Space Sunday: SpaceX, Virgin, Blue Origin and HST updates

SpaceX: the orbital launch facilities under construction at Starbase, Boca Chica, Texas, as the 7th section of the launch support tower is hoisted into place. Credit: Bocachicagal / NASASpaceFlight.com

SpaceX are driving ahead with preparations for their first Starship / Super Heavy orbital flight – although whether the company will achieve the goal of making the launch prior to the end of July 2021, as recently re-stated by company president and COO Gwynne Shotwell – would seem unlikely at this point in time.

Following the successful flight of Starship SN15 on May 5th, 2021, the company has taken a step back from medium and high-altitude test flights to focus on tasks that are core to that first orbital attempt, with the on-going construction of the orbital launch facilities and fabrication of both Starship prototype SN20 that will attempt the flight, and the Super Heavy booster that will lift it into the sky.

However, as recently announced by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, that booster will not be the unit everyone had been watching so keenly through its assembly at the company’s Starbase facilities at Boca Chica, Texas.  That honour will now go to Booster 4, still under construction.

A comparison between the sea-level Raptor engine (l) and the vacuum Raptor with its much larger exhaust bell (r). Three of each will be used to power orbital Starships, and 12 sea-level and sixteen vacuum motors will initially power Super Heavy boosters, rising to 16 of each as booster development progresses. Credit: SpaceX

Instead, Booster 3 (originally called BN3 for “Booster Number 3”, then re-designated in June as BN2 before undergoing a further change to its current designation) is to be used for further ground tests. These tests will, according to Musk, directly impact the internal design of Booster 4; if so, this would likely make any orbital flight attempt within the next month even more unlikely.

As I reported in Space Sunday: Selfies, Missions, Budgets and Rockets, a smaller section of a Super Heavy, designated BN2.1 has already completed cryogenic and hydraulic pressure tests designed to test thrust puck / tank integrity, and the tests with Booster 3 will expand on these. To this end, following the BN2.1 test mount was relocated to Orbital Test Stand A, one of the two launch stands previously used for Starship flight tests. Then, on July 1st, and with the rig in place and ready to receive it, Booster 3 was rolled out of the fabrication facility and driven the two(ish) kilometres down the road to the launch area and then lifted onto the stand.

In the coming weeks, the booster – currently without any Raptor engines mounted on it – will likely be put through various proof tests using both liquid nitrogen and actual fuel loads to check the overall structural integrity of the entire design. Some have suggested that these tests might see the booster fitted with a group of sea-level Raptor engines (the test stand doesn’t allow for mounting the vacuum engines) for a static fire test. However, if Booster 4 is to be substantially different to Booster 3, then such a test could be of questionable value; thus, others have speculated that Booster 3 might actually be pressure tested to destruction using liquid nitrogen, as was seen during early tank tests with partial builds of the Starship.

The 65-metre tall Booster 3 test article being moved from the Boca Chica fabrication facilities to the test and launch facilities, July 1st, 2021. Credit: NASASpaceFlight.com

In the meantime, the orbital launch stand is under construction in two parts: the base of the stand and the massive launch table that will sit on top of it to actually mount and hold a Super Heavy booster and Starship prior to launch. Alongside the launch stand base is the massive support tower that has been rising section-by-section into the Texas sky, and which is now awaiting the hoisting and fitting of its uppermost section, which will eventually mount the crane that will lift and stack boosters and Starships onto the launch table.

Whilst at an advanced stage of construction, the tower still needs a lot of fitting-out with the infrastructure required to support a launch. Similarly, construction on the staging areas where boosters and Starships moved down to the launch facilities from the fabrication and assembly area will be placed prior to being stacked for a launch, has only just started – although this could be completed in relatively short order.

Just across from these staging areas, the fuel tank farm comprising 7 tanks that will house the fuel stocks need to fuel both Starship and booster ahead of a launch and a large water tank that will provide the massive volume of water required for the sound suppression system, also has some way to go before all 7 fuel tanks are in place and covered by their insulation sleeves, and it is not clear how much of the supporting infrastructure needed to deliver fuel and water to the launch pad has actually been implemented.

SpaceX orbital launch facilities construction: left – The base of the launch support tower with the angled ring of the launch table support structure just in front of it. Centre: the square foundations of the staging platforms for Super Heavy (uppermost) and Starship. Lower right: the fuel tank farm – the metal tanks are for housing liquid oxygen and liquid methane, the grey tank behind them is a fuel tank sheathed by an insulation tank designed to contain liquid nitrogen to help keep the fuel stocks in a liquid state, while the large grey tank to the left is the water tank for the launch sound suppression system. Credit: RGV Aerial Photography

One aspect of the facilities starting to come on-stream is the generator farm that will be used to produce liquid oxygen for launches directly from the air around them. With five of the 10 massive generators now commissioned, this farm will eventually power a process called air liquefaction, a process that splits air into nitrogen, argon and oxygen, cooling them to liquid states. The liquid oxygen will then be pumped to the nearby tank farm to be used to fuel Starships and Super Heavy boosters, and the liquid nitrogen will be used to cool the liquid oxygen and liquid a methane  stored with the tank farm and keep them in their liquid state.

Virgin and Blue Origin Updates

Virgin Orbit has completed its first commercial air-launch, delivering a payload of seven small satellites successfully to orbit. Entitled “Tubular Bells Part One”, in recognition of the 1973 album by Sir Mike Oldfield and which arguably launched what would become the Virgin empire.

The company’s 747 carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at 13:50 UTC on Wednesday, June 30th to climb to an altitude of 50km, heading out over the Pacific Ocean. On reaching a point some 80km south of the Channel Islands, the aircraft released the LauncherOne rocket, allowing it to drop clear before igniting its motor and accelerating to orbit.

Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl with the Tubular Bells Part One LauncherOne rocket mounted under its wing, being prepared for flight in the early hours of June 30th Credit: Virgin Orbit

On board the rocket was a combined payload of four R&D CubeSats for the US Department of Defence, two optical satellites for SatRevolution, and the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s first military satellite, all of which were successfully deployed from the rocket some two hours after Cosmic Girl took off.

The wonderful thing about Virgin Orbit is that it literally can help transform people’s lives around the world. It can put satellites up to monitor illegal fishing, check on climate change, check on the ozone layer, connect the three billion people who are not connected. And the fact we can do it from anywhere in the world … to any orbit, is unique.

– Sir Richard Branson

Following that success, on July 1st, Virgin Galactic announced that July 11th will see the first test flight for SpaceShipTwo since the company was granted an update to the vehicle’s FAA licence allowing them to start flying fare-paying passengers later in the year, a flight will see the vehicle fly with both crew and four passengers – three members of the Virgin Galactic team, and company founder Sir Richard Branson.

Whilst not carrying fare-paying passengers, as will be the case with the upcoming Blue Origin sub-orbital flight on July 20th, the Virgin Galactic flight will mean that Branson will beat Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos in making a sub-orbital flight and gaining his astronaut wings.

Once lifted to around 15-16 km attitude by its mothership, the MSS Eve, the VSS Unity will be released to power itself up to around 80-85 km altitude in a 10-minute flight during which those on board will experience between 2 and 3 minutes of micro-gravity before the vehicle makes an unpowered return to Earth to land like a conventional aircraft.

The crew of the July 11th Virgin Galactic test flight. From left: Chief Pilot Dave Mackay, Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett, Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses, Founder of Virgin Galactic Richard Branson, Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations Sirisha Bandla and pilot Michael Masucci. Credit: Virgin Galactic

This 10-minute element of the flight by VSS Unity mirrors the overall flight time for the Blue Origin New Shepherd booster and capsule that will lift Bezos, his brother and an unnamed passenger who paid US $28 million to be the first fare-paying passenger flown by the company.

Also aboard that flight, which will take place on July 20th, will be a very special guest passenger: one other than “Wally” Funk.

Born in 1939, as Mary Wallace Funk, “Wally” is a remarkable woman. Obtaining her pilot’s licence when just 20 years of age, she was the first female civilian flight instructor training military pilots, the first female Federal Aviation Agency inspector, and the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. Most particularly in this instance, she was one of the Mercury 13 group – more formally, the “Women in Space” Programme founded in 1960 by William Randolph Lovelace, a former NASA flight surgeon.

1995: seven of the “Mercury 13” were guests of Elieen Collins, the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, at the launch of that mission, STS-63. From left to right: Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. Credit: NASA via AP

Whilst lacking official government funding, but supported by NASA, the programme saw 25 women between the ages of 25 and 40 including Funk – despite the fact she was below the minimum age for consideration) – invited to take part in astronaut training. Of the 19 who enrolled, 13 graduated, with Funk the third best in the group and actually out-performing John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, in some of the tests.

Although the term “Mercury 13” is often credited with being applied by the press at the time, the 13 women were actually known as FLATS – First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATS), although none actually ever flew into space. The term “Mercury 13” itself was first used by Hollywood producer James Cross in 1995 when comparing the 13 to the original Mercury Seven.

Wally Funk qualified as a pilot at the age of 20. She went on to become a civilian instructor of US military pilots, and gained more that 1,000 hours as an instructor on a range of aircraft. She earned her Airline Transport Rating in 1968, and became the first female FAA field examiner in 1971. Credit: unknown, via Blue Origin

Although she never flew into space as a part of any US programme, Funk has remained highly supportive of NASA and actually purchased a ticket to fly with Virgin Galactic when they start fare-paying flights later this year. However, in what might well have been a deliberate poke at Branson and his company, Bezos invited Funk to join his July 20th flight as his “honoured guest”.

“I’ll love every second of it. Whoooo! Ha-ha. I can hardly wait! Nothing has ever gotten in my way. They said, ‘Well, you’re a girl, you can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Guess what, doesn’t matter what you are. You can still do it if you want to do it and I like to do things that nobody has ever done.

– Wally Funk

While she will not orbit the Earth, in making the trip aboard New Shepherd, Funk will nevertheless become the oldest person to date to fly in space beating – again – John Glenn, who was 77 when he flew on the shuttle Discovery in 1988.

Hubble Update: NASA taking a “Careful and Deliberate” Approach

NASA is taking a slow and deliberate approach to restoring science operations on the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been out of service since mid-June when a payload computer malfunctioned.

As I noted in my previous Space Sunday update, attempts to find the source of the issue were shifting away from the payload computer itself and towards two other components in the telescope – the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter (CU/SDF) and the primary power regulator circuits.

Further testing of both units during the week has led NASA to the decision to switch either or both the CU/SDF and the power regulator to their back-ups – but they will do so slowly. over the course of the next week or so.

The first part of this work will be a review of the procedures for making the switch-overs will be reviewed to determine if any updates need to be made in respect of the telescope’s age and changes it has seen over the years. Once reviewed, the procedures will then be tested on a “high-fidelity simulator” to ensure their suitability for active use. Then as a final step, a decision will be made one switching over one or both of the CU/SDF and power regulators, and the procedures implemented.

I have given the team very clear direction that returning Hubble safely to service and not unintentionally doing any harm to the system is the highest priority, not speed. They’re being very deliberate in their analysis and their choices of what they do. There’s two layers of review of all the procedures they come up [with]. Although we’re all impatient to have Hubble back taking science, the highest priority is to be very careful and deliberate and not rush.

– Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division