Four people will be aboard the New Shepard, the Blue Origin rocket named for the first American in space, when it is set to launch.
NASA said Friday it was seeking proposals from commercial companies for two new private crewed missions to the International Space Station. The first mission would likely take place between fall of 2022 and mid-2023. The second one would follow sometime between mid-2023 and the end of 2023.
Private astronaut missions are a relatively recent initiative from NASA, part of its Commercial low-Earth Orbit (LEO) Development program. For most of humanity’s history in space, trips to the ISS were reserved for astronauts from countries’ respective space agencies.
Houston-based startup Axiom Space was awarded the first private astronaut mission, to take place in January 2022. That mission will carry four private astronauts for an eight-day mission from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA will pay Axiom $1.69 million for services associated with the mission.
Each of the new missions can be up to 14 days and proposals are due by July 9. The agency specified that the missions must be brokered by a U.S. company and use approved U.S. transportation spacecraft. (Axiom’s private mission will use a SpaceX Crew Dragon.)
NASA said that enabling private manned missions such as this one may help “develop a robust low-Earth orbit economy where NASA is one of many customers, and the private sector leads the way.” Thanks to the significantly decreased launch costs – due in large part to innovations in rocket reusability, led by SpaceX – as well as a whole new ecosystem of ‘new space’ companies that have sprung up over the last five years, space has become busier than ever.
The agency also said LEO could eventually be used as a “training and proving ground” for the planned Artemis program – humanity’s long-awaited return to the moon – and missions even deeper into the solar system.
SpaceX is going to be providing more rides to private astronauts to the International Space Station, on top of the previously announced mission set to take place as early as next January. All four of these flights will be for Axiom, a private commercial spaceflight and space station company, and they’re set to take place between early next year through 2023.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 spacecraft make up the first commercial launch system certified for transporting humans to the ISS, and they’ve already delivered three groups of NASA astronauts to the orbital lab, including one demo crew for its final qualification test, and two operational crews to live and work on the station. In May, Axiom and NASA revealed the details of their AX-1 mission, the first all-private launch to the ISS, which will carry four passengers to the station on a Crew Dragon to live and work in space for a duration of eight days in total.
NASA and SpaceX will be providing training to all four of the Axiom crews set to make the trip to the station. And while neither SpaceX or Axiom has shared more details yet on what the other three missions will entail, or when they’re set to take place, four missions in two years technically absorbs all the existing capacity NASA has allocated for private astronaut missions, which is set at 2 per year, for 2022 and 2023.
One private astronaut flight to the ISS is already set for 2021: Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa booked a ride to the station aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket for early December. Maezawa booked through Space Adventures, which has already provided a handful of trips for deep-pocketed private astronauts over the course of the past couple of decades.
Axiom meanwhile envisions a somewhat less niche, and more continually active future for commercial orbital space stations. The company is already working on a commercial module to be added to the existing ISS, and has designs on building a fully private successor to the station in future. Booking four trips with multiple crew members in two years goes a long way towards showing there’s more than just very sporadic demand from eccentric rich people for this kind of offering.
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This week actually includes two, since I was out last week for a Canadian national holiday (and back today for the U.S. one, ironically). There’s plenty to cover, including Blue Origin’s bidding process, lunar landers, spaceships launching at sea and the return of our very own space event.
Blue Origin’s big bid
Blue Origin is auctioning off one seat on its first ever human spaceflight, and the bidding got started at $1.4 million — or at least, the public bidding started there. Before last week, people had been submitting blind bids, but now Blue Origin is posting the top current bid to its website whenever it hits a new high. It’s currently set at $2.8 million, meaning it’s doubled since the bids opened up to public scrutiny, and presumably FOMO.
Everything’s building up to June 12, when the auction will conclude with a live, real-time online competitive bidding round. Seems likely it’ll at least cross the $3 million mark before all’s said and done, which is good news for Blue Origin, since run-of-the-mill tickets for the few minutes in suborbital space going forward will probably end up more in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range.
The winning bidder will be flying on July 20, if all goes to the current plan, and will be accompanied by other passengers selected by Blue Origin through some other mechanism. We don’t yet know who else will be on the ride. Bezos maybe?
SpaceX’s Deimos spaceport is under construction
SpaceX is really flexing its sci-fi-made-real muscle with its latest move: The company is turning two offshore oil rig platforms into floating spaceports, and one of the two, codenamed ‘Deimos’ after one of Mars’ moons, is already being worked on. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shared that the company is hoping to have it ready for operations next year, meaning it could host actual launches in 2022.
Eventually, Deimos and its twin, Phobos, will provide launch and landing services to SpaceX’s first fully reusable launch vehicle — Starship. Starship only just managed to land successfully after a high, but still very much atmospheric flight test, however, so it has a way to go before it’s making amphibious departures and arrivals using the converted oil platforms.
Putting these in the ocean presumably helps solve some key issues, not least of which is being mindful of the impact of launching absolutely massive rockets on land anywhere near people. Ditto the landings, which at least early on, are bound to be risky affairs better carried out with a buffer of surrounding ocean.
Landers; lunar ones
There’s quite a bit of lunar lander news this week, including Japan’s ispace revealing that it’ll provide commercial lunar lander service to both Canada and Japan, with a ride for both provided by SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket. These will be two separate missions, with the first one set for next year, and the second one set to take place in 2023.
Both will use ispace’s Hakuto-R lander, which it originally developed to take part in the Google-backed Lunar XPRIZE competition. That ended without a winner, but some companies, including ispace, continued to work on their landers with an eye to commercialization. The Hakuto-R being sent on behalf of JAXA will carry an adorable ball-shaped Moon robot which looks like a very novel take on a rover.
