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SpaceX Dragon XL could double as a crew cabin for lunar space station

A recent modification to SpaceX’s Dragon XL lunar cargo resupply contract with NASA suggests that the spacecraft could be used as an extra crew cabin and bathroom at a lunar space station known as Gateway.

The contract modification was made around April 1st of this year and provided SpaceX around $121,000 to complete the latest study on the potential utility of its expendable Dragon XL spacecraft beyond the primary goal of resupplying a space station orbiting the Moon. Designed to deliver at least five metric tons (~11,000 lb) of pressurized and unpressurized cargo to Gateway, Dragon XL will launch on SpaceX’s own Falcon Heavy rocket – currently the only super heavy-lift launch vehicle in operation – and meant to heavily borrow from hardware and systems already developed for Crew and Cargo Dragon.

NASA first announced its selection of SpaceX for the Gateway Logistics Services (GLS) contract back in March 2020. More than a year later, very little has been said (or visibly done) to progress from that announcement to a true contract – an unusually long period of inactivity for such a significant program.

Of note, as recently as April 2021, NASA officials made it clear that they were still in the cryptic process of “reviewing” the Artemis program, leading to such a long delay between the GLS award announcement and finalization of an actual contract with SpaceX. Of note, back when it was announced, NASA’s nominal plan was to begin Dragon XL cargo deliveries as early as 2024 to support the Artemis Program’s first crewed Moon landing attempt.

Since then, however, other crucial aspects – namely the concept of operations and Human Lander System (HLS) meant to carry astronauts to and from the Moon – have evolved significantly. Weeks after NASA’s GLS announcement, the space agency awarded approximately $1 billion to three prospective HLS providers – SpaceX, Dynetics, and a team led by Blue Origin. A little over a year later, NASA announced a shocking decision to award that initial HLS Moon landing demonstration contract to SpaceX and SpaceX alone.

More or less simultaneously, NASA it made it clear that it was seriously studying the possibility of performing Artemis-3 – the first crewed Moon landing attempt in half a century – without Gateway. Along those lines, the SLS-launched Orion spacecraft and HLS lander (a custom variant of SpaceX’s Starship) would dock directly in lunar orbit instead of separately docking to Gateway to transfer crew. NASA’s decision to solely select Starship as its future Moon lander was so surprising in large part because of how starkly the vehicle’s potential capabilities contrast with the rest of the Artemis Program.

As many have already noted, the very existence of a Starship with capabilities close to what SpaceX is working towards – now a practical inevitability for the company to complete its HLS contract – brings into question the architecture NASA has proposed for Artemis. Currently, the nominal plan is to launch astronauts into an exotic high lunar orbit with NASA’s own SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft – an inconvenient orbit only needed to make up for said spacecraft’s shortcomings. Prior to recent developments, Orion would then dock with Gateway. The HLS vehicle would follow and crew would eventually transfer to the lander, which would then carry 2+ astronauts to and from the surface of the Moon and re-dock with Gateway, followed by Orion returning those astronauts to Earth.

Given that Starship offers enough pressurized volume to rival even the vast International Space Station (ISS) in a single launch, the entire concept of Gateway – an almost inhumanely tiny space station – becomes dubious. If Orion also doesn’t need Gateway to transfer its astronauts to the lander, which NASA has all but confirmed, it’s difficult to see what value Gateway could offer outside of a very expensive technology demonstration. Including a planned Falcon Heavy launch of the first two Gateway segments, station production, and the possible need for expensive Dragon XL cargo deliveries, Gateway could easily end up costing NASA $4-5 billion before it hosts a single astronaut.

NASA is already deeply concerned about the apparent likelihood of Congress systematically underfunding the HLS and Artemis programs outside of SLS and Orion, going as far as selecting just a single HLS provider after clearly indicating a desire for redundancy given enough funding. NASA’s HLS contract with SpaceX is expected to cost around $2.9 billion. The next cheapest option – Blue Origin’s proposal – would reportedly cost around $6 billion. In other words, if NASA were able to stop work and Gateway and redirect that funding elsewhere, it could almost already afford two HLS providers without a larger budget.

Given that NASA has selected SpaceX for HLS and GLS, it’s not impossible to imagine that the space agency is growing increasingly aware that Gateway and Dragon XL look more than a little redundant beside the Starship vehicle NASA itself is now funding SpaceX to realize. For now, though, work on all three programs continue. Most recently, NASA and SpaceX are studying the possibility of adding a toilet and using Dragon XL as an extra crew cabin and bathroom to augment the tiny habitable volume of Gateway’s lone habitat. Only time will tell where the cards ultimately fall.

