Rocket Report: The final space shuttle stack; SpaceX may extend booster lifetimes

Solid rocket motors are stacked at the California Science Center for an eventual vertical display of space shuttle <em>Endeavour</em>.
Enlarge / Solid rocket motors are stacked at the California Science Center for an eventual vertical display of space shuttle Endeavour.
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Welcome to Edition 6.22 of the Rocket Report! We're nearing the end of 2023, and it's been an incredible year for rocket debuts. Early in the year we saw small lift vehicles from Relativity Space and ABL, and in the spring Japan's H3 and SpaceX's Starship rocket. There's one big one left: United Launch Alliance's Vulcan booster. That will be a nice stocking stuffer to end the year on Christmas Eve.

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.


Vega has a missing parts problem. In unhappy news for Italian rocket-maker Avio, two of the four propellant tanks on the fourth stage of the Vega rocket—the upper stage, which is powered by dimethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide fuel—went missing earlier this year. Now, it seems that the propellant tanks have been found. However, Ars reports, the tanks were recovered in a dismal state, crushed alongside metal scraps in a landfill. This is a rather big problem for Avio, as this was to be the final Vega rocket launched, and the production lines are now closed for this hardware.

Two not great options ... This Vega rocket is due to launch the 1,250-kg BIOMASS satellite for the European Space Agency, a mission that will employ a P-band synthetic aperture radar to assess the health of forests on Earth and determine how they are changing. The satellite is valued at more than $200 million. Officials are working on two options. The first involves using old propellant tanks that were built for qualification tests of the Avio rocket more than a decade ago. Another option is to modify the upper stage that is used by the new Vega C rocket. While there are some commonalities between the Vega and Vega C upper stages, there are differences, and the new AVUM+ upper stage was not intended to fly on the original Vega rocket. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)


Stratolaunch progressing toward Talon A launches. On Sunday, Stratolaunch completed the first captive carry flight of a powered Talon A hypersonic vehicle under the wing of its larger carrier aircraft, Roc. Stratolaunch is working for the US military on a target that will mimic hypersonic threats to support the development of new defensive capabilities, which is expected to be a Talon-A derivative or at least utilize some of the same technology, The Drive reports.

A powered flight could be on the way ... This was the 12th flight for the Roc launch platform, and it saw the Talon-A fueled. The flight lasted three hours and 22 minutes. It was, according to Stratolaunch, “a significant step forward in the company’s near-term goal of completing a powered flight with the Talon-A vehicle.” Talon-A is expected to be able to reach speeds of at least Mach 6. The vehicle is 28 feet long and has a wingspan of just over 11 feet. A powered launch may be up next, pending a data review. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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South Korea tests solid-fuel rocket. South Korea on Monday successfully conducted a flight of a solid-fuel rocket carrying a satellite over the sea near Jeju Island amid a growing space race with neighboring North Korea, the defense ministry said. It was the third successful test of the rocket's technology after two others in March and December 2022, Reuters reports.

Improving reconnaissance operations ... Hanwha Systems said the satellite, which will be used for civilian purposes, including environmental monitoring, had successfully sent signals to the ground control center. The ministry hailed the launch as achieving a milestone just after Pyongyang launched its first military spy satellite, which the United States and its allies have condemned for using missile technology contravening a UN security resolution. South Korea's successful launch will enable the country to accelerate its surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, the ministry said. (submitted by wesley96, Ken the Bin, and tsunam)

Iran says it wants a crew launch this decade. On Wednesday, Iran launched a 1,100-pound (500-kg) capsule to an altitude of 80 miles (130 km) on one of its Salman solid-propellant rockets, reports. Al Jazeera reports there were unknown animals aboard, but there is no official confirmation of what they might have been. The animals, apparently, were not recovered. Regardless of any animal occupants, the Iranian Space Agency says the capsule will help the nation put its own astronauts into space.

Those are some big plans ... This launch of an "indigenous bio-capsule" was part of Iran's ambition to launch astronauts into orbit by the end of 2029, according to a senior official. "In line with the implementation of the ten-year document of the country's space industry, the 'Life in Space' program has been revived and soon, God willing, the suborbital tests of the new generation 'bio-capsule' will be completely Iranian," Iranian Communication Minister Eisa Zarepour said. If Iran launches humans with indigenous technology by the year 2029, I'll retire on the spot. (submitted by Ken the Bin)


Amazon to launch satellites on a Falcon 9. In a real wow moment for the space industry, Amazon announced last Friday that it had purchased three Falcon 9 rocket launches from SpaceX beginning in mid-2025 to help deploy the retail giant's network of Kuiper Internet satellites. Amazon said the SpaceX launches would provide "additional capacity" to "supplement existing launch contracts to support Project Kuiper’s satellite deployment schedule," Ars reports. SpaceX has its broadband satellite fleet, with more than 5,100 Starlink spacecraft currently in orbit, making it a competitor with Amazon.


