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🚀 Space Business: Exploration Mission


NASA’s top officials took a tour last week. Their destinations: The companies the space agency hired to put astronauts on the Moon before China does.

On Oct. 26, NASA administrator Bill Nelson stopped by Blue Origin’s engine production facility in Huntsville, Alabama, accompanied by Jim Free, the NASA executive in charge of the Artemis program to return to the Moon. Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin’s founder and financier, was there to greet them, along with top execs like John Couloris, a former pilot and early SpaceX employee who now leads Blue Origin’s lunar programs, and Linda Cova, who is in charge of engine development at Blue Origin.

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Photo: NASA

That same day, NASA associate administrator Pam Melroy stopped by SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. She met Jessica Jensen, a veteran SpaceX executive dubbed the “Mother of Dragons” for her previous role operating the Dragon spacecraft that does so much work for NASA, along with executives leading the engineering teams behind Dragon and Starship, the fully reusable rocket that NASA wants to use to put astronauts on the Moon.

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Photo: NASA

Per their spokespeople, Nelson and Melroy were briefed about the human landing system contracts awarded to both companies. NASA is paying SpaceX about $4 billion to develop Starship as a lunar lander and perform two crewed landings as soon as 2026 and 2027. And the space agency is paying Blue Origin $3.4 billion to build its “Blue Moon” lander and take astronauts to the surface of the Moon in 2029. Neither company would share updates on their taxpayer-funded work with Quartz.

Given the dearth of information, it’s tempting to go full Kremlinology: What does it mean that Bezos was there to see Nelson? How come SpaceX employees weren’t photographed with Melroy? Is NASA subtly signaling that it would like to see more from its contractors with these visits? (Please send me your unhinged speculation.)

In public remarks, Free has warned that NASA may not even attempt a crewed landing during the Artemis III mission expected in late 2025 because Starship won’t be ready. “We need [Orbital Flight Test 2] to go, so I hope everybody in this room is cheering on OFT 2,” he said at a space conference on Oct. 25, referring to a second attempt to fly Starship into Earth’s orbit. “We need that to be successful to get us that much further down the road.”

SpaceX needs to convince regulators that the speedily installed new launch deluge system at its Boca Chica, Texas spaceport will meet environmental standards; the US Fish and Wildlife Service is currently reviewing the situation. In the Federal Aviation Administration’s 2022 environmental assessment, SpaceX said it would build wastewater retaining ponds and treatment systems if required, but it’s not yet clear what the final decision will be or how long it will take. The vehicle itself is reportedly ready to fly.

Blue Origin, meanwhile, revealed a mock-up of a Mark 1 version of its lunar lander that could deliver three tons of cargo to the surface of the Moon, a precursor to its crewed version. Blue officials suggest that the Mark 1 could take flight on early launches of the company’s New Glenn rocket, which is currently expected to come into service next year. But no specific dates were given, reflecting Blue’s general lack of urgency, something Bezos expects new CEO Dave Limp to correct when he takes over at the end of this year.

Aside from bog standard aerospace delays, both companies also face a technological challenge: Transferring super cold rocket fuel between two different spacecraft in microgravity. Both Starship and Blue Moon will need to be fueled up in space to meet their operational goals, but those transfers have never been done before. Engineers are confident that it’s a solvable problem, but it’s the kind of problem that might take some experimentation to achieve.

So the pressure is rising, particularly because, while the next two Artemis missions are funded, the ability of the space agency to get more funding to see the program through potential delays is extremely limited given the dysfunction in the Republican party. A potential government shutdown at the end of the year won’t do anyone any favors. And across the Pacific, China is recruiting partners for its planned lunar station in 2030.

NASA needs a lunar lander, and that means it needs someone to start demonstrating working hardware ASAP. NASA and its contractors haven’t quite gotten to the point reached in 2019 when then-administrator Jim Bridenstine publicly called out Elon Musk for wasting time on the crew Dragon, but we’re getting closer. Social media sniping isn’t the ever-senatorial Nelson’s style in any case, but he’ll find ways to call attention to delays.

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IMAGERY INTERLUDE

With internet access and electricity intermittent in the Gaza Strip, the outside world doesn’t have great insight into Israel’s attacks on Hamas militants or their collateral damage. Satellite imagery is providing some transparency, with journalists at The New York Times and the Financial Times using space data to reveal the extent of the destruction. In the image below, smoke rises over Gaza city on Oct. 23.

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Photo: Planet Labs PBC

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SPACE DEBRIS

More space trouble for Boeing. A series of satellites built for SES have power problems that will reduce SES’s revenue by 5%, while Boeing will take a $315 million loss fixing the problems in forthcoming spacecraft and building two additional satellites. Meanwhile, Aviation Week’s Irene Klotz reports that Boeing is withdrawing a license it was awarded for a satellite constellation just two years ago.

The US Department of Defense ordered $1.3 billion worth of satellites. The Space Development Agency purchased 100 spacecraft from Northrop Grumman and York Space Systems to fulfill plans for a new, resilient military communications network. Meanwhile, Russia is struggling to produce 40 satellites a year.

Astrobotic aims to win the US private Moon race. The Pittsburgh startup shipped its Peregrine lunar lander to Florida’s Cape Canaveral, with plans to launch as soon as Dec. 24. That gives it a shot to beat Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 mission, now scheduled to launch Jan. 12, and become the first privately built robot to land gently on the Moon. Either way, we’ve got two Moon landings to look forward to in early 2024.

Terran Orbital wants another chance. The satellite builder held a town hall last week in an attempt to win over investors who sent the company’s share price below $1, which could see it delisted from the New York Stock Exchange. CEO Marc Bell attempted to allay concerns over his firm’s dependence on Lockheed Martin and Rivada, but the company’s stock hasn’t recovered.

Blue Origin vets plot a lunar startup. Former Blue Origin president Rob Meyerson and top engineer Gary Lai are behind a stealthy startup called Interlune that wants to be the first to bring resources from the Moon back to Earth.

Last week: How Axiom became the rest of the world’s space agency.

Last year: Tory Bruno’s plan for gas stations in space.

This was issue 201 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your Artemisology, tips, and informed opinions to [email protected].

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