Welcome to Edition 4.02 of the Rocket Report! This week there’s news about the space race between two rocket billionaires, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, and still more news about Branson’s other space company. Thanks for reading and contributing.
As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.
Bezos going to space, but will Branson beat him? Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said on Monday he would fly on the first human spaceflight of his company’s New Shepard spacecraft. This mission will launch from Blue Origin’s spaceport in West Texas on July 20, which is the anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in 1969. With this timeline, Bezos seemed almost certain to get to orbit before his suborbital space-tourism rival Sir Richard Branson, whose flight was scheduled for later this summer.
The plot thickens! … However, according to a report by Doug Messier on his Parabolic Arc website, “Virgin Galactic is working on a plan to send Branson on a suborbital flight aboard the VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane over the July 4 holiday weekend.” This would beat Bezos by a couple of weeks. Later, given a chance to do so, Virgin Galactic did not refute this report of an accelerated timeline for Sir Richard. The report said only that the company was still studying its next potential launch date. A Thursday email from Virgin Galactic to the company’s customers was also fairly ambiguous. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Northrop receives contract to sustain Minuteman III missile. The Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile has been in service for five decades, and it will remain so for a significant time. Northrop Grumman said Thursday it has been awarded a $287 million base contract by the US Air Force to provide engineering services to assist in sustaining the Minuteman III missile system.
Part of the nuclear triad … The company said this Propulsion Subsystem Support Contract 2.0, awarded last month, has a contract ceiling of $2.3 billion over 18.5 years. Originally manufactured in 1970, the three-stage solid-fuel Minuteman III rocket has undergone multiple refurbishments to ensure its viability. The Minuteman III is capable of delivering thermonuclear weapons at distances of greater than 13,000 km. The Air Force periodically test fires these rockets from Vandenberg Air Force Base, without warheads attached.
Virgin Orbit targets late June for next launch. The company said it has shipped its LauncherOne rocket to Mojave Air and Space Port, where the rocket is now comfortably mated to Cosmic Girl’s left wing. Although tests are ongoing, Virgin Orbit said it is targeting the last week of June for the launch. This represents a relatively quick turnaround from LauncherOne’s first successful flight in January.
For all to see this time … On this flight, the air-launched rocket will seek to deliver a total of seven spacecraft into orbit from the Department of Defense Space Test Program, SatRevolution, and the Royal Netherlands Air Force. During the January mission, the company had a password-protected webcast, but this time around, it plans to put its first public “official mission livestream” on YouTube. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Astra to acquire Apollo Fusion. California-based rocket company Astra will acquire Apollo Fusion, a company developing electric propulsion systems for spacecraft, as part of its effort to create vertically integrated space systems.
Astra is purchasing Apollo Fusion for $30 million in stock and $20 million in cash in a deal announced Monday, SpaceNews reports. The deal includes an additional $95 million in earn-out incentives.
Have to start with propulsion … Chris Kemp, chief executive of Astra, told the publication that Apollo Fusion’s thrusters fill a technology gap for those future satellites. “What this is about is adding a really core piece of technology to Astra’s platform,” he said. “It’ll unlock a whole new set of customer opportunities for us. The next puzzle piece is the vertically integrated spacecraft. So, as we started to look at that, what are the core technologies that drive that?” he said. The engine seems to have been the obvious answer. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)
Legal arguments begin over Scottish spaceport. A Danish couple has continued to press a legal case against a local government in northern Scotland, the Highland Council, regarding a proposed spaceport. Billionaires Anders and Anne Holch Povlsen have asked a senior judge to overturn planning permission for a space port in the Highlands, the BBC reports. They own land near the proposed Space Hub Sutherland and have concerns about its impact on protected areas.
Not in my backyard … Public agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise has proposed building the facility for launching small satellites on the Moine Peninsula, an area of peatland and crofts on the Highlands’ north coast. The Highland Council approved the plans in June. However, lawyers for the Povlsens argued that documents showed the Highland Council did not appear to have properly considered the impact that people visiting the site could have on the local environment. The legal hearing is ongoing. (submitted by SPHK_Tech)
Is the world ready for Dongfang Space? A reporter on the Chinese space industry, Andrew Jones, shared news this week on Twitter about yet another Chinese launch startup. Dongfang Space, he said, has raised $62 million in funding for both expendable and reusable launchers.
Someone downloaded Kerbal Space you guys … Ambitiously, Jones says, the company’s medium-term plan is for commercial crew flights and planetary exploration. I have no idea whether this company will succeed, and I’m only sharing this news item because the company’s rocket rendering is probably the worst one I’ve ever seen. You should definitely check it out for this reason and this reason alone.
Relativity reveals plan to build a mini-Starship. Relativity Space announced Tuesday that it has raised an additional $650 million in private capital, and the new funding will accelerate development of the “Terran-R” launch vehicle. This large orbital rocket will be about as tall as SpaceX’s Falcon 9, and the entire vehicle will be reusable—the first and second stages, as well as the payload fairing, Ars reports.
