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GeekWire

Space Force awards $87.5 million for rocket development

The U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command today announced awards totaling $87.5 million to support prototype commercial projects relating to next-generation rocket testing and enhancements to make upper stages more resilient.

The awards were made under the aegis of the National Security Space Launch program using the Space Development Corps’ Space Enterprise Consortium, which facilitates engagement involving the Pentagon space community, industry and academia.

The awards include:

  • $24.35 million to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture for cryogenic fluid management on the New Glenn rocket’s second stage.
  • $24.35 million to Rocket Lab to develop the Neutron rocket’s upper stage.
  • $14.47 million to SpaceX for rapid throttling and restart testing of the Raptor rocket engine, which is destined for use on SpaceX’s Starship rocket, liquid methane specification development and testing; and combustion stability analysis and testing.
  • $24.35 million to United Launch Alliance for uplink command and control for the Centaur V upper stage, which will be used with ULA’s Vulcan rocket.
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GeekWire

TMZ says Star Trek’s William Shatner will go to space

The next crewed suborbital spaceflight planned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture — which could launch as early as next month — is due to carry Star Trek captain William Shatner, according to the TMZ celebrity news site.

If the report based on unnamed sources is true, that would make Shatner the oldest person to fly in space at the age of 90, besting the record set by 82-year-old aviation pioneer Wally Funk during July’s first crewed flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spacecraft.

Shatner played Captain James T. Kirk in the original “Star Trek” series and in a series of movies. That gives him at least one thing in common with Bezos. The world’s richest individual also played a part in a Star Trek production: a cameo as an alien Starfleet officer that lasted several seconds in the movie “Star Trek Beyond.”

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GeekWire

Court filings shed light on lunar lander fight

Redacted versions of documents relating to Blue Origin’s federal lawsuit against the federal government and SpaceX lay out further details about the dispute over a multibillion-dollar NASA lunar lander contract, but the details that are left out are arguably just as intriguing.

Today the U.S. Court of Federal Appeals released the 59-page text of the Blue Origin-led industry consortium’s complaint, which was filed in August. The court also shared redacted responses from SpaceX.

The filings focus on NASA’s April decision to award SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to develop its Starship super-rocket as the landing system for the Artemis program’s first crewed trip to the lunar surface, planned for as early as 2024.

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GeekWire

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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GeekWire

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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GeekWire

Elon Musk goads Jeff Bezos as space spat escalates

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has fired a fresh volley of tart tweets at Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the Blue Origin space venture, in the midst of a regulatory tussle over SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation and Amazon’s competing Project Kuiper concept.

And this time, space lasers are involved.

The spark that lit Musk’s latest flame war came after SpaceX sought the Federal Communications Commission’s approval to amend plans for sending up tens of thousands of Starlink satellites to provide global broadband service. The amendment would let SpaceX use its Starship mega-rocket, currently under development, to put its Gen2 satellites into an assortment of orbits.

In response, Amazon urged the FCC to turn back SpaceX’s request, saying that the amendment proposes “two mutually exclusive configurations” for the Starlink constellation and leaves too many details unsettled. And in response to thatSpaceX told the FCC that Amazon’s filing was “only the latest in its continuing efforts to slow down competition.”

SpaceX also complained that Amazon was neglecting to resolve the FCC’s concerns about Project Kuiper. The FCC gave conditional approval to Amazon’s plans more than a year ago — provided that the Kuiper satellites didn’t interfere with previously approved satellite systems, including Starlink. SpaceX noted that Amazon hasn’t yet filed documents showing how it planned to avoid interference and ensure safe satellite operations.

More than 1,700 first-generation Starlink satellites have already been launched in accordance with previous FCC approvals, and the internet service is currently in expanded beta testing.

The Starlink spat comes amid the backdrop of legal protests that Bezos’ other big brainchild, Blue Origin, has filed against NASA for awarding a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract to SpaceX. Because of Blue Origin’s lawsuit, NASA and SpaceX have suspended work to adapt Starship as the landing system for a crewed mission to the moon, which is currently set for as early as 2024. (That date seems increasingly unlikely, however, and not just because of the lawsuit.)

