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SpaceX’s Starship SN4 launch vehicle prototype explodes after static engine fire test

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX had just conducted yet another static fire test of the Raptor engine in its Starship SN4 prototype launch vehicle on Friday when the test vehicle exploded on the test stand. This was the fourth static fire test of this engine on this prototype, so it’s unclear what went wrong vs. other static fire attempts.

This was a test in the development of Starship, a new spacecraft that SpaceX has been developing in Boca Chica, Florida. Eventually, the company hopes to use it to replace its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket, but Starship is still very early in its development phase, whereas those vehicles are flight-proven, multiple times over.

SpaceX had just secured FAA approval to fly its Starship prototype for short, suborbital test flights earlier this week. The goal was to fly this SN4 prototype for short distances following static fire testing, but that clearly won’t be possible now, as the vehicle appears to have been completely destroyed in the explosion following Friday’s test, as you can see below in the stream from NASASpaceflight.com.

The explosion occurred around 1:49 PM local time in Texas, roughly two minutes after it had completed its engine test fire. We’ve reached out to SpaceX to find out more about the cause of today’s incident, and whether anyone was potentially hurt in the explosion. SpaceX typically takes plenty of safety precautions when running these tests, including ensuring the area is well clear of any personnel or other individuals.

This isn’t the first time one of SpaceX’s Starship prototypes has met a catastrophic end; a couple of previous test vehicles succumbed to pressure testing while being put through their paces. This is why space companies test frequently and stress test vehicles during development – to ensure that the final operational vehicles are incredibly safe and reliable when they need to be.

SpaceX is already working on additional prototypes, including assembling SN5 nearby in Boa Chica, so it’s likely to resume its testing program quickly once it can clear the test stand and move in the newest prototype. This is a completely separate endeavor from SpaceX’s work on the Commercial Crew program, so that historic first test launch with astronauts on board should proceed either Saturday or Sunday as planned, depending on weather.

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SpaceX gets FAA permission to fly its Starship spacecraft prototype

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has received authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly suborbital missions with its Starship prototype spacecraft, paving the way for test flights at its Boca Chica, Texas site. SpaceX has been hard at work readying its latest Starship prototype for low-altitude, short duration controlled flight tests, and conducted another static engine fire test of the fourth iteration of its in-development spacecraft earlier today.

Officially, the FAA has granted SpaceX permission to conduct what it terms “reusable launch vehicle” missions, which essentially means that the Starship prototype is now cleared to take-off from, and land back at, the launch site SpaceX operates in Boca Chica. The Elon Musk-led space company has already conducted similar tests, but previously used its ‘Starhopper’ early prototype, which was smaller than the planned production Starship, and much more rudimentary in design. It was basically used to prove out the capabilities of the Raptor engine that SpaceX will use to propel Starship, and only for a short hop test using one of those engines.

Since that flight last year, SpaceX has developed multiple iterations of a full-scale prototype of Starship, but thus far they haven’t gotten back to the point where they’re actively flying any of those. In fact, multiple iterations of the Starship prototype have succumbed during pressure testing – though SN4, the version currently being prepared for a test flight, has passed not only pressure tests, but also static test fires of its lone Raptor engine.

The plan now is to fly this one for a short ‘hop’ flight similar to the one conducted by Starhopper, with a maximum altitude of around 500 feet. Should that prove successful, the next version will be loaded with more Raptor engines, and attempt a high altitude test launch. SpaceX is quickly building newer version of Starship in succession even as it proceeds with testing the completed prototypes, in order to hopefully shorten the total timespan of its development.

There’s something of a clock that SpaceX is working against: It was one of three companies that received a contract award from NASA to develop and build a human lander for the agency’s Artemis program to return to the Moon. NASA aims to make that return trip happen by 2024, and while the contract doesn’t necessarily require that each provided have a lander ready in that timeframe, it’s definitely a goal, if only for bragging rights among the three contract awardees.

Daily Crunch: SpaceX’s first astronaut launch is a ‘go’

By Anthony Ha

SpaceX is giving astronauts a lift to the International Space Station, a new jailbreak can unlock any iPhone and a startup raises $250 million to reduce food waste.

Here’s your Daily Crunch for May 26, 2020.

1. NASA and SpaceX confirm SpaceX’s first ever astronaut launch is a ‘go’

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon spacecraft are now set to fly with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken onboard, making a trip to the International Space Station. Both the agency and SpaceX announced yesterday that they have officially passed the final flight readiness review, meaning everything is now a ‘go’ for launch.

The only remaining major hurdle is the weather, which is currently looking around 40% favorable for a launch attempt on schedule for Wednesday, May 27 at 4:33 PM EDT.

2. Hackers release a new jailbreak that unlocks every iPhone

Details of the vulnerability that the hackers used to build the jailbreak aren’t known, but it’s not expected to last forever. Just as jailbreakers work to find a way in, Apple works fast to patch the flaws and close the jailbreak.

3. Preventing food waste nets Apeel $250 million from Singapore’s government, Oprah and Katy Perry

Over the past eight years, Apeel Sciences has grown from a humble startup launched with a $100,000 grant from the Gates Foundation to a giant, globe-spanning company. What’s drawn these financiers and the fabulously famous to invest is the technology that Apeel has developed that promises to keep food fresh for longer periods on store shelves.

4. China set to launch Mars probe and rover mission in July

China’s space program will launch a Mars mission in July, according to its current plans. This will include deploying an orbital probe to study the red planet, and a robotic, remotely controlled rover for surface exploration.

