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Rocket Report: Virgin Galactic kills tourism tax, New Glenn fairing test

Composite image showing a Falcon 9 rocket launching, and a first stage landing, at Vandenberg Space Force Base this weekend.
Enlarge / Composite image showing a Falcon 9 rocket launching, and a first stage landing, at Vandenberg Space Force Base this weekend.


Welcome to Edition 4.31 of the Rocket Report! SpaceX launched three Falcon 9 rockets in three days this week, bringing its tally of orbital launches in 2022 to six. Not bad for a year that’s only about five weeks old. Now the spotlight moves to Astra, Rocket Lab, and other companies making their first launch attempts of 2022.

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.

Astra set for first Florida launch on Saturday. The California-based company said it anticipates receiving a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration on Friday. The license will allow Astra to launch its Rocket 3 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station during a three-hour window that opens at 1 pm EST (18:00 UTC) on Saturday. This will be the company’s first attempt at launching from Florida after its small rocket reached orbit on its fourth attempt from Alaska last year.

Parting the waters for smoother licensing … Along with its announcement, Astra noted that it expected the Rocket 3 launch to be the FAA’s first “Part 450 Launch License.” So what does that mean? Payload explained that Part 450 simplifies the FAA launch-licensing process by rolling four previously required licenses into one general launch and re-entry license for any type of launch vehicle. The licensing process should be shorter and more flexible under Part 450, and the license will be valid for five years. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Virgin Galactic kills bill to tax passenger flights. State legislators on Monday tabled legislation that would have taxed Virgin Galactic passengers flying from New Mexico 8.3 percent, or $37,406 per $450,000 ticket, the Las Cruces Sun-News reports. Prior to this action, the state Tax and Revenue Department stated in the fiscal impact report that demand for tickets with Virgin Galactic (currently priced at $450,000) was strong enough that a tax break was likely not necessary to maintain demand for the service.

At least one perplexed lawmaker … The proposal met with opposition in the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee from Virgin Galactic, chambers of commerce, advocates for aerospace companies as well as committee members. Opponents argued that the tax would deter aerospace development in New Mexico broadly. Afterward, one of the law’s proponents, Republican Jason Harper of Rio Rancho, expressed displeasure. “It perplexes me that we would invest over $200 million in building the facility and then also decide the activity for which the facility was intended needed to operate tax-free,” he said. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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Lawmakers boost funding for rapid launch. A dozen US House members have signed a letter to the chair and ranking member of the House appropriations defense subcommittee asking for their support in getting $50 million to the fiscal 2022 defense spending bill for tactically responsive space launch, Breaking Defense reports. “The US is currently not prepared to replace or augment space launch capabilities on tactical timelines if capabilities are lost,” says the letter, addressed to Reps. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and Ken Calvert (R-Calif.).

Threats everywhere … Citing the recent Russian antisatellite weapons test, the letter stresses that the US “urgently needs a national commitment to accelerate more responsive, resilient, and affordable space and launch capabilities to counter growing threats on operational timelines.” Lawmakers are concerned about threats from adversary’s direct-ascent weapons and space-based capabilities, as well as space debris. The goal is to formalize a tactically responsive launch program within the US military. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

RFA invites fans to name its main engine. The Germany-based company issued the call this week to name the main engine of its RFA One launch vehicle. “Space is for everyone,” the company said. “This is why we want to be as transparent and open as possible and let people take part in our journey. But that’s not enough for us, we want to go one step further: People can actively participate and contribute with us, making a decision that will last for years and become part of the everyday conversation about new space: Name our engine!”

Engine McEngineface? … Suggestions will be accepted through February 20, and the 10 most popular names will be put through a round of public voting on Twitter and LinkedIn. Rocket Factory Augsburg says the engine name will be selected by the name receiving the most votes, combined, on the social media platforms. Mark “Forger” Stucky, of Virgin Galactic fame, suggested the name “Betty White Thruster,” to which I say, “Why not?”

ABL accident to delay first launch by three months. ABL Space Systems says a test incident that destroyed the upper stage of its RS1 rocket on January 19 will delay that vehicle’s first flight by three months, SpaceNews reports. In that time, the company will identify and correct the failure’s root cause. ABL was in the middle of a test campaign for the RS1 upper stage built for its first launch when an anomaly destroyed the stage during a static firing at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

Hard start leads to a hard end … Harry O’Hanley, chief executive of ABL, told the publication that the stage’s E2 Vacuum engine suffered a “hard start” in the hot gas circuit of its turbopump. A hard start is when the flow of propellants and ignition fluid in an engine doesn’t allow for a gradual increase in energy but instead causes an explosive rise. The hard start caused “a substantial fire on the aft end of the vehicle, resulting in a complete failure about 20 seconds later.” A May or June launch is now possible. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Falcon 9 sets record for consecutive successes. SpaceX has been launching Falcon 9 rockets thick and fast of late. With 11 launches since the beginning of December, the company has flown rockets at a rate greater than one mission a week. Lost amid the flurry of activity are some significant milestones, none more noteworthy than consecutive successful missions, Ars reports.

