Northrop Grumman (finally) reveals its XS-1 design

Northrop XS-1

An illustration of Northrop Grumman’s XS-1 concept. (credit: Northrop Grumman)

More than a month after DARPA formally announced the winners of Phase 1 contracts for its Experimental Spaceplane 1 (XS-1) program, the last of the three companies that received those contracts unveiled the design of the concept.

In a press release Tuesday, Northrop Grumman showed off an illustration of its XS-1 design. The vehicle looks somewhat similar to Boeing’s XS-1 design, which the company released at the time the contract awards were announced last month. The release offers few other technical details, beyond that it will be launched vertically (based on statements in the release about plans for a “clean pad launch using a transporter erector launcher”) with a runway landing.

Northrop Grumman’s team includes its wholly-owned subsidiary, Scaled Composites, and Virgin Galactic, which has been working with Scaled on the development of SpaceShipTwo. Scaled will lead the fabrication and assembly of XS-1, while Virgin would be responsible for “commercial spaceplane operations and transition,” according to the release.

Besides Northrop Grumman and Boeing, Masten Space Systems also received a Phase 1 XS-1 award last month. All three contracts run for 13 months and cover early design work on each company’s concepts. The goal of the XS-1 program is to develop a vehicle that can serve as a reusable first stage for a medium-class launch system, as well as a hypersonic research testbed. The XS-1 vehicle would be designed to fly ten times in ten days, with at least one flight traveling at speeds up to Mach 10.

It turns out that Tuesday’s release was not the first time that this illustration of Northrop Grumman’s XS-1 design had been shown publicly. At the end of a presentation at the NewSpace 2014 conference July 26 offering an overview of cheap access to space efforts, Jeff Lane of Northrop Grumman showed this illustration as a closing slide, without discussing what it represented (the company’s XS-1 concept). “So the need is there. I think the technology is ready. So let’s go do it,” he said as the illustration appeared on the screen, referring to the concept of cheap access to space in general. You can see that in the video of the conference session below, starting at the 15:00 mark:

Uwingu offers you a chance to beam your message to Mars

Uwingu, the company that has previously given people the opportunity to name extrasolar planets and Martian craters, is now starting a new project. The company announced yesterday its “Beam Me To Mars” campaign, where people can pay to have a message transmitted from Earth to Mars on November 28, the 50th anniversary of the launch of Mariner 4, NASA’s first Mars mission.

Uwingu offers several tiers of participation, from $5 for sending a name to $100 for a name, message, and image. Universal Space Networks will transmit the messages from its ground stations on November 28 in the direction of Mars. Uwingu says that half of the fees will go to the cost of the transmission, with the other half going towards the Uwingu Fund, which the company established to support science and education activities.

No one, of course, will be able to receive the messages on Mars, but Uwingu is making the archive of messages available on its website. As of Wednesday morning, about 24 hours after Uwingu started the project, there were nearly 40 messages on display, including from some famous personalities: George Takei (Star Trek’s Sulu) and his husband, actors Seth Green and Clare Grant, and commercial spaceflight participant Richard Garriott.

Beam Me To Mars is Uwingu’s latest foray into projects that raise money from the public. Uwingu started by soliciting names of exoplanets, which raised the hackles of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Earlier this year, it started accepting names of Martian craters not previously named by the IAU, an effort that included a partnership with Mars One. That, too, has been opposed by the IAU. Transmitting a message to Mars would appear to be out of their jurisdiction, though.

Report claims SpaceX raising more outside funding (updated)

Update 8/20 7am: SpaceX late yesterday denied the TechCrunch report that it’s raising $200 million at a valuation of up to $10 billion. “SpaceX is not currently raising any funding, nor has any external valuation of that magnitude or higher been done,” SpaceX spokesperson John Taylor told Re/code, offering a similar denial to Bloomberg News.

Original Story: Commercial space transportation company SpaceX is raising another round of outside funding that could value the company at nearly $10 billion, according to a technology trade publication. TechCrunch reported Tuesday morning that the company is raising outside investment that would value the entire company at “somewhere south of $10 billion,” according to the report.

