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GeekWire

How tech titans gave a boost to space tourism

The suborbital spaceships built by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceline may look totally different, but financially speaking, they have something in common: They both have connections to Seattle tech billionaires.

The connection is obvious in the case of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship. Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, about six years after he founded Seattle-based Amazon — and he has said he sells off a billion dollars in Amazon stock annually to fund his privately held space company.

Today the Federal Aviation Administration said it has issued its formal approval for New Shepard’s launch on July 20 from Blue Origin’s West Texas spaceport, with Bezos and three crewmates seated on board. It’ll be the first crewed mission for the suborbital craft, which has been put through 15 uncrewed test flights over the course of more than five years.

Bezos’ trip is due to take place just days after Branson took a ride on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, known as VSS Unity. Both trips are meant to blaze a trail for tourists and researchers to get a sample of the space environment, including a few minutes of zero gravity and wide-angle views of the curving Earth beneath the black sky of space.

Blue Origin’s headquarters has been in the Seattle area from the company’s inception. But Virgin Galactic, which is headquartered in New Mexico, has a less obvious connection to the Seattle tech community.

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GeekWire

Billionaire Richard Branson savors his trip to space

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson rode his company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane into the skies over New Mexico today and did something that no billionaire has done before.

In the company of five crewmates, Branson became the first billionaire to take a rocket-powered ride on his own company’s spaceship, rising above the 50-mile mark that the Federal Aviation Administration considers the boundary of outer space.

Only two other billionaires are in the same class: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who flew to New Mexico to see Branson off and has reportedly reserved a ticket for a Virgin Galactic flight; and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who’s getting ready for a suborbital space ride on the rocket ship built by his Blue Origin space venture.

At its peak, the VSS Unity plane rose to an altitude of 53.5 miles (86.2 kilometers). On the way down, Branson said it was the “experience of a lifetime.”

“I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid,” he told the crowd at New Mexico’s Spaceport America during a post-landing ceremony. “Honestly, nothing could prepare you for the view from space. The whole thing was just magical.”

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GeekWire

Blue Origin fuels space feud with Virgin Galactic

Jeff Bezos has a longstanding rivalry with SpaceX’s Elon Musk, but now his Blue Origin space venture is upping the ante in its spat with fellow soon-to-be space traveler Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic — and the Twitterverse is not amused.

Today’s escalation from Blue Origin came in the form of a tweet drawing distinctions between a suborbital ride on its New Shepard spaceship and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne rocket plane.

The tweet’s infographic noted that New Shepard would fly above the 100-kilometer (62-mile) altitude that is currently considered the international boundary of outer space, while New Shepard’s target altitude is 50 miles, which is accepted by the Federal Aviation Administration as astronaut territory. New Shepard’s other advantages — including the size of its windows — were noted as well.

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Cosmic Space

Dynetics keeps working on lunar lander despite setback

It’s been two and a half months since Blue Origin and Dynetics lost out to SpaceX in NASA’s program to commission commercial lunar landers for the first crewed mission to the moon since Apollo.

Both companies are appealing NASA’s decision, and the Government Accountability Office is due to rule on their protests by Aug. 4. The GAO could force NASA to revisit its decision to give SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract for a moon-lander version of its Starship super-rocket — or let the decision stand as is.

We’ve already talked about why this is an important program for Blue Origin and its billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, as well as for Blue Origin’s partners in the “National Team”: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.  But it’s also important for Alabama-based Dynetics, a Leidos subsidiary that worked on its bid with more than two dozen partners and subcontractors including Sierra Space, Draper and Thales Alenia Space Italy.

NASA gave Dynetics a lower rating than SpaceX and the National Team in its assessment for the initial phase of the Human Landing System program, a.k.a. HLS Option A. Nevertheless, Dynetics is continuing to work on its lunar lander concept.

In connection with our story about Blue Origin, we sent Dynetics a few questions about the status of its lander development program — and company spokeswoman Kristina Hendrix sent back these answers:

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GeekWire

Richard Branson makes his move in billionaire space race

The billionaire space race is on: Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson is on the crew for the next test flight of the company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, which is scheduled to cross the 50-mile space frontier as early as July 11. That’s nine days before Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos is planning his own suborbital space trip.

Virgin Galactic’s flight test plan, announced today, sets up a battle for the bragging rights associated with being the first person to ride his own company’s rocket ship into space.

Neither man would be the first billionaire in space. That distinction belongs to veteran Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi, who traveled to the International Space Station in 2007 and 2009.

Moreover, the definition of the space frontier could add an asterisk to the record book: Virgin Galactic sides with the Federal Aviation Administration in defining the space boundary as the 50-mile-high mark. Blue Origin plans to send its New Shepard spaceship beyond the 100-kilometer (62-mile) altitude that serves as the internationally accepted boundary of space, known as the Karman Line.

The height issue came up in an emailed statement from Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith, referring to Branson. “We wish him a great and safe flight, but they’re not flying above the Karman Line and it’s a very different experience,” Smith said.

