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Yesterday — August 2nd 2021Your RSS feeds

Lilium in talks with Brazilian airline for $1B order

By Aria Alamalhodaei

German electric aircraft startup Lilium is negotiating the terms for a 220-aircraft, $1 billion order with one of Brazil’s largest domestic airlines, the companies said Monday. Should the deal with Azul move forward, it would mark the largest order in Lilium’s history and its first foray into South American markets.

“A term sheet has been signed and we will move towards a final agreement in the coming months,” a Lilium spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The 220 aircraft would fly as part of a new, co-branded airline network that would operate in Brazil. Should the two companies come to an agreement, Azul would operate and maintain the fleet of the flagship 7-seater aircraft, and Lilium would provide custom spare parts, including replacement batteries, and an aircraft health monitoring platform.

Deliveries would commence in 2025, a year after Lilium has said it plans to begin commercial operations in Europe and the United States. These timelines are dependent upon Lilium receiving key certification approvals from each country’s requisite aerospace regulator. Azul said in a statement it would “support Lilium with the necessary regulatory approval processes in Brazil” as part of the agreement.

Even if a deal is reached, it would likely be subject to Lilium hitting certain performance standards and benchmarks, similar to the conditions of Archer Aviation’s $1 billion order with United Airlines. Still, orders of this value are seen as a positive signal to markets and investors that an electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft is more than smoke and mirrors.

Also like Archer, Lilium is planning on taking the SPAC route to going public. The company in March announced its intention to merge with Qell Acquisition Corp. and list on Nasdaq under ticker symbol “LILM.” SPACs have become a popular vehicle for public listing across the transportation sector, but they’ve become especially popular with capital-intensive eVTOL startups.

The merger may be necessary for the company’s continued operations. According to the German news website Welt, Lilium added a risk warning to its 2019 balance sheet noting that it will run out of money in December 2022 should the SPAC merger not be completed.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

US government watchdog rejects Blue Origin’s protest over lunar lander contract

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Blue Origin’s protest to a U.S. governmental watchdog over NASA’s decision to award SpaceX a multi-billion dollar contract to develop a lunar lander was rejected.

The Government Accountability Office said Friday that it was denying both Blue Origin’s protest and a separate challenge filed by Dynetics, a defense contractor that also submitted a proposal for the contract. GAO concluded that NASA did not violate any laws or regulations when granting the sole award to SpaceX.

“As a result, GAO denied the protest arguments that NASA acted improperly in making a single award to SpaceX,” the agency said in a statement.

The formal protest was over NASA’s decision to award the contract for the Human Landing System Program, which aims to return humans to the moon for the first time since Apollo, solely to SpaceX — and not to two companies, as was originally intended. SpaceX’s proposal for the Human Landing System Program came in at $2.9 billion, around half of Blue Origin’s $5.99 billion proposal. Earlier this week, Bezos penned an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson offering to knock $2 billion off that price to solve the “near-term budgetary issues” that caused NASA to select just one company for the contract.

NASA’s decision to give just one company the award did veer from historical standard, but GAO maintained that “the [contract] announcement reserved the right to make multiple awards, a single award, or no award at all.”

Blue Origin maintains that it was not given time to revise its bid after NASA concluded it did not have sufficient funding for two awards. “Blue Origin was plainly prejudiced by the Agency’s failure to communicate this change in requirements,” the company said in the protest. “Blue Origin could have and would have taken several actions to revise its proposed approach, reduce its price to more closely align with funding available to the Agency, and/or propose schedule alternatives.”

Blue Origin and Dynetics submitted their separate protests in April.

Update: In response to the decision, a Blue Origin spokesperson told TechCrunch:

“We stand firm in our belief that there were fundamental issues with NASA’s decision, but the GAO wasn’t able to address them due to their limited jurisdiction. We’ll continue to advocate for two immediate providers as we believe it is the right solution.”

The spokesperson noted that the company was encouraged by lawmakers adding a provision to a bill in Senate that would require NASA to select two providers for the HLS program.

Elon Musk, meanwhile, had this to say about the decision…

GAO 💪

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 30, 2021

TechCrunch has reached out to Dynetics for comment. We will update the story if they respond.

Craft Aerospace’s novel take on VTOL aircraft could upend local air travel

By Devin Coldewey

Air taxis may still be pie in the sky, but there’s more than one way to move the air travel industry forward. Craft Aerospace aims to do so with a totally new vertical takeoff and landing aircraft that it believes could make city-to-city hops simpler, faster, cheaper and greener.

The aircraft — which, to be clear, is still in small-scale prototype form — uses a new VTOL technique that redirects the flow of air from its engines using flaps rather than turning them (like the well-known, infamously unstable Osprey), making for a much more robust and controllable experience.

Co-founder James Dorris believes that this fast, stable VTOL craft is the key that unlocks a new kind of local air travel, eschewing major airports for minor ones or even heliports. Anyone that’s ever had to take a flight that lasts under an hour knows that three times longer is spent in security lines, gate walks and, of course, getting to and from these necessarily distant major airports.

“We’re not talking about flying wealthy people to the mall — there are major inefficiencies in major corridors,” Dorris told TechCrunch. “The key to shortening that delay is picking people up in cities and dropping them off in cities. So for these short hops, we need to combine the advantages of fixed-wing aircraft and VTOL.”

The technique they arrived at is what’s called a “blown wing” or “deflected slipstream.” It looks a bit like something you’d see on the cover of a vintage science fiction rag, but the unusual geometry and numerous rotors serve a purpose.

The basic principle of a blown wing has been explored before now but never done on a production aircraft. You simply place a set of (obviously extremely robust) flaps directly behind the thrust, where they can be tilted down and into the exhaust stream, directing the airflow downward. This causes the craft to rise upward and forward, and as it gets enough altitude it can retract the flaps, letting the engines operate normally and driving the craft forward to produce ordinary lift.

Image Credits: Craf Aerospace. During takeoff, thrust is redirected downward by extending flaps.

The many rotors are there for redundancy and so that the thrust can be minutely adjusted on each of the four “half-wings.” The shape, called a box wing, is also something that has been tried in a limited fashion (there are drones with it, for example) but ultimately never proved a valid alternative to a traditional swept wing. But Dorris and Craft believe it has powerful advantages, in this case, allowing for a much more stable, adjustable takeoff and landing than the two-engine Osprey. (Or, indeed, many proposed or prototype tilt-rotor aircraft out there.)

Image Credits: Craf Aerospace. During flight, the flaps retract and thrust pushes the plane forward as normal.

“Our tech is a combination of both existing and novel tech,” he said. “The box wing has been built and flown; the high flap aircraft has been built and flown. They’ve never been synthesized like this in a VTOL aircraft.”

To reiterate: The company has demonstrated a limited scale model that shows the principle is sound — they’re not claiming there’s a full-scale craft ready to go. That’s years down the line, but willing partners will help them move forward.

The fifth-generation prototype (perhaps the size of a coffee table) hovers using the blown wing principle, and the sixth, due to fly in a few months, will introduce the transitioning flaps. (I was shown a video of the prototype doing tethered indoor hovering, but the company is not releasing this test footage publicly.)

