Rocket Report: SpaceX plans a Falcon 9 flurry, Bill Gates buys into rockets

Enlarge / Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine hot-fire tests take place at the company’s facility in West Texas.

Welcome to Edition 4.26 of the Rocket Report! This will be the final edition of 2021 due to a forthcoming (and much-needed) holiday break. As I write this, NASA and the European Space Agency are debating whether to press ahead with a launch attempt of the James Webb Space Telescope on December 24 or a few days later. Whenever the $10 billion telescope flies, my single Christmas wish is for a safe launch and deployment sequence. See you in 2022.

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

Blue Origin launches six people for the first time. On Saturday, the company’s New Shepard capsule sent six people on a suborbital trip for the first time, increasing the number of passengers from four. Laura Shepard Churchley, daughter of Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, and former NFL football player Michael Strahan were invited guests along with four paying customers.

A new record for people in space … The four customers bought their tickets for undisclosed amounts, Spaceflight Now reports. Blue Origin does not discuss pricing, and so far, no passengers have volunteered any details. The 19th New Shepard mission—NS-19—was Blue Origin’s third flight with passengers on board. When the six passengers were above 100 km, they briefly set a record for the most people in space, 19, including the inhabitants of the International Space Station and Chinese Tiangong station.

Chinese solid rocket fails during launch. A Kuaizhou-1A solid rocket failed after liftoff from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert late Tuesday. The booster was carrying a pair of commercial satellites to test navigation enhancement for autonomous driving. Chinese state media confirmed the launch failure hours later, tersely stating that the launch had failed and the specific reasons are being further analyzed and investigated, SpaceNews reports.

Ambitious plans now on hold … The failure is a blow to commercial launch service provider ExPace, a subsidiary of giant state-owned missile and defense contractor China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, or CASIC. ExPace and CASIC had stated plans last month for seven launches in the following three months for a variety of customers. The Kuaizhou-1A will likely be grounded until an investigation is concluded and the causes isolated and addressed. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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Europe seeks to make Vega-C rocket more competitive. The European Space Agency has awarded 51 million euros over 2.5 years to the prime contractor for the Vega-C rocket, Italy-based Avio. Under the agreement, ESA said, Avio will work with industrial partners to put into action a series of improvements intended to make the rocket more competitive with other small launchers for commercial satellites.

A crowded field of competitors … The European Space Agency would like to decrease the rocket’s cost by 10 percent. This will be accomplished by cutting manufacturing costs for mechanical subsystems and components as well as optimizing mission preparation and the launch campaign duration. Such steps are helpful as Relativity’s Terran 1, Firefly’s Alpha, and ABL Space’s RS1 vehicle will compete for small-satellite launches in the one-ton class. All of these vehicles are expected to cost significantly less than Vega. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Bill Gates backs a reusable launch company. Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the multibillion-dollar clean-tech initiative created by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, is leading a $65 million funding round to back Kent, Washington-based Stoke Space’s effort to create a new breed of fully reusable rockets, GeekWire reports. “There is no better way to see the Earth and the severity of its climate challenges than looking at the entire globe from space,” said Carmichael Roberts, co-leader of Breakthrough Energy Ventures’ investment committee.

Going for full reuse, from the get-go … This is something of a surprise from Gates, who previously has questioned the value of rocket ventures by Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and other tech luminaries. With its very first rocket, Stoke Space seeks to develop a fully reusable second stage that can be brought back to Earth without having to rely on exotic shielding. The idea is similar to what Elon Musk’s SpaceX plans to do with its massive Starship launch system, which is also designed for full reusability. But Stoke Space is shooting for a smaller rocket that’s more appropriately scaled for the small satellites that have revolutionized the space industry. (submitted by Rendgrish, Ken the Bin, and Tfargo04)

Do you ever wonder about SPAC valuations? There has been a lot of focus this year on space companies using the “Special Purpose Acquisition Company” route to bypass a traditional initial public offering of stock. This is because a lot of companies, from Astra to Rocket Lab, have used the SPAC process to quickly raise hundreds of millions of dollars to turbocharge their development programs. Rockets are a cash-intensive business, and this money can be critical to survival and ultimate success.

Launch is worth how much?!? … But some industry observers have wondered how these companies can be valued at hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. Thanks to space economist Pierre Lionnet, we now have some insight. He dug into a Virgin Orbit investor deck and found that it relies on an extremely rosy $25 billion market projection for “small-satellite launch” by 2030. In a lengthy Twitter thread, Lionnet dissects this estimate, which seems, well, fairly dubious. Worth reading.

Rocket Lab acquires solar cell company. Rocket Lab will acquire SolAero Technologies for $80 million, and the deal is expected to close in the first quarter of 2022, the Albuquerque Journal reports. Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said SolAero’s expertise in solar technology will make it a good fit for the company’s plan to develop a satellite business. SolAero claims to be one of just two companies manufacturing space-grade solar cells in the United States, the company said.

Bringing sunshine to space. … “Honestly, we feel privileged to be able to bring the collective capabilities of SolAero’s intellectual property and 425 employees into the Rocket Lab family,” Beck said. Meanwhile, SolAero president and CEO Brad Clevenger told the Journal that he expects the deal to provide the Albuquerque manufacturer with the resources needed to scale up its production capacity and meet the demands of the growing space industry. (submitted by pavon and Ken the Bin)

Payloads selected for debut Isar launch. Isar Aerospace, which claims to be the most “well-funded” private European launch provider focused on small and medium satellites, has announced the payloads for its debut flight. Five institutions from Germany, Norway, and Slovenia, with a total of seven small satellites, will launch on the first test flight of Isar’s “Spectrum” rocket. Germany-based Isar Aerospace said this debut flight will take place at the “end of 2022,” which—let’s be honest—almost certainly means 2023.

Now time to deliver the goods … All the same, Isar is among the forefront of companies attempting to bring a more vibrant commercial space industry to Europe, and it’s worth watching. As part of a program run by the European and German space agencies, Isar Aerospace won the first round of the German microlauncher competition in April, for which it received 11 million euros to launch institutional payloads on Spectrum’s first two flights. Now the company has to deliver.