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Rocket Report: Used Falcon 9s to launch humans, Scottish spaceport advances



Enlarge / Space Perspective aims to launch humans in balloons by 2024.

Welcome to Edition 3.05 of the Rocket Report! This week, much of the focus is on small rockets, and we have plenty of new deals to discuss. So let’s jump right into it!

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

NASA ready to buy suborbital rides for its people. This week, NASA formally asked the US space industry to dish the details on its plans for brief spaceflights. In essence, the space agency said it wants to buy brief hops into space for its Astronaut Corps and scientists, but it needs more information, Ars reports. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the program seeks mostly to increase the time NASA spends in microgravity.

Balancing cost and risk … The biggest question concerns the risk that NASA is willing to accept in putting its people on these space vehicles. For the space shuttle program, NASA had complete oversight of the vehicle’s development. Although the commercial crew program was a public-private partnership, NASA still had significant insight into every facet of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft because it paid for most of the development costs. Now, NASA is solely a customer. “We’re not going to make it more dangerous than orbital flight,” Bridenstine said of suborbital flight.

Iridium inks deal for up to six launches with Relativity. Relativity Space says it has reached an agreement with Iridium to launch six of the company’s next-generation communications satellites, Ars reports. Each of the Iridium NEXT satellites, which weigh 850kg, will be launched individually on Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket. This means the new Launch Services Agreement will lead to as many as six Terran 1 missions, beginning no earlier than 2023.

Needs a West Coast launch site … That’s because these are backup satellites to a constellation of 66 satellites in a near-polar orbit, spread across six different planes at an altitude of 780km. To reach this orbit, the Terran 1 rocket would need to launch toward a pole, and so the company has reached a “Right of Entry” agreement to build a second launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The company will do so at a site south of Space Launch Complex 6.

The easiest way to keep up with Eric Berger’s space reporting is to sign up for his newsletter, we’ll collect his stories in your inbox.

Defense Department supports small launch companies. Six space launch companies were selected to receive Defense Department contracts funded under the Defense Production Act to shore up domestic industries financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, SpaceNews reports. Aevum, Astra, X-Bow, Rocket Lab, Space Vector and VOX Space each will receive noncompetitive contracts to launch two rideshare missions for government customers over the next 24 months.

Time to step up … Small launch—along with aircraft manufacturing and shipbuilding—was one of the sectors that the Pentagon identified as most affected by the financial downturn caused by the pandemic. This is a welcome development, and it will be interesting to see which companies manage to deliver. (submitted by trimeta, platykurtic and JohnCarter17)

Scott Pace urges caution on point-to-point travel. Coincidence or not, Virgin Galactic’s stock has risen since the company began talking about its long-term strategy of developing point-to-point commercial suborbital flights late in 2019. The company’s chairman, Chamath Palihapitiya, has said, “When you think about that world, that world will be five to 10 years away.”

Over the horizon … However, Executive Secretary Scott Pace of the National Space Council this week raised doubts about that. “Maybe this is a poor reflection on me, but I still see that as somewhat speculative and somewhat over the horizon,” he said, according to Ars. “I think people look forward to the possibility of point-to-point passenger and cargo travel, but right now just getting routine suborbital access to space and pushing hard on unmanned hypersonics is where the action is.”

Firefly applies for September launch permit. Another prominent smallsat launch company may make its debut this fall. Parabolic Arc reports that Firefly has applied for a permit to launch its Alpha booster from Vandenberg Air Force Base on September 6 or 7. With an advertised lift capacity of 1 ton to low Earth orbit, Alpha is among the bigger of the new smallsat rockets. This is likely a preliminary filing and not a formal launch date.

Sounds like they’re confident … “Once the launch vehicle reaches the mission altitude of 300 km, it will deploy commercial payloads into orbit. The second stage will complete one full orbit while it downlinks data to VAFB and KSAT ground station locations in Hawaii, Mauritius, and South Africa,” the company said in its application. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Scottish spaceport receives tentative approval. A proposal to build a spaceport on a northern peninsula in Scotland appears set to pass a key environmental hurdle. Advisors to the local government, Highland Council, have recommended that Space Hub Sutherland be approved, the BBC reports. It is hoped the site will spur job creation in the area, which is suited for polar launches.

More against than for … The recommendation came even after the local authority received 457 objections to the plans and only 118 representations in support of them. Impact on the environment and risk to human health were among the reasons for the objections. By way of a compromise, council officials said launches should be limited to 12 per year to reduce the amount of plastic and metal debris falling into the sea during rocket launches. (submitted by BH and JohnCarter17)

There’s a new space-balloon company … The space entrepreneurs who planned to send passengers ballooning into the stratosphere earlier this decade have revived the idea for a new venture called Space Perspective, GeekWire reports. Co-CEOs Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter unveiled their concept for a balloon-borne capsule called Spaceship Neptune this week, saying that uncrewed test flights are due to begin early next year.

