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‘All-civilian’ crew shares art, music and views from orbit

On the eve of their scheduled return from orbit, four amateur spacefliers brought the world up to date on their activities — an out-of-this-world routine that focused on raising money for charity and gazing out the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule’s cupola window.

Inspiration4 crew member Chris Sembroski, a Lockheed Martin data engineer who hails from Everett, Wash., even strummed a serenade on a custom-made ukulele.

“I can play a little for you,” he said over a space-to-Earth video link. “You can turn your volume down if you wish, but I’ll give it a shot.”

Sembroski’s music sounded just fine; nevertheless, he followed up the performance with a promise. “It’s still before coffee, so it’ll get better as the day goes on,” he said.

The ukulele, like many of the other items that the foursome brought with them for their Sept. 15 launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, will be sold off to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

Supporting St. Jude’s mission to treat childhood cancer is the philanthropic goal behind the Inspiration4 mission, as conceived by Jared Isaacman, Shift4 Payments’ billionaire founder and CEO. Isaacman, an amateur pilot who created his own private fleet of fighter jets, is paying the multimillion-dollar cost of the mission and serves as its commander.

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Report says AI’s promises and perils are getting real

A newly published report on the state of artificial intelligence says the field has reached a turning point where attention must be paid to the everyday applications of AI technology — and to the ways in which that technology are being abused.

The report, titled “Gathering Strength, Gathering Storms,” was issued today as part of the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence, or AI100, which is envisioned as a century-long effort to track progress in AI and guide its future development .

AI100 was initiated by Eric Horvitz, Microsoft’s chief scientific officer, and hosted by the Stanford University Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. The project is funded by a gift from Horvitz, a Stanford alumnus, and his wife, Mary.

The project’s first report, published in 2016, downplayed concerns that AI would lead to a Terminator-style rise of the machines and warned that fear and suspicion about AI would impede efforts to ensure the safety and reliability of AI technologies. At the same time, it acknowledged that the effects of AI and automation could lead to social disruption.

This year’s update, prepared by a standing committee in collaboration with a panel of 17 researchers and experts, says AI’s effects are increasingly touching people’s lives in settings that range from movie recommendations and voice assistants to autonomous driving and automated medical diagnoses.

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Citizen spacefliers begin an orbital mission like no other

A tech billionaire and three other non-professional spacefliers blasted off today to begin the first non-governmental, philanthropic mission carrying a crew to orbit.

The founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, Jared Isaacman, is paying what’s thought to be in excess of $100 million for what’s expected to be a three-day flight in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.

Isaacman organized the Inspiration4 mission with SpaceX’s help as a benefit for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. The 38-year-old billionaire kicked off the $200 million campaign with a commitment to donate $100 million himself.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 8:02 p.m. ET (5:02 p.m. PT). “Punch it, SpaceX!” Isaacman told mission control.

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‘All-civilian’ orbital flight ushers in a new space age

Are they space tourists? Citizen spacefliers? All-civilian astronauts? Whatever you call them, the four teammates who are due to go into orbit today in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule require creating a new category.

“I know there’s controversy over what you should be called,” retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly told the foursome today in a tweet. “But when you strap into a rocket and launch into orbit, you can call yourself anything you want: astronot, astronut, astronaut — whatever.”

There’s Jared Isaacman, the billiionaire CEO of Shift4 Payments, who’s paying for the launch and is the mission commander … Hayley Arceneaux, the 29-year-old cancer survivor who’s due to become the youngest American to go into space … Sian Proctor, the professor and artist who’ll back up Isaacman as America’s first Black space pilot.

And then there’s Chris Sembroski, a former Air Force missile technician and Lockheed Martin engineer from Everett, Wash. Sembroski got his chance to train for the mission and climb onboard the Dragon when an old college buddy of his won a charity sweepstakes — and then gave the reservation to him.

“I think that just really puts me in a very special spot, where not only do I feel very lucky to be here, but I have a huge responsibility to pay that forward,” Sembroski said during a pre-launch briefing.

Liftoff atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is set for 8:05 p.m. ET (5:05 p.m. PT) from the historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. But although the three-day Inspiration4 mission starts out from a NASA-owned facility, the space agency has minimal involvement.

This will be the first non-governmental crewed flight to orbit, and the first crewed SpaceX flight to pass up going to the International Space Station. Instead, the foursome will go into an orbit higher than the space station — higher than humans have flown since the space shuttle missions to the Hubble Space Telescope.

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NASA awards millions to keep lunar lander dreams alive

Months after losing out to SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and two of its partners in a lunar lander project will be getting fresh infusions of financial support from NASA, thanks to a follow-up program aimed at boosting capabilities for putting astronauts on the moon.

Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman aren’t the only companies sharing a total of $146 million in fixed-price awards. SpaceX and Dynetics — the two rivals of the Blue Origin-led “National Team” in NASA’s previous lunar lander solicitation — will get pieces of the pie as well.

