NASA has scheduled the first crewed launch of SpaceX’s independently designed and developed Dragon spacecraft for 4:32 p.m. EDT (2032 GMT) on May 27, 2020 (barring unforeseen delays, such as a high probability of adverse weather). Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be the first American astronauts to go into space aboard an American-made ship since the former Space Shuttle program. Continue Reading
“Take me out to the black, tell ’em I ain’t comin’ back…”
— Joss Whedon, The Ballad of Serenity
On this date 53 years ago, a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal test at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station Launch Complex 34 killed all three Apollo 1 crew members– Command Pilot Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White II (the first American to walk in space), and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee.
In what can only be described as a cruel coincidence, the anniversaries of the other two most costly disasters in the history of the US space program both fall within a week of today’s. Tomorrow will mark the anniversary of the 1986 explosion during the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger that claimed the lives of her seven crew members– Commander Francis R. “Dick” Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialists Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judith Resnik, Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis, and Payload Specialist and pioneer teacher in space Christa McAuliffe. This Saturday will mark the anniversary of the disintegration of Space Shuttle Columbia during reentry, which claimed the lives of her crew of seven– Commander Rick Husband, Pilot William C. McCool, Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson, and Mission Specialists Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel Clark and and Ilan Ramon (the first Israeli in space).
The names of these heroes are always worth repeating, and we at Take Back the Sky have written at length about these catastrophes over the past eight years. If you’d like to read any of our previous posts during this rough week of remembrance, you’ll find them if you conduct a simple search of our January and February archives of years past. If you’ve already read our previous articles, then might I suggest you observe this year’s anniversary by reading an NPR feature that was written on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 tragedy.
Though some of our younger readers may not have been born yet when these disasters occurred, those of us who were alive to experience the shock of hearing the news (or even seeing them live on television) will never forget where we were and what we were doing at the time. It would be easy to draw parallels to what many people experienced yesterday when they learned of the sudden and tragic deaths of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others in a helicopter crash in California.
However yesterday’s fatal crash, while equally tragic, will not lead to the grounding of all helicopter flights. The Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia accidents did cause the suspension, at least temporarily, of the nation’s space program, and they certainly ignited debates as to whether or not sending men and women to space was too risky an endeavor.
In a 1962 speech at Rice University, President John F. Kennedy famously said of the Apollo program, “We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” President Kennedy understood that it would be a rough road that would lead to the stars, but that traveling that road would bring out the very best that America has to offer on behalf of all humanity. The astronauts who perished on the launchpad in the Apollo 1 capsule and in space aboard Challenger and Columbia understood it too.
It is encouraging that SpaceX and Boeing will soon send US astronauts into space once again in American spaceships launched from American soil as part of the Commercial Crew Program, and NASA recently announced ambitious plans to return to the Moon and eventually press on to Mars. To those who would still insist that sending astronauts out to the black is too risky or too expensive, I can only respond that the risk and the expense are not only an investment in the future of mankind, but also the only truly fitting way to honor the memory of the brave men and women of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia. It will be the crews of ships like Crew Dragon, Starliner and Orion that will carry on their legacy, and as long as we let them take back the sky, then the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia will not have died in vain.
Ad astra per aspera…
The next mission for the SpaceX Falcon 9 will be the launch of Amos-17, a Boeing-built, Israeli-owned communications satellite that will be delivered to a geostationary transfer orbit.
The satellite was to have launched on August 3, but after the initial static fire of the Falcon 9 rocket on July 31 revealed a suspect valve, the launch had to be delayed until a second static fire could confirm that the valve had been successfully replaced.
With the successful completion of the second static fire, the mission is now expected to launch NET Tuesday, August 6, with a launch window that opens at 6:53pm EST (22:53 UTC) and extends until 8:20pm EST (00:20 UTC).
Whether or not the launch actually occurs on Tuesday will be largely due to range availability, since an Atlas 5 rocket owned by SpaceX’s competitor United Launch Alliance is booked for a launch on the same USAF-run Eastern Range on Thursday morning. There is also the issue of the weather, which has a 60% chance of violating launch constraints according to the latest Launch Mission Execution Forecast.
When the mission eventually does launch, it will be the tenth launch of a Falcon rocket (either a Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy) this year.
