Suborbital Spaceflight by the Numbers

New Shepard launches on its 21st flight of the program on June 4, 2022. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Part II of II

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The first half of 2022 was a busy period in suborbital space with 23 launches conducted that did not involve tests of ballistic missiles or defensive systems. Twelve people flew above the Karman line, new boosters and space technologies were tested, and the first commercial suborbital launch was conducted from Australia. And some science was done.

We covered the above mentioned flights in depth in a story published on Tuesday. In this piece we’ll look a broader look at who launched what, when, where, why and on what.

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A Busy Six Months as Suborbital Spaceflight Comes Into its Own

New Shepard lands after the NS-21 flight. (Credit: Blue Origin webcast)

Part I of II

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

For decades, the suborbital launch sector was largely a backwater. Militaries tested ballistic missiles, scientists conducted experiments, and engineers tested new technologies. A sounding rocket is small potatoes compared with orbital rocket launches and the glamor of human spaceflight. Few people paid much attention.

All that has changed in recent years as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin and their billionaire owners — Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos — started launching themselves and others on suborbital joyrides. Startups have been conducting suborbital flight tests of new orbital launch vehicles designed to serve the booming smalls satellite market. Suborbital has become a much more interesting sector.

This year has been no exception. The first half of 2022 saw Blue Origin send 12 people into space on two New Shepard flights, a Chinese company conduct six launches in a program to develop aa suborbital spaceplane and hypersonic transport, South Korea and Iran perform flight tests of three different smallsat launchers, Germany test technologies for reusable rockets, and first-ever commercial launch from Australia. And, a great deal of science was done.

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SpaceX Employees Say They’re Fed Up with Elon Musk’s Behavior, Call for Company to Equally Enforce “Zero Tolerance” Policy on Sexual Harassment

Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Loren Grush at The Verge reports on an open letter being circulated within SpaceX that calls upon the company to “publicly address and condemn” CEO and Founder Elon Musk’s “harmful Twitter behavior. SpaceX must swiftly and explicitly separate itself from Elon’s personal brand.”

“Elon’s behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us, particularly in recent weeks. As our CEO and most prominent spokesperson, Elon is seen as the face of SpaceX—every Tweet that Elon sends is a de facto public statement by the company. It is critical to make clear to our teams and to our potential talent pool that his messaging does not reflect our work, our mission, or our values,” the letter said.

The letter calls for equal enforcement of SpaceX’s “zero tolerance” policy on sexual harassment. The call comes amid claims made by a former employee that sexual harassment is rife within the company, and a published report by Insider that alleged SpaceX paid a $250,000 severance to a company flight attendant after a naked Musk exposed his erect penis to her during a flight on a corporate jet. Musk and SpaceX officials denied the billionaire exposed himself.

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Richard Branson Gets His Astronaut Wings, Aims to Eliminate Asterisk* Next Time

Unity 22 crew: Michael Masucci, Colin Bennett, Richard Branson, Sirisha Bandla, David Mackay and Beth Moses at the 37th Space Symposium. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
  • Billionaire aims to go higher and faster next time
  • Virgin Galactic still can’t get SpaceShipTwo all the way up (to Karman line)
  • FAA throws in the towel on deciding who is and who isn’t an astronaut

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Earlier this month, Richard Branson and two Virgin Galactic employees received commercial astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity flight test they took part in last July. The trio was the last group to receive the wings — FAA ended the program last year — and the honors came with a pretty big asterisk.

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Report: UAE Working with Blue Origin to Establish Spaceport, Ends Agreement with Virgin Galactic

New Shepard takes off with six passengers on Dec. 11, 2021. (Credit: Blue Origin website)

At the end of a long article about the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) efforts to develop a virbrant space industry, The National revealed this bit of news from Ibrahim Al Qasim, deputy director general of the UAE Space Agency.

Mr Al Qasim revealed to The National that the agreement that was signed in 2019 with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to bring space tourism flights to Al Ain Airport is no longer in effect, without explaining further.

