When New Space Loses Out to NASA Pragmatism

You’ve got to admit, things have been going exceptionally well for SpaceX. In the sixteen years they’ve been in operation, they’ve managed to tick off enough space “firsts” to make even established aerospace players blush. They’re the first privately owned company to not only design and launch their own orbital-class rocket, but to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station. The first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket is the world’s only orbital booster capable of autonomous landing and reuse, and their Falcon Heavy has the highest payload capacity of any operational launch system. All of which they’ve managed to do at a significantly lower cost than their competition.

United Launch Alliance Atlas V

So it might come as a surprise to hear that SpaceX recently lost out on a lucrative NASA launch contract to the same entrenched aerospace corporations they’ve been running circles around for the last decade. It certainly seems to have come as a surprise to SpaceX, at least. Their bid to launch NASA’s Lucy mission on the Falcon 9 was so much lower than the nearly $150 million awarded to United Launch Alliance (ULA) for a flight on their Atlas V that the company has decided to formally protest the decision. Publicly questioning a NASA contract marks another “first” for the company, and a sign that SpaceX’s confidence in their abilities has reached the point that they’re no longer content to be treated as a minor player compared to heavyweights like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

But this isn’t the first time NASA has opted to side with more established partners, even in the face of significantly lower bids by “New Space” companies. Their decision not to select Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spaceplane for the Commercial Crew program in 2014, despite it being far cheaper than Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, triggered a similar protest to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). In the end, the GAO determined that Boeing’s experience and long history justified the higher sticker price of their spacecraft compared to the relative newcomer.

NASA has yet to officially explain their decision to go with ULA over SpaceX for the Lucy mission, but in light of what we know about the contract, it seems a safe bet they’ll tell SpaceX the same thing they told Sierra Nevada in 2014. The SpaceX bid might be lower, but in the end, NASA’s is willing to pay more to know it will get done right. Which begs the question: at what point are the cost savings not compelling enough to trust an important scientific mission (or human lives) to these rapidly emerging commercial space companies?

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Atlas is Back with Some New Moves

Atlas is back, and this time he’s got some sweet parkour moves to show off. Every few months, Boston Dynamics gives us a tantalizing glimpse into their robotics development labs. They must be doing something right, as these videos never fail both to amaze and scare us. This time Atlas, Boston Dynamics humanoid bipedal robot, is doing a bit of light parkour — jumping over a log and from box to box. The Atlas we’re seeing here is the evolution of the same robot we saw at the DARPA Robotics Challenge back in 2013.

The video caption mentions that Atlas is using machine vision to analyze the position of markers on the obstacles. It can then plot the most efficient path over the obstructions. The onboard control system then takes over and uses Atlas’ limbs and torso for balance and momentum as the robot jumps up and over everything in its path.

It’s interesting to see how smoothly Atlas jumps the offset staircase, leaping left to right from step to step. The jumping is extremely smooth and fluid — it seems almost human.  You can even see Atlas’ let foot just barely clear the box on the second jump. We have to wonder how many times Atlas fell while the software was being perfected.

One thing is for sure, logs and boxes may slow down zombies, but they won’t help anymore when the robot uprising starts.

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Hitching a Ride on a Missile

Before the Saturn V rocket carried men to the moon, a number of smaller rockets carried men on suborbital and orbital flights around the Earth. These rockets weren’t purpose-built for this task, though. In fact, the first rockets that carried people into outer space were repurposed ballistic missiles, originally designed to carry weapons.

While it might seem like an arduous task to make a ballistic missile safe enough to carry a human, the path from a weapons delivery system to passenger vehicle was remarkably quick. Although there was enough safety engineering and redundancy to disqualify the space program as a hack, it certainly was a clever repurposing of the available technology. Read on for the full story.

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Taking Atlas For a Walk

Remember Atlas, the humanoid robot from Boston Dynamics? The company bought by Google, er, owned by Alphabet, and uh, most likely to become Skynet? Well — they’ve just shown us that Atlas can take a light jog through the woods now.

Published on YouTube a few days ago, Boston Dynamics gave a quick presentation on some of the upgrades the company has been working on for their bots. First up is a demonstration of Big Dog’s new appendage… What looks like an elephant trunk with a prosthetic hand on the end. Big Dog can now leave the testing lab any time he wants — door knobs are no longer an obstacle. Considering its been able to traverse extremely rough terrain for years now, this doesn’t bode well…

Atlas on the other hand has also come a long way. From standing on his own for the first time back in 2013, he moved quickly to being hit with medicine balls (and not falling over!) — and now, he can run outside. Luckily they haven’t quite figured out the battery pack solution yet… Video of his outdoor escapades after the break.

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Retrotechtacular: The First Atlas Launch

As the Cold War conflict expanded in the 1950s, the Soviet Union dry-tested a hydrogen bomb and defense tactics became a top priority for the United States. Seeking to create a long-range nuclear missile option, the Air Force contracted Convair Astronautics to deliver SM-65 Atlas, the first in series of ICBMs. In the spotlight this week is a sort of video progress report which shows the first launch from Cape Canaveral’s LC-14 on June 11, 1957.

After the angle of attack probe is unsheathed, everyone moves out of the way. The launch is being monitored by base central control, but the swingin’ spot to spectate is the blockhouse. They have a periscope and everything. As the countdown continues, liquid oxygen pipelines whistle and wail into the idyllic Florida afternoon with the urgency of a thousand teakettles. Cameras and tracking equipment are readied, and the blockhouse’s blast door is sealed up tight.

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Atlas Survives the Wrecking Ball

[Boston Dynamics] has been just full of videos over the last few days. They’ve dropped updates on Atlas and LS3 in addition to the WildCat update we already featured.

This video shows updates to the Atlas robot. This is to be a simplified version of the atlas, as compared to the robots sent off to competitors in the DARPA robotics challenge. Arms have been replaced with weights. It appears that this update focuses on Atlas’ balancing and handling on rough terrain. Atlas walks gingerly, over some crushed cinder blocks – possibly the same ones we saw BigDog throwing around recently. There are a few tense moments, but Atlas manages to get through unscathed.

The real scary part (for us) is watching Atlas get hit with a weighted ball. We’re assuming the 20 on the ball indicates pounds. Imagine getting hit from the side with a 20lb swinging weight. Would you be able to stand up? Did we mention Atlas did this all while standing on one foot? Atlas takes it in stride though – waving its arms to maintain balance in a very human manner.  Notable is the balance system. Atlas never lifts its foot off the ground. This is slightly different from the bouncing/hopping system of balance we’ve come to know and love in [Boston Dynamics’] other robots.  Continue reading “Atlas Survives the Wrecking Ball”

ATLAS powered rope ascender gen 3


This last weekend we got a chance to check out ATLAS Devices‘ latest version of their powered rope ascender. You probably saw their first generation device in the news earlier in the year. It was originally built for a design competition, but they’re now on generation 3. The earliest version used a capstan style winder, but newer versions have a far more simple/elegant design. The original had a ton of thrust and needle bearings that were hard to keep in adjustment. The new design is lighter, less abrasive to the rope, and easier to use.

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