Meanwhile, GM announced this past week that it’s working with space industry veteran Lockheed Martin to develop a next-gen Moon rover that will provide future lunar astronauts with more speed and greater range. GM and Lockheed will still have to win a NASA contract in order to actually make the thing, but they’re clearly excited about the prospect.
TC Sessions: Space is back in December
Last year we held our first dedicated space event, and it went so well that we decided to host it again in 2021. This year, it’s happening December 14 and 15, and it’s once again going to be an entirely virtual conference, so people from all over the world will be able to join.
We had an amazing line-up of guests and speakers at last year’s event, including Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck, NASA’s Kathy Lueders and more, and we’re already working on a fantastic follow-up agenda that’s sure to thrill all kinds of space fans.
A Discovery reality TV competition, a Russian medical thriller and more productions could be heading to the orbital outpost in the next year.
For years, those in a rural Texas village cherished living among nature and wildlife. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has brought new fears and the promise of an economic boost to one of America’s poorest corners.
Blue Origin is taking a novel approach to selling the first available private spaceflight seat on its New Shepard rocket, with an auction that will award the spot to the highest bidder. The company used a sealed bidding process for the first part of the contest, but it is now revealing the amount of the top bid and from here until June 10, all online bidding will happen in the open.
The current top bid for the coveted spot is at $1.4 million, after a bidding process that saw 5,200 applicants put in an offer, spanning bidders from 136 countries. Blue Origin will now be taking open bids on its website, and the current high bid (which is already up to $2 million as of this writing) will be displayed prominently for all to see.
On June 12, there will be one final, live online auction, among remaining participants who have registered and are willing to compete at whatever the high price is at the time. The winner then gets a seat on that first flight, which is currently set for July 20, and which will include other, yet-to-be-named passengers selected by Blue Origin.
The Jeff Bezos-founded space company has been working towards this moment for a long time, but this winning bid isn’t a direct payday for the private spaceflight venture: Instead, it’s donating the amount of the winning offer to its Club for the Future non-profit, which is aimed at encouraging kids to pursue a STEM education.
This will be Blue Origin’s first ever human spaceflight, and the fact that they’re opening up at least one seat to a member of the public means they’re extremely confident in the reliability of the suborbital, reusable New Shepard launch system.
Discovery has ordered a new reality show, to air in 2022, which will be an eight episode competition series where competitors will vie for a chance to take a trip to the International Space Station on commercial Axiom Space mission. The winner will be a crew member for AX-2, the second mission from Axiom to transport a fully private group of space travellers to the ISS following AX-1, which is set to take place as early as next January.
Axiom and NASA went into detail about AX-1 earlier this month in a press briefing, explaining that the mission will span eight days and take four paying customers to the orbital science station for a brief stay, with an overall price tag of $1.69 million being paid to NASA for the privilege (which excludes the value of some in-kind supply transport services that Axiom is providing).
Axiom will be using a SpaceX Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon spacecraft to transport its private astronaut customers to the ISS for AX-1. The initial press materials for the ‘Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?’ series doesn’t specify which vehicle will be used for the AX-2 mission that will play host to the winner, but it’s reasonable to expect it’ll be SpaceX for that one as well, given that it’s the only fully private trip provider active so far.
Here’s how Discovery describes the actual selection process that will take place during the reality series:
[W]hat does it take to win a coveted seat to space? The process will be grueling and only a select few will make it through the rigorous selection process. The series will follow each of the contestants competing for the opportunity in a variety of extreme challenges designed to test them on the attributes real astronauts need most, and as they undergo the training necessary to qualify for space flight and life on board the space station.
In the end, one lucky candidate, deemed to have the right stuff by a panel of expert judges, will punch their ticket for an adventure few have ever taken. The series will chronicle each pivotal moment along the way – from lift off to re-entry and the return home.
The competition is open to “everyday people,” and there’s an application form with the requirement of a short, 30 to 60 second accompanying video if you want to throw your hat in the ring.
SpaceX private spaceflight ambitions got a big boost in 2018 when Japanese entrepreneur and billionaire Yusaku Maezawa announced he’d be taking a trip aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon on a round-trip flight passing the Moon. Maezawa is still on track to make that trip by 2023 according to current schedules, but he’s so eager to get to space that he just announced he’ll make a visit to the International Space Station as a private astronaut this December.
Maezawa will go as a client of Space Adventures, on a Russian Soyuz rocket set to take off from Kazakhstan on December 8, and he’ll be accompanied by his production assistant Yozo Hirano. Space Adventures is the same company behind prior Soyuz commercial spaceflight missions, including the trip made by Anousheh Ansari in 2006 and Guy Laliberté in 2009, among others. Laliberté’s trip was the most recent, with space tourism at the station officially on hold since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 since Soyuz has been the only means to access the ISS. Now that SpaceX is flying regular astronaut shuttle missions, however, tourist trips are back on.
The trip that Maezawa plans to take will take place over the course of 12 days, and he’ll be doing three months of training prior to the mission in Russia to get ready for the experience. In addition to being the first private astronaut visit to the ISS in over 10 years, this is also the first time that two private astronauts will fly on board the same Soyuz at the same time. Maezawa and Hirano will also be the first Japanese citizens to make the journey as private individuals.
It may seem like overkill to get to visit space twice in a lifetime as a private astronaut, but Maezawa says he’s driven by a curiosity of “what’s life like in space?” which will of course be useful information to have on the planned Moon mission, which will spend three days getting there, make a loop around our natural satellite, and then spend three days coming back. He’s also planning to post the experience to YouTube, which is why Hirano is accompanying him to document.
As private companies like Axiom Space, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX prepare to ferry private customers to the stars, a whole new market is opening up to train affluent would-be travelers for their future missions. Case in point: space training company Orbite, whose goal is to combine aeronautics and five-star hospitality in its inaugural astronaut training program.