The design of the final craft is still in flux — it’s not known exactly how many rotors it will have, for instance — but the basic size, shape and capabilities are already penned in.

It’ll carry nine passengers and a pilot, and fly around 35,000 feet or so at approximately 300 knots, or 345 mph. That’s slower than a normal passenger jet, but whatever time you lose in the air ought to be more than regained by skipping the airport. The range of the cleaner hybrid gas-electric engines should be around 1,000 miles, which gives a good amount of flexibility and safety margins. It also covers 45 of the top 50 busiest routes in the world, things like Los Angeles to San Francisco, Seoul to Jeju Island, and Tokyo to Osaka.

Image Credits: Craft Aerospace. It probably wouldn’t be flying at this altitude.

Notably, however, Dorris wants to make it clear that the idea is not “LAX to SFO” but “Hollywood to North Beach.” VTOL aircraft aren’t just for show: Regulations permitting, they can touch down in a much smaller location, though exactly what kind of landing pad and micro-airport is envisioned is, like the aircraft itself, still being worked out.

The team, which just worked its way through Y Combinator’s summer 2021 cohort, is experienced in building sophisticated transport: Dorris was a primary on Virgin Hyperloop’s propulsion system, and his co-founder Axel Radermacher helped build Karma Automotive’s drivetrain. It may not have escaped you that neither of those companies makes aircraft, but Dorris thinks of that as a feature, not a bug.

“You’ve seen what’s come out of traditional aerospace over the last 10, 20 years,” he said, letting the obvious implication speak for itself that the likes of Boeing and Airbus aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel. And companies that partnered with automotive giants hit walls because there’s a mismatch between the scales — a few hundred aircraft is very different from half a million Chevy sedans.

So Craft is relying on partners who have looked to shake things up in aerospace. Among its advisers are Bryan Berthy (once director of engineering at Lockheed Martin), Nikhil Goel (one of Uber Elevate’s co-founders), and Brogan BamBrogan (early SpaceX employee and Hyperloop faithful).

The company also just announced a letter of intent from JSX, a small airline serving low-friction flights on local routes, to purchase 200 aircraft and the option for 400 more if wanted. Dorris believes that with their position and growth curve they could make a perfect early partner when the aircraft is ready, probably around 2025 with flights beginning in 2026.

It’s a risky, weird play with a huge potential payoff, and Craft thinks that their approach, as unusual as it seems today, is just plainly a better way to fly a few hundred miles. Positive noises from the industry, and from investors, seem to back that feeling up. The company has received early-stage investment (of an unspecified total) from Giant Ventures, Countdown Capital, Soma Capital and its adviser Nikhil Goel.

“We’ve demonstrated it, and we’re getting an enormous amount of traction from aerospace people who have seen hundreds of concepts,” said Dorris. “We’re a team of only seven, about to be nine, people. … Frankly, we’re extremely pleased with the level of interest we’re getting.”

Swarm debuts $499 Evaluation Kit for consumers and tinkerers

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Satellite connectivity company Swarm has come out with a new product that will give anyone the ability to create a messaging or Internet of Things (IoT) device, whether that be a hiker looking to stay connected off-the-grid or a hobbyist wanting to track the weather.

The Swarm Evaluation Kit is an all-in-one product that includes a Swarm Tile, the company’s flagship modem device, a VHF antenna, a small solar panel, a tripod, a Feather S2 development board and an OLED from Adafruit. The entire kit comes in at less than six pounds and costs $499. The package may sound intimidatingly technical, but Swarm CEO Sara Spangelo explained to TechCrunch that it was designed to be user-friendly, from the most novice consumer all the way through to more advanced users.

It “was super intentional to call it an Evaluation kit because it’s not a finished product,” Spangelo explained. “It serves two different kinds of groups. The first group is people that want to be able to do messaging anywhere that they are on the planet for a really low cost […] The second group of people will be the tinkerers and the hobbyists and educational folks.”

Swarm CEO and co-founder Sara Spangelo Image Credits: Swarm

This is the second consumer product that Swarm has on offer, after it went commercially live with its flagship Swarm Tile earlier this year. The Swarm Tile is a key component of the company’s ecosystem, which is comprised of a few different components: the Tile, a kind of modem that can be embedded in different things and what the customer interfaces with; the satellite network; and a ground station network, which is how the company downlinks data. The Tile is designed for maximum compatibility, so Swarm serves customers across sectors including shipping, logistics, and agriculture.

“One of the cool things about Swarm is that we’re infrastructure,” she said. “We’re like cellphone towers, so anyone can use us across any vertical.” Some of the use cases she highlighted included customers using Tile in soil moisture sensors, or in asset tracking in the trucking industry.

A major part of Swarm’s business model is its low cost, with a Swarm Tile costing $119 and the connectivity service available for only $5 per month per connected device. Spangelo credits not only the engineering innovations in the tiny devices and satellites, but the gains in launch economics, especially for small satellite developers like Swarm. The company also sells direct, which further reduces overhead.

Swarm was founded by Spangelo, a pilot and aerospace engineering PhD who spent time at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and at Google on its drone delivery project, Wing. She told TechCrunch that Swarm started as a hobby project between her and co-founder Ben Longmier, who had previously founded a company called Aether Industries that made high-altitude balloon platforms.

“Then [we] realized that we could do communications at speeds that were similar to what the legacy players are doing today,” Sara Spangelo said. “There was a lot of buzz around connectivity,” she added, noting that initiatives like Project Loon were garnering a lot of funding. But instead of trying to match the size and scale of some of these multi-year projects, they decided to go small.

In the four and a half years since the company’s founding, Swarm has put up a network of 120 sandwich-sized satellites into low Earth orbit and grown its workforce to 32 people. They’ve also been busy onboarding customers that use the Tile. One hope is that the Kit will be an additional way to draw customers to Swarm’s service.

Spangelo said the kit is for “everybody in between, that likes to just play with things. And it’s not just playing – the playing leads to innovations and ideas, and then it gets deployed out into the world.”

Rocket Lab returns to flight after failed May mission with successful launch for US Space Force

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket Lab is back in business launching rockets after an issue during its last launch in May caused a total loss of the payloads on board. The company was quick to investigate the issue and announced just over a week ago that it had completed that work, identified the problem and implemented corrective action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The launch today, which took off from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, was an important one to get right: It delivered a satellite for the U.S. Space Force to low Earth orbit. This is the second Space Force mission that Rocket Lab has provided launch services for.

On board the Electron launch vehicle for this mission was a demonstration satellite called Monolith, which is equipped with a new kind of deployable sensor that could, if it works as designed, pave the way for significantly smaller satellite buses in future spacecraft designs for things like weather and observation satellites.

This turnaround after a failed launch and loss of client payload is another benefit of Rocket Lab’s ability to quickly turn around rockets and missions. It’ll definitely be under increased scrutiny for a little while, however, considering that this latest mishap was the second anomaly to result in mission failure in just under a year.

