SpaceX wins NASA contract to develop human landing system for returning to the Moon

The winner of NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) contract award is SpaceX, which bid $2.9 billion for the privilege of developing the means by which NASA astronauts will return to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo program. SpaceX was in the running alongside Blue Origin and Dynetics, but reportedly undercut both those prospective suppliers considerably with its bid, according to The Washington Post.

SpaceX proposed using its Starship spacecraft, currently under development, as the landing vehicle for astronauts once they arrive at their lunar destination. The HLS is a key part of NASA’s Artemis program, which will begin with uncrewed flights, followed by a Moon fly-by with a human crew, and eventually a human lunar landing at the South Pole of the Moon, during a mission which had been targeting 2024 as its fly date.

NASA announced that SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics made up the entirety of its field of approved vendors for bidding on the HLS contracts back in April last year. Since then, both Blue Origin (which bid alongside a “national team” that included Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper) and Dynetics have built full-scale models of their system and submitted proposals detailing their plans for the functional versions to NASA for consideration. Meanwhile, SpaceX has been actively testing functional prototypes of its Starship spacecraft in Texas, and is also in the process of developing the Super Heavy booster that will propel it to the Moon once it’s ready.

The plan here was for NASA to have chosen all three companies to build out initial versions in order to satisfy the early requirements of the contract, and then ultimately, it was generally thought that the agency would select a couple from the list of three to build human landers, in order to provide it with some flexibility when it comes to means of getting to the lunar surface. That’s essentially how NASA operated with its Commercial Crew program for the International Space Station, which saw awards for both SpaceX and Boeing to build astronaut transport spacecraft. SpaceX has already qualified and begun to operate its vehicle, and Boeing hopes to bring its option online either late this year or early next.

SpaceX has won a lot of trust at NASA by delivering on the Commercial Crew program with a reliable, reusable human-rated spacecraft in the Crew Dragon. The Post also says that in addition to its attractive pricing, NASA wasn’t drawn to Starship’s flexibility and cargo capacity, since it’s aiming to be able to fly not just humans, but also large quantities of supplies and materials to the Moon, and eventually, beyond.

Starship is a long way off from that goal at the moment, however; SpaceX has been quickly developing new iterations in a rapid prototyping approach to its test phase, but the most recent Starship high-altitude flight ended poorly with an explosion prior to landing. Other elements of the test program, however, including showing that Starship can successfully reorient itself in mid-air and slow its decent for landing, have been more successful on past tests. None of the tests so far have left Earth’s atmosphere, however, nor have they involved any human flight testing, both of which will require a lot more development before the spacecraft is deemed mission-ready.

SpaceX was also the launch provider chosen to deliver components of the Lunar Gateway satellite in 2024, working with Maxar, which will produce the actual Power and Propulsion Element and Habitation and Logistics Outpost. These, however, will be delivered via Falcon Heavy, which has already had multiple successful launches.

Blue Origin launches and lands New Shepard rocket in key prep flight for human passengers

Blue Origin has launched its New Shepard rocket for the second time this year, and the 15th time overall. The mission profile saw the reusable spacecraft fly to suborbital space, and then return for a parachute-assisted landing at Blue Origin’s launch facility in West Texas.

This flight was a little different than its usual missions, because it included a rehearsal component with people standing in for what will eventually be Blue Origin’s paying private astronaut customers. What that means is that they actually went through the process of flight preparations, including transporting to the pad, and even climbing in to the New Shepard vehicle and getting seated as if they were going along for the ride.

The crucial difference between this and an actual passenger flight is that Blue Origin then paused the countdown, and the mock crew disembarked, before the countdown was resumed and the flight proceeded as planned — without any passengers, save for Mannequin Skywalker, the Blue Origin test dummy who flies on these preparation missions to take crucial readings during the launch and return.

New Shepard returned and touched down without any issue, and in fact showed off one of its smoothest landings yet. This was the second launch and landing for this particular booster stage. The capsule also touched down as planned, with a soft landing facilitated by the spacecraft’s parachute descent system.

