Rocket Report: Starship stacked; Georgia shuts the door on Spaceport Camden

On Wednesday, SpaceX fully stacked the Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage for the mega-rocket's next test flight from South Texas.
Enlarge / On Wednesday, SpaceX fully stacked the Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage for the mega-rocket's next test flight from South Texas.
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Welcome to Edition 6.44 of the Rocket Report! Kathy Lueders, general manager of SpaceX's Starbase launch facility, says the company expects to receive an FAA launch license for the next Starship test flight shortly after Memorial Day. It looks like this rocket could fly in late May or early June, about two-and-a-half months after the previous Starship test flight. This is an improvement over the previous intervals of seven months and four months between Starship flights.

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.


Blue Origin launch on tap this weekend. Blue Origin plans to launch its first human spaceflight mission in nearly two years on Sunday. This flight will launch six passengers on a flight to suborbital space more than 60 miles (100 km) over West Texas. Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos's space company, has not flown people to space since a New Shepard rocket failure on an uncrewed research flight in September 2022. The company successfully launched New Shepard on another uncrewed suborbital mission in December.

Historic flight ... This will be the 25th flight of Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket, and the seventh human spaceflight mission on New Shepard. Before Blue Origin's rocket failure in 2022, the company was reaching a flight cadence of about one launch every two months, on average. The flight rate has diminished since then. Sunday's flight is important not only because it marks the resumption of launches for Blue Origin's suborbital human spaceflight business, but also because its six-person crew includes an aviation pioneer. Ed Dwight, 90, almost became the first Black astronaut in 1963. Dwight, a retired Air Force captain, piloted military fighter jets and graduated test pilot school, following a familiar career track as many of the early astronauts. He was on a short list of astronaut candidates the Air Force provided NASA, but the space agency didn't include him. Dwight will become the oldest person to ever fly in space.


Spaceport Camden is officially no more. With the stroke of a pen, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed a bill that dissolved the Camden County Spaceport Authority, Action News Jax reported. This news follows a referendum in March 2022 where more than 70 percent of voters rejected a plan to buy land for the spaceport on the Georgia coastline between Savannah and Jacksonville, Florida. County officials still tried to move forward with the spaceport initiative after the failed referendum, but Georgia's Supreme Court ruled in February that the county had to abide by the voters' wishes.

$12 million for what?... The government of Camden County, with a population of about 55,000 people spent $12 million on the Spaceport Camden concept over the course of a decade. The goal of the spaceport authority was to lure small launch companies to the region, but no major launches ever took place from Camden County. State Rep. Steven Sainz, who sponsored the bill eliminating the spaceport authority, said in a statement that the legislation "reflects the community's choice and opens a path for future collaborations in economic initiatives that are more aligned with local needs." (submitted by zapman987)

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Polaris Spaceplanes moves on to bigger things. German startup Polaris Spaceplanes says it is progressing with construction of its MIRA II and MIRA III spaceplane prototypes after MIRA, a subscale test vehicle, was damaged earlier this year, European Spaceflight reports. The MIRA demonstration vehicle crash-landed on a test flight in February. The incident occurred on takeoff at an airfield in Germany before the vehicle could ignite its linear aerospace engine in flight. The remote-controlled MIRA prototype measured about 4.25 meters long. Polaris announced on April 30 that will not repair MIRA and will instead move forward with the construction of a pair of larger vehicles.

Nearly 16 months without a launch ... The MIRA II and MIRA III vehicles will be 5 meters long and will be powered by Polaris's AS-1 aerospike engines, along with jet engines to power the craft before and after in-flight tests of the rocket engine. Aerospike engines are rocket engines that are designed to operate efficiently at all altitudes. The MIRA test vehicles are precursors to AURORA, a multipurpose spaceplane and hypersonic transporter Polaris says will be capable of delivering up to 1,000 kilograms of payload to low-Earth orbit. (submitted by Jay500001 and Tfargo04)


Starliner launch still on hold. Boeing is taking a few extra days to resolve a small helium leak on the Starliner spacecraft slated to ferry two NASA astronauts on a test flight to the International Space Station, Ars reports. Boeing's ground team traced the leak to a flange on a single reaction control system thruster on the spacecraft's service module. The spacecraft uses helium to pressurize the propulsion system and ensure its maneuvering thrusters can fire in space. This means the first crew launch of Boeing's Starliner spacecraft, running years behind schedule and more than $1.4 billion over budget, aboard an Atlas V rocket won't happen before next Tuesday, May 21, at 4:43 pm EDT (20:43 UTC). Meeting this schedule assumes engineers can get comfortable with the helium leak or fix it.

Rocket is good to go ... The first launch attempt for the Starliner crew test flight on May 6 ended a couple of hours before liftoff when United Launch Alliance engineers discovered a faulty valve on the Centaur upper stage of the Atlas V rocket. ULA rolled the rocket and Starliner off the launch pad and back to a hangar last week to swap out the faulty pressure regulation valve on the Atlas V's Centaur upper stage. Once installed on the rocket, the new valve performed normally in tests inside ULA's hangar. ULA will roll the rocket back to the launch pad a couple of days before the next launch attempt.