Scientists Just ‘Looked’ Inside Mars. Here’s What They Found

By Katrina Miller, Matt Simon
InSight and Perseverance have sent back unprecedented data on everything from marsquakes to the Red Planet’s inner layers.

Facebook Messenger is stepping up its emoji game

By Amanda Silberling

If you can’t say it with words, say it with an emoji. Facebook is announcing a few minor updates today to its Messenger platform, which make it easier than ever to find the exact emoji you’re looking for when reacting to a friend’s message (let’s be real, there’s a big difference between the “crying laughing” and “crying” emoji). This includes a search bar for emoji reactions, and a recently used emojis section. And, if you weren’t let down by the long-awaited “Space Jam” sequel, you can sport your love for hoopster Bugs Bunny with a “Space Jam 2” chat theme, available both on Messenger and in Instagram DMs. Don’t get too excited though — even though this theme sets a basketball as the chat’s emoji, the long lost, beloved basketball mini game has not yet made its triumphant return to the Messenger app.

Image Credits: Facebook Messenger

It may not feel like there’s room for innovation in, um, the emoji space, but even Twitter has explored the option of allowing people to emoji-react to tweets. And as live audio has become ever present — from Clubhouse, to Twitter Spaces, to Spotify’s Greenroom — why not add audio to emojis?

Last week, Messenger debuted Soundmojis, which are what they sound like — emojis with sounds. On the Messenger app, you can use Soundmojis by clicking the smiley face icon in the chat box, which opens up the expressions menu. When you select the loudspeaker icon, you can select from just under 30 standard emojis, but when you click on them, they play sounds including “Brooklyn 99” quotes, Olivia Rodrigo clips, and lines from “Bridgerton.” The “X” emoji plays “Oh No” by Capone, a song that went viral on TikTok.

According to Facebook Messenger, people send more than 2.4 billion messages with emojis on the platform each day. That’s great and all, but if we can tap the car emoji to hear sounds from “Fast & Furious,” when will we be able to tap the soccer emoji to play “keepie uppie” again?

Elon Musk says Tesla will ‘most likely’ accept bitcoin again when it becomes more eco-friendly

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Tesla will ‘most likely’ resume accepting bitcoin as a form of payment once the mining rate for the cryptocurrency reaches 50% renewables, CEO Elon Musk said Wednesday at a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Crypto Council for Innovation, remarks that are in line with statements he made last month on Twitter.

Tesla started accepting bitcoin as a form of payment in February, the same time that the company purchased a historic $1.5 billion in bitcoin — before reneging on its decision just three months later, citing environmental concerns.

Cryptocurrencies get a bad rap for energy usage because they do indeed use up an awful lot of energy, at least many of them do. Bitcoin and Ethereum, the space’s two biggest currencies, use a mechanism called proof-of-work to power their networks and mint new blocks of each currency. The “work” is solving complex cryptographic problems and miners do so by stringing together high-end graphics cards to tackle these problems. Major mining centers have thousands of GPUs running around the clock.

While Ethereum has already committed to transitioning away from proof-of-work to something called proof-of-stake, which vastly reduces energy usage, Bitcoin seems less likely to make this transition. So, becoming “eco-friendly” likely doesn’t mean making any major underlying changes to Bitcoin, but rather shifting what energy sources are powering those mining centers.

While Bitcoin’s global mining network does clearly lean on renewables, it’s pretty difficult to get exact insights on what the spread of renewables usage is given how, ahem, decentralized the grid is. What is clear is that it’s going to take some unprecedented transparency from the global network to even give Musk a starting point here to judge Bitcoin’s current or future “eco-friendliness,” and in all likelihood Musk will have a lot of wiggle room to make this decision based on anecdotal data whenever he wants.

Today’s comments come as no surprise: He tweeted in June, “When there’s confirmation of reasonable (~50%) clean energy usage by miners with positive future trend, Tesla will resume allowing Bitcoin transactions.”

This is inaccurate. Tesla only sold ~10% of holdings to confirm BTC could be liquidated easily without moving market.

When there’s confirmation of reasonable (~50%) clean energy usage by miners with positive future trend, Tesla will resume allowing Bitcoin transactions.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 13, 2021

His comments do give him plenty of wiggle room, however. “As long as there is a conscious effort to move bitcoin miners toward renewables then Tesla can support that,” he added later in the talk. A large portion of bitcoin mining was done in China, where cheap coal and hydropower made it slightly more economical; but Musk noted that some of these coal plants have been shut down (and a large portion of miners in China have started to migrate abroad, in response to mining crackdowns by the Chinese party).

It should also be noted that his concerns over bitcoin’s environmental impact have caused controversy in the bitcoin community, with some arguing that bitcoin receives an oversized amount of scrutiny relative to its actual energy consumption. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who also participated in the virtual panel, has actually argued that bitcoin can incentivize the transition to renewable energy. A white paper published by the Bitcoin Clean Energy Initiative, a program created by Square, argues that bitcoin mining could make renewables even cheaper and more economically feasible than they are today.

Musk’s comments, as ambiguous as they were, shows he still exerts considerable power over cryptocurrency markets. Bitcoin price fell below $30,000 on Monday, after hitting an all-time high of over $63,000 in April. But after the billionaire founder revealed more details about his and his companies’ holdings at the virtual panel, the price rebounded.

In addition to personal bitcoin holdings and Tesla’s bitcoin holdings, his aerospace company SpaceX also owns bitcoin. Musk added that he also personally owns ether and (of course) dogecoin. The price for all three cryptocurrencies rose after his comments.

Accion Systems raises $42 million in Series C to accelerate development of 4th-gen propulsion system

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Space propulsion developer Accion Systems has closed its most significant funding round yet. The company raised $42 million in a Series C led by Tracker Capital, bringing its valuation to $83.5 million.

Along with the investment, Tracker Capital also acquired a majority stake in the company. This latest injection of capital will facilitate the development and manufacturing of the company’s fourth generation propulsion system, dubbed the tiled ionic liquid electrospray (TILE) system.

The TILE system uses electrical energy to push charge particles (ions) out its back to generate propulsion. While ion engines have been around for decades, Accion uses a liquid propellant, an ionic liquid salt, instead of gas. The liquid is inert and non-pressurized, meaning there’s no risk of explosion. It also results in a product that doesn’t need bulky components like ionization chambers, and an overall smaller and lighter weight system relative to the spacecraft – key considerations in space, where every gram of payload has a high price tag.

“It lets us build really, really small systems,” Accion co-founder Natalya Bailey explained to TechCrunch. “Instead of trying to take an existing ion engine the size of a Prius and shrink it down, we can start with very small systems because of this propellant.” And she does mean small – each thruster tile is about the size of a postage stamp.

The TILE system is also scalable and modular, meaning it could feasibly be used on anything from cubesats to propelling an interplanetary spacecraft, Accion CEO Peter Kant added in a recent interview with TechCrunch. “It’s one of the few occasions where the total addressable market and the actual addressable market that we can serve are pretty closely aligned and almost overlap,” he said.

