The Atlas family of rockets have been a mainstay of America’s space program since the dawn of the Space Age, when unused SM-65 Atlas intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were refurbished and assigned more peaceful pursuits. Rather than lobbing thermonuclear warheads towards the Soviets, these former weapons of war carried the first American astronauts into orbit, helped build the satellite constellations that our modern way of life depends on, and expanded our knowledge of the solar system and beyond.
Naturally, the Atlas V that’s flying today looks nothing like the squat stainless steel rocket that carried John Glenn to orbit in 1962. Aerospace technology has evolved by leaps and bounds over the last 60 years, but by carrying over the lessons learned from each generation, the modern Atlas has become one of the most reliable orbital boosters ever flown. Since its introduction in 2002, the Atlas V has maintained an impeccable 100% success rate over 85 missions.
But as they say, all good things must come to an end. After more than 600 launches, United Launch Alliance (ULA) has announced that the final mission to fly on an Atlas has been booked. Between now and the end of the decade, ULA will fly 28 more missions on this legendary booster. By the time the last one leaves the pad the company plans to have fully transitioned to their new Vulcan booster, with the first flights of this next-generation vehicle currently scheduled for 2022.
Former Ferranti Electric engineer [Martin Mallinson] recently posted a 1980s documentary on YouTube (see the video below the break). It shows in some detail the semiconductor plant at Gem Mill outside of Manchester UK, as seen through the eyes of the ghost of founder Dr. Sebastian Ferranti. This dramatic device seems a little silly at times, but the documentary still provides a very interesting look at the industry at the time.
The Gem Mill plant was one of the first semiconductor facilities, having begun operations in the 1950s by Ferranti. In 1959 they made the first European silicon diode, and went on to commercialize Uncommitted Logic Arrays (ULA) in the early 1980s. Most famously, Ferranti ULAs were used in many home computers of the day, such as the Sinclair ZX81 and ZX Spectrum, Acorn Electron, and the BBC Micro. Much of the factory tour in this documentary is depicting the ULA process, and they hint at an even more advanced technology being developed by the (unnamed) competition — an FPGA? CPLD?
In a series of events worthy of a mystery novel, Ferranti finally closed its doors in 1993 after acquiring a company that was involved with clandestine agencies and illegal arms sales (see Ferranti on Wikipedia). But through a series of acquisitions over the years, many of their products outlived the company and were available under the labels of future owners Plessey, Zetex, and finally Diodes, Inc. The Gem Mill facility was decommissioned in 2004 and in 2008 it was demolished and replaced by a housing estate.
Thanks to [Cogidubnus Rex] for bringing this video to our attention. A couple of other Ferranti documentaries of the same era are also included down below the break.
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.
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?