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Op-ed | Competition delivers the goods and the crew for all NASA commercial space services




A member of the Trump administration’s NASA transition team weighs in on NASA’s decision to forgo additional competition by picking a single vendor, SpaceX, to develop a Human Landing System for the Artemis program.

On April 23, SpaceX launched a crew of international astronauts to the Space Station. This marks the third human spaceflight success for the firm’s Crew Dragon Capsule, developed under NASA’s Commercial Crew program. The amazing accomplishments of this program and of its predecessor, Comercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), which funded development of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and the cargo version of Dragon, depended not only on great engineering by SpaceX and other NASA vendors, but also upon the power of system redundancy and market competition. Both programs succeed, in great part, because NASA had two systems and two vendors. While we celebrate that, it appears that those lessons were not fully internalized on Capitol Hill.

During my service on the previous NASA transition team (2016-2017), one of the first decisions we faced was the question of continuing the Obama-era Commercial Crew program. That effort to deliver American astronauts to the International Space Station on commercial capsules was running years behind schedule due to the reluctance of Congress to fully fund the NASA request. There were also technical challenges facing both vendors, Boeing and SpaceX. Meanwhile, the loss of COTS payloads in both 2014 and 2015 demonstrated both the vulnerability of complex systems as well as the power of redundant systems to achieve programmatic objectives. With Commercial Crew vehicles behind schedule and on half-funding, some members of our team and some senior NASA officials supported a downselect of the program to a single vendor, so they could fully fund one system. I opposed that. 

I felt strongly that technical redundancy and market competition were central to the principle of commercial space contracting. Any one system would leave us with the vulnerabilities that had plagued the space shuttle program. On the two occasions when a shuttle was lost, the United States was out of the space business for three years of investigations and re-engineering. Without the redundancy of Russian vehicles, the 2003 Columbia disaster would likely have resulted in abandonment of the International Space Station and a $100 billion U.S. investment and put the remaining station crew at risk. A failure of such magnitude could have marked the end of NASA human spaceflight.

Shuttle flights were also far more expensive than their originally projected costs, in part because the program became “too big to fail.” This is a condition NASA and the Defense Department have faced with many single vendor programs, including the current James Webb Space Telescope, the Space Launch System and the infamous F-35. The competition for the award and the intentions of the contract are easily lost once the governmental buyer lacks the leverage provided by having another vendor. Skipping competition in actual services is not an option.

Thankfully, Commercial Crew went forward with two vendors and funding was ticked up a bit. It worked. SpaceX now provides regular access to ISS on American rockets launched from American soil, rendering recent Russian threats to leave the space station less concerning. Meanwhile, Boeing, which experienced software failures during the demonstration flight of their CST-100 Starliner is re-flying that $400 million mission on their own dime. Redundancy saves lives and competition saves money.

I was therefore frustrated by NASA’s announcement of April 16 that, due primarily to insufficient congressional funding, they were downselecting the lunar Human Landing System (HLS) for the Artemis program from three to just one vendor, SpaceX. Selection of SpaceX’s Starship pleased me in that it represents a uniquely bold vision for space transportation to the moon, to Mars and beyond. Further, SpaceX has demonstrated the ability to outperform its competitors while receiving smaller awards that it effectively leverages with significant amounts of private capital. NASA’s source selection statement is intended to provide a non-political overview of all of the vendors’ merits in technical approach, management approach and cost. The document released last this month suggests that SpaceX offered more bang for the Buck Rogers. The firm also has a strong recent history of delivering for NASA. 

However, as a student of history and someone who has been there, no amount of such analysis will convince me that a single vendor solution is the right option here. The proposals from Blue Origin and Dynetics also merit development. Congress must sufficiently fund the HLS program for the currently selected vendor and provide for competition. NASA’s vague promises of future services contracts for undefined lunar missions after Artemis 3, will not suffice for companies expected to invest billions of dollars and retain thousands of workers on their payrolls. NASA must clarify its commitment to a sustained lunar presence and future lunar transportation requirements.