The newest generation of the TILE system is the same size as its predecessors, but Accion is increasing the number of emitters on a given chip – emitters being the technology that actually shoots out the ions, generating the momentum – by almost tenfold. “We get more ions per area and that gives us a whole lot more thrust with the same amount of space,” Kant said.

Accion is looking to ship the first fourth-gen thruster systems in the middle to late summer of 2022.

The TILE system was developed by Accion co-founders Natalya Bailey and Louis Perna while the two were at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The tech generated a ton of interest from big aerospace companies, but they decided to found Accion in 2014 rather than sell. The company manufactures and assembles its product at its facility in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

The TILE system was onboard commercial spacecraft, one with Astra Digital and one with NanoAvionics, that went up on SpaceX’s Transporter-2 launch at the end of June. Accion started by focusing on serving smaller spacecraft first, like cubesats, but Bailey said that was just the beginning.

“We’re going after that segment initially, and then intending to reinvest our learnings in building larger and larger systems that eventually can do big geostationary satellites and interplanetary missions and so on. The systems that went up on the most recent launcher [is] probably good for a satellite up to about 50 kilograms [. . .] For us, it’s on the smaller end of where we intend to go.”

Employee mental health platform Oliva raises $2.2M pre-seed round led by Moonfire Ventures

By Mike Butcher

Just as many other employee services have gone digital, so too is mental health. In the consumer space there are growing startups like Equoo, but the race is now on for the employee.

And since telemedicine has gone digital and video-based, so too is mental health provision. A number of companies are already playing in this space, including Spill Chat, On Mind, Lyra Health, Modern Health, Ginger and TalkSpace For Business.

Oliva’s take on this is not to create a marketplace or pre-recorded videos, but to put trained professionals in front of employees to talk directly to them. And there is even science to back it up. Indeed, some research suggests Psychotherapy via the internet is as good if not better than face-to-face consultations.

Oliva’s on-demand, professional-led mental healthcare for employees and managers has now attracted investment to the tune of a $2.2m pre-seed investment round, led by Moonfire Ventures, the new seed-stage VC firm from Atomico co-founder Mattias Ljungman.

The UK and Spain-based startup has also attracted angel investment from tech executives from Amazon, Booking.com, DogBuddy, Typeform, Hotjar, TravelPerk, and more.

Oliva is founded by Javier Suarez, who previously co-founded TravelPerk, and Sançar Sahin, who previously led marketing teams at Hotjar and Typeform, so both are well blooded in startups.

Suarez says he was inspired to create a mental health startup after the rigors of TravelPerk: “Employees are a company’s greatest asset – the better they feel, the better your company performs. But organizations are not set up to support their employees’ mental health in and outside of the workplace, which creates a massive problem for teammates, managers, and the organization as a whole. We’ve launched Oliva to give employees access to comprehensive online mental healthcare and to help organizations overcome the related challenges—from attracting & retaining talent and training managers to supporting remote workers.”

Privacy is addressed via the use of a secure and encrypted personal portal, where employees can chat with a care provider who matches them with a professional. They get 1-to-1 video therapy sessions from a range of mental health professionals, and can also track their progress. 

The team has also attracted Dr. Sarah Bateup, who has spent over two decades teaching and training mental healthcare professionals, who is now Chief Clinical Officer.

She said: “Oliva improves the way mental healthcare is accessed, supported, and paid for, while also adding more ongoing oversight and accountability to the process. Our ambition is for Oliva to be viewed as a badge of quality and set a new standard for workplace mental healthcare.”

Mattias Ljungman, Founder at Moonfire Ventures, added: “Mental health has been an overlooked area of care and wellbeing, especially in the workplace. Oliva’s founders are the only team we’ve seen taking a holistic, impact-driven approach to supporting mental health. While employer-funded mental health is becoming a well-established model in the US, Oliva is the first to bring a truly comprehensive approach to UK and European businesses.”

Oliva platform is integrated with Slack, providing employees with mental health drop-in sessions, therapy courses, and dedicated training and support for managers.

Bezos and crew host a giddy press conference after Blue Origin’s inaugural crewed launch

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Jeff Bezos was so triumphant he was practically glowing at a press conference following the Blue Origin’s first crewed mission to space, 21 years after he founded the company in 2000. The billionaire talked about the future of the company and his role in it, and then casually gave away a couple hundred million dollars.

Bezos was one of four that rode in the RSS First Step capsule; the others were his financier brother, Mark; aviation legend and Mercury 13 veteran Wally Funk; and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, the son of the second-highest bidder on the Blue Origin seat auction. (The $28 million dollar winner postponed his seat due to scheduling conflicts.)

The company now joins a very tiny circle of companies that have sent private citizens to space, in the biggest boost yet for the nascent space tourism industry. Tuesday also marks the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the next step in space travel paying homage to the very first.

The press conference opened with the grinning foursome being pinned with astronaut ‘wings,’ a badge traditionally granted to those that have gone to space. “I’m so happy,” said Bezos at the press conference, donning the same cream cowboy hat he wore moments after emerging from the capsule a little over two hours earlier.

Bezos also thanked the city of Van Horn, acknowledging Blue Origin has made “a dent in it,” and followed by thanking every Amazon employee, plus its millions of customers: “Seriously, you paid for this.”

They also showed a brief video of the four crew members cavorting in four minutes of microgravity, including footage of the crew members catching floating Skittles in their mouths.

This is the second suborbital mission crewed entirely by private citizens this month alone, a first in history. The first was accomplished by Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, a rocket-powered spaceplane, on July 11; its founder, billionaire Richard Branson, was aboard, which helped foment a truly petty spat between the two ultra-wealthy founders. That aside, the two flights have helped make space tourism more of a reality than ever before.

The flight will also likely be a boost for Blue Origin’s commercial heavy-lift rocket launch arm, which for the moment is largely occupied by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The same technologies that are used to perfect New Shepard’s reusability could come in handy for the development of New Glenn, the company’s massive orbital launch. Bezos said in February that the company was pushing the inaugural launch of New Glenn from late 2021 to the latter quarter of 2022.

Jeff Bezos speaks into a mic at the blue origin press conference.

Image Credits: Blue Origin / YouTube

“The fact of the matter is, the architecture and the technology we’ve chosen is complete over-kill” for space tourism, Bezos said. Instead, Blue Origin chose it “because it scales […]  the whole point of this is to get practice” for larger and heavier missions.

On why Blue Origin chose liquid fuel, he reiterated that it’s practice for future launches. “Every time we fly this tourism mission, we practice flying the second stage of New Glenn.”

In December 2020, NASA added Blue Origin to its roster of space companies eligible to compete for contracts under its Launch Services II program. While it doesn’t guarantee that New Glenn or any other Blue Origin rocket would be awarded a launch contract, it’s the first step to getting there.

Jeff Bezos confirmed that Blue Origin will fly two additional crewed launches this year alone, but it has yet to announce the price per seat. “We want the cadence to be very high […] We’re approaching $100 million in private sales already.” When asked how to get the cost per seat down, Bezos said the space tourism industry would follow the trajectory of commercial space travel, now widely used by millions of travelers each year.

