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Universe Today

Axiom’s first astronauts end an extended space trip

Axiom Space’s first crew of private astronauts is back on Earth after a 17-day orbital trip that included a week of bonus time on the International Space Station.

The mission ended at 1:06 p.m. ET (10:06 a.m. PT) today when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

Former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria was the commander for the homeward trip, accompanied by three investors who each paid Axiom $55 million for their rides: Ohio real-estate and tech entrepreneur Larry Connor, who served as the mission pilot, plus Canada’s Mark Pathy and Israel’s Eytan Stibbe.

“Welcome back to planet Earth,” SpaceX’s mission control operator Sarah Gillis told the crew. “The Axiom-1 mission marks the beginning of a new paradigm for human spaceflight. We hope you enjoyed the extra few days in space.”

Axiom-1 began on April 8 with the Florida launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The trip was originally supposed to last about 10 days, but concerns about weather in the splashdown zone delayed the descent. Because of the way their fares were structured, Axiom’s customers didn’t have to pay extra for the extension.

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GeekWire

Citizen astronaut is still seeking out new frontiers

KIRKLAND, Wash. — It’s been seven months since Chris Sembroski splashed down at the end of the world’s first all-civilian orbital space mission, but his drive to seek out new frontiers is still going strong.

The 42-year-old data engineer from Everett, Wash., won his spot on last September’s philanthropic Inspiration4 space trip thanks to a friend of his who won a lottery, but weighed too much to take advantage of the prize.

For months, Sembroski took time off from his day job at Lockheed Martin to train with his three crewmates: Jared Isaacman, the billionaire tech CEO who organized and paid for the mission; Hayley Arceneaux, a cancer survivor who now works for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; and Sian Proctor, a geology professor who parlayed her talents in art and business to win a “Shark Tank”-style contest.

Their training included a Mount Rainier climb, zero-G and high-G airplane rides, and hours upon hours of instruction from SpaceX. It all came to a climax with the foursome’s launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, followed by three days of experiments and outreach activities that raised more than $240 million for St. Jude.

A follow-up series of space missions, known as the Polaris Program, is expected to blaze more new trails for citizen astronauts — and generate even more contributions for cancer research.

Sembroski, meanwhile, is starting a new job as a data analytics engineer at DB Engineering in Redmond, Wash. In an interview conducted last week during a space industry social event at SigmaDesign’s Kirkland office, Sembroski talked about how he found out he was getting a free trip to orbit, what he experienced during the mission, and what he expects from his next adventure.

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GeekWire

NASA pays out millions for future space communications

Six satellite ventures — including SpaceX’s Starlink network and Amazon’s Project Kuiper — are due to receive a total of $278.5 million in NASA funding to demonstrate next-generation space communication services in Earth orbit.

The Communications Services Project is intended to smooth the transition from NASA’s constellation of dedicated communication satellites, known as Tracking and Data Relay Satellites or TDRS, to a commercially operated network that draws upon multiple providers.

NASA has turned to similar public-private models for space services including cargo resupply and crew transportation to the International Space Station, as well as the future delivery of scientific experiments and astronauts to the lunar surface.

“By using funded Space Act Agreements, we’re able to stimulate industry to demonstrate end-to-end capability leading to operational service,” Eli Naffah, project manager for the Communications Services Project at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, said today in a news release. “The flight demonstrations are risk reduction activities that will develop multiple capabilities and will provide operational concepts, performance validation and acquisition models needed to plan the future acquisition of commercial services for each class of NASA missions.”

SpaceX’s satellites are manufactured at the company’s facilities in Redmond, Wash., not far from the complex where Amazon’s Project Kuiper is developing its broadband satellites.

In addition to SpaceX and Project Kuiper, the contractors include U.S.-based ventures representing Inmarsat, SES, Telesat and Viasat. Each venture will be required to complete technology development and in-space demonstrations by 2025 to prove that its system can deliver robust, reliable and cost-effective services — including the ability for new high-rate and high-capacity two-way links.

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Cosmic Space

Private astronauts get down to work on the space station

Axiom Space’s first quartet of private astronauts settled in on the International Space Station today after dealing with a glitch that cropped up during their approach.

The crew’s arrival aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule had to be delayed about 45 minutes while mission controllers at SpaceX and NASA sorted out an issue with a video system designed to monitor the docking using a camera aboard the space station.

After the video signal was re-routed, docking took place at 8:29 a.m. ET (5:29 a.m. PT). “We’re happy to be here, even though we’re a bit late,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, the former NASA astronaut who’s commanding the mission for Houston-based Axiom Space.

A little less than two hours after docking, Lopez-Alegria and Axiom’s three customers — Larry Connor, Mark Pathe and Eytan Stibbe — floated through the hatch to become the first completely private-sector crew to visit the space station.

The seven long-term residents of the space station — representing the U.S., Russia and the European Space Agency — greeted them with hugs and handshakes. Then the full complement of 11 faced the cameras for a welcome ceremony that incorporated a new tradition.

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Cosmic Space

SpaceX sends first all-private crew to space station

For the first time ever, a non-governmental spaceship is taking a fully non-governmental crew to the International Space Station.