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SpaceX’s Starship to return humanity to the Moon in stunning NASA decision

In one of the biggest NASA contracting surprises in years, the space agency has chosen SpaceX – and only SpaceX – to return humans to the surface of the Moon with its next-generation Starship rocket.

The Washington Post’s Christian Davenport broke the news a few hours before NASA’s scheduled announcement and teleconference, revealing that SpaceX beat out Dynetics and a Blue Origin-led “National Team” for a sole-source contract to build, launch, and land a custom version of Starship on the Moon for $2.94 billion. If that uncrewed testing is successful, SpaceX and Starship will be tasked with landing the first astronauts on the Moon in half a century as early as the in the mid-2020s.

While a Human Landing System (HLS) announcement was fully planned and expected to happen this month, virtually everyone following the process believed that NASA would continue to lean on the rationale behind selecting multiple providers for its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) and Commercial Crew (CCP) programs. Having multiple distinct providers, spacecraft, and rockets available to accomplish the same tasks fundamentally insulates NASA (and the International Space Station that depends on those programs) from losing the ability to transport crew or cargo in the event that any one provider is delayed or suffers a major failure.

With a goal as complex as landing humans back on the Moon for the first time since the 1970s, redundancy and multiple distinct solutions would obviously be even more desirable. Entirely contrary to expectations, NASA instead announced that it had exclusively contracted with SpaceX alone for next phase of HLS development. Though SpaceX may have been the only competitor already testing something approximating real integrated flight hardware, NASA’s decision to sole-source HLS to Starship represents a significant gamble.

Simultaneously, though, the move is also extraordinarily pragmatic and indicates that one or several major decisionmakers at NASA have taken less positive lessons from its commercial cargo and crew programs to heart. Crucially, over the first several years of the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), Congress systematically underfunded the development of two commercial crew spacecraft – one from Boeing and the other from SpaceX. As a direct result, the launch debuts of both spacecraft were delayed by several years, forcing NASA to to continue relying on Russian Soyuz launches well into the 2020s to get its astronauts to the ISS.

Additionally, SpaceX – an unequivocal underdog and newbie next to Boeing in the mid-2010s – has drastically outperformed its traditional aerospace counterpart, beating Boeing to the punch and launching astronauts first. Boeing’s Starliner is now at least 18 months behind Crew Dragon despite costing almost 60% more.

In its first year on the books, almost mirroring NASA’s Commercial Crew experience, Congress aggressively underfunded the HLS program, allotting $850M – just 25% – of the $3.4B NASA requested. In other words, NASA seems to be proceeding with HLS under the assumption that Congress – as it did with CCP – will continue to chronically underfund the lunar lander program for years to come. If that’s the case, NASA appears to have made an uncharacteristically astute decision to structure HLS not on its preferred budget – but on what the agency believes Congress will pony up.

Put in a slightly different way, NASA is basically telling Congress that its lack of commitment has forced the agency to sole-source its lunar lander contract to SpaceX, putting the impetus on Congress to properly fund the HLS program if it wants redundant providers. All told, while NASA is undoubtedly taking a risk selecting SpaceX and Starship to return both it and humanity to the Moon, the space agency has now made it abundantly clear that it’s fully committed to the program and goal, whether or not Congress is willing to do its job.

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SpaceX Falcon Heavy beats out ULA Vulcan rocket for NASA Moon rover launch

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket appears to have edged out competitor United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) next-generation Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle to send a NASA rover and commercial lander to the Moon in 2023.

Back in August 2019, not long after NASA first began announcing significant contracts under its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, startup Astrobotic announced that it contracted with ULA to launch its first small “Peregrine” lander and a dozen or so attached NASA payloads to the Moon in 2021. Rather than the extremely expensive but operational Atlas V rocket, the startup instead chose to manifest Peregrine on the first launch of Vulcan Centaur, a new ULA rocket meant to replace both Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy.

Less than two years later, Astrobotic has decided to purchase a dedicated launch from SpaceX – not ULA – for even larger “Griffin” lander that aims to deliver NASA’s ice-prospecting VIPER rover to the Moon and kick off the exploration of permanently-shadowed craters at its south pole.