Had the mission launched on August 3, it would have been just nine days after SpaceX launched the Dragon on the CRS-18 resupply mission to the ISS, and would have marked the fastest turnaround for consecutive SpaceX launches from the same launchpad, in this case Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Amos-17 is owned by Spacecom Limited, a company based in Tel Aviv that has reason to appreciate SpaceX’s caution. The last Spacecom satellite that was to have launched aboard a Falcon 9 was destroyed on the launchpad in an explosion shortly before a planned static fire test. In the wake of that incident, SpaceX ceased placing customer payloads on its rockets for static fire tests.
The Falcon 9 booster for this mission, a “Block 5” booster which was previously flown for the Telstar 19 VANTAGE and Es’hail-2 missions, will not be recovered. Amos-17’s heavy weight– approximately 6.5 metric tons (14,330 pounds) fully fueled– requires all of the Falcon 9’s lift performance to deliver it into a geostationary transfer orbit above the equator. It will be just the second Block 5 Falcon 9 to be deemed expendable. It is likely, however, that SpaceX will still attempt to recover the fairing from this mission.
Peace, love and rockets…
Here at Take Back the Sky, we’ve made no attempt to disguise the fact that we support and advocate independent spaceflight by private individuals – I think that gets called a “bias” these days. It has never had anything to do with politics. We just feel that pursuing a future like the kind depicted in Firefly and Serenity where any ordinary Joe can fly wherever they want in a ship of their own is worthy and noble.
The media likes to make a great deal of noise and bluster about recent advances in spaceflight and tries to get mileage out of it by depicting it as a David-and-Goliath battle between large companies set in their ways and smaller, scrappy upstarts driven by ideals. It’s a portrayal that is not without merit, for sure – a valid argument could be made that our progress out in the black has stagnated in large part due to complacency in the industry and its relationship with government as a contractor.
So, it’s no surprise that, when a company like SpaceX shakes things up and challenges others to adapt, it makes headlines. I mean, for the love of Shepherd Book, they’ve actually made space cool again. People by and large have been starving for something new, for things to pick back up again, and it’s only natural that SpaceX and other “New Space” companies garner attention for their impressive achievements.
It’s occurred to me recently, though, that in our excitement and newfound optimism for the future, it becomes very, very easy to dismiss or even disparage the accomplishments that still continue to be made by NASA and “legacy” companies, such as the Orion spacecraft – and that’s not because I started working for Lockheed-Martin. Speaking of which – Continue Reading
For the past seven years we here at Take Back the Sky have been focusing our efforts to get a real-life manned spaceship named Serenity on SpaceX and its founder and CEO, Elon Musk. If you want to understand why we chose SpaceX and not Virgin Galactic, Boeing, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, or any other private company that’s in the business of building and launching spaceships, you need look no further than the upcoming Starlink-1 mission. While SpaceX has been in the business of making history (and making spaceflight sexy again) for some time now, this latest mission has several features that just exude the daring, independent spirit that we Browncoats value so highly.
First of all, the mission’s very purpose is something any Browncoat would admire. With Starlink, SpaceX hopes to establish a mega-constellation of 12,000 satellites that will provide high-speed internet across the entire planet. The endeavor will cost Elon Musk and company roughly $10 billion, and it is expected to take approximately 10 years. When it’s finished, however, anyone will be able to have high-speed internet access anywhere on the globe, and the best connections will no longer be reserved for those who are in the most populated areas or have the finances to afford the equipment necessary to establish a good connection out on the raggedy edge. SpaceX plans to have half the constellation in orbit by 2024, with the full constellation out in the black by 2028.
The Starlink-1 launch, which is planned NET 10:30PM EDT on May 15 (02:30 GMT May 16) from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, will be the sixth SpaceX launch of 2019 and the fifth for a Falcon 9. It will also be the 70th Falcon 9 launch since 2010. Its payload will be no less than 60 satellites that will be inserted into Low Earth Orbit. SpaceX Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell has stated publicly that this first batch of 60 satellites will drive the schedule for the next set of spacecraft to be launched, depending on how successful they are.
There’s more to the Browncoat nature of this mission than its everyman payload, however. The logistics of the mission also reflect the attitude of a company that aims to misbehave. Not only will the mission utilize a previously-flown Falcon 9 first stage, but for the first time, the satellites will also be launched within a previously-flown payload fairing. The Falcon 9 first stage being used is core B1049, which was previously utilized for the Iridium-8 mission in January 2019 as well as the Telstar 18V mission in September 2018. (It will be recovered yet again aboard SpaceX’s Atlantic droneship Of Course I Still Love You during this mission.) The payload fairing for the mission is expected to be the one that SpaceX successfully recovered from the Atlantic Ocean following the most recent Falcon Heavy mission.