5. Steve Case and Clara Sieg on how the COVID-19 crisis differs from the dot-com bust

Case is the former CEO of AOL turned VC, while Clara Sieg is a Stanford-educated VC heading up Revolution’s Silicon Valley office. Throughout an hour-long chat with Extra Crunch, they touched on numerous subjects, including how diverse founders can take advantage during this downturn and how remote work may lead to growth outside Silicon Valley. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Bluecore raises $50M for its first-party, AI-based marketing automation tools

Bluecore is a marketing technology firm that uses data gained from direct marketing like email, social media and site activity, combining that data with machine learning to make better predictions about who might want to buy what.

7. This week’s TechCrunch podcasts

The latest full-length episode of Equity discusses the new social app Clubhouse, while the morning headline roundup looks at a bunch of remote work fundings. Over at Original Content, we review Netflix’s interactive “Kimmy Schmidt” special.

(Our embeddable podcast player seems to be having issues, but you should still be able to listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your player of choice.)

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

SpaceX signs testing agreement with US Army for use of Starlink network

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has signed a new agreement with the U.S. Army that will see that defense service test SpaceX’s forthcoming Starlink satellite-based broadband network over the course of three years to evaluate its usefulness in serving their needs. The R&D agreement, as first reported by SpaceNews, is a fairly standard agreement ahead of any actual commercial procurement deal for the U.S. military.

SpaceX’s Starlink network, which is still in development and which is set to go live for select customers in the U.S. and Canada later this year, according to the company, aims to provide low-latency, high-speed internet connectivity globally using low Earth orbit small satellites. Its network is designed specifically to address the needs of customers located in hard-to-reach and underserved areas, with network connectivity that the company hopes will be better and more reliable than existing satellite-based connections, which rely on geostationary satellites located much farther away from Earth.

The Army will be looking at finding out what kind of investment it needs to make in ground-station infrastructure and integrating SpaceX’s network connectivity with its existing systems, SpaceNews reports. Provided there are no big showstoppers there, SpaceX’s solution could address a lot of the challenges the military faces with connectivity no matter where they’re operating. Obviously, they don’t always find themselves working in places with high population density and easily accessible ground-network infrastructure.

There are other ways in which Starlink’s operating model doesn’t fit with the Army’s needs, including its reliance on ground stations, which may or may not be accessible to the Army in whatever operating theater they happen to currently be in. Still, it’s very possible that Starlink could meet the needs of some of its operations and not others, but provide big improvements in those areas where it does work.

Starlink launches are set to continue at a regular pace throughout the year as SpaceX continues to build out its many hundred-satellite network. The more satellites that SpaceX has on orbit, the greater its geographic reach, and the less likely its network is to encounter interruptions in service, since each satellite hands off the connection from one to another as they orbit the Earth.

NASA and SpaceX confirm SpaceX’s first ever astronaut launch is a ‘go’

By Darrell Etherington

NASA and SpaceX are closer than ever to a moment both have been preparing for since the beginning of the Commercial Crew program in 2010. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon spacecraft are now set to fly with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken onboard, making a trip to the International Space Station, and both the agency and SpaceX announced today that they have officially passed the final flight readiness review, meaning everything is now a ‘go’ for launch.

According to NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Kathy Leuders during a press conference on Monday, everything went well with all pre-launch flight checks thus far, including a full-length static test fire of the Falcon 9’s engines, and a dress rehearsal of all launch preparation including strapping Hurley and Behnken into the rocket.

The only remaining major hurdle for SpaceX and NASA now is the weather, which is currently only looking around 40% favorable for a launch attempt on schedule for Wednesday, May 27 at 4:33 PM EDT, though during today’s press conference officials noted it is actually trending upwards as of today.

SpaceX and NASA will be paying close attention to the weather between now and Wednesday, and since this is a highly sensitive mission with actual astronauts on board the spacecraft, you can bet that they’ll err on the side of caution for scrubbing the launch if weather isn’t looking good. That said, they do have a backup opportunity of May 30 in case they need to make use of that.

Hans Koenigsmann, VP of Mission Assurance at SpaceX, noted that there were “no showstoppers” during the static test fire on Friday, and also commented that seeing the actual astronauts climb aboard the Crew Dragon during the dry dress rehearsal really drove home the seriousness and impact of this moment. It will mark the first ever human spaceflight for SpaceX, and the first time astronauts have launched from U.S. soil since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.

Koenigsmann went through the schedule for launch day, which include Behnken and Hurley getting ready and suited up around 4 hours before, be drive over in the custom Tesla Model X astronaut transit vehicle at around 3 hours prior, and get into the capsule at around 2.5 hours before launch time. The rest from there is somewhat similar to other Falcon 9 launches, he said, with the exception of the escape system arming at 45 minutes prior to launch, and the arm retracting 10 minutes later, at which point the automated launch system takes over just like it does for other Falcon 9 flights.

Post-launch, Behnken and Hurley will spend 19 hours on orbit, with orbit-raising burns and also a manual flight test (the rest of the time Crew Dragon should be under fully automated control) for around 30 minutes just prior to docking. Then, it’ll dock and open the hatch around 2 hours later.

The departure schedule for Behnken and Hurley to leave the ISS is in flux – NASA will provide that date, sometime between 6 weeks and 16 weeks from launch. The astronauts will then back into Dragon, suit up, undock from the station, and land in the Atlantic around two hours later for recovery.

This is the culmination of many years’ work, and will be the first human flight for the Commercial Crew program. If all goes well, SpaceX could then begin flying astronauts during regular operational missions for ferrying astronauts to and from the Space Station as early as later this year.

