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Frequent, Rapid, Affordable

This story was published on our Space Business newsletter, A glimpse at the economic possibilities of space.
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Dear readers,

It’s the fourth edition of Space Business, Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extra-terrestrial sphere. Please share widely, and let me know what you think. This week: Kiwis in space, Elon Musk’s rocket fleet, and China’s got a delayed heavy-lift rocket, too.

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If the US could start its space program over from scratch, what would it look like? Maybe like New Zealand, where the country’s 3-year-old space agency is taking a scrappy commercial approach.

Dr. Peter Crabtree, who leads the New Zealand Space Agency, doesn’t do the job full time; he runs the science and innovation programs at the country’s economic ministry. He wound up with the space portfolio after receiving a call from Rocket Lab, a US-New Zealand rocket company. It wanted to build its own launch site in New Zealand to fly satellites originating from around the world. But to do so, New Zealand’s government would need to abide by international space rules. Thus, the space agency was born.

Rocket Lab is expected to launch its seventh mission from New Zealand, and third so far this year, on June 28 local time. It is the most successful of a new generation of rocket companies that hope to earn their keep launching small satellites for government, academy and the private sector. The firm operates its own private launch facility, the only rocket firm in the world to do so.

“In order to get frequent, rapid, affordable launch, we had to go to a different country,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told me in 2018. “Everyone acknowledges the problem here in the US with getting that frequent and reliable launch from ranges. This is what the challenge is really about, it’s less about the rocket and the technology, but how do we break down some of those barriers to entry?”

“Because we’ve started off with commercial space, we haven’t started off with government-led programs,” Crabtree says. “I’ve talked to a lot of countries [who say] we should get a New Zealand astronaut into space. These are expensive things, and we’re pretty practical people. If we can be having 100 space launches a year out of New Zealand in a couple of years time, that’s a pretty big thing to focus on.”

One new step forward is New Zealand’s partnership with space surveillance firm LEOLabs. The company’s radar stations—including one in New Zealand—provide real-time data on space objects in Earth’s orbit. Now, New Zealand will use LEOLabs data to help ensure satellites launched from its territory are complying with rules about how and where they can they fly. The primary source for data like this now is the US military, but new companies are stepping forward to offer more flexible and, perhaps in a few years time, more accurate situational awareness.

“The big thing for New Zealanders is the perception that space is something that other countries, that big countries, do,” Crabtree says. “It’s taken a while for New Zealanders to kind of notice that this is a real thing.”

But New Zealand’s small size allows for a government that can nimbly respond to economic challenges; the US is now in the middle of a slow-moving debate about how to get its own space traffic management house in order. Crabtree says that Rocket Lab and its suppliers are already benefitting the country’s economy, while its engineering students are plotting satellite start-ups enabled by cheap launch. That, he says, wasn’t true three years ago.

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Imagery Interlude: At the Paris Air Show, the dream of supersonic airliners is back in a big way. Let’s recall its glorious roots. After the British-French Concorde took flight in 1969, the US was eager to deliver its own faster-than-the-speed-of-sound passenger jet. The best minds at NASA got to work:

Image copyright: NASA

Though NASA’s engineering team boasted some truly incredible looks, an American supersonic jet was never completed, and the Concorde itself eventually halted service due to business problems and public dislike of sonic booms. But they haven’t given up. Today, the US space and aeronautics agency is building a speedy new plane called QueSST—for Quiet SuperSonic Technology.

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SPACE DEBRIS

Absolute Unit. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy flew for the third time on a successful mission for the US Air Force this week. The most powerful operational rocket in the world dropped off 24 satellites and demonstrated its maneuverability to the military the same day that its main competitor, ULA, delayed a launch for weeks to change a battery. SpaceX also showed off the advantages of reusability. Two of its flight-proven boosters were recovered after launch; the third crashed on a sea-going landing pad in what was seen as a long-shot effort at recovery. Elon Musk’s company has been building up its fleet of reusable boosters in recent years as it works to drive down the cost of launch. A recent estimate from Manhattan Venture Research (to be taken with a grain of salt) suggests that using boosters three times will drive gross profit margins per launch up to nearly 60%—and SpaceX can still offer the lowest prices in the industry.

Europe wants to catch up to SpaceX. We called this in 2017, when it became clear that every rocket maker had to at least pay lip service to reusability. Now, the European Commission is announcing that a number of companies, led by Germany’s space agency, will be designing reusable rockets along the lines of SpaceX’s reusable booster. “What is state-of-the-art in the USA is only in its beginnings in Europe,” the announcement muses.

Counting cars is lucrative. Nearly every satellite company has a narrative about how its data can be used by financial wizards to earn big profits. But financial wizards are reluctant to talk about the edge that gives them alpha. That’s why it’s exciting that a group of finance professors have used commercial satellite data to prove that counting cars from space can be a lucrative trading strategy. Not only that, they found evidence that traders are using these strategies in the marketplace, targeting troubled retailers ahead of earnings reports. Ironic, isn’t it, that Elon Musk’s mission to drive down the cost of space access helps enable the short-sellers he so hates?

China suffers big rocket delay. A big driver of American lunacy is China’s ambitious moon exploration program. But much like NASA, China is waiting for a large, delayed rocket to be ready. Reporter Andrew Jones used satellite ship-tracking to find that components for China’s big rocket, the Long March 5, still haven’t departed for their assembly facility. The last attempt at launching this rocket in 2017 resulted in a failure, and now it seems unlikely that it will fly again before September. That means China’s biggest ticket space plans—another moon mission in 2019, a mission to Mars in 2020, and the launch of its next space station—will be pushed further into the future.

Home again. You may not have noticed, but on June 24, three astronauts returned to Earth after months aboard the International Space Station. Canadian David Saint-Jacques, American Anne McClain and Russian Oleg Kononenko hopped into the Soyuz capsule and plunged back to Earth safely. Any human spaceflight is nerve-wracking, but the ups and downs of astronauts tend to fly under the media radar unless something goes wrong. That frustrates space types, but it’s also kind of the goal: If this is routine enough to be boring, maybe it can be routine enough to be normal. The next three astronauts headed to ISS will take off in July, and then there are just two more Soyuz flights on the schedule in September and February. After that, SpaceX and Boeing are going to be expected to take on the task for the first time. I’m confident those launches will get plenty of attention.

your pal,
Tim

Hope your week is out of this world. Please send your space traffic management plans, powder blue blazers, tips and informed opinions to tim@qz.com.

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