Today’s Tidbits: September 20, 2021

Today’s Tidbits: September 20, 2021

Here are’s tidbits for September 20, 2021: The FAA wants your comments on draft Starship environmental review, NASA chooses second round of human lunar lander contestants and robotic lunar rover landing site, Vande Hei gets another 6 months on ISS. Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

FAA Wants YOUR Comments on Starship Environmental Review

SpaceX’s Super Heavy rocket (silver) with Starship on top (covered with black thermal protection tiles) during a stacking test, August 6, 2021. Boca Chica, TX. Credit: SpaceX

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has made a lot of headlines in the past year or so with its test launches in Boca Chica, Texas, near Brownsville. The tests are part of the development of the Starship spacecraft Musk wants to use to send millions of people to Mars, and some to the Moon before that.

So far he has tested Starship prototypes. The first four of his five attempts resulted in explosions. But he succeeded on the fifth try and now is getting ready for a grander test of not just Starship, but the much larger Super Heavy rocket needed to lift it into space. Together, they are an impressive 120 meters (394 feet) tall and 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter.

He is almost ready to launch it for the first time, but must clear an environmental review by the FAA, which licenses commercial space launches.

The FAA released its draft review on Friday and now is seeking public comment. Virtual public hearings will be held on October 6 and 7 as part of a 30-day comment period that ends on October 18.

“If the FAA determines the potential environmental impacts of the proposed project would be significant based upon the Draft PEA and a review of the public comments, and those impacts could not be properly mitigated to less-than-significant levels, the agency would conduct a more intensive EIS.”  An EIS is an Environmental Impact Study.

The document explains how to submit comments.

NASA Chooses Second Round of Human Lunar Lander Contestents

Although it hasn’t flown yet, in April NASA selected SpaceX’s Starship as its first Human Landing System (HLS) to put astronauts back on the Moon as part of its Artemis program, with a target date of 2024. NASA wanted to pick two companies, but Congress did not provide enough funding so it picked just one, creating quite a stir.

SpaceX won its “Option A” contract in competition with Dynetics and with a “National Team” led by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, teamed with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper. Blue Origin now is suing NASA in federal court.

NASA envisions a lot of activity on the Moon in future years, however, with many companies building HLS systems for use by NASA and other customers. It opened a second competition — Lunar Exploration and Transportation Services (LETS) — in July. It’s not the same as the Option A contract.  These are for comparatively small amounts of money and short periods of time, but at least support continued concept development.

On September 14, NASA announced the selection of five companies for these new concept maturation studies, referred to as “Appendix N.” They are the same five companies that competed for Option A, although this time Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are competing individually, not as part of a Blue Origin-led team.

The Appendix N winners are:

  • Blue Origin Federation of Kent, Washington, $25.6 million.
  • Dynetics (a Leidos company) of Huntsville, Alabama, $40.8 million.
  • Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colorado, $35.2 million.
  • Northrop Grumman of Dulles, Virginia, $34.8 million.
  • SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, $9.4 million.

Some wondered if Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman were distancing themselves from Blue Origin because of the lawsuit against NASA, but each issued statements that they are still partnered with Blue Origin on Option A even though they are going their own ways on Appendix N.

“Artemis is an important and inspirational effort for our nation and the world and we recognize the value of diverse thoughts from multiple companies and countries. Lockheed Martin continues to be committed to the National Team and its thoughtful, safe and sustainable lander system. As a long-standing and trusted NASA partner, we also believe it is important to provide additional approaches to help shape the strategy for both a sustainable human presence on the Moon and also future human missions to Mars.”  — Lisa Callahan,  VP and GM Commercial Civil Space, Lockheed Martin

“Putting humans back on the lunar surface is an inspiring goal for our nation. As a key partner to NASA and a positive example of how commercial partnerships can work effectively, Northrop Grumman brings a proven record of accomplishment in human space exploration. We continue to work in partnership with Blue Origin and the National Team to meet NASA’s ambitious goals to return to the Moon and Mars. In addition to those collective efforts, we are also providing our unique skills and capabilities to exploring alternative perspectives for a long-term sustainable program to take humans back to the Moon to stay.” Steve Krein, VP, Civil and Commercial Satellites, Northrop Grumman

NASA Chooses Landing Site for Lunar Rover

NASA’s Artemis program includes robotic spacecraft as well as human landers. Among them is NASA’s first robotic lunar rover.

Some of the Apollo crews in the early 1970s used rovers to get around on the lunar surface, and NASA has sent several robotic rovers to Mars, but the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) is the agency’s first on the Moon. (The Soviet Union and China both have put robotic rovers on the Moon, but no people.)

VIPER’s purpose is to locate and map water ice on the Moon. Other spacecraft have detected water ice, but now NASA needs more details about exactly where it is on and beneath the surface.

Today NASA announced where VIPER will land — the western edge of the Nobile Crater at the Moon’s South Pole.

Nobile is an impact crater that is almost permanently covered in shadows, which is how the ice — probably deposited by comets — can exist there.

VIPER will be launched in late 2023 and has an expected lifetime of 100 days, limited largely by the amount of power it can get from its solar panels. It carries three spectrometers and a drill that can get down to 1 meter (3 feet) beneath the surface.

Vande Hei Gets a Few More Months on ISS

Meanwhile, international crews are working hard aboard the International Space Station (ISS), but the space tourism boom is about to changes things up there.

Space tourism or private spaceflight or whatever term one wishes to use is in the headlines right now thanks to the Inspiration4 mission that just ended. But they did not visit the ISS. The next space tourists will: Russian film director Klim Shipenko and actress Yulia Peresild who will film scenes for a movie called The Challenge.

Russia’s decision to send a film crew to the ISS came about rather suddenly, many think in reaction to rumors that Tom Cruise would visit the ISS on a U.S. flight to make a movie. No such plans have been announced (though the Inspiration 4 crew did talk to him from orbit), but in the short term it meant a reconfiguring of the crews travelling to and from the ISS on Soyuz spacecraft.

Soyuz can accommodate three people. The most recent launch, Soyuz MS-18, delivered two Russians, Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov, and one American, Mark Vande Hei, in March. Under normal circumstances they would return to Earth six months later (October) on the same spacecraft that brought them there.

But that had to change with the decision to send Shipenko and Peresild. They will go up on Soyuz MS-19 with Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov in October, but they can stay only for a week. So they will take the return seats on Soyuz MS-18 that were assigned to Dubrov and Vande Hei, who now will stay aboard ISS for an additional six months.

They knew this was a possibility when they launched and Vande Hei, at least, seems delighted at the prospect.

Shipenko and Peresild will not be the only space tourists stopping by while Vande Hei is there. Russia will launch another two space tourists in December on Soyuz MS-20, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his producer Yozo Hirano.

Then in January, four more space tourists will arrive on a U.S. spacecraft, another SpaceX Crew Dragon like the one used by Inspiration4.  Three of four are wealthy men from the United States, Canada and Israel who could afford the reported $55 million each, but the fourth is former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegria. He now works for Axiom Space, the company that arranged the flight, Ax-1, with SpaceX. Although in this context he may be a space tourist, he is a very experienced professional astronaut who holds the record for spacewalks by an American (10) and has visited ISS three times already, including for a long-duration mission.

And then there are the routine crew rotation flights of professional astronauts. NASA’s Crew-3 will launch in October while Crew-2 returns home. Vande Hei will have quite a few “wonderful crewmates” during his almost year-long mission, which will set a new record for an American astronaut, surpassing Scott Kelly’s 340-day “year-in-space” mission.

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