Astrobotic’s Griffin lander and NASA’s VIPER rover. (Astrobotic)

Back in August 2019, Astrobotic’s announcement stated that “it selected United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket in a [highly competitive commercial process].” It later became clear that the Peregrine lander – while still scheduled to be sent directly to the Moon on a trans-lunar injection (TLI) trajectory – would not be the only payload on the mission. None of Vulcan Flight 1’s other payloads are known, but the presence of other paying customers helps explain how Vulcan beat SpaceX for the contract.

More importantly, companies willing to risk their payload(s) on new rockets have historically been enticed to overlook some of that first-flight risk with major discounts. In other words, in the often unlikely event that a company manages to sell a commercial rocket’s first launch, it’s incredibly unlikely that the same rocket will ever sell that cheaply again.

Falcon Heavy Flight 3 made use of both flight-proven side boosters and a new center core. Note the scorched landing legs and sooty exteriors. (SpaceX)
It’s likely that Griffin-1 and VIPER will launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket with two or all three of its boosters already flight-proven. (NASA – Kim Shiflett)
Peregrine. (Astrobotic)
Griffin is substantially larger and more complex than Peregrine, which is scheduled to attempt its first Moon landing some 6-9 months from now. (Astrobotic)

That appears to be exactly the case for ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, which secured a lunar lander contract for its launch debut only to lose a similar lunar lander launch contract from the same company – well within the range of Vulcan’s claimed capabilities – less than two years later. If SpaceX’s relatively expensive Falcon Heavy managed to beat early Vulcan launch pricing, there is virtually no chance whatsoever that Vulcan Centaur will ever be able to commercially compete with Falcon 9.

In fact, back in 2015 when Astrobotic began making noise about its plans to build commercial Moon landers, the larger Griffin was expected to weigh some 2220 kg (~4900 lb) fully-fueled and – when combined with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 workhorse – be able to land payloads as large as 270 kg (~600 lb) on the Moon. It’s unclear if that figure assumed an expendable Falcon 9 launch or if it was using numbers from the rocket’s most powerful variant, which was still a few years away at the time.

Either way, NASA’s VIPER lander – expected to have a launch mass of ~430 kg (~950 lb) is a bit too heavy for a single-stick Falcon 9 flight to TLI. It’s also reasonable to assume that Griffin’s dry and fueled mass has grown substantially after more than half a decade of design maturation and the first Peregrine lander reaching the hardware production and assembly phase. While Falcon 9 narrowly falls short of the performance needed for Griffin/VIPER, a fully recoverable Falcon Heavy is capable of launching more than 6.5 metric tons to TLI, offering a safety margin of almost 100%.

Astrobotic says it has purchased a dedicated Falcon Heavy launch for Griffin-1 and VIPER, but it would be far from surprising to see one or multiple secondary payloads find their way onto a mission with multiple tons of extra capacity. Presumably assuming that its Q4 2021 or early 2022 Peregrine Moon landing debut is successful, Astrobotic and SpaceX aim to land Griffin-1 and NASA’s VIPER rover on the Moon as early as “late 2023.”

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SpaceX on track to send Starship, private astronauts around the Moon in 2023

In a new media blitz, Japanese billionaire Yusaka Maezawa (‘MZ’) has reentered the spotlight with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk to update the public on their DearMoon initiative.

Unveiled in September 2018, Maezawa’s DearMoon project was founded with the intention of returning humankind to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Program ended in the 1970s. This time around, though, a billionaire would singlehandedly fund the mission on their own, opening up as many as eight seats to an entirely different kind of astronaut. Initially, Maezawa positioned the project as an effort to take several artists – representing as diverse a collection of disciplines as possible – to the Moon.

Faced with arguably the most privileged and impactful vantage point known to humans, the voyage would aim to inspire the creation of new and groundbreaking art that could be shared with almost anyone on Earth.

In the ~30 months since Musk’s and Maezawa’s first announcement, a great deal about the Starship rocket meant to launch the mission has changed, including a radical redesign that replaced the widespread use of carbon fiber composite structures with stainless steel. Now, according to Maezawa, the purview of his DearMoon project has also changed in a big way.

In a video update, the retired billionaire stated that he’d ultimately concluded that his initial plan – selecting eight artists – was too narrow and arbitrary to properly give as many deserving people as possible a chance at a life-changing experience.

“Who do I mean by artists? The more I thought about it, the more ambiguous it became, and I began to think that every single person who is doing something creative could be called an artist. That is why I wanted to reach out to a wider, diverse audience to give more people across the world the opportunity to join this journey.”