Exactly how much money SpaceX is raising isn’t clear, but the TechCrunch report claimed it to be “somewhere in the region” of $200 million. Some previous investors, like Draper Fisher Jurvetson, are involved, as well as unnamed “international financiers.” If correct, the $200 million figure would be by far the largest outside investment in SpaceX. Besides founder Elon Musk, who put $100 million of his own money to start the company, SpaceX has raised several smaller rounds, including $50 million in 2010. According to TechCrunch’s own database, the last outside private investment in the company was in late 2012, of $30 million.

The private investments, though, pale compared to what SpaceX has received from the government. SpaceX received $396 million from NASA for its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement to develop the Falcon 9/Dragon system to transport cargo to and from the ISS. SpaceX has also won Commercial Crew Development round 2 (CCDev-2) and Commercial Crew Integrated Capability awards from NASA, valued at $75 million and $440 million, respectively to support development of a crewed version of Dragon. SpaceX also won a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract to deliver cargo to and from the ISS, valued at $1.6 billion over the life of the contract, which covers eight 12 flights.

What SpaceX would do with that $200 million isn’t known. One possibility is that it would use the funds to support “secondary sales” of the stock, allowing existing investors or employees with equity in the company to cash out, which could be useful to some given that SpaceX’s founder and CEO, Elon Musk, has stated there are no plans for an initial public offering (IPO) of company stock in the foreseeable future.

Branson suggests SpaceShipTwo powered flight tests to resume in next few weeks

SS2 3rd powered flight

SpaceShipTwo fires its hybrid rocket engine during its third powered test flight on January 10, 2014. The next powered test flight, using a new hybrid rocket motor, may take place within weeks. (credit: Virgin Galactic)

It’s been more than seven months since SpaceShipTwo last flew under rocket power, a hiatus linked in large part to a decision by Virgin Galactic in May to change the fuel used in the vehicle’s hybrid rocket motor. In late July, SpaceShipTwo made its first free flight since January, a glide flight.

Now, Sir Richard Branson hints that SpaceShipTwo will soon resume powered test flights. In a wide-ranging interview with Maria Bartiromo published by USA Today on Sunday, Branson says that Virgin Galactic is still on track to make its first commercial flight before the end of the year, just four and a half months away.

“We’ve got three more rocket tests and then we should be up, up and away by the end of the year,” he said, when asked by Bartiromo about the company’s schedule. “The space port’s [sic] ready. We are now in the last few weeks before finally embarking on the space program.” He also said that the “rockets” have been successfully tested, presumably a reference to static test fires of the new hybrid rocket motor on the ground.

“I’ll be bitterly disappointed if I’m not into space by the end of the year,” he adds. There are, of course, many skeptics who believe that Branson still stands to be “bitterly disappointed” come December 31.

XCOR breaks down a wall in its path to Midland

XCOR hangar at Midland

A 2012 photo of the hangar at Midland International Airport being renovated for XCOR. That renovation, first announced in July 2012, officially gets underway today. (credit: XCOR Aerospace)

XCOR Aerospace moved a step closer to moving its headquarters from Mojave, California, to Midland, Texas, on Friday with a ceremony marking the beginning of renovations of a hangar that the company will call home. The company, along with airport and other local officials, held a “ceremonial wall breaking” at the hangar at Midland International Airport to mark the beginning of renovations being done by the airport to host the company.

“Midland stands at the heart of the American frontier,” XCOR CEO Jeff Greason said in a statement announcing the beginning of the hangar renovations, “It is a symbol of the American West. As the first tenant in the commercial space industry to plant our home here we are honored to expand those opportunities not westward, but upward.”

Local officials are funding the renovation of the hangar as part of incentives it provided to XCOR two years ago to entice them to move to Midland. Once the hangar is ready and the airport has a spaceport license from the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, XCOR will move its operations there. “We look forward to the transformation of Midland International Airport into the ‘Midland International Air and Spaceport,’” said John B. Love, a member of the Midland city council and chairman of the city’s Spaceport Development Board, in the statement.