In today’s tweets, Musk touched on the FCC filings as well as the lunar lander dispute, referring to Bezos without mentioning him by name.

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GeekWire

New Shepard joins the pantheon of model rockets

Rocket fans will soon be able to follow in Jeff Bezos’ footsteps when it comes to ownership of a suborbital New Shepard space vehicle.

Just be warned that everything will be scaled down: The Blue Origin New Shepard model rocket unveiled this week by Estes Industries will be 1/66th scale, and capable of going up 400 feet rather than 62 miles.

At least the price is scaled down as well: Instead of paying out a billion dollars a year to support Blue Origin’s development program for New Shepard as well as the orbital-class New Glenn rocket and advanced projects, buyers will be asked to shell out a mere $69.99.

Estes is partnering with the Club for the Future, Blue Origin’s educational foundation, to offer New Shepard as a STEM teaching tool. A portion of the sales proceeds will go to the club.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin sends art and science to space and back

A little more than a month after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos took a rocket ride, his Blue Origin space venture set another New Shepard suborbital spaceship to the final frontier — but this time the high-profile payloads were paintings, not people.

Blue Origin’s 17th New Shepard mission lifted off from the company’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas at 9:31 a.m. CT (7:31 a.m. PT) today, after a couple of countdown holds that provided opportunities for last-minute checks of the rocket and its payloads.

The reusable vehicle that Bezos and three crewmates rode last month was optimized to fly passengers, but the spaceship for today’s flight was optimized to carry research payloads instead. No humans were riding along for this particular rocket ship’s eighth suborbital outing.

The flight followed the standard profile for New Shepard: The hydrogen-fueled booster pushed the capsule to an altitude of 347,434 feet (105.9 kilometers), which is above the 100-kilometer (62-mile) “Karman Line” that marks a widely accepted outer-space boundary.

Minutes later, the booster touched down autonomously on a landing pad not far from the launch site. “Just like she was landing on the moon,” launch commentator Jacki Cortese said.

Meanwhile, the capsule experienced a few minutes of weightlessness, and then descended to a parachute-aided landing in the Texas desert. The flight took 10 minutes from launch to the capsule’s touchdown.

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GeekWire

GAO rejects challenges to SpaceX’s lunar lander contract

The Government Accountability Office today turned back protests from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and Alabama-based Dynetics, ruling that NASA was within its rights to award a single $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX to build the first lunar lander to carry astronauts to the moon since the Apollo era.

Industry teams led by Blue Origin and Dynetics had put in rival bids for NASA’s lunar lander business, and filed protests with the GAO when the space agency made the single-source award in April. The GAO had 100 days to decide whether the award should be upheld or overturned. In the meantime, NASA and SpaceX suspended work on the contract.

The bid protests raised several objections to NASA’s award — including the fact that NASA made only one award.

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Fiction Science Club

Science fiction gets real in the billionaire space race

The state of commercial space travel is changing so quickly that even science-fiction authors are struggling to keep up.

That’s what Time magazine’s editor at large, Jeffrey Kluger, found out when he was finishing up his newly published novel, “Holdout,” half of which is set on the International Space Station.

Kluger’s plot depends on the Russians being the only ones capable of bringing an astronaut back from the space station — but that no longer holds true, now that SpaceX is flying crews to and from orbit.

“At the very end of the editing process, SpaceX started to fly … so I had to quickly account for that,” he explains in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and technology with fiction and popular culture.

Kluger filled that plot hole by writing in a quick reference to a couple of fictional companies — CelestiX and Arcadia — and saying they were both grounded, due to a launch-pad accident and a labor strike.

It’s been even harder to keep up in the past few weeks, due to the high-profile suborbital spaceflights that have been taken by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. Each of them flew aboard their own company’s rocket ship: Blue Origin’s New Shepard for Bezos, and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane for Branson.

Kluger told me those billionaire space trips are at the same time less significant and more significant than they might seem at first glance.