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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Let’s Talk About Elon Musk’s Submarine

When word first broke that Elon Musk was designing a kid-sized submarine to help rescue the children stuck in Thailand’s Tham Luang cave, it seemed like a logical thing for Hackaday to cover. An eccentric builder of rockets and rocket-launched electric sports cars, pushing his engineering teams and not inconsiderable financial resources into action to save children? All of that talk about Elon being a real life Tony Stark was about to turn from meme into reality; if the gambit paid off, the world might have it’s first true superhero.

With human lives in the balance, and success of the rescue attempt far from assured (regardless of Elon’s involvement), we didn’t feel like playing arm-chair engineer at the time. Everyone here at Hackaday is thankful that due to the heroics of the rescuers, including one who paid the ultimate price, all thirteen lives were saved.

Many said it couldn’t be done, others said even saving half of the children would have been a miracle. But Elon’s submarine, designed and built at a breakneck pace and brought to Thailand while some of the children were still awaiting rescue, laid unused. It wasn’t Elon’s advanced technology that made the rescue possible, it was the tenacity of the human spirit.

Now, with the rescue complete and the children well on their way to returning to their families, one is left wondering about Elon’s submarine. Could it have worked?

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SpaceX’s Next Giant Leap: Second Stage Recovery

With the successful launch of the Bangabandhu-1 satellite on May 11th, the final version of the Falcon 9 rocket has finally become operational. Referred to as the “Block 5”, this version of the rocket is geared specifically towards reuse. The lessons learned from the recovery and reflight of earlier builds of the F9 have culminated into rocket that SpaceX hopes can go from recovery to its next flight in as few as 24 hours. If any rocket will make good on the dream of spaceflight becoming as routine as air travel, it’s going to be the Falcon 9 Block 5.

While there might still be minor tweaks and improvements made to Block 5 over the coming years, it’s safe to say that first stage recovery of the Falcon 9 has been all but perfected. What was once the fodder of campy science fiction, rockets propulsively lowering themselves down from the sky and coming to rest on spindly landing legs that popped out of the sides, is now a reality. More importantly, not only is SpaceX able to bring the towering first stage back from space reliably, they’re able to refuel it, inspect it, and send it back up without having to build a new one for each mission.

But as incredible a technical accomplishment as this is, SpaceX still isn’t recovering the entire Falcon 9 rocket. At best, they have accomplished the same type of partial reusability that the Space Shuttle demonstrated on its first flight all the way back in 1981. Granted they are doing it much faster and cheaper than it was done on the Shuttle, but it still goes against the classic airplane analogy: if you had to replace a huge chunk of the airliner every time it landed, commercial air travel would be completely impractical.

SpaceX has already started experimenting with recovering and reusing the payload fairings of the Falcon 9, and while they haven’t pulled it off yet, they’ll probably get there. That leaves only one piece of the Falcon 9 unaccounted for: the second stage. Bringing the second stage back to Earth in one piece might well be the most challenging aspect of developing the Falcon 9. But if SpaceX can do it, then they’ll have truly developed humanity’s first fully reusable rocket, capable of delivering payloads to space for little more than the cost of fuel.

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Space Garbage Truck Takes Out the Trash

On April 2nd, 2018 a Falcon 9 rocketed skywards towards the International Space Station. The launch itself went off without a hitch, and the Dragon spacecraft delivered its payload of supplies and spare parts. But alongside the usual deliveries, CRS-14 brought a particularly interesting experiment to the International Space Station.

Developed by the University of Surrey, RemoveDEBRIS is a demonstration mission that aims to test a number of techniques for tackling the increasingly serious problem of “space junk”. Earth orbit is filled with old spacecraft and bits of various man-made hardware that have turned some areas of space into a literal minefield. While there have been plenty of ideas floated as to how to handle this growing issue, RemoveDEBRIS will be testing some of these methods under real-world conditions.

The RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft will do this by launching two CubeSats as test targets, which it will then (hopefully) eliminate in a practical demonstration of what’s known as Active Debris Removal (ADR) technology. If successful, these techniques could eventually become standard operating procedure on future missions.

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SpaceX Joins in the Long History of Catching Stuff from Space

On February 22nd, a Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and successfully delivered into orbit an Earth-observation satellite operated by the Spanish company Hisdesat. Compared to the media coverage received by the launch of the Tesla-laden Falcon Heavy earlier in the month, this mission got very little attention. But that’s hardly surprising. With respect to Hisdesat, the payload this time around was not terribly exciting, and even the normally dramatic landing of the Falcon 9’s first stage was skipped in favor of simply allowing the booster to crash into the ocean.

As far as SpaceX launches go, this one was about as low-key as they come. It wouldn’t be a surprise if this is the first time some readers are even hearing about it. But while it didn’t invoke the same media circus as the images of a spacesuit-wearing mannequin traveling into deep space, there was still a historic “first” performed during this mission.

In an effort to increase the re-usability of the Falcon 9 booster, SpaceX attempted to catch the payload fairing (essentially a large protective nose cone) with a huge net as it fell from space. The most interesting thing about this new chapter in the quest for a fully reusable rocket system is that while SpaceX is generally considered to be pioneers in the world of bringing hardware back from space, this particular trick dates all the way back to the 1960’s.

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Hackaday Links: March 28, 2016

[Tom] sent this in to be filed under the ‘not a hack’ category, but it’s actually very interesting. It’s the User’s Guide for the Falcon 9 rocket. It includes all the data necessary to put your payload on a Falcon 9 and send it into space. It’s a freakin’ datasheet for a rocket.

A year ago in Japan (and last week worldwide), Nintendo released Pokkén Tournament, a Pokemon fighting game. This game has a new controller, the Pokkén Tournament Pro Pad. There were a few cost-cutting measures in the production of this game pad, and it looks like this controller was supposed to have force feedback and LEDs. If any Pokemon fans want to take this controller apart and install some LEDs and motors just to see what happens, there’s a Hackaday write up in it for you.

There are a lot of options for slicing 3D objects for filament-based 3D printers. Cura, Slic3r, and MatterControl are easily capable of handing all the slicing needs you’ll ever have for a filament 3D printer. For sterolithography (resin) printers, the options for slicing are limited. [skarab] just put together a new slicer for SLA that runs entirely in JavaScript. If anyone wants to turn a Raspi or BeagleBone into a network controller for a resin printer, here’s your starting point. [skarab] will be working on smoothieboard integration soon.

The STM32F4 is an extremely capable ARM microcontroller. It can do VGA at relatively high resolutions, emulate a Game Boy cartridge, and can serve as the engine control unit in a 1996 Ford Aspire. There’s a lot of computing power here, but only one true litmus test: the STM32F4 can run Doom. [floppes] built this implementation of Doom on the STM32F429 Discovery board to run off of an external USB memory stick. The frame rate is at least as good as what it was back in 1993.

The Oculus Rift has just come to pass, but one lucky consumer got his early. The first person to preorder the Rift, [Ross Martin] of Anchorage, Alaska, got his facehugger directly from [Palmer Luckey] in a PR stunt on Saturday afternoon. Guess what [Ross] is doing with his Rift?

rift