Welcome to Edition 1.20 of the Rocket Report! We have a couple of stories about a rising Chinese commercial space company, LandSpace, and its efforts to attract new talent that have gone viral. There is also news about commercial crew delays, which may or may not be hardware related, as well as an official Space Launch System slip.
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.
LandSpace to launch a solid rocket, but eyes liquid engines. Chinese startup LandSpace announced that it will launch its Zhuque-1 three-stage, solid-propellant rocket near the end of October, with the exact date to be decided, reports. The Zhuque-1 booster is 19 meters tall, with a 1.3-meter diameter, and a thrust of 45 tons. It is able to carry 200 kilograms to a 500-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit and 300 kilograms to LEO.
… The company said it doesn’t know how many flights of the Zhuque-1 will take place, but it is already deep into development of a larger, methane-fueled rocket. The two-stage Zhuque-2, which Landspace aims to launch in 2020, will be capable of delivering a 4,000kg payload capacity to a 200km low Earth orbit and 2,000kg to 500-kilometer SSO. The ambition of the Chinese commercial aerospace market is beginning to rival that of the United States. (submitted by Unrulycow and Ken the Bin)
Does Chinese commercial space rival government? A story has gone viral in China about the departure of a rocket scientist named Zhang Xiaoping from his job as deputy director of rocket design at the state-owned Xi’an Aerospace Propulsion Research Institute. He was rumored to be helping lead the design of China’s heavy Long March 9 rocket. According to the , a document posted on a Chinese social media site described how Zhang was “most crucial to the development process,” had “irreplaceable” talents. The document argued that Zhang’s departure could affect China’s race to send people to the moon.
… Zhang is rumored to have taken a research position at the private aerospace firm LandSpace (cited above), earning 10 times his previous salary of 120,000 yuan (US$17,400) per year. This is an interesting development, although we have few hard facts from our Western vantage point. However, the Zhang kerfuffle does suggest that some of the same tensions we’re seeing between public and private space in the United States also exist in China with its emerging commercial space market.
PLD Space inks a payload-fairing supplier. This week, the Spanish startup PLD Space announced that it has signed a “long-term” agreement with space industry supplier RUAG Space. RUAG will provide lightweight carbon composite payload fairings and interstage adapters with their separation systems for PLD’s suborbital Arion 1 and orbital Arion 2 rockets.
… The announcement comes as PLD is finalizing development of its Arion 1 launcher, which presently has a maiden launch date in October 2019. That flight is intended to demonstrate the company’s propulsion, structures, avionics, and GNC as well as Ground & Launch Operations. The fairings will be part of that mission.
Shadowy new op-eds target load-and-go fueling. The same op-ed has appeared in at least six newspapers, including dailies in Alabama, Florida, and Texas. The op-ed is bylined by “retired spacecraft operator” Richard Hagar, who worked for NASA during the Apollo program. It says load-and-go is unsafe, ignores the lessons of Apollo 1, and argues that SpaceX shouldn’t get to play by different rules when it comes to astronaut safety.
… An Ars investigation traced to the placement of the op-ed to a Washington, DC-based public relations firm named Law Media Group, or LMG. Ars could not confirm the ultimate sponsor of the op-ed, but there are some potentially pertinent facts. For one, Boeing is touted on the LMG website as a client, and it is listed as one of LMG’s three main “featured narratives” on its homepage. Boeing, of course, is also SpaceX’s competitor in the commercial crew program.
But wait, Boeing welcomes the competition. In an interview at this week’s GeekWire Summit, space journalist Alan Boyle asked Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg about emerging competition from SpaceX and Blue Origin. “I welcome the competition. I like the fact that SpaceX and Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos and his team are investing in space. It’s gaining interest. It’s adding capital. It’s adding momentum. We have more going on in the space program in this country today than we have for decades, since the days of Apollo.”
… We’d argue that with all the commercial interest in spaceflight, there is actually more going on now in terms of launch than during Apollo. It is exciting. We’re just hoping for a fair and aboveboard competition.
