SpaceX launches another 22 Starlink satellites, using a first stage flying for the 16th time

SpaceX today successfully launched another 22 Starlink satellites, its Falcon 9 rocket lifting off from Cape Canavera with a first stage flying for the 16th time.

The first stage successfully landed on a drone ship in the Atlantic. By my count SpaceX now has two stages that have flown seventeen times, and one that has flown sixteen times. While not there yet, its fleet of first stages is getting close to accumulating more flights than NASA’s space shuttle fleet.

The leaders in 2023 launch race:

74 SpaceX
46 China
13 Russia
7 Rocket Lab
7 India

American private enterprise now leads China in successfully launches 86 to 46, and the entire world combined 86 to 74. SpaceX by itself is once again tied with the entire world combined (excluding American companies) 74 to 74, with another launch scheduled for late tomorrow.

Very bad things are on the verge of happening

Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war!

Yesterday I wrote about how I thought the public might finally be awakening to the evil that now controls so much of American cultural and political life.

I noted several positive developments, and then added that the window of opportunity for freedom and the rule of law however was quickly closing. Without strong action these positive developments will mean nothing, to be quickly overrun by the immoral actions of the power-hungry, who will not take losing their power kindly.

Today I am far more pessimistic. I sense deeply that very very bad things are about to happen, on all fronts. The right is divided and weak, and too often unwilling to stand up to the worst behavior of the left. It is so divided that it can’t even elect a speaker in the House of Representatives.

The left meanwhile is united and angry, and willing to use that anger forcefully at all times. For example, for the last week decent people on the right found themselves being forced by the left to debate the absurd question of whether Hamas terrorists beheaded babies or merely killed them, as if that distinction mattered.

And in Gaza the destruction of a hospital by a missile is immediately being used as a propaganda weapon against Israel. First the claim by the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry that “500+” people were killed is immediately accepted without question, without evidence. Second, it is immediately accepted that the missile likely came from Israel, though there is evidence otherwise.

You need to read the AP report at the link to grasp the full flavor of this anti-Israeli propaganda. Somehow only Israeli is killing civilians, while Gazans huddle in fear and helplessness against that evil empire throwing bombs and missiles at them.
» Read more

Blue Origin announces another big project, with few details

Blue Origin has now announced another proposed big project, dubbed Blue Ring, which will put a platform into orbit as part of a new division focused on in-space services.

Blue Ring serves commercial and government customers and can support a variety of missions in medium Earth orbit out to the cislunar region and beyond. The platform provides end-to-end services that span hosting, transportation, refueling, data relay, and logistics, including an “in-space” cloud computing capability. Blue Ring can host payloads of more than 3,000 kg and provides unprecedented delta-V capabilities and mission flexibility.

The company did not reveal many details about the size of this orbital platform, nor did it reveal a time schedule. It appears to be an effort by the company to enter the orbital tug/satellite repair market, though the announcement is so vague it is hard to determine what exactly is being proposed.

The list of big ambitious Blue Origin projects is long and impressive: the New Glenn reusuable rocket, the Orbital Reef space station, the Blue Moon manned lunar lander, and now Blue Ring. However, since none of these projects has yet launched, and the first is years behind schedule, no one should put much money on this new project ever seeing fruition. Right now Blue Origin needs to actually fly something before anyone should take seriously any proposal it puts forth.

NASA to award small contracts to develop universal payload interfaces

NASA yesterday announced a competition to award up to three contracts to companies to develop a universal payload interface that can be used to more easily mount payloads prior to launch.

The NASA TechLeap Prize’s Universal Payload Interface Challenge invites applicants to propose an optimized “system of systems” to enable easy integration of diverse technology payloads onto various commercial suborbital vehicles, orbital platforms, and planetary landers. The proposed universal payload interfaces should seamlessly adapt a wide range of small space payloads – be they technologies, laboratory instruments, or scientific experiments – for flight testing.

A maximum of three winners will receive up to $650,000 each to build their system plus the opportunity to flight test it at no cost. The focus is on achieving a simplified and streamlined payload integration process that has the potential to accelerate future flight-testing timelines.

