Rocket Report: SpaceX to build huge launch tower, Branson sells Virgin stock

New Shepard crew capsule is seen landing in West Texas.
Enlarge / New Shepard crew capsule is seen landing in West Texas.
Blue Origin

Welcome to Edition 3.41 of the Rocket Report! As always there is plenty of news in the world of launch, and this week we have several stories about heavy lift vehicles. Perhaps most interesting, SpaceX has received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to press ahead with construction of a large tower for its Starship launch System.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Blue Origin completes final step before crew mission. On Wednesday morning, in West Texas, Blue Origin flew its New Shepard-15 mission on a suborbital flight to test its vehicle for passengers. Two people even climbed into the vehicle before the launch to test the ingress procedures, but they exited before the launch took place. The mission was another success, with both the booster and capsule making a feathery landing.

Time for humans … It’s widely expected that the company’s next flight will carry at least two, if not more, passengers. The autonomous New Shepard capsule has seating for six people. Asked about this possibility, a spokeswoman for the company told Ars, “No specifics to share today, but stay tuned. We’ll fly when we’re ready.” That sounds like a ‘yes’ to us. Furthermore, Ariane Cornell, director of astronaut sales for the company, seemed to let the cat out of the bag before correcting herself during the webcast on Wednesday. Then, on Wednesday evening, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos posted a photo of the rocket on Instagram with a two-word note: “It’s time.”

Rocket Lab to recover booster on next flight. In May, the company will launch its 20th Electron mission, deploying two Earth-observation satellites for BlackSky. (The mission has the delightful name, “Running Out of Toes.”) After this launch, the Electron’s first stage will attempt to make a controlled reentry through Earth’s atmosphere. For the second time, after its first experimental attempt last November, Rocket Lab will seek to fish this first stage out of the Pacific Ocean to assess how well its performed during atmospheric reentry.

Seeking to validate reentry data … “The ‘Running Out of Toes’ mission is designed to validate the findings from the first recovery mission and to test updated systems including the new advanced heat shield,” the company said. Eventually, Rocket Lab plans to “grab” the first stage before it falls into the ocean, using a helicopter. This attempt may happen later in 2021, depending on how further tests go. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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Richard Branson sells Virgin Galactic stock. The founder of Virgin Galactic, who helped take the company public in 2019, sold more than $150 million worth of the company’s stock over the past three days, a securities filing on Wednesday revealed. Branson, and four entities he controls including Virgin Group, sold 5,584,000 shares of Virgin Galactic between April 12 and 14, CNBC reports. Virgin Group remains the largest shareholder in Virgin Galactic, with a 24 percent stake.

Propping up other businesses … “Virgin intends to use the net proceeds from this sale to support its portfolio of global leisure, holiday and travel businesses that continue to be affected by the unprecedented impact of COVID-19, in addition to supporting the development and growth of new and existing businesses,” Virgin Group said. Branson’s sale comes a month after Virgin Galactic Chairman Chamath Palihapitiya sold his remaining personal stake in the company.

Isar Aerospace will launch from Norway. Isar Aerospace has reached a deal to lease a launch pad on Andøya Island for 20 years, Sifted reports. The Germany based rocket company is developing a small satellite launch vehicle capable of launching about 1 metric ton to low-Earth orbit. Isar is targeting an initial launch in 2022 for this Spectrum rocket. Located at a latitude of 69 degrees North, the Norway site is well suited for polar and Sun-synchronous launches.

An exclusive lease … “For us, it’s super important to have a launchpad in mainland Europe which is closer to our production site,” Daniel Metzler, chief executive of Isar, told the publication. “The exclusivity provides us and our clients with maximum flexibility and planning security to bring satellites into Earth’s orbit at any time. It enables us to provide long-term turnkey launch solutions from European soil.” Now, they’ve just got to finish the rocket. (submitted by Polykin and SH)

Phantom Space raises $5 million. Phantom Space announced on Wednesday that it has raised $5 million in seed funding to further work on its initial Daytona rocket. The company, founded by Jim Cantrell, will then begin a new $35 million round later this month, followed by a $100 million round next year. Cantrell was a co-founder of Vector Launch, which declared bankruptcy in 2019.

Building the Model-T … “We want to be the Henry Ford of the rocket business and do what he did with the auto business,” Cantrell told Bloomberg. He said the company has gained Air Force permission to lease a launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and is also working to obtain the right to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Given the fate of Vector, we’re pretty skeptical of Phantom Space. But some financial backers seem to think they have the right stuff. (submitted by earth2mars)

Starliner launches likely delayed several months. Despite the lack of an official update, it now seems likely that Boeing and NASA are targeting late July or early August for next test flight of the Starliner spacecraft, Ars reports. This is largely due to traffic at the International Space Station rather than the readiness of Starliner itself. Two NASA sources said the vehicle is “close” to being ready, with only a few small tests to certify the spacecraft for flight remaining. Starliner is therefore expected to be ready to fly by early summer on top of an Atlas V rocket.

