This week, Max Q again puts the focus on the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and the resulting halo effects that’s having on the international space industry. Neither private companies, like OneWeb, nor national space programs have been spared from ongoing shockwaves from the conflict. Perhaps most significantly for the space sector, the Russian invasion is undoing decades of collaboration, with no indication that things are going to turn around any time soon.
Russia is uttering threats and taking action in response to mounting global sanctions, and last month we talked about Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin issuing vague and ominous warnings about operation of the ISS without Russian participation. This week, Rogozin came up with another memorable phrase while ending Russian supply of rocket engines to companies in the States.
“Let them fly on something else, their broomsticks, I don’t know what,” Rogozin said during a state media broadcast.
It may come as a surprise to more casual space fans that Russian engines actually do still power American rockets — including ULA’s Atlas V, and Northrop Grumman’s Antares. But ULA obviously saw this eventuality coming at some point, and contracted Blue Origin to supply rocket engines for its next-generation Vulcan launch vehicle. Notably, the market for launch and engines has so radically transformed that the withholding of Russian space assets is not quite the blow that it might’ve been even a decade ago — though BryceTech analyst Phil Smith told SpaceNews it does “[put] some customers in a lurch.”
The fallout goes further. French space company Arianespace said it would suspend Soyuz rocket launches in accordance with “the sanctions decided by the international community.” Meanwhile, OneWeb, a British manufacturer and operator of satellites, said it would no longer use the Soyuz after it refused to capitulate to Russian demands that it guarantee its satellites would not be used for military purposes.
One reason the U.S. and NASA aren’t nearly as reliant on Russian rockets and rocket tech is the Commercial Crew program, which saw NASA seek two new sources for ferrying astronauts to and from the ISS. SpaceX successfully completed NASA’s rigorous test program for human flight and is now offering said service (while other contract winner Boeing is in progress, but with a few bumps in the road).
Last week NASA announced that it has officially re-upped its Commercial Crew contract with SpaceX, adding to its existing deal three more missions worth a combined total of $900 million.
In policy news, NASA will receive $24 billion in funding for the 2022 fiscal year, after Congress passed a sweeping $1.5 trillion spending bill. (Check out this closer look into the funding from the The Planetary Society.) Most notably, that includes $1.19 billion for the agency’s Human Landing System (HLS) program, which aims to land astronauts on the moon for the first time since the Apollo era. HLS made lots of headlines earlier this year, after NASA awarded to SpaceX a single contract to develop the lander. The competitors, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and defense contractor Dynetics, filed with a government watchdog a complaint over the sole award; after that was rejected, Blue even went as far as to sue NASA in federal court.
But there may be hope yet for these competitors — legislators go out of their way to require NASA to lay out a plan of how it will “ensure safety, redundancy, sustainability, and competition” (emphasis mine) in the program.
Another postmortem from Astra
Astra Space released a preliminary postmortem on the company’s February rocket launch that resulted in a complete loss of payload. It was Astra’s first mission from Cape Canaveral, Florida (thus far, all launches have been conducted from the company’s spaceport in Kodiak, Alaska), and the first time its rocket was carrying a customer payload. Things didn’t go as planned.
The botched launch was due to two things, the company said in its preliminary findings: an issue with the fairing separation mechanisms, which led to an off-nominal stage separation, and a software issue with the upper-stage engine, according to Astra’s senior director of mission management and assurance, Andrew Griggs. The company has already introduced new controls to ensure these errors don’t happen again, he said. “Through constant iteration and extensive testing, we have been able to demonstrate that the changes eliminate the failure mode we saw on LV0008, while making the software suite much more robust.”
“With the root causes identified and corrective measures in place, we’re preparing to return to the launch pad with LV0009 soon — stay tuned!” he added.
In other news…
- China is opening its space station to commercial customers, a government official said. The country is aiming to complete the construction of the Tiangong space station this year.
- Hermeus, a startup developing hypersonic aircraft that can fly at Mach 5 speeds, raised a $100 million Series B led by Sam Altman, and with participation by Founders Fund and In-Q-Tel. According to its website, Hermeus aims to develop a passenger aircraft by 2029.
- Satellogic, a startup-turned-public company via SPAC, has partnered with Astraea to provide observational data to the Ukrainian government and its allies.
- SatixFy is going to go public via a merger with blank-check firm Endurance Acquisition Corp. The deal will give the Israeli satellite communications equipment company a value of $813 million.
- Slingshot Aerospace raised $25 million in a part-two Series A led by Draper Associates and ATX Venture Partners. The startup aims to create a real-time digital landscape of space and use situational awareness to decrease the chance of in-orbit collisions and other risks.
- SpaceX launched another batch of Starlink satellites on Wednesday, adding 48 broadband spacecraft to its already vast constellation.
- Tomorrow.io has called off its merger with special purpose acquisition company Pine Technology Acquisition Corp. Tomorrow CEO Shimon Elkabetz said, “it became apparent through both our strategic initiatives and overall market conditions, that the best choice for the company and its expansive growth is to remain private for now.” Tomorrow, a weather intelligence platform, was due to net up to $450 million in gross proceeds and a $1.2 billion valuation.
This week’s Max Q was brought to you by me, Aria Alamalhodaei. I’m back at the helm after an extended break. Thoughts, comments and tips can be sent to [email protected] You can also catch me on Twitter at @breadfrom. See you next week.