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Amazon makes a huge deal for satellite launches

Amazon has secured as many as 83 launches on three types of heavy-lift rockets to put more than 1,500 satellites into low Earth orbit for its Project Kuiper broadband internet constellation over the course of five years.

If Amazon follows through on all the reservations announced today, the campaign would carry a multibillion-dollar price tag and arguably represent the space industry’s largest launch procurement for a single commercial project.

“Securing launch capacity from multiple providers has been a key part of our strategy from day one,” Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper at Amazon, said today in a news release. “This approach reduces risk associated with launch vehicle stand-downs and supports competitive long-term pricing for Amazon, producing cost savings that we can pass on to our customers.”

Amazon’s Project Kuiper aims to offer satellite broadband internet service to tens of millions of people around the world who are currently underserved. The $10 billion project has been in the works for three years, and won the Federal Communications Commission’s go-ahead in 2020. But it’s considered far behind SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband service, which is already available on a limited basis.

Like Starlink, Project Kuiper is headquartered in Redmond, Wash. More than 1,000 Amazon employees are currently working on Kuiper, and the project’s careers website lists more than 300 open positions.

Dave Limp, senior vice president for Amazon Devices & Services, said Project Kuiper is making good progress. “We still have lots of work ahead, but the team has continued to hit milestone after milestone across every aspect of our satellite system,” he said. “These launch agreements reflect our incredible commitment and belief in Project Kuiper, and we’re proud to be working with such an impressive lineup of partners to deliver on our mission.”

Twelve launch reservations have been made with Blue Origin, the Kent, Wash.-based space venture owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Those launches would use Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which is closing in on a first launch in 2023 or later. Amazon also has an option to buy up to 15 additional New Glenn launches.

Amazon has reserved another 38 launches on United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is due to have its first liftoff as early as this year. Those missions would be in addition to nine previously reserved launches on ULA’s existing Atlas V rockets.

New Glenn and Vulcan are designed to lift off from separate launch complexes at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Arianespace has agreed to set aside 18 launches of its heavy-lift Ariane 6 rocket, which is due to make its debut as early as this year at the European consortium’s spaceport in French Guiana. Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël said the launch contract with Amazon is “the largest we’ve ever signed.”

The FCC license requires Amazon to launch at least half of its planned 3,236-satellite constellation by 2026, and today Amazon said its procurement plan should meet that schedule. That translates to more than 1,618 satellites, potentially launched by the nine Atlas V rockets and the rockets mentioned today.

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Jeff Bezos’ ventures team up on space station effort

Amazon and its cloud computing division, Amazon Web Services, say they’re joining forces with another company founded by Jeff Bezos to support the development of a commercial space station known as Orbital Reef.

Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is one of the leaders of the Orbital Reef project, along with Colorado-based Sierra Space. Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering and Arizona State University are also part of the consortium.

Last December, Orbital Reef won a $130 million award from NASA to move ahead with the design of an orbital outpost that could fill the gap when the International Space Station is retired in the 2030-2031 time frame. Two other teams — led by Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman — also won NASA funding to flesh out their space station concepts.

In a blog posting, AWS said it would provide services and technology tools to support Orbital Reef’s development from the engineering design phase to on-orbit networking and operations. Amazon would contribute its expertise in logistics to streamline delivery and inventory management of space station supplies.

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Husband and wife score a first on Blue Origin space trip

Say hello to the final frontier’s latest power couple: Marc and Sharon Hagle, who became the first husband-and-wife team to fly on a commercial spaceship today during a suborbital trip provided by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

The Hagles and four other spacefliers blasted off from Launch Site One in Texas aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship at 8:58 a.m. CT (6:58 a.m. PT) after a series of holds. There was no immediate word about the reason for the holds.

The flight profile for today’s mission — which is known as NS-20 because it was the 20th flight for the company’s reusable New Shepard launch system — followed the precedent set by three previous crewed flights: The hydrogen-fueled booster lofted the crew capsule to an unofficial altitude of 66.5 miles (107 kilometers), giving the sextet a few minutes of weightlessness and an astronaut’s-eye view of a curving Earth beneath the black sky of space.

