Crew replace pane on ISS Cupola window

The crew on the International Space Station (ISS) have successfully replaced a window pane on the Cupola module. The operation was conducted without any risk to the crew, thanks to the innovative design on the module’s windows, which involves four panes allowing for internal replacement while risking no pressure loss for the Station.


Window Replacement:

After arriving at the ISS with Node 3, during Endeavour’s STS-130 mission, the European Space Agency (ESA) built Cupola has provided Station crews with a stunning view of the planet, often shared with the public via downlinked photography and thanks to the increasing use of social media by the astronauts.

The module also hosts a Robotic Work Station (RWS), allowing crewmembers to actually see Visiting Vehicles (VVs) – such as SpaceX’s Dragon and Japan’s HTV – arrive for berthing, complimenting the camera views of their displays, allowing for increased situational awareness when operating the Station’s robotic assets.

The Cupola’s seven windows were exposed to space for the first time during STS-130’s EVA-3, following the removal of the module’s MLI blanket insulation by spacewalkers Bob Behnken and Nick Patrick.

After the spacewalkers removed the launch locks on the windows, the ISS crew cycled the window shields/shutters one at a time, providing them with the first view of the Earth from their new observation deck.

All of the windows weren’t open at the same time, with the task simply used to check the shutters opened without a problem. A few hours later, all of the windows were opened together, an event that is now commonplace on the ISS.

Although the windows on the Cupola have suffered from their fair share of impacts from MicroMeteoroid and Orbital Debris (MMOD) strikes, none of the small impacts have caused any serious damage to the module.

2014-09-05 12_56_15-L2 Level ISS On-Orbit Status Report Notes (August 2014)The windows are made up of four panes – an inner scratch pane to protect the pressure pane from accidental damage, two pressure panes 25mm thick to maintain cabin pressure, and finally an outer debris pane.

In the event of the damage being more serious, on-orbit replacement of an entire window is a design feature.

Such a replacement would require an EVA to fit an external pressure cover to allow for the changeout, with a pressure cover requiring a flight up to the ISS on one of the cargo resupply vehicles.

Several scratch panes are stored on the ISS in the event one requires replacement, which was request by the crew that resulted in the pane being replaced.

“Cupola Window 7 Scratch Pane Replacement: The crew replaced the scratch pane on Cupola window 7, the nadir facing window,” noted L2 ISS Status Information.

“The crew has been requesting scratch pane replacements as many window scratch panes have shown accumulated damage of the years.”

Window 7 is the large round window that astronauts tend to use when taking photography of the planet below.

The brand new scratch pane will likely improve – if that’s even possible – the quality of the photographs from the orbital outpost.

Onboard, the crew is preparing for a busy period of Visiting Vehicle activity, with the OA-7 Cygnus set for launch on April 18 on an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral. The crew will be using the RWS in the Cupola for berthing operations with the cargo craft.

Two days later, the next Soyuz mission will launch on a fast track rendezvous to the Station. Soyuz MS-04 is set to launch NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and Fyodor Yurchikhin from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which is one less passenger than usual.

The pick up the imbalance in the crew rotation quota, Peggy Whitson recently agreed to extend her tour on the Station by three months.

(Images: NASA, ESA and L2).

(To join L2, click here: https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2/)

Falcon Heavy build up begins; SLC-40 pad rebuild progressing well

As SpaceX continues to make excellent progress on rebuilding SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the company has achieved a major milestone toward the debut of its Falcon Heavy rocket.  With the first Falcon Heavy side core on the test stand at McGregor, Texas, SpaceX is in final preparation for the all important hot fire test of the booster before its shipment to the Kennedy Space Center ahead of a planned maiden flight later this year.

SLC-40 progress – long-pole to Falcon Heavy debut:

Following completion, activation, and christening of LC-39A in February, SpaceX’s dedicated team of pad engineers switched focus a few miles down the beach to SLC-40.

Working the same magic they conducted on 39A, which performed flawlessly during its inaugural use for Falcon 9 back in February, those same engineers have since been hard at work rebuilding the company’s SLC-40 pad on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Heavily damaged – but not destroyed – by the mishap during the Falcon 9 static fire for the AMOS-6 mission on 1 September 2016, the pad is now one of the primary driving factors toward the company’s upcoming debut of its Falcon Heavy rocket.

But not because Falcon Heavy will launch from SLC-40.

Instead, SLC-40 is needed for single-stick Falcon 9 missions – a primary charge the pad will take once it is operational again so that the final elements of work on LC-39A can be completed to host the Falcon Heavy.

Basically, the plan is to shift all Falcon 9 missions back to SLC-40 following its reactivation.

At that point, LC-39A will be taken offline for 60 days to allow engineers to complete work on the pad’s Tail Service Masts (TSMs) needed for fueling and support equipment connections to the two side boosters for the Falcon Heavy.

Previously, SpaceX had stated in the post-launch CRS-10 press conference, that all work on 39A was complete in terms of the pad’s readiness to host a Falcon Heavy.

A few weeks later, that statement – which was given by SpaceX’s Dragon manager – was corrected in information acquired by NASASpaceflight.com’s L2 section and confirmed last month by Elon Musk.

That L2 information revealed that SpaceX had opted to forgo some work on the TEL (Transporter/Erector/Launcher) and two of the three TSMs on LC-39A.

The two work-deferred TSMs for the side boosters of the Falcon Heavy were in no way needed for single-stick Falcon 9 flights – hence why their work was postponed in favor of launching Falcon 9s from 39A as soon as possible.

This TEL and TSM work is now scheduled to begin once SLC-40 is operational.

Down the road, SLC-40’s own TSMs are now receiving their share of attention as SpaceX engineers work to install new TSMs to replace the ones that were damaged in the AMOS-6 conflagration.

According to information obtained by NASASpaceflight.com, available on L2, the damaged TSMs at SLC-40 actually fared quite well through the AMOS-6 incident and could have been refurbished and repaired instead of being replaced.

SpaceX nonetheless opted to build new TSMs as that was deemed easier and quicker than the repair option.

Currently, the old TSMs have been removed from SLC-40 and were initially placed in a staging area alongside their replacements.

The replacements appear to be more or less identical to the old TSMs – though some upgrades were likely incorporated into their design.

Now, the new SLC-40 TSMs are being installed onto the pad, progressing the pad’s repair work that aims to have SLC-40 “operational” by August, a goal that appears achievable at this time.

(It should be noted that “operational” is not necessarily the same as “first flight in August” in terms of pad language.)

Nonetheless, this August “operational” status for SLC-40 is critical toward Falcon Heavy’s planned debut in “late-summer” of this year from 39A – though at this time Falcon Heavy’s maiden flight is looking more like an autumn or later event than a summer one.

Falcon Heavy debut – first side booster at McGregor:

Per the current timeline, the earliest possible switch of Falcon 9 flights back to SLC-40 would be August – meaning the earliest that LC-39A could be deactivated for TSM and TEL work would be 1 August.

That therefore translates to a 60-day work flow culminating at the end of September (at the earliest) – which is past the summer months and into autumn.

Therefore, that would notionally place the first Falcon Heavy flight realistically in the October timeframe at this point.

Mr. Musk stated last month that 39A would not be taken offline prior to SLC-40’s activation.

Given that the personnel working to get SLC-40 up and running are the same engineers who will perform the final 60-day work period on 39A, there is no time between 39A launches to perform this work.

Nonetheless, that is not stopping SpaceX – nor should it – from progressing through Falcon Heavy’s various pre-launch milestones.

Earlier this year, the first side-mount booster – in reality, a regular Falcon 9 core with a nose cone on top – was seen in transit to the company’s McGregor, Texas, test facility.

Last week, on 8 April, that side-booster was hoisted onto the S1 (Stage 1) test stand at McGregor in preparation for its full-duration hot fire run – as all Falcon first stages do.

A test firing is scheduled to take place as early as Wednesday.

The side-booster is – as previously reported – a flight-proven core.

In fact, it is core #1023 – which was previously used to launch the Thaicom-8 mission last year.

That core performed a hot entry landing on the ASDS (Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship) barge Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic, suffering a crumpled landing leg that lovingly earned the core the unofficial nickname “The Leaning Tower Of Thaicom-8”.

The core – now named 1023.2 – will now be hot fired and tested before being wrapped up and transported by road and security escort to the Kennedy Space Center and the HIF (Horizontal Integration Facility) at LC-39A.

Between hot fires of the first stage cores needed for upcoming single-stick Falcon 9 missions, the Falcon Heavy’s second side-booster (which will be another flight-proven core) and its brand new center core will all undergo testing at McGregor – as will its Second Stage – before arriving at or back to Kennedy.

Once at Kennedy, the three cores will be integrated together for the first time inside the HIF.

As with any pad’s first use for a new rocket, Falcon Heavy is expected to be hauled to the pad on the TEL for a series of fit checks, tanking tests – to verify the new TSMs, and general checkout and validation activities ahead of its all important static fire.

This static fire will see all 27 engines at the base of the Falcon Heavy ignite at once and run through a 3-second checkout sequence before shutting down.

That will be the final major milestone before the mission lifts off.

At liftoff, the 1,420,788 kg (3,125,735 lb) Falcon Heavy will deliver 5.13 million pounds of thrust (lbf) from its 27 engines – well within 39A’s capabilities – before ramping up to 5,548,500 lbf during first stage flight.

