Max Q: How to build a Starship

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Busy week for SpaceX – across funding, space tourism, and next-gen spacecraft. There’s also a space station resupply mission coming up that it’s getting ready for, and signs (this time literally) continue to suggest that its first human spaceflight mission is imminent.

Lots of other news, too, including our own: We announced this week that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is going to be our guest on stage at TC Sessions: Space coming up in June.

Farewell to a legend

Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who defied prejudice in the ’50s and ’60s to help NASA send the first men to the moon, has died at the age of 101. She was a pioneer, a role model and an instrumental part of America’s space program, and she will be dearly missed.

SpaceX plans to build Starships at a furious clip

Starship Mk1 night
SpaceX is serious about iteration – its strategy of building (and failing – and learning from its failures) fast is in full effect for its Starship development program. Elon Musk said on Twitter this week that the plan is to build them as frequently as possible with significant improvements between each successive spacecraft, with the aim of going through two or three iterations before flying an orbital mission later this year.

SpaceX seeking $250 million in new funding

The still-private SpaceX is going back to investors for more cash, likely to help it with the expensive proposition of building a bunch of Starships in rapid succession essentially by hand. It’s said to be seeking $250 million in a round that could close as early as mid-March, according to a CNBC report.

SpaceX finds an experienced partner for Crew Dragon space tourism

One side of SpaceX’s business that isn’t necessarily as obvious as its commercial cargo launch services is the space tourism angle. This week, the company announced a partnership with Space Adventures, the same firm that has arranged paid trips to the Space Station for private citizens aboard Soyuz capsules. The first of these trips, which won’t go to to the ISS but instead will fly up to a higher orbit, take a trip around Earth and come back, is set to take off as early as next year. And if you have to ask about the price, you probably can’t afford it.

New platform headed to the ISS in March

The ISS gets a new platform next month that can support attached payloads – up to a dozen – from research partners, including academic institutions and private companies. It’ll go up aboard SpaceX’s next resupply mission for the station, which is currently targeting liftoff on March 2. Also, Adidas is sending up a machine that makes its BOOST shoe soles just to see how it works in space.

Japan is going to get and return a soil sample from a Mars moon

Japan is sending a mission to Phobos and Deimos to study the two moons of Mars, using a probe that will orbit the red planet’s natural satellites loaded with sensors. It’ll also carry a small lander, that will itself deploy an even smaller rover, which will study the surface of Phobos directly. If all goes to plan, it’ll collect a sample and bring that back to Earth for further study here.

SpaceX talent is fueling the LA startup ecosystem

It turns out that SpaceX, not Snap, may be the most important young technology company for developing the Los Angeles startup ecosystem. Jon Shieber documents how SpaceX alum have gone forth and build a number of companies in the area that have gone on to raise big cash, as well as very young startups that have had a promising beginning. ExtraCrunch subscription required.

Meanwhile, in Canada

Yes, LA has a bustling space tech ecosystem. But communications satellite startup Kepler calls Canada home, and it recently made the interesting decision to build its small satellites in-house – in its own facility in downtown Toronto. Founder and CEO Mina Mitry tells me why that’s the best choice for his company. ExtraCrunch subscription required.

Katherine Johnson, legendary NASA mathematician and ‘hidden figure,’ dies at 101

Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who defied prejudice in the ’50s and ’60s to help NASA send the first men to the moon, has died at the age of 101. Only recently famous after the film “Hidden Figures” was made about her and her colleagues, she maintained until the end that she was “only doing her job.”

For those who don’t know Johnson’s story, it is probably best told by reading the book (by Margot Lee Shetterly) or watching the movie — which although it takes some license with the events and persons depicted, is a fascinating and revealing triple portrait of its three protagonists. NASA has also collected numerous historical accounts and anecdotes at a special memorial page.

Johnson and her colleagues struggled unceasingly against racism and sexism, being three women of color attempting to enter an industry which was, and even half a century later remains, dominated by white men. Although Johnson always said her colleagues at NASA were kind and professional, there were nevertheless systematic and deep-seated biases against her at every step of her journey.

After the film’s release and acclaim, she treated her sudden fame with bemusement, happy to be recognized but insistent that she had only been doing her job. Receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015 was certainly a welcome perk.

But Johnson may have been wary of an over-concentration of credit. She more than anyone would have been aware of the others in similar positions who, while they may not have been quite as instrumental or prominent in the moment — John Glenn famously asked before a flight that a mechanical computer’s calculations be checked by “the girl,” meaning Johnson — were nonetheless indispensable and quite as hidden.