Price of poker has gone up … Seven years ago, MacCallum and Poynter had a similar unveiling for World View Enterprises, an Arizona-based venture that aimed to fly people to an altitude of 100,000 feet. (The cost? A cool $75,000 a ticket.) Since 2013, World View has pivoted to sending up uncrewed payloads on balloon platforms known as Stratollites. Some of the plan’s details are still up in the air, but Poynter said passenger flights are pegged to begin around 2024. She expects the price of a ticket to be in the range of $125,000. (submitted by Ken the Bin and JohnCarter17)

ISRO invites private sector to play important role. Suggesting this is a “major reform,” the chief of India’s space agency, K. Sivan, announced new ways in which private industry will be able to explore in the space sector. The space organization said the private sector will be allowed to carry out space activities such as the building of rockets and satellites as well as providing launch services, the Deccan Chronicle reports.

Catching up to competitors … The reforms include streamlining regulations and permits for private spaceflight activities. The goal is to not only enable accelerated growth of the space sector but also help the Indian industry play a major role in the global space economy. This seems to be an important step for Indian companies to catch up to private firms in the United States and, increasingly, China. (submitted by Ken the Bin and JohnCarter17)

Launch of Perseverance slips two more days. The launch of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has been delayed two days to July 22 after an issue with ground-support equipment at the Kennedy Space Center, Spaceflight Now reports. The problem held up encapsulation of the spacecraft inside the payload fairing of its Atlas 5 rocket.

Still some flexibility … NASA said the spacecraft and launch vehicle are healthy, and encapsulation of the rover is being completed this week inside a climate-controlled clean room where NASA has prepared numerous interplanetary missions for launch. Separately, ULA teams completed a countdown rehearsal on the Atlas 5 rocket, without its Mars-bound payload, on Monday at Cape Canaveral. The launch window to Mars closes in mid-August. (submitted by JohnCarter17)

NASA OKs flying crew on used Falcon 9 boosters. NASA has agreed to allow its astronauts to fly on reused Crew Dragon spaceships and Falcon 9 boosters beginning as soon as SpaceX’s third launch of a crew to the International Space Station, Spaceflight Now reports. This mission is expected to launch next year.

In NASA’s best interests … “SpaceX has proposed to reuse future Falcon 9 and/or Crew Dragon systems or components for NASA missions to the International Space Station because they believe it will be beneficial from a safety and/or cost standpoint,” NASA spokesman Josh Finch said. “NASA performed an in-depth review and determined that the terms of the overall contract modification were in the best interests of the government.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SpaceX tests new metal alloy for Starship tanks. SpaceX this week tested the latest version of a pressure tank for the Starship vehicle to failure. Teslarati reports that the primary purpose was to test a new steel alloy, 304L, that is supposed to have improved performance at cryogenic temperatures.

Reaching for a higher bar … Earlier this month, during its first cryogenic pressure test with liquid nitrogen, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk revealed that this so-called SN7 test tank managed to reach 7.6 bar before succumbing to a leak. The tank was subsequently repaired before the second test. Musk has not yet said at what pressure the tank failed during the second attempt. The company would like to reach 8.4 bar, a pressure deemed necessary to eventually human-rate Starship. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Will Stennis Space Center get a name change? On Wednesday, NASA announced that it is naming its headquarters building after Mary Jackson, the first Black woman engineer to work at the agency, Space Policy Online reports. The decision comes as Virgin Orbit Vice President Will Pomerantz is pushing to rename Stennis Space Center. The rationale is simple: John C. Stennis was a racist, who was called “the heart, soul, and brains of the white supremacist caucus in the 1948 Congress.” This is probably not someone NASA should be honoring.

NASA noncommittal so far … While he said there were a number of good choices, Pomerantz said perhaps the Mississippi center where rocket engines are tested should be renamed in honor of Mae Jemison, the first Black woman in space. In a statement, NASA responded that the agency is dedicated to advancing diversity but did not agree or disagree with the idea of renaming the center. Personally, I would also suggest Annie Easley, who played a role in the development of Centaur, arguably the most successful upper stage of all time, and is from neighboring Alabama.

Next three launches

June 26: Falcon 9 | Starlink-9 mission | Kennedy Space Center, Fla. | 20:18 UTC

June 28: Vega | VV 16 rideshare mission | Kourou, French Guiana | 01:51 UTC

June 30: Falcon 9 | GPS III | Cape Canaveral, Fla.| 19:56 UTC

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COVID was the leading cause of death in Americans aged 45-54 in 2021



Enlarge / A woman watches white flags on the National Mall on September 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. Over 660,000 white flags were installed here to honor Americans who have lost their lives to COVID-19 epidemic.

COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in Americans between March 2020 and October 2021, accounting for one in every eight deaths.

In that time frame, COVID-19 ranked in the top five causes of death for every age group of people older than 15 years. Between January and October 2021, the pandemic disease was the leading cause of death among people 45 to 54 years old.

That’s all according to a study of national death certificate data, published Tuesday in JAMA Internal Medicine by researchers at the National Institutes of Health.

The study found COVID-19 caused roughly 700,000 deaths between March 2020 and October 2021. The pandemic disease trailed only heart disease and cancer, which caused roughly 2.15 million collectively in that time frame. The fourth and fifth deadliest afflictions in the US were accidental deaths—including car crashes, overdoses, and alcohol-related deaths—and stroke, which collectively caused around 624,000 deaths during that period.

The authors, led by Meredith Shiels, an expert in cancer epidemiology and genetics at the National Cancer Institute, broke up the time frame into two sections: the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to December 2020, and January 2021 to October 2021, the last month for which there was complete data. This revealed age-specific trends, likely driven partly by uptake of vaccines and other mitigation efforts.

In the 2020 period, COVID-19 was the second leading cause of death in people aged 85 and over, but, amid high vaccine uptake in this age group, it fell to the third leading cause of death from January to October 2021.

Younger adults saw the opposite trend. For those aged 45 to 54, COVID-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the 2020 period but jumped to the leading cause of death in 2021. Likewise, in those aged 35 to 44, COVID-19 jumped from the fifth leading cause of death in 2020 to the second leading cause in 2021. And for those aged 15 to 24 and 25 to 34, COVID-19 wasn’t in the top five in 2020, but ranked as the fourth leading cause of death in both age groups in 2021.

For those aged 55 to 84, COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in both time periods.

The study is limited by the potential for misclassifying deaths on death certificates. But the authors were careful to select a time cutoff that would limit provisional or incomplete data from skewing the findings. That meant, however, that the study did not include deaths from part of the delta wave or the towering omicron wave in January 2022. Since October 2021, around 300,000 additional people in the US have died from COVID-19.

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Russian astronauts use space station to promote anti-Ukraine propaganda



Enlarge / Cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveyev, and Sergey Korsakov pose with a flag of the Luhansk People’s Republic on the International Space Station.

The Russian state space corporation responsible for spaceflight activities, Roscosmos, on Monday posted images to its official Telegram channel showing three cosmonauts with the tri-color flags of the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic.

The photos were taken recently on board the International Space Station and show smiling cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveyev, and Sergey Korsakov posing with the flags.

“This is a long-awaited day that residents of the occupied areas of the Luhansk region have been waiting for eight years,” the Roscosmos message stated. “We are confident that July 3, 2022, will forever go down in the history of the republic.”

The images and social media posting represent the most blatant use of the International Space Station—which is operated by the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency—for Russian propaganda purposes since the invasion of Ukraine.

Luhansk and Donetsk are two breakaway “quasi-states” in the eastern region of Ukraine known as the Donbas. Ukraine and Russia have battled over the two regions since 2014, as Russia has agitated separatists in the Ukrainian territory. The United Nations does not recognize the two “republics,” and Ukraine has designated them as “temporarily occupied territories.” Fighting has heated up since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. This past weekend, Russian forces claimed to have established control over the entire Luhansk region.

A professional relationship

NASA and Roscosmos, as well as other space agencies, have continued cooperating on the International Space Station since the invasion began. Some US officials have suggested that NASA should consider breaking ties with Russia in space due to the atrocities in Ukraine. However, the space agency’s administrator has defended the partnership on the basis that the station flies above geopolitical tensions on Earth. NASA also wants to keep flying the station, as breaking the US segment from the Russian segment would be difficult and potentially fatal to the operation of the orbital facility.

In an interview published Monday in the German publication Der Spiegel, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson reiterated this stance.

“In the midst of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the United States were mortal enemies and their nuclear weapons could be used at any time, a US and a Soviet spacecraft met in space in 1975,” Nelson said. “Peaceful cooperation continued even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our space shuttle docked with the Russian space station Mir. And then we decided to build the International Space Station together. Both countries are needed for operations, the Russians for propulsion, the Americans for power. We will continue to have a very professional relationship between cosmonauts and astronauts to keep this station alive.”

Nevertheless the provocative actions this weekend by Roscosmos, with its cosmonauts celebrating the so-called liberation of Ukrainian territory, brings the bloody conflict on Earth into space. To some observers, such as former NASA astronaut Terry Virts, Russia’s use of the space station for propaganda purposes is unacceptable.