When it launches for the first time, Falcon Heavy will become the most-powerful launch vehicle in the world – capable of delivering 63,800 kg (140,660 lb) to Low Earth Orbit, 26,700 kg (58,860 lb) to Geostationary Orbit, 16,800 kg (37,040 lb) to Mars, and 3,500 kg (7,720 lb) to Pluto.

(Images: SpaceX, L2 McGregor (Gary Blair), and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*))

(To join L2, click here: https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2/)

Long March 3B launches experimental ChinaSat-16 satellite

The Chinese returned to launch action with the lofting of a new experimental communications satellite from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. The launch was conducted by the Long March 3B G2 ‘Chang Zheng-3B/G2’ (Y43) from the LC2 Launch Complex at the Sichuan province site, with T-0 noted as 11:04 UTC.

Chinese Launch:

The 4.6-tonne satellite was developed by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) and is based on the DFH-3B satellite platform. According to state media reports, the satellite will be named Shijian-13 during its test program phase, before being renamed ChinaSat 16 when it is transferred to China SatCom.

The new satellite will test a new electric propulsion system to be used for orbit raising and station keeping at a geosynchronous altitude. It also carries the first high-throughput satellite payload (HTS) developed by China.

The satellite features a Ka-band broadband communications system capable of transmitting 20 gigabytes of data per second, making it the most powerful communications satellite the nation has developed to date.

According to Wang Min, deputy head of the CAST’s Institute of Telecommunication Satellite, ChinaSat-16 will provide better access to the Internet on planes and high-speed trains, with the increase in satellite throughput provided by the new satellite that will be located at 110.5° East.

The satellite is able to provide 26 user beams covering China and offshore areas – allowing it to also cover airborne and maritime communications and emergency communications, using Ka-band satellite broadband and multimedia services.

With a lifetime of 15 years, the satellite will be operated by China Satcom.

The satellite will also conduct space-to-ground laser communications experiments.

The DFH-3 (Dongfanghong-3) platform is a medium-capacity telecommunications satellite platform designed and developed by CAST.

The platform can be used for multiple telecommunications payloads for providing a range of services, including fixed communication, international satellite communication, national and regional communication, wideband data communication, mobile communication and direct broadcast; military communication, spacecraft tracking and data relay.

It comprises six subsystems: control, power, propulsion, measurement & control, structure and thermal control subsystem. The platform configuration features module subdivision, which includes a communication module, propulsion module, service module and solar array.

The platform adopts three-axis stabilized attitude control mode, with solar array output power of 1.7 kw by the end of its design lifetime. Its mass is 2,100kg with payload capacity 220kg.

The DFH-3 satellite platform has been successfully applied in the Beidou navigation test satellite, and other satellites, all of which are currently operating normally.

During numerous flight missions, the maturity and reliability of the DFH-3 platform have been proved. Moreover, it has strong expansion capacity and can be upgraded to some space exploration missions, such as meteorological satellite and lunar resource satellite services.

Its onboard Ion thrusters are designed for a wide variety of missions.

These thrusters have high specific impulses, that is, ratio of thrust to the rate of propellant consumption, so they require significantly less propellant for a given mission than would be needed with chemical propulsion.

Ion propulsion is even considered to be mission enabling for some cases where sufficient chemical propellant cannot be carried on the spacecraft to accomplish the desired mission.

Launch vehicle and launch site:

To meet the demand of international satellite launch market, especially for high power and heavy communications satellites, the development of Long March-3B (Chang Zheng-3B) launch vehicle started in 1986 on the basis of the fight proven technology of Long March launch vehicles.

Developed from the Chang Zheng-3A, the Chang Zheng-3B is at the moment the most powerful launch vehicle on the Chinese space launch fleet.

The CZ-3B features enlarged launch propellant tanks, improved computer systems, a larger 4.2 meter diameter payload fairing and the addition of four strap-on boosters in the core stage that provide additional help during the first phase of the launch.

The rocket is capable of launching a 11,200 kg satellite to a low Earth orbit or a 5,100 kg cargo to a geosynchronous transfer orbit.

The CZ-3B/G2 (Enhanced Version) launch vehicle was developed from the CZ-3B with a lengthened first core stage and strap-on boosters, increasing the GTO capacity up to 5,500kg.

On May 14, 2007, the first flight of CZ-3B/G2 was performed successfully, accurately sending the NigcomSat-1 into pre-determined orbit. With the GTO launch capability of 5,500kg, CZ-3B/G2 is dedicated for launching heavy GEO communications satellite.

The rocket structure also combines all sub-systems together and is composed of four strap-on boosters, a first stage, a second stage, a third stage and payload fairing.

The first two stages, as well as the four strap-on boosters, use hypergolic (N2O4/UDMH) fuel while the third stage uses cryogenic (LOX/LH2) fuel. The total length of the CZ-3B is 54.838 meters, with a diameter of 3.35 meters on the core stage and 3.00 meters on the third stage.

On the first stage, the CZ-3B uses a YF-21C engine with a 2,961.6 kN thrust and a specific impulse of 2,556.5 Ns/kg. The first stage diameter is 3.35 m and the stage length is 23.272 m.

Each strap-on booster is equipped with a YF-25 engine with a 740.4 kN thrust and a specific impulse of 2,556.2 Ns/kg. The strap-on booster diameter is 2.25 m and the strap-on booster length is 15.326 m.

The second stage is equipped with a YF-24E (main engine – 742 kN / 2,922.57 Ns/kg; four vernier engines – 47.1 kN / 2,910.5 Ns/kg each). The second stage diameter is 3.35 m and the stage length is 12.920 m.

The third stage is equipped with a YF-75 engine developing 167.17 kN and with a specific impulse of 4,295 Ns/kg. The fairing diameter of the CZ-3B is 4.00 meters and has a length of 9.56 meters.

The CZ-3B can also use the new Yuanzheng-1 (“Expedition-1”) upper stage that uses a small thrust 6.5 kN engine burning UDMH/N2O4 with a specific impulse at 3,092 m/s.

The upper stage is able to conduct two burns, having a 6.5 hour lifetime and is capable of achieving a variety of orbits. This upper stage wasn’t used on this launch.

The typical flight sequence for the CZ-3B/G2 sees the launch pitching over 10 seconds after liftoff from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre. The boosters shutdown 2 minutes and 7 seconds after liftoff, with separation from the first stage one second later. First stage shutdown takes place at 1 minutes 25 seconds into the flight.

Separation between the first and second stage takes place at 1 minute 26 seconds, following fairing separation at T+3 minutes 35 seconds. Stage 2 main engine shutdown occurs 326 seconds into the flight, following by the shutdown of the vernier engines 15 seconds later.

Separation between the second and the third stage and the ignition of the third stage takes place one second after the shutdown of the vernier engines of the second stage. The first burn of the third stage will last for 4 minutes and 44 seconds.

After the end of the first burn of the third stage is followed by a coast phase that ends at T+20 minutes and 58 seconds with the third stage initiating its second burn. This will have a 179 seconds duration. After the end of the second burn of the third stage, the launcher initiates a 20 second velocity adjustment maneuver. Spacecraft separation usually takes place at T+25 minutes 38 seconds after launch.

The first launch from Xichang took place at 12:25 UTC on January 29, 1984, when the Chang Zheng-3 (Y-1) was launched the Shiyan Weixing (14670 1984-008A) communications satellite into orbit.

The Xichang Satellite Launch Centre is situated in the Sichuan Province, south-western China and is the country’s launch site for geosynchronous orbital launches.

Equipped with two launch pads (LC2 and LC3), the center has a dedicated railway and highway lead directly to the launch site.

The Command and Control Centre is located seven kilometers south-west of the launch pad, providing flight and safety control during launch rehearsal and launch.

The CZ-3B launch pad is located at 28.25 deg. N – 102.02 deg. E and at an elevation of 1,825 meters.

Other facilities on the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre are the Launch Control Centre, propellant fuelling systems, communications systems for launch command, telephone and data communications for users, and support equipment for meteorological monitoring and forecasting.

Long March 3B set for experimental ChinaSat-16 launch

The Chinese are set to return to launch action with the lofting of a new experimental communications satellite from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. The launch will be conducted by the Long March 3B G2 ‘Chang Zheng-3B/G2’ (Y43) from the LC2 Launch Complex at the Sichuan province site, with T-0 expected to occur at 11:02 UTC.

Chinese Launch:

The 4.6-tonne satellite was developed by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) and is based on the DFH-3B satellite platform. Shijian-13 was the satellite’s original designation, before being renamed Zhongxing-16 (ChinaSat-16).

The new satellite will test a new electric propulsion system to be used for orbit raising and station keeping at a geosynchronous altitude. It also carries the first high-throughput satellite payload (HTS) developed by China.

The satellite features a Ka-band broadband communications system capable of transmitting 20 gigabytes of data per second, making it the most powerful communications satellite the nation has developed to date.

According to Wang Min, deputy head of the CAST’s Institute of Telecommunication Satellite, ChinaSat-16 will provide better access to the Internet on planes and high-speed trains, with the increase in satellite throughput provided by the new satellite that will be located at 110.5° East.

The satellite is able to provide 26 user beams covering China and offshore areas – allowing it to also cover airborne and maritime communications and emergency communications, using Ka-band satellite broadband and multimedia services.

With a lifetime of 15 years, the satellite will be operated by China Satcom.

The satellite will also conduct space-to-ground laser communications experiments.

The DFH-3 (Dongfanghong-3) platform is a medium-capacity telecommunications satellite platform designed and developed by CAST.

