. Six space launch companies were selected to receive Defense Department contracts funded under the Defense Production Act to shore up domestic industries financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, SpaceNews reports. Aevum, Astra, X-Bow, Rocket Lab, Space Vector and VOX Space each will receive noncompetitive contracts to launch two rideshare missions for government customers over the next 24 months.

Time to step up … Small launch—along with aircraft manufacturing and shipbuilding—was one of the sectors that the Pentagon identified as most affected by the financial downturn caused by the pandemic. This is a welcome development, and it will be interesting to see which companies manage to deliver. (submitted by trimeta, platykurtic and JohnCarter17)

Scott Pace urges caution on point-to-point travel. Coincidence or not, Virgin Galactic’s stock has risen since the company began talking about its long-term strategy of developing point-to-point commercial suborbital flights late in 2019. The company’s chairman, Chamath Palihapitiya, has said, “When you think about that world, that world will be five to 10 years away.”

Over the horizon … However, Executive Secretary Scott Pace of the National Space Council this week raised doubts about that. “Maybe this is a poor reflection on me, but I still see that as somewhat speculative and somewhat over the horizon,” he said, according to Ars. “I think people look forward to the possibility of point-to-point passenger and cargo travel, but right now just getting routine suborbital access to space and pushing hard on unmanned hypersonics is where the action is.”

Firefly applies for September launch permit. Another prominent smallsat launch company may make its debut this fall. Parabolic Arc reports that Firefly has applied for a permit to launch its Alpha booster from Vandenberg Air Force Base on September 6 or 7. With an advertised lift capacity of 1 ton to low Earth orbit, Alpha is among the bigger of the new smallsat rockets. This is likely a preliminary filing and not a formal launch date.

Sounds like they’re confident … “Once the launch vehicle reaches the mission altitude of 300 km, it will deploy commercial payloads into orbit. The second stage will complete one full orbit while it downlinks data to VAFB and KSAT ground station locations in Hawaii, Mauritius, and South Africa,” the company said in its application. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Scottish spaceport receives tentative approval. A proposal to build a spaceport on a northern peninsula in Scotland appears set to pass a key environmental hurdle. Advisors to the local government, Highland Council, have recommended that Space Hub Sutherland be approved, the BBC reports. It is hoped the site will spur job creation in the area, which is suited for polar launches.

More against than for … The recommendation came even after the local authority received 457 objections to the plans and only 118 representations in support of them. Impact on the environment and risk to human health were among the reasons for the objections. By way of a compromise, council officials said launches should be limited to 12 per year to reduce the amount of plastic and metal debris falling into the sea during rocket launches. (submitted by BH and JohnCarter17)

There’s a new space-balloon company … The space entrepreneurs who planned to send passengers ballooning into the stratosphere earlier this decade have revived the idea for a new venture called Space Perspective, GeekWire reports. Co-CEOs Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter unveiled their concept for a balloon-borne capsule called Spaceship Neptune this week, saying that uncrewed test flights are due to begin early next year.

Price of poker has gone up … Seven years ago, MacCallum and Poynter had a similar unveiling for World View Enterprises, an Arizona-based venture that aimed to fly people to an altitude of 100,000 feet. (The cost? A cool $75,000 a ticket.) Since 2013, World View has pivoted to sending up uncrewed payloads on balloon platforms known as Stratollites. Some of the plan’s details are still up in the air, but Poynter said passenger flights are pegged to begin around 2024. She expects the price of a ticket to be in the range of $125,000. (submitted by Ken the Bin and JohnCarter17)

ISRO invites private sector to play important role. Suggesting this is a “major reform,” the chief of India’s space agency, K. Sivan, announced new ways in which private industry will be able to explore in the space sector. The space organization said the private sector will be allowed to carry out space activities such as the building of rockets and satellites as well as providing launch services, the Deccan Chronicle reports.

Catching up to competitors … The reforms include streamlining regulations and permits for private spaceflight activities. The goal is to not only enable accelerated growth of the space sector but also help the Indian industry play a major role in the global space economy. This seems to be an important step for Indian companies to catch up to private firms in the United States and, increasingly, China. (submitted by Ken the Bin and JohnCarter17)

Launch of Perseverance slips two more days. The launch of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has been delayed two days to July 22 after an issue with ground-support equipment at the Kennedy Space Center, Spaceflight Now reports. The problem held up encapsulation of the spacecraft inside the payload fairing of its Atlas 5 rocket.

Still some flexibility … NASA said the spacecraft and launch vehicle are healthy, and encapsulation of the rover is being completed this week inside a climate-controlled clean room where NASA has prepared numerous interplanetary missions for launch. Separately, ULA teams completed a countdown rehearsal on the Atlas 5 rocket, without its Mars-bound payload, on Monday at Cape Canaveral. The launch window to Mars closes in mid-August. (submitted by JohnCarter17)

NASA OKs flying crew on used Falcon 9 boosters. NASA has agreed to allow its astronauts to fly on reused Crew Dragon spaceships and Falcon 9 boosters beginning as soon as SpaceX’s third launch of a crew to the International Space Station, Spaceflight Now reports. This mission is expected to launch next year.

In NASA’s best interests … “SpaceX has proposed to reuse future Falcon 9 and/or Crew Dragon systems or components for NASA missions to the International Space Station because they believe it will be beneficial from a safety and/or cost standpoint,” NASA spokesman Josh Finch said. “NASA performed an in-depth review and determined that the terms of the overall contract modification were in the best interests of the government.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SpaceX tests new metal alloy for Starship tanks. SpaceX this week tested the latest version of a pressure tank for the Starship vehicle to failure. Teslarati reports that the primary purpose was to test a new steel alloy, 304L, that is supposed to have improved performance at cryogenic temperatures.

Reaching for a higher bar … Earlier this month, during its first cryogenic pressure test with liquid nitrogen, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk revealed that this so-called SN7 test tank managed to reach 7.6 bar before succumbing to a leak. The tank was subsequently repaired before the second test. Musk has not yet said at what pressure the tank failed during the second attempt. The company would like to reach 8.4 bar, a pressure deemed necessary to eventually human-rate Starship. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Will Stennis Space Center get a name change? On Wednesday, NASA announced that it is naming its headquarters building after Mary Jackson, the first Black woman engineer to work at the agency, Space Policy Online reports. The decision comes as Virgin Orbit Vice President Will Pomerantz is pushing to rename Stennis Space Center. The rationale is simple: John C. Stennis was a racist, who was called “the heart, soul, and brains of the white supremacist caucus in the 1948 Congress.” This is probably not someone NASA should be honoring.

NASA noncommittal so far … While he said there were a number of good choices, Pomerantz said perhaps the Mississippi center where rocket engines are tested should be renamed in honor of Mae Jemison, the first Black woman in space. In a statement, NASA responded that the agency is dedicated to advancing diversity but did not agree or disagree with the idea of renaming the center. Personally, I would also suggest Annie Easley, who played a role in the development of Centaur, arguably the most successful upper stage of all time, and is from neighboring Alabama.

Next three launches

June 26: Falcon 9 | Starlink-9 mission | Kennedy Space Center, Fla. | 20:18 UTC

June 28: Vega | VV 16 rideshare mission | Kourou, French Guiana | 01:51 UTC

June 30: Falcon 9 | GPS III | Cape Canaveral, Fla.| 19:56 UTC



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