The idea is to have the same interface for mounting, either on flight testing on Earth (using high altitude balloons, aircraft, or suborbital spacecraft) or in space.

Applications are due by February 22, 2024.

The public wakes up, but the window for freedom will remain open for only so long

Is a real house-cleaning about to happen?
Is a real house-cleaning about to happen?

The barbaric massacres committed by Hamas in Israel last week along with the left’s endorsement worldwide of those atrocities has appeared to awaken the long dormant outrage of the general population. Suddenly, people no longer seem willing to accept the lies and slanders of the left. Claiming Hamas was justified in killing babies and children while also taking many women and children hostage is a position that even many leftists cannot tolerate.

If you don’t believe me, watch this short clip from Bill Maher’s show, Real Time. Not only does Maher — a proud self-admitted lefty himself — trash the modern left in academia, the audience joins in to cheer that trashing.

It isn’t however only the left’s recent open support of Hamas that has inspired this disgust. It is also likely inspired by the many other abuses of power by the government (an arm of the power-hungry left) during the past three years. Those abuses, from lockdowns to censorship to blacklisting to mask and medical mandates, accomplished only one real thing: The abuses turned neutral ordinary people into ardent warriors against the left.

This shift was evident in three elections worldwide in the past few days.
» Read more

SpaceX completes second launch today, placing another 21 Starlink satellite into orbit

SpaceX this afternoon completed its second launch today, its Falcon 9 lifting off from Cape Canaveral and placing another 21 Starlink satellite into orbit.

The first stage completed its fourteenth flight, landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic. This launch followed the Falcon Heavy launch in the early morning hours from Cape Canaveral.

The leaders in 2023 launch race:

73 SpaceX
45 China
13 Russia
7 Rocket Lab
7 India

American private enterprise now leads China in successfully launches 85 to 45, and the entire world combined 85 to 73. SpaceX by itself is now tied with the entire world combined (excluding American companies) 73 to 73.

SpaceX to offer Starlink for cell phones

SpaceX has now announced that its Starlink internet service will soon be available for cell phones that are already in use, allowing them access to service even in places where no cell towers exist.

Direct to Cell works with existing LTE phones wherever you can see the sky. No changes to hardware, firmware, or special apps are required, providing seamless access to text, voice, and data.

First Starlink will only provide text service in 2024, and then expand to voice and data in 2025.

This capability means that SpaceX will not only be in direct competition with AST SpaceMobile, which recently launched a satellite to test similar capabilities, it will be far ahead of it in that competition. In fact, SpaceX is setting Starlink up as the go-to company for all smartphones and home internet services. By 2025 you will not need any other provider to have phone and internet service globally.

No wonder private investment firms have been willing to invest almost $11 billion in the company. They see big profits on the horizon.

That our federal government dislikes this fact, and is doing everything it can to crush Elon Musk and the company, tells us much about government itself. It isn’t interested in promoting human success. Instead, its instinct is to squelch it.

First manned Starliner mission now delayed to April 2024

In a press release yesterday that outlined the updates to NASA’s scheduled manned missions to ISS, the agency confirmed that the first manned Starliner mission has now been delayed one more month, from March until April 2024.

The first crewed flight of the Starliner spacecraft, named NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test (CFT), is planned for no earlier than mid-April. CFT will send NASA astronauts and test pilots Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams on a demonstration flight to prove the end-to-end capabilities of the Starliner system. Starliner will launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, spend approximately eight days docked to the space station, and return to Earth with a parachute and airbag-assisted ground landing in the desert of the western United States. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words underline the fact that this date is merely a target, and has been announced as part of the entire schedule for all the manned missions to ISS next year, fitting it in between two SpaceX crewed Dragon flights. It assumes Boeing will have the spacecraft ready by then, but based on that company’s track record, that assumption remains dangerous. Boeing has a lot of work to do, including parachute drop tests to fix the parachute cords as well as replacing the flammable electric tape installed throughout the capsule.

Spanish rocket startup successfully completes first suborbital test launch

The Spanish rocket startup PLD today successfully completed its first suborbital test launch, a short flight of its Miura-1 prototype rocket, lifting off from its spaceport in Spain.

