Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extra-terrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: The National Space Power Rankings, launch laws, and the great ping in the sky. Space Business will be off next week; our launch window opens again on Sept. 5.
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Sometime during this week’s National Space Council meeting, your humble correspondent pulled a Wilbur Ross and took a brief siesta mid-transcription. When I came to, this was on my screen. Must be reading too much pre-season sports content…
NATIONAL SPACE POWER RANKINGS
A lightly-fictionalized assessment of who’s up and who’s down in American space.
1. United Launch Alliance. The establishment rocket-maker occupies our top spot after announcing seven future launches for its forthcoming Vulcan rocket, including a moon mission, this month. Sure, the unfinished vehicle won’t be reusable or cost competitive, but it will be capable, and now strategic partners are helping it build a manifest (and an engine). There’s no way the Pentagon would snub the Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture for lucrative military contracts, right?
Power Level: ULA CEO Tory Bruno sweats in his chainmail as he smashes a broadsword into the large wooden model of the Falcon 9 set up in the Colorado sunshine. “Non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed Nomini tuo da gloriam,” he mutters under his breath.
2. Senator Richard Shelby. Presidents come and presidents go, but the Space Launch System is forever. NASA’s Alabama-built big rocket looks to receive more funding regardless of the fate of moon 2024, and Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center will be in charge of building a hypothetical lunar lander. Everything in space policy runs through the Republican baron’s office.
Power Level: “I have a little parochial interest, too, in what they do in Huntsville, Alabama. Jody, you keep doing what you’re doing. We’ll keep funding you.”
3. SpaceX. Elon Musk’s space company is flying more often than any other rocket-maker, and the only firm that can boast two affordable classes of ready-to-fly, reusable launch vehicles. But with its human spaceflight efforts in development purgatory, its satellite network just getting started and a huge new rocket to build, can the company afford to be distra…ahh, who are we kidding.
Power Level: Elon pats the fairing of a Falcon Heavy as he explains to an SEC-appointed Twitter monitor how many Tesla solar panels could fit inside, while a Starship prototype bursts into flame in the middle distance.
4. Blue Origin. Smelling trouble, Blue Origin is already protesting the selection process for US military launch contracts. Congress is on the fence about buying a moon lander for 2024, much less the one that Blue is building. And the company hasn’t flown the New Shepard rocket since May. Thus far, 2019 has been heavy on the Gradatim, and light on the Ferociter. But no one’s counting out their long-view (or their capital).
Power Level: Bezos stands at the controls of the steampunk spaceship built in Blue’s Kent, Washington, headquarters, pulling levers at random and humming Old Town Road while dozens of attorneys explain the Federal Acquisition Regulations. He just wanted a six-page memo.
5. Vice President Mike Pence. Moon, Mars, whatever, somebody’s got to sit in the hot seat at the National Space Council and he’s been going to John Glenn’s barber for a reason. For a man who once proposed eliminating the entire human spaceflight program, it’s been a long journey to advocating a long-term presence on the lunar surface and (thanks, boss) a great leap forward to the Red Planet.
Power Level: Pence slips into the president’s private office after midnight to plant concept art for a Trump Hotel on the moon. Stephen Miller is already there, building a model of a border wall. Seeing the vice president, Miller hisses, and bounds off into the night.
6. General John “Jay” Raymond. The newly-constituted US Space Combatant Command stands up next week under Raymond. The four-star general is…already the head of US Air Force space command and the likely leader of whatever it is Space Force will become. If that sounds confusing, it is! With the National Reconnaissance Office (read: US spy satellites) joining his headquarters, he’s in charge of the most powerful set of assets in orbit.
Power Level: Inside Vandenberg Air Force Base, the Combined Space Operations Center monitors satellite activity around the globe. A countdown clock ticks lower. At zero, Raymond nods to the Airmen stationed around the room. As one, they peel off AFSPC insignia and slap SPACECOM badges on their uniforms. Space is a warfighting domain now.
7. Jim Bridenstine. The head of NASA is counting on the Republican senate to save Artemis 2024. He’s got whiplash from the White House’s shifting space priorities. And he’s shaking up the space agency’s technical leadership. All the balls are in the air now—can the former lawmaker catch them?