At the end of the conference, Bezos announced he was starting a $100 million Courage and Civility Award, with CNN contributor Van Jones and Michelin star chef José Andrés as the first two recipients. The winner will give that money away to the charities of their choice. The award is for people who apparently demonstrate civility and resist ad hominem attacks. Reading between the lines (frankly, you don’t even really have to do that) it seems like a commentary on contemporary political discourse, especially the emphasis on civility in disagreement.

Looking to the future, the Amazon founder said he would split his time between Blue Origin and the Bezos Earth Fund, a $10 billion investment fund focused on climate change.

“This is not about escaping Earth. The whole point is, this is the only good planet in the solar system,” Bezos said. “We have to take care of it.”

Rewatch the press conference here:

Blue Origin’s New Shepard carries Jeff Bezos and three crew members to space and back

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Blue Origin successfully completed its first crewed launch Tuesday, sending four human passengers to space – including the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos. The result of billions of dollars of investment, dozens of test launches and some petty squabbling amongst ultra-rich founders, the triumph of the New Shepard, along with that of Virgin Galactic earlier this month, undoubtably heralds the dawn of a new age of space tourism.

It was quite the media spectacle. The mission took place at Launch Site One, Blue Origin’s sprawling and secretive facility that sits around thirty miles north of the small town of Van Horn, Texas. Every hotel in Van Horn and nearby towns were sold out of rooms in the days leading to launch as spectators traveled in for the event; meanwhile, a huge gaggle of local, national and online outlets (including yours truly) swarmed the Press Site as early as 2:30 AM CST. Despite some premature calls for rain in the early hours of the morning, the skies stayed clear and things mostly kept to schedule.

The four-person crew – including Bezos, his brother, Mark, 18-year old student Oliver Daemon, and aviation pioneer and Mercury 13 veteran Wally Funk – emerged from the training center and caught a Rivian R1S electric SUV to the launch pad around 45 minutes prior to launch. (Bezos drove a Rivian R1T pickup to the landing site of the rocket after its last test, a nod to Amazon’s sizeable investment in the EV startup). The crew climbed the launch tower and took a brief respite in an adjacent shelter, before climbing into the capsule, dubbed RSS First Step.

There was a brief hold at T-15 minutes, leading to the launch running slightly behind schedule. New Shepard took at 8:11 CST. They passed the Kármán line (more on that later) at 8:15 AM; capsule separation followed, and the booster returned to the launch site autonomously and with a loud boom at 8:19 AM. The crewed capsule floated slowly to Earth via parachute, touching land at 8:22 AM for an eleven-minutes total flight time.

The flight was the result of fifteen tests of the reusable suborbital New Shepard rocket, including a rehearsal launch in April that included a dry run of flight preparations and a mock crew embarked (then disembarked before take-off) into the capsule. Blue Origin now joins rival Virgin Galactic in a very, very small group of commercial space companies to send private citizens to orbit.

Daemon was added to the crew after the anonymous auction winner, who bid $28 million for the seat, had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict. CNBC reported that Daemon’s father, CEO of the Dutch private equity firm Somerset Capital Partners, placed the second-highest bid.

The route to space

Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, six years after he started ecommerce behemoth Amazon. The company has zeroed in on space tourism, and it sees this flight as the requisite proof of concept it needs to start flying customers. To that end, the New Shepard capsule has large, tourism-friendly windows – the largest in spaceflight history, according to the company. “These windows make up a third of the capsule, immersing you in the vastness of space and life-changing views of our blue planet,” it says on the Blue Origin website.

The launch is also the culmination of weeks of squabbling between Bezos and his billionaire spacefaring rival, Richard Branson, who was aboard his own flight to space 10 days earlier. But despite ostensibly beating Bezos to the punch, much of the fighting was over what actually counts as space – and whether VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered spaceplane, actually went there.

Image Credits: Blue Origin

The kerfuffle is over what’s known as the Kármán line, an internationally recognized imaginary boundary of space that’s around 60 miles above Earth. VSS Unity flew to around 51.4 miles – above the boundary recognized by NASA. “From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name,” Blue Origin tweeted two days before the Virgin launch. The tweet also included a little infographic throwing further shade at on Virgin flights.

From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name. For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line. pic.twitter.com/QRoufBIrUJ

— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) July 9, 2021

This is just the beginning for Blue Origin. Director of astronaut sales Ariane Cornell said at a pre-mission briefing on July 18 that she’s been “chatting with many of [Blue Origin’s] future customers who have signed for the subsequent flights.” She added that the company intends on launching two more flights this year, with CEO Bob Smith estimating that a second crewed New Shepard flight could take place in September or October.

What does this mean for the rest of us (as in, those that don’t have a couple extra million floating around in our bank accounts)? While the so-called billionaire space race is a petty squabble, both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic’s respective launches are the likely heralds of a new age of space travel for consumers and scientists alike. It will be limited to the wealthy at first, but as TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm argues, costs will go down and more humans will go to space – including scientists and researchers, maybe even me or you.

In case you missed it, you can catch the entire launch on Blue Origin’s archived livestream here:

Watch Blue Origin launch Jeff Bezos to space live, along with the youngest and oldest astronauts ever

By Darrell Etherington

Blue Origin is set to launch its fully reusable New Shepard spacecraft with humans on board for the first time on Tuesday, and it’s sending Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos up along with his brother and two record-setting astronauts. The launch live stream above is scheduled for 6:30 AM CDT (7:30 AM EDT/4:30 AM PDT), with the actual liftoff targeted for 8 AM CDT (9 AM EDT/6 AM PDT).

The full flight profile includes a takeoff from Blue Origin’s remote West Texas facility, followed by an ascent to a height of roughly 62 miles above the Earth’s surface. Those on board, including Bezos, his brother Mark, 82-year old Wally Funk and 18-year old Oliver Daemen will then experience between 3 and 4 minutes of weightlessness inside the New Shepard capsule, before it returns to Earth slowed by parachutes for a touchdown in the West Texas desert and then a recovery by Blue Origin staff.

This is not significantly different in terms of timing or sequence from the 15 prior New Shepard flights that Blue Origin has flown, but this is the first one with humans on board (including the world’s richest), so it’s obviously the one to watch.

ServiceMax promises accelerating growth as key to $1.4B SPAC deal

By Ron Miller

ServiceMax, a company that builds software for the field-service industry, announced yesterday that it will go public via a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, in a deal valued at $1.4 billion. The transaction comes after ServiceMax was sold to GE for $915 million in 2016, before being spun out in late 2018. The company most recently raised $80 million from Salesforce Ventures, a key partner.

Broadly, ServiceMax’s business has a history of modest growth and cash consumption.

ServiceMax competes in the growing field-service industry primarily with ServiceNow, and interestingly enough given Salesforce Ventures’ recent investment, Salesforce Service Cloud. Other large enterprise vendors like Microsoft, SAP and Oracle also have similar products. The market looks at helping digitize traditional field service, but also touches on in-house service like IT and HR giving it a broader market in which to play.