After stage separation, the autonomously controlled booster touched down on a landing pad, not far from the launch pad, while the crew capsule floated down to make a parachute-aided landing amid the West Texas rangeland. The flight took a little more than 10 minutes from the booster’s launch to the capsule’s landing.

Cries of “Woo-Hoo” could be heard from the crew over the capsule’s communication channel just after touchdown. Sharon Hagle gave a fist pump — and gave a hug and a kiss to her husband — as the couple emerged from the capsule.

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Are space trips trending toward becoming routine?

When Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture sends its next crew on a suborbital ride to space, as early as March 31, there won’t be any TV celebrities on board. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

“I’m personally seeing more and more people I know flying on each flight … and that’s more exciting to me than celebrity fliers,” Laura Seward Forczyk, the owner of the Atlanta-based space consulting firm Astralytical, told GeekWire in an email. “People in my network flying makes it feel much closer and more accessible.”

Folks who aren’t space consultants, or space geeks, might be hard-pressed to name a single member of the sextet — although they’d probably remember that “Saturday Night Live” comedian Pete Davidson gave up his seat due to a scheduling conflict.

To fill that seat, Blue Origin chose its own Gary Lai. He’s the chief architect for the New Shepard suborbital spaceship that’s due to take off from the company’s Launch Site One amid the rangeland of West Texas. Assuming all systems are go, launch coverage via Blue Origin’s website and YouTube is set to begin at 7:20 a.m. CT (5:20 a.m. PT), with liftoff expected around 8:30 a.m. CT (6:30 a.m. PT).

This mission, known as NS-20, marks the 20th outing for Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard launch system and the fourth crewed flight.

Headliners for the three previous trips included Jeff Bezos and aviation pioneer Wally Funk for last July’s debut; Star Trek captain William Shatner for October’s sequel; and Laura Shepard Churchley, the eldest daughter of pioneer NASA astronaut Alan Shepard, plus morning-show anchor Michael Strahan for December’s three-peat.

On the NS-20 mission, Lai will be joined by Marc and Sharon Hagle, the first married couple to fly in space together since 1992; George Nield, a former Federal Aviation Administration official who was involved in regulating commercial spaceflight; Jim Kitchen, a teacher and entrepreneur from North Carolina; and Marty Allen, an angel investor and former CEO of Party America.

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Blue Origin’s next space crew waits out the weather

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has rescheduled its next crewed suborbital space mission for March 31, due to concerns about the weather.

In a mission update, Blue Origin said “forecasted high winds during launch and recovery” forced a postponement of the liftoff from the company’s Launch Site One in West Texas. The National Weather Service said winds could reach sustained levels of 35 to 45 mph on March 29, with gusts up to 60 mph.

Six spacefliers — including the first married couple to go into space together in 30 years — have signed on for Blue Origin’s fourth crewed suborbital flight.

“The team has completed Flight Readiness Review and confirmed the vehicle has met all the mission requirement for flight,” Blue Origin said. “Astronauts are completing their training, and weather remains as the only gating factor.”

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NASA lays out its plan for another moon lander

NASA has laid out its plan for choosing a second commercial venture to build a landing system capable of carrying astronauts to and from the lunar surface.

The venture would provide a competitive alternative to SpaceX’s lunar landing system, which is based on its Starship design and won a $2.9 billion NASA contract last April. The Starship lunar lander is scheduled to take on an uncrewed test mission to the moon in 2024, followed by the first crewed lunar landing for NASA’s Artemis program in 2025.

“We expect approximately one human landing per year, over a decade or so, and these are not isolated missions,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said today. “Each is going to build on the past progress. … And all of that is, of course, in preparation for us then to have the first human mission to Mars late in the 2030s or 2040.”

