Rocket Report: The Falcon 9 goes for four, Boeings big cost-plus deal

 arstechnica.com  10/18/2019 11:00:38   Eric Berger
A Falcon 9 rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Enlarge / A Falcon 9 rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Welcome to Edition 2.19 of the Rocket Report! Plenty of news this week from the small side of things (two new Pegasus rockets are going on the market) to the bigger side of things (a brief stoppage of work on the Space Launch System rocket). Also, it looks like the Falcon Heavy will go for its fourth flight of the same booster.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.


Stratolaunch sold to unnamed buyer. The company founded by Paul Allen to launch rockets from a large aircraft is under new ownership and continuing "regular operations," GeekWire reports. The publication's sources suggest the buyer could be a group of unnamed private investors. Stratolaunch said it would not be granting interviews or sharing additional details at this time.

Now hiring? ... The transition serves as the latest sign that Jody AllenPaul Allen's sister, who took control of his Vulcan Inc. holding company as the trustee and executor of his estateis paring back and refocusing his many enterprises. Earlier this week, word spread that Vulcan was trimming a significant number of jobs. As part of the ownership change, Stratolaunch appears to be hiring pilots for its large, rocket-launching aircraft. (submitted by Ken the Bin, Tfargo04, and dangle)

Rocket Lab gets "launch operator" license. The US-based company said it has received a blanket license from the US Federal Aviation Administration for the next five years, allowing it to fly Electron missions from its New Zealand spaceport without obtaining individual permission for each flight. The company said this is an important step toward "making Electron the most frequently launched vehicle in the world."

Regulated by the United States ... By US law, an FAA license is required for any commercial rocket launch by US companies anywhere in the world. Rocket Lab expects that efficient licensing will support frequent launch opportunities and responsive space access. We often hear that regulatory issues are almost as important as technical hurdles when it comes to flying rockets, so this is a nice boost for the Electron, uhh, booster.

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Pegasus rockets are back on the market. Hardware for two air-dropped Pegasus XL launchers previously purchased by Stratolaunch, a space-launch company founded by the late billionaire Paul Allen, are now back under Northrop Grumman control and for sale to NASA, the Air Force, or commercial satellite operators, Spaceflight Now reports. "We actually purchased those back," Phil Joyce, vice president of space-launch programs at Northrop Grumman, told the publication. "So they're in a very advanced state of integration, which means they're available for a very rapid response launch. We could launch one of those in six months, the second one probably in eight (months)."

But does anyone want a Pegasus? ... Joyce also said the company plans to keep the Pegasus rocket's L-1011 carrier jet flying for at least five or 10 more years. This is an interesting posture for Northrop Grumman, given that the Pegasus booster compares poorly in terms of price when competing with emerging small satellite-launch options. Perhaps the immediate availability of these boosters will appeal to a satellite company ready to launch in the very near future. (submitted by Alex Altair, Tfargo04, platykurtic, and Ken the Bin)

Space agency reveals plans of Rocket Lab customers. The New Zealand Space Agency has released a full list of 34 permits for satellite rocket launches that it has recommended for approval by the Minister for Economic Development. The list covers every recommendation since applications began in 2017 all the way to August 31 of this year. All but one of the launches were for Rocket Lab missions.

Robotic handshaking ... Six of the satellites were for science, 10 were educational, 12 were for "remote sensing," and 18 were for technology demonstration, Stuff reports. Some of the satellite technology is interesting. For example, one NASA mission plans to collect radio signals from outside the Earth's atmosphere to research high-frequency signals from "terrestrial transmitters," while a United States Naval Academy satellite will be equipped with robotic claws that can demonstrate handshaking. (submitted by platukurtic and Ai Datwei)


Falcon 9's next flight will mark fourth booster use. SpaceX's next mission, slated to carry the company's second set of Starlink broadband satellites into orbit, will be the first to fly with a reused Falcon 9 booster making its fourth launch, Spaceflight Now reports. The mission is likely to fly sometime in early November.

Shooting for a perfect 10 ... Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX's vice president of build and flight reliability, confirmed earlier this week the plan to use a thrice-flown booster on the next Falcon 9 launch. "Currently we use our boosters 10 timesthey're designed for 10 times," Koenigsmann said during a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering. (submitted by Ken the Bin and platykurtic)

India moving forward with reusable launch system. Indian media is reporting that the country's space agency, ISRO, is moving ahead with tests of a reusable launch system. The system will reportedly use a flyback booster like the Falcon 9 rocket along with an orbital spacecraft like the space shuttle. ISRO plans to recover and reuse both stages of the vehicle.

