Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extraterrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: How to keep humans safe in space, Starlink in Ukraine, and Ariane 6 delayed.
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It’s been over a month since an uncrewed New Shepard rocket booster failed in flight, and we still don’t know what went wrong. An investigation led by the Federal Aviation Administration is ongoing, and Blue Origin, which designed and operates the vehicle, has not shared any updates.
It’s a bit unusual, even for a private company. When SpaceX has suffered anomalies, executives have given updates to the public on the status of the investigation, sometimes hours after the incident. Those anomalies—the loss of a cargo mission to the ISS, the explosion of a Falcon 9 during a static firing, or the loss of a Dragon capsule during testing—all involved government contracts or government property, which may have prompted more transparency. The New Shepard launches from its own spaceport in Texas.
While there are plenty of questions about what went wrong with the New Shepard, which had previously never suffered an in-flight failure, it’s worth thinking more broadly about the future of flying people into space safely. Twenty two tourists have flown to space this year on either the New Shepard or SpaceX’s Dragon. That number will only increase, especially when Blue Origin figures out what happened to its booster.
This week, the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded think tank, released its 2022 Space Safety Compendium. Its primary point is one we can all agree on: Space activity has changed dramatically in recent years and so should our approach to keeping it safe. And when it comes to human spaceflight, there’s something of a deadline: The Congressional moratorium preventing regulators from imposing safety rules is set to expire in October 2023.
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That would leave the FAA in charge of regulating human spaceflight, but the report concludes that “the agency would not be fully prepared to assume this regulatory responsibility today.” One reason is simply resources. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby complained yesterday that a lack of air traffic controllers will limit extra airline routes in the US, blaming the FAA’s wide responsibilities, from drones to space launch.
Notably, it has a conflict: The FAA is tasked with both promoting public safety and commercial spaceflight itself, which “arguably limits the independence of the agency conducting the investigation.”
No doubt those concerns were part of an agreement between the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board, which gives the NTSB responsibility for investigating any human space mishap that leads to a death or property damage outside the launch site. The researchers at Aerospace Corporation say more work like this is needed to clarify each agency’s role in setting the rules for carrying passengers in space, and enforcing them transparently. Those rules, in their view, shouldn’t be overly prescriptive but rather should follow a “safety case” approach that allows companies to develop their own plans that are then assessed by the FAA.
Keeping passengers safe during launch and flight is one thing. But the report also hits on something comparatively under-discussed: There are currently no plans to rescue crew from a distressed spacecraft, most relevantly, SpaceX’s Dragon. “The lessons of Apollo, Skylab, and the space shuttle with respect to the rescue of astronauts in space seem to have been forgotten,” the report notes.
Apollo missions had redundancy thanks to flying both a command module and lunar orbiter, as demonstrated during the Apollo 13's close-run escape from serious breakdown. During SkyLab missions and after the Columbia disaster, NASA kept launch vehicles on standby in case a rescue mission was required. With an increasingly ambitious slate of civilian missions coming up in the years ahead, including plans to perform spacewalks, now is the time to start thinking about what happens if something goes wrong.
Per the researchers, that includes ensuring spacecraft use the common docking standard developed by the International Space Station partners to ensure they can interface with each other in an emergency. Rescue plans should be part of the launch planning process; with the increasing frequency of orbital launches, rescue spacecraft could be deployed quickly on the next available rocket.
The groundwork necessary to have this kind of rescue in place won’t be cheap. But we know the complex engineering required in the harsh environments of space travel is always at risk of failure—and the random chance of micrometeoroids and orbital debris can render all that planning moot. When the Space Shuttle Columbia was trapped in orbit with severe damage to its heat shield, NASA almost scrambled a second spacecraft to rescue its crew before deciding the risk of flight was too high. The seven astronauts onboard Columbia died as they attempted to return to Earth. To avoid facing the same agonizing choice in the future, space companies should start prepping their rescue plans now.
The Pillars of Creation, a.k.a. M16 or the Eagle Nebula, is a place in space made famous by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, which first captured the eerie columns of gas and dust that have formed as new stars are created.
Now, the James Webb Space Telescope has imaged this area, and you can see how much more powerful it is than its colleague Hubble in this comparison—on the left, a Hubble image from 2014, and on the right, the latest view from JWST:
Do you know how much money your friends make? How about your boss? Do you think you’d be happier in your job knowing this, or would you rather stay in the dark? Pay transparency is a double-edged sword, but one that could make our workplaces a whole lot more equitable.
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Starlink’s confusing Ukraine ledger. CNN delivered a blockbuster last week when it reported on a letter SpaceX sent to the US Defense Department, asking to be paid for providing internet service in Ukraine with the Starlink network. Perhaps most notable was the $4,500 a month charge per terminal, nine times higher than its premium business service. It’s not clear whether this pricing is based on actual costs or simply what SpaceX thinks it can get from the Pentagon. (Please do let me know your theories on Starlink pricing.)
SpaceX should get paid for the valuable service it provides to Ukraine—and it may be the only real option. However, the confusion between its claims to have donated the service and its request for hundreds of millions of dollars, plus Elon Musk’s recent Twitter pressure on Ukraine to make concessions to invading Russian forces, have created a mess. Now, Musk says the company will continue to provide the service for free, which also seems untenable.
Eutelsat fights the jammers. The European satellite operator said last week that someone in Iran was jamming its satellite TV broadcasts, in a likely effort to cut off news about mass protests there. Now, it is deploying two newly launched spacecraft over the Middle East that it says will be more resistant to such attempts.
Brits in space. Orbex, a UK launch company, has raised $45.8 million in a new funding round as it prepares to launch its first small rocket next year.
Waiting for Ariane 6. The new rocket from European space champion Arianespace has been delayed again, until the end of 2023. That’s bad news for a number of customers who hoped to launch on the vehicle, and will likely lead some to follow in the footsteps of Euclid, a science mission that is now aiming to fly on a SpaceX Falcon 9.
This was issue 155 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your explanations for Starlink pricing, plans to rescue distressed spacecraft, tips, and informed opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org.