Axiom Space’s quartet of spacefliers blasted into orbit at 11:17 a.m. ET (8:17 a.m. PT) aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon, riding SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“Zero-G and we feel fine,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, the former NASA astronaut who’s commanding the Ax-1 mission for Axiom. That comment echoed what space pioneer John Glenn said 60 years earlier when he became the first American in orbit.

The launch marked another milestone in the move toward privately supported space missions. It was the first mission flown under the provisions that NASA drew up three years ago for hosting private astronauts on the space station.

Three millionaire investors from three different countries — American Larry Connor, Canadian Mark Pathy and Israeli Eytan Stibbe — paid fares estimated at $55 million to spend about 10 days in orbit. They’ll conduct more than two dozen science experiments and technology demonstrations, do some outreach activities, and spend leisure time enjoying the view and experiencing the zero-G environment.

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GeekWire

Spaceflight Inc. encounters successes and setbacks

Thanks to its role in handling pre-launch logistics, Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. can claim a share of the credit for two successful satellite deployments that took place within 24 hours this week — but it’s also facing a rift in relations with SpaceX, one of its longtime launch partners.

First, about the successes: On Friday, SpaceX launched 40 satellites from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on a Falcon 9 rocket, as part of a mission known as Transporter-4. Spaceflight Inc. handled the arrangements for flying several of those satellites.

Spaceflight also played a supporting role in today’s launch of a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Two Earth observation satellites were successfully sent into orbit for BlackSky, a Virginia company that was once Spaceflight’s corporate sibling and still has a significant workforce based in Seattle. Spaceflight Inc.’s role and the Seattle angle were recognized in Rocket Lab’s mission patch for the launch, which includes the Space Needle in its design.

“Thanks for another great launch day!” Spaceflight told Rocket Lab in a tweet. In contrast, Spaceflight’s interactions with SpaceX have become less cordial and more complicated over the past few months.

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GeekWire

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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GeekWire

Billionaire kicks off new orbital missions with SpaceX

Five months after billionaire tech entrepreneur Jared Isaacman led a crew for a privately funded philanthropic space mission, he’s doing it again. And maybe again, and again.

The Shift4 CEO announced today that he’ll be working with SpaceX on a series of three Polaris Program missions — starting with a Crew Dragon flight that could launch as early as this year, and climaxing with the first crewed orbital flight of SpaceX’s Starship super-rocket.

During the first mission of the series, known as Polaris Dawn, Isaacman and his crew will aim to conduct the first spacewalk done from the Dragon’s hatch, test the laser communication system for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband telecom network, and potentially set an altitude record for orbital spaceflight.

The main goal for last September’s Inspiration4 flight, paid for by Isaacman, was to raise more than $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. — a goal that was achieved. St. Jude’s will also be a beneficiary this time around, but the prime directive is to test technologies that SpaceX will rely on for future missions to the moon and Mars.

Isaacman said he and SpaceX are splitting the mission cost, but he declined to provide any further details about who’s paying how much. Two of his crewmates for Polaris Dawn — Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon — are SpaceX engineers who specialize in crew operations and training. The fourth crew member is veteran fighter pilot Scott “Kidd” Poteet, who served as a mission director for Inspiration4.

Lots of the details behind the Polaris Dawn mission remain to be filled in: For example, SpaceX still has to create and test spacesuits that can stand up to the vacuum of space. But Isaacman was confident SpaceX would get the job done. “This is an organization that makes things that we never could have imagined and brings it to reality,” he said.

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Universe Today

Elon Musk lays out his Plan A and Plan B for Starship

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk delivered a long-awaited, live-streamed update on his plans for launching the world’s most powerful rocket, with the spotlighted backdrop of a freshly stacked Starship and Super Heavy booster standing on the launch pad at the company’s Starbase facility in South Texas.

The Starship project is key to Musk’s plans to send thousands of settlers to Mars and make humanity a multiplanet species. It’s also key to his plans to put thousands of satellites in Earth orbit for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network, which is supposed to bring in the money needed for Mars missions.

And as if all that’s not enough, Musk expects Starship to revolutionize space travel and society in ways that can’t be foreseen. “When you have an utterly profound breakthrough, the use cases will be hard to imagine,” he told hundreds of attendees during tonight’s presentation at the Boca Chica base.

Musk exhibited his trademark optimism about the launch system’s development schedule, saying that the Federal Aviation Administration could give its go-ahead for the first Starship orbital launch from Texas as soon as next month. But he said there was a Plan B in case that approval didn’t come soon.

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GeekWire

Falling Starlink satellites highlight space traffic concerns

SpaceX says that most of the satellites it launched last week for its Starlink broadband internet constellation are doomed to fall from orbit due to a solar storm.

Based on the company’s analysis, as many as 40 of the 49 satellites — which were built at SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash. — will plunge through the atmosphere and burn up. Some have already made the plunge.

“Ah, how I love the smell of burning satellites in the morning,” Marco Langbroek, a satellite consultant at Leiden University in the Netherlands, joked in a tweet.

In an update, SpaceX stressed that the falling satellites “pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric re-entry — meaning no orbital debris is created and no satellite parts hit the ground.”

Nevertheless, the satellite failures draw attention to the challenges raised by the rise of satellite mega-constellations, even as the Federal Communications Commission considers SpaceX’s proposal to launch nearly 30,000 second-generation Starlink satellites into new orbital configurations.