January 22, 2022

Rocket Report: Virgin Galactic stands down, SpaceX faces environmental lawsuit

Rocket Report: Virgin Galactic stands down, SpaceX faces environmental lawsuit
Rocket Report: Virgin Galactic stands down, SpaceX faces environmental lawsuitRocket Report: Virgin Galactic stands down, SpaceX faces environmental lawsuit
A rocket launches.
Enlarge / Blue Origin’s New Shepard launches its second human spaceflight on Wednesday.

Welcome to Edition 4.20 of the Rocket Report! If this is edition 4.20 of the newsletter, you know we’re going to bring extra smoke. So let’s get to it.

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.

Virgin Galactic substantially delays next mission. The space tourism company announced Thursday afternoon that it will delay a planned human flight for the Italian Air Force, Unity 23, and begin a “planned enhancement program” for its VMS Eve carrier aircraft and VSS Unity spacecraft. Effectively, this means that the vehicles will be taken out of service for the next eight months for repairs and upgrades. As one reason for this decision, the company cited a recent test that “flagged a possible reduction in the strength margins of certain materials used to modify specific joints, and this requires further physical inspection.”

Commercial flights are a long way off … “Our decisions are driven by detailed and thorough analysis, and we fly based on the most accurate and comprehensive data available,” said company CEO Michael Colglazier. “Virgin Galactic vehicles are designed with significant margins for safety, providing layers of protection that far exceed loads experienced and expected to occur on our flights.” This delays the Unity 23 mission until next summer and puts off the start of commercial operations to at least the fourth quarter of 2022. Needless to say, this is not a positive step for a company that, one day, aspires to fly weekly (if not daily) missions to space. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Blue Origin completes second human flight. Although the launch was delayed nearly an hour due to unspecified issues, Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft successfully took off from West Texas on Wednesday morning and safely landed 10 minutes 18 seconds later. The capsule crested at an altitude of 107 km, Ars reports. This was Blue Origin’s second human spaceflight, and it garnered widespread attention because the crew included Star Trek actor William Shatner as a guest of Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos.

An inspired James T. Kirk … “That’s unlike anything I’ve ever felt before,” Shatner said upon landing. “Everybody in the world needs to do this.” Blue Origin will now target one more crew flight in 2021, with six yet-unnamed passengers, likely to take place in December. The cadence for human suborbital missions should ramp up to six to 12 passenger flights in 2022. The main impediment to increasing cadence is believed to be heat shield refurbishment—there is plenty of demand from customers, even at prices of $1 million and higher for a seat on early missions.

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Astra explains failure, sets next launch date. The small-rocket company based in California is still striving to reach orbit and has set a target date of October 27 for its next launch attempt. The rocket, simply named “LV0007,” will carry a test payload weighing a few dozen kilograms for the US Space Force. This will be the company’s fourth attempt to reach orbit—and it comes as other small launch competitors are either successfully orbiting their rockets or soon to make their first attempts, Ars reports.

Fourth time’s the charm … This week, Astra chief engineer Benjamin Lyon provided more information about the company’s last launch attempt in late August. “The issue we encountered was something we hadn’t seen before,” Lyon wrote. “Leading up to liftoff, the first stage propellant distribution system provides the rocket with fuel and oxidizer. We designed the system to quickly disconnect and seal when the rocket lifts off. On this launch, propellants leaked from the system, mixed, and became trapped in an enclosed space beneath the interface between the rocket and the launcher.” As a result, one engine shut off, and the rocket drifted sideways before ascending. (submitted by ivekadi)

Chinese rocket tests grid fins. China’s Long March 2D rocket successfully sent the Chinese H-alpha Solar Explorer and 10 other satellites into orbit on Thursday. The rocket’s new configuration allowed it to deploy more than 10 satellites for the first time while the first stage also included grid fins to constrain the expected drop zone of the stage downrange, SpaceNews reports.

Expected to greatly exceed launch goal … This was the country’s 37th orbital mission in 2021. At the beginning of the year, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation aimed to launch more than 40 times in 2021, with commercial launch providers adding to this total. With yet another launch of the Shenzhou-13 crew to the Chinese space station on Friday, that goal seems well in hand for the year. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)