“We’re going to have hundreds, if not thousands of people this decade of the 2020s, who will go to space, but you just don’t get off the couch and strap into a rocket […] you actually have to get mentally prepared, physically prepared, and also spiritually prepared for this out of out of this world journey,” co-founder Jason Andrews told TechCrunch. “And that’s really our role.”
Orbite (the French word for ‘orbit,’ pronounced or-beet) was founded by space and hospitality industry veterans Andrews and Nicolas Gaume. Andrews is an aerospace entrepreneur that founded Spaceflight and BlackSky, while Gaume, a software and game development entrepreneur, sits on the board of his family’s resort and hotel business Groupe Gaume. Last year, Gaume’s business Space Cargo Unlimited shipped a dozen bottles of wine to the International Space Station. They were later retrieved. (When asked how the wine tasted, Gaume told TechCrunch, “It’s a unique product.”)
The program will be led by Brienna Rommes, who previously worked as the director of space training and research at the National Aerospace Training and Research Center. Rommes has trained over 600 people to prepare for spaceflight, including Sir Richard Branson, Orbite said.
Led by Rommes, the program aim to prepare travelers that are determined to reach space, but Andrews also said Orbite can help customers “try before they buy” – give people a taste of spaceflight for those who are unsure whether they’d actually want to board a launch vehicle. This seems to be their main value proposition, by providing a general overview to space travel across different companies, because they’ll also be competing to a degree with the native (and mandatory) training programs of individual private launch companies that are purpose-built to prepare customers for their flight.
Costs remain prohibitively high for the average spacefarer: it’s been reported that a ticket on Axiom’s inaugural commercial launch to the International Space Station costs upwards of $55 million. Orbite’s premium training program comes in at $29,500 per person for the three-day, four-night stay.
In acknowledgement on the premium price tag, the four training program sessions scheduled through the remainder of 2021 will be held at luxury resorts: the Four Seasons Resort in Orlando, Florida, and Hôtel La Co(o)rniche in Pyla-sur-Mer, France. The latter hotel is owned by Groupe Gaume.
Would-be space travelers will be able to experience up to 5 Gs by taking a ride on a high-performance aircraft as well as simulated zero-gravity. To prepare customers mentally and even spiritually, the training program itinerary includes meditation training, a workshop on stress and anxiety management, and individual coaching with staff “to explore personal goals for space, thoughts and asses possible flight options,” the company said. The itinerary also includes virtual reality mission experiences and a ‘Michelin star’ space food tasting.
“We really want to make sure we bridge the gap with more of a sensorial, psychological, even spiritual preparation for the trip,” Gaume said.
The company’s long-term vision is building and operating many training facilities around the world. The first facility will open in 2023 or 2024, though Andrews and Gaume are not yet sharing where it will be located. They did say that the dedicated training facility will offer a range of packages, with some as short as single-day experiences. They will also offer accommodation and hospitality, potentially for the long term – weeks or even months, depending on if we reach a stage in human space travel where we’re sending private citizens to the Moon or even Mars.
Voyager Space Holdings has added X.O. Markets, the parent of commercial space service venture Nanoracks, to its growing catalogue of space companies. The agreement was first announced last December.
This is Voyager’s fourth majority stake acquisition of a space company since its founding in October 2019, and it won’t be its last. Voyager CEO Dylan Taylor told TechCrunch that he anticipates the company will announce two to four more acquisitions this year. It’s an aggressive strategy but key to understanding Voyager’s business model.
“A lot of people confuse us with a fund or private equity strategy, or some kind of a financial instrument, for lack of a better word, and we’re really none of those things,” Taylor said. “We’re an operating company.”
Voyager wants to reach the same level of capability as the space “primes,” or primary companies, in seven to ten years. To get there, it’s pursued a majority stake in a series of space ventures to build out its portfolio of capabilities. Notably, Voyager has always never opted for 100% equity in these companies and it operates in a relatively decentralized way. These business decisions help keep innovation flourishing amongst Voyager’s many ventures, Taylor said.
The typical strategy in private equity – to purchase two competing companies, merge them, and sell them onto another financial buyer – doesn’t ultimately spur growth of the new space economy, he pointed out.
“[That strategy is] really not how you capture value in space,” he said. “You capture value in space by Capability A, marrying it with Capability B and unlocking a new Capability C that’s higher up on the food chain.”
The company also plans to go public via a traditional initial public offering sometime around the third quarter of this year. It anticipates filing the S-1 at some point this summer, Taylor said. He declined to provide further details of the recent acquisition.
Voyager’s previous major acquisitions have been with Pioneer Astronautics, an R&D company that performs, amongst other things, research into supporting life in space; advanced robotics startup Altius Space Machines; and The Launch Company, a launch support company that provides standardized hardware and equipment to launch providers.
The newest acquisition, Nanoracks, has been involved in more than 1,000 projects with the International Space Station, most importantly installing the first commercial airlock on the ISS. Last November, the company also entered into a partnership with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office to research agricultural solutions in challenging physical environments, like the desert – or space.
Perhaps the most interesting of Nanoracks’ endeavors is what it calls its Outpost program: building and operating completely commercial space stations out of the spent upper stages of launch vehicles and other space debris. Nanoracks will be launching a demonstration mission on board a SpaceX mission next month.
The four acquisitions taken together – launch support, advanced robotics, a research company, and now Nanoracks – clearly point to a future in which Voyager is primed to build and operate commercial space stations. While that future is still far off, it’s closer than one might think.
“The last ten years of the industry was defined by getting to orbit,” Taylor said. “I think the next 10 years will be about destinations. I think it’s highly likely we’re going to have somewhere between 8-12 space stations in orbit by 2030.”
