NASA’s Morpheus B lunar lander, derived from the Armadillo Aerospace Pixel/Texel lander, completed its first free flight at Kennedy Space Center, Florida today.

Written by Astro1 on December 10th, 2013 , Armadillo Aerospace

The NewSpace Journal reports that Armadillo Aerospace is in hibernation mode. The story by Jeff Foust is based on remarks which Armadillo founder John Carmack made at the QuakeCon gaming convention, which took place in Dallas last week. (Carmac is also the founder and technical director of ID Software.)

Carmac has put about $8 million of his own money into Armadillo Aerospace over the years, but that spending has slowed as he concentrates more on his software business. A setback came in January, with the loss of Armadillo’s Stig-B rocket when the main parachute failed to open following a launch from New Mexico’s Spaceport America. There has been no visible activity from Armadillo since January, so the latest comments came as no surprise. If outside investment is not found, Carmac says he intends to wind the company down further.

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Written by Astro1 on August 5th, 2013 , Armadillo Aerospace

NASA has resumed tethered flight testing of the Morpheus lander, based on the Pixel lander developed by Armadillo Aerospace for the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.

The first Morpheus lander was destroyed in an accident on August 9, 2012 during the first attempted free-flight test at Kennedy Space Center. NASA has funded two replacements, Morpheus B and C. The new vehicles have an upgraded 5,000-pound thrust engine, about 20% than Morpheus A (4,200 pounds thrust).

The first fully integrated test of Morpheus B was conducted on May 1.

The following video, posted on May 21, shows the first use of a flame trench with the Morpheus lander.

The Morpheus lander is sized to land a Robonaut-sized payload on the Moon. The goal of the current tethered tests is to prepare for future free flights at Kennedy Space Center, including a kilometer-long approach test along the former Shuttle runway as shown in the following simulation.

Written by Astro1 on May 21st, 2013 , Armadillo Aerospace

In the last few days, United Launch Alliance, Armadillo, and SpaceX launched rockets, all three of which showed performance anomalies.

On Thursday, October 4, United Launch Alliance launched a US Air Force GPS satellite on a Delta IV rocket. The first stage functioned according to plan, but the second-stage RL-10 engine underperformed, producing less thrust than its nominal 24,750-pound thrust. The engine burned for a longer duration to compensate, and the payload achieved proper orbit.

On Saturday, October 6, Armadillo Aerospace launched its Stig-B rocket for the first time at Spaceport America in New Mexico. The mission goal was to demonstrate flight to 100 kilometers and successful recovery using the supersonic ballute (balloon-parachute) system. The target altitude was not achieved. After launch, software detected that the rocket had reached an abort limit and shut the engine down. The rocket was successfully recovered, analysis is underway, and another flight is expected within a few weeks.

On Sunday, October 7, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying another Dragon capsule to the Internstional Space Station. Unlike the last Dragon flight, which was considered a test, this was officially an operational mission. About 1 minute 19 seconds into flight, one of the Merlin 1C first-stage engines failed, as can be seen in the following slow-motion video:

Based solely on the video, some observers have concluded that the event was a sudden catastrophic disassembly (i.e., engine explosion). At the moment, SpaceX is saying that it was an engine shutdown but has no further details. Update: SpaceX is now saying that the debris seen in the video is an aerodynamic fairing which ruptured when the engine shut down and lost pressure.

The Falcon 9 is designed to lose a first-stage engine, even explosively, and continue a mission. In the event of an explosion, shields protect neighboring engines from shrapnel damage. The Saturn V had a similar engine-out capability but was not designed to withstand an explosive failure.

If this this event was an explosion, it shows that the shrapnel shields work. Blowing an engine on a multi-engine rocket is similar to blowing a piston in an a piston-engine aircraft: a serious anomaly, but not necessarily fatal if the system is designed for it. During World War II, P-47 Thunderbolts would return to base with a lot of pistons shot out. In the jet era, the A-10 Thunderbolt II has been known to return to base with one engine shot away. The Falcon 9 was able to continue its mission, burning its remaining engines a bit long (like the Delta a few days earlier), and put its Dragon payload into an almost-perfect orbit. Perhaps SpaceX should have called the Falcon 9 the “Thunderbolt III.”