Crew launch in 2022 … After this repeat test flight, which is officially known as Orbital Flight Test-2, NASA and Boeing will perform a detailed data analysis. One source said that optimistically, this process would require about six months. This would push a crewed test flight into January 2022. A source with knowledge of space station flight schedules suggested that the best opportunity for Starliner’s crewed flight test would likely come in February 2022.

SpaceX raises additional money in 1Q 2021. SpaceX has raised about $1.16 billion in equity financing in recent months, Reuters reports. The disclosure was made in an amended filing. In February, SpaceX originally said that it raised about $850 million, so the new filing updates this earlier total. Previously, the private space company had raised $1.9 billion in August in its largest single fundraising round to date.

Capital intensive projects … It’s not surprising that SpaceX is burning an extraordinary amount of money as it simultaneously develops Starship and is building and launching hundreds of Starlink satellites a month. Some day, it hopes to make that money back, and more, with revenues from space-based internet and by further dominating the global launch market. Investors seem to think that will happen, because the funding keeps coming.

NASA readying SLS core stage for shipment. The Space Launch System core stage Green Run team has reviewed extensive data and completed inspections that show the rocket’s core stage and engines are in excellent condition after the full-duration hot fire test on Mar. 18. Engineers and technicians have also been completing refurbishment work on the vehicle after the test, NASA said.

Bound for Florida … Refurbishment activities included drying the RS-25 engines and making expected repairs to the engines and the thermal protection system on the core stage. The rocket is now being readied for shipment, by barge, from the Mississippi-based test stand to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It is expected to be shipped later this month. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Astrobotic selects Falcon Heavy for Moon mission. Astrobotic has signed a contract with SpaceX for the launch of its Griffin lunar lander, carrying a NASA rover, on a Falcon Heavy in 2023. This mission will deliver the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, spacecraft to the south pole of the Moon in late 2023. Astrobotic won a NASA competition through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program last year to transport VIPER on its Griffin lunar lander, Space News reports.

Yet another Moon mission for SpaceX … “Getting to the Moon isn’t just about building a spacecraft, but having a complete mission solution. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy completes our Griffin Mission 1 solution by providing a proven launch vehicle to carry us on our trajectory to the moon,” Daniel Gillies, director of Griffin Mission 1 at Astrobotic, said. (submitted by Rendgrish, DanNeely, and Ken the Bin)

FAA approves large Starship launch tower. In a document published on its website, the Federal Aviation Administration said it has determined that SpaceX plans to build a large launch tower for its Starship launch system poses no hazard to aviation. The document reveals that SpaceX intends to build a 479-foot tall launch tower at its Boca Chica launch site in South Texas.

A sizable structure … The document states: “SpaceX is proposing a 469′ tall launch tower with 10′ lightning rod to lift its new rocket and booster on the launch mount, and to catch the super-heavy booster upon return from launch. The tower will be constructed out of structural steel trusses to allow the mechanical arms to lift vehicles.” This is rather large. NASA’s mobile launcher, for the Space Launch System rocket, stands 380 feet tall above the ground. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

RS-68A completes final acceptance test. This week the world’s most powerful hydrogen-fueled rocket engine, the RS-68A, completed its final hot-fire acceptance test on the B-1 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, Aerojet Rocketdyne said. This massive engine, which has 700,000 pounds of thrust at sea level, powers the Delta IV Heavy rocket for United Launch Alliance.

A fine record … The tests have come to an end because there are just four Delta IV Heavy launches remaining before the vehicle is retired in favor of the more cost-effective Vulcan launch vehicle. One of those four missions will take place on April 26. “The throttleable RS-68A engine has been the centerpiece of the Delta IV Heavy rocket for more than 15 years,” said Eileen Drake, Aerojet’s CEO and president. “We are very proud of the 65 engines flown to date and their flawless performance record.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

NASA certifies SLS launch control system. Earlier this month the director of engineering at Kennedy Space Center, Shawn Quinn, signed off on the computer software and hardware that will control the launch of the SLS rocket core stage, Orion spacecraft, and second stage. The system is the electronic hub where information travels to and from these vehicles, ground systems, and the operators inside the firing room, NASA said.

Ready to go … During loading and launch, the software will process up to 575,000 changes per second. Comprising a mix of custom-built software and off-the-shelf products, the spacecraft command and control system was developed specifically to manage processing and launch operations for Artemis missions. NASA has not set a launch date for the first SLS mission, Artemis I, but it appears to be targeting the first quarter of 2022. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

April 22: Falcon 9 | Crew-2 mission on used booster | Kennedy Space Center, Florida | 10:11 UTC

April 25: Soyuz 2.1b | OneWeb 6 | Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia | TBD

April 26: Delta IV Heavy | NROL-82 | Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. | TBD