Yusaku Maezawa

Instead of a hand-selected crew elite or exceptional artists, Maezawa appears to be opening up the eight seats he purchased for guests to just about anyone on Earth, so long as they consider themselves an artist, are eager to push the envelope of creativity, and are willing to help their fellow crewmates achieve their own artistic goals.

An artist’s conception of a concert inside an orbital Starship. (SpaceX)

Back in 2018, with Maezawa’s help in the form of an implied investment on the order of several hundred million dollars, SpaceX committed to launching Starship’s circumlunar DearMoon mission as early as 2023. Two and a half years and a radical Starship redesign later, Elon Musk says he is “highly confident” that SpaceX’s next-generation rocket will have “reach orbit many times” and “be safe enough for human transport” by 2023. Curiously, at least in the clips Maezawa ultimately included in the update video, Musk never stated that Starship was explicitly on track to launch humans on a circumlunar “free-return trajectory” – notably difficult for the extremely high-velocity reentry it entails.

Nevertheless, his otherwise confident statements – seemingly implying that Starship remains on track after more than two years of work – bode well for the DearMoon mission launching at least within 12-18 months of its 2023 target. At that rate, there’s a real chance that it will beat NASA’s state-funded SLS and Orion rocket to become the first crewed mission to the Moon in half a century.

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SpaceX rapidly builds, tests Starship Moon elevator for NASA

As part of a NASA program that will select one or two commercial crewed Moon landers, SpaceX is busy testing Starship and prototyping hardware and most recently built and demonstrated an elevator “in a very short period of time.”

Known as the Human Landing System (HLS) program, NASA selected three providers – a Blue Origin-led consortium, Dynetics, and SpaceX – to build prototypes and compete for one or two follow-on contracts back in April 2020. SpaceX’s Starship offering was deemed the riskiest solution and the company received a middling $135 million to Dynetics’ ~$250 million and the “National Team’s” ~$570 million.

For their ~$820 million investment, it’s unclear what exactly NASA has gotten from its two best-funded teams aside from paperwork, a few completed design reviews, and two low-fidelity mockups mostly made out of cardboard, foam, and wood. Meanwhile, in the ten months since SpaceX received its $135 million, the company has built no less than eight full-scale Starship prototypes, performed a dozen or more wet dress rehearsals and static fires with said prototypes, and performed two powered hops and two high-altitude test flights. Now, to add to that list of low-cost achievements, SpaceX has also built and tested a functioning prototype of the elevator Starship would use to lift and lower astronauts to and from the lunar surface.

SpaceX’s proposal is certainly a unique one, with Starship being no less than several times taller and heavier than both its prospective competitors. However, Blue Origin’s extraordinarily complex three-stage, four-component lander – requiring a separate transfer stage, descent stage, ascent stage, and crew cabin – makes even Starship seem somewhat reasonable.

Notably, that massive 8-10m (25-32 ft) stack of separate spacecraft – crew cabin at the peak – would force NASA astronauts to transit a several-story ladder to and from the lunar surface. Far taller than the Apollo Program’s lander ladder, which NASA was already somewhat tepid on at the time, navigating a tall ladder in a clumsy, imprecise lunar EVA spacesuit would be extremely challenging and relatively risky. Dynetics is by far the least concerning solution in that regard, requiring what amounts to a footstool relative to SpaceX and Blue Origin.

(SpaceX)

In the National Team’s defense, SpaceX’s elevator approach is also undeniably risky, and it’s safe to say that demonstrated reliability would be an absolute necessity for NASA to ever accept that solution. Of course, SpaceX could feasibly include a hand-cranked backup system and a ladder on Starship’s exterior in the event of total system failure, but both backups would still pose risks similar to or greater than the National Team’s ladder.

However, the fact that SpaceX has already built and begun testing a Starship Moon elevator prototype makes it hard to believe that the company couldn’t ultimately produce a safe, reliable, redundant elevator between now and the mid to late 2020s.

On a separate note, it’s unclear when or where SpaceX built and tested the first Starship elevator. The photo NASA’s Mark Kirasich provider appears to show an elevator prototype situated inside a steel Starship ring with the sky visible, but nothing like that setup has been spotted at SpaceX’s Boca Chica Starship factory or former Cocoa Beach production facilities. That leaves its Hawthorne, California factory or, perhaps, a mysterious “Roberts Road” facility on Kennedy Space Center (KSC) land. Either way, it certainly appears that SpaceX has yet to show all its cards and is doing everything it can to convince NASA that Starship is worth additional HLS contracts.

NASA is expected to award contracts for full-up Moon lander demonstrations from one or two of the three candidates either “in the next few weeks” or sometime in April.

