America’s return to human spaceflight

DM2 mission patch If you know me (and even if you don’t) it’s pretty obvious that I like rocket launches, which is why today, 27th May, 2020 is an exciting day. If the weather cooperates, we’ll see the first commercial crew flight – with astronauts on board – to the International Space Station (ISS), and it’s launching at 4.33pm EDT (9.33pm BST).

What’s so special about that – astronauts go to space all the time don’t they?

Apart from the fact that rocket launches are cool, there are several elements of this mission that mean it’s a big deal for the space community – especially those in the USA. For the last nine years, every astronaut and cosmonaut to have flown to the ISS has flown on a Russian Soyuz rocket, launching from Kazakhstan (roughly every three months). Soyuz has been the only human-rated vehicle capable of reaching, and docking with, the space station – meaning if anything ever stopped Soyuz flying (as happened in November 2018) it could mean serious problems  (including, potentially, an early end to the ISS programme). Today’s Demo Mission 2 (DM-2) launch also includes a number of “firsts”:

  • This will be the first time since the space shuttle programme ended, that the US has launched astronauts to the ISS, on a US rocket, from US soil – and that was nine years ago, in 2011. Many in the US have been waiting for this moment for a long time, and felt the gap in US human launch capability, was too long. (In fact in December 2010 I placed a bet with a friend of mine about when the US would next send it’s own astronauts into space post-Shuttle programme… happily/sadly I won!)


  • This will also be the first time that the SpaceX Falcon 9 and the Crew Dragon capsule will be used to launch humans into space. We know that space is hard, and with human lives at stake, there is very little room for error. Of course the rocket and the capsule have both gone through significant testing programmes and wouldn’t be allowed to fly without NASA sign-off, but any launch carries a risk, and this has never been done before. Now as much as you might imagine astronauts to be super-human, they are just people, highly trained people, sitting on top of a lot of rocket fuel.


  • This is also the first flight where NASA has “bought a ride” with a commercial operator to send humans to the ISS. When the space shuttle was retired, the idea was that rather than have NASA spend its money developing another vehicle to reach low Earth orbit, which it knows it can do, perhaps they should concentrate on pushing the boundaries and exploring further. Funding was given to commercial space companies to develop cargo- and crew-transport vehicles, so NASA could use commercial services to support the ISS. It likened to a using a taxi service rather than owning your own car.


When is it happening?

The launch is scheduled for 4.33 pm EDT – which equates to 9.33pm BST. It is an “instantaneous launch window”, meaning that if there is any hold up at all they will have to try again in the next available launch window, which would be either 30th or 31st May. The reason they can’t launch at any old time is that they have to time the launch to match with the position of the space station (which is orbiting the planet at approx.. 17,500 mph!) in such a way that their rocket can basically chase, and catch-up with, the ISS ready for docking. You don’t want to risk crashing into the ISS, and nor do you want to be so far away you run out of fuel before you catch-up with it!

How can I watch?

With COVID-19 social distancing rules in place, even if you’re lucky enough to be on the space coast near Cape Canaveral, you should really stay home and stay safe. For those of us watching from around the globe, you’ll find livestreams available online on NASA TV which begins its official launch programming at 12.15pm EDT (5.15pm BST) and also on the SpaceX website at the same time (I’m not clear if SpaceX will run the same content as NASA or create their own coverage). If you’re in the UK, its ISS-spotting season, so if you wanted to tear yourself away from the launch coverage between 21:20 and 21:27 depending on how dark it is, you might just about be able to catch the ISS overhead. Else just wait for the next pass just before 11pm, although this won’t be so high in the sky, so it depends on how clear your horizon is. Excitingly, because the Crew Dragon is chasing the ISS, it will also pass over the UK – so if you’re able to, pop outside and look to the south-west and try to spot it at 21:53! It won’t be anything like as bright as some of the good ISS passes are, but how awesome would it be to watch a launch online, and 20 minutes later watch that same vehicle fly over your house? Here’s hoping for clear skies! You can find out when to look out for the ISS and Crew Dragon with the amazing (if basic looking) Heavens Above website.

Who is onboard?

NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley (left) and Robert Behnken (right) ahead of their historic commercial crew programme launch

NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley (left) and Robert Behnken (right) ahead of their historic commercial crew programme launch. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Two astronauts are going to be onboard Crew Dragon for this flight (though it has the capacity of four crew members for NASA missions, and up to seven according to SpaceX) and they are NASA spaceflight veterans Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley (who piloted the final space shuttle flight back in 2011). They will join the ISS Expedition 63 crew on the space station – for an as-yet undecided – stay (though the Demo-2 capsule has a 110 day on-orbit limit).

How can I find out more?

