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NASA soliciting proposals for two private astronaut missions

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WASHINGTON — NASA announced June 11 that it is requesting proposals for two private astronaut missions to the International Space Station that would fly between the fall of 2022 and the end of 2023.

NASA said it is seeking proposals from companies who want to fly private astronauts to the space station. One mission would launch between the fall of 2022 and the middle of 2023, while the second would take place in the second half of 2023.

NASA’s low Earth orbit commercialization policy, released two years ago, allows two private astronaut missions a year to the station for short stays. NASA says that the two mission opportunities it is requesting proposals for would involve up to four astronauts each, staying at the station for no more than 14 days.

Companies seeking either of the two opportunities have to submit proposals of no more than 30 pages by July 9. Those proposals have to explain how their missions fit into NASA’s LEO commercialization strategy and provide information about who would fly and how, and the business approach for the planned mission.

The first private astronaut mission under the policy is Axiom Space’s Ax-1 mission, scheduled for early 2022 on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. It will carry three paying customers and a former NASA astronaut, Michael López-Alegría. The overall mission will last 10 days, including seven or eight days docked at the ISS.

Axiom has already started preparations for future missions. The company announced May 25 that another former NASA astronaut, Peggy Whitson, will command the company’s Ax-2 mission, with one customer, John Shoffner, serving as pilot. The two will also serve as backups for the Ax-1 mission.

Axiom announced June 2 that it signed a contract with SpaceX for three future missions — Ax-2, 3 and 4 — using Crew Dragon spacecraft. Those missions, the companies said, cover flight opportunities through 2023.

However, Axiom Space executives have acknowledged that they will have to compete for those future opportunities for private astronaut missions. Demand for private astronaut missions is greater than the two opportunities per year currently available, NASA officials said at a May briefing where they announced they finalized the agreement with Axiom for the Ax-1 mission. The “traffic model” of visiting vehicles at the station prevents NASA from supporting more private astronaut missions.

“We’re prepared to fly on a cadence of about twice a year, but like everyone, we have to compete for the opportunity,” Mike Suffredini, president and chief executive of Axiom Space, said at the briefing.

It’s unclear who else would compete for the missions. Space Adventures has an agreement with SpaceX for a Crew Dragon flight that would go not to the ISS but instead into a higher orbit as a standalone mission. However, the company has not given an update on plans for that flight, even as it works with Roscosmos on a dedicated commercial Soyuz mission in December that will send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his assistant to the station.

Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA Headquarters, said in an agency statement that interest in private astronaut missions was another sign of a “renaissance” in human spaceflight made possible by commercial crew vehicles. “As more people fly to space and do more things during their spaceflights, it attracts even more people to do more activities in low Earth orbit and reflects the growing market we envisioned when we began the commercial crew program 10 years ago.”

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Source: https://spacenews.com/nasa-soliciting-proposals-for-two-private-astronaut-missions/

Aerospace

Court denies Viasat attempt to halt Starlink launches pending legal action

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TAMPA, Fla. — A federal appeals court denied a motion from satellite operator Viasat to stop SpaceX from enlarging its Starlink megaconstellation.

Viasat had requested a stay on a SpaceX license modification that allows it to continue building out the low-Earth-orbit constellation, while legal action seeking to compel a thorough environmental review of the broadband network plays out through the court.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled July 20 that Viasat, which operates broadband satellites in geostationary orbit, “has not satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending court review.”

The court also granted a motion to expedite the appeal, setting dates that end with an Oct. 26 deadline for final briefs to clear the way for oral arguments.

We believe the decision will not impact the Court’s ultimate ruling, and we remain optimistic the Court will conclude that the FCC violated federal law by failing to analyze the environmental impacts of this historically unprecedented deployment of satellites into already crowded portions of space, a Viasat spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Viasat will continue to advocate for the future of a safe space environment. We believe it is important to further our engagements with industry, scientists, academics, as well as U.S. and international governments and regulators in order to develop the necessary tools and frameworks to ensure safe and equitable access to space is preserved for all.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

Satellite broadcaster Dish Network also objected to SpaceX’s license modification and its case is part of Viasat’s appeal.

