NASA rejects Blue Origin’s offer of a cheaper upper stage for the SLS rocket

A video still showing an Exploration Upper Stage in flight.
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A video still showing an Exploration Upper Stage in flight.


On Halloween, NASA posted a document that provides some perspective on the agency’s long-term plans for the Space Launch System rocket. This is the agency’s titanic booster that has been under development since 2010, has an annual budget of more than $2 billion, and will not fly before at least 2021. The new document, known as a Justification for Other Than Full and Open Competition, explains why NASA rejected a lower-cost version of an upper stage for its rocket.

Early on, the space agency opted to build the large SLS rocket in phases. The initial version, Block 1, would have a placeholder upper stage. As a result, this initial variant of the rocket would be somewhat limited in its capabilities and only marginally more powerful than private rockets—most notably SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Blue Origin’s New Glenn boosters—developed without the deep pockets of US taxpayers.

The much more capable Block 1b of the SLS rocket will stand apart from these private rockets. With its more powerful second stage, known as the Exploration Upper Stage, it will more than double the lift capacity of these private rockets. Additionally, it will have the capability to launch both large amounts of cargo and the crewed Orion spacecraft at the same time.

At the outset of the program, NASA chose Boeing to build both the core stage of the SLS rocket, as well as the Exploration Upper Stage. In recent years, Congress has appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars for the agency and Boeing to design this new upper stage to fit on top of the SLS rocket. The agency has yet to move into development of the upper stage, however.

A comparison between the Interium Cryogenic Propulsion Stage and the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage.

A comparison between the Interium Cryogenic Propulsion Stage and the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage.


There are several reasons for this. NASA wants Boeing to finish the SLS rocket’s core stage first, as it is already four years late. Moreover, because of Boeing’s performance on the core stage and projected costs of the Exploration Upper Stage, the agency was curious if there were other aerospace companies interested in building a powerful upper stage for the SLS rocket.

Two years ago this frustration, in part, led NASA to issue a request for industry to provide a “low-cost replacement” for the RL-10 rocket engine that powered the Exploration Upper Stage, as well as perhaps an entirely new stage itself. An agency spokesperson said at the time the request sought to “open up the field of possible responses” and reduce costs of the SLS rocket’s proposed upper stage.

Since that time, the issue of the Exploration Upper Stage has largely simmered behind the scenes. The new document released on Halloween, however, provides some clarity for what happened. And instead of opening upper stage bidding into a formal bidding process, NASA decided to stick with Boeing’s version of the Exploration Upper Stage. Because this was a non-competitive process, NASA had to justify it with the new document.

The bidders

In the new paperwork, we learn that Boeing and its long-time competitor, Lockheed Martin, proposed to build the Exploration Upper Stage as designed, with four RL-10 rocket engines manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne. In addition, Blue Origin submitted an “alternate response” to the upper stage design.

This design was based upon Blue Origin’s BE-3U rocket engine, a modified version of the motor that powers the New Shepard launch system, which will also fly in the upper stage of the company’s New Glenn rocket. A single BE-3U engine has more thrust than four RL-10 engines combined. So Blue Origin likely proposed an upper stage powered by a single BE-3U engine.

The costs

Rocket engine costs are something of a black box, but it is likely that a single BE-3U engine will cost about the same, or less, than a single RL-10 engine. Therefore Blue Origin’s upper stage would almost certainly cost significantly less than the Exploration Upper Stage proposed by Boeing. (NASA’s justification document redacts the agency’s investment to date in the Exploration Upper Stage.)

Various sources have suggested wildly different cost estimates for the Exploration Upper Stage. But one thing we know for sure from NASA’s 2017 request of industry is that the agency sought to cut costs and must have believed Boeing’s price was too high.

How high was it? We can make an educated guess. Using the Advanced Missions Cost Model, we can roughly estimate the development cost of an upper stage with a dry mass of 13.1 metric tons at $2.5 billion (we rated the development difficulty factor as “high” rather than “very high”). Based upon this model, the total cost for eight Exploration Upper Stages—which NASA announced in October it was beginning to order—came in at $8.6 billion. Subtracting development costs, then, this gives us a per-unit cost of each Boeing upper stage of $880 million.

It is not difficult to see the quandary here for NASA. Even if the agency succeeds in the herculean task of bringing the cost of a single core stage down to $1 billion, flying the Exploration Upper Stage will make each launch of its SLS rocket cost on the order of at least $2 billion. This is not the foundation of a sustainable space program. Indeed, NASA would find itself in the situation of the SLS rocket being too expensive to fly often, and unable to fly it often enough, to eventually make the SLS rocket affordable.

Despite this, in NASA’s new justification document, the agency rejects Blue Origin’s less-costly alternative.