Ni-hao, y’all — Jeff here, Rocket-Scientist-in-Residence here at Take Back the Sky. I’ve been offline for some time now tending to a newly arrived future Browncoat. Last week, NASA finally announced the assignments of which astronauts will be assigned to which flights aboard which independently made American spacecraft. I’m rather surprised that no one is commenting on what’s right there in the open for everyone to see, so I thought I’d offer my two cents here. Continue Reading
On Tuesday, February 6th, during a launch window that opens at 1:30 PM and ends at 4:30 PM EST, SpaceX will attempt the maiden launch of its newest launch vehicle, the Falcon Heavy. As a demonstration flight, rather than a commercial or government satellite, it will instead launch a test payload consisting of CEO Elon Musk’s own Tesla electric roadster.
The historic significance of this launch will be lost on most, dismissed by cynics as just another corporation debuting a new product they hope to court the masses with. What a majority of people fail to realize is that not all rockets are created equal.
SpaceX has worked with the US military before, but with Thursday’s scheduled launch of the Air Force’s infamous X-37B space plane aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, Elon Musk and company will become a part of conspiracy theory legend.
The X-37B, otherwise known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), has been referred to by some as “America’s drone space shuttle.” This orbital space plane, which does resemble a smaller version of the space shuttle, has officially flown four missions, which the Air Force said were to “conduct orbital experiments.”
Some have speculated, however, that the vehicle has been to space far more often, and there have even been claims that the Air Force has been flying two of these spacecraft for years, with one always in orbit and one on the ground. If you asked many Americans who know of the existence of the X-37B, they’d probably tell you that they believe its true mission is one of espionage, or perhaps even some “Star Wars-style” military mission similar to those outlined in President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative many decades ago. One need only search “X-37B” on YouTube to find numerous videos by “experts” who describe the OTV as a “mysterious” and “dirty” project that might even be testing an EM drive, some going so far as to claim that the Russians have threatened to expose the Air Force’s “quake plane” to the world.
Even the docents who give the tours at Kennedy Space Center apparently love stoking the fires of these wild theories, as I found out firsthand in August of 2015 when my tour group was shown (from a distance, of course) the hangar that housed the X-37B. Our guide, who was himself ex-Air Force, told us with a twinkle in his eye he could only confirm that the hangar was in fact for the X-37B, but that he couldn’t tell us any more because “then he’d have to kill us.”
Are we really to believe that that X-37B is some clandestine weapon, its flights ordered by some cigarette smoking man in the upper echelon of our nation’s military hierarchy in a facility accessible only to those with the highest levels of security clearance? Well, if it were, then consider this– it’d be pretty careless of the US government to allow the Air Force to contract a civilian space company to launch such a super secret space weapon– let alone the one civilian space company that has what is arguably the highest media profile of any on the planet! And that’s not to mention the fact that tourists are permitted within a few hundred yards of the vehicle’s “secret base” at Kennedy Space Center. Sorry, but when it comes to the OTV, I’m a bit more of a Scully than I am a Mulder.
What is possibly true of the X-37B is that the Air Force’s “orbital experiments” collect data that could be useful in the development of future weapons systems and delivery platforms that could be employed beyond Earth’s atmosphere. It is reasonable to assume, then, that the OTV could be a military test plane for space, minus the test pilot.
Whatever its purpose, this week’s launch of OTV-5 will mark the fifth official mission of the OTV and the first time that the X-37B will be carried into space by a privately-built, privately-owned rocket– a milestone that is no doubt the result of the fact that SpaceX’s ability to launch more cheaply than anyone around will save the Pentagon, and ultimately us taxpayers, a decent chunk of change over the long haul.
There is a certain irony to the fact that the OTV was built by Boeing, the company that shares the current Commercial Crew Program contract with SpaceX and with whom SpaceX is (unofficially) racing to be the first private company to return American astronauts to space from American soil. Either SpaceX’s Crew Dragon or Boeing’s Starliner will be the first spaceship to launch with a crew of NASA astronauts next year, and if it’s the former, then it is our hope that the ship will bear the name Serenity.
It’s also worth noting that for this launch, both the booster and the payload are reusable. SpaceX plans to recover the first stage of the Falcon 9 at Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) at Cape Canaveral after it sends the OTV into the black, and the X-37B will return to Earth and land like a conventional aircraft once its mission is complete.