The follow-up program, NextSTEP Appendix N, seeks expertise to help NASA shape the strategy and requirements for a future solicitation that’ll be focused on establishing regular crewed transportation from lunar orbit to the moon’s surface.

That’s different from the competitive process that resulted in SpaceX winning a $2.9 billion contract from NASA in April to adapt its Starship super-rocket as a lunar landing system. That development program, NextSTEP Appendix H, covers only the first crewed landing of NASA’s Artemis moon program, tentatively set for 2024. Appendix N would set the stage for the landings that are expected to follow.

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New Shepard’s shepherd leaves Blue Origin

The changing of the guard is continuing at Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture with the departure of Stephen Bennett, a senior vice president who led the team behind the company’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship.

Bennett will become Toronto-based Kepler Communications’ chief operating officer on Sept. 20, Kepler said in a news release.

Blue Origin’s vice president of communications, Linda Mills, told GeekWire in an email that Bennett’s deputy, Phil Joyce, “was promoted and has taken on leadership of the New Shepard team with a seamless transition plan.”

Kepler is rolling out Aether, a connectivity service for space assets in low Earth orbit, or LEO. The Aether system is due to go through flight validation early next year.

“The opportunity to join Kepler as this point in their journey speaks to me on multiple levels,” Bennett said in the news release. “The goal of delivering a LEO network that will provide real-time connectivity to other orbital missions is a bold one, but one that this team has demonstrated they are on track to achieve.”

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Spaceflight unveils orbital tug made for far-out missions

When a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sends a robotic lander to the moon’s south pole, perhaps as early as next year, Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. plans to make a few extra deliveries with its own own piggyback spacecraft.

The mission, known as GEO Pathfinder, will represent the first in-space outing for a new type of orbital transfer vehicle called the Sherpa Escape, or Sherpa-ES.

“Orbital” might not be exactly the right term, since the craft is designed to go well beyond low Earth orbit to zoom around the moon and back, potentially deploying payloads at every step along the way.

“This mission will demonstrate our complete mission toolbox and ability to execute complex, groundbreaking and exciting missions beyond LEO,” Grant Bonin, senior vice president of business development at Spaceflight, said today in a news release.

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BlackSky will boldly go into the satellite data frontier

As a private venture, BlackSky made a name for itself providing satellite imagery and data analysis primarily for military and government customers. But now that it’s an independent, publicly traded company, the satellite subsidiary that got its start in Seattle is setting its sights higher.

“This is a thrilling outcome for the company,” said BlackSky CEO Brian O’Toole, who rang the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange today. “This is going to gross over $280 million in capital to fund our growth plan. We’re in the early stages here of an exciting new space sector.”

As a result of BlackSky’s business combination with Osprey Technology Acquisition Corp. — which had been in the works for months and took full effect last week — the company’s shares are being traded on the NYSE under the ticker symbol BKSY.

It’s the latest in a string of space-related deals involving special-purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs. (Other notable space-SPAC deals have involved Virgin GalacticAstra and Rocket Lab), It’s also the latest chapter for a venture that started out in 2013 as a subsidiary of Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, and broke out on its own last year after the umbrella company’s other subsidiary, Spaceflight Inc., was acquired by a Japanese joint venture.

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BlackSky glides into its first day of public trading

BlackSky, the geospatial data analysis company that got its start in Seattle, eased into its first day of public trading on the New York Stock Exchange today, clinching a blank-check merger deal that unlocked about $283 million in capital.

The business combination with Osprey Technology Acquisition Corp. — a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC — was approved by Osprey’s shareholders on Sept. 8. BlackSky is now trading under the BKSY ticker symbol for common stock and BKSY.W for BlackSky warrants.

“Our team is excited that we have reached this major milestone on our first-to-know mission to lead a new era of real-time global intelligence,” BlackSky CEO Brian O’Toole said in a news release.

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Bezos Earth Fund pledges millions for climate justice

The Bezos Earth Fund today announced $203.7 million in grants and pledges aimed at advancing climate justice, supporting climate-oriented economic recovery projects and spurring innovation in pathways to decarbonization.

The pledges are part of a 10-year, $10 billion initiative backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to fund scientists, activists, non-governmental organizations and other actors who can address the challenges posed by climate change.

“This funding is just the next step in the Bezos Earth Fund’s commitment to creating catalytic change during this decisive decade,” Andrew Steer, the recently appointed president and CEO of the Bezos Earth Fund, said in a news release. “With each grant, we are helping organizations unblock progress and create pathways to a more sustainable future.”

Today’s announcement covers $73.7 million in immediate donations to 12 organizations, as well as a pledge of another $130 million to be given out by the end of 2021 to organizations supporting the Biden administration’s Justice40 climate initiative. Justice40 is aimed at delivering at least 40% of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate in clean energy to disadvantaged communities.