Whether it’s 50 miles or 100 kilometers, the suborbital race to space is likely to make for a dramatic few weeks, considering the risks that come with testing new space vehicles — not to mention the egos of the billionaire space barons.

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GeekWire

Pioneering woman aviator will go to space with Jeff Bezos

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has rounded out the foursome for its first crewed suborbital spaceflight with a pioneering woman aviator: Wally Funk, one of the “Mercury 13” women who went through testing for spaceflight but never flew to space.

Funk will sit alongside Bezos and his brother Mark, plus the yet-to-be-identified beneficiary of a $28 million charity auction, when Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship lifts off from its West Texas launch pad on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

In a video posted to Instagram and YouTube, Bezos talks with the 82-year-old Funk about the flight — and Funk goes wide-eyed when the world’s richest individual asks what she’ll do when it’s finished.

“I will say, ‘Honey, that was the best thing that ever happened to me,’ and give you a hug!” Funk replies as she throws her arms around Bezos.

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GeekWire

Astra Space goes public with boost from tech titans

A California-based space venture called Astra marked its first day as a publicly traded company today, completing a financial transition in which Seattle-area telecom pioneer Craig McCaw played a key role.

Astra went public on Nasdaq by virtue of a transaction with Holicity  — a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, that was headed by McCaw and headquartered in Kirkland, Wash. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates provided financial backing for Holicity through a sponsoring fund called Pendrell Corp.

The Astra-Holicity business combination, first announced in February, was approved on June 30 by Holicity’s shareholders. The transaction valued Astra at more than $2 billion, and brought in about $500 million in cash proceeds that Astra will use to accelerate growth and develop its space services platform.

Nasdaq’s ticker symbol for Astra common stock is ASTR, and the symbol ASTRW is being used for Astra warrants.

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GeekWire

SpaceX rocket launches 88 spacecraft, then aces landing

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket sent dozens of satellites into orbit today with a launch that featured an unusual on-the-ground touchdown for its first-stage booster.

Eighty-eight spacecraft were packed aboard the rocket, which took off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida heading for a pole-to-pole orbit. That sun-synchronous orbit is typically preferred for Earth observation satellites, of which there were plenty.

Two of the spacecraft were Sherpa orbital transfer vehicles built by Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. One of the Sherpas used a electric propulsion system to maneuver in space and deploy satellites into different orbits. The other was a free-flier.

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Cosmic Space

Confirmed! Black holes and neutron stars collide

Gravitational-wave astronomers are confident that they’ve filled out their repertoire of cataclysmic collisions, thanks to the detection of two cosmic crashes that each involved a black hole and a neutron star.

Over the past five years, astronomers have used the twin LIGO gravitational-wave detectors in Washington state and Louisiana, plus the Virgo detector in Italy, to pick up signals from more than 50 violent mergers of black holes with black holes, or neutron stars with neutron stars.

In 2019, the astronomers picked up readings from two events that might have been caused by hot black-hole-on-neutron-star action. But one of those detections, on April 26, 2019, could plausibly have been nothing more than noise in the detectors. The other event, on Aug. 14, 2019, involved a crash between a black hole and an object that was either the heaviest known neutron star or the lightest known black hole. The gravitational-wave hunters couldn’t say definitively which.

In contrast, astronomers leave little doubt that the gravitational waves sparked by two separate events in January 2020 were thrown off by the merger of a black hole and a neutron star. They lay out their evidence in a paper published today by The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“With this new discovery of neutron star-black hole mergers outside our galaxy, we have found the missing type of binary. We can finally begin to understand how many of these systems exist, how often they merge, and why we have not yet seen examples in the Milky Way,” Astrid Lamberts, a member of the Virgo collaboration who works at the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in France, said in a news release.

There’s still some mystery surrounding the detections.

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Universe Today

FAA OKs Virgin Galactic’s space passenger service

Virgin Galactic says it’s received the Federal Aviation Administration’s go-ahead to fly customers on its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, marking a significant step in a commercial rollout that could also feature dueling space billionaires.

The FAA’s clearance came in the form of an update to Virgin Galactic’s five-year-old commercial space transportation operator license, the company said today in a news release. The upgrade was based on an analysis of the results from Virgin Galactic’s most recent suborbital test flight, conducted in May at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

During that flight, two test pilots guided the rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity beyond the 50-mile mark that the FAA considers the boundary of outer space. (That’s lower than the internationally accepted boundary of 100 kilometers or 62 miles, known as the Karman Line.)

“The flight performed flawlessly, and the results demonstrate the safety and elegance of our flight system,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said. “Today’s approval by the FAA of our full commercial launch license, in conjunction with the success of our May 22 test flight, give us confidence as we proceed toward our first fully crewed test flight this summer.”

Months ago, Colglazier said that four Virgin Galactic employees would join two test pilots on that flight — and that Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, would go on the test flight after that. But that was before Amazon’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, said he planned to ride Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceship on July 20.