Welcome to Edition 4.01 of the Rocket Report! Yes, we’ve already reached our third anniversary, and I can’t say enough about all of our readers who have contributed story ideas over the last three years. The Rocket Report is a much, much richer product thanks to your help.
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 announces another science mission. Virgin Galactic revealed a new contract Thursday for human-tended research aboard its suborbital spacecraft, VSS Unity. The company said that Kellie Gerardi, a researcher and science communicator, would conduct two experiments during an upcoming flight that could happen as early as 2022, Ars reports.
More regular astronauts ahead … The announcement is notable because it suggests there may be a viable business for Virgin in this kind of microgravity research. Virgin’s announcement also suggests that “regular” people may one day be able to go into space as more companies start flying there. “There are so many people on Twitter who say they are future astronauts, and I think this proves that that can be true,” Gerardi said. “Now, that aspiration actually has this avenue to become true.”
Rocket makers see surging satellite demand. Demand for satellite launches likely will surge despite assertions to the contrary, industry executives said Wednesday, according to SpaceNews. “There’s a diverse and growing customer base for putting things into low Earth orbit,” and that trend will continue, said Chris Kemp, founder and CEO of small rocket startup Astra. “Listen to customers, don’t listen to pundits and market analysts,” he said.
What else would they say? … Kemp and other industry CEOs who spoke on Wednesday at the MilSat Symposium said the problem today is not a lack of demand but a shortage of operational vehicles. Many small launchers are still in development. Josh Brost, vice president of small rocket startup Relativity Space, agreed. “The market is sending a very clear signal that there’s this huge demand coming,” he said. The problem right now is that there is “clearly an undersupply of operational launchers,” Brost said. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Launcher raises $11 million. The California-based rocket startup Launcher said Wednesday that it has raised $11.7 million in a Series-A round of funding, well above its $7 million goal, as it seeks to accelerate the development of its first orbital vehicle. In an interview with Ars, Launcher founder Max Haot said the company remains on track to debut the small satellite “Launcher Light” rocket in 2024. However, to meet this goal, the company needs to grow significantly now.
More than double the work force … This is a big change for Launcher, which has prided itself on being an exceptionally lean company with few employees and low overhead costs. During its first four years, when it focused on the development of a first-stage rocket engine, the company had just a handful of employees and expended about $1.5 million per year. However, Haot said the company will need to spend about $10 million a year to reach orbit by 2024, and it will need to scale up to about 70 employees by the end of this year.
FAA clears Rocket Lab to return to flight. Less than three weeks after its Electron rocket failure last month, Rocket Lab said it has received authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to resume launching. A second-stage anomaly took place almost 200 seconds into the May 15 flight, which was Rocket Lab’s 20th mission.
Finding the fault … “This one is turning out to be an intricate and layered failure analysis,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck in an update on the company’s website. “However, we have successfully replicated the failure in testing and determined it required multiple conditions to occur in flight. We are now piecing together the sequence of events and preparing corrective actions for a safe and swift return to flight.” (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)
Firefly plans expansion north of Austin. The launch company will purchase a 40,000 square foot space in Cedar Park, a major suburb about 15 miles northwest of the Texas capital, where it is already based. The agreement was approved by Cedar Park and “allows Firefly to solidify their roots in the community,” according to a news release.
A jobs bonanza … The release also states that the expansion will bring “more than” 680 new jobs to the Cedar Park area, with an average salary of $90,000. This is probably related to the $93 million NASA contract recently awarded to Firefly to deliver its “Blue Ghost” lander to the Moon in 2023. (submitted by respice)
South Korean rocket test set for October. A qualification model of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute’s first native-built rocket, the “Nuri” or KSLV-II vehicle, has been rolled to the launch pad at Naro Space Center in Goheung, one of the southernmost parts of South Korea. The country is seeking to launch a flight version of the rocket, with a dummy payload, in October of this year, The Register reports.
