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This week: The global hunt for a comfy mid-size rocket, Starship launch attempt number two, and a tough quarter for space investment.
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How do you have a space renaissance without rockets?
All eyes will be on today’s attempt to fly SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket, but the bigger near-term problem is with the current generation of launch vehicle development. The issues aren’t just with the new rocket firms fighting their way to orbit, but aerospace giants as well: It’s not clear when United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan will be ready, and now Europe’s latest rocket, Ariane 6, is so delayed that it will have to hire SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch its next set of Galileo navigation satellites.
Indeed, if you’re a Western company and want to launch anything weighing more than 500 kg or benefit from the efficiency of sharing a launch vehicle with multiple customers, you have to go to Elon Musk’s space firm.
This isn’t the ideal situation for driving down the cost of going to space—SpaceX will happily grow its margins and its volume picking up more business, just as it did with rival satellite operator OneWeb when Russia stopped letting Western firms launch on its Soyuz rockets.
The demand for medium-lift rockets, which generally carry between two and 20 metric tons of payload to low-earth orbit, is so clear that many start-ups with plans to deploy and operate smaller rockets are pivoting to bigger ones.
Astra, which scrapped a smaller design after a failed mission for NASA, is working on a vehicle that could carry 600 kg to orbit. Relativity Space tested its smaller Terran 1 rocket for the first time in March; after it failed to reach orbit, the company decided to take those learnings and focus on a larger, reusable vehicle called Terran R. This is exactly what SpaceX did nearly 15 years ago—abandon its small Falcon 1 rocket to build the Falcon 9.
The most interesting of these efforts is from Rocket Lab, the only winner thus far in the race to operate small rockets. Despite a regular flight cadence with its smaller Electron rocket, the company has made clear that its future is in developing a larger, reusable vehicle called Neutron capable of launching 13,000 kg to low-earth orbit. That vehicle could head for orbit as soon as next year. One key sign of the desire for bigger vehicles comes from the US military, one of the biggest spenders on rocket launch, which changed its bidding process to allow new entrants like Rocket Lab.
What makes Neutron promising is Rocket Lab’s record of execution, which includes Electron and two recent announcements. First is that the company will fly one of its rocket engines on an Electron rocket after recovering it from a previously-flown vehicle and refurbishing it. That kind of practice bodes well for scaling up. The second is that the company will use a version of its current rocket dubbed HASTE (Hypersonic Accelerator Suborbital Test Electron) to test hypersonic vehicles for the US military. “HASTE is not the promise of a future capability—it’s a completed launch vehicle ready for flight now,” Rocket Lab executive Brian Rogers said in a statement.
Starship is exciting, but even with a successful test flight today, it’s hard to see the vehicle coming into full service for years. Serious testing likely to be focused on NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to use the huge spacecraft as a lunar lander. The rest of the world needs a completed launch vehicle ready for flight now.
A good reminder from the Washington Post’s Christian Davenport: For all the high-tech glamor of the company, many of SpaceX’s employees are skilled technicians working directly on hardware. Here’s a 2021 shot of some of those workers stacking Starship, hundreds of feet above the ground.
The toughest quarter for space investment since 2015. The latest quarterly assessment of private fundraising for space firms produced by VC firm Space Capital found just $2.2 billion of investment in the first quarter of 2023, a 53% drop from the last quarter of 2024. Considering the state of the markets (and the massive influx of money in prior years), it’s not an unexpected result.
Orbital Fab raises $28.5 million Series A. There’s still money out there for the right business plans:This start-up is developing technology to refuel satellites on orbit, a process that it has already begun testing in orbit and expects to demonstrate for the US Space Force in 2024.
No space program? No problem. Axiom Space, the company developing a commercial space station in low-earth orbit and flying private missions to the International Space Station, has rolled out a new product: A space program in a box that bundles its offerings together for government customers. The offering speaks to the changing nature of space access; nations without their own space programs that might have sought to partner directly with NASA can now work with a private firm led by former NASA officials.
NASA releases latest Moon to Mars vision. If you love a NASA document chock full of priorities, renderings and figures, you’ll love the latest official take on NASA’s exploration agenda. You may also enjoy this commentary from former NASA engineer Edgar Zapata.
The case that Lockheed Martin will buy ULA. Following reports that ULA is up for sale, one analyst argues that Boeing needs the cash, Blue Origin doesn’t need a different rocket, and Lockheed Martin is doubling down on space.
In Memoriam: Remembering Virginia Norwood, who invented the technology behind satellite imagery.
This was issue 177 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your favorite measures of satellite launch demand, Starship selfies, tips, and informed opinions email@example.com.