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Cosmic Space

Boeing astronaut chooses family over Starliner flight

Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson, who commanded NASA’s final space shuttle mission nine years ago, says he’s passing up his chance to be on the first crewed flight of Boeing’s Starliner space taxi next year.

Ferguson, who is director of mission integration and operations for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, tweeted that he’s taking on a “new mission” that prioritizes “my most important crew — my family.”

The 56-year-old former astronaut told Space News that he didn’t make his decision lightly: “It surrounds what has really amounted to a year that is replete with family obligations that I just do not want to risk missing,” he said. Among those obligations, according to The Associated Press, is his daughter’s wedding.

NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore, who has served as a backup spaceflier during Starliner training, will take Ferguson’s place.

“Butch will be able to step in seamlessly, and his previous experience on both space shuttle and space station missions make him a valuable addition to this flight,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said in a news release.

The other astronauts due to make the trip to the International Space Station next year are NASA’s Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann. Fincke joined the crew last year when NASA astronaut Eric Boe had to bow out due to unspecified medical reasons.

Ferguson had been looking forward to his Starliner trip for years. He joined Boeing soon after his final shuttle flight in 2011 and played a high-profile role in the Starliner effort — going so far as to help CBS late-night host Stephen Colbert try on Boeing’s spacesuit in 2017.

If the development timeline for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner had been glitch-free, Ferguson and his crewmates might well have been in space by now. But last December, an uncrewed demonstration flight to the space station went awry due to software problems. As a result, NASA and Boeing had to pass up the station docking and end the flight early.

Meanwhile, SpaceX was able to proceed with the first crewed flight of its Crew Dragon capsule in May, beating Boeing to the punch.

After a months-long investigation, NASA and Boeing decided that another uncrewed test mission would have to be flown at Boeing’s expense. That mission is expected to take place late this year or early next year. If all goes well, a crewed flight will follow in mid-2021.

Ferguson said he has “full confidence in the Starliner vehicle, the men and women building and testing it, and the NASA astronauts who will ultimately fly it.” And he hinted that he wouldn’t mind getting another chance to go into space once he takes care of his family obligations.

“I’ve been asked what this means long-term: Does it mean that I’m leaving or does it mean that I’m staying and I just can’t do this,” he told Space News. “I just cannot launch next year. You can read into that as you see fit.”

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Cosmic Space

‘Space Hero’ aims for reality TV’s final frontier

Will “Space Hero” go where no reality TV show has gone before?

Twenty years after “Destination: Mir” promised to put the winning contestant of a broadcast TV competition into orbit, “Space Hero” aims to take advantage of new commercial spaceflight opportunities to follow through on that promise at last.

But cautionary tales abound.

“Destination: Mir,” created by “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett for NBC, fizzled out along with Russia’s Mir space station not long after the project was unveiled in 2000. A similar project, aimed at putting boy-band singer Lance Bass on the International Space Station, faded away in 2002 when producers couldn’t come up with the money.

The list goes on — highlighted by Mars One’s unsuccessful bid to get a Red Planet TV project off the ground, Burnett’s fruitless effort to create an NBC series focusing on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, soprano superstar Sarah Brightman’s abortive attempt to fly to the space station in 2015 and this year’s failure to launch for Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa’s space-based matchmaking show.

One British TV series, “Space Cadets,” told contestants that they were being trained for a space shot but actually set them up for one of the most elaborate hoaxes in television history.

This time will be different, said veteran entertainment industry executive Marty Pompadur, the chairman of Space Hero LLC.

“Space Hero is the new frontier for the entertainment sector, offering the first-ever truly off-planet experience,” Pompadur said today in a news release. “We aim to reinvent the reality TV category by creating a multi-channel experience that offers the biggest prize ever, to the biggest audience possible. Space Hero is about opening space up to everyone — not only to astronauts and billionaires.”

The show would trace the training of contestants for a spot on a spacecraft heading to the space station as early as 2023. Axiom Space, a commercial venture that has already struck a deal with NASA and SpaceX for a privately funded space trip, would be in charge of training and mission management. A global audience would cast votes to pick the winner, and there’d be live coverage of the 10-day space stay.

Space Hero says it’s currently in discussions with NASA for a potential partnership that would include educational initiatives. A countdown clock on the company’s webpage is ticking down to April 12, 2021, which marks the scheduled kickoff for the application process as well as the 60th anniversary of the world’s first human spaceflight.

The venture’s founding partners are Thomas Reemer, who has produced unscripted video programming in Germany; and Deborah Sass, whose career has focused on entertainment and lifestyle branding.

“When Thomas and I started this venture, we were very clear that there was nothing like it on the planet,” Sass said. “Today we have started our mission to find our distribution partner and are ready to take it to the next stage and get the world excited about Space Hero.”

