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Virgin Galactic pilots prepare for a SpaceShipTwo test flight. The company announced last week it was delaying the next powered flight of the vehicle until May to address an electromagnetic interference issue, the latest delay for that program. (credit: Quinn Tucker for Virgin Galactic)

Waiting is the hardest part

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There is one thing that nearly every space-related program has in common, be it launch vehicle or satellite, government or commercial, aerospace giant or young startup. It will run late.

That was made abundantly clear last week when three different programs announced delays, ranging from weeks to a year or more. That difficulty to adhere to schedule is at one level remarkable, and at another hardly surprising.

“Everything was going smoothly as we were going into our plan to do the Green Run test,” said Lueders. “Then we ran into another problem with the prevalve.”

Last Monday, NASA announced that technicians preparing the Space Launch System core stage for a second Green Run static-fire test had discovered a problem with a liquid oxygen (LOX) “prevalve” that supplies propellant to the engines. The valve “was not working properly,” NASA said in a statement, but didn’t elaborate on the problem. Because of the issue, NASA said was postponing that static-fire test that had been scheduled for Thursday, February 25.

“Everything was going smoothly as we were going into our plan to do the Green Run test,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, at the 47th Spaceport Summit online conference Wednesday. “Then we ran into another problem with the prevalve, where we were having a hard time getting that to be fully open. Obviously on your LOX system, if you’re trying to run engines at the power levels we’re trying to, we need to have that feed valve be fully open.”

As of the end of last week, NASA had not resolved the problem or set a new date for the test. “After completion of troubleshooting, which will continue over the weekend, NASA will be in a better position to identify a potential date for the second hot fire test,” NASA said Friday.

That test, of course, is a makeup for the first static-fire test in January that was cut short after a little more than a minute (see “Green Run, yellow light”, The Space Review, January 18, 2021). NASA determined that “intentionally conservative” limits for hydraulic reservoir levels and hydraulic pressure were hit in an engine during the test, rather than a technical problem with the engine itself. After some deliberation, NASA decided to perform a second static-fire test to collect the data it needs to verify the performance of the core stage.

Despite those delays, NASA officials remained optimistic that the first SLS launch would still take place before the end of the year. “We feel like we’ve got a reasonable chance of launching this year,” said Tom Whitmeyer, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA Headquarters, at a February 19 briefing. That launch could take place as soon as October under “deterministic” schedules, he said, but acknowledged “it will take a little bit longer.”

Those comments predate the latest delay, which will likely push out the static-fire test to around the middle of March, if not later. Lueders said last week NASA was still “hoping” to launch the SLS by the end of the year. “We’re going to fly when we’re ready.”

New Glenn re-baselined

On Thursday morning, Blue Origin offered a long-awaited update about the development of its New Glenn rocket. The company touted the progress it made on the infrastructure in particular, including videos that took the public for the first time inside the factory it built just outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center for assembling the rocket, as well as its nearly completed Launch Complex 36 launch site. The videos highlighted things like the more than 550 employees that work at the factory, and that one of the two lightning towers at LC-36 is designed to also be a gantry for potential crewed New Glenn launches (although no one has yet announced plans to launch a crewed spacecraft on that rocket.)

“We looked at everything that was on the table, including funding and customers, and we put together a high-probability schedule where we put all of our resources and spread out the necessary funding we needed,” said Jones.

But mixed in with the videos was some bad news. “As major progress is being made on the New Glenn launch vehicle and its Cape Canaveral facilities, the schedule has been refined to match the demand of Blue Origin’s commercial customers,” the company announced. “The current target for New Glenn’s maiden flight is Q4 2022.” That represented a delay of about a year from previous announcement of a late 2021 inaugural launch.

In an interview, Jarrett Jones, Blue Origin’s senior vice president for New Glenn, said the decision to push back that first launch dated back to last August, when the company lost the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 competition (see “Losers and (sore) winners”, The Space Review, August 24, 2020). The Air Force selected ULA’s Vulcan Centaur—powered, like New Glenn, by Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine—and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy over New Glenn and Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket.

“That was a big hit for us,” Jones said, estimating it deprived the company of up to $3 billion in future revenue. “We looked at everything that was on the table, including funding and customers, and we put together a high-probability schedule where we put all of our resources and spread out the necessary funding we needed.”

Blue Origin has several commercial customers for New Glenn, including major satellite operators Eutelsat and Telesat. All those customers, he said, had been consulted about the “re-baselined” schedule and were on board.

He did not discuss any specific issues with the development of the rocket that caused the delay. (“I worry about everything,” he said.) He emphasized the progress the company had made on the BE-4 engine, with more than 11,000 seconds of accumulated test time. “We feel confident” about the engine, he said, expecting the first flight engines to be delivered to ULA in time for Vulcan’s first launch late this year.

“I don’t think this is a big slip”

Later the same day, it was Virgin Galactic’s turn to announce a delay. Last fall, the company outlined a plan for a final series of test flights of its current SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity. One flight, scheduled for November, would be the first powered flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico with two pilots on board. It would be followed early in the first quarter by a similar flight, this time with four company “payload specialists” in the cabin to test its performance on a suborbital flight. A third flight, as soon as late in the first quarter, would carry company founder Richard Branson to space, at long last.