The platform can be used for multiple telecommunications payloads for providing a range of services, including fixed communication, international satellite communication, national and regional communication, wideband data communication, mobile communication and direct broadcast; military communication, spacecraft tracking and data relay.

It comprises six subsystems: control, power, propulsion, measurement & control, structure and thermal control subsystem. The platform configuration features module subdivision, which includes a communication module, propulsion module, service module and solar array.

The platform adopts three-axis stabilized attitude control mode, with solar array output power of 1.7 kw by the end of its design lifetime. Its mass is 2,100kg with payload capacity 220kg.

The DFH-3 satellite platform has been successfully applied in the Beidou navigation test satellite, and other satellites, all of which are currently operating normally.

During numerous flight missions, the maturity and reliability of the DFH-3 platform have been proved. Moreover, it has strong expansion capacity and can be upgraded to some space exploration missions, such as meteorological satellite and lunar resource satellite services.

Its onboard Ion thrusters are designed for a wide variety of missions.

These thrusters have high specific impulses, that is, ratio of thrust to the rate of propellant consumption, so they require significantly less propellant for a given mission than would be needed with chemical propulsion.

Ion propulsion is even considered to be mission enabling for some cases where sufficient chemical propellant cannot be carried on the spacecraft to accomplish the desired mission.

Launch vehicle and launch site:

To meet the demand of international satellite launch market, especially for high power and heavy communications satellites, the development of Long March-3B (Chang Zheng-3B) launch vehicle started in 1986 on the basis of the fight proven technology of Long March launch vehicles.

Developed from the Chang Zheng-3A, the Chang Zheng-3B is at the moment the most powerful launch vehicle on the Chinese space launch fleet.

The CZ-3B features enlarged launch propellant tanks, improved computer systems, a larger 4.2 meter diameter payload fairing and the addition of four strap-on boosters in the core stage that provide additional help during the first phase of the launch.

The rocket is capable of launching a 11,200 kg satellite to a low Earth orbit or a 5,100 kg cargo to a geosynchronous transfer orbit.

The CZ-3B/G2 (Enhanced Version) launch vehicle was developed from the CZ-3B with a lengthened first core stage and strap-on boosters, increasing the GTO capacity up to 5,500kg.

On May 14, 2007, the first flight of CZ-3B/G2 was performed successfully, accurately sending the NigcomSat-1 into pre-determined orbit. With the GTO launch capability of 5,500kg, CZ-3B/G2 is dedicated for launching heavy GEO communications satellite.

The rocket structure also combines all sub-systems together and is composed of four strap-on boosters, a first stage, a second stage, a third stage and payload fairing.

The first two stages, as well as the four strap-on boosters, use hypergolic (N2O4/UDMH) fuel while the third stage uses cryogenic (LOX/LH2) fuel. The total length of the CZ-3B is 54.838 meters, with a diameter of 3.35 meters on the core stage and 3.00 meters on the third stage.

On the first stage, the CZ-3B uses a YF-21C engine with a 2,961.6 kN thrust and a specific impulse of 2,556.5 Ns/kg. The first stage diameter is 3.35 m and the stage length is 23.272 m.

Each strap-on booster is equipped with a YF-25 engine with a 740.4 kN thrust and a specific impulse of 2,556.2 Ns/kg. The strap-on booster diameter is 2.25 m and the strap-on booster length is 15.326 m.

The second stage is equipped with a YF-24E (main engine – 742 kN / 2,922.57 Ns/kg; four vernier engines – 47.1 kN / 2,910.5 Ns/kg each). The second stage diameter is 3.35 m and the stage length is 12.920 m.

The third stage is equipped with a YF-75 engine developing 167.17 kN and with a specific impulse of 4,295 Ns/kg. The fairing diameter of the CZ-3B is 4.00 meters and has a length of 9.56 meters.

The CZ-3B can also use the new Yuanzheng-1 (“Expedition-1”) upper stage that uses a small thrust 6.5 kN engine burning UDMH/N2O4 with a specific impulse at 3,092 m/s.

The upper stage is able to conduct two burns, having a 6.5 hour lifetime and is capable of achieving a variety of orbits. This upper stage won’t be used on this launch.

The typical flight sequence for the CZ-3B/G2 sees the launch pitching over 10 seconds after liftoff from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre. The boosters shutdown 2 minutes and 7 seconds after liftoff, with separation from the first stage one second later. First stage shutdown takes place at 1 minutes 25 seconds into the flight.

Separation between the first and second stage takes place at 1 minute 26 seconds, following fairing separation at T+3 minutes 35 seconds. Stage 2 main engine shutdown occurs 326 seconds into the flight, following by the shutdown of the vernier engines 15 seconds later.

Separation between the second and the third stage and the ignition of the third stage takes place one second after the shutdown of the vernier engines of the second stage. The first burn of the third stage will last for 4 minutes and 44 seconds.

After the end of the first burn of the third stage is followed by a coast phase that ends at T+20 minutes and 58 seconds with the third stage initiating its second burn. This will have a 179 seconds duration. After the end of the second burn of the third stage, the launcher initiates a 20 second velocity adjustment maneuver. Spacecraft separation usually takes place at T+25 minutes 38 seconds after launch.

The first launch from Xichang took place at 12:25 UTC on January 29, 1984, when the Chang Zheng-3 (Y-1) was launched the Shiyan Weixing (14670 1984-008A) communications satellite into orbit.

The Xichang Satellite Launch Centre is situated in the Sichuan Province, south-western China and is the country’s launch site for geosynchronous orbital launches.

Equipped with two launch pads (LC2 and LC3), the center has a dedicated railway and highway lead directly to the launch site.

The Command and Control Centre is located seven kilometers south-west of the launch pad, providing flight and safety control during launch rehearsal and launch.

The CZ-3B launch pad is located at 28.25 deg. N – 102.02 deg. E and at an elevation of 1,825 meters.

Other facilities on the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre are the Launch Control Centre, propellant fuelling systems, communications systems for launch command, telephone and data communications for users, and support equipment for meteorological monitoring and forecasting.

Soyuz MS-02 returns three person crew back to Earth

Three crew members from the International Space Station (ISS) have completed their journey back to Earth on Monday, with undocking of their Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft occurring at 3:57 am Eastern, followed by Shane Kimbrough, Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko touching down on the steppes of Kazakhstan at 7:20 am Eastern.

Soyuz MS-02 EOM:

Monday’s events are part of a busy period of Visiting Vehicle activities, with the End Of Mission (EOM) events for Soyuz MS-02 reducing the Station to a crew compliment of three people for a short period of time.

Although the Soyuz has decades of space flight experience, this was only the second return of the MS variant, which includes the final series of planned upgrades for the veteran spacecraft.

The new MS series sports more efficient solar panels, a new Kurs NA approach and docking system weighing less than half that of its predecessor, additional micro-meteoroid debris shielding, and a modified docking and attitude control engine – which will add redundancy during docking and deorbit burns.

Preparations for departure began several days ago when the Station adjusted its orbit via a 35.6 firing of thrusters on the Zvezda module.

A checkout of the Soyuz was also conducted before the crew packed the vehicle with a few late stow items to take advantage of its limited downmass cargo capability.

The crew then participated in a nominal Soyuz Descent Drill, during which they reviewed preliminary undocking and descent data and worked through the descent timeline from Soyuz activation through post-landing activities. They also conducted routine spacesuit checks.

The crew then parted ways with their colleagues, with farewell speeches and hatch closures between the Station and the Soyuz.

With the crew completing the translation from the Orbital Module (BO) and Descent Module (SA) to strap themselves into their Kazbek couches inside the SA, Soyuz MS-2 undocking took place at 03:57 Eastern.

At the time of undocking, Expedition 51 will begin aboard the station under Peggy Whitson’s command. Whitson was only recently granted a three-month extension to her mission on the Station, avoiding a gap in the full crew compliment during a two-month period in the summer.

Along with her crewmates Oleg Novitskiy of Roscosmos and Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency), the three-person crew will operate the station until the arrival of two new crew members. NASA’s Jack Fischer and Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos are scheduled to launch April 20 from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

Following undocking – which included another manual test – Soyuz enjoyed a few hours of free flight as it departs from the Station’s neighborhood via two separation burns while the onboard crew prepared for the final aspect of their mission.

The deorbit burn occurred at 06:27 Eastern, reducing the Soyuz’s velocity just enough for it to begin the plunge back to Earth.

2016-06-17-200951The Soyuz then entered a critical part of its mission as the spacecraft has no other option but to re-enter.

The first milestone was the module separation as the three major elements of the Soyuz spacecraft – the OM, DM and Instrumentation/Propulsion Module (IPM) – are pushed apart via the use of pyrotechnics.

All three modules separate simultaneously – shortly after the deorbit burn was completed – at around 140 km altitude.

Two ‘off nominal’ re-entries occurred in 2007 and 2008 and were the cause of separation failures on the modules, thus initiating a very stressful return for their three-person crews.

Known as “ballistic entry” – the crew have to endure much higher G-forces and land at an alternative site.

Whitson herself had to endure such a return mode during TMA-11’s return to Earth.

“The buildup started almost as soon as we transitioned to ballistic. We felt the engines fire to start our 17-degrees-per-second spin, that’s to maintain the capsule’s orientation and give it some stability that way. So we felt that immediately come up. As part of that process, over the next probably minute or so we built up to 8.2 Gs,” Whitson told CBS News in 2008.

