Space Scoreboard: 2019

SpaceX Falcon Heavy liftoffThe year 2019 is almost over, and unless somebody slips one in at the last moment, we can sum up activity in orbital space launches over the last twelvemonth.  Here are orbital launches (some of which placed more than one satellite in orbit) by country of launch, in decreasing order by number of successful launches.  Specifying “country of launch” is simultaneously significant and somewhat sloppy: three Soyuz launches were conducted from the European spaceport in French Guiana, and are counted as European despite the rockets having been made in Russia and sold to Arianespace, which launched them.  Six Rocket Lab Electron launches performed from their Mahia site in New Zealand are listed under New Zealand despite Rocket Lab’s being (for regulatory, export control, and bowing to the empire purposes, nominally a U.S. company).  Russian launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan are, however, listed as Russian, as the launchers are manufactured in Russia and launched by personnel working for Russian companies or military services.

  • China:  34 launches, 32, successes, 2 failures
  • Russia: 25 launches, 25 successes
  • United States: 21 launches, 21 successes
  • India: 6 launches, 6 successes
  • New Zealand: 6 launches, 6 successes
  • Europe: 6 launches, 5 successes, 1 failure
  • Japan: 2 launches, 2 successes
  • Iran: 2 launches, 2 failures.  In addition, another launch vehicle exploded on the pad during preparations for launch.
  • Total: 102 launches, 97 successes (95%), 5 failures (5%)

Of the 97 successful launches, 61 were to low Earth orbits, including polar and Sun-synchronous orbits, 9 were to medium Earth orbits (mostly used by navigation satellites), 24 were to geosynchronous orbits, 2 were to high Earth or lunar transfer orbits, and 1 was to a heliocentric orbit.  All 5 launch failures were attempts to launch into low Earth orbit.


This Week’s Book Review – Hot Spot of Invention

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.... [Read More]


Book Review: Vandenberg Air Force Base

“Vandenberg Air Force Base” by Joseph T. Page, IIPrior to World War II, the sleepy rural part of the southern California coast between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo was best known as the location where, in September 1923, despite a lighthouse having been in operation at Arguello Point since 1901, the U.S. Navy suffered its worst peacetime disaster, when seven destroyers, travelling at 20 knots, ran aground at Honda Point, resulting in the loss of all seven ships and the deaths of 23 crewmembers. In the 1930s, following additional wrecks in the area, a lifeboat station was established in conjunction with the lighthouse.

During World War II, the Army acquired 92,000 acres (372 km²) in the area for a training base which was called Camp Cooke, after a cavalry general who served in the Civil War, in wars with Indian tribes, and in the Mexican-American War. The camp was used for training Army troops in a variety of weapons and in tank maneuvers. After the end of the war, the base was closed and placed on inactive status, but was re-opened after the outbreak of war in Korea to train tank crews. It was once again mothballed in 1953, and remained inactive until 1957, when 64,000 acres were transferred to the U.S. Air Force to establish a missile base on the West Coast, initially called Cooke Air Force Base, intended to train missile crews and also serve as the U.S.’s first operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) site. On October 4th, 1958, the base was renamed Vandenberg Air Force Base in honour of the late General Hoyt Vandenberg, former Air Force Chief of Staff and Director of Central Intelligence.... [Read More]


Boeing Starliner: Something Is Very Wrong

Boeing CST-100 Starliner

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, their vehicle intended to fly astronauts to the International Space Station from the U.S. launched on its uncrewed test flight at 11:36 UTC today, 2019-12-20.  The launch by an Atlas V/Centaur appeared normally until spacecraft separation.  On a normal mission, the booster places Starliner in a suborbital trajectory which guarantees that if its propulsion system fails astronauts will still return safely to Earth.  After separation, this propulsion system is supposed to place the spacecraft into a parking orbit, from which it proceeds to rendezvous with the space station.... [Read More]



Lawrence Meyers, a writer unknown to me, took a shot at SpaceX, along with other enterprises operating in murky financial territory such as Uber and Tesla.  I took umbrage at his snark about SpaceX, but care less about the other targets of his moralistic ire.  To me, SpaceX is a prime motivator for my desire to live, not forever, but exceptionally long enough to see the inspiring fruits of all those engineers’ labors.  I don’t comment online much, but Townhall is pretty mellow, so I left the following comment on this article:

“Tesla is a toy manufacturer, but SpaceX has serious accomplishments and is on track with its huge satellite program for space-based internet and with its stupendous rocket engineering. Tesla is in a niche market for a simple commodity, but SpaceX is blasting our path to interplanetary exploration, and is inspiring. Tesla, Uber and all other such mundane enterprises are in the bailiwick of “a fool and his money are soon parted” territory. No tears or outrage from me. On the other hand Falcon Heavy’s maiden flight gave me goosebumps and a lump in my throat. Let all those who maunder on about SpaceX try flying to the Moon before they carp about the process.”  Who else loves SpaceX here?


SpaceX Starship Update

In the early morning of September 29th, 2019 UTC (evening of September 28th local time in Texas, the 11th anniversary of SpaceX’s first orbital launch for a Falcon 1), SpaceX founder and Chief Engineer Elon Musk presented a perspective on the history of SpaceX and its plans for the Starship and Super Heavy reusable heavy lift launcher.


Vikram: India to the Moon

Indian Chandrayaan/Vikram lunar landerYou may recall that back on 2019-04-11 we covered the attempt by Israeli non-profit company SpaceIL to land its Beresheet spacecraft on the Moon.  The landing occurred, but with an impact velocity much greater than the hoped-for soft touchdown, dashing Israel’s hope to be fourth country to soft land on the Moon and, incidentally, thwarting plans for the tardigrade conquest of Earth’s natural satellite.

Now, it’s India’s turn.  Today, on 2019-09-06, India’s Vikram lander is scheduled to attempt a soft landing on the Moon between craters Manzinus C and Simpelius N near 70.9° south latitude, the southernmost point of any Moon landing.  The lander is part of the Chandrayaan-2 mission, which was launched on 2019-07-22 by the Indian Space Research Organisation from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre.  If the landing is successful, the lander will deliver a solar-powered rover, Pragyan, to the surface.  The main Chandrayaan spacecraft will study the Moon from a high-inclination 100 km orbit; it released the lander on Monday at 07:45 UTC.... [Read More]


SpaceX Super Heavy / Starship Environmental Assessment Report

We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.
— Wernher von Braun

SpaceX is in the process of developing a completely reusable two-stage super-heavy class orbital launch vehicle called Super Heavy / Starship.  This is the latest iteration in an evolving design which has previously been called the Mars Colonial Transporter, Interplanetary Transport System, and Big Falcon Rocket (BFR).  The present design (which continues to evolve) specifies a payload to low Earth orbit (LEO) between 100 and 150 tonnes.  This compares to the 140 tonnes to LEO of the Saturn V which was, of course, completely expendable.  The Super Heavy/Starship will be, if built to the current design, the largest and most powerful rocket ever, with a lift-off thrust of 62 meganewtons (MN), compared to 35.1 MN for the Saturn V.... [Read More]


This Week’s Book Review – Destination Moon

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Book Review

‘Destination Moon’ a fresh take on telling the story

By MARK LARDAS... [Read More]


Book Review: Island of Clouds

“Island of Clouds” by Gerald BrennanThis is the third book, and the first full-length novel, in the author’s “Altered Space” series of alternative histories of the cold war space race. Each stand-alone story explores a space mission which did not take place, but could have, given the technology and political circumstances at the time. The first, Zero Phase, asks what might have happened had Apollo 13’s service module oxygen tank waited to explode until after the lunar module had landed on the Moon. The present book describes a manned Venus fly-by mission performed in 1972 using modified Apollo hardware launched by a single Saturn V.

“But, wait…”, you exclaim, ”that’s crazy!” Why would you put a crew of three at risk for a mission lasting a full year for just a few minutes of close-range fly-by of a planet whose surface is completely obscured by thick clouds? Far from Earth, any failure of their life support systems, spacecraft systems, a medical emergency, or any number of other mishaps could kill them; they’d be racking up a radiation dose from cosmic rays and solar particle emissions every day in the mission; and the inexorable laws of orbital mechanics would provide them no option to come home early if something went wrong.... [Read More]


Vega Launch Failure, Not-So-Great Moments in Launch Commentary

Vega / Falcon Eye 1 liftoff, 2019-07-11At 01:53 UTC today (2019-07-11) a European Space Agency (ESA) Vega rocket was launched from Arainespace’s site at Kourou, French Guiana, on the east coast of South America.  Its payload was the Falcon Eye 1 reconnaissance satellite built by Airbus Defense and Space for the United Arab Emirates.  The Italian-built Vega is the smallest launcher operated by ESA, and was to place Falcon Eye 1, with a mass of 1197 kg, in a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 611 km.