Viasat first sought a stay from the Federal Communications Commission on SpaceX’s April 27 license modification, enabling it to continue expanding a constellation estimated to now exceed 1,600 satellites at an altitude of around 550-kilometers.

The company gave the FCC until the end of June 1 to grant the order, before submitting the motion to the same court that will decide whether the regulator was legally obligated to assess Starlink’s environmental impact before modifying its license.

The modification gives SpaceX permission to operate 4,408 satellites at 550-kilometers, instead of just 1,584 in this orbit and 2,825 at altitudes of 1,100 to 1,300-kilometers. 

Decreasing the distance between a satellite and Earth reduces signal lag for latency-critical applications including video calls and gaming. 

However, Viasat said the rapidly expanding megaconstellation poses orbital debris, light pollution and other environmental risks.

SpaceX has continued to deploy Starlink satellites amid the legal action, although the cadence has slowed as it works through launch missions for other customers.

Viasat is also calling on the FCC to review nearly $900 million of rural broadband subsidies that SpaceX won in December for Starlink.

In an application filed June 1, Viasat asked the FCC to review why it was not permitted to bid for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

This article was updated July 23 with a comment from Viasat.


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Source: https://spacenews.com/court-denies-viasat-attempt-to-halt-starlink-launches-pending-legal-action/

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Senators push for action on space traffic management

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WASHINGTON — Members of a Senate space subcommittee argued that the Commerce Department was not doing enough to implement policies on space traffic management (STM) or staffing the office responsible for it.

At the July 22 hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, senators said they were worried that slow action by the Commerce Department to set up a civil STM system as outlined in Space Policy Directive (SPD) 3 in 2018 threatened U.S. leadership in space.

“I’m concerned that we’re now three years past SPD-3 was published and the Commerce Department has been slow to develop the open architecture repository that is desperately needed,” said Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), ranking member of the subcommittee. “Instead, it has commissioned more studies to reexamine the already-answered question of which U.S. government agency is best suited to take on the task.”

That open architecture data repository, or OADR, would combine space situational awareness (SSA) data from government and commercial sources that could then be used for STM applications such as warnings of potential collisions. Congress provided funding to the Office of Space Commerce in its fiscal year 2021 spending bill to begin work on OADR pilot projects.

A lack of funding had hindered work on the OADR and other aspects of SPD-3, a former director of the Office of Space Commerce said. “One aspect of this was that we needed to get our heads around the different partnerships and some of the technical opportunities that were available in the commercial industry,” said Kevin O’Connell, who led the office from 2018 until the end of the Trump administration in January. “But, secondly, it really was a resource question: the extent to which we had a very, very small budget in the office.”

Another issue is the lack of leadership at the Office of Space Commerce, which has been without a full-time director since O’Connell’s departure. The office is currently led on an acting basis by Mark Pease, deputy assistant administrator for satellite and information services at NOAA, which hosts the office. “I am also concerned that the administration has not announced a director to take over the Office of Space Commerce,” Lummis said.

O’Connell noted that the office had been without a director for nearly 10 years when he was selected in 2018. “It had an accordingly very tiny budget and a very, very small staff,” he said. That’s not tenable, he suggested, with its assignment of leading civil STM. “This is absolutely the most important mission at this point in time, given what is at stake and given the need to make very rapid progress.”

A provision of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act passed by the Senate in June is the Space Preservation and Conjunction Emergency (SPACE) Act, legislation that would codify elements of SPD-3, including giving the Commerce Department the lead for civil STM and establishing an OADR. While the House is not planning to take up the overall bill, senators urged passage of the SPACE Act in some form.

“We need swift action,” said Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), chair of the subcommittee, calling for enactment of the bill.

The Commerce Department was not represented at the hearing, but in a SpaceNews op-ed July 21, Don Graves, deputy commerce secretary, and Rick Spinrad, NOAA administrator, said that the department was working on an OADR prototype that will be ready for initial demonstrations this fall.

They also wrote that, by the fall, they will have results of studies on “procurement strategies, organizational framework, and governance approach” for civil STM services. “With this information, the Commerce Department will propose a strategy for SSA/STM based on the results of our detailed analyses, the results from the prototype demonstrations and community feedback.”