Image Credits: Blue Origin

Next up, Blue Origin is going to do a dry run of what would be the ending stage of the mission for an actual human crew, by bringing out those rehearsal astronauts and putting them back into the capsule, then rehearsing in full the astronaut recovery and departure process that would occur during a live tourist flight.

All of today’s activities showed off what Blue Origin hopes to accomplish sometime this year with people on board. It’s yet another way paying private astronauts can get to space, in a growing roster of options that now includes SpaceX Dragon flights, and hopefully soon, Virgin Galactic launches.

Astranis raises $250M at a $1.4B valuation for smaller, cheaper geostationary communications satellites

Space startup Astranis has raised a $250 million Series C round to provide it with a capital injection to help scale manufacturing of its unique MicroGEO satellites — geostationary communications satellites that are much smaller than the typical massive, expensive spacecraft used in that orbital band to provide communications and connectivity to specific points on Earth.

The Astranis Series C was led by BlackRock-managed funds, and includes participation from a host of new investors including Baillie Gifford, Fidelity, Koch Strategic Platforms and more. Existing investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Venrock, and more also chipped in, with the raise valuing the company at $1.4 billion post-money.

This brings the total funding raised by Astranis to over $350 million, including both equity and debt financing. Astranis got started only in 2016, and was part of the YC Winter 2016 cohort. While a lot of other companies are looking to build satellite constellations in low-Earth orbit to provide low-cost broadband on Earth, Astranis, led by co-founder and CEO John Gedmark, is focused on the GEO band, where the large legacy communications satellites currently operate, orbiting the Earth at a fixed position and providing connectivity to a set area on Earth.

Gedmark has told me previously that the company’s offering is very different from the LEO constellations being put up and operated by companies including SpaceX, because they’re essentially a much more targeted, nimble solution that works with existing ground infrastructure. Customers who have a specific regional need for connectivity can get Astranis to put one one up at a greatly reduced cost compared to a traditional GEO communications satellite, and do so to replace or upgrade aging existing satellite network infrastructure, for example.

It’s worth noting that BlackRock, which led this round, has also been a key participant in the PIPE components of high-profile space startup SPACs like launcher company Astra’s. Not saying that’s the exit plan this round is setting up, but definitely something to think about.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket to deliver an Astrobotic lander and NASA water-hunting rover to the Moon in 2023

SpaceX is set to send a payload to the Moon in 2023, using its larger (and infrequently used) Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. The mission will fly a lander built by space startup Astrobotic, which itself will be carrying NASA’s VIPER, or Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (this is the agency that loves torturing language to come up with fun acronyms, after all).

The launch is currently set for later in the year, and this would be Falcon Heavy’s first Moon mission if all goes to plan. It would not, however, be SpaceX’s first lunar outing, since the company has booked missions to launch lunar landers as early as 2022 on behalf of both Masten and Intuitive Machines. Those would both employ Falcon 9 rockets, however, at least according to current mission specs. Also, all of the above timelines so far exist only on paper, and in the business of space, delays and schedule shifts are far from unusual.

This mission is an important one for all involved, however, so they’re likely to prioritize its execution. For NASA, it’s a key mission in its longer-term goals for Artemis, the program through which it seeks to return humans to the Moon, and eventually establish a more permanent scientific presence there both in orbit and on the surface. Part of establishing a surface station will rely on using in-situ resources, of which water would be a hugely important one.

Astrobotic's Griffin lunar lander in development.

Image Credits: Astrobotic

Astrobotic won the contract to deliver VIPER on behalf of NASA last year. The mission profile includes landing the payload on the lunar South Pole, which is the intended target landing area for NASA’s Artemis missions involving human astronauts. The lander Astrobotic is sending for this task is its Griffin model, which is a larger craft vs. its Peregrine lander, giving it the extra space required to carry the VIPER, and making it necessary to use SpaceX’s heavier lift Falcon Heavy launch vehicle.

