Space Business: Lab Rats

The article discusses how Starship is a great rocket, but the world needs more medium-lift rockets to help with space exploration.

Space Business: Lab Rats

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This week, the global search for a comfortable mid-size rocket continues, Starship's second launch attempt is underway, and space investment has had a difficult quarter.

How can you achieve a space revolution without rockets and satellites?

The focus will be on the launch of SpaceX's new-generation Starship rocket today, but the greater problem in the near term is the development of the current generation. There are issues with not only the rocket companies that are battling their way into orbit but also with aerospace giants. It is unclear when United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rocket will be ready and Europe's newest rocket, Ariane 6 has been so delayed it will need to hire SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket in order to launch its next Galileo navigational satellites.

If you are a Western firm and you want to launch something weighing over 500 kg, or you want to benefit from sharing a launch vehicle among multiple customers, then you should go to Elon Musk’s space company.

It's not the best situation to drive down the cost of space travel. SpaceX will grow its margins, and increase its volume by picking up new business. Just as it did when Russia banned western firms from launching on its Soyuz launchers.

Many start-ups that had planned to operate and deploy smaller rockets have now shifted to larger ones.

Astra is developing a 600kg vehicle after scrapping a smaller version of the design. This was done to avoid a failure on NASA's mission. Relativity Space first tested its Terran 1 rocket in March. After it failed to reach space, the company focused on a larger, more reusable Terran R rocket.

Rocket Lab is the most impressive of all these efforts, as it has been the sole winner in the race so far to operate small rockets. The company, which has a regular flight schedule with its smaller Electron Rocket, has stated that it is focusing on developing a larger reusable vehicle, called Neutron, capable of launching up to 13,000 kg into low-Earth orbit. This vehicle could be in orbit by next year. The US military is one of the largest spenders in rocket launches and has changed its bid process to allow new competitors like Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab's track record, including Electron and recent announcements, makes Neutron a promising product. The company will first fly one of their rocket engines onto an Electron rocket, after recovering and refurbishing the engine from a previously flown vehicle. This kind of practice is good for scaling up. Second, the company will test hypersonic vehicles with a version of their current rocket dubbed HASTE. Rocket Lab executive Brian Rogers stated that HASTE was not a promise of future capabilities, but a fully-functional launch vehicle.

Starship is an exciting vehicle, but it will be years before the vehicle can enter full service, even after a successful test. NASA's Artemis Program, which is aiming to use the massive spacecraft as a moon lander, will likely be the focus of serious testing. The world must have a launch vehicle that is ready to fly.

Imagery Interlude

Christian Davenport of the Washington Post reminds us that despite the company's high-tech image, many SpaceX employees are highly skilled technicians who work directly with hardware. Here's an image from 2021 of some of the workers stacking Starship hundreds of feet above ground.

The vehicle will be launched again on Thursday, April 20 at 9:28 AM ET.

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The most difficult quarter in space investment since 2015. Space Capital's latest quarterly report on private fundraising for space companies found that only $2.2 billion was invested in the first three months of 2023. This is a 53% decrease from the previous quarter. It's not surprising, given the current state of the market (and the huge influx of cash in previous years).

Orbital Fab raises $28.5 million Series A.

No space program? No space program? Axiom Space has launched a new offering: A space-program in a package that bundles all of its services for government clients. This product reflects the new nature of space access. Nations without their own space program, who might have partnered directly with NASA in the past, can now work with private firms led by former NASA officials.

NASA releases the latest Moon to Mars Vision. You'll enjoy the new official NASA exploration agenda if you like a NASA document full of figures, renderings, and priorities. Edgar Zapata, a former NASA engineer, has also written a commentary that you may enjoy.

Lockheed Martin's case for buying ULA One analyst, following reports that ULA was up for sale argues that Boeing needed the cash, Blue Origin didn't need another rocket and Lockheed Martin doubled down on space.