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Blue Origin gets set for launch with COVID-19 in mind

Update for 9:20 a.m. PT Sept. 24: Blue Origin has scrubbed today’s launch of its New Shepard spaceship for a suborbital test flight. “We’ve detected a potential issue with the power supply to the experiments,” it said in a tweet. Cloudy weather at the Texas launch site posed an additional snag, because the precision landing test required clear weather to gather usable data.

We’ll update this report once a new launch date is set.

Previously: After a nine-month gap, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning to send its New Shepard suborbital spaceship on an uncrewed flight to space and back to test a precision landing system for NASA.

And that’s not the only new experiment for Blue Origin’s five-year-old New Shepard flight test program: This 13th test flight will be the first to be flown since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, and the first to include extra COVID-19 safety measures.

“Safety is our highest priority,” Blue Origin said in an emailed statement. “We always take the time to get it right to ensure our vehicle is ironclad and the test environment is safe for launch operations. All mission crew supporting this launch are exercising strict social distancing and safety measures to mitigate COVID-19 risks to personnel, customers and surrounding communities.”

Liftoff from Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas was scheduled for 10 a.m. CT (8 a.m. PT) on Sept. 24. “Current weather conditions are favorable,” Blue Origin said in today’s status report.

The countdown, launch and roughly 10-minute flight will be streamed via BlueOrigin.com starting at T-minus-30 minutes. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is due to provide a special update during the webcast.

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Blue Origin says it’ll ‘soon’ test lunar landing tech

Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong famously had to dodge a boulder-strewn crater just seconds before the first moon landing in 1969 — but for future lunar touchdowns, NASA expects robotic eyes to see such missions to safe landings.

And Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is helping to make it so.

Today NASA talked up a precision landing system known as SPLICE (which stands for Safe and Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution). The system makes use of an onboard camera, laser sensors and computerized firepower to identify and avoid hazards such as craters and boulders.

NASA says three of SPLICE’s four main subsystems — the terrain relative navigation system, a navigation Doppler lidar system and the descent and landing computer — will be tested during an upcoming flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship. The fourth component, a hazard detection lidar system, still has to go through ground testing.

In a tweet, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said technologies such as SPLICE “can provide spacecraft with the ‘eyes’ and analytical capability” for making safe landings. Blue Origin answered with a tweet of its own:

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Blue Origin’s team hits lunar lander milestone

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture says the aerospace team that it’s leading has completed its first “gated milestone” in a NASA-funded effort to develop a lunar lander for crewed missions.

The milestone — known as the system requirement review, or SRR — involves specifying the baseline requirements for the missions, the space vehicles and the landing system’s ground segment.

“The design proceeded to the NASA Certification Baseline Review, followed by the lower-level element SRRs and the preliminary design phase,” Blue Origin reported today in a news release.

Blue Origin leads what it calls a “National Team” in the first phase of the NASA’s Human Landing System development process. While Blue Origin is working on the system’s descent module, Lockheed Martin is responsible for the ascent module, Northrop Grumman is in charge of the transfer module that would get the lander into low lunar orbit, and Draper is working on the system’s avionics.

SpaceX and Dynetics are working on parallel efforts, and next year, NASA is due to select one or two teams to move on to the next phase of development. For this first phase, the Blue Origin-led team is receiving $579 million from NASA, while SpaceX is in line for $135 million and the Dynetics team is getting $253 million. The money is disbursed as each team reaches milestones like the one reported today.

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Cosmic Space

Blue Origin veterans spark space startups

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture turned 20 years old this week — and although the privately held company hasn’t yet put people into space, or put a rocket into orbit, it has spawned a new generation of space startups.

One of those startups, Relativity Space, pulled up stakes in Seattle early on and moved to Southern California. Now it’s making a multimillion-dollar splash and putting the pieces in place for the first launch of its Terran rocket from Florida next year.

Relativity is also going through a leadership transition: Jordan Noone, the venture’s co-founder and chief technology officer, announced today on Twitter that he’ll step back and become an executive adviser “in preparation for starting my next venture.” Relativity’s other co-founder, Blue Origin veteran Tim Ellis, will stay on as CEO.

