Shutdown puts crimp in Space Launch System testing


With help from Bryan Bender

The longest government shutdown is impacting rocket testing for NASA’s Space Launch System. And John Shannon, who oversees the program at Boeing, tells us a prolonged closure spells trouble for the space agency’s lofty space goals: “If we got into a big delay due to the furlough, it could really delay the American return to the moon,” he said.

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Layoffs hit two space companies. Space firm Tethers Unlimited is laying off 20 percent of its employees because it has not been paid for its government work during the shutdown. Separately, SpaceX revealed Friday it’s letting go 10 percent of its employees to make the company “leaner.”

The Transportation Research Board, an arm of the National Academies, will hold two space-focused sessions on Wednesday: on commercial space transportation to low-earth orbit with Robert Seibold, a senior project leader at the Aerospace Corporation, and a behind the scenes look at commercial space launch with Sarah Hubbard, an assistant professor at Purdue University.

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‘SEVERE IMPACT’: Due to the government shutdown, Tethers Unlimited, a Washington-state space and technology company founded in 1994, has not been paid for the in-space fabrication capabilities it is working on for NASA or its efforts to help design ways to build small satellites in orbit for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, forcing a round of layoffs, CEO Rob Hoyt says. “This has had a severe impact on our cash flow, forcing us to lay off 12 good engineers, about 20 percent of our workforce,” he said. “The financial impacts of this shutdown are really damaging to our ability to support and grow the space industry and we hope the president and Congress will stop playing Russian roulette with the American economy.”

The news comes as SpaceX announced it’s laying off about 10 percent of its more than 6,000 employees. “To continue delivering for our customers and to succeed in developing interplanetary spacecraft and a global space-based Internet, SpaceX must become a leaner company,” a spokesperson said Friday. “Either of these developments, even when attempted separately, have bankrupted other organizations. This means we must part ways with some talented and hardworking members of our team. We are grateful for everything they have accomplished and their commitment to SpaceX’s mission. This action is taken only due to the extraordinarily difficult challenges ahead and would not otherwise be necessary.”

The company founded by billionaire Elon Musk is offering at least eight weeks pay and help with their job search, the Los Angeles Times reports.

SHUTDOWN ALSO BUFFETING SLS: Qualification testing on the Space Launch System’s inner and hydrogen tanks has stopped at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama because of the government shutdown, which is now in its 24th day. “The inner tank was undergoing testing when the government shut down, so that’s been interrupted,” John Shannon, the SLS program manager at Boeing, tells us. It also means testing can’t even begin on the hydrogen tank, which arrived at Marshall last week. The testing to ensure rocket components can withstand harsh launch conditions has already been completed for the engine.

The furlough also means NASA and Boeing employees have halted modifications to the stand at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi that will hold the rocket during a test-fire of all four engines. “That test stand is owned by NASA,” said Shannon, who worked for space agency for 25 years before joining Boeing in 2015. “[So] that work has come to a halt during the shutdown.”

Boeing thinks it will be able to catch up and deliver the first completed rocket to NASA as planned in the late fall and carry out the test firing of the engines is still planned for early 2020. But Shannon’s worried a shutdown that stretches on could impact the program more.

NO MORE BUCKET OF BROKEN DRILL BITS: As Boeing begins construction of its second SLS rocket core, which could be the first to carry humans into space, lessons learned from the first rocket are cutting production time about in half, Shannon said. One example: on the first rocket, workers needed to hand drill holes on the bottom of the vehicle. “It took a long time and we had a bucket of broken drill bits sitting out,” Shannon said. On the second go-round, Boeing asked its supplier if they could program a machine to drill the holes . “They were delivered pre-drilled and they have gone together so slick,” he relates. “It’s a lot more fun building the second one.”

REVOLVING AIRLOCK: Senate Commerce spokesman moving to DC lobby firm. Frederick Hill, the Senate Commerce Committee communications director under former Chairman Sen. John Thune, will join FTI Consulting’s strategic communications practice starting Tuesday. As a managing director he will lead the firm’s telecom, media and technology sector. Some of its recent space clients include the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority and Maxar Technologies, according to the federal lobbying disclosure database.

2019 LOBBY REGISTRATIONS START TO TRICKLE IN. CoolCAD Electronics, a semiconductor R&D firm in College Park, Maryland, is getting into the space lobbying game, hiring Mark Hamilton at Federal Business Group, a government relations outfit, to advise on “DoD and NASA Appropriations,” according to a new disclosure.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “If we die, we want people to accept it. We’re in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.” — Apollo 1 Astronaut Gus Grissom, who died during a test on the launch pad 52 years ago this month.

— Air and Space Museum director still gets “goosebumps” around space objects.

— NASA’s InSight lander listening for Marsquakes.

— SpaceX moving forward on internet from space.

— And Elon Musk’s company launched 10 Iridium satellites Friday.

— Will the Space Force ever become a reality?

— How politics are beginning to degrade America’s space partnership with Russia.

— Russia’s space telescope no longer responding to signals.

— Chinese claim total success for robotic moon mission.

— Japanese space startups trying to use space in new ways.

— What’s in store for spaceflight in 2019.

— A steam-powered spacecraft could conduct limitless exploration.

— Growing green beans on the space station?

— More than 20 people have already paid $80,000 deposit to visit space hotel.

MONDAY: The Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting begins in Washington, D.C.

WEDNESDAY: The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee holds an organizational meeting.

WEDNESDAY: European Space Agency Director Jan Worner holds his annual press breakfast in Paris.

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