The launch of OTV-5 is currently scheduled for Thursday, September 7. As would befit the launch of a secret space plane, no exact scheduled time for liftoff has been given as of yet. Hurricane Irma, which is bearing down on the Florida coastline, is not expected to affect the launch in any way, but even so the weather is currently less than optimal, putting the odds of a Thursday launch at around 50%. Nonetheless, SpaceX should have plenty of opportunity to get the OTV into Low Earth Orbit before Irma would force them to suspend operations.
Despite the secret nature of the payload, there’s no reason to believe that SpaceX won’t conduct its usual webcast for the launch, which should go live approximately 20 minutes before liftoff on SpaceX’s YouTube channel and at spacex.com.
We may never know the real mission of the X-37B, but when OTV-5 launches this week, we’ll be able to say with confidence that the truth is out there, and this time we have SpaceX to thank for it.
Peace, love and rockets…
For many of us Americans, summer is a time to dial it back a bit. We enjoy a more lazy pace that fits the mild weather and the longer days, and we associate the months of summer with vacations, trips to the ball park and hours spent relaxing on the beach. Perhaps no weekend of the summer embodies this more than Independence Day weekend, with its tradition of picnics, baseball and fireworks.
It comes as no surprise to us that SpaceX sees things a bit differently.
Following two successful Falcon 9 launches last weekend, SpaceX plans to launch again this Sunday, July 2. This launch, which will be from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, has an evening launch window that is set to open at 7:36pm EDT (2336 GMT), and if the weather cooperates (the latest forecasts call that into question) it should make for some spectacular viewing that will rival any 4th of July fireworks display. For those who want to watch online, the live webcast will begin approximately twenty minutes before liftoff on SpaceX’s YouTube channel and at spacex.com.
The payload for Sunday’s mission, the Intelsat 35e satellite, is built by Boeing, who along with SpaceX is contracted to provide manned space capsules to NASA as part of the Commercial Crew Program. It is designed for broadband data delivery, Ultra HD television broadcasts, and services for mobile and government customers. Due to the heavy weight of the Intelsat 35e satellite, there is no plan to attempt recovery of the Falcon 9’s first stage following Sunday’s launch.
SpaceX will have a recovery of a different sort in mind this Sunday though, as the Dragon capsule that has been berthed at the International Space Station since early June is set to return this weekend and is scheduled to splash down on Sunday. So, if all goes according to plan, the theme for the day will be “one up, one down.”
Once Sunday’s mission is completed, SpaceX will likely turn its attention to its next Dragon resupply mission to the ISS and its first launch of the Air Force’s top-secret X-37B space plane, which some have dubbed the “drone space shuttle.” Those flights aren’t scheduled until August, however. After all, even Elon Musk and company deserve a little time to kick back, grill some hot dogs, catch a Dodgers game and enjoy some fun in the sun.
Of course, this is SpaceX we’re talking about, so they’ll probably just head back to 1 Rocket Road and get right back to the business of making history!
SpaceX has announced a June 15 launch date for its next Falcon 9 launch from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The mission is to launch the Eutelsat 117 West B and ABS 2A communications satellites to a geosynchronous transfer orbit. SpaceX will also once again attempt to land the first stage of the Falcon 9 downrange of the Cape on its drone-piloted barge Of Course I Still Love You. The launch is scheduled for 10:29am EDT, and there is a 45-minute launch window. SpaceX will broadcast the launch live on its website. Coverage should begin approximately 20 minutes before liftoff.
The French-made Eutelsat 117 West B satellite will provide Latin America with video, data, government, and mobile services, while ABS 2A, made by Bermuda and Hong Kong-based Asia Broadcast Satellite, will distribute direct-to-home television, mobile and maritime communications services across Russia, India, the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region.
The satellites, which will launch in a conjoined configuration and use all-electric propulsion for orbit-raising, were built by Boeing, which has been chosen along with SpaceX to return US astronauts to space in American-built spacecraft as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Project. Boeing, which was to conduct the first Commercial Crew launch, recently announced its flight would have to be delayed until 2018. SpaceX is currently on track to launch its first crewed Dragon spacecraft sometime next year.
Of course, it’s that very Dragon that we want to bear the name Serenity. If you agree that Serenity would be a shiny name for America’s next manned spaceship, then now is the time to let SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk and president Gwynne Shotwell know how you feel. You can start by signing our online petition, which will remain open for approximately one more month. And don’t forget: there’s always time to write either or both of them a letter to tell them why you believe SpaceX’s first Dragon should be called Serenity.
Peace, love and rockets…