Other startups are in semi-stealth mode. Here are three notable Seattle-area ventures with Blue Origin connections:

Stoke Space Technologies: Incorporated last October in Renton. Co-founders are CEO Andrew Lapsa, who was responsible for all aspects of development and operation for Blue Origin’s hydrogen-fueled BE-3 and BE-3U engines; and Thomas Feldman, an engineer who played a key role in designing components for the more powerful BE-4 engine, fueled by liquefied natural gas.

Stoke’s website says the company is “building technology to seamlessly connect Earth and orbit.” In May, the company won a $225,000 SBIR Phase I grant from the National Science Foundation to work on an integrated propulsion solution for reusable rocket upper stages.

Stoke says it’ll use the NSF funding “to develop new technology enabling space launch vehicles to re-enter the atmosphere and land propulsively at a target destination for reuse.” SpaceX’s Falcon rockets and Blue Origin’s yet-to-be-built New Glenn rocket are designed with first-stage reusability in mind. Stoke is looking ahead to the next giant leap in reusable rockets.

In addition to Lapsa and Feldman, LinkedIn lists three other Stoke employees with Blue Origin experience. And they have  job openings for a lead system architect and a “Superhuman.”

Reach Space Technologies: Incorporated in February in Maple Valley. The company’s website is still password-protected, but LinkedIn lists Mike Krene, former senior propulsion engineer at Blue Origin, as founder and CEO. Krene spent a decade at Blue Origin, and before that, he dealt with propulsion systems at SpaceX and Pratt & Whitney.

The venture says it aims to “accelerate the time and reduce the cost for new launch startups to get to commercial viability, thereby growing the overall launch market.”

“Our engine systems also provide a high-value, commercially focused propulsion option for existing NewSpace and traditional launch providers,” Reach Space says on its LinkedIn page.

The company says it has between two and 10 employees, including “leading engineers with experience across many flight and development rocket engine systems.”

Starfish Space: Incorporated last November in Kent, where Blue Origin is headquartered. The co-founders are Trevor Bennett, a former flight sciences engineer at Blue Origin; and Austin Link, who spent three years at Blue Origin as a flight sciences simulation engineer. Ian Heidenberger, Starfish’s principal roboticist, was an autonomous-controls engineer at Blue Origin.

Starfish says it’s a venture-backed startup but has not yet revealed details about its investors or investments. It’s working on an “on-demand, in-space transportation service,” including a space tug that could be used to relocate, deorbit or extend the life of satellites. It’s also developing the software to support rendezvous and proximity operations — with an emphasis on electric propulsion.

Four years ago, Jeff Bezos told me his goal for Blue Origin was to build the “heavy-lifting infrastructure” for a wider space industry ecosystem, just as the U.S. Postal Service, UPS and the internet furnished the infrastructure that got Amazon off the ground. Now it looks as if Blue Origin is providing a seedbed for that ecosystem, even before the company has fully occupied its own niche in the marketplace.

Correction for 12:35 a.m. PT Sept. 10: We’ve fixed the spelling of Ian Heidenberger’s name. Hat tip to Isaac Alexander.

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These paintings will get a finishing touch in space

Uplift Aerospace and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket venture plan to put paintings where virtually no art has gone before: on the side of a rocket ship.

The “canvases” for these works are exterior panels that will be mounted on Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard spaceship, sent to the space frontier during an uncrewed test flight, then returned to Earth for delivery to the paintings’ purchasers.

Two Utah artists known for their realist and surrealist paintings — Jeff Hein and Mark R. Pugh — will come up with creations that are meant to weather the aerodynamically challenging ascent and descent through the atmosphere. Uplift Aerospace has conducted tests to ensure that the paint’s adhesion, integrity and relative coloration will endure the rigors of space travel. But the tests also suggest that the trip will alter the art. And that’s OK.

“The Mona Lisa would not move today’s viewer quite so poignantly without the telltale signs of its now centuries-old story and its emergence from the brush of a Renaissance master,” Dakota Bradshaw, a museum specialist who’s associated with the project, said in a news release. “Journey and story will also leave a unique and indelible mark on Uplift Aerospace’s first artwork to return from space travel.”

