Uber adjusts third-quarter forecast in light of increased gross bookings

Uber said Tuesday that it could hit one measure of profitability in the third quarter, earlier than expected as the ride-hailing company saw gains in its delivery and mobility businesses. The ride-hailing service told regulators in a filing this morning that it anticipated an increase in gross bookings and stronger adjusted EBITDA in the quarter than it had forecasted for shareholders in its last investor presentation.

The company now anticipates gross bookings for the current quarter to land between $22.8 billion and $23.2 billion, up from an initially-promised $22 billion to $24 billion range. The company’s forecasted adjusted EBITDA, an accommodating method of calculating profit, was also raised to between -$25 million and $25 million in the quarter ending Sept. 30, and improvement from the company’s previous anticipation of a result merely “better than a loss of $100 million.”

“They say that crisis breeds opportunity and that’s certainly been true of Uber during the last 18 months,” CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in a statement.

Uber is now on track to adjusted EBITDA breakeven in quarter three, CFO Nelson Chai said – an achievement that may seem odd to those unfamiliar with the economics of ride-hailing, which is characterized by perilous unprofitability.

As TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm explains for ExtraCrunch, “adjusted EBITDA” is a way of calculating profit before interest, taxes, depreciation and other costs. Consider, for example, that Uber lost $6.77 billion in 2020 (admittedly an improvement from its previous yearly loss of $8.51 billion). But under adjusted EBIDTA accounting, those numbers dropped to losses of $2.73 billion and $2.53 billion, respectively.

Uber did not provide a full picture of its financials for the third quarter in its recent 8-K filing – that will come when the company reports its performance after the conclusion of Q3. However, it looks like the company may reach positive adjusted EBITDA by the fourth quarter, meeting a long-held promise to investors.

The ride-hailing giant further noted that its fourth quarter adjusted EBITDA is projected to land between $0 and $100 million, compared to the previously anticipated, and more generic expectation of merely “adjusted EBITDA profitability.” Uber cautioned that “significant forecasting uncertainty” may cause it to provide an updated forecast.

Still, for Uber the long march to adjusted profitability appears to finally be in sight. All it took was a global pandemic, layoffs, and far-higher prices for the achievement to be managed.

Battery Resourcers raises $70M to grow closed-loop battery supply chain

Battery Resourcers, a startup that’s developing a closed-loop approach to lithium-ion battery materials, has closed $70 million in mid-round funding to scale its commercial operations across two continents.

The company, which is based in Worcester, Massachusetts, doesn’t just recycle batteries. It’s also engineered a process to turn that recycled material back into critical battery materials – specifically, nickel-manganese-cobalt cathodes and purified graphite, a material used in anodes. It intends to sell those materials right back to the battery manufacturer.

This latest round saw participation from new investor Hitachi Ventures, as well as existing investors Orbia Ventures, Jaguar Land Rover’s InMotion Ventures, Doral Energy, At One Ventures, TDK Ventures and Trumpf Ventures.

Battery Resources secured a $20 million Series B a little over five months ago. That funding was to accelerate the launch of the startup’s first commercial-scale facility, which will be able to process 10,000 tons of batteries per year. CEO Michael O’Kronley told TechCrunch in a recent interview that that plant will open in the first quarter of 2022, though the company has not yet announced where it will be located in the U.S.

With this new funding, the company will be opening two additional commercial-scale sites in Europe, which will be operational by the end of 2022. In all, Battery Resourcers aims to have 30,000 tons of recycling capacity by the end of next year across its three commercial-scale locations. Cathode material production will be added to these sites in the following year.

There are a number of reasons to look abroad, O’Kronley said, not least because Battery Resourcers anticipates Europe being an even larger market than the U.S.

“Europe has the same concerns the U.S. does about retaining critical battery materials in the supply chain,” he said, adding that European lawmakers currently mandate battery recycling on the part of OEMs, and will likely mandate the use of recycled materials in batteries. “Couple that with the amount and the number of gigafactories that have been announced in Europe, relative to the US, most people believe, including Battery Resourcers, we believe the European market will be larger than the North American market.”