Max Q: Huge week ahead for SpaceX and Virgin Orbit

By Darrell Etherington

This week could be the biggest week to date for private spaceflight, with landmark launch attempts coming from both Virgin Orbit and SpaceX .

Virgin Orbit is looking to join the elite club of private launch companies that have actually made it to space, with a full flight test of its combined Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne system. Meanwhile, SpaceX is looking to launch its Crew Dragon spacecraft with people on board – achieving a number of milestones, including returning U.S. crew launch capabilities, and human-rating its Falcon 9 rocket.

Here’s what Virgin Orbit hopes their first flight will do

Virgin Orbit 87Virgin Orbit was supposed to launch its first full demonstration flight on Sunday, but a sensor bug that showed up during pre-launch checkouts means that it’s now pushing things back to at least Monday to check that out.

Extra precaution is hardly surprising since this milestone mission could help the company become an operational satellite launch provider – one of only a small handful of private companies that can make that claim.

SpaceX cleared to proceed for historic crew flight Wednesday

SpaceX passed its first crucial flight readiness review (FRR) on Friday for its first ever crewed astronaut launch, setting it up for a full rehearsal of the mission on Saturday leading up to the actual launch Now it’s set for another FRR with partner NASA on Monday, and then the launch should take place on Wednesday – weather and checkouts permitting. This will definitely be one to watch.

MHI retires a space workhorse

MHI H IIB HTV8 10 1

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries flew its last mission with its H-II series rocket, and the space transfer vehicle it carries to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. The company is readying a successor to this highly successful and consistent rocket, the H3, which is set to make its launch debut sometime in 2022 if all goes to plan.

NASA human spaceflight chief abruptly resigns

While SpaceX is aiming to make history with NASA and two of its astronauts, the person in charge of the agency’s human spaceflight endeavors made a surprising and abrupt exit from the agency last week. Doug Loverro resigned from his position, reportedly over some kind of inappropriate activity he engaged in with a prospective agency business partner ahead of the contract awards for NASA’s commercial human lander program.

Xilinx debuts a new chip made for machine learning in space

Xilinx specializes in building processors that are designed to withstand the rigors of use in space, which include heavy radiation exposure, extreme temperatures and plenty more. The company just debuted a new FPGA for space-based applications that is the first 20nm-based processor for space, and the first with dedicated machine-learning capabilities built in for edge computing that truly redefines the term.

NASA’s ‘Artemis Accords’ look to redefine international space cooperation

Space has enjoyed a period of being relatively uncontested when it comes to international squabbles – mostly because it’s hard and expensive to reach, and the benefits of doing so weren’t exactly clear 30 to 40 years ago when most of those rules were set up. NASA’s new rules include a lot of the old ones, but also set up some modernizations that are sure to begin a lot of debate and discussion in the space policy community.

ULA launches first U.S. Space Force spaceplane mission

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In a testing procedure, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle taxis on the flightline March 30, 2010, at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, FLa. (Courtesy photo)

The United Launch Alliance launched the X-37B last week on behalf of the U.S. Space Force – marking the first time the mysterious experimental unscrewed space plane has launched for that newly-formed agency. The X-37B has flown plenty before, of course – but previously it was doing so under the authority of the U.S. Air Force, since the Space Force hadn’t been formed yet.

SpaceX’s first crewed spacecraft launch is officially cleared to proceed for May 27 target

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has received approval on its mission to launch NASA astronauts for the first time ever on May 27, having passed a key Flight Readiness Review (FRR) conducted by the agency to ensure everything is go for launch.

This final stretch check, conducted over the past few days after the Crew Dragon spacecraft was mounted on top of the Falcon 9 rocket that will take it to the International Space Station (ISS), has officially concluded and the result is that everything is cleared to go forward with preparations ahead of the launch on Wednesday. Another flight readiness review is scheduled for Monday after further checkouts.

The launch window on May 27 is officially set to open at 4:33 PM EDT (1:33 PM PDT), and the Falcon 9 carrying the Crew Dragon will be taking off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On board will be NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, the first astronauts to be carried aboard a private U.S.-built spacecraft, and the first humans to launch into space from U.S. soil since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.

The mission will involve Behnken and Hurley launching to space, then making a rendezvous with the ISS in Crew Dragon, which will autonomously dock with the station if all goes to plan. The astronauts will then stay on the station and contribute to its work as crew members for up to three months before returning home.

Despite the fact that Behnken and Hurley are going to spend a bit of time at the ISS on this mission, this isn’t actually an operational launch — it’s the final demonstration mission in SpaceX’s human-rating process for the NASA Commercial Crew program. Commercial Crew is NASA’s attempt to develop strong public-private partnerships with companies to help defray the cost of sending people to space from the U.S.

The end of the mission will involve the Crew Dragon detaching from the Space Station with the astronauts on board, and performing a controlled re-entry and descent into the ocean, where they’ll be picked up by SpaceX’s recovery crew.

Next up in the preparation sequence is a static test fire, which will be performed sometime later today, and involves firing the Falcon 9’s engines while it’s on the launchpad to see that they’re functioning correctly before it takes off. Then it’s on to launch day (and there are backup dates in case of weather problems) — when the official name of the Crew Dragon capsule for this flight will be revealed, too, according to Behnken.

Virgin Orbit sets first orbital launch for May 24

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit has been preparing for this moment for years, but it’s now officially ready to launch its small satellite delivery vehicle to orbit for the first time. This key demonstration mission, taking off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California, will replicate the actual operational launch experience that Virgin Orbit hopes to provide its customers going forward.