Getting the spaceport license is likely the next major milestone. Local officials are expecting the FAA to make a decision on its application by next month. One concern that arose during the licensing process was the effect that flights of XCOR’s Lynx would have on the “lesser prairie chicken”, a threatened species. Local media reported earlier this month that the government would monitor early Lynx flights to see if they caused any harm, a decision that appears to allow the spaceport license to go forward.

Renovations of the hangar at the Midland airport will start “immediately” after today’s ceremony, local officials said in the statement, with a goal of completing them by early next summer. XCOR would presumably then be able to start moving in.

As for XCOR’s work on Lynx, company president Andrew Nelson said in the statement that the flight test program will start this winter. “As XCOR commences the Lynx flight test program this winter, the hangar construction signals the end of the beginning for our team. The next step is to get Lynx flying,” he said.

Like XCOR’s development of Lynx, getting Midland ready for the company has taken a little longer than expected. When the deal was announced in July 2012, XCOR said that the renovation of the hangar would start in early 2013 and be done by late autumn of that year.

Report: commercial crew decision coming this month

Dragon V2 and Musk

Elon Musk stands in front of the Dragon V2 spacecraft unveiled at SpaceX on May 29. SpaceX is one of three leading contenders for the next phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew program. (credit: J. Foust)

The long-awaited decision on which company or companies will win contracts from NASA for the next phase of the agency’s commercial crew program can be expected by the end of this month, according to one report last night.

Charles Lurio, the well-connected publisher of The Lurio Report newsletter about the commercial space industry, tweeted Thursday night that he expected NASA to announce the awardees of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts either next Friday, August 22, or the following Friday, August 29:

The suggested dates raised some eyebrows: why announce on a Friday (particularly the latter date, which would be the Friday before the three-day Labor Day weekend?) However, such a decision would not be unprecedented: when NASA announced the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) awards in August 2012, they also did so on a Friday—the Friday before NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover landed on the Red Planet!

Three companies—Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp., and SpaceX—are the leading contenders for the CCtCap contracts. Lurio also said he expected NASA to make two “full” awards, rather than one full-sized award and a “half-sized” award that would be enough to allow that company to continue development, albeit as a slower pace:

NASA officials have not indicated a specific date for the CCtCap contract announcement, beyond that it would be in the “August-September” timeframe. “Our progress on commercial crew source selection deliberations has been evidently better than we anticipated,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a presentation to the NASA Advisory Council July 30. He said that those awards would come “much sooner than later this year,” but was not more specific.

SpaceX releases video of Falcon 9 first stage water “landing”

Falcon 9 first stage landing

Enhanced frame from a video released by SpaceX on August 14 showing the first stage of a Falcon 9 launched in mid-July just before touching the ocean surface, the most recent test by SpaceX to make the first stage of the Falcon 9 reusable. (credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX released late Thursday a new video of the “landing” attempt of the Falcon 9 first stage after last month’s ORBCOMM launch. The video, taken from a chase plane, shows the first stage descending as it goes through “supersonic transition,” according to the video, then cuts to the relight of the first stage engines just above the ocean surface. Unfortunately, the stage slips from view just as the stage touches down on the ocean. “Plane camera with extra long lens loses sight of rocket just before splashdown,” the video explains.

While the video was posted to YouTube on Thursday, it’s not the first time the video has been shown in public. In his keynote address at the AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites on August 4 at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, Steve Jurvetson of venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson—an investor in SpaceX—showed the same footage. “This has never been seen outside of SpaceX,” he told an audience of more than 1,000 before showing the video. “They said they’re going to do better tracking next time,” he said of SpaceX as the first stage slipped from view as it touched down. “They’re going to nail it.”

SpaceX facing lawsuits from former employees

Falcon 9 ORBCOMM launch

A Falcon 9 v1.1 lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 14. Some of the workers involved in that and other SpaceX activities are suing the company over alleged violations of state labor laws. (credit: SpaceX)

While SpaceX has gotten plenty of media attention for its lawsuit against the US Air Force regarding the “block buy” contract for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) missions with United Launch Alliance, the company is also on the receiving end of lawsuits. Last week, the company was named as the defendant in two separate suits from former employees, alleging the company has violated different aspects of state and federal labor laws.