First SpaceX commercial crew test flight could slip. Speaking of commercial crew, it looks like the first flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft will slip into 2019. “We’re working hard to get this done this year,” Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability for SpaceX, said in a speech at the 69th International Astronautical Congress. “The hardware might be ready, but we might still have to do some paperwork on the certification side of it. It’s going to be a close call whether we fly this year or not.” On Thursday afternoon, NASA confirmed a slippage to January 2019.
… This is the mantra we’ve heard from several people involved in the commercial crew program. SpaceX is ahead in hardware, but Boeing is ahead in paperwork. Not that we’d attribute any delays entirely to paperwork. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
ESA chief says reusability is not the only option. In an interview with Jeff Foust of , European Space Agency director general Jan Wörner said, “It’s not clear that reusability is the one and only solution. Reusability is fine from an ecological point of view. From an economic point of view, I don’t know. We are developing in ESA technologies for reusable launchers, but personally I’m not convinced that this is the only solution. I believe we have to go into more disruptive solutions for launches in the future.”
… If you’re only going to launch six or eight rockets a year, investing in reusability now doesn’t make a whole heap of financial sense. ESA has a reasonable plan for now, trying to bring down the cost of its expendable Ariane 6 rocket while doing some basic research that would allow it to move to a reusable system down the line. We won’t know whether the plan is ultimately successful for another five or 10 years, however. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Viasat, ULA insist ViaSat-3 launch was competitively procured. United Launch Alliance and satellite operator Viasat are defending the “competed” status of a launch contract that other launch companies, including SpaceX and Arianespace, say they had no part in, according to . Tory Bruno attributed the commercial Atlas 5 win to the rocket’s schedule availability, its 78 consecutive successes, and the ability to fly a custom trajectory for the mission that will shave orbit-raising time when the all-electric satellite is dropped off in geostationary transfer orbit.
… Dave Ryan, Viasat’s president of space systems, said the contract ULA won was competed amongst the potential launch providers, though Viasat’s atypical procurement process may have caused confusion. We’re still confused. What seems clear is that, even after SpaceX brought some price clarity into the market a decade or more ago, the process of launch-contract awards remains somewhat arcane. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
A lunar lander to match the SLS rocket in scale. This week, Lockheed Martin proposed development of a 14m tall, single-stage spacecraft that could carry up to four astronauts to the lunar surface. Once there, they could stay for up to 14 days. This vehicle would be twice as tall as the Lunar Module used during the Apollo missions to the Moon nearly half a century ago. That vehicle carried two astronauts for short stays of no more than a few days.
… The vehicle would require a lot of fuel to go down from the Lunar Gateway orbit to the surface and back. Forty tons, to be precise, all of which initially will have to be launched from the surface of Earth and transferred into lunar orbit. This would require a costly Space Launch System-class rocket launch all by itself. NASA is unlikely to make architecture decisions on a lander like this for six years.
Orion service module for EM-1 ready to ship to US. The first European-built service module for NASA’s Orion spacecraft is finally ready to be shipped to the United States for final preparations before a scheduled mid-2020 launch, reports. The service module will be shipped to the Kennedy Space Center, where it will be mated to the Orion crew module already there and undergo more testing in preparation for launch on the Space Launch System.
… NASA is finally (officially) acknowledging that EM-1, the maiden launch of SLS, will slip from December 2019 until at least June 2020. Sources tell us to expect another slip to 2021, official or not. Expect to see more news, related to this, emerge next week.
Blue Origin to build “refurbishment” facility in Florida. The company is moving ahead with a $60 million facility in Exploration Park, the state-run complex near Kennedy Space Center where Blue Origin has already built a more than $200 million rocket factory, the reports. The new testing and refurbishment facility will be used to prepare landed first stages of the New Glenn rocket for further flights.
… This is just another step in Blue Origin’s methodical (step by step, ferociously, of course) approach to developing the rocket and building the facilities. In this case, we have just one more bit of data that Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin are playing the long game here.
Next three launches
Oct. 8: Falcon 9 | SAOCOM 1A satellite | Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. | 02:22 UTC
Oct. 9: Long March 2C | Undisclosed payload | Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China | 02:36 UTC
Oct. 11: Soyuz-FG |Soyuz MS-10 with Aleksey Ovchinin and Nick Hague | Baikonur, Kazakhstan | 08:39 UTC