NASA’s ambitious target of landing astronauts back on the Moon by 2024 is in flux as the new administration looks at timelines and budgets, but it still seems committed to making use of public-private partnerships to pave the way, whenever it does attain that goal. This first Griffin mission, along with an earlier planned Peregrine landing, are part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, which sought private sector partners to build and deliver lunar landers with NASA as one customer.

Blue Origin will run an ‘astronaut rehearsal’ during a launch this week to prep for human spaceflight

Blue Origin is making progress toward its goal of flying human astronauts aboard its spacecraft, with a plan to run an “astronaut rehearsal” during a launch it has planned for Wednesday, April 14. The launch of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital, reusable rocket will be a key step in verifying the vehicle for paying human passengers.

What does the rehearsal entail? Basically everything except for the actual spaceflight, including boarding and going through preflight operations, the returning to the capsule once it has landed and going through a staged version of an actual capsule exit post-mission. It’s what would happen during a Blue Origin launch with private astronauts on board, with the exception that the Blue Origin personnel standing in for those customers will get out of the capsule before actual engine ignition and launch, and then be transported to the capsule landing site where they’ll get back in and behave as though they’ve been there all along.

There will be one passenger on board the spacecraft during its actual flight: Mannequin Skywalker, a test dummy used by Blue Origin to measure data about what the launch would be like for people. Mannequin has flown previously, but this is the first time it’s playing a sort of human spaceflight relay with the simulation crew doing the ground operations rehearsal portions of the mission.

Blue Origin launched its first New Shepard rocket of 2021 back in January, and that mission included a test of improved capsule cabin crew features, like better acoustics and temperature management system, and new display and communications equipment for the eventual crew. The company expects to begin flying people on board the rocket at some point this year, as of the most recently disclosed timelines.

This week’s launch is set for a take-off time of 8 a.m. CDT (9 a.m. EDT/6 a.m. PDT), and will take place from the company’s launch site in West Texas. A live feed will kick off an hour ahead of the opening of the launch window, and Blue Origin also plans to include footage of the astronaut rehearsal activities, which will be the best look we’ve gotten yet at what its tourist flights might look like.

Apple said to be developing Apple TV/HomePod combo and iPad-like smart speaker display

Apple is reportedly working on a couple of new options for a renewed entry into the smart home, including a mash-up of the Apple TV with a HomePod speaker, and an integrated camera for video chat, according to Bloomberg. It’s also said to be working on a smart speaker that basically combines a HomePod with an iPad, providing something similar to Amazon’s Echo Show or Google’s Nest Hub in functionality.

The Apple TV/HomePod hybrid would still connect to a television for outputting video, and would offer similar access to all the video and gaming services that the current Apple TV does, while the speaker component would provide sound output, music playback, and Siri integration. It would also include a built-in camera for using video conferencing apps on the TV itself, the report says.

That second device would be much more like existing smart assistant display devices on the market today, with an iPad-like screen providing integrated visuals. The project could involve attaching the iPad via a “robotic arm” according to Bloomberg, that would allow it to move to accommodate a user moving around, with the ability to keep them in frame during video chat sessions.

Bloomberg doesn’t provide any specific timelines for release of any of these potential products, and it sounds like they’re still very much in the development phase, which means Apple could easily abandon these plans depending on its evaluation of their potential. Apple just recently discontinued its original HomePod, the $300 smart speaker it debuted in 2018.

Rumors abound about a refreshed Apple TV arriving sometime this year, which should boast a faster processor and also an updated remote control. It could bring other hardware improvements, like support for a faster 120Hz refresh rate available on more modern TVs.

How one founder identified a huge healthcare gap and acquired the skills necessary to address it

Our new podcast Found is now available, and the first episode features guest Iman Abuzeid, co-founder and CEO of Incredible Health. Abuzeid’s story of founding and building Incredible Health, a career platform for healthcare professionals focusing specifically on nurses, is all about a focused entrepreneur building a unique skill set, and acquiring the experience necessary to create a world-leading solution.

