2020: Four Spaceships & the End of America’s Cosmic Groundhog Day

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The clock struck midnight on Jan. 1 amid raucous celebrations around the world. The arrival of a new year and decade merely confirmed what had been clear for months: 2019 was not the breakthrough year for getting humans off the planet.

Neither Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin followed through on long-standing promises to fly paying passengers on suborbital joyrides. An era of commercial space tourism that seemed so close that October day in 2004 when Brian Binnie guided SpaceShipOne to a landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port quietly slipped into yet another year.

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Bezos Names First Head of Communications for Blue Origin

Mills served as vice president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes Communications from February 2018 until January 2020. Previous to that, she served as Starbucks’ vice president for global communications for six years.

I would see the hiring of Mills as a sign that Blue Origin is going to ramp up its media operations. Jeff Bezos doesn’t hire someone of that stature to continue the company’s low-level activities.

Blue Origins President Bob Smith said last year the company would fly New Shepard with people after conducting two more automated flights. The first of those launches took place in December. So there could be a major ramp up in that area.

Blue Origin also has a lot of other things on its plate. The company is:

  • developing the New Glenn rocket for orbital missions;
  • building a new engine for ULA’s Vulcan booster;
  • bidding on a major U.S. Air Force launch contract;
  • competing to build NASA’s human lunar lander for the Artemis program;
  • bidding on NASA’s CLPS task orders to deliver payloads to the moon; and,
  • developing a rival to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband constellation.

Whatever the outcome of these efforts, the company needs an experience public relations professional to navigate the sometimes turbulent media seas.

A Case for Durational Research: Space Plants Co-Investigators Robert Ferl and Anna-Lisa Paul

Robert Ferl_and Anna-Lisa Paul (Credit: NASA)

NASA Flight Opportunities Program Q&A

University of Florida-Gainesville co-investigators Robert Ferl and Anna-Lisa Paul are no strangers to suborbital research. They’ve been conducting plant research in microgravity since the late 1990s—first on the Space Shuttle and then on the International Space Station (ISS) and parabolic flights, many of which have been facilitated by Flight Opportunities.

More recently, the pair have begun flying their “space plants” (Arabidopsis thaliana) on rockets, including Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard. We spoke with Ferl and Paul about how they have approached their long-duration research to lead to successful, iterative investigations on multiple flights. 

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2019: A Busy Year in Suborbital Flight

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Last year was a busy one for suborbital flights as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic conducted a combined four flights of their crewed suborbital vehicles. Despite hopes to the contrary, neither company flew paying tourists on their spaceships.

There were also 26 sounding rocket launches that carried scientific experiments and technology payloads above the atmosphere. The year saw:

  • Japanese startup Interstellar Technologies conduct a successful launch of its Momo commercial sounding rocket;
  • Texas-based Exos Aerospace continue to struggle with its reusable SARGE booster; and,
  • the first suborbital launch ever achieved by college students.
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AIAA, Blue Origin Partner to Launch Experiments Designed by High School Students into Space

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

January 9, 2020 – Reston, Va. – The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and Blue Origin have partnered to create Design/Build/Launch (DBL), a new competition designed to launch experimental payloads to study the effects of short-duration microgravity.

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Blue Origin’s New Shepard Launches From West Texas

New Shepard launch (Credit: Blue Origin webcast)

Blue Origin launched its New Shepard rocket and capsule from its spaceport in West Texas on Thursday. The capsule reached an unofficial altitude of 43,061 ft (104.56 km/65.97 miles) and a speed of 2,227 mph (3,584 kph) during a flight that lasted 10 minutes 16 seconds. The booster touched down on a landing pad; the capsule came down under three parachutes nearby.

New Shepard Mission NS-12 Notable Payloads Manifested

Club for the Future
Thousands of postcards from students around the world from Blue Origin’s Club for the Future. The Club’s mission is to inspire future generations to pursue careers in STEM and help visualize the future of life in space.

OK Go
Earlier this year we partnered with rock band OK Go on a contest called Art in Space, giving high school and middle school students a chance to send art experiments into space on our New Shepard vehicle. We are sending the two winning art projects on NS-12.  

Columbia University
One of our educational payloads from Columbia University, designed and built by undergraduate students and advised by Dr. Michael Massimino (an astronaut), will study the acute impacts of microgravity environments on cell biology. This is crucial for humans living and working in space.