The company is targeting Sunday May 24 at 10 AM PT (1 PM ET) for this historic launch, with a four-hour window on the day during which the actual take-off could occur. The mission will include flying its modified Boeing 747 carrier craft with its LauncherOne to that vehicles launch altitude, where it’ll detach from the 747 and use its own rocket engines to make the rest of the trip to space. There’s a backup opportunity on Monday, should weather interfere.

Virgin Orbit’s approach differs from traditional vertical rocket launches, and use of the carrier aircraft means it can take off from traditional runways. The LauncherOne rocket is a two-stage expendable launch vehicle that can carry around 660 lbs to 1,100 lbs to orbit, depending on the orbit required. That puts it at more payload capacity than Rocket Lab’s Electron, but less than SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

The concept behind Virgin Orbit’s approach is designed to reduce costs to make small satellite launches more affordable. Estimates put launch costs at around $12 million per flight, which is a considerable savings versus traditional launch costs and even the price of SpaceX missions.

Virgin Orbit has been performing a number of tests and flights to get ready for this final full demonstration mission, including a captive carry test last month. If all goes well with this demo mission, the company could begin launching for commercial clients as early as July.

SpaceX’s Starship prototype successfully completes key engine static fire test

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX’s Starship prototype is on a streak of successes, at a key moment for the spacecraft’s development. The Starship SN4 (so-named because it’s the fourth full-size prototype) tester managed to pass a test of its Raptor engine firing while installed on the test stand. SN4 previously passed a crucial low temperature pressure test designed to emulate conditions in space, and now seems ready to take on the next phase: a short flight demonstration.

The static test fire occurred late Tuesday night in Texas, where SpaceX is developing Starship at its facilities in Boca Chica. The SN4 Starship prototype had one Raptor mounted – which is far fewer than the six engines that the spacecraft will eventually have once it achieves full operational status. SpaceX is going to be adding more as it continues its testing and development program, however, with one planned for this iteration in order to demonstrate a short, roughly 500 feet controlled flight – similar to the one achieved by the sub-scale Starhopper testing vehicle last year.

That test flight could happen relatively soon, as SpaceX has been pursuing the required clearances to perform it for a few weeks now. Pending successful completion of that test, SpaceX is also already in process of developing the next iteration of its Starship prototype, which is designed to be outfitted with three Raptor engines and perform a higher altitude flight, paving the way fo the first ever orbital demonstration, which the company still wants to achieve sometime later this year.

The stakes for Starship were already high, considering how much SpaceX has invested in the vehicle, and how it hopes to eventually use it to replace both its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launchers for all mission activities. But they were recently raised higher still, as NASA has selected SpaceX and Starship as one of the approved contractors for its human lander development program. That means the agency will be looking to Starship as a means of transporting astronauts to the surface of the Moon, which it aims to do by 2024.

Virgin Galactic is partnering with NASA to develop supersonic point-to-point air travel

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Galactic today revealed a new partnership with NASA, in pursuit of the goal of developing a high-speed vehicle for point-to-point travel across Earth. NASA has been pursuing development of high-mach air travel itself, with the development of its Supersonic X-59 low-boon supersonic test plane built by Lockheed Martin, but this new partnership agreement with Virgin Galactic and its subsidiary The Spaceship Company specifically seeks to figure out a sustainable way to apply high-speed transportation technologies to civil and commercial aviation.

Virgin Galactic thinks it will be able to get a head start on this project specifically because of the work it has done to date on developing, engineering and flight-testing its existent vehicles, which include the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, and the SpaceShipTwo winged spacecraft that launches from the carrier to reach the edge of space. The design of the company’s system uses traditional runways for take-off and landing, while the rocket-propelled SpaceShipTwo skims the outer edge of Earth’s atmosphere at the boundary of space to provide its commercial tourist passengers with a trip that includes stunning views and a few minutes of weightlessness.

In fact, Virgin Galactic’s technology does seem like a good fit for point-to-point high-speed travel. Perhaps best popularized by SpaceX and one of their many ambitious plans for their forthcoming Starship, point-to-point envisions traveling between two places on Earth at very high speeds either extremely high up in the atmosphere (much higher than current commercial planes go) or even potentially through space. The advantages of doing this are that you can go much faster as the atmosphere thins and friction and air resistance lower. The International Space Station, for instance, performs a full orbit around Earth once every 90 minutes.

A trip from NYC to Shanghai using Starship would take just 40 minutes, SpaceX has said, rather than the 16 hours it takes today. Virgin Galactic and NASA aren’t yet near the stage where they’re talking about trip times, but for comparison’s sake, consider that SpaceShipTwo travels at a top speed of around 4,000 km/h (nearly 2,500 mph), while a Boeing 747 maxes out at about 988 km/h (just under 615 mph).

The new partnership between Virgin Galactic and NASA was formed under a Space Act Agreement, which is a type of agreement that NASA uses to work with organizations it deems able to help it fulfill its various goals, missions and program directives. It’s early yet to imagine what this will look like exactly, but Virgin Galactic says in a press release that it will be “seeking to develop a vehicle for the next-generation of safe and efficient high speed air travel, with a focus on customer experience and environmental responsibility,” and that it will be doing so in cooperation with its “industry partners.”

NASA confirms work on a Tom Cruise movie to be shot aboard the International Space Station

By Darrell Etherington

NASA is indeed working with actor Tom Cruise on a film to be shot in space – aboard the International Space Station (ISS) it turns out. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed the news, which was first reported last night, via a tweet today. The ISS setting is a new detail to the plan, which was first reported by Deadline, and which also named SpaceX as a potential partner on the film project, which is said to be in an early preparatory phase.