Abuzeid went to medical school and acquired her MD, but decided before residency to instead go get an MBA from Wharton, in order to pursue her dream of entrepreneurship, inspired by two generations of entrepreneurs in the family that preceded her. After eventually making her way to Silicon Valley and working in a couple of other startups in the healthcare space, Abuzeid took important lessons away from those experiences about what not to do when running your own company, and embarked on building her own with co-founder Rome Portlock, now the company’s CTO.

Incredible Health is tackling a huge challenge — the shortfall of availability of skilled nurses, and the lack of mature, sophisticated career resources to help those nurses in their professional life. COVID-19 threw those issues into stark relief, and Incredible Health adjusted its game plan to adapt to its users’ needs. Abuzeid tells us all about how she made those calls, and also how she convinced venture investors to come along for the ride.

We hope you enjoy this episode, and don’t forget to subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your podcast app of choice. We’d love to hear your feed back, too — either on Twitter or via email, and tune in weekly for more episodes.

Found is hosted by Darrell Etherington and Jordan Crook, and is produced, mixed and edited by Yashad Kulkarni. TechCrunch’s audio products are managed by Henry Pickavet, and Bryce Durbin created the show’s artwork. Found published weekly on Friday afternoons, and you can find past episodes on TechCrunch here.

Scale CEO Alex Wang and Accel’s Dan Levine explain why sometimes unconventional VC deals are best

Few companies have done better than Scale at spotting a need in the AI gold rush early on and filling that gap. The startup rightly identified that one of the tasks most important to building effective AI at scale — the laborious exercise of tagging data sets to make them usable in properly training new AI agents — was one that companies focused on that area of tech would also be most willing to outsource. CEO and co-founder Alex Wang credits their success since founding, which includes raising over $277 million and achieving break-even status in terms of revenue, to early support from investors including Accel’s Dan Levine.

Accel haș participated in four of Scale’s financing rounds, which is all of them unless you include the funding from YC the company secured as part of a cohort in 2016. In fact, Levine wrote one of the company’s very first checks. So on this past week’s episode of Extra Crunch Live, we spoke with Levine and Wang about how that first deal came together, and what their working relationship has been like in the years since.

Scale’s story starts with a pivot, and with a bit of rule-breaking, too — Wang went off the typical YC book by speaking to investors prior to demo day when Levine cold-emailed him after seeing Scale on Product Hunt. The Product Hunt spot wasn’t planned, either — Wang was as surprised to see his company there as anyone else. But Levine saw the kernel of something with huge potential, and despite being a relative unknown in VC at the time, didn’t want to let the opportunity pass him, or Wang, by.

Both Wang and Levine were also able to provide some great feedback on decks submitted to our regular Pitch Deck Teardown segment, despite the fact that Levine actually never saw a pitch deck from Wang before investing (more on that later). If you’d like your pitch deck reviewed by experienced founders and investors on a future episode, you can submit your deck here.

Knowing when to bend the rules

As mentioned, Levine and Accel’s initial investment in Scale came from a cold email sent after the company appeared on Product Hunt. Wang said the team had just put out an early version of Scale, and then noticed that it was up on Product Hunt — it was submitted by someone else. The community response was encouraging, and it also led to Levine reaching out via email.

“One of the side effects of that, one of the outcomes, was that we got this cold email from Dan,” he said. “We really knew nothing about Dan until his cold email. So like many great stories that started with a bold, cold email. And we were pretty stressed about it at the time, because in YC, they tell you pretty definitively, ‘Hey, don’t talk to a VC during the batch,’ and we were squarely in the middle of the batch.”

Wang and the team were so nervous that they even considered “ghosting” Dan despite his obvious interest and the prestige of Accel as an investment firm. In the end, they decided to “go rogue” and respond, which led to a meeting at the Accel offices in Palo Alto.