First launch in eight years … If this mission goes well, the space agency plans to use Nuri to launch a 200 kg payload in May 2022. South Korea flew a rocket known as KSLV-1, which placed a satellite into low Earth orbit, in 2013. However, its first stage was built in Russia. South Korea also hopes to launch a lunar orbiter later next year. (submitted by wesley96 and EllPeaTea)
Dawn Aerospace receives “significant” funding. The New Zealand spaceplane startup said the funding came from the country’s largest tech investment firm, Movac. The amount, which remains confidential, comes from Movac’s quarter-billion dollar multistage technology fund, Stuff.co reports. Movac partner Mark Stuart described Dawn’s technology and level of ambition as “really compelling.”
Orbit, eventually … Dawn Aerospace is developing a 4.8-meter-long spaceplane, called Mk-II Aurora, capable of suborbital flights to an altitude above 100 km. The goal is for the small plane to fly a suborbital trajectory, land on a runway, and fly again after being refueled. Customers for the Mk-II service are expected to include weather agencies, government entities, and startups. A future iteration, Mk-III, will be capable of putting about 100 kg into low Earth orbit. (submitted by Ai Dat Wei)
Environmental concerns raised over Aussie launch site. A small Australian company, Southern Launch, is seeking to develop a couple of launch sites to polar orbits from the country’s rugged southern coast. However, environmentalists are starting to raise concerns about these small-rocket launches, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reports.
Protected areas … “It’s a really special conservation area,” said Julia Peacock, an official with the Nature Conservation Society of South Australia. “It’s actually specifically protected under environment legislation that’s called a heritage agreement, which means a private landholder agreement to protect that area, so we would really like to see that agreement honored.” An environmental impact statement is required before any construction begins. (submitted by dbayly)
SpaceX launches a new rocket. A Falcon 9 launched a cargo Dragon spacecraft on Thursday, carrying experiments and a new set of solar panels for the International Space Station, SpaceNews reports. The Dragon separated from the rocket’s upper stage 12 minutes after liftoff. This was the first SpaceX launch to use a new booster since November 2020. For those keeping track, that’s 20 launches in a row that reused a first stage.
No static fire required … Despite flying a new booster, SpaceX did not conduct a static-fire test of the stage at the launch pad prior to this launch. SpaceX has been moving away from doing such tests before every launch, something it had done for years, as it gains experience with the Falcon 9. The stage did perform a static-fire test at SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas, test site before being shipped to Florida. “SpaceX and NASA worked together to determine that an additional static fire at the pad wasn’t necessary this mission,” Sarah Walker, of SpaceX, said. “We certainly make sure that we do all the necessary tests to make sure that the vehicle is ready for its journey.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Chinese station supply mission launches, docks. China’s Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft docked with the Tianhe space station module in low Earth orbit Saturday, eight hours after launching from Wenchang spaceport. Tianzhou-2 is tasked with delivering propellant and supplies ahead of a first crewed mission to Tianhe in June, SpaceNews reports. The launch occurred on a Long March 7 rocket from the coastal Wenchang spaceport.
Food and suits … Tianzhou-2 holds 4.69 tons of cargo in a pressurized segment, including food for the Shenzhou-12 crew for three months. It also carries extravehicular activity space suits and other supplies. Tianzhou-2 is the second launch of 11 missions planned for the construction phase of the three-module Chinese space station across 2021 and 2022. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)
The US military shows interest in Starship. As part of last week’s federal budget rollout—a process during which the White House proposes funding levels for fiscal year 2022—the US Air Force released its “justification book” to compare its current request to past budget data. Notably, the Air Force plans to invest $47.9 million into SpaceX’s Starship project in the coming fiscal year, which begins October 1, Ars reports.
Redefining a speedy delivery of cargo … The Air Force does not intend to invest directly into the vehicle’s development, the document says. However, it proposes to fund science and technology needed to interface with the Starship vehicle so that the Air Force might leverage its capabilities. Clearly, some Air Force officials are intrigued by the possibility of launching 100 tons of cargo from the United States and having the ability to land it anywhere in the world about an hour later.
Next three launches
June 6: Falcon 9 | Sirius XM-8 | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 04:26 UTC
June 15: Minotaur 1 | NROL-111 | Wallops Island, Virginia | 10:30 UTC
June 17: Long March 2F | Shenzhou 12 Chinese crew flight | Jiquan, China| TBD