I have embedded video of the launch below, cued to just before launch. Though the plan had been to recover the first stage using parachutes, it is unclear if this occurred or was even attempted. The launch was at night, making recovery difficult or much slower, and because the broadcast was in Spanish there was no translation,

Regardless, the data from this launch will be used by the company to build its orbital rocket, Miura-5.

» Read more

Real pushback: Student walkout in September forces school board to rescind queer bathroom policy

A little child shall lead them, by James Johnson
“A little child shall lead them,” painting by James L. Johnson.

Bring a gun to a knife fight: It appears that the complaints of parents don’t work with leftist Democratic Party and its minions in the education community, who see those parents as extremists and potential terrorists. Instead, it took a student walkout in September in Pennsylvania to finally force the Perkiomen Valley School District board to rescind its queer bathroom policy, which allowed cross-dressing boys to use the girls’ bathroom.

This is a followup of a September blacklist story. When the school board voted 4 to 3 to reject a policy that would prevent such behavior, defying the crowds of parents attending the school board meeting to demand this change, the students then organized a walk out on September 22, 2023, for reasons they themselves made clear:
» Read more

ULA’s Atlas-5 rocket launches first two Kuiper satellites

ULA’s Atlas-5 rocket today successfully launched the first two prototype satellites of Amazon’s proposed 3,200-satellite constellation to provide broadband globally in competition with Starlink and OneWeb.

As of posting, the satellites had not yet deployed, with the rocket’s upper stage still firing its engines to bring the rocket to its proper orbit. The live stream unfortunately ended early at this point.

Though the Atlas-5 is being retired, to be replaced by ULA’s still unlaunched Vulcan rocket, about seventeen rockets remain in the company’s launch manifest. All have payloads, so any additional ULA launch contracts must rely on Vulcan.

This was ULA’s third launch in 2023, so it does not change the leader board for the 2023 launch race. The company predicted it would complete ten launches in 2023, a prediction that with less than three months left in the year seems unlikely for it to achieve.

70 SpaceX
45 China
13 Russia
7 Rocket Lab
7 India

American private enterprise now leads China in successful launches 82 to 45, and leads the entire world combined 82 to 72. SpaceX by itself still trails the rest of the world, excluding American companies, 70 to 72.

Italy’s biggest bank will invest in SpaceX

Italy’s largest bank, Intesa Sanpaolo, announced today that is joining in SpaceX as a private investment partner.

No details of the investment deal were released, but it likely adds a significant amount to the almost $11 billion in investment capital SpaceX has already gotten from the private sector, most of which is being used to develop Starship, Superheavy, and Starlink.

Very clearly, the investment community sees value and large future profits from SpaceX and Elon Musk, and wants to support it. Contrast this with the attitude of the Biden administration and the left, which apparently prefers to squelch this progress for the sake of power.

India’s government confirms its policy to transition to private enterprise in space

Capitalism in space: In a presentation at the International Astronautical Congress in Baku yesterday, one high official from India confirmed the Modi’s government’s new policy to shift is space industry from government-controlled to privately-run.

“A transition is happening in India. We are moving from ISRO [India’s space agency] being the sole player in the space sector to the private sector taking on a more meaningful role,” Pawan Goenka, chairman of the Indian National Space Promotion Authorization Center (IN-SPACe), said at a forum at the 74th International Astronautical Congress in Baku, Oct. 5.

The Indian government approved the Indian Space Policy 2023 in April this year, which follows a number of developments in recent years. “What the Indian Space Policy did was take everything to do with space — satellite communication, remote sensing, space operations, transportation, navigation, everything — and put it into one comprehensive document only 12 pages long,” Goenka said. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words will sound very familiar to regular readers of this webpage. It describes what NASA has been doing for the past decade, and sums up precisely the recommendations put forth in my 2017 policy paper, Capitalism in Space.

IN-SPACe, the agency Goenka heads, has been tasked with fulfilling this task, and is thus in a direct turf war with ISRO, the space agency that has controlled all of India’s space effort for a half century. How that turf war will play out remains uncertain, though at present IN-SPACe and the Modi government appear to be winning.

