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…
The failure of SpaceX’s seventh commercial resupply mission may have some in Washington doubting the reliability of the Falcon 9 and Dragon, but if merchandise sales alone are any indication, SpaceX’s workhorse rocket and space capsule haven’t lost any popularity with the general public, and it looks like Dragon remains the real “belle of the ball.”
How would I know this? Well, just four days ago (August 11) I had the pleasure of visiting the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. That’s something I’ll talk a lot more about in a future post, but for now I’d like to share one particular experience to make my point. As with most Florida attractions, the Visitor Complex at Kennedy Space Center has a rather substantial gift shop, where visitors can buy everything from books about space authored by astronauts to patches from historic missions and replica space suits. A guy like me could easily blow a day’s wages in a place like that and justify it by convincing himself that the money was going to further the efforts of the American space program. When we had finished our tour of the launch facilities and the various other attractions (including Space Shuttle Atlantis on static display), I naturally had to pay “The Space Store” a visit before our group left the complex to spend the rest of the afternoon at Cocoa Beach.
As I approached the main gift shop, the first thing I noticed was a window display that featured mannequins wearing “Occupy Mars” t-shirts! “Hey,” I said to myself, “Those are SpaceX shirts! What’re they doing here? This is a NASA gift shop…” No sooner had those thoughts flashed through my mind than the shop’s automatic doors opened before me to reveal a very large display right in the front of the store featuring an array of familiar SpaceX merchandise and a sign that said “New Arrival.” There were SpaceX t-shirts, hats and polo shirts in various colors, “Occupy Mars” t-shirts, hats and coffee mugs and t-shirts bearing the logos of both the Falcon 9 and the Dragon. Even more astounding than the selection was the fact that these items were being given prime real estate– right at the front of the store!
“How cool,” I thought. “NASA must be showing a little love to its Commercial Crew partners by carrying their merchandise in its shops.” After a quick look around the store, though, that theory fell out of the sky faster than a ship with a Capissen-38 engine. Not only could I not find any CST-100 merchandise, there was no Boeing merchandise of any kind to be found anywhere, let alone at the store’s front entrance. I had to conclude that the marketing push was strictly “a SpaceX thing,” and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t tickle me a bit.
On Thursday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden announced the names of four American astronauts whom the agency has selected to crew the first Commercial Crew Program flights to the International Space Station aboard spacecraft built by the private sector–two of these four will be the crew of the first manned flight of the Dragon v2 spaceship. They are:
Douglas “Chunky” Hurley, two-time shuttle pilot, former NASA Director of Operations at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, and first Marine to fly the F/A-18 Hornet.
Sunita Williams, naval aviator, test pilot, avid windsurfer and snowboarder, former commander of the International Space Station, and current record holder for the most spacewalks and total time spacewalking for a woman.
Robert Behnken, Air Force flight test engineer, veteran of two shuttle missions, former Chief of the Astronaut Office, and “aquanaut” aboard the Aquarius underwater research station.
Eric Boe, Air Force colonel, test pilot, two-time shuttle pilot, veteran of 55 combat missions over the Persian Gulf, and former Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office.
Each of them boasts an impressive resume, even by astronaut standards. To call them “Big Damn Heroes,” the term of endearment favored by Browncoats and fans of Firefly, only begins to do them justice, with their track record of bravery, academic achievement, heroism, and even selfless humanitarian service.
Under the NASA Commercial Crew Services contracts awarded to Boeing and SpaceX, the first manned test flights of their craft–the CST-100 and the Dragon v2, respectively–will take place in 2017 with at least one NASA astronaut on board, with the other seats available for any number of “their people.” SpaceX have publicly stated that they intend to bring two NASA astronauts from this group.
Public statements by the astronauts themselves indicate that NASA’s current plan is to cross-train all four on both spacecraft to start, then eventually assign them to one craft or the other later on. This would be in keeping with NASA’s historic modus operandi of specialization of crew roles that formed in the days of Apollo and continued through the Shuttle era.
Interestingly, people are already referring to these men and women as “the Dragon Four” or “the Commercial Four” (I guess “CST-100” just doesn’t roll off the tongue as well), drawing comparisons to the original Mercury 7, America’s first astronauts. Upon reflection, the comparison is quite apt. Space, by definition, is a realm of “firsts”–first to walk on the moon, first to perform a spacewalk, heck, Williams is the first to run the Boston Marathon while in orbit! For all you know when you’re out in the Black, the most seemingly insignificant of acts could be a “first,” like “first to scratch one’s nose while reading email in space.” That’s what’s so wonderful about space, though: no matter how many folk we send to live out there and colonize it, each of them is entitled to a a degree of glory.
Even then, it is among the rarest, most momentous of occasions in the history of space exploration to be the first to fly a brand new class of vessel–which is exactly what the Dragon and CST-100 represent. Even more exciting is the prospect that ordinary people from the general public are picking up on this without having to be told or have it explained to them.
This announcement marks an important milestone in Take Back the Sky’s campaign to have the first manned Dragon named after Serenity, from the cult sci-fi Firefly franchise. NASA’s typical routine has always been to select and announce the crew of a mission roughly one year ahead of when they anticipate it will actually lift off the pad in order to give them time to train and rehearse. This means that we’re now entering the final phase before the engines ignite, and our remaining time to write letters and collect petition signatures is definitely limited.