Electron rocket nears debut launch from New Zealand

Cape Canaveral-based Moon Express will be among those closely watching the debut, as soon as this Sunday, of a new commercial rocket launching from a private range on the other side of the globe.

At 5 p.m. EDT on May 21, Rocket Lab will open a 10-day window to launch its first Electron rocket into orbit from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula.

The mission’s official name: “It’s a test.”

It’s the first of at least three test flights before the Electron, which at less than 60 feet tall is designed to launch small satellites, begins service for customers including Moon Express, Planet, Spire and NASA.

“We are all incredibly excited to get to this point,” said Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck. “Our talented team has been preparing for years for this opportunity and we want to do our best to get it right. Our number one priority is to gather enough data and experience to prepare for a commercial phase. Only then can we can start delivering on our mission to make space more accessible.”

The company will not stream real-time video of the flight and warned of potential scrubs.

If all goes well, the Electron will fire nine kerosene-fueled Rutherford main engines, then an upper stage engine to deliver an inert payload to low Earth orbit.

Earlier this year, Beck said he hoped to launch seven times this year. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at Kennedy Space Center, in 2015 booked a mission for $6.9 million.

Moon Express hopes an Electron is available to launch a robotic lander to the lunar surface late this year. If the lander is ready as well, that mission could win the Google Lunar XPRIZE’s $20 million top prize.

Rocket Lab has raised nearly $150 million and opened a manufacturing facility in Southern California. The company has visited the Space Coast while scouting for a potential U.S. launch site.

Test stand blues

Blue Origin suffered a setback recently in its development of the BE-4 engine that will power its own and possibly United Launch Alliance rockets.

“We lost a set of powerpack test hardware on one of our BE-4 stands yesterday,” the company reported on May 14. “Not unusual during development.”

Details of the failure were not released, but it was possible that it was significant enough to have destroyed an engine and damaged a test stand.

However, Seattle-based Blue Origin, the company founded by the billionaire Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, added that it is “hardware rich,” suggesting it would replace lost components quickly.

“Back into testing soon,” the company said.

The BE-4 engine fueled by liquid natural gas will serve as the power plant for orbital New Glenn rockets that Blue Origin will build in a huge facility now under construction at Kennedy Space Center’s Exploration Park on Merritt Island. A test stand also is planned at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 36.

ULA has identified the BE-4 as the frontrunner to power the Vulcan rocket now being designed, saying it closer to being ready than Aerojet Rocketdyne’s competing AR1 engine.

It remains to be seen if the test stand accident narrows that gap.

NASA test stands over budget

NASA’s construction of two test stands at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama ended up costing 88 percent more than the original budget, a NASA audit reported last week.

Of the project’s total $76 million cost, the audit said NASA spent $7.6 million to expedite the stands’ completion so they could support a first flight of the Space Launch System exploration rocket in 2017. That mission soon slipped to 2018 and is now targeted for 2019.

“In short, rushing the decision regarding the test stands to support a December 2017 first flight raised the cost of constructing the stands by tens of millions of dollars,” the report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General concludes.

Satellite in service after ‘flight proven’ launch

The first satellite launched by a reused SpaceX Falcon rocket booster has officially started commercial service in orbit.

On March 30, a Falcon 9 rocket including a “flight proven” first stage launched the SES-10 communications satellite from Kennedy Space Center on its way to a geostationary orbit 22,300 miles over the equator.

Luxembourg-based SES said the satellite built by Airbus Defense and Space successfully completed tests and will provide broadcast and broadband services to Latin America.

SES has two more SpaceX launches planned this year and has said it is considering flying again on “flight proven” Falcons.

[On Thursday, a Soyuz rocket delivered the SES-15 satellite to orbit from French Guiana.

Nelson pushes for bigger KSC budget

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson last week lobbied President Donald Trump for more funding next year to ready NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for launches of commercial rockets carrying astronauts and of the agency’s deep space “monster rocket.”

Nelson, the ranking member on the committee that sets NASA policy, sent Trump a letter urging him to support the program helping Boeing and SpaceX launch crews to the International Space Station, and another providing ground systems for the agency’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule.

“The pace of activity at the Cape is something I haven’t seen for many years, and this transformation is illustrative of the broader impacts that the space industry has to offer to our country,” the Florida Democrat wrote. “Robust funding for NASA in the fiscal year 2018 budget request is critical, especially as we near the first launches of SLS and Commercial Crew.”

Sen. Nelson to appear in symphony’s ‘Cosmos’

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson will serve as a special guest narrator during the Space Coast Symphony’s season-closing performance at 7 p.m. May 27 at Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy in North Melbourne.

The program led by Aaron Collins includes the world premiere of a new work by composer Christopher Marshall, “Cosmos,” that will highlight the history of flight with narration from Nelson, who flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1986.

The concert is the third in a series of innovative multi-media concerts with imagery from NASA.

Tickets at the door are $25. Call 855-252-7276 or visit www.SpaceCoastSymphony.org.

Lunar module heroes

Producers say Kennedy Space Center will be featured in the Sunday, May 21, installment of the Smithsonian Channel’s new series, “America’s Secret Space Heroes: Lunar Module.”

According to promotional materials, the show promises lunar module engineers will “reveal facts that have never been told on camera before, including a definitive rebuttal to one of the world’s best known conspiracy theories – why the American flag planted by Neil and Buzz appears to flutter on the moon.”

Tune in at 9 p.m. to the Smithsonian Channel, a premium channel on some cable providers.

Contact Dean at 321-242-3668 orjdean@floridatoday.com. And follow on Twitter at@flatoday_jdeanand on Facebook atfacebook.com/jamesdeanspace.

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