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NASA chooses SpaceX to launch a self-propelled space station to the Moon

Days after SpaceX won a NASA contract to launch a galaxy-mapping space telescope, the space agency has selected Falcon Heavy to launch a small space station to the Moon some four years from now.

Loosely known as Gateway, NASA and a few of its ‘centers’ have been floating the concept for years – partially on its merits as a potential platform to dip toes into crewed deep spaceflight and explore the Moon but mostly as a way to give the bloated Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft a destination for destination’s sake. Weighed down by an extremely inefficient European Service Module (ESM), NASA couldn’t use Orion to replicate its famous Apollo Moon missions if it wanted to.

Lacking the necessary performance to safely place Orion and its astronauts into the Low Lunar Orbit (LLO) optimal for a new round of crewed Moon landings, Orion/ESM on its own is limited to higher, more exotic lunar orbits with less immediate value. As a result, NASA’s Lunar Gateway will be delivered to a “near-rectilinear halo orbit” (NRHO) where it will orbit the Moon’s poles at altitudes between 3,000 and 70,000 kilometers (1,900-43,000 mi).

NASA has selected SpaceX to launch two modules – the backbone of a proposed lunar space station – on one Falcon Heavy rocket. (NASA)

Bureaucratic machinations and sunk-cost fallacies aside, any space station orbiting the Moon would be an impressive technical feat and an undoubtedly exciting venture. NASA says SpaceX’s combined Power and Propulsion Element and Habitation and Logistics Outpost (PPE/HALO) Falcon Heavy launch contract will ultimately cost approximately $332 million, although that figure includes vague “other mission-related costs” that could have nothing to do with SpaceX and be separate from the company’s actual launch services.

Less than a year ago, NASA awarded SpaceX $117 million to launch Psyche – a scientific spacecraft with an overall cost similar to PPE/HALO – on Falcon Heavy.

Northrop Grumman’s interpretation of a mature lunar Gateway.

Possibly contributing to the unusually high cost is the fact that Falcon Heavy will need a stretched payload SpaceX is already working on for the US military to launch the massive PPE/HALO stack, which will stand around 15 meters (50 ft) tall and weigh ~14 metric tons (~31,000 lb) when combined. While heavy, that payload mass is somewhat mundane for SpaceX, which has launched 17 16-metric-ton batches of Starlink satellites since November 2019.

What isn’t mundane for SpaceX is launching such a large payload beyond Starlink’s low Earth orbit (LEO) destination. According to a virtual presentation recently given by a Northrop Grumman HALO engineer, PPE/HALO will be delivered to an elliptical orbit similar but lower than the geostationary transfer orbit (GTO; ~250 km by ~36,000 km) traditional for commercial communications satellites.

Falcon Heavy’s stretched payload fairing is pictured here in a render accompanying plans to build a massive mobile service tower (MST) for specialized military missions. (SpaceX)

That low target orbit thankfully means that PPE/HALO wont be SpaceX’s first fully expendable Falcon Heavy launch. Depending on how far below GTO NASA is willing to accept, SpaceX could potentially launch PPE/HALO and attempt to land all three first boosters at sea, a configuration that leaves enough performance to send 10 metric tons to GTO. If SpaceX proposed Falcon Heavy with an expendable center core, the rocket could feasibly launch PPE/HALO beyond GTO, cutting the amount of time it would take for PPE to slowly spiral out to the Moon with its electric thrusters.

NASA says the launch is scheduled no earlier than (NET) May 2024 – decidedly optimistic given that the space agency has yet to even award HALO’s production contract.

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Our Space Launch System Rocket’s “Green Run” Engine Testing By the Numbers

nasa:

We continue to make progress toward the first launch of our Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for the Artemis I mission around the Moon. Engineers at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi are preparing for the last two tests of the eight-part SLS core stage Green Run test series.

The test campaign is one of the final milestones before our SLS rocket launches America’s Orion spacecraft to the Moon with the Artemis program. The SLS Green Run test campaign is a series of eight different tests designed to bring the  entire rocket stage to life for the first time.

As our engineers and technicians prepare for the wet dress rehearsal and the SLS Green Run hot fire, here are some numbers to keep in mind:

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212 Feet

The SLS rocket’s core stage is the largest rocket stage we have ever produced. From top to bottom of its four RS-25 engines, the rocket stage measures 212 feet.

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35 Stories

For each of the Green Run tests, the SLS core stage is installed in the historic B-2 Test Stand at Stennis. The test stand was updated to accommodate the SLS rocket stage and is 35 stories tall – or almost 350 feet!

