Space transport roundup – May.3.2020

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images dealing with space transport (find previous roundups here):

** NASA selected three commercial teams for the design of a human lunar lander:  NASA Names Companies to Develop Human Landers for Artemis Missions | NASA

NASA has selected three U.S. companies to design and develop human landing systems (HLS) for the agency’s Artemis program, one of which will land the first woman and next man on the surface of the Moon by 2024. NASA is on track for sustainable human exploration of the Moon for the first time in history.

The human landing system awards under the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP-2) Appendix H Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) are firm-fixed price, milestone-based contracts. The total combined value for all awarded contracts is $967 million for the 10-month base period. 

The general plan is for an HLS system to operate initially with the Orion spacecraft launched by a SLS. with astronauts on board. Later, the lander will dock to the Gateway station in high lunar orbit.

For these three HLS (Human Landing Systems) program contracts,

NASA’s commercial partners will refine their lander concepts through the contract base period ending in February 2021. During that time, the agency will evaluate which of the contractors will perform initial demonstration missions. NASA will later select firms for development and maturation of sustainable lander systems followed by sustainable demonstration missions. NASA intends to procure transportation to the lunar surface as commercial space transportation services after these demonstrations are complete. During each phase of development, NASA and its partners will use critical lessons from earlier phases to hone the final concepts that will be used for future lunar commercial services.

Here is an audio recording of the teleconference on April 30th in which the announcement was made:

The three systems are described in

Blue Origin National Team (incl Blue, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper)

Artist concept of the Blue Origin National Team crewed lander on the surface of the Moon. Credits: Blue Origin
  • $579M  for further design work on the “Integrated Lunar Vehicle” (ILV), a 3 stage system that includes a transfer stage to power the system from the Gateway station or Orion in high lunar orbit to low lunar orbit, a lander stage, and an ascent stage. Each of the ILV stages will launch on either a Blue Origin New Glenn rocket or a ULA Vulcan and then be assembled in orbit.
  •  NASA Selects Blue Origin National Team to Return Humans to the Moon – Blue Origin

Dynetics and several partners:

  • $253M for design of a 2-stage modular system for descent and ascent. The modules will launch separately on ULA Vulcan rockets.
  • There would be two propellant modules ( Modular Propellant Vehicles or MPVs) and one crew module (called the Descent/Ascent Element or DAE). The propellant modules, or “drop tanks” would be discarded during the descent to the lunar surface after the propellants were consumed.
  • Dynetics To Develop NASA’s Artemis Human Lunar Landing System – Dynetics

The Dynetics Human Landing System concept includes a single element providing the ascent and descent capabilities, with multiple modular propellant vehicles prepositioned to fuel the engines at different points in the mission. The crew cabin sits low to the surface, enabling a short climb for astronauts entering, exiting, or transporting tools and samples. The DHLS systems supports both docking with Orion and with Gateway, and will get a fuel top-off before descending to the surface. After the surface expedition, the entire vehicle will return for crew transfer back to Orion.

Artist concept of the Dynetics Human Landing System on the surface of the Moon. Credits: Dynetics

SpaceX Lunar Starship:

  • $135M for design of a Starship customized for transport between lunar orbit and the surface. Other Starships will support the lunar vehicle’s mission. Reusable Super Heavy boosters will send Starships into earth orbit.
  • The Lunar Starship has no thermal protection or reentry control surfaces as it will be used only for going back and forth between lunar orbit and the lunar surface.
  • The Lunar Starship will initially rendezvous in earth orbit with another Starship that will provide propellants to power the trip to the Moon. Other Starships will supply propellants to this depot Starship.
  • After refilling its tanks, the lunar Starship will go to lunar orbit. When NASA’s Gateway station is orbiting the Moon, the SpaceX Starship will dock with it.
  • A problem with the standard Starship design for lunar missions is that the powerful Raptor engines would make deep craters in the surface while landing and taking off. Some of the dust and small rocks from the blast could even be accelerated into orbit due to the Moon’s low gravity and become hazardous debris for spacecraft there. The images of the Lunar Starship show thruster ports just above the mid-line of the vehicle. Presumably, these propulsion units provide sufficient thrust for landing while generating plumes that mostly disperse by the time they reach the ground and avoid the cratering and debris problems.
  • NASA identifies risks in SpaceX’s Starship lunar lander proposal – Spaceflight Now
  • SpaceX’s Moon Starship is a brilliant step towards reusable Mars rockets – Teslarati

From NASA’s PR:

Starship is a fully reusable launch and landing system designed for travel to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations. The system leans on the company’s tested Raptor engines and flight heritage of the Falcon and Dragon vehicles. Starship includes a spacious cabin and two airlocks for astronaut moonwalks.

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

More reports on NASA’s announcement:

** Virgin Galactic does drop-glide test of SpaceShipTwo Unity from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

A video released today:

This glide flight marks the inaugural solo flight of VSS Unity in New Mexico and as such is an important flight test milestone in preparation for commercial service.