“It was a pretty fast buildup, and then it stayed, it seemed like at least a minute, I think the profile is only a minute. But of course after six months in zero gravity, that felt like a pretty long minute! As we were coming off the backside and the Gs were decreasing, we leveled off around four, four and a half for a little while and then tailed off after that. So four and a half felt easy after eight.

“I could feel my face being pulled back and it was pretty hard to breathe.”

2016-06-17-201443An investigation (L2 Russian Sectionnoted issues with the long-term exposure to electromagnetic emissions on-orbit, and the potential to cause issues with the pyro bolts, came after an extensive investigation that included the removal and return of one pyro bolt from Soyuz TMA-12.

Mitigation against this issue has resulted in no further issues with the module separation milestone in any of the following missions.

Once through the plasma of entry interface, the capsule was prepared for the deployment of its drogue chute. This prepared the spacecraft for the deployment of its main parachute.

This is one of the hardest parts of the return for the crew, which has been described as being inside a washing machine by some returning astronauts.

The Soyuz craft then completed the return to terra firma, landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan at around 07:20 Eastern.

2016-09-07-040712The exact timing of touchdown, under a “soft” thruster engine firing, is always dependent on a number of factors – such as the impact of winds on the Soyuz chutes – and can vary by several minutes.

With the vehicle safely back on Earth, ground and air crews converged on the Soyuz to extract the crew from the SA.

The crew underwent immediate and preliminary health checks once outside their Soyuz spacecraft. All three were then transferred to a medical tent to prepare them for transit away from the landing site.

Eventually, they will part ways for their respective countries and space agencies.

(Images: NASA, Roscosmos, ESA and L2.

To join L2, click here: https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2/)

Commercial Crew on tight but achievable timeline for crewed flights in 2018

The long and arduous process of achieving commercial crew transportation services to space is closing in on an important milestone.  At a recent update to the NASA Advisory Council, NASA’s commercial crew transportation services program manager discussed numerous aspects to SpaceX and Boeing’s progress over the last few months and revealed that, while the timeline is tight, the two companies are on track for their scheduled crew demo flights of Dragon and Starliner in 2018.

Commercial Crew services – gaining ground on 2018 crewed test flights:

As part of the standard series of reviews before the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) has provided an update on SpaceX and Boeing’s initiatives to provide crew launch services to the International Space Station beginning next year.

Overall, the presentation by Ms. Kathryn Lueders, Manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, to the NAC was overwhelmingly positive, with Ms. Lueders noting that she’s been “impressed with how both these providers with their fixed price contracts are not writing off their issues.  They’re not saying it’s okay.  They are going and doing the testing and the work that needs to be done.  

“And I’ve been super impressed with how they’ve done that.”

Ms. Lueders was specifically referencing the tight but achievable timelines both SpaceX and Boeing have in order to meet the current projected dates for both company’s crewed demo flights of Dragon and Starliner, respectively.

Both of those flights are currently scheduled for 2018 – with SpaceX’s crewed demo in May and Boeing’s in August.

When asked by a NAC member about the crewed launch dates for next year, Ms. Lueders stated, “I think a lot of things have to go our way.  I think they are pretty tough right now.

“But I would say [those dates] are not impossible.  I think the providers have a plan to get there for at least their crewed demos next year.  I think it’s a little tougher to say for the PCM.”

The PCMs – the Post-Certification Missions – are the contracted flights NASA has with SpaceX and Boeing for full commercial crew transportation and lifeboat services with the ISS.

“The schedule doesn’t have a lot of margin, so I think it’s very challenging,” stated Ms. Lueders.  “We just have a whole lot of work in front of us, but [both providers] would like to fly as soon as possible.  I think the big challenge right now is to fly when we’re all ready to fly and working through that.”

2015-06-10-014231Regardless of the challenges still facing both Boeing and SpaceX in their development of crew transportation services, none of those prevented NASA from awarding PCMs 3-6 to both providers in December 2016.

According to Ms. Lueders, “This is important for us because we wanted to really let both providers understand and lay out what’s the best way for them to reliably fulfill the whole portion of the contract.  [Awarding PCMs 3-6 to each] gives them some stability” to go do that.

However, Ms. Lueders noted that even though these PCMs have been awarded, the specific mission requirements are still at NASA’s full discretion and the agency is continuing to work with both SpaceX and Boeing to “burn down key certification products with the providers.”

2015-06-10-014319With these awards, both SpaceX and Boeing have four missions for each of them for commercial crew rotation services and lifeboat activities for the US segment crew on Station at upcoming dates.

“We now have these missions in flow,” stated Ms. Lueders.  “We’re really getting into how we’re going to conduct these missions.”

At present, the CCP office is working with SpaceX and Boeing to make sure all parties involved understand the requirements that need to be closed out and met for each of the upcoming demonstration missions – both uncrewed and crewed – so that all flight test objectives are planned for and met properly.

Likewise, “We’ve also been designing the commercial crew work with providers and how we work with the Station so that the whole timeline syncs up because we really want to make sure that we streamline all of our reviews as we’re approaching FRR (Flight Readiness Review) so the providers aren’t having to integrate everything themselves.”

2016-08-22-224421Ms. Lueders also touched upon how NASA is approaching the launch of crew members, government employees, on commercial vehicles that have to undergo FAA licensing for launch.

“Another thing we’ve been working is that this is going to be a new way of doing things – it will be the first crewed mission under FAA licensing.”

This means that the first commercial crew launches of government employees will represent the first instances that certain sections of the FAA oversight guidelines governing commercial space vehicles are exercised.

According to Ms. Lueders, “We’ve been working and collaborating with multiple agencies to make sure we can facilitate how this is going to work.

“And then through that interaction we’ll hopefully have everything defined well enough that it makes the providers’ job of meeting these regulatory standards as streamlined as possible.”

Moreover, the CCP has been working closely with the Eastern Range and the Air Force to “synergize [their] certification efforts.”

Specifically, this relates to search and rescue and recovery operations that are needed to support the launch of crewed vehicles.

This has resulted, according to Ms. Lueders, in the creation of a launch and entry steering group with representatives from the FAA, the Air Force, the Eastern Range, and NASA all working to provide a “forum for all the agencies to … establish guidelines and strategies” for this new approach to crew launch and landing operations.

Loss of Crew calculations – a gap that still needs to be closed:

As with all human spaceflight activities, mitigating the potential risk and establishing safety baselines to avoid a Loss Of Crew (LOC) situation is key.

2016-06-23-002835From the outset of the CCP initiative, NASA established a baseline requirement that all commercial launch providers meet a LOC criteria of 1 in 270 –  meaning that for every 270 flights, only one would result in an LOC event.

Currently, there is a gap in what the data analysis shows both Boeing and SpaceX are capable of providing and that 1 in 270 requirement.

While Ms. Lueders did not state exactly what SpaceX and Boeing specifically are able to provide in terms of the LOC requirement, there was a discussion centering on the reality of what technology is able to provide and the requirement NASA has set.

Specifically, Ms. Lueders stated that NASA and the providers are working hard to close this LOC gap as well as examining the feasibility of doing so with the processes in place by the contracts and requirements.

I will tell you that we are having a hard time getting to 1 in 270.  But we’re not done yet.”

Coming out of the end of the Shuttle program where the Shuttle had a post-program derived LOC number of 1 in 65 (according to Mr. Wayne Hale), an initial benchmark was set by NASA that commercial company vehicles and all subsequent government vehicles, too, should meet a safety factor 10 times that of Shuttle, or an LOC requirement of 1 in 650.

That was quickly determined to be completely unfeasible by all parties involved, and a new benchmark of 1 in 270 was set.

After this requirement was set, however, new MMOD (Micro Meteoroid Orbiting Debris) stringent requirements were imposed, which – with a few other items that Ms. Lueders did not expand upon – made it challenging to meet the 1 in 270 LOC benchmark requirement.

Ms. Lueders did note that a subsequent revision to the LOC requirement of 1 in 200 was offered to the providers, but even this is proving to be a challenge.

“They’re still updating MMOD protection and a few other critical areas including looking at operational controls, and when we get through all that we’ll be in a better place to talk about our final LOC projection,” stated Ms. Lueders.

Boeing – Starliner’s progress:

According to the accompanying presentation for CCP to the NAC, Boeing has completed the Critical Design Reviews for both their ascent and entry suit systems for the crew as well as the base heat shield for the CST-100 Starliner vehicle.

Since the last NAC update, Boeing has completed wind tunnel testing of the launch vehicle adapter skirt, conducted International Docking Adapter and NASA Docking System testing at the Johnson Space Center, successfully dropped tested the parachutes and tested their deployment sequence, hot fired the launch Abort Engines with their new propellant valves, completed acceptance testing and RL-10 hot fire of the CFT engines, and performed quality testing at the Langley Research Center for the landing airbag system.

Moreover, the version 8.0 software release has been completed, gaining specific note from Ms. Lueders who praised Boeing, saying that “It’s one of the few programs I’ve seen where the software is actually running ahead of the hardware.”

2016-05-12-182150In terms of hardware, the Starliner Structural Test Article is at Huntington Beach, California, where proof pressure testing was completed last December.

At the C3PF, the former OPF-3, at the Kennedy Space Center, Spacecraft 1’s Crew Module upper and lower dome outfitting work is on track to support power on testing this year.

The Spacecraft 1 Service Module’s structural panels have also arrived at the space center.

Moreover, Spacecraft 2’s upper and lower dome outfitting has begun in C3PF, and Spacecraft 3 is “progressing across the supply base,” notes the CCP presentation to the NAC.