When SpaceX won NASA’s nod last April, two competitors for the contract — Alabama-based Dynetics and a team led by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture — complained that NASA should have made more than one award, in the interest of promoting competition. Some members of Congress, including Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., made similar arguments.

Nelson said the new program, known as the Sustaining Lunar Development contract or NextSTEP Appendix P, would address those complaints. “I promised competition, so here it is,” he told reporters.

If the program proceeds according to plan, the second company’s landers would go into service in the 2026-2027 time frame, starting with an uncrewed test mission to the lunar surface.

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Pete Davidson scrubs his suborbital space ride

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has called off plans to put “Saturday Night Live” cast member Pete Davidson on the next flight of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship. “Pete Davidson is no longer able to join the NS-20 crew on this mission,” Blue Origin said today in a tweet. The company said that liftoff from Launch Site One in West Texas has been delayed from March 24 to March 29.

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Comedian Pete Davidson gets his space trip confirmed

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has confirmed that “Saturday Night Live” comedian Pete Davidson will be going to space next week, less than a year after he portrayed a hapless Mars astronaut on NBC’s late-night sketch show.

Bezos won’t be accompanying Davidson, even though that was the impression given by some of last week’s gossip about the flight. Instead, five paying passengers will be riding alongside the 28-year-old actor, who co-wrote and starred in a semi-autobiographical movie titled “The King of Staten Island” in 2020.

The other five spacefliers listed in today’s announcement are:

  • Marty Allen, an angel investor and the former CEO of Party America and California Closet Company, among other ventures.
  • Marc Hagle, the president and CEO of Tricor International, a residential and commercial property development corporation.
  • Sharon Hagle, the founder of SpaceKids Global, a nonprofit organization focusing on STEAM+ education, with a special emphasis on empowering girls. SpaceKids participates in the Postcards to Space program led by the Club for the Future, Blue Origin’s educational foundation. Marc and Sharon Hagle are husband and wife.
  • Jim Kitchen, a teacher, entrepreneur and explorer who has served on the faculty of the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School since 2010.
  • George Nield, a former associate administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation who is now the president of Commercial Space Technologies.

Blue Origin said Davidson would be getting a free flight as the company’s guest. The company declined to say how much the other fliers would be paying for their trips.

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‘SNL’ comedian is reportedly up for a space ride

Comedian Pete Davidson co-starred with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk last year in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch about a slacker astronaut named Chad, but it sounds as if Davidson could soon go into space for real — courtesy of Musk’s rival space billionaire, Jeff Bezos.

According to the New York Post’s Page Six gossip column, Davidson is close to signing up for a suborbital space trip on the New Shepard rocket ship built by Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

“Pete is excited,” according to an unnamed Page Six source said to be familiar with Davidson’s plans. “They haven’t signed a contract yet, but it looks like it’s going to happen. The details are being finalized.”

Blue Origin, which is based in Kent, Wash., launched three crewed suborbital space missions from its West Texas spaceport last year and is reportedly keen to pick up the pace this year. Page Six quoted its source as saying the timing for Davidson’s flight is still up in the air.

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Blue Origin explores new frontiers in Phoenix and Denver

Blue Origin says it’s hiring in Phoenix and Denver — two Western cities that represent relatively new frontiers for Jeff Bezos’ space venture.

The downtown Phoenix office is focusing on “avionics, systems engineering and integrated supply chain,” Blue Origin says on its career website, while the South Denver office will focus on “program management, systems engineering, avionics, software, integration and mission design” in support of Blue Origin’s launch vehicle and space systems programs.

The Denver area happens to be home to a growing number of space ventures, including past and present partners in some of Blue Origin’s high-profile projects.

Lockheed Martin, for example, was part of a Blue Origin-led team that bid unsuccessfully to build the first crewed lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis program. United Launch Alliance is a customer for Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engines, while Sierra Space is a major partner in Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef space station project.

And speaking of Orbital Reef, the Phoenix area is home to Arizona State University, which is leading the space station project’s research advisory group.