Instead, the country is now working with Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin to set up spaceports.

He said discussions with the company, which has already flown 20 people on its suborbital flights, are under way.

Any agreement to fly Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle would be dependent upon a technology safeguards agreement between the UAE and the United States. An agreement with New Zealand allows Rocket Lab to launch Electron rockets from the company’s spaceport on Mahia Peninsula. Brazil has signed an agreement that will allow U.S. companies to launch from the Alcantara Space Center.

The UAE state of Abu Dhabi has been a major investor in Virgin Galactic, which plans to fly suborbital tourism flights aboard SpaceShipTwo. In 2009, Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund Aabar Investments put in $280 million for a 31.7 percent share of Richard Branson’s space company. Aabar later invested an additional $100 million for a 38.7 percent share of Virgin Galactic.

The additional $100 million investment was intended to help finance the development of a small satellite booster that would be air launched from WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft when it wasn’t used for SpaceShipTwo suborbital flights. A new company, Virgin Orbit, split off from Virgin Galactic. The company dumped plans to use WhiteKnightTwo; instead, it uses a larger booster, LauncherOne, that is dropped from a modified Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl.

Bezos Got Astronaut Wings, Amazon Got a Union

Jeff Bezos

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Jeff Bezos and the billionaire founders of other human spaceflight companies like to talk about how sending the rich and famous and just plain rich to space will change the world. On Friday, it did. But, not in the way the Amazon founder thought.

“We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going up to space, because while he was up there, we were organizing a union,” ex-Amazon worker Christian Smalls said after workers at a Staten Island fulfillment center voted to form the company’s first union.

The vote came two years almost to the day that Smalls led a walkout of the warehouse on March 30, 2020, to protest what he and other workers called inadequate measures to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. Smalls was fired for his effort, and later led the unionization drive.

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Former Top Federal Regulator to Fly on Unregulated Spaceship

Jeff Bezos pins Blue Origin astronaut wings on actor William Shatner. (Credit: Blue Origin webcast)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The first three passenger flights of Blue Origin’s New Shepard have been long on symbolism. On the first one, Jeff Bezos invited Wally Funk, who in 1960 was one of 13 women who underwent the same medical checks as the Original Seven Mercury astronauts. NASA wasn’t accepting female pilots at the time, so Funk had to wait 51 years to reach space.

New Shepard’s second flight included starship Capt. James T. Kirk, or more precisely, the actor who played the “Star Trek” captain, William Shatner. The third flight had Laura Shepard Churchley, the daughter of America’s first astronaut to fly to space, who launched aboard a vehicle named after her father, Alan.

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Shatner in Space, a One-Hour Special Documenting William Shatner’s Life-Changing Flight to Space, Premieres on Prime Video

Credit: Amazon Studios

CULVER CITY, Calif. (Amazon Studios PR) — Prime Video and William Shatner today announced that Shatner in Space, a one-hour special, premiered on Prime Video on Wednesday, December 15 in the U.S., Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand, with additional territories launching in early 2022. The announcement was first made by Mr. Shatner during a virtual panel for CCXP Worlds, the virtual version of the world’s largest fan convention in São Paulo, Brazil.

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“Misogyny is rampant”: Former Engineer Attacks SpaceX Culture While Sexual Harassment Lawsuits Pile Up Against Tesla

Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Former SpaceX engineer Ashley Kosak has published an essay alleging rampant sexual harassment at Elon Musk’s space company, portraying a dysfunctional company where management is unwilling to respond to complaints or to discipline offenders.

The essay was published as seven women filed sexual harassment lawsuits against Tesla Motors, which is another company where Musk serves as CEO. The suits have accused the automaker of “fostering a culture of sexual harassment” against women. In October, Tesla was ordered to pay $137 million in damages to a former African American worker who alleged in a lawsuit he was subjected to racial discriminator and slurs “straight from the Jim Crow era.” Tesla has disputed the claims and is appealing the judgment.