“So there’s a lot of hardware in flow,” stated Ms. Lueders.  “But we need a lot of hardware in flow to be able to meet our schedule.”

At present, Boeing’s uncrewed demonstration flight is slated for June 2018 ahead of the crewed demo flight in August 2018.

SpaceX – waking the Dragons:

Since the last NAC update, SpaceX has completed the design review for the validation propulsion module and is continuing to parse down there open items list in support of design implementation closure for the crew version of their Dragon capsule.

Moreover, according to the NAC presentation from the CCP, “Completion of ECLSS (Environmental Control and Life Support System) system testing and successful suit milestone testing in Q4 CY2016 provides confidence that designs are closing and on a good trajectory for cert/qual.”

According to Ms. Lueders, the fact that SpaceX completed their suit milestones in 2016 “really built up a lot of confidence amongst the team” who had been nervous about the suit milestone.

From an infrastructure standpoint, SpaceX has completed the crew access arm and white room critical design reviews and has also completed the pad 39A design reviews including fluid systems, environmental control systems, emergency egress system, and hydraulics upgrades.”

To this, Ms. Lueders added that NASA and the CCP was given a demonstration last fall of crew egress as part of the Launch Segment Operational Readiness Review for SpaceX.

In terms of the Falcon 9, NASA and the CCP are continuing to partner with SpaceX on the implementation of the Block 5 design upgrade.

Merlin 1D and MVAC design reviews have been completed.

Shifting gears to demonstration and testing, the activation of LC-39A this year and the subsequent three launches from there have “given us a lot more data on 39A then we had originally planned to have prior to the crewed missions,” noted Ms. Lueders.

SpaceX is also proceeding through parachute testing as well as the build for four Dragon crew modules.

Currently, the commercial company is in production of a qualification module, the DM-1 and DM-2 modules, and an ECLSS module.

The qualification module is undergoing structural testing at this time while the DM-1 service section is undergoing integration work with planned completion in Quarter 2 of this year.

The ECLSS module has completed its four-person test, and the DM-2 Dragon is proceeding through weldment with an anticipated completion date in Quarter 2 of this year.

SpaceX’s uncrewed demo flight is currently scheduled for later this year, in November, ahead of the crewed demo flight in May 2018.

(Images: NASA and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*))

(To join L2, click here: https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2/)

NASA finally sets goals, missions for SLS – eyes multi-step plan to Mars

After years without concrete missions beyond the current EM-2 test flight, NASA has finally unveiled a plan for multiple missions of its SLS rocket.  The plan would see NASA initiate a multi-step approach to human exploration in cislunar space while simultaneously developing the architecture to enable human missions to Mars – all of which is dependant on funding from the U.S. Congress, which is currently seeking deep cuts to U.S. government spending.

NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017:

As part of the agency’s standard updates to the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), has presented the NAC with the agency’s Deep Space Gateway and Transport Plan.

According to the accompanying HEOMD presentation, the Deep Space Gateway and Transport Plan’s goal is to “lead an effort that expands human presence deeper into the solar system through a sustainable human and robotic spaceflight program.”

As Mr. Gerstenmaier stated, “the good news here is that this is really unchanged from where we’ve been.  This is consistent from the past administration and is consistent for the current administration.”

Now, however, the Deep Space Gateway and Transport plan relates directly to the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017.

Under the authorization act, NASA’s long term goals are: “(1) to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so, where practical, in a manner involving international, academic, and industry partners;

“(2) crewed missions and progress toward achieving the goal in [paragraph one] to enable the potential for subsequent human exploration and the extension of human presence throughout the solar system; and

“(3) to enable a capability to extend human presence, including potential human habitation on another celestial body and a thriving space economy in the 21st Century.”

Deep Space Gateway and Transport Plan:

To fulfill the goals set forth in the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, the HEOMD is operating on a refined five phase plan stretching from “now” to the “2030s”.

The first phase, Phase 0, involves the current utilization of the International Space Station.

According to the HEOMD presentation to NAC, Phase 0 will “Solve exploration mission challenges through research and systems testing on the ISS.”

Phase 0 will also help NASA “Understand if and when lunar resources are available.”

For the lunar resources aspect, Mr. Gerstenmaier stated to the NAC, “We’ve talked about Lunar Resource Prospector.  We’ve talked about some way of going to the surface of the moon in the regions that are potentially volatile rich.

“So we really want a mission that can go to the surface of the moon, characterize the volatiles that are there, at what quantities they’re there.  I think we’ve done about all we can from orbit … and I think to really understand if they’re usable and if they fit into some other architecture, we need to really go down to the surface to do that.”

Following Phase 0, Phase 1 in the 2020s will see NASA undertake missions to cislunar space for construction efforts of the agency’s new Deep Space Gateway (DSG).

Phase 2 will see construction of the Deep Space Transport (DST) and its subsequent shakedown and verification.

In the 2030s, Phases 3 and 4 – which the HEOMD presentation does not distinguish between – will see the DST utilized for “missions to the Mars system, the surface of Mars.”

Presumably, the “Mars system” language refers to previously notional missions to one of Mars’ two moons – Phobos or Deimos – before committing to human landings on the surface of the Red Planet.

Of the five phase approach, the HEOMD presentation to the NAC went into specific detail about Phases 1 and 2 of the plan.

Phase 1:

According to the HEOMD presentation, the DSG “provides ability to support multiple NASA, U.S. commercial, and international partner objectives in Phase 1 and beyond.”

Specifically, the DSG will be designed for deep space environments to support a “crew of 4 for total missions up to 42 days” as long as Orion is docked to the DSG.

Moreover, according to Mr. Gerstenmaier, “The purpose of this Deep Space Gateway is that it can support activities towards the surface of the moon.  It could be a transportation node to the surface of the moon.  It can also be maneuvered into a high elliptical lunar orbit, a rectilinear orbit around the moon.

“It can essentially be a staging point to go beyond the Earth-Moon system.”

Mr. Gerstenmaier also specifically noted that the DSG is a “piece of hardware that stays in space for multiple decades.”

Under the Phase 1 plan, NASA would utilize its SLS rocket for four dedicated DSG construction missions.

Notably, this provides the first concrete representation of SLS’s potential missions beyond the currently planned EM-2 flight.

Overall, though, the Phase 1 plan includes six SLS flights.

The first SLS mission, EM-1, according to the HEOMD 28 March 2017 presentation, shows an uncrewed EM-1 mission launching on an SLS Block 1 vehicle in 2018.

This EM-1 mission would be a 26-40 day mission to a Distant Retrograde Orbit around the moon.

Interestingly, this is a significantly longer EM-1 mission than previously discussed by NASA – which had until now showed EM-1 as a No Longer Than three week flight.

Importantly, this description of an uncrewed EM-1 flight should not be read as any indication from NASA that their study into flying EM-1 as a crewed flight is off the table.

Bill Gerstenmaier noted specifically to the NAC that NASA’s teams are still investigating a crewed EM-1 flight and that no decision had been reached at this point.

EM-1, under the Phase 1 plan, would then be followed in the 2022-ish timeframe by the first flight of the SLS 1B Cargo vehicle.

This flight would be used to launch NASA’s Europa Clipper mission on a direct trajectory flight to Jupiter.

This would afford NASA the opportunity to both demonstrate the SLS’s cargo launch ability for outer solar system robotic exploration missions and to verify the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) in flight prior to flying a crewed mission using the EUS.

Curiously, the HEOMD presentation lists the Europa Clipper launch on SLS as “subject to approval”, and Mr. Gerstenmaier talked somewhat extensively about the other launch option available.

This is highly suspect given Congress’ mandate via legislation (essentially, Congress has made it the law) that Europa Clipper’s launch be on an SLS rocket.

Regardless, after the SLS Europa Clipper mission in 2022, the next four years would see one SLS crewed flight per year.

The first, called EM-2 in the plan (a viewpoint into how the new SLS manifest will shake out in terms of what EM-2 might now look like), will see SLS and a four person crew launch on an 8-21 day “Multi-TLI Lunar Free Return” mission to deliver the first element of the DSG to cis-lunar space.

The DSG component is slated to be the 8-9 metric tonne (mT) Power and Propulsion Bus – of the same design as the one that would have been used on the now-defunct Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission – capable of generating 40 kW of power.

The Power and Propulsion Bus will also have 12kW thrusters for maneuverability and will also have chemical propulsion capability as well, noted Mr. Gerstenmaier.

Importantly, Mr. Gerstenmaier noted that Orion and the 4-person crew of EM-2 would not dock to this power bus.

This EM-2 mission would be followed in 2024 by EM-3 – a 4 person flight to deliver the ≤10 mT Habitation module to the DSG – which at this point would have maneuvered into a Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO).

EM-3 would last between 16 and 26 days and would be the first flight capable of performing scientific objectives on the DSG.

This mission would be followed by a commercially-contracted Cislunar Support Flight (CSF).

“[The Deep Space Gateway] doesn’t preclude the commercial industries or using their vehicles to take significant logistics to this gateway,” noted Mr. Gerstenmaier.

“This is a demonstrable, objective way to build the skills … as directed by the Authorization Act.”

The EM-4 mission would then follow in 2025 with a 4 person crew to add a ≤10mT Logistic module (which will include a Canadian-built robotic arm) to the DSG.

At this point, the DSG could support a 4-person crew for up to 42 days and would have the ability to “translate to/from other cislunar orbits” from its NRHO.

EM-4 would be followed by another commercially-contracted CSF before the final Phase 1 flight in 2026 of the EM-5 mission to deliver the ≤10mT airlock to the DSG.