At the hearing, witnesses warned that delays in setting up the system, as well as establishing norms of behavior for safe space operations, not only posed a risk to space safety but also to U.S. leadership. “Ensuring a global commitment to space safety and space sustainability has never been more important,” said Karina Drees, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “Space situational awareness represents the most pressing issue to address today.”

“It is imperative that the United States lead the endeavor of setting these rules,” said Marcus Holzinger, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado. “If other nations lead these efforts, then they are going to be making the rules and regulations and, quite frankly, those will not be to the benefit of our own industry and national enterprises.”


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Source: https://spacenews.com/senators-push-for-action-on-space-traffic-management/

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Starliner cleared for second uncrewed test flight

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WASHINGTON — NASA approved plans July 22 for the launch of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on a second uncrewed test flight that seeks to demonstrate that the company has corrected the problems seen on the first.

At the conclusion of the flight readiness review, NASA gave the go-ahead for a July 30 launch of Starliner on the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2 mission. Liftoff of the spacecraft on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 is scheduled for 2:53 p.m. Eastern that day. If the launch is postponed, the next opportunity is Aug. 3 because of range conflicts and orbital mechanics.

A launch July 30 would set up a docking attempt by the Starliner with the International Space Station about 24 hours later. Starliner would remain docked to the station until Aug. 5, undocking and landing later that day at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico.

The OFT-2 mission will come more than a year and a half after the original OFT flight in December 2019. Software problems encountered immediately after the spacecraft separated from its Centaur upper stage prevented it from going to the ISS, and it instead landed after just two days in space.

The flight readiness review confirmed that Boeing had implemented 61 recommendations from an independent review team last year about software issues during the OFT mission as well as 19 recommendations to address communications problems encountered during the flight. “Those have been closed out,” Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, said in a call with reporters after the review.

Among the changes made preparing for OFT-2 was a full mission rehearsal for the flight in a high-fidelity simulator. “We truly had an integrated mission rehearsal, a simulated mission from end to end,” said John Vollmer, vice president and program manager of the commercial crew program at Boeing. “We got a lot of learning out of that.”

The mission plan for OFT-2 will be very similar to what had been planned for OFT, Vollmer said. One change is that the spacecraft will maneuver shortly after Centaur separation to better orient its antennas for communications during that critical early phase of the mission.

The launch plans should not be affected by issues with Nauka, a new Russian module for the ISS launched July 21. That module has reportedly suffered issues with its propulsion system, although Roscosmos reported July 22 that the module has performed two maneuvers to raise its orbit. Nauka is scheduled to dock with the station July 29.

“We’ve been working with Roscosmos to set up that choreography,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager. While not going into details about any issues with Nauka, also known as the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), he said that “we can support the OFT docking with or without the MLM.”

A successful OFT-2 mission would allow NASA and Boeing to proceed with the Crew Flight Test (CFT), the first crewed Starliner mission that will carry three NASA astronauts. Stich said that the CFT mission could take place “as soon as later this year” but declined to offer a more specific date. Some industry sources are skeptical that CFT could launch this year, even if OFT-2 launches on schedule and is successful.

“The most important thing, and the thing that the Boeing and NASA team have been focused on in the near term, is the execution of the orbital flight test. That has been our primary focus,” he said. Only after OFT-2 is complete and the data from it analyzed would NASA feel comfortable about setting a date for a crewed mission. “It looks like, right now, by the end of the year would be supportable, but again, we need to focus on the orbital flight test first and get that flight right.”

One factor that could accelerate the schedule for CFT is that the Starliner flying OFT-2 is closer to the configuration for the crewed flight than the one used on the previous flight. That includes installing the launch abort thrusters that would allow Starliner to escape the rocket in the event of an emergency.

NASA is anxious to get Starliner into service, providing redundancy for getting its astronauts to and from the ISS, a burden currently carried by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. “It’s very important for the commercial crew program to have two space transportation systems,” Stich said.

The flight is also critical to Boeing, Vollmer acknowledged. “It’s extremely important to us that we’re successful on this flight. With all that we’ve done over the past 18 months, we are very confident that we are going to have a good flight,” he said.