Houston-based startup Axiom Space and NASA unveiled more details Monday about the forthcoming Axiom Mission 1 (AX-1), the first fully private human mission to the International Space Station.
The Axiom Mission 1 (AX-1) spaceflight mission will ferry four private astronauts to the International Space Station in January 2022. The eight-day mission will be launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida using a SpaceX Crew Dragon. While in space, the crew will be living and working in the U.S. segment of the ISS.
NASA will be paying Axiom $1.69 million for services associated with the mission, such as transporting supplies to the ISS, though that does not include other reimbursable agreements between the two entities.
There’s a “high degree of confidence in the late January date” for the launch, Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini said.
Axiom in January released the identity of the crew members: Canadian investor Mark Pathy, investor Larry Connor, and former Israeli pilot Eytan Stibbe. Leading the crew as mission commander is former NASA astronaut and Axiom Space VP Michael López-Alegría, who has four spaceflights under his belt.
Pathy, Connor and Stibbe will engage in research missions while onboard. Pathy will be collaborating with the Montreal Children’s Hospital and the Canadian Space Agency; Connor, the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic; and Stibbe, to conduct scientific experiments coordinated by the Israel Space Agency at the Ministry of Science and Technology.
“Larry and Mark are very serious individuals who are dedicated to being the best they can be in the mold of a NASA astronaut and they’re not interested in being tourists,” López-Alegría said during the media briefing. “They want to do their part to improve humankind.”
To prepare for the mission, the four crew members will go on a “camping trip” in the Alaskan foothills for training in July, López-Alegría said. He will start full-time training around August, with Larry starting in September. The rest of the crew will start in October, with around two-thirds of their time dedicated to ISS-specific training and the rest dedicated to training with SpaceX. The staggered schedule is due to the differing responsibilities between the crew members while on board. Axiom will be using the same contractor that NASA uses to train its astronauts.
While Suffredini declined to specify how much the private astronauts paid for their space on the flight, he said he “wouldn’t argue with” widely reported figures in the tens of millions. The Washington Post in January reported that the ticket prices came in at $55 million each.
Prices may not always be so high, but Suffredini said that the industry is likely at least a decade away from serious price drops that might make space travel feasible for the average space-goer.
Axiom intends to offer astronaut flights – both private and national – to the International Space Station and eventually its own privately-funded space station. While Axiom has “things lined up” for AX-2, AX-3 and AX-4, “like everyone we have to compete for the opportunity,” Suffredini said. The number of missions to the ISS is limited because there are only two docking ports on the ISS, Station deputy manager Dana Weigel added. That suggests that additional stations will be necessary to meet the burgeoning demand for both commercial and scientific space missions.
The company also in January 2020 won a NASA contract to develop and install a commercial module to the Harmony docking port of the ISS as early as 2024.
Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development, said that recent announcements on commercial spaceflights from Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic in addition to the Axiom mission have heralded “a renaissance in U.S. human spaceflight.”
“A lot of times history can feel incremental when you’re in it, but I really feel like we are in it this year. This is a real inflection point with human spaceflight,” he said.
After a series of high-altitude test flights that ended in explosions, the new vehicle set down in one piece on a Texas launchpad.
Blue Origin has teased space tourism for years. Its first flight with people on board launches July 20.
In “Test Gods,” Nicholas Schmidle tells the story of Virgin Galactic’s space program, with a focus on the astronauts who are charting new frontiers.
Crew-1, which launched to the space station in November, will head home in the capsule called Resilience.
Crew-1, which launched to the space station in November, will head home in the capsule called Resilience.
Richard Branson thought he could win the commercial space race with a relentless pursuit of perfection. But his company’s failure to launch exposed the limits of human ingenuity.
The space agency picked Elon Musk’s company over two other bidders to take its astronauts back to the lunar surface.
The crew arrived on Saturday on the Dragon Endeavour, a spacecraft built by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space exploration company.
SpaceX has another successful human space launch to its credit, after a good takeoff and orbital delivery of its Crew Dragon spacecraft on Friday morning. The Dragon took off aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 5:49 AM EDT (2:49 AM EDT). On board were four astronauts, including NASA’s Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, as well as JAXA’s Akihiko Hoshide and the ESA’s Thomas Pesquet.
This was Spacex’s second official astronaut delivery mission for NASA, after its Crew-1 operation last year. Unlike Crew-1, Crew-2 included use of two re-flown components in the spacecraft system, including the first stage booster, which was used during the Crew-1 launch, and the Dragon capsule, which was used for SpaceX’s first ever human spaceflight, the final demonstration mission of its spacecraft certification program for NASA, which flew Bob Behnken (side note: this mission’s pilot, McArthur, is Behnken’s wife) and Doug Hurley to the ISS. SpaceX has characterized the use of re-flown elements as arguably even safer than using new ones, with CEO Elon Musk noting that you wouldn’t want to be on the “first flight of an airplane when it comes out of the factory” during a conversation with XPRIZE’s Peter Diamandis on Thursday evening.
Now that the Crew Dragon is in its target transfer orbit, it’ll be making its way to rendezvous with the Space Station, which will take just under 24 hours. It’ll be docking with the station early tomorrow morning, attaching to a docking port that was just cleared earlier this month when SpaceX’s other Crew Dragon relocated to another port on the ISS earlier this month.
This launch also included a recovery attempt for the booster, with a landing at sea using SpaceX’s drone landing pad. That went as planned, meaning this booster which has already flown two different sets of human astronauts, could be used to fly yet another after refurbishment.
SpaceX’s Commercial Crew program with NASA continues to be the key success story in the agency’s move to partner with more private companies for its research and space exploration missions. NASA also recently tapped SpaceX to develop the human landing system for its Artemis program, which will return humans to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo program, and which will use SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft. For SpaceX’s human spaceflight program, the next big milestone will be its first flight of a mission made up entirely of paying private citizens, which is currently set to take place this fall.