In her essay published by Lioness, Kosak said she incidents of sexual harassment started when she was an intern at SpaceX and continued after she became a full-time mission integration engineer.

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Blue Origin Safely Completes Third Human Spaceflight

New Shepard takes off with six passengers on Dec. 11, 2021. (Credit: Blue Origin website)

The NS-19 mission marks the sixth flight of the year for the program

VAN HORN, Texas (Blue Origin PR) — Blue Origin today successfully completed the third human spaceflight – the first with six astronauts on board. The astronaut manifest included, Laura Shepard Churchley, Michael Strahan, Evan Dick, Dylan Taylor, Cameron Bess, and Lane Bess.

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FAA Decides Bezos, Branson and Shatner Are Astronauts After All

  • Everyone who exceeds 50 miles by Dec. 31 will receive commercial astronaut wing even if they were just passengers
  • Nobody after that will even if they pilot a ship
  • Agency reverses earlier decision to award wings only to those essential to flight operations/success
  • FAA says this is what was intended all along

WASHINGTON (FAA PR) – With the advent of the commercial space tourism era, starting in 2022, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will now recognize individuals who reach space on its website instead of issuing Commercial Space Astronaut Wings. Any individual who is on an FAA-licensed or permitted launch and reaches 50 statute miles above the surface of the Earth will be listed on the site. 

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Artemis: The Good, the Bad and the Well, Yeah

Artist concept of the SpaceX Starship on the surface of the Moon. (Credits: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and top officials provided an update on the Artemis program on Tuesday, delivering the not unexpected news that the space agency will not meet its deadline of landing a man and the first woman of color at the south pole of the moon in 2024. Instead, the landing will be delayed until at least 2025.

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Bezos Ends Challenge to NASA Lunar Lander Award to SpaceX

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos tweeted yesterday that he accepted a court’s dismissal of the company’s challenge to NASA’s decision to award a single lunar lander contract SpaceX. He wished the space agency and rival company full success in landing two astronauts on the moon.

NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to develop the Human Landing System in April. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) rejected protests from Blue Origin and Dynetics in July. Bezos’ company subsequently appealed in court.

Video: Tom Hanks Turned Down Bezos Invite to Fly to Space

Video Caption: Tom talks about doing a talk show again, being the only human in his movie “Finch,” acting with a dog named Seamus, the idea of going to space, hosting a 60’s radio show called Songs from the Back of the Station Wagon, doing a lot of local radio morning shows at the beginning of his career, the passing of his dear friend Peter Scolari, and he shares one of his favorite scenes from their time working together on “Bosom Buddies.”

Editor’s Note: The segment about space starts at 5:25.

Blue Origin Eyes UAE as Possible Launch Site

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket, which carried payloads supported by NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, lands on the pad in West Texas on Aug. 26, 2021. NASA’s Orbital Syngas Commodity Augmentation Reactor (OSCAR), which tests technology to convert trash and human waste generated during spaceflight into useful gases, was a part of the 17th New Shepard mission. (Credits: Blue Origin)

The National reports that Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is eyeing the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for launches of its New Shepard suborbital crew system.

In an exclusive interview with The National, Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of advanced development programmes for Blue Origin, said the UAE was an “obvious choice” for a spaceport and that it was looking to expand its launch sites from the current one in El Paso, Texas.

“Now that we are operational for tourism, the next thing we are looking at is other locations around the planet to establish launch and landing sites for New Shepard,” he said.

“It’s an obvious place to look here. All we really need is some desert. One of the endearing qualities of the West Texas desert is that it is hard to get to the El Paso airport. You have to drive for a couple of hours and it is in the middle of nowhere.

“A couple of nights ago I slept over in Sharjah and did some stargazing in the desert. It was only 30 minutes away from Dubai, so I think it’s very promising to think about areas here.”

Virgin Galactic is also eyeing the UAE for flights of its suborbital SpaceShipTwo crew vehicle. The government of Abu Dhabi invested $390 million into Richard Branson’s space company.