These women, like Johnson’s colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn, not only challenged the racist and sexist zeitgeist of the time, but very simply helped America achieve what is perhaps its most historically remarkable achievement — the Apollo program — but also to aid in the invention and definition of multiple industries.

Johnson was a remarkable mind and person whose achievements went for too long unnoticed. Had she not been brought into the attention of popular culture her achievements would likely never have been known outside a few colleagues and historians — and we would all be the poorer for it. Who, and where, are today’s hidden figures, and would we recognize them if we saw them?

An Adidas experiment and whole new exterior facility head to ISS next month

March 2 is the planned launch date for SpaceX’s 20th ISS resupply mission, which is bringing the usual supplies and goodies, plus a payload of interesting experiments from partners and paying customers. And a big expansion to Europe’s Columbus Module.

The most ridiculous has to be Adidas’s “BOOST in Space” effort. The company creates its midsoles by fusing together thousands of tiny foam spheres. But sadly, this is generally done on Earth, where there’s gravity. So of course they want to try it in space to see what they can learn.

“Microgravity enables a closer look at the factors behind pellet motion and location, which could enhance manufacturing processes as well as product performance and comfort,” the project description reads. It also makes for a great stunt. The revelations from this toaster-sized device will surely lead to better shoes.

It’s funny, but as always with these commercial operations, it’s pretty cool that it’s possible to just decide to do some experimenting in the ISS.

Microgravity is a sought-after condition, and several of the other research projects going up rely on it as well. Another commercial operation is from Delta, the faucet maker, which thinks it might be able to learn something about droplet formation and create more efficient showers and such.

Gut tissue isn’t normally this blue, but that’s not an effect of microgravity.

Emulate is sending up an organ-on-a-chip, intestinal tissue to be precise, which it hopes will help teach us “how microgravity and other potential space travel stressors affect intestine immune cells and susceptibility to infection.” They’re also testing the growth of heart tissue from stem cells up there, which could come in handy on long voyages.

The biggest payload, though, has to be Bartolomeo, a new exterior platform that will attach to the European Columbus Module:

With payloads attached, left, and without, right. There’s a boom that sticks out for other purposes.

It has 12 sites onto which can be attached payloads from commercial and institutional partners — anyone from universities to companies that need access to the exterior of the space station for one reason or another. Earth imagery, vacuum exposure, radiation testing, whatever you like. You can read about the specifications here.

The launch is set for March 2 if all goes well — we’ll post the live stream and any other updates closer to T-0.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is coming to TC Sessions: Space 2020

This year marks our first-ever TC Sessions: Space event, and what better way to kick things off than with the head of NASA: Administrator Jim Bridenstine will join us onstage on June 25 in LA. NASA has been more open than ever before to working with startups and entrepreneurs, and we’ll hear directly from the administrator why that’s the case, and what kind of opportunities might be open to founders in the future.

Administrator Bridenstine took over leading the U.S. science and space agency in 2018, and has been leading the charge for many of the organization’s most ambitious goals ever since. Whether working with SpaceX and Boeing on returning astronaut launch capabilities to American soil on American vehicles through the commercial crew program, or preparing the way for a human return to the surface of the Moon through NASA’s Artemis program, he’s encouraged the agency to seek new and innovative partnerships with industry in order to reach further than ever before.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

NASA is working with startups for innovative and exciting initiatives like the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, through which some young companies will begin sending privately designed and built lunar landers to the Moon’s surface to support and prepare for the return of the next American man, and the arrival of the first American woman, to the lunar surface in 2024. And the agency has more recently put out a call to industry for input on both human-rated and robotic rovers to support its Moon and Mars goals, so we’ll hear from Administrator Bridenstine more about the public-private partnerships that are involved in both endeavors.

TC Sessions: Space 2020 is shaping up to be an unparalleled opportunity for startups and young companies in the space industry to meet and learn from the best and brightest in the field, including Administrator Bridenstine, Space Command’s General John W. Raymond, investors like Bessemer Venture Partners VP Tess Hatch and many more. We’ll cover topics ranging from launch services, to orbital operations, to ground station networks and beyond, focusing on where the opportunities in space lie, what kinds of innovative solutions are being brought to bear to unlock them and what still needs founder focus and investment.

Stay tuned for more announcements of the all-star lineup of speakers and panelists coming to the show.

You can get Early-Bird tickets right now, and save $150 before prices go up on May 22 — and you can even get a fifth person free if you bring a group of four from your company. Special discounts for current members of the government/military/nonprofit and student tickets are also available directly on the website. And if you are an early-stage space startup looking to get exposure to decision makers, you can even exhibit for the day for just $2,000.