See also:

** Virgin Galactic STEM session “Science With Virgin Galactic | Flying a spaceship”:

Join this #ScienceWithVirginGalactic Spacechat as our Lead Test Pilot, Mark ‘Forger’ Stucky explains what a flight test is and why we have to do it.

** China rolled out Long March 5B heavy launch system to pad for a wet dress rehearsal. A test flight could happen as early as May 5th. Long March 5B rolled out for crewed spacecraft, space station test launch –

The primary goal of the test flight is testing the Long March 5B for launching to low Earth orbit (LEO). If successful, launch of the ‘Tianhe’ core module for China’s space station could take place as soon as early 2021.

The payload for the test launch—a prototype new-generation crewed spacecraft—will be loaded with nearly 10 tons of propellant. This will both make the spacecraft analogous to a 20-ton-plus space station module and allow the prototype to reach higher orbits and test a high-speed reentry.

** Rocket Lab rolls Electron out to the pad at the Wallops Island, Virginia commercial spaceport: Electron Roll-Out Complete at Launch Complex 2 Ahead of Upcoming U.S. Space Force Mission | Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab, a space technology company and the global leader in dedicated small satellite launch, has rolled an Electron launch vehicle out to the Launch Complex 2 pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops, Virginia for the first time. The milestone is one of the final steps ahead of Rocket Lab’s first launch from Launch Complex 2 – a dedicated mission in partnership with the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program and the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Small Launch and Targets Division. 

Rocket Lab engineers and technicians carried out a range of successful integrated systems tests to verify launch systems on Electron and on the ground systems at Launch Complex 2. The critical checks included raising Electron vertical on the Launch Complex 2 pad for the first time, activating and tuning pad fluid systems, power and communication checkouts as well as RF testing with the range. The test campaign concluded with a hot ignition test of the nine Rutherford engines on Electron’s first stage.

The STP-27RM mission will launch a single micro-sat from the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Monolith program, which is designed to determine the ability of small satellites to support large aperture payloads to monitor space weather. The mission is being coordinated by the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center and is scheduled to launch no earlier than the third quarter of 2020.

Rocket Labs Electron rocket goes vertical on the pad at the Wallops Island spaceport for the first time. Credits: Rocket Lab

See also:

** Briefs:


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** SpaceX:

**** On Friday, NASA and SpaceX hosted three online panel presentations about the upcoming crew demonstration mission. The Falcon 9 is set to launch on May 27th with the first two astronauts to ride on a Crew Dragon to orbit.

****** NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 Commercial Crew and International Space Station Overview News Conference

With the first mission to return human spaceflight launches to American soil now targeted to lift off May 27, NASA highlighted the historic flight with a series of news conferences Friday, May 1. The first gave overviews of NASA’s Commercial Crew and International Space Station programs and included NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, NASA Commercial Crew program manager Kathy Lueders, NASA International Space Station program manager Kirk Shireman and SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell.

****** NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 Mission Overview

With the first mission to return human spaceflight launches to American soil now targeted to lift off May 27, NASA highlighted the historic flight with a series of news conferences Friday, May 1. The second gave a detailed overview of the mission and its milestones and included NASA Commercial Crew program deputy manager Steve Stich, NASA Demo-2 Flight Director Zeb Scoville and SpaceX director of crew mission management Benji Reed.

****** NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 Crew News Conference

With the first mission to return human spaceflight launches to American soil now targeted to lift off May 27, NASA highlighted the historic flight with a series of news conferences Friday, May 1. The third included Demo-2 crew members Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley offering their thoughts on the upcoming mission and taking questions from reporters called in from around the world.

See also:

** Final parachute test for Crew Dragon completed successfully:

[ Update: See also: SpaceX aces last Dragon parachute test before crew launch – Spaceflight Now]

** SpaceX releases new video of in-flight abort test:

On Sunday, January 19, SpaceX successfully completed an in-flight test of Crew Dragon’s launch escape capabilities from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This test, which did not have NASA astronauts onboard the spacecraft, demonstrated Crew Dragon’s ability to reliably carry crew to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency on ascent.

Falcon 9 and Dragon lifted off at 10:30 a.m. EST, or 15:30 UTC, with the abort sequence initiating approximately one and a half minutes into flight. Crew Dragon’s eight SuperDraco engines powered the spacecraft away from Falcon 9 at speeds of over 400 mph. Following separation, Dragon’s trunk was released and the spacecraft’s parachutes were deployed, first the two drogue parachutes followed by the four upgraded Mark III parachutes. Dragon safely splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean and teams successfully recovered the spacecraft onto SpaceX’s recovery vessel.

** Preparations underway for first operational Dragon crew mission (Crew-1) set for the fall:

**** Starlink 6 booster processed quickly after return to Port Canaveral: A video via /

Booster lift and Leg retraction have been sped up to 400x. Transport is in real-time. There are still folks that have not seen this before.

See also: SpaceX retracts latest rocket’s landing legs in impressive feat of durability – Teslarati

** Fourth Falcon Heavy launch set for the summer will carry military payloads: Falcon Heavy set for design validation milestone before late 2020 launch – Spaceflight Now

The U.S. Space Force expects to complete design validation on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket by July, ahead of the launch of the military’s first high-priority national security mission on the heavy-lifter late this year.