SpaceX is set to launch its second operational commercial crew mission to the International Space Station for NASA, with a liftoff time of 5:49 AM EDT (2:49 AM PDT) on Friday morning. The flight will carry four astronauts, including two from NASA, one from JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) and one from the ESA (European Space Agency), to the station, where they will begin a regular tour of duty conducting science experiments, and maintaining and upgrading the orbital platform.
This is the second commercial crew mission for SpaceX, which officially qualified its Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket for human flight last year. NASA then launched four astronauts using SpaceX’s human-certified launch system later that year in November, becoming the first private company to deliver people to the ISS, and the first American vehicle to do so since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. Since the end of that program, NASA has relied on buying rides aboard Russian Soyuz rockets to keep up its representation on the ISS.
There’s already a SpaceX Crew Dragon at the Space Station from that Crew-1 launch last year, and it was relocated to another port on the station earlier this month in preparation for the arrival of the one flying for Crew-2. The Crew-1 Dragon capsule is set to return back to Earth with astronauts on board once they’re relieved by this flight’s crew, likely later this month on April 28.
One major notable change for this launch is the use of a flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket booster. SpaceX has previously used new boosters fresh from the factory for its human launches, though it has a spotless track record when it comes to booster re-use for its cargo flights. It’s also the first re-use of a dragon spacecraft, and both components of this launch system actually previously supported human launches, with the first stage serving during Crew-1, and the Dragon capsule providing the ride for Demo-2, which flew astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.
The astronauts on today’s flight are Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur from NASA, as well as Akihiko Hoshide from JAXA and Thomas Pesquet from the ESA. As mentioned, liftoff time is set for 5:49 AM EDT, but SpaceX will begin streaming live hours in advance at approximately 1:30 AM EDT on Friday (10:30 PM PDT on Thursday).
It will be the third flight of the company’s Crew Dragon capsule with people onboard.
Elon Musk’s company bested Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and others in the contest to carry American astronauts to the lunar surface.
SpaceX is set to send a payload to the Moon in 2023, using its larger (and infrequently used) Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. The mission will fly a lander built by space startup Astrobotic, which itself will be carrying NASA’s VIPER, or Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (this is the agency that loves torturing language to come up with fun acronyms, after all).
The launch is currently set for later in the year, and this would be Falcon Heavy’s first Moon mission if all goes to plan. It would not, however, be SpaceX’s first lunar outing, since the company has booked missions to launch lunar landers as early as 2022 on behalf of both Masten and Intuitive Machines. Those would both employ Falcon 9 rockets, however, at least according to current mission specs. Also, all of the above timelines so far exist only on paper, and in the business of space, delays and schedule shifts are far from unusual.
This mission is an important one for all involved, however, so they’re likely to prioritize its execution. For NASA, it’s a key mission in its longer-term goals for Artemis, the program through which it seeks to return humans to the Moon, and eventually establish a more permanent scientific presence there both in orbit and on the surface. Part of establishing a surface station will rely on using in-situ resources, of which water would be a hugely important one.
Astrobotic won the contract to deliver VIPER on behalf of NASA last year. The mission profile includes landing the payload on the lunar South Pole, which is the intended target landing area for NASA’s Artemis missions involving human astronauts. The lander Astrobotic is sending for this task is its Griffin model, which is a larger craft vs. its Peregrine lander, giving it the extra space required to carry the VIPER, and making it necessary to use SpaceX’s heavier lift Falcon Heavy launch vehicle.
NASA’s ambitious target of landing astronauts back on the Moon by 2024 is in flux as the new administration looks at timelines and budgets, but it still seems committed to making use of public-private partnerships to pave the way, whenever it does attain that goal. This first Griffin mission, along with an earlier planned Peregrine landing, are part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, which sought private sector partners to build and deliver lunar landers with NASA as one customer.
Something went wrong early for Starship, with shards of metal raining down around the launch site including debris that hit one of the cameras.
Meet the four people who will take the first all-civilian rocket trip to orbit Earth.
Bill Nelson flew on a space shuttle in 1986 and lost re-election for a fourth Senate term in 2018. Some space advocates fear his approach to the agency could take it backward.
The United States is unlikely to build anything like the Space Launch System ever again. But it’s still good that NASA did.
Relativity Space already has a significant volume of launch contracts on the books – more pre-sales for its Terran 1 rocket than any other launch vehicle in history, in fact, according to CEO and co-founder Tim Ellis. But its latest customer is a key one: The U.S. Department of Defense, which has contracted Relativity Space to launch a payload on its behalf as part of the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU)’s continued efforts to find responsive launch partners capable of sending payloads with a mass between 450 kg and 1,200 kg (roughly 1,000 to 2,650 lbs) to low-Earth orbit.
“It’s a bigger satellite, and there’s a much limited number of companies that can actually launch this spacecraft,” Ellis said in an interview. “[Terran 1’s] three meter payload fairing is unique, among all the US=based companies that can actually launch that payload size, we’re still the only one that actually has the fairing big enough for that scale.”
The DIU has a specific mandate of working with innovative American companies, typically in the earlier stages of their development, and their collaboration is often seen as a stamp of approval that can set up a company for a much deeper DoD relationship going forward. In this case, citing Relativity’s relative maturity and its queue of pre-sold missions, which include a number of non-defense government contracts.
“In this case, there was just a true mission need for this particular spacecraft,” Ellis said. “And it was a good opportunity to work with them as our first DoD customer, to start on-ramping into a broader ecosystem of capabilities that we’re hearing the government wants to see. So it’s all specifically focused on Terran 1, though of course, we now have talked about Terran R, totally independent of this program. It’s a start of a conversation, and we see lots of opportunities to help support national interests across many different places with all the things that we’re building.”
