from the up-in-the-air dept.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk's use of cannabis during an interview with Joe Rogan has led to safety reviews at both SpaceX and Boeing:
In addition to spurring problems for the car company Tesla, Elon Musk's puff of marijuana in September will also have consequences for SpaceX. On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that NASA will conduct a "safety review" of both of its commercial crew companies, SpaceX and Boeing. The review was prompted, sources told the paper, because of recent behavior by Musk, including smoking marijuana on a podcast.
According to William Gerstenmaier, NASA's chief human spaceflight official, the review will be "pretty invasive" and involve interviews with hundreds of employees at various levels of the companies, across multiple worksites. The review will begin next year, and interviews will examine "everything and anything that could impact safety," Gerstenmaier told the Post.
[...] One source familiar with NASA's motivations said the agency has grown weary of addressing questions about SpaceX's workplace culture, from the long hours its employees work to Musk's behaviors on social media. "SpaceX is the frat house," this source said. "And NASA is the old white guy across the street yelling at them to 'Get off my lawn.'"
The "Big Falcon/Fucking Rocket" (BFR) has been renamed. The upper stage will be called Starship, while the booster will be called Super Heavy:
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted late Monday night that he has renamed the company's largest (and yet to be built) BFR rocket to Starship. Or more precisely, the spaceship portion will be called Starship. The rocket booster used to propel Starship from Earth's gravitational grasp will be called Super Heavy.
Plans to add a "mini-BFS" second stage to the Falcon 9 were scrapped less than 2 weeks after they were announced. Yet another design change for the BFR/Starship was also hinted at:
In a series of tweets Nov. 17, Musk said that SpaceX was no longer pursuing an upgrade to its existing Falcon 9 vehicle that would make the vehicle's second stage reusable. The company's focus, he said, would instead be on speeding up work on SpaceX's heavy-lift reusable launch vehicle formally known as Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR. "Accelerating BFR instead," Musk said. "New design is very exciting! Delightfully counter-intuitive." [...] Musk, in his latest tweets, said no major changes to the Falcon 9 were now on the table. "Yes, no upgrades planned for F9," he wrote. "Minor tweaks to improve reliability only, provided NASA & USAF are supportive."
Incidentally, SpaceX raised $250 million with its first loan instead of the $500-750 million the company previously sought.
Finally, NASA's associate administrator Stephen Jurczyk told Business Insider that the Space Launch System (SLS) would eventually be retired in favor of SpaceX's upcoming rocket (formerly known as BFR) and Blue Origin's New Glenn (Blue Origin is also planning an successor called New Armstrong, but no further details have been announced about the rocket). However, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine denied that SLS would be cancelled in 2022 "or any foreseeable date":
NASA is building a giant rocket ship to return astronauts to the moon and, later on, ferry the first crews to and from Mars. But agency leaders are already contemplating the retirement of the Space Launch System (SLS), as the towering and yet-to-fly government rocket is called, and the Orion space capsule that'll ride on top. NASA is anticipating the emergence of two reusable and presumably more affordable mega-rockets that private aerospace companies are creating. Those systems are the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), which is being built by Elon Musk's SpaceX; and the New Glenn, a launcher being built by Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.
"I think our view is that if those commercial capabilities come online, we will eventually retire the government system, and just move to a buying launch capacity on those [rockets]," Stephen Jurczyk, NASA's associate administrator, told Business Insider at The Economist Space Summit on November 1.
However, Jim Bridenstine, the administrator of NASA, appears to have publicly denied his colleague's statement. "In case there is any confusion, @NASA will NOT be retiring @NASA_SLS in 2022 or any foreseeable date. It is the backbone of America's return to the Moon with international and commercial partners," Bridenstine tweeted on Monday, following the initial publication of this story on Saturday.
Elon Musk frequently makes outrageous requests of his staff in his quest to remake global transportation and colonize Mars. But the terms he wanted on a loan for SpaceX were too much even for his closest ally on Wall Street. As recently as last week, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. had been canvassing investors for interest in $500 million of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. debt. By the time interested parties showed up Wednesday at the Four Seasons hotel in midtown Manhattan for a breakfast meeting, Bank of America Corp. was running the show for a $750 million deal.
The switch surprised bankers and investors, as Goldman is widely viewed as the Wall Street firm with the closest relationship to Musk. It helped take Tesla Inc. public in 2010, led a $1.8 billion bond sale last year and advised on his short-lived attempt to take the electric carmaker private for $420 a share. While Bank of America has a lending relationship with SpaceX, it has been shying away from some of the riskiest corners of the corporate-debt market.
Goldman balked when SpaceX, a first-time issuer, wanted wide latitude to raise additional debt in the future, according to people with knowledge of the matter, who asked not to be identified because the discussions were private. The hesitation highlights uneasiness among banks that have been challenged by regulators over the risks they're taking in the $1.3 trillion leveraged-loan market. Insatiable investor appetite for floating-rate debt has allowed heavily indebted companies to extract more concessions from lenders.
SpaceX plans to build a "mini-BFR ship" to replace the usual second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, ahead of late 2019 testing of the actual BFR/BFS. For now, this is intended only to test technologies for the BFR, such as the heat shield and "mach control surfaces". The new second stage will not be able to land propulsively, may not carry any payloads, and may only be used for a single test:
The goal for the modification is June 2019, Musk said in a follow up tweet. [...] [In September], SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said she expected the BFS to begin short, unmanned "hopping" tests in late 2019. This new timeline for a mini-BFR would fit perfectly with these tests.