NASA sets out three reasons for not opening the competition to Blue Origin. In the document, signed by various agency officials including the acting director for human spaceflight, Ken Bowersox, NASA says Blue Origin’s “alternate” stage cannot fly 10 tons of cargo along with the Orion spacecraft.

Moreover, NASA says, the total height of the SLS rocket’s core stage with Blue Origin’s upper stage exceeds the height of the Vertical Assembly Building’s door, resulting in “modifications to the VAB building height and substantial cost and schedule delays.” Finally, the agency says the BE-3U engine’s higher stage thrust would result in an increase to the end-of-life acceleration of the Orion spacecraft and a significant impact to the Orion solar array design.

Despite these reasons, perhaps the overriding rationale in the NASA document is that moving away from the Exploration Upper Stage’s current design would require time the agency does not have in its rush to reach the lunar surface by 2024.

NASA would “incur additional costs and schedule risk due to changes in the design and analysis cycles,” the document states. “The alternate solution is a heavier stage with a different length and diameter than EUS. New wind tunnel models, load cycles, and integrated dynamics models would need to be produced and verified.”

A real competition?

The irony in this document is that NASA said it would consider opening up a competition for the SLS rocket’s new upper stage in 2017. And then two years later it told a bidder that proposed a commercial, cheaper upper stage that its bid failed because NASA and Boeing had already designed their rocket around Boeing’s proposal. This seems like less than a fair competition.

Moreover, NASA is already procuring an interim upper stage for the SLS rocket from United Launch Alliance, a company co-owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. United Launch Alliance has extensive experience with the RL-10 engine and building upper stages. It also has tooling and factory space for this purpose, and it likely would have been cheaper and faster for NASA to contract with ULA. However, this would have meant that Boeing had to share any profits from the upper stage with Lockheed.

As a result, NASA has gone with a contractor that significantly under-performed on the SLS core stage, which is years behind schedule, billions of dollars over budget, and yet to prove itself in flight. Now it has bet the future of its deep space exploration program for at least the next decade on the same company. NASA fans can only hope that Boeing builds rockets as well as it does lobbying coalitions.

via Ars Technica

November 5, 2019 at 08:37AM

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You Can Actually OWN a “DeLorean” Hovercraft!

You Can Actually OWN a “DeLorean” Hovercraft!

Did you now that someone actually built a DIY DeLorean hovercraft, and this hovercraft could be yours for the right money? Current bid is for the vehicle is $22,500, about half of what the maker was asking last year. Behold:

After blowing people’s minds for the last 7 years, San Francisco artist Matt Riese is auctioning his custom handmade Delorean Hovercraft! Check out this insane highlight reel of it hovering over land and water! The 7-day auction goes from Monday, October 28th to Monday, November 4th, 2019 and will be hosted by specialty vintage car auction website

The hovercraft comes with its own custom tilting hover-on/off flatbed trailer and free phone consultations with the builder for any questions you might have.

This thing is one-of-a-kind and will definitely give you the time of your life!

Unfortunately, the hovercraft only has a top speed of 31 MPH… so forget about travelling to the past Back to the Future style. This baby needs to reach 88 MPH for the magic to happen!

[The Delorean Hovercraft]

via [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News

November 4, 2019 at 02:31PM

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NVIDIA’s RTX GPUs give a speed boost to Adobe’s AI features

NVIDIA has unveiled a new RTX GPU features that will accelerate a new AI feature in Premiere Pro and speed up Adobe’s 3D apps, Dimension and Substance Alchemist. As Adobe just announced, Premiere has a new feature called Auto Reframe that can analyze content in a regular, 16×9 horizontal video and automatically convert it to a vertical smartphone format. That process can take a long time, but NVIDIA said it will go 400 percent faster on NVIDIA RTX GPUs compared to just using the CPU.

As it does with games, RTX GPUs will also allow Adobe Dimension users to speed up rendering of 3D environments (an example is shown above) that use dynamic lighting, reflections and soft shadows. "We’re also adding interactive ray tracing that will enable artists to render fantastic 3D photorealistic scenes that take their environments to the next level," said ADobe’s 3D and AR director of engineering, Ross McKegney.

The RTX tricks will also speed up the latest version of Adobe’s Substance Alchemist, a tool that helps artists create realistic textures for 3D objects. That app will take advantage of AI deep learning built into RTX GPUs, NVIDIA notes. "Material creation that used to take an artist hours of painstaking masking and editing to remove lighting can now be done by AI in seconds," according to Adobe.

Finally, NVIDIA unveiled its latest Studio Driver, promising to boost performance in compatible Creative Cloud apps like Adobe Premiere and After Effects. It’ll also boost other apps like Autodesk Arnold, Cinebench and Redcine-X Pro. The new driver and features for Adobe’s apps are now available.

via Engadget

November 4, 2019 at 11:06AM

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Google News can display stories in two languages in your feed

If you’re fluent in two languages, there’s a good chance you want to read news stories in both — say, to keep up with both your country of origin and the one you now call home. And if that’s the case, Google now has your back. Google has updated News for Android and iOS with support for displaying stories in two languages with just a single feed. You could keep up with both American and Korean news, or even use the same language to keep tabs on news in different countries.