CEO Michael O’Kronley Image Credits: Battery Resourcers (opens in a new window)

The lion’s share of critical battery materials are currently produced in Asia, but O’Kronley said the industry is shifting from being highly concentrated in specific locations to a more global operation.

“Whether it’s the Asian company that is moving to Europe or North America, or new entrants that are coming in and supplying Europe and North America – we’re a new entrant coming in supplying these regions – the battery material supply chain will absolutely have to be localized,” he said. “We’re part of that.”

O’Kronley added that the company has been in talks with a number of OEMs and consumer electronics companies, but declined to specify any details. However, he did say that vehicle OEMs and battery manufacturers have already taken the company’s cathode material and built it into batteries for testing and to compare it to “virgin” cathodes.

“It’s Battery Resourcers’ belief that long term, you need a vertically integrated supply chain, and to be able to extract the highest amount of value out of these spent batteries,” O’Kronley said. “We’re moving upstream in making these engineering materials that go right back into a new battery.”

Near Space Labs closes $13M Series A to send more Earth imaging robots to the stratosphere

The decreasing cost of launch and a slew of other tech innovations have brought about a renaissance in geospatial intelligence, with multiple startups aiming to capture higher-quality and more frequent images of Earth than have ever before been available.

Most of these startups, however, are focused on using satellites to collect data. Not so for Near Space Labs, a four-year-old company that instead aims to gather geospatial intelligence from the stratosphere, using small autonomous wind-powered robots attached to weather balloons. The company has named its platform “Swifty,” and each one is capable of reaching altitudes between 60,000 and 85,000 feet and capturing 400-1,000 square kilometers of imagery per flight.

The company was founded in 2017 by Rema Matevosyan, Ignasi Lluch, and Albert Caubet. Matevosyan, who is an applied mathematician by training and previously worked as a programmer, did her Masters in Moscow. There, she started doing research in systems engineering for aerospace systems and also flew weather balloons to test aerospace hardware. “It clicked that we can fly balloons commercially and deliver a much better experience to customers than from any other alternative,” she told TechCrunch in a recent interview.

Four years after launch, the company has closed a $13 million Series A round led by Crosslink Capital, with participation from Toyota Ventures and existing investors Leadout Capital and Wireframe Ventures. Near Space Labs also announced that Crosslink partner Phil Boyer has joined its board.

Near Space, which is headquartered in Brooklyn and Barcelona, Spain, is primarily focused on urbanized areas where change happens very rapidly. The robotic devices that attach to the balloons are manufactured at the company’s workshop in Brooklyn, which are then shipped to launch sites across the country. The company’s CTO and chief engineer are both based in Barcelona, so the hardware R&D takes place over there, Matevosyan explained.

The company currently has eight Swifies in operation. It sells the data it collects and has developed an API through which customers can access the data via a subscription model. The company doesn’t need to have specific launch sites – Matevosyan said Swifties can launch from “anywhere at any time” – but the company does work in concert with the Federal Aviation Administration and air traffic control.

The main value proposition of the Swifty as opposed to the satellite, according to Matevosyan, is the resolution: from the stratosphere, the company can collect “resolutions that are 50 times better than what you would get from a satellite,” she said. “We are able to provide persistent and near real-time coverage of areas of interest that change very quickly, including large metro areas.” Plus, she said Near Space can iterate it’s technology quickly using Swifties’ “plug-and-play” model, whereas it’s not so easy to add a new sensor to a satellite fleet that’s already in orbit.

Near Space Labs founders (from left): Ignasi Lluch, Rema Matevosyan and Albert Caubet Image Credits: Near Space Labs (opens in a new window)

Near Space has booked more than 540 flights through 2022. While customers pay for the flights, the data generated from each trip is non-exclusive, so the data can be sold again and again. Looking ahead, the company will be using the funds to expand its geographical footprint and bring on a bunch of new hires. The goal, according to Matevosyan, is to democratize access to geospatial intelligence – not just for customers, but on the developer side, too. “We believe in diverse, equal, and inclusive opportunities in aerospace and Earth imaging,” she said.