This event will also feature a space startup pitch-off featuring five early-stage founders selected by TechCrunch editors. Applications open today; apply here.

Is your company interested in partnering at TC Sessions: Space 2020? Click here to talk with us about available opportunities.

Max Q: SpaceX gets ready for first human flight

Max Q is a new weekly newsletter all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Sundays in your inbox.

This week turned out to be a surprisingly busy one in space news — kicked off by the Trump administration’s FY 2021 budget proposal, which was generous to U.S. space efforts both in science and in defense.

Meanwhile, we saw significant progress in SpaceX’s commercial crew program, and plenty of activity among startups big and small.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon arrives in Florida

The spacecraft that SpaceX will use to fly astronauts for the first time is now in Florida, at its launch site for final preparations before it takes off. Currently, this Crew Dragon mission is set to take place sometime in early May, and though that may still shift, it’s looking more and more likely it’ll happen within the next few months.

NASA taps Rocket Lab for Moon satellite launch

Rocket Lab will play a key role in NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to get humans back to the surface of the Moon by 2024. NASA contracted Rocket Lab to launch its CAPSTONE CubeSat to a lunar orbit in 2021, using Rocket Lab’s new Proton combined satellite and long-distance transportation stage.

Astronomers continue to sound the alarm about constellations

Starlink satellites streak through a telescope’s observations.

Astronomers and scientists that rely on observing the stars from Earth are continuing to warn about the impact on stellar observation from constellations that are increasingly dotting the night sky.

Meanwhile, SpaceX just launched another 60 satellites for its Starlink constellation, bringing the total on orbit to 300. SpaceX founder Elon Musk says that the “albedo” or reflectivity of satellites will drop “significantly” going forward, however.

Blue Origin is opening its new rocket factory

Blue Origin is opening its new rocket engine production facility in Huntsville, Ala. on Monday. The new site will be responsible for high-volume production of the Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine, which will be used on the company’s own New Glenn orbital rocket as well as the ULA’s forthcoming Vulcan heavy-lift launch vehicle.

Virgin Galactic’s first commercial spacecraft moves to its spaceport

Virgin Galactic is getting closer to actually flying its first paying space tourists — it just moved its SpaceShipTwo “VSS Unity” vehicle from its Mojave manufacturing site to its spaceport in New Mexico, which is where tourists will board for their short trips to the edge of outer space.

Astranis raises $90 million

Satellite internet startup Astranis has raised a $90 million Series B funding round, which includes a mix of equity ($40 million) and debt facility ($50 million). The company will use the money to get its first commercial satellites on orbit as it aims to build a next-generation geostationary internet satellite business.

Astroscale will work with JAXA on an orbital debris-killing system


Orbital debris is increasingly a topic of discussion at events and across the industry, and Japanese startup Astroscale is one of the first companies dedicated to solving the problem. The startup has been tapped by JAXA for a mission that will seek to de-orbit a spent rocket upper stage, marking one of the first efforts to remove a larger piece of orbital debris.

Register for TC Sessions: Space 2020

Our very own dedicated space event is coming up on June 25 in Los Angeles, and you can get your tickets now. It’s sure to be a packed day of quality programming from the companies mentioned above and more, so go ahead and sign up while Early-Bird pricing applies.

Plus, if you have a space startup of your own, you can apply now to participate in our pre-event pitch-off, happening June 24.

Rocket Lab will launch a satellite to the Moon for NASA to prepare for the Lunar Gateway

Launch startup Rocket Lab has been awarded a contract to launch a CubeSat on behalf of NASA for the agency’s CAPSTONE experiment, with the ultimate aim of putting the CAPSTONE CubeSat into cislunar (in the region in between Earth and the Moon) orbit – the same orbit that NASA will eventually use for its Gateway Moon-orbiting space station. The launch is scheduled to take place in 2021.

The CAPSTONE launch will take place at Rocket Lab’s new Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) facility at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Rocket Lab opened its launch pad there officially in December, and will launch its first missions using its Electron vehicle from the site starting later this year.

The launch is significant in a number of ways, including being the second ever lunar mission to launch from the Virginia flight facility. It’s also going to employ Rocket Lab’s Photon platform, which is an in-house designed and built satellite that can support a range of payloads. In this case, Photon will transport the CAPSTONE CubeSat, which weighs only around 55 lbs, from Earth’s orbit to the Moon, at which point CAPSTONE will fire up its own small engines to enter its target cislunar orbit.