On August 4, two former employees filed suit, claiming they and up to 400 others were laid off from SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California, headquarters without proper notification. In the suit, plaintiffs Bobby R. Lee and Bron Gatling said they were terminated as part of a “mass layoff” by SpaceX on or around July 21. They and others—the suit estimates that between 200 and 400 employees were laid off—were not given advance notice, as required under state and federal law.

Under California’s Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, a stricter version of similar federal law, employers must give 60 days’ advance notice of any “plant closing, layoff or relocation of 50 or more employees within a 30-day period,” regardless of the overall number of employees. SpaceX did not file a WARN notice with the state.

The case may come down to whether the affected employees were indeed “laid off” or “fired,” that is, terminated for cause. The federal WARN status makes clear that termination for cause is not included in employment losses that require a notification and advance notice, although California law is more vague, defining a layoff as “a separation from a position for lack of funds or lack of work.”

SpaceX has made it clear that it considers the separated employees fired, not laid off. The company said the “headcount reduction” came after an annual review, with the company firing low-performing employees. “We did our annual performance review, there were some low performers, and we terminated them,” said company president Gwynne Shotwell in a brief interview at the NewSpace 2014 conference in San Jose last month. SpaceX also said the reduction was “less than 5%” of the company’s overall workforce, which would put the total number of terminated employees at no more than 200, not the 200-400 that the suit claims.

A second suit by a former SpaceX employee claims that the company is violating labor laws by not giving workers breaks as required by California law. In the suit filed with the LA Superior Court on August 8, former employee Joseph A. Smith alleges that the company’s hourly employees “were consistently required to work in excess of four hours without be provided proper ten minute rest periods” as required by state law, according to a copy of the suit obtained by this publication. The company also denied a 30-minute meal period for shifts longer than five hours, and a second such period for shifts in excess of ten hours. SpaceX also required hourly employees to “work ‘off the clock’ and without pay by rounding time entries.”

As with the termination lawsuit, this suit seeks class action status to cover all affected employees. The suit doesn’t provide a firm estimate of how many that would include beyond that it’s in excess of 100 people. The suit seeks a variety of compensation for pay due to those in the affected class, including interest on back pay and attorneys’ fees. However, the suit notes that the “aggregate potential damages and recovery” sought is believed to be less than $5 million.

Dream Chaser on track for November 2016 first launch

Dream Chaser in orbit

Illustration of the Dream Chaser spacecraft in orbit. (credit: SNC)

[Editor's Note: The following report from last week's AIAA Space 2014 conference in San Diego is by Duane Hyland.]

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) Dream Chaser spacecraft is “on track for its anticipated first launch in November 2016,” Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC Space Systems, told a press conference on August 5 at the AIAA SPACE 2014 Forum in San Diego.

Sirangelo explained “that the first launch, out of Florida’s Space Coast, would be one of two required for certification of the spacecraft, and will be unmanned.” The second launch, scheduled for November 2017, would be manned and piloted.” Sirangelo told the audience that “the tests are on track, and that the launch slots have been obtained.” He noted that SNC would fly “five test flights of Dream Chaser, with three of them being manned, in order to by fully comfortable with the craft’s ability to carry humans into space.”

Sirangelo also reaffirmed that the vehicle would use the Atlas V rocket to launch, confirming that SNC was staying with the vehicle despite ongoing concerns about ability to obtain the rocket’s RD-180 engines from Russia in light of current geopolitical concerns. Sirangelo explained that they selected the Atlas V because of its heritage. “We don’t want to worry about the design and structure: it will be over 50 flights and close to 60, by the time we put humans on board,” he said.

Sirangelo also noted that SNC “owns the Atlas Vs that will be used for launch,” so that would be another reason not to worry about the possible disruption to the RD-180 supply. However, he noted that Dream Chase “is agnostic, it can fly on any system, so we are not wedded to the Atlas V,” suggesting some flexibility should the anticipated supply shortage become a reality.