Power Level: The national search for a new leader of NASA’s human space exploration continues. Bridenstine sighs, turns over another pile of resumés, and dismisses the candidate in front of him. “Elon, I can tell it’s you, wearing a fake mustache.” In the hall, a strangely clean-shaven man waits for a chance to present. His nametag reads “Gill Berstenmaier.”
8. Buzz Aldrin. Did the former moonwalker’s impromptu Oval Office colloquy with fellow Apollo veteran Michael Collins shift space policy? Ask me in 60 days, when NASA’s latest exploration plan is due. Consider Buzz a human symbol of the recent 50th moon-landing anniversary, which reminded the general public that space exploration can be pretty sublime, at least according to the polls.
Power Level: Going out in public wearing a metallic silver bowtie, an American flag necktie and your presidential medal of freedom all at the same time.
9. Wayne Monteith. The head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial spaceflight office is re-writing the rules for launching commercial rockets. As the Air Force general in command at Cape Canaveral, he helped get the nascent private rocket industry off the ground. Now, he’s swamped in complaints about how his rules disadvantage them.
Power level: Monteith crouches behind a desk in a darkened office. Outside, a dozen lobbyists fan out, scanning the hallway with flashlights and sniffing the air. “Mr. Monteith? Are you in there? We just want to talk.”
10. Michael Griffin. The former NASA administrator is living up to his reputation as a skilled (if abrasive) bureaucratic infighter, using his perch as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering to get the new Space Development Agency off the ground and sideline those who disagree with his vision. Even though it may not last for long, Griffin owns military space R&D. Now, it’s on to 5G.
Power level: Every time Russia blows up a nuclear-powered cruise missile or North Korea tests a launch vehicle, Griffin gets $100 million to play with.
Honorable mentions: Boeing, Brian Babin, Kelvin Droegemeier, Newt Gingrich, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Bill Nye, Scott Pace, Wilbur Ross, Betty Sapp, José Serrano, Gwynne Shotwell, Kristen Sinema, Eric Stallmer, and Robert Walker.
The power rankings will return! Please reply with your nominations.
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Imagery Interlude: Astronauts have all the fun, including taking this moon rover out for a spin on Pismo Beach in August 1970. The Lunar Roving Vehicles (LRVs, as it were) joined the last three Apollo missions to allow astronauts to cruise as many as a dozen miles from their landing site.
I’m looking forward to a more John Glenn-esque appreciation of the sandy shore.
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Waiting to Explore. This week’s meeting of the National Space Council set some deadlines for the fall: Within 60 days, expect a plan from NASA “for sustainable lunar surface exploration and development, including necessary technologies and capabilities, to enable initial human missions to Mars.” That, and yet another evaluation of the SLS and Orion spacecraft.
This looks like the third go-round this year on coming up with a coherent exploration plan, and presumably one that will benefit from the new technical leaders Bridenstine is hunting for. It won’t be easy to find a balance between the boots-and-flags mission visualized in the White House and the sustainable presence craved by lunar exploration advocates. How all that will line up with Congress, which must deliver a new spending plan by the end of September, is an open question.
The laws have changed. Loren Grush has a useful story on why commercial launch companies aren’t happy with the newest launch license rules coming down from the FAA. One complaint from the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a trade group that says the new rules are worse than the old ones: The FAA wants to get every rocket company to use what they say is an over-complicated and untried safety calculation—or test their rockets 3,000 times without a failure.
A GPS launch. I’m always trying to get people excited about the Global Positioning System, with varying degrees of success. Later today, ULA is expected to launch the latest addition to the US navigation fleet, dubbed Magellan, with a Delta IV rocket. It will be one of the last launches of the temperamental vehicle before the company switches over to the Vulcan. You can watch the show starting at 8:40 a.m. ET at ULA’s website, assuming everything goes to plan.
It’s Electric. The 8th launch of Rocket Lab’s Electron Rocket went off without a hitch on Aug. 19, deploying payloads that included two satellites for the US Air Force and two for BlackSky, a Seattle-based satellite intelligence start-up. Another flight is expected in a few weeks for the company, which just announced plans to begin reusing its rocket boosters.
Cowpokes. Andrew Jones, one of the ablest reporters covering China’s space program, reports that a new Chinese satellite appears to be malfunctioning after a recent successful launch, but details remain scarce. He also notes that during the launch, a falling booster (China’s space program is not as uptight about safety as NASA) killed two cows.
This was issue 12 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your favorite astronaut beach activities, power rankings, tips and informed opinions to email@example.com.