In a follow up tweet, Musk said the tests would specifically look at how the mini-BFR's heat shield and mach control surfaces will hold up under the duress of launch and flight, elements that are difficult to test without actually escaping the Earth's orbit.
Also at Space News.
SpaceX's Starship and Super Heavy (formerly Big Falcon Spaceship and Big Falcon Booster, or Big Falcon Rocket) have undergone further changes following a "final" iteration of the design in September. Elon Musk also said that a downscaled Starship hopper (for vertical takeoffs and landings) will "hopefully" be tested starting in March or April 2019, which is months sooner than a "late 2019" estimate made by SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell in September.
Recent photos taken of SpaceX's operation in Boca Chica, Texas have shown a stainless steel nose cone being built. The new stainless steel design was confirmed by Elon Musk, along with numerous other details. Musk said that stainless steel can beat carbon fiber composites due to its superior strength-to-mass ratio and "mirror-like" thermal reflectivity. SpaceX is using an on-site foundry to create its own steel "superalloy", although some steel parts will be made by a supplier. Finally, the test hopper will feature three "radically redesigned" Raptor engines while being slightly shorter than the full-scale Starship, although it will share the same 9-meter diameter:
While the suggestion that Raptor's turbopumps (basically fuel pumps) would need at least 100,000 HP per engine seems to indicate that the flight design's thrust has been appreciably uprated, a past figure of ~2000 kN (450,000 lbf) per engine suggests that Starship V0.1 could weigh as much as an entire Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket (~1.2 million pounds, 550,000 kg) and still having a solid 80-100% of Falcon 9's liftoff thrust. Put simply, the rocket that appears to be coming together in the boonies of South Texas could rival almost any other liquid fuel rocket booster in service, while still being the testbed for BFR's upper stage alone.
While it's ambiguous if several additional comments applied to the Starship prototype, the final product, or both, Musk also indicated that some of the biggest benefits of a shift away from carbon composites to stainless steel would be relative ease with which the material handles extreme heating. Thanks to the fact that stainless steel can ultimately be polished to mirror-like levels of reflectivity and that mirrors are some of the most efficient reflectors of thermal energy (heat), shiny and unpainted steel would ultimately perform far better than carbon composites and could end up requiring "much less" heat shielding for the same performance.
Perhaps most unintuitive is the fact that steel can apparently beat carbon composites when it comes to usable strength-to-weight ratios at supercool temperatures. According to Musk, steel also performs "vastly better" at high temperatures and appreciably better at room temperatures. A comment made on Saturday may lend additional credence to what seems at face value to contradict basic material intuition – at least some of the stainless steel SpaceX is examing would be a special (presumably SpaceX-engineered) alloy that has undergone what is known as cryogenic treatment, in which metals are subjected to extremely cold conditions to create some seriously unintuitive properties. Ultimately, cold-formed/worked or cryo-treated steel can be dramatically lighter and more wear-resistant than traditional hot-rolled steel.
Elon Musk hinted at a "delightfully counter-intuitive" redesign in November, which was almost certainly a reference to the use of stainless steel instead of carbon fiber composites. Here's a video (10m14s) which offers some speculation about how a steel Starship could effectively conduct and radiate away heat.
Also at Business Insider.
SpaceX is seeking US approval to deploy up to 1 million Earth stations to receive transmissions from its planned satellite broadband constellation.
The Federal Communications Commission last year gave SpaceX permission to deploy 11,943 low-Earth orbit satellites for the planned Starlink system. A new application from SpaceX Services, a sister company, asks the FCC for "a blanket license authorizing operation of up to 1,000,000 Earth stations that end-user customers will utilize to communicate with SpaceX's NGSO [non-geostationary orbit] constellation."
The application was published by FCC.report, a third-party site that tracks FCC filings. GeekWire reported the news on Friday. An FCC spokesperson confirmed to Ars today that SpaceX filed the application on February 1, 2019.
If each end-user Earth station provides Internet service to one building, SpaceX could eventually need authorization for more than 1 million stations in the US. SpaceX job listings describe the user terminal as "a high-volume manufactured product customers will have in their homes."
SpaceX has filed a protest over the award of a launch contract to United Launch Alliance for a NASA planetary science mission, claiming it could carry out the mission for significantly less money.
The protest, filed with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) Feb. 11, is regarding a NASA procurement formally known as RLSP-35. That contract is for the launch of the Lucy mission to the Trojan asteroids of Jupiter, awarded by NASA to ULA Jan. 31 at a total cost to the agency of $148.3 million. The GAO documents did not disclose additional information about the protest, other than the office has until May 22 to render a decision. NASA said that, as a result of the protest, it's halted work on the ULA contract.
[...] SpaceX confirmed that the company was protesting the contract. "Since SpaceX has started launching missions for NASA, this is the first time the company has challenged one of the agency's award decisions," a company spokesperson said in a statement to SpaceNews. "SpaceX offered a solution with extraordinarily high confidence of mission success at a price dramatically lower than the award amount, so we believe the decision to pay vastly more to Boeing and Lockheed for the same mission was therefore not in the best interest of the agency or the American taxpayers," the spokesperson added. ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
[...] A key factor in the decision to award the contract to ULA was schedule certainty. Lucy has a complex mission profile with a series of flybys in order to visit several asteroid either leading or following Jupiter in its orbit around the sun. That results in a launch window that is open for only about 20 days in October 2021. Should the launch miss that window, the mission cannot be flown as currently planned.
Previously: NASA Selects Two Missions to Visit Asteroids