Check out the “Launch America” pages on the NASA website and find out more about Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 on the SpaceX website. Space social media is already a-buzz with people discussing the missions and getting excited to watch the launch today. The #LaunchAmerica hashtag is being promoted by NASA, but you’ll find plenty of people using #SpaceX #DM2 (Demo Mission 2) #CrewDragon and more. I like to tweet about #LaunchClub and find out where in the world people are watching – launches like this always attract a big international audience, which is awesome. As is traditional, I’ll say “God speed” Crew Dragon, Bob and Doug, may you have soft landings (does that count for splashdowns?), and I’ll see you all later this evening, tweeting frantically as @SpaceKate!

Apollo50 at Goonhilly Earth Station

Goonhilly Earth Station Apollo50 VIP pass

The 50th anniversary of the first human footsteps on the Moon seemed like a good thing to celebrate, and without the time/budget to make it to the US, I needed to find a celebration a little closer to home. What better place than Goonhilly Earth Station down in Cornwall for a day of space, music, author talks beer and even a quiz?

Goonhilly Earth Station - Arthur

“Arthur” the dish that received the first live transatlantic TV broadcasts was the backdrop to the Apollo50 event, with a cool laser display!

Surrounded by large dishes, some in the process of being restored and upgraded to become ground stations (potentially for future Moon missions), we had a fabulous day. It’s amazing to think that when Ian Jones and his small team decided to rescue the Goonhilly site and bring it back to life as a commercial ground station there were trees growing through some of the dishes! It was great to see what they’ve got up and running already and hear plans for the future – and then there was Public Service Broadcasting, banging out some of their excellent space-based tunes from the Race to Space album. What more could you want?

One Giant Leap beer at GoonhillyWell it was a sunny day – so how about a pint of “One Giant Leap” beer? Described as an IPA – Inter-Planetary Ale – it was brewed specially for the event by Sharp’s (a well-known Cornish brewery) and even used space-themed ingredients such as planet malt, and aurora and galaxy hops! They’d done an excellent job of designing the beer tap markers too.

With the Radiophonic Workshop playing bits from Hitchhiker’s Guide and the Doctor Who theme compilation it was a geeky paradise!

Public Service Broadcasting playing "Go!"

The pièce de résistance was yet to come though – a live Moon bounce (where you transmit a signal to the Moon and literally use the surface of the Moon as a giant reflector and pick it up again two seconds later) showed off what the Goonhilly facility is capable of. A chap even proposed to his girlfriend in front of the crowds, but the most wonderful bit for me was when they sent up clips of Neil Armstrong’s first words as he stepped off the ladder and on to the Moon back in 1969. This allowed us to hear his original iconic words, from the Moon, and that was a bit special. You can check out the video of that on my Instagram page!

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We have a winner!

Seven years ago, half way through my #SpaceNomad adventure waiting for STS-133 to launch, I found myself in a bar in Portland, Oregon.

With me, a good friend – and fellow space fan – James. James and I first met in the Netherlands at a new media conference, cemented a friendship in London, and then a promotion at work saw him heading back to the US to live in California. Home for James though, was Oregon, and here I was, unexpectedly in his town, meeting him for a glass of wine.

Credit: Kate Arkless GrayAs we discussed the ending of the Space Shuttle programme I expressed the view that it would take quite some time for the US to be able to send astronauts back to space on their own hardware, but James was much more optimistic about companies like SpaceX filling the gap that shuttle would leave.

My network seemed to think it would be at least seven years before the US would fly their own astronauts, so I plumped for that as a reasonable estimate. James put his faith in the innovative spirit of Elon Musk and said they’d be flying before that. There was only one thing for it – a bet! (I mean, if it’s good enough for Stephen Hawking…)

I said the US wouldn’t have the capability to put people into space before 1st December 2017, and James took the opposing view. Having shaken on the deal – agreeing that whichever one lost the bet would have to cook the meal of the other’s choice, in the location of their choice (choosing between our two home towns) – I realised that much of my intel had been collected at the start of 2010. Had I made a mistake agreeing to December? It could be a close one! I took solace in the fact that at least I was betting on something that I’d be happy to see happen sooner, so even losing the bet would be positive.

Over the years we’ve sent emails back and forth, taunting each other with leaps in progress, or technical setbacks and delays. Each year my phone has reminded me on this day that the best was still running, but today I realise it’s over – I won!

Other than looking forward to conjuring up a tasty meal for James to cook – and wondering if he’ll really fly me to San Francisco so I can enjoy it! – I don’t feel much joy at having been right. This feels like a bet that I should have lost, and would have been happy to have lost, but space is hard and when it comes to human safety you don’t want to rush things.

I don’t like to think of myself as a cynic, I’m honestly an optimist at heart, but I also have a realistic view not only about what’s possible, but what is “likely” – and the too can sometimes be very different beasts.

Ad astra friends – and James… I’ll be in touch! ;)

The GLXP is dead. Long live the GLXP!