NASA has previously talked about how it would like to open the ISS to more commercial ventures, and offering it as a filming location is definitely one way to do that. Bridenstine notes that including scientific endeavours like the floating orbital platform in popular media serves as a way “to inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists” that can help the agency achieve its goals.

SpaceX will presumably take part as Cruise ride to the ISS (assuming the actor is actually going to be the one heading there to film on site, but I have a hard time imagining Cruise would pass that up). The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule which is set for a final demonstration mission later this month to establish its ability to carry humans to and from the ISS, with a crew launch of two NASA astronauts.

NASA and SpaceX have planned to make part of the Crew Dragon’s passenger capacity available to commercial entities: The spacecraft can carry up to seven passengers, but NASA will only ever book four of those seats, according to the agency’s plans. The idea is that commercial bookings can help the agency offset the cost of launches further still.

Paying for an actor (or two?) and a film set to take a trip to the ISS will definitely help with sharing the cost of gas for the ride. No word yet on when this will actually take place, or how set in stone the plans are, however. SpaceX has previously announced that it will be offering private tourist flights aboard Crew Dragon, with the current plan to start those either late next year, or in 2022.

Watch the first trailer for Netflix’s Space Force starring The Office’s Steve Carell

By Darrell Etherington

Netflix has released the first trailer for its series Space Force, which is a parodic take on the newest branch of the U.S. armed forces. The project was announced pretty shortly after the space-focused military branch was made official, so it’s actually pretty impressive to see a trailer for what looks like a pretty polished production in such a short time – even as the actual U.S. Space Force has only just begun graduating its first cadets.

The show arrives on May 29 (coincidentally just two days after NASA and SpaceX are set to mark a return to U.S. crewed spaceflight with their first Commercial Crew astronaut demonstration mission), and stars Steve Carell alongside John Malkovich, Diana Silvers, Tawny Newsome, Lisa Kudrow and Ben Schwartz. If you get a distinctly ‘Office’ vibe from this trailer, then there’s a good reason for that – a lot of the creative team worked on that Carell show, too, including Office U.S. creator Greg Daniels.

It’s tempting to characterize this as ‘The Office but with space army” based on this look, but that’s probably just the powerful association of Carell with the Micheal Scott character talking.

China launches next-gen crew capsule for demo flight via new Long March 5B rocket

By Darrell Etherington

China has launched a demonstration mission of its next-generation crew spacecraft, using the Long March 5B rocket. This is the first launch for that new rocket, an iteration of China’s Long March launcher that will also be used to take up the sections and components of the country’s forthcoming national orbital space station.

This launch flew the crew spacecraft without anyone on board, taking off from Wengchang in China, which is the country’s newest spacecraft launch site. The Long March 5B is a ten engine rocket, including four strapped on boosters that increase its lift capabilities, and represents the nation’s most powerful launch vehicle to date. It lacks a second stage, and is specifically designed for bringing big payloads to low Earth orbit – which is exactly what’s needed for assembling the space station China plans to establish there by 2022.

The crew capsule itself will spend a short time in low Earth orbit for its demonstration mission, which is a preparatory step on the way to certifying it for flight. Eventually, the spacecraft will replace the Shenzhou, which is the current vehicle that China uses to bring astronauts to space for rendezvous with orbital stations. It can carry up to six people at once, vs. three on the current model, and can eventually carry astronauts to the Moon.

This is a significant mission for China’s space program, and an interesting comparison point for the ongoing Commercial Crew missions by NASA, which is approaching a major milestone with the first demonstration launch of SpaceX’s Commercial Crew spacecraft with astronauts on board on May 27. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon can carry up to seven passengers, depending on configuration.

Tom Cruise reportedly talking to SpaceX about shooting a movie in space

By Darrell Etherington

Perennial action star Tom Cruise, who has a penchant for striving for ever bigger and more blustery stunts and set pieces, may be aiming for the crowning action movie achievement of them all: Shooting a movie in space. Deadline reports that Cruise is in early discussions with Elon Musk’s SpaceX about the possibility of filming a feature film in space, with NASA also involved in the early chats.

This isn’t a booked project, but rather early discussions, according to Deadline, but the talks are serious. They also fit perfectly with Cruise’s daring-do profile, since the actor frequently takes on his own stunts, including some of the more hair-raising epic scenes from the Mission Impossible series.

This movie would not be a Mission Impossible sequel, according to the report, but any film actually set in space probably doesn’t need the cache of a legacy film franchise to attract audiences.

No word on how this would actually work, but SpaceX is just about to certify their first human-rated spacecraft for service. Their Crew Dragon is readying for a launch on May 27, carrying NASA astronauts for the first time during a demonstration mission that will act as the final preparatory step before the spacecraft can be used for normal astronaut-ferrying operations to and from the International Space Station.

SpaceX and NASA specifically embarked on their public-private partnership to develop Crew Dragon with the plan that it would also then be made available to commercial partners for other contracts. The agency’s public-private partnership efforts with industry are intended to defray its costs long-term by opening up the market, and SpaceX is already working with another partner on booking private launches aboard Crew Dragon.

Musk’s company is also currently working on Starship, a fully reusable spacecraft that should have much more room on board for a film crew to occupy, once it’s ready to fly. That vehicle is still likely a few years out from human rating, though it was selected by NASA as one of the contract providers for its future human lander missions, which should begin in 2024 if all goes to the agency’s plan.

‘This is certainly different’: Astronauts on controlling the Dragon spacecraft via touchscreen

By Devin Coldewey

Building a brand new spacecraft means knowing when to innovate and when to stick to flight-proven methods, and for Crew Dragon, SpaceX decided to ditch the buttons and dials and go full touchscreen. The astronauts who will fly it later this month have had likewise to ditch years of training and muscle memory — but it’s not all bad, they say.

Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the two astronauts soon to launch to the International Space Station aboard a Dragon capsule, will be the first to actually fly the craft in space.

“It’s probably a dream of every test pilot school student to have the opportunity to fly on a brand-new spaceship, and I’m lucky enough to get that opportunity with my good friend here,” said Behnken in a press interview broadcast by NASA .

Of course they’re more than adequately prepared — not only have they spent countless hours in simulators, but they collaborated with SpaceX from the early days.

“It was on the order of at least 5 or 6 years ago that we went out to SpaceX and evaluated a bunch of different control mechanisms,” said Hurley. “They were looking at every which way of flying the vehicle, and ultimately they decided on a touchscreen interface.”

“Of course, you know, growing up as a pilot my whole career, having a certain way to control the vehicle, this is certainly different,” he continued. “But we went into it with a very open mind, I think, and worked with them to define the way you interface with it — the way your touches actually registered on the display, in order to be able to fly it cleanly and not make mistakes touching it, not potentially putting in a wrong input.”

Compare the photo at the top of the story with the following shot of the physical simulator where astronauts learn to pilot the Russian Soyuz capsule:

Not a lot of leg room in either one, to be honest.

And of course even modern aircraft are still a mess of physical controls, no doubt familiar to the pilot but inarguably dated in design.

Behnke pointed out that these spacecraft are made with a very specific purpose in mind: Going to and docking with the ISS. No one is going to Mars in one of these things, and that impacts how they’re designed and piloted.

“The flying task is very unique: To come close to the space station and fly in proximity, then slowly come into contact, is maybe a little bit different from what you would see for flying a space shuttle or an aircraft,” said Behnke, with characteristic understatement (the difference is night and day). “When we evaluated the touchscreen interface we really did focus on the task at hand and trying to get good performance for that specific task.”

A prototype Crew Dragon has already launched to the ISS and returned, having been piloted both autonomously and remotely.

“It was challenging for us and for them at first to work through those different design issues, but we got to a point where the vehicle, from the manual flying standpoint with the touchscreen, flies very well,” said Hurley.

“The difference is you’ve got to be very deliberate when you’re putting in input, relative to what you would do with a stick,” he continued. “Because you know, when you’re flying an airplane for example, if I push the stick forward it’s going to go down. I actually have to make a concerted effort to do that with the touchscreen, if that makes sense.”

“I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that the right answer for all flying is not to switch to a touchscreen, necessarily,” said Behnke. “But for the task that we have and to keep ourselves safe flying close to the ISS, the touchscreen is gonna provide us that capability just fine.”

Hurley pointed out that one major advantage is that the controls and readouts are all in the same place: “You’re seeing the docking target, for example, right in the same place you’re looking to fly the vehicle. So it is a little bit different way of doing it, but the design in general has worked out very well.”

There’s only so much one can learn in a simulator, though, and this first crewed flight is still very much a test, the feedback from which will inform the next iteration of the capsule. It’s easier, after all, to push a software update than to rewire the pots of 20 different knobs in a system that goes back decades.

“We specifically, as part of this test flight, designed in some time in the preflight phase, as well as closer to space station, so we can test out actual manual flying capability of the vehicle,” Hurley explained. “Just to see and verify that it handles the way we expect it to, and the way the simulator shows it to fly. It’s a prudent part of our flight test just like anything else, in case the eventuality happened that a future crew needed to take over manually and fly the spacecraft. So we’re just doing our part, to kinda test out all the different capabilities of the Crew Dragon.”

We are sure to hear more about the version of Crew Dragon that will be flying later this month if everything goes according to plan. In the meantime, I have asked both SpaceX and NASA for more information on the control scheme and its development.

Max Q: Countdown to a return to US astronaut launches

By Darrell Etherington

Last week was a fairly busy week in space news, but the dominating story was preparation for the first-ever Commercial Crew launch that will actually carry human astronauts to space. This is, in many ways, the culmination of years of work and billions of dollars spent by partners NASA and SpaceX on their part of the Commercial Crew Program.

On May 27, SpaceX will launch two NASA astronauts on a demonstration mission to the International Space Station, and this week saw a flurry of activity to get ready for that milestone, including a full day of press briefings by both the agency and SpaceX.

Here’s how SpaceX’s first astronaut launch will go

This is what will happen during that historic first SpaceX astronaut launch, which has been expanded to include not just a quick trip up and back to the ISS, but also a small tour of duty for Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley as temporary space station staff. It could last anywhere from one to more than three months, depending on NASA’s needs.

NASA awarded human lander contracts

NASA announced who it would be contracting to develop and build human landers for its Artemis program, which will return humans to the surface of the Moon. They actually picked three different companies, including SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics, each of which will be taking very different approaches to building human-rated landers that can transport astronauts from lunar orbit to the Moon’s surface.

Blue Origin’s winning lander bid in action

Here’s a concept animation of what Blue Origin’s winning lander will look like in practice, complete with transfer and ascent vehicles built by top-tier aerospace industry partners Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. Bezos’ space company went with an all-star lineup, which has to have reassured the agency about its chances of success.

SpaceX’s Starship passes a key development test

SpaceX’s winning bid was actually for Starship, the fully reusable multi-purpose spacecraft that it’s in the process of developing and testing. So far, the full-scale starship prototypes have not held up well to high-pressure fuel tank testing, but the latest version did ace that test, and is now getting ready for engine fire and low-altitude flight tests. There’s still a lot of work before it gets to the Moon, but now NASA is counting on SpaceX making that happen.