That having been said, Falcon 9 could not continue a mission after the failure of a second stage engine. (There’s only one.) So, this is a situation SpaceX will want to investigate.

Some critics will now say SpaceX cut too many corners and should have done more testing and analysis. Flight testing is always a good thing, and SpaceX is doing it right now. NASA may have classified this as an operational mission, but that doesn’t mean there’s no testing and analysis going on. Remember that the Space Shuttle was declared operational after only four missions, but NASA continued testing and tweaking throughout the 30-year program.

SpaceX could have done some additional flight tests, with dummy payloads, before starting cargo runs to ISS. That would have delayed payloads to ISS, cost NASA more money (those Russian Progress flights aren’t cheap anymore), and not resulted in any more test data than the actual cargo flights produce.

In the early days of rocketry, it was common to do a lot more test flights before committing to carrying cargo for paying customers. The economics of large expendable rockets changed that. That’s true for Boeing and Lockheed as much as SpaceX. The number of test flights is greatly reduced; to compensate, a lot more money is spent on analysis and systems engineering prior to the first test flight. All that analysis does not come cheap, however, and even the best analysis cannot uncover all the unknowns that crop up in flight.

If flight testing were cheaper and easier, vehicle developers could reduce the amount of systems analysis that’s required before first flight. That would reduce development time as well as development cost.

Optimizing rockets for cheap flight test would require a new design approach. What would a highly testable rocket look like?

A highly testable rocket would be cheap enough to fly often. It would require minimal preparation time, so flight tests could be scheduled quickly, when required. It would be recoverable after an anomaly, so engineers could examine the hardware to determine what happened rather than relying solely on telemetry data. It would be incrementally testable, allowing for low-altitude, low-speed flight tests early on, when systems are immature.

In other words, it would be a reusable rocket.

Nevertheless, the myth persists, in the aerospace industry, that reusable rockets are more expensive to develop. To quote the legendary late rocket engineer Max Hunter, “The people who say expendables are cheaper to develop forget that in order to develop a rocket, you have to fly a rocket.”

During the 1960’s, General Dynamics did an apples-to-apples comparison of a reusable rocket (the X-15) and an expendable rocket (the Atlas A) of similar size and performance. They found that the X-15 was more complex, but also more testable, more reliable, and cheaper to develop. The US Air Force performed a parallel study, using slightly different methods, and reached the same conclusion.

More recently, we have examples such as White Knight and SpaceShip One, a two-stage system developed for about $15 million. The development program included 66 flights of White Knight and 17 flights of SpaceShip One. By comparison, in 2011, NASA’s sounding rocket program had a budget of $45 million and conducted just 13 launches.

Rocket development, like other aspects of spaceflight, is highly immature. Jet engines and liquid-propellent rockets have been around for similar lengths of time, but the number of rocket engines that have flown is minuscule compared to the number of jet engines. So, it isn’t surprising that in-flight anomalies still occur quite often. The development of rocket engines has been arrested by decisions made back in the 1960’s, which led to 50 years of reliance on expendable rockets with trivial flight rates. Fortunately, that era is rapidly drawing to a close.

Written by Astro1 on October 8th, 2012 , Armadillo Aerospace, SpaceX

The Morpheus lunar lander suffered a mechanical failure and crashed during its first untethered test flight, which took place at Kennedy Space Center on Thursday. The crash occurred almost immediately after rocket engine ignition.

Morpheus had previously completed numerous tethered flight tests at Johnson Space Center in Texas. It was recently moved to Florida for untethered flight testing. Morpheus was built for NASA by Armadillo Aerospace and derived from the Quad rocket which Armadillo successfully flew in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. Morpheus was modified and tweaked by NASA after it took delivery from Armadillo.