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4 RS-25 Engines

All four RS-25 engines will operate simultaneously during the final Green Run Hot Fire. Fueled by the two propellant tanks, the cluster of engines will gimbal, or pivot, and fire for up to eight minutes just as if it were an actual Artemis launch to the Moon.

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18 Miles

Our brawny SLS core stage is outfitted with three flight computers and special avionics systems that act as the “brains” of the rocket. It has 18 miles of cabling and more than 500 sensors and systems to help feed fuel and direct the four RS-25 engines.

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773,000 Gallons

The stage has two huge propellant tanks that collectively hold 733,000 gallons of super-cooled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The stage weighs more than 2.3 million pounds when its fully fueled.

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114 Tanker Trucks

It’ll take 114 trucks – 54 trucks carrying liquid hydrogen and 60 trucks carrying liquid oxygen – to provide fuel to the SLS core stage.

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6 Propellant Barges

A series of barges will deliver the propellant from the trucks to the rocket stage installed in the test stand. Altogether, six propellant barges will send fuel through a special feed system and lines. The propellant initially will be used to chill the feed system and lines to the correct cryogenic temperature. The propellant then will flow from the barges to the B-2 Test Stand and on into the stage’s tanks.

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100 Terabytes

All eight of the Green Run tests and check outs will produce more than 100 terabytes of collected data that engineers will use to certify the core stage design and help verify the stage is ready for launch.

For comparison, just one terabyte is the equivalent to 500 hours of movies, 200,000 five-minute songs, or 310,000 pictures!

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32,500 holes

The B-2 Test Stand has a flame deflector that will direct the fire produced from the rocket’s engines away from the stage. Nearly 33,000 tiny, handmade holes dot the flame deflector. Why? All those minuscule holes play a huge role by directing constant streams of pressurized water to cool the hot engine exhaust.

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One Epic First

When NASA conducts the SLS Green Run Hot Fire test at Stennis, it’ll be the first time that the SLS core stage operates just as it would on the launch pad. This test is just a preview of what’s to come for Artemis I!

The Space Launch System is the only rocket that can send NASA astronauts aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft and supplies to the Moon in a single mission. The SLS core stage is a key part of the rocket that will send the first woman and the next man to the Moon through NASA’s Artemis program.

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NASA’s Artemis Moon mission hits important milestone with successful full-scale booster test

NASA’s upcoming Artemis mission to the Moon hit an important milestone today by successfully ground testing a full-scale version of its newest rocket booster.

Building on the completion of other similar tests of the booster – named Flight Support Booster 1 (FSB-1) – which qualified it for flight as part of the agency’s upcoming Space Launch System (SLS), this most recent test used new propellant materials and verified that the ballistic requirements of its five motors were met. In a follow up teleconference, NASA and its partners confirmed the test accomplished its goals.

“NASA and Northrop Grumman have completed testing for the boosters used for the first three Artemis missions of the agency’s lunar program,” the digital press kit detailed. “FSB-1 builds upon prior tests of the rocket’s five-segment solid rocket booster to evaluate improvements and new materials in the boosters for missions beyond Artemis III.”

FSB-1 and its variants are primarily built by NASA partner Northrop Grumman whose facility in Promontory, Utah is where today’s test took place. The recent test firing burned for about two minutes and produced 3.6 million pounds of thrust. Its success is a nod to NASA’s claim that these are the largest, most powerful rocket boosters ever built for flight. Measuring 167 feet long and 12 feet in diameter, FSB-1-type boosters will fly in pairs along with the main SLS rocket body and cargo.

NASA successfully tests a full-scale version of its Artemis Moon mission booster. (Image: NASA/Northrop Grumman)

NASA’s Artemis mission is dubbed as the “twin sister of Apollo” and is aiming to return humans to the Moon by 2024. The agency has set out to develop a whole suite of technologies to support both a sustainable lunar-oriented mission and a subsequent Mars mission, engaging the commercial space community along the way. While the launch components of Artemis involve the traditional NASA path of using long-time contractors, other parts of the mission have been opened to other bidders whose contract winners have included SpaceX.

As an add-on to its success in launching the first astronauts to the ISS from American soil since the Space Shuttle’s retirement in 2011, SpaceX has also made headway in NASA’s competitive Moon race. The private space company has already procured four contracts to develop and lunar launch and landing capabilities for the agency, one as recently as the end of August. SpaceX also has multiple Moon-oriented launch contracts independent of NASA.