NASA taps small satellite maker for solar sail test

NASA wants to develop and certify solar sail technology for use in deep space missions that don’t necessarily involve transporting humans, since it’s a very cost-effective way to propel small satellites over long distances (mainly because you don’t need to take any fuel with you). The agency has now signed up NanoAvionics to build the spacecraft that will test its solar sail prototype in space.

SpaceX is using flip-up sunshades to help out Earth astronomers

SpaceX has a new, hardware-based potential solution to the phenomenon where its Starlink satellites appear very visibly in the night sky, potentially blocking out Earth-based observation of stars and other stellar bodies. The company has designed a system of hardware shades that flip out and block the sun, preventing it from reflecting off the antennas on the satellite that broadcast internet signals back to Earth. It’ll test these soon and then they could become a permanent part of Starlink’s design.

LIDAR from space could make for much better maps

Devin check in on a project at MIT that is looking to supplement road maps with lidar in order to improve even the best, machine-learning based inferred maps of roadways and transit paths. Extra Crunch subscription required.

SpaceX and NASA break down what their historic first astronaut mission will look like

By Darrell Etherington

NASA and SpaceX’s most defining moment of our current space era is coming up at the end of this month, with its Demo-2 mission on May 27. The mission will be the first-ever launch for SpaceX with humans on board, and for NASA, it’ll mark the first return to U.S.-based astronaut launches since the Shuttle program flew its last flight in 2011. On Friday, representatives from both SpaceX and NASA briefed the media on the mission and the specifics of what it will involve when astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley board the Crew Dragon for its debut crewed performance.

The first thing to note about this mission is that it’s still technically a test, as noted in the “demo” name. This is the capstone demonstration in a series of such missions that will fully human-rate the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 for operational use. As noted during today’s press briefings, a big chunk of the actual human rating process occurs during this final mission — in fact, the majority of the actual final human rating happens on this flight, despite the many years of preparation and live tests to date, including the Demo-1 mission, which was essentially a full round-trip flight, just without any astronauts on board.

Even though it’s technically a demonstration, the stakes couldn’t be higher — SpaceX has a lot to prove here, and it bears the utmost responsibility in terms of keeping Behnken and Hurley safe for the duration of the mission. Which, it turns out, is actually going to be longer than originally planned: NASA says the mission will last anywhere between 30 days and 119 days, depending on a few different factors, the most significant of which being how quickly the agency ends up being able to launch the first operational Commercial Crew mission, Crew-1, which will carry four astronauts, including two from NASA and one from Japan’s space agency. The Crew Dragon used on this Demo mission could technically remain on orbit for over 200 days, but the purpose of this mission was not originally intended to be staffing the International Space Station, though that’s now part of the plan as a sort of stretch goal.

The teams also revealed today that the Crew Dragon used for Demo-1 will carry not only the astronauts, but also some cargo for the ISS. SpaceX also flies dedicated ISS resupply missions using its non-crew Dragon capsule, but this Crew Dragon will bring just a few additional supplies and scientific material along for the ride.

In terms of timeline, the mission begins with a launch and ascent, followed by the second-stage separation (with Crew Dragon attached). The first-stage booster performs a flip and “boostback burn,” which sets it on its path to return to Earth for a powered landing. Meanwhile Dragon separates from the second stage in space, and heads on to the ISS, which it’ll reach in anywhere from between two and 48 hours after liftoff depending on the position of the space station at the time of launch.


The exact launch time could vary greatly depending on weather, and there are a number of launch opportunities in late May through June in case there’s a need to scrub. Weather during this time in Florida can be a bit hard to accurately predict, as noted by SpaceX’s head of commercial crew, and the conditions necessary to trigger a scrub are less severe than they would be for a mission where there aren’t any humans on board, out of an abundance of caution.

Once the Crew Dragon is in space on its way to the ISS, however, the capsule will rendezvous with the station through a series of phased burns and then an approach, followed by an automated docking process once it reaches close proximity to the station. Crew Dragon has a fully automated docking process, and bypasses entirely even the need for astronauts on board the ISS to capture the spacecraft using the robotic Canadarm, which has been required for the older Dragon capsules and other astronaut-bearing Soyuz craft.

Once docked, Crew Dragon will pressurize and the hatch will open so the astronauts can board and carry on their mission with their colleagues on the station. On board the ISS, Benhken and Hurley will perform duties including conducting experiments and running maintenance on the orbital research platform, before they eventually depart by climbing back into Crew Dragon, undocking, jettisoning the “trunk” or cargo compartment of the capsule, performing a deorbit burn to get into reentry position and then deploying parachutes once in the Earth’s atmosphere to slow their final descent into the Atlantic Ocean. From departure to splashdown should take approximately 24 hours.

Other logistics details shared by the teams performing the mission include that the crew will enter a mandatory quarantine beginning on May 16 and lasting until the mission date, and that mission control crew who need to be on site for the launch will be observing a six-foot distancing rule because of COVID-19, and control stations have been arranged to make this possible.

The mission itself doesn’t sound all that complex when broken down step-by-step, but it represents the culmination of years of hard work on both SpaceX and NASA’s part. The U.S. has been without a homegrown ride to the ISS since 2011, and this is the closest yet we’ve gotten to a return to an era of regular human spaceflight from American soil, so it’s definitely going to be something you’ll want to watch live when the launch happens on May 27.

Tesla shares fall on Elon Musk ‘stock price too high’ tweet

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted Friday that the company’s stock price was “too high” in his opinion, immediately sending shares into a free fall and in possible violation of an agreement reached with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission last year.