Ellis is referencing Relativity’s newly-unveiled larger payload spacecraft, the Terran R. The 3D printing rocket company debuted its plans for the much larger launch vehicle in February, and it’s tailor-made for delivering satellite constellations to low-Earth orbit – a need that the DoD has expressed plenty of interest in, given its focus on satellite technologies that offer responsive, redundant capabilities to suit shifting needs.
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A Japanese billionaire, who previously sought a crew of artists and a new girlfriend, issued a call for applicants to join him on a weeklong journey around the moon.
St. Jude Hospital and Jared Isaacman, a billionaire entrepreneur, selected Hayley Arceneaux for a trip to orbit in a SpaceX capsule.
The Amazon founder started his private rocket company in 2000, but its busiest phase could just now be starting.
After defying the F.A.A. during its last test flight in December, the company aims to stick the landing this time.
Jared Isaacman, 37-year-old founder of Shift4 Payments, is chartering a trip to orbit and raffling a seat to a random winner to raise money for childhood cancer research.
The first commercial lunar landers are set to start making their trips to the Moon as early as this year, and now another one has a confirmed ride booked: Intuitive Machines is sending its second lander aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9, with a projected launch timeframe happening sometime around 2022 at the earliest. Intuitive Machines has already booked a first lander mission via SpaceX, which is also hosting payloads for other private companies seeking to make lunar landfall under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.
Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander can carry up to 100 kg (around 222 lbs) of cargo to the Moon’s surface, and can communicate back to Earth for transmitting the results of its missions. It has both internal and surface mounting capacity, and will carry science experiments for a variety of customers to the lunar surface through NASA’s commercial partnership program, partly to support future NASA missions including its planned Artemis human Moon landings.
The first Intuitive Machines lunar lander mission, which will also use a Nova-C lander, is set to take place sometime in the fourth quarter of 2021 based on current timelines. It’ll include a lunar imaging suite, which will seek to “capture some of the first images of the Milky Way Galaxy Center from the surface of the Moon,” and the second mission will include delivering a polar resource mining drill and a mass spectrometer to the Moon’s South Pole on behalf of NASA, in addition to other payloads.
Here’s a preview of what to expect in space and astronomy in the year to come.
Voyager Space Holdings continues to build up its portfolio of strategic space service offerings with the acquisition of a majority stake in X.O. Markets, the parent company of Nanoracks. Nanoracks has provided commercial space services for years now, and most recently provided the Bishop Airlock that was installed on the International Space Station. Bishop is the first dedicated commercial permanent airlock on the ISS, and will provide a major increase in capabilities in terms of providing access to the orbital platform for private small satellites and research.
This is Voyager’s third major acquisition this year, after it picked up a majority stake in The Launch Company, a launch support company that provides services and hardware to facilitate launches, and that works with companies including Relativity, Firefly Aerospace and Virgin Orbit. Voyager also picked up Pioneer Astronautics (an R&D company that works on propulsion, fuels, rapid prototyping and much more) in 2020, as well as Altius Space Machines in 2019. Altius is a startup that works on technology for on-orbit satellite servicing.
Nanoracks is probably its highest-profile acquisition, since the company has been involved in over 1,000 ISS projects, spanning on-station research and small satellite launch from the platform, as well as other orbital and deep space missions. Nanoracks created a commercial space testing platform outside o the ISS, and will be demonstrating a technology on a SpaceX mission next year that could eventually be used to convert spent upper stages from launch vehicles into orbital commercial mini space stations.
Voyager Space Holdings continues its strategic acquisition of new space companies, building out a portfolio that can offer clients significantly more ‘full-service’ solutions than any of these individual companies taken together. Commercial details of these arrangements aren’t shared, but they increasingly represent one path to exit for smaller companies addressing elements of the larger commercial space sector in fairly specialized ways.
The COVID-19 pandemic might have upended the global economy, but according to Meagan Crawford at Spacefund and Chris Moran with Lockheed Martin Ventures, it didn’t dampen investment in space startups.
The space industry has enjoyed a honeymoon period with hundreds of startups popping up in the past five to seven years following SpaceX’s success.
Spacefund research conducted earlier this year found that there is almost no correlation between the global economy and the space industry, said Crawford, a managing partner at the VC firm, last Thursday at TC Sessions: Space 2020. Crawford and Moran both agreed that interest and investment in space will increase as more startups have successful exits.
“We looked back historically over the last decade and a little bit more, and it turns out that even during the 2008-2009 economic downturn, the space industry continued to grow at 7% per year,” Crawford said, adding that they saw almost no correlation between the performance of the Global S&P 1200 and the space industry.
“I think a lot of this has to do with a big portion of the industry coming from government budgets, which provides a lot of stability even in economically rough times, as well as the industry being in such high demand and going through such a high-growth phase right now that even the pandemic couldn’t really slow it down,” she said.
Early-stage investments did suffer at the beginning of the year, Moran noted after the event, but added that it appeared to be temporary.
“Firms were circling the wagons on their portfolios, in-person incubator programs went on hiatus, so there were fewer early-stage companies out there and less money for those companies,” he said, adding that Pitchbook data confirmed LMVC’s suspicions and showed a 25% to 27% drop in new company formation over that time.
Since September, LMVC has seen a spike in new companies. Meanwhile, incubators and accelerators have adapted to COVID-19 restrictions, Zoom made face-to-face meetings easy and life “as usual” started back up again, Moran added.
Exits are driving investments
The space industry has enjoyed a honeymoon period with hundreds of startups popping up in the past five to seven years following SpaceX’s success. Moran said this unabashed growth period will continue for a few years before narrowing.