When asked if the Atlas V would need extensive retrofitting to carry the vehicle, Sirangelo said, “It’s a whole lot less complicated than you would think,” specifying that that “the vehicle interface, which will link the craft to the Atlas V rocket, is being built now.” He added that after the interface, the next needed item for launch is “an emergency detection system, required to let the crew know if there is a problem that requires the flight to be aborted.” Once both the interface and emergency detection system are in place, Dream Chaser will be ready to fly on the Atlas V.

Sirangelo also expressed confidence in the craft’s unique lifting body, saying that there is a multitude of capsule-based vehicles right now, ranging from the existing vehicles that support the ISS to NASA’s Orion spacecraft. “In that complex world, we think that having a lifting body has a real practical purpose.”

Asked if there was a risk of Dream Chaser’s exclusion from the next phase of NASA’s commercial crew program, Sirangelo said he was not worried. “Now is a great time for rumors, but I think from what we see it will be multiple companies and vehicles,” he said. “Practically speaking it would be difficult to make that downselect now: we are the only one starting to fly real hardware, but we are a long way away from a real final decision on the program.”

Sirangelo closed the press conference by discussing Dream Chaser’s unique abort system. “It’s one of the things we really spent a lot of time on, and is one of strongest parts of the design,” he said. Triggered at any time during the launch sequence, Sirangelo said the system allows the vehicle to “fly off the stack, abort, and land at a facility a few miles away, or on any standard runway capable of handling a Boeing 737.” The system also acts as ancillary propulsion on orbit, allowing greater maneuverability, and the ability to perform missions like satellite repair with greater precision. If the motors are not used, their non-toxic fuel is simply vented out before the craft’s return to Earth.

SpaceX’s busy week

Falcon 9 AsiaSat 8 launch

A Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on August 5, carrying the AsiaSat 8 satellite. (credit: SpaceX)

Early Tuesday morning, SpaceX performed the latest launch of its Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket, placing the AsiaSat 8 satellite into orbit. While the launch was originally scheduled for 1:25 am EDT (0525 GMT), a problem with the vehicle’s first stage—never explained in detail by SpaceX—pushed the launch back towards the end of an unusually long launch window. The problem was resolved, though, and the Falcon 9 lifted off at 4:00 am EDT (0800 GMT), releasing the AsiaSat 8 satellite into geostationary transfer orbit.

While SpaceX didn’t issue a press release about the launch, AsiaSat did, confirming the launch was successful and that the Space Systems Loral-built satellite was operating normally. The launch is the first of two back-to-back missions for AsiaSat: a second Falcon 9 will launch AsiaSat 6 towards the end of the month. (This launch demonstrated a three-week turnaround between launches, so assuming that can be maintained, another launch at the end of the month is feasible.)

Unlike the previous two launches, SpaceX did not attempt to “land” the first stage in the ocean, citing the need to reserve the rocket’s performance for the payload. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk did tweet that they did relight the first stage’s engines after stage separation, though:

That launch took place less than a day after SpaceX confirmed it eventually shift commercial launches like this one from Texas. Gov. Rick Perry announced that SpaceX has agreed to build its planned commercial launch complex on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico east of Brownsville. That announcement was expected after the FAA completed an environmental review of the proposed spaceport and gave its OK last month for the project to proceed.

Texas is providing a relatively modest amount of funding for the project: it will provide $2.3 million from the Texas Enteprise Fund, plus $13 million from a separate Spaceport Trust Fund to Cameron County to support infrastructure work needed for the spaceport. The release from Perry’s office cites “$85 million in capital investment into the local economy” from the spaceport, suggesting that SpaceX will provide the bulk of that funding for the project.

And there was a smaller development for SpaceX as well this week: a new landlord. Chambers Street Properties announced it was buying the building that serves as SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, for $46.7 million. SpaceX leases the building under an agreement that runs through January 2023, and there’s no indication that the sale would affect the company in any significant way.