Tesla shares fell nearly 12% in the half hour following his stock price tweets — just one of many sent out in rapid fire that covered everything from demands to “give people back their freedom” and lines from the U.S. National Anthem to quotes from poet Dylan Thomas and a claim that he will sell all of his possessions.

Tesla shares rebounded later in the day to close at $701.32 a share, a 7.17% decline from the opening.

The SEC declined to comment on whether this was a violation of a settlement agreement. Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. Musk did tell The Wall Street Journal in an email that he was not joking and that his tweets were not vetted in advance, a condition in the prior agreement reached with the SEC.

The meltdown on Twitter occurred as SpaceX — Musk’s other company — participated in a live press conference on one of its most important missions ever.

Tesla stock price is too high imo

Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 1, 2020

Musk’s tweet comes almost exactly a year after he reached a settlement agreement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that gave the CEO freedom to use Twitter — within certain limitations — without fear of being held in contempt for violating an earlier court order.

Under that agreement, Musk can tweet as he wishes except when it’s about certain events or financial milestones. In those cases, Musk must seek pre-approval from a securities lawyer, according to the agreement filed in April 2019 with Manhattan federal court.

Musk is supposed to seek pre-approval if his tweets include events regarding the company’s securities, including his acquisition or disposition of shares, nonpublic legal or regulatory findings or decisions.

He’s also supposed to get pre-approval on any tweets about the company’s financial condition or guidance, potential or proposed mergers, acquisitions or joint ventures, sales or delivery numbers, new or proposed business lines or any event requiring the filing of a Form 8-K, such as a change in control or a change in the company’s directors.

His scuffle with the SEC stretches back to Musk’s now infamous August 7, 2018 tweet that had “funding secured” for a private takeover of the company at $420 per share. The SEC filed a complaint in alleging that Musk had committed securities fraud.

Musk and Tesla settled with the SEC in 2018 without admitting wrongdoing. Tesla agreed to pay a $20 million fine; Musk had to agree to step down as Tesla chairman for a period of at least three years; the company had to appoint two independent directors to the board; and Tesla was also told to put in place a way to monitor Musk’s statements to the public about the company, including via Twitter.

But the problems between the CEO and federal agency re-ignited after Musk sent a tweet on February 19, 2019 that Tesla would produce “around” 500,000 cars this year, correcting himself hours later to clarify that he meant the company would be producing at an annualized rate of 500,000 vehicles by year end.

Watch how SpaceX’s first human spacecraft performed during its key in-flight escape test

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX is getting ready to launch its first-ever spacecraft with humans on board, the Commercial Crew Demo-2 mission (DM-2) that will take off from Florida on May 27. There are still a couple of things remaining to finish up prior to flight, including a final parachute system test that’s happening later today. The company also posted a video recap of its most recent uncrewed Crew Dragon flight, the in-flight escape demonstration that it flew on January 19.

The video provides a look at the processes involved in the test, including a look at mission control, with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley looking on during the flight. You can see the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch with the Crew Dragon attached, as well as watch it explode in a ball of fire (as intended) during the early emergency separation. Then, watch as the capsule itself descends safety back to the ocean where it’s recovered by a SpaceX vessel.

This is a demonstration of a key system that’s designed as a safety measure, to be used only in the unlikely event of a major malfunction of the rocket during the takeoff phase, but after the spacecraft has left the ground. The system works by quickly and automatically propelling the astronaut-carrying Crew Capsule away from the booster and second stage at a very high speed, to ensure the people aboard are at a safe distance in case of any explosions.

Along with a ground escape system for quickly vacating the capsule and launch area before takeoff, there are a number of safety measures required by NASA for any human spaceflight from U.S. soil with astronauts on board. SpaceX has so far demonstrated that these systems are ready to a degree that has satisfied the agency, and now has only a number of pre-flight checks and run-throughs to get through before the historic May 27 mission.

SpaceX’s latest Starship prototype passes a key test that puts it on track for a first flight

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has been developing its next-generation Starship rocket for some time now, but the large-scale prototypes it’s building in Boca Chica, Texas, have thus far always encountered a fatal error during an important part of testing called “cryo” – or filling the fuel tank to full pressure in conditions that simulate the vacuum of space. The latest prototype, called ‘SN4’ for ‘serial number 4,’ has finally passed this test however, and that clears the way for an engine fire test followed by a short flight.

SpaceX’s SN4 prototype resembles what its final rocket will look like, unlike the Starhopper sub-scale demonstrator that the company originally flew just to show off what its new Raptor engine could accomplish. The SN4, like the Starhopper, is equipped with a single Raptor engine, which will make it possible for the vehicle to make short flights for testing purposes. The next version, SN5, will have three raptor engines according to SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk, which is still less than the six that the full, functional version of Starship is intended to have, but that will allow it to perform longer test flights in preparation for an orbital launch demonstration.

Testing and developing a new rocket and launch system is always going to have hiccups, since all the simulation in the world can’t replicate real-world use conditions and physics. But Starship’s prior failures at the cry testing phase were beginning to look like they could be a more fundamental problem – it’s what laid low SN1 through SN3, after all.

SpaceX will now perform a static test fire of the Raptor engine installed on the prototype, which could happen as soon as sometime later this week, and then the development craft will look to do a flight of around 150 meters (around 500 feet), which is the same height as the Starhopper performed. That’s nowhere near as high as it’ll need to go to fly orbital missions, of course, but it’s a test that will show how a full-scale vehicle performs at low-altitude, which is key info that SpaceX needs before developing its high-altitude and orbital prototypes.

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