It would likely help India’s private industry if the Modi government would make public that 12-page policy statement. So far it has either not released the text, or if it has it has made it impossible for me to find it.

Stoke Space raises $100 million in private investment capital

The rocket startup Stoke Space, which is developing a radically new engine concept for its rockets, has now successfully raised $100 million in private investment capital.

This investment more than doubles the company’s total funding, which now sits at $175 million. The company also announced the official name of its first rocket: Nova.

The funding round was led by Industrious Ventures with participation from the University of Michigan, Sparta Group, Long Journey, and others. Existing investors Breakthrough Energy, YCombinator, Point72 Ventures, NFX, MaC Ventures, Toyota Ventures, and In-Q-Tel also participated. This latest funding round is evidence of strong demand for Stoke’s services, its growing success, and the confidence of investors in its future. As part of this round of fundraising Steve Angel, Chairman of the Board, Linde plc, will join Stoke’s Board of Directors. Angel is also the former CEO of Linde and a member of the Board of Directors of GE.

The company says it will use this money to develop the rocket’s first stage engines, which will follow the same ring nozzle design of its upper stage, a prototype of which it successfully test flew on a short hop last month. Under that design, the engine doesn’t have one central nozzle, but instead the thrust is funnelled out of a ring of tiny nozzles that circle the stage’s outer perimeter. The company believes this design will allow it to return its upper stage safely from orbit for re-use.

Northrop Grumman abandons its own proposed space station; partners with Voyager’s Starlab

Northrop Grumman today officially confirmed rumors from earlier this week: It is abandoning construction of its own proposed space station and will instead join Voyager Space’s Starlab station project, using an upgraded version of its Cygnus freighter to be the station’s cargo ferry.

As part of this new partnership, Northrop will provide cargo services to Starlab for up to five years. The upgrades will allow Cygnus to dock directly to a station port, rather than rendezvous and get berthed using a robot arm. This upgrade will also make Cygnus a more saleable product for providing cargo to other stations as well, as they come on line.

Northrop Grumman was one of four proposed private space stations projects that won NASA contracts, Axiom in 2020 and the other three in December 2021, with its award fixed at $125.6 million, of which $36.6 million has been paid to the company for meeting specific development milestones. NASA is now going to distribute the rest of that award among the remaining projects after some renegotiations.

SpaceX successfully launches 22 Starlink satellites

SpaceX tonight successfully launched another 22 Starlink satellites, its Falcon 9 rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral.

The first stage completed its eighth flight, landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

70 SpaceX
45 China
13 Russia
7 Rocket Lab
7 India

American private enterprise now leads China in successful launches 81 to 45, and the entire world combined 81 to 72. SpaceX by itself trails the rest of the world (excluding American companies) by only 70 to 72.

SpaceX this year has now matched the record number of launches set by the U.S. in a single year that lasted from 1966 until last year. And it has done this with the year only 3/4s complete. Its goal of hundred launches this year is still well within reach.

Axiom partners with clothing fashion company Prada on its spacesuit design

Capitalism in space: The commercial space station company Axiom is now partnering with the Italian fashion company Prada to create its lunar spacesuits, being developed under a $228.5 million NASA contract.

Prada will assist Axiom in working on the outer layer of its spacesuit, which has to protect the suit’s inner layers from the space environment, including lunar dust, without hindering its mobility. “When it comes to the design side of that piece of it makes a lot of sense because Prada has a lot of experience in the design, the look and feel,” Suffredini said. “More importantly, there’s these technological challenges to try to overcome as well.”

The article at the first link emphasizes Prada’s experience with high tech fabrics, including composites, but this deal is inspired as much by good public relations. Both companies get some good publicity by this deal.

NASA awards small study contract to orbital tug company Starfish Space

Capitalism in space: NASA has awarded a small three-month study contract to the U.S. orbital tug company Starfish Space, to consider using its Otter orbital tug to rendezvous and inspect defunct orbital debris.