OSCAR
OSCAR, which was led by principal investigator Dr. Annie Meier, is a recycling technology payload from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It is designed to create a mixture of gasses that could be used for propulsion or life support from common waste on a deep space human exploration mission. This is Blue’s first full-stack payload, meaning there will be more room to do complex studies in flight.

Inner to Outer Space: Studying Biological Changes with Plants on Rockets

The University of Florida’s “space plants” experiment studies include Arabidopsis thaliana plants, as seen here, engineered with fluorescence signaling molecules for precise imaging using advanced cameras and sensors. (Credits: University of Florida)

By Nicole Quenelle
NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center

What happens to the genes of organisms as they travel from the ground, through Earth’s atmosphere and into space? Does their expression change? Are the changes subtle or dramatic? Do they happen quickly or gradually?

Answering such fundamental research questions is essential to our understanding of the impact of space travel on humans and other organisms. Two researchers from the University of Florida in Gainesville have been chipping away at the answers since the 1990s—using plants.

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Cast of The Expanse Visits Blue Origin

Video Caption: Witness the intersection of hard science and science fiction and how one inspires the other. The cast of The Expanse sits down with brilliant minds from Blue Origin to discuss life beyond our planet. » The Expanse returns 12/13.

Watch the current season with Prime:

http://bit.ly/TheExpansePrimeVideo » SUBSCRIBE: http://bit.ly/PrimeVideoSubscribe

About The Expanse: The disappearance of rich-girl-turned-political-activist Julie Mao links the lives of Ceres detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane), accidental ship captain James Holden (Steven Strait) and U.N. politician Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo). Amidst political tension between Earth, Mars and the Belt, they unravel the single greatest conspiracy of all time.

NASA Microgap-Cooling Technology Immune to Gravity Effects and Ready for Spaceflight

The microgap-cooling technology developed by Goddard technologist Franklin Robinson and University of Maryland professor Avram Bar-Cohen was tested twice on a Blue Origin New Shepard rocket. (Credits: NASA/Franklin Robinson)

by Lori Keesey
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

GREENBELT, Md. — A groundbreaking technology that would allow NASA to effectively cool tightly packed instrument electronics and other spaceflight gear is unaffected by weightlessness, and could be used on a future spaceflight mission.

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Jeff Bezos to Receive 2019 IAF Excellence in Industry Award for Blue Origin

Jeff Bezos

PARIS (IAF PR) — On 22 October 2019, Blue Origin Founder, Jeff Bezos, is to receive the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) Excellence in Industry Award at the 70th International Astronautical Congress – IAC 2019, to take place from 21 – 25 October in Washington D.C., United States.

The IAF Excellence in Industry Award recognizes an industry organization for outstanding and sustainable advancements in space, showing the merits of leadership in developing and executing landmark commercial and civil space missions and for being a role model for cooperation in the global space industry workforce.

For its first awardee, the IAF has selected Blue Origin for its significant and sustainable contribution towards enabling an enduring human presence in space through its New Shepard launch system and BE-3 liquid hydrogen rocket engine.

Designed for human spaceflight and operational reusability, New Shepard has made 11 historic flights to space. These missions have long-term benefits destined to ignite a new era of commercial human access to space at a dramatically lower cost and with increased reliability.

The IAF Excellence in Industry Award Ceremony will take place on Tuesday 22 October 2019 from 08:00 – 08:25 in the Grand Ballroom of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Jean-Yves Le Gall, IAF President, Pascale Ehrenfreund, IAF Incoming President, and Bruce Chesley, IAF Vice President for Industry Relations, will announce Blue Origin as the 2019 Recipient. The Ceremony will be followed by a fireside chat interview with Jeff Bezos.

Blue Origin Plans 2 More New Shepard Flights Before Flying People

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

CNBC reports that Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin plans two more flight tests of the reusable New Shepard booster and capsule before flying people on suborbital flights. The additional tests could delay the first human flight into next year.

CEO Bob Smith has talked about the first crewed flight of New Shepard happening as early as the end of 2018 – but that goal has steadily been pushed back. Smith, in an interview with CNBC on Tuesday, explained why Blue Origin has delayed the first crewed flight and continued to test.

“It’s really the robustness of our entire system. It’s not one individual thing that’s driving [these delays],” Smith said. “It’s us being cautious and thorough with the total systems we need to verify.”

He noted that Blue Origin has been pushing the limits of its software and hardware, as well as testing its BE-3 rocket engine for extreme and unexpected situations.