Inspiration4’s successful splashdown is just the beginning of private spaceflight for SpaceX

Just like that, they came back.

The Inspiration4 crew made a triumphant splashdown on Saturday evening off the east coast of Florida, marking the close of the first completely private, all-civilian space mission. SpaceX’s Go Searcher recovery ship hauled the Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience, a little less than an hour after splashdown. The crew was then ferried via helicopter to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where they received standard medical checks.

The successful completion of the mission is a major triumph for Elon Musk and SpaceX (and, more peripherally, NASA, which funded the development of the tech), who conducted the entirety of the mission. It’s also perhaps our clearest signal that a new dawn of space travel is officially here.

Benji Reed, SpaceX’s senior director for human-spaceflight programs, told reporters that the company is seeing an increased number of inquiries from potential customers for private missions. The company could fly “three, four, five, six times a year at least,” he said.

Of course, mission commander Jared Isaacman is not the first billionaire to go to space. This summer, both Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos conducted their own orbital joy-rides in vehicles developed by their respective companies, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. But those trips were significantly shorter – Bezos and his three crewmates went to space and back in under fifteen minutes, essentially traveling in a long parabolic arc.

In contrast, the Inspiration4 crew spent three days orbiting Earth at an altitude that went as high as 590 kilometers – that’s higher than the International Space Station, meaning they were the most ‘outer’ of all the people in space. Over the course of their mission, they travelled around the Earth an average of fifteen times per day.

While in orbit, the crew conducted a handful of science experiments, mostly capturing data on themselves with the aim of furthering our understanding of the effects of spaceflight on the human body. The crew also spent some time in the large glass domed window, which SpaceX calls the “cupola,” snapping pictures of space.

Other than Isaacman, who made his fortune from his payment processing company Shift4 payments, the crew included physician assistant and childhood cancer survivor Hayley Arceneaux; geoscientist Sian Proctor; and Lockheed Martin engineer Chris Sembroski. Among the other firsts for the crew, Arceneaux is the youngest American to go to space and the first person with a prosthesis to go to space; Proctor is the first Black woman to pilot a space mission.

The historic mission was paid for entirely by Isaacman, though both he and SpaceX are staying mum on how much it cost in total. Instead, the mission was being framed as a $200 million fundraiser for St. Jude Research Hospital, to which Isaacman donated $100 million and Musk donated $50 million. The fundraiser received an additional $60.2 million in public donations.

This is the second time the Resilience spacecraft has safely carried humans to and from space. The first mission, Crew-1, carried four astronauts (three from NASA, one from the Japanese space agency) to the ISS and returned them back to Earth in May. SpaceX will be conducting another handful of crewed missions over the next six months, including another mission to the ISS on behalf of NASA and the European Space Agency, as well as the private AX-1 mission on behalf of Axiom Space.

“Thanks so much SpaceX, that was a heck of a ride for us,” Isaacman said moments after the capsule landed. “We’re just getting started.”

Watch a full stream of the splashdown here:

Elon Musk praises Chinese automakers amidst regulatory scrutiny

An unusually scripted Elon Musk issued conciliatory and complimentary comments to Chinese automakers during a pre-recorded appearance at China’s World New Energy Vehicle Congress, striking a pose that is worlds away from his commentary style in the United States.

“I have a great deal of respect for the many Chinese automakers for driving these [EV and AV] technologies,” he said, the reflection of a ring light just visible in the window over his left shoulder. The entire tableau was enough to make one suspect that there was a crisis communications expert just out of frame, urging him to continue with his prepared remarks.

Then again, perhaps Musk doesn’t need any external coaxing; China is one of the most lucrative markets for electric vehicles in the entire world, accounting for around one-fifth – or $6.66 billion – of Tesla’s overall sales last year, according to regulatory filings.

While the United States continues to be one Tesla’s largest market, the company has aggressively pursued expansion in China, including opening Gigafactory Shanghai in 2019 to manufacture the Model 3 and Model Y. Tesla faces competition from Chinese automakers, including electric car startup Xpeng and the search giant company Baidu.

“My frank observation is that Chinese automobile companies are the most competitive in the world, especially because some are very good at software, and it is software that will most shape the future of the automobile industry, from design to manufacturing and especially autonomous driving,” Musk said in the message.