The Moon

*This post was written before the GLXP released new information about the prize deadline on 16th August 2017 – and is based on the idea that the teams must launch before the end of 2017*

In 2010 I found myself on the Isle of Man, reporting on the Google Lunar XPRIZE team summit that was taking place there. It was one of the first space-themed things that I’d ever been involved with, and as such, I was super excited to hear about a competition where a host of internationally-based teams were racing to send rovers to the Moon.

“Robots on the Moon” I thought, “wow. That. Is. Cool

Here we are in 2017, the 36 original teams have been whittled down to just five, and the deadline for reaching the Moon, despite having been previously extended twice, is now looming large. To win, teams have to land on the Moon, drive 500 m and send back HD video – by the end of 2017. There are just five months left.

Now in the interests of transparency, I should mention I’m now working with PTScientists, (previously known as the Part-Time Scientists) who were one of original 36 Google lunar XPRIZE teams. They are no longer competing as their launch is scheduled for post-2017, and thus don’t meet the deadline for the GLXP. This post is solely based on publicly available information (as linked in the piece), and I only speak for myself, not my employer. Okay – official-ese done, let’s get down to business…

Space is hard, we know that, and managing a soft-landing on another celestial body adds an additional layer of complexity. That’s before you consider that rovers need to be deployed safely, drive 500 m and send high-quality video back to Earth.

Getting over the first hurdle – launch – is one of the hardest to achieve, and that’s what I’m going to focus on here – since without it, the rest is immaterial. So let’s take a look at the runners and riders, and see whether we’ll see a private mission on the Moon by the end of this year.


Let’s start with SpaceIL – the Israeli team – since it seems they are now aiming for a 2018 launch, which automatically rules them out. What happened to the launch contract that got them through to the final five? Well, (as one article suggests) they may have sold their launch slot on a SpaceX Falcon9 or (as another article suggests) are suffering from SpaceX launch slippages, and now targeting a 2018 launch. In either of these scenarios, they will not meet the requirements on the Google Lunar XPRIZE. So that leaves us with four.

MY VERDICT: Out of the running

Team Indus

The only team that does have a scheduled launch date is Team Indus, surely making them the favourite at this point. (Other strong teams Astrobotic and PTScientists opted for post-2017 launches and have thus left the competition already.)

We know that India’s national space programme has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years, and there can be no shortage of smart engineers to form a team there. Add to that they are launching on a proven launch vehicle (the PSLV) and have a scheduled date for launch and things are looking good. That said, a launch date of 28th December 2017 leaves very little room for delays or problems of any kind, since the deadline for launch (thought thankfully for them not landing) is the end of this year. Any launch slip could put them perilously close to disqualification (how cruel if a launch were to be pushed back to 1st January 2018?!).

Another issue is that launches are expensive, and there are some signs that they are struggling to raise the cash required to guarantee their space on the rocket. Then there is this article which suggests that they don’t hold the necessary paperwork required, thus putting the whole mission at risk for other reasons.

MY VERDICT: IF red-tape and finances are in order, they’ll get my vote. But it’s a BIG “if”.

Moon Express

Next up is Moon Express. I regularly hear this team touted as a favourite to win the prize, and I certainly think they are good at pushing their image in the space press, but let’s look a little bit closer at their chances.

Moon Express has a launch contract with New Zealand start-up (with US company listing) Rocket Lab USA, about whom very little information was available until they conducted a recent test launch of their Electron Rocket. Interested to find out a bit more about their chances of getting to the testing phase I looked into whether New Zealand had granted them a licence to launch, and discovered that the framework for them even to apply for such a thing had to be quickly rushed through parliament! New Zealand has not been considering a space-faring nation up until then, so it’s interesting to see things evolve for them.

Anyway, back to Rocket Lab. They conducted a test launch – #itsatest – on 25th May 2017. For all the positive press that this received, one major element seems to have been overlooked: it didn’t make orbit. Now, for a first test of a rocket, that’s not the end of the world – but for Moon Express, who are relying on this vehicle to help them on their journey to the Moon, it’s a Big Deal.

Rocket Lab stated that they were going to run three test launches before taking commercial payloads, unless the earlier launches went particularly well, and they might then consider taking commercial payload on a later test launch. We’re two months since their first launch and they are still crunching the data. It didn’t go brilliantly, so the likelihood that they will take payload on the next test launch is low, and, not to put too fine a point on it, time is running out.

Another side thought is this: I’ve seen pictures of the mock-up of the MX-1E lander and it seems pretty small. I’m not a rocket scientist (sadly), but it sort of feels like maybe they would need more fuel to get to the Moon from Earth orbit, no? Unless they have another launch vehicle lined up, I wouldn’t put my money on Moon Express getting to the Moon this year – no matter how good their media game is.