I have immense respect for the fine choices President Biden has made with his NASA nominees, including the selection of former Sen. Bill Nelson for administrator, Pam Melroy as deputy administrator, Margaret Vo Schaus as CFO and particularly acting Chief of Staff Bhavya Lal who has done yeoman’s work to support the continuity of the Artemis program. I hope that team will work to convince OMB and Congress that in an environment as unforgiving as space, nothing is more expensive than short-term financial thinking. They must insist on funding adequate to support HLS competition, now. If they do not, we may someday find ourselves paying China for rides to the moon.

Greg Autry is a Clinical Professor of Space Leadership, Policy and Business with the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University. He serves as Chair of the Safety Working Group on the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee at the FAA. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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Bezos’s Blue Origin auctions seat on first New Shepard spaceflight with passengers





File photo of a New Shepard launch in 2019. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin plans to begin piloted flights of its suborbital New Shepard spacecraft on July 20, the company announced Wednesday, launching the highest bidder in an online auction out of the atmosphere and into space for a few minutes of weightlessness and an out-of-this world view before returning to Earth.

Owned by Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin made the announcement on the 60th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s sub-orbit flight to become the first American in space, scheduling the company’s first piloted flight of its New Shepard spacecraft on the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

“We are selling the very first seat on New Shepard. And that flight will take place on July 20 of this year,” said Ariane Cornell, director of Astronaut and Orbital Sales for Blue Origin. “For all of you out there who have said I can’t wait to go to space, I’ve got some good news for you. The wait is over.”

The New Shepard capsule seats six, but in a Zoom meeting with reporters, Cornell would not say who else might accompany the winning bidder on the spacecraft’s first piloted flight, how much tickets might cost for seats on subsequent commercial missions or whether Bezos plans to blast off on this or any other near-term flight.

The July 20 flight will launch from Blue’s flight test facility near Van Horn, Texas. The company’s website will accept bids through May 19 when entries, hidden to that point, will be unsealed. Bidding will continue through June 12 when a live, online auction will determine the winner.

“All of this culminates on June 12, with a live online auction event where we will start the bidding at the highest pre-bid level,” Cornell said. “And then we will proceed through that auction and when there are no higher bids that are placed, we have found our first astronaut. It should be pretty exciting.”

Proceeds will be donated to the company’s foundation, “Club for the Future,” inspiring “the next generation as they go off and think about millions of people living and working in space … which is precisely what Blue Origin’s vision is.”

Credit: Blue Origin

Alan Shepard and NASA’s other Mercury 7 astronauts, all experienced test pilots, faced daunting physical and psychological testing before being selected to fly in space. Sixty years later, Blue Origin passengers will face a much more relaxed standard.

Passengers must weigh between 110 and 223 pounds, stand between 5 feet and 6-feet 4-inches tall, be able to climb seven flights of stairs in less than 90 seconds (the height of the launch gantry) and be comfortable with heights.

Other requirements include being able to spend up to 90 minutes sealed inside the capsule and be able to withstand up to three times the force of gravity during launch and 5.5 “Gs” during the descent to Earth.

“We’re going to see how this program evolves,” Cornell said. “We’re going to start at these requirements and to the extent in the future that we can open up access even further, we certainly will.”

Wednesday’s announcement heats up the on-going competition between Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, owned by entrepreneur-adventurer Richard Branson, for commercial, non-government flights to the lower edges of space carrying civilian passengers, researchers and experiments.

Virgin Galactic has built a futuristic-looking winged rocket plane that is launched from a carrier aircraft to begin its climb to sub-orbital space. Virgin has launched two piloted test flights above 50 miles with company personnel on board, but has not yet announced when it will make its first commercial flight. Whenever it flies, tickets are expected to initially cost in the neighborhood of $250,000.

Unlike Virgin’s air-launched spaceplane, New Shepard is a more traditional rocket system that launches from the ground with a single-stage booster that propels the crew capsule into the extreme upper atmosphere before falling away.

The capsule then continues upward on a ballistic trajectory, out of the discernible atmosphere and briefly into space, giving its six passengers a few minutes of weightlessness and views of the planet below through the largest windows ever built into a spacecraft.

NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Air Force consider 50 miles the lower “boundary” of space while the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, an international governing body for aviation-related sports and records, considers 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, to mark the point where the discernible atmosphere gives way to space.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard and Virgin’s spaceplane both are designed to carry passengers just beyond the 62-mile mark before falling back to Earth. Neither spacecraft has the power to reach orbital velocities.

The fully reusable New Shepard capsule features a “full envelope” abort system, a powerful rocket motor designed to propel the craft safely away from a malfunctioning booster. The abort system has been tested three times, once at ground level to simulate an on-pad abort, and twice during ascent. Overall, 15 test flights have been carried out to date.

“Safety is number one at Blue Origin, and certainly central in the design of New Shepard,” Cornell said. “That is why we have decided to test this vehicle 15 times before ever putting a person on board.”

Along with the suborbital New Shepard rockets and spacecraft, Blue Origin also is developing a powerful new engine to help boost satellites into orbit using much larger orbit-class New Glenn rockets. The engines also will be used by United Launch Alliance’s upcoming Vulcan rocket, intended to replace workhorse Atlas and Delta boosters.

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China acknowledges Long March 5B situation as rocket heads for weekend reentry




Latest reentry predictions project Long March 5B reentry to occur between late morning Saturday and early Sunday.

HELSINKI — China’s foreign ministry acknowledged the imminent uncontrolled reentry of the Long March 5B Friday as the orbit of the first stage continued to lose altitude.

At a Foreign Ministry regular press conference May 7 spokesperson Wang Wenbin responded to a question from Bloomberg stating that it is “common practice across the world for upper stages of rockets to burn up while reentering the atmosphere.” 

The second Long March 5B rocket successfully launched the Tianhe core module for China’s space station late April 28 Eastern. It soon became apparent, as reported by SpaceNews, that the first stage had also reached orbit and was slowly returning to Earth.

Latest orbital data from has the U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron reveals the roughly 30-meter-long, 21-metric-ton Long March 5B in a 154 by 241-kilometer altitude orbit. 

The current US 18 SPCS prediction points to a reentry during a window between 10:13 a.m. Eastern Saturday, May 8 and 4:13 a.m. Sunday, May 9. EU Space Surveillance and Tracking (EU SST) estimates reentry between 2:00 p.m. May 8 and Sun 6:00 a.m. May 9.

The latest prediction from the Aerospace Corporation shows blue and yellow ground tracks over which the rocket body will pass during the predicted window. 

The large windows are due to uncertainties stemming from modeling challenges, including the non-spherical shape of the Earth, fluctuations in atmospheric density.

“China is following closely the upper stage’s reentry into the atmosphere. To my knowledge, the upper stage of this rocket has been deactivated, which means that most of its parts will burn up upon reentry, making the likelihood of damage to aviation or ground facilities and activities extremely low. The competent authority will release relevant information in a timely manner,” Wang said.

The “upper stage” referred to by Wang is also the first—typically the largest—stage of the Long March 5B. While most upper stages enter orbit and eventually reenter due to atmospheric drag, first stages of most expendable rockets do not reach orbital velocity and reenter the atmosphere and land in a pre-defined reentry zone.

Between 60 and 80 percent of the rocket stage is generally predicted to burn up during its high velocity reentry in the atmosphere, meaning some components consisting of heat resistant material are expected to reach the surface.

At a press conference a day earlier Wang responded to a question on the situation only by reiterating that “China is always committed to the peaceful use of outer space.”

Wang acknowledged there was risk associated with the reentry but that this was “extremely low,” an assessment shared by space debris modelling experts. 

The Long March 5B core stage’s orbital inclination of 41.5 degrees means the rocket body passes a little farther north than New York, Madrid and Beijing and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand, and could make its reentry at any point within this area. 

Christopher Newman, professor of space law and policy at Northumbria University, told SpaceNews that there are no international laws which dictate how reentry of space objects, or parts thereof, is supposed to be accomplished. 

“There are broad principles of safety that have been captured in the Long Term Sustainability (LTSG) of Outer Space Guidelines, but these are not legally binding. It is national regulators to authorise and supervise national space activities. According to Prof Hugh Lewis, there are numerous spent rocket bodies in orbit that will make an uncontrolled re-entry.” 