He added, though, that he expected there to be “some learning” from OFT-2. “It is a test flight,” he said. “It is of paramount importance that we have a successful flight.”


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Source: https://spacenews.com/starliner-cleared-for-second-uncrewed-test-flight/

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NASA clears Boeing Starliner for launch on second unpiloted test flight

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STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS & USED WITH PERMISSION

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is secured atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex-41 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on July 17, 2021. Starliner will launch on the Atlas V for Boeing’s second Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The spacecraft rolled out from Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center earlier in the day.

NASA and Boeing held a day-long flight readiness review Thursday and cleared the company’s CST-100 Starliner astronaut ferry ship for launch July 30 on a second unpiloted test flight to the International Space Station.

The spacecraft’s maiden flight in December 2019 was marred by major software problems that prevented a planned rendezvous and docking with the station. Next week’s Orbital Flight Test No. 2, or OFT-2, will test a wide variety of upgrades and improvements intended to clear the way for a piloted flight by the end of the year.

“After reviewing the team’s data, and the readiness of all the parties, everybody said ‘go’ for the launch,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s director of spaceflight. “To me, this review was a reflection of the diligence and the passion of this Boeing and NASA team that really chose to learn and adapt and come back stronger for this uncrewed demonstration mission.”

Liftoff from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket is targeted for 2:53 p.m. EDT next Friday, roughly the moment Earth’s rotation carries pad 41 into the plane of the space station’s orbit.

If all goes well, the commercially built, reusable spacecraft will carry out an automated rendezvous with the lab complex, moving in for docking at the Harmony module’s forward port just after 3 p.m. the next day. The ship will depart five days later for parachute descent to touchdown near White Sands, New Mexico.

“We’ll test the NASA docking system, we’ll test the rendezvous sensor system,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager. “Those things you can test on the ground, in analysis and in testing in simulators, but at some point, you’ve got to go fly those systems.”

Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s human spaceflight directorate, participates in the flight Readiness Review Thursday. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Over the past 18 months, he said, “the Boeing and NASA team have worked side by side to resolve numerous issues, to go through and close out requirements, and we’re really ready to go fly now. So it’s an exciting time.”

Boeing and SpaceX are both under contract to NASA to provide commercial crew capsules to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, ending the agency’s sole reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for transportation to low-Earth orbit.

Under a $2.6 billion contract, SpaceX has designed and built a crewed version of its Dragon cargo ship that rides into orbit atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. Boeing’s Starliner is being developed under a $4.2 billion contract and relies on the Atlas 5 for the ride to orbit.

SpaceX successfully carried out two test flights of its Crew Dragon capsule, one unpiloted and one with a two NASA astronauts on board, and has now launched two four-person crews to the space station for long duration stays.

Boeing carried out an unpiloted test flight of its Starliner capsule in December 2019, but major software problems and a communications glitch prevented a rendezvous with the station and nearly led to the loss of the spacecraft.

As it was, flight controllers were able to direct the ship to a safe landing, but plans to launch a piloted test flight were put on hold.

After a lengthy joint review with NASA, a variety of corrective actions were ordered and Boeing eventually opted to launch a second unpiloted test flight to demonstrate the capsule’s readiness to carry astronauts.

Assuming the flight test goes well, the first crew is expected to fly aboard a Starliner before the end of the year. OFT-2 is a major step in that direction, both for NASA and for Boeing.

“So from the standpoint of how important is this to the Boeing company, this is extremely important,” said John Vollmer, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s commercial crew program. “This is a serious and unforgiving business, so we take it very seriously. It’s extremely important to us that we’re successful on this flight.”

Based on the work done over the past 18 months to address shortcomings and implement improvements across the board, “we are very confident that we are going to have a good flight,” he said. “Will there be some learning? There will absolutely be some learning during this flight. It is a test flight.”

But lessons learned will “help us build the safest vehicle we can for the crew flights. So it’s of paramount importance that we have a successful flight.”

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Source: https://spaceflightnow.com/2021/07/22/nasa-clears-boeing-starliner-for-launch-on-second-unpiloted-test-flight/

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