The award amount was not released, suggesting this is a very small contract designed simply to see if the company’s technology warrants a larger contract.

Some of those features — including Starfish’s Cetacean relative navigation software and its Cephalopod autonomous guidance software — could be tested sometime in the next few months on the company’s Otter Pup prototype spacecraft, which was sent into orbit in June but was forced into an unfortunate spin during deployment. Starfish stabilized the spin in August and is currently making sure that all of Otter Pup’s systems are in working order for future tests.

NASA’s follow-up contract, awarded through the space agency’s Small Business Innovation Research program, or SBIR, calls for Starfish to assess the feasibility of using its full-scale Otter satellite servicing vehicle to rendezvous with large pieces of space debris and inspect them.

This contract is comparable in goals to the one NASA issued to Astroscale earlier this week, though much smaller.

Nova-C ready for launch in mid-November

The Moon's south pole, with Nova-C landing site indicated
Click for interactive map.

Capitalism in space: The commercial lunar lander company Intuitive Machines yesterday unveiled its now ready-for-launch Nova-C lander, set for launch on a Falcon 9 rocket during a six-day launch window beginning on November 16, 2023.

Steve Altemus, chief executive of Intuitive Machines, estimated the odds of success at “upwards of 65% to 75%,” higher than the historical average. That’s based, he said, on the experience the company has built up with key technologies on the lander, such as precision landing and its propulsion system.

It is also based on lessons learned from those failed missions. “Each one of those things that we witnessed in terms of anomalies that caused the failures of those missions, we have internalized,” he said. “Therefore, I think our odds are higher.”

If successful, Nova-C will land closer to the Moon’s south pole than any previous lander, as shown on the map to the right, and will function like India’s Pragyan rover for one lunar day, about two weeks. It will also land right next to a crater with a permanently shadowed interior, though it will have no way to travel into it. The company also two more lunar lander contracts with NASA, with the second Nova-C mission scheduled for 2024, and a third not yet scheduled.

The Netherlands says it will sign Artemis Accords

According to a press release from the government of the Netherlands yesterday, it plans to sign the Artemis Accords, becoming the thirtieth nation to join the American alliance to explore and settle the solar system.

The full list of signatories to the Artemis Accords is now as follows: Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Canada, Columbia, Czech Republic, Ecuador, France, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Poland, Romania, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, the Ukraine, and the United States.

Increasingly the entire western world is signing on, leaving China, Russia, and their few communist allies isolated on the other side.

Though this sounds good, we must remember that the west no longer stands as firmly for freedom and individual rights as it did during the Cold War. Instead, we increasingly see two alliances that are both more interested in promoting the power of the people who run each, rather than furthering the rights and dreams of their citizens. As I concluded in Conscious Choice:

It is therefore likely that the first few centuries of colonization throughout the solar system will not proceed peacefully or justly, as wished for by the good intentions of the Outer Space Treaty. Instead, the initial exploration will be a brutal legal nightmare for all involved.

Governments will scramble to grab as much as they can. And for private enterprise to succeed in space, the treaty’s restrictions on property rights will force those operations, very expensive, time consuming and extremely risky, to focus on maximizing profits so as to at least minimize the legal risks. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens will have few legal rights, because the rights citizens enjoy on Earth will not exist legally for them.

We are certainly going to explore and settle the solar system in the coming centuries. It is also likely that the citizens living there will have a terrible battle to obtain the same rights we on Earth have since the Enlightenment taken for granted.

FCC fines Dish for failing to put a geosynchronous satellite in its proper graveyard orbit

The FCC on October 2, 2023 announced it is fining Dish Network $150K for failing to raise the orbit of one of its dying geosynchronous satellites so that it was in a proper graveyard orbit and out of the way.

The settlement includes an admission of liability from Dish for leaving EchoStar-7 at 122 kilometers above its operational geostationary arc, less than halfway to where the satellite broadcaster had agreed. EchoStar-7 could pose orbital debris concerns at this lower altitude, the FCC warned.