Holger Krag, head of the Space Safety Programme Office for the European Space Agency, told SpaceNews last week that an average mass of about 100 tons is reentering in an uncontrolled way through 50-60 individual events per year.

In the case of damage, Newman says Article VII of the Outer Space Treaty makes States liable for the damage caused by a space object. “The Liability Convention of 1972 provides a little more clarity on this, with Article II of the 1972 convention making a State absolutely liable should a space object or part of a space object be shown to cause damage on Earth or to an aircraft in flight.” 

The  Liability Convention “operates on an international level between nation states, so individuals will not have recourse to this. They will have to seek a domestic remedy and look to the government to recover any costs from the other state. This works on a diplomatic level.” 

Significantly, in practical terms, engaging the Liability Convention is as much a foreign policy decision as a legal one, says Newman. “The ‘victim’ state may be heavily dependent on the ‘liable’ state for infrastructure or investment and might not wish to rock the boat. So it is by no means certain that the 1972 Convention will be invoked.”

Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation, told SpaceNews via email that while there is an emerging international norm towards controlled de-orbiting of rocket stages, it’s definitely not universal. 

“It’s not hard law that’s binding on countries, only a voluntary guideline, and that’s because countries like the United States did not want to create a binding law as they sometimes need to deviate from it themselves,” says Weeden. 

Weeden also notes that what we are seeing now are the results of decisions, such as having a non-restartable Long March 5B first tage, taken a long time ago. 

“I don’t know when that design decision was made, but it might have been quite a while ago. That’s a problem we have with orbital debris mitigation in general; lots of design decisions made decades ago that are still in play today because technological advancement is just not that fast. Once built, big rockets and satellites tend to get used for decades.”

China is planning two further Long March 5B launches in 2022 to send two experiment modules to join Tianhe in orbit. How China will respond to this situation, which has detracted from the successful Tianhe launch, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately, Weeden says, mission requirements, in absence of hard law, may win out. “Who’s going to tell the Pentagon or CNSA they can’t put up a critical new military satellite or a politically important space station because the rocket might have a small chance of landing on someone?”

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NASA increases prices for ISS private astronaut missions




WASHINGTON — NASA has increased the prices it will charge for future private astronaut missions to the International Space Station, saying the new prices reflect the true costs of supporting those missions.

A revised price list, posted April 29, updates the prices NASA charges to private missions flying to the ISS for cargo, station resources, crew time and other services. NASA said earlier this year it would update the pricing after revising its charges for commercial and marketing activities on the station.

Under the original pricing policy released in June 2019, as part of NASA’s low Earth orbit commercialization strategy, the agency charged $11,250 per person per day for life support and toilet capabilities, and $22,500 per person per day for other crew supplies, including food and air. There were additional, smaller changes for stowage, power and data.

The new pricing policy charges $5.2 million per person for ISS crew time to support a private astronaut mission, and $4.8 million per mission for integration and basic services, such as mission planning. The policy now charges between $88,000 and $164,000 per person per day for pre-staging food and other cargo on the station for those missions on NASA cargo vehicles and for disposing cargo on those spacecraft. It also charges between $40 and $1,500 per person per day for crew supplies and $2,000 per person per day for food.

The result of the new policy is a much higher price charged by NASA to companies conducting private astronaut missions. Under the old policy, the life support and crew supplies for a hypothetical four-person, one-week mission to the ISS would cost $945,000, a figure that doesn’t include stowage, data or power. Under the new policy, the cargo, food and supplies charges for the same mission would be more than $2.5 million at the low end of the quoted cost ranges, plus $10 million in per-mission fees.

The revised pricing, NASA said, “reflects full reimbursement for the value of NASA resources that are above the space station baseline capability.” However, the agency left open the door to negotiating those prices depending the specifics of the mission. “Due to the complexity of private astronaut missions and differing mission concepts, reimbursable values for these missions may vary,” the agency said, noting that detailed pricing “will be negotiated at time of mission award and contract or agreement finalization.”