Nice, shiny vehicle you have there … Powered by seven main engines, the Terran R vehicle will initially launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Relativity has set a goal to launch in 2024, and company CEO Tim Ellis said the company has signed a binding contract for multiple launches with an “anchor customer” he declined to name. Relativity has not publicly released a price for a launch. In renderings, the vehicle resembles a smaller version of SpaceX’s Starship.
China nears launch of Shenzhou-12 crew launch. China rolled out a Long March 2F rocket Wednesday in preparation to send the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft and three astronauts to an orbiting space station module, SpaceNews reports. This will be the country’s first crewed mission in more than 4.5 years and just the seventh overall. The mission is expected to last about three months.
Date not publicly revealed … Authorities have yet to reveal the planned launch date or the identity of the primary and backup crews for the mission. Shenzhou-12 was expected to launch around June 10 Beijing time, but a week-long delay to the launch of the Tianzhou-2 cargo mission likely pushed back the date by a similar length of time. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Amidst COVID, India still seeks 2021 Gaganyaan launch. The coronavirus has put India through a brutal year. Due to widespread lockdowns, the country’s space agency, ISRO, has had to postpone numerous launches. However, Times of India reports that the country still hopes to get an uncrewed Gaganyaan mission off the ground in December.
When industries come back? … The test flight, a precursor to a crewed flight in 2023, will launch on a human-rated Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III rocket, complete with a modified upper stage compatible with a crew spacecraft. “If industries can turn around and deliver the systems and parts we need, it will be possible,” said K. Sivan, the chair of the ISRO. A final decision will be made later this year. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
The US Senate tells NASA to keep testing the SLS rocket. The US Senate passed the Endless Frontier Act this week to bolster US research and innovation, and the act included several NASA-related provisions. One of them, sponsored by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), said NASA should “initiate development of a main propulsion test article” for the SLS rocket, Ars reports. This test article, of course, would necessarily be tested at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
Fly, fly, fly and then test? … According to a Senate staffer who spoke to Ars on background, this would essentially be an SLS core stage built not to fly but to undergo numerous tests at Stennis. This seems a somewhat curious rationale, as NASA has already said the SLS core stage does not need to be subjected to further ground tests. Such a test article would also be delivered years after the SLS rocket’s first flight, raising further questions about its necessity beyond keeping a Mississippi senator happy.
Report provides some detail on BE-4 engine delays. Technical challenges in the development of United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket could prevent the Defense Department from ending its reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine by 2022 as required by Congress, the Government Accountability Office said in a report published Tuesday. GAO said the delays were attributable to the BE-4 engine being developed by Blue Origin and used by Vulcan, SpaceNews reports.
Putting a lot of dollars into Vulcan … “A US-produced rocket engine under development for ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle is experiencing technical challenges related to the igniter and booster capabilities required and may not be qualified in time to support first launches beginning in 2021,” GAO said. The military has invested $2.9 billion in the development of the Vulcan launch system. (submitted by trimeta and Ken the Bin)
Military confirms its interest in “rocket cargo” program. The Air Force confirmed a strong interest in delivery of cargo around the world—by rockets—during an hourlong conference call with reporters on Friday, Ars reports. Military officials said they were elevating the cargo initiative to become the newest “Vanguard Program,” indicating a desire to move the concept from an experimental state into an operational capability.
Science fiction becomes reality … “This idea has been around since the dawn of spaceflight,” said Greg Spanjers, an Air Force scientist and the Rocket Cargo program manager. “It’s always been an intriguing idea. We’ve looked at it about every 10 years, but it’s never really made sense. The reason we’re doing it now is because it looks like technology may have caught up with a good idea.” Although the military officials did not single out SpaceX, the company and its Starship program seem the most likely near-term beneficiary.
Russia’s Buran orbiter is defaced further. One of the surviving Buran space shuttles has been spray-painted by graffiti artists, The Drive reports. The vehicle was stored in a hangar at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This comes about a decade after the first Buran orbiter was totally destroyed in a roof collapse, also at another Baikonur facility.
These orbiters belong in a museum … The recent graffiti incident saw several street artists infiltrate the assembly and refueling hall at Baikonur and spray various Cyrillic slogans across both sides of the rear fuselage of the orbiter. The intruders wrote the words “Good,” “Yura, we have arrived” (a reference to the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin), and “Before flying to the stars, a person needs to learn how to live on Earth.” When the break-in actually took place is unclear, but it is certainly unfortunate.
Next three launches
June 11: Pegasus XL | SDA Technology mission for Space Force | Vandenberg, Calif. | 08:11 UTC
June 15: Minotaur 1 | NROL-111 | Wallops Island, Va. | 10:30 UTC
June 17: Falcon 9 | GPS III, SV05 | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 16:09 UTC