The regulator said it approved a plan from Dish in 2012 to move the satellite at the end of its mission 300 kilometers above geostationary orbit, which is about 35,786 kilometers above the Earth. Dish had estimated it would need to start moving the satellite in May 2022 to ensure it had enough fuel for the trip after two decades in orbit — but just three months ahead of the planned move the company found insufficient propellant remaining.

It is routine for satellite companies to raise the orbits of their geosynchonous satellites when their lifespan is over in order to make room for future satellites. This higher orbit, long dubbed a graveyard orbit, is presently filled with many past satellites no longer in use (though the refueling and reusing of some is now taking place).

What makes this story different is the fine. The FCC has claimed it has the right to regulate the de-orbiting plans for all satellites, even though its statutory authority does not include that right. This fine is the first since the agency made that claim. That Dish settled rather than fight was likely a decision by managment to choose the lesser evil. Even though the courts would likely cancel the fine, the fight would cost as much as the fine, and there is a chance Dish would lose. As the saying goes, better to pay the two dollars than end up in jail.

As a result, this government agency has now established a precedent whereby it can regulate and even fine private companies for not doing what it dictates when it comes to decommissioning satellites, even though no law was ever passed giving it that power. And the FCC agrees.

“This is a breakthrough settlement,” FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Loyaan Egal said in a statement, “making very clear the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules.”

The unelected administrative state continues its unstoppable growth in power.

Northrop Grumman cancelling its NASA space station project?

According to anonymous sources, Northrop Grumman — one of four company partnerships chosen by NASA to build private commercial space stations to replace ISS — is considering cancelling its project for NASA.

At the International Astronautical Congress meeting this week in Azerbaijan, sources report that there is widespread speculation that one of these four companies, Northrop Grumman, is dropping out of the competition. Northrop’s plan had been to leverage its successful Cygnus spacecraft design to build a free-flying space station.

However, Northrop no longer plans to do so. Rather, it will join the venture backed by Voyager Space, which is partnering with Europe-based Airbus to develop a commercial space station. It’s likely that Northrop would provide cargo transportation services, with Cygnus as part of the team. Officials from Voyager and Northrop Grumman declined to comment on the change in strategy, which could be announced soon.

The original four were Axiom, Voyager Space (then called Nanoracks), Northrop Grumman, and Blue Origin. By teaming up with Voyager Space the number would drop to three, with Northrop simply providing freighter service to Voyager’s station.

Nor is this the only rumored change to these station projects. Last week sources suggested that the partnership between Blue Origin and Sierra Space was breaking up. If so, it remains unclear how that would effect its project for NASA.

These changes to the four proposed NASA stations would leave only Axiom’s space station unchanged and on its original course. Meanwhile, another company, Vast, is developing its own independent station, and SpaceX is considering developing a space station version of Starship.

All these shifts and changes are not to be unexpected, nor are they really bad news. They simply indicate the uncertain nature of any new product, even if that product is as unconventional as a private space station.

Stopgap budget bill includes three-month extension of regulatory “learning-period”

The stopgap 45-day continuing resolution passed by Congress on September 30, 2023 also included a three-month extension of regulatory “learning-period” first established in 2004 and extended several times since then.

Among the provisions in that FAA reauthorization was a three-month extension of the existing restrictions on the FAA’s ability to regulate safety for commercial spaceflight participants. That restriction, often called a “learning period” by the industry, was set to expire Oct. 1 but now runs until Jan. 1.

It must be noted that this so-called limitation on FAA regulation of commercial spaceflight really does not exist any longer, no matter what law Congress passes. The administrative state really runs the show now, and both the FAA and Fish & Wildlife have decided heavy regulations are required, and are imposing such controls over SpaceX’s Superheavy/Starshp test program, while the FAA by itself is imposing strict regulation on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spacecraft. The result is a slowdown in launches for both, extending months to a year.

It also appears that this heavy regulation is squelching launches of new rockets. Last year four new rocket startups attempted new launches (Astra, ABL, Firefly, Relativity), some making multiple attempts. This year, such test flights have essentially ceased, with only Firefly completing one launch for the military. Worse, two of those companies (Astra and Relativity) have abandoned their rockets entirely, claiming they are building new bigger versions, but one must now wonder.