Rocket Lab introduced Photon last year, noting at the time that it is designed in part to provide longer-range delivery for small satellites – including to the Moon. That’s a key capability to offer as NASA embarks on its Artemis program, which aims to return human astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, and establish a more permanent human presence on and around the Moon in preparation for eventual missions to Mars.

CAPSTONE will play a key role in that mission, by acting “as a pathfinder” for the lunar Gateway that NASA eventually hopes to build and deploy.

“CAPSTONE is a rapid, risk-tolerant demonstration that sets out to learn about the unique, seven-day cislunar orbit we are also targeting for Gateway,” said Marshall Smith, director of human lunar exploration programs at NASA in a press release. detailing the news “We are not relying only on this precursor data, but we can reduce navigation uncertainties ahead of our future missions using the same lunar orbit.”

In total, the launch contract with Rocket Lab has a fixed price of $9.95 million, the agency said. NASA expects contractors Advanced Space and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems to begin building the CAPSTONE spacecraft this month ahead of its planned 2021 launch.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is now in Florida to prep for its first flight with astronauts onboard

SpaceX has moved its Crew Dragon commercial astronaut spacecraft to Florida, the site from which it’ll launch in likely just two to three months’ time if all goes to plan. The Crew Dragon capsule is now going to undergo final testing and checkouts in Florida before its departure from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where it’ll launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board.

Behnken and Hurley will be taking a trip to the International Space Station (ISS) courtesy of the Crew Dragon, as part of a demonstration mission codenamed ‘Demo-2’ by SpaceX and NASA that will serve as a key step in the ultimate verification of the spacecraft for regular service carrying people to and from the ISS. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is one of two spacecraft that aim to achieve this operational status for NASA, alongside the Boeing Starliner CST-100 crew vehicle which is undergoing development and testing.

Boeing’s spacecraft has recently encountered some issues that could extend its testing timeline and set back its goals of performing its first flights with astronauts on board. The Starliner encountered two potentially serious software issues during an uncrewed demonstration mission that took place in December, and now NASA and the company are determining corrective action, including safety reviews of Boeing and its software development and testing processes.

Meanwhile, SpaceX performed an in-flight abort test in January, the last major demonstration it needed to do before moving on to the crewed demo mission. That test was by all accounts a success, showing how the Crew Dragon would separate and distance itself from the launch craft in case of an unexpected error, in order to safeguard the astronauts on board.

SpaceX has been sharing details of its preparation for this final planned demo before operational commercial crew flights, tweeting earlier this week about its spacecraft undergoing ultrasonic testing. Currently, the Demo-2 mission is tentatively set for May 2, though that date is said to be flexible and could be moved up or pushed to later, depending on mission needs and remaining preparation progress.

Blue Canyon Technologies chosen by Made In Space for orbital manufacturing demo mission

On-orbit manufacturing startup Made In Space has tapped Colorado’s Blue Canyon Technologies (BCT) to help support its Archinaut One demonstration mission contracted by NASA, which is currently set to take place in 2022. The mission will see Made In Space show off the assembly of two 10-meter solar arrays on orbit, which will then be used to power an ESPA-class satellite, providing up to five times more power than is available via power sources used for those satellites not assembled on orbit.

BCT will be providing development of the spacecraft platform (along with Northrop Grumman) that Made In Space will use to delver its Archinaut manufacturing platform, which employs additive manufacturing and robotic assembly to be able to build structures while on orbit. The Colorado company, founded in 2008, has developed a number of spacecraft for a variety of projects, including JPL’s first-ever operational CubeSat project, the Asteria space telescope.

I spoke to BCT systems engineer Brian Crum about the Made In Space project, and he said that it’s representative of the kind of work they’ve been doing, which mainly concentrates around interesting demonstration missions and initial operations of novel space technologies that could have tremendous impact on how work is done in space.

“Given the size of spacecraft that we develop and specialize in, and at that price point, it really lends itself to these Demonstration Missions that are follow-on to operational concepts,” he said. “We are a good solution for testing out concepts, and we get approached quite a bit for that […] we get a lot of interesting ideas of people wanting to try things, and this is definitely one of them.”

BCT is actually in the process of building more than 60 spacecraft, and it doubled in size over the past year. Next, the company plans to open a new combined headquarters and production facility that spans more than 80,000 acres, which should be opening sometime later this year. That growth is directly driven by an uptick in business — something Crum says is the result of a boom in experimentation and technology demonstrations coming from all vectors, including government and private industry.