The company’s entrance into the EV market of the world’s most populous nation was bumpy at first, but Tesla managed to turn it around. Last year, the Tesla Model 3 was the best-selling EV in China. Tesla has also received unprecedented autonomy in the region, especially as it is the only non-Chinese automaker allowed to wholly own its local subsidiary. It’s a fact that Musk’s noted in past public appearances.

“I think something that’s really quite noteworthy here is, Tesla’s the only foreign manufacturer to have a hundred percent owned factory in China,” Musk said during the company’s Battery Day event last year. “This is often not well understood or not appreciated, but to have the only hundred percent owned foreign factory in China is a really big deal, and it’s paying huge dividends.”

But it hasn’t all been roses: the company has faced a flurry of negative media from both consumers and regulators this year, beginning in February when Chinese government officials summoned company executives for a meeting over vehicle safety concerns.  (To which Tesla said, “We sincerely accepted the guidance of government departments and deeply reflected on shortcomings in our business operations.”)

Then, in April, a woman who said she was a Tesla owner protested the company at the Shanghai auto show in April. Bloomberg reported a few months later that Tesla was attempting to build relationships with Chinese social media influencers and auto-industry publications to combat all the bad PR.

In his pre-recorded remarks, Musk also responded to a question on self-driving vehicles and data security, calling it “not only the responsibility of a single company but also the cornerstone of the whole industry development.” This issue is especially sensitive after news emerged that the Chinese military banned drivers from parking their Tesla’s at its facilities. Last month, China released new regulations aimed at bolstering data security in connected automobiles, Tech Wire Asia reported. Tesla and other automakers, including Ford and BMW, moved to establish local data storage centers in China.

“Tesla will work with national authorities in all countries to ensure data security of intelligent and connected vehicles,” he added.

Aurora Propulsion Technologies closes €1.7M seed for spacecraft maneuvering and deorbiting tech

More spacecraft will be sent to orbit this year than ever before in human history, and the number of satellite launches is only anticipated to increase through the rest of the decade. Under these crowded conditions, being able to maneuver satellites in space and deorbit them when they reach the end of their useful life will be key.

Enter Aurora Propulsion Technologies. It’s one of a handful of startups that has emerged in the past few years to help simplify the problem of spacecraft propulsion. Since its founding in 2018, the Finnish company has developed two products – a tiny thruster engine and a plasma braking system – and will be testing both in an in-orbit demonstration in the fourth quarter of this year. Aurora’s activities have caught the eye of investors: the company has just closed a €1.7 million ($2 million) seed round to bring its technology to market.

The round was led by Lithuanian VC firm Practica Capital, with additional participation from the state-owned private equity company TESI (Finnish Industry Investment Ltd.) and Kluz Ventures. Individual investors also participated.

Aurora’s first in-orbit demonstration, Aurora Sat-1, will be heading to space on a Rocket Lab rideshare mission, the company announced last month. On that satellite will be two modules. The first module will contain six Aurora “resistojet” engines, designed to help small spacecraft adjust their attitude (the satellite’s orientation, not its mood) and de-tumble. Aurora will also test its Plasma Brake technology, which could be used to de-orbit satellites or even to conduct deep space missions.

Each resistojet thruster comes in at just around one centimeter long, and it moves the spacecraft using microliters of water and propellant. The six thrusters are distributed around the satellite in such a way to facilitate movement in virtually any direction, and the thruster can also modulate the temperature of the water and the strength of the puff of steam that’s discharged to generate movement.

Aurora CEO Roope Takala, who previously worked for Nokia, likened the innovations in weight and size in the space industry – which we see in the resistojet – to what happened to cell phones and computers twenty years ago. “The industry moves very slow,” he said in a recent interview with TechCrunch. “In the old space era, it took a quarter to develop a rocket engine – that would be a quarter of a century. Now, it takes two quarters of a year. That’s what we did.”