“So like any any industry in VC, you see a lot of people jump in and then as business models collide and the need to generate some sustainable business happens there’s a lot of winnowing and narrowing of the field,” Moran said. “We’re probably still in that growth period, but I imagine over the next few years, we’ll start seeing this winnowing and really focus on the folks who have a technology and a business model that will be successful long term.”
Right now, the entire industry is funded on private capital, said Moran, who predicted investing is going to grow for some time as long as people see the excitement and promise of the industry. He added that easy access to public markets — notably the rise in mergers with special purpose acquisition companies — could drive even more money into space.
On-orbit servicing startup Orbit Fab, which bills itself as the company focused on creating “gas stations in space,” has added an additional investor to its seed funding round. The add-on investment comes from Munich Re Ventures (the corporate VC arm of Munich Re Group, one of the largest insurance companies in the world). Munich Re is a key provider of insurance for satellite operators in particular, offering policies that cover pre-launch, launch and on-orbit operations.
Orbit Fab, which was a finalist in our TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield in 2019, has designed a system that consists of what are essentially in-space tugs that can guide spacecraft on-orbit to refueling depots, to which they connect with the company’s custom fueling interface. It’s designed to be relatively easy to incorporate into new satellite designs, providing a way to easily refuel in space without requiring any special robotic systems for capture and docking.
The goal of the startup is to help create a more sustainable orbital commercial operating environment, extending the life of spacecraft, reducing debris and saving companies money. Bringing on Munich Re Ventures should provide it with significant advantages in terms of being able to build more sustainable, long-lived operational spacecraft into launch and operation risk models for satellite operators.
“When we look at standing up a propellant supply chain, so much of it is the financial model,” Orbit Fab co-founder and CEO Daniel Faber told me in an interview. How do we use this to move our customers’ risk, to make sure that we’re moving capital expenditure to operational expenditure, and yet not introducing additional risk? [Munich Re] is all over it in terms of financial products and insurance and risk assessment, so that’s a great partnership.”
Faber went on to explain that Munich Re Ventures Timur Davis began to show up at more and more space conferences, and Faber began to chat with him at these events. It turned out that the venture firm was putting together an investment thesis around in-space servicing and infrastructure, and Orbit Fab eventually became the first investment on the back of that new thesis.
The new investment brings Orbit Fab’s total seed raise to $6 million, including between $2 to $3 million in government funding on top of VC funds. The company has also now conceived and researched a “self-driving satellite” kit for docking that it has received National Science Foundation funding to do preliminary requirements development, and it’s now at the point where it can begin designing and building that out. 2021 looks to be a big year for many new companies in the space industry, and Orbit Fab with its new approach to sustainable, scalable satellites operations is definitely among them.
NASA and Boeing are looking to March 29, 2021 as the earliest possible date for their Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2), a key qualifying demonstration mission in their ongoing Commercial Crew spaceflight program. Boeing is the second company selected by NASA to build and qualify a human space launch system for transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and it’s still working towards certifying its vehicle while SpaceX, the other company selected, has already flown its first active service mission.
Boeing originally flew the first version of this mission last December. The company’s Starliner CST-100 crew spacecraft took off as planned aboard a ULA rocket, which performed its part of the mission perfectly. The capsule encountered an error with its onboard mission timer, however, and due to a momentary blackout in ground communications, it wasn’t able to be corrected in time to preserve enough fuel to keep Starliner on track to rendez-vous with the Space Station, which was among the primary goals of the demonstration flight.
Boeing managed to still conduct a successful re-entry, descent and recovery of the Starliner capsule – all good tests of other key mission goals. But the company and the agency eventually decided that the OFT test would need to be repeated before any final, crewed demonstration mission took place.
After a lengthy and thorough investigation, Boeing and NASA both implemented changes to their software development process and partnership to ensure that future errors like the one that affected the mission timer wouldn’t take place. The partners had initially hoped to re-fly this mission sometime this month, approximately a year after the first try, but the timelines have slipped since then and at last mention, the first quarter of next year was the earliest likely window.
NASA hopes to have Boeing’s spacecraft certified so that it can rely on not one, but two providers of commercial transportation services for astronauts to low-Earth orbit. That diversified provider mix should also help spur increased commercial activity in Earth’s orbit centred on human spaceflight.
Although the Beresheet lunar landing ended in a crash last year, SpaceIL wants to try again with a more complex mission by 2024.
The company described the test of the next-generation spacecraft as “awesome” even though it ended in a fiery blast.
From a young age, Will Bruey, the co-founder and chief executive of Varda Space Industries, was fascinated with space and running his own business.
So when the former SpaceX engineer was tapped by Delian Asparouhov and Trae Stephens of Founders Fund to work on Varda he didn’t think twice.
Bruey spent six years at SpaceX. First working on the Falcon and Dragon video systems and then the bulk of the systems actuators and controllers used in the avionics for the crewed Dragon capsule (which recently docked at the International Space Station). `
According to Asparouhov, that background, and the time that Bruey spent running his own angel syndicate and working at Bank of America getting a grounding in finance and startups, made him an ideal candidate to run the next startup to be spun out of Founders Fund .
Like other Founders Fund companies, Palantir and Anduril, Varda takes its name from the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. Named for the Elf queen who created constellations, the company has set itself no less lofty a task than bringing manufacturing to space.
News of the funding was first reported by Axios.
While companies like Space Tango and Made In Space already are attempting to make a viable business out of space manufacturing, they focus on small scale pilots and experimental projects. Varda separates itself by its loftier ambition — to manufacture commercially viable products at scale in space.
To be economically viable, these products have to be very very high value, and according to the IEEE there are already some goods that fit the bill. Things like carbon nanotubes and fiber optic cables, organs, and novel materials are all potential targets for a space manufacturing company, because they can conceivably justify the high cost of material transportation.