MY VERDICT: Good patter, but over-optimistic. Without a different launch vehicle, I’m going to take a punt and say it ain’t happening this year.

Synergy Moon

Who are we left with then? There’s Team Synergy Moon, but again, they are relying on a new rocket – and it’s being built by one of their founding partners, Interorbital Systems. According to Synergy Moon, they will launch on a Neptune-8 rocket, so I went to find out a bit more about it. So far, it doesn’t appear to exist, but Interorbital Systems describe the Neptune rocket family as being “assembled from multiple Common Propulsion Modules (CPMs)”. So a bit like Lego bricks then? Just stick a few more modules together for a bigger rocket? Hmmmm.

This is where it starts to get a bit confusing. There is different (and at times contradictory) information online, and even the company website can’t seem to make up its mind! Depending on the section you read, Synergy Moon is either launching on an N8 LUNA rocket, comprised of 8 long CPMs, or an N36 (which, if you follow their naming convention of the small Neptune rockets, would involve 36 propulsion modules!). I found an amazing image, (credited to Interorbital Systems, but apparently no longer on their site) which shows what the N36 might look like. Forgive me for feeling less than confident about this modular approach.

Their latest press release (from 25th July 2017) announces that their N1-GTV is almost ready for a low-altitude flight test. Once this is complete they will attempt to build an orbital version. Given the N1 forms the basis of their larger rockets, they are a long way from getting to the Moon.  Oh – and I didn’t mention their plan to launch from “a private island launch site or from the open ocean” did I?

I’m afraid this is rocket science, and there is a reason that that clichéd phrase is often used – it is hard. Once again there is no news of a launch date as far as I can tell, so again, I’m putting their chances at small to miracle.

MY VERDICT: I admire the innovation, but I think they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.

Team Hakuto

That means it’s all down to Japan’s Team Hakuto then, which is a bit of an issue really, since not only do they not have their own landing vehicle (which frankly doesn’t seem in keeping with the spirit of the original competition), but without Team Indus, they won’t have a launch either. Oh.

MY VERDICT: Hitchhiking to the Moon isn’t easy… even if they make it I’d credit Team Indus with the win.

Is anyone capable of winning the Google Lunar XPRIZE this year?

I’d say – no. In fact, I think I’d put money on it. That’s not to say it is impossible, but at this point it is so improbable that I’m frankly surprised that Moon Express are still publicly pushing a message that they think they can win.

I actually got in touch with the GLXP press contact (as listed on their site) recently to find out whether I’d missed any press releases. The most recent one about the status of the GLXP, which they kindly pointed me to, was that from January, when they announced the five teams through to the final stage. The fact that there didn’t seem to be any launch scheduling updates – with so little time left in the competition – should ring alarm bells, even if nothing else I’ve written, has.

Is the GLXP a failure?

While it is of course disappointing that it is nigh on impossible for any team to meet the requirements of the challenge as it currently stands, the very fact that there were so many teams that came together to give it a shot is a brilliant thing. (And of course, if any of the remaining teams were to prove me wrong, I’d be the first to celebrate their success!)

At least three of the original teams have developed serious business plans that expand on the basic GLXP requirements (to land, drive 500 m and send back HD video). Moon Express recently announced a range of vehicles that they hope to use to expand their Moon business, PTScientists will conduct a range of scientific experiments and technology demonstrations on the lunar surface – as well as returning to the site of Apollo 17 to investigate the structure of the original Lunar Roving Vehicle after 45 years on the Moon, and Astrobotic have a partnership with DHL to allow you to send a keepsake to the Moon using a DHL MoonBox. All three companies are banking on a demand for payload delivery services to the Moon (– and beyond?).

Without the GLXP I doubt there would have been the impetus for these companies to be founded and to invest in developing new technology. Despite all the talk about Mars in the past few years, I have noticed a serious and growing interest in the Moon. This year will see China’s Chang’e 5 sample return mission launch to the Moon, ESA Director General Jan Woerner is pushing his “Moon Village” agenda, and at the recent Global Space Exploration Conference there was a real buzz around discussions involving the Moon.

I think that this is a trend that is set to continue, and Google Lunar XPRIZE-inspired teams have a great opportunity to lead the charge in the private sector – becoming valuable and accessible partners for space agencies, nations and industry.

Whether or not any team manages to fulfil the GLXP challenge before the deadline (which I greatly doubt), there is no question in my mind that the Google lunar XPRIZE has been a force for good.

I will be watching the remaining teams – and those companies that opted for later launch dates – with interest. Cheers Google, and cheers XPRIZE. Here’s to the Moon! Ad astra et ad luna!

UPDATE: It appears that XPRIZE may have come to the same conclusion about the 2017 deadline. Their latest press release gives teams until 31st March 2018 to complete their missions, while elsewhere on the site it states that the teams’ verified launch dates are in 2018. Interesting…