The long term historical significance of these facts extends far beyond the space industry. Increasingly the unelected bureaucracy in Washington is taking on powers it is not supposed to have, while Congress (which is delegated those powers) increasingly is irrelevant. The shift in power signals a major reshaping of American governance, in a direction that is not good for freedom or the fundamental concepts that established the country and made it a success.

SpaceX puts another 22 Starlink satellites into orbit

SpaceX last night successfully launched another 22 Starlink satellites into orbit, its Falcon 9 rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral.

The first stage completed its tenth flight, landing safely on a drone ship in the Atlantic.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

69 SpaceX
44 China
13 Russia
7 Rocket Lab
7 India

American private enterprise now leads China in successful launches 79 to 44, and the entire world combined 79 to 71. SpaceX by itself now trails the rest of the world combined (excluding American companies), 69 to 71.

Note that this was the 151th successful launch in 2023, all done in the first three quarters, and strongly suggesting the world will complete more than 200 launches this year. This number will top the record of 179 set last year by more than ten percent, and be more than double the number of launches achieved almost every year since Sputnik in 1957.

Orbital Reef partnership between Blue Origin and Sierra Space in trouble

According to anonymous sources, CNBC reports that the partnership between Blue Origin and Sierra Space to build the private commerical Orbital Reef space station is possibly breaking up.

The companies announced Orbital Reef as a co-led project in 2021, but updates about the project dried up in the past year. The pair of private space companies are now navigating a potential end to the Orbital Reef partnership, according to three people who spoke to CNBC about the situation.

Those people, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss nonpublic matters, emphasized that discussions are ongoing and described the situation as fluid. But other development projects with more significant current contracts – such as Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander and Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spaceplane – have taken higher priority for both companies, those people said.

To readers of Behind the Black, this possible break-up is not a surprise. In June Sierra’s announcement of its own independent space station based on its LIFE modules suggested it had its own doubts about Orbital Reef. Then in August, when Sierra announced a partnership with Redwire to launch LIFE as an independent station, I wrote this:

What struck me about this deal is the shrinking mention of Blue Origin. Originally that company was listed as one of the major players in building this private space station, dubbed Orbital Reef, in which LIFE is only the first module. In the past year however its participation seems less and less significant in every subsequent press release. It appears to still be part of the project, but it is Sierra Space that is leading the effort, and appears to be making things happen.

But then, the track record of Blue Origin is to not make things happen. It could very well be that events are once again overtaking it. Sierra Space can’t wait for Blue Origin to slowly get its act together. It is finding ways to get things done, even if that means Blue Origin gets left behind.

Today’s CNBC story reinforces this conclusion. So does its timing with the removal of Blue Origin’s CEO, Bob Smith, earlier this week. It could be that the failure of Blue Origin in the Orbital Reef partnership was the final straw for Jeff Bezos.

The problem for NASA in this is that the agency awarded a $130 million contract to the Orbital Reef partnership, with Blue Origin listed as the lead contractor which controls the contract. If that partnership ends, that contract must get renegotiated or cancelled, or gets transferred from Blue Origin to Sierra Space (the most likely outcome).

Ispace wins $55 million NASA contract for lunar landing mission

The Japanese company Ispace, which is also establishing operations in the U.S., has won a $55 million NASA contract to send a lunar landing plus communications relay satellites to the Moon in 2026.

Ispace’s Hakuto-R1 lander attempted a landing on the Moon in April, but crashed. The company has a second Hakuto-R mission presently targeting launch next year. The NASA contract would the company’s third, which will be built in its new U.S. facility and be called Apex-1.

In today’s briefing, Ispace representatives announced that the primary customer for its upcoming Mission 3 is NASA, which has selected the company as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program (CLPS). Ispace stated during the briefing that it has signed a $55 million contract with NASA for Mission 3 in order to land near the lunar south pole carrying approximately 210 pounds (95 kg) of scientific payloads.

But that’s not all the mission will do. On its way to the lunar surface, Mission 3 will deliver relay satellites that will remain in orbit around the moon to serve as communication relays.