The Plasma Brake uses an electrically charged microtether to generate a lump of protons to generate drag. That’s ideal for de-orbiting a spacecraft, but interestingly (and counterintuitively), the Plasma Brake could also be used for traveling away from the planet, Takala said. That’s because when you go outside the Earth’s magnetosphere, the Plasma Brake becomes unstable and moves with solar wind (which is also plasma). “The same product can jump onto that flow of plasma from the sun and extract energy from that,” Takala explained. “In that context we can use it as an interplanetary traveling tool.”

Theoretically, if a spacecraft was equipped with multiple tethers extending different directions, it could be used to rotate and guide the spacecraft, like a sailboat, he added. This technology is only scalable to a certain degree, however, so don’t expect it to be sending a crewed spacecraft into deep space anytime soon. That’s mostly due to limitations in the material strength of the Plasma Brake tethers, but the tech can be used for satellites up to around 1,000 kilograms.

“That’s our future. That’s where we’re aiming,” Takala said. “We’re focused now for the short term on low Earth orbit with the Plasma Brake and the attitude control [resistojet], and later on when the moon businesses kick off as they are slowly starting to do, then we’ll probably be looking at that way.”

The Plasma Brake and resistojet thruster would need to be put on spacecraft before they launch to orbit, but Aurora is in conversation with other companies of the potential of in-orbit installation of Plasma Brakes for existing space junk. Looking to the short-term, the company is going to use the funding to productize the technology for low Earth orbit and to serialize its production, as well as to add features to the products to equip them for satellites larger than CubeSats.

In the longer term, Aurora has a vision of conducting missions in deep space. “We started off from the idea that we want to make a technology that fits into a really small spacecraft, [and] travels really fast so that we can catch up with the Voyager probes,” Takala said.

“First to the moon and then to Mars, Venus, and then one day we may be able to catch up with the Voyagers and take a big trip.”

Volta Trucks raises €37 million to bring electric delivery trucks to the streets of London and Paris

Trucking tends to be associated with highways, but it’s not uncommon to find large delivery vehicles trundling down the tightly packed streets of the world’s most populated cities. According to EV startup Volta Trucks, that’s far from ideal: in London, large commercial vehicles cause around 26% of pedestrian fatalities and around 80% of cyclist fatalities, and account for an outsized portion of carbon emissions.

Volta’s solution is to electrify and redesign the large cargo vehicle — called Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) in Europe — for middle- and last-mile delivery in urban centers. “The traditional design of trucks and city centers really don’t work together, but you can’t just ban trucks from city centers,” a company spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Volta Trucks has raised a €37 million ($44 million) funding round to accelerate its plans, starting with a fleet of pilot vehicles in London and Paris.

The round was led by New York-based Luxor Capital Group and returning investor Byggmästare Anders J Ahlström Holding of Stockholm. New investors included U.S. electric truck and battery manufacturer Proterra and supply chain management company Agility.

The idea for the company came to Volta co-founder and Swedish serial entrepreneur Carl-Magnus Norden when Elon Musk revealed the Tesla Model 3. Norden realized that there was very little equivalent movement to electrify the world of commercial vehicles, despite the fact that they produce a large share of carbon emissions.

Four years later, Volta (not to be confused with Volta Charging, the European EV charging station company) has come up with a truck that gives the driver a 220-degree view, similar to what one might see on a city bus. The driver’s seat is also in the center of the cab. On the inside of the 16-ton truck, called Volta Zero, will sit a single unit containing an electric motor, transmission and rear axle supplied by OEM supplier Meritor. This unit, called an eAxle, leaves more space between the chassis rails for the battery.

Those batteries will have a 95- to 120-mile range and will be designed by Proterra, a supplier (and now investor) that Volta says will be able to furnish batteries into the longer term and at higher production levels. Volta is imagining that it will produce up to 5,000 trucks by the end of 2023, 14,000 to 15,000 by 2024, and 27,000 trucks by 2025.

Volta plans to also offer a “truck as a service” model, which is a leasing agreement including insurance, charging infrastructure, service repair and maintenance. While Volta also plans on selling trucks outright, the spokesperson said the company anticipates the leasing model will make up 50%, and as high as 80%, of its business.