The first flight, which slipped a few weeks, took place December 12. WhiteKnightTwo, with VSS Unity attached, took off from the spaceport and, about 50 minutes later, released Unity. The spaceplane ignited its hybrid rocket motor—which immediately shut down. The vehicle glided to a safe landing back at the spaceport.

Virgin Galactic said that a computer in SpaceShipTwo’s flight control system lost connection around the time of ignition, triggering the abort. The company prepared to repeat the flight as soon as February 13, and went so far as to solicit Valentine’s Day greetings from the public that company would carry on board the vehicle and then return, a project called “Make Space for Love.”

Alas, there would be no love in space. A few days before the flight, the company said it was postponing the test flight to allow “more time for technical checks.” The company didn't elaborate on the issue until Thursday, when it released its latest quarterly earnings and held a call with financial analysts.

“I don’t think this is a big slip at all. I think we’re pushing our flight eight to nine weeks,” Colglazier said.

In that call, Mike Moses, president of Virgin Galactic, said the problem on the December flight was caused by electromagnetic interference (EMI), likely from a new flight control computer system installed on the vehicle. Technicians took steps to shield the computer affected by the EMI, but saw new problems in tests in the days before the planned February flight.

“We saw some of our sensor readings—pressures and temperatures, those kinds of things—show some unusual fluctuations, which let us know EMI was still present and maybe in systems we didn’t initially anticipate,” Moses said. The company will now modify the computer system to eliminate the EMI it is producing.

That will take weeks. Virgin Galactic said on the call that the flight was now scheduled for May. It will then proceed with the next two flights it described last fall, which the company expects to perform in the summer. That will be followed by a flight for the Italian Air Force, carrying payloads and three Italian payload specialists, in late summer or early fall.

Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic, tried to downplay the slip. “I don’t think this is a big slip at all. I think we’re pushing our flight eight to nine weeks,” he said, referring to the previous mid-February date for the flight. It is not a big slip—when compared to the many years of delays SpaceShipTwo has suffered.

Colglazier also emphasized the progress the company was making on new vehicles. The next spaceplane, which the company calls SpaceShip III, will be rolled out March 30 and begin a series of four glide flights and four powered test flights this summer. The new vehicle, he said, features a “modular design” that will result in a higher flight rate and better maintainability.

By the fall, he projected that the company will spend a few months making tweaks to the first SpaceShip III vehicle before its final flight tests. At the same time, Virgin Galactic will perform work on the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, including long-term maintenance. That means VSS Unity will be without a ride just as it’s completed its flight test program and is ready to enter service.

Virgin will use that time for some “additional enhancements” of Unity, but the company confirmed that schedule means no space tourists will fly this year. “At the conclusion of this period, we expect that VSS Unity will begin flying private astronauts and SpaceShip III will be in a position to complete its flight testing, which we expect to be in early ’22,” Colglazier said.

Lessons learned?

The three projects that all announced delays last week are launch vehicles, but quite different ones. SLS is a traditional NASA project that is entirely government funded. New Glenn, while also a heavy-lift vehicle, is run by a company with its own funding source, although one that appeared in retrospect to rely on the government—the Pentagon—more than first thought. SpaceShipTwo, meanwhile, is a suborbital vehicle, entirely commercially funded, but subject to the worst cumulative delays of the three. None share an obvious technical or financial root cause.

Many NASA programs have suffered delays over the years, enough to attract the attention of the agency’s auditors. A 2012 report by NASA’s inspector general looked at cost and schedule overruns in the agency’s programs. “Multiple factors underlie NASA’s historical inability to consistently meet project cost, schedule, and performance goals,” it concluded, but did identify four main ones: a “culture of optimism” at NASA that leads managers to overestimate their ability to stick to cost and schedule; technological complexity; unstable funding; and a lack of personnel with experience managing major programs.

“Multiple factors underlie NASA’s historical inability to consistently meet project cost, schedule, and performance goals,” a NASA inspector general report concluded.

Delays aren’t limited to NASA programs. A 2016 report by Deloitte minces no words in its title: “Program management in aerospace and defense: Still late and over budget.” It found issues throughout the life cycle of programs, from initial development through production, that contributed to delays in commercial aerospace and defense projects. It also highlighted a number of crosscutting issues, from a lack of a skilled workforce to poor project management tools.

The NASA inspector general report called for “strong leadership” to address cost and schedule overruns, including the use of “realistic” estimates, stable requirements, and mature technologies. The Deloitte report, too, recommended “realistic cost and schedule estimates” along with greater discipline regarding engineering changes and an “advanced risk-based approach” to managing programs, among other suggestions.

Would any of that had helped SLS, New Glenn, or SpaceShipTwo avoid their most recent delays, or their longer-term ones? Or are there other, more fundamental reasons why space projects usually take longer and cost more than expected? Perhaps, a version of that “culture of optimism” that leads to adopting best-case scenarios rather than more realistic ones regarding cost and schedule, either because they don’t know the risks or don’t know how to properly weigh them? Or, in some cases, perhaps because you don’t win the contract if you offer the more realistic scenario rather than the best-case one.

If there’s a solution to this broader issue, it’s clearly running behind schedule.

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