“There are definitely more people that have more appetite for risk,” he said. “We we are growing because the demand for the spacecraft is growing, that’s the simple answer. We’re hiring the right people to support these programs, and the number of programs is greatly increasing. Along with that, as we grow larger in size, and the spacecraft grow larger and size, they become more complex, which means they need a little bit more effort. So there’s there’s a little bit more engineering that goes into them as well.”

SpaceX’s first astronaut mission could take off in May

SpaceX is getting very close to its goal of flying actual astronauts aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft. After a successful in-flight abort (IFA) test in January, it had basically crossed off all the major milestones needed before flying people, first on a demonstration mission referred to as “Demo-2” by SpaceX and its commercial crew partner NASA.

We now know the working date that SpaceX is aiming for with that crucial mission: May 7. To be clear, that’s very much a working date and the actual mission could slip either later, or even earlier, according to Ars Technica’s Eric Berger who first reported the timeline.

We knew before today that SpaceX was getting very close to be mission-ready in terms of its spacecraft. The Government Accountability Office released a report last week detailing progress on the commercial crew program and noted that the Crew Dragon capsule that will be used to fly astronauts for Demo-2 was on track to be completed “3 months earlier” than was expected based on most recent timelines.

Demo-2 will be the second demonstration mission of Crew Dragon, following a Demo-1 uncrewed mission that flew in March of last year. That mission saw the SpaceX spacecraft fly to the International Space Station (ISS), dock with the orbital lab, undock and return safely to Earth with a controlled landing, all using automated processes and without anyone on board.

The Demo-2 mission will fly two crew, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, both NASA astronauts who will be completing their third spaceflight during the mission. Bob and Doug will at least fly aboard Crew Dragon to the ISS, replicating the Demo-1 mission but with a crew on board, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine recently shared that it would be looking into the possibility of extending the duration of the mission (which had been planned for two weeks) to allow it to actually rotate the crew of the ISS, just like what currently happens with Soyuz astronaut flights.

As alway with space, expect some movement in that target date, but we are getting close enough now that the general ballpark should be a pretty accurate reflection of when things go down, barring any major issues between now and then.

NASA and ESA’s Solar Orbiter begins its nearly two-year journey to the Sun

After years of development, an exciting new scientific research spacecraft has launched on its journey to study our solar system’s central player: the Sun. The Solar Orbiter, developed jointly by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) and built by Airbus, lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sunday night, launching as planned at 11:03 PM EST (8:03 PM PST).

Solar Orbiter launched atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, featuring a unique configuration of the launch vehicle designed specifically to get the nearly 4,000-pound observation craft off Earth and onto its target path to eventually approach the Sun. The Atlas V used for this launch was configured with a payload fairing 13 feet in diameter to accommodate the Orbiter, and used a single solid rocket motor to provide the necessary propulsive power.

From here, Solar Obiter embarks on a journey that will take just over a year and a half, and include two close passes to Venus and Earth in order to take advantage of their gravitational pull to propel the spacecraft toward its target destination while conserving as much fuel as possible. After it swings by those two bodies to gain momentum, it’ll end up in an orbit around the Sun with a close approach distance of just 26 million miles — still about 100 times as far as the Moon is from Earth, but so close that temperatures at their peak at the spacecraft will reach nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Solar Orbiter’s mission sees it orbiting the Sun for at least seven years, gathering data about what’s going on in the star’s heliosphere, which is roughly equivalent to Earth’s atmosphere in that it surrounds the Sun. These findings should shed new light on what goes on in the heliosphere, which will definitely be advantageous for scientific study of our solar companion, but they could also provide new information that leads to better understanding of so-called “space weather,” which includes things like solar storms and flares that actually impact the proper functioning of infrastructure, including communications and navigation technology back on Earth.

On board Solar Orbiter, there are 10 instruments to measure various phenomena and gather different types of information from the Sun, including permeating ultraviolet imaging and taking measurements from the solar wind that radiates off the star. All of these instruments had to be hardened to withstand not only those extremely high temperatures from the Orbiter’s closest approach to the Sun, but also down to nearly -300 degrees Fahrenheit, which is an amazing engineering challenge when you’re dealing with instrumentation designed to detect very fine detail. They’ll be protected in part by a heat shield made of titanium and covered with a calcium phosphate coating that will absorb most of the 1,000-degree temperatures, however, resulting in a more tolerable range of between 4 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit for most of the actual instruments themselves.

Solar Orbiter won’t be alone in its study of the Sun: NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which launched in 2018, will be simultaneously in solar orbit, gathering solar gas samples and providing information that can be used in tandem with data provided by Solar Orbiter for a more complete picture of what’s going on at the center of our solar system.