When NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station have to clamber around on the outside of the orbiting facility for maintenance or repairs, they don a spacesuit known as the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU). Essentially a small self-contained spacecraft in its own right, the bulky garment was introduced in 1981 to allow Space Shuttle crews to exit the Orbiter and work in the craft’s cavernous cargo bay. While the suits did get a minor upgrade in the late 90s, they remain largely the product of 1970s technology.
Not only are the existing EMUs outdated, but they were only designed to be use in space — not on the surface. With NASA’s eyes on the Moon, and eventually Mars, it was no secret that the agency would need to outfit their astronauts with upgraded and modernized suits before moving beyond the ISS. As such, development of what would eventually be the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) dates back to at least 2005 when it was part of the ultimately canceled Constellation program.
Unfortunately, after more than a decade of development and reportedly $420 million in development costs, the xEMU still isn’t ready. With a crewed landing on the Moon still tentatively scheduled for 2025, NASA has decided to let their commercial partners take a swing at the problem, and has recently awarded contracts to two companies for a spacesuit that can both work on the Moon and replace the aging EMU for orbital use on the ISS.
As part of the Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS) contract, both companies will be given the data collected during the development of the xEMU, though they are expected to create new designs rather than a copy of what NASA’s already been working on. Inspired by the success of the Commercial Crew program that gave birth to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the contract also stipulates that the companies will retain complete ownership and control over the spacesuits developed during the program. In fact, NASA is even encouraging the companies to seek out additional commercial customers for the finished suits in hopes a competitive market will help drive down costs.
There’s no denying that NASA’s partnerships with commercial providers has paid off for cargo and crew, so it stands to reason that they’d go back to the well for their next-generation spacesuit needs. There’s also plenty of incentive for the companies to deliver a viable product, as the contact has a potential maximum value of $3.5 billion. But with 2025 quickly approaching, and the contact requiring a orbital shakedown test before the suits are sent to the Moon, the big question is whether or not there’s still enough time for either company to make it across the finish line.
We’ve all marveled at the videos of SpaceX rockets returning to their point of origin and landing on their spindly deployable legs, looking for all the world like something pulled from a 1950s science fiction film. On countless occasions founder Elon Musk and president Gwynne Shotwell have extolled the virtues of reusable rockets, such as lower operating cost and the higher reliability that comes with each booster having a flight heritage. At this point, even NASA feels confident enough to fly their missions and astronauts on reused SpaceX hardware.
Even so, SpaceX’s reusability program has remained an outlier, as all other launch providers have stayed the course and continue to offer only expendable booster rockets. Competitors such as United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin have teased varying degrees of reusability for their future vehicles, but to date have nothing to show for it beyond some flashy computer-generated imagery. All the while SpaceX continues to streamline their process, reducing turnaround time and refurbishment costs with each successful reuse of a Falcon 9 booster.
In an era where anyone with deep enough pockets can hitch a ride to the edge of space and back, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Axiom’s Ax-1 mission to the International Space Station was little more than a pleasure cruise for the four crew members. Granted it’s a higher and faster flight than the suborbital hops that the likes of William Shatner and Jeff Bezos have been embarking on, but surely it must still be little more than a publicity stunt organized by folks with more money than they know what to do with?
Thankfully, there’s a bit more to it than that. While the mission was privately funded, the Ax-1 crew weren’t just orbital sightseers. For one thing, there was plenty of real-world experience packed into the SpaceX Dragon: the mission was commanded by Michael López-Alegría, a veteran NASA astronaut, and crew members Larry Connor and Eytan Stibbe are both accomplished pilots, with the latter clocking in thousands of hours on various fighter jets during his time with the Israeli Air Force.
But more importantly, they had work to do. Each member of the crew was assigned a list of experiments they were to conduct, ranging from medical observations to the testing of new hardware. Of course there was some downtime — after all, if you spent $50 million on a ticket to space, you’d expect to have at least a little fun — but this wasn’t just a photo op: Axiom was looking for results. There was no hiding from the boss either, as López-Alegría is not just the Mission Commander, he’s also Axiom’s Vice President of Business Development.
Which makes sense when you consider the company’s ultimate goal is to use the ISS as a springboard to accelerate the development of their own commercial space station. The data collected during Ax-1 is going to be critical to Axiom’s path forward, and with their first module already under construction and expected to launch by 2025, there’s no time to waste.
So what did the crew members of the this privately funded mission to the International Space Station accomplish? Let’s take a look at a few of the more interesting entries from the docket.
It’s often said that the wheels of government turn slowly, and perhaps nowhere is this on better display than at NASA. While it seems like every week we hear about another commercial space launch or venture, projects helmed by the national space agency are often mired by budget cuts and indecisiveness from above. It takes a lot of political will to earmark tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars on a project that could take decades to complete, and not every occupant of the White House has been willing to stake their reputation on such bold ambitions.