The approach is now available in Google News’ language settings for 141 countries and 41 language variants. This won’t be a complete help if you’re a full-fledged polyglot who speaks three or more languages, but it beats having to use multiple apps or the web to get a more complete picture of the news that matters.

Source: Google, App Store, Google Play

via Engadget

November 4, 2019 at 11:30AM

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Teenager solves car blind spots using a webcam and projector

As every cyclist knows, the blind spots caused by a car’s roof pillars can be extremely dangerous. Although companies are working on various high-tech solutions for this problem, a 14-year-old from Pennsylvania has taken a more low-tech approach to create an ingenious fix for the issue.

Alaina Gassler of West Grove came up with the idea for the project after seeing her mother struggle with blind spots while driving. Gassler decided to put a webcam on the outer roof pillar of a car which could record everything that was masked from the driver’s view. Then, she used a projector to display the live feed from the webcam onto the interior pillar, with 3D-printed parts aligning the image exactly between the window and the windshield.

The approach is startlingly effective, with the car pillars appearing almost translucent and the driver easily able to see into the blind spots even when the car is in motion. Gassler says she used reflective fabric to make the image brighter and clearer, and to reflect the image only to the driver.

For her efforts, Gassler won the top award at the Broadcom Masters science and engineering competition for middle schoolers and was awarded a $25,000 prize. With her use of fairly simple and affordable materials, her idea could eventually make its way into commercial vehicles as a standard safety feature.

Via: Gizmodo

Source: YouTube, Society for Science & the Public

via Engadget

November 4, 2019 at 05:12AM

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Cirrus’ $2 Million Vision Jet Now Lands Itself, No Pilot Needed

“Over the years, we’ve been adding things to our airplanes such as situational awareness tools and things that simplify control or lower pilot workload,” Bergwall says. “But now, for the first time, we actually have a safety system that is really just for the passengers.” It can also, of course, be used by pilots themselves if they suffer any medical emergency, or even disorientation or uncertainty while at the controls.

The technology is an upshot of the avionics Cirrus and Garmin developed for the Vision Jet, an “entry level” business jet introduced in 2016 that’s typically flown by the private owner rather than professional pilots. The Safe Return system, which can also be used in turboprop aircraft, works with Garmin’s G3000 avionics suite, which features integrated control of all airplane systems, including the engine management, landing gear activation, control-surface movement, and the navigation, weather, and traffic-monitoring systems.

When someone hits the button, the system selects the airport that has the best combination of runway length and a clear approach relative to the weather conditions. It then steers the airplane on a descent, alerting local traffic and air traffic control to the emergency via preprogrammed text and spoken-word messages it can voice itself over the radio. It deploys the landing gear, adjusts the flaps to maintain lift as the airspeed slows, and uses precision GPS, along with radar information, to bring it down at the exact right spot. Though the system can shut down the engine if necessary—important for aircraft with spinning propellers—Cirrus elected to keep its single engine running after the stop, since it is mounted on top of the aircraft and thus won’t hurt anyone approaching or exiting the plane. This keeps the climate control active inside and allows for taxiing if the pilot or passengers are able to do so or.

During the descent, the system uses the instrument panel monitors to give passengers instructions for preparing for landing, along with a play-by-play of what’s happening.

Photograph: Eric Adams

During the descent, the system uses the instrument panel monitors to give passengers instructions for preparing for landing, along with a play-by-play: aircraft climbing to reach a specific altitude, descending toward the airport, landing in however many minutes, and so forth. If someone accidentally hits the button during flight, the pilot can cancel the landing sequence simply by taking over the controls. If the system is deliberately engaged but someone accidentally turns it off, another touch of the button will reengage it.

The capability introduced by Safe Return—complemented by a rocket-deployed, whole-aircraft parachute in the Cirrus jet that can fire if the situation becomes even more dire—promise to make the Vision Jet one of the safest private aircraft in the world. But the system won’t be exclusive to Cirrus for long. Within a few months, Garmin will be able to offer it to other aircraft manufacturers that use Garmin avionics. Eventually, Bergwall says, systems like this could make aviation more economical, if they convince regulators that many mid-sized business jets can to drop the requirement for having two pilots in the cockpit.

via Wired Top Stories

October 31, 2019 at 12:54PM

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What If World War Two Tanks, But Also Mechs

Fine ArtFine ArtFine Art is a celebration of the work of video game artists, showcasing the best of both their professional and personal portfolios. If you’re in the business and have some art you’d like to share, get in touch!

via Kotaku

October 30, 2019 at 09:06PM

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