NASA’s SLS rocket seen in its Block 1 configuration with on Orion capsule on top. (NASA)

One of the SLS’s primary competitors will be SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Starship rockets. The company has already begun testing prototypes of its rocket-lander combination along with setting world records with its new Raptor engine. While SpaceX’s primary mission is to ferry humans to Mars for lifelong stays, the Moon is already providing paying customers for the venture.

Last year, CEO Elon Musk announced a private charter agreement between eccentric Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and the rocket maker for a lunar trip in 2023. SpaceX’s earliest NASA-backed trip to the Moon is set for 2022 while the agency’s own Artemis mission has 2024 on its calendar for launch.

You can watch NASA’s full Artemis mission booster test below:

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NASA signs Gateway habitat design contract with Northrop Grumman

Artist’s illustration of the Gateway’s PPE and HALO modules in lunar orbit. Credit: NASA

NASA has signed a $187 million contract with Northrop Grumman to complete the preliminary design of a pressurized crew habitat for the planned Gateway mini-space station near the moon, and agency officials have discussed new details about plans to launch first two Gateway modules on a single heavy-lift rocket.

The contract with Northrop Grumman announced June 5 covers Northrop Grumman’s work to design the Gateway’s habitation and logistics outpost, or HALO, module. The pressurized cabin will offer expanded living quarters for astronauts arriving at the Gateway on NASA’s Orion crew capsule.

“This contract award is another significant milestone in our plan to build robust and sustainable lunar operations,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a statement. “The Gateway is a key component of NASA’s long-term Artemis architecture and the HALO capability furthers our plans for human exploration at the Moon in preparation for future human missions to Mars.”

The $187 contract announced June 5 will carry Northrop Grumman’s work on the HALO element through a preliminary design review scheduled for the end of 2020. NASA announced last year that it would award a sole-source contract with Northrop Grumman for the HALO, but a firm agreement was not announced until this month.

NASA said it will sign a separate contract with Northrop Grumman for the fabrication and assembly of the HALO for integration with the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element, a solar-powered spacecraft with electric thrusters being built by Maxar Technologies.

The Gateway is part of NASA’s Artemis moon program, which aims to send astronauts to the lunar surface before the end of 2024, a deadline set by the Trump administration. But NASA says the Gateway is unlikely to be part of the program’s first crewed lunar landing mission, which is expected to involve a direct link-up between an Orion crew capsule and a human-rated lunar lander around the moon, without going through the Gateway.

The HALO will be derived from Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus supply ship that flies cargo to the International Space Station. With a pressure shell made in Italy by Thales Alenia Space, the Gateway’s first habitat module will be outfitted with additional docking ports and command and control capabilities, including upgraded environmental control and life support systems, according to Northrop Grumman.

The combined function of the HALO and Orion life support systems will sustain up to four astronauts for up to 30 days on the Gateway, officials said.

“By leveraging the active Cygnus production line, Northrop Grumman has the unique capability of providing an affordable and reliable HALO module in the timeframe needed to support NASA’s Artemis program,” Northrop Grumman said.

“The success of our Cygnus spacecraft and its active production line helps to enable Northrop Grumman to deliver the HALO module,” said Steve Krein, vice president for civil and commercial satellites at Northrop Grumman. “HALO is an essential element in NASA’s long-term exploration of deep-space, and our HALO program team will continue its work in building and delivering this module in partnership with NASA.”

The docking ports on the HALO module will accommodate Orion crew capsules, lunar landers and cargo ships.

The Gateway’s unpressurized Power and Propulsion Element will serve as the service module for the mini-space station, providing electrical power generated by huge roll-out solar arrays and propulsion capability from high-power solar-electric thrusters made by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

NASA has signed a contract with SpaceX to provide logistics services to the Gateway using an extended version of the Dragon spacecraft launched aboard Falcon Heavy rockets. The Dragon XL will carry up experiments, food, supplies, spacesuits and other equipment to support astronauts on the Gateway.

In April, NASA announced agreements with Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX to advance the design of crew-rated lunar lander concepts for the Artemis program.

NASA discusses new details about tandem launch of first two Gateway elements

Ken Bowersox, the acting head of NASA’s human spaceflight division, said Tuesday that the agency’s plan to launch the PPE and HALO elements on the same heavy-lift rocket will require the Gateway’s solar-powered thrusters to do more of the work to position the lunar outpost into its planned orbit around the moon.