As with EM-4, EM-5 would last between 26-42 days and would have the ability to translate between cislunar orbits.

According to Mr. Gerstenmaier, these EM-4 and EM-5 extended missions would replace the crewed Asteroid Redirect mission, with the goals of longer-duration cislunar flights shifting to these DSG missions.

Moreover, the Japan Aerospace and eXploration Agency (JAXA) has expressed interest in adding a further module to the DSG, noted Mr. Gerstenmaier.

Phase 2:

Phase 2 would begin in 2027 via a series of three flights – starting with a commercially-contracted CSF mission.

After this, 2027 would see two SLS flights.

The first SLS mission would be an uncrewed cargo flight, called EM-6 (confirming that uncrewed SLS missions can received an “EM” flight designation), to deliver the ≤41t Deep Space Transport (DST) into cislunar space.

The DST would be docked remotely to the DSG.

Under the Phase 2 plan, EM-6 would be followed later in 2027 by a 4 person crewed SLS flight, EM-7, on a logistics module run to the DSG/DST.

In addition to bringing logistics to the DSG/DST, the EM-7 crew would also perform a 191-221 day NRHO checkout mission of the DST (while the DST remains docked to the DSG).

In 2028, another commercially-contracted CSF mission would occur before the EM-8 mission – an uncrewed DST logistics and refueling flight of the SLS Block 1B cargo vehicle.

Notably, EM-8 is listed as the last flight of the SLS Block 1B design.

The following year, 2029, would see the introduction of the SLS Block 2 variant – with advanced side-mounted boosters.

This first Block 2 flight would be the EM-9 mission, a crewed flight with 4 astronauts.

EM-9 would see the 4 person crew rendezvous with the docked DSG/DST spacecraft and perform at 300-400 day DST shakedown mission in cislunar space.

According to Mr. Gerstenmaier, “This will verify that the vehicle we’re going to take to Mars can operate on its own for one year and is ready to go do its three year trip to Mars.”

Furthermore, the goal of the one-year shakedown is to operate as if it were a three year mission to Mars by placing all of the logistics, all of the supplies, all of the spares on the vehicle and simulating – as safely as possible – the habitat and crew’s ability to function without a direct rocket supply line to Earth.

Ultimately, though, this shakedown will have the ability to terminate quickly should the need arise.

Right now, the plan for this year-long mission would be to keep the DST docked with the DGS, though Mr. Gerstenmaier did note that there is an option to undock the DST to perform a solo year-long shakedown cruise.

At this point, according to the HEOMD presentation and Mr. Gerstenmaier, the stage would be set for the agency’s first human flight to Mars.

A commercial CSF flight would then kick off NASA’s Mars campaign ahead of a “2030+” timeframe launch of the EM-10 mission, a Block 2 SLS cargo run to DSG/DST for logistics and refueling.

This would be followed in the same general “2030+” timeframe by EM-11.

The EM-11 crew would board the DST, undock it from the DSG, and take the DST on a Mars transit mission.

Overall, NASA envisions the DST as capable of supporting a 4-person crew on a 1,000 day mission to Mars.

Moreover, the DST would be used for three Mars-class missions before needing to be replaced.

A forward plan, but what about funding?

As with all federal agencies, bringing this plan to fruition is entirely dependent on the materialization of funding from the U.S. Congress.

Currently, the U.S. government will run out of money at the end of the day on 28 April 2017 unless Congress can pass and the White House sign a complete or temporary spending bill.

Moreover, while the stated goals of the Deep Space Gateway and Transport Plan are certainly ambitious and hold the potential to see NASA realize and utilize the SLS rocket and its capabilities, the U.S. Congress as well as the White House are currently seeking deep cuts to U.S. federal spending.

Despite promising words from President Trump when he signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 last month, it remains to be seen exactly what NASA’s spending priorities are for Congress and whether the agency’s funding line will increase accordingly to allow for a successful implementation for its announced initiatives.

Mr. Gerstenmaier specifically referenced the need for NASA to have a clear understanding of what the ultimate Fiscal Year 2018 budget for the agency will be.

“From our standpoint in HEOMD, it’s real important that we get some solid understanding of what the budget is,” noted Mr. Gerstenmaier to the NAC.

“We’re in a very critical phase of development where we need budget certainty so we can do the right planning from a contract standpoint, from a hardware and build standpoint, and an operational timeline standpoint.”

Regardless, the fact that NASA has announced an architecture and multi-flight plan for SLS as well as a staged approach for its goal of landing humans on Mars by the 2030s is a promising step for the agency and for the role SLS will play in human and robotic exploration initiatives over the next two decades.

(Images: NASA and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*))

Whitson to stay on the ISS for an additional three months

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson has been granted a three-month extension to her mission on the International Space Station (ISS). The decision, made between NASA and Roscosmos, avoids a “gap” in the full crew compliment during a two-month period in the summer. Meanwhile, Soyuz TMA-02 is preparing to return home three crew members next Monday.

Whitson Extension:

Dr. Whitson is already a record-breaker and no stranger to the orbital outpost.

She was assigned to her first spaceflight as a member of Expedition 5 crew, launching aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour and the STS-111 mission on 5 June 2002.

Whitson returned to the Station when she was assigned as Commander of the Expedition 16 mission and launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 10 October 2007 on Soyuz TMA-11. During just this tour alone, Whitson performed five spacewalks.

Returning to the Station on Soyuz MS-03 last November, Dr. Whitson added her eighth and ninth spacewalks of her career – more than any other female astronaut.

The plan was for Whitson to return home with her Expedition 51 crew mates Oleg Novitsky of Roscosmos and Thomas Pesquet of ESA in June. However, Whitson will now skip that departure and will head back to Earth with NASA’s Jack Fischer and Roscosmos’ Fyodor Yurchikhin in September.

“This is great news,” Whitson said. “I love being up here. Living and working aboard the space station is where I feel like I make the greatest contribution, so I am constantly trying to squeeze every drop out of my time here. Having three more months to squeeze is just what I would wish for.”

Preparations for the Station crew comings and goings began when the Station adjusted its orbit via a 35.6 firing of thrusters on the Zvezda module.

That sets the stage for the departure of Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough of NASA and Flight Engineers Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko of Roscosmos when they undock their Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft from the space station at 4 a.m. EDT and land in Kazakhstan at 7:20 a.m. (5:20 p.m. Kazakhstan time) this coming Monday.

Their return will wrap up 173 days in space for the crew members since their launch last October.

At the time of undocking, Expedition 51 will begin aboard the station under Whitson’s command.

Along with her crewmates Oleg Novitskiy of Roscosmos and Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency), the three-person crew will operate the station until the arrival of two new crew members.

NASA’s Jack Fischer and Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos are scheduled to launch April 20 from Baikonur, Kazakhstan – riding on the Soyuz MS-04.

This two person launch is the key reason why Dr. Whitson will remain on the Station.

With a Soyuz seat left empty by the Roscosmos, the ISS will be  temporarily reduced to two cosmonauts. Whitson’s extension will ensure a full complement of six astronauts on board the station and increase the amount of valuable astronaut time available for experiments on board the station.

Dr. Whitson’s next record will come on April 24, whens she will break Jeff Williams’ standing United States record of 534 cumulative days in space. Along with the recent spacewalk record, Whitson also became the first woman to command the space station, and on April 9 will become the first woman to command it twice.

“Peggy’s skill and experience makes her an incredible asset aboard the space station,” added Kirk Shireman, NASA’s International Space Station Program Manager. “By extending the stay of one of NASA’s most veteran astronauts, our research, our technology development, our commercial and our international partner communities will all benefit.”

Yet another spacewalk is on the cards for Whitson when she conducts the third of a trio of EVAs that are preparing for the future arrival of US commercial crew spacecraft, along with upgrading the station hardware.

Previously, EVA-42 was set to take place on April 6. However, due to delays with the arrival of the OA-7 Cygnus spacecraft – due to issues with its Atlas V carrier rocket – the spacewalk has been postponed.

The Atlas V will now launch from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral on April 18, following the resolution of two issues – the latter relating to a hydraulic line on the rocket’s first stage.

As such, EVA-42 is now expected to take place shortly after the Cygnus is berthed to the Station, with the spacewalk currently allocated a placeholder of April 24.

The spacewalk will feature Whitson and Pesquet replacing an avionics box on the starboard truss called an ExPRESS Logistics Carrier, a storage platform. The box houses electrical and command and data routing equipment for the science experiments and replacement hardware stored outside of the station.

The reason for delaying the EVA is obvious, given the new avionics box is scheduled to launch aboard Cygnus.

The EVA will be a major milestone for the orbital outpost, marking the 200th spacewalk in support of space station assembly and maintenance.

(Images via NASA and Roscosmos).

SLC-41 completes EES installation ahead of Starliner missions

An Emergency Egress System (EES) has completed its installation into the Crew Access Tower (CAT) at Space Launch Complex -41 (SLC-41) in preparation for Atlas V launches with Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. The EES is a vital element for all crew launch vehicles, with the SLC-41 EES working with the traditional “slide wire” concept.

SLC-41 EES:

The requirement to have an Emergency Egress System (EES) is not just for the astronauts set to ride uphill from the launch pad, but also for the engineering teams who’s role includes working up close and personal with the rocket in the final days of the pad flow.

2016-10-13-183511ULA began evaluating options for SLC-41 during a period Atlas V was catering for two crew-capable vehicles options, namely Starliner – or CST-100 as it was known – and Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) and their Dream Chaser spacecraft.