Though it will not be surprising if these launch dates slip, Ispace is in a strong position to succeed, considering it is presently the only private company to launch a Moon lander, and got very close to putting it down on the lunar surface successfully.

SpaceX’s military version of Starlink wins $70 million Space Force contract

Capitalism in space: The Space Force yesterday awarded SpaceX a $70 million contract to provide it communications and broadband capabilities though the military version of Starlink, dubbed Starshield.

A Space Force spokesperson confirmed that SpaceX on Sept. 1 was awarded a one-year contract for Starshield with a maximum value of $70 million. The award came alongside 18 other companies through a program run by the Space Force’s commercial satellite communications office.

“The SpaceX contract provides for Starshield end-to-end service (via the Starlink constellation), user terminals, ancillary equipment, network management and other related services,” Space Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek told CNBC.

Though this contract is for satellite services, it will increase SpaceX’s need to launch and complete its Starlink constellation. Though it has successfully launched a lot of satellites using the Falcon 9 rocket, it has always said it needs Starship/Superheavy to properly build and maintain the constellation.

Thus, NASA is no longer the only government agency with a strong motive to get Starship/Superheavy launched. Expect both NASA and the Pentagon to apply pressure on the White House to ease up on SpaceX. Expect that pressure to have little influence, unless the public joins in loudly.

Sierra Space raises another $290 million in private investment capital

Sierra Space today announced that during its most recent funding round it successfully raised another $290 million in private investment capital, bringing the total capital it has raised to $1.7 billion.

The round is co-led by Japan’s largest bank, MUFG, Kanematsu Corporation, a Japanese trading company and Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance, Japan’s largest property and casualty insurance group with participation from Sierra Space’s existing investors. The companies are already participating in a JAXA (Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency) study to explore how to conduct activities in LEO as the ISS approaches the end of service.

These Japanese partnerships act to strengthen Sierra’s already strong links to Japan, including ongoing negotiations to land its Dream Chaser reusable mini-shuttes at Oita Airport, as well as partnership deals with Kanematsu, Japan Airlines and Mitsubishi.

This successful fund-raising round suggests strongly that the company’s plans to finally have its first Dream Chaser cargo shuttle, Tenacity, ready to fly in December might actually happen. Or at least, that plan acted to convince these investors to pony up some cash.

Hat tip to Jay, BtB’s stringer.

SpaceX donates used Merlin engine and Falcon 9 grid fin to Smithsonian

A SpaceX used Merlin engine and a Falcon 9 grid fin will go on display at the Smithsonian Air & Space museum when it reopens its east wing after a major renovation.

In addition to the 2019 launch of SpaceIL’s “Beresheet” moon lander, which entered lunar orbit but crashed into the moon’s surface, the donated Merlin engine was one of nine that flew on the first stages of two other Falcon 9 rockets. In 2018, it was launched twice from Vandenberg Air Force Base (today Space Force Base) in California, helping to loft commercial communications satellites (Iridium-6) and an Argentinian Earth-observation satellite (SAOCOM 1A). The latter stage was the first to land on land on the U.S. West Coast, as opposed to using one of SpaceX’s ocean-going droneships.

The grid fin flew only once, on the 2017 launch that placed a South Korean communications satellite in orbit.

From an engineering perspective, one can’t help wondering why SpaceX chose to donate these items in particular. Why for example did the grid fin fly only once? And why was the Merlin engine retired?

SpaceX launches 21 Starlink satellites from Vandenberg

SpaceX early this morning successfully launched another 21 Starlink satellites, its Falcon 9 rocket lifting off from Vandenberg in California shortly after midnight.

The first stage successfully completed its sixth flight, landing on a drone ship in the Pacific.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

68 SpaceX
43 China
13 Russia
7 Rocket Lab
7 India

American private enterprise now leads China in successful launches 79 to 43, and the entire world combined 79 to 69. SpaceX by itself now trails the rest of the world combined (excluding American companies) by only 68 to 69.

Hat tip to BtB’s stringer Jay. I had missed this launch last night, until he reminded me of it.

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