The launch of multiple military payloads to an orbit more than 20,000 miles above Earth will mark the fourth flight of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful launcher currently flying anywhere in the world.

The mission is designated USSF-44, renamed from AFSPC-44 after the establishment of the U.S. Space Force in December.

SpaceX won a military contract in February 2019 to launch the USSF-44 mission from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In documents published by the military during the procurement process, the Space and Missile Systems Center, or SMC — then part of the Air Force — suggested the USSF-44 launch will loft two payloads into a circular geosynchronous orbit more than 22,000 miles above the equator.

**** Starship

****** The SN4 prototype is sitting on the launch pedestal and has had a single Raptor engine installed. A static firing test is expected sometime in the next few days. A brief hop to 150 meters or so should then follow within a few days after that.

Meanwhile, the sections of the SN5 prototype appear nearly complete and ready for stacking. This vehicle will probably also have two wing-like control surfaces attached. The first test flight is expected to go to around 20 km.

**** Daily video reports on activities at Boca Chica:

****** Last night and early this morning, the SN4 site was busy as they the crew attempted a wet dress rehearsal, which involved filling the tanks with actual propellants – liquid methane and liquid oxygen – for the first time. Methane vapor was burnt off in a flare near the pad, giving the scene a primeval look. Starship SN4 Wet Dress Testing at SpaceX Boca ChicaSPadre – YouTube

****** Apr.28.2020: SpaceX Boca Chica – SN4 preps for static fire as new Starship builds make progress – NASASpaceflight – YouTube

Starship SN4 is set to perform a single-engine static fire later this week ahead of a planned hop to 150 meters. Meanwhile, back at the production site, SpaceX is working on additional prototypes including a nosecone pathfinder. Video and photos via Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Jack Beyer (@thejackbeyer).

****** Apr.29.2020: SpaceX Boca Chica – Dual Starship Flows for SN4 and SN5 – NASASpaceflight – YouTube

SpaceX is working on at least two Starships at Boca Chica, with SN4 preparing for a Static Fire test at the launch site and SN5 build-up at the production site. Highlights include the SN5 Dome Skirt Bulkhead mate. Video and Photos via Mary (@BocaChicaGal).

****** May.1.2020 – SpaceX Boca Chica – Starship SN4 spotted with a Raptor, nosecone prototypes make progress – NASASpaceflight – YouTube
A beehive of activity at SpaceX’s Texas Starship factory today. SN4 being readied for static fire and hop with a single Raptor engine, work on the build site progresses, and SN5 takes shape. Photos and Video by Mary (@BocaChicaGal) for Edited by Jack Bayer (@thejackbeyer).

****** May.1.2020 – SpaceX Boca Chica Starship SN4 and SN5 Update Friday May 1 – SPadre – YouTube

****** May.2.2020 – SpaceX Boca Chica – Starship SN4 enters test day – SN5 pre-stack ops – NASASpaceflight – YouTube

** Webcast reports:

**** NSF Live: Starship SN4 update from the launch site, NASA awards contracts for crewed lunar landersNASASpaceflight – YouTube

** NASA Artemis Lunar Lander Selection Surprises Many (In a good way) – Scott Manley

** Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut, compares NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) to the SpaceX Starship:

SLS VS Starship: Why do both rockets exist?!

NASA just announced the lunar landers for the Artemis program and to everyone’s surprise, SpaceX’s MASSIVE Starship is actually one of the landers NASA chose alongside Blue Origin and Dynetics. And this is bringing up a lot of questions, some of which we’ll answer in my next video, “Should NASA just cancel SLS and use Starship and / or other commercial launchers for Artemis?”. But today I think we need to settle a lot of debates here first about these two rockets and now more than ever, it’s time we truly pit them head to head.


      • 05:50 – What Makes a Vehicle a Super Heavy Lift Launcher
      • 09:00 – The History of SLS and Orion
      • 18:05 – The Progress and Inventory of SLS/Orion and Starship
      • 27:30 – The Philosophies of Starship and SLS
      • 34:55 – Starship VS SLS
      • 41:50 – Conclusion


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2 thoughts on “Space transport roundup – May.3.2020”

  1. In my opinion, the Blue Origin lander sucks. How is a vehicle that leaves it’s descent stage behind at the end of a mission good for “going back to the Moon to stay?”
    Shades of Apollo!

    1. Certainly surprising and disappointing that it takes three stages to provide surface access and only one stage may be reusable. The Dynetics system with modular drop-off propellant tanks and a reusable lander seems a much more robust and elegant approach for the first-gen lander.

      The Lunar Starship offers full reusability and a big payload capacity. Will be a tremendous advance if it happens. However, it might be too much, too soon. It needs several support Starships including those that bring propellants up from earth and one in orbit that acts as a propellant depot (I’m sure they will avoid the “D word” as long as Shelby remains in the Senate). When oxygen extracted from lunar water and/or regolith becomes available, that means only methane deliveries would be needed.

      The three systems sure span a wide range of capabilities.

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