Dates uncertain ... Now, according to First Post, ISRO is gearing up to do a runway landing test of the spacecraft in the Karnataka region, which is located in the southwest part of the subcontinent. The publication provided neither a date for the test nor information on when the flyback booster, intended to land on a sea platform, might be tested. (submitted by Tfargo04)

Air Force awards small- and medium-payload launches. SpaceX, X-Bow Launch Systems, Northrop Grumman, Firefly Aerospace, United Launch Alliance, Aevum, Vox Space, and Rocket Lab have been selected to provide launch services in the Orbital Services Program-4a $986 million procurement of launch services over nine years, SpaceNews reports. The Air Force said the launch program seeks to capitalize on the emerging small-launch industry.

Balancing technology with risk ... The Air Force's OSP-4 program is designed to accommodate small and medium payloads greater than 400 lbs, and providers have to be able to deliver these payloads to orbit within 12 to 24 months after receiving an order. Col. Rob Bongiovi, director of SMC's Launch Enterprise, said, "The program balances technology, mission risk, and schedule while leveraging rapidly evolving market forces." (submitted by Ken the Bin).


NASA to buy 10 SLS rockets from Boeing. On Wednesday, NASA announced that it is negotiating a contract with Boeing to purchase up to 10 SLS core stages. The news release does not mention costsNASA and Boeing have never been transparent about costs, but certainly production and operations costs for a single SLS launch will be well north of $1 billion. The release also does not mention the mechanism of the contract.

Cost-plus, of course ... A spokesperson for the agency, Kathryn Hambleton, said terms of the contract were not finalized yet. "NASA anticipates the contract will be a hybrid of cost-plus-incentive-fee and cost-plus-award-fee, potentially transitioning to firm-fixed-price," she said. "The cost incentives are designed to reduce costs during early production to enable the lowest possible unit prices for the later fixed-price missions." If it seems remarkable that a government contractor would get a cost-plus contract to produce a rocket that it has had nearly a decade to learn how to build, and which has moved into production, and which is based on heritage technologyit does to us, too.

SpaceX renovating former Falcon 9 test stand. SpaceX is renovating the former Falcon 9 first stage test stand known as the "Tripod" at its McGregor, Texas, test site, NASASpaceflight.com reports. Recent aerial photos show that workers have installed scaffolding near the stand and have removed the large tower formerly used to access stages on the stand. The work is related to converting the stand to test Raptor engines.

Test like you fly ... From 2008 until mid-2015, the Tripod was used to test the nine Merlin engines that went with each Falcon 9 first stage. When SpaceX switched from the Falcon 9 v1.1 to the upgraded Falcon 9 Full Thrust, the company opted to construct a larger, partially underground test stand for the first stages. This solved some of the noise issues with test firings. The Tripod will allow SpaceX to test its Raptor rocket engine in a vertical configuration, letting the company "test like it flies." (submitted by platykurtic)

After a "corrective action," Boeing back at work on SLS. After assembling the core-stage structure in September, two sources familiar with Boeing's work at the factory said the company had to "stand down" operations due to some issues. In a statement, the space agency's headquarters told Ars that "NASA initiated a forward-looking corrective-action request focused on improving the production system in preparation for Core Stage 2 and beyond."

Going horizontal ... It is not clear what triggered the need for a corrective action, but one source suggested to Ars that Boeing technicians are having difficulty attaching the large rocket engines in a horizontal configuration rather than a vertical position. NASA and Boeing made a late change to the final assembly process, deciding to mate pieces of the core stage horizontally rather than vertically to save time. However, this source said horizontal mating of the engines has created problems. Boeing is attempting to complete work on the first SLS core stage by the end of 2019.

Next three launches

Nov. 2: Antares | 13th Cygnus supply mission to the ISS | Wallops Island, Va. | 13:59 UTC

Early Nov.: Falcon 9 | Launch of second batch of 60 Starlink Satellites | Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. | TBD

Nov 22: Ariane 5 | TIBA 1 and Inmarsat 5 F5 communications satellite | Kourou, French Guiana | TBD

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