Suborbinomics: The Astronomical Cost of Getting From Point A to Point A

Richard Branson celebrates the first Virgin Galactic trade on the New York Stock Exchange. (Credit Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Resplendent in a blue Virgin Galactic flight suit, Richard Branson was in an exuberant mood as he sat at the New York Stock Exchange doing a TV interview on Oct. 28, 2019. His space tourism company had just gone public in a $774 million merger with billionaire Chamath Palihapitiya’s Social Capital Hedosophia special purpose acquisition company.

Virgin Galactic now had an estimated market value of more than $2.2 billion despite never having flown a single passenger or earned any serious revenue in 15 years. Virgin Galactic would have $450 million to complete its flight test program and begin commercial flights — if the company’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings were to be believed — in June 2020. Branson and the Mubadala Investment Company, an Abu Dhabi government sovereign wealth fund, would divide up $274 million to offset about $1 billion in investment made thus far.

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Commercial Space Travelers Outnumbered Professional Astronauts in First Half of 2022

Axiom Mission 1 astronauts, left to right, Larry Connor, Mark Pathy, Michael López-Alegría, and Eytan Stibbe. The astronauts are approved by NASA and its international partners for Axiom Space’s first private astronaut mission to the International Space Station. (Credits: Chris Gunn – Axiom Space)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The first half of 2022 saw more commercial travelers — 16 — launch into space than the 10 professional astronauts who work for government-run space agencies. However, those numbers come with an asterisk or two.

Four of the 14 astronauts who launched into orbit flew on Axiom Space’s privately funded and operated crew flight to the International Space Station (ISS). Blue Origin launched 12 individuals into space on two flights of the company’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle.

The other 10 astronauts who launched to ISS and the Tiangong space station worked fulltime for NASA, European Space Agency (ESA), China Manned Space Agency, or Russia’s Roscosmos State Space Corporation. SpaceX flew American and European astronauts to ISS on the company-owned Crew Dragon spacecraft under a NASA contract. The Russians and Chinese flew aboard government-owned and operated spacecraft.

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Schrodinger’s Spaceport: Is Camden County’s Controversial Project Dead or Alive?

Spaceport Camden launch complex (Credit: Camden County)

Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) says there is no longer a deal to sell 4,000 acres to Georgia’s Camden County for a spaceport after voters overwhelming rejected the project. But, the county disagrees. The Associated Press reports:

“As a result, there is no longer an Option Agreement in existence between the County and UCC, and UCC does not intend to convey the property to the County pursuant to the prior Option Agreement,” said the statement, emailed to The Associated Press by Union Carbide spokesman Tomm Sprick.

Steve Howard, Camden County’s government administrator, provided a statement from the county’s lawyers insisting the deal isn’t over.

“Union Carbide most certainly has a contract with Camden,” the statement said. “The County has indicated that it is ready, willing and able to close. We expect Union Carbide to honor its contractual commitments.”

Camden County received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last December to launch small satellite from the planned spaceport site. Opponents, who are concerned about safety and skeptical about the projected economic benefits, gathered enough signatures to force a referendum on the project. Seventy-two percent of votes cast were opposed to the project.

County officials ignored the vote and continued to pursue the project. The county is attempting to have the referendum declared invalid by the Georgia Supreme Court. A hearing has been scheduled for Aug. 23.

Virgin Galactic Sees Departure of Chief Legal Officer & Director of Safety as Company Fights Lawsuits

Michelle Kley (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic has seen the departures of its director of safety and chief legal officer over the past month.

Chief Legal Officer and General Counsel Michelle Kley is leaving Virgin Galactic as of July 19 after two years and seven months with the company. She will become chief legal officer at Volta, a company that runs an electric vehicle charging network.

Her departure comes as Virgin Galactic battles lawsuits from unhappy shareholders who claim to have lost money since the company went public more than 2.5 years ago.

Kley joined Virgin Galactic as executive vice president, chief legal officer, general counsel and secretary in December 2019. She previously served as senior vice president, chief legal officer, general counsel and secretary at Maxar Technologies from July 2016 to March 2019.

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FAA Stresses Required Environmental Mitigation Actions in Finding No Significant Impact From SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy Launches

Starship/Super Heavy on the launch pad at Boca Chica, Texas. (Credit: SpaceX)

WASHINGTON (FAA PR) — The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will require SpaceX to take more than 75 actions to mitigate environmental impacts from its proposed plan to launch the Starship/Super Heavy vehicle from Boca Chica, Texas. 

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FAA Finds No Significant Impact From SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy Launches From Boca Chica, Order Mitigation Steps

Jets fly by SpaceX’s Super Heavy/Starship launch system. (Credit: Jared Isaacman)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The FAA issued a mitigated Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) decision on Monday that will SpaceX to launch its massive Starship/Super Heavy booster combination from its Starbase facility at Boca Chica, Texas. In order to launch, however, SpaceX must take a series of more than 75 actions to mitigate the impact on a sensitive wildlife areas that adjoin the launch base and the endangered and threatened species that live there.