A lot needs to go right ... Last year, Amazon bought up most of the Western world's excess launch capacity from everyone but SpaceX, securing 68 rocket flights from United Launch Alliance, Arianespace, and Blue Origin to deploy thousands of satellites for the Kuiper broadband network. Amazon previously contracted with ULA for nine Atlas V launches to support the initial series of Kuiper launches. Assuming all these rockets fly successfully on their current schedules, ULA, Arianespace, and Blue Origin will need to rapidly ramp up their launch rates to meet Amazon's demand and string together a series of successful flights. It's not uncommon for new rockets to fail on early test flights.

SpaceX plans to dramatically increase Vandy launches. Nate Janzen, manager of launch pad systems and operations for SpaceX at Vandenberg Space Force Base, spoke last week during the 10th annual celebration and Future Forum for the Economic Alliance Foundation, or EconAlliance, at the Santa Maria Country Club. "We’re really ramping up Vandenberg to rates that we’ve never seen before and the area hasn’t seen before," Janzen said, according to Noozhawk.

Also taking another look at booster longevity ... From one launch four years ago to three the next year and 12 the following year, SpaceX expects about 30 liftoffs by the end of this year. For 2024, the rate could jump to 50, then rocket to 100 in 2025. "Next year, we’ll be launching about once a week, but the plan, in about two years, is about every three to four days," Janzen said. Additionally, next year, SpaceX will re-evaluate and conduct analysis with an eye toward certifying the first-stage boosters for 25 to 30 flights, he said.


Next Starship flight could test prop transfer. SpaceX and NASA could take a tentative step toward orbital refueling on the next test flight of Starship, but the US space agency says officials haven't made a final decision on when to begin demonstrating cryogenic propellant transfer capabilities that are necessary to return astronauts to the Moon, Ars reports. NASA is keen on demonstrating orbital refueling technology, an advancement that could lead to propellant depots in space to feed rockets heading to distant destinations beyond Earth orbit.

A worthy first step ... This test would involve transferring super-cold propellant from one tank to another inside a Starship spacecraft. It's a precursor to future, more complex demonstrations involving two giant Starships docked together in Earth orbit. Then SpaceX will be ready to send a Starship toward the Moon for a test landing without astronauts onboard. Once that is successful, NASA will clear Starship for a crew landing on the agency's Artemis III mission, marking the astronauts' return to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Space shuttle stack taking shape. The work to stand up two rockets for the launchpad-like exhibit of NASA's retired space shuttle Endeavour has been capped—literally and figuratively—with the addition of two nose cones on solid rocket boosters, reports. The work is part of an initiative by the California Science Center to display Endeavour in its vertically stacked configuration, complete with solid rocket boosters and NASA's last-remaining, built-for-flight space shuttle external tank (ET-94).

Stacked for the final time ... The SRBs going on exhibit with Endeavour were assembled from all flight-worthy or previously launched parts donated by Northrop Grumman and NASA. They were the first major components to be taken vertical as part of the science center's "Go for Stack" campaign. This will be an awesome exhibit to visit when completed in a couple of years. (submitted by Tfargo04)

ESA eyeing development of a Raptor-class engine. The European Space Agency has published a call for ideas aimed at beginning the development of a high-thrust rocket engine that could be utilized aboard future heavy-lift launcher vehicles, European Spaceflight reports. Currently, the space agency is working toward launching its Vulcain 2.1 and Prometheus liquid rocket engines for the first time. While Vulcain 2.1 will serve as the primary engine for the Ariane 6 core stage, Prometheus is being developed to equip the next generation of European launch vehicles.


Only in the study phase for now ... Prometheus is, however, only capable of producing 100 tonnes of thrust, a capability that ESA appears to feel is inadequate for its as yet undefined future heavy-lift launch vehicles. As a result, the agency plans to launch its Very High Thrust Propulsion Building Block for Increased Performance Launchers project. The aim of the project is to develop an engine capable of generating at least 250 tonnes of thrust, which is in the same ballpark as the SpaceX Raptor engine that powers the company’s Starship launch vehicle. The project is, however, only in its very earliest study phases. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

BE-4 manager alleges wrongful termination. The former program manager of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engines has filed a lawsuit against the company alleging whistleblower retaliation after he spoke up about safety issues, TechCrunch reports. The complaint was filed in the Los Angeles County Superior Court. It includes a detailed narrative about program manager Craig Stoker’s efforts over seven months to escalate his concerns about safety and a hostile work environment at Blue Origin.

An explosive CEO ... Allegedly, Stoker told two VPs in May 2022 that then-CEO Bob Smith’s behavior caused employees “to frequently violate safety procedures and processes in order to meet unreasonable deadlines.” Smith would “explode” when issues would arise, generating a hostile work environment, the complaint says. Ultimately, after an internal investigation, Blue Origin Human Resources concluded that Smith did not create a hostile work environment, nor violate any company policies. Stoker was terminated on October 7, seven months after he raised his first safety concern. Smith has since left Blue Origin. (submitted by terkans)

Next three launches

December 8: Falcon 9 | Starlink 7-8 | Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif. | 08:00 UTC

December 8: Zhuque-2 | Flight Three | Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, China | 24:40 UTC

December 10: Long March 2D | Unknown Payload | Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China | 01:58 UTC