Volta is gearing up to launch a fleet of six R&D vehicles in London and Paris at the beginning of the year. These trucks will be used for internal validation. The company plans to start about a 33-vehicle pilot program with customers in two major European cities by the middle of next year.

The plan is that this will allow Volta to start full-scale production by the end of 2022. All of the vehicles, with the exception of the six beta trucks, will be manufactured by Steyr Automotive in Austria. The two announced the manufacturing agreement last week.

Volta says it has letters of intent for 2,500 trucks. The goal is to convert these to binding deposit-led orders as Volta moves closer to series production. This round now brings its total funding to date to around €60 million ($71 million).

Inspiration4 crew, meet outer space: SpaceX’s first all-civilian mission launches to orbit

The first all-civilian crew in history has made it to space.

The Inspiration4 crew took off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 8:04 EST PM, commencing the first space mission in human history featuring zero trained astronauts.

The reusable first-stage of the Falcon 9 rocket executed two burns in its journey back to Earth, landing vertically on the SpaceX droneship “Just Read the Instructions” around 9-and-a-half minutes after launch. Dragon separated from the second stage at 8:16 EST PM.

Second stage separation. Image Credits: SpaceX (opens in a new window)

The four-person crew will be spending time in orbit in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which was affixed to a Falcon 9 rocket. (It’s the second journey for this particular Dragon and the third journey for the Falcon 9 first stage.) They’ll ascend to an altitude of around 575 kilometers – the highest that any humans have gone since the last Hubble telescope servicing mission in 2009. That altitude is above the current orbit of the Hubble and the International Space Station, so they’ll be flying over every other human in space, too.

The crew will be going around the earth around 15 times each day they’re in space. While they’re up there, they’ll be able to view outer space from a transparent observation dome “cupola” that was affixed to Crew Dragon’s the nose cone especially for this flight. It’s the largest continuous window to ever be in space. It won’t all be space tourism, however; the Inspiration4 is also ferrying a number of science experiments to orbit, including research to learn more about the impact of spaceflight on the human body. The research subjects will be themselves: the crew collect biomedical data and biological samples from themselves before, during and after the flight.

Nowadays, no private space mission is complete without a requisite billionaire, and Inspiration4 has one of those, too: the mission commander and man who fronted the bill, Jared Isaacman, who earned his fortune from his payment processing company Shift4 Payments. It must be said, however, that the remaining crew members, while clearly extremely talented and uncommonly brave, are refreshingly normal. They include physician assistant Hayley Arceneaux; geoscientist and science education doctorate Sian Proctor; and Lockheed Martin engineer Chris Sembroski.

The Inspiration4 crew admiring the Falcon 9 rocket on Launch Pad 39A. Image Credits: SpaceX (opens in a new window)

The mission will be raising money for St. Jude Research Hospital (Sembroski was selected from nearly 72,000 donations to the St. Jude fundraising campaign). The crew aimed to raise $200 million in total; $100 million was donated by Isaacman and the mission far exceeded its goal prior to launch, hitting nearly $300 million at the time of launch.

To prepare for the mission, which is significantly longer than any other recent spaceflight featuring civilians, the crew undertook hundreds of hours of training, including 12- and 30-hour flight simulations in a replica Dragon capsule and climbing Washington State’s Mount Rainier in May.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was at Kennedy Space Center to see the crew off, and in true Muskian style the crew also travelled to the launch tower in two Model Xs (wearing custom SpaceX spacesuits). While NASA’s involvement in the mission was relatively nominal, beyond providing some services and equipment worth around $1 million, the agency has played a key role in bringing SpaceX to the place of supremacy it is today. SpaceX was awarded $2.6 billion from NASA in 2014 to develop Crew Dragon, under its Commercial Crew program.

It’s a major milestone for SpaceX, the largest and most profitable launch company in the world. This launch is also notably different than those undertaken by Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson in recent months – though I know the similarities are compelling – because the crew will be going higher and for longer than the Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic missions. But all three companies have a goal of making spaceflight “evolve toward an airline-like model,” as SpaceX senior director of human spaceflight Benji Reed put it yesterday.