It’s inevitable that someone will contrast this failure to the successful landing of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, which occurred the same week. We hope people don’t take the wrong lesson from that coincidence. The MSL landing was successful, but it came at orders of magnitude higher cost. NASA could afford to build and crash hundreds of Morpheus landers for the cost of Curiosity.

There are surely lessons to be learned here, as there are after any mishap, but we hope that NASA does not once again learn the false lesson that low-cost projects are too risky to undertake.

One of the contributing factors, we suspect, is the lack of management and political support for the program. Morpheus was originally Project M, a low-cost X-project intended to place a walking robonaut on the Moon in less than 1000 days. The official commitment to that goal was never forthcoming, however, and Project M morphed into a relatively unfocused lunar-lander technology-test program called Morpheus. Rather than developing a lander that was good enough, the new goal was simply to experiment, so tweaking became the order of the day. This is very similar to what happened when NASA took over the DC-X project, with similar results.

We also wonder if NASA’s decision to take the program in-house, rather than keeping the Armadillo team involved with flight testing, may have been a mistake. We understand NASA’s motivation and desire to train its own team in lander operations, but having the experienced Armadillo crew would probably have allowed things to go more smoothly.

These are problems which can be easily fixed, if NASA has the will to do so. The cost of a replacement lander would be about the same as Curiosity‘s coffee budget. It isn’t obviously that NASA has the will to fix the problems, however. Developing a functional lunar lander is a low priority for NASA right now, and it would be all too easy for the agency to slip back into CYA mode (cover your anatomy) and simply cancel the program.

Written by Astro1 on August 11th, 2012 , Armadillo Aerospace

cowboy, horse, and spaceship

Texas may soon have more spaceports than any other state.

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Written by Astro1 on June 14th, 2012 , Armadillo Aerospace, Spaceports, SpaceX Tags:

Current Administration space policy calls for NASA to look beyond the “been there, done that” of the Moon.

From a policy perspective, that is arguably a wise decision. By returning to the Moon, NASA might easily end up stuck in an “ISS 2 on the Moon” situation.

There’s also a technological argument against returning to the Moon, however. Returning to the Moon would require developing a lunar lander, a new piece of a single-purpose hardware that would make lunar landings more expensive than missions to, say, an asteroid. But is that assumption necessarily true?

Under the Bush Vision of Space Exploration, NASA was planning to spend around $10 billion to development the Altair lunar lander. That’s certainly a significant amount of money – several times what SpaceX expects to spend to develop both the Falcon rocket and the Dragon capsule – but NASA was proposing (not unexpectedly) to build the mother of all lunar landers, rather than a minimal cost system. Since we now know that’s unrealistic, what sort of lander options might be affordable, either for NASA or private industry?

Surprisingly, there are a number of possibilities which, if not quite off-the-shelf, are fairly close.

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On March 16, NASA conducted another test of its Morpheus lunar lander. The Morpheus lander, built by Armadillo Aerospace, is sized to land a 1,100-pound payload on the Moon. Morpheus is a scaled up version of the Pixel quad rocket which Armadillo built to compete for the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. Project Morpheus is based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Tests like these show how far Armadillo Aerospace has come. Founded by Doom video-game creator John Carmac, Armadillo Aerospace was originally staffed entirely by volunteers. Although the company is now run by paid employees, its development shows how citizen-science efforts can contribute to the development of rocketry and space technology. (Armadillo Aerospace was still run by volunteers when it won the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.)

The video below shows an overview of previous Morpheus tests.

Written by Astro1 on March 17th, 2012 , Armadillo Aerospace, Rocketry, Space Exploration (General) Tags:

Armadillo Aerospace is a Texas-based company founded by video-game pioneer John Carmac. Armadillo won the first Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge and built the Project Morpheus lander for NASA. The company is currently working on a number of projects, including a suborbital rocket for Space Adventures.

Armadillo’s concept is a vertical-takeoff vertical-landing vehicle that bears an interest visual similarity to the Gemini capsule. Space Adventures has posted a Youtube video.

Written by Astro1 on February 17th, 2012 , Armadillo Aerospace, Citizen Exploration, Commercial Space (General), Space Adventures Tags:
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