A Closer Look at Astra Space

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

At some point in the next few weeks, the Pacific Spaceport Complex — Alaska will host its first commercial rocket launch. Officials at the Alaska Aerospace Corporation, which runs the spaceport, are hoping the suborbital test flight is the first of many commercial flights from the underused facility.

While officials have not identified the California company conducting the launch, a perusal of the corporation’s board minutes indicate it is almost certainly a small Bay Area startup named Astra Space.

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DARPA Requests $50.5 Million for XS-1 for FY 2017

XS-1 vehicle (Credit: Boeing)
XS-1 vehicle (Credit: Boeing)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is requesting $175.24 million for fiscal year (FY) 2017 for the development of space systems and technology, an increase of $48.5 million over current fiscal year spending.

The ambitious XS-1 program, which aims to develop fully-reusable launch vehicle system, once again tops DARPA’s space spending with proposed spending of $50.5 million. The program received $30 million for FY 2016.

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ALASA Launches on Hold Due to Exploding Fuel

Boeing's ALASA launch system features a F-15E aircraft and an innovative booster. (Credit: Boeing)
Boeing’s ALASA launch system features a F-15E aircraft and an innovative booster. (Credit: Boeing)

DARPA’s ALASA program has hit a small snag. It seems that Boeing’s secret sauce for the smallsat launcher is a bit too explosive:

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has scrapped plans to launch small satellites from a modified F-15 fighter jet after two tests of a new rocket fuel ended in explosions this year.

Instead DARPA will spend the next year studying how to harness the volatile nitrous oxide-acetylene propellant and, in parallel, modifications to existing small rockets that would enable the agency place small satellites on orbit on 24 hours notice at a cost of less than $1 million.

In March 2014, Boeing Defense Space and Security of Huntington Beach, California, won a contract potentially worth $104 million to build and demonstrate the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) system. The program was intended to demonstrate the capability to launch up to 45 kilograms of payload into low Earth orbit on short notice for as little as $1 million.

“The magic” in Boeing’s design, as DARPA officials described it, was the powerful nitrous oxide-acetylene propellant, also known as NA-7. The propellant would be “pre-mixed” to reduce the plumbing needed on the rocket, enabling it to carry more payload.

Boeing led two subsystem tests in Promontory, Utah – one in August and one in April – aimed at learning how the pre-mixed propellant reacted to different temperatures, pressures and atmospheric conditions. In both tests, the propellant exploded.

GAO: DOD’s Responsive Launch Effort Lacks Consolidated Plan

Boeing's ALASA launch system features a F-15E aircraft and an innovative booster. (Credit: Boeing)
Boeing’s ALASA launch system features a F-15E aircraft and an innovative booster. (Credit: Boeing)

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) study has found the Defense Department lacks a consolidated plan for developing a responsive launch capability that could rapidly place satellites into orbit on short notice.

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LauncherOne’s Long & Winding Road to Orbit: A Timeline

LauncherOne stage separation. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
LauncherOne stage separation. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

If the current schedule holds, Virgin Galactic’s revamped LauncherOne program will enter commercial service sometime in 2018 after roughly a decade of development. During that period, the program has been redefined several times, lost two of the key people hired to lead it, and changed its launch platform from WhiteKnightTwo to a jumbo jet. The estimates for the initial flight tests also have slipped by about  four years from 2013 to 2017.

Below is a timeline of the program’s major events, milestones, announcements, hires and departures, and other things. Feel free to let me know if I’ve missed anything significant.

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ISPCS Day One Review & a Mojave Engine Test

Credit: Robin Snelson
Credit: Robin Snelson

Greetings from Mojave.  I had hoped to be greeting you from Las Cruces from the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS — pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Is-pic-us). But, my plans to leave one desert town to travel across vast stretches of desert to a larger desert town didn’t work out this year. (I don’t know why; it sounded like so much fun.)

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DARPA Proposes $127 Million in Space Spending

XS-1 entry (Credit: Northrop Grumman)
XS-1 entry (Credit: Northrop Grumman)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has proposed spending $126.7 million on 10 space programs in FY 2016, including two initiatives designed to radically reduce the cost of launching payloads into space and a number of programs focused on in-orbit satellite servicing.

The budget is $53.2 million less than the $179.9 million will spend in the current fiscal year. While three programs would see major reductions in funding, DARPA would also start three new programs, including one focused on advanced propulsion technologies. (more…)

ALASA Getting Closer to Delivering Big Things in Small Packages to Space

Progress on several potentially breakthrough technologies could pave the way for much cheaper, faster and easier small-satellite launches

ARLINGTON, VA (DARPA PR) — Through its Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program, DARPA has been developing new concepts and architectures to get small satellites into orbit more economically on short notice.

Bradford Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, provided an update on ALASA today at the 18th Annual Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, D.C. Tousley discussed several key accomplishments of the program to date, including successful completion of Phase 1 design, selection of the Boeing Company as prime contractor for Phase 2 of the program, which includes conducting 12 orbital test launches of an integrated prototype system.

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The Year in Commercial Space 2014 (Part II)

Dream Chaser shuttle. (Credit: NASA)
Dream Chaser shuttle. (Credit: NASA)

Second of 2 Stories

It was a busy year for a number of commercial space companies. While most of them made considerable progress, the news wasn’t all good.

A Dream Deferred

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) had a pretty rough year, losing out on two major contracts and laying off more than 100 employees.