“Ultimately, we want to we want to make life multiplanetary, and that means putting millions of people in space,” he said. “The long-term vision is that spaceflight becomes airline-like like you buy a ticket and you go.”

Even this year, SpaceX will be conducting more crewed missions (though none with an all-civilian crew). A Falcon 9 will be ferrying astronauts to ISS later this year, and at the beginning of next year will be the first commercial Axiom mission, also to the space station. “The Dragon manifest is getting busier by the moment,” he added.

If all goes as planned, we’ll be seeing the Inspiration4 crew in three days, when they’ll splash down back to Earth in either the Gulf or the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. Weather is critical here, too: “We look at not only the launch weather but we have to look at the return weather […] when we come home in just three or four days from now,” Reed explained during a starry-eyed (no pun intended) press briefing Tuesday.

While the crew is in orbit, you can listen to a curated playlist by Inspiration4’s very own Sembroski (who plans to play a ukulele in space).

Watch SpaceX launch the first all-civilian Inspiration4 mission to space live

After months of publicity, an NFT auction and even a Netflix docuseries, it’s finally here: the four-person crew of Inspiration4 will be heading to space today (weather permitting).

What makes this launch different from any that came before it? None of the four people onboard are astronauts. The mission marks the first time that an all-civilian crew will fly to space. Let’s meet them:

  • Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old billionaire whose fortune comes from the payment processing company Shift4 Payments, which went public in the summer of last year. He is the mission commander.
  • Sian Proctor, a community college professor with a PhD in science education. Proctor was among 47 finalists chosen by NASA for a 2009 astronaut class, though she was not one of the nine eventually chosen to join the agency. She will be Inspiration4’s pilot, the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft. She’s 51.
  • Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant at St. Jude’s Research Hospital and a survivor of childhood cancer. She’ll be the crew’s health officer.
  • Christopher Sembroski, a data engineer for Lockheed Martin, also a former camp counselor at none other than Space Camp. The 42-year-old will be acting as mission specialist.

The crew will be cruising to orbit inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which will launch from a Falcon 9 rocket. They’ll spend three days flying around the Earth before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

SpaceX’s YouTube channel is hosting a live launch webcast starting from 3:45 PM EST, with the five-hour launch window opening at 8:02 PM EST. As of Sunday, Inspiration4 said weather conditions at Kennedy Space Center looked 70% favorable. There’s also a back-up launch window opening at the same time the following day.

SpaceX, Blue Origin awarded NASA contracts to develop moon lander concepts for future Artemis missions

NASA has awarded a combined $146 million in contracts to five companies, including SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics, to develop lander concepts as part of the agency’s Artemis program.

The awards include $26.5 million to Blue Origin; $40.8 million to Dynetics; $35.2 million to Lockheed Martin; $34.8 million to Northrop Grumman; and $9.4 million to SpaceX. Only two companies that submitted proposals, Blue Ridge Nebula Starlines and Cook & Chevalier Enterprises, did not receive contracts.

The contracts were awarded under NextSTEP-2 (Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships) Appendix N: Sustainable Human Landing System Studies and Risk Reduction. The solicitation, released at the beginning of July, says the objective of the contract is “to engage with potential commercial partners for concept studies, sustaining HLS concept of operations (ground and flight) development, and risk reduction activities.”

What that means in practice is that the selected companies will develop lander design concepts, including conducting component tests, and evaluate them for things like performance and safety.

These awards are separate from the Human Landing System contract that was given to SpaceX earlier this year — the one that both Blue Origin and Dynetics disputed to a government watchdog, and that Blue Origin later opposed in a lawsuit against NASA that’s still ongoing.

However, the outcome of this batch of awards will likely inform future lander development contracts through the rest of the decade. “The work from these companies will ultimately help shape the strategy and requirements for a future NASA’s solicitation to provide regular astronaut transportation from lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon,” the agency said in a statement.

The Artemis program was established in 2020 with a number of objectives, not only to return humans to the moon for the first time since the days of Apollo but to make such travel routine by the late 2020s. NASA isn’t just stopping at the moon; the agency also wants to expand into inter-planetary exploration, including human missions to Mars.