“Different options for emergency egress. Detailed hazard analysis of the launch operations is a key determinant,” noted the since-retired Dr. George Sowers, ULA VP for Human Launch Services, during a Q&A session with NASASpaceFlight.com members in 2012. “We have the option of implementing a shuttle-like slide wire system if required.”

Although Atlas V is still hoping to launch Dream Chaser missions, the spacecraft’s role has been refocused on cargo missions. The EES option will still be employed for pad crews tending to the spacecraft. However, the highlighted role will be for astronauts riding on the Starliner.

The historical heritage of the EES hardware has mainly been based around utilizing a fairly simple, gravity-powered systems with a requirement to be passive/unpowered, in case the emergency cut power to the pad. However, each option had a different take on a similar theme.

The first EES for the Saturn V used the existing launch tower elevators to evacuate crew and/or engineers to the base of the Mobile Launch Platform, before transferring to a “slide tube” that led in an underground rubber room/sealed blast room – which remains in a preserved condition at Complex 39. (Large photo collection available on L2 – LINK).

A second system was added a few years later, adding the option of a single cab on a slide wire that egressed the astronauts outside of the pad perimeter – known as the Blast Danger Area (BDA) – 2,400 feet away from the pad. From there, they would enter a sealed bunker and await rescue.

This slide wire system was expanded by the time the Space Shuttle began its service for NASA, with extra emphasis on the pad EES, not least because a pad abort was not possible via the vehicle, due to the lack of a LAS.

Engineers installed five slide wires to the launch tower – later expanded to seven – with baskets that could hold up to four people each.

These slidewires ended at the same Apollo bunkers outside the BDA, where personnel could wait out the disaster or transfer to an armored vehicle (M-113) and drive to a triage site where they could be met by rescue personnel.

The slide wire option remained relatively unchanged throughout its career with the Space Shuttle Program (SSP) and was thankfully never required or used in anger.

It was used – mostly uncrewed – during emergency drills carried out on occasions such as the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test (TCDT), allowing the crew to practice their evacuation plans.

With ULA working on SLC-41 during regular Atlas V missions, this week’s announcement that a final test of the pad’s EES has been conducted is another step towards seeing US astronauts launching from the Cape.

“ULA is absolutely focused on the safety of the crews we will be supporting and although we hope to never use it, we are excited to announce the Emergency Egress System is fully operational,” said Gary Wentz, Vice President of Human & Commercial Services.

“Through our partnership with Terra-Nova, a company that designs and builds zip lines for recreational use, a modified, off-the-shelf product has been designed and constructed to meet our needs and reduce costs, while maintaining reliability and safety.”

The egress cables are situated on level 12 of the Crew Access Tower (CAT), 172 feet above the Space Launch Complex 41 pad deck and will allow the crew to evacuate the CAT quickly to a landing zone more than 1,340 feet from the launch vehicle.

The EES can accommodate up to 20 personnel, including ground crew and flight crew.

ULA noted that Terra-Nova, LLC (makers of the ZipRider Hybrid) offered a commercially developed EES based on their “off-the-shelf,” patented designs.

The ZipRider was easily adaptable to ULA’s specific needs while offering an unmatched safety record, and providing the best overall value.

With Boeing’s Chris Ferguson – a former Shuttle commander – enjoying a test ride on the system ahead of its installation at SLC-41, it takes just 30 seconds for the rider to reach a top speed of 40 mph. The riders control their speed by releasing pressure on the handles, with the ability to glide to a gentle stop at the landing zone.

There are 30 feet of springs on each cable located in the landing area to gradually slow a rider down if they forget to brake. Terra-Nova will install a training system located north of the CAT for riders to practice on before final training on the operational EES.

“Crew safety is paramount, and the ULA emergency egress system hits the mark for an effective yet simple system that is adapted from other commercial applications,” said Commander Ferguson, Boeing director of Starliner Crew and Mission Systems.

“We look forward to spaceflight operations next year knowing that every measure to protect the flight and ground crew has been employed.”

There’s also been internal movement on the EES that will be employed for the Space Launch System (SLS) on Pad 39B, years after a trade study began to evaluate the best EES option for safely evacuating crew and engineers from the dizzy heights of the Mobile Launcher (ML). Teams have been told to accelerate options in light of the recent study into changing Exploration Mission -1 (EM-1) into a crewed mission.

Currently, only one patchy render of the system has been acquired (L2) – showing the use of a massive crane.

“Members of the Operations Integration and Analysis team developed, modeled, and created images of an Emergency Egress System concept in support of the Crewed SLS EM-1 Mission Study,” noted a memo via L2.

“The orange frame depicts the fixture with the four baskets lifted by a mobile crane and attached to the west side of the Mobile Launcher. The ground distance from the tower to the end of the slide wire is over 1100 feet, and the wire would be approximately 1300ft long. These images were used in the crewed EM-1 impact briefing to NASA Headquarters.”

The use of a massive crane will be far cheaper than the recommended option from the 2006 study for the since-cancelled Ares I launch vehicle EES, once again pitching several very different designs against each other – including a slide wire system.

The winner of the 2006 study was the spectacular Roller Coaster EES – a giant structure that would have been a permanent fixture out at Pad 39B, rising into the Florida skyline ready to be hooked up to the ML once it had rolled out to the pad with the vehicle.

The Roller Coaster EES included a multi-car high-speed rail system and used gravity to get personnel to a safe haven. It was deemed to be very accommodating to incapacitated crew members as well as limited 3G forces on the people riding the cars with a passive electromagnetic braking system.

It underwent a few redesigns during the life of the Constellation Program, including options to extend the rails to an area outside the BDA directly into a triage site.

For this system, NASA relied on many different areas of expertise: Safety, Medical, Operations Personnel, and the Astronaut Office. Engineers involved in Disney’s roller coaster systems were also part of the design project.

The 2006 trade study – (available on L2 LINK) – helped explain the requirements of the future EES, of which there are numerous considerations. These considerations will be playing into the SLS trade study discussions.

“The EES starts at the crew hatch of the Orion and terminates at the designated safe area. Once the crew access arm is extended, a maximum of 2 minutes for 15 able bodied personnel (six crew members, three closeout crew members, and six fire/rescue members) is allowed to move from the hatch to inside the safe area during vehicle processing at the pad up to T-0.

“The EES shall provide a safe area built to withstand possible blast, fire, and flying debris within the 5,000-ft blast danger area of the tower. The EES shall accommodate the following hazards at the pad: fire, propellant spills, tank overpressure, radioactive-material release, and toxic atmosphere.

“The EES shall provide a clear route from Orion hatch to the egress vehicles with provision for 0.25 gpm/sq ft of water spray and fire detection for the EES before entering the vehicles.”

The list continued for two pages, and despite being by far the most expensive, the Roller Coaster EES scored the highest in nearly all of the requirement categories.

The 2006 study design was refined again in 2008, mainly relating to the initial drop from the ML, in turn providing a CGI view from both onboard the coaster and viewing it drop from various viewpoints (L2 Link to Video).

However, the Constellation Program was then canceled.

Pad 39A’s EES will be mainly focused around the needs of the pad engineers, given astronauts onboard the Dragon 2 will find their spacecraft will be the fastest way of egressing the pad in the event of an emergency ahead of launch.

Dragon 2 will fire her SuperDraco thrusters in the event of a pad abort scenario, as has already been tested.

(Images: Via Boeing, ULA and L2’s specific sections. To join L2, click here: https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2/)

SpaceX opens new era for spaceflight with successful core stage reuse

For SpaceX and its founder Elon Musk, it was a day 15 years in the making.  The accomplishment Thursday evening of launching a flight-proven Falcon 9 core stage and landing it yet again on the ASDS barge, Of Course I Still Love You, is a stunning and beautiful feat of engineering that opens the door on a new era of spaceflight, one Elon Musk states will make Humanity a spacefaring civilization.

Landing and Reusing rockets – They said it couldn’t be done… or done economically:

For decades, many stated that the long pole item to cost-effective access to space was finding a way to reduce the overall cost of the rockets needed to get us there.

The answer, in many ways, was simple: find a way to reuse the rockets – like airplanes.  Reuse, therefore, would equal a reduction in launch cost.

Importantly, work on this idea is not new to the 21st century; it was a key element in the design of the Space Shuttle in the 1970s, a design that saw three of the four major elements of the shuttle launch system designed for refurbishment and reuse – with the Orbiter, Space Shuttle Main Engines, and Solid Rocket Boosters being reused and only the External Tank being discarded after each flight.

While the overall cost reduction and rapid reuse element of the Shuttle never fully materialized (something that is well documented), the overall system of the Shuttle proved in the 1980s that rocket reusability was possible… if not rapid.

Enter SpaceX.

From the outset, SpaceX designed the Falcon 9 with reusability in mind, taking a staged approach to the Falcon 9’s overall evolution to first learn the quirks of the rocket itself in flight while simultaneously developing and testing the landing systems needed to recover the first stage.

This landing of a rocket stage through propulsive means was deemed by many in the industry to be impossible – or at least so difficult and destructive to the rocket that it would negate the cost reduction of reuse via the refurbishment needed.

What seemed even more science fiction-y than just landing a core stage by rocket propulsion down range from the launch site was SpaceX’s desire to also autonomously fly rocket stages back to the launch site and land them there when propellant margins allowed.

But regardless of what others said, SpaceX pressed forward, testing the landing technology with soft, water landings without a barge before graduating to successive attempts to land on the ASDS barge.