The Vega is a four stage rocket, with the first three stages solid fuelled and the fourth stage using a hypergolic liquid fuelled engine manufactured in the Ukraine.  This was the fifteenth flight of Vega since its introduction in 2012; all of the first fourteen flights were successful.  Here’s what happened this time.... [Read More]


Book Review: Michoud Assembly Facility

“Michoud Assembly Facility” by Cindy Donze MantoIn March, 1763, King Louis XV of France made a land grant of 140 square kilometres to Gilbert Antoine St Maxent, the richest man in Louisiana Territory and commander of the militia. The grant required St Maxent to build a road across the swampy property, develop a plantation, and reserve all the trees in forested areas for the use of the French navy. When the Spanish took over the territory five years later, St Maxent changed his first names to “Gilberto Antonio” and retained title to the sprawling estate. In the decades that followed, the property changed hands and nations several times, eventually, now part of the United States, being purchased by another French immigrant, Antoine Michoud, who had left France after the fall of Napoleon, who his father had served as an official.

Michoud rapidly established himself as a prosperous businessman in bustling New Orleans, and after purchasing the large tract of land set about buying pieces which had been sold off by previous owners, re-assembling most of the original French land grant into one of the largest private land holdings in the United States. The property was mostly used as a sugar plantation, although territory and rights were ceded over the years for construction of a lighthouse, railroads, and telegraph and telephone lines. Much of the land remained undeveloped, and like other parts of southern Louisiana was a swamp or, as they now say, “wetlands”.... [Read More]


This Week’s Book Review – An Anxious Peace

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.... [Read More]


Saturday Night Science: The Case for Space

“The Case for Space” by Robert ZubrinFifty years ago, with the successful landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon, it appeared that the road to the expansion of human activity from its cradle on Earth into the immensely larger arena of the solar system was open. The infrastructure built for Project Apollo, including that in the original 1963 development plan for the Merritt Island area could support Saturn V launches every two weeks. Equipped with nuclear-powered upper stages (under active development by Project NERVA, and accommodated in plans for a Nuclear Assembly Building near the Vehicle Assembly Building), the launchers and support facilities were more than adequate to support construction of a large space station in Earth orbit, a permanently-occupied base on the Moon, exploration of near-Earth asteroids, and manned landings on Mars in the 1980s.

But this was not to be. Those envisioning this optimistic future fundamentally misunderstood the motivation for Project Apollo. It was not about, and never was about, opening the space frontier. Instead, it was a battle for prestige in the Cold War and, once won (indeed, well before the Moon landing), the budget necessary to support such an extravagant program (which threw away skyscraper-sized rockets with every launch), began to evaporate. NASA was ready to do the Buck Rogers stuff, but Washington wasn’t about to come up with the bucks to pay for it. In 1965 and 1966, the NASA budget peaked at over 4% of all federal government spending. By calendar year 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, it had already fallen to 2.31% of the federal budget, and with relatively small year to year variations, has settled at around one half of one percent of the federal budget in recent years. Apart from a small band of space enthusiasts, there is no public clamour for increasing NASA’s budget (which is consistently over-estimated by the public as a much larger fraction of federal spending than it actually receives), and there is no prospect for a political consensus emerging to fund an increase.... [Read More]


SpaceX Crew Dragon Destroyed in “Anomaly”

Ahhh…, those anomalies—those pesky anomalies.  The worst kind of anomaly is when your spacecraft, in the process of being qualified for human spaceflight to the International Space Station (ISS), goes kaboom on the ground while preparing for a static firing of its launch escape system rocket motors.  You know, kaboom, like this (sorry for the poor quality video—it’s all that’s presently available; there are some nasty words on the audio track.)

... [Read More]