Richard Branson says he 'can't wait' to rocket to space Sunday

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NBC News 06 July, 2021 - 07:56am 25 views

When is Richard Branson going to space?

Billionaire Richard Branson will be flying to the edge of space on July 11 on board the 'Unity' rocket ship his company, Virgin Galactic, has been developing for around 20 years. Moneycontrol.comRichard Branson, Virgin Galactic prepare for July 11 spaceflight: What we know about the mission

Who is going into space with Jeff Bezos?

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson is aiming to beat fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos into space by nine days. Branson's company announced Thursday evening that its next test flight will be July 11 and that its founder will be among the six people on board. Associated PressRichard Branson announces trip to space, ahead of Jeff Bezos

Who is sirisha bandla?

Sirisha Bandla who is part of six space travellers aboard 'VSS Unity' of Virgin Galactic will become the second India-born woman to fly into space after Kalpana Chawla. According to a report by the news agency, ANI Sirisha Bandla was born in Andhra Pradesh's Guntur district was brought up in Houston. LivemintSirisha Bandla: India-born woman who is part of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic flight

The next 31 days arguably could rank as the most crucial month so far in the history of a space company that’s headquartered in Kent, Wash., but also has employees in locales ranging from Florida and Washington, D.C., to Alabama, Texas and California.

The red-letter date is July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, when Bezos and three crewmates are scheduled to take the first crewed flight aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship in West Texas.

But there are a couple of other dates that loom large on Blue Origin’s timeline: The big one is Aug. 4, the Government Accountability Office’s deadline for deciding whether Blue Origin and its space industry partners should be reconsidered for a lunar lander contract from NASA’s Artemis moon exploration program.

In April, the Blue Origin-led “National Team” consortium — which also includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper — lost out to SpaceX in a multibillion-dollar competition to work on the first crewed lunar landing, currently planned in 2024. After that loss, the National Team and a third finalist, Alabama-based Dynetics, filed protests claiming that their bids didn’t get fair consideration.

One of the issues in the dispute has to do with NASA’s contacts with SpaceX while the bids were being considered. In its source selection statement, NASA said it negotiated with SpaceX to fit the lowest bid to the agency’s budget projections, but didn’t contact the other two bidders about their less highly rated proposals. Blue Origin told the GAO it should have been given a chance to revise its bid.

Blue Origin’s track record in such protests has been mixed: In 2013, it lost out to SpaceX in a dispute over access to Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. In 2019, Blue Origin won the GAO’s backing in a protest against the Air Force’s plan for awarding national security launch contracts — but ultimately lost out to SpaceX and United Launch Alliance anyway.

Laura Seward Forczyk, a space industry consultant at Atlanta-based Astralytical, doesn’t think the GAO is going to upset NASA’s award to SpaceX this time around. “I don’t see the GAO awarding in favor of Blue Origin and Dynetics,” she said. “I see that going nowhere.”

On a different front, members of Congress — including Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. — are getting into the act. Cantwell spearheaded an effort to allocate more than $10 billion over the next five years for NASA’s human landing systems. That would be enough to fund SpaceX’s nearly $3 billion contract and the National Team’s $6 billion bid, plus NASA’s overhead.

During April’s Senate confirmation hearing for NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Cantwell stressed the importance of having more than one commercial provider lined up for lunar landings — and pointed to the precedent set for transportation services to the International Space Station.

Having two providers available for cargo resupply helped NASA weather setbacks in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and splitting the contracts for crewed trips to the space station between SpaceX and Boeing also turned out to be a prudent bet.

“NASA has a big tradition of ensuring resiliency and commercial programs by using multiple competitors and maintaining what’s called dissimilar redundancy,” Cantwell told Nelson. “So I want to know that you will commit to rapidly providing Congress with a plan for assuring that kind of resiliency out of the human lander program.”

Nelson agreed to the commitment. “Competition is always good,” he said.

The proposed funding boost is currently written into Senate-approved legislation, but it’s facing tougher sledding in the House, where Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., is a vocal critic. And even if the money is authorized, it would still have to be appropriated in separate legislation. That won’t get done before the GAO rules.