GE originally bought the company as part of a growing industrial Internet of Things (IoT) strategy at the time, hoping to have a software service that could work hand in glove with the automated machine maintenance it was looking to implement. When that strategy failed to materialize, the company spun out ServiceMax and until now it remained part of Silver Lake Partners thanks to a deal that was finalized in 2019.

TechCrunch was curious why that was the case, so we dug into the company’s investor presentation for more hints about its financial performance. Broadly, ServiceMax’s business has a history of modest growth and cash consumption. It promises a big change to that storyline, though. Here’s how.

A look at the data

The company’s pitch to investors is that with new capital it can accelerate its growth rate and begin to generate free cash flow. To get there, the company will pursue organic (in-house) and inorganic (acquisition-based) growth. The company’s blank-check combination will provide what the company described as “$335 million of gross proceeds,” a hefty sum for the company compared to its most recent funding round.

Virgin Galactic president Mike Moses on what’s next for the company’s growing fleet

By Devin Coldewey

This last weekend featured the much-ballyhooed launch of Virgin Galactic’s first (nonpaying) passengers, with founder and CEO Richard Branson along for the ride. After the festivities, I had the chance to talk with the company’s president, Mike Moses, who seems to be familiar with every detail of the operation and the company’s plans for going from test to commercial flights.

Unfortunately my recorder went on the fritz, but Moses was kind enough to hop on the phone later in the week to talk (again) about the next generation of spaceplanes, where the company needs to invest, and more. You can read through our conversation below. (Interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)


TC: To begin with, can you tell me what’s left to test, and when do you expect to finish the test flight phase?

Moses: The test flight series that we’re kind of in right now, and the flight with Richard was the first of those, represents a shift from what was more classic and traditional, envelope testing, where we’re looking at aerodynamics and trajectories and handling qualities, to more of an operational check-out, where we are validating cabin experience experiences, training procedures, hardware for the folks in the back and what they’re going to go through.

So we’ve laid out a series of a few flights there, three to be specific, that both demonstrate key product milestones and features, as well as allow us time to iterate and develop and optimize some of that back-of-cabin experience. But as always, that’s a notional schedule, right? The schedule and the numbers are going to depend on the results. So if things go well, we think that’s a three-flight series if we find things that we need to adjust, we’ll add more as needed based on what we’re learning.

Based on the results that we got after Richard and crew came back from the last flight, you know, we know we have some stuff to work on but but everything was pretty much thumbs up.

Now, we know we’re going to do those flights over the course of this summer and late summer, and then we’ll be ready to move into, as we announced during our previous earnings call, a ‘modification phase’ where we’re going to do some upgrades on our mothership and our spaceship to prepare them for commercial service. The main focus there is to look at things that allow us to increase the flight-rate frequency. Right now in test, we fly at a fairly slow pace [i.e. infrequently, not at low speed], because we’re inspecting everything prudently. We’re going to want to start to move away from that, and as we learn, and so we already know, there’s some modifications we want to make to enable that to start to happen. We haven’t set a specific timescale for when that officially ends.

TC: You mentioned when we talked at the Spaceport, the crew hadn’t yet really been debriefed about the experience. I’m hoping maybe you have a little more information now about recommendations from Sir Richard, from Siriha, from everybody that was actually up there. Have you gotten any substantive feedback that you can share?

Moses: So we are definitely in the middle of all that feedback and debriefing. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of data to go through. And in some cases, that data is as simple as the 16 video cameras that we had onboard, and getting them all synced up to see that what’s happening where, and couple that with live notes, and debriefs, and the audio tracks that went with it. We are definitely gathering up the inputs, but there’s nothing on that list that I think I’m ready to disclose at this time. We’ll keep folks posted as we go.

The general feedback, post-landing both that day and the next day, was ‘things were awesome,’ right? Now that’s not a scientific answer, and I want the scientific answer, so we’re gonna make them go through the work to debrief.

Image Credits: Virgin Galactic

TC: You touched on this with the ‘modification phase’… Unity is, I don’t know how exactly you’d describe it, a production prototype. Could you tell me whether there’s any special upkeep for it as the sort of first off the line?

Moses: There’s nothing special as part of its design or build that requires special upkeep. But as a test vehicle and as our first article, we give it a lot of extra attention. We dive in pretty deep on inspections, both regularly and as we see issues, we would probably, test those and explore just to make sure we truly understand that there’s no unknowns out there, things like how the system performs how it does in cold temperatures, under load and under stress. We keep an eye on it.

There’s a series of measurements that we make to say, you know, where did the vehicle perform based on its design envelope. And if we’re close to the edges of any of that envelope, we go do extra inspections to validate that our modeling and our predictions are right. So in that regard, it’s pretty similar to how you would have a first set of articles coming out for a new aircraft development, you would build a maintenance and inspection program. That is, an extremely conservative one. And then as you use it, you start to pull out that conservatism based on your positive feedback.

But in general, yes, Unity does get a lot of extra attention. And the next vehicles will have some of that designed in part of that. We’ve already learned a bunch of, like, ‘hey, on the next vehicle, make this different so I don’t have to look at it every time, I can look at it every five times.’

TC: I think that when we when we talked before, you mentioned that you expect multiple-hundred flights, at least theoretically, out of Unity.

Moses: Yeah, multiple-hundred flights of the vehicle. We set a design envelope where we designed for a certain lifetime, and we we tested to that, and then we can always go do life extension. Some of that is just a limitation of… you know, we’re going to cycle the stuff 10,000 times rather than 40,000 times, and we’ll come back later and get the other cycles when we get closer to the 10,000 life. We’ll go back and add more to it. There’s not a lot of components that have, you know, like a ‘fall off the cliff’ type of lifetime.

TC: You mentioned some of the modifications you are going to build into the successor or production craft. Can you tell me any of those, how it will differ in minor or major ways, when you expect weight on wheels and that kind of thing?

Moses: So we’ve already done weight on wheels. And we had our rollout, which is effectively that weight on wheels, where we transition from, basically major factory assembly into ground tests. So all of the systems are installed, and now they’re gonna start to run integrated ground testing, where you can basically go run a computer system through its checkouts, you can run the flight control system through checkouts… you’re still on the ground, right, you’re not yet ready to fly. But we are in that integrated testing.

As far as changes… when we designed the structure, if you think about it as the skeleton, under the skin, with Imagine and Inspire, we optimized and moved those skeletons, the ribs in the spars, to the locations where the load was highest. Unity was built off of the original design intent of Scaled Composites, and flight tests, they’ve shown us that sometimes that load is not exactly where it is expected. There’s a lot of extra weight in Unity to account for that load; Imagine and Inspire, we’re able to optimize and put the structure right where it needed to be.

There’s a joint, for example, on Unity that I have to go look at every time, because I had to add extra to it. Whereas on Imagine, it was designed to where it should be in the first place. I’ll still look at it, but it’s much easier access and a much shorter inspection.

VSS Imagine on a runway.