Watch a monkey equipped with Elon Musk’s Neuralink device play Pong with its brain

Elon Musk’s Neuralink, one of his many companies and the only one currently focused on mind control (that we’re aware of), has released a new blog post and video detailing some of its recent updates — including using its hardware to make it possible for a monkey to play pong with only its brain.

In the video above, Neuralink demonstrates how it used its sensor hardware and brain implant to record a baseline of activity from this macaque (named ‘Pager’) as it played a game on-screen where it had to move a token to different squares using a joystick with its hand. Using that baseline data, Neuralink was able to use machine learning to anticipate where Pager was going to be moving the physical controller, and was eventually able to predict it accurately before the move was actually made. Researchers then removed the paddle entirely, and eventually did the same thing with Pong, ultimately ending up at a place where Pager no longer was even moving its hand on the air on the nonexistent paddle, and was instead controlling the in-game action entirely with its mind via the Link hardware and embedded neural threads.

The last we saw of Neuralink, Musk himself was demonstrating the Link tech live in August 2020, using pigs to show how it was able to read signals from the brain depending on different stimuli. This new demo with Pager more clearly outlines the direction that the tech is headed in terms of human applications, since, as the company shared on its blog, the same technology could be used to help patients with paralysis manipulate a cursor on a computer, for instance. That could be applied to other paradigms as well, including touch controls on an iPhone, and even typing using a virtual keyboard, according to the company.

Musk separately tweeted that in fact, he expects the initial version of Neuralink’s product to be able to allow someone with paralysis that prevents standard modes of phone interaction to use one faster than people using their thumbs for input. He also added that future iterations of the product would be able to enable communication between Neuralinks in different parts of a patient’s body, transmitting between an in-brain node and neural pathways in legs, for instance, making it possible for “paraplegics to walk again.”

These are obviously bold claims, but the company cites a lot of existing research that undergirds its existing demonstrations and near-term goals. Musk’s more ambitious claims, should, like all of his projections, definitely be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. He did add that he hopes human trials will begin to get underway “hopefully later this year,” for instance – which is already two years later than he was initially anticipating those might start.

Introducing Found, a new podcast from TechCrunch

Here at TechCrunch, we spend most of our time talking to founders. Investors probably come a close second, but it’s definitely founders at the top of the list. That comes through in our articles and our events, but even with all we do there, it only begins to scratch the surface on the many, many interesting stories that are out there to tell.

That’s why we’re excited to bring you Found, a new weekly podcast from TechCrunch that’s all about founders, and the stories behind the startups. Each episode features an interview with a different early stage founder, with myself and TechCrunch Managing Editor Jordan Crook as hosts.

These aren’t your typical startup founder conversations or pitches — they’re open, honest talks about what it’s really like to found a company, and why you’d want to do that to begin with. We hear from founders about what motivated them to try to tackle big problems and put their financial success at risk, and about what they’ve had to overcome along the way to make their startup dreams a reality.

In our first batch of episodes, you’ll hear about an epiphany at the top of a literal mountain; going from teenage homelessness to running an artificial intelligence company; capping a medical degree with a world-class business education to assemble a unique toolkit for entrepreneurship; and finding inspiration for a world-changing business essentially gathering dust in NASA’s laboratories.

Found is about all of the above, but it’s also about hearing real stories from real founders all around the world about how they managed to pull off things like raising venture capital, pivoting their businesses, and building a team from nothing.

Our first episode debuts tomorrow — Friday, April 9 — but you can subscribe in Apple Podcasts or Spotify (or wherever you find your podcasts) right now to listen to the trailer, and get the premiere when it’s available. New episodes will be released weekly after that on Friday afternoons.

We’re love the conversations we’ve had so far on Found, and we think you will, too.

Apple Podcasts: https:/apple.co/found

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/0Dqmcq2aDrZkS9v1fITOKV?si=qmQcT5ysR9eDnNl4yd97Ww

On Twitter: https://twitter.com/found