In the meantime, NASA is launching another program aimed at procuring commercial lunar landing services that would follow up on the first Artemis landing. The plan for the initial solicitation, known as NextSTEP-2 Appendix N, was released last week. It calls for awarding up to $45 million per team for designing landing systems suitable for sustained lunar operations in the mid- to late 2020s. If NASA accepts optional risk reduction proposals for those future systems, a team’s total support could be raised to as high as $100 million.

Proposals for Appendix N are due on Aug. 2, two days before the GAO’s deadline.

Appendix N is just a preliminary step toward what’s expected to be a bigger Lunar Exploration Transportation Services program, or LETS. “The LETS solicitation is tentatively planned for release in 2022 and will ultimately establish a routine cadence of human transportation to and from the moon’s surface,” NASA spokeswoman Monica Witt explained in an email.

Witt emphasized that Appendix N and LETS are distinct from the contract that SpaceX won for the first landing, which is known in NASA-speak as Option A under Appendix H. “Option A does not provide for routine/recurring moon landing services, which is the ultimate goal for Artemis,” she wrote.

NASA isn’t tipping its hand as to how it would respond to GAO’s ruling on the bid protest, or to congressional action that would provide more money for a second lunar lander. But so far, the signals suggest that NASA is primed to start a new selection process for LETS rather than revisiting Option A.

“I feel like that ship has sailed,” Forczyk said.

It’s not clear how much Congress will end up doing to speed up the process. The Senate legislation gives NASA a 60-day deadline to pick a second team to develop a lunar landing system, but as deliberations continue, space officials are likely to plead their case for a longer-term LETS.

Blue Origin and its industry partners, meanwhile, are likely to plead their case for receiving support from NASA more quickly, in part to keep their team together and on track.

By some accounts, 800 workers spread across the National Team were focusing on the Human Landing System project. After losing out on the NASA contract, some of those engineers are said to have been reassigned to other projects they may not be as well suited for. One engineer tweeted the news that he was leaving Lockheed Martin’s lunar lander team to join SpaceX.

Even though NASA and SpaceX have suspended work on the lunar lander contract due to the bid protest, SpaceX is continuing to work on its Starship launch system, which is due for its first orbital test this summer and would be adapted for moon trips. (We’ve reached out to SpaceX and will update this report with any response.)

A Blue Origin spokesperson said that the National Team stands ready to move forward and “remains committed to our collective pursuit to be NASA’s partner for returning astronauts to the moon.”

Lunar missions are high on Jeff Bezos’ agenda for Blue Origin. “What I really hope is that we stick with going back to the moon, this time to stay, because that is actually the fastest way to get to Mars,” he said in 2019.

But the moon isn’t the only challenge facing Bezos and Blue Origin. There have been persistent questions about delays in delivering Blue Origin’s next-generation BE-4 rocket engine and its orbital-class New Glenn rocket.

Even the New Shepard suborbital launch program, which is due to grab the spotlight this month thanks to Bezos’ space trip, has been somewhat overshadowed by Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson’s decision to take his own suborbital space trip a week earlier.

In the past, Bezos has played up Blue Origin’s deliberativeness. The company’s mascot is a slow-and-steady tortoise, and its motto is “Gradatim Ferociter” (Latin for “Step by step, ferociously”). But Forczyk said Blue Origin needs to take bigger steps.

“For the longest time, they were talking about how they didn’t want to overpromise and underdeliver,” she said. “That’s exactly what they’re doing now.”

According to tech journalist Brad Stone’s recent book about Bezos and his ventures, “Amazon Unbound,” the billionaire’s frustration with Blue Origin’s slow pace was a factor behind the company’s managerial overhaul in 2016-2017. Now there are similar rumblings — and with Bezos unbound from his CEO duties at Amazon, many expect him to take a far more active role at Blue Origin.

Even SpaceX founder Elon Musk, Bezos’ archrival in the billionaire space race, agrees with that prescription. “I think he needs to run BO full time for it to be successful,” he told The Washington Post back in April. “Frankly, I hope he does.”

Considering everything that’s coming up in the next month and beyond, going into space may be the least of Bezos’ challenges.

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The Future of Space Exploration Depends on the Private Sector

National Review 06 July, 2021 - 10:56am

Jeff Bezos is not engaging in such risky behavior simply because he’s an adrenaline junky. No, he’s launching himself into orbit because his Blue Origins is in a titanic struggle with Elon Musk’s SpaceX — and Bezos’s firm is losing.

