Artemis: The Good, the Bad and the Well, Yeah

Artist concept of the SpaceX Starship on the surface of the Moon. (Credits: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and top officials provided an update on the Artemis program on Tuesday, delivering the not unexpected news that the space agency will not meet its deadline of landing a man and the first woman of color at the south pole of the moon in 2024. Instead, the landing will be delayed until at least 2025.

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FAA Public Hearings on SpaceX Boca Chica Report Focused Little on Environmental Impacts

Credit: FAA

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) held two public hearings last week on the preliminary environmental assessment on SpaceX’s plans to expand its operation at Boca Chica in Texas. One was held on Monday, and the other two days later.

The commenters have been a very mixed bag, with very few actually focused on the environmental impacts of enlarging the base to launch SpaceX’s massive Super Heavy/Starship vehicle. When FAA approved the Boca Chica site in 2014, SpaceX had been planning to launch a dozen smaller Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets annually from the facility.

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SpaceX, Dish Network Engaged in Battle Over Frequency Use

Sixty Starlink satellites separate from a Falcon 9 second stage on April 22, 2020. (Credit: SpaceX website)

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating story about the fight between SpaceX and Dish Network over frequency allocation. While SpaceX is spending billions to deploying thousands of satellites for its global Starlink broadband network, Dish Network wants the Federal Communications Commission to allow it to send Internet signals via cell phone towers.

In later filings with the FCC, Mr. Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX, told the regulator it needed those airwaves, which sit above 12 gigahertz on the wireless spectrum, free and clear for its Starlink swarm of satellites to beam high-speed broadband internet service to disconnected homes across the country. SpaceX didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.

The Tesla billionaire’s main antagonist in this case is Dish Network Corp. Chairman Charlie Ergen, another mogul with a history of tangling with regulators. Mr. Ergen’s Dish and his allies—who include Dell Computer founder Michael Dell through his personal investment fund, MSD Capital—are pressing the government to allow cellphone towers to send high-speed internet signals over the same airwaves. SpaceX and fellow satellite operator OneWeb oppose changes that they say threaten their goal of expanding internet access from the skies….

This is the kind of skirmish that companies often wage in Washington over finite resources subject to government rules—but with more-prominent personalities and a nastier edge than most telecom disputes. Fights over wireless spectrum are becoming increasingly common as technological advances like 5G let companies stream data in ways considered impossible a few years ago, spurring new demand for space on the airwaves to carry those signals.

SpaceX says its new Starlink broadband service is already providing cablelike internet speeds to more than 90,000 customers. The FCC granted the company $885 million in incentives to provide more connections to areas of the U.S. that lack true broadband. Dish and its allies argue that looser rules for the 12 GHz frequencies would help the company build a network that will connect smartphones, factory machines and vehicle sensors with the kind of ultrafast internet speeds that 5G promises to deliver.

The story says that Musk was adamant in a phone with the FCC’s then-Chairman Ajit Pai that the regulatory agency not open the frequency for Dish Network to provide services via cell phone towers due to the threat it posed to Starlink.

It will be interesting to see how this battle plays out here and abroad. The U.S. is likely not on the only country where this move is being considered.

Environment Engineer Says Assessment of SpaceX Boca Chica Expansion is Deceptive, Incomplete and Illegal

Starhopper aborts a hop attempt at Boca Chica. (Credit: SpaceX webcast screen shot)
  • Assessment authors accused of submitting false emissions numbers
  • Report leaves out entire structures and their environmental impacts
  • FAA accused of illegally fast tracking approval using less rigorous environmental assessment than required by law

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

An environmental engineer has raised serious questions about the completeness and appropriateness of a draft programmatic environmental assessment (PEA) that covers SpaceX’s major expansion of its Starbase rocket launch and test site in Boca Chica, Texas.

According to a 12-part series on the blog ESG Hound, the assessment that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released for public comment last month violates the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to evaluate all of the impact of the project, which sits amidst environmentally sensitive saltwater wetlands.

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FAA Examination of Blue Origin Safety Issues Likely to be Very Narrow

New Shepard launch (Credit: Blue Origin webcast)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has said it will examine safety issues about Blue Origin’s crewed suborbital New Shepard vehicle raised by a group of current and former employees in an open letter published on Thursday.

The announcement comes 11 days before four paying customers, one reported to be Star Trek star William Shatner, are scheduled to board New Shepard for a trip to space. While a federal safety review might sound reassuring to these ticket holders, what does it actually mean in practice?

Probably not much.

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Virgin Galactic’s Next Challenge: The Flight of the Vested?

Richard Branson and other passengers float around in weightlessness. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

This was supposed to be the Summer of Virgin Galactic. The company would complete the three remaining suborbital flight tests of SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, the second one with Richard Branson aboard. The company’s newest space tourism vehicle, SpaceShipIII, would begin its flight tests.