On a Friday in May, just as everyone was preparing for the long Memorial Day weekend, Virgin Galactic announced it was dumping the hybrid rubber motor SNC developed for SpaceShipTwo in favor of a hybrid nylon one produced by Scaled Composites.

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Boeing Wins ALASA Contract

Credit: DARPA
Credit: DARPA

DARPA has awarded Boeing a contract worth up to $104.7 million for the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program, which aims at placing a 100-lb. (45-kg) satellite into low Earth orbit for $1 million.

The base value of the contract is $30,673,934, with a first option valued at $72,044,948 and a second option valued at $2,032,857, according to a notice on the General Services Administration website. The contract was awarded on Friday.
ALASA’s goal is to allow the military to launch satellites anywhere in the world on relatively short notice in order to respond quickly to crises.
In 2012, DARPA awarded the following contracts for initial work on ALASA:

Launch System Design and Development Concepts

  • Lockheed Martin Corp., Palmdale, Calif.: $6.2 million
  • Boeing, Huntington Beach, Calif., $4.5 million
  • Virgin Galactic, Las Cruces, N.M.

Enabling Technologies

  • Northrup Grumman, El Segundo, Calif., $2.3 million
  • Space Information Laboratories LLC, Santa Maria, Calif., $1.9 million
  • Ventions LLC, San Francisco, Calif., $969,396

DARPA Moves Forward With Phoenix, ALASA and XS-1 Projects

Artist's conception of a nominal X-S1 vehicle. (Credit: DARPA)
Artist’s conception of a nominal X-S1 vehicle. (Credit: DARPA)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

DARPA’s proposed budget for FY 2015 calls for a significant increase in its Experimental Spaceplane One (XS-1) program and smaller boosts in the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program and Project Phoenix, budget documents show.

The defense agency has requested $27 million for re-useable XS-1 space plane this year, a significant boost over the $10 million being spent for FY 2014. With the increase in funding, DARPA plans to conduct a preliminary design review (PDR) and select a single vendor for final design, fabrication and flight test in the coming fiscal year, which will start on Oct. 1.

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Third Virgin Galactic Executive Departs as New CFO Named

John S. Rego
John S. Rego

For a company that is only months away from flying into space with paying customers, Virgin Galactic is experiencing a lot of high-level turnover. Three top level executives have left over the past two months.

Today, the company announced that it had hired John S. Rego as its new chief financial officer (CFO). He replaces Ken Sunshine, who joined the company as CFO in July 2011. The press release on Rego is reproduced below.

Virgin Galactic also saw the recent departures of Vice President of Safety Jon Turnipseed and Vice President of Propulsion Thomas Markusic. Turnipseed had joined the company in August 2010, while Markusic had been there since May 2011. Both departed in December, although Turnipseed is still listed on the website as VP of Safety.

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Stu Witt’s Prepared Remarks to Congress on Commercial Space

Stu_wittPrepared Statement of Stuart O. Witt
CEO and General Manager
Mojave Air and Space Port
Hearing on “Commercial Space”
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Subcommittee on Space Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
U.S. House of Representatives

Chairman Palazzo, Ranking Member Edwards, Chairman Smith, and members of the subcommittee, thank you for giving me the opportunity to address the subcommittee this morning. My name is Stuart Witt, and I am the CEO and General Manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port, which is located in southeast Kern County, California.

Many of my tenants call Mojave the Silicon Valley of Commercial Spaceflight. I’m just proud to lead the nation’s only private experimental flight test center, a place where Innovation Takes Flight.

Our topic today is America’s commercial space industry, and my message to you from the high desert is that American engineers and entrepreneurs in Mojave and other places across the country are successfully revolutionizing America’s future in space. This is a 100% good news story. What my Mojave tenants require from elected representatives in Washington is continued permission, and modest encouragement, rather than obstacles.

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DARPA’s SeeMe Program Targeted for Cancellation

Space News reports that the Senate Appropriations Committee wants to cancel DARPA’s Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) project, which aims to develop a constellation of low-cost imaging satellites capable of delivering data to handheld devices in real time.

The committee has nixed $10.5 million from the FY 2014 budget that the agency would use to finish tests on six prototype satellites and receiving technology. The House does not mention the program in its bill.

Left unanswered is the fate of DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program, which is intended to launch the SeeMe satellites. ALASA’s goal is to quickly launch 100-pound spacecraft into orbit for $1 million apiece. If the SeeMe program is cancelled, would ALASA follow?

Last year, DARPA awarded the following ALASA contracts to six companies:

Launch System Design and Development Concepts

  • Lockheed Martin Corp., Palmdale, Calif.: $6.2 million
  • Boeing, Huntington Beach, Calif., $4.5 million
  • Virgin Galactic, Las Cruces, N.M.

Enabling Technologies

  • Northrup Grumman, El Segundo, Calif., $2.3 million
  • Space Information Laboratories LLC, Santa Maria, Calif., $1.9 million
  • Ventions LLC, San Francisco, Calif., $969,396.

An Animated Look at DARPA’s SeeMe Satellite Program

VIDEO CAPTION: DARPA’s SeeMe program aims to give mobile, US warfighters overseas access to on-demand, space-based tactical information in remote and beyond-line-of-sight conditions. If successful, SeeMe will provide timely imagery to warfighters of their immediate surroundings via handheld devices.

Editor’s Note: The satellites are the payloads for DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program, which aims to put 100-lb. satellites into orbit for less than $1 million apiece. Last year, DARPA awarded six research contracts for the launcher.