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Blue Origin team hands NASA a lunar lander mock-up

An all-star space industry team led by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has assembled a mock-up of its proposed lunar lander right where it’ll do the most good, in a training area at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas.

The full-scale engineering module showcases Blue Origin’s Blue Moon descent element, which Bezos unveiled last year; as well as the ascent element designed by Lockheed Martin. It stands more than 40 feet tall in Johnson Space Center’s Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, alongside mock-ups of the space shuttle, space station modules and next-generation space capsules.

Members of the industry team — from Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin as well as Northrop Grumman and Draper — will collaborate with NASA engineers and astronauts to test out the lander’s usability and make any necessary tweaks in preparation for crewed lunar landings that could begin as early as 2024. The tweaks could address such details as the size of the hatch, the placement of the windows and the arrangement of the controls.

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SpaceX sticks with lawsuit over launch competition

SpaceX says it will keep pursuing its lawsuit against the federal government as well as its rivals in the launch industry, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, even though it’s been cleared for billions of dollars in contracts for national security space missions.

Both sides in the long-running dispute laid out their positions in a notice filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Aug. 14, a week after the U.S. Space Force announced that United Launch Alliance and SpaceX were the winners in a competition for future launches.

Leading up to that decision, the Air Force provided hundreds of millions of dollars in development funding for ULA as well as Blue Origin and Orbital Sciences Corp. (now part of Northrop Grumman). SpaceX was left out but protested the awards.

In this month’s filing, SpaceX said the funding gave ULA an “unwarranted advantage” and called for the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center to “rectify” its errors, presumably by providing more funding for SpaceX.

Lawyers for the federal government and ULA said the competition for development funding was decided fairly. They said no rectification was warranted, especially considering that SpaceX proposed its Starship super-rocket for development funding but ended up offering a different launch vehicle  — a modified Falcon Heavy rocket — for the Space Force’s future heavy-lift launches.

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ULA and SpaceX win shares of Space Force launches

The U.S. Space Force designated United Launch Alliance and SpaceX as the winners of a multibillion-dollar competition for national security launches over a five-year period, passing up a proposal from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture in the process.

Northrop Grumman and its OmegA rocket also lost out in the Phase II competition for the National Security Space Launch program.

ULA will receive a 60% share of the launch manifest for contracts awarded in the 2020-2024 time frame, with the first missions launching in fiscal 2022, said William Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics.

SpaceX will receive the other 40%.

The competition extended through the creation of the U.S. Space Force, whose Space and Missile Systems Center will be in charge of executing the launches in partnership with the National Reconnaissance Office.

The five-year Phase II program provides for fixed-price but indefinite-delivery contracts, which means there isn’t a specified total payout. But Roper said it’d be reasonable to estimate that somewhere around 32 to 34 launches would be covered, which would translate to billions of dollars in business.

Three launches were assigned today: ULA is scheduled to launch two missions known as USSF-51 and USSF-106 for the Space Force in 2022, while SpaceX has been assigned USSF-67 in mid-2022.

ULA’s two contracts amount to $337 million, and SpaceX’s contract is worth $316 million. Roper said details about the payloads are classified.

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NASA makes plans for astronauts to go suborbital

NASA says it’ll formulate a plan to assess the safety of suborbital spacecraft — such as Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship or Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane — so that astronauts, researchers and other space agency personnel can be cleared for takeoff.

Today’s announcement, and the release of an official request for information, follows through on hints about the plan that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine dropped last week.

The effort will be spearheaded by a suborbital crew office within NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which has been overseeing the development of SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft for orbital trips to and from the International Space Station.

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NASA gets set to put astronauts on suborbital flights

Beth Moses
Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut trainer, Beth Moses, exults over the view out the window of the company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane during a suborbital spaceflight in February 2019. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine signaled today that astronauts would soon be cleared to take suborbital spaceflights aboard the commercial rocket ships being tested by Virgin Galactic and by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

“NASA is developing the process to fly astronauts on commercial suborbital spacecraft,” Bridenstine said in a tweet. “Whether it’s suborbital, orbital or deep space, NASA will utilize our nation’s innovative commercial capabilities.”

Bridenstine said the details will be laid out in a request for information to be released next week.

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