The reports of the death of automotive AM radio may have been greatly exaggerated. Regular readers will recall us harping on the issue of automakers planning to exclude AM from the infotainment systems in their latest offerings, which doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense given the reach of AM radio and its importance in public emergencies. US lawmakers apparently agree with that position, having now introduced a bipartisan bill to require AM radios in cars. The “AM for Every Vehicle Act” will direct the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to draw up regulations requiring every vehicle operating on US highways to be able to receive AM broadcasts without additional fees or subscriptions. That last bit is clever, since it prevents automakers from charging monthly fees as they do for heated seats and other niceties. It’s just a bill now, of course, and stands about as much chance of becoming law as anything else that makes sense does, so we’re not holding our breath on this one. But at least someone recognizes that AM radio still has a valid use case.
More fallout for SpaceX this week after their Starship launch attempt, but of the legal kind rather than concrete and rebar. A handful of environmental groups filed the suit, alleging that the launch generated “intense heat, noise, and light that adversely affects surrounding habitat areas and communities, which included designated critical habitat for federally protected species as well as National Wildlife Refuge and State Park lands,” in addition to “scatter[ing] debris and ash over a large area.”
Specifics of this energetic launch aside, we always wondered about the choice of Boca Chica for a launch facility. Yes, it has all the obvious advantages, like a large body of water directly to the east and being at a relatively low latitude. But the whole area is a wildlife sanctuary, and from what we understand there are still people living pretty close to the launch facility. Then again, you could pretty much say the same thing about the Cape Canaveral and Cape Kennedy complex, which probably couldn’t be built today. Amazing how a Space Race will grease the wheels of progress.
Cloudy with a chance of concrete? The “success” of last week’s brief but eventful Starship launch has apparently raised some regulatory eyebrows, with the Federal Aviation Administration launching an investigation into the destruction wrought by the mighty rocket. And it’s not just the hapless Dodge Caravan that they’re concerned with — although we found some fantastic POV footage that shows the kill shot as well as close-ups of the results — but also the damage rained down upon residents around the Boca Chica launch complex. Tons of concrete and rebar were excavated by the 33 Raptor engines during the launch and sent in all directions, reportedly landing up to 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the pad. What’s worse, a lot of debris ended up on beaches that are home to endangered species, which has the Sierra Club also taking an interest. The FAA has apparently nixed any launches from the Texas facility until they complete their investigation.
Last week, I wrote about NASA’s technology demonstrator projects, and how they’ve been runaway successes – both the Mars rovers and the current copter came from such experimental beginnings. I argued that letting some spirit of experimentation into an organization like NASA is probably very fruitful from time to time.
And then a few days later, we saw SpaceX blow up a rocket and completely shred its launch platform in the process. Or maybe it was the other way around, because it looks like the concrete thrown up by the exhaust may have run into the engines, causing the damage that would lead to the vehicle spinning out of control. SpaceX was already working on an alternative launch pad using water-cooled steel, but it ran what it had. They’re calling the mission a success because of what they learned, but it’s clearly a qualified success. They’ll rebuild and try again.
In comparison, the other US-funded rocket run by Boeing, the SLS suffered years of delays, cost tremendous amounts of money, and has half the lift of SpaceX’s Super Heavy. But it made it to space. Science was done, many of the CubeSats onboard got launched, the unmanned capsule orbited the moon, and splashed down safely back on earth. They weren’t particularly taking any big risks, but they got the job done.
The lore around SpaceX is that they’re failing forward to success. And it’s certainly true that they’ve got their Falcon 9 platform down to a routine, at a lower cost per launch than was ever before possible, and that their pace has entirely shaken up the conservative space industry. They’ll probably get there with their Starship / Super Heavy too. SLS was an old-school rocket, and they had boring old flame diverters on their launch pad, which means that SLS will never take off from Mars. On the other hand, one of the two systems has put a payload around the Moon.
Maybe there’s something to be said for thinking inside the box from time to time as well?
Mark it on your calendars, folks — this is the week that the term RUD has entered the public lexicon. Sure, most of our community already knows the acronym for “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” and realizes its tongue-in-cheek nature. But given that the term has been used by Elon Musk and others to describe the ignominious end of the recent Starship test flight, it seems like RUD will catch on in the popular press. But while everyone’s attention was focused on the spectacular results of manually activating Starship’s flight termination system to end its by-then uncontrolled flight at a mere 39 km, perhaps the more interesting results of the launch were being seen in and around the launch pad on Boca Chica. That’s where a couple of hundred tons of pulverized reinforced concrete rained down, turned to slag and dust by the 33 Raptor engines on the booster. A hapless Dodge Caravan seemed to catch the worst of the collateral damage, but the real wrath of those engines was focused on the Orbital Launch Mount, which now has a huge crater under it.
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.
But that changed earlier this month, when a helicopter successfully caught one of Rocket Lab’s Electron boosters in midair as it fell back down to Earth under a parachute. While calling the two companies outright competitors might be a stretch given the relative sizes and capabilities of their boosters, SpaceX finally has a sparing partner when it comes to the science of reusability. The Falcon 9 has already smashed the Space Shuttle’s record turnaround time, but perhaps Rocket Lab will be the first to achieve Elon Musk’s stated goal of re-flying a rocket within 24 hours of its recovery.