Image Credits: Virgin Galactic

So things like that, that let me optimize my inspection schedule. And other just simplistic things — there are now access panels where we know we need them, whereas we had to kind of add them after the fact in Unity. Your quick release fasteners and things like that, that make inspections shorter, we were able to add into the design, we made a pretty significant number of changes like that, all fairly minor, but they have a large effect on the maintainability of the vehicle.

And the next phase, right, we talked about this, the Delta class of spaceships, we’re going to make changes for manufacturability. Unity and Inspire and Imagine are still fairly one-off hand-built aircraft — spacecraft, sorry. And if we want to go build a dozen or more to get to these 400-flight-a-year rates, we need to make sure they’re manufacturable at a smaller price tag in a smaller time scale. So that next design will incorporate a bunch of that stuff.

TC: That’s actually one of the things I wanted to talk about is how you get to the reliability and cadence that you want to have for commercial operation? Obviously, more aircraft is one part of that, but you know, maybe expanding ground ops or crew, better maintenance and stuff like that.

Moses: Yeah, you bet. And I think that’s it, right: It’s a fleet, so we have multiple vehicles for dispatch. That gives you capacity to be able to handle anything that comes up unexpected, like weather. And then it’s the workforce — with more workforce, a 24/7 clock, then you can have multiple expertises, or a crew focused on just one vehicle. And the second crew, they’re focused on the second one.

I think our mantra here is going to be to take it in baby steps — we’re not going to try to go to those high flight rates initially, we want to get a little faster, then a little faster, then a little faster. That’s kind of Unity’s purpose in life in 2022, to allow us to go explore those operational cadences and see where we can apply multiplying factors for when we get additional spaceships.

You know, the business model is a great one, right? But in these next couple of years, it’s fairly insensitive to whether I’m doing eight flights or 10 flights or 12 flights with Unity. I mean, in terms of revenue, it doesn’t move the needle very much. But in terms of operational learning, that’s a significant step for us, so we want to be prudent with how we proceed down that path.

MOJAVE, UNITED STATES – OCTOBER 10: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY, NO SUBJECT SPECIFIC TV BROADCAST DOCUMENTARIES OR BOOK USE) Virgin Galactic vehicle SpaceShipTwo completes its successful first glide flight at Mojave on October 10, 2010 over Mojave in California. (Photo by Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic/Getty Images)

TC: Can you can you tell me again why, or whether, you plan on keeping the flight plans more or less the same? Maybe there’s possibility, later down the line with the revised version with six people in it, that you might have to have a slightly different profile?

Moses: That’s kind of coupled with what we talked about at the beginning of this Q&A, the move from a test phase into this operational readiness phase. Coupled with that is a profile that is now set — the trajectory that the pilots fly, the techniques they use, we’ll still optimize, but we’re not making major revisions. Those are all pretty much physics-based results. The airspeed we’re at, the angles that we’re at, and the subsequent altitude we get to, the weight we carry, are all kind of locked-in variables, and there’s not much you can do to change that equation.

There’ll be some definite trajectory changes that come along with Imagine because it will have more capacity on board, which means it’ll have a slightly different performance, and we just need to go verify that envelope. But for the most part, you know, the physics of the equation kind of set what you can do, roughly speaking, so that’s why we’re limited to only carrying four passengers here initially. We can change that, and we do plan on looking at weight reductions in the ship, but again, with an eye towards the fleet that we’re building, and make sure we get a fleet that is serviceable for the long haul.

TC: That’s all I’ve got here. Thanks again for taking the time to chat.

You can watch a recap of the recent Virgin Galactic launch here.

Volcanoes Might Explain That Phosphine on Venus

By Katrina Miller
Last fall, researchers said the presence of phosphine in the planet’s atmosphere could indicate life. But a new study says there could be a geological explanation.

Eat the rich, but let them build rockets in the meantime

By Alex Wilhelm

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic went to space (or the vicinity of space) in a PR-suffused event over the weekend. It was all rather twee, packed with maudlin riffs about childhood dreams and riddled with hero worship. And the stream kept stuttering while some of the planned vehicle-to-Earth communications failed.


The Exchange is continuing its look into Q2 venture capital results this week. If you’re a VC with a hot take on the numbers, we’re collecting comments and observations at alex.wilhelm@techcrunch.com. Use subject line “hot dang look at all this money.” Thanks! — Alex and Anna


But the launch accomplished what it set out to do: A few folks made it to into zero gravity after launching their rocket-powered space plane from a larger aircraft, flipping it around at the top of its arc so that its passengers could get a good view of our home while floating. Then it came back to the surface and, we’re sure, much champagne was consumed.

In the aftermath of the event, lots of folks are pissed. Complaints have rolled in, dissing the event and generally mocking the expense involved when there are other issues to manage. A sampling follows. Note that these are merely illustrative examples of a general vibe. I have precisely zero beef with anyone in the following tweets or articles:

How’s this headline:

Branson, Musk, and Bezos who could tackle child hunger, climate change, racial injustice, health care, the rise of fascism etc and still be richer than 99.9999% of us choose to be narcissistic assholes and shoot their money into space.

That about right?

— Mary L Trump (@MaryLTrump) July 11, 2021

Branson wants to bring space to the average person.
How about food?
let's do that one first.

✨☮💙 Kim Ruxton 💙☮✨ (@KimRuxton) July 11, 2021

And from the media side of things, this stood out today from the Tribune:

I disagree.

Sure, it’s maddening that Jeff Bezos’ new yacht will require a second boat so that he can have a mobile heliport on the go — his new boat has sails, so you can’t chopper to it — while the company that built his fortune churns through workers with abandon and squeezes its drivers so much that they have to piss in bottles due to scheduling constraints.

And, yes, Branson is annoying quite a lot of the time. He also owns an island and likes himself too much.

Virgin Galactic and Richard Branson celebrate launch of first passengers into space

By Devin Coldewey

Virgin Galactic has successfully taken its first passengers to space, including its billionaire founder Richard Branson. The event, at Spaceport America in New Mexico, was a field day for press and employees, complete with an early-morning Khalid set and hero walk by Branson and the crew.

“Just imagine a world where people of all ages, all backgrounds, from anywhere, of any gender, of any ethnicity, have equal access to space,” Branson said on returning. “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age!”

The remark is a bit premature, of course — that world is still some distance off, but it’s true that this flight marks a historic moment in the nascent space tourism industry. At present, leisurenauts are still an elite class, but the events of the day suggest we’re closer than ever to seeing that change.

After an incredibly early start to the day (shuttles to the Spaceport left at 2:45 AM from nearby Las Cruces), the festivities began in true space launch style with a delay. A thunderstorm overnight prevented the team from rolling out the spacecraft, which believe it or not can’t get wet. At the speeds and temperatures involved nothing can be left to chance — like ice forming from water in or on the chassis.

Press set up before dawn at Spaceport America.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

Soon the sun rose and crowds arrived: VIPs, employees, a bunch of local students, and Branson’s own guest list (reportedly numbering around 150). Elon Musk showed up as well, presumably to congratulate his fellow spaceman personally, billionaire to billionaire.