“I am incredibly disappointed to see cosmonauts and Roscosmos using the International Space Station as a platform to promote their illegal and immoral war, where civilians are being killed every day,” said Virts, who flew side by side with Russians and commanded the space station in 2015. “The space station is supposed to be a symbol of peace and cooperation.”

Virts said NASA has largely been trying to look the other way when it comes to Russian actions, most notably when it comes to Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin, who has made numerous jingoistic statements about the war. But in this case, he said, the agency really cannot afford to.

Seat swap

NASA’s cooperation with Russia may come into greater public focus in a couple of months. At present, a NASA astronaut named Frank Rubio is scheduled to fly on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the station in September. Around the same time, a Russian cosmonaut named Anna Kikina is due to fly on a SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle to the station as part of the seat swap. The arrangement has not been formally agreed to by the US and Russian government.

In his German interview, Nelson defended the swap, saying, “It makes a lot of sense for us. You need both Russians and Americans to operate the space station. What happens if something is wrong with one of our spacecraft? We need the other vehicle as a back-up. And that’s why we will continue to have crew exchanges.”

Such an argument may soon ring hollow, however. Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft may make its first crewed test flight before the end of this year, and if it is successful NASA will have two US spacecraft capable of reaching the station.

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How the Yurok Tribe is bringing back the California Condor



Enlarge / The California condor is a New World vulture, the largest North American land bird. This condor became extinct in the wild in 1987, but the species has been reintroduced in California and Arizona.

The first California condor to reach Yurok ancestral land in over a century arrived by plane and car in late March of 2022. The small plane that carried Condor 746 had a rough landing, and the bird was irritable. He rattled around in a large dog crate during the three-hour drive to the tribe’s newly built condor facility, in a remote location in Redwood National Park.

Once there, he hopped into the flight pen, a tall enclosure of wire mesh, furnished with log perches and a drinking pool. At 8 years old, Condor 746 is an adult, his naked head bright pink instead of the black found in younger birds. He’s on loan from the captive breeding program at the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. His job is to act as the mentor for four juvenile birds who will become the founders of a reborn condor society in Yurok country.

“We have mentors because condors are so social,” says Joe Burnett, California Condor Recovery Program Manager at the Ventana Wildlife Society. Young birds in a pen with no adult will become unruly. “You get the Lord of the Flies syndrome,” says Burnett. He and his colleagues quickly learned that release programs need an adult to serve as a role model and enforce the social hierarchy that is crucial to the flock’s survival.

A few days after 746 arrived, Condor A0, age 2, entered the flight pen. The first thing she focused on was 746, lounging on a perch. Understanding that she was in a safe place, A0 checked out the food—the carcass of a stillborn calf—then flapped onto a perch and fluffed up her feathers, a sign of avian contentment. Three young male condors, tagged A1, A2, and A3, followed. The youngsters had been living together for months at other condor facilities in Boise, Idaho, and San Simeon, California, and they already felt at home with each other.

Condor, known as prey-go-neesh in the native language, is sacred to the Yurok people. The Yurok reservation lies along the Klamath River in northwest California, but much of the tribe’s ancestral land is now in the hands of government agencies or private landowners. The tribe has been working to bring back the California condor since 2003, when a group of elders identified the bird as a keystone species for both culture and ecology, and therefore the most important land-based creature in need of restoration.

Nineteen years after the Yurok made that bold decision, the condors arrived. Elders who had worked toward that pivotal moment watched as Tiana Williams-Claussen, director of the Yurok Wildlife Department, and her colleagues released each newcomer into the pen.

Williams-Claussen’s job is to understand the details of condor biology and to interpret Yurok culture for the wider world. A tribal member, she grew up on the coast near the mouth of the Klamath, and went off to Harvard University. She didn’t set out to be a condor biologist, but when she returned in 2007 with a degree in biochemical sciences, condor restoration was the work her people needed her to do. Williams-Claussen has since spent 14 years living and breathing condors, learning how to handle them, building partnerships with government agencies, and listening to what Yurok elders have to say about the great bird.

The California condor is a critically endangered species: In the 1980s, the total population dwindled to fewer than 30 individuals. Biologists concluded the species’ only chance of survival lay in capturing every living condor in order to breed the birds in captivity, safe from poisons and power lines.

Reintroducing condors to the wild proved difficult, however, and the process became a dramatic lesson for biologists on the importance of parenting and the slow pace of growing up among these long-lived, highly social birds. Scientists learned that time spent with adults was critical to the behavioral development of young condors. They also found that in a species where adults follow and protect their offspring for a year or more after the birds fledge, youngsters pioneering landscapes empty of condors require lots of human babysitting.

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