India test-fires 3D-printed engine. India has hot-fired a rocket engine with 3D-printed parts for eventual use on the country's workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, reports. The PS4 engine, which burns a hypergolic mix of nitrogen tetroxide and monomethyl hydrazine, fired for a duration of 665 seconds, marking a major milestone, according to the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India's space agency. Two of these engines are used in the upper stage of the PSLV, India's most-flown rocket. Each PS4 engine generates more than 1,600 pounds (7.33 kilonewtons) of thrust.

Reducing costs and weight ... ISRO described this event as a "breakthrough" in design and manufacturing. In a statement, ISRO said the new laser powder bed fusion technique used to make the engine has brought down the number of engine parts from 14 to a single piece. This has eliminated 19 weld joints and saved significantly on the raw material usage per engine: The new process uses 30.2 pounds (13.7 kg) of metal powder, for example, compared to the 1,245 pounds (565 kg) of forgings and sheets needed with the conventional technique. The new process also reduces the overall production time by 60 percent, according to ISRO. Going forward, the new additively manufactured engine design will be incorporated into operational PSLV flights. (submitted by Ken the Bin)


Pentagon concerned about Vulcan delays. Frank Calvelli, the Pentagon official who oversees procurement of spacecraft and rockets, sent a letter last week to the co-owners of United Launch Alliance, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin, sharing his concerns about delays in the new Vulcan Centaur rocket and urging ULA's shareholders to get moving on certification and production, Ars reports. The letter, a copy of which was obtained by Ars, was first reported by The Washington Post. "I am growing concerned with ULA’s ability to scale manufacturing of its Vulcan rocket and scale its launch cadence to meet our needs," Calvelli wrote. "Currently there is military satellite capability sitting on the ground due to Vulcan delays. ULA has a backlog of 25 National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Vulcan launches on contract."

Independent review … Calvelli asked Boeing and Lockheed Martin to complete an "independent review" of United Launch Alliance's ability to scale manufacturing of its Vulcan rockets and meet its commitments to the military. Calvelli also noted that Vulcan has made commitments to launch dozens of satellites for others over that period, a reference to a contract between United Launch Alliance and Amazon for Project Kuiper satellites. This pressure from ULA's biggest customer, the US military, comes at a dynamic moment. ULA successfully tested the Vulcan rocket on a launch in January, and is about to launch astronauts on Boeing's Starliner spacecraft for the first time. ULA is also up for sale, and Blue Origin is the leading contender to buy it from its longtime corporate owners.

ULA hit with government fines. In related news to the entry above, the US Air Force is imposing financial penalties on United Launch Alliance over delays of two military satellite launches this year, Bloomberg reports. The military didn't disclose the amount of these "postponement fees," which are part of the Pentagon's contract with ULA for two launches on the Vulcan rocket. These launches can't take place until the Space Force certifies Vulcan for high-value national security missions, which can only happen after the second test flight of the Vulcan rocket. The first national security launch on Vulcan is currently scheduled for October (which Ars believes is an unrealistic schedule) after a delay from January. Another military launch on Vulcan was delayed from June of this year until January 2025. "ULA needs to complete certification so these important missions can get to orbit," military officials told Bloomberg in a statement.


Flying a dummy … In order to verify Vulcan as soon as possible, the Pentagon is considering allowing ULA to launch a mass simulator on its next Vulcan Centaur rocket flight if its planned payload, Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spaceplane, is not ready by year’s end, Space News reports. The Defense Department official said the Space Force could certify the Vulcan rocket for national security launches with a second flight carrying a dummy payload instead of a real spacecraft. ULA says rocket hardware for the second Vulcan launch, known as Cert-2, will be ready to fly in mid-2024. Sierra Space has requested a launch period at the beginning of September. "We expect to fly Cert-2 before October 1," ULA told Space News. "If our customer is not ready to fly, we have backup plans.” (submitted by Ken the Bin and Medmandan)

More regulatory headwinds for Starship. The Federal Aviation Administration announced it was beginning an Environmental Impact Statement for Starship launches from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A), the Orlando Sentinel reports. SpaceX had already built the beginning of a Starship launch tower adjacent to its existing pad that supports Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches, but the company's projected launch rate and concept of operations have changed since it received initial environmental approval to operate Starship there in 2019. With this announcement, SpaceX's proposals to launch Starship from Florida's Space Coast are undergoing dual environmental reviews managed by the FAA and the US Space Force. Earlier this year, the Space Force said it was preparing an Environmental Impact Statement for Starship launches from a pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

This could take a while … These kinds of environmental reviews often take one or two years and even longer in some cases. Still, even without the environmental review process, it's unclear if SpaceX would be ready to launch Starship rockets from Florida next year. NASA is eager for SpaceX to build out its launch capacity for Starship at Kennedy Space Center to allow flights from the company's existing base in Texas and the new base in Florida. SpaceX will need multiple active Starship launch pads to meet the high launch cadence required for missions in support of NASA's Artemis lunar landing program. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

May 18: Falcon 9 | Starlink 6-59 | Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida | 00:32 UTC

May 19: Falcon 9 | NROL-146 | Vandenberg Space Force Base, California | 07:22 UTC

May 19: New Shepard | NS-25 | Launch Site One, Texas | 13:30 UTC