At 8:30 local time the engines started on VMS Eve, the “mothership” carrying VSS Unity, the rocket-powered spaceplane that Branson, along with Virgin Galactic’s Beth Moses (her second flight), Sirisha Bandla, and Colin Bennett, would ride to the edge of space.

VMS Eve takes off. Image Credits: Virgin Galactic

Eve was wheels up at 8:40, commencing a wait on the ground while it climbed to about 36,000 feet. Unity detached and began its rocket-powered climb at about 9:24, reaching Mach 3 and after two minutes reached its peak altitude of about 282,000 feet — about 53 miles, as planned.

The crew and passengers enjoyed a minute or two of microgravity, which they seem to have employed gainfully:

Image Credits: Virgin Galactic

A planned mid-air speech by Branson proved impossible as the signal cut in and out, but the craft itself proved more reliable, touching down at 9:38.

In a celebratory stage appearance (following a brief Khalid concert) Branson expanded on the ideas cut short in transmission, beginning with: “It’s hot, I’m sorry,” but quickly moving on to more inspiring words. “I have dreamt about this moment since I was a child, but nothing could have prepared me for the view of Earth from space. We are at the vanguard of a new space age.”

At a press conference following shortly after, Branson fielded questions from elementary schoolers, and the crew described the view from space and whether they saw any planets. (No, just an alien that the pilot shook off during descent, Branson said. At least one kid I saw believed him.)

A long road to space

Virgin Galactic Pilots on their way to the Virgin Galactic Spaceflight System

It’s a triumph long in the making for Virgin Galactic and Branson. The company was ahead of the curve in its space tourism ambitions, but in 2014 a test flight ended in a horrific crash and the death of one of the pilots.

Virgin’s engineers and leaders worked through it, however, and built a stronger, better spacecraft which was christened Unity by Stephen Hawking, who was then still living — and, not surprisingly, hoping to hitch a ride some day.

Pilots flew test flight after test flight over the years, slowly ratcheting up the power and finally, in 2018, touching the edge of space. On that note there is some slight controversy in that the exact altitude where the atmosphere gives way to space isn’t completely agreed upon. Some authorities place the Kármán line, as the imaginary boundary is called, at 100 kilometers above sea level, others at 50 miles, or about 80 kilometers.

Unity 22 spreads its “feathers” during descent. Image Credits: Virgin Galactic

Virgin uses the lower estimate, while its arch rival, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, uses the higher. This led Bezos to throw shade on Virgin’s flights, saying he didn’t want his customers to have an “asterisk” on their trip to space. When I asked about this before, a Virgin representative said they use the same standard that NASA and the U.S. Air Force does: pilots are given their “astronaut wings” if they pass the 50-mile mark.

Kármán quibbles aside, the race to send passengers to space has been heating up lately, and Bezos recently announced that he would be flying aboard the first crewed launch of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket on July 22 — with his brother, a mystery passenger who has paid $28M for the privilege, and Wally Funk, among the first women trained to be astronauts in 1961 but who never made it to space.

But Branson rained on his parade by announcing shortly afterward that he would fly aboard Virgin’s first passenger launch to space (crew and pilots have been up several times) about a week earlier.

While Branson has good-naturedly denied any competition between himself and Bezos (“We wish jeff the absolute best,” he said, adding that Bezos sent over a message of goodwill before the flight) it’s hard to believe that’s completely true. Though neither man has anything to prove at this point, there must surely be some satisfaction in Branson’s not merely going to space (a lifelong dream, as he tells it) but doing so before his upstart rival. However much he denies it, the narrative is too tempting to quash completely.

The direction forward for Virgin Galactic now is, clearly, towards paying customers, of which there are plenty lined up. Of course, they all have a quarter of a million dollars to spare, but you might not, and for you Branson has a special offer. They’ve partnered with Omaze, and donations to the chosen charity will enter you into a raffle of sorts, with the winner receiving two tickets on an upcoming Virgin Galactic flight. “And with my Willy Wonka hat on, a guided tour of Spaceport America, given by yours truly,” Branson added.

Branson expressed hope that this would become an ongoing thing as long as donations continue, so perhaps this is the answer to the question of how they hope to, as he so frequently promises, make space available to everyone.

You can watch the whole day unfold as it happened in Virgin Galactic’s archived livestream below:

Watch as Virgin Galactic’s first passenger flight takes off with Richard Branson on board

By Devin Coldewey

Virgin Galactic is set to launch its first passengers to space tomorrow morning, and you can watch the whole thing right here. The launch is scheduled for 7:30 AM Pacific, with streaming festivities (including commentary by Stephen Colbert) starting on the hour.

Update: The launch has been delayed by 1.5 hours due to weather. New target time is 7:30 AM Pacific, 8:30 AM local.

This launch is the 22nd for VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic’s first spacecraft to leave the atmosphere. As before, Unity will leave the Spaceport attached to the belly of VMS Eve, which will take it up out of the thickest part of the atmosphere.

Unity will drop off and ignite its rocket engine, reaching speeds approaching Mach 3 until it reaches the 80 kilometer mark, the lowest altitude considered to be in space. When the engines shut off, the pilots and passengers will enjoy a short period of weightlessness and of course stunning views.

The whole thing will be livestreamed, from the ground and, connectivity permitting, from the craft itself. When they return safely there will be a triumphant press conference and, remarkably, live music from Khalid.

I’ll be there on the ground, but you can see what I see by tuning in to the official stream below:

Mmhmm, it’s the most ridiculous story we’ve ever heard

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

Danny and Alex were on deck this week, with Grace on the recording and edit. Natasha will be back with us starting next week. So, it was old times on the show with just two of our team to vamp on the news. And oh boy was there a lot of news to get into. Like, loads.

  • What’s going on with Didi? Didi’s woes have continued this week, with the company seeing its share price continue to fall. The Equity team’s view is that the era of Chinese companies listing in the United States is over.
  • What’s going on with facial recognition tech? With AnyVision raising a $235 million round, Danny and Alex tangled over the future of privacy, and what counts as good enough when it comes to keeping ourselves to ourselves.
  • Nextdoor is going public: Via a SPAC, mind, but the transaction had our tongues wagging about its history, growth, and how hard it can be to build a social network.
  • Dataminr buys WatchKeeper: In its first-ever acquisition, Dataminr bought a smaller company to help it better visualize the data it collects. It’s a neat deal, and especially fun given taht Dataminr should go public sooner rather than later.
  • Planet and Satellogic are going public: One week, two satellite SPACs. You can read more about Planet here, and Satellogic here.
  • FabricNano and Cloverly raise capital: Satellites had us into the concept of climate change, so we also dug into recent funding rounds from FabricNano and Cloverly. It’s beyond neat to see for-profit companies tackle our warming planet.
  • Two new venture capital funds: Acrylic has put together a $55 million fund for moonshot crypto work, while Renegade Partners has a $100 million fund for early-and-mid-stage generalist investments.
  • Mmhmm is big time: And then there was mmhmm. Which now has $100 million more, and some big plans. Our question is what it will do with the money. We’ll have to wait and find out, we suppose.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 7:00 a.m. PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

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