The revised prices do not apply to the first private astronaut mission under the 2019 policy, the Ax-1 mission by Axiom Space. That Crew Dragon mission will fly three private customers and one Axiom professional astronaut to the station in early 2022. Both NASA and Axiom said that the agreement for that mission was signed under the original pricing policy, which remains in effect for that mission.

Axiom, which played down the earlier price increases for commercial ISS activities, is not concerned about the increased prices for private astronaut missions. “Axiom’s plans do not depend on the prices and services as they were listed,” company spokesman Beau Holder said.

NASA’s support for private astronaut missions also came up during the May 6 meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel. Susan Helms, a former astronaut who serves on the panel, said that NASA has adapted “flight crew worthiness and certification practices along with previous experiences with space tourism” for dealing with those issues.

She added that NASA has recommended that private astronaut missions not include spacewalks. An agency study, she said, concluded that private astronaut spacewalks “not be generically offered due to the overall risks involved.” She added that no private missions currently being pursued through NASA planned to include spacewalks.

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Momentus SPAC merger seeking extension




WASHINGTON — The blank-check company proposing to merge with in-space transportation company Momentus is going down to the wire in its effort to convince shareholders to give it more time to close the deal.

Stable Road Acquisition Corporation, a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC), said May 6 it adjourned a special meeting of its shareholders convened that day because it didn’t have enough votes to approve one measure on the ballot.

That measure is not the approval of Stable Road’s merger with Momentus, announced in October, but instead a three-month extension of the deadline for Stable Road to complete the deal. SPACs traditionally have a limited period of time for which to use the funding raised by going public to merge with a company, or else the proceeds are returned to shareholders.

Stable Road sought to extend that deadline for completing the merger with Momentus from May 13 to Aug. 13. At the time of the shareholder meeting May 6, the vast majority of votes it had received were in favor of the extension, but those votes accounted for less than 59% of outstanding shares. The company needs at least 65% of shares to vote in favor of the extension to go into effect.

The company said in a May 6 statement that it adjourned that special meeting of shareholders until May 13 because it “is in the best interest of its stockholders to provide additional time for stockholders to vote to approve the Extension Amendment Proposal.”

If the company doesn’t get enough votes in favor of the extension by May 13, the SPAC will be liquidated and its merger with Momentus will be off. Shareholders will receive $10.03 per share in the SPAC. Shares in Stable Road were trading May 7 at a little less than $11 per share, down from a high of $29.18 per share earlier this year.

Stable Road has gone to great lengths to encourage shareholders to vote for the extension, such as a series of social media postings and press releases. Leadership of both Stable Road and Momentus conducted a one-hour webinar May 4 to make their case for both the extension and the overall merger.

Brian Kabot, chairman and chief executive of Stable Road, said at that webinar that this SPAC had an 18-month deadline from when it was created to close a deal, less than the 24 months more commonly used by SPACs. “We’re asking for a three-month extension, which still only takes us to 21 months, right?” he said. “There’s plenty of 24-month SPACs out there that are gonna need three- and six-month extensions.”

The merger has been slowed by a number of issues with Momentus, including investigations by the federal government into its foreign ownership. Momentus has taken several steps to address those issues, replacing its Russian co-founder, Mikhail Kokorich, as chief executive and having him and Brainyspace LLC, a firm owned by co-founder Lev Khasis and his wife, agree to divest their shares within three years.

Momentus said in April that it was still working on various regulatory issues, such as a voluntary review of its ownership structure by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. The company also said it was still awaiting a payload review by the Federal Aviation Administration to allow it to launch its first space tug, Vigoride-1, on a SpaceX rideshare mission in June. Those reviews forced Momentus to take Vigoride off a similar rideshare mission in January.

During the May 4 webinar, Rob Schwarz, chief technology officer at Momentus, said the Vigoride-1 tug is ready for launch but that the company was awaiting regulatory approvals. “It’s ready to go and it will, assuming we get all our licenses,” he said. “We still are waiting for the government to grant our final licenses so that we can launch. But assuming all that comes in, then, we are planning to launch in June, at the end of June of this year. So, just in a couple months. We’re all super psyched.”

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