FAA’s decision is a major step forward for SpaceX’s plans for a maiden flight of the booster combination from the Gulf Coast facility located just north of the Mexican border. It might also lead to litigation by a coalition of the environmental groups who believe the launch base is incompatible with the surrounding area.

FAA still needs to issue a launch license to SpaceX. The company plans to conduct a suborbital flight of the boosters that would see Starship crash into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii.

FAA’s decision is also good news for NASA. The space agency awarded a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX to develop the Human Landing System (HLS) that will return U.S. astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time in more than half a century. The company is adapting Starship to be the lander; Super Heavy would launch it into space.

Starship/Super Heavy is the foundation of Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars. It is designed to launch 100 to 150 metric tons into Earth orbit.

NASA Statement on Launch Failure, Loss of TROPICS Spacecraft

TROPICS mission CubeSat (Credit: Blue Canyon Technologies)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — While we are disappointed in the loss of the two TROPICS CubeSats, the mission is part of NASA’s Earth venture program, which provides opportunities for lower-cost, higher risk missions. Despite a loss of the first two of six satellites, the TROPICS constellation will still meet its science objectives with the four remaining CubeSats distributed in two orbits.  With four satellites, TROPICS will still provide improved time-resolved observations of tropical cyclones compared to traditional observing methods.

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Astra to Launch NASA TROPICS No Earlier Than Sunday

Rocket 3.3 lifts off from Kodiak Island on March 15, 2022. (Credit: Astra Space/NASASpaceflight.com webcast)

CAPE CANAVERAL SPACE FORCE STATION, Fla. (NASA PR) — Astra Space Inc. is targeting no earlier than June 12, pending issuance of a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration, for the first launch of NASA’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS), a constellation of six CubeSats. Two CubeSats, each about the size of a loaf of bread, will launch aboard Astra’s Rocket 3.3 from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

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FAA Delays Environmental Assessment for SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy Another 2 Weeks

Super Heavy/Starship system in flight. (Credit: SpaceX)

FAA Statement

The FAA intends to issue the Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) for the SpaceX Starship / Super Heavy project on June 13, 2022. Interagency consultation is ongoing.

The completion of the PEA will not guarantee that the FAA will issue a launch license. SpaceX’s application also must meet FAA safety, risk and financial responsibility requirements.

In addition, the comments submitted during the Draft PEA public comment period are posted here

Momentus Reports $26.8 Million First Quarter Net Loss

SAN JOSE, Calif. (Momentus PR) — Momentus Inc. (NASDAQ: MNTS) (“Momentus” or the “Company”), a U.S.  commercial space company that plans to offer transportation and other in-space infrastructure services, today announced its financial results for the first quarter ended March 31, 2022.

“We’re excited to have seen momentum building last quarter as we move toward the first launch of our Vigoride orbital transfer vehicle to low earth orbit,” said Momentus Chief Executive John Rood. “We recently shipped the Vigoride spacecraft to Cape Canaveral, Florida for integration onto a SpaceX rocket. Cape Canaveral has been the site of so many historic firsts in space, and we’re looking forward to a historic first for our company when we put the Vigoride spacecraft in orbit for the first time.”

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Astra Space Announces Adjusted Net Loss of $50.1 Million

ALAMEDA, Calif., May 5, 2022 (Astra Space PR) — Astra Space, Inc. (“Astra”) (Nasdaq: ASTR) today announced financial results for its first quarter ended March 31, 2022.

“This has been a quarter of accelerating investment, customer adoption of our space technology products, and growth in our customer pipeline,” said Chris Kemp, Astra’s Co-founder, Chairman and CEO. “Looking ahead, Astra is honored to have the opportunity to serve NASA to further our vision for a healthier and safer planet as we prepare for a multi-launch campaign out of Cape Canaveral to deploy the NASA TROPICS constellation.”

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FAA Pushes Starbase Environmental Assessment Back Another Month

Starship SN8 takes off from Boca Chica, Texas. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

FAA Statement

The FAA is working toward issuing the final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) for the SpaceX Starship / Super Heavy on May 31, 2022. SpaceX made multiple changes to its application that require additional FAA analysis. The agency continues to review around 18,000 general public comments. 

The completion of the PEA will not guarantee that the FAA will issue a launch license. SpaceX’s application must also meet FAA safety, risk and financial responsibility requirements.

Momentus Receives FCC License for First Flight

SAN JOSE, Calif. (Momentus PR) — Momentus Inc. (NASDAQ: MNTS) (“Momentus” or the “Company”), a U.S. commercial space company that plans to offer transportation and other in-space infrastructure services, today announced that it has received a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) supporting the inaugural flight of the Vigoride orbital transfer vehicle on the upcoming SpaceX Transporter-5 mission targeted for launch in May 2022.

The FCC license, issued after consultation with government agencies, authorizes Momentus to use radio frequencies to communicate with Vigoride while the spacecraft is in Low Earth Orbit.

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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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