In 2019, when Vice President Mike Pence told a cheering crowd at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center that the White House was officially tasking NASA with returning American astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2024, everyone knew it was an ambitious timeline. But not one without precedent. The speech was a not-so-subtle allusion to President Kennedy’s famous 1962 declaration at Rice University that America would safely land a man on the Moon before the end of the decade, a challenge NASA was able to meet with fewer than six months to spare.
Unfortunately, a rousing speech will only get you so far. Without a significant boost to the agency’s budget, progress on the new Artemis lunar program was limited. To further complicate matters, less than a year after Pence took the stage in Huntsville, there was a new President in the White House. While there was initially some concern that the Biden administration would axe the Artemis program as part of a general “house cleaning”, it was allowed to continue under newly installed NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. The original 2024 deadline, at this point all but unattainable due to delays stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, has quietly been abandoned.
So where are we now? Is NASA in 2022 any closer to returning humanity to the Moon than they were in 2020 or even 2010? While it might not seem like it from an outsider’s perspective, a close look at some of the recent Artemis program milestones and developments show that the agency is at least moving in the right direction.
We’ve all heard it said, and it bears repeating: getting to space is hard. But it actually gets even harder the smaller your booster is. That’s because the structure, engines, avionics, and useful payload of a rocket only make up a tiny portion of its liftoff mass, while the rest is dedicated to the propellant it must expend to reach orbital velocity. That’s why a Falcon 9 tipping the scales at 549,054 kilograms (1,207,920 pounds) can only loft a payload of 22,800 kg (50,265 lb) — roughly 4% of its takeoff weight.
As you might imagine, there’s a lower limit where there simply isn’t enough mass in the equation for the hardware necessary to build a fully functional rocket. But where is that limit? That’s precisely what aerospace newcomer Astra is trying to find out. Their Rocket 3 is among the smallest orbital boosters to ever fly, closer in size and mass to the German V2 of World War II than the towering vehicles being built by SpaceX or Blue Origin. Even the Rocket Lab Electron, itself an exceptionally svelte rocket, is considerably larger.
The reason they’re trying to build such a small rocket is of course very simple: smaller means cheaper. Assuming you’ve got a payload light and compact enough to fit on their launcher, Astra says they can put it into orbit for roughly $2.5 million USD; less than half the cost of a dedicated flight aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron, and competitive with SpaceX’s “rideshare” program. Such a low ticket price would have been unfathomable a decade ago, and promises to shake up an already highly competitive commercial launch market. But naturally, Astra has to get the thing flying reliably before we can celebrate this new spaceflight milestone.
Their latest mission ended in a total loss of the vehicle and payload when the upper stage tumbled out of control roughly three minutes after an otherwise perfect liftoff from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Such issues aren’t uncommon for a new orbital booster, and few rockets in history have entered regular service without a lost payload or two on the books. But this failure, broadcast live over the Internet, was something quite unusual: because of the unconventional design of Astra’s diminutive rocket, the upper stage appeared to get stuck inside the booster after the payload fairing failed to open fully.
By any metric you care to use, this is a very exciting time for America’s space program. NASA is refocusing their efforts towards the Moon and beyond, SpaceX is launching routine crew and cargo flights to the International Space Station with reusable rockets, and if you’ve got deep enough pockets, there are now multiple companies offering suborbital pleasure trips requiring little more than a few hours worth of training. It’s taken longer than many people had hoped, but it seems we’re finally making the confident strides necessary to truly utilize space’s vast resources.
But things are just getting started. A new generation of massive reusable rockets are currently being developed, which promise to make access to space cheaper and faster than ever before. We’ve seen quite a bit of SpaceX’s Starship, thanks in no small part to the dramatic test flights that the media-savvy company has been regularly live streaming to YouTube. But Blue Origin, founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, has been far more secretive about their New Glenn. That is, until now.
On November 8th, Blue Origin rolled out their GS1 simulator for the New Glenn’s first stage. This stand-in for the real rocket will never fly, but it’s designed to perfectly recreate the dimensions, center of gravity, and mass, of the real thing. Ground teams will use the GS1 to practice safely transporting the booster, which is approximately half the length of the Saturn V, from their production facility to Launch Complex 36 (LC-36) at Cape Canaveral. It will also be used to test the fit and function of various pieces of ground support equipment, and eventually, the second stage stacking procedure.
For the uninitiated, it might seem like this is a lot of fuss over what’s ultimately just a hollow metal tube. But the introduction of a test article such as this has traditionally been a major milestone during the design and construction of rockets and spacecraft, dating back to the “boilerplate” test capsules used during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs; a sure sign that what was just an idea is now becoming a reality.
There’s a lot of expense in what telephone companies call “the last mile” — delivering service from the main trunks to your home or business. StarLink wants to avoid that cost by connecting you via an array of low-orbit satellites and some users are already using the service. In Belgium, [Lennert Wouters] managed to dump the terminal’s firmware and has some interesting observations.
The teardown is actually more than just a firmware dump. His “level 1” teardown involves exposing the board. This can be tricky because there are apparently different versions of the terminal out already, so advice from one source might not match your hardware, and that was the case here.