Blue Origin has filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission to conduct the 12th New Shepard launch no earlier than Nov. 1.

New Shepard consists of a reusable booster and capsule. The capsule lands by parachute while the booster touches down using landing legs.

Blue Origin has recovered the capsules and boosters on 10 of the 11 flights. On one flight, the booster crashed while the capsule landed safely.

The company has not announced when it will begin to sell tickets and what price it will charge. Tickets aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, which expects to begin commercial suborbital flights next year, cost $250,000. Virgin Founder Richard Branson plans to be aboard the first commercial flight.

Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic: The Numbers Never Added Up

Richard Branson and his children hang out with Project Bandaloop dancers during the dedication of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space facility. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Fourteen years ago, Virgin Galactic and New Mexico promised “tens of thousands” of tourists would fly to space from Spaceport America by 2019. Total thus far: 0.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

When they announced in December 2005 that Virgin Galactic would locate its space tourism business in New Mexico, Virgin Founder Richard Branson and Gov. Bill Richardson made a number of eye-popping claims about why taxpayers should back a plan to build the Southwest Regional Spaceport to serve as the space tourism company’s home base:

  • $331 million in total construction revenues in 2007;
  • 2,460 construction-related jobs;
  • $1 billion in total spending, payroll of $300 million and 2,300 jobs by the fifth year of operation; and,
  • $750 million in total revenues and more than 3,500 jobs by 2020.

Virgin Galactic would sign a 20-year lease as anchor tenant and pay fees based on the number of launches it conducted. New Mexico would use the spaceport, Virgin’s presence and the funds generated to develop a large aerospace cluster.

Surprisingly, New Mexico would spend more money, $225 million, to develop a facility now known as Spaceport America than the $108 million that Branson planned to spend on developing a fleet of five SpaceShipTwos and WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

Among all the big numbers in the announcement, there was a truly astounding one that was deemed so important it was mentioned twice. (Emphasis added)

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One Giant Leap for Lunar Landing Navigation Taken in Mojave

This map of the Moon shows the five candidate landing sites chosen by the Apollo Site Selection Board in February 1968. Photographs gathered during earlier uncrewed reconnaissance missions gave NASA information about terrain features. (Credit: NASA)

By Nicole Quenelle
NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center

MOJAVE, Calif., September 13, 2019 (NASA PR) — When Apollo 11’s lunar module, Eagle, landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969, it first flew over an area littered with boulders before touching down at the Sea of Tranquility. The site had been selected based on photos collected over two years as part of the Lunar Orbiter program.

But the “sensors” that ensured Eagle was in a safe spot before touching down – those were the eyes of NASA Astronaut Neil Armstrong.

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NASA to Test Sensors for Precision Moon Landings on Blue Origin’s New Shepard

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

NASA Contract Award
NASA Langley Research Center
Hampton, Virginia

Blue Origin, LLC
Kent, Washington
Amount: $1,301,743

Synopsis:

The work will include the integration of NASA developed technology into Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch vehicle, providing opportunities to mature critical sensor technology and algorithms that enable precision and soft landing. Testing will be performed at approximately 100 km altitude on-board the flight proven New Shepard vertical takeoff vertical landing (VTVL) suborbital vehicle.

Blue Origin and NASA will use the flight data to anchor analyses and models and support follow-on ground-based algorithm testing and development. The NASA-developed sensor suite will enable Blue Moon to precisely land anywhere on the lunar surface, from the equator to the poles, from the rim of Shackleton crater to permanently shadowed regions, from the far side locations on the South Pole/Aitken basin to lunar lava tubes.

This contract addresses three high-level technology objectives:

1. Demonstrate the performance of NASA-developed precision landing sensor and processing technology (including, but not limited to, Descent Landing Computer (DLC), Navigation Doppler Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR, NDL) and Landing Vision System (LVS) in an operating envelope (altitude, velocity, and vehicle environments) from space environments through soft propulsive landing operations on a commercial vehicle (the New Shepard Propulsion Module).

2. Demonstrate a commercial guidance and navigation system for safe and accurate lunar landings using NASA-developed Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) and Hazard Detection and Avoidance (HDA) algorithms as part of a Hardware-in-the-Loop (HIL) simulation environment.

3. Develop and demonstrate a Flash LiDAR (FL) prototype for hazard detection derived from NASA-developed Flash LiDAR sensor design.