“Manufacturing is the next step for commercialization in space,” said Bruey. “The primary driver that makes us economical is success in the launch business.”
With now-established companies like SpaceX, Rocket Lab and Blue Origin, and upstarts like Relativity Space, Spinlaunch, and the newly launched Aevum Space all driving down the cost of launching objects into space, the next wave of commercialization is coming.
Varda’s backers, which put $9 million into the company, were led by Founders Fund and Lux Capital . Additional participation came from Fifty Years, Also Capital, Raymond Tonsing, Justin Mateen, and Naval Ravikant.
These investors are all placing a bet that the biggest returns could be in manufacturing. As a result of their investments, Founders Fund partner Trae Stephens and Lux Capital co-founder Josh Wolfe are both taking seats on the company’s board.
“The first things we will manufacture are things with high dollar per-unit-mass value,” said Bruey. “As we establish our manufacturing platform that will ramp into the longer term vision of offloading manufacturing for all space operations.”
There are two categories of space manufacturing in the industry to come, according to Bruey and Asparouhov and those are additive manufacturing for making products to be used in space, and manufacturing in space for terrestrial applications. It’s the second of these that Varda focuses on. “Nothing we will be doing will be 3D printing,” said Asparouhov. “We will be focused on making things in space that we can bring back to earth.
The company may not be working on 3D printing, but its manufacturing facilities won’t look like anything on Earth. Initially, they’ll be unmanned, according to a blog post published by Fifty Years. Then they’ll manufacture things in space that benefit from low gravity. Finally, the company intends to build the first inrastructure that can harvest source materials for new products in-space via asteroid mining.
“Varda can make manufacturing sustainable by eliminating the need to destructively extract earth’s resources, help cure chronic diseases, deepen our understanding of biology, help connect more people to the Internet, and usher in higher-throughput and lower energy methods of computation,” Fifty Years co-founder Seth Bannon wrote in a direct message. “Bringing human industry into the stars — this is entrepreneurship at its boldest! Varda is the sort of big swing ambition venture capital was invented for.”
Astra is set to launch it’s next orbital rocket, with a window that opens on December 7 and lasts for 12 days following until December 18, with an 11 AM to 2:30 PM PT block each day during which the launch could occur, depending on weather and conditions on the ground. This is the startup’s Rocket 3.2, a slightly revised and improved version of the Rocket 3.1 launch vehicle it flew in September.
Alameda-based Astra is a startup focused on building a small, relatively cheap-to-build launch vehicle that can carry small payloads to space at a rapid clip, with flexible launch location capabilities. It’s founded by former NASA CTO Chris Kemp, and backed by funding including Mac Benioff, Innovation Endeavors, Airbus Ventures, Canaan Partners and others, and it already has an active rocket assembly factory operating in the East Bay.
The company was originally founded with the goal of winning DARPA’s Launch Challenge, though the deadline for that has since passed. Astra still aims to essentially satisfying the functional requirements of that competition, by creating a launch vehicle that can be launched essentially on-demand when needed by clients looking for more responsive and mobile spaceflight capabilities, including the U.S. Department of Defense.
The goal of this next flight is similar to the goal of Rocket 3.1 in September: Essentially to study the startup’s rocket and boost its efficiencies while building its effectiveness. Actually reaching orbit isn’t a primary goal yet, but is a secondary, nice-to-have aim of this launch, which will take off from Kodiak in Alaska. The company already learned a ton from its first launch, including lessons that led to changes and improvements made to Rocket 3.2. It has always aimed for a three-flight initial orbital launch test series, and will also fly a Rocket 3.3 after this one incorporating additional lessons learned.
Voyager Space Holdings, one of the companies that has been on a bit of an acquisitive spree recently as it looks to put together a comprehensive and multi-vertical space technology offering, has announced that it intends to acquire The Launch Company, an Anchorage-based startup that is focused on “streamlining the launch process,” with the ultimate aim of building a launch site capable of playing host to multiple users for quick turnaround between launches from different providers.
Already, The Launch Company has worked with a number of companies in the new space sector, including Firefly, Relativity, and Virgin Orbit. It’s been involved in the DARPA launch challenge, which was designed to kickstart the development of mobile and responsive multi-vehicle launch capabilities. The company’s focus on flexible and responsive launch services is in high demand not only in the emerging commercial space industry, but also for deep-pocketed and consistent clients like the Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force.
Voyager has been focusing on assembling holdings that allow it to provide clients across the space industry with more vertical integration throughout the process of designing and launching a mission. They acquired Pioneer Technologies earlier this year, which is working with NASA on Artemis program elements, and also acquired Altius Space Machines, a satellite interface, servicing and design company last year.
SpaceX’s astronaut-ferrying Crew Dragon spacecraft is now docked to the International Space Station in Earth’s orbit, marking the successful completion of the first phase of its inaugural operational mission. Dragon was certified for human spaceflight earlier this month by NASA after having completed the development and testing program with a successful human demonstration flight earlier in 2020.
Dragon lifted off from Florida on Sunday evening, carrying four astronauts, including NASA’s Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and JAXA’s Soichi Noguchi. The spacecraft then spent a little over a day on orbit, moving into position to meet the Space Station and prepare for docking. It completed that late on Monday night, acting completely autonomously using SpaceX’s automated docking software to connect to the Space Station’s new international docking adapter, and then the hatch was opened by the existing ISS crew and the newly arrived team members made their way over.
The successfully docking and hatch opening means that SpaceX and NASA have achieved their goals so far with the Commercial Crew program: Creating a viable and effective means of launching people from the U.S. to space, and to the ISS. This mission’s astronauts will now spend the next six months at the Space Station, with Dragon attached, and then they’ll return likely next June in the second and final phase of this inaugural mission, which will prove that the system also works for coming back to Earth.