While those initial barge landing attempts in 2015 were not successful, success in this regard defined as the booster landing upright on the barge and remaining that way after engine shutdown, those early barge landing attempts remarkably managed to find the barge with amazing accuracy each time.

With the recovery from the CRS-7 launch mishap, SpaceX sought to make history not only with a record-breaking quick return to flight but also by attempting to bring that mission’s first stage to a successful land landing when an ocean landing on the barge had yet to be successful.

On 21 December 2015, SpaceX proved that landing a rocket vertically under propulsive power was not just theoretically possible but indeed practical when the Falcon 9 core stage, in what looked like an effortless touchdown at Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1), landed upright at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station after lofting the ORBCOMM 2 mission to orbit.

Just over three months later, on a mission that could have made it back for a landing at LZ-1, SpaceX opted instead to send the core stage launching the CRS-8 mission to the International Space Station to the ASDS barge in the Atlantic instead.

The choice paid off as the Falcon 9 – core #1021 – landed near dead center on Of Course I Still Love You to a live web and television audience.

After that, core after core began hitting their marks on the ASDS and at LZ-1.

Underlying a seeming look of ease, though, was an incredible engineering and technical accomplishment repeated time after time – each landing event honing the process from lessons learned via flight telemetry.

Attention then quickly turned to which core would be the first one to refly, which customer would be the first to opt for this new offering from SpaceX, and when the first reflight would occur.

Originally, core #1021 from CRS-8 was intended to be a test article to give SpaceX valuable information on how cores perform in subsequent full-scale, full-duration hot fire tests at McGregor, Texas.

When the JCSAT-14 core made a remarkable hot entry landing, something SpaceX did not think it would actually be able to do, the plan changed to use the battle-hardened, operated-at-its-maximum-possible-limit JCSAT-14 core as the test article.

With that core put through its paces, SpaceX announced late last summer that the SES corporation from Luxembourg would be the first customer, with their SES-10 mission, to launch on a flight-proven Falcon 9 core.

Later, it was confirmed that core #1021 would be the core handed the honor of the first Falcon 9 flight proven reflight.

It succeeded beyond many people’s wildest dreams Thursday with not only a flawless launch per the initial data returns, but also a spectacular, dead center landing on Of Course I Still Love You.

Speaking at a post-launch press conference for media assembled at the Kennedy Space Center and via phone, Elon Musk stated his elation at the accomplishment, remarking that he was “speechless when it happened.  It’s a great day.”

In terms of what now happens to historic core #1021, Elon Musk stated that after a look to see how it held up, SpaceX plans to offer the core to the Cape for some type of permanent display.

“We think this one has some historic value.  So we’re seeing if perhaps the Cape might like to have it as something to remember the moment.  

“So we’re going to present it as a gift to the Cape.”

Martin Halliwell, CTO of SES, also stated prior to the launch that if the booster landed on Of Course I Still Love You, that Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX, had promised him bits of the rocket for the SES boardroom.

Going forward – short-term reusability continues and improves:

The tremendous importance of the successful reflight of core #1021 cannot be understated for what it now means for the launch market.

While it’s true that one reuse of a flight proven booster does not technically prove the durability of the system, it nonetheless proves that it is possible – and SpaceX has a way of taking the possible and making it a stunning reality.

In lead up to Thursday’s launch, many latched on to the idea that this flight was in some way more dangerous or risky than previous flights of the Falcon 9.  

Martin Halliwell of SES denied those assertions, stating that they were based on emotion and not on the technical and scientific aspect of the booster.

At a pre-launch news conference, Mr. Halliwell related that not only was SES certain from a technical standpoint that the booster was “just as good if not better” than a brand new Falcon 9 core, but that the insurers for the SES-10 mission gave them a rate that was nearly the same, with just a 100th of a percent difference in the price from an insurance policy on a new Falcon 9 core.

Speaking after the successful launch, Mr. Halliwell noted that “of the three missions we’ve had with SpaceX, this is absolutely the most calm, no problems whatsoever, absolute smooth mission.  It really couldn’t have gone better.

“We are hugely, hugely excited by this and to be a part of this.”

Mr. Halliwell also noted that while some gave SES flak for this mission, “you have to decouple the emotion from the engineering.

“The engineering team that Elon has working for him is really second to none.  And the proof is in the pudding.  Here we are.  We did it.”

So now the questions are: What now?  When will the next reflight of the Falcon 9 occur?  How many reflights will occur this year?  Then next year?

The answer is that reflight efforts will continue this year, with lessons learned from each successive reflight on how to reduce the time it takes to refurbish a core to eventually achieve the goal of reflying a core within 24 hours of its return to the Cape.

Elon Musk stated that this goal of 24 hour turnaround might be possible later this year, next year at the latest.

An important note to this is that while SpaceX, from an engineering standpoint, might be able to achieve a 24 hour turnaround for a core, the Eastern Range and SpaceX’s own launch manifest might not support an actual 24-hour back-to-back reflight of a core for sometime yet – which doesn’t necessarily take away from SpaceX’s introduction of that capability before it’s practically realized.

Moreover, Mr. Musk confirmed that there are approximately six core reuses planned for the remainder of this year.

Specifically, two of those six reflights will occur on the first flight of the Falcon Heavy, which Elon stated is still on track for a late-summer launch from LC-39A after SLC-40 is back up and running.

For the Falcon Heavy debut, the two side boosters will be pre-flown cores – one of which has already been seen under shrink wrap with its new nose cone assembly in transit to the McGregor test facility in Texas.

That leaves four possible reflights for “single stick Falcon 9” users this year.

Mr. Halliwell has stated that SES’s two upcoming autumn and winter launches with SpaceX are candidates for two of those flight proven missions.

Intriguingly, that leaves two other core stage reflight missions this year for customers who have, at the time of writing, been silent about using flight-proven Falcon 9s.

Moreover, Mr. Musk stated that he anticipates the total number of flight proven missions to increase to 12 in 2018, with an eventual goal of 75% of all Falcon 9 missions using flight proven cores.

But even with yesterday’s success and the growing forest of flight proven cores in hangers and in storage at the Cape, the goal to refine the Falcon 9 core stages so that all elements of them are durable and available for multi-reuse continues.

As stated by Mr. Musk, the goal is to build Falcon 9 cores so that they are capable of being reused 10 times in a manner that sees them land (on the barge or at the Cape/Vandenberg) in a condition where they are completely ready to just be refueled and launched again.

After those first 10 rapid reuse flights, refurbishment efforts will then allow each core to launch up to 100 times.

And this is the truly critical part to reducing the cost for access to space.

As Mr. Musk stated in the post-launch press conference, “The most expensive part of the whole mission is the boost stage.  It represents up to 70% of the cost of the flight.  So being able to refly a rocket booster, where ultimately the only thing changing between flight is the propellant, carries a cost reduction potential of over a factor of 100.

“In fact, the propellant costs for a flight is only 0.3% of the cost of a rocket.  So even when you factor in maintenance and capitalization of the cost of the rocket, the potential is there – just as it is with air flight or road travel – for over a 100 fold reduction in the cost of access to space.

“If we can achieve that, and if others can all do the same, it means that humanity can become a spacefaring civilization and be out there among the stars.  

“This is what we want for the future.”

The first step toward that goal is the coming introduction of the Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9 rocket which is set to enter service later this year.

Notably, the Block 5 – or as Elon Musk said last night could better be described as version 2.5 of the Falcon 9 – will introduce several key upgrades critical to NASA and human spaceflight exploration.

Toward aiding reusability, Mr. Musk noted that the Falcon 9 Block 5 (F9 v. 2.5) will operate its nine Merlin 1D engines at their full thrust capability, which is between 7 and 10% greater thrust for each engine than what is currently seen and will bring the total thrust at liftoff from the current 1.53 million lbf to 1.9 million lbf.

The Block 5/Version 2.5 Falcon 9 will also introduce new forged titanium grid fins – all of which will help reusability by “a couple of factors”.

Specific to the grid fins, Mr. Musk noted last night that their current design involves coating the aluminum grid fins with an ablative thermal protection system because the grid fins experience temperatures right at their maximum survivability limits during reentry and landing ops.

In fact, some grid fins have actually caught fire during the entry and landing sequence based on their current design – something Mr. Musk noted is not great for reusability efforts.

The new grid fin design will see a change in their composition away from aluminum and toward a forged titanium design that will eliminate their current design flaw and introduce greater controllability to the rocket that will increase the payload to orbit capability by allowing Falcon 9 to fly at a higher angle of attack.

The long-term plan – humanity can now become a spacefaring civilization:

While there’s no denying that the historic nature of Thursday’s successful flight-proven Falcon 9 mission will have a tremendous impact on the launch market and the launch economy, SpaceX’s goals for reusability are not just short-term but also long-term as the company looks to continue development of its Interplanetary Transport System and BFR – which Elon Musk jokingly stated last night stands for Big Falcon Rocket.

While details of the overall ITS design have been refined and are expected to be released to the public in the coming months, Mr. Musk noted that the system is being designed for reuse up to 1,000 times – something that will significantly further reduce the cost of access to space and make Mars missions as well as the Mars colonization effort not just affordable but a viable reality.

But there is a long way to go in the development of the ITS and the realization of a self-sustaining city on Mars.

Nevertheless, that crucial first step in lowering the cost of access to space has occurred.

History has been made.  The Falcon 9 is reusable.  Now the really hard work begins.

(Images: SpaceX and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*))