Once VSS Unity tests were complete, engineers would spend four months making a series of repairs and upgrades to the spacecraft and its WhiteKnightTwo mothership, VMS Eve. And then in early 2022, the company would use both spaceships to fly tourists on suborbital joy rides that were originally projected to begin 15 years earlier in 2007.

Sounds easy enough, right? It wasn’t. The Summer of Virgin Galactic went about as well as the Summer of George on Seinfeld. If best laid plans of mice, men and Costanzas often go awry, Virgin Galactic’s schedules are guaranteed to move significantly to the right. Years to the right.

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This Week in Elon: Musk Mocks Biden Amid Cooler Political Climate, Federal Investigation of Tesla

Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

It seems that Elon Musk is a bit peeved that President Joe Biden didn’t congratulate SpaceX on completing the privately-funded Inspiration4 crewed mission last week and helping to raise $210 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“He’s still sleeping,” Musk wrote in response to a question from a Twitter follower about Biden’s silence. It was a clear reference to ex-President Donald Trump’s description of him as “sleepy Joe” during the campaign.

The remark set off the usual battle on social media. Musk’s legion of defenders called the omission unforgivable. Musk’s critics noted his willingness to amply praise authoritarian China where Musk’s Tesla Motors has a manufacturing plant even as he called U.S. officials “fascists” for their efforts to contain the deadly COVID-19 virus.

For his part, Jared Isaacman, the billionaire who funded and commanded the Inspiration4 flight, says Biden’s silence is no big deal.

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SpaceX Projects Higher Commercial Flight Rate; Musk Donation Sends St. Jude Fund-raising Campaign Over the Top

Crew Dragon splashes down with Inspiration4 crew. (Credit: Inspiration4)

A few notes on the Inspiration4 mission:

Big Demand for Flights

SpaceX senior director for human spaceflight Benji Reed said yesterday that the company wants to ramp up to six private commercial human spaceflights per year.

“There’s nothing really that limits our capability to launch. It’s about having rockets and Dragons ready to go and having everything in the manifest align with our other launches,” he said.

SpaceX officials said they received many inquiries about future bookings since the Inspiration4 mission was launched on a three-day Earth orbiting flight on Wednesday.

Axiom Space is sending four people to the International Space Station in January using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft. The mission will include three paying passengers and be led by an Axiom executive who is a former NASA astronaut.

Fundraising Campaign Succeeds

SpaceX founder Elon Musk pledge of $50 million to Inspiration4’s fund-raising campaign for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital brought the total raised to $210 million, which is $10 million above the original goal. St. Jude will use the funds to conduct cancer research.

Billionaire Jared Isaacman, who commanded the mission, donated the first $100 million to the campaign. The other $60 million was raised through online donations. There is also an ongoing auction of items flown on the mission that will bring in more money.

Inspiration4 Mission Announces Splashdown Time to Return from Orbit

Inspiration4 crew in orbit. (Credit: Inspiration4)

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL, September 17, 2021 (Inspiration4 PR) – Tonight Inspiration4, the world’s first all-civilian human spaceflight mission to orbit, shared the crew would return tomorrow, September 18, with a targeted splashdown at 7:06 p.m. EDT in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. To prepare for this return, Dragon completed two burns tonight to reduce the spacecraft’s altitude to approximately 365km and line up the ground track with the landing site. A timeline of activities for Dragon’s return to Earth and splashdown is available on SpaceX’s website.

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NASA Would Receive $4.4 Billion Under House Bill; DOE’s Radioisotope Processing Facility Funding Increased

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA would received an additional $4.4 billion to perform repairs and upgrades on its aging infrastructure, conduct climate change research and development (R&D) and improve cybersecurity under an infrastructure spending bill now under consideration by the House of Representatives.

The funding does not include any money to fund a second human lander for NASA’s Artemis program that would likely have gone to the National Team led by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. The space agency awarded a single source contract to Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

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Roscosmos General Director Dmitry Rogozin Invites Elon Musk to View Launch at Baikonur Cosmodrome

Roscosmos is launching actress Yulia Peresild and director Klim Shipenko to film a movie named “Challenge” on the International Space Station. The Soyuz spacecraft will be commanded by cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov. Rogozin has snagged a producer credit.

Report: Government Documents Allege SpaceX has Violated FAA Permit, Encroached on Boca Chica National Wildlife Refuge

Starship SN8 takes off from Boca Chica, Texas. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

60 Minutes+ reports that government documents back up allegations that SpaceX’s Starbase test facility in Texas has violated its federal permit through excessive road closings and has encroached and trespassed on the protected Boca Chica National Wildlife Refuge.

The documents back up a claim by the environmental group Save Rio Grande Valley (Save RGV) that SpaceX has been closing the Texas state highway that runs through its operation for more than the 300 hours per year allowed under the permit from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The organization sent a letter to the local district attorney outlining its concerns.

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