The project is being produced by Propagate Content, a company founded by Ben Silverman and Howard T. Owens. Those executives have a storied pedigree in the entertainment industry, touching on shows ranging from “The Office” to an upcoming Eurovision spin-off series called “The American Song Contest.”

Will “Space Hero” succeed where past space TV projects failed? Those past efforts went by the wayside primarily because of a lack of funding. Potential distributors and sponsors have traditionally been chary about backing entertainment projects that could turn into a scrub — or, far worse, a Challenger-style tragedy.

Spaceflight doesn’t come cheap: The projected ticket price for flying commercially to the space station on a SpaceX Dragon or a Boeing Starliner is thought to be in the range of $50 million to $60 million, and NASA has said it’d charge roughly $35,000 a day on top of that cost for a space station stay.

But if projects that are already in the pipeline for space station stardom — such as Estee Lauder’s skin care ad campaign or the granddaddy of them all, Tom Cruise’s zero-G movie — turn into palpable, profitable hits, then it just might be time to put “Space Hero” on your appointment calendar for must-see space TV.

Update for 5 p.m. PT Sept. 17: I asked Hannah Walsh, who is handling public affairs for Space Hero, about the venture’s funding. Here’s her emailed reply:

“Space Hero is currently in the second stage of fundraising, which is exactly where they should be in the plan, and [they] are very comfortable with where they are in the process. Contracts have been signed with all partners and the next step is to evaluate the distribution offers and choose the relationship that best suits the project. Potential investors can find out more by contacting investment firm Gerald Edelman.”

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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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GeekWire

Orbite plans to build a space camp for grown-ups

If the 2010s were the decade when small satellites revolutionized the space industry, the 2020s will be when commercial space odysseys finally go mainstream.

At least that’s the gamble that Jason Andrews, the co-founder and former CEO of Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, is taking with French-born tech entrepreneur Nicolas Gaume.

Today Andrews and Gaume are taking the wraps off Orbite, a Seattle startup that will focus on getting would-be spacefliers ready for those future odysseys. “You’re going to go to a space camp for the next generation,” Gaume said.

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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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Boeing teams up with Varjo on Starliner VR

Boeing's Connie Miller with VR headset
Boeing software engineer Connie Miller tries out the Varjo virtual-reality system to control a computer-generated Starliner space taxi. (Varjo / Boeing Photo)

Boeing isn’t due to start flying NASA crews to the International Space Station until next year, but in the meantime, astronauts can steer a computer-generated Starliner space taxi with the aid of Varjo’s virtual-reality headsets.

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Trump campaign pulls ad featuring SpaceX launch

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken say farewell to their families before heading to the launch pad for a SpaceX launch to the International Space Station on May 30. (NASA via YouTube)

An online advertisement that plays off last weekend’s historic crewed SpaceX launch to boost President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign drew a protest from the wife of one of the astronauts today — and soon afterward, the campaign deleted its version of the ad.

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NASA’s Dragon riders capture the flag

Space station crew with flag
NASA astronaut Doug Hurley shows off the U.S. flag that was left aboard the International Space Station in 2011 by the last space shuttle crew. Hurley and Behnken, at left, will take the flag back to Earth with them aboard their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. The space station’s current commander, NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, is at right. (NASA via YouTube)

A day after arriving at the International Space Station on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken laid claim to a U.S. flag that symbolizes America’s capability to send people to orbit from U.S. soil.

The handkerchief-sized flag, sealed in a plastic envelope, has been kept aboard the space station since 2011, when NASA’s final space shuttle crew left it behind before making their departure aboard Atlantis.

It was displayed above the Harmony module’s hatch — and, for a time, stored in an equipment bag, nearly forgotten — with instructions that it was to be taken back to Earth by the next crew launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

That moment finally came on May 31, when Hurley and Behnken floated through the Harmony hatch after their launch 19 hours earlier.

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Astronauts reach space station in SpaceX capsule

SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour
A camera mounted on the International Space Station shows SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour capsule hooked up to a port on the station’s Harmony module. (NASA via YouTube)

For the first time in nearly nine years, astronauts have arrived at the International Space Station in a spaceship that was made in the USA.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which was christened Endeavour soon after Saturday’s launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, hooked up with the station at 7:16 a.m. PT today.

Endeavour brought NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the station’s Harmony port, prompting space station commander Chris Cassidy to ring the naval bell that’s part of the tradition for welcoming space crews.

“Dragon arriving,” Cassidy declared.

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Trump hails SpaceX launch after seeing it firsthand

Donald Trump in VAB
President Donald Trump delivers remarks in Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building with a mockup of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule in the background. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

President Donald Trump held up America’s space effort as a unifying endeavor for a divided nation after becoming only the third sitting president to witness the launch of American astronauts in person.

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