Whatever happens, the American people will benefit from the competition that is shaping up between America’s space entrepreneurs. This has always been how innovation occurs: through the dynamic, often cutthroat competition between actors in the private sector. While money is their ultimate prize, fame and fortune are also alluring temptations to make men like Musk and Bezos risk much of their wealth to change the world.

The private space race among these entrepreneurs is part of a far more important marathon between Red China and the United States. Whichever nation wins the new space race will determine the future of the earth below.

Consider this: Since winning its initial contracts to launch sensitive U.S. military satellites into orbit, SpaceX has lowered the cost of military satellite launches on taxpayers by “over a million dollars less” than what bigger defense contractors can do. Elon Musk is convinced that he can bring these costs down even more, thanks to his reusable Falcon 9 rocket.

The competition between the private space start-ups is fierce — just as the competition between Edison and Westinghouse was — but the upshot is ultimately greater innovation and lower costs for you and me. In fact, Elon Musk insists that if NASA gives SpaceX the contract for building the Human Landing System for the Artemis mission, NASA would return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024 — four years before NASA believes it will do so. (Incidentally, 2024 is also when China anticipates having a functional base on the moon’s southern pole.)

Whereas China has an all-of-society approach to its space race with the United States, Washington has yet to fully galvanize the country in the way that John F. Kennedy rallied America to wage — and win — the space race in the Cold War. America’s private sector, therefore, is the silver bullet against China’s quest for total space dominance. If left unrestricted by meddlesome Washington bureaucrats, these companies will ensure that the United States retains its overall competitive advantage over China — and all other challengers, for that matter.

Indeed, the next four years could prove decisive in who will be victorious.

Enter the newly minted NASA director, Bill Nelson, whose station at the agency has effectively poured cold water on the private sector’s ambitious space plans. “Space is not going to be the Wild West for billionaires or anyone else looking to blast off,” Nelson admonished an inquiring reporter.

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America’s actions during its western expansion created a dynamic and advanced nation that was well-positioned to dominate the world for the next century. Should we not attempt to emulate this in order to remain dominant in the next century?

More important, this is precisely how China treats space: as a new Wild West . . . but one in which Beijing’s forces will dominate. China takes a leap-without-looking approach to space development — everything that can be done to further its grand ambition of becoming the world’s most dominant power by 2049 will be done. Meanwhile, the Biden administration wants to prevent America’s greatest strength, the free market, from helping to beat its foremost geopolitical competitor.

Nelson’s comments are fundamentally at odds with America’s spirit and animating principles. Whatever one’s opinion about Bezos or Musk, the fact is that their private space companies are inspiring greater innovation today in the space sector after years of its being left in the sclerotic hands of the U.S. government.

Sensing that the federal government’s dominance of U.S. space policy is waning, the Biden administration would rather cede the strategic high ground of space to China than let wildcatting innovators do the hard work. Today, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and NASA are contriving new ways for strangling the budding private space sector, just as it is taking flight.

Risk aversion is not how one innovates. Risk is what led Americans to the moon just 66 years after the Wright brothers flew their first airplane. A willingness for risk doesn’t exist today in the federal government — which is why the feds shouldn’t be running space policy.

The U.S. government should be partnering with the new space start-ups, not shunning them. The FAA should be automatically approving SpaceX launches, not stymying them. The federal government will not win space any more than it could win the West or build the locomotive. It takes strong-willed, brilliant individuals of a rare caliber to do that. All government can do is to give the resources and support to private-sector innovators and let them make history for us.

The next decade will decide who wins space. Let it be America — and let America’s dynamic start-ups win that race, not China’s state capitalism.

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It would be wrong to let Jeff Bezos ruin space for the rest of us

The Irish Times 06 July, 2021 - 10:56am

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Why be chief executive of Amazon and concern yourself with the day-to-day running of the monstrously large company you founded when you can venture off-planet? No amount of space debris can spoil that view.

There’s still some packing to do, so Bezos’s trip into temporary weightlessness on his Blue Origin vehicle, New Shephard, isn’t scheduled until July 20th. The date is not free of uncertainty. Rocket launches have been known to be cancelled at the last minute if adverse weather conditions or helicopters (ask Elon Musk about that one) get in the way. Nphet has also yet to give its seal of approval to Jeff’s journey.