Haven’t had a used Falcon 9 core fail yet … Since the AMOS-6 failure during its static fire test in 2016, SpaceX has completed a record-setting run of 112 successful Falcon 9 missions in a row. There are only two other rockets with a string of successful flights comparable to the Falcon 9. One is the Soyuz-U variant of the Russian rocket, which launched 786 times from 1973 to 2017. The other is the American Delta II rocket, which recently retired. Both recorded a streak of 100 successes. What’s notable about the Falcon 9 is that it has run up such a streak even as SpaceX pushes the rocket to find the limits of reusability. (submitted by EllPeaTea)

NRO seeks to launch seven satellites in 2022. SpaceX launched a classified mission for the National Reconnaissance Office this week, but the launch should be just one of many, Breaking Defense reports. Col. Chad Davis, NRO’s director of the Office of Space Launch, told reporters this week that the company plans six additional launches this year, including one from a “third continent.” Previously, NRO has launched missions from California and Florida in North America, and in 2020, it flew aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle from New Zealand.

Mum’s the word … “We’re looking at something like a half a dozen for the calendar year and then deploying 12 payloads,” Davis said. “If I take a snapshot today, that number is seven launches in eight months—from three different continents.” So what’s the mystery continent? Not surprisingly, the spy agency isn’t saying. Most likely, the location is the United Kingdom, possibly aboard Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne vehicle. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Other bidders express interest in cargo resupply. After deciding to extend its contracts with three commercial providers—SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, and Sierra Space—for International Space Station supply services, NASA needed to justify its decision to not conduct an open competition. This is a federal document known as a “Justification for other than full and open competition,” or JOFOC in government-speak. Such documents often bring out interesting tidbits about agency business, and that was the case here with NASA and commercial cargo services.

Gleaning some detailsThe document reveals that Astra, Firefly, and Boeing all expressed an interest in providing cargo services in 2021. Unfortunately, a few key details are redacted, but careful readers can still glean some information. For example, NASA officials noted that Astra’s capabilities were “well below current CRS-2 minimum contract requirement of 2500 kgs per mission.” Astra also doesn’t have a cargo vehicle. The agency seemed to be urging Boeing to focus on completing its Crew Starliner before chasing cargo dollars. And as for Firefly, NASA noted that the Beta rocket would not be ready before 2024 at the earliest.

NASA delays SLS rocket rollout. NASA officials on Wednesday said the agency would conduct an initial rollout of the massive Space Launch System rocket sometime in March, a multiweek delay attributed to “close-out” tasks that must be completed on the vehicle. Until this week, NASA had been publicly targeting a February 15 rollout date. Tom Whitmeyer, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA Headquarters, said the agency is now targeting “mid-March” for the rollout, but he did not set a specific date, Ars reports. The agency also declined to offer a launch target, citing the understandable need to get through the critical wet dress test first.

April showers bring May launch towers? … Although NASA declined to announce a launch date for the rocket, we can make some educated guesses. If NASA succeeds in rolling out the rocket to the launch pad in mid-March, the agency expects the wet dress procedure to take about two weeks, give or take a few days. That gets us to the end of March. NASA has a launch window from April 8 to April 23. To make the window, NASA would have to stick to the mid-March rollout, execute the wet dress test in a timely manner, and identify exactly zero significant issues that need to be fixed prior to launch. Should all of that happen, the agency could conceivably make a late April launch. May or later this summer is far more likely, however.

Blue Origin tests New Glenn fairing. In a video released via Twitter and Instagram this week, Blue Origin touted the first jettison test of the 7-meter-wide fairing at Glenn Research Center’s Armstrong Test Facility Space Environments Complex in Ohio, GeekWire reports. The test was designed to ensure that the fairing would split apart cleanly to allow for payload deployment. Blue Origin said the test “validated acoustics, cleanliness and environments that payload customers are expecting.”

How is your rocket fairing? … The company’s official timeline calls for Blue Origin to launch its reusable New Glenn rocket from Florida for the first time late this year, but that depends on how the company hits its development milestones along the way. Sources say a slip to late 2023 or more likely 2024 is more reasonable for the debut launch of the massive rocket. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

Feb. 5: Rocket 3 | Venture Class Launch Services | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 18:00 UTC

Feb. 10: Soyuz | OneWeb 13 | Kourou, French Guiana | 18:09 UTC

Feb. 14: Electron | Black Sky 16 and 17 | Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand | 05:55 UTC

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