NASA has not selected a rocket to carry the two modules into space, but the massive payload could fit on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket with a lengthened payload fairing currently in development to accommodate large U.S. military satellites, officials said. A final selection of a launch vehicle for the Gateway modules is expected before the end of this year.

Agency managers previously intended to launch the PPE module and the HALO on separate rockets in 2022 and 2023. Now the combined elements are scheduled for launch in November 2023, according to Dan Hartman, NASA’s Gateway program manager.

The Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element and HALO habitation module will now launch together inside an extended payload fairing. Credit: NASA

The tandem launch will allow engineers to connect the modules together on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center, rather than having to perform an automated docking in the vicinity of the moon. The connections involve structural, mechanical, power and fluids interfaces.

Northrop Grumman will handle the connections between the HALO and the Maxar-built Power and Propulsion Element.

That will save money and reduce risk, according to NASA.

Rather than launching directly on a trajectory toward the moon, the first two Gateway modules will deploy off their launch vehicle in a high-altitude orbit around Earth, then head to an elliptical halo orbit around the moon.

“When we decided to integrate the PPE and the HALO, we realized that we weren’t going to be able to get the elements all the way out to the moon with the launch vehicle,” Bowersox said Tuesday. “What would work better was to get them into a high orbit and then use the solar-electric propulsion to get out to cislunar space, so that’s our plan now.”

NASA says the Gateway will have several missions, including demonstrating technologies for future deep space missions, such as human expeditions to Mars. Many engineers consider high-power solar-electric propulsion, which uses electricity and an inert gas to produce thrust, as an essential technology for long-duration flights to Mars.

“The great part about that plan is we’re going to get lots of run time on those solar-electric engines, and we’re going to get the run time very early in the vehicle’s life,” Bowersox said. “So Gateway will already have served a big part of its purpose within its first year of life, and then we’ll be able to add additional (xenon) fuel to the gateway, get more information on how long those engines last in addition to supporting the work on the lunar surface.”

The Gateway will also act as a safe haven for astronauts heading to the lunar surface, and it will offer a staging point for lunar landers, allowing the vehicles to eventually be refueled and reused for multiple trips to and from the moon.

But NASA has deferred some work on the Gateway in favor of accelerating development of crewed lunar landing vehicles. While the Gateway could provide communications relay support for the Artemis program’s first lunar landing mission with astronauts, crews are not expected to visit the Gateway until at least 2025.

NASA has often emphasized the Gateway’s ability to host scientific payloads for solar and astronomical research, alongside biological and radiation experiments, and lunar research instruments. But much of those capabilities will come later, once international elements are added to the Gateway.

Canada is developing a new robotic arm for the Gateway station, and Japanese and European space agencies are working on larger habitation module and a refueling and communications package for the outpost in lunar orbit.

“We want to use Gateway for as much science as we can, but as we descope Gateway, we’re going to have just less surface area on the outside, less surface area on the inside, so we’re not going to have as much room for different science investigations,” Bowersox said Tuesday. “But we want to get as much out of it as we can.”

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aerospaceage: 1945-1952 – Space Station by Wernher von Braun -…













aerospaceage:

1945-1952 - Space Station by Wernher von Braun - Von Braun was a leading aerospace engineer first in Germany until 1945, and after being captued by U.S. forces in the same year, he continued working for NASA in U.S. He made United States able to develop the Saturn/Apollo program, making humans landing on the moon. The pictures here by NASA show one of Wernher von Braun’s fantastic plans, designing a space station for humans. NASA said that “(Wernher von Braun is) without any doubt the greatest rocket scientist in history”. For further details on the space station, please study the following link, adding a lot of details to this concept: http://www.astronautix.com/craft/vonation.htm. The following quote is as well from that website: “In the first 1946 summary of his work during World War II, Wernher von Braun prophesied the construction of space stations in orbit. The design, a toroidal station spun to provide artificial gravity, would be made very familiar to the American public over the next six years. The design was elaborated at the First Symposium on Space Flight on 12 October 1951 at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. The design was popularized in the series in Colliers magazine, illustrated with gorgeous Chesley Bonestell painting, in 1952. The 1946 version used 20 cylindrical sections, each about 3 m in diameter and 8 m long, to make up the toroid. The whole station was about 50 m in diameter and guy wires connecting and positioning the toroid to the 8 m-diameter central power module. This was equipped with a sun-following solar collector dish to heat fluid in a ball-shaped device. The heated fluid would run an electrical generator. Presumably visiting spacecraft would dock or transfer crew at the base of the power module.”