It is hard to get more visually extreme proof of the global scourge of inequality than a billionaire jetting off into space while we rank-and-file humans remain governed by pandemic-tightened border restrictions. But to be fair to Bezos, it’s not like he could try to solve world hunger with his spare billions or anything.

What’s a man supposed to do once he has created an ecommerce, cloud computing and artificial intelligence pioneer, all while investing in a fleet of drones and snuffing out multiple attempts by human Amazon workers to unionise? Sit back and read the Washington Post?

He could ride an electric surfboard across a lake while waving a US flag to a John Denver soundtrack, but that’s already been done.

So Bezos is off, and he’s taking with him an auction winner, his younger brother Mark Bezos and Wally Funk (82), a woman who underwent privately funded astronaut training before either Bezos was born. Funk’s inclusion on New Shephard – named after US astronaut Alan Shephard – has won the Blue Origin mission some good pre-launch publicity, though frankly when it comes to space travel, the goal is good post-launch publicity.

A drearier plot twist to Bezos’s quest has come courtesy of fellow billionaire Richard Branson, the man who has put the Virgin name to everything from radio stations and record shops to hot-air balloons and has been trying to leave Earth unsuccessfully for some years now via his company Virgin Galactic.

After some rumours to the effect, it was confirmed on Friday that Branson will be boldly going on board a test flight of Virgin’s VSS Unity on July 11th, some nine days ahead of the Amazon founder’s departure.

“I think both of us will wish each other well. It really doesn’t matter if one of us goes a few days before the other,” Branson told CNN with no more than his usual smirk.

Blue Origin chief executive Bob Smith struck an alternative tone in a statement to the New York Times: “We wish him a great and safe flight, but they’re not flying above the Kármán line and it’s a very different experience.”

The Kármán line, set at some 100km above sea level, is one definition of the boundary between the atmosphere and outer space, where no one can hear you quibble. Essentially, Blue Origin is arguing that Branson will be flirting with space, while Bezos and friends will be going properly into it. Both flights will be sub-orbital in any case, leaving plenty of firsts for Musk to claim whenever he can wean himself off Twitter.

Amazingly, Branson’s manoeuvre has turned Bezos’s grand plan into a sort of mid-life crisis cliché before either of them have had the chance to go anywhere. Reaction to both men’s ambitions has been replete with groans and splutters, almost as if the whole business of space exploration has been tainted on exposure to their egos.

This seems a shame. It was even more of a shame when, in March, Nasa released an audio clip of the Perseverance rover driving through a gust of wind on Mars – the first sounds recorded on the planet – and surprisingly few people cared.

Admittedly, those sounds were reminiscent of a dodgy Hoover being pushed through the gaps of chair legs, but still, an actual Martian wind is not something to be jaded about or just let slip through the news cycle without pausing to think about the achievement of all concerned.

Bezos, who will remain executive chairman of Amazon, says he’s been dreaming about travelling to space since he was five years old. This is the age he would have been in 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent an inordinate amount of time trying to spear the Stars and Stripes into the surface of the moon.

For many people born in the late 1950s or early 1960s, watching the moon landing on television is a key childhood memory, an occasion for awe and wonder that has stayed with them throughout their lives.

Children born in the late 1970s or early 1980s had the 1986 launch of the Challenger space shuttle, which they were encouraged to get excited about owing to the presence of teacher Christa McAuliffe among the crew. The shuttle broke apart on live television little over a minute after take-off.

It is only in the past decade that the heroic potential of space exploration – and faith in the endeavour – has re-entered the public consciousness, thanks in part to the sterling social media efforts of Chris Hadfield.

The Canadian astronaut, now retired, flew three space missions, did two spacewalks and commanded the International Space Station while singing David Bowie. Even that ad he did for Electric Ireland is more inspiring than the Bezos-Branson bid to reimagine Apollo vs Soyuz as an eye-roll-triggering billionaires’ p***ing contest.

And yet it would be a mistake to forget how communications satellites from Telstar 1 in the early 1960s onwards have revolutionised broadcast media and shrunk the world we live in. The next generation of smaller, cheaper-to-launch satellites is poised to do the same for 5G and data storage. Amazon and Musk’s SpaceX are the superpowers leading this new, real space race, where rather more than bragging rights are at stake.

It’s annoying, but we should probably keep an eye on them.

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